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 Zoë Routh, a leadership expert specializing in the people stuff. She shows leaders and teams struggling with office politics and silos how to work better together.
She has worked with individuals and teams internationally and in Australia since 1987. From the wild rivers of northern Ontario to the remote regions of Australia, Zoë has spent the last thirty years showing teams how to navigate the wilderness of leadership.
Zoë is the author of four books: Composure — How centered leaders make the biggest impact, Moments — Leadership when it matters most and Loyalty — Stop unwanted stuff turnover, boost engagement, and build lifelong advocates. Her fourth book People Stuff — Beyond Personalities: An advanced handbook for leadership, was released July 2020.
Her past leadership roles include Training Director at Outward Bound Australia, Chair of the Outdoor Council of Australia, President of the Chamber of Women in Business, and Program Manager at the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation.
Zoë is also the producer of the Zoë Routh Leadership Podcast, dedicated to exploring perspective in people stuff so we can live and lead better.
Zoë is an outdoor adventurist and enjoys telemark skiing, has run 6 marathons, is a one-time belly-dancer, has survived cancer, and loves hiking in the high country. She is married to a gorgeous Aussie and is a self-confessed dark chocolate addict and 80s dance music tragic.
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 love of people and leadership began in a canoe, in the wilderness of northwest Ontario. As a teenager I spent my summers on extended wilderness adventures with other young people, learning how to make decisions and get along together in the most extraordinary of places. Wilderness adventure provided a powerful crucible for leaders and teams to discover how they can work best under pressure. This led me to working for outdoor education provider provider Outward Bound in Australia. In my experience with very diverse groups and industries, I became obsessed with why some teams come together while others fall apart. I established my own leadership development business, Inner Compass Australia, in 2002 to helps leaders and teams work better together. Sometimes we go into the wilderness, but mostly we tackle the issues in the boardroom jungle.
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 leadership lesson came at the age of 11, as Captain of the School Patrols, responsible for directing foot traffic over zebra crossings. There was one core rule to follow: do not run across the street. I enforced this rule with great zeal. The hefty weight of the Captain title along with its prestigious badge and fluoro vest shored up my authority, and my arrogance. One day, after yelling consistently about the ‘do not run rule’ to everyone within my jurisdiction, I finished my shift. I looked left and right, and promptly ran across the road. It was my sister on the other side who pulled me up with “You’re breaking the rules!” If she’d known the word ‘hypocrite’ it would have fitted nicely. My shame taught me the value of integrity that day.
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 the privilege of having some extraordinary mentors. They have each done two things for me: planted seeds of possibility and pointed out my failings. My boss Sam at Outward Bound gifted one suggestion for me that took my life in a profound direction when I followed its impetus. She said to me one day while reviewing some of my work, “You should run your own business.” This had never been on my radar, and it dazzled me with its opportunities and helped me to see myself differently, as a potential entrepreneur. On a different occasion, in a different mode, she made it extremely clear to me the consequences of my actions. My concerns about a recent relationship breakup led me to abandon my responsibilities at work that day, leaving her to run the show. I let her down, I made my team look unprofessional, and I showed myself as shortsighted and selfish. That was a painful lesson in considering others. I am so grateful she told me! I never want to make that mistake again.
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?
I started Inner Compass Australia to help others be better leaders, and to live a more fulfilling life. I believed in the process and what was possible for a life well-lived. I truly believed in our motto, “Better leaders, better world”. Though I’d be lying if there wasn’t some selfish ambition there too: I wanted to prove I could do the entrepreneur thing. It took me ten years of angst to work out that the more I focused on others, rather than on proving myself, that the better I could serve my clients. Ironically, this is when the business started to take off.
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?
The role of the leader in a crisis is to replace uncertainty with certainty, to swap confusion for clarity. Even in the most turbulent of times, like during the pandemic, I focused on what we knew and what we could control. We confronted the brutal facts, and we put boundaries around our decision-making. We made short-term plans, shaping them against the few known parameters we had at the time. We reviewed our assumptions and our experiments regularly, tracked progress, and celebrated small wins. Even though we weren’t hitting our targets like we had previously, we made note of what was working for us and honoured that. I stayed calm while with them, and leaned on my professional peers when I felt wobbly and needed place to vent and be human.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There were many, many times I wanted to throw in the towel. The uncertainty, what felt like lack of progress, this all felt like an enormous chain dragging my morale into dark places. What helped was finding a community of like-minded peers where we could share wins, challenges, and ideas. It helped to keep in action. Through that community I also had some amazing mentors who always asserted, “outsource your belief to us — we believe in you even if you don’t believe in yourself right now. Keep going. Action precedes clarity.” When I did get close to pulling the plug, I’d think about what I loved most about the work: serving others and the freedom to be creative on my own terms. That put wind in my sails again.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To offer certainty when there seems like none is possible. To create clarity when there is confusion. To be a shining light of positive energy. To be compassionate and wise. When in doubt, be kind.
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?
Be a biochemical drug dealer! A leader can look to neurobiology to boost positive feelings. These are both external, like motivation, and internal, like inspiration. For external motivators, we can set ambitious yet achievable goals with our team members that stretch their skills a little. In this way we can ride a fine line between anxiety and excitement, and therefore promote feel-good biochemicals of endorphins. By making progress visible, as with a progress bar, or Gantt chart, or milestone map, we can spark the release of dopamine every time we pass the next level. Those little moments of achievement are addictive. On the inspiration side, it’s all about recognition and celebration to get the self-esteem and well-being biochemical of serotonin happening. Lastly, nothing is more inspiring than feeling welcome and wanted. When we feel like we belong, the trust biochemical oxytocin is released. Just by checking in with others and showing we care can release a flood of oxytocin. When people feel good at work they can handle anything.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Always be clear and direct, while showing compassion. Some decisions may have a detrimental impact and anything we can do to help alleviate the impact should be made within our remit. What NOT to do includes staying at arm’s length, using blanket email blasts, and dancing around the issue. Straight up truth shows respect for others.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It’s a dance between now and next: work within the confines of now and what is known while betting on what’s possible for the future. Having boundaries for risk-taking that trigger decisions is also critical. For example, by establishing trigger thresholds for income, and planning for what to do if income drops to a certain level, is a way of putting certainty into a volatile environment.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
There are two: People First and Don’t sacrifice the future for short-term gain. Short-term thinking corrupts decision-making and risks unethical choices. If we treat people badly in a crisis, this will come to haunt our reputation down the track. By keeping the future of the business or enterprise in mind, while also looking after our people, we can make both wise and compassionate decisions.
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 painful one I’ve seen is letting silos get entrenched. Poor systems that result in silos become extremely problematic in threatening times as people double down on protecting their own patch. If there are silos in organisations, it stifles the collaboration required in times of crisis. This will make the difference between those organisations who innovate through tough times and those that fade away behind the times.
The second most painful is poor communication. This includes not communicating enough, not being visible or transparent, deflecting responsibility, and blaming others. People want leaders to show up, speak the truth no matter how hard, and be considerate and kind in how it affects others.
The fourth one is not paying attention to culture. Culture is every organization’s asset, or downfall. It needs to be mapped, measured and managed in good times and crisis alike. Culture reflects the true health of an organization and needs investment and care for consistent performance.
The worst one was shutting down completely. Going into hibernation misses a huge opportunity for innovation. As the saying goes, ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. Even while running the business may not be possible due to restrictions, there is no restriction on reinvention. It’s the perfect time to challenge assumptions, ask deeper questions about what clients need and want, and find ways to be of service that are an evolution from what we’ve offered previously.
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?
This comes back to fundamentals: knowing who we serve, what problems we help solve, and being focused on our customers’ issues, not just our own. Now is the time for innovation and experiments. We test to see what messages and services are useful and resonating for our audience. We obsess about understanding our customers’ challenges and being compassionate in our invitation to help.
We also track process results, not just outcomes. This helps us stay motivated! For example, we track how many people we reach out to, not just our sales results. This keeps our attention outwardly focused while also being in service. We know that if we do the work of being helpful, this will flow back to us eventually.
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.
- People first, task second. When the pandemic hit, we made sure that everyone was safe — from a physical health point of view, as well as a mental health one. There was a lot of anxiety due to the uncertainty and we wanted to let people know there was a caring ear there for them.
- Confront the brutal facts. When the shut down happened, we saw three to six months worth of business wiped out in the space of a week. While this was unnerving, we took the time to take stock. What resources did we have on hand? How much did we have in the operating account? Where could we access loans? How long would our resources last? By getting real with what we had to work with, this actually increased the level of certainty. We knew what the limits were to our resources, so we could make decisions based on this rather than on speculative wishful thinking or reactive negativity.
- Put in boundaries to create certainty. We created scenarios like, ‘what happens if the pandemic gets worse — what could we do then?’ We put some thresholds in place that would trigger hard decisions like if revenue dropped below break even, then we would cut staffing hours to stretch out our reserves a little longer. This would enable us to weather the storm longer if we had to. We also had an absolute worst case scenario like, ‘if we run out of reserves, and can’t access any loans, and have absolutely no new business or prospects, then we would have to close the business’. It was grim, but at least everybody knew where we stood. It sharpened all of our focus.
- Run small experiments. As a team we came up with different hypotheses about what would be most useful for our clients and audience. Then we ran discrete, time-bound small risk experiments to test the offer. Some worked, some didn’t. We learned from each of them and stayed in action, forward focused.
- Celebrate small wins. This is probably the most important one from a morale point of view. Having to adjust expectations, and grieving for what might have been, was the first emotional labor of a crisis. By focusing next on small moments of progress, we can feel positive and enthusiastic about these signs of life. How we talk about the experience is critical too! If we talk about this being ‘the worst experience ever’, then we will live into that narrative. If we talk about, ‘we’re seeing signs of progress’ then confirmation bias can work in our favor to build proactive positive movement forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Cindy Wigglesworth said, “The capacity of the organization is limited by the capacity of the leader.” It reminds me how important learning is. If our work is to grow and evolve, so too must we as individual humans.
The leader’s role is pivotal: how we show up, our energy, and how we treat people all testifies to how we will work with others for a better future. For me, this means constant attention to how I can be better in all domains: what I’m learning, what I’m teaching, how I’m looking after myself.
For me personally, it reminds me that I am a work in progress. Humility is the antidote to hubris. This arrogance is one of the great dangers of exercising power: by succumbing to it, we can alienate ourselves from others and forget what we had set out do in the first place, make a positive difference in the lives of others. Learning, fun and adventure are the core values that guide me always in the wild ride of leadership.
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