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 Minna Taylor.
Minna Taylor is the Founder of Energize Your Voice, an NYC-based communication consultancy. With an experiential approach, rooted in the principles of improv and performance, she and her team support organizations to explore their full potential in public speaking, brand storytelling, executive presence, and leadership communication. Notable clients include UBER, Red Bull, Citi, and E&Y. Minna earned her BFA from NYU Tisch and went on to earn her MFA in Performance with a concentration in speech and vocal production. Beginning her career as an accent reduction specialist, Minna went on to transfer her theatre training to developing an innovative approach for professional development.
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?
For sure, and thank you for inviting me to contribute to this topic. I grew up on a farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. It was a place where everyone knew who you were and people thrived on connecting, telling stories, and celebrating tradition. There was always a campfire burning or guitar being played. My sisters and I would entertain ourselves with hours of make-believe and play dress up from our costume trunk. It was foundational for understanding how to rely on my imagination and how to play well with others. I left the farm for NYC where I attended NYU Tisch Drama and then went on to earn my masters in acting from Brooklyn College CUNY. I hustled, like all working actors just starting out, by piecing together a number of gigs. I walked dogs, cleaned houses, taught kickboxing. But the gig that really excited me was teaching accent reduction and presentation skills to corporate clients. I found that job through Craigslist of all places.
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 am an artist at heart. I hadn’t worked in a corporate setting prior to my Craigslist consulting gig. I didn’t know how to dress for a corporate setting. I was working in a conservative office and I was showing up in what I thought was business casual, with my nose ring, and a quirky attitude. The woman contracting me very generously invited me over to her apartment and offered me a bag of hand-me-down clothes to look more appropriate. She talked to me about acceptable attire, gave me feedback she had received from the senior partners at the firm where I was working, and I was asked to remove my nose ring. I still have a sweater she gave me. That taught me, more than anything, about the generosity of humankind. Thinking back on it, it’s a perfect example of this idea that no one is typically rooting for you to fail and are often, instead, standing for your success.
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 am in my second career. I started out as an actress and it was my high school drama teacher who encouraged me to apply to NYU Tisch. It was my graduate school phonetics teacher who gave me my first job as a speech coach. That really set me on a path of pursuing communication as a career. It wasn’t until years later that I decided to leave acting and move into coaching and training full time, but that initial access point of understanding that there was a need for professional support around communication allowed me to perceive it as a viable option.
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 my company, I had a vision of creating happier and high performing humans. Through the study of play and presence, you gain insight into the freedom or restriction of the practitioner. If people are tight and feeling cut off from their breath, they are likely to experience greater levels of anxiety and physical discomfort. This leads to fatigue, disengagement, and an overall reduction in wellbeing and a degrading of confidence. Through the practice of play, participants reconnect to their breath, feel a deeper sense of ease in their bodies, and liberate their minds from effort and constraint. This results in creativity, connection, and a clarity of purpose.
In the most recent revision, we have included a commitment to social equity by promoting that the social, political, and economic power of public speaking skills can change someone’s life. We believe that democratized access to high quality professional development is a gateway to economic success and greater social equity.
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 most founders running a corporate consulting company, they know the constant challenge of client acquisition and retention. Gaining access to budgets and getting awarded projects is never an easy process. So when the pandemic hit, it was a real blow when all of our work for the foreseeable future was cancelled and any prospective work became nonexistent. Our clients were freezing budgets and furloughing their employees. This meant no work and no money.
The most important thing I did was to explicitly acknowledge that times were difficult. It’s easy to feel the difficulty and to allow the difficulty to be top of mind in decision making, but rarely do we take time to pause and bring into being through deliberate language, like, “dang, this is really difficult right now.” Putting it into concrete language makes it a reality and it also makes the enormity of the difficulty feel more tangible and therefore more manageable.
I also made a point to bring my team into the conversation. I didn’t want to hide the struggle. Transparency was everything. If they were kept in the dark, they would be feeling anxiety around their job security. It’s not like they weren’t aware that something was going on, so it was important to lay facts before fiction took hold. In this moment, their continued loyalty was integral to keeping the company afloat. Bringing them into the experience and valuing their input as part of the solution, made us stronger and ultimately allowed us to regain traction once the industry started to reopen.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Every six months or so I think about packing it in and going to work for someone else. I had the same experience when I was acting. The appeal of a steady paycheck and relying on someone else to make decisions is very strong at times. When I am confronted with these moments, I allow myself to explore them. I will get onto job boards and salivate at starting salaries and regular work hours. I fantasize about what it would be like to work on a team where I wasn’t the leader. To not be responsible for the success or failure of the entire enterprise. But no matter how seductive that option is, I can’t deny my essential nature. I am an entrepreneur. Ultimately, even if my business fails, I would likely start something else before I went to work for someone else. I crave the freedom of my time. I relish in the total permission to get creative and experiment. I am building my own life. As attractive as a more traditional path seems, this is the path that is meant for me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Be the steady hand. What I mean by that is not to limit creativity, ideation, or experimentation. Not to resist adapting or testing hypotheses. I mean that even in spite of having to problem solve and negotiate crisis interventions, it is essential to manage your own emotions on top of the emotions of your team. You may continue to be forced to change course, but remain steady. Freak out, cry, cocoon, break something, but don’t let yourself become enveloped in that fear response. If this ship is sinking, you are the one responsible for getting everyone into the lifeboats. Be the steady hand. That’s the responsibility of leadership.
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?
Every team is different, so the most important thing is to understand what motivates and inspires your team during certain times. Don’t wait to investigate motivation as a reaction or intervention in the face of a crisis. Motivation should be an ongoing curiosity for a leader. Is your team a game night group? Do they like small gift bags? Are they incentivized through friendly competition? Only you can answer that, but it shouldn’t take a crisis for you to figure it out. Assuming that is in place, and in the face of crisis the regular tactics aren’t working, then bring them into the solution. Speak to them one on one. Get a sense of energy level and where they are struggling to focus. Ask them what they need. Sometimes boosting morale is just about listening to why the morale has dipped in the first place. Fundamentally, your employees want to feel seen and heard. Start there.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be direct and lead with compassion. If you disguise the bad news in riddles, you may encounter an outcome where the news was not understood or you may run the risk of compromising trust because people may perceive you as evasive. The compassion is in the tone of the language and delivery system. You have to determine what is best for your business regarding delivery methods. Is email your go-to? Does your value system support delivering the news over a phone call or video chat? Depending on the severity of the news, I would approach those most heavily impacted directly to prepare them that the news is coming. Then deliver the news as a group. Your messaging should have elements expressing gratitude, responsibility of leadership, the benefit and pain of failing, clear next steps, and optimism for what’s to come.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Redefine what length of runway you need to operate your business. Assess what level of runway you can realistically anticipate and adapt your business model accordingly. This means adjusting goals and revenue expectations, but this also means adjusting in relationship to manpower. Your human capital is likely depleted and that is your most valuable resource. Adjust your model to protect your revenue and your people
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I am a notorious stoic in these matters, so some people may scoff at the simplicity, but I am a firm believer in the adage, “it is what it is.” What I love about this is that it brings you into the distinct here and now. It removes the feeling of regret or loss and welcomes a deep surrender and acceptance. It allows you to operate from a place of, “Well, that sucked. Okay, now what?” I find this very comforting.
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?
- They lose track of their North star, which is a value, not a product. Adam Grant talks about this as the difference of principles and practices. Businesses, when faced with failure, can run the risk of becoming reactionary. This leads to reckless decision making with a very short term perspective. If you are running a business with longevity in mind, never lose touch with your core value and vision. The product may change, but the purpose should not.
- They compare success and make decisions based on competition and fear. When you feel like you’re failing, it can be a really isolating experience. You look around and see everyone else somehow managing to make it work and here you are, up to your neck in shit. If this is the reality you are choosing to identify, it will impact your confidence and decision making. Keep a pulse on the industry, but ultimately the decisions you make should be based on your unique roadmap rather than someone else’s.
- They stop investing in the growth of the business. When you have no money, the last thing you probably want to do is spend money. Bummer news, you have no other option. If you stop investing in the growth of your business, you will stagnate and die. This can perhaps mean a very conservative financial investment, but a significant time investment. Maybe you double down on strategic partnerships or ask for a friends and family round of capital. When your business is experiencing difficult times, it may feel absurd to ask the public to invest or take interest. But that’s a fear based mentality. If you are feeling shame around any challenge, don’t hide away. Ask for help or invest in help for yourself.
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?
- I take time to define what is within my control and what is outside of my control. What is outside of my control is frozen budgets. What is within my control is maybe creating a B2C product to carry us through or investing in promoting digital content.
- I had to be real about where I was at and determine short term actions for long term survival. For my company that meant creating two distinct spaces of action with clearly defined intentions for each. Internally, we were working with the intentions of incubating and experimenting. Externally, the intention was to stay relevant and stay visible.
- Lean into creativity. When your reality changes, it’s an opportunity to pivot, innovate, and adapt. And all these things are totally free!
- Bring yourself into the collective narrative. If you are telling yourself or your customer a different story than the one that is most relevant, you will miss opportunities for sales, collaborations, partnerships, and run the risk of coming off as tone deaf.
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.
- Be human. If you demonstrate extreme resilience or impenetrable positivity, you may alienate your team or close the door to their vulnerability. You want to keep the door open for humanity, for connection, for collaboration. That starts with you leading with your own vulnerability.
- Co-create. In unprecedented times, it is unrealistic you will have solutions to never before seen challenges. This is the time to embrace the wisdom of your people. For example, we see this in work from home policies. Why are companies determining solutions for their employees independently from their employees? That’s ludicrous to me. How on earth can they be so arrogant as to assume they know the solution to what their people really prefer? This is also a time for innovation. There may be incredible untapped potential in the minds of your employees. Welcome that in!
- Over communicate. During a crisis, I have never heard someone express that they wish they had less information. Simply reflect back to the last time your flight was delayed. Everyone is standing around with anxious glances wondering if anyone knows what’s going on even though the airline staff gave an update five minutes ago. People need the security of information. As leaders, it’s really easy to get tunnel vision. Head down and get it done. Don’t forget to come up for air and connect to your people, frequently. It doesn’t always have to be new information. Reiterate information or just let them know you appreciate them.
- Turn off. If you burn out, you’re no use to anyone. I struggle with this one, so I am sharing this as a cautionary tale. I have tremendous capacity for productivity. When I am not maintaining my “normal” level of activity, I feel uneasy. The biggest gift I gave myself was personal boundaries. I go offline for large periods of time and make a deliberate point to invest in my humanity outside of being a leader.
- Establish new rules to the game. We have seen our clients attempt business as usual and guess what, it failed. In times of change or challenge, rules need to adapt to the new environment. Just because you live in a desert, doesn’t mean that when it starts snowing and you all of a sudden have a blizzard on your hands, you keep wearing flip flops. If you want your employees to play nice, make sure the rules are clear, they know what it takes to win, and you give them the support to succeed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Practice and all is coming.” — Pattabhi Jois The way I frame this for myself is “Don’t try. Allow.” The basic principle here is to simply be consistent in purpose, intentional in practice, open in mind, and present in body. If all of these faculties are working in unison, you can achieve amazing things. For me that comes through building habits and behavior that is centered on breath. How I move through my day, my work, my life, is largely impacted by how connected I am to my breathing. This has been the greatest gift I’ve given myself, cultivating the habit of practice.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Best access point is Instagram @minnataylor_eyv