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 Felicity Furey.
Felicity Furey is a specialist in emerging leadership and founder of the Professional Leaders Institute. She is an award winning business leader, engineer and entrepreneur who helps aspiring leaders get the practical skills and experiences they need to feel in control and confident to lead. Find out more at www.felicityfurey.com
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?
Growing up I was really creative but had no idea what I wanted to do, I thought of maybe being an inventor, but that wasn’t really a job. My teacher suggested engineering and I thought that sounded so dull. I put engineering as my fifth preference and that’s what I got into.
In the beginning of my career I felt like I couldn’t speak up, I was really self conscious. I wasn’t one to step up as a leader or put my hand up to step up. But one day I wanted to change the numbers of women in engineering and that meant putting my hand up and being a leader.
This led to running a one off event called Power of Engineering for high school students. This one off event then led to over 10,000 students changing their mind about engineering and my first business — a not-for-profit.
I got really excited about the change you can make in business and by being a leader. I saw that you don’t have to be the most experienced person in the room or have a fancy title to have an impact and take on leadership. It is more about the mindset, habits, actions and behaviours that makes a leader.
Now, along with my husband, I train aspiring leaders to be confident and ready to lead so they can make the change they want to make.
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?
So many mistakes in the early days and even now more recent ones. They usually aren’t funny at the time, but I can laugh at all of them now at how embarrassing and awkward I was.
An early business mentor meeting my mentor asked if I would be doing it all myself. I tried to justify how I could do it all and tried to prove myself and how capable I was. What she was actually trying to point out was that what I had taken on was a big undertaking and she was offering help. I was too proud to see it. Thank goodness I had a business partner there who stopped me mid flow of justification and explained what my mentor was asking.
I have learnt to listen, people are trying to help you not cut you down and you can’t do it all on your own. Ask for help, be open to help and bring someone to the meeting who thinks differently to get different perspectives.
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, many people that helped me along the way.
The standout is a graduate engineer of a large energy company. I shared with him about what we were up to and he said that he would email the MD of his company. I thought she would never want to meet with me, but she did.
That was 8 years ago. She has gone on to give us business advice and introduced us to our investor and multiple CEOs of large companies.
What I love most is the initiative of that graduate engineer. He took action to help. We have no idea the power of passionately sharing ideas and the power of connecting with people, even the most junior at a company!
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?
All the companies I have started because of a passion and purpose. I never intended to start a business I wanted to get more women into engineering, I was just following a passion.
The same goes for my other businesses Maths In Real Life started to help young people to understand why they are learning Maths and encourage them into STEM careers. The Professional Leaders Institute was founded to fast track emerging leaders and create diversity in leadership so leaders are ready and confident to lead before they get into leadership roles.
Without these visions there would be no businesses.
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?
Uncertain and difficult times are become more constant and normal than ever before. How I lead my teams through these times is to focus on the big picture and the end goal. We ask a lot of our teams and by being in the trenches together fighting for the same vision we can do so much more.
It’s easy to get stuck in the small things, mistakes and challenges. Instead we need to focus on the why we are doing this all in the first place and remind ourselves of the small wins, the impact we are having and the big picture.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes! Running a business is hard and I make a lot of mistakes. I have thought about giving up a lot, sometimes on a daily basis when things are tough! What drives me is asking myself “what is worthy of my life?”.
For me this comes down to my why — helping people be and do things they never thought they could be or do. If I am doing this in some way, I get motivated. This looks like helping people be the leader they never thought they could be, succeeding in engineering or a STEM career in a minority group.
When I focus on this, the challenges, the failures and the mistakes are not so significant.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It starts with leading yourself first, then be a servant leader. Own who you are, be authentic to you and your strengths. Stay tuned into the positive channel of your mind and do what ever it takes to get tuned in. For me I make sure I exercise regularly, journal, have family time, schedule thinking time and tune into my authentic self. Once you have your house in order you can be there for others, you can listen and be present and you will be your best self as a leader.
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?
Share authentically and be real. Connect with your team and meet them where they are at. You can inspire by being inspiring. This doesn’t have to look like getting it perfect. Authentically sharing about your mistakes, where you are at and where you are going makes a massive difference. Create a vision that each person can see themselves in.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be straight, be genuine and don’t shy away from bad news. There is always an opportunity if we search for it. Be compassionate about where people are at and find how you can help people.
Don’t make it complicated for people, make your communication simple and easy to understand.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Abraham Lincoln said “The best way to predict the future is to create it”. There is always going to be uncertainty. It’s the job of a leader to create the vision for people to step into it then help people find their place in it and own their future.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
At the end of the day businesses are really people and leaders are leaders of people not things or buildings. Every human wants to be heard and feel valued. Through turbulent times people often question and worry. The leader must guide people through the uncertainty. What can you do to make someone feel heard?
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?
- Mistake #1: Not owning up to mistakes. We have seen this on social media and companies say ‘our account got hacked’. It seems like an unlikely story. Fess up, be straight and turn this into an opportunity to connect with your customer or team.
- Mistake #2: Not listening to your team. People get frustrated and it can be hard to bring people back when they are not feeling heard. Engage everyone to genuinely listen and provide opportunities for people to be heard.
- Mistake #3: Changing the approach frequently or being to rigid in the plan. Constant change can be confusing for your people and customers. Stick to your vision and end game, keep repeating the message and be flexible on how you get there. It’s like a sailing boat — you know the start and the end but on the journey winds change and your path may look different than you planned.
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?
It’s probably the engineer in me but I have multiple back up plans in case things don’t work out. When we design a structure we think of all the ways it can fail or hurt people or go wrong and then design for all these cases.
In business I think about it the same way. There is the optimum plan of how things can go and then I get creative and have back up plans for other options. The most important thing is keep turning up, keep up the consistency and keep taking action. Results are not your performance.
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.
- Lead yourself first. In tough times it’s easy for the exercise or eating to go out the window. You have to take care of yourself first and put your own oxygen mask on before you help others.
- Be clear on your vision, have a simple repeatable messages so it’s undeniable where people are heading. I feel like I am a broken record banging on about diversity in STEM and leadership, but people know that is what I am about and I am a go to person for this.
- Ask questions and check in with how people are really going. I had a boss who kept asking about my feelings. At first it was weird but it had us connect and broke down the barriers to get into the real work we needed to do as leaders.
- Find your Who. There is a great book “Who not How” by Dan Sullivan and Benjamin Hardy. When we get a Who we can achieve so much more. Don’t try to be everything to everyone and achieve everything on your own. We are always more powerful with help from others. When our whole team quit of my first business I realised I had no idea about people. The next hire was a HR leader who created our people and succession plan. This laid the right foundations for our team. She was the expert and it was so much more effective hiring her than trying to learn HR and succession planning from scratch.
- Focus and prioritise the one thing and the big picture. What is really important? What is the one brink you need to lay today. Will Smith says “You don’t say ‘I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built. ‘ You don’t start there. You say, ‘I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.”. Each day I write down my one thing for the day I must achieve. This has me focus on the important things and the big picture.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
George Bernard Shaw
Life is for living and using up on something worthy of your life. My mission is to keep working on work that matters.
How can our readers further follow your work?