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 Michelle King.
Michelle King is a Strategic Advisor, Executive Coach and Human Resource expert with more than two decades experience. As the founder of Soul2Sole, a full service human resources consulting firm, she’s worked with and supported thousands of leaders and executives to enhance their people strategy, culture and impact.
Prior to becoming an entrepreneur + consultant, she spent 20 years in Corporate America shaping and developing the culture, strategic leadership and business strategy for Fortune 100 and 500 companies. She is a frequent speaker and facilitator on human capital planning, executive and team development, and workplace culture transformation.
She’s passionate about supporting high performers and rising executives to attain personal and professional mastery.
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?
Oh where to begin?! I was born wanting to conquer the world. I have always been curious, fearless, tenacious and resilient. I was going to be a lawyer, but got blindsided by Human Resources, and have never looked back. I have had some amazing opportunities in my career and lifetime, working for start-ups and Fortune 100’s, across various sectors and in so many countries throughout the world. Soul2Sole was born while I was taking my coaching certification. It is the intersection of my passion for being the mirror for women who are driven to have an impact in the world, and they want to show up in a way that makes the world a better place.
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?
When I first started at FedEx, I was in the Legal department. I thought that I would just be able to give our leaders information on what we needed to do to be legally compliant, so I created policies from a place of what we have to do. When I rolled them out however, they fell flat! We had so many different service centers, jobs, people and roles, and nothing was one size fits all. It took a great friend and manager at the office to tell me that I needed to be cognizant of my impact on the business, and to really learn what was needed to fit the legal/HR policies to work for them, not against them. So…I learned the business. I spent a ton of time in the service centers, went on trips with the drivers to learn about their days, talked to the office team, and spent time watching the dock operations….and getting to know people and learning the business. Heck, I even learned to drive a forklift (which if you know me is hilarious in my heels)! But what I learned from that, is that HR/Legal is less about the actual letter of the law, and more about how you support the business and make the policies work in a way that supports the business. I also will never forget that manager’s words to me about recognizing my impact as well, because that would become the basis of all the work I do at Soul2Sole.
I recall a lesson from my LinkedIn days — one of our core values was Relationships Matter, and they do! I had to go build relationships with people in a different way, and learn all about what they wanted and needed before I could build it out.
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 had a really amazing mentor early in my career, who I asked to be my mentor because of his amazing ability to connect with people in a way I had never seen before. On my continuous journey of self mastery, I always seek out people who have amazing qualities that I admire, to get really curious about how they did what they did, and how I could learn from them as I continued to work on myself. He was tremendous at building relationships, and was loved and appreciated by many. He agreed to mentor me, and gave me a tremendous gift that was likely the first seed of Soul2Sole…he gifted me his Executive Coach for 3 sessions! It was an amazing opportunity for me as a young associate, and had a profound impact on my life. I loved my work and time with her, but more importantly, I loved that she was the sounding board and was in a role to support our executive team to grow themselves personally and professionally, which in turn grew and supported the business! What an amazing job!
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 I started Soul2Sole it was to give the same gift that I had received from my mentor. An opportunity for women to own their personal and professional development, to really take a look at the impact they wanted to have in the world deep in their soul, and then take the first steps (with their soles) to live the life they want. It is a dream job! I have gained so much from stepping into my own power, being clear with the Universe what I wanted, and then being open to receiving it when it showed up! It means being curious and fearless at the same time, seeing the gifts and having gratitude for literally everything that happens, because it is a gift. The more women I can share that message with, and who step into their power for good in the world, the more joy and blessings I receive!
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 my role as an HR Executive I have had a lot of opportunity to lead my team and companies through difficult times. I recall a time when we were shutting down a portion of our business and it was hard on all fronts. It is hard when you impact people’s jobs, hard to let people go, and even harder to be part of the decision making process for our team, colleagues and leaders. I really had to take an approach of looking at things from the lens of how do I support the people being impacted in the best way possible, and what can I influence to give them support and set them up for success in their next role. In this particular layoff, it meant that I fought to give good severance packages, including additional things like extending medical benefits, giving money for job search/networking sites to help their searches, and preparing talking points for our leaders as they prepared to deliver these tough messages. I navigated all of this, while having to keep the people on my team who were staying engaged, updated and to help them to see what we could do to ease the tough message that was coming. For me, this was an opportunity for us to support little things in the background that people wouldn’t notice, but that had a large impact. I spent time talking to them all individually and as a team, we ate together, worked on details together, and made sure that we talked about how we were feeling throughout the entire process. I think that them seeing me in there with them, creating the paperwork and doing all that I was asking them to do also helped. This was a team effort to ensure a smooth transition for our team members, and it takes a village, including leaders to make that happen.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have definitely considered giving up! In a moment of exhaustion and emotion, throwing in the towel seems like an option…but only for a quick second! For me, the drive to continue is that I care and am empathetic to what is happening, and I know that I am on the front lines fighting for things that will help set people up for success in the future. I also know from experience (I have been on the other side of a layoff a few times in my career), that it is the little things that make a big difference when you get news like that. I believe that my ability to put myself in their shoes and act from a place of compassion allows me to be a better HR executive, leader and colleague.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leading with compassion is critical as a leader, and never more imperative than when things are challenging. As a leader you have so many things to balance, your team, the business priorities and the realities of where things are. I think great leaders can see the impact they have on others, and utilize that to be all the different things that people need in difficult times — they need information, support, kindness and compassion, and they need to know that you see their contributions and value the work that they are doing.
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?
Point out the good things, the small things that make a big difference, and be honest with people about their impact and value. Leaders have to be good storytellers, it is about laying things out so that people can see the entire map, not just the path immediately in front of them. Inspiring people means that you are showing them how they make a difference, how they contribute to the overall success of the entire team or company, and helps them to feel engaged and a part of the solution, it gives them a sense of having some control over their fate. In challenging times what you often actually need from them as a leader is the extra discretionary effort that will make a big difference. For them to want to give that to you (because you cannot force people to do it) they need to feel as if what they are giving of themselves for is a worthy cause, they are invested in making it work, and they want to give you all they have to support whatever is next. Showing them the entire map, the various paths, giving context and information that will allow them to see from 5 to 50,000 feet helps them to also see where they can contribute in a meaningful way, and is many times the tipping point for engagement.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Honestly with as much information as possible. For example, we sometimes hear leaders say things like “this was a hard decision” but not give any details about what all the options considered were, and why ultimately the decision they came to was the best for the business. People can get behind most decisions, when they feel like they were able to come along with you on your decision making journey.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We make the very best decisions we can with the information we have today, and pivot when we have new information that changes our decision. Take quarantine as an example, many businesses early on were saying they would be closed for a few weeks or were updating employees in small increments of time. As this has worn on, more and more leaders are adapting to say we want to give employees as much information as possible, so we tell them how we are thinking about things now, give a longer run room and timeframe for returning to the office, and then pivot when new information becomes available.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes, always be looking at what you can do better or differently, and act on it. Companies and leaders that are able to learn, adapt, are agile and can pivot quickly will win. Nothing today looks like it did two years ago, you either adapt or die. You take what you know, what you have learned along the way, what you can see in the future and you make decisions sometimes with 75% of the information, that creates velocity. When you pivot and make a decision you look honestly at how it worked, seek feedback and then make the very best next decision.
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?
- Doing things the way you have always done them because it worked before. What got you here will not get you to the next level, you have to be open to adapting.
- Not asking for feedback or not listening when you get it.
- Narrow viewpoints and focus. Perspective is important — it opens up your window of possibility and seeing what is and could be. See things from your vantage point, your employees, customers, board, external markets, etc. The more you can see and are open to the more opportunities you will find.
Always be open — to learning, to listening, to growing and to new ways of doing things.
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?
Keep setting stretch goals! Even in good times, you need to have a goal that feels big and exciting, and it is just as important in challenging times. If profits are down, be realistic about targets, but push the “what if we could” button often! What would it take to get a few more sales closed before the end of the month, what if we could incentivize our employees or customers to give us something more that we need to push the threshold? People want to be successful and reach their goals, so give them one that goes a little farther and gives them opportunity to shine and think outside the box.
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.
- Give and receive constructive, honest feedback.
Feedback is a gift, it gives people an opportunity to grow and develop themselves for whatever comes next. You should also want to grow, so ask for feedback as often as you are giving it.
I cannot tell you how many senior executive leaders that I have done 360’s for who are shocked and upset by the feedback that they received. The higher up you get, the harder it is to get honest feedback and the less you will get it. If you want to know if your team will follow you when things are hard, ask them!
Be a leader that people want to give their discretionary effort to. If you show them you are open to hearing and learning from feedback, they will be as well, and it means that you are not only developing a culture where feedback is honored, but means that everyone is growing themselves personally and professionally. Can you remember the most effective feedback you ever received? I bet it made you better than you are today. Share that with your teams.
2. Building an emotional connection with your team
Relationships Matter! Remember…your team wants to know that you are as invested as they are. I once had a CMO who was great at building relationships externally, but didn’t take the time to build them with his team. When things got tough, his team started to leave, and he was devastated and felt like they were abandoning him and the business. In reality, they were not connected to him, they didn’t see him as someone they could talk with, someone that they were willing to hang on with through the hard times, and didn’t feel bad about walking away at a time when he needed them most! Being connected means that people know the real you, they care, you are vulnerable, and can ask for things because of the capital you have gained from the trust built over time.
3. Knowing yourself + Always be learning/growing
When you are clear about the person and leader you show up as, you then get to choose to be the leader you want to be. If you are not open to truly seeing yourself as others see you, then you cannot be effective especially in hard times.
My mentor used to say, you are either learning and growing or decaying and dying. As a leader this is especially true. How has your leadership style changed over the years? How are you better today than last year or five years ago? What do you need to do now, in 6 months, 1 year, 5 years, to leave the legacy you want to leave?
How does your style affect your team, your colleagues, your boss? If you don’t truly look inside you can’t lead others as they are growing.
4. Understanding Your Impact + Showing Up As A Leader with Purpose
Knowing the impact you are having and want to have in the world should be our work as leaders and humans!
When you are clear on what you want to leave behind, you can take the steps you need…even baby ones…every single day!
As a coach and facilitator I get to work with executives all the time who want to lead their teams with purpose and be the type of leader who inspires their teams. My work a lot of times focuses on making executive teams stronger together, and those teams are the sum of the people who make it up.
When a VP of Sales that I recently worked with got really intentional about leading from a place of purpose, and began to understand the impact she was having on her team, she was able to step back and pivot some things about her leadership style that gave her exactly what she needed to get her team over a really tough quarter. She knew that she could positive impact the business and the growth of her team if she was able to do the work, and she wasn’t afraid to dig in and transform herself.
5. Knowing + Understanding What’s Important to your team
Leadership is about knowing your team, and you cannot lead and inspire others without really knowing what is important to them, both collectively and individually.
You get the best out of people when you know what their superpowers are, and lean into allowing them to use them daily!
Think about the best boss you ever had. What was it that made them so amazing and memorable? Chances are it is because they saw you and your talents, developed and supported you to grow and learn, and leaned into the things that make you special! That is what great leaders do. You cannot do that without knowing your team and what they love to do and why…so start asking now!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity…it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” — Melody Beattie.
Gratitude is the root to me of all things positive. If you see every single thing through a lens of gratitude, you will learn, grow and have an abundance of positive things in your life. Gratitude for the good things, the people in your life, the lessons you have learned, the tough times that have taught you, and the amazing journey that puts you here today….and the choice to be grateful for all of it making you YOU!
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