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 Minter Dial, an international professional speaker and multiple award-winning author, specialised in leadership, branding and transformation. An agent of change, he’s a three-time entrepreneur who has exercised twelve different métiers and changed country fifteen times. Minter’s core career stint of 16 years was spent as a top executive at L’Oréal, where he was a member of the worldwide Executive Committee for the Professional Products Division. He’s author of the award-winning WWII story, The Last Ring Home (documentary film and biographical book, 2016) as well as two prize-winning business books, Futureproof (2017) and Heartificial Empathy (2019). His latest book on leadership, You Lead, How Being Yourself Makes You A Better Leader (Kogan Page) released in January 2021. He’s been host of the Minter Dialogue weekly podcast since 2010. He is passionate about the Grateful Dead, Padel Tennis, languages and generating meaningful conversations. Follow him @mdial / minterdial.com
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 basically feel like I belong to many cultures and countries, having been born in Belgium, raised in France, educated in England, with American parents, while being married to a Franco-Spanish (and exceptional) woman. Over the course of my career, I’ve been lucky to have had many different experiences. I started off, fresh out of university with a degree in Trilingual Literature and a minor in Women’s Studies, getting a job in an investment bank. I’ve tried my hand multiple times at being an entrepreneur (first a luxury leather bag manufacturer, then a travel agency for entertainers), teaching tennis, working in a zoo and an aquarium and more. Over the last years I’ve been keen to explore the diversity of media for storytelling and have produced a WWII documentary film that has been on national TV in several countries. The connecting tissue of all my career activities has been an ability to communicate with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
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 at the investment bank (DLJ), my boss, Tom, one day realized he couldn’t make a client lunch and so he gave me the task of taking the client out for a “good” meal. Nervously, I tried to break the ice with this client with a joke as we were eating pasta first course. In the process of telling him how embarrassing it would be to spill the pasta, I managed to spook the client who upended his plate on his lap (replete with tomato sauce). I wanted to shrivel up and disappear. The first takeaway is: don’t play with fire (at least not around messy food). My boss laughed heartily when I recounted the story. The client and he had been long-time friends, so a little incident like this didn’t matter in the long run. Loyalty and good intentions go a long way to overcome hiccoughs.
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 have been many people who’ve helped me out. I owe a lot of gratitude to my school housemaster, John Peake, who ironed me out. But later in my career, the person that stands out for me is my colleague and deep friend, Pat Parenty, from my time at L’Oréal. Pat and I come from very different backgrounds and, while we shared some common values, in the process of working closely beside him, I learned the power of being both fair and firm all the time. One thing I still recall today was when he told me, after I had arrived from France to work in the US subsidiary, how execution is strategic. The product doesn’t need to be perfect. But it does need to be on time. Essentially: make sure you do what you say.
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?
There are two fundamental keys for a “purpose-driven business” to succeed long-term. First, it has to be profitable. That doesn’t mean that making money is the primary objective; it means that purpose can’t be dogmatically taken as the only input for decision-making. Secondly, it’s most powerful when the business purpose overlaps at least in part with one’s personal purpose. It’s exponentially powerful when the purpose courses through the team and the organization as a whole. As a sole trader initially and then running my boutique company, I made my personal and business’ purpose basically one and the same: To elegantly elevate the debate and connect dots, ideas and people. This is what I strive to achieve through my storytelling, including my filmmaking, books, songs, podcasting and blogging.
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?
While running the professional haircare brand, Redken 5th Ave NYC, part of the L’Oréal Group, I recall clearly the day I watched as the backdrop for two of our upcoming ad campaigns were destroyed in front of my eyes. Within minutes, my office was overrun with aghast colleagues watching the two towers crumble. In the disarray, I knew that it was important to keep a steady eye on the business I was running. Yet, I thought it was more important to think of the emotional impact on the team, many of whom would know someone who was deeply affected. There was a call from my boss to act with a stiff upper lip and to show that business must go on. However, I needed to impress upon him the human story, in line certainly with my brand’s purpose. Our mission at Redken was Earn a Better Living, Live a Better Life. It’s a powerful mission because it was being lived throughout the Redken organization and eco-system. I’ve long felt that by focusing on living a better life, we end up earning a better living.
You always want to know why you’re in business, but in uncertain times, it’s even more important. Moreover, on top of the volatility of change, we live in times where the options have multiplied through a plethora of new tools, platforms and devices. The key is to have a refined and well-shared North Star that describes your mission and is coherent with your de facto values. A strong North Star not only provides a beacon to aim for, it is a navigational system that helps to make critical decisions and allows you to stay the line despite the uncertainty and innumerable trade winds that can blow you off course.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I am mobilised by my desire to elevate the debate and move people into action. I have had regular setbacks along the way, including losing my single biggest longstanding client that had given me a solid and reliable base. In the process of figuring out a new path, I launched myself into my book writing. So out of trouble does indeed come opportunity. By writing books, a process I deeply enjoy, I also know that I am able to touch and move more people.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Obviously, depending on the circumstances, but the most critical role can be about knowing how to conserve cash and taking the tough decisions. In general, though, the most useful role of a leader through challenging times is to keep providing perspective. That includes helping to put events into context, including using personal stories to show resolve and where you get your resilience from. A second related idea is to make sure that your tough decisions are placed and explained in the context of a longer-term plan.
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 tend to correlate morale with energy. To the extent your company or brand has established a bigger and credible purpose, it becomes the leader’s role to find ways to link what each member of the staff is doing and how it is contributing to that purpose, even in the smallest of ways. If purpose isn’t your thing, then it’s about building meaningfulness into every employee’s day. There are many different ways to do this, from the minor (having some fun) to the more significant (working on tough assignments, collaborating with a committed team, doing something for the wider community…).
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There are three rules to bear in mind when distributing difficult news. (1) Don’t talk down or try to sugar coat. (2) Give out the news as soon as is practically possible. (3) Make it in person whenever possible.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In uncertain times, you have to pay particular attention to cash and cash flow. But, beyond the financial considerations, first, I advise that it’s best not to try to predict when or how the future will be, but to start working in the here and now, as you see it. Secondly, in the throes of change, it’s really critical to keep an eye on your North star direction, so as not to get too far blown off track. If you’ve not yet developed a North Star, then the least one can do is reach out to your customers, past and present, and make sure you are showing them your support.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
One of the temptations or risks is to throw yourself into working overtime and at double speed. Make sure to add moments of rest or change of air for yourself as some of the best ideas come when you’re not expecting them. Moreover, especially to the extent this will be a marathon, we need to make sure to manage our energies over the long haul. In addition to the pauses, look at including some activities that will help recharge your soul. For me, that entails playing guitar for 30 minutes every evening, going for a walk or run even in the rain, or meeting someone new, these days online (for example using Lunchclub.ai or, more recently, on Clubhouse).
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?
The first mistake is to wait for “normal” to return. The second is to blindly believe that any action is a good action, even if it’s twisting ethics. The how you do business matters, even in difficult times. The third and most common mistake, however, is to get so focused on your own issues that you forget the challenges that your stakeholders, employees and, of course, customers, are genuinely experiencing. Flex your empathic muscles!
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?
My strongest advice is to always be ready for the possibility of challenging times. This means having contingencies in place ahead of time, with a strong eye on cash positions and the nature of recurring expenses. When that’s not the case, the best counsel I can give is to make sure that you remember why you’re in business. When survival is in question, you will need to tap into how and why you got into the business in the first place to keep an eye on the bigger picture.
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.
- Take care of cash. I’ve started up three ventures, two of which crashed and burned in style. The second one was a travel agency for entertainers. As much as we had this rather niche segment, we kept being tempted by other areas who promised immediate business. This included taking on the World Bank as a client and many other businesses that had nothing to do with our core concept. As a result, we ended up stretching ourselves thin and taking on bigger tranches of reservations; but these needed a higher working capital which we were sadly missing. In the end of the day, we didn’t manage our cash well enough and, despite having many big contracts that would come due within twelve months, could not manage the combination of crises that hit (S&L, Gulf War, tourism drop off…) and had to shut our doors.
- Find your own personal North and tie it into what you’re doing. Especially in times of turbulence, it’s easy to get blown off course. During the 9/11 calamity, running a brand whose tagline was all about New York City, there were so many different issues to tackle, from the financials, to logistics, to international relations, to personal tragedy. For myself, the saving grace was tapping into my own personal story and thinking of my grandfather who was a decorated US Navy officer, captain of a ship in WWII when the war broke out. I was named after him and I felt deeply connected to him at that very moment. I was having my equivalent “Pearl Harbor” and thought about how he would have kept his calm, been courageous and done what was right. It was about doing right, not just as a business leader, but on the human level. I am also deeply grateful for the sacrifices that my grandfather and his entire generation made, whose experience and troubles have helped put perspective on the type of crisis we are living today.
- Check in with your stakeholders. In times of difficulty, it’s easy to think that the person with the biggest problem is yourself. In the 1990s and into the 00s, as the Internet was becoming increasingly relevant for business, time after time, I’d speak with audiences — whether it was a specific sector or a particular metier — who’d say that “they had it worst.” Everyone started to feel the crunch and the need for transformation. I suggest reaching out to your stakeholders and clients, not with an eye to drumming up more business, but how you can be mutually helpful to one another.
- Ask for help. After leaving L’Oréal after 16 years as an executive, I launched my own business. It coincided with the crisis of 2009. I remember a horrible and sinking feeling of embarrassment in not really knowing what to do in the face of lengthening decision-making cycles, constant and hard price negotiations, etc. I asked for some help and, within the space of two days, had coordinated a meeting with four other entrepreneurs who were interested in helping one another. There’s something wonderful about feeling needed and being helpful!
- It’s okay not to be okay… all the time. As the leader, we often believe that it’s our role to be the top energizer and chief cheerleader. And surely our role is to lead by example and to set the course. However, not every day is a great day and rather than gloss over our own emotions, I think it’s pertinent for leaders to check in with themselves and acknowledge publicly when they don’t feel at the top of their game. I recall a time when, during an important public relations meeting, I broke down and cried in the middle of my speech. I could hardly have been more embarrassed. Yet, at the end, many of the most important people in the room came up to me and offered the kindest words of support. The bottom line was that they possibly not only didn’t think less of me, they felt more connected to me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Change is for sure. Growth is the option.” This quote came from one of my mentors, Sam Villa.
It’s another way of saying that it’s not what happens to you but how you deal with it. At one point, over a four-year period, I changed school three times. I didn’t have time to bemoan my situation. I just got on with the business of getting stuck in socially, sportingly and academically to make the most of each experience. It wasn’t easy because it also entailed changing countries and school systems. Having now changed country of residence fifteen times and experimented with so many different professions, I love getting on the inside to figure out what I call, the “kernel of interest,” in each activity or culture.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I blog at minterdial.com and my weekly podcast, which has been going for over 10 years, is called the Minter Dialogue. My WWII film and book is called The Last Ring Home. My books are available on all the major etailers.