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 Wanda Wallace, Ph.D., Leadership and Inclusion Expert, Radio Host.
She is an accomplished keynote speaker and Managing Partner of Leadership Forum, LLC. She coaches and facilitates improving leadership by improving the quality of conversations — helping women and men advance, stick and thrive. Her most recent work has been on helping managers break out of being the expert and build truly inclusive cultures. This work is captured in her latest book You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise. Wanda hosts a weekly radio show and podcast: Out of the Comfort Zone. Dividing her time between New York City and London, Wanda speaks, coaches leaders, conducts seminars, and works with teams at all levels in the global corporate context. She works around the world and is versed in leadership, politics and strategic perspective. She helps women advance their careers as well as engages managers in the inclusion agenda. As a consultant and educator who is equally at ease in the distinct worlds of business and education, she has designed a number of highly rated programs for high potential leaders that have been enthusiastically received around the world. For clients, she has developed and introduced a number of executive education models that combine the best of practice, dialogue, thought and action.
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?
My back story, like for so many people, is complicated — it’s not a linear progression. My career has taken many turns, starting with an interest in education followed by a PhD in psychology and ultimately, teaching marketing and leadership in a business school. From there, I lead my first organization and fell in love with the challenges of leading a group to accomplish a goal. As often happens, a change in organizational dynamics forced me into making a career change. In the midst of that change, an opportunity presented itself in the form of a research question and once again my career took a turn. That’s how I got started and what has led me to what I’m doing today. The particulars vary person to person; however, in my experience, that’s a common scenario.
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?
Mistakes are never funny, especially when business is on the line. I was running a program with a French company for high level executives. I was at a university that was not accustomed too accommodating French taste. For example, at that time, we did not have an espresso machine. So, while I knew the importance of food and atmosphere, I completely missed the importance of comfortable chairs and a pleasant room. We were running a program in a remote location for the purposes of experiencing that culture and accommodations were a little sparse. However, I failed to appreciate just how little this client would tolerate discomfort. OK, it sounds simple in retrospect, but it cost me client. The moral — making sure clients are comfortable in every way is key to getting their attention. Or as one of my colleagues says — everyone needs their milk and cookies along with their nap.
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 many people who have helped me, some of whom helped me by showing me what not to do. Research says we often learn from our worst managers, not necessarily our best. This was certainly true in my case.
One of my favorite CEOs, John, is probably the person I am most grateful for. I have been able to see the challenges of leading a large organization through the “eyes of a CEO” from John. That has been invaluable. Let me give you an example. John was speaking to group of executives on the topic of change — a brilliant talk. John decided to stick around for an extra day and listen to the action learning group presentations. As usually happens in these events, there are some great ideas about what companies should do and a lot of complaints about what’s not happening. After listening to one particular group, John stood up and challenged the group. He said, “If I were your CEO, I would expect you to come to me, not for permission to test an idea, but with some real experience in having already tested it. So, what are you waiting for?” It was a powerful moment for the group and for me. I can also say it made the career of at least one person on that team.
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?
When we started, the vision was different than what it has become. I think that’s true for lots of entrepreneurial efforts, and we are no different. Yes, we are in the same business, but we have followed market opportunities and closed down efforts that the market wasn’t interested in buying from us. Today, I have much more clarity about our purpose. For me, that is really about changing the quality of the conversations that happen in organizations. If you think about the amount of time and energy we expend at work, then anything that improves the quality of work life can truly change the world. Conversations to me are the key ingredient in reducing stress, improving team effectiveness, enhancing performance, winning in the marketing, and deriving a sense of satisfaction from work, to name a few. Think about it: everything that happens in an organization ultimately involves a conversation. Improving the quality of all types of conversations even by 10% will make a difference. That’s our purpose and our mission.
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?
There has been no more uncertain time then that posed by 2020. In the current pandemic, our approach has been to 1) look at the reality we find ourselves in — the cold hard face of that reality; 2) revisit our principles regarding what we think makes us strong in the marketplace and what real value we bring to clients; and then 3) to re-imagine how else to deliver that value. I think those three steps have allowed us to create some new products and offerings. It has been a bit inspirational and it gives us next steps to focus on. Also communication has actually improved because we’ve been focused on staying more in touch under the circumstances.
For example, I think the time for re-inventing or re-imagining how we develop leaders had come prior to the pandemic. I was getting restless with the classic, standard approach. It had many good elements, but it was also missing the mark in places. Going 100% virtual has meant that I have been forced to re-think what’s critical and what isn’t — to re-imagine what best in class might look like. As a result, we have seen the “uncertainty” as an opportunity we wouldn’t have had under other circumstances. And we are now hopeful that we have a new way forward that’s better than pre-pandemic.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, at least I can’t recall wanting to give up. I have a huge drive to deliver my vision — in part to show the world I’m right, if I’m honest, and in part also to prove to myself that I am right. My mother would say I was born with a huge determination to do whatever I could imagine — at times to her frustration. She would also say that you can’t tell me no because I will find a way.
Kidding aside, what really sustains me is the work itself. I love the work I do. I love the interactions with my clients and the challenges of helping people see a different way forward. I know I make a difference in people’s lives. How can one not be sustained and motivated!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think leaders have multiple obligations to their teams and organizations. One is reminding people of the purpose — what the team is trying to achieve and why it matters. Second is to maintain focus on what actions really matter — in effect, clearing the wheat from the chafe so the team knows where to put their energy. Third is showing people that you genuinely care about them as human beings, not just as output engines.
These three become the cornerstone for all the things a leader wants to achieve with a team — engagement, commitment, trust, performance, creativity, growth, development, you name it. Without those three, leaders will be ineffective. These axioms take on heightened importance in challenging times.
Finally, leaders need to bring the team together as an inclusive team where each person can speak honestly about the issues/concerns/challenges. And is important that each feels genuinely heard by the leader and by teammates. Then, each person can represent his/her genuine experience and perspective and has an opportunity for growth.
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?
Start with the three noted previously: purpose, focus, and care. The best way to boost morale is to genuinely care about the person as a human being. It’s nearly impossible to be motivated by a leader that doesn’t care about you as a whole person. It’s hard to be inspired and it’s certainly hard to be motivated or deeply engaged. Think about the leaders that most inspired you and you will find you felt cared for by them.
There is nothing more inspiring or engaging than knowing what we are trying to achieve (“we” means our team, not the whole organization) and why it matters or to whom it matters. Another way to say this is to address who we as a team are serving and how we are serving them.
Then, figure out the primary driver for each member of the team. Some are motived by recognition, some by a sense of belonging and some by a sense of independence, for example. Do not assume that what motivates you motivates everyone else. Then, once you have verified those drivers, use the language of that driver to motivate. For example, if you are motivated by recognition, then I, as you leader, would need to acknowledge your contributions, maybe noting the successes in a public way, and show you how an opportunity will increase your ability to gain recognition.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I prefer a more direct message — just giving the information as factually as can be done in a succinct but not in a harsh way. If the individual believes you genuinely care about him or her, then the direct message can work well. Your job is not to make your team member or customer feel good about the bad news. Listen to their perspective. Be prepared to hear a lot of emotional reactions. Your job is not to change their emotional state but to just hear it. Don’t try to explain or justify an action. Then, tell the person what happens next — what you are going to do, what do you want them to do — give a small next step.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
There are some things you would do regardless of what happens in the future. Identify those and get on with them. Beyond those actions, create two polar opposite scenarios. For example, suppose we would be back in the office in full force in one month versus suppose we would not be back at the office in any format for another 12 to 18 months. Ask what you would do if the first was real. Then, ask what you would do if the second was real. Create two plans.
The truth is the future has always been unpredictable. We try to live as if we can control the outcome — we never have been able to.
When we look at individuals or teams who live through extraordinarily difficult, unpredictable events, we find a few common themes. 1) A sense of having something next to do. Therefore, break down a small next step that moves the needle hopefully forward. 2) A strong support network that is both deep and broad. This is the time to strengthen the team’s commitment to each other and to encourage people to reach out to a broader network. Ideas often come from the broader network. 3) Clarify the purpose — what are you trying to achieve and why does it matter. 4) Show each person you care about him or her. Build your own connections and trust with each team member. Show a bit of your own vulnerability.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Leave people feeling that they are cared for — that they are significant, competent, and liked as human beings.
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?
If you don’t get “leave people feeling that they are cared for” right, there is nothing else you can do.
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?
Focus on the small next steps — sometimes tiny ones — that move you forward to another position. Then, re-evaluate what to do next and do that next small step. One piece at a time. Reach out for ideas and support from others — do not be afraid to ask for help because this is when you need it most.
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.
Honestly, if you focus on everything I’ve said above, you will be golden. Do the opposite, and you will be creating a dreadful environment for people — in turbulent times and in business-as-usual times. Everything should revolve around purpose, focus, and care.
- Trying to over control. As a manager, you can over control because you are anxious about performance, about people’s level of focus, about hitting targets and so to manage your own anxiety and might over control what everybody else is doing.
- Focusing on the facts and ignoring the emotions. You can’t leave people feeling cared for if you are not tuned in how they are feeling. Emotions are far more central to our performance and our decision making than we often give credit.
- Trying to do too much. Under really difficult times, we underestimate how much people’s attention is diminished, their capacity is reduced, and they have to do just to get through their day. Thus, over critical.
- Overly criticizing. Especially in this kind of a climate, people can start to feel like “I can’t do anything right.” This is not the time to give too much constructive feedback.
- Do all of those things and repeat. Make sure you’re doing those and not doing the opposite of them.
As an example of not leaving people feeling cared for: I was working with a group and they were making a big presentation to senior leadership so there was a lot at stake. I was asked to come and watch the presentations. In one presentation, a woman was too short for the podium and it just didn’t work to leave her with a powerful presence. She came across as looking too little girlish. It was partly the mechanical structure of how they had the podium set up for her. She was clearly awkward with it. At any rate, I gave the group that feedback as I was asked to do. I completely missed that she was stressed out about the presentation. She left the room in tears. What I had said just totally demoralized her. There’s no recovery from that. I missed that moment. It wasn’t because I didn’t care. My intention was to improve the situation and presentation, making her better. But that not how she felt it at that moment in time. In addition, back to my main point of feeling cared for, I had not worked with her enough for her to know I genuinely cared about her and her impact.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The journey is the experience.” It’s a Zen quote and to me it captures my life philosophy. Everything we do is a journey — we don’t see the end; we can’t anticipate what’s next. If we embrace the journey with all of its challenges, everything all seems a bit easier.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can read my latest book You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise as well as listen to my weekly radio show and podcast: Out of the Comfort Zone. I am on Twitter @askWanda. More information can also be found at WandaWallace.com.