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 Ken Pasternak.
Ken Pasternak held leadership positions at Citibank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Since then, as an author, consultant, and keynote speaker he has focused on building high performance organizations through visionary leadership, team effectiveness, creating a winning culture and improving cross-cultural understanding.
Ken is the co-author of “Performance at the Limit, Business Lessons from Formula 1 Racing” (3rd edition 2016) and “Managing Your Strengths” (2002). Ken’s latest book, “Exploding Turkeys and Spare Trousers, Adventures in global business” (2021) is a collection of short stories from his business travels, each offering a business or life lesson.
Ken is a graduate of Yale University. He splits his time between Helsinki, Finland and Boca Raton, Florida. https://www.kppasternak.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?
I grew up in the suburbs of New York City. My dad was as a teacher, but before I was born, joined his father’s wholesale-retail fish business to help rescue it. During my teens, he went back to school to get a master’s degree and after my grandfather passed away, he started teaching again. This was very inspiring to me. My mother was a bookkeeper in a real estate office. They sacrificed a great deal to send me to an excellent private school which set me on a path to be accepted at Yale University.
I shared my dad’s love of sports, especially basketball and baseball, and his coaching enabled me to play well above my age. In high school I played soccer and the coach suggested I try goalkeeping. I did, and our team was successful. So much so, I appeared in Sport’s Illustrated magazine after we had held opponents scoreless in 15 straight games and given up only 3 goals over a 2-year span.
At Yale I played varsity soccer for three years. Forty-eight years later, I still hold the Ivy League record for Most Career Saves — which suggests that our scoring capabilities and winning percentage were much less than I would have liked.
Why is this important to me? Team sports taught me about preparation for competition, hard work to achieve one’s dreams, how to collaborate to achieve a shared goal, the joy of winning, and the resilience needed to come back from disappointments. My working career has included experiences with every one of these aspects of life.
After graduating from Yale, I studied one year in Paris. Living in France provided a perspective about my aspirations which I had not previously experienced. Arriving back in the US, I did a systematic review of my capabilities, needs, and hopes. It turned out that corporate banking at Citibank utilized my strengths, gave me the education needed, and offered a collegial environment to learn and grow.
The experiences from my eighteen years with Citibank while based in New York, London, Helsinki, Istanbul, and Brussels; followed by four years with the EBRD in London during which I travel extensively across eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, set the foundations for my establishing two businesses providing management consulting and executive development programs.
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?
During my early years at Citibank, I attended a Real Estate Lending seminar. One case study covered a situation where we had to determine the motivation and judge the actions of the main character.
Like many of my classmates, I decided he was untrustworthy and not a reliable executive to work with. I was rather vocal about it during the discussion, even calling him a crook.
During his wrap-up, the instructor asked us to turn around. Pointing to a man sitting in the back of the room he said, “I would like to introduce you to the ‘crook’ who you have been tearing into the past hour.
My jaw dropped. None of us had noticed him and would not have known who it was, even if we had.
He walked to the front and shared the facts and situation from his point of view. He explained what he did and why. I began to see him in quite a different light. It was a great teaching device and learning experience.
Mistakes are fun when you can laugh and learn at the same time. It was a uncomfortable lesson, but the fun came in the discussion and the shared learning experience we had afterwards. My takeaway from the experience was, we can never really understand someone’s motivation or actions unless we walk in their shoes.
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 had many coaches, teachers and colleagues who provided insights and learnings, so choosing just one person is difficult.
I would, however, highlight a high school English teacher who awakened me to the importance of learning to write well. He volunteered his time outside class lessons to give me extra assignments designed to hone my writing skills. This became useful not only at university, but throughout my career. The importance of well-written communications for informing, persuading and even entertaining readers, cannot be emphasized enough.
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?
One of my consulting businesses was built on the skills of experienced bankers to assist financial institutions in emerging economies. We ascertained that many prospective clients had hired large, mainstream consulting firms to develop competitive strategies. The problem was the banks did not have the resources, knowledge, or experience to execute those business plans. So, our purpose was to work in partnership with clients to bring to life the plans that were until that point only on paper. Our mission was to take theoretical concepts and using our strengths, help convert them into tangible 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?
This question reminds me of a cartoon where an orchestra conductor stands with baton in hand and on his music stand is written, “Wave the stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow.” Leadership is not easy under any circumstance. In turbulent times it takes courage, stamina, and the ability to deal with ambiguity.
I have found that turbulence can come from two sources: internally from within the organization such as a change in strategy, loss of key personnel, increased competition; and externally from the environment for example change in regulations, economic downturns, or conflict. The former may be influenced by a leader, but the latter is typically out of one’s control.
During uncertain times, a leader must not lose sight of the deliverables and goals that have been agreed, focus on the work at hand, keep an ear to the ground about changes that can impact your business, and protect one’s employees so that they can concentrate on their work.
When external change is beyond one’s control a leader must make the organization as agile as possible, adapting resources and plans to minimize risk and increase upside potential as the situation evolves.
I recall after the financial crisis of 2007–2008 most financial institutions were on unsteady ground. Many suffered losses from new rather complicated financial instruments, the risks of which they may not have fully understood. Others were questioning their overall risk management processes. As a consulting and training business we needed to shift our focus to meet the need that was arising. So, we began a campaign to help our clients go ‘back to basics,’ to reconnect to the fundamental principles of banking that would enable them to stabilize and grow their business once again.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I recall being frustrated about work situations, both due to internal actions and customer decisions, but have never considered giving up. Often persistence and resilience are required. Perhaps this derives from my early years playing sports.
My drive has been sustained by maintaining a positive mental attitude. You might say I have always had a ‘glass half full’ mindset. I am reminded of the question that was posed to Abraham Lincoln. He was asked, “What’s the difference between a pessimist and an optimist?” He replied, “A pessimist sees a problem in every opportunity, while an optimist sees an opportunity in every problem.” I guess I am, at heart, an optimist.
I have also found it useful not being anchored to only one perspective. One should look at situations from different points of view. I recommend to leaders they should build a small network of trustworthy friends who, in times of trouble, can be there to offer unbiased advice. I have been fortunate to play that role for others in need and must admit that in doing so I have learned a great deal about dealing with challenges and about myself.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Without a doubt a leader must communicate the organization’s purpose constantly and consistently. Employees need to be reminded why they are coming to work, especially when pressures mount due to circumstances that may be beyond their control. Leaders must continually remind their teams about the end goal, the vision, to give meaning to the efforts they are making.
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?
You have heard the phrase, leaders must ‘Walk the Talk.’ This is always true, but in uncertain times, leaders must be visible role models in their actions and behaviors. They need to remember that they are being observed all the time. They must, through demonstration, show what is expected of their employees. Leaders who say one thing and do another will eventually be exposed, which creates distrust, the very opposite of increasing engagement and boosting morale.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Quickly, honestly, and with empathy
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The acronym VUCA, describing conditions as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous was coined over thirty years ago. Even before then, executive development programs addressed the fact that decisions often need to be made based on incomplete or ambiguous information. Leaders therefore must predict the future based on factors that are within their control and make their best guesses about the future. How? I do not think there is a magic formula for this, but certainly one needs a good handle on the facts at hand, rely on experience, and tap into one’s intuition to determine the best calls. To make plans in unpredictable times takes courage and conviction, key characteristics of successful leaders.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
As an individual “to thine own self be true.” Be aware of who you are, what you stand for, why you do what you do and do not deviate from that. Nothing replaces a set of values that guides your beliefs and actions during turbulent times. The same is true for a company. Organizations that have developed, communicated, and behaved in accordance with a clear set of values and beliefs are in a better position than those that have not.
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?
- Short-sighted decision process. One may need to adapt to challenging circumstances with changes, but it is important to remember the organization’s long-term vision and not let current problems impact the company’s purpose and mission. During difficult times it is important for a business to be agile and pivot as market conditions require but undertaking a major overhaul of the strategy is best done when the company is performing well during less demanding times.
- Not communicating clearly, openly, and often with employees. Employees who are uncertain about the company’s future and their own, can lead to their disengagement, demotivation, and potentially to high turnover in the business. Always communicate directly and honestly to stakeholders as the company faces its challenges.
- Manage your exposure risk. Wearing my corporate banking hat, experience has shown that companies often rely too heavily on just a few customers or suppliers. During difficult times business relationships can change, even disappear. It is better to consider expanding customer and supplier bases before a crisis arrives rather than face the uncertainty of being over exposed when it happens.
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?
Developing new strategies when the business is heading downward can be the worst time to rethink the business purpose as leadership’s time must be focused putting our day-to-day issues fires to survive. Tackle your next 3–5-year plan while the business is doing well.
Once again, communication is key — upward, downward, and sideways with messages that have clear meanings for your stakeholders.
Believe in what you do and show it constantly — if you do not, your employees, customers and investors will not believe it either.
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.
- Understand each person experiences change in a unique way.
A one-size fits all approach to managing people during times of change will not succeed. Leaders must stay as close to their team members as possible, give them ample opportunity to air their concerns, and support them with empathy and honesty.
The best example I can think of is what we are experiencing during the pandemic. Normal modes of operation have been disrupted and interpersonal relationships have been tested by the shift to working from home. Employees have been undergoing stresses which they have not experienced before, and this may be different for each person based on individual circumstances. Even as we emerge from working exclusively virtually, managers need to learn how to be supportive since we certainly will continue to work in some form of hybrid arrangement going forward.
2. Communicate often.
Even more than change itself, employees can have difficulty with the uncertainty that comes with it. When there is no clear end game or vision of the future, people create their own version of what tomorrow might look at.
As a consultant I have often been amazed at how much information I gather when I interview people. Knowing the message senior leaders wish to convey to their employees I have often been struck by the misinformation that is shared across the internal grapevine. This leads to heightened anxiety and a workforce that is not aligned to the leadership’s aims. To combat this, leaders must constantly share their message of what the future holds even when they might not yet have all the answers.
3. Provide clear guidelines of what is expected of employees.
Work — life balances, especially during the pandemic, have shifted towards greater risks of virtual meeting fatigue, overload, and even burnout. Leaders need to sympathize with the complex situations their employees have been facing and create guidelines for how and when work should be conducted.
As we move into the next phase of hybrid work, leaders need to carefully consider who needs to meet face to face, how often that should happen, and why such meetings are important. Also, care must be taken not to create different tiers of employees -at the office, stay at home, and hybrid — so that some feel they are not being noticed and supported in the same ways as others.
4. Take care of oneself, build well-being for the entire organization into the business plan.
It has been shown that sustainable high performance is linked to physical and mental well-being. Just like the instructions we receive on airplanes about putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others, leaders firstly need to be aware and take care of their own physical and mental condition to have the stamina and drive to make sound decisions.
As healthy workers lead to better results, leaders must encourage sensible well-being practices in their organizations. Due to the pandemic, we are seeing more companies creating guidelines for their employees that include recommendations about exercise, nutrition, and sleep.
5. Be a visible role model.
Employees tend to get their visual clues for how to behave from two key people, their immediate boss, and the CEO. All leaders, but especially those two, must make their presence visible on a constant basis.
During these times, this contact is even more difficult since their presence is mainly virtual. Using every communication channel available, leaders must demonstrate the attitudes and behaviors they wish and expect others to follow in line with the company’s purpose, values, and beliefs.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
President Harry Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” I have found that leadership, in both good and difficult times, is a team effort. No one can accomplish great things without collaborating in a trusting work environment.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My books can be ordered through Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Ken-Pasternak/e/B004LVDM0E?ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1&qid=1619263586&sr=8-1