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 Courtney Underwood.
With over 18 years of experience in Human Resources and Leadership Development, Courtney Underwood understands the unique challenges that companies face when hiring and managing their talent. As an HR Alignment Strategist, she helps her clients understand the importance of an effective team and how it impacts the growth and profitability of their business.
After spending more than a decade in corporate America, serving companies across several different industries, Courtney knew that she had to bring the proven corporate strategies she created to the audience that needed them the most: entrepreneurs that want a strong foundation from the start. Utilizing her signature systems, tools and resources, Courtney founded Kassar Consulting to help entrepreneurs and leaders navigate the business of people and increase their bottom line.
Her favorite quote? “You cannot dominate the marketplace without first mastering the workplace.”
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?
Thank you for the opportunity to share more about the business of people! I majored in Organizational Communication in college, where I was introduced to the connections between healthy workforces and profitable companies. Those concepts drew me to the field of Human Resources and Leadership Development, and I dedicated my career to creating thriving and healthy workplaces. After spending 18 years in the industry, I founded Kassar Consulting to provide entrepreneurs the resources, tools and strategies I developed to effectively build and manage their teams.
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?
In my first Human Resources position out of college, I had lofty goals, but hadn’t yet considered the science of Change Management. I ambitiously introduced a new way of doing performance reviews to a large organization and was met with a ton of resistance. One manager rebelled by giving everyone on her team a perfect score, not realizing that she inadvertently qualified them for significant merit increases, despite not receiving one herself! After realizing her spiteful mistake, she tried to undo them, but that’s not how life works. The biggest lessons from that experience were that projects on that scale require a significant amount of “buy-in” at all levels of the organization, and that change has to be gradual in order for it to have a lasting impact.
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?
Since founding Kassar Consulting, Stephanie Robinson has been my biggest champion and advocate. Not only is she an insightful thought partner, she is invested in my success and bought into my vision before I had the clarity I needed to move forward. Neither I nor my company would be here without her unwavering support. A great example was my first major speaking engagement. Not only did Stephanie clear her calendar to accompany me to the event, she also ensured that attendees visiting my booth knew exactly who I was and the value that I offered. By the time I finished speaking and returned to the booth, I had a line of prospects that were ready for a conversation — many of them are still clients today.
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?
When I started Kassar Consulting, the vision was to take the proven HR strategies I’d developed over the years and provide them to entrepreneurs and small businesses. Over the course of my career, I have seen the power of people coming together to bring a vision to life. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand the destructive outcomes that occur when this isn’t done properly. The purpose of starting my company was to ensure that smaller companies have the opportunity to construct a solid foundation from the start. Building a team is essential to scaling a business, and I wanted to level the playing field.
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?
At the beginning of the pandemic, my team was facing a lot of uncertainty, and we weren’t sure how the business would survive without doing onsite audits, a key element of our consulting practice. I was able to successfully pivot to virtual services without affecting our bottom line, but it took a great deal of transparency and a willingness to accept a healthy amount of risk.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, I never considered giving up. I knew that my clients desperately needed insight and guidance in managing a newly remote workforce, as well as how to navigate the new laws and situations that arose from the pandemic. This motivated us to push through. My drive was sustained by knowing that I had a solid team that supported our work — it’s essential that I support them and their families by keeping our business healthy.
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 balance honesty and authenticity with forward-thinking leadership. Charting unknown territory while keeping spirits lifted is no easy task. If a leader is anxious, fearful or lost, it will absolutely destroy a team.
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 provide a refuge for employees to be their whole selves. Many team members have to put on a brave front for their friends and families, so giving them a safe space to address their emotional needs is valuable and often overlooked. My philosophy has always been to serve the whole employee — it positively impacts both productivity and profits.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate challenging news is by being as open and transparent as possible. As a new manager, your intuition might tell you to pretend as if you have all the answers. However, authenticity wins every time, and is the key to building rapport and trust with your team relatively swiftly. With so many factors changing, and information coming from every direction, give yourself time to digest information before making a decision. If you’re not sure of something, share that with a promise to follow up. Make good on that promise, and communicate often.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders can plan by paying close attention to trends and patterns, remaining on the forefront of news and information, and not being afraid to think outside of the box. Most importantly, leaders have to remember that when so much of the world is changing around them, they should not change their dedication and commitment to their team.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle that leaders can remember to help them conquer turbulent times is simple: take care of your team, and they will take care of the business. You can develop the best plans and strategies in the world, but if you don’t have a solid team to execute it, you simply cannot succeed.
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?
The most common mistakes that I have seen businesses make during difficult times are below:
- Remain in denial. If businesses don’t embrace the rapidly moving world around them and evolve right alongside it, they will be left behind. Pretending as if everything will return to normal and continuing business as usual is short-sighted and dangerous.
- Not market testing. I have seen plenty of industries affected by these challenging times come up with dozens of solutions based on what they think their customers want, instead of stepping back and asking what they actually want.
- Poor communication. Businesses need to keep their customers and prospects updated with new business developments, whether it’s hours changing, products being discontinued, or services being temporarily suspended. Proactive communication eliminates confusion, because a confused customer doesn’t convert.
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?
To keep forging ahead, companies must adapt and innovate. They must take the time to listen to their customers, analyze data, test the market and produce products and services to meet new demands. At Kassar Consulting, a deeper dive with our existing clients has paid off. We have expanded our offerings to directly address the challenges of a newly remote workforce, providing workshops, templates and other resources. We strive to meet our customers where they are, and take on their challenges as if they’re our own.
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.
The five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively are below:
- Make hard decisions early. I worked with my clients early on to compose policies and procedures around managing a remote workforce, and that included tough decisions surrounding when their offices would close completely, and when it was deemed safe to reopen. By making those choices at the onset, staff were able to prepare their personal and professional lives according to a predetermined timeline, which was easier for everyone involved.
- Over communicate. In uncertain times, team members want to know who is influencing the decisions of their leaders. Sharing updates and providing context as often as possible is critical. A great example occurred when the new laws were released surrounding paid leave for employees affected by COVID-19. I worked with my team to determine which clients were affected and drafted communication to send to their staff so that rumors surrounding “extra vacation time” were quickly silenced.
- Give grace. In turbulent times, it may be tempting for leaders to have less patience and take out their frustrations on their team. This is simply the worst thing that you can do. Leading with compassion is a core component of employee engagement and retention. Your employees bring their whole selves to work — remember that they are worth more than what they produce.
- Lead by example. As a leader, you set the tone for the rest of your team. You have to be the change that you want to see. If you want to see more collaboration? Be collaborative — ask questions, implement responses and communicate well. Don’t want your team to slack? Show up to meetings on time, be present, share what you’re working on.
- Listen to your team. As you work to develop new ways to serve your customers in a rapidly changing world, it will be tempting to implement rapid-fire solutions without listening to your team. This is a costly mistake. Your team members are the ones actually implementing your solutions, so it’s critical to involve them in the process early. High level ideas with poor execution can damage your brand and frustrate your staff.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is from John Maxwell: “Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so that you can say yes to the best.” It’s a reminder to seek continuous improvement and resist the temptation to settle. It’s a mantra I teach to my clients so that they hire from a place of strength instead of desperation.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me at www.kassarconsulting.com where I share further details on how to work with me, articles to support leadership development, and resources to thrive in these newly challenging times.