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 Tina Berger. She holds an MBA in Global Energy and advises Fortune 500 corporations through strategic digital transformations. Having engaged deeply with the challenges faced by corporate executives and staff for more than 20 years, she now advocates a systemic reset, a collective reimagining of our economic paradigms such that they serve the global good and the needs of future generations. She writes and speaks on the power of receptivity and co-creative innovation.
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?
Growing up in a military family, change was just a regular part of my childhood. My experiences traveling internationally and relocating frequently inspired in me an appreciation of differences in people, places, and perspectives. Adventurous and immensely curious about all sorts of topics, I grew into an avid reader and a devoted student of life. After graduating university with a degree in English Literature and a minor in Psychology, I began working for a small services company as a technical writer, documenting corporate policies, work processes, and training manuals for global energy corporations. This work exposed me to a wide variety of support functions as well as engineering and technical disciplines, enabling me to build a broad base of knowledge in business practices and processes. These rotating assignments and projects positioned me well to build my skills in the rapidly growing world of enterprise computing and planning systems. Ultimately, I found my niche as a change management leader, supporting organizational transformations, often relating to the implementation of digital technologies.
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?
My first assignment as a technical writer was documenting the step-by-step time entry processes for a new timekeeping system impacting all employees in a large energy corporation. I was intimidated and nervous, feeling I had no relevant skills or experience. I kept thinking to myself, “I got a degree in reading stories! Why didn’t I study something practical?” As I was interviewing the business expert to gather the information I needed to document the work instructions, I couldn’t seem to keep myself from verbalizing my insecurity about not knowing anything about how corporations do business. One of my colleagues, who is still a good friend, took me aside and said, “Hey, why don’t you just ask her your questions, then shut up and listen — without adding the commentary about how little you actually know?” At this stage of my career, I consider shutting up and listening to be among my most important skills as a consultant. (Incidentally, the writing and communication skills I developed while “learning to read stories” have also been key to my success in business.)
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’ve had so much help, encouragement, and advice from mentors throughout my career, and not a day goes by that I am not aware and grateful for every lesson from my professional colleagues. However, perhaps most significant for me, is the strong, consistent and unconditionally loving foundation that has been created and held for me by my parents and extended family. Much of my power, strength and confidence to keep putting myself out there and trying new things is sourced from the recognition that they love and lift me in all ways and always, whether I succeed in my efforts or not.
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 overarching vision is to engage with others to reimagine financial and economic systems such that they serve the common good and the needs of future generations. My professional services are contracted by corporate leaders to develop strategies and advise on methods to engage their teams and organizations to accelerate adoption of new ways of working. Often these new ways of working involve the introduction of new, digital technologies that will be optimized only if people learn to work together more collaboratively to generate solutions to complex problems. I see my work through a dual lens of (1) delivering exceptional value by addressing the business needs of my clients according to our service agreement and (2) engaging to share, learn, and innovate together in ways that improve conditions and align with the intention of my motivating vision.
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 a strategic consultant, most of my leadership is indirect and accomplished through influence and advisement, rather than direct line reporting or authority. Over this past year, I have been embedded on a consulting engagement supporting a digital innovation team within a large energy corporation. Throughout this time, the team has been navigating constant uncertainties and disruptions. Initially the uncertainties related to a looming global staff reduction, and these challenges were further exacerbated by the emotional and business impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. My leadership style and advisement throughout this time have emphasized the following:
- Prompt, honest communication: I have advised leaders to share company plans and impacts, honestly and as soon as possible. Of course, there will always be details that can’t be widely shared immediately. In such cases, I’ve recommended explaining the reasons why this is the case and letting the team know when additional information will be shared. And, of course, I never recommend lying or hedging about the reasons for a change.
- Deep listening & compassionate presence: The challenges of the last year have been emotionally difficult for everyone and devastating for some. As leaders, we are accustomed to looking for ways to help our teams put challenges behind us and bounce back quickly, but this time is different. We are navigating unprecedented territory in many ways, and our approach as leaders must be different. The physical and psychological effects of prolonged illness, grief, and trauma will continue to disrupt business as usual until we have recovered. My counsel to leaders has been to slow down and listen more deeply and show up as present and compassionate to the emotional and mental health impacts of the challenges experienced in this past year.
- Acknowledgement & support: During my 20+ year career, there has been an unwritten rule that feelings are not welcome in the workplace — emotional expression at work could damage your credibility and impede your chances of promotion. As people begin to return to offices (post staff reduction and post-Covid), the coming months are destined to be emotionally bumpy. As leaders, we have an opportunity to foster healthier connections and to deepen the level of trust among our teams by affirming these ebbs and flows as a normal part of the healing process. I have also encouraged leaders to become familiar with the mental health support and education help available. We need to make it clear that we are available to listen and to help connect our people to the support they need to recover.
- Clear business priorities: In the midst of change and uncertainty, teams look to us as leaders to help them navigate noise and focus on the most important work items. Throughout the year, I have advised and supported leaders in simplifying and communicating their business priorities and critical path activities clearly and consistently.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have left permanent employment situations and ended consulting engagements that didn’t align closely enough with my motivating vision, but I have never given up on my vision. My motivation comes from knowing that I am doing the work I do with an intention to serve the global good and the needs of future generations. I sustain my drive by finding the ways to relate and target certain aspects of my project assignments to align even more directly to my motivating vision. For example, in my current role, I am advising on the development of a training program that provides people with opportunities to learn ways to build trust rapidly, engage deeply, and integrate their respective knowledge, skills, and perspectives to co-create novel solutions to complex problems. Knowing these skills will enable people to innovate solutions beyond the corporate context energizes and sustains me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is listening deeply to understand the barriers, capacity, and possibilities for their teams. Deep listening builds trust and equips leaders to stay informed about trends they wouldn’t otherwise know about, to set reasonable performance expectations, to advocate for additional resources and support, and to remove obstacles to generate success for their teams and business.
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?
Many a leader has failed at attempting to “boost morale,” in conditions where it would be unreasonable to expect a team’s morale to improve. For example, I have seen team leaders try to improve morale and motivation during corporate cost-cutting imperatives that have devastating impacts, such as staff reductions resulting in the loss of highly-talented and well-loved members of the team. People will not be “motivated” out of these impacts. Such losses must simply be grieved. The best leaders address the practical and emotional challenges openly, allowing adequate time and support for their teams to process the emotional impacts, remaining present and compassionate, and providing clear guidance on business priorities.
Inspiring leaders recognize that the “uncertain future” is now normal and have discovered that one of the most effective ways to motivate people in the midst of uncertainty is to engage them in the creative effort of discovering what’s next. We have entered a transformational time when all the tried-and-true business structures, paradigms, and processes that have served the needs of the past must constantly be scrutinized to see if they are still relevant. The most energizing and inspiring leaders advocate and generate opportunities for highly diverse teams to bring their respective knowledge and skills to co-create exciting, innovative business possibilities. The most motivated teams are the teams empowered to design their own professional destiny.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
One size does not fit all, and it depends on the nature of the difficulty and on the impact to the people involved. In cases of large-scale impact, always engage help from a communication expert. A few good practices:
- Use the appropriate communication channels. For example, use face-to-face meetings for communicating difficult news to team members who will be negatively impacted. Use broad communication channels if it’s important that all staff are informed simultaneously.
- Share what you know with those most impacted as soon as possible, even if you don’t have all of the details.
- Let people know when you will share more. If there are details you do not yet have or are not at liberty to share yet, let people know when you will be able to share more.
- Communicate consistently. Set the expectation that you will communicate updates regularly and follow through. If the designated time comes, and there is not more information to share, use the time slot to communicate that.
- Do not lie or convolute the reasons for the “news” to make it more palatable. People in today’s workforce recognize outmoded indirect communication approaches and have a sixth sense for authenticity.
- Target communications to the audience. Your customers need a different message than your team. In general, we should remove irrelevant material and orient the information, impacts, and actions important to the receiving audience.
- Include a call to action. Consider why you are communicating this news and ask directly for the action you need. For example, are you asking customers to “Please remain patient as we make this change…”? Are you asking your team members to “Remain focused on your Q2 priorities until we have more guidance at the end of this month…? If you cannot come up with a call to action, consider whether a communication is necessary.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As leaders, we like to make plans, we like to know the answers, and we like to remove roadblocks and help others succeed. Of course, we will be expected to make and execute plans, but we should do so with the compassionate awareness that our ability to deliver on these plans will be more uncertain than in pre-COVID times.
We should acknowledge that the physical, psychological, and emotional impacts of the pandemic on ourselves, our team members and our families are unknown and unpredictable. It’s possible these impacts may be substantial enough to cause us to miss our targets, and we should be honest about that with ourselves, our peers and our leaders up the chain.
We should also recognize that the pace of change is continuing to increase, which means we are in more uncertain times generally (not just in the past year). We must begin working together to invent new approaches to (a) innovate together faster to solve problems on-the-fly and (b) manage and adjust plans and expectations more regularly.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Remain calm and consistent with your vision and priorities and free up your most talented people to find the best ways to drive to them. In general, in times of turbulence, people look for signposts to navigate by. Be one. In general, people will look for ways to help. Provide them opportunities.
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?
- Delaying communication of difficult news to team. Sometimes leaders delay difficult communications, wanting to wait until all the details are worked out, believing that this will reduce disruption and uncertainty. But company networks being what they are, people will hear rumors and rumblings, so this approach tends to have the opposite of the intended result, increasing uncertainty and eroding trust.
- Trying to be too positive and making promises that cannot be kept. Sometimes good, heart-centered leaders feel compelled to say positive things that are outside of their scope of authority to control. For example, “There will not be any staff reductions in our part of the business.” A better approach is to be honest and acknowledge the challenges and unknowns and to provide clear guidance on the priorities and actions needed in the near term.
- Lack of consistency & alignment in communications. When people see inconsistency in messages over time or notice leaders communicating different messages from each other, this increases uncertainty and disruption. It is always worth the effort to align all leaders on the business messaging that will be shared out during challenging and turbulent times and to remain consistent, repeating the key strategic messages over time. This kind of consistency reduces distraction and helps people remain focused on the most important priorities.
- Not engaging staff in solutions. Old school ideas of leadership would have us believe it is the leader’s job to develop strategies and innovate solutions to business challenges. However, given the complexity of today’s challenges and the accelerating pace of change, it’s now imperative that leaders engage the collective wisdom of their people to more fully understand the challenges, alternatives, and opportunities.
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?
In general, I am not a believer that “increasing profits” or “not losing growth traction” should always be the primary goal. If a company holds an inspired vision, I see the primary goal as making consistent progress toward the vision. In my view, we have overemphasized growth in how we evaluate the “success” and ascertain the value of corporations. I believe leaders and boards of large corporations should do more to confront and challenge the singular focus on earnings growth in their communications with shareholders and analysts. For example, historical performance in the energy industry has always been cyclical, with ups and downs. During the down years, many of the largest, most profitable corporations in the world consistently cut experienced staff and eliminate funding for important strategic programs just to meet near-term goals for earnings growth, without making any effort to help shareholders understand the tradeoffs and long-term impacts. In my view, corporate leaders need to do more to help shareholders understand the damaging effects of forcing a singular focus on year-over-year earnings growth.
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.
- Communicate promptly, honestly, and intentionally. Leaders should share company challenges, change plans, and known impacts, as soon as possible, honestly, and on a regular cadence. We should imagine ourselves on the receiving end of our communications and demonstrate care and sensitivity in deciding on the optimal communication methods and language to use. We should present the reasons for the challenges without attempting to “dress them up” or make the situation sound more positive.
- Encourage authentic sharing and allow flexibility where possible. Leaders should acknowledge the need and make space for employees to process challenging business changes and the associated emotional impacts. We should recognize that our team will be experiencing both individual and group impacts and will likely process differently. Some team members may need additional space and time to recover their equilibrium before they can be expected to perform at previous levels. Whenever possible, we should maintain an “open door” for our teams to share and do what we can to offer support and accommodate different needs.
- Provide consistent, clear priorities and guidance. Leaders should align with other leaders on simple, clear business priorities and communicate them consistently. I have heard leaders say, “I already said that. I don’t want it to sound like I’m always repeating myself.” It’s extremely important that we repeat ourselves. At times of change and uncertainty, it is our job to reduce noise and distractions and help our teams remain focused on the most important work items to turn the right business levers.
- Engage staff in developing solutions. Leaders should engage our teams in the creative effort of analyzing and innovating to address the business’s most pressing challenges. The most energizing and inspiring leaders advocate and generate opportunities for highly diverse teams to bring their respective knowledge and skills to co-create exciting, innovative business possibilities. The most motivated teams are the teams empowered to design their own professional destiny.
- Advocate on behalf of team for needed resources. Leaders should advocate up the leadership chain for the time and space needed to adjust to the changes and manage the business challenges well. We should also make sure we champion the good work, efforts, and inventions of our teams and model the way forward by advocating for the attention and resources needed to implement transformational ideas.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“We are making choices that will affect whether beings generations from now will be able to be born sound of mind and body.”
~ Joanna Macy
When I encountered Joanna Macy’s books 15 years ago, her writing moved me deeply and inspired me to step back and look at our economic and financial systems with fresh eyes. My generation came of age and entered the workforce without much awareness of the impact of our growth-driven systems. I had no easy way of finding out who manufactured my stereo. I made it through most of my twenties without having any reason to question the relative greatness of my country’s economic models and systems. By contrast, the kids of today have a front row seat to observe the ever-increasing impacts. They see and feel the impacts of our consumerist culture and profit-first models on the planet.
At the end of our working careers, will it be enough for us to say that we spent most of our lives working for a corporation that consistently grew profit but, in the process, made the planet less livable for the coming generations? This is what’s happening, and we all feel the truth of this on some level, consciously or unconsciously, because we are undeniably interdependent with this planet and everything that lives on it.
The mission of growing profit every year is not noble enough. And I feel confident saying this, not only because it’s so abundantly obvious but because I have observed the disillusionment among so many of my peers, even those who have generated significant success in these systems.
I am devoted to growth and healing, passionate about sharing what I know, and committed to working with others to reimagine and reform our economic and financial systems such that they serve the global good and the needs of future generations. I am especially interested in opportunities to collaborate cross-culturally and cross-generationally.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My book Coming Around: Surprises and Surrender on the Path to Inspiration is available through all major online book retailers. You can learn more about me and my work at www.tinaberger.com.