Susie Robinson of Transform2Outperform: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Transform you, your plan, and your team. Turbulence is a good indication that your current business model will become irrelevant. It’s not the time to bolt down the hatches and do more of the same. It may seem counterintuitive but mobilizing your team around an ambition to take your business to a new level of performance, forces your team to look outward for new possibilities. During a financial crisis my team were appointed new roles and accountabilities. They were so busy with the complexity and challenge of building the new world; they had no time to weigh on the negative stuff and their creativity was boundless.
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 Susie Robinson.
Susie Robinson is a consultant and expert in the field of HR and Talent Management, with many years professional experience as a top executive in global companies. Before founding her company to create solutions that help clients activate game-changing outperformance, Susie held the role of Executive Vice President HR EMEA & Global Talent for DHL Supply Chain. Throughout her career she developed and delivered HR strategy, led world class HR teams, delivered successful transformation, and sourced and developed talent in several countries around the world. Based out of the UK, she now focuses her attention on helping international clients transform their results through outstanding people leadership. Her recently launched book, Transform to Outperform, the seven powers to transform you, your team, and your results, is a practical guide packed with advice and tools which encapsulate her unique approach.
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?
Of course. Going right back to the beginning, I am the middle (fourth) sibling from a working-class family of six kids raised in the UK. At age 11, I started working every single non-school day, in the knowledge that it was the only way to get the things I needed. This grueling work experience and the loss of a parent to suicide at age 17 ensured an early immersion in the real world. I finished my education, worked in Spain for a spell and by the age of 21, was heading up HR in a medium sized business, going on to become General Manager within a few years. From late 20s my career moved through an international manufacturing business into the global world of logistics and supply chain. As Executive Vice President I led HR and talent management several large mergers and transformations. In 2016, after a short sabbatical, a period of intense development and reinvention, I decided to launch my business Transform 2 Outperform (T2O). Having worked with and developed leaders who create flourishing, successful organizations and equally having witnessed the toxic impacts of disempowering leaders, I was passionate about helping individuals, leaders and teams outperform their own expectations and goals.
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?
Here’s a mildly funny example from my early twenties. As I studiously developed my HR career, I had become a quasi-employment law expert and would occasionally provide pro bono services to friends or associates in need. Whilst preparing to represent one associate in legal proceedings, I discovered flaws in their employer’s evidence. At tribunal I adopted a ‘Perry Mason’ persona, having watched one too many court room dramas, and I began leading the witness theatrically through the flawed evidence. “I put it to you Mr X that this date was in fact a Saturday, a day on which Mrs X was not required to work. “ I repeated this approach with each item of evidence until the Chairman suddenly cut in. “I think we have the picture” he scolded, sarcastically. The Chairman swiftly moved the case on, as I shriveled into my seat and adjusted my approach. Luckily, the case concluded in our favor, but it taught me an important lesson in humility. Be respectful, humble and don’t take yourself too seriously. Ensure every interaction respects the other party and adds value, even if the message is a difficult one.
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 completely agree, we don’t get to show our superpower without a supporting team who bring their own superpower. I have learned from and adapted snippets of so many people along the way. The first of whom was a wonderful human being called David Allenby, who owned a business I partnered with as a young manager. Sadly, David left us in 2013. Despite the chasm in our age and experience, he afforded me complete respect as his equal. During our discussions he cultivated my creativity, fed me with knowledge and experience, and ignited enthusiasm for my craft. His humility, wisdom and non-judgmental approach still fill me with awe today. Later, one of my bosses, Howard nurtured my youthful drive and taught me the numbers, another, Martin, introduced me to the cut and thrust of international business. From Chris I attempted to steal a touch of elegance, charm, and shrewd judgment. I emulated the communication of John; an exemplary leader and I gained a sharper edge after incisive feedback from Leigh. I watched and learned from Graham the art of agile strategy… and the list goes on.
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?
I started my business at a time when the topic of mental health at work was embryonic, although the drums were beating ever loudly about workplace toxicity. I had seen firsthand, the powerful results created by empowering leadership and the devastating effects on individuals of toxic leadership; I wanted to invest my energy in making the difference. The vision for my business was creating better working lives. It was important to ensure this was not about building a touchy, feely country club culture. It is all about driving accountable, high performing teams who outperform expectations, yet do this in a flourishing, supportive environment. I find that leaders are receptive to reducing toxicity and supporting mental health when we do not lose sight of the fact that we are here to do challenging work and get results.
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?
A particular story comes to mind. During a global financial crisis, my team and I committed to transforming our services. The project, if successful, would deliver critical payback, whilst failure would incur losses and damage relationships with internal and external customers. Simultaneously we had to complete new business projects and face resistance at all levels. First, I shared a vision and involved the team in building out the details, so that they felt significant and in control. Lobbying and soft power strategies helped us to gain wider interest and get key influencers on side. During the project dissenting leaders and colleagues often encouraged people in the team to rebel. I had to prepare for and counter resistance, stay calm, stand my ground and role model commitment, whilst being flexible where appropriate. As a result, the project delivered ahead of timeline, on target and changed the face of our services and reputation in the business for the good.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never considered giving up, although individuals in the team tried to persuade me to compromise when they experienced resistance. Compromise was important in places; but some decisions were non-negotiable. The source of my motivation was the project itself and the unbending knowledge that it was the right thing to do. My drive is sustained by a desire for positive change and innovation, the need to be doing something significant and the pleasure of seeing people rise to the challenge, then perform and grow beyond their expectations.
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?
Yes, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom had an enormous impact on me; the resilience and challenge that one person endured in service of justice for others, and his capacity for forgiveness which unified a divided nation. This book reinvigorated my approach at a time when my executive team and I were demotivated by a merger and were in danger of infecting the morale of our teams. Whilst reading, it dawned on me that our ultimate leadership challenge is to face adversity and transform ourselves in the service of a passionate vision and in doing so, transform the behavior and results of others. I developed a new vision and began to role model a better approach.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Remaining calm, poised, and positive; instilling belief and confidence in the decisions and steps that will get the team safely through the other side. During turbulent times tempers fray and criticism flows. Experience has taught me not to get derailed by politics and to maintain the high ground, this seemed to help the team. I often say to myself and my team, “what’s the worst that can happen?” The answer is mostly not as bad as people catastrophize.
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?
Like a nervous flyer watching the reactions of the cabin crew, the team is sensitized to your reactions and needs reassurance. I find that if I stay calm, positive and action oriented, the team tend to follow suit. Keep signposting and celebrating progress towards the vision or the shorter-term goals and reinforce the link between current actions and upcoming results. Intensify two-way dialogue. Coach, and recognize contribution as often as possible. Look for simple ways of making ordinary moments extraordinary and maintain rituals like coffee time or other brief pauses which allow for connection and recovery.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The worst thing that can happen is for the team or customers to have to read smoke signals and fill in the gaps. Communication must be timely, transparent, and provide a clear sense of the impact and the solution, or way forward. In one situation our customers were going to be affected by an unpopular change. We met with each client to explain the logic for the change, how and when it would affect them. We applied extreme listening to their challenges which involved: saying less, letting them vent, even when they were unreasonable; then delighting them a little later by showing how their concerns had been accommodated and updating them proactively.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
When times are uncertain, we have to learn and respond on the go. It’s crucial to monitor 3 or 4 critical data points that will highlight problems in good time. Keep the final vision in sight and stay true to core capability, maintaining quality and service. This is where we can provide continuity for our people and customers. If we need to adjust short term goals a little and take a slightly different route, it’s usually fine. Keep the plan dynamic and under review. Maintain regular two-way dialog and strong networks of employees, customers, and stakeholders and stay alert to potential disruption. Be prepared to quickly develop new capabilities just like we all did during the pandemic.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My principle is SPACE — Style People, Accountability, Customer and Excellence. S is for style of the leader. During uncertainty, the style of the leader and proximity to the team and their mental space is critical. Look after your people with compassion and empathy. Make sure they are connected to the customer. Serving customers provides purpose when everything around is changing. Ensure clear accountability and maintain focus on product and service excellence.
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?
Knee jerk reactions –I’ve witnessed more than once, erratic behavior and the knee jerk reaction of cutting major initiatives. After investing tremendous financial and human resources in driving a strategy, these businesses abruptly stop the plan at the first sign of trouble. The sunk investment, the derailment of people and the long-term damage to culture is immense. It’s virtually impossible for employees to take future programs seriously; skepticism grows, the organization develops barriers to future change and a tendency towards mediocrity.
Cut the workforce — At the first hint of recession or financial turmoil, the natural response can be to take out people. What follows is a period of distress, distraction, uncertainty, and a retrenchment exercise with heavy financial and productivity costs. To make matters worse, within a short time the organization tends to look strikingly like it did before, as roles reappear in a slightly different form.
Micromanaging — Certain obsessive, compulsive leaders react by trying to control everything; they restrict freedom to act, install more process checks and in doing so reduce accountability and often miss the big-ticket issues. People begin to defer decisions to top leaders and spend time covering their backs, scared to bring their creativity to solving the problem or to be accountable.
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.
- Transform you, your plan, and your team. Turbulence is a good indication that your current business model will become irrelevant. It’s not the time to bolt down the hatches and do more of the same. It may seem counterintuitive but mobilizing your team around an ambition to take your business to a new level of performance, forces your team to look outward for new possibilities. During a financial crisis my team were appointed new roles and accountabilities. They were so busy with the complexity and challenge of building the new world; they had no time to weigh on the negative stuff and their creativity was boundless.
- Signpost and intensify dialogue, formally and informally. I can’t stress enough, the need to mark progress constantly and to be in regular conversation with your employees and stakeholders. The signposting is the single most effective way of motivating the team and keeping customers engaged. Employees need to know their efforts are getting them somewhere and customers need to know that you are in control. This type of communication has served me repeatedly through business mergers and transformations.
- Show compassion. Compassion comes from the latin compati — to suffer together. Stay close to the team and tune in to moods, check their mental health. Share your own challenges in a demonstration of empathy. Take the opportunity to boost energy by providing short respite or recognizing contribution. In one turbulent situation I scheduled more regular catch-up conversations with my team. I was able to catch the distress of a team member and coach her through. I avoided the premature resignation of a key talent, and after a tricky start, she succeeded with flying colors.
- Find certainty and continuity in a changing world. Identify the core things that must continue as usual and connect people to this as a sort of lifeline. A change of business ownership meant the end of two important initiatives that my team had toiled over for months. I was able to identify a couple of strategic priorities in the new organization and show how the old programs, with adjustment, would fit with the new priorities. We shared understanding across the new business and badged the old initiatives as part of the new, with a tweak here and there. Teams were able to pick up the baton and move forward with certainty and a sense that their history and hard work had been respected.
- Be agile, not fragile. We can all be sensitive during tough times. Interactions can be emotionally charged, and our natural behavior is to close in and protect. If we can stay outward looking and hold constructive beliefs, we open ourselves up to new ways of working and new ideas. Ditch the drama, share leadership and accountability. To address one difficult business problem, I set up cross business workstreams headed by competent people. The teams took ownership, solved their own problems, and made rapid decisions, only escalating issues in cases of conflict or critical scope creep.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge — a quote by C G Jung
I recall early in my career making a judgment that seemed undisputable based on compelling evidence. It happened to be a judgement about someone’s future. Later the person appealed to me and presented new information which did not change the evidence, but it completed the picture, and changed my judgment. I was concerned to discover how, in the absence of certain facts, we can be so wrong in our analysis and so convinced of a particular course of action. Since then, I am cautious and attuned to how little information people use to make serious judgments. I have made it a habit to be more curious and evaluative rather than judging others and I believe, I’ve built a reputation for fairness, balance, and respect for people.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My website and linked in page are a great place to start. www.transform2outperform.com.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Susie Robinson of Transform2Outperform: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.