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 Jaime Taets.
As a CEO, public speaker, author, podcast host, and thought leader, Jaime Taets is focused on helping individuals and companies get past whatever is holding them back from achieving what they are capable of.
Jaime’s experience began in a corporate role at the largest privately-held corporation in the world. Thirteen years into that journey, she was comfortably uncomfortable. Having held various leadership roles, Jaime recognized that her strengths and approach would be better utilized outside the corporate world. Stepping out confidently while facing her own fears, she launched Keystone Group International in 2013.
Keystone Group International focuses on leadership development, organizational strategy, growth, and change. Jaime’s belief that strong leadership and a change-resilient culture are the foundation for sustainable growth drives her work with clients. Harnessing her own leadership experiences, she inspires real and sometimes challenging discussions about the crossroads between high-performance and healthy change.
Jaime is passionate about helping anyone who has ever felt stuck, which is woven into her personal life as well. She serves as a board member for several non-profits, including the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and Playworks Minnesota. She also volunteers her time to mentor women who are starting their own businesses through WomenVenture.
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 did my apprenticeship in Corporate America and after 13 years of traveling globally for work, I decided to leave my corporate role to take everything I had learned and use it to help impact small and mid-market businesses and their growth. Jumping off the cliff into the world of entrepreneurship was a risk, but my corporate career and the amazing training and experience I received helped me do it with confidence. And since then, I have been growing as a leader and helping my clients grow at the same time.
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?
It’s hard to narrow it down as I’ve learned so many things and have made some mistakes along the way but each one taught me something about myself, about what was important to me, and about how to lead.
The earliest “mistake” I can remember is right out of college. I received my degree in Management Information Systems. It was in the dotcom era and I decided the IT field was the clearest path to a good job with a large company. But the problem was, I hated the technical stuff. However, when I was offered a job by a global company I jumped at the chance. Six months into the job, I was miserable and my manager, (who is still today one of the best leaders I’ve had) sat me down and said, “you aren’t really wired for technical work, are you?” She recognized my strengths around building relationships, seeing the bigger picture and being a great partner, so she committed to helping me carve out a role where I could add value without having to do the deeply technical work. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest. I finally felt like I could be honest about what I was good at and not fit into a standard job description. I’ve leaned on that experience throughout my entire career. It’s helped me see beyond the job and into the experiences it could expose me to, and it’s helped me be a better leader because I’m able to see the superpowers of others, sometimes even when they can’t see them. It’s very empowering.
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 have worked with many amazing leaders who have guided me throughout my career. One in particular who had a big impact on me was a manager who I worked with in my late 20s. I was a young mother trying to navigate life, kids and a fulltime career. He helped me find balance when I felt like I was failing as an employee and a mom. I remember one particular conversation that impacted my life and my leadership approach forever. We were having a meeting about a big project I was managing, and he said, “you are really smart, one day I’m going to be working for you.” I laughed it off, but I knew he meant it. He saw something in me that I didn’t yet see in myself. It was a true example of servant leadership. He wasn’t afraid of letting me shine and he was not worried I would take his job. He knew that for him to be successful as a leader, he had to build a team around him that was smarter than he was in certain areas. I will never forget that lesson as it’s become core to who I am as a leader in my family, my business and my community.
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 I started my business, I knew what I wanted, but I was not sure I knew why. I knew what felt good, what clients made it feel like it wasn’t work, but I couldn’t put words to it until about two years into building my business. I had a client that was struggling, and I was really helping them, but it just felt harder than it should have been. Until one day the owner came to me and explained that something I had said to him had changed his perspective. He was finally able to see the gaps that I had seen all along. From that point forward his business was different. It felt different, the growth was greater, people were more engaged. I realized that by being curious, by not being afraid to state the truth about what I saw was key to helping my clients break free from a place where they were stuck. It was in that moment that I realized my purpose was to drive change -change in people, change in their thinking, change in their perspective. My purpose was to be a change maker and my business was just the conduit to be able to do that. And the most powerful thing is that I’ve never lost sight of that purpose. Every day, I can point to something that my business has done that has driven change, even if it’s small, and it’s a very strong guiding mechanism for every decision we make in the business.
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?
I think the resiliency that you are forced to build as an entrepreneur often prepares you for difficult times. You don’t sign up to be an entrepreneur because it’s easy. You have a drive and grit. I didn’t realize it at first, but that grit has played a role in who I am as a leader. When a crisis hits, I immediately ask, what can we control? There’s always something, even if it is small, that we have control over and that’s where we focus. When everyone else is distracting themselves with all of these things they can do nothing but worry about, I refocus my team on what we can do. It’s good for the business, but it’s also good for the mental health of my team. When things are difficult or uncertain, all we want is for something stable that we can grab ahold of. Our job as leaders is to find that steady ground, even if it’s a small patch, to stabilize us, clear our minds and figure out a plan forward instead of getting caught up in the swirl around us. During the pandemic, this has been a weekly exercise where we find what we can control and focus on that.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Of course, I have had bad days and I still do, although they aren’t as severe or as often as they were at the beginning. The motivation comes from the purpose. If we don’t help these clients, who will? We can’t give up because we know they need us to help them get unstuck. It’s the people that are counting on me — my employees and my clients — that keep me going. I have surrounded myself with people who will kick me in the pants when I feel sorry for myself, but also stand next to me and support me when I need it. I think so much of our success can be attributed to the people that we surround ourselves with at every chapter of our journey.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Be vulnerable and authentic. Don’t pretend to have it all figured out. As leaders we want to “protect” our team from the scary stuff, just like we do for our kids. But what we have to realize is that when we let them know we are human and we are in it with them, they tend to have greater confidence in us and in themselves. So, I get real. I talk about what I’m dealing with, what I’m struggling with and I create the space for them to share their emotions. Verbalizing and recognizing the fear and uncertainty is the first step in overcoming it.
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?
Listen. Slow down to listen to your teams– not just what they are saying, but what they are doing, and listen for what they are not saying. Pay attention to how they are doing, care about them as humans first and employees second. We all have basic human needs that we need fulfilled and our leaders should be one of the primary people to help us meet those needs. A favorite quote of mine is “it’s not what you leave for someone that matters, it’s what you leave in them.” I wholeheartedly think this applies to how we should lead. It’s not what skills we teach someone, it’s how we impact who they are as a human.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be transparent. The more transparent you can be the better. It’s never easy to deliver difficult news but we have created tools and a formula for our clients to follow in their communications during crisis or times of change. I believe that when times are hard, that is when you build that level of trust and confidence with both your team and your customers.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Focus on what you can control. Don’t allow yourself to get distracted with things that you have zero control over. It’s not that you don’t need to think about those things, but so many leaders get caught spending way too much energy there. Find the smallest piece that you can control and focus on that until the spinning around you stops.
This has been especially true over the past year and for businesses, it truly was uncharted territory. Nobody knew what the future held for us as individuals or for our businesses. Because of this, many of us felt paralyzed because we didn’t know what the right answer was, or what the next move was. When you’re in that place, the tendency is to quit moving and hope the status quo will get you through. When my clients are in this place, I remind them that guess what — this is all new to everyone, and no one knows the right answer. You don’t have to know the right answer, you just have to know the next right answer to get you out of this feeling of being stuck and to keep you moving.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Care about your people. Teach your leaders how to lead with emotional intelligence. When times are tough, we have to focus on our employees and their state of mind. If we worry about results, we are missing the opportunity to drive what creates the business results, which is high performance from our teams. And the only way we get the highest levels of performance is to care about them, coach them and help them solve problems.
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?
- They stop listening to their employees and to their customers. They go inside their heads for the answers when it gets tough and that’s the wrong place to find the path forward.
- They lose focus. It’s like someone is drowning, instead of taking a deep breath and relaxing, they thrash around and create more turbulence around them.
- They don’t lean on their purpose. Your purpose is there in times of ease and in times of difficulty, but we need it the most when things are hard. If your purpose is strong, lean hard on it when it’s tough and let it be your guiding mechanism for decisions.
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 going to sound too simplistic and maybe a bit like a broken record but focus on your purpose and what you can control. Stop trying to swim against the current, control what you can control and let the waves take you a bit. I have worked with many clients where they went from being terrified, they would have to close their doors, to creating an entirely new revenue stream, all because they took a deep breath and focused on strategic thinking and brought new ideas to the table. You have to know when to fight it and when to ride the wave because it might be taking you somewhere better.
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.
1. Listen — Stop talking, stop thinking you have to know the answers, and listen to your teams.
2. Care — Truly show you care for your employees. Instead of asking “how are you “– ask them what their biggest challenge is right now — personally or professionally and allow them to share and really listen to them.
3. Ask Different Questions — I talk about a concept of Degrees of Strength questions, which are questions that keep people focused on the future, even when the issue we are discussing happened in the past. Instead of saying, “what caused that customer issue yesterday? I want a complete report by the end of the day on who and what caused it,” what if we asked the question slightly differently? “For example, try something like this, “how can we ensure what happened yesterday doesn’t happen again? Give it some thought and let me know what you think we need to do differently.” The first question sends our team into the past to relive the trauma and the second question still focuses on fixing the root cause, but it keeps them focused forward towards the future and not stuck in the past. Think about the questions you are asking your team. Are the questions creating inspiration to fix issues and get better or are they re-creating the trauma of past mistakes? We have to ensure our teams mental energy is focused to the future for our businesses to survive in turbulent times.
4. Be Vulnerable — Share authentically how you are feeling, make yourself human. As leaders we do not have to have it all together 100% of the time. People will trust you more if you are real and they will open up more about what they are dealing with.
5.Create Focus — When things feel chaotic, be the clarity for your teams. Find something to focus on, to put your energy into, until things stop swirling around you. We often get caught up in the chaos instead of being the calm through it and as a leader your team needs you to be the calm. They look to you for guidance and if you are not calm, they will not be calm either.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s hard to pick just one so I will share my two favorites.
- Be the change you wish to see in the world — Mahatma Gandhi
As leaders, and actually as humans we have to stop talking about what we want, what the world should or shouldn’t be, and we have to start taking action. It’s the only path forward.
2. We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. -Albert Einstein
As businesses, we have to shift our perspective. The world has changed, and our businesses and leaders need to evolve or risk being left behind. We have to continue to seek out new and different perspectives.