Kris Pederson of the EY Center for Board Matters: Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective…

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Kris Pederson of the EY Center for Board Matters: Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

The most important thing a leader can do to boost morale during difficult times is show public appreciation and gratitude toward their team for all of their successes and hard work. With my boardroom hat on, I like to think about how board leadership, specifically, can boost morale. I think boards should publicly acknowledge the contributions that fellow directors make to an organization, as well as when they see amazing CEO and executive performance. Despite challenging times, gratitude and public appreciation can show acknowledgement for the management team’s hard work to make good things happen.

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 Kris Pederson.

Kris Pederson is the leader of the EY Center for Board Matters. She is a seasoned professional with 30 years of management consulting, auditing, financial analysis, and corporate board experience. She currently focuses on the board agenda, including the board’s role in strategy definition, disruptive innovation, board performance and culture, and long-term value/ESG. She previously led EY Americas Strategy and Customer Consulting Services and is one of the founders of the EY Purpose-Led Transformation™ organization.

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?

I grew up planning to be a doctor and loved the idea of helping patients get well. That changed in college when I found biology and chemistry weren’t my natural calling! I then transitioned that doctor-patient mission to the field of business. I knew I wanted to work with business executives and help them transform their businesses through consulting; indeed, I think of myself as a business doctor. It is rewarding to do that in the boardroom. After earning degrees in psychology and business at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Harvard Business School, I built a challenging and rewarding career in consulting.

In the mid-2000’s, I started to sit on corporate, private and large association boards, including Great Western Bank and Windward Report. During that time, I was honored to receive Consulting Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award. I’m presently engaged with the NFL Alumni Board, the National Association of Corporate Directors Colorado Board and the Harvard Business School Alumni Board. As a partner at EY, I had to relinquish corporate board roles when I joined the firm, but I am very active in my association boards, keeping my pulse on boardroom issues there.

Today, I use my years of experience driving strategy on corporate boards as the Leader of the EY Americas Center for Board Matters, working with Fortune 500 clients to shape business strategy and drive transformational changes.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My funniest story is an incident I recall from early in my career. I was leading a major report as the project manager on a massive transformation program. We had the full client executive team around the table and a packed house. There was a bowl of red hots on the table, and I figured it would calm my nerves as I was second on the agenda. I popped one in my mouth, but when I stood up to present earlier than was planned, it dropped out of my mouth and onto my white suit, leaving an embarrassing stain. Fortunately, I was able to present from my chair instead of standing, and the outcome was mostly successful. From this experience, I learned two things: 1) never eat red candy while wearing a white suit, and 2) always be ready to present when you are on the agenda because schedules can change.

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 have had a lifelong mentor who I met early in my career at a large professional services firm, the amazing Peggy Vaughan. At the time, she was a senior partner and the first and only woman on the firm’s board. She saw something in me at an early stage in my career and gave me many opportunities to learn and tucked me under her wing. She created opportunities for me to shine, and she threw me into the limelight with the chance — at a very young age — to present to the firm’s board. I am so grateful to have been under her wing. She even helped promote me to make partner in record time. For all of this I am so grateful, and I have paid that forward in my management of others, especially younger women that need career guidance, mentoring and opportunity. I believe it’s an important part of being a leader.

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?

Purpose is near and dear to my heart, so I love this question, Yitzi. I actually joined EY to build and launch our purpose practice as EYs purpose of “building a better working world” really resonated with me. My personal purpose is to build a more balanced working world. By this I mean a more diverse working environment that prioritizes equity and inclusion and work/life balance; now I focus on doing so in boardrooms.

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?

I served on the board of a company as they were going through an IPO, which can be an uncertain and difficult milestone for any corporation. At the time, I helped support the management team by making sure the board could establish and drive a new mission for the organization. I guided the board to participate in a listening tour to ensure women and diverse leaders’ voices were heard (they were poorly represented in executive ranks) and to take into account all of their stakeholders’ feedback before solidifying the vision and purpose of the new business. The journey leading that company through its IPO really came down to starting with purpose and helping the board and management team articulate the ‘why’ of the new entity post-IPO.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Truthfully, I have not. I am known for pushing myself, so sometimes I do need to ask myself if I should pull back or pace myself. But I truly love what I do and cannot imagine ever giving up this dream of mine to serve corporate boards and help businesses transform their businesses guided by purpose.

At times, the workload and travel requirements can take a toll, but I find motivation by prioritizing my personal care first and foremost. When I feel healthy; when I exercise regularly; when I take care of myself; when I practice mindfulness; when I take time to be there always for my husband and our daughter; I am most energized to put my best foot forward at work and be a role model for my team.

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?

I’ve got two for you — the first is Start with Why by Simon Sinek. This book offers a great perspective on the power of purpose for leaders, and it has been my north star since joining EY where we established a strategic relationship with Simon.

Secondly, I offer Talent, Strategy, Risk by Bill McNabb, Dennis Carey, and Ram Charan. This book is more recent, but it is a great primer for board members and offers new perspectives on how to think about board governance.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

A leader sets the tone for their team every day. It’s a critical role. I believe in leading by example with hard work and compassion. The people on my team give 110% every day. I communicate my appreciation with direct gratitude and spotlight our team members publicly often. But in times of uncertainty, such as we’ve experienced the last couple of years in our world, it’s more important than ever to show empathy as well. We are all individuals, not just professionals, and it’s important that leaders and the members of their teams acknowledge that humanity and be supportive of one another. Being a highly grateful, empathetic leader is the most important leadership trait for me always, and especially right now.

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?

The most important thing a leader can do to boost morale during difficult times is show public appreciation and gratitude toward their team for all of their successes and hard work. With my boardroom hat on, I like to think about how board leadership, specifically, can boost morale. I think boards should publicly acknowledge the contributions that fellow directors make to an organization, as well as when they see amazing CEO and executive performance. Despite challenging times, gratitude and public appreciation can show acknowledgement for the management team’s hard work to make good things happen.

I was at a director’s summit recently where I attended an inspiring talk on the power of gratitude. In the keynote, a business professor observed that leaders who say thank you and show public appreciation for their people have a strong, positive effect on the morale of their team and the organization’s performance. Leaders should be mindful of their team: listen to their needs, recognize their accomplishments, and show gratitude for their work.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

It’s important to be forthright with those we lead and those to whom we provide services. We need to root communication in our objectives and put our empathetic leadership skills to work. Think about the receiver of the bad news and consider what will worry them the most. Being transparent is critical, especially in our socially connected world, so sugar-coating doesn’t work. I’m also a fan of listening tours to check in one-on-one or in small groups to hear directly from those impacted and to ask them to help determine the nuance of the best path forward. Leaders must say, “here is the issue, and here is what we are doing about it.” Teams want to know that their leaders care about what they think, and that they have a plan.

This is similar to the advice we give to boards and executive teams about communicating with their shareholders. Be forthcoming about challenges and how the company is investing in and working towards solutions. That level of transparency demonstrates authenticity and builds trust.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Leaders must keep their eye on the end game. That’s why I find our work with boards and directors so important. Boards set the tone, and govern the company’s mission, vision, strategy and purpose. Organizations are led from the top down. Directors need to keep their fingers on the pulse of the business and tap into external expertise. Each year our Center for Board Matters team publishes the top board priorities for the coming year. This year we based these priorities on a survey of more than 400 directors across the Americas. Our report, due out in January, will reveal the top five areas boards will be looking at in the coming year and explore how boards can support resiliency in uncertain times to make sure their organizations are able to adapt and thrive regardless of the next grey rhino coming their way — whether it is the next pandemic, geopolitical issue, supply chain constraint or environmental disaster. Resilient organizations are different and constantly vet risks as ‘not if but when’ things will happen and are prepared when they do.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

I mentioned grey rhinos. A lot of boards classify disruptive risks as ‘black swans’ being events that aren’t likely to happen, low probability risks with high impacts. We think this is a wrong characterization of disruptive risk, as sweet, lovely birds floating on a pond that are so rare its best to just gawk at them when they occur. Resilient companies manage coming risks head on and vet them, plan for them, and role play actions when they hit so they are prepared.

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 biggest mistake an organization can make during difficult times is to take their eye off the business’ strategic focus. Investment decisions, including talent — especially given the hiring challenges companies have experienced since COVID — need to be made with a longer-term vision in mind. Companies that hunker down too much and fail to place bets that can position them for the upswing in the economic cycle may find themselves in a weak position when their competition has made the investments to soar with the next bull market.

From a strategic planning perspective, my team and I help boards lean into business model changes during transformational times to look for ways to thrive against the odds. Sometimes organizations place strategic bets, e.g., restaurants that quickly pivoted to takeout to stay alive during Covid; businesses that jumped into the mask manufacturing business when supplies were low; hospitals that launched virtual visits, checkups, and remote capabilities for non-critical patients, etc. Such quick responses happened because boards and management teams were ready for the rhino coming their way.

This is critical for talent as well. Instead of taking short-term headcount cuts, it can be more prudent for companies to use other creative vehicles, such as early retirements, reduced hours, or furloughs for staff to make sure the most critical resources are retained if possible.

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.

  1. Lean into the corporate purpose of the company and use it to guide actions
  2. Do a listening tour to make sure you’re bringing in a range of diverse thoughts to your actions
  3. Be ready by foreshadowing the ‘grey rhino’ risks coming your way
  4. Take 3–4 key action items and get moving on them vs sitting around waiting.
  5. Turn uncertainty into a rallying cry for the team to move forward and to showcase your empathic and gratitude leadership skills.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Just say yes. Throughout my professional career, I have always been eager to step up and accept new opportunities, learn new skills and gain new experiences that have enriched my life and led me on what has evolved into an amazing journey. I never say no, and I’m also not afraid to say “yes, but here are some modifications to the ask that will allow me to deliver”. Be a yes person and good things will follow.

How can our readers further follow your work?

To access EY Center for Board Matters reports, I invite your readers to click here:

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Kris Pederson of the EY Center for Board Matters: Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.