Tina Kuhn of The Lanzar Group On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Motivate and Inspire — A passionate leader will promote excitement throughout the team. Think about whom you want to work for: A boss who is energetic, believes in the organization, and is optimistic about the future? Or a boss who is pessimistic and complains? Positive — and, unfortunately, negative — energy from a leader permeates throughout the organization. A wave of positive energy pulls people together, makes them believe in their mission, increases productivity, and saves money and time. Negative energy from a leader creates more negative energy. The team spends time complaining, whining, and not focusing on the success. Such teams typically end up over budget and past deadlines.
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 Tina Kuhn.
Tina Kuhn is an accomplished CEO with demonstrated success spanning cybersecurity, defense, intelligence, commercial, international, and US government industries.
Ms. Kuhn has extensive experience in organizational transformations, growth strategies and implementation, M&A due diligence and integration, financial improvements, process and risk management, operations management, business development, and proposal development.
Ms. Kuhn is a published book author: The E Suite: Empathetic Leadership for the Next Generation of Executives and The Manager’s Communication Tool Kit: Tools and Techniques for Leading Difficult Personalities.
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 started out as a software developer, but gravitated into team leadership, then to program management, and ultimately to executive leadership. However, my path was not straight and quite frankly, there were times where I didn’t know what I wanted in a career. One thing I always did was work hard and continue to learn in whatever situation I was in. I believe the varied roles gave me a much broader view of how businesses work and empathy for people in different positions.
For example, I spent a few years “smoke jumping” into organizations or projects in trouble to manage some type of transformation. One of these was leading a process/quality assurance team which was absolutely not something I wanted to do. I led the team through a big transition and stayed there for over a year. While at first this seemed like a dead-end position for me, I actually had to learn about all the different departments in order to create change and improvement. This gave me knowledge about the entire company and the things I learned have been of great use to me in executive leadership.
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?
At a time when I was a software developer, I was working at a client site. A few days before Christmas, they had a large day-time party. My employer would not pay me to attend the party (I had to take a vacation day). I was working in a lab with lots of equipment and at 9:00am they started rolling in kegs of beer and platters of food into the lab. By 10:00am the lab was full of people having fun. I kept working in my little corner and every 30 minutes or so I tried to move equipment and computers away from the beer and food. Things got spilt, and I was running around cleaning and getting strange looks from everyone. Finally, at 1:00pm when the lab was full and the music turned up loud, I just gave up and decided I would have to take some of my vacation time for the rest of the day. As I was leaving, some of the clients started chit chatting to me and long story short, I ended up staying until 8:00pm and had a blast. The relationships I built at that party turned out to be critically important to me in the near future. I realized relationships and building trust is just as important as doing an excellent job.
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 worked under one manager for over 14 years. He mentored me in management, leadership, and business operations so I learned how to run a business. For example, one time he asked me to write part of a new business proposal. I worked really hard on the writeup and sent it to him. It would have been much, much easier for him to clean up the text and use it but instead he took the time to red-line the document with detailed comments on how I could make my sentences stronger and to sell our capabilities. To be honest, when I got the document back with all the red-lines and comments I was crushed (I actually thought I did a good job). I almost went to him and told him I couldn’t do it, but I took a long walk around the building and then sat down and painfully updated the document working far into the night. I went on to write hundreds of proposals. Writing is a valuable skill I used in every position I have had. I am forever grateful he took the time to mentor me and helped me to learn and grow.
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 have just started a new company but I would like to talk about visions and goals. Every company needs a vision and prioritized goals, AND every employee needs to know how they fit into the goals. Employees make hundreds of micro-decisions every day and those decisions make up the culture and goals of the company. Without knowing the top priority, how can employees make the best decisions?
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?
Oh gosh, uncertainty is a given when you are in any type of leadership position. There was one time that stands out in my mind as very uncertain. The uncertainty was created through both external customer changes and internal negligence. I took over a company with 75% of the revenue dependent on one large contract. The contract was being broken apart by the client into three different contracts and recompeted. The client stated that there would be three different winners, so it was a given that a large part of the business revenue would go away as soon as the contracts were awarded. The company had virtually no pipeline of new business and some leadership members were very complacent. I developed a three-month detailed plan, a six-month plan that had less details, and one-year plan that was a set of goals. As I implemented the three-month plan, I was able to put in more details and flesh out the 6-month plan, and then subsequently into the one-year plan. My three-month and six-month plan had leadership changes, rapid business development, and significant process improvement. I learned who could help the company become a fast pace, and growing company. Every six months or so, the leadership team and I would set up a detailed plan to meet the goals. The bottom line to me is to have clear and attainable short-term goals, allow the team to have success by meeting the goals, and be flexible and adaptable as the company or organization evolves.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Of course, leadership is hard! Decisions are hard! The trick for me, is that if things go wrong or a decision turned out to not be as I expected, I simply admit to my mistake and adjust the decision as necessary. I have learned that the minute I let my ego run my decisions, or I don’t listen to others, or I hold onto a path too long because I want to be right, my decisions have been poor and I did not lead effectively.
I think it is empowering to admit to my team I made a mistake and work together to make a different decision. I have always put people around me that challenge me. Listening to contrary views and pulling back to the big picture and getting my ego out of the way has consistently helped me make better decisions.
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?
One book that impacted me significantly was by William Bridges titled Managing Transitions. His book gave me a framework for managing the human side of transitions. I believe the ability to lead during a transition is a critical leadership skill.
Transformation causes fear: fear of losing job security, fear of the unknown, fear of not fitting into the new structure, fear of a reduced status, fear of financial loss, fear of failure, fear of identity loss, and fear of learning a new skill, just to name a few. Fear causes bad behavior in people by triggering defense mechanisms and self-preservation mode.
Let me give you an example when I did not take into account other’s fear of change. I was supporting a merger of two companies and one manager was very difficult to work with. Her organization required a transformation, and she was resisting the changes. My boss asked me to do an assessment of her organization. I did an honest, and looking back at it, a brutal assessment of her and her organization. She got very angry and went to HR saying I was on a witch-hunt and out to get her. Then she really dug in and resisted even the smallest change. The transition did not go well.
What I failed to do was to consider the emotions and fear that this transition held for her. I would have gotten much, much better results if I listened to her point of view and worked with her instead of blaming her.
Once I recognized how difficult transitions were, I changed my approach significantly and always make a point to talk to and listen to people affected by the change, and to address the concerns.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Let me answer this with the leadership traits I believe are most important during challenging times: Empathy, Decisiveness, Transparency through Communication, and Clear Goals for focused decisions.
Empathy is looking at the big picture, and to listen to others to understand their point of view. This is critical to make sure the decisions are not made in a vacuum.
The ability to make rapid decisions is important during challenging times. I don’t dwell on what went wrong but on the best next steps based on the current situation. The worst is to have a boss that won’t make a decision. It grinds the whole organization to a standstill and is frustrating for everyone.
Communicate often and honestly. During a transition or any change, people typically fill in gaps of their knowledge with the worse that can happen. Rumors start, gossip runs amuck, and people begin to be fearful. Even if you don’t know all the answers, communicate what you do know.
I mentioned above the critical nature of having clear goals. Every person in the organization needs to know the goals and how their job or role fits into the goals. The goals need to be specific. Goals like: excellent customer services is the number priority; meeting the product release schedule is the most important; the capability of the product is the most critical; etc… There can only be one number 1 priority. It is demoralizing for a team to have all the priorities as number 1. Everything as a number 1 priority is just like not having any goals. How can they decide how to tradeoff between them?
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?
I would like to talk about trust here. When employees do not feel their boss is trustworthy, they will be less engaged, feel less loyalty, and not put in the discretionary effort. During any challenging or uncertain time, trust is typically pushed to the limit.
To build trust, lead with honesty, integrity, and transparency. Be an example of the behavior you want from your employees. Pretending you have the answers when you don’t, erodes trust. Not communicating, erodes trust. Treating different people differently and having favorites, erodes trust. Saying you will do something, and you don’t, erodes trust. Not being responsive to employees, erodes trust. There have been several studies documenting a boss’s delayed response to emails is the top reason employees don’t trust their boss. Why? It shows employees they are not important.
What builds trust? Speaking truthfully, providing access to information, following through on commitments, and being respectful.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I have found the best way to deliver bad news is to do it quickly, clearly, honestly but empathetically. If possible, communicating the plan forward is always good. However, if you don’t have a plan yet, it is better to just admit you don’t have a plan but will be working hard to provide a way forward. People know when you are making stuff up or not being honest.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader must make plans and set goals in any environment, otherwise everyone will work in different directions, and it will be chaotic. That said, it is also imperative to be flexible and adaptable and to be able to quickly adjust. The pace of business change is faster and faster every day. Being able to make decisions and plans and then re-make the decisions and plans as new information or industry changes occur is imperative for a good leader. It doesn’t mean your previous decision was wrong, it means you have new information.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
To be flexible and adaptable and allow rapid but controlled change. There are lots and lots of stories of companies that failed because they got stuck in their plan and failed to change. Let’s take Sears and Amazon. Sears, Roebuck, Co was America’s leading retailer for much of the twentieth century with a robust catalog/mail-order business. They were experienced in remote distribution and fulfillment strategies decades before any other company. Sears squandered its lead in retailing through poor management with a lack of strategic vision. Amazon, on the other hand, started out as a book seller and now has become one of the largest on-line retailers in the world. Amazon continuously and quickly adapted to new technology, new products, and new innovations.
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?
First, I see leaders get stuck and just not make decisions. During difficult times, typically the decisions are very hard and complex, so I get it, but the inability to create a new path, causes the organization to grind to a halt and everyone gets disgruntled.
Second, managers tend to under communicate during difficult times. They want to look strong in front of their employees and don’t want to communicate bad news. However, employees know when things are difficult and when there is no communication from the top, people’s imagination run wild, and they fill in the gaps with bad stuff.
Finally, lacking empathy harms employees and the organization. People want to know their leadership cares about them and will listen to them. Listening and genuinely responding to employees concerns and ideas builds trust and that trust will help hold the team together during the uncertain time.
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 and look at your fear and anger.
There is nothing like uncertainty and turbulence to push your buttons. The places where you have fear will come up and be exposed.
If you think you don’t have any fear, look at the places where you have anger. Anger is the emotional energy generated to fight against a perceived threat. Anger happens because of some fear. Let’s look at some of the common reasons a leader may become angry: fear of failure i.e. another person’s performance will reflect negatively on their performance; fear of loss of status; fear of not being respected; fear of being judged negatively; fear of letting go of what is known or comfortable; fear of being treated unfairly; and fear of not being good enough to succeed.
When angry, step back and take the time to think about the reasons for the anger. To start learning about yourself, pay attention to how you react throughout your day. Ask yourself these questions:
- Why do certain people trigger reactions in me?
- Do I dismiss individual’s opinions without really taking into consideration their viewpoint?
- When do I feel angry? What fear is the root cause of the anger?
- How did my actions contribute to my anger?
2 . Establish a clear vision and direction and empower your team
What does an environment of trust gain you? Trust encourages teams to work together to solve problems. When a team has a culture of trust, both from management toward the team and vice versa, there will be more disclosure of information, more acceptance of others’ ideas, and a more comfortable, relaxed, and creative atmosphere.
In an environment of trust, ideas are encouraged and fostered. Work becomes exciting because people feel like they are part of the solution. Trust is an amazing team-building tool. An environment of trust starts with the manager. If the team or customer senses hidden agendas, withholding of information, or lies, they will hold back in turn. Trust is a self-reinforcing process.
How do you create a trusting environment? Share information so that people are not forced to make assumptions and be honest in your communication. It’s that simple.
3 . Listen and Respect Others.
As leaders, it is important to understand the viewpoints of others to make sure your decisions are not in a vacuum. Just remember, working to understand another person’s point of view doesn’t mean you agree with them. It allows you to shape your decision and communication around how others are seeing the issues.
You also need to be able to explain your point of view without anger or hostility. Getting angry only puts up barriers with the other person. Staying neutral and keeping negative emotions out of the conversation is the best way to understand other’s opinions while diffusing any anger they have.
4 . Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Let’s face it, we all hate being kept in the dark, and rumors and gossip run rampant when employees don’t have all the information. The most effective leaders communicate early, often, and honestly.
I was part of two companies that were merging. One company’s leader communicated frequently to his team both good and bad news. The leader created a collaborative, trusting environment where employees worked very hard to meet the goals of the company. The second company put out extremely controlled communication that only showed the company in a good light. The leadership used information as power and the employee’s mistrusted the leadership. You can guess which company grew rapidly and had the most loyal employees.
5 . Motivate and Inspire
A passionate leader will promote excitement throughout the team. Think about whom you want to work for: A boss who is energetic, believes in the organization, and is optimistic about the future? Or a boss who is pessimistic and complains? Positive — and, unfortunately, negative — energy from a leader permeates throughout the organization. A wave of positive energy pulls people together, makes them believe in their mission, increases productivity, and saves money and time. Negative energy from a leader creates more negative energy. The team spends time complaining, whining, and not focusing on the success. Such teams typically end up over budget and past deadlines.
A team with great passion and commitment, but inferior resources and equipment, will almost always outperform a team with a ho-hum attitude, even if the latter team is more skilled and has state-of-the-art equipment and resources. As a leader, it’s up to you to exhibit a sense of excitement and anticipation about what you are doing. This attitude is contagious — and that’s a good thing.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein: “The only mistake in life is the lesson not learned.”
I have made mistakes, everyone does. The important thing is to pick yourself up, learn from the mistake, and then move forward. Getting stuck in the past or not learning the lesson means you will repeat it over and over.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Tina Kuhn of The Lanzar Group On 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.