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 Ed Krow.
Ed works with executives and business owners who are struggling with people problems, such as adapting to changing business conditions and customer, investor, or community expectations.
He turns irrelevant and ineffective HR functions into strategic contributors by aligning HR with the business objectives. As a result, Human Resources actually drives business results. To date, Ed has completed over 700 projects for more than 250 clients across nearly all industries.
Ed is an advocate for using Organizational Development strategies to drive business results. He speaks to senior leaders across the United States and Canada about how to turn their people into strategic contributors. He is also the author of “Strategic HR: Driving Bottom Line Results Through Your People”.
Ed’s clients and audiences include organizations as diverse as Johnson & Johnson, Goodwill Industries, Penn State University, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and UTZ Snack Foods.
When he’s not working with clients, Ed can be found teaching at Millersville University. In his free time, Ed enjoys family time, travel, golf, the outdoors and Notre Dame and Baltimore Ravens football.
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 started my career in operations with UPS and after a few years moved into the human resources Department. I spent 12 years with that organization Prior to breaking out on my own and starting my consulting practice. I’ve now been consulting for 20 years and love working with business executives to improve their company’s bottom line results.
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 think one of the biggest things that people forget when starting and building their business is that it really does take a team. That means even solopreneurs need to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are at certain aspects of the business. For instance, having a good web designer, accountant, or legal advisor is absolutely critical.
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?
The last several years I worked with a business mentor whose focus is on marketing. You would think after all these years in business that I’d almost be a natural at sales and marketing, but I find that it takes hard work. My mentor was able to help me see and bring out the magic that I have to offer my clients and turn that into a compelling story. She also helped me to see that I had a book in me and then helped me write it and get it published earlier in 2020.
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?
Originally my purpose was to help companies with their everyday HR needs. What I realized along the way though is that the basics of HR can only set a company up to be successful, but they don’t truly drive results and the ultimate success we’re looking for. Over the last several years I’ve refocused on driving profitable results for my clients through how we strategically plan out our human resources function, how we invest in and reward our people is one of the most crucial components to any business success. I find I derive great professional joy out of helping my clients break through the barriers that are keeping them from being successful. It’s ultimately my mission to help businesses that may not see how critical it is that we invest in our people structure if we can ever hope to achieve business results.
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?
Well there’s no time like the present for talking about that! Leading a team for me means leading my clients. And what I find with business executives is that they’re really looking for a sounding board, someone who can relate to their challenges and help them to see the light that’s at the end of the tunnel. And that’s ultimately what our teams expect us to do. Paint the picture of our vision. Help them to see the road map to get to the vision and then give them all the tools they need to be successful. That doesn’t really change in the face of tumultuous times. What we have to focus on during the hard times is increasing the level of reward that our people either receive or the joy that they get out of fulfilling their job and moving the company forward. Could mean an extra bonus for people working extra hard to get through a tough time, or it could be something simple as offering cold water and popsicles for working outside on a really hot day. Or anything in between. What we do know is this as the challenges increase, we as leaders have to step up to the plate and give our people what they need to get over the hump.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive? I can honestly say the answer to this question is no.
Not once in the last 20 years! Not during the initial years when things were lean and not during this current year of 2020 when things are crazy have I ever thought about closing up shop. I often joke with my wife that if my business ever went under, we’d buy a little tiki bar somewhere at the beach and I would just make margaritas all day long! I love what I do too much to simply close my doors or to allow some adversity to knock me back. And I guess that’s my advice: that if someone is discouraged to the point of wanting to give up then they really need to search their soul to determine if what they’re doing is really joyful for them. If not, then by all means close up shop and move on to something that’s in your joy and genius zone. When you can get in that zone you can’t help but be successful.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the most critical role for leaders is to continue to be open and honest with your people. It doesn’t help anyone to sugarcoat the situation, our people are smarter than that. We need to be as honest as we can, be open with our expectations, copious with our praise, and positive that our team can make a difference. That’s what our people need most during challenging times: a leader who they see as being willing to roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty with them to make good things happen.
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?
I believe it’s as simple as asking our people what they need. What is it that’s going to make them want to come to work every day and give their best to us that day? What is going to fire them up? There is a great book written on the subject by Jack Mitchell called “Hug your people.” It’s an absolute must-read case study on the importance of employee motivation and what happens when we get it right. But it all starts with simply asking them what will motivate them. Let’s not assume it’s going to be pay bonuses, let’s not assume it’s going to be a T shirt with the company logo on it or a day at the local amusement park. I believe in spending our reward money wisely so let’s ask our people what means the most to them.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Again, I think this goes back to openness, honesty, and trust. Any relationship, whether business or personal, is usually based on those three things. If we are open and honest in our communications and we’ve built up trust with our associates then we can lay all the facts on the line with them and let our people know what we need from them to get through this. A great case study read on this is called “The Great Game of Business” written by Jack Stack. It deals with this exact scenario of a business that’s ready to go under and how the management team, through open and honest communication, and earning the trust of their people, were able to turn this company around and turn it back into a thriving entity in the small town in which it was located.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I believe this comes down to being flexible and able to pivot. For instance, I do quite a lot of public speaking, I get asked to speak at conferences throughout North America and enjoy doing so. In fact, after referrals it’s the number one way that I meet new people and get new business. The pandemic has turned the public speaking world on its head. Most conferences are cancelled and those that are being held are scaled back virtual versions of themselves. So very quickly I had to decide how I was going to replace not only the revenue stream of speaking but probably more importantly the lead stream that generates from my speaking. And that meant pivoting to the virtual world quickly. Sure, I had done webinars in the past but doing a webinar and speaking as a keynote instructor or a breakout session for a conference is significantly different. And it’s not just about the use of technology but about the style and the way that we engage people through a technology platform.
So, for me making plans during an unpredictable world means that those plans are probably written in pencil instead of pen and we have to be willing to pivot and move on to something different or morph one of our ideas. In fact I’m not so sure that given the speed of the change of Business Today that we shouldn’t always have our plans written in pencil so that we can more quickly change them to adapt to our customers and our peoples changing expectations.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay focused. The Sky is not falling, this too shall pass. While we do have to be flexible and be willing to pivot it does not mean that we give up our core values or the mission of our organization. Stay focused on doing what’s best for our customers and our people and our business will thrive in any type of economic environment.
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?
A few of the things that I see businesses do that I think are just the worst in no particular order are 1 cutting training dollars. When times are tough and we’re asking our people to do more with less never then is it so important that they be fully trained and working at their best. So, I am always amazed that a company’s first step during lean times is to cut the training budget. It makes zero sense if we’re doing training that truly has a return on the investment, we want to make sure that we continue to make that investment in our people. The second thing is cutting our marketing budget. We probably will have to change our marketing message during the lean times but cutting marketing at a time when you need to be communicating even more with your customers is a huge mistake, in fact I’ve actually upped my marketing dollars during the pandemic even though revenues are down. I believe so strongly in what I do for my clients that I’m willing to make that investment now to keep my name not only in front of my clients but in front of my prospects so that as the economy turns and the revenues come back I’m going to be the first person they think of when they’re ready to take on internal projects. And the final thing that always disturbs me is cutting back on the perks for our employees. Again, I’m a believer that whatever investment we make into our people has to have a return. So, whether that’s pizza parties or company picnics or Christmas bonuses there has to be a reason that we’re doing it, an expectation that it is getting us something in return. And if it is getting us the things in return that we want then cutting these out when we’re asking more from our people is a huge morale Buster and one that our people will remember when the economy turns around and jobs become plentiful . So moral of this question is take care of your customers and take care of your people.
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?
I mentioned in the previous question That I have upped my marketing budget during the pandemic. Specifically, I’ve been marketing to meeting planners. Now one would think that that’s a silly thing to do given that so many conferences are being cancelled. But my view is that now is the best possible time to be building relationships with meeting planners. Because they’re not in the heat of battle of planning and managing conferences they have a little bit of time on their hands. And I’ve been finding a willingness of these folks to have discussions with me about how I can help them make their next event a memorable one. So I think it’s absolutely critical that we focus on the areas of our business that help us to drive profits, that we focus on the customer base, that we focus on the prospect base that we have and continue to market and have those business discussions. This has also been a great time for renewing old referral partner relationships, having an opportunity to sit down with folks and get re acquainted. I believe there’s always something we can be doing to forward the cause of our business and communicate the solutions that we offer to our 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.
Number one Vision. Especially during tumultuous times our people need to know that we are still committed to our company’s vision. In fact, I’d argue it’s even more important during these tough times to reassure our folks that the vision of our organization hasn’t changed. I recently worked with a manufacturer who had been bought out by private equity and then the pandemic hit. So, we had a brand-new management team that had been placed by the private equity firm and now craziness ensues due to the pandemic. One of the first things the CEO did was assured the people that not only did the PE firm believe in the vision Of this organization but that they were committed to it and seeing this organization through the turbulent times that we’re experiencing. This organization has continued to secure key contracts and key work and they have maintained all key staff members through this.
Two, a commitment to your people. I mentioned earlier that people are the secret sauce in any business. So many organizations say that people are their most important asset but don’t really live that. I think about the client who realized that spending money on their company picnic was $40,000 wasted because only about 30% of the people went. During these tough times when revenue is down, they really thought about cutting it out altogether. Instead they took that money and provided their people with an extra pay bonus for the hard work during the pandemic months. They took care of their people. The third thing leaders can do is to take care of the work environment. And by that I mean “Can we brighten it up get some fresh paint on things give things a thorough cleaning?” All the things that tell people we are taking care of our physical surroundings too, that tells the employees that we are not going to close the doors anytime soon. So, maintaining a clean bright and welcoming work environment is huge for maintaining a workforce’s view that they have an enjoyable place to go to work. The fourth thing is being flexible with our goals.
Obviously, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into nearly everyone’s business plan. However, the smart company doesn’t continue to strive against a goal that may be unattainable due to events that are outside of our control. I don’t often encourage organizations to change their goals mid-year, but if ever there was a year to do so 2020 is it! I recently encouraged a banking client to alter the numbers of loan quotas that they had their branch managers on. With record unemployment it was highly unlikely that people would be out purchasing cars and getting loans for those cars, buying homes, and getting mortgages for those homes, or taking out home equity lines. And this bank decided to alter down the goals for their branch managers to something that was still a stretch for this year and not easily attainable but was still realistic.
Now. for what I think is the most important thing that we as leaders need to do and that’s: to continue to work on leadership ourselves. It’s easy to think that we’re doing well when times are good, and profits are rolling in because during those times even bad leaders can look good. It is so critical that business executives have a coach or mentor, someone they can rely upon to bounce ideas off and to get unbiased feedback from. If you think about it, it only makes sense. The best athletes in the world all have trainers and coaches. So, wouldn’t it make sense if we wanted to be one of the best leaders around that we too had a coach? So, what I’m saying is we can’t forget to invest in ourselves during these crazy times. And that includes taking care of ourselves physically and mentally. Getting some time away from the office getting our mind off things is critical to staying fresh and being there for our people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I think one of my favorite quotes is from John Maxwell. He says, “leadership is influence nothing more nothing less.” It’s so simple and yet so profound. So many great books have been written on leadership many of them by Mr. Maxwell and yet if you think about it doesn’t it all come down to our ability to influence people? As I’ve looked back on my career especially my time owning my consulting practice, influence has been critical in convincing clients that I can solve their problems and convincing clients to implement the ideas I’m suggesting. Influence has been critical in building relationships with referral partners and in my networking. And influence has been especially critical as I’ve built the speaking side of my business in working with meeting planners and helping them to see how I can solve the problems that their attendees are coming to the conference to hear about. I often reflect on that quote and in fact I have John Maxwell’s book “Becoming a Person of Influence” sitting on my desk. It is dog eared and highlighted!
How can our readers further follow your work?
I maintain a monthly blog at edkrow.com. I can also be found on all the typical social media outlets: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.