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 Cindy Hoffman, founder of Media Mentors.
Cindy Hoffman of MediaMentors has more than 25 years experience in the communications industry. Building on a career as a television news reporter, writer, and producer, she expanded her expertise to include executive coaching, media and presentation training, and issues and crisis management.
She founded MediaMentors in 1994 and works with top-tier corporations, pharmaceutical companies, public relations agencies, non-profits, advocacy groups, and entertainment and sports conglomerates to develop and deliver “messages that matter” to a wide variety of audiences.
Cindy Hoffman’s decade of TV news experience includes three years at CNN, producing two hours of daily, live news broadcasts. She also held producing and writing positions at major TV stations in the northeast and produced and reported business features for the syndicated television program, The Bottom Line. She is intimately familiar with the news gathering process, reporting and interview techniques, and the ins and outs of editing and production. She is skilled at helping clients strategically navigate this process for maximum impact.
Her experience as a media insider is matched by her expertise as a media outsider and public relations professional. As Director of Media Relations for Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, she was responsible for all external communications related to its research institution, its 710-bed teaching hospital and affiliates, and for Jefferson Medical College, the nation’s largest private medical school.
An honors graduate with a degree in Theatre from Brandeis University, Cindy Hoffman also attended the masters program in organizational development at the University of Pennsylvania.
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?
My undergraduate degree is in theatre. I trained as an actress but soon realized I did not have the ego, passion, or talent to pursue a career on stage. I transitioned into TV News (always had an interest in journalism) and spent nearly ten years in large local TV markets as well as CNN, working as a reporter, writer, and producer. Life changes led to a career transition. I got married and wanted to give up working evenings and weekends (along with several years on an overnight shift). I became the Media Relations Director at a large medical school, teaching hospital and University in Philadelphia. I loved the job, learned many new skills, and pursued a master’s degree in Organizational Dynamics. Another life change, birth of my first child, led to me starting my own consulting and coaching business. That business has evolved over 25 years, and I have worked with hundreds of clients in a wide variety or arenas, offering thousands of hours of coaching, sharing strategy, advice, and expertise.
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?
I am not sure how funny it was, and even now I cringe when I think about it but was an “a ha” moment with major takeaways. I started my career in TV News and worked in the industry for almost ten years. The TV News business was fast paced, deadline oriented, and all niceties be damned. People would slam phones, slam office doors, and slam fists on desks. There were not a lot of please and thank you offered. When I transitioned to the role of Media Relations Director, I was managing a staff of eight with no management experience other than producing news broadcasts. Instead, I mirrored the Executive Producers and News Directors who ran the insanely busy newsrooms I had come from. Suffice it to say, what worked in TV News should have stayed in TV News. Although I didn’t’ pound my fists, It took an understanding boss and a supportive staff who wanted me to succeed to show me how to thrive in a professional environment.
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?
I am extremely lucky to have many people who have helped me along the way. Rather than one person, I like to think of it as a mentoring buffet, and I picked and chose a variety of nuggets along my journey. In addition to learning what to do, I also learned, from a boss and some others in leadership roles, what not to do. That was probably just as helpful as anything I learned in the process.
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 business is a consulting firm providing coaching and training to a wide variety of clients. From the very first day I opened for business my goal was, and is, to help my clients realize their potential and learn the skills to achieve it.
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 don’t lead a team directly most of the time, but I have spent much of my career counseling and coaching others to lead their teams in uncertain or difficult times. My motto for them is reliability, flexibility, transparency, and respect. Organizations and teams need to know that they can count on those at the helm and that no matter what the outside world may throw at them, their leaders will be steadfast in their approach to dealing with any issue, small or large. As important as it is to be consistent, when life throws a curve ball, you must also be flexible. If the pandemic has showed us anything, it’s that we must be adaptable and realize there’s more than one way to achieve your goals. While planning for change, I always counsel that’s it’s important to also be as transparent as possible and share as much as the situation allows. Lastly, employees deserve respect. No matter how difficult times can be you should never take it out on the people who work for you. Employees deserve a boss who respects them, tells them the truth, even though that may not be pleasant, and delivers what they promise to the best of their ability.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
My passion for what I do and what I believe I can offer my clients sustains me through even the toughest of times.
My work volume has ebbed and flowed over the years, but I have always been greatly appreciated by my clients. The idea that I help them make a difference has sustained and continues to sustain me to this day.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to provide consistency, allow for flexibility and offer clear expectations if things do need to change. Employees hate surprises particularly when they may seem arbitrary. When times are tough, the more constancy and consistency in the workplace, the better employees will manage. It’s up to the leader to set a tone and others will follow. People also appreciate honesty. It’s better to be straightforward and acknowledge difficulties rather than pretending things are better than they really are.
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?
This may sound trite, but one of the best way to inspire and motivate is to lead by example. If you are positive and appear enthused about the future and opportunities, your staff will begin to as well. If you appear worried, pessimistic, or negative, those emotions will tend to prevail. However, honesty is crucial. People appreciate a positive attitude but not at the expense of the truth. Another way leaders can inspire is to help their staffs see the big picture and the long-term plan. While staff may be stuck in the difficulties of the present, a leader can help expand their horizons by showing them a vision of the future.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news is directly, concisely, and as clearly as possible. Bad news should never be delegated to subordinates to deliver. If you are communicating difficult news to numerous stakeholders, whenever possible they should all hear it at once. News should be delivered from the source, not through the grapevine or social media. I coach my clients on what I call the SUCCESS Strategy for communicating tough news:
S: State the Facts U: Use data and examples to help explain C: Calm and Collected (Do not let your emotions get the better of you) C: Credibility and Candor Count! (Know your Facts. Tell the truth) E: Emotions Accepted. It’s OK to show sorrow or regret if you need to deliver bad news. S: Stay focused. Stay with the facts. Keep to the news at hand. S: Simple, Short and Sweet. Don’t be tempted to over talk.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Planning for the future when the future is unpredictable can be particularly challenging, but also exciting. An unclear future can allow for thinking big, or outside of the box. When the future is uncertain, it helps to plan incrementally, charting a course for the short term that offers more predictability, while creating multiple scenarios for the long term that take in to account a wide array of differing turnouts.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
No Knee Jerk Reactions. Stay the Course. (at least until you thoroughly assess)
Too often in turbulent times, people react too quickly or too emotionally. It’s not to say that changes don’t need to be made, and often they do, but they should be done after serious thought, research, and evaluation.
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?
One of the biggest mistakes I have seen businesses make is to act too quickly or too emotionally.
Many times, people feel they need to do something or show some action to show they are in control of the situation.
Sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing until you have time to accurately assess the situation.
Conversely, others are paralyzed during difficult times and they don’t act when they should.
Another mistake businesses make is failing to take responsibility for errors in a timely or encompassing manner. Many times business leaders ignore a problem, hoping it will go away. It won’t. It will only get worse. During difficult times, when a company is at fault — I teach the three R’s: Regret, Restitution, and Reform.
Leaders should apologize and show remorse, offer a way to make the situation whole, or at least better, and then implement a comprehensive action plan so the problem does not occur again.
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?
I think it’s OK and sometimes even preferable to acknowledge there are times your business won’t grow and rather than chase an impossible dream it’s better to shore up your position and prepare for a time when expansion is possible.
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.
- BE CONSISTENT
Employees want stability and want to know what to expect each day they come into the office or log on to their computer. Make changes when necessary not arbitrarily. If you need to make a change because policies or guidelines have evolved, explain that in your notifications. When you must make a change, give people as much notice as possible. If you are going to move from a remote back to an in-person workplace, don’t send an email on Friday saying everyone needs to be in the office on Monday. Keep tone and temperament in mind as well. Leaders lead by example and if you are angry one day, nervous the next, and enthusiastic the day after, your employees won’t know what to expect or how to act. A consistent attitude will make everyone feel comfortable and will make you more approachable.
2. BE FLEXIBLE
One of the biggest assets a leader can have in turbulent times is flexibility. During the pandemic, my clients who were willing to be flexible succeeded the best. Clients who insisted on workflow, processes and priorities remaining the same did not fare as well as those who allowed for altered work schedules, new ways of providing information and alternative methods of meeting with customers and colleagues. Also realize that flexibility may not be one size fits all. I have a client whose main office is in Austin, Texas with another large presence in Edinburgh, Scotland and satellite offices scattered across other geographies. During the pandemic local guidelines were quite different in Austin than they were in Scotland. The company had to be flexible to allow for the differences but also to present a tone that made all employees feel included regardless of where they were working from.
3. BE INNOVATIVE
Innovation is a top skill to have anytime. In challenging times, innovation can help you succeed where others fail.
During the pandemic, I have been coaching several large houses of worship about how to continue to offer services and continue to create a congregational environment. All my clients offered zoom services, almost from the beginning, and will continue to offer them even after we move back inside, as many congregants, particularly older ones, are finding it much easier, especially when it rains or snows. Several of my clients came up with other far more innovative ideas, including drive-in services in the parking lot, evening services under the stars, seder in a box delivered to congregant’s doors, or breakout room services with limited attendance focused on different topics of interest. Prior to the pandemic, these churches and synagogues would have said you have to be in person at a certain time because that’s how things are done, yet they have learned that innovation, and flexibility have allowed their congregations to feel connected during the toughest of times.
4. BE HONEST
Honesty is really the best policy. It’s not always the easiest, and sometimes honest discussions are hard. People appreciate the truth, even though they may not always like to hear it. Over the years my clients that have been honest with their teams have fared far better than ones who have tried to avoid or couch the truth. If you know you are gong to have to cut bonuses this year, it’s better to let employees know so they can plan accordingly, rather than keep it open as an option even though you know it’s not the case.
5. BE OPEN-MINDED
Because that’s the way we’ve always done it, is one of the worst things a leader can say. Leaders who rely too heavily on that’s how it done, are not leaders who will succeed in turbulent times. Change is hard and embracing change can be one of the most difficult things a leader does. For many years I have provided media training to my clients, preparing them for TV, radio, and print interviews. My tips and techniques were for traditional broadcast media outlets and print publications. Several years ago, it became obvious that social media and the digital landscape are here to stay and it forced me to totally take a fresh look and revamp my training. I had one long term large live entertainment client and we radically revised our process, creating a mock “Media Day” where the performers had an opportunity to rotate through stations, doing mock interviews with traditional broadcast TV, and radio, in addition to social media influencers, Facebook Live, podcast, and Instagram story shout outs. They were a great success but could never have been achieved if my client and I had not been willing to take a new look at an old approach.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Why not? and Why not me?
Throughout my career, from the very beginning, people would say — You can’t go into TV News. It’s too competitive. I said, Why not me? Someone had to get the job — Why not me. I was told you can’t be a Director. You are too young. My response, Why not me? When I wanted to pursue my own business and encountered objections,
again, Why not? Throughout my career whenever I have been told I can’t or shouldn’t do something, Why not? is always the first question I ask. Sometimes, I get a legitimate reason why not, and then I reassess or regroup. Often the reason is easily overcome and the Why not changes to Why, of course!
How can our readers further follow your work?
I welcome your readers to visit my website www.mediamentors.com
and connect with me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/cindyhoffmancoach