Ella Zhang of Institute of Growing Capacity On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Know Yourself intimately.
Leaders need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, biases, and triggers so that they can stay out of their way and avoid self-sabotage during difficult 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 Ella Zhang.
Ella Zhang is the author of Upgrade and the founder of The Institute of Growing Capacity (iGrow), which is established to assist businesses in creating flourishing workplaces via Brain Science & Mindful Leadership.
She is a strategic change maker, workshop facilitator and executive coach with decades of experience in Fortune 100 companies and start-ups. Her expertise includes organisational development, cultural transformation, and change management.
Ella holds a Master’s in Coaching Psychology from the University of Sydney, a Master of Commerce in Business from Macquarie University, and a Bachelor of Law from China. She writes regularly about leadership, organisational learning and development and has been a guest lecturer to EMBA students on strategic HRM and leadership topics.
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?
When I was 17, I had this vision that I was the person lighting the streetlamps for others on the dark road.
So I figured that my future vocation might be something related to helping others. So I determined to study law, then realized that I didn’t have the personality to be the lawyer I desired. Then I came to study Finance aiming to practice law in the financial industry, and then I realized I’m not a big fan of numbers, but I’m pretty intuitive with people. At one stage, when I was considering quitting my job altogether to get back to school studying psychology, I had the chance to work with a well-known career management expert and discovered that my personality suit for Organisational Learning and Development, so that’s the start of over ten years working fulltime and study part-time to build up my career in that field. And I haven’t had a day bored or regretted since then.
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?
During my first English presentation (English is my second language), nerves got the best of me, causing me to speak at lightning speed. By the end, everyone in the room had puzzled faces and commented, ‘Your pronunciation seems fine, but you spoke so fast that we couldn’t catch a single word!”
The valuable lesson I learned from that experience was to remember the purpose of speaking is to be understood rather than to impress. It taught me the importance of clear communication and adapting my pace to ensure the audience could comprehend my message, instead of showcasing my knowledge or skills. When I speak, it is not about me but the impact I try to make.
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?
There are many people I need to thank! Without mentors, I won’t be where I am today.
If I have to choose one person, it would be Paul Stevens, who had a name of ‘father of career management’ and is in his 80s now; I was blessed to have several coaching sessions with him when I was considering quitting the job and going back to study psychology; he pointed me to organisational learning and development when I struggled to find a career path that combines my innate talent, passion and calling.
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?
Institute of Growing Capacity, shorted named iGrow, is a boutique consulting firm. And we serve leaders on people side of the business.
I’m quite obsessed with People and organisational culture! One of the fundamental beliefs that I hold close to my heart when offering my services to the world is that we are everything, and everything is interconnected!
So all my work is dedicated to answering the questions about:
- Why do we do the things we do the way we do them?
- How can we improve the way we do it? and
- What can be different?
The overall purpose is to support driven business leaders to foster comprehensive growth in knowledge, wisdom, and personal fulfillment in business, so that they have the ability to take back control of the impact they want to make.
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 very first big project iGrow took on was to host the Neuroscience for Leaders Summit in Shanghai in 2017, I had zero experience in running a public event, and I had been living overseas for almost 20 years by then, but my heart told me it was the project I should do. So I took a leap of faith and did it, and we did five years of that.
Running a public event, like four days long, with over 40 international speakers flying in from all parts of the world, with over a few hundred participants, is a big take full of uncertainties and problems! At one stage, I needed to take a few deep breaths before turning on the phone or laptop.
I learned that keeping myself grounded is the only way to get us through, so my tone needs to be calm when I speak, and my decisions need to be rational and purposeful… And all these come down to: do we have clarity about why we do what we do and how we do it? I literally mantra myself and others daily on the purpose of doing this project: besides bringing together brilliant minds, creating a safe and supportive community that enables and empowers participants to tap into their highest potential and consciousness, how we make this happen in the process shall also showcase to our local partners what is the right way to do the right thing. Which is even more important than making profit.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes, I did, many times during the first one or two years, constantly questioning myself why we need to put in so much money and time and energy to do this. But there’s always this tiny voice in my heart saying: that country needs fresh voices about wholistic human development, and a conference is still one of the best ways to gather all the great minds and put the voices in the market.
What sustains my drive? The belief that I had a role to play in making the situation better kept me going.
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?
New Leadership Paradigm, by Richard Berrett.
Richard is the first person I know who mapped individual’s core values to business performance. I stalked him for several years online before he made a trip to Sydney to promote this book. I recalled the days that I was reading the book in a hotel lobby and could help but cry. It felt like someone finally understood my journey, and I was relieved that all those challenges and frustrations were put in place to prepare me to do what I meant to do.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Stay grounded when the ground is shaking!
It sets the tone for the entire team and enables us to provide the necessary guidance and support to navigate challenging times, helping the team remain focused, resilient, and capable of overcoming obstacles.
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?
To boost morale, we first need to understand what truly motivates our people. People who choose to work or collaborate with me are mainly motivated by hope, possibilities, and learning. They feel fulfilled and engaged as long as we have fun experimenting and exploring new ideas.
Inspiring, motivating, and engaging others is all about energy. When a leader exudes enthusiasm, optimism, and passion for their work, it inspires others to adopt a similar mindset and uplifts the team; When leaders display empathy, understanding, and support create a safe and inclusive space where team members feel valued and motivated to perform their best; When leaders care about the work they do and the people they lead, they made an effort to improve the work continuously and to appreciate and developing their people constantly…all leaders need to do, is to be aware of the energy we bring into the space when we interact with others.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be truthful and heartfelt.
My rule of thumb is that whenever you don’t know how to say what you need to say, you say it from the bottom of your heart.
When we connect on a deeper level, we can foster trust, convey authenticity, and create meaningful impact in our interactions with others.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
When the future is uncertain, making plans as a leader requires a flexible and adaptive approach.
For example, anchoring your planning process in the core values and purpose of the organisation and clarifying the fundamental principles and objectives that guide your decisions provides a compass for decision-making and helps ensure that your plans align with your long-term vision and mission. While simultaneously being open to change, ready to pivot when necessary, and willing to adjust plans as new information emerges. This involves breaking down your plans into smaller milestones, focusing on setting short-term goals that are achievable and aligned with the evolving circumstances so that you can adapt and recalibrate more effectively as the situation changes.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
“Know what you stand for” is my number one principle.
Understanding and upholding your core values, purpose, and principles provides a solid foundation for decision-making and navigating uncertain times. They act as a guiding principle that provides clarity, consistency, and resilience as you navigate the uncertainties of the business landscape.
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?
#1 mistake: Taking actions due to fear or panic.
They tend to take actions based on fear and panic rather than strategic planning. They make impulsive decisions that may not align with long-term goals and can actually exacerbate the challenges faced.
#2 mistake: Taking shortcuts and bending principles for quick wins
While the temptation to cut corners or compromise on principles may seem like a quick fix, it can have detrimental long-term consequences.
#3: Focusing solely on short-term gains.
They may fall into the trap of focusing solely on short-term gains or immediate cost-cutting measures. While addressing immediate challenges is important, neglecting long-term strategies and sustainable growth can be detrimental.
To avoid these mistakes, first ground yourself deeply in your values and purpose, knowing what you stand for and making your choice of actions accordingly; reach out to foster open communication channels with employees, customers, suppliers, and the community, to gather feedback, address concerns, challenge assumptions, and ensure transparency, and keep a long-term perspective in mind while addressing immediate challenges. Consider the potential consequences of short-term decisions on your reputation, relationships, and future growth. To be able to do all these, you need to build habits to train your mind and body to cultivate self-awareness and self-regulation.
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: Know Yourself intimately.
Leaders need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, biases, and triggers so that they can stay out of their way and avoid self-sabotage during difficult times.
In the book Upgrade, I shared the story of Leo, who established the business due to his hard-working and perfectionism but also paralysed his business due to his unregulated perfectionism. Upon 360 and self-reflection, Leo recognises that his perfectionism often leads to micromanagement, which stifles creativity and hampers collaboration. He also realises that his need for control creates a bottleneck for decision-making, slowing the organisation’s responsiveness to market changes. Through coaching sessions, Leo becomes aware of his perfectionistic tendencies, his biases in favour of certain ideas, and his triggers when facing uncertainty or criticism. Only then can he address his areas of improvement that allow him to lead the company through difficult times with greater resilience and effectiveness.
#2: Upgrade your mindset.
A growth and abundant mindset are essential for leaders to embrace challenges, learn from failures, and adapt to new situations.
Another story shared in the book Upgrade is Bella’s, who experienced significant ups and downs in business due to her fixed and scarcity mind; she made decisions driven by fear and a need to hoard resources. She avoids investing in employee development or offering competitive compensation, fearing it will deplete the company’s financial resources. She sees other businesses in the industry solely as competitors. She believes that for her company to succeed, others must fail. She tends to recruit people who worshipped her, and are resistant to feedback, and sees it as personal criticism rather than an opportunity for improvement. Not surprised, after operating in such a way for a few years, her business experienced a huge shake-up when the market changed.
Only by realising the detrimental effects of her mindset, Bella had a moment of epiphany and realise the limits she put on herself; by moving into a growth and abundant mindset, she can open doors to personal and professional development, foster collaboration, and benefit from a more positive and expansive approach to leadership and decision-making.
#3, Nurture yourself shamelessly!
Leaders who prioritise mental and emotional well-being and engage in activities that help them relax, recharge, and maintain a positive mindset. Leaders who practice mindfulness, exercise, pursue hobbies, spend time with loved ones, or seek professional support can better manage stress, make sound decisions, and lead with clarity and resilience.
However, many driven professionals, including myself in my 20s and 30s, when work gets busy, what do we do to care for ourselves? We eat irregularly, eat in front of our computers, and eat a lot of convenient but unhealthy food. We open a bottle in the middle of the night to relax, we binge-watch TV or play computer games day and night while not working, we tend to push ourselves to the limit and only stop working when our physical body cannot function anymore… The ‘relaxation’ we had actually got us to the other side of high performing.
I learnt the hardest way that being a leader starts from leading self, which first involves taking intentional and proactive steps to prioritise self-care, personal growth, and well-being, recognising and addressing one’s physical, mental, and emotional needs to ensure that we can perform at our best.
#4, Communicate transparently and frequently.
The leader’s job is to keep the team informed about the situation, the challenges faced, and the actions being taken.
However, when things get tough, when there are millions of problems waiting to be solved, we tend to focus on solving the problems and making fast decisions instead of involving others in the process; the first thing we cut off in terms of saving energy is to minimise the communications. I used to have people saying that when Ella is busy, she speaks with her eyes, not her mouth. Speaking with eyes is never the most effective communication method, and I spend more time correcting the understanding. So, I learned to hold town hall meetings more regularly, to provide transparent updates and any adjustments being made and encourage others to ask questions, And most importantly, to share my own vulnerabilities and uncertainties; sometimes, I truly don’t know what the best choice could be, but we have to figure it out along the way and correct the mistakes we made.
Remember that we rarely over-communicate, so feel free to continue to share until your people hear enough and stop you.
#5, Celebrating achievements.
Leaders who take the time to appreciate successes, both big and small, reinforce a positive mindset, boosts motivation, and fosters a sense of accomplishment.
Many driven and ambitious business leaders I met tended to dismiss accomplishments as mere stepping stones to the next target. A recent case is about Mark, who runs a professional service firm with ten associates; the team successfully launched a new marketing campaign that exceeded expectations, significantly increasing customer engagement and sales. But instead of acknowledging their achievement, Mark quickly shifted the team’s focus to the next project, failing to recognise their hard work and dedication to the campaign. Over time, the team’s motivation started to wane. They began to feel unappreciated and undervalued, “we will never be good enough for him”, they think.
By knowing that we create our own reality, Mark decided to shift his leadership approach. He started by taking the time to acknowledge and celebrate even the small wins within the team. He began publicly recognising individual team members for their outstanding contributions and publicly praising the team’s achievements during team meetings and company-wide gatherings. He also implemented a regular feedback and recognition system where team members could acknowledge each other’s efforts and achievements. This encouraged a culture of support, collaboration, and appreciation within the team.
Through this, Mark realised that celebrating wins boosts team morale and motivation and creates a positive work environment that encourages continuous improvement and fosters a sense of belonging and pride.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Only the best things will ever happen to you!”
Many things happen to us, both good and bad. For survival purposes, we tend to focus on and remember the ‘badness’ four times more than the ‘goodness’. Focusing on the bad might prevent us from getting hurt next time by being extra alert and vigilant, but would it help us to handle the ‘badness’ better?
Avoiding is rarely the path for growth. Avoiding will never eliminate the ‘bad’ things that happen to us. However, if we can turn the ‘bad’ thing into a ‘good’ thing, wouldn’t we grow some mental muscles in the process?
Most breakthrough moments look just like a breakdown. And this belief changes my perception of and the relationship with difficulties and adversity; it shifts our focus from ruminating on what didn’t go as well as expected and helps us to discover the benefits of this ‘bad’ experience.
There is no failure in life. We either win something or learn something.
Speaking for myself, I could sit on my ass and blame the dark side of the legal industry killed my first dream job; I could feel misfortunate or sorry for myself that after spending forty thousand hard-earned dollars into studying finance, I couldn’t find joy in working with numbers…
During those moments of shifting my focus and refusing to dwell on the challenges and setbacks, I found the strength to explore new possibilities and pursue my second dream job. Instead of succumbing to self-pity or blaming external circumstances, I chose to take control of my own narrative and discover what truly sparked joy within me.
I remembered the days that I put the ‘problems’ on this imagined coffee table in my mind, kept looking at it from various anchors while chanting to myself that ‘only the best thing will ever happen to you, but what the hell is it?’, sometimes it took weeks or months, even years until I had that aha moment, but these days, it may just take me less than a second to discover the ‘best things hidden in difficulties’.
Looking back, I am grateful for those moments of shifting my focus and refusing to be defined by setbacks or perceived limitations. Through those challenging times, I discovered my true purpose and set myself on a fulfilling path.
How can our readers further follow your work?
People can connect with me on LinkedIn here, or subscript to my bi-weekly newsletter here, if they like, they can also get a copy of my book Upgrade, many tips and stories I shared here, can be found in the book, and I also put my contact details there.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Ella Zhang of Institute of Growing Capacity On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.