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 Melissa Miller.
Melissa Miller is the owner of Gratitude Investors, a business focused on increasing engagement and happiness for individuals and companies through gratitude-based appreciation programs. They use science-based research and positive psychology to increase employee retention, productivity, and performance for leaders and corporations. Melissa’s educational background makes her uniquely qualified to work with companies that want to take their recognition programs to the next level and attract top talent. Melissa holds B.A. degrees in Economics and Psychology from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.
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?
Growing up on a family farm in Danville, Kentucky, I was blessed to have a close-knit family. The women in my family all had wonderful traits, and I learned from each of them. My Aunt Susan was like an older sister to me before becoming an amazingly successful businesswoman and entrepreneur. Aunt Pam is a psychologist who brought fresh ways of parenting and navigating relationships into our family. A few years ago, the three of us created The 180° Letters, a letter-writing kit to make sharing gratitude simple. I loved working in appreciation and was drawn to the business sector from my professional life and education. Helping companies foster happy, fulfilled individuals is my company’s mission. I would not be involved in this industry or have the skills to build a business without my family.
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?
The devil is in the details. And my geography skills are abysmal. I have verified both of these statements to be true. One snowy winter, I was booking a private plane for a client to fly to islands south of Florida. I called the aviation company, gave the name of the destination town, and booked the flight. The day before takeoff, I was reviewing the itinerary and noticed a Mountain Time Zone landing time. When I called the company to clarify the seemingly impossible fact that the Caribbean is actually in the Mountain Time Zone, they explained the plane was set to fly to South Dakota. There is apparently a shared name between a town in South Dakota and the islands. Who knew? I could not stop imagining the train wreck of my life if I hadn’t caught that mistake. I could envision this group of clients deplaning in beachwear, flip flops, and cover-ups into ten feet of snow. Now when I get swept up in moving quickly, I remind myself to slow down and reexamine the details.
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?
Tammy Johnson, my dearest friend, has provided continuous inspiration for over thirty years. She has always encouraged and supported me through every adventure and stage, both personally and professionally, in my life. Many times, I think she believed in me more than I believed in myself. To have someone who offers such unwavering support is a gift. When I was facing a change or something that scared me, and I was hesitant to pull the trigger, she would laugh and say, “Worst case scenario, you can live in my basement.” Everyone needs someone who supports them and will offer up their basement if needed.
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?
We believe in the power of gratitude. Our purpose statement is, “We believe appreciating your greatest assets yields engaged employees and profitable organizations.” It’s why we started Gratitude Investors. Our vision statement is “Generating happy, engaged employees and workplaces by investing gratitude as a catalyst for transformation.”
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?
Some of our strongest, most authentic moments as a team have come during crises. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. Hardships can bring connected groups even closer because of the “us versus the world” mentality. There is also less capacity to waste time on the little things that don’t truly matter when all your focus is on getting through this difficult time. The connections feel more authentic and genuine. As a leader, I try to focus on staying positive and encouraging the people around me. I look for the wins and the upside. Communicating clearly and frequently is another goal of mine during difficult times. Finally, throwing in some light-hearted humor when it feels right can break the tension.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I approached starting a business in the same way as I do most things in life. I am a “doer,” love a good task list, and when you give me a challenge, I will try everything in my power to find the solution. It was important that I surrounded myself with positive messages and knowledge to motivate me. The hours that I spent reading, listening to business coaching, and self-work were countless. I also learned to limit the negativity that I invited in. If I didn’t think someone would be supportive, I made the conscious choice not to discuss the business with them. It was not that I didn’t want to hear from people that disagreed with what I was doing, but I knew there was a time and place to take in their criticism. When you are doing the hard work of building a business, you can’t let the people with negativity plant doubts in your head. I kept pushing forward and tackling each day in chunks. The intrinsic motivation to create my future, and the freedom that comes as a result, sustain my drive.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Great leaders realize they need to shift to the role of a coach and build employee morale. During difficult times just showing up and working is hard enough for employees. Leaders must coach people up to face the challenge while keeping employees united, loyal and motivated.
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?
Use gratitude and appreciation to build employee engagement and connections throughout your company. Our primary need as humans, after safety, is to feel appreciated. Why is appreciation so vital to us? It generates feelings of being seen, valued, and liked. It confirms for people that their work is meaningful. With over 11,000 studies linking gratitude to greater employee well-being and productivity (Kogan, 2019), gratitude is one of your greatest tools to influence company culture and morale. Summer Allen at UC Berkley found grateful employees are better at innovation, bring more effort to their jobs, and are less likely to suffer burnout. Sharing gratitude also brings us together because at the moment appreciation is expressed, there is an opportunity for personal connection. We all want to be noticed and know we are valued. In uncertain times, every company needs engaged, connected employees to weather the storm.
How do you convey authentic gratitude in the workplace? Start by paying attention to what is happening around you and be specific. When you are clear about the benefits of a person, action, or thing, it boosts your own appreciation — and it tells a person that you are paying attention, rather than just going through the motions.
There are many ways you can share appreciation — here are just a few:
- Begin meetings with a thank you.
- Celebrate shared successes.
- Ask for employee feedback and suggestions.
- Use the last ten minutes of your day to connect with a colleague.
- Start your morning by writing a quick email to let a teammate know how they impacted you.
- Recognize personal and professional wins such as finishing a degree or running a marathon.
- Create a way for peers to share gratitude for their colleagues.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In times of crisis, whether internal or external, great leaders are visible and approachable. They do not keep their heads down until the storm passes. When it is time to deliver difficult news, it must be communicated with honesty, empathy, and sincerity. Being authentic and providing a clear plan to move forward shows respect for employees and clients. A great example of communicating hard news is from Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, who handled the crisis when two black men were wrongly arrested in a Starbucks in 2018 because of racial profiling by employees. Starbucks largely avoided long-term damage to its reputation because of the leadership Johnson demonstrated. He sincerely and honestly apologized multiple times. He did not place blame on the manager and instead took personal responsibility for the event. Johnson made quick, decisive decisions to gather information and closed all of its US stores for racial-bias training within a week. Johnson repeatedly delivered difficult news in an authentic way. His adept handling of the situation is now used as an example of effective leadership during a crisis.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The work landscape changes quickly, and leaders need to pivot just as rapidly. The first step is to plan more for the short-term while lining up each objective with the company’s purpose. Break down goals into smaller action items. That allows room to make adjustments if something isn’t working or the target changes. Discuss with your team, “What seems reasonable to achieve this quarter? What is our focus this month?” Then break those goals into weekly and daily tasks.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
We are all still moving through one of the most turbulent times in our generation. The pandemic forced us to change everything about the way we worked and lived. During these times of rapid change, of course, there will be logistical issues. But the main thing to focus on is bolstering team morale. A survey by Udemy recently found 70% of employees say they feel distracted while on the job, and 1 in 5 admit they are “almost always distracted.” Uncertainty naturally elicits feelings of anxiety and fear in people. Companies should focus on keeping people on track and motivated by looking for ways to improve employee morale.
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?
During stressful times, even small decisions can feel enormous, and their impact will be amplified. This pressure cooker situation can bring out the best and worst in leaders. There are common mistakes that companies can avoid during difficult times.
- A leader’s first instinct may be to close the ranks and shoulder making the difficult decisions themselves. This approach backfires because decisions without transparency leave the workforce feeling nervous and uneasy. One study found that organizations with more transparency had higher productivity, innovation, and retention than those that weren’t as open (Armstrong, 2010). Shielding employees is detrimental to engagement and morale. Instead, inform people what is happening in the company, what decisions you are facing, and what the plan is moving forward. Clear communication is key to how your team reacts and recovers.
- People fearful of change will cling to the old way of doing things. During the pandemic, we had no choice and had to quickly adapt our business models for survival. Embrace change and take this as an opportunity to rethink your business. Stop and reflect on changes you’d like to make but have been too scared to consider previously. Try things that are outside your comfort zone. What used to serve your company well may no longer work. Assessment and change can make your company more competitive moving forward.
- Paralysis by analysis is not the way to run a company during turbulent periods. In stressful times, many leaders second-guess themselves. Knowing their actions could have widespread ramifications, they request more and more data before making a decision wasting valuable time. To be successful in this environment, leaders must act quickly. They must stay calm, process the available information, and then take decisive action. If leaders are slow to react or downplay the threat, they will find themselves behind in controlling the crisis.
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?
First, don’t forget who got you this far. Shore up your relationship with existing clients and ramp up your efforts to bring in new customers. Sometimes we can be paralyzed when we don’t have a clear answer, and there is little clarity in a challenging economy. Don’t make things worse by failing to take actions that could mitigate the impact. You need to establish short-term target goals and be flexible to change as the environment shifts. As you develop the game plan for the upcoming quarter or month, be transparent with your employees. Share your vision for the future. You need your teams to be motivated and trust that everyone will come through this difficulty okay. Don’t forget to celebrate the small and big wins. This can be stressful for everyone in your business, and recognizing success goes a long way to motivating employees to keep pushing.
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.
- Stay flexible and calm. Leaders should course correct in real-time. Employees will undoubtedly bring their personal anxiety and fears to work with them. Great leaders address worries by focusing on calmly leading and making the needed adjustments.
- Actively listen to your team. Workers are the “boots on the ground” and may have ideas you haven’t considered. Encourage creative problem solving and request honest feedback. Ask questions like “What can I do to better support you? How is the team feeling?” When you actively concentrate, process, and respond, employees feel heard and trusted.
- Show your appreciation. Employees don’t leave their personal lives at the door when they start the workday. During stressful times, such as the pandemic, they are bringing that anxiety to work as well. Every person on your team is different, and a one size fits all approach won’t work. Let workers know you value them. A study by Cicero found that appreciated employees have more drive and determination, better work relationships, improved personal standing, and stronger connections to their company. In the study, employees report that appreciation is more effective at increasing their engagement, performance, and innovation than a bonus of five percent of their salary. Find the silver lining in difficult situations — identify lessons your organization is learning and can be appreciative for. How will your team benefit from this tough patch?
- Don’t be scared to be vulnerable. Communication is vital for teams during uncertain periods, and it’s okay to admit you don’t know it all. You won’t have all the answers. Promise to do your best and earn the trust of your team by following through on your words each day. Your goal is to provide insight into how the organization and employees’ individual roles are affected. Increased communication also maintains employee engagement. Research by Aon Hewitt found in highly engaged organizations, leaders are perceived as 1.7 times more effective than their counterparts at low engagement organizations because they know how to maintain connection and respect.
- Be a safe place during the storm. During a turbulent time, leaders are the anchors that keep the ship grounded. One legendary example of this is Eugene Kranz, flight director for the Apollo 13 mission. In the panicked moments after the explosion, the astronauts’ deaths looked certain. Confusion was rampant through the control room. Kranz remained calm, saying, “Okay, now, let’s everybody keep cool. Let’s solve the problem, but let’s not make it any worse by guessing.” In those first shocking moments, even though he had no plan for getting the astronauts home, he later explained, “you do not pass uncertainty down to your team members.” Employees often later reflect on exceptional leaders, and one feature stands out — their calmness under pressure. Eugene Kranz and his steadying leadership during the Apollo 13 crisis has made him an iconic leader even 45 years later.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Great things never came from comfort zones.” resonated with me when I first read it. I realized at that moment that is exactly what I had been doing in my life. Playing it safe and staying small seemed like the adult, “smart” thing to do. Fear of change holds us in our comfort zones. I knew the life I wanted to have, but to get there would require me to take a leap of faith. I needed to start doing the things that scared me. I practiced gratitude to lessen my fears, realize my self-worth and see the possibilities for my life. I am thankful every day for many amazing things, but I know even greater ones are coming. It’s why I took a chance and began building my company to create the type of life I want.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We would love for you to stop by www.gratitudeinvestors.com and learn more about our gratitude-based employee appreciation programs. Catch up on daily information regarding gratitude in the workplace on Facebook and Instagram at @Gratitudeinvestor or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/company/gratitude-investors. You can also find daily inspiration on all things related to gratitude @180degreesgratitude on Instagram.