As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Cheryl Chester.
Cheryl’s 25+ year career as a human resource professional is focused in the areas of leadership and organizational development. She has held leadership and organizational development positions in multiple industries, ranging from financial services to utilities. Cheryl is Practice Leader/ Organizational Effectiveness with KardasLarson, an HR Consulting firm based in Glastonbury, Connecticut.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in a musical, very close-knit family. Each Sunday afternoon, my mother and father hosted all my mother’s family including grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles and cousins for a big dinner after mass. When dinner was over, the adults played poker and the kids planned a talent show for the adults. As much as I enjoyed the music, I knew early on that organizing this event was really the exciting part for me. While my cousins thought I was bossy (and I am sure I was), I thought I was fulfilling an especially important role in making sure that the talent show went on. While music has always played a particularly important part in my life, the bossy organizer seems to have prevailed throughout my career.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
While facilitating a leadership seminar, I became so involved in explaining a key concept that I neglected to give the participants a badly-needed break. I was busy writing on a white board and turned around to find all twenty participants had left the room. Clearly, a bathroom break was much more critical at that moment than management theory. I never made that mistake again.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There were really three people: my mom, her mom, and my dad.
My mom was an incredibly talented musician for whom family was everything. She was encouraged by her teachers to pursue a career in music, but, instead, got married and had two daughters in whom she instilled an amazing amount of confidence and support for whatever it was that we wanted to accomplish.
Her mother — my grandmother — was a woman way ahead of her time. She was an entrepreneur who had a large gift shop and imported much of her inventory from Italy, her native country. She was very bright and had a great deal of business savvy. In addition, she was a strong, caring matriarch.
My dad was badly wounded in World War II and died at age 46 from complications of his injury. His work as an Occupational Therapist for the Veterans Administration was much more than his job. He often “signed out” his clients for a weekend to spend time with us in our home. These clients were diverse ethnically, physically and emotionally. They instilled in me the true value of human connection and a great appreciation for the many gifts that diversity brought to us.
I am incredibly grateful to this threesome who instilled in me a strong heart-centered approach to life. As a first generation college graduate, I have never taken their sacrifices for granted.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My vision was to give companies the tools and techniques to become high-performing organizations. I wanted to help them do much more than succeed at their bottom line. I wanted them to understand that their ability to build employee purpose and commitment was the difference between success for the shareholders and success for all the employees.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
For me, the key to leading in uncertain times is to acknowledge that they are uncertain times and that this uncertainty can be very unsettling to the team.
Listening is the key to leading, especially during the uncertainty. Taking time and showing sincere interest in each team member as to their key concerns (both professional and personal) and their needs provides a level of confidence in a leader. When team members trust you and feel that you have their backs, the uncertainty can lead to positive intent.
In one of my management positions, I was informed that my office was being closed in a consolidation effort. This meant that four employees would be losing their positions. I worked hard to reinforce my commitment to help them find other positions. This made the situation much less stressful and gave my employees a feeling of being supported and not abandoned by the organization.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Only once in my career did I want to give up. I was working for a manager whose style was very erratic and demeaning. While she was the head of a Leadership Development area, she certainly did not practice what she preached.
It was quite common for me to attend a meeting with her where she “threw me under the bus”. It was both embarrassing and resulted in my confidence level eroding to a point where I thought that quitting was my only option. I had only been in the position for one year but knew that I could not stay.
I began networking in earnest to find another position outside the company. My motivation was that I knew my skills were excellent and I refused to have them diminished by someone who had extremely limited leadership acumen. What sustained me during this period was my strong desire to keep my reputation intact.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role is as an active listener. A leader needs to hear her/his employees and respond to their concerns in a way that is understanding and empathetic. Only then can she/he start building trust with her/his employees.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The best way to boost morale is to respond to specific employee concerns with honesty and transparency. A leader can engage her/his team by demonstrating to them that she/he has their best interests at heart and that she/he is committed to creating a work environment in which all voices are heard.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Difficult news should never be sugar-coated. A good leader will communicate this news as difficult and then spend time with her/his team providing them with an opportunity to fully explore its impact and consequences.
Such news should always be communicated verbally, and, if not in person, then on a Zoom or conference call. Difficult news must be provided with the receivers having the time for questions and feedback. If not, employees can easily discount the messaging or create their own “backstory”.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plans should be made with a short-term lens and with an eye to the critical few levels of performance that will sustain the team until the uncertainty clears.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
For me, the number one principle is to remain true to the company’s purpose and to reiterate that purpose constantly to employees and customers.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Common mistakes include:
• Not acknowledging the difficult times.
• Not communicating frequently as to the company’s status and ability to work through the difficult times.
• Not recognizing the need for constant reassurance for employees and customers that the company’s future is safe.
• Not soliciting frequent feedback from employees and customers to ensure that the company is responding to their key concerns.
To avoid these mistakes, companies need to commit to frequent communication with absolute transparency.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
For me, a critical strategy involves applying innovative thinking to your business model. Ask both your employees and your clients for their ideas as to not only sustain the business, but also to approach the business differently to expand market share and profitability while meeting their needs.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Do not micromanage. This is a challenge when your employees are remote, and you may feel that you have lost some control of their performance. You may have. But this is only a problem when you have not communicated very clearly what your expectations are for their performance.
- Communicate, communicate, and communicate again. These are unprecedented times, and, in the absence of continuous information, employees will create their own narratives. Transparent communication will avoid this tendency and make employees feel informed and included during a time when no one has a playbook.
- Stay consistent. Nothing undermines employee engagement like erratic leadership behavior. Employees need to see you as a critical and stable resource for whom their wellbeing is top of mind.
- Reinforce flexibility in employee’s work schedules. Stop trying to measure hours worked per day and begin measuring results and output instead.
- Solicit feedback regularly. Distribute mini Pulse Surveys regularly to employees and ask them to these statements:
- I feel supported by my employer.
- I am satisfied with my company’s response during this uncertain time.
- I know what I should be focused on right now.
- I have the resources to do my job.
- I feel part of my team.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Stay together, learn the flowers, be light.”
This Life Lesson Quote keeps me focused on what is profoundly important to me: connection, growth, and clarity.
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