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 Shelley Smith, CEO of Premier Rapport, Inc., who helps business owners and executives find and repair the “culture leaks” in their organizations that prevent them from being as productive and profitable as they can be. Using a proprietary process of inquiry, awareness and leader development, she helps businesses create the workplace environment teams need to drive success. Throughout her 30-plus-year career, Shelley has developed and implemented culture improvement plans for large international corporations such as Marriott as well as for small “mom-and-pop” businesses. She is the author of six books, including “Brass Ovaries Own Yours: Master the Mindset, Change the Game” and “How to Avoid Culture Big Fat Failure (BFF).” She has been published in Money Inc., Forbes, Entrepreneur and many others.
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?
My journey to success began as a child playing with my Barbie dolls. My Barbie was always in charge. I made office buildings from empty boxes and put my name on them as their owner and CEO. From very early, I wanted to be in charge, make an impact, make decisions and help people. At age 11, I began working in my parents’ businesses, serial entrepreneurs who owned a restaurant, a flea market and an auction house. I hated working then, but I learned so many important life and business lessons that would assist me in my future career.
Shortly after graduating from high school, I began working for Marriott International as a part-time desk clerk. In 14 years I moved 14 times, opening 14 hotels while holding positions throughout the company. I left Marriott as an area general manager to assume a position with a hotel franchise company. During the 10 years I spent with that and another hotel company, I successfully built their businesses, leaving the last job as head of operations.
I had burned out on the hotel industry, but I realized that the part I really loved was not the brick and mortar aspects of the business, but the people, the teams and the workplace culture. What had lit my fire had been the opportunity to encourage and nurture positive relationships and inspire teams to reach for something beyond the day-to-day grind to create an organization that stood for values. My passion was about helping people to see the big picture and to understand how they fit into it.
I had become disengaged from my job, but I saw an opportunity to help prevent others from becoming disengaged. That’s when I started my company to bring to life what I had lived and learned during all the years since I began working as a child and through the decades in the hotel industry. All those boats I had sat in and sailed back to shore then had meaning and purpose.
Through my business, Premier Rapport, I began working with companies to help owners and executives bring to life the synergy and environment they had always wanted to create. I believe that workplace culture isn’t built in a day — it’s created every day. A positive culture allows every team member to be seen, heard and valued, and embodies the company vision, mission and values. Such an environment attracts, maintains and grows top talent, and these people are the driving force behind the company’s success as reflected in sales, profit and impact.
Since I began my business, I have consulted with hundreds of companies all over the world; written six books and three dozen e-workbooks; produced hundreds of podcasts; and created a certification process that addresses the behavioral, cognitive and emotional aspects of workplace culture and teaches my methods for improving them. I am most proud of having created company-branded internal universities for corporations to take my model and apply it to their specific challenges and opportunities for enhancing their cultures.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Lessons or take-aways?
This isn’t funny, but it is real. When I first started in business, I purchased a franchise, added staff, and began looking at a brick-and-mortar location. About nine months in, I realized that all of those early decisions were massive mistakes because I was looking at building a business in the wrong order. I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be to build sales to support the infrastructure that I had put in place. I put in the structure before I had forecasted my needs and had thought through the proper timeline.
I guess I was a little cocky thinking starting a business was going to be easy, but it was by no means easy, and I lost my shirt the first year. I ended up selling the franchise. But I was able to shake off the bad start and get back in the game to build what I have now. My “lessons learned” were: Don’t make decisions too hastily; make sure you are thinking everything through and be willing to adjust your plans; and when you fail, get back up, pivot and start over.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Story?
I’m an observer. I watch, listen and learn, then discard what I don’t like and pick up what I do like. I read a lot. Through observation and process, I created my self-guided mentorship.
My parents also had huge influence. They advised me to never work for anyone else. Another person who influenced me greatly was Michele Pippin of Women Who Wow. She helped me gain clarity about what I offer centered on workplace culture, plus she coached me with marketing and developing clear messaging. She emphasized that it was vital to become intentional with every decision I made, words that I spoke and relationship I nurtured.
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 was to provide small business owners coaching in a different way by leading peer and advisory boards. I wanted to offer an outlet where they could exchange ideas, get support and obtain resources to grow their businesses. As an outside consultant, I afforded them an unbiased opinion to help guide their businesses when there were challenges.
This vision is still true today, but my focus has morphed into working with medium and large businesses. I analyze their workplace culture, look for opportunities to improve it, then help teams, executives, owners, and leadership solidify their messages and make sure they are communicating from bottom up so that everybody is living and breathing their mission, vision and values and showing up as engaged participants. That’s what achieves results.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As I pointed out in the story about how I started my business and initially failed, I believe resiliency is the key to effective leadership. It’s not how many times we fall down, it’s how many times we get up.
The workplace has undergone huge changes in the past year due to the pandemic, and massive change generally results in high levels of stress. Developing a capacity for resiliency is necessary if leaders and teammates are to survive and, ultimately, thrive.
A rubber band stretches and bounces back. That’s what we must do. While some people seem to be genetically wired to handle stress better than others, resiliency is a skill that can be developed and improved. It is possible to learn and apply strategies to increase the ability to cope and flourish when life gets tough.
I lead my team and clients to consider the challenges, then determine what is needed based on research. Then we make a decision and pivot if necessary. Being able to do that without letting emotions dominate behavior comes down to resiliency. You have to shake yourself off and then think — where are you? What’s getting in the way? What is the problem you are trying to solve? And then, move forward.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No. Never, ever, ever. I’ve always been a risktaker, and I’ve always been willing to learn lessons, reorient, pivot and act. I ask questions about how people do the things they do, their processes and psyche around that, and I seek feedback about what I am doing. But I never, ever, ever give up. I am sustained by my belief in myself and the support of my family, my team and strong women business owners and professionals in my network.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
You must develop the characteristics of true leadership: strength, resiliency, vulnerability, openness, vision and commitment. Vulnerability may sound like the opposite of strength, but it’s actually a component of strength. Own up to what you don’t know and admit your fears. You don’t have to have all the answers as a leader. Don’t be afraid to ask for help for things that are not in your wheelhouse. Have conversations with people who can poke holes in your thinking to help you move forward.
And regardless of the crisis at hand, leaders must be decisive. You need to understand why you are making the decision you have made. Don’t make reactionary decisions based on fear or stress, but make them based on data. Own your decisions and move forward. Be realistic about what is possible, while also being nonwavering in moving toward your goals.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire?
Have real conversations with your team. Never disconnect with what’s happening with your employees. You must stay in touch with what they’re thinking and feeling. There are many ways to do this — through town halls, one-on-ones, phone calls or Zoom meetings.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest and direct. There are a multiple of platforms you can use, such as town halls, one-on-one calls or Zoom meetings. One tactic is to record a message from the owner, CEO or board. This allows you to rehearse beforehand, and you can ask employees to submit questions in ahead of time.
Messaging is important. Clear is kind. Unclear is not kind. People get nervous when they don’t know what’s happening, and we all seek certainty and security. When we don’t know what is going on, things run amuck. If you don’t know the answer, say you are aware of the issue and you are working on it. Always be open, up front and clear, even if there is bad news.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
First, make a plan. Plans are paths. Paths can change, but when you encounter a roadblock, you’re better able to plan and move around the roadblock. Life and business are unpredictable. You can’t control everything, so just learn to be flexible when unexpected things happen.
Secondly, it’s not about getting to the top of the mountain, it’s trying to imagine what’s on the other side. When you imagine what might lie ahead, you’re able to come up with options for what to do, so that when you get there, you’re able to see the situation clearly and be ready for it. Prepare for it by thinking about it ahead of time. Role-play it. Then put your “plan B” into action when necessary.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay connected. Get and stay connected to your team, your competitors, your strategic partners and your clients. Understand what’s happening around you, and don’t just stay in your little bubble. Have deliberate conversations to stay relevant. Don’t hide from people, especially if there are challenges. Face them honestly and openly.
Can you share 3–4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times?
Leaders becoming isolated. You must keep your head up to find out what’s going on. When you become isolated, negative things happen.
Leaders not communicating. Communicate more rather than less. This is the only way you will know who, what, where, why and how.
Leaders not showing concern. Don’t deflect. Acknowledge the issues and people’s fears and insecurities, because everyone knows they are there, and ignoring them only makes them worse. Communicate compassion and resiliency.
Leaders not checking in with their teams. You don’t have to do it all at once. It should be an ongoing conversation — not a “one and done.” Drop in on individuals, work groups and departments. Flit casually from one to the other like a butterfly. Check in with people to see how they are doing and to find out what’s going on. Ask questions: How are you doing? What’s working? What’s not working? You’re not derailing their supervisors by walking around the organization, you’re connecting. You stay connected to your clients don’t you? Why aren’t you staying connected to your teams?
Leaders falling into firefighting. If you are always in crisis mode, or getting stuck on the phone or answering email, you are reacting rather than leading. There are deeper, more important things going on, and you won’t see or handle them if you don’t get out of firefighting mode.
Leaders not developing an agile mindset. Be ready to innovate and pivot. Your employees are your customers, so make sure you treat them as such.
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?
Again, it’s all about communication. Talk to your team. What are they thinking, hearing, feeling? What are customers telling them? Get and stay connected. Talk to your clients. What is going on with them? Check in on them. Ask them questions. What resources can you send them? You’ve got to remain relevant as a resource and trusted advisor for all of your employees and clients.
Beyond that, do your homework. Stay abreast of trends in your industry by reading, researching and talking to your peers. This is the way to stay relevant. Anticipate problems and make sure you are ready to innovate.
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? Story for each.
1) Remaining accessible. Don’t hide.
2) Communicate honestly, openly and frequently with clients and teams.
3) Observe, orient, decide, act.
4) Know your teams and clients.
5) Forecast frequently.
One of my clients realized that his team members were not connecting because they were working remotely. He took the approach of communicating openly, honestly and frequently.
I helped the client pull together a task force to look at what the company could do to promote trust, engagement and cooperation. The company analyzed the existing communication flow and considered ways to improve it. Within 30 days the task force developed a communications plan that outlined tactics, allocated resources and established an implementation timeline. The plan called for 10 peer leaders to perform deliberate check-ins with all team members. Initially the check-ins were only about business, but very quickly it was expanded to include questions about employees’ personal situations. The peer leaders asked questions such as, “How are you doing?” and “How are you REALLY doing?” As a result, leadership understood the dynamics of what was happening inside team members’ personal and professional lives, braided into one.
After executing the plan, the task force came back later to assess the plan’s success and made adjustments where necessary. A year later, the task force is the top performing, highly effective team inside this organization of 425 employees. This company is now hitting on all cylinders and is super resilient.
Another company took the opposite approach. Individuals were working on problems behind the scene, but they didn’t communicate what they were doing to the rest of the 500 employees in the corporate office. As a result, there was widespread uncertainty, rumors and morale problems. The company started losing their high performers and struggled to attract new talent. The workforce is still disconnected and disengaged, and there has been lot of negativity about the company on social media. The company went from being a very focused training and development company to one in which the leadership hides and is noncommunicative. Now the organization is backtracking and trying to repair the leaks.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two quotes that I live by, and they are related. As I mentioned earlier, “clear is kind, unclear is not kind.” You must be absolutely clear on expectations and messaging. The other is, “culture matters.” Workplace culture determines the success or failure of an organization.
My personal story illustrates these concepts. I was head of operations for a dual-family- owned hotel franchise and had been with the company for eight years. As more members of family came into the business, the culture began to shift. I no longer had the same authority, and my impact as a leader fell. I did a complete 180 from being highly engaged to being completely disengaged, and we eventually parted ways.
Leaders should develop the perspective and understanding that employees have to be seen, valued and heard, and that expectations must be clear. If things are shifting inside the organization, employees must be brought along. Otherwise, the team will feel insecure and scared. They will either leave or they will stay and become disengaged. Neither situation is healthy.
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