As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryll Burgin-Doyle.
Ryll Burgin-Doyle is an author, keynote speaker, entrepreneur, and proven 29-year veteran business and brand strategist for 7 & 8 figure businesses. She built and exited her first business in her early twenties, worked as a key brand strategist for $400M to $1Bn companies in the dot com, financial services, biotech, professional services, and manufacturing sectors increasing sales and profits by 300%. She created her own non-profit, stepUP Foundation, and grew that to 3 countries making a difference with 19,000 at-risk teens. She’s been a Franchisor, Telstra Business Woman of the Year Finalist, listed in Smart Companies Top 50 Female Entrepreneurs, and CEO of a $100M business leading 200+ team. She even launched a sustainably farmed milk! And her passion? SME’s and business growth — seeing Business Owners get what they want. Ryll has literally worked with and grown every kind of business imaginable from start-up to exit. She is passionate about helping businesses and entrepreneurs pivot their strategy during COVID and thrive in the New Normal.
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 grew up in business. To give you a sense of that, on occasion I used to catch a cab after school at the age of 6, to my Mum’s business and wait for her to finish work … Eventually I went to University, graduated, won a great job, learned a heap about how to grow businesses of all varieties from some incredible masters, like Jay Abraham, Paul Dunn, Chris Newton, Michael Gerber, and Robert Kiyosaki. At 23, with just $1,100 to my name I started my first business — a strategic planning and advisory firm working with small to medium-size enterprises helping them grow successfully. We hit around $1M in revenues within 16 months and became the largest provider of our type in our State very quickly. I sold that business successfully just over 3 years into it and that was really the start of it all for me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
At one point, during that first business, I was approached by investors who wanted to support me to expand the business nationally. I still can’t believe I turned them down! At that time, I really didn’t understand that a smaller piece of a bigger pie was a better deal. And, I wasn’t mature enough to manage other people having a say! My control-freak nature back then wanted to control my destiny without others’ input. So that combination of thinking had me say no and eventually actually led me to sell that business. I look back now and literally give myself a forehead slap “what were you thinking!?” I’d done the hardest yards, reached success, had systemized the business so that it worked without me and I declined investors, and then about 18 months later I sold it??! Why did I do that?? Looking back, it was madness! I have since learned the power of synergy and the leverage of capital — both so critical to expansion.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The most important mentor I’ve had has been a gentleman named Paul Dunn. Paul is globally renowned for his work, particularly in transforming the accounting industry from traditional “bean counters” to proactive advisors. Paul is now the Chairman of an incredible initiative called B1G1.com. Paul and I have shared quite the journey, he was my first real boss and remains a friend and indeed still a mentor to me today, 29 years later. Paul and I had a unique experience … At one point, he nominated me for an award titled the Young Professional of the Year — I ended up a finalist which was great — but 15 months later Paul fired me! My first real firing — you know that one that is totally crushing! That was mine. But then something amazing happened … After setting up my first business not long after, and growing that business very quickly, I suddenly had 8 employees of my own to manage. At that point, I started to get a clue about what it was like leading people in a real business, with real deadlines, constraints, opportunities, and demands, especially leading young people in a young business! When I next ran into Paul at an event, I flat out apologized. I let him know that I didn’t really “get it” before — i.e. what he was dealing with at that moment, at the time his business was going through major shifts in ownership, a partnership split, the culture changed, it all had gotten a bit challenging — but I explained that now having a team of my own I understood. I took responsibility, apologized, told him how grateful I was to have worked for and with him and he was blown away. Of 54 people that had been through his business and exited, I was the only one to ever acknowledge his experience. Funnily enough, the minute I sold my first business, he was the first person to call and offer me a special project. That special project eventually turned into my becoming a published author at 28 and a global product and brand management role in the US. To this day, he means the world to me as someone who most definitely had the greatest impact on me.
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?
Most of the businesses I have ever established have had a common purpose — to make a difference. Specifically, to make a difference to business owners and entrepreneurs. Said more broadly, I believe in making what’s truly possible in business, possible in reality. Not talking about it, dreaming about it, instead of getting very clear on the outcomes the business owners actually want in financial returns, lifestyle, impact, and then finding ways to make it happen faster and more easily than they ever thought possible. Small to medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of our global economy — with business owners often working so hard at every level of revenue from start-up to $5M to $200M — I think it’s their turn to reap the rewards and get what they want out of their businesses faster and more easily.
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?
At one point I was the CEO of a $100M construction company. When I walked into that business, it was having great difficulties, not financially, but reputationally and culturally. Internally the business was not working and many of the team knew it. Each division was fighting with another. There was a toxic culture of bullying and blame. It was a very sick business in that sense. I met with every single leader and with the vast majority of the team members — there were 200 or so — and I listened, reassured them, and created “brightness of the future”. I let them know where we were headed and that we were absolutely not staying with business as usual … To me, in any time of difficulty or uncertainty — open, honest, direct communication is the key and having a positive future to look to for every person and the business as a whole, are absolutely key.
Right now, one of my businesses runs live, experiential world-class events. Of course, during COVID we can’t run those events. Our business has fundamentally been shut down for all of 2020, other than offering support services to our clients. During this time, those two things — open, honest, direct communication, and creating a positive future for the team and ourselves as the owners of the business has been critical. As a result, our team remains absolutely committed, engaged, and optimistic despite what we’ve had to deal with this year. And, we’re looking forward to a great future in that business when 2021 and beyond rolls around!
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I would say yes of course but no matter how much “giving up” might seem like a good idea in a moment, I’ve never figured out what that would actually look like? As an entrepreneur, for me it feels impossible really to actually give up, there is only “find a way”. At one stage, during a very difficult part of my life in business, I had a huge learning experience and lost everything — my business, our home — the lot — gone in what felt like an instant. That was an incredibly tough period of 2 to 3 very difficult years but there was no giving up, that was not an option. For me, my family and my goals are what drives me. I want a certain life and legacy for my son and my family as a whole. That has always kept me moving forward no matter the challenges. Back then I coined a phrase that we’ve been sharing with people during COVID which was this: “the only way out is through!”. For me, that means just take a step to the left, a step to the right — keep moving forward and you will come out the other side. Forward motion is critical. I feel that is absolutely true right now during COVID … “The only way out is through!”
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To be what I call that “positive light on the hill” … I believe as leaders we have to be that person who may not have all the answers, but is open about the challenges AND is the one always holding the space and certainty of a positive future ahead. People need to be led. People want to be led. And, we all love certainty. Certainty at this time, depending on the type of business you’re in, the size of your business, the financial health, and strategy of the business pre-COVID, can be hard to deliver right now, but people can be and need to be, certain of you. Certain that you will, working with them and others, find a way. Certain of how you will operate; how you will “be” as a human being, fundamentally, as a leader that provides certainty in uncertain times. You have to be that positive light on the hill.
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’m going to sound like a broken record I think but for me it is open, direct, honest communication and having a positive future to look to and right now, it’s about taking a stand that this too shall pass and as I mentioned, “the only way out is through”. Beyond that, I believe leadership is about empowering other leaders around us. And right now, it is all about inclusion — including people in the creation of what’s next for the business — having them own and be part of creating a future that works. Have them own and be part of innovating, of taking the business in a new direction, of finding the way forward for the business as a whole. Asking them what they think, inviting them to participate and create. People want to belong and they want to contribute — allowing them to do so and to feel that belonging and contribution in real terms is inspiring, it’s motivating and it absolutely engages them now and into the future.
For example, I’ve been working with a large construction company that was massively impacted by COVID due to its specialty sector. I worked with the owner and the leadership team to map a clear strategy and pathway to significant growth over the next decade. The leadership team experienced exactly what I just mentioned — they were able to create, to envision, to debate and contribute and strategize. Now, we have a leadership team that is 100% motivated, feels certain in an uncertain time, owns the goals we created as their own, and are completely aligned and supportive of each other’s divisions. What we created is now being shared with the whole team to uplift and inspire them in the exact same way.
The other way to boost morale is to work on things that have been what you could call “irritations” or even “issues” — things that the team has always wanted to address, change or improve but there’s simply not been the time or appetite for it. Now is the time to involve the team in the way I describe above to address those matters. In another business I’m working with, for example, the brand was outdated having not been updated for 20 years. The team loved the company but didn’t like the logo, the website etc. During COVID we worked with the team to create a refreshed, renewed brand and brand positioning. They are thrilled, fired up, a much truer match for who they are in the market and they are now driving the business forward with pride and excitement. Special projects like that are another way to have a team be inspired and motivated and solve genuine business issues at the same time.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In my experience, the only way is authentically and compassionately. We say it’s important to tell the truth with compassion. That’s authentic. People can understand, better accept what’s happening and work with you when they know you’re being genuine. You can’t shy away from those difficult conversations — that is part of the job as a leader — and you have to be of service to those you’re dealing with in those difficult moments. The way to do that is to be authentic and be compassionate.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
With flexibility, strategy, and a dose of hope thrown in! There is no choice in my mind, plans have to made, unpredictable, or not. The only other option is “hope and pray, wait and see” and that is not workable or responsible in my view. You have to make plans … You have to be strategic, hope for the best, make your ideal scene plans based on what we know at that moment and then, change them as needed based on the circumstances as they happen to surround in this case, COVID. Dealing with COVID has been a moment by moment experience. In one of our businesses, we have to reschedule events from March, we moved them to May, then to September and now we’re planning for November — working hard to be ready to go if the borders open we are all on! If they’re not, we’ll have to push out again to 2021. But to not try, to not plan, means our team would have no “brightness of the future” I described earlier, neither would our customers and frankly, neither would we as the business owners.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Perspective is critical. Remember that business is a long game, this is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to keep your eye on the prize — where do we want to be in 10 years’ time? What do we want this business to look like? What will it be producing in financial returns? What about the lifestyle for the owners/shareholders? And what impact and reach will the business have out there? What valuation would we want to hit by then? What does the future look like by e.g. 2030. Get very, very clear on that and as you are making short term decisions, be thinking about that long term outcome. That long term perspective is critical to making strong decisions now that will see you stay on that path, despite the COVID crazy we’re dealing with in the short term. Other keys to thriving in turbulent times are strategy — what’s your plan? And action — forward motion is a must.
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?
Mistakes I’ve seen in difficult times are many and varied of course, but there have been 3 or 4 that have stood out for me during COVID.
- Short term “blinders” — This is where a business owner or leader loses all perspective, having only the short term “blinders” on, where they cannot see anything past what they are dealing with right now and right now. They completely lose sight of that long term perspective. This can be incredibly costly in every sense. You must be able to hold the ability to make the acute decisions we need to make in difficult times inside the context of where we want to be in say 10 years time.
- Joining the “hope and pray, wait and see” pack … Speed and strategy matters in any difficult time, however, perhaps more than ever right now. This is not the time to cross our fingers and hope for the best. Any challenging time is the time to be in action — NOW.
- Busy vs Strategic — So many business owners, entrepreneurs, and leaders are so busy being busy that they simply don’t stop and think. They’re too busy to take time to actually think, plan and strategize. If you want better or different results, there is no more important work to be done than this strategic thinking and planning.
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?
Anytime I want to grow a business or solve a challenge, I stop and ask how can I add more value? Where and how can we add more value, to more people, in more ways? These questions, if truly explored openly, will, in my experience, lead to new products or services, new ways of making a difference, all of which can be monetized. If you are focussed on being of service, giving people what they need, when they need it, given what they’re dealing with, you’ll be relevant. You’ll be of perceived value. You’ll matter in their lives in some way. For instance, during COVID, people needed a lot more strategic guidance so we shifted our offering to provide a 12 week intensive smack bang in the middle of COVID and the take-up was fantastic. Why? Because it genuinely came from thinking about how could we help people in the most powerful way right now, it added value and gave people what they needed, versus what we wanted to traditionally sell. Every business I have supported during COVID has had to do some version of that thinking to thrive. Focus on being of service and adding value — find new ways to do that — and then execute brilliantly in marketing, sales, and operations and you’ll thrive.
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.
1. Be open — communicate authentically, directly, and honestly and ensure people have a future to live into.
2. Be positive — be that “light on the hill” both internally and externally, empower more leaders around you via inclusion and creativity.
3. Be consistent — in who you’re being as a leader … you be the certainty everyone is craving!
4. Be of service — focus on adding more value in more ways to more people.
5. Be strategic — stop think, strategize, and execute.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Be of service. In other words, put your attention on others. Whenever I do that personally, my life works. Whenever I do that in business, my business works. This has served me in life, in every venture and it’s served me as a leader. When my attention is on the leaders I want to develop around me, they are empowered and flourish.
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