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 Meghan Lynch, CEO of Six-Point Creative.
A brand strategist and entrepreneur, Meghan Lynch has made it her mission to help family-owned brands remain competitive and grow sustainably into the future through the development of Six-Point’s signature Solve for Y brand strategy program. Most family businesses have over 70% of their revenue concentrated in just a few large customers or a single market. Meghan created the Solve for Y process to help these companies diversify without putting the value and legacy that they have built in jeopardy. Meghan also commits significant energy to supporting other women entrepreneurs, serving as a mentor in the Babson College WIN Lab program and WomenVenture. She was also honored as an Enterprising Woman of the Year in 2019.
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 never thought I was going to own a business. I was an English major, and really had wanted to be a college professor, but I had an unexpected opportunity to start Six-Point with two people who I really looked up to, so I went for it. I still didn’t really think I belonged in the business world until I joined a peer learning group at a Family Business Center. I was so impressed by the openness, passion, and commitment of the other CEOs in the group. I realized that this was the side of business that I was really interested in supporting and being a part of — a heartfelt, human side that was about doing what you love, and making your community better.
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?
There have been many failures and lessons along the way, so it is hard to choose one! I do remember one time very early on in the company when one of my business partners and I had a great meeting with a large distribution company. At the end of the meeting, the prospective client said that he would love to come for a tour of our office. At the time, we were just four people in a really tiny single-room office, but she and I both said, “Of course!” We drove back to the office and immediately told the two others, “They want to come visit! We have to move!” Now I look back and laugh at myself because I would never feel like I had to posture like that for a client. Our clients do business with us because of our expertise and our empathy, not because of a fancy office. But when you are getting started, it is really hard to have confidence like that in your own value.
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?
So many people have helped me! One who stands out is the founder of the Family Business Center who first introduced me to peer learning, Ira Bryck. He invited me to join his organization and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Over the years, he was always creating new programs and content that he felt would benefit the members, and sometimes he would call me and say “I am running this session specifically with you in mind, so you have to come!” And then he would always make sure that I found it valuable, and would actively seek out feedback. I really appreciated Ira’s drive to improve his organization, and also that he was so focused on his target audience as individuals. I have tried to incorporate this mindset into my own business, and keep individuals in mind when I am creating tools, or content, or workshops. It helps me be focused on the value I am creating and who I am creating it for, not just on what seems like a cool idea.
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?
I think with Six-Point, it actually took us a few years to find our purpose. When we started, it was more that we were three people who enjoyed working together. We cared more about the work and each other than we did some greater good. Now, though, our company is completely focused on helping family-owned businesses, especially in highly competitive industries like food and beverage, compete with large corporations and venture-capital-backed start-ups. We know that family-owned businesses are committed to their communities, and are job creators in a way that is well beyond what their size would suggest. When so much of the world is focused on fast, flashy growth, our vision for Six-Point is to create a safe space for businesses that have a lot to lose to come and get smart, empathetic strategy to help them be sustainable for decades to come.
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 most recent example is definitely during the pandemic in 2020. We have several clients who are very dependent on an international supply chain, and when COVID hit, they had to preserve cash and manage the uncertainty themselves. About 50% of our clients completely froze their budgets, plus our own team was understandably uncertain and disoriented when we shut our office and sent everyone to work from home. It was definitely a moment where I am pretty sure every business owner was thinking, “How long is this going to last? Is this going to be the thing that sinks us?”
I saw my role as a leader two-fold. One was to reach out to both clients and employees and let them know that we are all in this together, and that whatever I could do to support them to help make sure we all made it through, I would. The other was to get even more active externally, to use the extra time and energy that we had to be more valuable than ever to both our clients, prospective clients, and the community of entrepreneurs I am a part of.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up was never in my thoughts. Six-Point is my first-born child, and you don’t give up on your kid. To me, the challenges during the pandemic were an opportunity for both me and our clients to make decisions that we had been maybe putting off because they didn’t feel important or urgent. Now there was no excuse. We were going to be lean. We were going to be focused. We were going to be efficient.
I think I have a natural internal drive, but also my employees and my family are a big part of why I get up each day and put in the work. When you have people who depend on you, you can always dig a little deeper so you don’t let them down.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during turbulence is to not give in to our action bias and start just “doing anything” because that makes us feel better. Instead, our job is to pause and truly assess the situation. We need to pick our heads up, and to see down the field. This is the difference between reactive action and true strategic leadership.
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 know for me, I focus a lot of my energy on pulling people closer together and almost over communicating. I tried to be really clear about communicating things that I was thinking about, even if I wasn’t yet ready to take action, so people knew that I was aware and seeing what they were seeing (or even what they couldn’t see). Celebration of any win, no matter how small is also really critical. Our team is great at celebrating each other and lifting each other up.
I also find that just acknowledging the stress in the back of people’s minds is important. Acknowledging when there is a pandemic surge, or a horrific shooting, or a personal difficulty goes a long way to let the air out of the room and let people breathe for a moment. You don’t have to dwell on it. You have to keep people moving forward. But you do need to pause and say out loud what people are thinking about.
In my experience, if people feel heard, seen, and supported as whole people, they will thrive.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Someone once said to me, “clear is kind.” And I just love that. I know at different points in my leadership journey, I have tried to spare people difficult news, thinking that I was protecting them. In reality, I was making things worse.
Instead I learned that you need to be extremely clear and direct in your messaging, not soften and obscure it. You also need to give people the opportunity to react emotionally to difficult news and truly listen and answer them with empathy. If you do those two things, you will likely be surprised by how well people respond to it.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Obviously, there is no plan that will allow you to control the future. The best leaders will simply work with their team to anticipate the best, worst, and the most likely scenarios and then make decisions based on those predictions. It helps leaders to prioritize what are the opportunities and risks that are worth planning for, and where the upsides or the downsides are not worth the effort.
I also recommend that leaders determine what they can control and what they can influence in any particular situation, and also identify what is simply out of their hands. Again, it is about putting your time, effort, and resources to most efficient use. I think a lot of ineffective leaders waste their own time or their team’s resources on things that simply won’t change the outcome in any meaningful way.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The mantra I use for both my own company and my work with my clients is: Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. This principle is from the Navy Seals, but I think it applies to business so well, particularly during turbulence. As leaders, we often want to act quickly, or we feel pressure from others to get quick results. We will jump to action without taking the time to step back and formulate a clear plan, make sure we have the right resources in place, and align our team. Instead, we need to take the time to make sure that we are sending our team on the right mission, and that they have everything they need to be successful. Not only will that bring faster results in the end, it also builds trust between the leader and their team.
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?
Related to the concept of slow is smooth, smooth this fast, I have seen businesses jump too much to “silver bullet” solutions. Especially in marketing and lead generation, there are a lot of companies promising the moon. If you are purchasing solutions for the first time when you are in crisis, very likely you will not make a smart decision and end up wasting resources that you can’t afford to lose. Doing due diligence and having a clear strategy, key performance indicators, and guardrails for partners brought in to help are absolutely essential.
The other mistake that they make is to task employees with work that is beyond their expertise and experience, and not have a way to support them, or for either the leader or their team to be able to judge success. It is frustrating on both sides, and is an easy way to burn out good people.
Even more dangerous though, is doing nothing. Companies that go silent during difficult times and are not communicating with vendors, customers, partners, and the market are much less likely to rebound quickly.
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?
What you do during a difficult economy shouldn’t be different than what you do in a bull market. The only real difference is that you should be even more focused and even less tolerant of waste.
The strategies that we have seen be successful are to allocate 60% of your resources (both financial and human capital) to awareness, education, and communication, while 40% of your budget should be directed to sales activation. The closer you get to this ratio, the more efficient your activity will be. The awareness investment actually makes the sales activation work better and faster. Humans have a strong bias in favor of things that we know over what we don’t. So if your target market has heard of you and is educated about your brand, they will be much more likely to buy. This is especially important to remember in a difficult economy, because it can be easy to only focus on sales activation, since that feels like the most compelling need. But by ignoring the reputation-building and awareness-building activities, companies can actually make lead generation much harder on themselves.
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.
The five most important things that any business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain times are to prioritize opportunities, gather data to create a strong strategy, identify the DNA (“do not alter”) of their business, make sure you have the right team in place, and finally, be extremely clear about what success looks like.
#1 Prioritize opportunities (or challenges).
The basic idea here is to focus. You can’t solve everything at once, or attack every opportunity at once. Think about your company’s resources like jam on toast. You can spread it really thin over multiple pieces of toast, or you can spread the same amount thickly over one. Which would you rather eat? Most companies that I have seen who struggle overcoming obstacles are simply doing too much at once.
Even with my own team at Six-Point Creative, I have had to continue to focus the priorities that we have each quarter. We used to tackle five or more major initiatives every few months, and most would end up being half done, or never given the full resources they needed to be successful. Now our team has no more than two priorities per quarter. We get those initiatives complete and they are done well, with minimal disruption to all of the regular work we do for our clients.
Setting my team up for success also allows us to celebrate more, which gives the team more energy and excitement to tackle the next tasks. The energy and success builds on itself, enabling our team to tackle larger and more complex challenges quickly and efficiently. Plus, each successful “win” increases our ability to be successful as a company, which gives us more resources to invest into the next initiative.
One recommendation is to think about which of the initiatives on your hitlist, if successful, will make the others on your list more likely to succeed. Don’t think of it as choosing one over the other. Think about it as choosing which order to tackle them in.
#2 Gather the data you need to create a strong strategy.
Many leaders will let the perfect become the enemy of the good when it comes to data. They will say that they don’t have the time or resources for expensive market research, and that they already know what they should do anyway. But that isn’t true. In fact, for most small and mid-market businesses, some basic research and data gathering will be plenty, and investing more effort and resources will have diminishing returns.
Our team at Six-Point worked with a company that was in the process of merging two brands, each with a 100+ year history. We worked with the CEO and board of directors to do research that ended up completely contradicting their assumptions about what their customers valued in the brand, and allowed them to avoid some very expensive decisions that they thought their customers were going to demand from the merger. They saved well over a quarter million dollars and probably two or three years worth of misdirected activity.
And the research that yielded that insight was a customer survey and a dozen interviews.
Leaders definitely overestimate their own understanding of their customer base, but they rarely ask their customers and partners directly what they are thinking, or how they would respond to certain changes. In my experience, some simple research and deep listening to your customers is one of the most valuable tools that a leader can have, and is also one of the least used.
#3 Identify your brand’s DNA.
Most family businesses have had long periods of hard won growth and extremely strong relationships. There are certain aspects of the company that have been critical to the success of the business, but they are often not easily articulated. The value in the business is personal and intangible.
These aspects of the company are what we refer to as the business’s DNA, or “Do Not Alter.” If any of these intangibles are lost as the company evolves, the effort will actually become less successful.
It becomes critical, therefore, at a certain point, to do the hard work of articulating this DNA in a concrete way for outsiders to understand. When you do this, you provide clear guardrails to employees and external partners to set them up for success. Without this articulation, you end up in an endless cycle of things that “aren’t quite right.” It is frustrating on every side, and wastes both time and money.
This, however, is an extremely difficult challenge because the DNA has been “just the way things are” for so long that articulating it in specifics feels not only daunting, but is sometimes impossible for the family to do because they are too close to it. As the saying goes, you can’t read the label on your own bottle.
For example, one of our clients is a second-generation family business that has a carefully crafted product, but the value of the brand was in its unique identity as both Southern and sustainable. That said, we had to do a deep dive with their team and their customers to determine their unique version of both of those values. From there, we could set up guardrails for future work about what they are not as much as what they are. It was extremely important that their Southern identity was communicated with nuance and local authenticity, not flashy, stereotyped Southern symbols. Similarly, they have a message of sustainability that is very much tied into their geography and unique sense of place. Their sustainability is specific, not general, and never greenwashed.
Once you can identify examples of what is authentic to the brand and what would be inauthentic or incorrect, it becomes much easier to involve others in the evolution and amplification of the brand, its story, and its values.
#4 Assemble the right team.
Many leaders, and leaders of family businesses in particular, can undermine many of their best efforts because they assume that the current people in their team are the people who will be executing. They focus on the “how” but they really need to be focused on the “who.”
For some tasks, being a longstanding member of a team can be a real advantage, while for other tasks, too much familiarity with the status quo can stifle innovation. Similarly, for some initiatives, a leader may have expertise that they can deploy internally as a competitive advantage, while for some, they may need external experts.
One of the big benefits of the booming “gig economy” is that expertise is more accessible than ever, regardless of where you are located. You can find experienced specialists for almost any task or project, so thinking outside of your own company can not only accelerate a project, it can also mitigate risk of failure and waste.
An example of this is a family-owned fast casual restaurant chain who had always developed its own menu internally based on what ideas that their leadership team came up with. They quickly had a bloated menu that not only was cutting into their profit margin, but it also wasn’t driving sales. After a number of years operating this way, they brought in a specialist in menu development for fast casual, who was able to show them how to pare down their offerings, identify specific offerings that they needed to add in order to capture more sales, and appeal to the seasonal trends in consumer tastes. Now they have a highly profitable product mix that includes high volume standard offerings as well as short-term seasonal specials.
Could they have figured this out with trial and error, and watching their competitors carefully? Of course. But in a few months, they were able to completely solve this issue and start reaping the benefits immediately. There is an opportunity cost to not putting experienced experts on import tasks that usually far outweighs any cost to hiring the experts.
For more ideas about how this mindset can transform businesses, I would highly recommend Dan Sullivan’s book, Who Not How.
#5 Paint a clear picture of success.
This final strategy seems like it should be one of the easiest, but it is one that I regularly see leaders struggle with. Especially if the leader is a visionary, and the time is particularly stressful, they will often have a vision of success trapped in their heads that never gets clearly communicated to their team.
Usually a clear picture of success should have some measurable aspect to it, but I would urge leaders to be honest about how they are truly measuring success. For example, if you are running a digital marketing initiative but you will be measuring success on the number and quality of sales generated, say this. Otherwise, your team may report to you with leading edge metrics that aren’t meaningful to you, like impressions, views, followers, and the like. This will also allow your team to tell you up front if it seems like you might be using the wrong tool or tactic to achieve your goal, and to discuss it before the activity (and the expense) begins, instead of afterward when no one can do anything about it.
That said, there are also outcomes that leaders may need that are not so evidently measurable. One of the tools that I use myself and with my team is an outcome-thinking framework. This model starts by making sure that the person or team can state in positive terms what they want to achieve (not just what they don’t want). Then it asks questions about evidence: what you will see, hear, and feel when you achieve success? It makes you go deeply into painting a picture of a successful outcome so that you will be able to recognize it, and also helps to predict barriers ahead of time that might stand in your way.
Getting this kind of clarity does take some mental effort and some time (although not as much as people often think!), but the difference in productivity and focus more than makes up for it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite mantra is “relentless forward progress.” I started running in my 30s and fell in love with trail and ultrarunning, which means running distances longer than a marathon. One of the keys of these long distance endurance events is to keep moving forward, even if it means walking instead of running. And sometimes at the end of a long event, you might even be trudging!
Relentless forward progress means not focusing on speed, but on efficiency, and even in those moments when I don’t have a clear picture of what to do for the long term, I am always better off putting one foot in front of the other than stopping. The moment that a runner stops for any length of time in an endurance event becomes an opportunity for them to lose confidence and drop out of the race. In running and in business, I never want to be a person who quits.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can check out our blog on our website, sixpointcreative.com. I am also personally very active on LinkedIn and often publish articles and other resources there to help to support family businesses, so I would be happy to connect with readers there at https://www.linkedin.com/in/melynch/.