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 Eva-Marie Costello.
Eva-Marie is Chief of Staff for a high-growth education technology startup, Springboard whose mission is to bridge the world’s skills gap. She is passionate about enabling tech to democratize access to education and opportunity for all. Born in Galway, Ireland, Eva-Marie moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2014. At 18, Eva-Marie started a skills based nonprofit in North-East India where she raised over $120,000 to support skills-based vocational programs in the foothills of the Himalayas. More recently, Eva-Marie worked on a city-wide project to bridge the digital divide with the City of Berkeley and worked for Europe’s largest VC Enterprise Ireland in supporting Irish startups expanding to the U.S. Eva-Marie has a Bachelor of Science in Physics from National University of Ireland, Galway and a Master of Science in Technology Entrepreneurship from the University of Notre Dame.
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 was born in Galway, Ireland, and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2014. I’ve always been passionate about enabling accessible education to help individuals, particularly those who are already faced with adversities, truly transform their lives and create a better future for themselves. Historically, I worked on smaller scale, on-the-ground initiatives in the skills-building space. From my experience in Silicon Valley, I quickly became aware of how technology enables greater scale and opportunity access than 1:1 programs. As a result, I sought to work on solutions that were at the intersection of tech and social impact. That’s when I found Springboard.
I joined the team in 2017 in order to support their mission of transforming lives through education and empowering a community for every student to achieve their full potential. I originally led the mentor operations and strategy team, and in 2020, my role evolved into the Chief of Staff role — the very first CoS for Springboard and our CEO personally. I was curious about the role — it can be described as a startup CEO bootcamp. I felt it would be an incredible learning opportunity to help me better fulfill future social entrepreneurial aspirations.
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?
If I’m being honest, I made a lot of mistakes in the early days of my Chief of Staff role! From my perspective, part of the appeal of the CoS role is linked with the mystery of it. Every time I hit enter on a Chief of Staff related search on Google it kindly responds with a number of articles trying to answer ‘What does a Chief of Staff do?’ I really had to learn this for myself in the first few months.
While as CoS it’s important to be honest and open, I think early on I didn’t have a filter. To ensure the CEO understood my thinking, I would Slack a lot of quick thoughts to the CEO when in fact they were not fully formed. After some funny moments when the CEO assumed my off the cuff observation was actually something I was 100% confident about, the CEO and I aligned on adding the label “[unformed thought]” to the beginning of those messages as an indicator. That helped avoid some comical confusion! But those types of over-sharing situations helped us to develop a deep understanding of how we each approach things — a mind melt of sorts.
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’m so grateful to my CEO Gautam Tambay for giving me the opportunity to be his first Chief of Staff and to learn (and laugh) my way into the role. I’m incredibly appreciative that he saw the potential in me prior to demonstrating my ability in the particular CoS role, and he has been approachable and non-judgmental from the start. The biggest lesson Gautam has taught me is to always assume the best intent, but be open to questioning it. This has helped me to approach work relationships in a new way.
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?
Springboard is a true example of a purpose-driven business. Springboard was founded in 2013, after our co-founders Parul Gupta and Gautam Tambay both had personal experiences with high-quality education being inaccessible. The belief that education should be open and accessible to all, no matter your stage of life, the amount of time you can devote on a daily or weekly basis, or from where you want to learn, sparked the idea to develop the online learning platform that Springboard has evolved into today. It’s fully online, self-paced, personalized and mentor-led, and the company’s ambitious vision to transform one million lives through education by 2030 reflects how focused we are on purpose. Springboard is committed to delivering an exceptional learning experience so that people can use education to improve their lives.
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?
One of the underlying drivers of Springboard is one-to-one mentorship and humanizing the direct attention that creates valuable learning experiences. I bring that up because it speaks to my own experience in leading teams — both in times of success and hardship. We are humans, and treating my team and our employees as such might sound like an obvious decision, but it’s so important to be mindful of that. I envision how I would personally want to be communicated with and do my best to be transparent and receptive when leading my team.
I think demonstrating consistent behavior and progress against your commitments during difficult times is also of utmost importance. Similar to how I built trust as CoS, I do what I say I will do — no matter what. When things are difficult or uncertain, being reliable in the things you can control (while remaining adaptable), is incredibly important. For the organization, this means communicating openly and consistently and following through on decision making. On a 1:1 basis, it’s leaving no thread open. I hope my routine of being consistent on all my tasks to both the CEO and organization created some certainty in a period of a lot of uncertainty.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen giving up as an option, and I think that is part of what motivates me! No matter what, I always find ways to be grateful for the opportunities I have had and continue to have. Practicing gratitude helps to make most problems very achievable. In addition, when things get tough, asking for support and help is important. And lucky for me I work with an amazing team and never felt alone.
Notably, I entered the Chief of Staff role at Springboard two weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. Not only was I adjusting to the challenges of this new role, but I was also navigating an uncertain and sometimes frightening time when so little was known about our personal health and safety. At the same time, the pandemic has proven the value and need for the kind of education that Springboard offers, so it really sparked a drive in me to settle into my new role and support our business in changing the future of education.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is remaining reliable and resilient. Our colleagues pay attention to how leadership acts, particularly when the going gets tough. How you act, react, and engage, and the decisions you make, are seen and digested by your peers. Our role as leaders is to model consistency, and leave as few questions unanswered as possible.
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’ve found that the best way to boost morale is to try as best as you can to add humor and light-heartedness to the day. I find that moments of laughter in tough times can really bring people together. In addition, aligning around your purpose and mission can boost morale. There are always ways to inject positivity into a situation when our business model is aligned to improving the lives of others.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s never easy to communicate difficult news and I’m not sure there is ‘one’ right answer or ‘one’ best approach, but I’ve learned that leading with empathy, humanness and transparency is always productive and well-received. It’s important not to sugar-coat tough information and to utilize reason-based communications, which means not just communicating what is happening, but why. We must remember that ultimately, all of our colleagues are human and work is just that — work.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Prioritize adaptability, and don’t get fixed on how any one particular thing is done. Be open to processing new information, even if it rubs against your prior beliefs, and assess all paths forward with a critical eye. Frame unpredictability as opportunity. We learn through every new type of hurdle, and amid this changing landscape, we’re learning how to deal with many new types of challenges. That experience is invaluable for growing as a leader.
Uncertainty is promised. We’ve gotten to where we are today by making the decisions that we think are right at the time. As a leader, be confident in your opinions and your perspective. Listen to those around you who might have more expertise in certain areas, gather all the information you can to make an informed decision, and continue on the path to achieving greater success.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Align around your bigger purpose and follow through on your promises to fulfill that purpose. Every leader and every business is going to face challenges and turbulence along the way. Your purpose must serve as a well of inspiration and motivation to guide your team in times of adversity.
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?
It’s easy to make mistakes during difficult times. Often, leaders will make rash decisions before fully considering the consequences, forgetting to treat employees like humans, or being too vague and showing lack of transparency.
Not considering all consequences
It can be easy to make rash decisions when under pressure, but hasty decisions can turn one challenge into many. Take the time you need to consider all options and consequences, and be strategic with your decisions, but then commit to the path forward. If your plan doesn’t work, conduct retrospectives to understand what went wrong and how the issue could have been handled in a more effective way.
Not treating employees on a 1:1 basis
Each person brings a unique background and set of life circumstances to work. Understanding their particular needs and adapting your leadership and support to them helps each person to feel heard.
Showing a lack of transparency in decision making
Many leaders resort to close-to-the-vest discretion during challenging times, but transparency and honesty is imperative for building trust and ensuring your team remains committed and motivated.
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?
Any sort of company growth during a difficult economy can be incredibly challenging to achieve. My number one piece of advice would be to foster and prioritize fulfilling customer promises. A business’ existing customers — in our case at Springboard, our students — are your biggest advocates during difficult times, so it’s imperative to make sure that they feel supported and prioritized. Also, make sure you are thinking ahead. It’s easy to get bogged down on solving a problem that seems urgent but is relatively small. Maintaining a keen eye on the opportunities that can take you to the next level and pursuing them is important for startups that have to prove themselves.
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.
- Show up consistently
Nothing beats being highly responsive and reliable during challenging times. This is a key aspect of building and maintaining trust. If your team knows you’re available and accessible to them and following through on your commitments, any doubts they might be feeling during times of uncertainty will be mitigated.
2. Remain connected with your team
Maintain your personal relationships with your colleagues and employees so that they feel personally supported. Grab a coffee with a teammate, or check in on your colleague with young kids. Continue to maintain those personal connections and relationships, and find ways to bond with your team.
3. Be open, honest and transparent
Being transparent is paramount. The more your employees feel knowledgeable about how the business is doing and what current priorities are, the more confident they’ll be. A level of discretion is always required for leaders, but share what you can, and avoid being vague. That will send alarm bells ringing and can be misinterpreted or cause misunderstanding about how the business really is doing.
4. Be a model for your employees
How you engage and react during difficult times can make a huge impact on those around you. Model the behavior that you want others to also portray. If you remain calm, confident and consistent, your team will do the same.
5. Take care of yourself
The most important thing you can do to be an effective leader during challenging seasons is to maintain your personal well-being. If you’re constantly stressed, overworked or overwhelmed, you won’t be able to effectively guide and influence. Make sure that you set aside time to recharge — this will look differently for everyone, whether that means dinner with friends or a 30-minute workout each day, but it’s one of the most crucial priorities for those in leadership positions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s all small stuff. When faced with relentless stressful situations, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. This quote allows me to remain grounded and have perspective. It makes all challenges ones that can be overcome. It also brings levity which allows me to focus on what’s most important versus getting bogged down on the smaller details.
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