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 Deborah Levine.
Deborah Levine is CEO of Deborah Levine Enterprises, Editor-in-Chief of the American Diversity Report, an award-winning author of 15 books, and Forbes Magazine Diversity And Inclusion Trailblazer. Despite a near-death experience working in Uzbekistan, Deborah has 33 years experience as a change maker in challenging times, a legacy that goes back generations. Her grandfather was one of Bermuda’s Founding 400 and she’s part of the only Jewish family to have lived on the island for 4 generations. Her father was a US intelligence officer during World War II, trained at Fort Ritchie to interrogate Nazi prisoners of war. Her mother was a special education pioneer in the 1940s. Deborah is a Designer of Cognitive Diversity using emotion metrics, neuro-communication, and decision-optimization. With her considerable experience in program planning, community interface, teaching and management, she designs DEI projects for organizations that boost inclusion efforts on multiple levels.
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?
Early in life, I was a dancer and entrepreneur with my own ballet studio and dance company. I received a grant to teach ballet at a school for the deaf, a passion of mine. When my injuries forced me to change my plans, I got my master’s degree in urban planning, designing it to focus on economic development using Arts & Culture. After working in the field for a few years, I took a job in a Jewish advocacy nonprofit as a gift to my dying mother. I spent 15 years in executive positions, relocating across the country and dealing with NGO management, community outreach, and the media. I later transitioned again to entrepreneurship and am headquartered in the US Southeast. In addition to my writing, I became a coach for executives of diverse nationalities, race & ethnicity, religion, and gender who worked for international manufacturing plants relocating to the South. I’ve trained, coached and presented on cultural competence, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the almost 2 decades since beginning that work.
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?
When I first started coaching a group of European expats, I gave the hand signal for OK for their hard work. It was met with total silence. Later, one of them explained to me that in their culture, the gesture was the equivalent of a curse word, a symbol for a butt-related part of human anatomy. I learned that every detail, verbal and nonverbal, of communication is packed with cultural Big Data. Assume nothing!
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?
Peter Cooper, former president of the Community Foundation of Chattanooga, supported my work, first as a nonprofit executive when I created the Women’s Council on Diversity in 2001 and then as an entrepreneur. He was especially supportive of my entrepreneurial spirit and encouraged me to transition into the business world. Pete said that this would allow more flexibility and give me independence from the nonprofit board. In his view, “I was driving the car and looking a mile ahead through the windshield, while others were looking in the rear view mirror.”
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 mission was to broaden the local mindset to develop the awareness, sensitivity, and planning needed to become an international business hub. Chattanooga was attracting major businesses such as Volkswagen and needed to quickly embrace its new role. My purpose was to assist the community in achieving this goal. I created a community-wide global leadership course for executives and civic leaders along with a textbook and workbook to create the mindset needed. I arranged to teach a similar class to young people from historically disadvantaged and under-represented African-American neighborhoods. A major element of my purpose was to embed DEI into my business and the community at the early stages of our transformation.
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 served on the Oklahoma Say No to Hate Coalition’s executive committee shortly after the OK City bombing, I helped give the team a voice by designing press releases when black churches were vandalized and writing opinion column when supremacists threatened the community. I learned the value of the old saying, “the pen is mightier than the sword”. I encourage my team to write articles for the AmericanDiversityReport.com where almost 1,000 of them remain as an online resource. During COVID, I increased my recruitment of writers and made ADR podcast interviews more frequently. I also created an ADR town hall online conference and a virtual Black-Jewish Dialogue series with the philosophy of staying connected and keeping communication ongoing. Making new friends and potential partners through the internet can be a positive outcome in this very negative environment. The process has enabled me to create an ADR Academic Journal that will launch in August 2021. We take an active role in the re-education and re-invention that these times require.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I considered giving up several times in my life, primarily because of my health. However, giving up turned into reinvention. Injuries led to giving up a career as a dancer, but I was only in my thirties and couldn’t imagine life being over. Chronic pain led to resigning my role as Interreligious Affairs Director at the American Jewish Committee/Chicago. But I was only in my forties and I couldn’t imagine my life being over. A close-to-death experience working in Uzbekistan forced me to give up my role as Executive Director of Chattanooga’s Jewish Federation. I was unable to do full-time work, but I was only in my fifties and couldn’t imagine my life being over. I could barely move so I resorted to writing and connecting virtually. My father encouraged me to carry on. He was still working on his death bed at age 85. The next 2 decades have been the most creative time of my life. I have imagined giving up, but that would mean life would be over. So, I transformed myself, using different interests and talents. The result is that the best is yet to come!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It’s vital that leaders demonstrate a high level of Emotional Intelligence during challenging times. In this environment which intensifies anxiety, alienation, and distrust, leaders must personify EQ. If they do not, no one will.
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?
Leaders during COVID have learned that because much of team engagement was virtual, they had to be more personal than in the past. Boosting morale depended on sharing concerns for health and family well being. Expectations for that personal engagement have been solidified and will not disappear in the post-pandemic workplace. If leaders can combine the personal approach with listening more intently to what the team, then there will likely be more cues for what will motivate the team members. This will require giving them a voice so that everyone on the team can interact more energetically and productively. Dispensing with the sense of hierarchy periodically may increase buy-in.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
As a youngster, my mother taught me to assume that everyone is trying their very best. She was insistent about that lesson because I could be cruelly critical and rudely intolerant of mistakes. She taught me to coat criticism in kindness and package bad news with gratitude. People skills with a dose of empathy are invaluable. This skill combination should be acquired purposefully and refined with ongoing practice. The result is often a smile rather than a door slammed in your face.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
While specifics are unpredictable, the future will be shaped in part by an energized emphasis on diversity, equity & inclusion. Leaders will need to reconfigure their thinking on how to maximize diverse teams & engage diverse markets. Acquiring the skills needed for the future will mean using the strategies of neuroscience: maximize communication with the science of storytelling, boost EQ, and help transform unconscious biases into conscious choices.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Be futurist in thinking and accept change as the new normal including the revision of long-held strategies and standards. Learn to let go and accept that there will be false starts as well as major successes.
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?
While attempting to reboot their diversity-related efforts, businesses and organizations have made some decisions that may be problematic in the long run. 1. Looking for quick fixes rather than new ways of thinking, particularly about intersectionality. 2. Overlooking categories of diverse individuals that could benefit the company such as introverts. These decisions can be improved by redefining diversity, examining how past complaints reflect these oversights, and developing new policies, councils, and events in response. Remember the old saying, “Haste makes Waste”.
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?
As a DEI professional, changing times actually increased demand for my services during these turbulent times. Maximizing the opportunities required increased networking and the willingness to partner with other consultants to form DEI teams. In addition, I draw on my experience from other turbulent times including post 9/11. I found that the strategies for addressing a chaotic environment remain embedded in our brains. I used those strategies in my invention for cognitive diversity, the Matrix Model Management System. I made my DEI efforts on behalf of organizations, sustainable, replicable and adaptable to change. My work has given me a profile different from most diversity professionals and allows me to stand out in the crowd. That’s a major element of the ability to forge ahead in a difficult economy.
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.
- THINK LIKE FUTURIST: Keep up with the latest news, but make your focus on the developing trends. Research articles about trends in business, marketing, workforce diversity, leadership development and team collaboration. The process will get your brain thinking about which trends apply to you and where you want to take your business, Write down what you need to get there that you don’t currently have on board.
- BUILD TRUST: Tumultuous times require frequent changes in goals and objectives. Your team will need to trust you to follow your lead into uncharted territory. Building that trust will require listening with authenticity and transparency especially when there are setbacks and roadblocks, which are inevitable with change. And listen to the people in the back of the room who often remain silent. They may have more to say than you realize.
- INVEST IN DIVERSITY: The increased emphasis on working virtually has meant a broader reach with a greater emphasis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Increased diversity requires a review of policies and training. When assessing the effectiveness of your current DEI policies, a survey of your team will be helpful. If you do not have written policies, the survey can assist in developing those guidelines. Create a DEI Council if one does not already exist and update the Council if already established with additional training. Establish connections to industry councils for ongoing communication about training options when specific challenges arise. Further, do not assume that your supervisors and managers are well prepared to address DEI issues. Arrange for small group or individual coaching when there’s a problematic incident in order to preserve privacy.
- BOOST EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Include Emotion Intelligence (EQ) in all DEI training and coaching. Given the increased tensions in tumultuous times, the tendency to reach highly emotional states is magnified. Allowing adrenalin to result in knee-jerk reaction can create long-term problems for teams going forward. My favorite method of boosting EQ is to make sure that the team has a common language for emotional responses so that members don’t talk past each other, misunderstand, or miscommunicate.
- ACT LIKE A PLANNER: Make sure that your research, training, and preparation result in planning for the future. Even though the future is unusually unpredictable in tumultuous times, a plan can help you navigate to calmer times. Set your benchmarks at shorter intervals than you would normally so that you review the goals and objectives more frequently, adjusting them constantly to coincide with the changing environment. Make sure that specific tasks accompany the goals and objectives with delegation made to the appropriate individuals on your team. This will ensure that there is full buy-in and collaboration in the plan, making success more likely in both the short and long term.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Life is 10 percent what you make it, and 90 percent how you take it.” ―Irving Berlin
How can our readers further follow your work?
See my business/brand website: DeborahLevine.com
And the AmericanDiversityReport.com