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 Kristy Willis.
Kristy Willis serves as the Chief Sales Officer for PeopleReady. A dynamic leader in sales and market innovation within the staffing industry, Willis leads the strategy, direction and business delivery model for a team of over 500 PeopleReady sales leaders across North America. She is known for her innovative approach in connecting people and work and developing logistical solutions to deploy workers for PeopleReady’s national customers, no matter how big the need may be.
With a career spanning over 20 years in the industry, Kristy previously led a business division of nearly $1B for the Adecco Group. As the Senior Vice President, Kristy was charged with leading one of North America’s largest business units with over 244 cost centers, over 500 colleagues, and a diverse portfolio of clients, many of which are included in the Fortune 500.
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 have been in the staffing industry for over 20 years. It all started when I was working as a catering assistant at a large resort in San Diego while putting myself through college, when someone at work told me that I’d be good at staffing. So when an opportunity came up as a recruiter at Adia I went for it, and got the job. Staffing is one of those careers that you just seem to fall into, and I totally loved it. I’ve worked every possible position there, both in sales and operations, learning all aspects of the industry, and kept moving on up into leadership roles, finally landing in my current position as CSO with Peopleready.
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?
Early on in my career, I told one of our customers who is a Pet Supply retailer, during a presentation to win their business, that “I would stop beating a dead horse” and move on. I was just trying to reiterate a point, but soon realized my faux paus. I was fortunate enough to have a kind audience who laughed along with me, and we eventually won the business. My takeaway is to know your audience, and be prepared.
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?
My parents have always been huge mentors in my life. They taught me early on to never take no for an answer. They said, work hard, reach for your goals and dreams and never give up until it is abundantly clear to do so. I remember when I came home early in my career after a tough day and had been recently promoted, I was complaining about a decision that the company had made. I kept saying “They made this decision. They shouldn’t have done it, they are going to lose people…” My dad told me as a leader I should not say that as “YOU are the They’’. This is a phrase I’ve used constantly in my career, and it constantly reminds me of my father’s strong business presence in my life.
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?
At my current company, our purpose is to be A force for Good. It’s our corporate citizenship motto. We strive to be a force for good, and to be there when people, businesses and our communities need help. This is built into the culture of our company. There’s value in putting people to work and helping companies thrive. This vision is incorporated into everything we do, and makes it easy for all stakeholders in our organization to embrace and act. This purpose driven vision has helped our company succeed by placing close to 500,000 people to work in 2020.
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 believe you lead your teams through uncertain times by being humble and being transparent. Pull your talent together to strategize the issue. Then once a plan is determined, communicate frequently to course correct where needed. The recent example would be leading our sales organization throughout this pandemic where strategy, processes and plans were required to change. Even though the team was not in person, we became closer because we had to drive the business and reverse the negative trends. First thing we did was leverage technology through video conferencing to assess our purpose and determine the new growth strategy. The world of work changed overnight and it was our job to figure out how to keep moving forward. We determined our resources, analyzed constraints and set a new norm for the future of our business.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never once considered giving up, there was too much at stake plus, I LOVE a good challenge. My motivation came from the drive to be that force for good to help get people back to work and businesses thriving. Plus, I can not stand to lose and I am very competitive!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
You really need to display clear and effective communication, while encouraging your people throughout the unusual times. Listen broadly, ask people what they need, embrace uncertainty, and overall be transparent about the business and what is occurring.
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?
Garner a culture of connectedness, team spirit and gratitude. Celebrate large and small wins with your team which will increase camaraderie. Be curious and listen deeply to your group, including them in decisions being made. Show appreciation and have some fun!
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Being honest and transparent is always the best course to take both with your team and customers. Empathy also goes a long way too when having to communicate anything difficult, which will help lower the temperature of a challenging message. Customers and staff appreciate open and candid dialogue, no matter how tough the message may be to deliver.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The ability to be nimble in making business decisions while reacting quickly to unforeseen circumstances will allow for course correction as needed during volatile times. It’s ok to change direction on your planned strategies as well, when necessary to improve or rectify an unpredictable future.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I go back to being a clear and open communicator. People want to know what is happening, what the future holds, how are the leaders of the organization planning to lead the way, and how can they, as an employee, participate and help the situation. That is the mark of a great company, when all parties want to succeed and bring their best to work through tough times and see a promising future.
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?
A few things come top of mind here. 1) Admit when you make a mistake or don’t have all the answers 2) Don’t forget that you set the tone, all eyes are on you so control your fear when leading 3) Take responsibility in the tough times as much as the good times 4) Find lessons to be learned and share those with your people. These ideas will help leaders be seen as more confident, approachable and caring to the team.
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 love to reimagine what is possible in my company by garnering insight and fresh ideas from a variety of groups in the organization. Valuing the unique experiences and knowledge from a variety of colleagues helps me keep my finger on the pulse of what is happening in the marketplace and with our customers. The dynamics of collaboration keep us all moving forward with excitement of what will happen next.
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.
Grace, Empathy & Presence
- We are all learning a new world; we don’t know what everyone is going through. Allowing flexibility in work and schedule or amnesty for mistakes goes a long way.
- Ask questions
- Empower people
- Avoid taking people’s burdens
- Provide psychological safety
- Acknowledge that this is a challenging time and display empathy
- Coach with compassion rather than for compliance
- Acknowledge the fear but don’t feed it
Regularly evaluate your life personally and professionally and choose to be present in the moment. Too often we try to be all things to all people. It gets exhausting and if you try to be all things to all people, you can never be as effective as you want to be. So be present in what you are doing. I remember early on learning this lesson…I was in Napa on my anniversary trip. My wonderful hubby did everything he could to make it special so I didn’t want him to know that I was working and kept running outside or the restroom. But there was this sign in the restroom under a little spotlight: “This bright new day…complete with 24 hours of opportunities, choices and attitudes. A perfectly matched set of 1,440 minutes. This unique gift, this one day, cannot be exchanged, replaced, or refunded. Handle with care. Make the most of it. There is only 1 to a customer” Instantly, I realized not only do I need to be present in my interactions but that I had a choice on how I wanted my interactions to be. Every day is a gift for everyone. Presence means leveraging grace and being an empathetic listener so that those around you know that they are important. This is especially imperative during challenging and stressful situations when people are anxious about their futures.
Transparent & Effective Communication
- Communicate effectively
- Share your vision for the future
- Encourage your people
- Communicate early and more than usual
- Listen broadly (go beyond your inner circle…avoid the “group think” trap)
- Ask people what they need
- Embrace uncertainty
- Make it emergent
- Remind people things will be imperfect
- Be transparent about the situation
Delivering persistent clear communication strategies and outreach to your peers and teams will help ensure all understand the vision for the future. Transparency is key in helping your teams embrace the highs and lows of business fluctuations, while reminding them of their importance to the job at hand. Early in my career, I had a pretty large staff I was managing both at an office location as well as at a large customer site that was having tremendous growing pains. Communication between the two separated teams needed to be clear and precise as we all were maneuvering through a very fast growth period in support of our VIP customer. It was imperative to have a daily catch up joint call with all staff, as well as have an all-hands meeting weekly to keep everyone moving on the same page with our goals and priorities needed to deliver to our customer. The team also appreciated the time they had to give their input, insights, and discuss challenges where they needed support with management. Today, we have the luxury of a variety of online communication channels available to keep remote teams connected. Encourage your staff to devise their own communication streams to work together for the common goal of success.
Culture of Connectedness, Team Spirt and Gratitude
- Celebrate large and small wins
- Include team in decisions
- Camaraderie among the team (creative, virtually, competitive, virtual game day & whiteboard sessions)
- Ask for honest feedback (in group and 1–1 sessions — advisory committees, inclusion exercises)
- Use your resources wisely. But use them. Remind team to use resources available.
- Connect with your team more regularly
- Show appreciation (notes, no meeting days, extra days off)
- Stay in touch
- Be curious and listen deeply
Relationships matter…it’s important to keep a ‘second family’ mentality with those you work with every day. Be sure to have fun, while being passionate about your mission and always keeping servant leadership forefront. Surround yourself with talent that compliments your weakness. You are not going to know everything about everything…utilize resources of the people on your team whose strengths will offset your weaknesses. Finally, remember, particularly in turbulent times, ‘you’ are the ‘they’. As a leader, you can no longer point fingers at changes and innovations. When things are tough, people need to know leadership is aligned.
Lead by Example and ensure progress is being made
- Control your fear
- Set the tone; act as all eyes are on you (they are)
- Take responsibility
- Encourage creative thinking
- Articulate purpose and goals
- Take time to make people feel special
- Choose your battles wisely
- Admit when you don’t have all the answers
- Be the person you want to work for
- Never take people for granted
Scrappiness has its place and in leadership, scrappiness means taking risks and putting yourself out there. We are typically only successful when we allow ourselves to make mistakes and the wrong decisions from time to time. Thus, I apply it and try it philosophy. Most career accelerations happen when there is a chaotic situation to fix, not when things are running at an optimum. In those opportunities, it’s important to have a balanced approach and to lead by example. If you wait until you have the perfect strategy, you are often too late. I have found there is never a perfect moment or perfect analysis or perfect strategy for anything and sometimes you just have to rely on your instincts. Don’t let perfection stand in the way of progress. ACT! Try something, apply it and be agile enough to course correct quickly.
Balance and Priorities
- Be tough, but human
- Control your fear
- Find the lessons to be learned
- Encourage flexibility and actively support it
- Rely on your preparation
- Model the way
- Take care of yourself first, then your family, then work
- Help your team re-prioritize and operate with a long-term vision
“Your priorities aren’t what you say they are, they are revealed by how you live.” I have learned that being successful is all about finding the right balance professionally and personally, and that being a professional doesn’t mean you can’t have other priorities that matter in your life. For me it was the lesson that I could be a good leader and still be a great parent as well. Don’t get me wrong, I love working in staffing and helping others find work. I love the lives we get to change, but not taking care of your “own house” so to speak is a miss. I wish I would have learned this lesson earlier. In the beginning of my career I had a boss who told me that children are germ balls, freedom busters and career killers. I was petrified to tell them I was expecting at the time, and then after having my beautiful son, I initially overcompensated thinking I could prove them wrong, but was only hurting myself as I was not able to spend the time that I wanted to with my son. So set your own guardrails and remember you define what is important to you by what you dedicate your time to.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Apply it, then try it, is something I’ve used throughout my career. Think of a scenario where over analyzing a situation or problem may have paralyzed you from making a decision, in order to not make a mistake. Just go with your instincts! Apply it and Try it, knowing there will be lessons learned if you make an error, but there just might also be great solutions as a result of your actions.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can look up my organization by going to Peopleready.com, and you can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter.