As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Cheryl Johnson.
Cheryl Johnson’s career started while she was married to her first husband. He was blind and was always struggling to find employment. They had three children at the time. They decided since he could not find a job that they would attempt to start their own business. This was in the late 80’s and early 90’s when assistive technology for people with disabilities was new to the market. Her husband was proficient in using screen reading technology because he was enrolled in college and had been using it to complete his homework on the computer. Voice recognition technology was new to the market and was used by both disabled individuals and doctors or lawyers who wanted to do their own transcription. They both decided that training people to use this technology would be a good business. There was little to no competition for this services, so they embarked on the journey. The challenge was finding existing training materials to use with their customers. Most of what was available was technical documentation. Most of their customer base did not find that information particularly helpful. To complicate matters, Cheryl knew nothing about computers. Her husband could manage the screen reading part of the business, but Cheryl needed to manage the voice recognition side because the two technologies, at the time, were not compatible. In addition, the hardware required to run both technologies was oftentimes not compatible with the software so there were many technical challenges in getting things running smoothly. They may have had a corner on the market, but they certainly had a lot to learn. Since that time, Cheryl has pursued a career in the learning and development field. She has moved out of the disability market and into the corporate space. She is an instructional designer but prefers to be called a performance solution specialist. Cheryl believes that learning is a key component to improved performance in the workplace. She strives to create learning solutions that motivate and inspire people to perform at their best.
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 share a story about the most interesting mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
This story is always a fun one for me to share. It is in my book. Let’s go back to the story I just shared.
Once we decided to embark on our journey to start this new business, we invest $10,000 to become a reseller of voice recognition technology. For the $10,000 we would be trained how to use the technology and given a license to sell it, along with some inventory. I also had to buy a computer. For us, that amount of money was a significant investment. We used a credit card to finance our new venture.
We lived in Wyoming at the time and had to travel to Boston to participate in the training. Thus, we added our travel costs to an already tapped out credit card. Once the day arrived for us to go to Boston, it was winter and snowing. The small airport in our area was closed so we drove, in the snow, to Denver to catch our flight. We barely made it. We had a layover in Chicago and our connecting flight was also delayed, due to snow. To complicate matters further, once we were all boarded on the connecting flight, the first officer came on the intercom to tell us that we now had to wait for a reserve pilot to show up. The only one they could find was at a Bulls game and refused to come until the game was over. Long story short, our flight did not arrive in Boston until 4 am and the car rental place was closed. We had to wait until 7 am when it opened to rent our car. From there we headed straight over to the training site for a 9 am start.
To say we were tired would be an understatement. I do not operate well with no sleep. I had zero background in computers when we started down this road. This was not a good start to our new venture. I took my seat at the computer where I was assigned. As the course began, I was struggling to keep up because my computer was not allowing me to complete the exercises being demonstrated. Was I just too tired? Was my lack of experience hindering my ability to complete these exercises? I did not know. At some point the instructor realized that I was struggling and had someone sit with me to help out. Come to find out, my computer was the problem… not me. They swapped out computers and I started again, a bit behind my classmates. I was able to catch up again before I started having more issues. This class was a weeklong and during that time, I went through five different computers. Before swapping computers, we always tried to resolve the technical issues before moving on to another computer. Each new computer had to be configured. I spent a majority of that week dealing with technical issues, which significantly hindered my ability to learn how to talk to my computer so it could understand me, transcribe my words and execute my commands.
When I left at the end of the week, I was beyond discouraged. I had just invested roughly $15,000 that I did not have and had learned nothing, in my mind. I came home, threw my training manuals and my laptop in the closet, slammed the door shut and cried. Recovering financially from such a mistake would be difficult under the best of circumstances. Recovering financially from this mistake seemed insurmountable with a blind husband and three young children. Life had not been easy up to this point in my marriage. Now it seemed impossible.
I am not a quitter. After a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself, I peered into the closet, took out the computer and the training manuals and started to go through the exercises I was unable to complete in Boston. Then, of course, my computer did not work properly. But…. guess what? I knew how to fix it! I had learned that much in Boston. This pattern continued as I worked my way through the training manual. While working my way through the manual, I was contacted by the state of Wyoming’s vocational rehabilitation office and they wanted me to train someone. I was so nervous. But I needed the money to cover some of my training costs. So, I accepted. We often joked that I was only one chapter ahead of my client as we learned together how to talk to our computers.
During the next several years I was grateful that I had learned so much about troubleshooting computers while I was in Boston. The training manual taught me what I needed to know about talking to my computer but there was no manual on configuring computers to run the software. That manual was in my head. And the biggest part of my job would not be teaching people to talk to a computer. It would be making sure the computer was configured and functioning properly.
Some of the greatest challenges in life bless our lives in unexpected ways. Do not quit and appreciate what you have learned, even if it does not seem relevant at the time.
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?
Although there are plenty of people in my life who have contributed much to my success my greatest source of inspiration has come from researching, reading, and learning about people who have overcome challenges. Each of them has brought me a great deal about hope and inspired me during times of discouragement. I oftentimes look to Abraham Lincoln for hope. He had so many challenges in his life and oftentimes he was alone in his struggles. The issues he faced were so significant that most people could not even begin to relate to the depth of despair he experienced when the weight of the world was on his shoulders and his personal life was painful. Throughout his life I do not believe he recognized the significance or the impact that his tenacity would have on the world. He never lived long enough to see the fruits of his labors blossom. He was hated by most and many of the decisions that he made that would change the trajectory of the country were made against the backdrop of people who vehemently disagreed with him. He was willing to stand alone in his conviction and endure immense criticism for what he believed was right. He was not a politician. He was a statesman.
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?
I am not sure I ever had a defined vision for my company but as I stated before, just like I wanted my children to learn to love learning because I believed it was the cornerstone of all success, I want people that I teach and train to love what they are doing. The easiest way to motivate people to achieve is to instill in them a love for what they do.
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?
I have been what some call a solopreneur. Thus, I am not a leader in the traditional sense of the word. Having said that, I have worked with many contractors who help me complete projects. Most of those contractors have been college-age students. I have never been financially secure enough in my business to hire ‘experts,’ so I work with ‘experts in training.’ I not only have to teach them the technical skills needed to get the job done, I have to teach them many of the soft skills so lacking in the world today: creativity, problem-solving, communication, teamwork and resilience.
I am not sure I will ever be a financially secure and a successful businessperson as I tend to put people before money. After 20 + years of doing this, I do not have much in terms of money to show for my efforts, but I do have lots of young people who have launched successful careers from the portfolios they built while working with me. I am in the business of developing people, not developing a business.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Honestly, I am not sure there is ever a day go by that I don’t consider giving up. That does not mean that I am unhappy or unsatisfied with my life. But like Abraham Lincoln, the days are long, and I don’t tend to see success in the way the world defines success: money, possessions, fame, etc. Success to me means that I face every challenge without giving up. I want to be a friend to those who no one else wants befriends. I want to share my love of my country with those who may not see this country as a country worth loving. Much like Miley Cyrus says in her song, “The Climb”…. There’s always gonna be another mountain, I’m always gonna wanna make it move, Always gonna be an uphill battle, Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose, Ain’t about how fast I get there, Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side, It’s the climb. Learn to enjoy the climb!
I get the motivation to continue from knowing that even if I leave this life feeling like a failure, I hope someone gleans some level of hope and inspiration of some aspect of my life that helps them keep going, much the same as I have gleaned hope from people who feel like their lives were not significant. I do not need to reap the rewards of my efforts now. But I hope someone reaps the rewards of my efforts someday. I may not have built a financially successful business, but I do hope I have inspired someone to be successful.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader is understanding and inspiring those they lead to be the best they can. Give them the tools and support they need to succeed.
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?
I believe the best way to help others work toward a future that seems uncertain and boost morale is to develop a shared vision and give them small steps toward realizing that vision.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest and empathetic. Put yourself in their shoes.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Focus on what you can control… not what is not in your control.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Develop a true sense of ‘teamwork’. Do not lead from the front. Do not lead from behind. Lead from within. Be a team member. Let your team know you are one of them and that you are willing to sacrifice when sacrifice is required and walk the walk with them.
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?
In my opinion one of the most common mistakes companies make is that they lack vision and are unwillingness to adapt and change. Creativity is key. I also see this in business as well as all aspects of life; when you are on top, you don’t stay hungry. Always stay hungry.
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?
This is probably not a great question for me as I have indicated, financial stability and profits have never been my strength. I have always managed to be profitable, but that just comes from being tenacious and never giving up, not from any well-defined financial strategy.
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.
This goes back to the five characteristics that employers seek and struggle to find in employees in recent times:
1. Be creative. As our economy goes through a transition in how work gets done or how businesses conduct business, you need to be flexible and adaptive. During the pandemic I have been inspired by businesses that have found different ways to do business, so they do not have to close their doors. A very simple example: health/fitness clubs who teach virtual classes when all their business was done in person before the pandemic. Another simple example: grocery stores who offer delivery/pick up services.
2. Work as a team. Everyone is a team member. Leaders — get your hands dirty. Take pay cuts to preserve jobs for others. Find ways to be more efficient working together. A company that builds closets has had to scale back its operations during the pandemic as many people feel uncomfortable with workers’ coming into their homes. Rather than lay people off, the leadership took a significant cut in pay to keep people on staff and they work side-by-side to keep production moving, as much as necessary. They have found that it has helped build relationships that did not exist prior to the pandemic.
3. Be a problem solver. Learn and teach critical thinking skills to solve the problems that your business faces. A project that I am currently working on requires a high level of skill using a particular software product. No one on the team, individually, has that level of skill so we work together on a weekly basis to share our knowledge and skill in building out the product with our combined knowledge and skill. There are several times when we encounter challenges with the software that result in technical issues and we problem solve together to reach resolution.
4. Communication. Communication is key during difficult times. Be honest. Share good news and bad news. With the bad news, go back to being problem solvers, working as a team and being creative. I conducted a workshop with a construction company on communication. We engaged in several activities where we shared examples of emails, supervisors providing feedback etc. that was terse and at times even hurtful. We encouraged the recipient to step back and assume the best, not the worst. As we dug deeper into what may be happening in the background, it was clear that the communication was no intended to be hurtful. Looking beyond the surface and giving people the benefit of the doubt before reflexively responding not only helped resolve communication issues but helped build stronger relationships with team members.
5. Resilience. Provide inspiration to your team by demonstrating resilience. Letting your team know that you are in it for the long haul helps them work through challenges. My son just joined a construction company. The owner indicated that he does everything he can to avoid laying people off during slow times. He also tries not to fire people without first seeking to understand what challenges they may be experiencing at work or outside of work that may contribute to poor performance. This demonstrates that he wants to keep people through the good and the bad times. To make that a reality, the employees, in turn, need to make sure they communicate with the owner about challenges they are experiencing so they can work together to resolve issues. The owner shows his interest in keeping his team long term and the employees show their willingness to be long term contributors by being vulnerable. Many managers/owners do not share bad news with employees and thus convey that they do not trust their employees to work with them to resolve the issues causing a downturn and sometimes employees do not share their struggles and be vulnerable because they do not trust that the manager/owner will work with them to resolve those issues. Resilience can be born out of trust and allowing yourself to be vulnerable. People do not fail on their own. Being open and trusting others to help us during difficult times can make us feel vulnerable. People need to feel safe to share their struggles with other people. To keep moving forward, we need other people and their help. We do not get their help if we cannot be vulnerable and trust them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Success is not a destination — it is a journey that is meant to be experienced fully at every exhilarating and exhausting juncture.
When I experience setbacks in my life, I feel like I am doing things wrong. At times I am, but other times, it may simply be caused by circumstances that are out of my control.
As a contractor there are plenty of times you get let go. The reasons are varied. I remember the first time I was ‘let go’ from a project. It was one of my first jobs as a contractor. My friend (who happened to be my boss before she retired) and I were working on this project. We were working with a team that was outsourced from another country. The project lead went on vacation and left us to work with the offshore team independently while he was gone. This contract was with a very large and prestigious organization. During his absence we experienced some friction with the offshore team. Once the project lead got back from vacation, he let my partner and I go. I was devastated. I had never been let go from a job in my life. My job partner did not seem to be too affected. A couple of months down the road we were bidding on another project. We needed some references from previous work. My partner recommended that we reach out to the project lead from the job where we had been let go. I was totally shocked that she would even recommend such an idea. She laughed and she explained to me that more than likely what happened was that when the project lead got back from vacation, we had done the higher-level work required on the project and all that was left was the development work which the offshore team could do very well and for a significantly lower price tag. I was not really buying in to that too much but agreed to request the reference because we did not have anything to lose. And, to my surprise, he wrote us a glowing reference and we used his reference in many future projects.
I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t take things so personal. Many times, I have been let go with no explanation, only to find that funds for the project had been cut. One time I got let go because, when I started a new project, once again, the project lead went on vacation. He left me with various tasks that needed to be done while he was gone. It did not take me the full week to complete the work and I was pleased when he returned that I had accomplished my work and saved the company some time and money. In the government contracting business, it does not work that way. They need you to bill for all the allotted hours because they mark your hours up and they get paid on what you complete. Thus, I was costing them money, not making them money. Go figure!
Many nights, I would cry to my husband about all my ‘failures’, and he would remind me that people measure success in different ways. I was not a failure. I was simply a contractor! Someone recently told me that if you were a contractor and had not been ‘fired’ many times over, you probably did not have very many jobs.
“Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you have.” Life’s experiences come in many shapes and forms. Each one beautiful and meaningful. Don’t remove the word “failure” from your vocabulary. Failure hurts. It hurts bad. That pain means there is something valuable to be learned. Without the pain, we sometimes skip the learning because we are so busy trying to find the silver lining rather than digging deep to find what did not work.
I think of it like this:
If I break my leg and it does not hurt — and hurt bad — I probably will not go to the doctor to figure out what is wrong. I will just hope the pain goes away and chalk the breakup to my clumsiness. Thus, the break never heals properly. Failure hurts. Fixing what caused the failure hurts. But in the end, we are stronger, better people. Don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is not optional — it is REQUIRED — to ultimately succeed.
I have to admit I wish I could always live by the principles I am sharing in this written interview. But alas, I am still human. Writing this down reminds me to practice what I preach!
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