Ed Manfre of Heidrick & Struggles

    We Spoke to Ed Manfre of Heidrick & Struggles on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    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 Manfre, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Los Angeles office and a member of Heidrick Consulting. He specializes in helping CEOs and C-suite clients accelerate change and performance through a full suite of leadership and culture solutions.

    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’ve had the good fortune to work with senior executives on leadership and culture for the past 15 years. But I couldn’t have predicted I’d be here based on where I started.

    I’ve always had a deep curiosity for how people learn and develop their potential. Growing up I was active in a broad range of activities, from sports, to speech and debate, to theatre and music. I didn’t have to be encouraged to get involved — it just came naturally to me, and I’m grateful to have parents who supported me.

    Underneath all that was an emerging interest in how the world works, how big changes happen in society, and how history unfolds. My grandfathers were both decorated veterans in WWII, and my father served in the military as both an enlisted and civilian leader, so American history and our country’s role in the world is a big interest to our family.

    I decided early on that I wanted to be involved in work that intersects with making good change in the world and positively impacting people’s lives, though I wouldn’t have used those words at the time. Initially, I gravitated toward the broad, world-changing potential of mass media — news, TV and film.

    Crash-landing into the leadership and culture space came from an unexpected experience. I had won a National Telly Award for work I had written and produced, and landed a job with a cutting-edge media production business in Hollywood. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, one day they announced that they had sold their business to a large corporation. From there, I got my first dose of what happens “when cultures collide.”

    After that, I became determined to better understand the human element in business performance and dedicated myself to exploring how it can be harnessed for the good of employees, business, and society. I was convinced the world could be better if companies could be better. That experience set me on a learning path through multiple global consulting firms to where I’ve landed today at Heidrick & Struggles as a leadership and culture advisor to business leaders. Through it all, no day is the same, and I never stop learning.

    Though the form of my work is different than I originally expected, the core purpose of it remains — helping to bring about positive change and impacting people’s lives for the better.

    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?

    When I was just breaking in, I did a lot of job interviews. One time, during an answer to “tell me about yourself”, I decided it was wise to say that I was “actually meant for more of a leadership role” when I was interviewing for an entry-level production position.

    Needless to say, that interview did not end well, and the interviewer encouraged me to not be one of those people who strives for leadership without the work that goes with it.

    Since then, I have tried to focus on my work quality and my ability to build others up, and I have become more aware when my ego creeps in with respect to title or experience or capability. I remain feisty, but I try to stay humble and hungry. And I always appreciate these qualities in others that I interview and work with.

    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?

    I am a huge fan of the idea of establishing a “personal board of directors” who help as your advisors, serve as a sounding board for critical decisions, and push you to think bigger throughout your career and life. It doesn’t have to be formal, per se, but it’s a group of people who you gravitate toward for advice as you navigate life. The composition of that board changes over time, as you pursue different journeys and develop new capacities and interests.

    In my case, one friend who has a permanent slot is a former senior partner I worked with in a previous role. He took me under his wing from one of our first meetings and has been an instrumental voice of guidance through nearly every major life experience for the past 14 years. The element that is most important in an effective mentoring relationship is mutual trust, and I have a genuine love for him and his family, as he does for me and mine. I would say he has become the closest thing to a “second father figure” in my 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?

    As I look back on the beginnings of Heidrick & Struggles, more than 65 years ago, as an organization, I would guess that the purpose was to bring the best leaders to the greatest companies in the world. More recently, our firm has expanded from executive search to also involve leadership and culture consulting, and our purpose today is: “We Help Our Clients Change the World, One Leadership Team at a Time.”

    At this point in my life, when I make significant career decisions, I am guided by my personal purpose and vision and its alignment with the stated purpose of the project or company, and the potential of those two to work together.

    I gravitate toward a purpose that is ultimately about impacting the world for good through leadership, which aligns with Heidrick & Struggles’ purpose. That gets me up in the morning, and truly inspires me.

    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?

    Through research with various firms and from personal experiences working with leaders and clients, there are three critical dimensions of leadership I prioritize relentlessly, not just during times of crisis, but through day to day operations.

    The first is purpose and direction, which help me assess whether I am helping others, and myself, see the bigger picture, focus on the long term, and the guiding reason behind the work. It helps to ensure a sense of direction in myself and others, and to put short term challenges into a broader context that appropriately sizes their impact. What seems like a big ditch, might actually be a divot. If it is a ditch, isn’t it worth trying to dig out because of how important our work is? If not, you might want to rethink the work you’re doing.

    The second is adopting a growth mindset, focusing on the learning we acquire and the leader we become through both positive and challenging experiences, so we are not just blindly seeking to cross finish line after finish line.

    I feel it’s the job of the leader to keep their people’s growth in sight as often as possible and to help link how various activities help others get what they need. This is especially important during challenging times because focusing on learning helps foster a sense of optimism through false starts and perceived failures. Nelson Mandela said it best: “I never lose. I either win or learn.”

    Finally, there is vitality, which is about building a sense of community and connection between people. It’s been widely documented by firms like Gallup that people don’t leave organizations; they tend to leave managers or teams who don’t foster a sense of belonging and engagement to the work they do. Without a sense of mutual support and community, work life becomes an adrenaline-fueled race to seek out the next activity, and at the same time, this kind of social safety net can provide stability during the toughest of times.

    Taken together, these three principles help us stay focused on the big picture, which is so important during difficult times.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    Everyone goes through challenges and experiences a moment of questioning — is this really worth it, why do this? There are all kinds of reasons for these fleeting thoughts. The question is, do you allow them to cripple you, or do you give yourself the grace to pull the reins back and get yourself into a better state of mind? From there, you can decide what the truth of the situation is and respond accordingly.

    I subscribe to the John F. Kennedy quote that roughly states: “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger people.”

    Leaders are in the business of doing hard things. Most things leaders decide to change are things that have either not been done before, or have been a certain way for a long time. That means, it won’t be an easy journey, and who we become along the way is part of the reward.

    As I look back on my life, I have found that the most difficult times have turned out to be some of the best, because they opened me up to becoming better than I was. Significant growth has always occurred during these periods.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    The most critical role of a leader is to “be the message and the messenger.”

    First, be the message. Leaders must role model the energy and behaviors they are expecting of others. There is a range of things in this category that leaders might want to highlight, but typically in a challenge it comes down to a steadiness of presence, a mix of realism and optimism in tone, and a reminder of the longer-term path the team is on.

    Second, be the messenger. Leaders have the unique responsibility of communicating and continuously framing the journey so they can enroll others in moving forward.

    A common challenge I see is that leaders may communicate effectively early on in a challenge but then unintentionally become less visible due to other urgent operational needs. It is critical for leaders to continue using their powerful megaphone to reinforce both business plans and general updates. Energy wanes in the absence of clear expectations and prolonged uncertainty.

    In the toughest of times, leaders can become the ballast that steadies the ship.

    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?

    They can first start with focusing on purpose. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, purpose is an underutilized lever in boosting morale and sustaining energy during the toughest of situations. I advise leaders to keep the story in mind of the NASA janitor from the 1960s. When approached and asked what his job was at the NASA compound, the janitor responded “I’m helping us put a man on the moon.” Leaders can help others connect those dots and honor the work they do on a daily basis, no matter the circumstances.

    From there, focus on empowerment and inclusion. Leaders can empower their workforce to create change. An example is launching change-oriented, cross-functional teams who focus on critical projects that are specifically tied to the company’s growth or post-pandemic business strategy. These teams should have the ear of leaders and be given latitude to pilot new approaches to various business and customer processes. One of our clients recently had a big breakthrough with a patented piece of technology because they created cross-collaborative efforts to take advantage of people’s openness to trying new things with different teams.

    Leaders should strive for simplicity. As employees work to preserve their own energy during challenging times, leaders can be particularly good at spotting red tape. Leaders should harness this by deploying communications vehicles to encourage streamlining of processes, especially those related to key customer experiences.

    Finally, they should work to identify capability gaps and aspirations. For example, in the current pandemic, people’s individual growth and development plans were paused for much of 2020. Now is a time to signal a focus on professional growth. Even if an approach is scaled down considerably, encouraging employees to work with their managers on current skill gaps and aspirations can inject optimism into their work.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    I think the best communicators focus on three areas: sharpening and simplifying the logic of major decisions, pressure testing difficult news from all angles, and showing dignity and respect for those impacted by news.

    Leaders often ignore the first area and get caught up trying to communicate an overly complex story. I read recently that one leader uses what he calls “the parent test.” If an idea his team wants to communicate seems too complex, he’ll say “go call your Mom or Dad and see if they understand what you mean.” If they don’t, he encourages re-work until they do. That’s smart.

    People are going to have a lot of questions, which is why pressure testing is so important. You should have thought through most of them before you go live with your communication. There are always surprises, and the preparation will serve you well to handle them.

    Finally, if the news is going to impact employees, it is in everyone’s best interest, short and long term, for you to go above and beyond to show dignity and respect for those impacted. This is particularly true in a down-sizing situation. Airbnb is a great recent example of a company that managed a necessary workforce reduction with incredible respect for its departing employees by allowing them to keep their technology, setting up alumni networks and pre-writing letters of recommendation. I have witnessed firsthand through my network the positive impact of their process on employees. All of these steps were critical to the morale for the remaining employees and left those whose roles were eliminated with a more positive view of Airbnb that will endure.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    Something that brings me peace of mind is recognizing that the future will always be unpredictable.

    Given that, the number one tool in the arsenal is to learn “to be comfortable being uncomfortable.” This doesn’t mean to just expect that things will change at some point, but to anticipate it, plan for it and embrace it. Be prepared to bob and weave as situations on the ground change. One of our client leaders recently said it best: “This is the first time that our new strategy is a series of educated guesses that we will continuously test, as opposed to a fixed set of choices and approaches that we will stick to for this year.”

    We’ve encouraged many leaders to avoid trying to predict the future from past trend lines, and to instead look at scenario planning. By zeroing in on how different uncertainties will combine to form a diverse set of futures, leaders can develop macro scenarios for the future of their industry.

    For example, in the current Covid-19 crisis we developed future scenarios around two high-impact uncertainties: economic rebound and social trust. We researched many data-driven variables and developed additional detail for each scenario in terms of key themes, early signals and implications for different industries and regions of the world. This type of planning can allow leaders to thoughtfully consider what may be next and leverage data in a helpful way for a clearer approach.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    My one principle is to always be mindful of your Leadership Shadow. The shadow phenomenon exists for anyone who is the leader of a group, including parents in families. People tend to adopt the attitudes of those who influence them and as a leader, your every move has the impact of creating focus and teaching people what’s important.

    Some leaders initially find this principle terrifying, but most grow to embrace it once they realize the implications. Through their positive role-modeling, they can truly lead the way and “walk the talk” as opposed to falling in the “do as I say, not as I do” camp. Likewise, a leader’s willingness to try new things, admit when they fail, and share their learning, can empower more people to be willing to take chances and be vulnerable. As mentioned previously this shadow is the “message” that the leader conveys.

    Ultimately, leaders magnify what’s important and what’s accepted through their actions. Mind your shadow.

    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? Mistakes are easier to identify.

    I often leverage the critical dimensions of leadership I mentioned earlier to discuss the common mistakes leaders make. Thinking about purpose and direction, a common mistake is failing to keep the longer term in mind when making plans and decisions. When ready to execute a big set of changes, you should be able to go back and notice a fair balance of things that will help you in the short term and long term. Heavy short-term orientation usually means you are going to cut off your nose to spite your face. In rare cases, that is necessary for survival, but less often than leaders think. Get creative. Purpose should be your “true north” to test actions against.

    Under the growth mindset, leaders are often loathe to admit mistakes and be vulnerable in sensitive times. This dilutes their ability to come across as human beings and most importantly to role model a change orientation that embraces new ideas and learning. If the leader isn’t talking about what he or she is learning from setbacks, chances are good your people won’t think about it for themselves.

    Under vitality, leaders often underestimate the value of having a more consistent presence of communications in the organization during a crisis. When times get tough, new information can be the antidote to anxiety for people. In focus groups we’ve conducted for leaders, we often hear things like “no news is usually bad news!” and “I wish they would have just shown their face more often, even if there wasn’t a detailed update.” In challenging times, leaders become the equivalent of parental figures. Think about yourself as a child or the children you may have raised. When they get scared, do they want to see their parents less or more? Operate accordingly. Be aware of the energy you exhibit and take a look at your personal vitality. It is important to be self-reflective and then self-correct.

    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?

    First, be hyper aware of your industry context and calibrate your expectations accordingly. There is no one size fits all strategy during a difficult economy. Growth may not be possible, but is stability achievable? Turn yourself into a learning machine, because your business depends on it.

    Second, stay as close to your customers and clients as you can. How are their needs changing? What is important to them? Are there things you’re not currently doing that you could be or should be adapting to deliver?

    Third, focus on keeping as many of your current customers with you as possible, even some who can’t pay on time or may be in hardship themselves. The most difficult activity in business — especially services — is new customer acquisition. But customer relationships you already have can be your source of stability in tough times, and these relationships often develop deeper bonds of loyalty for having been tested.

    Fourth, use difficult times to push a change agenda that will benefit the long term of your organization. A crisis often injects a powerful spirit of collaboration and innovation into organizations. How can you leverage that to keep your business moving forward so you can stabilize and have room to grow coming out of the challenge?

    Finally, be ready to adjust. There is no “set it and forget it” mode when survival is at stake. Create a core team, often your entire leadership team or a subset of it, to have daily huddles and socialize updates that may cause different decisions on the fly. Agility is the watchword.

    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.

    We encourage clients to focus on the following areas to support the well-being of all members of the organization, encourage decision making led by longer-term goals and values, and help leaders build the foundation for a company that can operate better — and return to growth — in the future.

    Use purpose as the anchor. Align decisions and goals to the organization’s greater mission and values. For example, throughout the pandemic, our firm’s purpose has certainly guided us as we worked closely with our clients through some of the most challenging and complex leadership and organization challenges they have ever faced, and our purpose will continue to be our anchor as we plan for what’s ahead coming out of this crisis.

    It’s then important to focus on vitality and foster an environment of optimism, well-being and perseverance. To safeguard vitality during the crisis, leaders need to ensure — and model — balanced and flexible work schedules, extend benefits and make them accessible, and foster a culture of trust, resilience, and optimism. Vitality can be strengthened by cultivating employees’ sense of hope and optimism, which are closely linked and related to higher employee performance, job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Employees who feel positive about their company’s future are more likely to put in the hard work to push past obstacles and create that future.

    Leaders should create connection through supportive networks and collaboration that build high-quality relationships, empathy and authenticity. Leaders can and should create an environment where strong networks and relationships are prioritized. Connections help ensure the fabric of the organization remains strong, create more positive cultures, and can contribute to greater psychological safety. An example is the connection of the scientific community coming together around the world to develop vaccines in record time.

    Leaders should also encourage the sharing of struggles and positive moments outside of work with colleagues — and more formal conversations such as leadership roundtables offer beneficial forms of connection. Heidrick & Struggles established regular zoom meetings for informal discussions on various topics to share the humanity of the pandemic and to establish a feeling of “we are all in this together.”

    Finally, leaders should keep an open mind. A crisis often upends assumptions about a business, industries, or even the economy, creating an opportunity for innovation and growth. Investing in these principles can help not only shepherd a company through turbulent times but also cultivate a more agile, resilient culture that will lead to a growth mindset across the organization in the long run. A great example is mental health clinics around the world, which have largely been in-person experiences pre-covid. Many leveraged the moment to shift to virtual accommodations and have seen growth as a result. That’s an example of the norm-busting potential of 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 humor and levity. One of my favorite quotes is by Mark Twain: “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time”.

    Have you ever heard someone say, I wish that speech or article were longer? Me neither. With attention spans shorter than ever and so much complexity in the world, people are yearning for leaders who can help them make sense of it all in a concise and impactful way. Leaders should respect their audiences and do more work on the front end (often a lot more) to ensure their message will be meaningful and succinct. I subscribe to the idea that if you can’t summarize your full message in a few sentences easily understood by all, you probably haven’t thought it through deeply enough or crafted it simply enough, and its impact will be diluted.

    Begin with the impact in mind — and work forward from there.

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