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 Michele Kawamoto Perry.
She has an extensive professional career across a diverse set of industries, including entertainment, wine & spirits and financial technology/real estate. As the founder of The Forward Project, she capitalizes on her multifaceted background and business expertise to create transformational programs integrating mindset training, high-level behavioral strategies, and a mastery of key organizational principles to generate results-driven growth for her clients. Michele lives in Los Angeles with her husband and dog Kimi and enjoys travel and gastronomy. She is also a true oenophile and is a Certified Sommelier.
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 have always been curious about human nature and have had a keen interest in humanities and social sciences. In college, I studied fine arts, psychology, and social anthropology. I carried my passions into my professional life working in multiple fascinating industries from film to music to wine and spirits to fintech and real estate. I have also had the pleasure of working in various types of businesses from small family-owned companies to large publicly traded corporations to startup organizations.
What I found throughout these professional experiences is that those businesses who invested in leadership training and were committed to effective management practices not only survived through tough times but actually thrived and were more successful overall. Seeing the powerful effects of excellent leadership on employee engagement, team performance, productivity, and profitability, further fueled my fascination with human behavior and development. Recognizing the importance of cultivating leadership potential and knowing the transformational impact of the work, I founded The Forward Project. Through the use of learnable, actionable, and measurable means, we guide and support our clients in developing leadership talent and building high-performing teams.
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 booked a workshop with a client that was to start after a holiday weekend. As the Monday was a holiday, we agreed to start the workshop on a Wednesday to give the staff a day to catch up on work before engaging in the workshop. I ended up working that Monday and forgot it was a holiday. So, I showed up on Tuesday thinking I had given the client’s team members a day to work at the start of the week already.
Thankfully, I was a day early versus a day late! Still, the takeaway I learned was to pay extra attention to my schedule, especially around holidays.
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?
There isn’t one particular person towards whom I am grateful, but rather many people. I have been fortunate enough to have many incredible mentors in my life, including courageous and accomplished family members, charismatic and innovative company leaders, empowering bosses, supportive coaching and training teachers, and a wise Zen master. All of them have contributed to my growth and success in different ways and many continue to influence my life and work today.
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?
Our mission is to elevate corporate consciousness globally. We believe that exemplary leadership is key to organizational change. Leaders are not born, they are made. We know that leadership skills and behaviors can be learned and developed. With the right training and practice, anyone can become a more effective leader.
As culture bearers, leaders set the tone for the behaviors and overall climate in their organization. Leadership has a ripple effect and team members will follow the example of their leaders. Not only does leadership impact the organization internally, but also externally in the form of customer service and business partnerships both locally and globally. This is why it is of utmost importance to cultivate leadership that delivers positive results.
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?
In a previous position, I was tasked to assist in leading and rebuilding a team that was in disarray due to the loss of some members and its manager. The primary challenges to be addressed were the existing morale and attitudes in addition to the integration of the new people.
The first order of business was to build relationships with the current crew. This meant being present, asking questions, engaging in active listening, and, most importantly, honoring my word. How were they feeling? What worked well and what didn’t when they were part of the previous team? What changes were they open to or would like to see? What were their career goals? What resources and training did they need to achieve these goals? Showing I cared about and valued the contributions of the current team members created an open and respectful space for communication between us. And, as they came to see that I delivered on my promises, I gained their trust and confidence as well.
Next, my boss and I needed to hire and quickly integrate new members into the fold. We looked for candidates who would complement the existing team through balancing strengths. Due to the highly collaborative nature of our work, we needed to hire good team players. Additionally, it was important to find people who were willing to challenge the status quo for purposes of progress. Once we had our group in place, we held several team-building and bonding experiences to foster mutual trust and synergy. Together, we created a vision for the team and where we wanted to be in the short- and long-term. We engaged in group brainstorming sessions to review what went well and what we could do even better next time. Further, we developed group milestones and found fun ways to share and celebrate our wins.
Soon after, we began to see great progress with sales and profitability growing. Within 6 months, the group became one of the highest-performing teams in the company.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, I never considered giving up. What sustains my drive is a positive mindset. I call it the Midas Mind™. I viewed these challenges as opportunities to ignite innovation, increase efficiencies, and create engaging and meaningful work for our people. I also knew that we had an exceptionally talented team that would bring out their best given the right resources and support. The more committed I was to the team and their development, the more dedicated they became to their work. This dedication led to success after success. We made sure to celebrate each milestone we hit whether large or small. Recognizing these accomplishments kept everyone motivated.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During turbulent times, leaders need to establish a sense of stability and direction for their organization. People take their cues from their leaders so setting the right example through measured guidance is critical to steadying the company climate. This means being open and honest when addressing the current situation. It also involves being present and accessible to team members. In steering the course, it’s important for a leader to call to mind the company’s core values and reaffirm its vision. While the environment may be changing, focus efforts on channels (e.g., a shift or concentration of offerings, clientele, fulfillment method etc.) that continue to deliver on the company mission.
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?
There are several ways a leader can boost morale and engage their team:
- Show You Care
Make time in your schedule for one-on-one check-ins to really get to know your people. How are they doing? What do they need? How can you support them?
Encourage self-care by providing team members with wellness resources (e.g., employee assistance programs, meditation apps, health coaches, online yoga etc.)
Offer flexible work hours to help staff members meet both their personal and professional obligations.
2. Foster Connection
Use a messaging platform such as Slack to promote team interaction with different channels for sports, cooking, pets, tv shows, book clubs, photography, music etc.
Host weekly trivia games or monthly virtual bingo sessions.
Offer virtual lunch gatherings or end of week social/happy hours.
3. Communicate Regularly
Schedule town hall meetings once or twice a month to provide your staff with regular updates on the business strategy and direction. Make sure to give people an opportunity to ask questions during this meeting.
Hold weekly stand-ups (short meetings during which team members stand while reviewing important tasks, providing updates and discussing obstacles).
4. Celebrate Successes
Create individual and team recognition awards upon hitting a milestone or goal.
Treat the team to a virtual party with games and prizes.
Send a handwritten thank you note. Just the acknowledgement can go a long way.
5. Invest In Talent Development
Enroll your managers and high potential personnel in a comprehensive leadership development program. Investing in their career development will not only enhance their performance, but also increase their loyalty and commitment to the company.
Offer training courses (e.g., time management, presentation delivery, critical thinking) to augment their skills and abilities.
Provide educational assistance benefits to help cover tuition or other expenses for courses that will expand your team’s knowledge.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be clear, concise, and remain calm when delivering the news. Give the recipients time to process the information. Exercise compassion towards those receiving the news. Acknowledge how they may be feeling and practice empathy. Be willing to listen and actively engage with the team and customers following the difficult message. Make sure you are prepared and willing to address concerns where possible. Offer solutions or alternatives if available.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
First, a leader can adopt a dynamic rather than strategic plan approach. This requires agility, the ability to shift focus, reallocate resources, and/or change priorities based on varying internal and external conditions. Know what you can control. Take a proactive stance. Plan for multiple scenarios and weigh associated risks. Test different options, evaluate results, make modifications as needed. This ability to prepare, implement, examine, and adjust in real time not only keeps the company flexible in the face of uncertainty, but also builds resiliency over time enabling the company to better manage trough change and giving it a true competitive advantage.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
In times of chaos and uncertainty, it is easy to get caught up in emotions and fears. Panic, anxiety, anger, sadness and confusion often arises clouding one’s judgement. Attention narrows leading to tunnel vision which stunts creativity and the ability to see the bigger picture or consider alternative perspectives. Rigidity rises as flexibility fades. Logical decisions and thoughtful and deliberate responses give way to impulsive reactions.
So how does a team navigate through these turbulent times? Practice mindfulness. Staying present will help you to see the situation at hand more clearly. When one stops ruminating over the past or worrying about the future, a sense of calm will emerge. One will be better able to process the given information to make better decisions. Practicing open awareness fosters a higher level of self-observation and provides a more accurate gauge of the environment. This awareness promotes learning and growth through increased agility and befitting responsiveness. It creates more space for collaboration and invites cooperation. In turn, teams become more engaged and focused on moving the company forward rather than succumbing to chaos or fretting over the future.
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?
One common mistake that businesses make is refusing or delaying acknowledgement of the current situation. Ignoring internal and/or external changes can destroy a business by making it more susceptible to competitive threats or becoming obsolete. Keeping a pulse on shifts on the internal climate and external environment augments the company’s ability to adjust operations, pivot their offerings to meet new demands, and prognosticate to fulfill future needs.
A second common mistake involves poor communication of senior leadership with the team, customers, board and/or investors. Often, they hesitate or fail to deliver difficult news altogether. Other times, the leadership team will sugarcoat the news, release only partial information, or ignore relevant stakeholders. This quickly erodes the respect and trust of their constituents. Assumptions and rumors begin to takeover. Employee dedication deteriorates, customer loyalty declines, and profit levels fall. This can be avoided by being transparent about current challenges, discussing potential options, and inviting others into the search for solutions. Leaders don’t need to have all the answers; they need to ask the right questions and be open to the best solutions.
A third common mistake entails making short-term decisions without considering the long-term effects. In tough times, businesses can make rash decisions to address a current challenge before thoroughly reviewing all options. For example, a company may decide to lay off a significant portion of its employees, cease key services or product offerings, or drastically reduce the marketing budget. While these decisions could improve your cash flow in the short term, they could have devastating effects over the long term. Dismissing higher quality and more expensive staff may leave you less capable of meeting company objectives which could threaten the durability of the company. The product or service eliminated could lead to a decline in customer satisfaction and commitment. Substantially reducing your marketing budget may leave you vulnerable to competitors who are spending greater efforts capturing customers. Instead of resorting to hasty decision making, take the time to fully examine your current state and explore your options. Can you reduce salaries or hours rather than laying off workers? Could you alter your offerings in a way to make them more cost-effective without eliminating them altogether?
A fourth common mistake businesses make is underinvesting in their talent. People are one of the most valuable assets of any company. Turbulent times can make people uneasy and if they don’t feel supported by their organization, they may seek employment elsewhere. This turnover can be very costly to a company through loss of productivity and expertise, as well as the expense of recruiting and training new employees. Attrition can also have a negative impact on morale causing lack of engagement and a decrease in productivity. Therefore, it is essential for businesses to continue investing in leadership development and other skill training. Not only will this investment increase retention and enhance performance, but it will also strengthen the businesses’ agility to better perform through times of change. Furthermore, investing in talent development produces healthy company cultures and generates favorable PR which attracts top talent.
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?
Innovation is key to growth during difficult economies. Review your current offerings. How might you adjust or diversify them to enhance your market appeal? Work with your team to come up with ideas on addressing customer challenges. Brainstorm sessions, idea walls, innovation chat groups are all excellent ways to get creative juices flowing with an added bonus of keeping your team members engaged in their work. Could you offer different product or service tiers to meet different customers’ needs? If you bundle services, you might look at offering services individually. Perhaps you can provide various payment plans or subscription plans. Upgrade your customer loyalty/incentive programs to make them more robust. Partner with businesses offering complementary products or services. Revisit your PR and marketing plans. How might you optimize social selling tactics, improve word-of-mouth marketing and/or secure choice endorsements for your services or products?
Examine the ways you can reduce costs and maximize efficiencies. Analyze and closely monitor cash flows. Negotiate better terms or pricing with your suppliers. Tighten your supply chain to lower inventory carrying costs. Eliminate or redesign non value added activities that are a drag on your resources. Consolidate redundant functions. Reduce office space expenses by offering flexible work options and promoting telecommuting. By minimizing extraneous costs and tightening up operations, you will continue to progress even in challenging times.
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.
- Embrace ambiguity and adopt agility. Change is inevitable and challenges are sure to arise. It’s how you meet them that will define your leadership legacy. The fight, flight, or freeze reactions are not likely to serve best in these times. Indeed, they could lead to the business’s demise. Reframing the challenge as an opportunity will allow you find your flow. It will open you up to new ways of thinking. Instead of resisting the given situation, you will discover fresh approaches to working with it.
- For example, many exercise studios were forced to close during the Covid-19 pandemic disrupting their primary method of providing their service to their customers. So many of them pivoted to offering online classes. SoulCycle, a fitness company offering cycling classes, brought their classes outdoors. They also began offering bikes for purchase along with on-demand classes.
- Be transparent and genuine in your communication and take accountability for your decisions. Address the current situation with your team. Clarify your position and explain your plan of action. Be ready to answer questions that may arise. Clear and open communication is key to building trust and credibility with your team which are critical to maintaining their commitment to the company. A great example of transparency in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic comes from the CEO of Aon, Greg Case. In a letter to his employees, Case writes, “We all understand the gravity of this crisis and recognize the important role Aon plays in an increasingly volatile, interconnected and uncertain world.” He details the difficult economic impact of the crisis and describes Aon’s current position. Case then outlines the company’s principle-based approach to its action plan. He concludes his letter by offering a vision of hope for the future stating, “[W]e expect to emerge from this crisis a stronger and more capable firm that is essential to our client’s success and best positioned to capitalize on that opportunity.” Show you care. Take time to nurture interpersonal connections. Team bonding will alleviate feelings of isolation and build group morale and motivation helping members to overcome the present challenges together. Let team members know you care about their welfare and provide the necessary resources to support them. Celebrate wins and recognize individual contributions. Knowing they are valued will strengthen their dedication to their work and the organization. There are many different ways companies are supporting their people through this turbulent period. To help with team bonding, companies such as BlueBeam hosts virtual happy hours, dance parties, and game nights. They also offer online fitness classes and other health and wellness programs. Salesforce started the B-Well Together mental wellness program for its employees and then opened it to the public. They were also a founding signatory of the Invest In Parents pledge supporting working parents through flexible work schedules and providing additional resources. Shopify provided its staff with a $1,000 stipend to properly set up home offices. PepsiCo gave its frontline workers involved in production, transportation, and delivery, an additional compensation of a minimum $100 per week. Verizon implemented a Covid-19 leave of absence policy which provides employees with 100% of pay for up to 8 weeks followed by 60% of pay beyond those 8 weeks for those unable to work because they are ill themselves or are taking care of loved ones.
- Stay true to your values. Your values make up your core foundation and serve as an anchor steadying you through the storm. They ensure you stay connected to your purpose, fueling engagement through meaningful work. While you may need to switch tactics and implement new strategies, your values should remain unchanged. Honoring your values fosters the trust and loyalty of your employees, your customers, and your partners by keeping you accountable as you chart your course through these turbulent times. Two examples of companies that have turned to their values to guide them during the pandemic are Patagonia and Siemens. Patagonia’s cores values are: 1) Not bound by convention; 2) Cause no unnecessary harm. Unlike other retailers, Patagonia closed all its retail stores, its warehouse, and online operations to keep its staff safe. While they knew this would affect sales, the priority was the safety of its people. While many of their stores are open now, they continue to put the health and safety of their employees and customers first by offering curbside pickup and appointment only shopping experiences. While they do admonish against close personal contact, kindness is encouraged. “No hugging or high fives. Smiles, peace signs and words of encouragement are most welcome.” Siemens three values are: 1) Responsible: Committed to ethical and responsible actions; 2) Excellent: Achieving high performance and excellent results; 3) Innovative: Being innovative to create sustainable value. Since the onset of the pandemic, Siemens has been helping hospitals and government facilities to maintain operations and ensure steady power supplies to support medical machines and systems. The Siemens Healthineers has been developing antibody tests. Additionally, in response to a shortage of medical devices, Siemens opened their 3D Printing network to designers and suppliers in service of medical centers in need.
- Invest in your people. Now more than ever, leaders need the support and commitment of their employees to maintain business operations and productivity. Of course, dedication is a two-way street, and you have to give what you get. Continue working on ways to build relationships with and between team members. This is key to preserving team solidarity and building team spirit, especially with remote workers. Offer skills and software training to help increase employees’ effectiveness in their current role under these changing conditions. As you devise new strategies to meet today’s challenges, consider how you might create career development opportunities for your staff members by broadening their work experiences and expanding their skill sets. Making the investment now will not only sustain their motivation and improve their effectiveness through this tumultuous time, but it will also set you up to thrive with the return to a new normal. One great example of investing in your people during times of crisis comes from Delta Airlines. The airline industry struggled during the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Delta airlines even declared bankruptcy in 2005. During this time, the leadership held many town hall meetings in which they explained what led to the bankruptcy and how they were addressing the situation. They also allotted time for questions and answers. As part of its plan to emerge from bankruptcy, the airline invested in its workforce. Delta launched new flight and aircrew training and initiated an employee profit-sharing program. Within a few years, Delta was able to deliver a $100 million profit-sharing payout to its personnel. This payout grew to over $1 billion dollars per year in subsequent years. As CEO Ed Bastien told The New York Times, “You’ve got to make certain that your employees know that they are the absolute best asset you have. When you go through difficult times, employees can feel like they’re a number, they’re a cost, they’re a means to an end. But no, they are the end themselves.” Lowe’s, a home improvement retail company, also made significant investments in their associates in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. They implemented robust protection and safety measures in their stores including providing face coverings for their employees and customers, augmenting social distance protocols, monitoring store occupancy, expanding cleaning efforts and installing plexiglass shields at the registers. Additionally, Lowe’s increased employee compensation by $80 million through special bonuses and payments distributed to their hourly associates. In the month of April, they raised the hourly wage by $2 an hour for all hourly staff members. Lowe’s also granted all salaried front-line managers an extra two weeks of vacation. Furthermore, Lowe’s contributed $3 million to the Lowe’s Employee Relief Fund to assist associate in need.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Let your curiosity be greater than your fear.” — Pema Chodron. Replacing fear with curiosity has enriched my life in many ways. It’s taken me on incredible adventures around the world. It’s opened the door to a myriad of opportunities. And, it’s connected me to some of the most important relationships of my life. Cultivating curiosity has also been a key factor in developing mindfulness which helps to keep me balanced, focused, and centered.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can check out my website at www.theforwardproject.co and they can follow me on LinkedIn.