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 Mychal Manolatos.
Mychal Manolatos is Vice President of SOLitude Lake Management, a nationwide environmental firm specializing in the sustainable management of lakes, stormwater ponds, wetlands, fisheries, and drinking water reservoirs. He is responsible for driving the overall direction and strategy of the business while upholding the company’s mission to provide premium, accessible environmental solutions. Mychal earned his Bachelor of Business Administration Degree in Hospitality Management from Michigan State University and began his professional career in 1999. He has led various teams and businesses across multiple industries, including two Fortune 500 Companies.
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?
As the youngest of three children from an immigrant household, I had to stick up for myself and fight for what I wanted. This instilled in me a competitive spirit that led to excellence in sports. I learned the importance of a cohesive team and reliance on one another to be the best. During these early years, I gained a deep understanding of what it meant to take part in something bigger than myself and desired to step into the role of a leader. This began with becoming captain of my sports teams and evolved into leading professional networks. As I began my career, I moved into sales leadership positions with outstanding companies that taught me valuable lessons on success, but also selflessness. I went from believing that feelings and emotions should be left out of business decisions, to seeing that people are what matter most. These lessons over the course of my early career helped shape my leadership philosophies of today.
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?
Now that we’re on the other side of this experience, it seems a bit silly, but it was definitely a teaching moment. In years past, we worked diligently and quickly to enhance a system that was viewed as an immediate need for our business. We saw this as a huge win for our team, but unfortunately did not take sufficient time to consider the long-term impact of these changes. We ended up looking back at these expensive and time-consuming efforts as clunky and insufficient for present needs. Don’t make the decisions of today without understanding how those might impact your business if things change abruptly like they didi during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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?
My dad, an immigrant, was a self-made entrepreneur. He owned a small business and provided for our family with blood, sweat, and tears. He taught me the value of hard work from a very early age — that what you put in is what you get out and that if you work hard you can achieve anything. To me, that doesn’t mean working 60 hours a week. It means going after what you want without losing focus. It means identifying your resources and the specific challenges that lie ahead of you. Use this to create a vision of what you want and relentlessly make it happen.
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?
SOLitude Lake Management’s mission has not changed since the company was founded almost 30 years ago. We have always been committed to creating beautiful, well- balanced lakes and ponds that promote good health, happiness, and meaningful experiences around the water for our clients. But the way in which we achieve this has evolved over time by driving technological advancements within our industry — more than ever before we are able to pair advanced sciences with sustainable environmental solutions.
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 March 2020, the world was highly uncertain about what Covid-19 was going to do to people personally and how it would impact businesses worldwide. We saw some industries fall off the map almost immediately. The fate of others, like ours, wasn’t certain. Because the services provided by SOLitude Lake Management are primarily conducted outdoors, we felt optimistic, but that didn’t mean our customers did. Because other industries were struggling, people’s priorities shifted almost overnight and we felt that impact. My team and I had some big decisions to make. Should we go with our gut and stick with the plan as an outdoor services provider? Do we adjust our budget? Do we change course and proactively scale back our teams? While I don’t think any business can come out of this unpredictable time saying they got it perfectly right, we charted the best possible path to mitigate risk to the business and people’s lives. It was important to me to stay flexible and adjust to things as they changed. Sometimes, it is hard to be the one responsible for the tough or unpopular choices that often impact others. But when done with integrity and timeliness, you’re more likely to earn their respect, loyalty, and trust down the road. They may not fully comprehend in the present, but they will look back later and understand.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have given up on many things in the past and learned important lessons as a result, but one in particular sticks out. I was a successful baseball player as teenager, but my passion was football. However, my skill level wasn’t as good and I told my parents I was going to quit. My dad said something that still resonates with me 40 years later. He said, “This will be the last thing in life that you ever quit. Later, you will realize that quitting was a mistake, whether that’s weeks, months, or years from now.” I remember that moment as clearly as if it was today and it was so impactful on me that since then I have not given up on any goal that I have set for myself. In times of turbulence, it means to me that people have put trust, respect, and even their lives in my hands to make the right decisions and follow through with them. When I say that we are going to do something, they have my word. Not only that, but we strive to do so with 110% effort in pursuit of excellence.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Someone has to steer the ship and look at everything from a bird’s eye view. And the less we foresee about the future, the more difficult this can be. All factors must be considered to make the best move for the business and each one of the unique, valued individuals that comprises it. Each of these people serves a crucial role and brings their own set of insights and experience to the table. An effective leader isn’t simply there to make the big choices; they are responsible for seeking out and weighing each and every factor to make the most informed decisions possible.
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?
Recognize team players as often as possible — it is both a thank you and a motivator that can never be done enough. Recognition can happen for so many reasons and in so many ways. Don’t reserve these opportunities for only the individuals who have gone above and beyond on a project or initiative; their recognition is much-deserved, but often they are able to step up thanks to the consistent support of their other team members. Don’t forget to recognize those who are meeting expectations and providing that essential support day in and day out.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Sharing difficult news can be challenging, but I find it important to be as honest and open as possible about what you’re communicating. Do people truly know what you are saying? Do they fully comprehend how it will impact them? People all have their preferred communication styles — some people like to see things written, others to hear things — so multiple mediums are crucial to ensure information is well-received and understood by everyone. I prefer to do so verbally and then follow up in writing to check for acceptance and make myself available for feedback.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
When the future is unpredictable, it can be difficult to chart a course that plans for both the present and the future. I am a very data-driven leader, but I’ve found that leaning on your people, maybe even more than you’re used to, can help ensure you make the best possible decisions. Everyone has an opinion, but those opinions stem from experience navigating their own difficult situations. When you couple data with the personal and emotional sides of your company, it can help ease some of that business unpredictability while mitigating risks to your people.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Invest in your people in both the good times and bad. Above all else, your people are your greatest asset and your strategy should consider how your people are impacted and supported as you navigate through uncharted waters as a unit. That is my philosophy and, often, it results in greater success after the storm has passed.
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?
- Many businesses tend to have a “flavor of the month” approach that only focuses on a present need. This leads to confusion and frustration as goal posts move. If something is viewed as an urgent need now, it shouldn’t mean the right move is to drop everything to pivot. In many cases, this can result in more complicated problems down the road.
- Far too often, I see companies get ahead of themselves in favor of immediate gains. Don’t make big decisions before asking yourself, “Does this bring us closer to what we stand for? Is this who we want to be?” Then, make sure every colleague clearly understands your objectives, the steps and expectations you have to achieve them, and their role throughout the entirety of the process.
- It might seem obvious, but the structure of a company isn’t just about the organization chart, it should consider the specific individuals who fill each role. This means looking past the resume and considering not “if” they will fit into your culture, but how they will enhance it. Some companies try to make hiring practices and company culture a science, but I like to think of it as a band. Every time a band member leaves and another comes in, the music changes a bit.
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?
Times of turbulence require more steadfast alignment across teams and divisions than we might be used to. This could require restructuring teams to lean on different strengths, or strategically turning to a new service or business approach. Like a game of football, an effective leader seeks to choreograph an effective and sometimes unexpected strategy to achieve the goals of the business. And don’t forget to maintain consistent communication with your clients to gauge their needs and expectations as conditions change.
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.
Leading people presents challenges in itself, but when times are challenging it gets a little tougher. And that’s because everyone reacts to things differently. During the pandemic, we had to adjust our leadership style. I was able to lean on these principles as we navigated through this time.
Timely communication is key — not just communicating effectively, and not just often, but doing it in a timely manner. Ensuring that the people in the company have an understanding of what’s happening within the business and how that will affect them. Not weeks or months later, but as soon as decisions are made.
In life, and certainly business, there are varying levels of transparency. As a leader, I work intentionally to be as transparent as possible. This can scare people at times, but they have the right to know what’s real and what might be a rumor. People choose to process big news and changes in their own ways, and in my experience being direct and honest is the best way to create space for this.
InclusivityInclusivity is a huge focus for me, especially during more challenging times when difficult decisions have to be made. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, I strived to give our people a voice more than ever. I have learned more about this business during this pandemic by talking to everyone across the company and working to learn how individuals feel throughout departments and regions. I’ve approached this feedback like stepping stones to make our business more inclusive and dynamic.
Recognize and Reward
I said it once and I’ll say it again: recognition is a gift that will never not give back. As humans, our natural desire is to be a part of a group — and no one wants to let the group down, no matter their role. People want to know that they are seen, especially during trying times when days can be longer and more challenging than normal. Recognition can never happen too often.
During turbulent times, your team is hurting the most. Strong leadership is nothing without empathy. You’re not always aware of what someone is struggling with or understand the challenges that they may be facing outside of work. But when you lead your team with compassion you can instill trust that carries over tenfold when things get difficult.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A quote that has always stood out to me is “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This stems from my commitment to leading with compassion and empathy. As a leader, you have to see the forest for the trees, but you can never ever forget the individuals who keep the business moving forward. They are the reason for everything you do and they need to know that you see that above all else.
How can our readers further follow your work?
To learn more and follow our work, please visit www.solitudelakemanagement.com