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 Patti Johnson.
Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and organizational development consultancy that she founded in 2004. She’s also the author of “Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life” and the host of the podcast “Be a Wave Maker: Conversations on Change.” Patti is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University. She and her team have advised clients, including PepsiCo, Microsoft, 7-Eleven, Accenture, McKesson, and Frito-Lay, on how to create positive change in their leaders and organizations.
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 spent 17 years at Accenture and held global leadership roles, worked on numerous client transitions and projects, and headed up the global talent and people program functions. I’ve always been focused on organizational change and behavior — the people side of business. I started my own business more than 10 years ago and became an entrepreneur. I grew PeopleResults into a successful business, and I have worked with some of the world’s best organizations to help their people learn to change.
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 started my business, I really learned my way through it. I had been in a big organization with an extensive team, but it was just me when I first began PeopleResults. I quickly learned how to be completely self-sufficient — it was all on me. I’d always laugh that I had an executive meeting and “we” decided our new strategy.
I had to learn how to create new opportunities and consulting projects. I got so much advice on “this is how you sell and pitch.” I eventually realized that was not my way — I learned to listen to the problems clients had and then try to help them. I realized that my way was to value relationships. This shift to assisting clients do big things well really helped me find my way on growing the business and adding a team, which was counter to some of the advice I got from the “experts.”
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?
The list is long here. Earlier in my career, there weren’t as many women senior executives — and even fewer who were also mothers. It was a fast-paced, high-stress global consulting organization, and I was figuring out how to do it all. The people who helped me often did a lot more than I recognized at the time.
Very early on, a woman who was much more senior than me invited me to be part of an advisory group to the C-level executives and welcomed my voice. Another senior-level woman always invited me to lunch when I was in Chicago, and she’d invite another person along who she felt I should know. Another female leader asked me to be on a team with three more senior women to make recommendations on accelerating the advancement and retention of women that went to the CEO and group. This collection of women was so inclusive and gave me a lifeline that helped me throughout my career — even more than I knew at first.
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?
The vision was to help clients by being a partner who knows their business and translating strategy into actions. We wanted to be more than a PowerPoint with a strategy. Our vision was also to create an innovative and flexible working environment for our consultants to create a career their way.
We wanted almost no hierarchy, with a self-led team that designs its own work and its own future. We didn’t model our organization after many of the Fortune 10/50/100/500 companies we work with today. Instead, we created PeopleResults by considering how we could operate without any corporate policies or rules.
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?
This past year was Exhibit A on uncertain times. I tried to focus on two things: team connection and support as well as creative business sustainability.
The foster connections, I devoted more time on our calls for check-ins to give team members an opportunity to share how they were really doing. We had more Friday afternoon wine dates just to check in. We became masters of virtual connection by learning how to use the right tools and changing how we spent our time together. We used Donut, a Slack tool, to help connect team members for informal meetings. I also spent more time checking in on people as the stress this past year was significant.
On business sustainability, our goal was to keep our business steady and strong in a drastically changing market. In March 2020, no one knew what was ahead. We spent a lot of time talking about “nooks and crannies” — small ways to help clients that might not fit exactly what we’d done before, but it would help our clients and us. We worked on how to maintain our relationships in a virtual world, and it helped a lot. We also worked hard at celebrating successes and wins for encouragement.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, I really didn’t. My motivation and drive come from enjoying the challenge and having some perspective. Any business owner or leader knows that you will have bumps and setbacks, which is just the reality of doing big things. I have been fortunate that our challenges have been manageable, and we moved through them.
I also try to be a problem-solver and ask, “What’s next?” or “What changes do we need to make?” My motivation comes from my team because I never feel like I’m in it alone — we have each others’ backs.
Finally, I try to embrace humor whenever possible. There are some funny people in my group, and we’ve enjoyed some great laughs even when we had problems to solve.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think being forward-looking toward tomorrow. That does three key things:
- You’re preparing for what’s next and how to get there, so difficult times don’t last forever.
- Sharing a vision of the future — even if it’s not perfect — helps reassure others and prepare for the next chapter.
- Creates a sense of optimism that even though things are tough now, others see through you that it will get better.
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?
Honesty and hopefulness. No one will trust you if you are constantly Pollyanna without recognizing the difficulty or challenges. Honesty also means transparency to share what you are thinking and what it means. Your actions create trust, so they must align with your words.
Hopefulness is how people have confidence in the future and that things will improve. Inspiration isn’t the most charismatic or a motivational speaker — inspiration comes from describing the future and how everyone will be part of that future. Much more “we” and much less “me,” creating a meaningful future for everyone.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s both what you say and how you say it. Honesty and transparency mean you give an accurate assessment of what happened and take responsibility. Don’t delay or end a discussion with a quick mention of difficult news — share what you plan to do about it.
You should also think carefully about how you share this news. You might have a thoughtful message, but the result can be devastating if you share it via email or in passing during a companywide meeting. Use proactive empathy and determine how various groups and individuals will perceive this difficult news. This will help you know how you would want to hear this news. Empathy can keep you from making decisions based on your fears or what will make you feel most comfortable at the moment.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Agile planning means you approach planning differently — you plan for a shorter duration. I ask my clients, “How far out can you see?” We then let that guide our planning horizon. Instead of marking off completed tasks, ask yourself something like, “What did we learn this week or month that we didn’t know before?”
Make your plans more flexible to ensure you know your ultimate goal but remain somewhat nimble. Share short-term successes that convey momentum and build on it. Incremental planning is a progression rather than a one-time creation of the perfect plan.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Know what’s in your control and what isn’t. For example, COVID-19 and the many market changes were frustrating, frightening, and disappointing. Still, it was a reality we couldn’t control. If you keep your eye on what is in your control and how to focus all of your energy there, you’ll find answers.
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 most common mistakes I see are:
- Not looking at market and external shifts. If the demand for a service has dropped or been replaced by something else, the market is telling you to change. Businesses that ignore these external shifts will end up with a downward-trending business — or worse.
- Replaying old tapes. To quote Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Any strong business has to adapt and change with time. There is often a strong pull for keeping a business the way it was — since it worked — but that involves looking backward instead of forward.
- Underestimating or ignoring their team’s impact. You want the right people to stay with you and see you through tough stretches. You need to work harder than ever to keep them engaged, involved, and hopeful. This is even more important if you had to make reductions or use furloughs because that creates so much uncertainty for those who stay. Without attention, you can come out the other side and realize you no longer have the talent you need for a successful future.
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 believe in doing two things simultaneously. First, keep your clients happy and continue to work on your relationships like you always have. Put more energy than ever behind growth opportunities and ways you can expand. This is always important, and you can’t get distracted by turbulent times.
Secondly, look at all of the optional expenses and plans, putting anything you can on pause. You can’t use operational expense reductions to manage through tough markets, but they can give you more time. Let others be part of giving ideas for what can be paused or deleted.
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.
- Keep your eye on the business and the people. I added weekly business status calls to look at where we had opportunities — even small ones. We also added weekly fun interactions to check on the team, such as virtual lunches, Zoom wine on Friday afternoons, and optional pop-up calls to discuss topics like mindfulness.
- Separate what’s in your control from what isn’t. Encourage everyone to spend energy on the right things and accept others for what they are. In one of our client meetings, we created this list and then spent a lot of time talking about accepting the realities beyond our control — the changing market, corporate funding, and the pace of new product launches. This helped them feel in control and get better at saying, “Not in our control, but let’s focus on what we can control or at least influence.”
- Dial down uncertainty. As a leader, you can share what you know and what you expect. With transparency and honesty, you can calm fears about the future. We all like to know what to expect, and an information void creates stress. When I was involved in an acquisition, the leader stood up and said nothing would change — they’d continue to work just as they had in the past. That ended up not being the case, but it was the easiest thing for him to say at the moment. This “no change” message hurt the entire leadership team’s credibility because the changes started coming in waves a few days later.
- Have a flexible game plan. Be opportunistic and adaptable as you go. Uncertain times signal that you are in new territory and haven’t done this before. You have to incorporate new information as you go consistently. One of my clients began every meeting with what needs to change these next two months — what have we learned, and what assumption has changed? He gave permission to be flexible and showed he expected adaptability, making their planning far more effective.
- Be a learner. If you haven’t experienced this type of uncertainty before, you have to learn more to avoid drawing on past experiences that don’t fit now. Ask yourself and your team, “What do we need to know and learn that we don’t know today?” and “How do we act on it?” One client started to power up learning plans in a tough time, so people focused on future-proof learning and gave them a sense of purpose for the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my all-time favorite quotes (that fits this topic) is from Jimmy Dugan in “A League of Their Own (played by Tom Hanks): “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
I’ve faced many tough challenges that can seem impossible or hard when you are going through them. When I started my business, I knew nothing about how to do it. I interviewed dozens of people for advice, and every person I spoke to gave me a kernel of wisdom. I also played a mind trick and said I’d view starting this company as a yearlong adventure; I figured I’d know at the end of the year whether it was the right thing for me. It was, and I’ve never looked back. Going through the hard stuff that you haven’t done before gives you confidence and a sense of satisfaction that “the hard is what makes it great.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can check out my podcast, “Be a Wave Maker: Conversations on Change,” on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and reach me on Linkedin and Twitter. My book, “Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life,” is available on Amazon. Sign up for the PeopleResults blog at www.people-results.com/blog/