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 Mimi Brooks.
Mimi Brooks is CEO of Logical Design Solutions (LDS), a consulting firm that envisions and designs enterprise digital solutions. Since founding the company in 1990, she has led LDS to become a recognized brand among the technology- focused management consultancies, and a trusted partner to Fortune 500 business clients. Mimi is a former AT&T executive with a career-spanning focus on organizational design, technology-driven business transformation, and research on the changing behaviors of business users. Mimi is recognized as an industry thought leader and author on topics such as the future of work, organizational transformation and digital business strategy, and frequently presents to Fortune 500 leadership teams and at industry conference events.
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?
Before founding Logical Design Solutions in 1990, I gained a lot of valuable experience in various positions at AT&T. As you may know, AT&T and what was then its Bell Labs division invested heavily in leading-edge R&D. I was recruited into a Labs program that was pioneering a new discipline known as “human performance engineering”. I had the good fortune to be mentored by true industry thought-leaders who were shaping this science and discipline. With that initiation, the experience kick-started what evolved into a career-long focus and commitment to advancing human-centered business solutions and designing technology-based experiences tailored for workers.
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 started LDS with the purpose of advancing human performance in a workplace where technology was increasingly becoming a part of everyday tasks. Although the technologies at that time were quite different than today, the challenges for people and organizations were similar: usability and usefulness; people and leader readiness; the necessary redesign of work processes, and so on. Regardless, we knew that to enable companies and their workers to benefit from emerging technology, we needed to make that technology work better for people.
Fortunately, this evergreen idea provided us with wonderful opportunities to conduct research and learn from so many leaders and workers over the years — across multiple industries, regions and countries, and in diverse roles and work environments. Our purpose has been immeasurably interesting and rewarding.
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?
Digitalization associated with the disruptive impact of 4IR advanced technologies, along with the impact of globalization, has been disrupting industries and our clients’ businesses since around 2008. Early on, like others, we were focused on the technology (social, mobile, analytics, cloud) and we initially missed that the transformation was far beyond a technological revolution. What we did do from the outset, though, was to sense that sea change in the approach to business and we set out quickly to educate ourselves in order to connect-the-dots. We found invaluable perspectives at that time from the World Economic Forum and the ideas that Klaus Schwab and his team were developing, along with input from other important thought leaders who were providing innovative business contexts, as well as useful theories and observations. We were able to bring these perspectives into our own work and consequently to focus on the organizational transformation that was underway, as digital was changing the foundations of business and operating models across the board.
Essentially, we transformed ourselves from a company of “experts” with well-defined best practices and methodology, to a company of “students” contributing our ideas, theories, and work in order to prepare people and organizations for the emerging digitally-enabled and human capital era.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
We talk a lot about a leader’s ability to demonstrate resilience these days. I think that the human capacity to handle highly disruptive challenges, such as we have seen over the past year or so, must be the hallmark of a good business leader in so far as he or she can overcome these difficulties without causing undue stress within the workforce and other constituents. In other words, protecting the energy of those around them and fostering a ‘can do’ attitude that positively rallies people to rise to the challenge together. I think that empathy is a key component of resilience, coupled with the emotional and mental agility needed to persevere and succeed in the most trying circumstances.
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 think that first and foremost, high performing leaders demonstrate care as well as trust in their teams. This approach is closely linked with things like worker recognition, upcsalling opportunities, demonstrations of respect, regular feedback loops, and employee engagement in general. Overall, it comes down to creating a culture that embraces fundamental worker needs in a way that goes beyond the paycheck and embraces human dignity and value. People bring their best selves to work, even in difficult circumstances, when they feel valued, when they believe they genuinely belong, and when their work has the opportunity to make an honest and positive impact.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I have found it effective to get ahead of the communication curve and own the issue. Being straightforward and candid from the outset seems to avoid re-clarifications later. It’s critical that the message is credible, appropriately empathetic and sensitive to those particularly affected. And, if some type of change is required to mitigate the issue going forward, clarity on what those exact commitments are is beneficial to impart.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
An uncertain future is our future. In this context, I have found it most effective when leaders bring focus and clarity in alignment to the company’s mission, value and purpose by:
- Modeling what good looks like for people
- Sensing the future without having to predict it
- Being comfortable in determining the next step after taking the first
- Prioritizing mental agility to manage complexity and bring confidence to action.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Beyond purpose and culture, which we’ve spoken about already, I’d say having the ‘Customer is Everything’ focus is one, reliable “north star” idea.
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?
I’ll state a few of the important things to get right (and you can see how they could be missteps otherwise):
- People, not technology
- Reinforce the “why”
- Don’t confuse peoples’ uncertainty with their resistance to change
- Balance a focus on execution with investments in innovation
- Value momentum and dexterity when the road to the future is unclear.
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?
As a 30-year old business, especially one whose basis is technology in the workplace, we’ve managed through transitional and turbulent times on more than one occasion. Adaptation ahead of the curve is critical to the viability of our business and to the effectiveness of our work. We learn and adapt as a cultural idea, but we stay true to our purpose and passion.
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.
Firstly, I would use the example of the ‘Build Back Better’ concept in order to amplify the three key organizational transformation principles of leading with purpose, systems thinking, and acting in the interests of humans, that each allow leaders to pave the way for corporate resilience and recovery in the post-pandemic era.
Secondly, today’s business leader must empower, engage and accelerate the abilities of the workforce by embracing areas like organizational redesign, social recognition, equity and diversity, redefinition of human work, and contribution to purpose. A leader must also nurture an employee experience that encompasses mobility, inclusion and connectivity, as well as career development and upscaling, while also understanding how rapidly expanding human-computer collaboration will impact the business going forward.
Thirdly, the contemporary employee experience means that the business leader should engage the workforce in strategy and connect workers through sustainable practices, while also developing the durable skills needed in the future state. This experience must support horizontal, cross-functional work practices, connecting silos and enabling seamless interactions across divisions, functions, and geographies.
Fourthly, leaders must provide people with the context and guidance they need to successfully navigate and participate in the business ecosystem and enable critically needed capabilities and behaviors across the entire organization.
Lastly, I think that in an uncertain post-pandemic era, when coupled with the scepter of growing social unrest and environmental concerns, leaders must be more aware than ever before of the ethical consequences of the decisions they make or suffer the backlash of an increasingly intolerant social framework. Demonstrating personal concern for the well-being of your organization and the community in general will go a long way towards reinforcing your organization’s integrity and reputation.
How can our readers further follow your work?