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 Kishshana Palmer.
Kishshana is a national speaker, trainer and coach with a 17-year background in fundraising, marketing and talent management. She is an adjunct professor at Baruch College and Long Island University, a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE), a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer (CGT) and an AFP Master Trainer. When an organization wants to grow, find and retain people on their team, raise money and more she is the philanthropic fairy godmother they have on speed dial. Her work isn’t limited to organizations; she also coaches social good professionals.
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 share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made when I first started was underestimating the time it takes to do…everything. The first year I had to do performance evaluations I had NO idea what I was doing. I had eight employees. I needed to write reviews for each of them and I figured “how hard can this be?” Each one took me hours. The performance management system crashed every time I got almost all the way to the end. I am convinced that I pulled out an entire section of my hair while I typed because I was so frustrated and over it. I was in danger of missing the deadline and needed to power through the evaluations so I started writing placeholders like “Mary had a little lamb” into the sections just so I could feel successful. I didn’t realize I didn’t delete all of my placeholders until I was in an actual review with one of my team members and they said “What did you mean by Mary had a little lamb?” Talk about egg on my face!
My biggest lessons — give yourself time to do the hard thing. Give yourself more time when it’s your first time. Ask lots of questions and ask for help! I could’ve asked a more experienced manager to show me the ropes but my pride and imposter syndrome were working at mach speed in the background. Also, one of my biggest lessons about professional development is that it is ongoing. I would have struggled less if I had a clear understanding of my team’s wins and opportunities for growth; I would have finished that in no time.
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?
One of my board members and early mentors said to me “If you don’t quit or get fired at least once in your career you’re not in the game.” I was contemplating quitting my role at an organization whose culture was toxic but I worried that as my families main earner and with a baby at home, I wouldn’t be able to command a role like that in the town we lived in. Fear ruled me and my mentor’s statement released me! I am grateful for that mentor because that one statement has helped me face whatever obstacles arise during my career and in building my business. It doesn’t absolve me from responsibility but it helps me face the tough stuff!
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 first started Kishshana & Co., I didn’t have a vision. I’d just left a tough role and wasn’t ready to go back to working for another organization. I did what I thought I should do and that’s help organizations fundraise better and raise more money. I floundered in my first year full time in business because my purpose was to have enough money to pay my mortgage and feed myself and my daughter. However, eventually I realized that most organizations didn’t have a fundraising challenge; they had a leadership challenge. That realization helped me take a step back and assess what was I good at and what problem was I best suited to help solve. My vision — to create a learning company that would help leaders and especially people managers live better lives so they could lead better at work. In short, to live well so you could lead well.
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 values of Kishshana & Co. is to try it once, then again. That makes room for my team to try new things and learn from them without fear of the negative consequences that often grip us. That’s allowed us to have honest conversations about how we can serve our clients better. Our value of generosity has also allowed us to understand how to navigate changing attitudes to work, being flexible with timelines and with each other and leading with grace. I’ve seen my team really dig in and work together to execute amazing projects because of these two values. I have an OHD — open, honest and direct approach to my leadership style and have found that this gives my team a clear charge and also a safe space at work.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I consider giving up at least once a week. In some seasons, every day. I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. I started a business full time out of necessity. When you start to achieve some success in a lane you didn’t intend to be in; it causes you to doubt yourself alot. I am not immune to those thoughts. My motivation comes from two things — my daughter is watching me (and now working for me). I want her to see what’s possible for her and I want to ensure she has the runway to decide how she wants to live her life. For me and for many black women — choice feels hard to come by. The second thing that motivates me is that I know the work I do (alongside my team) is changing people’s lives. I see it in the way their approach to management and life changes. I see it in the way their team members show up differently and believe that more people want to learn how to live well so that they can lead well. What sustains me is my ongoing (and interactive) self care practice. I used to be so rigid about this and felt like if i didn’t get this part right everyday that I failed. I realize that self care looks different in each season of your life and that you can change things up. You have to keep things fresh just for you in order to stay in the race.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I would say being present. For me that looks like vulnerability, transparency and showing up! It’s so easy to put our heads down and focus on what’s in front of you or even ignore what’s happening. Challenging times like these can be paralyzing. But I remember that I am human and prone to mistakes. I am allowed to be a person and not a robot. I am a thinking feeling being. That helps ground my decision making and fight off the panic many leaders have but don’t express for fear of being seen as weak or not capable. As a black woman and CEO of my own company composed of other black women, I am cognizant that we are often overworked, undervalued and overlooked in so many spaces. Because of this reality, I engage my team in activities that elevate our minds, spirit and continually assess what sparks joy in our work. I also recognize and name that not everything is going to be rosy and what can we do despite that?
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 use the 5 love languages as a part of my management toolkit. I have found over the years that we want to be seen and heard and this has been one of the best tools that has helped me do that consistently for my team. To boost morale I have done fun contests, “just because” gifts, good old snail mail, shut down our operations for a week, hosted happy hours and encouraged my team to go to therapy as a part of their ongoing self care routine. I think to inspire your team, you have to model how you’d like your team to operate. You don’t have to be perfect — that’s where the vulnerability, transparency and showing up comes in — but they are looking to you for what’s next. Engagement comes from knowing your people. This is a great time to pick back up those workplace behavioral tests that you took but don’t use. Whether it’s strengthsfinder, 16 personalities, DisC or another type of predictive assessment tool; dig in. Reacquaint yourself with your team and you’ll be amazed to learn who your team is and what they can bring to the table right now.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Having a communications cascade for “normal” times and times of crisis is critically important. Since my team is 100% remote, it’s been helpful to have structured 1:1’s and team meetings to keep things moving in real time. There’s no perfect way to communicate difficult news but I’ve found my simple process conversation works more often than it doesn’t. I ask for space and permission to share news. I know some of my team (and clients) are verbal processors and others need time to sort it out. So I give context around the difficult news I need to share then I invite conversation to sort through the implications. I follow up what I heard in a voice memo or email and then I plan for additional touchpoints as people process the news. Understanding and activating on my strengths serves me well and would serve many leaders well. For example, my influencing strengths are high and that helps me to help others find their way to solutions they might not have considered and be open to possibilities they might have shied away from. Self awareness and building up your leadership strengths muscle is key.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think there is this false notion that there was a time that was unpredictable. Leaders are charged with having a framework that is solid enough for teams to create, innovate and problem solve but flexible enough to respond to changing times. It’s a tall order. Planning involves slowing down just enough to “see” what’s on the horizon and being able to make some bets because of it. It feels super tough to do that but it’s critical to being able to be responsive versus reactive.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Be fearless. This is something that we often forget in turbulent times. Our fight or flight response kicks into high gear and sometimes it’s all we can do to just make it through the day. Our instinct is to do what’s safe and familiar and this is a time to shore up our company foundations while taking some calculated risks.
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?
Three things I’ve seen is businesses cut their marketing budget, trim without a plan in place and not consider their team members as critical stakeholders. In order to avoid that businesses should have a keen awareness of the ebbs and flow of their industry, and be clued into what their customers want and need and be willing to pivot, if needed. Customers are looking for that connection and making sure there is a budget to do that is critically important.
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?
I talk with my team about our “one thing”. What is the one thing we are selling? What is the problem we are solving? Where have we been successful? Where can we trim expenses without lessening the customer experience or making you dread coming to work. I’ve taken a closer look at my services and made some decisions about what it costs our company — from a time, talent and treasure perspective. I’ve refined roles and responsibilities and took this time to let go of processes that weren’t working well. And I keep our mission — helping leaders live well and lead well — front and center.
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.
- Take care of yourself first. It took a few times for me to get this lesson in my head. I was #teamnosleep and get it done and that took a toll on my body. The truth is that the body keeps score and we have a responsibility to take care of it. I didn’t get the memo for real until I threw my back out for 6 weeks. On my back in excruciating pain and unable to conduct business as usual; it gave me the opportunity to rethink how I take care of myself
- People first. This might as well be etched in stone. We have rallied around team members through illness and death, school and depression. One of the tools I use is the five love languages and I had a team member whose language was quality time. Instead of having check ins in the office we would do a walking check in. No phones, no documents just us and it helped to build a great working and personal relationship.
- Be clear. Your team is following your every move. When we were planning for a huge event and needed to pivot, initially I was overwhelmed and a bit panicked. The energy with my team reflected that. I needed to get clear on what success looked like and recenter so my team could as well.
- Watch the road. You’ve got to watch for trends and pay attention to what’s happening. Last year, I decided to invest in online tools and more virtual training and perfected my style (and the technology). I didn’t know a pandemic was coming but I did know that maintaining the business as usual way we did training wasn’t sustainable.
- Fail Fast. Try Again. It’s important to fail and try again. We built an entire service around a particular idea that clients said they wanted and when we launched it was crickets. Money wasted and time spent. I was crushed and my team was as well. BUT we quickly rallied and refreshed the idea and product and went for it again!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
You can either learn to pay or pay to learn. My dad would always tell me that as a kid and I never understood what that meant! But as an adult it has served me well. Sometimes you have to pay to learn something you need or discover what you don’t need. In business that could be in talent, in products, in systems or services. Other times you will need to learn something so that you can pay later. That might mean DIYing a thing or taking a class and learning by doing so that you know who you need to hire and why. Either way, you get to the outcome but your process might be different.
How can our readers further follow your work?