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 Sabrina Horn.
Sabrina Horn is a C-Suite advisor, speaker, communications expert and author of Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success, Berrett-Koehler, June 22, 2021. She founded Horn Group, a public relations firm, and became one of few female CEOs in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s. Horn Group received national acclaim as best US employer, best US Tech agency, and as a Top 10 US Independent Tech PR Firm. Successfully acquired in 2015 by Finn Partners, Horn is currently CEO of HORN Strategy, focused on helping leaders navigate the early stages of their businesses.
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 a child of German immigrants, I was infused with my parents’ entrepreneurial spirit and survival instincts. I was taught that there is no free lunch in life and to strive to control my own destiny. After getting a graduate degree in PR and working for a few years, I got the idea that maybe I could hang out my own shingle and win a client or two. I had an idea for how I would serve my clients with a different, integrated approach to communications. I identified a market of new tech companies developing software for the emerging PC revolution that would benefit from my services. With no management or leadership training, no capital, no employees and a four-page business plan, I took a vacation day in June of 1991 and pitched a human resources software start up on my capabilities. By the time I got home, I had received the message that I had won their confidence and their business.
The irony of it all was when I told my parents that night about my big win. They told me they didn’t think I would be successful and that I shouldn’t do it. I had no formal training or education in business (which was true) and my chances of “making it” were slim at best. But after a day or so of self-reflection and re-assessing my risk factors, I decided to proceed anyway. I believed that if I didn’t try, I would never know if I could be successful.
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?
In the very beginning, I was so focused on my business that I lost touch with my personal life. One night as I was in the office burning the midnight oil, I felt the walls start to close in on me, became dizzy, and almost passed out. It wasn’t funny in the big picture, but at the time, I thought it was. I told myself, “Ok, Sabrina, you really need to get a life.” Over time, I learned that achieving a state of work/life balance is basically impossible, because work and life are constantly in flux, competing for your time. But I did achieve the ability to find moments of balance every day which kept me grounded. This was critical to being a better leader for my team, but also a better mother and well-rounded human being.
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?
I learned a tremendous amount from my parents. In addition, Maureen Blanc and Simone Otus, who were the co-founders and leaders of Blanc & Otus, a PR agency I worked for before starting my own business, always led by example, demonstrated an incredible work ethic, and set the industry standard in excellent client service.
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?
Our vision was to deliver a set of innovative and integrated communications services for a wave of technology companies that were in dire need of having their complex stories simplified, told and understood. But my other, and equally as important, purpose was to build a culture and business that I myself wanted to work in, where employees would stay and build their careers, where they could be themselves, and their voices would be heard.
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?
As we headed into the recession of 2008–09, I knew we were going to endure a prolonged period of slugging it out and belt tightening. I took action quickly. Rather than do a layoff, I asked every employee to take a salary cut, with the executive team taking the heaviest cuts. We reduced our expenses on some “nice-to-have” but non-critical third-party services, reduced our travel budgets, rented out extra office space to small businesses, and other measures. To generate revenue and attract new clients, we offered the “recession package:” a suite of streamlined PR services at reduced cost to cover the basics. We never stopped recognizing our employees’ wins, but did them perhaps more modestly, in the office instead of at the restaurant down the street. We held “all-hands” meetings every month were I and our leadership team talked about our progress and did our best to keep everyone informed. It was also important for me to be personally visible, to talk to everyone in person as much as I could, to share our plan, and provide reassurance where I could. I asked them for their ideas and what they thought we should be doing.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I believe that no matter comes your way, no matter how bad things get, there is always an answer and a solution out there. You just have to find it and put the pieces of the puzzle together. I developed techniques to disarm my fear and organize risk. In times of crisis, you have to be firmly grounded in the reality of the situation, which may be changing in real time. You have to seek information about the truth, because with it as your baseline, you can find a path forward.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership has many attributes, all of which are called into action during crises. You have to find and lead the way through a path to the future, whereas others may see only obstacles. You have to possess a mixture of calm, courage, resilience, problem-solving and planning skills. Leadership is about making the right decision at the right time based on reality, and often in the face of tremendous change and disruption.
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?
First, let your team shine, create opportunities for them to share their accomplishments, and recognize their efforts publicly. Second, foster teamwork by creating the forums for group problem-solving. Third, it is vitally important in uncertain times for a leader to communicate direction and provide a path forward, even if that path is a short-term view. Fourth, in communication, it’s key to remind everyone about company values which can be very grounding and reassuring. And lastly, it is important for a leader to show humility and empathy, by asking for ideas on how to improve, by sharing one’s own feelings or even mistakes made, and by relating to co-workers’ own sentiments about a particular situation.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It always comes down to honesty and the truth. Never sugar coat bad news. State the facts and what happened. People just want to know how the bad news is going to affect them. Then bridge to how you are going to solve the problem and move forward. Never say anything you do not absolutely know to be true. Bad information, like squeezed toothpaste, is impossible to put back into the tube. If a situation is due to something you did or failed to do, you must admit it, own it and explain, then talk about how the situation will be corrected.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
When the future is unpredictable you can still make plans but know they will be incredibly fluid, and they will evolve as reality unfolds. You can’t “set it and forget it.” You’re going to have get used to being in limbo. The key is to develop several contingency plans. Make plans for those plans. You may not have a choice between Door #1, #2 and #3. You may need a plan for Door #7 or Door #58!
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
A company’s core value system, a strong culture and cohesive leadership team can help get a company through difficult times. You’ve got each other’s backs, you’re helping each other, you’re fighting the good fight together, driving toward goals, and you want your company to make it. That’s not based on one principle but on a strong set of core values characterized by honesty, ingenuity, dedication, and persistence embodied by a company’s employees, and most certainly its leadership. Of course, a strong financial foundation is always critical to weathering any storm, requiring continuous prudent financial management over the long haul.
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?
- When faced with a crisis, it’s easy for leaders to procrastinate. The truth is, delaying corrective action will only make the situation worse.
- Faking it, fabricating the truth and omitting certain facts are also unfortunately all too common when the answers to hard problems aren’t readily available. People need the truth, even if it’s hard to hear.
- Failing to acknowledge the situation, pretending it will just go away and generally sticking your head in the sand can turn even a small problem into a big crisis. It’s just not going to work.
The answer to avoiding these mistakes is to simply face reality head on. Have crisis plans on your shelf that you can refer to. Form a crisis team, understand the reality of the situation, gather information and communicate what you know. Build a personal network of mentors that you can speak to about your concerns and issues. These are the people who have been in your shoes and will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.
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 recall our strategy during several tough periods in my company’s history. We had a simple three-pronged approach that may apply to many other businesses today:
- Sell like hell — work every part of the funnel 24/7, especially building up and working the pipeline
- Keep what you’ve got — keep existing customers happy and satisfied, no churn!
- Manage your downside — eliminate nice-to-haves and keep the must-haves while preserving culture and core values
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.
No two crises are the same — they all bring with them a unique set of challenges for leaders to manage. Approaches that work for one CEO and her company may not work for the next and his enterprise. That being said, there are five basic actions every leader can take to lead their businesses through the storm and into the clear.
- The Three V’s: Core Values, Vision and Value Proposition — During times of crisis, it’s important for you to stay grounded, to be reminded of your company’s purpose and what you stand for. Your company’s values are what got you this far. Integrity, innovation, customer service, quality (whatever they might be), can take on new meaning during turbulent times. As a leader, you are the keeper of core values. You set the standard. Reaffirming values can be both grounding and inspiring for your staff and stakeholders. Next, have a sit-down with your long-term vision and mission. Revisit your value proposition and business goals. Are they still all in alignment? Is it time to shift gears and focus elsewhere? If ever there was a time to push the reset button, it may be now.
- Relentless Contingency Planning — In turbulent times, the reality of a situation may be changing every week, day and hour. Develop several short-term plans. What you need are options in your back pocket that you can exercise given any number of scenarios. They may be very tactical, and they may only get you to tomorrow, but sometimes in a crisis, getting to tomorrow may be an achievement. For example, in the aftermath of Covid, which people will you bring back to work first and why? How will you rev up your supply chain? Which markets are coming back with demand first? Have customer needs changed? If there is a new wave of the virus, what steps can you take to shift production elsewhere? If getting parts from one supplier isn’t feasible, what two or three other suppliers can you identify as back-ups? If the mail is taking too long, what other shipping methods can you find? If you risk running out of cash, what other revenue streams can you generate? The answers to these questions and so many others, produce plans that you can activate and modify when needed.
- Communicate Often and Effectively — In times of uncertainty, leaders need to over-communicate. Leadership visibility, responsiveness, and the repetition of information create comfort, even when that information is repetitive. We’ve all felt anxiety when there is a lack of information on even the smallest level, like a flight delay. So as a leader, plan on doing a lot of outreach to your stakeholders. Taking it even further, invest in becoming a better speaker, and role play different situations where you may have to take difficult questions. After 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, our executive team communicated with employees and clients multiple times a day on the status of our operation, where our employees were safely working, and how we would continue to operate. As much as possible, we tried to speak to our folks in person, to give them a chance to also express their fears and questions.
- Open Mind, Open Heart — The last year has, no doubt, taught us much about the value of empathy, humility, and the preservation of a sense of belonging. Showing an openness to new ideas, being understanding, sharing mistakes and lessons learned — none of these betrays weakness. All, on the contrary, demonstrate strength, build trust, and create unity. As a leader, you can show humility by asking questions about how to improve and how to solve a problem. When hearing complaints, consider them gifts. Why? Because they contain valuable information you can factor into problem resolution.
- Personal Safety Net — It can be very lonely at the top, especially during times of uncertainty. Everyone is looking to you for answers and the truth is, you may not have them, yet you have to convey strength and show resilience. That kind of pressure and isolation can chip away at your confidence. It’s important to have people you can trust to talk with. Have a small personal network of mentors — the handful of people you can talk to about anything. They may be just the shot in the arm you need to get to tomorrow, when the future is looking bleak.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Know what you don’t know.” — Running a communications firm, our business was all about dealing with information: finding it, writing and speaking it, sharing and leading with it. Most importantly, it was about understanding reality and getting to the truth. Whether in times of crisis in my own firm or in supporting our clients through their own challenges, my approach was always to disarm fear and organize risk with more information, data and knowledge. It was also critical to staying level-headed, asking the right questions that needed to be asked, and leading with authenticity regardless of what was coming at me in the moment. That quote has been relevant to me in my professional career, but also as a parent and as an everyday citizen.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can order my new book, Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success by visiting my book page www.sabrinahorn.com/book, and by following me on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter.