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 Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D., an internationally sought-after speaker, author, and organizational consultant. Dr. Michelli is a Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Publishers Weekly, Nielson BookScan, and New York Times #1 bestselling author of 9 books about companies like Starbucks, Mercedes-Benz, Zappos, Airbnb, UCLA Health Systems, and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. His latest book is Stronger Through Adversity: World-Class Leaders Share Pandemic-Tested Lessons on Thriving During the Toughest Challenges. Among other honors, Dr. Michelli has been named the #2 thought leader in Customer Service by Global Gurus.
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?
I was fortunate to receive a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in clinical and systems psychology. Early in my career, I worked as an organizational change specialist for a large healthcare system and also consulted with Johnny Yokoyama, the former owner of the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, Washington. Johnny and I went on to co-author a book titled When Fish Fly about his dynamic and energized workplace. Since then, I’ve helped leaders create engaging cultures and loyalty-building customer experiences and have written books like The Airbnb Way, The Starbucks Experience, and The Zappos Experience.
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 started consulting primarily with small and mid-sized businesses when I received an opportunity to meet with an executive team at a Fortune 500 company. I spent several sleepless nights preparing for the meeting and fighting off thoughts like “my team and I can’t compete for business at that level.” Fast forward twenty years and most of my clients are global businesses, and I feel as comfortable in the C-suite of a company like GODIVA or Mercedes-Benz as I do with the leadership team of an emerging brand like the Singaporean pre-school provider MindChamps. I look back and laugh at my insecurities and my failure to understand that all business is personal. If we listen, offer solutions, and care about others, we can and do help people — irrespective of their business size.
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?
My father was employed as a heavy equipment operator, and my mother as a police dispatcher. As hard as they worked, they didn’t have the money to send me to college. Contrast my background to that of Katrina McCormick-Barnes. Katrina’s mother and father were US senators, and her father was part owner of the Chicago Tribune. Fortunately for me, there was an unlikely intersection of her path and mine. Katrina’s generosity of spirit availed me a full-tuition scholarship, housing expenses, and a stipend to the University of Denver. Once selected for her scholarship, Katrina asked for just one thing from me and seven other scholarship recipients — individuals from diverse racial backgrounds (African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, etc.). Katrina asked that we peaceably live together, learn from each other, and actively pursue our respective bachelor’s degrees. Katrina changed my life and the lives of so many others. She inspired social action and made the world a better place through her compassion and generosity.
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?
We proudly share our mission, vision, values, and “way we serve™” statement on our website’s landing page because we want to be held accountable to those tenets. Our mission is “to serve those committed to serving well.” Our vision is “to transform business experiences.” Our values are personalization, gratefulness, humility, optimism, and ‘otherness.’ Our “way we serve™” statement reads: “Our priority is you — our VIP (Valued, Inspired, and Powerful) client.”
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?
As soon as COVID-19 hit, we reached out to our clients to find out how they were navigating the crisis, what they needed, and how we could serve them. We offered them complimentary coping tools and served on our client’s pandemic taskforces.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
For the most part, the answer is no, because ordinarily, I am excited by the opportunity that each new day holds. In 2013, however, those losses pushed to the breaking point. In February, my wife of 24 years lost her six-year battle with breast cancer. Months later, my last remaining parent (my mother) died on Father’s Day. As an only child, my world flipped upside down. Fortunately, there wasn’t much time to think about giving up since my youngest child was struggling to complete high school. She quickly became my motivation to forge on.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A colleague of mine, Chip Conley, says CEO should stand for Chief Emotional Officer. In keeping with that perspective, I believe crisis leadership is about telling an honest lullaby and providing a steadying force that mobilizes an organization in the direction of opportunity. You have to project realistic optimism, communicate regularly, speak the truth, admit shortcomings, make difficult choices, and inspire your team to create solutions for one another and your customers.
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?
Morale reflects your team’s collective engagement level and is a function of a leader’s overall effectiveness. Based on my own experience and the leaders with whom I’ve worked, I think there are a few key elements to morale. A leader’s words and actions must be congruent. The team must see that you place their needs and the needs of the organization before your own. They need to know that you are available to them as you provide tools and remove roadblocks that get in the way of their success. In short, you have to connect your team to purpose, support their autonomy, and foster their sense of mastery.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
For me, it starts with acknowledging how difficult it will be to share the information. I have to lead myself through all the reasons I might dilute the message. For example, I might minimize a difficult message due to my discomfort or in an attempt to soften the blow. I also have to talk myself through the reality that if I shelter people from the truth, it leads to distrust and reflects distrust in them. I might start with something like, “I appreciate this will be hard to hear, but it’s important you know…” Whenever possible, I talk about what we are doing to mitigate the negative impact and offer hope for the future.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The concise answer is you have to narrow your planning window. In the throes of the pandemic, teams often had to come together each morning to plan for that day and then debrief at day’s end. As trends and predictability increase, you can extend your projections and planning processes.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Focus on a journey of value creation for all stakeholders so that your breakdowns will turn into breakthroughs.
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?
Here are a few common mistakes: objective overload, analysis paralysis, and firing before you aim. In a crisis, you have to narrow your objectives down to the vital few. Everyone in your organization has to be able to row together to achieve those mission-critical priorities. Layers of committees and cautious decision-making are often the norm, but they can be a death trap given the urgency of crises. By contrast, adversity often fuels impulsive reactions. During a crisis, effective leaders help their teams seek the best available information, rapidly consider options, and align their actions to meet priorities.
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?
For me, there is no mission without money — so you have to track your cash flow. That may mean tightening outflows based on the volatility of inflows. The next order of priority is to protect your people so they can help preserve and innovate revenue-generating solutions for your customers.
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.
I will share five key elements
- Put Your Mask on First — Crises are often marathon’s not sprints. Leaders can become so busy stewarding their teams and organizations that they fail to lead their own self-care. Taking care of yourself is not selfish. Think about airline safety briefings and that “put your oxygen mask on first before you help others” message. Rest, exercise, and take breaks so you can help others do the same and help your organization arrive safely.
- Leave the Island and Follow the Terrain — The poet John Donne suggested no person is an island. In times of crisis, as leaders we must leave our islands by reaching out to colleagues sharing best practices, seeking guidance, and partnering with others to achieve more than we could do alone. Also, when your strategic roadmap diverges from the terrain ahead, it’s time to follow the terrain. In other words, we have to put our plans and roadmaps aside and use our senses to get our bearings. That means watching, listening, and surveying our stakeholders. It also means making decisions guided by mission, vision, and values.
- Practice Empathy and Compassion — Technologies like videoconferencing, collaboration tools, e-commerce, and contactless payment options were lifelines for businesses during the pandemic. Given all that technology, great leaders have counterbalanced their organizations with humanity. Leaders have to actively listen to their people and customers to ensure understanding. More importantly, they take the time to understand the feelings behind people’s words (demonstrate empathy) and take action to address those feelings (practice compassion).
- Shift Front, Middle, Back — During crises, leaders shouldn’t always be out front. There are times when they must lead from the front by setting and communicating their vision and the crisis strategy. At other times, they need to join their teams to make it clear they aren’t asking others to do things that the leader is unwilling to do. In other circumstances, they need to fall back behind their teams to give them the freedom to ideate and innovate. By letting your team lead, you are well-positioned to encourage and nudge progress.
- Engineer Legacy — Crises reveal leadership character and frame a leader’s legacy. Your actions during a crisis will largely contribute to how people will remember you. It’s essential to define our desired lasting impact, so we consciously live into that aspiration. We will all leave a legacy. For some, that legacy will happen by design, and for others, it will happen by default. Impact is greatest for those who define their desired outcome and take action to make it a reality — especially in a crisis.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the simplicity and reciprocity of insight shared by the Dalai Lama. He said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
To learn about the book Stronger Through Adversity, you can go to www.strongerthroughadversity.com. To follow me, you can go to www.josephmichelli.com or connect on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/josephmichelli/, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/TheMichelliExperience, Twitter https://twitter.com/josephmichelli, or YouTube https://www.youtube.com/MichelliExperienceSM