Belinda Hoole On The Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Share direction — Providing opportunities for employees to align their own personal goals and development plans with the organization’s strategic direction has proven to increase employee retention. When employees understand how their unique contributions add to the success of your organization, they often experience a deeper sense of belonging. When doing well at work helps them achieve their own personal goals, employees are more motivated to perform at their best.
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 Belinda Hoole.
Belinda Hoole is a corporate culture strategist who helps CEO’s of fast growing startups & scaleups use company culture as a strategic advantage. After 20 years of helping transform culture at the US Dept of Justice, hospital emergency rooms, jails and high schools across the USA, she realized that there are Real Skills, human skills, that have a special kind of alchemy to impact teams and the bottom line. As co-founder of SonderWorx, she uses her C•U•L•T•U•R•E method to teach business leaders to deliberately create cultures where people can flourish and achieve great things together.
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?
Thank you, I’m excited to connect with your readers too!
I’ve always enjoyed combining seemingly different disciplines to discover new ways forward. I graduated with a BA in International Business and Art from a contemplative college where mindfulness practices were integrated into the curriculum. Studying at a school where 70% of the students were international, gave me a love for connection and culture and an understanding of how differently we all see the world. This inspired me to help people connect, which led me to design a training curriculum and teach law enforcement, emergency medical and education professionals how to connect and communicate effectively with people in mental health crisis.
To better understand human motivation, fear and limitations I became certified as a personal development coach which brought a new lens to how I saw the work I was doing. Over the years I realized that the skills we were teaching profoundly changed the culture of the organizations we worked with. After 20 years of helping transform culture at the US Dept of Justice, hospital emergency rooms, jails and high schools across the US, I was convinced that there are Real Skills, human skills, that have a special kind of alchemy to impact teams and the bottom line. So, I pivoted my business during the pandemic to help guide companies to develop the skills needed to deliberately create cultures where people can flourish and achieve great things together.
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?
I spotted a gap in the market for some of the remote customers our sales representatives couldn’t reach. Mind you, this was before Amazon and all things online! I wanted to try an experiment with a segment of the market to see if my idea could successfully service this group of customers. To do that, I would have to drop a few of my current responsibilities. I had it so ingrained in my head that my boss would not approve my idea (and I was at the very beginning of my communication studies). so I went into his office and basically argued my point against his imaginary objections. When I was done with my very dramatic presentation, my boss waited for a moment and then said “it appears we are in violent agreement”. I was stunned.
So often, we are so certain we know something that our bias makes it hard to see what is actually right in front of us. It’s best to go into situations with an open and curious mind. Be prepared, but don’t make assumptions.
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 was so lucky to have been trained by people in the personal development field who really embodied the skills they were teaching. One of my mentors, who runs an international personal development organization, modeled gentleness and power in such an extraordinary way that it totally transformed all of the ideas I had about corporate success. I learned from her the importance of having a worthwhile purpose. I also saw that insight and feedback delivered with care and skill have the power to inspire and empower people to grow and evolve. When an organization is filled with people who want to grow and evolve, you can achieve great things together. Her ability to connect and make people feel seen and heard remains an inspiration for me today.
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?
The name of our organization embodies our purpose. SonderWorx comes from the word sonder. Sonder is the profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers we pass on the street, has a life as complex as our own, which they are constantly living despite our personal lack of awareness of it.
Our vision is to empower people to show up fully as humans, teammates and employees. To do this, we are teaching organizations how to create healthy company cultures where people can flourish and achieve great things together.
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?
We are smarter together than we are alone. When the pandemic hit, our live training division came to a hard stop. Our clients weren’t open to online options. They didn’t believe that an online training could be as effective or have as much impact as our in-person training sessions with professional actors. I wasn’t convinced either. But our team got together and experimented. All ideas were welcome. Some ideas didn’t work and others did. Some ideas needed tweaking and others were outright failures. We tried a lot of different things, learned some new tricks and ultimately changed our clients’ minds. Our online training division has been growing ever since.
We had to feel safe enough with each other to be able to throw out any idea without worrying that it might be “stupid”. We had to trust each other to experiment and try new things. The ideas that came out of those sessions were way more complete and intelligent than what I could ever have come up with on my own.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
For sure there have been times when I wanted to give up! I think that’s actually part of the progression towards achieving a goal. We all have those moments where it all feels like way too much, and we’d rather crawl into bed with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and pull the covers over our head.
But, if we have a big enough goal, one that sets us on fire, we can tap into that inspiration to keep going. For me, I get my inspiration from two places. One is from my company’s vision to empower people to show up fully as humans, teammates and employees. That’s really important to me as a person, and I consider it part of my life purpose. The other is being accountable to my team who relies on the work we do in order to be able to reach their own goals. That’s what sustains my drive.
PS If your goals don’t empower you to keep going, it might be time for you to come up with a bigger, juicier goal that REALLY excites you. Just sayin’. Are you brave enough to go for it?
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?
Oh! So many. The current top of the list is “The Courage to be Disliked” by Fumitake Koga and Ichiro Kishimi. I really loved how it challenged any ideas about being at the effect of anything or anyone. It empowered me to be really honest with myself, not buy into victim thinking and take personal responsibility for everything that’s happening in my life. It also helped me to empower others to do the same. I think it’s so important for a leader to model the kind of behavior they want to see in their organization. And what leader wouldn’t be excited about employees who take personal responsibility for themselves and their work?
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A leader’s most critical role is holding a clear intention (or goal) and steering the team towards that goal with conviction. When things get challenging we all have doubts and sometimes want to give up. A good leader will acknowledge those fears and still direct everyone’s efforts and attention towards the goal. Sure, there may be a need to explore new possibilities and come up with a new strategy towards the goal. But the leader’s unwavering belief in their team’s ability to achieve the goal will keep them moving forward instead of being in the weeds with all the fears.
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?
From a neurobiological perspective, our reptilian brain (the oldest part of our brain) equates change with uncertainty, and uncertainty with danger. Even change that is necessary for our success could be viewed as a threat. When we are operating from our reptilian brain, it’s difficult to reason, think abstractly, and solve problems. So, it’s difficult for employees to do what they need to do in order for them to be successful.
In an uncertain environment, employees need a few stable reference points. A stable reference point is something we can use to orient ourselves. The white and yellow lines on a road are a reference point for driving. North is a reference point for navigation.
If a leader can help employees create stable reference points in the midst of uncertainty, they will feel safer. An example of a stable reference point in a business is a clear personal goal aligned with the company’s goals. For example, if an employee has a goal to become a better public speaker the leader may find opportunities such as client pitches, focus groups, etc that allow them to step up and practice this skill. A stable reference point (a clear meaningful goal to focus on, in this example) reduces the perceived threat in the environment, allowing our reptilian brain to settle down and stop seeing danger everywhere.
The key point to bear in mind is that when our reptilian brain is engaged, we don’t have access to the functioning of our mammalian brain. The mammalian brain is the part of our brain that is responsible for communicating, collaborating, creative thinking and complex problem solving. All the things you need to be effective in business and life in general. In a psychologically safe environment, our reptilian brain can go offline and our mammalian brain has an opportunity to do what it does best: communicate, collaborate, get creative and solve complex problems.
What does a psychologically safe environment look like? Employee engagement, inspiration and motivation.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Keep the goal in mind. When we have a clear goal in mind, the difficulties seem more like roadbumps than crises. When we lose sight of the goal, the current difficulty looks like the end of the road.
When communicating the difficult news to one’s team and customers, put it in context of the goal. Where have we been, where are we now, and where are we going. Let them know how you are handling the difficulty and invite your team to contribute ideas and identify how they can help.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Remember that good decisions and good outcomes are not the same thing. You can make a good business decision, where the customer demand is high, the financials are sound and you have a stellar team in place. But if your decision was to open that trendy restaurant on March 1, 2020 chances are that decision didn’t have a good outcome.
It’s key to have a rigorous process in place for decision making, one that evaluates the decision from as many angles as possible. Then, have the courage to make the best decision for the moment and be ready to make additional decisions and pivot as needed. Lastly, take action on the decision and make adjustments as you get more information from your actions. This will put you on the best possible path to success. With a process in place that you trust for making decisions, even as circumstances change, you have a way to remain fluid and adaptable.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Successful teams must take risks to bring new ideas, processes, and products to market. But, in order to take risks, they have to feel a certain level of safety and stability. So, developing the skills of your leaders and teammates to create psychologically safe environments is key to your success.
Psychologically safe teams are groups that feel safe to voice their opinions without fear of being shamed, they trust each other and can experiment without judgment, and there is no stigma associated with failure–it is seen as part of learning.
Creating a psychologically safe environment empowers teams to flourish and achieve great things together.
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?
- Losing your cool — It can get tense and stressful during difficult times. The pressure is on and sometimes we lose our cool, snap at our teammates and become critical and overwhelmed. We are human. But the impact that kind of behavior can have on the physiological safety in your workplace isn’t worth it.
It’s important for leaders and team members to have a way to vent in private when the pressure is getting to them. Is there a coach, a peer buddy system or some other avenue where these perfectly human emotions can be handled and not allowed to leak into the workplace and contribute to a toxic culture?
And, equally as important, is there a way your company has agreed those kinds of outbursts will be handled so that bad feelings don’t fester and conflicts can be resolved?
2. Forgetting to communicate — When the pressure is on, we often forget to communicate. We assume that everyone else knows exactly what is going on in our own heads. We can make it confusing for our teammates by only communicating pieces of the puzzle and forcing them to fill in the blanks with guesses.
It’s best to over communicate. Take a deep breath and try to get a big picture view of the situation. When communicating with your team, put the difficulty into the context of the goal you are trying to achieve. Where have we been, where are we now, and where are we going. Let your team know how you are handling the difficulty or ask for their ideas for solutions and explore how your team can help.
3. Creating unrealistic goals — When we are in a tight spot, we often push expectations onto our teams and set unrealistic goals for them. Some people might be motivated by this tactic, but for many it’s a source of discouragement and overwhelm.
It’s important, particularly during difficult times, to get buy-in from your team about what’s possible and how you are going to make it through the difficulty to be successful together. By including them in this process, you might arrive at the same aggressive goals, but this time you have the buy-in of the team and their commitment to achieve the goals.
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.
One powerful asset that leaders often overlook when leading during uncertain and turbulent times is a deliberately designed company culture. Culture is shaped every day by the behaviors your leaders model and tolerate. A deliberately designed culture supports your business strategy and creates compelling reasons for superstar employees to join and stay on your team, even through uncertain and turbulent times.
Five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times
- Know your starting point
On any journey we need a starting point and an endpoint in order to map our route. On your journey to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times, your starting point is understanding your current company culture.
We define culture as “the way we do things around here”. But how do you measure culture? Culture can be a nebulous thing to quantify and describe. The most effective way to measure culture is with a science-based culture assessment that captures your employee experience at each touchpoint with your organization and determines the dominant culture traits in the organization. This way you aren’t guessing at your company culture, you are measuring how your employees actually experience it.
2. Know your destination
The next step on our journey to leading well is a clear destination. Where is your company headed? What is your company strategy? Deliberately designing culture means that you align your culture with your business strategy. Your strategy can be defined in a company strategy statement.
If your strategy is to produce the most cutting edge widgets in your industry, deliberately developing an innovative culture would be an asset.
It’s important to remember that while we are aiming for the most supportive culture for the current business strategy and set of circumstances, the ideal culture will change and evolve over time. As the business evolves it’s important to adopt a mindset of ongoing improvement. We need to plan to gather feedback and data points, review our performance and results and establish action plans for improvement. Creating a never ending loop that can adjust to change, creates collective purpose and cultivates a quality journey versus a destination culture.
3. Build the right team
Hire for fit. When you can paint a clear and realistic picture of the experience an employee can expect while working for your organization (i.e. your culture) you are in a strong position to hire for fit. You and the candidate can honestly assess if there is a skill AND culture fit with your organization. A good fit positively impacts employee retention. You can also identify the gaps in your organization and hire the right people to drive change in those areas.
If your highly agile and innovative startup is scaling quickly, it might be time to hire someone who is excellent at driving performance and execution initiatives to create a supportive structure for your company growth.
4. Share direction
Providing opportunities for employees to align their own personal goals and development plans with the organization’s strategic direction has proven to increase employee retention. When employees understand how their unique contributions add to the success of your organization, they often experience a deeper sense of belonging. When doing well at work helps them achieve their own personal goals, employees are more motivated to perform at their best.
An employee may have a goal to become a better public speaker — find opportunities such as client pitches, focus groups, etc for them to step up and practice this skill.
An employee may wish to develop creative thinking and innovation skills — set-up a project that allows them to informally brainstorm ideas with fellow colleagues. Implement the winning ideas.
5. Stay on track
Giving employee feedback and coaching is key to company success. We call the ability to do this well Real Skills. Harvard Business Review recently reported that, “Landing a job as a CEO today is no longer all about industry expertise and financial savvy. What companies are really seeking are leaders with strong social skills.”
Real Skills are key to creating a healthy company culture where psychological safety and a learning culture increase employee engagement, satisfaction and retention. Employees need feedback in the form of appreciation, coaching and evaluation to support them to achieve their (and your) goals. Being able to do this well empowers your employees to work together successfully as a team.
Other Real Skills include communication, giving and receiving feedback, conflict management, managing bias, mediation skills, critical thinking and problem solving skills. All of these are as critical as technical skills to your business success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“At the core of courage is the ability to perceive what is, as it is, while staying present and aware.” — Harry Palmer.
So often, when things are turbulent, we get scared. We feel uncomfortable looking at the difficulty in order to really understand it. But having the courage to stay present with all of it–the difficulty, our fear and our confusion–gives us the best chance to see a solution. When we look away out of fear, we are really forcing ourselves to take a shot in the dark at problem solving. And that just makes future attempts at handling difficulty that much scarier.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Visit our website for a free guide to creating a deliberately designed culture
I’d love to connect with you and hear your thoughts on linkedin too: https://www.linkedin.com/in/belindahoole/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Belinda Hoole On The 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.