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 Diane Egbers, Founder and President of Leadership Excelleration (LE) Consulting, a national leadership development firm based in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Diane is an inspirational and dynamic executive coach, management consultant and facilitator who leverages the latest research and proven strategies to challenge leaders to reach their full potential. For the past 20 years, she has been engaging with Fortune 500 clients, major healthcare systems and government entities, while guiding her consulting team to offer transformative leadership development, organizational assessments and support for high performing teams. She is also author of The Ascending Leader, and founder and board chair of the teen suicide prevention non-profit, Grant Us Hope.
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?
Prior to starting Leadership Excelleration, I was vice president of human resources for a financial services company. There I gained tremendous perspective and experience working through multiple mergers and acquisitions. I also worked alongside amazing mentors, including working with the managing partner of a law firm and an executive coach. I often had employees waiting at my door in the morning, wanting me to coach them, and that was when my passion for developing leaders was formed.
My mentors approached me one day and said ‘we think you’ve mastered what we can teach you. You really should be doing this work independently.’ I knew clearly then that executive coaching was going to become the focus of my career. That was 20 plus years ago, when Leadership Excelleration was born. The founding of my business was a new adventure where my passion and my purpose intersected in such a way that I still love what I do every day.
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 facilitating all male executive teams, I took more of an interest in sports as a way to connect with them. I quickly made the mistake of calling a football official “a referee” from my days of playing soccer, and there was no recovering from that! They teased me incessantly and eventually got me a whistle as a joke.
The moral of that story is to not take yourself so seriously. Just relax and genuinely be yourself. Don’t try so hard to impress.
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?
There are so many, but the one who stands out is the managing partner of the law firm I mentioned previously. His name was Mike, and he was a quintessential strategic relationship builder. He would make a commitment to me in a meeting, and by the time I got back to my office after our conversation, he would have delivered on his promise either via email or voicemail. He really demonstrated to me the power of following through and how it fosters a relationship. He was a connector of people, influence and opportunity. He not only opened doors for me but modeled the importance of giving back and nurturing the next generation of talent. I think of him now as I seek to do the same. I credit a lot of how I lead and what I know about being an authentic, connected leader to him.
Sadly, he passed away from stomach cancer shortly after I started my firm, but to this day I consider him a legacy leader in my life. He was central to my personal and professional growth.
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?
Leadership Excelleration essentially has the same purpose today as it did the day I founded the business. At the heart of everything we do is to develop each and every leader to achieve their full potential. And while we have changed some ways of doing business, that primary purpose has remained the same.
I will also say that one’s purpose can expand over time. Mine certainly has. Sometimes life throws you a curveball and suddenly you’re placed on a path toward a different journey than you expected.
Tragically, I lost my 15-year-old son to suicide in 2015. Going through such a traumatic life event can really shift and expand your purpose not only personally, but professionally as well.
Now, in addition to developing leaders as CEO of my company, I am also passionate about and deeply committed to teen mental health and suicide prevention efforts as founder and board chair of the non-profit, Grant Us Hope. I guide a wonderful team to support the mental health and well-being of students, nurture them into healthy adults, and provide tools that will equip them to become great leaders too.
So while the initial purpose I intended for my work has remained consistent, the unexpected journey I’m now on has expanded my passion, my purpose and has deepened my compassion tremendously as well.
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?
Last year when the pandemic began, our revenue spiraled down by about 85% over a period of just two weeks. It wasn’t that clients cancelled contracts; the world just came to a halt. It required us to reinvent ourselves as a business, not once, but multiple times, over the last year and a half.
Part of that reinvention was to create new, virtual programs, as I guided my staff to adapt to facilitating leader development via Zoom, while at the same time determining new, creative ways to achieve our goals. We went from 70% of client interactions happening in person, to 90% of them going virtual. This required me to rethink the way we did business in order to best provide value and continue servicing our clients’ changing needs. It also took time for our clients to figure out how their business needs were changing due to the pandemic. So setting the tone for my team with calm, patient, steady leadership during that time of transition was key, both for my team and our clients.
Having to balance the dual focus of reinventing my own business while providing steady support for essential clients was very stressful. But supporting those clients when they needed us most was important and also very rewarding. Our clients commented often about how valuable our steady reassurance was for them during that time. Our clients are now more loyal than ever because they remember we were there for them when they needed help.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Purpose and passion should be what keeps a business centered, and I believe strongly that when leaders go through this kind of crisis, they need a firm like ours. More than ever, it was evident this past year.
I spent so much time with C-level leaders of major hospital systems, essential for-profit supply chain corporations, and school systems who were overwhelmed and needed support. These essential businesses needed our firm’s guidance more than ever. Though it was challenging, it was also so satisfying to be in the trenches with them, helping them to not be discouraged.
When they were tested, we were there to help them innovate, strategize and improvise. They needed someone to brainstorm solutions with them, and we provided that support and coached them through that difficult time. This kind of servant leadership is at the heart of what we do.
It was being of service to those who were providing essential services that kept us going. We were seeing the difference we were making by encouraging and supporting those on the frontlines, and that helped us stay motivated.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
As many leaders are likely experiencing right now, it’s tough to know what to focus on first when there is so much pressure and uncertainty. There are three focus areas I have found are helpful for leaders when things get tough: being centered, present, and strategic.
To stay centered as leaders, we must harness our purpose and passion. We cannot get so disheartened, overwhelmed, and distracted by the chaos that we lose sight of our centeredness, which is where calm and stability come from. And that’s what those you lead need from you most during challenging times.
To be present, we must have compassion for what others are going through, while being aware of our own stress. When we intentionally empathize with what our teams are going through, we authentically meet them where they are. By listening to their experiences, acknowledging that we understand their difficulties, and encouraging them that we are with them, we assure them they are not alone, and that together we are up for the challenge.
To be strategic, focusing on the vision and legacy of our career contributions is key. Some of the most important legacy work of my career has happened during this time of crisis. It’s important for us as leaders to provide hope and direction toward achieving long-term vision for those looking to us for hope and a brighter future.
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 inspire a team is to be transparent about what we know today and to maintain trust in the trenches as you pave the way forward with positivity. As leaders, we know optimism is currency, so spending vital time inspiring hope is essential during critical times.
Consider celebrating small wins not only weekly, but daily, by intentionally maintaining personal connections. Because much of our communication is virtual right now, consider leveraging the chat function during team Zoom meetings to publicly acknowledge and celebrate individuals who are doing a great job. These quick, intentional boosts of encouragement can do wonders for a team’s morale. Model daily strategies that inspire others.
When thinking about how to retain your top talent and keep their morale high, be clear about the current reality while instilling hope in every conversation by ending on a positive note. High potentials tend to stay encouraged when leaders help them focus on long-term outcomes not short-term setbacks. These groups need to see how they fit into the vision for the business. Teams can benefit from leaders laying out what we will achieve together in the next 30, 60, 90 days. Gradual, buildable plans bring structure and clarity for teams and provide encouragement as well.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In my experience, engendering trust is key. By being transparent up front, answering what you can, admitting what you don’t know, then finding out and following up builds trust. Focus on maintaining trust by effectively communicating why the change is happening while providing stability and shaping a path for the future. Help teams and customers understand that though this news is tough, it’s temporary, and there is a plan to get to the other side.
During tough times, how much our teams trust us is how we will evaluate how well we are leading. We have to be the best, calm, honest and connected versions of ourselves so when delivering difficult news to have the resonance necessary to weather the storm.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We as leaders have a responsibility to provide a path forward for our teams. Sometimes it’s a day at a time, sometimes a month at a time, sometimes a year at a time. Vision gives people hope. Planning ahead as much as possible, while providing a daily sense of stability amidst the chaos, are essential.
Consider stepping up the level of input you seek from your team when planning ahead. People tend to support what they help to create, so involving our teams in planning processes gives them a sense of control during turbulent times. Sometimes we as leaders tend to want to isolate and plan things on our own when under stress. But often doing the opposite can increase team buy in and support.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Authenticity. Authentic confidence from a leader is so calming for a team when the world feels like it’s falling apart. Being willing to put our team’s needs above our own, becoming service-oriented versus self-focused, and providing vision for the long-term while being operationally present and strategic are all part of authentic leadership.
We can’t be authentic leaders if we aren’t willing to roll up our sleeves too. We have to be in the trenches with our teams, while showing them a way forward and a way out. We can’t be authentic if we’re not operating from a posture of service to others. If ultimately everything is about us and what we want, our teams notice that, and our influence is lessened. At the core of authentic leadership is servant leadership.
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?
- Getting caught up and overwhelmed in the crisis of the day. I am noticing many businesses becoming more and more reactionary versus proactive. It is really important to remain mindful of your larger business vision every day. Step out of the immediate chaos and overwhelm and stick to your plan.
- Not being aware of why they are losing their best talent. To retain top talent, leaders must understand what their top performers need, figure out how to nurture their growth, and increase their job satisfaction. Talk to them, listen to their frustrations and come up with immediate solutions to make sure they don’t jump ship.
- A lack of understanding about how vital sharing a vision is right now. The only way to get out of the day-to-day rut to take a team forward is to offer a clear vision. These businesses should make inspiring their teams a top priority especially when it’s the toughest.
- Not adapting their business model fast enough to capture changes in the market or based on customer needs. Being too comfortable in current operations and not identifying new ways to do business can be detrimental. Difficult times often present a tremendous opportunity to expand revenue streams. Not noticing or capitalizing on those opportunities or taking necessary risks can do more harm than good. These businesses should take advantage of new market opportunities before others snatch up that market share.
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?
First, demonstrate authenticity with your customers. Your clients need to see that you’re present with them, that you’re planful, and that you have a vision, not only for your company, but for them and how this challenge will affect them. Understand what they’re overwhelmed by, why they are frustrated, then demonstrate how your business will support them through this.
I often see clients look internally for solutions rather than really listening to their stakeholders and customers.
Staying connected and asking for feedback from your customers will help you invent new ways to solve their problems, creating new revenue streams for your business as well.
This is a time to be more customer centric, not less. Focus not only on how you can add value today, but how you will be innovative, creative, and explore new ways to help them going forward to boost your bottom line long-term.
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.
We’ve talked about quite a few of them, but essential to this is staying centered by harnessing your purpose. Examine and define why you got into your profession or position, and ask yourself how can you regenerate your passion for that purpose? It’s disheartening to go through turbulence and change, so having a strategy for keeping your passion alive is key. For some, it is taking a break, getting some rest, and then coming back to work rejuvenated.
Being present and focused on serving others is also important. I personally have a mindful practice every morning when I ask myself, ‘how can I be of service today?’ Think of being in service to your team, your clients, and the leaders that report to you. Begin your workdays with the phrase, “how can I help you today?’
Staying strategic is essential as well. It requires us to get out of the fray to gain a long-term perspective. Connect with people in your business who have the creative, innovative, visionary capabilities to fuel your energy to think about visioning for the future in new ways. Identify those key people and keep the conversation going. Invite them to join you in asking, where will we be two years from now? How does this help us reinvent ourselves? How does this help us add more value to customers? What are some ways that we can lead this team forward with a new vision?
And again, this is a critical time for businesses to be customer centric. Customers will be committed and loyal to those who help solve their problems during turbulent times. Talk to them to really understand what they’re struggling with and determine solutions for them, which in turn will create new revenue streams.
I recently coached a new CEO who had to rapidly move into his position, and the transition plan in place was not going to work. I was able to guide him through the transition and still succeed, but the lesson here is to make sure you seek strategic help when you need it. Recognize your strengths and weaknesses. And don’t hesitate to lean on the expertise of others you trust to get the resources you need to achieve your vision.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is an easy one. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” I have shared this with hundreds of clients, and there has been no better time than the past 24 months to really test this.
I find myself repeating this quote often, and it’s usually at the very time when clients are struggling and questioning, ‘can I really do this?’ It’s in those instances I remind them to have confidence in their will, while assuring them that we are here to help them find their way.
How can our readers further follow your work?