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 Mary Smith.
Mary Smith is an associate consultant with IA Business Advisors and is a Kolbe Certified Consultant. She has a bachelor’s in English literature and minored in psychology at the University of Redlands; she is currently working towards her master’s in organizational leadership. Her and her father, Dr. Brian Smith, developed The I in Team Series to help leaders find, be, and build their positive influence.
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 started working for IA Business Advisors in 2014 as an editor. In 2017, Brian approached me with the idea to write a series for leaders to help them better understand themselves, their influence on others, and how to build great teams. I started my master’s program in organizational leadership and became a Kolbe Certified Consultant towards the end of 2020. Since then, I have learned a tremendous amount from my mentor about being a great leader and developing other great leaders. We’ve successfully written two of the three book series, Individual Advantages: Find the “I” in Team and Individual Advantages: Be the “I” in Team. My work with The I in Team Series is one of my biggest passions in life, so much so that I centered my master’s degree around helping leaders be a more positive influence for their teams. My goal is to help others be positive leaders so they and those following them can flourish.
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?
I tend to be a very literal person, which serves me well in my academic endeavors, however I need to be a little more mindful in a professional environment where communication can be more open for interpretation. I learned to be careful with my black and white mentality when I first began working. While attending school, I worked in a snack bar and a manager asked me to prepare some extra condiments for pizzas, specifically the canned pineapple rings. He said, “Mary, can you cut the pineapple in the can?” So, naturally, I started cutting the pineapple, in the can, by removing the top and sticking a knife into the center of the pineapple rings and cutting outwards. He asked me, somewhat shocked and concerned, “What are you doing?” I said I was cutting the pineapple in the can like he asked me to. Lesson was, get clarification, and it has served me well.
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?
Well, I am certainly grateful for my dad, Brian, for helping me get to where I am today. It was his idea to begin the series and his knowledge that got us started off. I have learned a tremendous amount reading his writings and piecing them together for others to benefit from as well. Brian has been immersed in leadership development for over 25 years, so mentorship has been greatly needed and appreciated as I begin my journey towards being a leadership development consultant. My first experience in leadership development began at the start of the pandemic, where I was coaching a new employee being onboarded to the company’s c-suite team and one of his direct reports. The full story of this experience is below, but I was extremely fortunate to be allowed to work on a leadership development project in 2020 as I was starting to look into master’s programs and wasn’t sure which direction I should go. This opportunity solidified my purpose.
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 my father started IA Business Advisors, his vision was to help every human being understand their own individual advantages. Part of our philosophy is that the word “individual” has many meanings. We separate these meanings by capitalizing or leaving the word lowercase: Individual vs individual. Individual, capitalized, can mean many or several, while lowercase individual means one; for example, an Individual company is comprised of several individual employees. Another example, that same Individual company is comprised of several Individual teams, which are comprised of several individual employees. Therefore, Individual Advantages celebrates the advantages of both individuals and Individuals.
Our purpose is to help everyone realize either their own, their companies, or their employees’ individual and Individual advantages. We believe in diversity, inclusivity, individualism, and spreading a positive influence by being your most authentic self. Our purpose remains to this day helping organizations succeed by identifying what makes them great: Their people, process, and technology. By helping organizations understand what makes them unique, they can more easily thrive in their market, provide a good place to work, and engage with their communities proactively.
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?
At the start of the pandemic, one of our teams (clients) onboarded a new management level employee. This was difficult for several team members: first, it was difficult for the new employee because he was attempting to integrate into a new team remotely and understand his role; second, it was difficult for the employee who was his direct report, that was experiencing some separation anxiety from the team and felt that he deserved a promotion to the management position rather than hiring a new employee; third, it was difficult for the team, all of whom were now working from home, dealing with kids, and trying to lead and prepare for the unknown. My position working with the team was in leadership development and conflict management. I worked with the new employee and his direct report to increase their positive leadership skills. I also worked with them both together to assist in conflict management. One of the biggest lessons I learned from the experience is that during uncertain and difficult times, leaders need to have impeccable communication skills. When life is already turbulent, ensuring you understand someone and they understand you is so important for emotional and mental stability.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think if we are honest with ourselves, there is always a small part of us that wants to give up when things challenge us too much. It might not always present itself, but when we are rundown, tired, and overworked, there is definitely part of the brain that just wants to throw in the towel. Or, is that just me? When I started my work with The I in Team Series, I wrote in our first book’s foreword that I realized I could have a positive influence on others and contribute myself to the world, and this is when my life changed. Before then, I was in a pretty dark place then; I didn’t see any beauty in the world. Once I realized I could create it, I never looked back.
My motivation for facing challenges is knowing that by helping to overcome a challenge, I take part of the burden away from someone else; it also comes from knowing that there is still so much more good to be done, so many more lives to change and make better, that I can’t just simply give up when I’ve barely started. To be honest, my drive to help other people live more fulfilling lives is what sustains me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader is giving the appearance of emotional stability and objective positivity even if you’re feeling less than ideal. It’s about staying positive and remaining emotionally intelligent so you can attend to the needs of your team to keep the organization together. When there are turbulent times, your team is going to look to you as a mentor and role model for how to behave and think during that time. If a leader starts exhibiting negative qualities from high stress, or becomes short or easily angered, it just makes their team feel less secure. This is where consistency comes in; positive leaders attempt to face challenges consistently, so they demonstrate to their team the appropriate way to face uncertainty. By this, I mean they try to be consistently even-tempered, positive, and attentive. I believe leaders can be honest about their feelings of anxiety during turbulent times, even encouraging other team members to be honest about their mental health, but always bringing it around to a positive and focusing on what is going right. Remaining empathetic and pragmatic will aide a leader greatly during challenging times.
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?
Focusing on the positive, remembering what there is to be grateful for, celebrating what is going right, and bringing the team together. At IA, we have a weekly Gratitude Group and this has immensely boosted overall employee morale and positivity in the workplace. I believe if leaders are looking to boost their employees’ morale, giving them a forum to express their feelings of uncertainty, perhaps one on one or as a group, to show each other support and empathy will help immensely. Adding at the end of this session a moment to reflect on what is going right, what is currently positive in the now, and what is going to remain positive in the future will help ease anxieties.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Direct, verbal communication is always best to deliver difficult news. Digital communications lack properly conveyed tones and can be skewed by the person reading. In person, or video conferencing, is best. This allows the receiver of the bad news to see the body language and facial features of the deliverer. Leaders should also be mindful to deliver difficult news with a proposed solution. Positive leaders understand that it’s not constructive to simply deliver difficult news (unless that news is “final”) without offering a solution to help fix it. You wouldn’t let your team member flounder and you certainly wouldn’t let your customers flounder, so never give difficult news without trying to help brainstorm a solution or coming up with one beforehand.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Make plans! Adjust as needed. Allow yourself to accept a certain amount of wiggle room in any plan; the best prepared plans suffer from change before they are achieved, so know that in turbulent times you need to be open to fluidity/changes to the plans. With a future so unpredictable, why stop living life? We’ve had to adjust so much this far already, adjusting your schedule again a few months down shouldn’t be too difficult. Do your best to keep planning now with the information you have, but don’t stop just because the future seems unclear. If every leader stopped because of turbulent and unexpected futures, organizations wouldn’t get anywhere. Make the best plans with the best information you have available now. Get your team to give you opinions on it; you don’t have to do this alone! Allow your team to offer their diverse thoughts to make the plan come together more cohesively.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Change is the only constant. The luckiest part about going down, is at some point you have to go back up again.
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?
1) Not strategizing: You can keep strategizing during turbulent times; you can adjust current strategies and should strategize for the current and foreseeable future.
2) Making decisions emotionally: It’s okay to feel emotional when life is hectic and uncertain, but don’t make decisions emotionally. Wait until you’re clearer minded or trust someone else to make the decision who can remain pragmatic.
3) Lacking policies and procedures: This is really for anytime, but especially during difficult times. Lacking policies and procedures are like lacking the foundation to your house during a tornado.
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?
Make a S.M.A.R.T. plan. Anyone can incorporate S.M.A.R.T. into their day to day lives, using it to build long- and short-term goals, including habits. S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Using this method to plan, strategize, and track your goals will ensure growth. Be mindful to set up appropriate KPIs (key performance indicators), which is how you will most easily track growth and progress.
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.
1) Be open and available: Your team might need you, your clients/customers might need you, your friends, family, and loved ones might need you. Try to be open and available for them. As advisors, being open and available is part of our job, but if we are always facing outward to help others, there can emerge internal struggles. One of Brian’s most lasting qualities is his ability to be available for his teams regardless of his schedule. Brian never turns someone away who needs his input. It may be one of the advisors at IA or a driver or laborer in one of his 42 companies, but never does he say, “I don’t have time for you.”
2) Have empathy: Empathy is the ability to connect with and understand others’ emotional states and then being able to communicate or demonstrate that understanding. Having empathy will help you when others come to you for emotional support as their leader. This could range anywhere from experiencing complete breakdowns to someone venting their frustration about not being able to eat at a restaurant for nearly a year. Empathy is a trait that breeds appreciation and loyalty. As with his open-door policy, Brian has true empathy for his team. It does not matter how unrelated or silly an issue may seem to him or anyone else, if it affects his team member he is empathetic to them in a way that they feel comfortable with using his open-door policy and working to positively address any issue they may face. I have heard that people go to him for things you’d never think would be discussed with leaders, which has led to Brian having a tremendous team of very loyal people.
3) Find a friend: Being a leader is exhausting — rewarding, but exhausting. #1 and #2 above are going to be emotionally taxing. That can look different for everyone. Some people get really tired when they are emotionally exhausted, some people cry, other people eat their favorite foods and fall asleep on the couch binge watching the latest season of Grey’s Anatomy. As a leader, it’s important to find a friend that you can confide in. Be it a mentor, loved one, or fellow co-worker, find someone you trust that you can vent to and get support from. I have found that when I’m lacking support, it’s harder to give others support. I have a best friend from college, who is a growing leader in her organization, and her and I chat occasionally about growing in our new roles, the fears and frustrations we have, and just generally lean on each other for support. We help each other think through problems and come up with solutions.
4) Make a plan: The future may seem chaotic but bringing together the best and most diverse minds to put a rough plan together with the information you have will help everyone feel more at ease. Nobody has a plan when life turns upside down, so leaders need to trust their team to help them analyze the information at hand and move forward. As mentioned above, even the most difficult problems can be tackled using a S.M.A.R.T. plan. At IA, we teach policy and procedure development and management, which all follow this process.
5) Take care of yourself: You aren’t your best for others if you aren’t first best for yourself. To have a positive influence, you have to be healthy. That means taking care of yourself. Do you practice self-love? It goes beyond eating or exercising; putting yourself first, paying attention to your needs, is vital. When you take care of yourself, you can more easily care for your organization as a whole. When an organization’s leader is mentally and emotionally strong, the whole organization benefits from having a healthy and positive leader. I used to burn out very quickly and often because I didn’t show myself love or care. It’s something I’ve recently adopted into my routine and it’s had a positive influence on how available I can make myself for my teams.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”
Well, I am a vegan, so this quote really speaks to me when it comes to lessening the suffering of others. I strive to do this in my everyday life, with all the choices I make. I strive to remain a positive influence and treat people with love, kindness, and acceptance. As an avid learner, I want to keep my mind open to the millions of possibilities this world brings. That means staying open to new experiences, new people, and exposing myself to new or uncomfortable ideas. I really value curiosity and social awareness, so this quote speaks to me on several levels.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The I in Team Series
IA Business Advisors