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 Sheila Murphy, CEO of Focus Forward Consulting, who after 24 years a senior executive at a Fortune 50 launched her own career and business development coaching and consulting firm. Sheila lifts leaders, lawyers and legal organizations to reach their full potential.
After 20 years in corporate America and law firms, Sheila is pursuing her passion for helping others reach their full potential. Sheila is CEO and President of Focus Forward Consulting LLC and Chief Learning & Talent Officer of WOMN LLC, where she lifts lawyers, leaders and legal organizations to achieve their career and business goals.
In 2018, Sheila retired as Senior Vice President and Associate General Counsel at MetLife. Sheila served as an executive sponsor to MetLife’s U.S. Women’s Business Network, co-chaired the Legal Affair’s Academy providing developmental opportunities to legal and compliance professionals worldwide and served as a member of its U.S. Task Force on diversity
Sheila is a member of the Boards of Directors of National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL). Sheila serves on the advisory board of Transforming Women’s Leadership in Law and co-chairs the CARE’s Women’s Network of New York. Previously, she was a member of the Board for Read Alliance and PowerPlay, NYC. Sheila received from Corporate Counsel and Inhouse Counsel the Women, Influence, Power in Law, Lifetime Achievement. Women’s Venture Fund awarded Sheila the highest Leaf Award. She was named a Most Influential Irish Woman by the Irish Voice, a Leading Women Lawyer in NYC by Crain’s New York, a Business 100 honoree by Irish America and one of 250 Inspiring Women Entrepreneurs by Databird Journal. Sheila also has received the Benchmark Litigation In-house Award at the Americas Women in Business Awards, the Virginia S. Mueller Outstanding Member Award from NAWL and a First Chair award for hard work, innovation and significant contributions to the legal community.
Sheila is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she served on the Comparative Labor Law Journal and the School of Management at the State University of New York at Binghamton where she graduated magna cum laude. Sheila earned her Associate Certified Coach and Certified Professional Co-Active Coach from the International Coaching Federation and the Co-Active Leadership Institute, respectively. Sheila is a frequent speaker on talent, and business development, leadership and diversity.
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?
When I started as a young lawyer, I was an introvert, and my dream was to be a “mole” lawyer- someone who just sat at their desk and did their work. I never wanted to speak in public. Later, when I was in corporate America, I discovered that that was not possible — and that I had to speak up more. What hit me there was one gentleman at my office, who, to be honest, did not know what he was talking about — and he had no problems speaking up — all of the time, and to a certain extent, it made him successful. I thought it would be like I spoke up when I knew what I was talking about, so I did. By the time the gentleman left the company, he was reporting to me. I now coach people with their career journeys — so they can have the career they deserve.
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 in Corporate America, a senior woman officer came in to tell me that I had made a HUGE mistake. I had sent out a memo (yes, this was before email was standard) without including people’s titles, and that this was extremely disrespectful. She was so upset- I thought I was doomed. What I realized that my previous work culture was much more casual- titles did not matter. I learned from this that understanding culture is critical. You need to appreciate the culture you are working in (even if it is a bit dated) to navigate it and implement change successfully. You also need to understand individuals’ views to influence them.
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 was fortunate to have earned many strong and supportive male sponsors early in my career who saw in me talent that I did not. One of them, Lowell, gave me many opportunities to work on strategic projects and expand my knowledge and experiences. He was also the first one to ask me to manage people. Only days before he raised running a unit, I had said that I did not want to manage people — probably still some of my “mole” tendencies showing. When Lowell asked and explained why he thought it was the right fit for me. I said yes, and it was the best career decision. The greatest joy in my work life was managing, developing, and leading a team. I realized that only through others- can you have the most impact on them and the organization.
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?
My vision is to help people have more control over their careers, compensation, and courage — so they can lead the lives they want.
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?
Being in corporate America, you will need to lead when corporate reorganizations, economic upheaval, and may create uncertainty. You may also need to guide through times when resources are scarce, work is abundant, and morale is low. One example I can think of is when we off-shored some tasks and re-assigned to the teamwork requiring some new skills. During this time, people thought they might end up unemployed, so I communicated often, emphasized with the team, and painted a picture for their future vision. Leverage these techniques allowed for a successful transformation of the group.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No. As a leader, it is NEVER about you — it is about the team and the organization. You owe your team and the organization to come in as your best self to ensure that you are doing right by the people and the company. By the way, that may mean having fun or doing team-building. You need the team to be engaged and effective, and that may only come from giving them the time to pause and re-energize.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The leader must be the Listener in Chief. She must listen to what the team and others are saying and what they are not. Often, what people are not telling are the real pain points. The listening must be non-judgmental and empathetic. The leader must then take what they learn and communicate what they can as often as they can. If one person is feeling a certain way — usually the whole team is. Also, to ensure that all understand what is going on, you may need to communicate in different ways people assimilate information.
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?
The most important work comes before the uncertainty; for a leader to be effective during such a time, they must have already built trust with the team. If the trust did not exist before, it will not come when there is uncertainty. To engage and inspire people, you want to continue to build on that trust by continual honest communication and empathy. You also want to create a vision of a future that will motivate them.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Concerning the team, if individuals’ status will be impacted, you should have those conversations first and separately. Those individual conversations should be close in time to a group conversation to avoid concern and misinformation from spreading.
Generally, I believe in communicating all of the information to everyone at once in person. A single meeting allows everyone to hear the update from a single source and prevents a “game of telephone” from distorting the news. A single session also provides a forum for questions to be asked. Often people have the same questions — even if they don’t voice them. Having a group meeting is an information equalizer.
In today’s world, it takes about seven times for people to understand messages. So the first communication is that the first. It is best if you continued to have group and individual meetings, as well as written and video communications — to ensure understanding. It is also most important that the messaging is not about you. You must communicate with as much transparency as possible, as well as be empathetic and authentic.
About customers, if possible, a one on one communication is best. You should make sure that it is in plain English and, again, empathetic. The communication must also address all of the customer’s questions — you must think about it from their point of view. You also must be prepared to listen to the concerns.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
If a leader seems uncertain — the team will falter. The leader’s job is to shine the light on the path forward. That does not mean that you are not honest. A leader can and should say based on the information we have today, this is how we are moving forward — that does not mean that we may not need to adjust based on how the future unfolds. Part of a leader’s job is making the best decisions with current information. To be a leader, you need to become comfortable operating the gray and adjusting decisions, strategies, and visions.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I have said it several times- the number one principle is: “ communicate, communicate, communicate.” You cannot over-communicate. You must also communicate in different media and with targeted messages for each audience. People are uncomfortable with change and uncertainty, and to be fair to them and keep them engaged, you need to give them all of the information you can and address their concerns to the extent that you can.
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?
Often in difficult periods, communication breaks down. These breakdowns can cause teams to be operating in ignorance, which can lead to mistakes and delays. Ensuring that people are getting the information they need to work efficiently takes time, and in a difficult period, that can seem not as important. This approach is wrong. Communication drives engagement and efficiency. During hard times, you need to include a communication workstream in your project plans — to ensure that everyone is rowing in the right direction.
Another issue arises when leaders ask employees to work through difficult periods without a vision for the future. People are purpose-driven and are more engaged when they understand what they are striving for. Leaders must provide that vision. When Anne Mulcahy led Xerox through difficult times, she sent every employee a fake Wall Street Journal article discussing what Xerox had accomplished. She provided a vision that people could understand and get behind.
Finally, leaders need to appreciate that employees are scared and concerned about their future during difficult times. There is a quote in the Godfather- that is not personal; it is business. There is nothing more personal to an employee than their future. A leader must give employees all the information they can to make decisions about their futures and be empathetic to what individual decisions can mean to their lives.
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?
As a leader, no matter what part of an organization you sit in, you must understand your business’s economic drivers and the rationale for the current strategies. You also need to ensure that your team understands the drivers and the strategy and why they are best for the organization. That does not mean that you distort economic realities. If it will be an upward battle for financial success or it may be a challenging year financially, you are honest with employees- so they understand and can plan. If you are honest with your team and show why the strategy is the best path to success, you can engage and motivate them.
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.
First, leaders need to communicate, communicate, communicate. One of the most effective communications I have seen recently is Arnie Sorenson, the CEO’s video message to his employees at the beginning of the pandemic. He openly, honestly, and empathetically discusses the companies struggles. It is a fabulous example of leadership communication. Here is a link to the video.
Second, remember to listen to your team. You should do check-ins and understand what the team is seeing. Also, remember some of the best ideas- come from those on the ground. During one difficult time, a team member said to me: Why are we doing it this way and not this? And that person was right, and we adjusted course. As a leader, you need to trust your team and appreciate that you cannot know everything.
Third, be empathetic change and navigating difficult times is challenging for organizations but more so for people. Take the time to listen and understand the concerns. Make sure that your team feels heard and that you address what is said. You need to do this even when you think you already have or there is nothing more you can do. People need to feel heard and appreciated to be engaged — and besides that, don’t you owe them that respect-given all they do for you and the organization.
Fourth, understand that people are watching you. During hard times, people may be less trusting than at other times, and they are looking for signals and additional information — as well as possible cracks or disbelief. You need to come in as your best leader every day and make sure that you are a leader that you would want to follow through a challenging situation. I saw one leader during a difficult period- just put his head down and disengage from everyone. His team assumed the worst and began disengaging and spending their time on planning alternative futures. When things are tough, you need to be there for your team.
Finally, leaders must lead by example. During stressful periods people begin to think about shortcuts and behavior that may be unethical or uncompliant. A leader must ensure that ethical boundaries are firm and communicate this. I know leaders who were surprised by what individuals think is permissible to survive hard times. As a leader, you must continually remind people of the organization’s values and how they will stand the test of time — even hard times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”― Carrie Fisher
All of us have times when we are uncomfortable moving forward, but wonderful things can happen if we take that courageous leap.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me on Twitter at @SheilaMurphy_, LinkedIn at SheilaMurphyfocusforward and my website: www.Focus-Forward-Consulting.Com