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 Sarah Gulbrandsen.
Sarah has spent the last 15 years helping companies tell their story. As RingPartner’s President, she leads day-to-day business operations, develops company strategy and oversees RingPartner’s growth across departments. Sarah has worked in a variety of roles leading marketing communications strategy, including at digital marketing companies, a Fortune 500 retailer, and also a brief stint in television. Her uplifting and outgoing personality not only gets things done, but motivates others to do the same.
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 first entered the digital marketing space right out of college. I was given the opportunity to be part of a start-up that was eventually sold to a public company. It was there that I met my current business partners & realized that I loved marketing & helping brands connect with their potential customers. After the start-up was acquired, I spent some time working with some amazing teams in San Francisco. After a few years in the Bay Area, I made the decision to move to the west coast of Canada in order to have a more balanced lifestyle. That’s when I started working with RingPartner and held a variety of different roles. Ultimately that’s what led me to my current role as President & leading the daily operations at RingPartner.
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 once hit the dreaded “Reply All” to a large group of people at work (300+ people). I replied with a very personal answer and didn’t hear the end of it from my team for months afterwards. Lesson learned the hard way. Now, I triple check before I send anything out.
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?
Todd Dunlop, my current business partner, is a serial entrepreneur & investor. He has been a big part of my career trajectory. Todd provided opportunities early in my career at his first start-up and has been a huge support to this day. He likes to tell people that he stole me from the government. I had just accepted a government admin role when I first met him & he sold me on all the reasons why I should join a start-up instead. My life would look significantly different if Todd wasn’t willing to take a chance 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?
RingPartner’s core purpose is to “connect people with opportunities.” As a company, RingPartner connects consumers to businesses both big and small across North America. This has become even more important during these turbulent economic times, businesses still need customers in order to operate. Additionally, RingPartner is dedicated to connecting it’s team members to opportunities that will allow them to grow and work within their strengths.
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?
A few years ago, there was consolidation in our niche part of the marketing world. At the time we were not sure how or when this would impact our business. The uncertainty continued for a number of months, but we were able to navigate through this time and ended up in an even stronger position. During this time, we continued to look ahead to the future & plan for different scenarios. Communication to the team became more important than ever. We made it a priority to celebrate goals and milestones as we achieved them. An example of this is that if a specific profit goal was hit, the entire team was taken for lunch and given the rest of the day off from work, a tradition that is still carried on that. This tricky time showed us that we can endure challenges and helped us put better systems in place if similar challenges arise in the future.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I hate being a quitter. Most challenging situations are temporary, failure is inevitable, but there are always ways to logically take next-steps in order to move things forward to a better space. My team deserves the best that I can give them and that sustains me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times, leaders must be brave & make the tough decisions it takes to keep the company moving in the right direction. Your team needs to know that you are making the best decisions possible in order to keep things afloat.
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?
It’s okay to be positive even in the face of adversity. Recognize your team’s struggles, what you are doing to help tackle their challenges, and lead with empathy. If you are honest and genuine in your approach, your team will recognize that.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s always best to address any challenges head on rather than to pretend they don’t exist. Be honest and provide context and insight as best as you can, then follow up with what next steps can be taken. Just be prepared and calm in your presentation, and keep it a dialogue. This way everyone is on the same page moving forward. Difficult conversations don’t need to be bad, you can learn a lot from mistakes and failures.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Have goals, but maintain room to be flexible. It’s important to have targets and achievements to work towards in order to keep the team motivated and moving forward. That being said, keep in mind that plans can change, and be open to switching tactics (more than once).
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Don’t be afraid to be human. I would encourage a certain amount of transparency when leading your team. During times of turbulence, everyone, including your team, feels unsteady. Yes, there are times when you will need to suck it up & put on a good face, but it’s important to also come across as human and share what information you are able to. Most people are not looking for a stoic leader that keeps their cards close, but rather a real person that understands their struggles and can help them achieve their own goals.
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?
- Pretending it’s business as usual. Your employees are savvy enough to realize when something is not right. Leaders should encourage candid conversations about where the company is headed, and what they are doing to address concerns. This gives employees a feeling of control, direction, and purpose.
- Neglecting time for celebration & building culture. Money might be tight and you are facing a wall of uncertainty, but you still need to let people know that you appreciate their work. Celebrate your team and the little wins. Those little wins in turn will combine to leaps that can propel the business forward.
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?
It’s important for leaders to keep a tight grasp on their operational costs, especially during difficult times. When you keep a tight P&L statement, it’s much easier to identify areas that can be adjusted. Also, make sure that you have a financial leader on your team that can model out scenarios, so that you always know what your next step should be.
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.
- Transparency is key. Your team can sense when you are holding your cards too close and it can cause unnecessary spin. Rather, it’s better to address a situation upfront, lay out the facts and let your team know how you are going to tackle the challenge. There are always going to be details that do not need to be broadly shared, but it’s better to give insight than to keep a stoic face & keep people guessing. Be a real person and people will respect you for it.
- Communicate and then communicate again. In times of crisis, it’s best to have a communication plan and a strategic approach to how the information will be shared. Even when it feels like you have already repeated your message 10x, do it again just to make sure it’s clear to everyone.
- Be flexible. You are not a fortune teller. A great leader can only take an educated guess as to how things will unfold during a crisis. Allow grace for both yourself and your team during tough situations. There will be times to put your head down and push forward, but sometimes you need to pause and wait until things further unfold.
- Keep expectations realistic. While maintaining a flexible work setting and finding new ways to complete routine activities help maintain a sense of normalcy, it’s important for leadership to have realistic expectations around workload and challenges of their staff. Face challenges head on with a team-based mindset and believing in the adaptability of both yourself and others.
- Give your employees autonomy to choose how they operate. Under turbulent times, it’s not only work that is affected. Personal lives are also under pressure, and sometimes other priorities come first. As much as you can, trust your employees to set their own schedule in a way that works best for them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” ―C. S. Lewis
It’s easy to think of all the things you could have done better or how you could have avoided failure, but the best thing you can do for yourself and your team is fail forward. Learn from your mistakes and build on them. With this mindset, you’ll be energized rather than drained when it comes to problem solving.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Instagram: @ringpartner (where you can get a glimpse into what it’s like to be part of the #RedShoeCrew)