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 Rachel Thornton.
With a 27-year career spanning journalism, leading IC and engagement teams for global brands and founding her own consultancy, Rachel Thornton has a unique, challenging and fresh perspective on how communication and engagement can positively impact business performance.
Co-founder and owner of scarlettabbott, she divides her time leading a business, providing strategic coaching and consultancy and, most recently, co-authoring a book Even Better If: Building Better Leaders, Better Business and Better Selves, due out in autumn 2021.
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 cut my teeth in the world of communications as a journalist, writing and editing business magazines. After a short stint in PR, I found my calling in internal communications, starting at Marks & Spencer Money. I enjoyed financial services and became head of internal communication and engagement for First Direct bank.
Finally, I headed up IC at Norwich Union. In 2006, my entrepreneurial spirit surfaced and I co-founded our employee engagement consultancy scarlettabbott, with my business partner and husband Jonathan Abbott.
While I’ve worked across all elements of corporate comms and marketing, it’s internal or employee communication that fascinates me — it’s a unique blend of commerciality, creativity and psychology. You need strong commercial acumen to understand and articulate business strategy and performance, alongside the creativity to get cut through and impact, plus a deep understanding of what influences human behaviour to get colleagues to invested.
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’ve done my fair share of ‘reply all’ emails — and signed off a CEO message with ‘Brain’ instead of Brian. But there’s one event that always sticks in my mind.
In the late 90s, there was a trend in London for these full-size fiberglass cows, painted in fantastic colours. They’d pop up around the city at random. I was working at First Direct and thought it would be a brilliant idea to get a couple of black and white ones as stage backdrop for a big internal event.
We got our cows and they looked fantastic. I was so excited. We left them outside the office while we set up — and one disappeared. I mean, this was a full-size Friesian! I was furious, giving everyone a hard time about our rustled cow.
The cow turned up a few days later, by the side of the road, outside a dairy farm. My learning was definitely not to take myself so seriously. Things go wrong, but if you can’t see the funny side of cow-napping, you need to take a breather and get a life. And never lose it with your team.
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 are so many people along the way that teach, inspire and help you. But I think the person I have to thank most is my business partner, Jonathan Abbott.
I’m the extrovert, risk taking, front-of-house people person — and he’s measured, methodical and data-driven. He’s taught me infinite amounts about the nuts and bolts of running a successful business, and he tempers my impulsive nature with a more analytical way of thinking. I would have never considered setting up my own business had it not been for him.
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 wholeheartedly agree. When we started the business, we knew instinctively what our purpose was — simply wanting to do the best we could for clients and to create something people enjoyed being part of. It flowed through everything we did as a small team. It seemed so intrinsic that we never felt the need to write it down.
When we got a bit bigger, a colleague said to me one day, “the thing that’s missing is a purpose.” I was a bit taken back, because it seemed to me it was obvious what our purpose was: it ran through my veins! I assumed that, as we grew, everyone felt it.
That was a lesson. We were growing at pace and welcoming new people every month. We needed to clearly articulate what we stood for. So, we started on the journey to surface our purpose as a team. What we landed on strengthened our focus, our delivery and the work that followed.
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?
The obvious and most timely is the pandemic, which has undoubtedly been the most collectively uncertain and challenging time in recent history.
We quickly focused on what mattered most to us as a business: colleagues, clients and commercials, in that order. We identified everything we could and should influence, those things that needed our attention most, and poured our focus and energy into those activities.
It was incredibly important for me, and the rest of the leadership team, to be as open and transparent about the volatile situation as we could be. We didn’t always have the answers, but we’d show up and be totally open for questions and concerns. As we weathered the storm, we kept communicating our course, and always with gratitude and empathy for what the whole team was going through.
Showing our vulnerability helped, too. Leaders have tough days like anyone else; there were days I wanted to stay in bed. But I didn’t, because others look to you and take their cues from how you project. But we were honest when we were struggling ourselves and let the team know that it’s ok to have a bad day and to ask for help. We needed everyone to feel safe enough to speak up when they needed to.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Never for one second! If I had a superpower, it would definitely be drive. I have a lot of energy to keep pushing forward and do better. I grew up in a single parent home, in a working-class northern town, with an inspiring working mum. I think some of that programmed in me a determination to forge my own path and excel in whatever I did.
I thrive on the intensity and building scarlettabbott really is my life’s work. I think that exceptional drive and energy are quite common traits in entrepreneurs.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think it comes down to two key things.
Firstly, being a leader is a choice you make every day. And you must be very intentional in that choice. There’s a huge performance element to leadership; the energy you give off, how you behave and what you say. Choosing to show up, inspire, reassure or even just asking good questions and really listening to your people — even when you might not feel like it — is leadership.
Secondly, you need to have optimism. It’s not about blind faith or unrealistic positivity, but you do need to train your eye on the opportunities of any situation and focus people’s attention there. We all only have so much energy to give, and there’s only so much you can control and influence in turbulent times. A good leader will help focus everyone’s attention on a path that’s purpose-driven and productive.
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?
Uncertainty causes anxiety, and that’s sometimes unavoidable. What’s important is to try to minimize the length of time people are anxious and uncertain. Reassure your people that nothing lasts forever — this too shall pass. Talk with your people about their fears, give them space to process information, and understand that people need to move at their own pace.
But also, paint a picture of the possibilities and create conversations that focus on opportunities and upsides that everyone can get involved in. Co-creating new ways of working during uncertainty is a powerful way to give people focus, clarity and control.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way is always face-to-face, in as human and personal way as possible. If there’s bad news, people generally want to hear it from someone they already have a relationship with, not a stranger. This is where line manager communication training and coaching is worth its weight in gold.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In business, everything is unpredictable. You might lose a big client, a key team member may resign, or political or economic shifts could have huge repercussions for your business. The only thing that’s certain is change. But you can’t let unpredictability hold your business back.
Set your course, make and execute your plans, but foster an agile mindset and be ready to mitigate any of the things that could knock you off course. Be prepared to course correct and adjust at any time.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
There’s no one set way to work that will serve all businesses. But if you know who you are as a leader, your own purpose and values, and you run your business according to those principles, you won’t go far wrong.
What that looks like in different organizations will vary greatly, but the key thing to remember is to lead with authenticity, making decisions rooted in your values. They serve you in the good times and they should guide you in the tougher times.
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?
1 Not treating their people like smart adults. People are much more perceptive than businesses give them credit for. Not showing adequate respect to employees, withholding information or whitewashing a situation will erode trust.
2. Not communicating bad news internally first. Your people should never find out a major piece of company news from anywhere else other than the business itself. If the first time your people hear of redundancies or cutbacks in the business news, something’s gone very wrong.
3. Failing to prepare their leaders. We often assume that someone who’s ascended to a leadership role must naturally be a great communicator. So often this isn’t the case, particularly when it comes to delivering bad news. Like any skill, it takes practice to communicate effectively and too many organizations aren’t brave enough to tell a senior leader that they need to work on their communication 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?
When the pandemic hit, we got incredibly forensic about our management information. We needed to know exactly where to put our efforts. We focused heavily on consistency and excellence for our clients. They were facing into a crisis too, some with hundreds of thousands of employees to lead. We wanted to make sure they felt fully supported throughout every challenge. So, we worked incredibly hard at being there for them, however and whenever they needed us.
We also focused on contributing positively to the wider internal communication community, with free resources, thought leadership and practical advice. We ran drop in Q&As with our experts and produced guides that focused on the key challenges we knew IC professionals were facing every week. We put no pressure on how people consumed this expertise — it was just there as a bank of knowledge for all.
Now, with a clearer road ahead and budgets opening up, we’re seeing many new clients come to us, grateful for those resources and keen to put their plans in motion.
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.
- Communicate. People fill a void with rhetoric and supposition that’s often more damaging than the truth. Say what you can, as often as you can and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.
- Be optimistic. Never waste a good crisis — the most turbulent of events create opportunities. Help people focus on finding the upsides of a crisis. It’s far more productive and motivating than navel gazing about the crisis itself.
- Create a vision for the future. Great leaders can see a better way of doing things. Articulate this compelling, better future clearly for your people — and keep their focus on it.
- Be empathetic. Remember that people adapt to change differently, so don’t rush off ahead because you’ve had your head in this space for longer. Keep pace with all of your people and empathise with them and their individual situations.
- Take care of yourself, too. Make time to calibrate your own mental health, resilience and energy. Remember the airline announcement, ‘please put on your own mask before helping others’. Make time to do what you need to be at your best; your people need you in good shape.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do or do not, there is no try.” — Yoda. You might laugh, but it’s sound advice and it’s always served me well!
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can connect with me on Linkedin. And you’ll be able to read more in my upcoming co-authored book Even Better If: Building Better Businesses, Better leaders and Better Selves, launching later this year.