As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Kennette Thigpen, or Dr. K as many have come to call her, a Corporate Mental Health Consultant and Speaker. She has spent the last 15+ years helping hundreds of companies of all sizes, in multiple industries, from around the globe develop, implement and integrate mental health strategies by developing tailored initiatives, delivering training, and speaking. In doing so, she is able to help companies experience a more resilient, productive, and engaged workforce.
Her innovative methodology when working with companies has awarded her the IChange Nations award for Women Who Add Value and as a Distinguished Leader. She is an International Psychologist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker who graduated from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and East Carolina University.
Dr. K lives in Raleigh, NC where she believes that is truly important to dance like nobody’s watching. When she is not working out or spending time with family, you can find her dancing around the house to the beat of her own drums.
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?
It was May 2003 when I attended the birthday celebration for my grandparents. When my uncle arrived, with his motorcycle, many of us began to go for a ride. When it was my turn, I was super excited as I could feel the wind in my face as we rode around town. However, at some point during the ride, something happened. The bike went one way, my uncle went one way, and I went another. After the accident, I was unable to walk, bathe myself, brush my teeth or even comb my hair. Some of the basic activities of daily living were gone in the blink of an eye. The unexpected had happened and my life had changed. On the road to recovery, I felt helpless and hopeless — I realized that I was depressed. Yes, a self-diagnosis of depression and even anxiety. I had heard of other people experiencing mental illness. I knew that one in five people reported having a mental illness issue, but this couldn’t be happening to me or could it? I was now one in five.
I was experiencing mental health problems that was upsetting, confusing and frightening. I questioned whether I was weak or if I was losing my mind. However, I had to remind myself that mental health problems were a common human experience. I knew that I had to do something including relying on my support system, utilizing my coping skills and having hope.
It was during these times that I realized that I wanted to bring awareness and promote mental health. We all have mental health; it just depends on where we are on the spectrum. The difference between one person and another is the protective factors versus risk factors and their ability to cope. I decided that it was time to have unashamed conversation about mental health.
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?
Oh my goodness, yes! I was speaking at a European company on a Wednesday. So, as I opened up my presentation to talk about mental health in the workplace, I greeted everyone and said, “Happy Hump Day!” As I looked out in the audience, I noticed the nudges, the smirks and chuckling. So, I said it again, “Happy Hump Day.” By this time the audience was bent over laughing and all of a sudden, an audience participant passed me a note that stated “Hump Day” is a sexual phrase and does not always mean the same as in the states. So, what did I do? I made a joke and joined in with the laughter. On this day, I learned two very important lessons — slang doesn’t always translate and that I can’t take myself too seriously. Have fun!
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?
Absolutely! Ms. Annie Morris. I once was at a job that was affecting my mental health. It was such a toxic work environment that I eventually made the decision to quit my job without any type of plan. Now, as a caveat, I wouldn’t encourage you to quit a job without a plan, but that is exactly what I did. Being that I quit, I knew that I needed to find a job and I started my job search the same day. I went home I got dressed in my black pants and red cardigan and I went to another company to drop off my resume. When I entered the building, the Executive Director, Ms. Annie Morris, greeted me and asked how she could help. I chatted with Ms. Morris for a bit and she informed me that she would share my resume with the Director, who was currently out for lunch. Before I left, Ms. Annie looked me in my almond shaped brown eyes and said, you have greatness in you and I can see you being in a leadership position within 6 months. She proceeded to explain to me that once I was in a leadership position, that I would always be in a leadership position, no matter what I decided to do in life. I was later contacted by the Director and was offered a position on the spot and in 6 months, I was in a leadership position and have been ever since in some compacity or another. Ms. Annie planted a seed in me early in my career and she continued to nurture it. She took me under her wings, provided guidance and advice. She believed in me. She trusted me. She allowed me to be myself. Ms. Annie has played an instrumental part of the success in my life. Everyone needs a Ms. Annie in their 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?
Mission: To normalize and prioritize mental health in the workplace.
Purpose: To promote and support employee mental health in the workplace.
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 lead with love. I lead with love during times of certainty and uncertainty. I am sure you’re thinking that just the statement alone goes against everything you have been taught. Unconventional — that’s up for debate. As you think about the workplace and leading teams, I am sure there are other words that come to mind such as policies, procedures, budget, branding, and boundaries; but not LOVE. Well, love based leadership is bridging the gap between solid business functions and being inspirations. It’s about striking a balance between professionalism and personalism. It’s about having a culture of love versus fear. Employees are real people, with real lives, and real problems. I was taught at a very young age to do everything in love. Well, why should work or leading be any different. It does say “in everything.” I can remember interviewing for a leadership role. One of the questions that the panel asked me was to describe my leadership style. Well, my response was the “L” word. I lead with love. Everyone looked at me a little confused. The interviewers paused and starred and I proceeded to explain — I show appreciation, I am vulnerable, I listen attentively, I create space for open communication, and I offer encouragement. Leading wit love makes it easier to lead teams during difficult and uncertain times as it is a way of being.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Growing up, my parents would always say “see it through” which is actually a name of a poem by Edgar Albert Guest that reads:
When you’re up against a trouble,
Meet it squarely, face to face;
Lift your chin and set your shoulders,
Plant your feet and take a brace.
When it’s vain to try to dodge it,
Do the best that you can do;
You may fail, but you may conquer,
See it through!
Black may be the clouds about you
And your future may seem grim,
But don’t let your nerve desert you;
Keep yourself in fighting trim.
If the worst is bound to happen,
Spite of all that you can do,
Running from it will not save you,
See it through!
Even hope may seem but futile,
When with troubles you’re beset,
But remember you are facing
Just what other men have met.
You may fail, but fall still fighting;
Don’t give up, whate’er you do;
Eyes front, head high to the finish.
See it through!
What this meant for me is that it was okay to change the goal but never the vision or the purpose. When you know your purpose, it offers a compelling why and gives you a reason to do what you are doing. Purpose adds value to each action as you reach toward your expected outcome. Purpose boosts morale. When you know your actions are working toward achieving a positive outcome, you feel better about what you’re doing. Once you know your purpose, you know where you ultimately want to be, and that compelling why drives your performance, every action becomes meaningful and the value of your performance increases. So, giving up has never been an option.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Being a leader is not an easy job to have, especially during challenging times. You wear many different hats, responding to different needs, and different people; all while ensuring that you take care of yourself. Although everyone has a different leadership style, one of the most critical roles is to inspire and motivate. Leaders that inspire and motivate their teams solicit input, provide feedback, keep team members informed, offer recognition and ensure a clear path of personal and professional development.
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? Why Is morale important.
Morale is important to teams as it increases employee wellbeing, employee engagement, resilience, productivity, and retention. There are several ways to boost moral:
Engage with individuals- People want to have a sense of belonging. Engaging with workers creates a sense of belonging during a time when some might feel isolated. Leaders can connect via an informal telephone call, video conference, or personalized message.
Create psychological safe environments — When leaders create a psychologically safe environment, it allows workers to be their full selves. In doing so, leaders can create an environment of mutual respect, safety, and trust.
Communicate — Communicating allows leaders to remove the unknown by providing clear, concise and consistent updates. The communication channels should allow for two-way interaction.
Permission — Give workers permission to be well especially during this time when they might feel an obligation to do more. Leaders can encourage workers to take a break, take time off, or to focus on their personal wellbeing.
Positivity — Fostering a culture of positivity leads to happy, engaged, and motivated workers. Leaders can create an environment of positivity by celebrating successes, recognizing workers for their contributions, and understanding what individuals are grateful for.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Show empathy and compassion — Empathy is the secret ingredient that holds relationships together. Before delivering difficult news, try to understand what others might be thinking and feeling. Then you can act compassionately towards others as well as yourself.
Provide context to the difficult news — People want to know “why” along with other relevant information that will provide context to the decision.
Give people time — People process information in various ways and some might need additional time to process and gather their thoughts and questions. Give people time to process and offer additional time to follow up to answer any questions.
Offer resources — When possible, be prepared to offer any valuable resources or alternative solutions that can assist with the change.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable? Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Create resilient teams. Resilience is the balance between adaptability and fortitude. Resilience is the number one principle that can help us navigate turbulent times as we are faced with the complexities and intricacies that have changed the way we work and live. As we experience change, uncertainty and stress, resilience will be the key to navigate in our personal and professional life. Keep these things in mind when creating resilient teams. First, in learning to build resilient teams, ensure they can manage their mindset. Thoughts become behaviors, behaviors become actions, and actions become the end result. Next, have individuals look for opportunities for self-discovery. Encourage individuals to self-reflect on what they have learned and how they have grown. Lastly, inspire hope for others. Have teams visualize what they want rather than worrying about what they fear. Resilience helps workers cope with change, create more engagement, increase performance, and protect their overall mental wellbeing. Resilient people are able to utilize their skills and strengths to cope and recover from problems and challenges.
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?
There are companies who are doing a phenomenal job during these difficult times. There are also some common mistakes that I have seen to include:
Not Communicating– When employees are not communicated with, they begin to create their own narrative based upon past experiences or things they have observed. This can lead to anxiety, confusion and rumors. Communicate as often as necessary and ensure that it is consistent, clear, and considerate.
Inflexibility — Inflexible companies experience an increase in employee stress, decrease in productivity and engagement. I have observed some companies that have been inflexible when it comes to when, where, and how people work. With inflexible work schedules and little emphasis on promoting a wellbeing, employees experience increased mental and physical exhaustion. Difficult times require companies to implement new, more flexible organizational measures in order to retain top performers and preserve their businesses.
Being Reactive vs. Proactive — One thing I know for sure, is that workplace change can occur often and quickly. Of course, due to the nature of change, we cannot always anticipate life events; however, companies should not continuously operate in reactive mood as it is stressful and unsustainable long-term. The key is having intentional business strategies to manage change- whether positive or negative.
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?
There are few things that I am a firm believer in, not only in business but in life.
I first understand that purpose drives performance and performance drives profits. If you try to focus on profits without understanding purpose you will decrease your profits. Performance without a purpose is not a long-term business strategy. When understanding how purpose drives performance, you must first understand that you must focus beyond just profits. It’s about why you are doing what you are doing and how are you making an impact.
Secondly, I Practice gratitude. I find at least three things that I am grateful for each day. Gratitude enhances your wellbeing and leads to an overall better life. People who feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness.
Additionally, I am intentional about having a positive mindset. Having a positive mindset brings to front of mind awareness what I want to focus on and what I desire. You can harness the power of the law of attraction to become someone who effortlessly attracts the things that you want in your life. The most important thing for attracting positive things into your life is having a positive mindset.
Lastly, I set goals and plan accordingly. As the old saying goes, people with goals succeed because they know where they’re going. I create strategies and actions that will move me closer to my goal.
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.
Communicate- Communicate with urgency, transparency, and empathy. Ensure that your communication is delivered in a timely manner that is transparent and builds trust. Also, ensure that when communicating, empathy conveys the message of hope and resilience.
Listen — Listen to what is being said and unsaid. Offer opportunities for people to share. Employees want to know that they are being heard.
Create psychologically safe work environments — Provide a safe place for employees to be their full selves. It creates an environment that allows for moderate risk-taking, creativity, trust, and conversations.
Offer Mental Health Initiatives- What I know for sure is that promoting mental health in the workplace has become the duty to care for companies.
Give permission — Give people permission to be well. Many people fail to make their mental health a priority due to fear of feeling weak, less committed or possibly less productivity. Encourage breaks, time off, and boundary setting.
Ok here is a bonus as I know you said five.
Offer hope and optimism- Hope that we will learn some vital lesson and optimism that we will change as a result. Hope ultimately creates community, connections, and common humanity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it. ~ Dr. Maya Angelou
This quote, by the phenomenally powerful Dr. May Angelou, resonates with me as in life, change is inevitable. Change will continue to happen in life whether I consider it to be positive change or negative change. Either way, as an individual, it is up to me how I react and respond. I can choose to let the change define me or I can define the change. I choose to define the change.
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