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 Lisa Arledge Powell.
Lisa Arledge Powell is the president of MediaSource, an award-winning, story-centric communications agency that specializes in helping brands find and create stories that drive their business forward. Lisa began her communications career as a television news reporter and anchor and now applies that experience to storytelling for brands. Known as an industry thought leader, Lisa trains other communicators on best practices for how to use storytelling to meet business goals.
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?
Ever since I was young, I dreamed of being a television journalist. After college, I packed my bags and moved across the country for my first TV news job and I worked in television for about eight years. Since I’ve always been a leader and I have a passion for storytelling, it wasn’t long after working in television that I started my communications agency, MediaSource. Having my own company built on storytelling is a good fit for me because it addresses my passion for creativity and leadership.
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?
One mistake I made in the early days of MediaSource was putting a crib in the company’s very first office and thinking that I could actually get work done! My son was just a baby when the company started 22 years ago and I have no clue why I thought starting a company with an infant was a good idea. Once I figured out how to work during his naps, life got a little easier. I learned how to write video scripts very, very quickly back then — out of necessity.
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 so many people who have helped me along the way. One person who had the largest impact on my ability to visualize and plan my overall career trajectory was Debbie Phillips, my boss at the last TV job I had before starting MediaSource. I had just made the jump from local television news to a national health show, where I was given the role of interviewing celebrities across the country. Coming off of several years as a local TV news reporter, it felt intimidating to work with talent and producers with experience at the national networks. Debbie recognized my potential and her input gave me the confidence to rise to the next level. I still work with Debbie today. As my business coach, she continues to provide great advice and insight.
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 the business, I wanted to create a company built to tell stories and share important information that people need to know. More than two decades later, though the methods of sharing stories have changed, we are operating under the same purpose: sharing credible, important information through storytelling.
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?
The year 2020 has been the most challenging one in my 22 years as a business owner. Both my son and I contracted the coronavirus within the first few weeks of the pandemic. Both cases, thankfully, were mild. However, in the early days of COVID-19, I was balancing recovery from the virus along with the challenges of running the business during this uncertain time.
About 80% of MediaSource’s business is with major hospitals and academic centers across the country. When the pandemic hit, hospitals went into crisis mode in order to devise plans to handle testing, accommodate COVID-19 patients and keep their staffs safe. Our public relations work for hospitals ground to a halt for several weeks. And while most of our work is based on annual contracts, I wondered when, and (if I’m being completely honest) if our work would resume.
By early April, each of our health care clients decided that they were ready to address the media all at once. During just one week in April, MediaSource had more than 100 stories in varying stages of development or being pitched actively to the national news media. I knew that our PR team did not have the bandwidth to handle that volume of work and garner media success for our clients in our current company structure.
At the same time, with the exception of some interviews via Zoom, our video production work was temporarily halted due to the quarantine. I scheduled a videoconference, assembled my leadership team and proposed an organizational restructure that would combine our three main departments (Public Relations, Creative and Strategy) and have everyone work under one “COVID Command Center” umbrella to support the PR team in earning media results for clients.
The organizational restructuring immediately showed dramatic results. Our team was averaging 270+ media placements per week for our clients as we moved into April, and that momentum did not slow down. As the news media became receptive to stories that were unrelated to the pandemic, our media relations results continued to grow, which is a major accomplishment during such a crowded news cycle.
The restructure was such a success that today, we’ve kept the best parts of the COVID Command Center structure in our workflow.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
While giving up has crossed my mind, it’s never an option for me. In fact, during the pandemic, I have found that I am even more driven than before the crisis. As a business owner, a lot of people and their families depend on me to make the right decisions and lead them through the good times and bad. The people — my staff and our clients — are my motivators. MediaSource is more than a job, and I care deeply about each and every person associated with the company.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times, a leader needs to be able to look forward and set the vision for the company’s future. This is difficult because, during challenging times, your focus is needed to get through the adversity. However, it is crucial to be forward-thinking.
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?
The most inspiring thing a leader can do is to sincerely relate to their team on a personal level. Living and working through a pandemic is difficult regardless of your role in the company. I make it a point to share my own feelings and experiences so that they can feel comfortable sharing theirs. For example, I let my team know that it’s OK to feel motivated and successful one day and anxious and uncertain the next. The pandemic is not going to end anytime soon, and we need to all find a way to get through this together.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I believe that leaders should communicate difficult news with honesty and transparency. Whether it was about my own COVID-19 diagnosis or news affecting the business, my strategy has been to communicate early and often, even when there was no new information. In fact, many times over the past few months I have shared news with my team beginning with the statement “Here’s what I don’t know.”
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I wish that there was a business handbook for surviving a pandemic! But since that does not exist, I’ve tried to react to what’s happening in the present while focusing on building the future. In this unpredictable time, you need to be ready to pivot quickly. You can only do that if you have an eye on what’s on the horizon.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Even without a pandemic, there will be many turbulent times if you’re in business long enough. The number one principle to help guide a company through the challenges is having a marathon mentality. As a leader, you have to act in the present while also considering the long term. You can’t allow the ups and downs to define you. You will have amazing times and not-so-amazing times. Leaders who can contemplate the big picture and incorporate that into their strategies will make better overall decisions for the company.
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?
Lack of communication
Businesses whose leadership become invisible during difficult times are losing an opportunity to get further buy-in from their teams and stakeholders. It’s important for leaders to regularly update staff, clients and others. Showing your team that you care through honest communication can go a long way during hard times.
Being paralyzed in the present
Businesses that are so stuck in the bad times that they don’t look forward are setting themselves up for more difficult times. Leaders need to look ahead to future financial projections, new trends and potential opportunities in order to make the decisions to move the needle in the right direction.
Being unwilling to change
Hard times should cause you to look inward and figure out how your business can change for the better. I believe any company that comes out of the other side of this pandemic without taking a close look at their brand and asking how they can better serve their customers in our new reality is missing a huge opportunity for their company’s future.
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?
To maintain financial stability during the pandemic, we put processes into place to ensure that our current clients are taken care of and continue to receive the highest level of service. Clients need to know that they are not alone and that we are in this with them. We are also doing a brand refresh to ensure that the brand we present and the tone we use will resonate in the new business climate.
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.
My son played hockey goaltender for years. One metaphor I use as motivation to be a better leader is having a “starting goalie” mentality. Here are the five things a business leader should do during uncertain times, through the lens of a starting goalie.
1. Take care of your team
It is tough to be trailing your opponent in a hockey game and you can’t make a comeback on your own. This is when you need your teammates. As a business leader, the number one thing you should do during challenging times is to take care of your team and other stakeholders, such as your clients. You’re going to be asking a lot from them during this time, so you need to let them know they are valued. The past few years have been a war for talent, so we’ve worked hard to make sure that our benefits are competitive. One benefit we implemented in 2019 was the option to work one day remotely. This infrastructure that we had already put into place allowed us to make the work-from-home transition during the pandemic much easier on the team and the company.
2. Be fearless
A goalie’s job is to put themselves in front of a puck that’s travelling up to 100 miles per hour. That’s what being a leader sometimes feels like during difficult times! But this is not the time to second guess yourself or your decision-making abilities. Hard times require you to dig deep and make the courageous and sometimes difficult decisions to lead your business forward into better days. Because we work with so many hospitals that were losing millions of dollars in revenue driven by elective surgeries, I made the decision early in the pandemic to proactively cut our fees by 10% for annual contract clients. This not only went a long way to show goodwill to clients, it has also helped to protect our company from deeper cuts going forward.
3. Listen to your coaches
Coaches can see the game from all angles, which is similar to a consultant for a business. Regardless of your business and leadership skills, most people need outside experts to help them run their company. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in areas that fall outside your expertise. During the pandemic I relied on our financial consultant to help the company secure a PPP loan and to devise forward-looking stress tests with financial scenarios so that we’re prepared for the future.
4. Trust your gut
Sometimes in a game, and in business, things just feel right even though they may not always seem logical. It feels like the right play to call, the right person to hire or the right move to make. I make decisions based on data and past experiences, but also based on my gut feeling. Nine times out of 10, my gut is right. This has been helpful during the past few months when no past data or historical information existed. I sent my team home to work remotely well before the “stay at home” orders were given during the pandemic because it felt like the right thing to do. I don’t plan to bring them back into our office until it feels like the right time.
5. Play the long game
A goalie who can shake off giving away a goal goes a long way in setting the mood for the rest of the game. It’s the same for a leader who can move on after a setback and play the long game. Every company will have challenges. It’s how the leader deals with these difficult times that matters. In 2008 and 2009 many of MediaSource’s retail clients decreased their work with us during the recession. These brands were hesitant to commit to annual contract work. I used this as an opportunity to seek more of the types of clients who were committing to annual contracts, which were hospitals. This led to a company reinvention which helped us successfully grow and specialize in health care communications.
During difficult times, business leaders can learn important lessons by taking a page from the goalie playbook. The game is not over yet.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Choose people who lift you up.” — Michelle Obama. This quote is so relevant to me at this time in my life. Like many people, the pandemic has caused me to look inward and evaluate how and with whom I want to spend my time, both professionally and personally. This quote is a good litmus test for who I want to allow into my life now and going forward.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I would love it if you followed me on our company website,