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 Darcy Luoma.
Darcy Luoma, author of Thoughtfully Fit: Your Training Plan for Life and Business Success, is a Master Certified Coach, dynamic facilitator, and inspiring motivational speaker. She has worked as director for a U.S. Senator, deputy transition director for a governor, and on the national advance team for two U.S. presidential campaigns. As the owner and CEO of Darcy Luoma Coaching & Consulting, she’s worked in forty-eight industries with more than five hundred organizations to create high-performing people and teams. The media has named Darcy the region’s favorite executive-and-life coach four times. Darcy balances her thriving business with raising her two energetic teenage daughters, adventure travel, and competing in triathlons.
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?
Of course, thank you so much for having me. Prior to starting my own business, Darcy Luoma Coaching & Consulting, I worked for United States Senator Herb Kohl for 12 years as the director of his Madison office. In that position, I learned how to manage a team, the importance of effective communication, and why taking thoughtful action is better than being impulsive. It was an amazing experience. But part of me felt unfulfilled.
When Senator Kohl announced his retirement, I hired a coach who asked me something nobody else in my life had: What would you do next if you had no regrets in ten years? That question sparked my passion in a way that surprised me. I’d start a business helping people overcome their obstacles to success! Consequently, I went from having a career in politics to launching Darcy Luoma Coaching & Consulting in 2013. While it was an exciting and monumental change, it was also scary as I was the sole breadwinner for our family of four. Owning my own business meant no benefits, no health insurance, and no guaranteed salary. It was risky, but nine years later I can confidently say I have no regrets!
In 2016, after three years of intense research, I developed my signature model, Thoughtfully Fit that’s grounded in thousands of hours coaching my clients. With this model, we’ve been able to help individuals and organizations understand the hurdles in the way of their success and equip them with tools to clear them. It’s a model that I know works, as I became ground zero for testing it.
Five days after finalizing Thoughtfully Fit, my life was upended. My husband was shockingly arrested for sexual assault of a minor he’d met online and dragged out of our home by a SWAT team. It was an unimaginable experience to navigate, but one I knew I had to for the sake of my two young daughters. So I put this model to good use, as I suddenly had more hurdles and challenges than ever before in my life.
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’d say this story is more awkward than funny. When I first started giving keynotes, I hired a professional speaking coach to get myself prepared. A piece of advice he gave me was to stay away from after-dinner keynotes, as people are generally wanting to socialize and chit chat more than listen to a speaker. This was advice I didn’t take too seriously or think much of at the time.
That changed when I did my first keynote for a fundraising event. It was after a dinner party at which people were drinking, having fun, and dancing. When the live band stopped so the executive director of the organization could introduce me, everyone went dead silent. It went from being fun, festive, and light-hearted to incredibly serious and flat. I don’t think everyone (or anyone!) was 100% into it, especially since I was mostly stiff and stood behind the podium for the entire speech. Yeah, awkward.
The main takeaways for me were to schedule my keynotes a bit more thoughtfully and to listen to my coach (and maybe learn how to juggle or do backflips on stage!).
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?
Oh geez! I can easily think of a hundred people who have helped me in my journey to making my business what it is now. I am a big believer in having a community of people you can trust, learn from, and find support in.
If I had to pick one person, though, it would have to be Mark Scharenbroich. Mark is a Hall of Fame Speaker with the National Speakers Association. When I was preparing to deliver my first keynote talking about my ex-husband’s arrest, he helped me share the story in a way that was meaningful and engaging for the audience — instead of feeling like a form of therapy.
My work with Mark provided the foundation for how I would structure my future keynotes and even my book, Thoughtfully Fit: Your Training Plan for Life and Business Success, which details my Thoughtfully Fit model through my story in a way that helps readers apply its practices to their own challenges in life.
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?
To create high-performing people and teams. Just as you mentioned, businesses that are purpose driven are more successful. The same is true with people. Our purpose has been to help both individuals and organizations achieve success by thoughtfully overcoming the hurdles that get in their way.
It has been incredibly fulfilling work for me and for those on my team. We get to see people have “ah-ha” moments when they’ve successfully navigated hurdles — those challenging circumstances that they would’ve otherwise reacted poorly to if not for the strategies we equipped them with.
Whether it’s a board member late for a meeting because of traffic, a single parent starting their own business, or someone who is trying to manage life during a pandemic, we work with people and teams to help them focus on what they can control and explore their choices. We help them create awareness of their situation so they can act thoughtfully during any challenge. When people act thoughtfully, they act with intention and purpose, and that leads to success.
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?
When Covid hit, our business, like many others, faced an immense challenge. We had to find a way to adapt and pivot. We took a moment to pause and think about what choices we had and what the best way was to move forward. After all, we knew people would need us now more than ever. People problems increased exponentially because of Covid.
That’s when we shifted our work to 100% virtual to help individuals and teams through their problems — how to communicate with colleagues when social distancing with a mask on, the challenges of suddenly working remotely, and simply going about day to day life in quarantine. It was an immense shift with unimaginable hurdles. But we navigated it and actually expanded our scope of services which resulted in our most successful year financially since starting the business.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think we’ve all felt the urge to throw in the towel at one point or another. I certainly have.
That said, I truly believe in the usefulness of building your endurance. Endurance is all internal, as we talk about in Thoughtfully Fit. Endurance is your ability to overcome the obstacles that initially make you want to give up.
The best way I’m able to establish and maintain Endurance is by taking the following three steps:
1) Clearly defining my goal — what it is that I want to accomplish.
2) Finding my tribe, a group of like-minded individuals who share a similar goal and can offer support.
3) Starting where I’m at — finding out what skills and resources I need in order to get where I want to be.
All of these things are essential because they remind me what I’m striving for, help me find support and accountability, and encourage me to take the next right step.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think one of the most important things a leader can be is agile. A lot of times we can be blind-sided by challenges that come out of nowhere. When you’re agile, you’re able to act quickly and intentionally. This is one of the main things we discuss with our clients and practice ourselves.
To be agile means having great self-awareness and self-management. It’s being in the habit of taking a moment to Pause. Think. Act. — the core of our Thoughtfully Fit model. When you’re agile, you actively work against your default reactions — whether that’s getting defensive, disassociating, or completely ignoring the challenge at hand. Instead, you pause to become aware of your default reaction in the moment, and think about the choices. You then act thoughtfully (which often requires self-management and resisting the urge to act on autopilot!).
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?
Putting their energy in how they’re going to show up. Regardless of what role you play in an organization, or even if you’re working independently, how you choose to show up affects morale in a huge way. This is especially true during challenging times. Does this mean ignoring your emotions entirely? No.
One of our clients, we’ll call her Mia, in our Thoughtfully Fit women’s leadership series, expressed her frustration when it came to managing her business at home while taking care of her four children during the on-going pandemic. Instead of acknowledging her feelings of frustration, she brushed them off the way a lot of us tend to do. Anytime a colleague asked her how she was doing, Mia would say she was fine. She didn’t want to bog them down with her problems. However, it was a choice that led her to feeling incredibly exhausted, as it would any of us. Additionally, her team felt disconnected from her. They sensed she was stressed but didn’t know how to respond because she seemed to put this emotional wall up.
After attending our workshop, Mia decided that she’d be more vulnerable and answer the How are you doing? question honestly. She wouldn’t dump on them, but she also wouldn’t shut them out. The result was impactful. Mia reported that there was a lot more transparency and trust between her and her colleagues, which led to her feeling much less frustrated. They felt more connected to her and the work environment improved.
It’s important to acknowledge your emotions in the moment and understand where they’re coming from. It’s also important to consciously choose how you show up. Creating awareness is that initial step towards thinking about what choices you have and thoughtfully making a choice. And that choice you make will ultimately permeate in the workplace and affect how others interact.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s all about balancing courage, compassion, and curiosity. When it comes to communicating difficult news, a lot of the time we can have this awful gut feeling of nervousness that takes us over. And that can cause us to have reactionary thoughts such as: I’ll tell them the news at a different time or maybe I’ll have someone else confront them. This is when you must have courage. No one wants to be the bearer of bad news, but postponing the conversation or shifting the responsibility of it to someone else can, and often does, result in even bigger messes down the line.
That said, we also have to show up with compassion and deliver the news in a way it can be heard. Believe me when I say I’ve had times when I really just wanted to say what’s on my mind in a not so Disney way. However, that can lead to people feeling defensive and disengaged from the conversation. When that happens, nothing gets communicated and progress isn’t made. You’ll likely end up with a bigger problem than what you started with. That said, you want to make sure that there is actual listening going, which leads me to curiosity.
You need to understand what the other person needs or wants. When you get down to the root of that, then you’ll begin to formulate a genuine understanding of their needs that can help you come to an agreeable resolution. Ask questions on their view of the situation. Ask how they feel to receive this difficult news. Get curious about how they want to move forward given what you’ve shared. This will help the other person leave feeling heard and acknowledged.
This is one of the most critical skills a leader needs, and one that is often the hardest to master.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A huge part of our model, Thoughtfully Fit, is acting with intention. When you act with intention you’re deliberate in the choices you make, and you ensure those choices are in line with your end goal. That means having a game plan is crucial. But as you mentioned, the future can be unpredictable. How do you plan for the unpredictable? You address it as it comes.
As I previously mentioned, one of the most important roles a leader has is being agile. You practice Agility by taking a moment to Pause. Think. Act. It all starts with creating awareness of yourself and of the challenge at hand. You Pause and Think about your situation and what choices you have. Then, once you have thought them over, you Act by moving forward with the best decision at that time. You establish the best plan, and because you did it with intention, your plan is more likely to be successful as it addresses the unpredictable.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Number one principle would be to lead with intention. Truly, I think this leads back to always keeping in mind your intention, your purpose and establishing your endurance in every aspect of your company that you can. It’s important for leadership to have the understanding of what their purpose is and have a meaningful connection with it. The same is true for the people they’re leading, making sure they feel connected to that greater intention.
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 mistake I see businesses make is being unfocused and going after the next shiny object. There can be so many options out there — whether it’s new gadgets, programs, or technology — it can be distracting. It all comes down to having and maintaining focus and a clear vision on how to achieve it.
Another mistake I see businesses make is not investing in their teams. Your people are your greatest resource. If you don’t take the time to train your teams to build their communication skills, to engage in healthy conflict, to develop trust, then they won’t learn how to work as a team.
I also see businesses make hasty decisions in tough times. Fear and uncertainty drives anxiety. And instead of focusing and having thoughtful conversations about how to move forward, they act impulsively. This not only doesn’t work in the short term, it often creates long-term damage.
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?
One of the best strategies for forging ahead and not losing growth is to invest in your relationships. When Covid-19 hit, we were all blindsided and money became tight for many. That said, we immediately took action to make sure that our relationships with our clients stayed strong and that we were accessible to them in time when they needed us the most. The first few months of Covid, we offered free group coaching sessions daily. Some of the business we have now is a direct result of that focus on investing in relationships in a meaningful way.
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.
1. Find time for stillness. As a leader, it can be hard not to get swept up in the grind of things. There’s always something to do — another meeting to plan, a project to work on, a deadline to meet. It can be hard to find time to be still, but it’s essential to success. Quieting the mind allows you to take the time you need to understand how you feel in the moment and makes room for creativity and productivity.
2. Create self-awareness. This is something that I’ve talked about throughout this entire interview. And for good reason! Being self-aware is crucial to your success. It gets you thinking about your habits and enables you to truly understand what challenges are in front of you (to understand if they are internal or external), and gives you a clearer idea of what choices you have that’ll allow you to overcome those challenges.
3. Communicate effectively. This is another topic I felt I should mention again because it’s so important. When frustration between two or more people doesn’t get communicated effectively, it can result in an even bigger problem. For example, if you have a colleague who continually does something that affects you negatively and you choose not to communicate your frustration, the issue will not be resolved and a negativity bias can form, which will filter all of your future interactions. It’s important to communicate effectively, to lead conversations with courage, compassion, and curiosity.
5. Be flexible. Being flexible is all about accepting the things that we don’t have control over. Whether it’s what a person is wearing, what a person thinks about you, or something you did in the past, there are going to be things that we cannot control. The ultimate decision you’re going to have to make is how you respond. Yes, you could spend all day feeling awkward about ending a business call by saying “love you,” or you could acknowledge that it happened, accept that there’s nothing you can do to change it, and spend your energy on more important tasks (and maybe even laugh about the whole ordeal later).
5. Recognize value in your teams. As I’ve grown my business, I’ve had other entrepreneurs offer advice, which I’m always so grateful for. But amongst that advice, I occasionally get asked why I pay my team as much as I do when there are dozens of places I could go to find people that’ll do the work at a much lower price. My response to that is I want to have a strong team, and I want them to know I value them and the work that they do. I never want to be in the position where I have team members that don’t feel valued. If they don’t feel appreciated, that can affect their quality of work and their commitment to the rest of the team and our greater purpose.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are so many to choose from, but I think my favorite would have to be the following by Steve Maraboli: “Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.” I think a lot of us spend time wishing to control something we can’t and not realizing the full potential of the choices we do have.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’d be honored to have your readers follow us! Our website, DarcyLuoma.com, has many resources on getting Thoughtfully Fit including a weekly blog you can subscribe to that centers on helping people thoughtfully overcome the obstacles in their way to success. They can of course find us on pretty much any social media platform of their choice as well.
On YouTube, Facebook, and LinkedIn we host weekly Thoughtfully Fit Thursdays — live videos where people can get more insight into how they can train to be Thoughtfully Fit.
Also, if your readers are interested in knowing more about my story and the work I do, I have a book coming out June 1st called Thoughtfully Fit: Your Training Plan for Life and Business Success.