Jennifer Bryan of ABChange Consultancy On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Visualise — once you have all the above information, you need to create a clear vision that people can see and understand — decide what is it you are ultimately trying to achieve and why are you trying to achieve and why now and how does this align with the overall organisational vision. These are the first questions anyone will ask, so you need to be clear. Also this needs to be in plain language, not what I call, ‘management speak of effectiveness and efficiencies’. No one really cares about those so you need to know the answer to “so what — what does this really mean and why should person A care about it?”
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 Jennifer Bryan.
Jennifer Bryan is a published author, TEDx and global speaker and Managing Director of Change and Leadership, who has worked with over 40 different organisations across multiple industries, such as Microsoft, Fujitsu and Technicolor Creative Studios. She is also Vice President of the Association of Change Management Professionals UK. She has a passion for putting people at the heart of the decision making room. She has developed a holistic approach to change and created a unique leading change framework, the ABChange Model and uses her commercial insight to help lead people in change.
Jennifer is author of Leading People in Change — A practical guide (Feb 2021), contributing chapter author in Managing Change During Unprecedented Times (May 2023), regular writer of industry journal articles in Workplace Insight Magazine and AshleyKate HR News, peer reviewed articles Successfully Managing Change in the Workplace in Corporate Real Estate Journal vol. 8.1 (Oct 2018), Journey of Leadership in the Workplace in iCroner (Sept 2014) and Lead Behaviour in Coaching at Work (Jul 2012).
Jennifer has been interviewed by multiple industry podcasts and presented at TEDx Scunthorpe, Women in Technology Global Conference, University of Reading Henley Business School of Management Conference and Alumni masterclasses, Association of Change Management Professionals (Global and UK), and Loughborough University, to name a few.
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 use to be a professional dancer, mostly ballet, and actor and I moved to London to study. In the process I met my husband, but once I finished my studies, I realised I wanted to do something else, but I had no idea what that was. So I temped for a while and got very lucky and one of my boss’ asked me to design a presentation skills course. I had never designed a course before in my life, especially in business, but I did my research and quickly discovered a gap between what the organisation needed and the people skills. I then delivered my first session and came home and told my husband, “I know what I want to do with my life.” That is when learning and development career started but I soon realised that learning and change were inter-connected and I developed a philosophy that there is no learning without change and no change without learning.
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?
Early on in my career, I was working on a European funded project to help businesses in disadvantaged areas. I was told and taught by my managers to effectively open up the white pages to find businesses in the area that we could help. I really struggled with the cold calling and did not have much success. So, one day I decided to go for a walk along the high street in the area and observe the people and businesses. I noticed this one place that did not have a name on it but had a very long queue of women. I got curious and decided to go in and see what this was all about and it was an organisation that helped women who did not speak English well, or at all, understand and figure out official letters and help those in not good environments. I then approached the MD and asked if they could do with some help, which she gratefully received and passed my name onto several other similar organisations.
I learned I am very good at observing people and situations that gives new insights that many others walk right past. Using that approach is a bit of my ‘super power’ and I did not know that before. Now I use this ‘super power’ whenever I work with a client, which people value greatly.
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?
Oh my gosh, there are so many people that have helped me along the way. But it would be remiss of me to not talk about that boss that gave me the first opportunity to do something I have never done before. I was just his PA at the time and he was Director of Systems Integration of a Telecomms company. His team, at the time, were very good technically, but they were losing a lot of contracts to a competitor because the people struggled to communicate with the clients. He knew of my theatrical background and that is why he asked me to design a presentation skills course, even though the company already had a standard one for employees. I used my skills to create a ‘public speaking’ course and it went down really well — they started to win more contracts and the clients were really happy. Even when I left the company, he continued to be a major support for me in my career and we stayed in touch until he died of pancreatic cancer in 2013.
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 purpose was to help people in leading change — so many find it bewildering and daunting. I wanted to be able to help them practically, so they feel confident and capable. The vision is to put people at the heart of decision making, especially in change.
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 was working as a civil servant, when the coalition government came into power. With that action, there was major restructure across Government and my team were a consequence of a re-organisation. We did not know what all this would mean, so I met up with my team and was very honest with them on what was happening and what the possible scenarios were and I met up with them after the team meeting, on a 1:1 basis to discuss their individual futures. I asked all open questions with the first one being, “If the world was your oyster, what would you want to be doing in 1 years time?” With that answer, we created a plan to try and get that in place with different timescales, as we did not really know when or what things were going to happen. This worked really well, and together we managed everyone to be happy in the place they wanted to be, including myself, as this was when I started my own company.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Oh yeah — whenever the economy takes a down turn, there is always a knock on affect on consultancy, whether you are one of the big 4 or independent. This makes it hard, when your family are relying on you keeping a level of income to pay the bills, etc.
I am quite an optimist but also a realist, so I always are looking for different ways to ‘slice the pie’ so I can keep things going. I also must admit, my husband is my biggest cheerleader and when I am really down, he is brilliant at bringing me back up. What really keeps me going is that I know so many people continue to struggle with change and I know I can help them and help their teams because I have done it so many times before and really enjoy doing it now and for the future.
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?
There are lots of books — I am a avid reader and read a lot of leadership and biographical books. I think the most recent one that had the biggest impact on me lately though is Pat Mitchell’s “A Dangerous Woman.” I found this book to be not just inspirational but empowering. I would read chunks of it and need to pause to reflect on my self and my work and it gave me the courage to stop hiding behind a veil, as beforehand, I did not really shout out about my successes or challenges — I was very guarded with what I shared professionally, especially on social media. But now, after reading that book, I realise I have so much more to offer and so I have removed the veil and share more of myself than I ever have before.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To breath and listen to what you are hearing but also to what you are not hearing and watch how people are managing themselves and life. Being a good observer and listener is paramount because it is only through those two actions you will find out how best to communicate, lead, coach, help your people during challenging times.
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?
There are typically two ‘go to’ responses to uncertainty for leaders — either they knuckle down and tell their people to knuckle down and focus entirely on what needs to just get done to keep going, or they immediately look at making a cut/change without actually knowing if that is going to help or hinder.
So the best thing a leader can do is to observe and listen (as stated above) and then ask the people what they need or think would really help them do what they need to do. From there, you review the organisations vision, assess the external and internal influencing factors and decide if a shift needs to happen. But then you need to think, what with your staff think of this shift and based on the conversations you have had with them, you will know if this will help or hinder the organisation and the people in it.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With openness and honesty. You need to understand the situation from their perspective and then share with them what is going on, why that is the case and what you hope to be able to do about it, preferably with their help, if at all possible.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future has always been and always will be unpredictable — none of us have a crystal ball. The key is to know, from a big picture perspective, what it is you want — really want and know how that will help. From there, you understand the external and internal influencing factors on the world, you and the organisation and create high level long, medium and short term plans. This gives you the flexibility to then adapt as things happen. It always enables you to make good effective decisions that will make you future ready, because you will be able to ask yourself and the organisation, when you come to a crossroad, which you will do, will this take us closer to or further away from what we want. Based on those answers you will then be able to decide what is the best course of action.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Change is about people not rocket science. Now that is a bit of a double edge sword because it is not to say that change is simple — it is just that sometimes we make it more complicated than it needs to be. It is also not to say that people are simple because A+B does not = C, like it does in rocket science. But people will be there and so we need to stop and ask them and listen to the full answers they give us so that together you can whether the storms.
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?
- Many businesses make changes without knowing how it will affect their people and hence their business — they see a new gizmo or a competitor do something and feel they have to follow it.
- They plan for the change completely and only when they realise they need to communicate something to the staff, do they then think to bring a change person on board or talk about the people side of change. Many times this is way too late because contractual deadlines are set so they need to be met, but the people are not on board and so there will be typically a great deal of resistance, time and resources spent to meet those deadlines regardless of the impact. This leads to a loss of talent, good faith and productivity.
To avoid both of these costly mistakes, need to do a thorough analysis of the situation and change impacts, which includes knowing the voice of the people about the potential change before going to the Board for approval.
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.
- Breath — it sounds obvious but what I mean is to take a breath before acting. This gives us the ability to pause and think and reflect which enables us to respond to people and situations in a much better way that simply reacting.
- Observe and listen — watch what is going on around the organisation — what are people doing/not doing, saying/not saying and potentially why — think about what could be driving those actions and words. This can give you new insights you would have otherwise missed. When I was co-facilitating a leadership programme, there was an game that the participants were doing. The team I was observing started the game quite casually, but when they got to the first testing point and found out their had lost out to the other team, their competitive drive kicked in and they raced ahead. The insight I shared with them is it took an external impetus to drive them forward — it was not internal, which was good for them to know about themselves, as leaders.
- Analyse — need to analyse the external (political, technological, economical, etc) and internal (processes, systems, politics, structures, etc) then review this in line with how it will impact people and hence the business. You also need to analyse your stakeholders — who will be potential champions, blockers, malverns, along with what and where you need them to be, i.e. will they need to do things, be informed only, give resources, etc.
- Visualise — once you have all the above information, you need to create a clear vision that people can see and understand — decide what is it you are ultimately trying to achieve and why are you trying to achieve and why now and how does this align with the overall organisational vision. These are the first questions anyone will ask, so you need to be clear. Also this needs to be in plain language, not what I call, ‘management speak of effectiveness and efficiencies’. No one really cares about those so you need to know the answer to “so what — what does this really mean and why should person A care about it?”
When I was working for an infrastructure company, I was brought on board when a programme had been already up and running for 9 months. But the senior leaders were frustrated that people were not using the new systems or doing the new behaviours. After sitting in a room learning what they had done and what had gone well, not so well, and what is to come for two days, I asked the “so what” question. Although this all sounds good, I asked “What does this mean to Maria (an avatar) in Brazil? Why should she care about any of this?” It was then they realised they had not communicated this to anyone and that was why people were not adopting the new systems, processes, behaviours — affectively doing the change. Once we defined the so what and started to communicate it and take people on a journey of discovery, they all came on board and the programme turned into a success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There are no mistakes in life, only lessons.” I have used this throughout my life, with my clients and with my children. It think it is important to learn from what we do, whether it has gone well or not, so we can make sure that when we are faced with a similar situation in the future, we are able to act in the best way possible — that is going to help us and/or others.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can also find me on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jenniferbryan_changeleader/ and X: https://twitter.com/jlbryan01
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Jennifer Bryan of ABChange Consultancy 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.