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 Sonia Layne-Gartside.
Sonia Layne-Gartside is a dynamic and results-oriented Global Consultant. She works with C-Suite and senior leaders in Fortune 500 companies, entrepreneurs, and communities as a strategic partner to lead OD and HR strategy execution activities. She is a certified DEI Strategist, Master Trainer™, and Change Manager. Sonia works with leaders to improve the performance of people and the systems they work in. Her work involves transforming the way people lead, delivering targeted learning solutions, leading Change management initiatives, DEI programs, and coaching executives. Sonia is also an International Speaker and author of the book Workplace Anxiety: How to Refuel and Re-Engage.
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?
Well, the first thing you notice about me is that I have an accent. I grew up in the Caribbean in the lovely island of Barbados. I was hired by my Organizational Development lecturer straight out of university, and I spent the first five years of my career working with leaders across several countries to determine where they had skills gaps and helping to address them. Leadership development is where I started, asking the question: how do we change leadership behavior and improve their ability to create environments where people can thrive and accomplish goals? Since then, I’ve added the skills of change management, strategy and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). These are all areas where if you are going to be an excellent leader, you need to be experienced and skilled in.
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?
It’s only funny looking back at it. Now I laugh at how unseasoned I was. Very early in my career I flew into a country to meet with the Permanent Secretary (PS) in a Ministry of Government, what would be equivalent to a Deputy Secretary of an executive department here in the USA. I showed up expecting to meet with the PS and got shown into a conference room with at least eight men. All were there to meet with me. I was shocked and felt quite unprepared to be the only person on the other side of the table looking at eight men. It’s funny now, but I didn’t realize then that people at that level didn’t show up to meetings alone. They bring the heads of the various agencies and departments who will be impacted by our talks. It was early in my career and I was totally unprepared. But I learned an important lesson — always know who will be in the room when you are attending a meeting. The leader is not the only person you need to persuade or convince.
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?
This is easy. I really lucked out with my first boss, my original university professor who hired me. Dr. Jeannine Comma mentored, supported and sponsored me and really honed me into the powerful force I am today. She raised me as a professional and it’s only now looking back that I realized how lucky I was.
Because of her, I always advise my mentees and coaching clients to look for leaders as opposed to jobs. A great leader can help you develop and sponsor you into opportunities that allow you to fly. You think you’re choosing a job or a career opportunity, but you’re really choosing a leader. Be deliberate and intentional about evaluating what type of leader you’re going to be working for when looking at new jobs and opportunities.
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 purpose was to help others avoid the people problems that cause projects, careers and businesses to fail by transforming the way you lead. We know that leaders go into the role feeling unprepared and my first foundational years of work showed me that acquiring leadership skills is a journey of self-reflection that requires training, coaching, and putting effective organizational systems and processes in place. People need to be mentally, emotionally, and physically ready for leadership. Some people find it incredibly difficult because you must learn on the go — amidst trying to meet your deadlines, staying under budget, battling with limited resources and hitting your revenue targets. If you don’t know how to create the environment which enables people to be productive and successful, you make life unnecessarily difficult for yourself. So, that has always been my purpose.
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?
When we’re in periods of uncertainty like we are now, people are stressed and anxious. They’re wondering: ‘What does this mean for my company, my job, and my future?’
An analogy of this would be to imagine you’re driving down the road in a deep fog, where you can barely see more than two feet ahead of you. And for those of us who’s ever driven in heavy fog we know how disconcerting that can be. We’re trusting the road we’ve driven on before, and we know where we’re going. But it can still be unsettling.
But when uncertainty hits, it’s like driving down a road you’ve never driven on before, in a heavy fog. You don’t know when a dangerous bend is coming up, a dangerous curve in the road. You don’t know what’s coming next with any certainty. Yet, you have to act. So, you’re even more anxious and fearful. And that’s what uncertainty is.
I understand it, and so I’m in the best position to lead the team through it. I know that the ability to navigate this type of uncertainty is an essential skill of a great leader. When I’m leading, whether as the CEO of my own organization, as a Board Chair trying to help a nonprofit navigate a society where donor dollars are drying up, or I’m leading a change project, there’s one critical factor I ensure that everyone understands. We are not powerless in this uncertainty. I know that in these periods, people see threats and seek certainty. Which means they focus on the obstacles and they interpret it as a sign to stop. So, I get them to focus on the future. To look for opportunities and growth. Now is the time to attack, not retreat.
In my projects during the pandemic, I found that when you nurture that mindset on your team, build trust and let your team understand that you have their best interests at heart, you get such great problem solving and creativity that comes out of nowhere. You don’t have to come up with the solutions, just focus on facilitating the discussions so you can pull the best from everyone sitting at the table.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
As someone who trains and educates people on leadership and helps them to navigate change, I’m not immune to the challenges. For example, even though I’m a certified change manager, I hate change. It’s why I always empathize with clients and the employees on my projects when they resist needed changes. I respond with compassion and empathy because I understand it’s not that you don’t want to change, you’re just looking for the easiest and least painful way to do so. Well, me too.
Another area where I have challenges, because I’m brought onto new teams regularly to help them achieve goals quickly, is having a team with trust issues or where you are not aligned. I like to say it’s like being in a bad marriage. When you’re in a bad marriage you go to a marriage counselor. I coach executives and believe in having a coach. So, that’s what has gotten me through the challenges. I go to my coaches to get clear, so I feel empowered to act in a productive way. I don’t act on my feelings and make the situation worse. I gain the clarity needed to focus on win-win solutions.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Getting people on the offensive and looking for opportunities where they can seek growth and do it quickly. That means that you’re going to have break down silos. You need people to collaborate quickly and effectively. That’s where the problem solving, and creativity comes from. Silos delay decisions, weaken collaboration, and limit your ability to quickly adapt to change. So, your job as the leader is to get everyone across functions working on the same problem. It’s the fastest way I know of to create alignment on the same priorities, build team cohesiveness, shorten the decision-making process, and bring about change
Ultimately though, you’ve got to channel people’s fear and anxiety into action. The way I do that is to invest the time to educate and train people in uncertain times. Rapid learning and adaptation are key here. I hold short training sessions on how to be more agile, how to improve our problem-solving skills, increase creativity, and make better decisions. I’m deliberately educating and sharpening skills to apply to the obstacles in our way. I focus on equipping my teams so they can be more agile, creative problem solvers who know how to make the best decisions.
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 communicate frequently during uncertainty. I’m trying to be as clear and transparent as possible, so people are clear on where we’re going. I keep my messages simple, to the point and actionable. I’m intentional about getting people involved so they can take ownership and be engaged. And the messages are built around, first, where are we going and why. I want the team to understand that their individual contributions are very important during this uncertainty. Their input matters, their work matters.
Second, I want them to know that I understand and empathize with how they are feeling about the uncertainty and the changes that are happening. Their feelings are normal — I know they’re tired of constantly pivoting, feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, scared of trying something new and failing at it publicly. I refocus that anxiety and stress into how to we should productively address the challenges that bring out these feelings. It’s why I invest so much in training and education. You need to give employees tools and new skills, so they feel equipped to address challenges.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Authentically and with compassion, not just sympathy. Sympathy is distant, “I’m sorry that this is happening to you”. Whereas empathy is shared: “I’m sorry and I can imagine how this hurts”. And it gives you the compassion to do what you can to help. I’m a direct communicator, so I work really hard to build trust and help people to understand that I have their best interests at heart. I think win-win, so if I have to give you difficult news, you know that it’s unavoidable. And I share it with empathy and compassion. I don’t avoid people. I don’t beat around the bush.
It’s why I invest so much time in telling people what they do right, in recognizing their individual contributions, celebrating their successes. I’m building goodwill for when I need to tell them something that will hurt. People do understand and trust that you are not doing it because you want them to fail or due to callousness.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Very easily. You plan for the period you have available, whether it’s a week, a month, a year, or two years. I say that to teams all the time — we don’t know if this is going to be relevant in 6 months, but we’ll work on going forward and scanning the environment to know when we need to pivot. Things are moving quickly so you’ve got to be able to pivot and adapt. What you want to accomplish may not change, but how you do so will, and it will o so often.
What I’ve learned here is that you need to destigmatize failure, and bolster a culture where people feel safe to learn from failure and experiment freely. That means wherever possible, building in a little time for learning, then iterating until you get it right. Break things down, create, test, and revise until you’re satisfied. And sometimes we have to spend time accommodating, where we just try to figure out a way to soldier on, before we fully adapt and thrive through the change.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
We distill meaning from the chaos and uncertainty. I ask the team: when this crisis or challenge is contained, what can we look back and say we’ve achieved during this process? This helps your team to understand that the long hours and the challenging times serve a purpose. We’re not going through hard times just to suffer. No, this is serving a purpose. It also says — we’re in this together. You are not alone, you’re in a tribe — “we’ve got you”. That means everyone should know who they can call on for support and help. This helps to minimize the anxiety.
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?
The most common mistakes are:
- Lack of communication. This is the time to overcommunicate. You feel as if you’re talking a lot and saying the same thing over and over again, but you’ve got to remember that employees need to hear something at least seven times before it even begins to resonate. A leader’s primary job is to listen and be able to reflect what he/she hears. This allows you to address roadblocks with precision.
- Not creating a safe environment for employees during transition. Sometimes, leaders think that not hearing what employees truly feel means that it wouldn’t affect the process. They seem to think not hearing employees’ fears will lead to success. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t. You have to listen to and address these fears. They are a roadblock to where you want to go. You want to hear from your team in these moments, especially people closest to the customer and the problem. If you are not explicitly asking employees to speak up — in meetings, via email, at townhalls, etc. Then you are implicitly saying that you don’t want to hear from them.
- Not training or educating your employees to help develop needed skills. You need more from your teams in these times. You must equip them with the needed skills and tools. You cannot motivate a team past a lack of skills to do the job. Do you want to inspire and motivate your team? Then train them to handle challenges, so they feel empowered to act.
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?
My two most successful strategies are I learn how to pivot, and I look for opportunities in times of crises.
The ability to transition, learn rapidly, and pivot is how my business has grown and thrived during the pandemic. I practice what I preach. I look at the trends and saw for example that the ability to operate online was becoming more critical. So, I prepared for it and when the shutdown happened, I was able to easily pivot to online work.
And when the pandemic hit, I knew to look for opportunities. Wherever there is risk, there is also opportunity. Focusing on the opportunities amidst uncertainty will always help you to succeed and find growth. I was constantly scanning the environment with that question in mind — where are the opportunities digitally? It’s like when someone ask you if you’ve seen a yellow car, and you say no. The next week, you’ll see nothing but yellow cars. Train your employees to look for opportunities by priming them consistently.
I also firmly believe that problems break under pressure. I tell that to teams all the time — you’re all diamonds and pressure makes diamonds. If we keep going, keep examining an issue from different points of view, the problem will break. So, we see problems as opportunities to be tackled and solved over time. To not give up because you already know that there are no quick fixes — or short cuts — to solving problems.
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.
Well, it’s a summary of what I’ve been saying throughout this interview. Help your team to:
- Understand that they are not powerless in uncertainty. This is the mindset change you want to inculcate in your people.
- Distill meaning from the chaos and uncertainty. Focus your team on the future. When this crisis is contained, what can we look back and say, we’ve achieved during this process. You have to reinforce your vision and your “why” to give clear decision-making criteria.
- Communicate clearly, simply, and frequently. It will feel as if you are overcommunicating and you should be. Trust me, that is what is needed to bring people on board. To get them to act and not stop because they are unconsciously fearful. What they need from you is best practices, recommended action steps, where you have people focused on coming up with solutions and ideas for what they can be doing to accomplish the goals you’ve set during this uncertainty.
- Counterbalance new changes with training. Ongoing training is needed to help employees identify and exploit new opportunities quickly. Areas to focus on — collaboration, better decision making, execution and communication.
- Pay attention. One of the strategies that helped me the most was to be prepared for the digital world before we shut down during the pandemic. Leaders must pay attention to the signposts along the way — collate ideas, trends and scenarios to see if they can be grouped into themes or patterns. Connect those observations and insights to possible scenarios and actions. They do help. I did that and came away with — what would need to be in place if I wanted to work from anywhere in the world? I didn’t envision it would mean that I wouldn’t be able to go out of the house in whatever country I was in, but I saw that I would need systems and people in place that would allow me to do what I do in a quality way, all digitally. I would need to figure out how to reduce the distance and retain the personal connection in a different format.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
On page eight of my book, I say “there is beauty to be found in open and unknown spaces”. It comes from the chapter where I lay out how I learned to get comfortable with uncertainty — “In every case, whether bungee jumping or quitting my job, I learned something that I apply to all aspects of my life. You can call it my “what I know for sure” moment. Life is uncertain, and that uncertainty brings a tremendous amount of fear, which will chase you into open and unknown spaces. But with the right approach and an ability to stay focused on the opportunities before you, the experiences you originally greeted with fear can lead to some of the best breaks in life.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can follow me on Instagram (@soniagartside) or LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/sonialaynegartside/).