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 Michael S. Seaver.
Michael S. Seaver, Founder of Seaver Consulting, LLC, is an executive coach with expertise in executive leadership, personal branding, change management, organizational effectiveness, and employee engagement. Clients have included executives and leaders at Stanford Healthcare, Honeywell, Boeing, a $6 billion mutual fund, $55 million clothing brand startup, a $1 billion food manufacturer. Prior positions include the Director of Talent Sourcing at Banner Health, Arizona’s largest health system with over 40,000 employees and Director of Career Management Alumni Services at Thunderbird School of Global Management. He is certified to deliver TTISI assessments (e.g. DISC, 12 Driving Forces, EQ).
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 was raised in a West Michigan town of 2,500 residents. My grandfather started the family business, Seaver’s Lawn Service, Inc., in 1953 and my father took over in 1987. From ages 12 through 24, I maintained lawns, landscaped properties, and plowed snow, leading crews of 5–10 people. I learned the values of hard work, sacrifice and setting long-term goals.
My wife and I moved to Phoenix, AZ in 2003 to escape Michigan’s snow and join a growing economy. As it slowed in 2008, we divorced, and I suffered minor bouts of depression and understanding my place in the world. Thankfully, I was accepted to and completed an MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management where I traveled internationally, interacted with students from 53 countries and saw the importance of authenticity, assertive communication and inclusion of diverse people when conducting business.
I started my coaching and consulting practice in October 2011 and have traveled the world uncovering new perspectives. I’ve been blessed to coach leaders and have worked on a number of projects that have changed corporate cultures from command and control, to align and empower. Through it all, I realized that the more I challenged mainstream ideologies, the more I recognized the patterns in human life, and the more I shared how people are more similar than dissimilar, the more I could uplift others to live authentically and empower them to become coaches to the people around them. All the hardships and lessons I learned had purpose and now I uplift others as they uncover their authentic selves.
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?
In early 2012, one of my very first clients asked for an outline and timeline of the learning I would be guiding him through in our six sessions together. I didn’t have one. I had taken his money and didn’t have an expected outcome for our time together. I intuitively knew how to ask questions that pulled learning out of people, but I was completely unaware about how to sequentially manufacture learning experiences that would evoke necessary emotions and key learning that would set the person up for what was coming next. Embarrassingly, I invested the next seven nights into reading coaching books, designing a haphazard process, and paying a coach way too much money to tell me the process was okay to use. Lesson learned. Fast forward to today, I have a six-step branded process. Each step has a specific name, activities the client needs to complete, and defined emotions I want him or her to feel. I learned quickly that a coach’s brand is built upon the outcome they’re known to produce in their clients.
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?
I’m immensely grateful for my “bonus” daughter, Aleah. Her mom and I dated for seven years (did not marry), and although she and I are no longer together, Aleah is now 20 and an even bigger part of my life. Over the last decade, I have had four coaches, two therapists, and have paid for countless meals for mentors to help me find clarity. I’ve come to believe that children are our greatest teacher. They mirror back to us the very things we need to improve in ourselves, remind us about the purpose of human life, and the potential that sits latent inside. Shortly after she graduated high school, we backpacked across Europe. In Munich, Germany, she asked me a question I never ever considered. She asked me if I’d get matching tattoos with her. My heart melted. Two weeks later, we both had ink on the inside of our biceps. Because of Aleah, I honor diverse perspectives more easily, I display my authentic self with more confidence, and I help heal my clients’ relationships with their children.
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 don’t know how, but I’ve known since age 15 that I was meant to uncover something hidden within a person. The never-changing theme of my work is to unlock human potential through the development of personal and professional wellbeing. When I started coaching, I wrote resumes. Then, I helped with interview skills, led trainings on communication styles, designed personal brands, and led executives through major life changes. Now, I transform organizational cultures. Although my business revenue streams have evolved, I’m still unlocking potential. And, as the next version of society is introduced, how I help will evolve again.
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?
For the last two years, I’ve provided coaching and consulting to a multi-state top 100 accounting firm. In December 2019, we requested applications, interviewed, selected and then trained and certified 35 of their employees (from all levels of the business), to be internal coaches. Little did we know that three months later COVID-19 was going to turn upside down their traditional business practices. The unexpected daily habit adjustments, business process changes, and emotions the employees started feeling were profound. We chose to create a questionnaire and scoring system that would help the 35 coaches assign a numerical value to any employee’s emotional state. We readied resources internal and external, facilitated an in-depth training session, hosted community of practice sessions, drafted monthly emails to all staff, and created informal communication channels to assess anyone’s need for support. Because of these 35 people and their persistence in checking in with 200+ employees regularly, the organization didn’t have to lay anyone off. They’ll meet their revenue target for this fiscal year and employee engagement scores rose. This year has been full of uncertainty, but this team’s commitment to honoring one another through the difficulties has been life changing.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Through this particular transformation, I’ve fielded 300+ hours of phone calls. The stories I’d hear of personal loss, feeling stuck, not knowing what to do next, uncertainty from their clients — I definitely absorbed their emotions and I felt it weigh me down. I learned to sit in meditation for 20 minutes each morning. I started trail running more. My daily journal was more robust. I learned to release energy in new ways. There still isn’t an end in sight for society’s transformation, but Adam Grant’s book Option B kept me reasonably optimistic. Humanity rebuilt San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. After the 1918 pandemic the roaring twenties happened. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were reborn and Japan became the world’s second largest economy. Humans are resilient and I used these past examples of triumph to guide me this year. I’m still motivated by the stories the employees share with one another via virtual town halls, through email and chat, and what they say to me in private discussion.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most followed, trusted, and respected leaders listen. A lot. They connect disparate dots. They share more of their personal journey. They allow for more flexibility in how work gets done without losing sight of the organization’s goals, mission and core values. They embody, in a very public way, the behavior any employee can safely emulate. Great leaders flip the organizational chart upside down and ask all employees for grassroots ideas that better serve clients and communities. Listen, then achievement happens.
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?
Recognize one another and share wins. According to Tony Robbins’ research, one of the six core human needs is contribution — to add value to the lives of those around us. One of the best, and easiest, methods to help team members feel more confident is to begin one-to-one and team meetings by recognizing one another and then inviting each person to share wins. Psychological safety is often born out of feeling empowered to share your story vulnerably. When we appreciate a colleague in the way they desire to receive praise, they will feel more confident and likely be more engaged, productive, and willing to go above and beyond for the team. When we offer one another chances to share personal or professional wins, we help them see how they are growing, they take on more responsibility, and share lessons learned for betterment of the team.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Leaders who deliver bad news forecast possible responses and prepare themselves so their emotions don’t taint important messages. When possible, they send meeting invites 24–48 hours in advance alerting those in attendance that a difficult topic will be openly discussed. They set clear expectations. When the meeting begins, they unemotionally and objectively share events that transpired, actions that have been taken, planned actions for the coming weeks, and then they listen. Any person who needs to vent, share perspective, feel heard, etc. is allowed to express themselves fully. They offer others a set time period to process emotionally and to submit feedback and ideas. Most importantly, as the weeks that follow pass, they communicate continually…transparently…honestly.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
By surrendering the “how.” When unpredictable events disrupt an organization’s cultural norms, meeting routines, and process for interacting with their clients, the best leaders release the need to command and control. They align and empower. They communicate weekly keeping top of mind the organization’s strategy, annual goals, mission, and core values. They prioritize celebrating wins that clearly display accomplishment in finding new ways for employees to live the organization’s core values AND make the team’s goals reality. How something occurs becomes less important than the fact it occurred. Surrendering the how opens the door to new levels of employee connection, creative ideas that cut expenses, and revenue channels not considered previously. In the unpredictability, empowering your team mitigates risk as each team member takes personal responsibility for more transparent communication, going above and beyond to make goals happen, and uplifting one another.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Open as many lines of communication as possible. Grassroots movements of information will produce innumerable benefits. Consider offering open office hours, town halls, suggestion boxes, pulse surveys, weekly reach outs, small focus groups, internal Shark Tank competitions, affinity groups or a Netflix Club. When humans feel psychologically safe to express themselves, through myriad means, they feel empowered to share ideas. When humans feel empowered, they’re more likely take responsibility for implementing cost savings and new revenue lines.
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?
Some businesses rely on their tenured, or more senior, employees to provide direction while limiting the voices of those closest to the customer. Some businesses cover up or attempt to hide mistakes made instead of sharing the mistake, the lessons learned, and how they’re better because of it. Some businesses stop investment in their HR department when that is the very team that can glue all employees together. I’ve helped multiple organizations create matrixed “innovation” teams with employees from all levels of the organization. These teams report directly to the CEO or Board, and their charter is to address challenging topics, be the voice of the employee, and guide decision making in ways traditional leadership can’t…or won’t.
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?
Listening to your customer is key. Society’s awakening will take years and customer emotions, wants, needs, etc. will shift — repeatedly. Send customers online surveys. Have employees call customers every 60–90 days and have them ask predesigned questions. Create a customer advisory council and have them offer your organization feedback. Iterate your product or service. In the experience economy, the pace of change will increase and your organization’s viability will be based upon your capacity to see societal patterns, receive feedback from customers, and continually deliver quality products and services.
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. Know Thyself. I supported the COO of a consulting firm two years ago that was known to play favorites with her staff. As time passed, her favorites began to feel ostracized, overworked, and underappreciated. Their department revenue dipped, employee turnover increased, and clients were leaving. Through my coaching with her, we were able to identify why she played favorites, how to release her fear of vulnerability, and what she could do to redistribute appreciation to persons that reported to her. Thankfully, her organization has thrived during COVID-19. They’ve not had to lay anyone off, they will meet their annual budget, and they’re hiring again. Knowing herself stopped the destructive behaviors that trickled down through every layer of her team.
2. Listen Actively. In 2019, I coached an entrepreneur whose startup was acquired by a much larger organization. I was charged with helping this entrepreneur become the Senior Vice President for the larger organization, and he knew he could be. Early in our talks, we recognized how results oriented he was and how that mindset was hindering his ability to see the genius in each of his team members. So, we designed a monthly reach out strategy that “forced” him to listen to each staff member. It was hard initially, but he eventually become more comfortable with it. Then, a miracle occurred. During an all staff meeting, a group of employees announced the “One Voice” movement that was created to help integrate his team into the larger team. Because this leader challenged himself, listened actively, and connected the dots, the employees felt safe to lead an initiative that has coalesced the team around a common cause. The last time I spoke with the SVP, they were expanding their SaaS into Europe. I couldn’t be prouder of him.
3. Communicate More. I coach and consult the managing principal of an accounting firm. He is naturally a gifted listener and has offered his time more than he needed to — often to the point of physical burnout. From keeping his office door open, to town halls, to newsletters, to focus groups, to calling employees, to recognizing team members with gifts, this leader embodies a humble servant. Society’s recent turbulence has offered his team a chance to reimagine their culture. Because of his clarity, many firmwide are emulating his demeanor and the firm is benefitting immensely. Employee engagement scores are up. New revenue lines are launched. Poor employees have departed. New higher caliber talent has joined the firm. When the doors of communication are opened, the followers become the leaders.
4. Empower the Team. I coach a director of a US-based technology company. Her charge was to centralize 20 administrative assistants and support professionals into one department. These people were in three different states and many had the same leader for more than a decade. The purpose of this shift was to simplify processes, standardize procedures, and automate tasks. The director knew an expectations meeting needed to be held soon after she took her role. In that meeting, she was truly clear about what was not changing, things the team would change together, and how she would communicate with all of them transparently at the same time through the transformation. The first couple of months were rocky, but her persistence paid off. Eventually, the biggest problem employee acquiesced and the director was able to methodically gather steps, tasks, responsibilities, and resources. The team met regularly and together designed procedures that saved the company money, were more efficient, and allowed each employee to cross train on other employees’ tasks.
5. Iterate. In 2017, I coached a small business owner that was well-connected and helped upstart mutual funds find investors. Because of a few childhood emotional traumas, he ended up using cocaine as an escape and became addicted (I was not aware he was using). He crashed his new car into a telephone pole, called me and asked if I could save his marriage and his business, as he had to tell those closest to him he was addicted. It took me a couple of months to turn his wife around (they’re still married), but it became quite apparent that his business partner no longer wanted to be a part of the business. We uncovered a way to help him exit the partnership where both parties could save face. Instead of finding money for mutual funds, my client is now teaching mutual funds and family investment offices how to market and brand themselves. It’s a brilliant iteration because it leverages his skills in a way that is scalable when his business wasn’t scalable before. No matter what challenges life throws your way — there is always a solution. A new way. A brighter future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Your challenges aren’t in the way… they are the way,” Ron and Mary Hulnick. I was sold hook, line, and sinker on perfection. On being perfect. On not making mistakes. On projecting an image of who I wanted others to think me to be. For years, I was unhappy. Miserable. Inauthentic. One day, I considered suicide because I couldn’t find a way out of the hole I dug for my life. Somehow, I came across the Hulnick’s quote and I was able to connect the dots in how my life’s challenges happened for a reason. I was meant to experience them so that I could learn how to overcome them — and then guide others to overcome the same challenges for themselves. Today, I safely walk people and organizations through the most emotionally messy changes. By choosing to be the person I needed when I was younger, I proactively teach leaders how to heal themselves and then pay it forward coaching and mentoring others. As the tide rises, each and every boat does as well.
How can our readers further follow your work?
For more, please visit www.michaelsseaver.com.