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 Dr. Tammy Lewis Wilborn.
Through her transformative messages, mental health and wellness expert, author, keynote speaker and New Orleans native, Dr. Tammy Lewis Wilborn teaches, inspires, and ignites audiences to live, love, and lead.
Dr. Wilborn is a board-certified licensed professional counselor-supervisor with 20+ years of clinical experience. She is the Owner and Chief Clinical Officer of Wilborn Clinical Services, LLC, President and CEO of Dr. Tammy Lewis Wilborn, LLC and founder of the annual Black Women’s Wellness Conference of New Orleans. She is also the author of the upcoming book Playing a New Game: How Black Women Can Be Well and Excel In the Workplace (GCP Balance| Hachette Book Group) due out October 2022.
As an in-demand speaker and wellness expert, Dr. Wilborn has shared the stage with mental health advocate and actress Taraji P. Henson and inspired thousands at events for the American Business Women’s Association, ESSENCE Festival, HuffPost, LinkedIn, Loyola University of New Orleans, New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, Tulane University, the University of New Orleans, the Women’s Leadership Summit and many others.
Dr. Wilborn is a past president of the Louisiana Association for Counselor Education and Supervision and currently serves as a board member for Fidelity Bank P.O.W.E.R. and the New Orleans chapter of the National Speaker’s Association. She holds a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a M.S. in Counseling and a B.A. in Psychology from Loyola University of New Orleans and is a 2021 graduate of Loyola University of New Orleans’ Women’s Leadership Academy. She lives in New Orleans with her husband and two sons.
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 love this question!
As a professional counselor who has spent 20+ years facilitating healing for others, I have had the honor of peeking behind the curtain of my clients’ lives to hear about the moments that caused fear, guilt, shame, and unworthiness. I have also journeyed with my clients as they work through life’s hurts and disappointments towards self-acceptance, self-love, truth, happiness, vulnerability, and a sense that despite it all, their life matters.
As a fellow traveler, my own journey includes many of the same drama and trauma as my clients. But, through much prayer, contemplation, and counseling I learned how to accept and honor my own truth, be vulnerable, love myself, put me first, and let go of people, places, and things that no longer serve me. I learned how to become the author of my own story and, through my counseling, speaking, and writing, have helped thousands do the same.
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’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. I cannot think of any that were necessarily funny. I think the biggest mistake I made was underestimating my own worth and value. I am a child of a baby boomer, so I was socialized to get an education, get a “good job” and stay on that job until I retire. It wasn’t until I started graduate school for my master’s in counseling that I first heard anything about working for myself. Like many, I’ve worked for companies where I was overworked, underpaid, and undervalued. But then I realized my own worth. After I graduated with my PhD, I started to reflect on some of those earlier messages about work and I realized that I had everything I needed to succeed on my own — faith, education, experience, support, skills — all the things. In 2019, after four years in academia and years working to make other people’s dreams happen, I decided that it was time to bet on me. So, I turned my mental health private practice into a full-time practice and I have been flying ever since. My takeaway: Trust God and bet on you.
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?
As a person of faith, first and foremost, I would say God. God has been a compass and a companion on my journey to where I am now. My faith keeps my grounded but also focused on my commitment to serve. I also have to say my mother. My mother likes to tell the story of how she knew from the very beginning that I was destined to do something important. As a young child, she said I got into trouble for being a “talker” in school. In fact, I remember that I never earned more than a C in conduct. My mother likes to tell the story of how one day my teacher called to share her concerns about my talking. The teacher acknowledged that I was a very smart student but my excessive talking was disruptive to my peers. My mother said that she told the teacher, “Leave her [Tammy] alone. The child has a lot to say.” I guess you can say the talking paid off in the long run because I have spent over 20 years using my words to inform, inspire, and ignite people to live, love, and lead.
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?
After I graduated in 2015 with my PhD from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I decided it was time to come home and serve my community in New Orleans. One way I decided to do that was through opening a mental health private practice. In 2016, I founded my private practice, Wilborn Clinical Services, LLC with a mission to build a healthy community, one client at a time. As such, my practice provides mental health counseling and outreach to increase awareness and advocacy about mental health and wellness specifically in the BIPOC community, which is the majority of the population in New Orleans. Relatedly, my practice also practices and promotes the need for culturally-responsive and trauma-informed mental health services. I can honestly say that I am proud of the work that Wilborn Clinical Services, LLC has done to be a part of the wellness building in New Orleans and beyond.
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 think the most recent experience was leading during the pandemic. Let’s just be clear: 2020 was tough. And like many business owners and leaders last year, I had to make tough decisions. When it became clear that business as usual would not continue, the first thing I had to do was think about how the practice would look in this “new now.” So in a matter of 2 to 3 days I had to convert an entire practice to a tele-mental health practice. As an old school therapist, I was of the opinion that in-person was the best and preferred modality of providing therapy. Despite this belief, the practice had an ethical obligation to do what was in the best interest of the clients and that was to ensure continuity of mental health services. And so online we went. But as a practice owner, I needed support. So, I sought support and help from other practice owners who were also navigating the same challenges and uncertainty as I was. As a leader, I recognized that although the buck stopped with me, I was not alone. I had colleagues and peers who also were in the same boat and in need of support to navigate this crisis we were all in.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have absolutely have considered giving up! Being a leader is not easy and for the faint of heart. There have been times when I only had enough energy to lead myself. As a leader, that is a hard thing to recognize — that you may not be in the best shape to lead others. But I think it takes a leader to be able to acknowledge and accept when they need to step back or step down to let someone else step in. What has allowed me to persist during challenges is first being honest with myself about my strengths but also my limitations. But also recognizing when I need help. That help has come in the form of seeking support and assistance from others but also that help has been getting my own therapy. I am a therapist who gets therapy! Therapy helps me to have mental clarity and emotional stability to show up and serve. And because service is at the core of what I do, my driving force if you will, it is imperative that I put my own oxygen mask on first because trying to do the same for others.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Transparency. When leaders are transparent about their vision, goals, and expectations and how those align with the overall vision and mission of the company, it builds trust, respect, and commitment. This is particularly true during times of challenge or crisis. People need to understand the why of things. When people understand and buy-in to the why, they are more likely to commit to doing their part to help the company achieve it. A leader must model and practice transparency which ultimately promotes a culture of transparency within an organization.
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?
Employees need to feel like their interests and well-being matters. So it is really important for leaders to show that they value the interests and well-being of their employees. Giving employees opportunities to voice their concerns and their needs is one way to do this which can be huge morale boosters. Employees want to feel like they are a part of not just pawns in an organization. So inviting employee feedback on programs, policies, and practices is a great way to build morale. I think it is also important for leaders to know that the current zeitgeist is that more and more folks are realizing that burnout is not a badge of honor. That awareness is not going away anytime soon. Mental health and wellbeing is on everybody’s mind so, leaders need to understand the importance of promoting a culture of wellness as a matter of good business.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Again, I think that leaders need to be transparent about the challenges that an organization may be experiencing but also the solutions that will be put in place to address those challenges.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders have to be flexible. You can have all the plans in the world but if you don’t know how to be flexible especially during times of unpredictability, then you and/or your organization will not last. I think some leaders learned that message for the first time during the pandemic and for others confirmed what they already knew.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay focused and be flexible.
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?
The first mistake businesses make during difficult times is being underprepared. As a business owner, I know that it is not possible to be prepared for everything but if plan A doesn’t work you should always have a plan B. In fact, plan B is a part of plan A.
The second mistake that businesses make is being inflexible. Again, the pandemic showed us that those businesses that survived were those that pivoted from business as usual to business in this new now. In fact, many businesses including mine recognized through the pandemic that they could do things differently or better and have adopted these practices long-term.
Which brings me to my next point: The third mistake that businesses make is not keeping up with the times. Last year, in addition to the pandemic we also saw the eruption of a racial and social justice movement. As such, there were increasing demands from customers and the community-at-large to know the position of businesses on issues such as Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and trans rights to name a few. Those businesses that were silent on these issues were called out for being complicit in their silence as demands grew for companies to demonstrate corporate social responsibility. We are now in a time where greater demands are being placed on companies and organizations to value the issues that their customers value. Organizations who don’t value what their customers values, in effect, don’t value their customer’s money.
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 teacher, I am always a student. So for me that means staying abreast of industry trends. For example, in addition to being a private practice owner, I am also a professional keynote speaker. With the pandemic, many of the in-person events were cancelled. There were professional speakers who, because of their preference for live events, decided that they would wait out the pandemic. Those speakers didn’t work. Those speakers like myself who recognized that virtual events were not only a solution to speaking during the pandemic but also the future of the speaking business invested in the tools and resources to deliver quality virtual speaking experiences for their clients.
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.
- Be open: Effective leaders seek and embrace new and/or different perspectives and ideas and are open to feedback on what works and what needs to change.
- Be vulnerable; Effective leaders demonstrate vulnerability by taking responsibility and owning their mistakes.
- Be a good communicator: Effective leaders listen without being defensive, speak without being offensive, and seek clarity and understanding often.
- Be transparent: Effective leaders clearly express their expectations and goals and communicate and set healthy boundaries to ensure those expectations and goals are met.
- Be collaborative: Effective leaders prioritize relationships as key to the success of the organization.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Tammy, not everybody is going to like you. They are not going to like how you look. They are not going to like how you walk…how you talk…how you think. But who cares? Be you anyway.” My mother told me this when I was 33-years-old and it has been a message that I reflect on often as I do this work. I am teacher who writes and speaks the words of truth that people need to hear. And the truth is, sometimes the truth hurts. People won’t like me or what I have to say. But the work — my work — must continue.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for this opportunity. They can learn more about my work at www.drtammylewiswilborn.com or find me on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook under Dr. Tammy Lewis Wilborn.