Author Rowena Millward: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Show your appreciation — thank people for going that extra mile during turbulent times. It is important to remember that people are often facing challenges across their life, not just at work. So when work is especially difficult, it is really important to stop and say thank you. Whether it is a few quiet words, or public appreciation, it makes a huge difference to know that their efforts are valued and appreciated, and they are making a difference. I’ve always loved the phrase “catch someone doing something right”. This is particularly important during turbulent times.
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 Rowena Millward.
Rowena Millward, author of Uncomfortable Growth — Own Your Reinvention, is a global leader in business and personal growth. After twenty-five years working in Top 500 companies, she now provides consulting and capability services for many of the world’s most admired companies. Rowena also provides executive career and life coaching, helping leaders navigate crossroads and turn trials into triumph. Find out more at www.macmorgan.co
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?
Going way back, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after school so I went and did a business degree, thinking that was broad and there were lots of different jobs. One of my good friends at university was desperately in love with this girl. He was literally tongue tied around her. After watching him stammer and act awkward around her for about 3 months — in fact his awkwardness was only getting worse, I took pity on him, and wrote a love letter from him to her, on his behalf. I knew him well, and I translated his thoughts and feelings into a letter which captured his essence. Anyway, she was deeply touched, they went on a date, and started to go out. News of my talents spread, and suddenly I was running a love letter writing business. I had so many requests I had to start a briefing process, provide a price list and spend 6 hours a week at the university library as my “office”. That entrepreneurial experience led me into marketing, but I have always been fascinated by people and so now I’m a thought leader and entrepreneur helping people and workplaces grow. It feels like things have come full circle!
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 was starting out, I was working on Olay the skincare brand. We were running a testimonial campaign, and I was the most junior person responsible for getting legal approval on all creative. In reality, we were actually using models posing as real people. No-one asked the question, so it was signed off and went to air. Then “A Current Affair” — the 7pm news show contacted the company to say they were doing an expose on false advertising. Suddenly there was an inquisition on how this happened. When the CEO asked who was responsible for approval signoff — everyone looked at me, the most junior person in the room! I admitted I had taken it for signoff, but no one had asked. I was however confused. So I piped up and asked “I’m not clear on why this is lying? I’m a bit confused, as when we shot a different TV commercial last week the celebrity said she used our shampoo, but she hadn’t. And her hair wasn’t actually shiny, that was done in post-production. I’m not sure I know when we are misleading or not.”
Well, you could have heard a pin drop! That is when I learnt the meaning of “industry standards”. The whole marketing department sat through 3 days of training around “ethics in advertising”. I thought I was going to get fired but I didn’t and a few months after the Marketing Director told me that everyone else was as confused, and it was so good that someone voiced it.
I learnt that speaking up when you are confused is valuable — it’s likely others are just as confused. And making a mistake is about learning, not being wrong. I learnt a lot through that situation.
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 sounds really corny but its my husband. We met at Procter and Gamble 25 years ago, we have been married for 22 years, and we both have had international corporate careers. Ironically though he changed jobs every few years — he worked for P&G, Citibank, Samsung, Nestle among others while I ended up staying with Johnson and Johnson for 16 years. Because he understands me professionally and personally, he has always been able to give me personal support and professional advice. We all have blind spots, and he helps me see mine, and when I’m reacting to a trigger. And I’m able to do that for him too. As a family (we have 2 daughters, Charley and Roxy) we have supported each others career moves, switching between who leads and who follows. Sometimes my career would lead (we moved to the US for 4 years with my job) and sometimes his would lead (we moved to Singapore for 2 years with his job). Someone once told me marriage is 50/50, but its never 50/50 at any point in time. In the moment its 30/70, or 60/40 or even 20/80. It swings, and only over the long term does it net out at 50/50. That’s been our experience.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My purpose is to help people live a life of growth, not regret. My book Uncomfortable Growth helps educate people on how they are wired for fear, and how they can learn to act through fear to realise their potential. It’s also about learning how to navigate crossroads and curveballs, so you can turn trials into triumph. It’s a life skill we all need — especially during turbulent times!
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?
With high uncertainty, no-one has the answers. There is usually no base line to project off. So it’s really important to focus on what we want to achieve, and then the process of how we will get there. Constant communication on the process, and what we learn step by step is really important. If people don’t hear from you, then they tend to make up stories in their own head, because uncertainty spikes fear. I think it’s also important to acknowledge uncertainty, and we are all in this together. The only thing worse than uncertainty is feeling like you are on your own dealing with uncertainty. People need to know we are in this together, and we will figure this out together.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I don’t give up, but I do recognise when I need to take some time out to recharge. When you are exhausted you sometimes get stuck, and just stepping back, helps you to see challenges differently and find new solutions. I’m a driven person and I love work, but beyond a certain point I become less productive and tired. So exercising, spending time with my family and friends, enjoying weekends away and even a lovely walk or simple joy like reading every night keeps my mojo. I don’t always get it right, but I can tell from my mindset when the balance is not there, and I need to readjust.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
One of my favourite books of all time is called Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership by Joseph Jaworski
I have read this book 3 times at different points in my life, and every time it connects deeply. Jaworski shares his personal journey, and how when you commit, take action and are open, the universe moves too. I’m not religious but I do believe in “the universe” and many of his insights I’ve been able to relate to personally. This book also gave me inspiration for my own book, Uncomfortable Growth. The title and the idea just came to me one day on the beach. I wasn’t even thinking about work, or even writing a book. But it stuck, and so it felt like the universe was telling me this is something I must do. And here I am!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Let people know we are all in this together. That they are not alone, and everyone is part of the solution. It’s important to focus on action so there is a way forward, and the fears associated with uncertainty don’t grow and overwhelm people. One of the hardest things with COVID was when people couldn’t work. With all that time, and limited activity it’s easy for our minds to catastrophise what could happen and let the fear grow. It’s also important to be empathetic and let people know it’s OK if they wobble, and have up and own days. It’s like holding hands — we are all walking forward together and if someone trips, then others are there to catch them.
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 think there are 2 things which are really important.
First, reduce their stress levels. Be clear about your vision and help them to feel and be empowered. Provide regular communication and recognition for the contribution and effort that is helping the business and people move forward.
Second, find the silver lining. I believe every situation can have a silver lining, but we have to look for it. Learning how to deal with uncertainty is an important life skill, not just for now but in the future. What can you learn about yourself? What about your employees? During COVID a silver lining was the move to flexible working at scale. There was massive innovation which came from the constraints imposed by COVID. Celebrate the positives that come from uncertainty — they are also there.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I believe providing context but also being upfront and direct is important. Don’t sidestep the reality with corporate jargon. Be honest and genuine. Explain clearly the why, and the implications. Difficult news is already difficult, it helps no one if “confusion” and perceptions of “being mislead” are added. It is always better for people to know where they stand and where things are at. That way it can be addressed, and people can move forward.
It’s also important to give them a chance to respond, and listen to them. Sometimes we are so focussed on delivering a hard message, that we are so relieved when its done that we don’t wait for their response. They deserve to be heard back. So even with difficult news, showing you care by genuinely listening to their response, and being open as to where this could lead is so important.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You always need to have a plan, but also recognise the plan will change. The more uncertain, the more likely it is to change. For this reason I like to highlight that the plan will change, but I know our people will figure it out. My faith is in the people who will evolve the plan as required, not the plan itself.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Overcommunicate consistently and with consideration and care. This does not mean you have the answers. You can always communicate the challenges, the process, the progress. This helps people to manage uncertainty and know that everyone is in this together. It also means people are not second guessing or gossiping. Leaders can’t control turbulent external factors. They can control how they connect, communicate and demonstrate consideration and care for what everyone is going through.
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?
- Leadership trying to solve all the issues before they communicate to employees. This may come from a place of good intent (wanting to provide certainty), but the stress of not knowing leads to wild guessing and even more stress. It creates dysfunctional behaviour.
- Not empowering employees to contribute to solutions. This leaves them feeling disconnected and powerless.
- Not creating a holistic plan with clear ownership and alignment across function. This results in everyone trying to do everything urgently, which creates confusion, errors and even more stress and frustration. I heard a person describe this as “digging a hole all day, and filling it back in.”
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.
Overtly recognise its turbulent and uncertain, and how this makes you feel.
Stop pretending. Say it as it is. Don’t give the corporate spiel — but share the reality of how you are feeling and what this means for the challenge before you. High uncertainty increases levels of stress in everyone, and it’s a huge relief when you can stop pretending it’s “fine” and “we have the answers” when people already know you don’t. Not only does this connect with people, it lets them know they are not alone. You are all in it together. I remember when J&J consumer bought Pfizer consumer back in 2006. Both businesses were a similar size, but it was evident that there would be some redundancies. There was a 3 month “window” given the scale of the integration. Even though I was a marketing director, I wasn’t sure I also had a job. So I stood up and shared how I was feeling. That like everyone, I could be made redundant. However, I was confident in the process, it had fairness and integrity. There were 7 steps over the next 2 months, and I was going to focus on doing a great job every day, and just doing my best at each stage in the process. Afterwards so many people came up and thanked me for my openness and honesty. They had felt alone, but actually realised everyone was in the same situation.
- Create a plan, but reinforce your confidence is in your people, not the plan. The truth is nothing succeeds as planned — even in normal times. In turbulent times, the plans will change even more. It’s the creativity, adaptability and brilliance of people who will figure it out. Let them know this — and your belief is in them — they will figure out the solution when the plan (inevitably) needs to change. During COVID there were so many unknowns. Baseline sales for a global pandemic and lockdown did not exist. There was panic buying. Spikes from people stockpiling. Budgets being slashed. Yet a plan had to be created. Over the following 9 months the final plan showed no resemblance to the initial plan, but it was robust and full of insight and action-based learnings.
- Give people extra space to recharge. We use much more energy when we are reacting, responding, pivoting, realigning and figuring out hard stuff. It’s a high cognitive load — it’s not the same as “business as usual”. It’s like interval training — you can go hard, if you have time to recover. Leaders who recognise this help people contribute their best and not burnout. Burnout is at all time highs post COVID, with 76% of US workers feeling burnout. This is because the stress of uncertainty takes a toll, as well as having to relook business assumptions, plans and optimise in real time. In addition, employees were dealing with home schooling, isolation and fear of catching COVID. Helping people to establish self-care boundaries has become critically important — while people flexible working, it’s easy to stay at your computer all day. Providing guidelines around working hours, exercise, taking vacation and rewarding people with “special well-being bonuses” like an afternoon off help prevent burnout.
- Show your appreciation — thank people for going that extra mile during turbulent times. It is important to remember that people are often facing challenges across their life, not just at work. So when work is especially difficult, it is really important to stop and say thank you. Whether it is a few quiet words, or public appreciation, it makes a huge difference to know that their efforts are valued and appreciated, and they are making a difference. I’ve always loved the phrase “catch someone doing something right”. This is particularly important during turbulent times. When I was leading a transformation project with one of my clients, I encouraged the leadership team to have this mantra. In every interaction, “catch someone doing something right”. Not only did it motivate people, it became infectious, and suddenly everyone started doing it. It lifted everyones spirits as they not only recognised what a great job others were doing, but they received recognition as well.
- Take care of yourself. To lead people through high change over time, you need to ensure you are looking after your own wellbeing. Creating your own boundaries means you can be effective over the long haul. In addition, in unchartered waters not everything lands the way you intended. So have a growth mindset — put in place your boundaries, share your intent, watch how your actions land, act on feedback and show care and compassion to yourself. When I was leading Digital Transformation across Asia Pacific for Johnson and Johnson, it required working with over 300 stakeholders across 13 different countries with extensive travel and global time zones. While I loved this role, it was exhausting and as it was at the start of digital transformation there was always “so much more to do”. It would be easy to burn out. So I put boundaries in place. If I was on a conference call at 1am, then I made sure my first meeting in the morning wasn’t until 10am. Regular exercise (I had a routine that worked in any hotel room requiring only a chair) and “no travel weeks” were critical. When travelling on planes, rather than working I would relax and watch a movie, knowing that as soon as I arrived then I would be doing breakfast meetings from 7am and dinner meetings until 10pm. If you don’t take care of yourself, then you will burn out.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I adore Dr Seuss. I think he has such deep wisdom wrapped in childlike wonder.
It’s hard to choose but my all-time favourite is
“Today you are you. That is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you”
I think this is a truth we forget. We feel such pressure to be “something” when in fact the opportunity is to peel back all of the “stuff” we have accumulated which suffocates our self-belief and uniqueness. I believe everyone has unlimited potential and the ability to shine.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can sign up to my blog at
You can find me new book Uncomfortable Growth on Amazon around the world
You can follow me on Linked in at
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Author Rowena Millward: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.