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 Luke Sheppard. He is the author of the new book Driving Great Results: Master The Tools You Need to Run A Great Business, that provides entrepreneurs and managers with nineteen practical and proven tools to build, launch, and manage a successful business. He is the founder and principle of Sheppard & Company, a firm created on the premise of helping others to apply the proven business principles he’s honed over his 20-year career. Luke has spent most of his career with John Deere, a heavy equipment manufacturer, in engineering, operations, general management, and executive leadership roles. Luke’s unique ability to focus on what’s really important by filtering out noise, solving problems, and driving results with practical tools and solutions are what differentiates him from the average consultant.
Luke’s extensive business experience is backed by a solid education in Canada and the United States. He holds an Associate Degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology from Algonquin College (Ottawa, ON), a B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin, an M.Sc. in Systems Engineering from Iowa State University, and an Executive MBA from the University of Iowa.
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 a small town in Newfoundland, Canada. My dad was a geologist with a mineral exploration company, and both he and my mom owned a variety of small businesses. From an early age, I learned what it meant to be a leader by watching my dad and was also exposed to the pros and cons of being an entrepreneur.
He instilled in me the importance of treating people fairly and valuing their thoughts and ideas, not just their contribution to the business.
Throughout my 20 year career with John Deere, starting off as an engineer and then finishing as a vice president, that lesson stuck with me. I’ve always tried to put people first, and it’s served me well, as evidenced by some of the great results I’ve been able to achieve in my career.
About ten years ago, I started noticing that many of the frustrations faced by entrepreneurs and managers in a variety of industries were remarkably consistent and similar. So I started taking notes. I saw these issues in my own experiences as a manager and leader, and I witnessed them wherever I went worldwide. There seemed to be a never-ending grind to achieve great results. Still, at the same time, it was indeed a grind, and to deliver better than average results required long days, time away from family, and more frustration than the average person should encounter in a lifetime. As a systems engineer, this was a problem that I wanted to solve.
That’s why I entered the consulting space and wrote my book, Driving Great Results. I identified as many of the issues as I could, such as making high-quality decisions or hiring and managing the right people, distilled them down into their most basic elements, and identified and captured the tools I thought would be most beneficial to those running businesses. That’s what you’ll find in my book: practical tools with proven results.
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?
Perhaps not quite as funny to the other parties, but I was terrible at remembering names for a long time. I’d meet someone in a meeting or at a conference, and as quickly as they’d introduce themselves, I’d forget their names.
There was this one time when I was an engine design engineer and was spending a lot of time visiting new suppliers for engine components. I was in my mid-twenties and had just met a brilliant engine research scientist and was so impressed with his knowledge and pedigree that I’m pretty sure his name went in one ear and out the other as soon as he said it.
We met for several hours that morning, and for the duration of our meeting, I referred to him as Kyle. Every time I said his name, he just smiled a little, but I didn’t think much of it. When we ended for the day, and I thanked “Kyle” for his time, he smiled again and said, “Luke, it’s been a pleasure, but my name isn’t Kyle. It’s Ken.” I apologized profusely, and we both laughed a bit, but he made his point in a very subtle and powerful way. I vowed never to forget a name again upon first meeting someone.
Now, whenever I meet someone new, I always ensure to look them in the eye while repeating back their name. This practice has been enormously helpful to remember someone’s name, and I’ve not had a “Kyle” moment since.
None of us can 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’ve had the opportunity to work with amazing coaches and mentors throughout my career and couldn’t agree more that success is impossible without some help along the way.
And although it might sound cliché, the one person I am unbelievably grateful towards who helped me get to where I am is my wife. When I first got married, I never could’ve imagined just how meaningful the relationship that I have with my wife would be as it relates to my personal development and how she’s helped and coached me to be a better leader, a better husband, and dad, and a better person.
I think a great coach asks excellent questions and encourages you to think about things differently. When I was contemplating going back to college full-time in my early 30s to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering, she offered some really thought-provoking questions once she got over the initial shock. What’s the ROI? What’s the impact on our lifestyle? What benefit will you realize in your personal development? How will this change the course of what you want to be (and our family) in 5, 10, or 15 years?
She’s been supportive, critical, objective, and candid in her feedback. Exactly what you want from a coach or mentor. I’m fortunate to be her partner.
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?
My business is just getting off the ground, so this is a really great question. As I see it, my purpose is to help managers and entrepreneurs be more effective in their job. In doing so, they’ll realize better results with fewer frustrations and have time to live their life to the fullest.
I know the personal toll it takes to work 70 or 80 hours a week, months on end, with little to no time for family. That’s no way to live life. I see it happen all the time and as a father of two young children, I understand just how important it is to their development, and my happiness, to spend valuable time with them. I know many other people feel the same way, and it’s my goal to furnish them with simple solutions to run a better business.
Although my book has only been out for a month, I’ve already heard from leaders in the restaurant industry that my disc team builder is helping managers build sustainable teams. I’ve heard from entrepreneurs in the heavy equipment industry that the communication tools outlined in my book help break down interdepartmental silos. And I’ve heard from entrepreneurs planning their post-pandemic recovery how helpful my ZoO tool has been in determining which projects to pursue.
All of these examples directly illustrate and support why I wrote my book. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel for the stuff that’s already known to work well. The time you would have spent dealing with employee turnover, conflict, and project prioritization can now be spent with your team, customers, or family.
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’ve been privileged to lead many different types of teams in other circumstances throughout my career.
Several years ago, I was the general manager of a large, heavy equipment dealership and I was tasked with the responsibility of turning around the business. It was a daunting task. I knew that there would be many personnel changes in front of me; there was a move to a different facility, cultural changes required, and a complete reassessment of the business’s strategic plan was also in the cards.
There was a lot of uncertainty.
There were a couple of things that I found worked well to lead my team through this period of change and uncertainty:
- Communicate why. I communicated the case for change clearly and truthfully. I didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. I was very open with my team about why things had to change.
- Seek the advice and input of others. I asked my team how we could tackle the challenges in front of us. When they were vested in the solution, the outcome was a whole lot better than me going it alone.
- Be available. I made myself as open as possible to questions anytime they arose.
- I relied on my values. I think it’s essential that my staff knew that I valued their health and safety above anything else.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I wouldn’t say that I considered giving up, though I did periodically evaluate how and where I invested my time. The biggest challenge of leading through uncertainty is the uncertainty itself. What might seem like a good idea to invest your time in one week could very well change the next. Time, like money, is susceptible to the sunk-cost bias. There were a few occasions where I changed course after realizing that the time already sunk into one of the changes I implemented wasn’t going to bear fruit.
I think my motivations were both intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic included always wanting to succeed, position myself for promotion, and provide for my family. And extrinsic with monetary gains I would realize as a result of my actions. I also knew that I had an obligation to my team to see this through. Their livelihood depended on our ability to turn the business around, and they knew that.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think this is best defined from the perspective of the leader’s values. As I tend to value the people I have the privilege to lead more than anything else, I believe people-focused actions and decisions are the most critical aspects of leading during turbulent times. Because of that, I see a communicator’s role as the most vital for a leader during challenging times.
I’ve witnessed too many instances where employees were left in the dark to figure things out on their own when their world is swirling around them. The job of the leader is to stop this world. Provide clarity. Provide reassurance. And, provide truthful and direct updates regardless of whether the information is positive or negative.
Challenging times don’t last. Leaders need to keep their people informed for businesses to succeed, persevering through the challenging times and capitalizing when the cycle inverts.
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?
Celebrate the wins — all of them. We, humans, are an interesting lot and tend to view a loss as more impactful than a gain of the same amount. It’s incredible how this perception of loss creeps up in times of uncertainty. We lose what’s normal. That loss of normality requires a disproportionate and positive response to keep the engagement of our team engagement high.
Therefore, I recommend a straightforward action to boost morale.
Celebrate all the wins, even the little ones. This creates a culture of recognition, support and drives higher levels of employee engagement.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In person and succinctly. They are situations where sending out an email or posting an announcement to social media is perfectly acceptable. Sharing bad news is not one of them. I have found that difficult information is best communicated in person, or at the very least via virtual video, and briefly. There’s no point in dragging out what is an already difficult situation.
Early in my career, I worked in a factory that was shuttered. The entire production team was severed, and a select number of staff were relocated from Ontario, Canada to Iowa. On the day that the news was delivered, the factory manager stood up in front of the 2000 employees, was very clear about what was about to happen, and provided plenty of time for Q&A. Don’t get me wrong, nobody was happy, and the mood wasn’t festive. But, the message was clear and concise and delivered with empathy.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Plans are useless, but planning is everything.
Making decisions in the face of unpredictability comprises a not insignificant part of a leader’s job. In my experience, the best leaders develop strategic plans that have at least a five-year horizon. Within those plans are risk assessments used to assess the business’s impact when the plan goes off track.
Unfortunately, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were likely very few risk assessments that accounted for this externality. But it doesn’t mean that planning is a wasted activity — quite the contrary. A culture of planning is one where the leader and their team are continually engaged in a thought process about how they will achieve their future goals. And while plans may change, that planning process is vital to any leader looking to ensure their business is adaptable in the face of uncertainty.
For those leaders caught amid uncertainty, I recommend a back to basics approach:
- First, the leader must understand their values and the values of their business. This is the bed rock on which the business operates.
- Second, a swot analysis should be conducted to thoroughly understand the business’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
- Third, a risk assessment identifying the likelihood and severity of current and near-future risks and how these risks can impact the business.
- And fourth, all these elements are brought together into the strategic plan for the business.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Sir Richard Branson said it best: prepare for the downside.
This doesn’t mean having a morbid approach to running a business. It does mean forecasting, using a risk assessment what could go wrong, and making appropriate plans to counteract the downside. I like to use a premortem to forecast out several months or years envision that my project or plan has failed. Doing so forces me to consider a complete array of downsides for which I can then develop contingency plans to counteract should those downsides occur.
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?
- Waiting for normalcy to return, but there’s no such thing. The way things were will never be the same as the way things will be.
- Waiting too long to make difficult decisions.
- Continuing to invest good money after bad in the hopes that things will magically get better.
- Focusing on driving the same results as always that they fail to notice the culture that they’ve worked so hard to develop crumbling around them.
There are two things I recommend leaders keep in mind to avoid some of these mistakes.
- Pay close attention to the people in the business — the emotional needs and wants of your employees and customers. Emotions can easily get the better of us during times of uncertainty and leaders are responsible for helping others to understand and manage their emotions as they work through the challenges in front of them
- Continually assess the new business realities of your environment. This is a great time to update your SWOT analysis and strategic plan.
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?
This is where a really clear understanding of your customer needs and how they value your product or service comes in to play. The closer you are to your customer, the more resilient your business over the long haul.
So one strategy is to personally spend more time with your customers, but also encourage your team to do so as well. This will help you stay on top of changing customer needs or demographics and fine-tune your offerings accordingly.
Another strategy is to do something I like to call a needs — values mind map. This is a powerful strategic exercise to evaluate how well your existing offerings pair to a change in customer needs.
For example, during the pandemic, it became very clear that safety needs (at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of values) were valued highly by nearly everyone in society. It was clear that manufacturing PPE and related items would be a perfect fit for those organizations that similarly valued safety and had manufacturing as a strength and core competency. It’s this type of thinking that can often identify tangential markets, products, and opportunities.
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.
I love this question because it is exactly why I wrote my book.
The reality is turbulent times are a certainty for any business. My experience in the heavy equipment industry and related industries such as construction, mining, agriculture, forestry, and the cyclical nature of these industries has reaffirmed for me the need for leaders to know how to lead equally when times are good as when times are challenging.
My five most important things include one obvious thing and four things: the chapters of my book. These behaviors should not only be done in turbulent times but are simply good practice for running a business.
1 . Prepare for uncertainty. Long before turbulent times appear on the horizon, leaders must prepare for these eventualities. Good times never last and the time for leaders to prepare for turbulent times is when their business is riding high, not when the bottom falls out of their business.
A great example of this is succession planning in the construction industry. I’ve witnessed company owners just a few years from retirement riding high on the wave of success during periods of economic boom having to sell their company for a fraction of its value during the economic trough because they had no succession plan once they decided to retire. The time to think about getting out, or at the very least, developing a sound succession plan is when things are going well.
2. Know and reaffirm your values. These are the things that are most important to you and define who you are. They impact how you make decisions, set priorities, and engage with your people.
There was a recent example in British Columbia where a restaurant owner decided to close his doors during the pandemic because his restaurant was too full to guarantee his employees’ safety. Even though he was entirely within the guidelines for social distancing, he prioritized the health and safety of his employees over profit. Many restaurants have faced a similar predicament during the pandemic. While not all have the luxury of closing their doors in the face of high demand to prioritize their employees’ safety, this owner was explicitly clear to both his employees and customers what was most important to him.
3. Be purposeful in your decision-making and prioritization. Uncertainty brings with it a whole host of emotions for any leader. I’ve found that the anxiety that accompanies uncertainty influences leaders to make more intuitive (gut) rather than objective and fact-based decisions. The urge to do something — anything — in the face of indecisiveness can lead to poor-quality decisions. This is the time to double down on your decision-making process. For low-risk decisions with which you have experience, use your gut. For high-risk decisions that will have a greater impact on your business, stay the course with data and objective decision making tools. The same goes for setting priorities. There’s no need to throw your prioritization process out the window just because your priorities have shifted. Continue to prioritize the projects and tasks on the basis of their value to your business.
As I set out to launch my book during the pandemic, the swirl of uncertainty about how to do so was nearly overwhelming. Would traditional publicity methods still work? Should I completely change my approach about which social media platforms on which to market my book? Should I delay the launch?
In the end, I used my values, data, and facts to guide me and built a focused launch plan that so far has worked well.
4. Communicate with purpose. I’ve observed throughout my career that when leaders encounter a challenging situation, communication slows to a trickle and very often stops. Your team knows something is up, but has no idea to what extent or what the impact will be on the business. Sometimes this is necessary if you’re entering into a merger or acquisition, but more often than not, it’s no excuse to turn down the volume.
Early in my career, I was engaged in an acquisition process where the acquiring company chose to keep its current employees and newly acquired employees in the dark about the whole process. There was so much uncertainty and rumor-milling that the majority of employees became disillusioned and disenfranchised. Turnover soared, business performance tanked, and it took the acquiring company several years to recover from a situation that could otherwise have been prevented by simply communicating better.
5. Manage effectively. You still have to do the fundamentals of managing people exceptionally well. This involves recruiting, hiring, and onboarding the right people. It means that you take the time to ensure your goals are up to date to reflect the business realities around you and align your team to these goals. It means that you continue to meet 1:1 with your team to assay and assuage their needs and concerns.
I remember one situation where I was leading through a major business turnaround. Everyone knew that we had to make changes, but we still had customers to serve and a core business to run. Therefore, I viewed the job of turning around the business from both a managerial perspective: keep the core business running, and view change as a separate process until such time as both paths merged.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“At the end of the day, people won’t remember what you said or did. They will remember how you made them feel.”
I’m an engineer. I rely on facts and data and tended to view my reality as objectively as possible for many years. I was taught and encouraged to remove emotions from running a business or leading people and shared the same perspective with those who reported to me.
Wow, what a mistake!
Emotions have a huge impact on everything we do. I’ve discovered that the closer we are to our own emotions, how others feel, and the feelings we espouse in others, the better we lead. If you make a high-quality, fact-based and objective decision that leaves someone else feeling deflated and angry, they may never again support your ideas in the future. On the other hand, if you explain your decision, recognize how it might make them feel, and acknowledge their contribution to the decision, it will have a much better effect. They might still be disappointed, but they’re less likely to be angry about the outcome.
In the theater of business, recognizing and managing the emotions of those whom you lead is as important as the objective decisions you make.
How can our readers further follow your work?
See my website drivinggreatresults.com, or follow me on LinkedIn or Facebook @ ljsheppar