How to Lead in Times of Crisis, With Meridith Elliott Powell: Epi. 68

Episode 68

Leadership expert Meridith Elliott Powell talks to Greg and Valentina about how to lead in times of crisis, turn threats into opportunities, and prioritize employee engagement.

Episode 68

Episode Summary

Creating a labor pipeline.

According to Meridith, you need to start thinking about your employees as you do for your customers, meaning you should have a pipeline of people you want to work with and create a plan to hire them. Hiring good employees is a proactive strategy to achieve great customer experiences, followed by a focus on re-engaging and re-winning the good employees you already have. 

Prioritizing employee engagement.

To be able to have a high employee satisfaction rate, businesses need to prioritize their engagement and commitment to their employees. In today's market, there are 3 main things that most workers require to feel fulfilled with what they do:

  • a sense of purpose - as people want to do work that matters, and be part of something bigger than themselves;
  • ownership - because people want 'skin in the game', responsibilities, and opportunities to share their opinions;
  • performance - as they want to develop and grow their skillset and abilities.

Advice for leaders.

What's up to leaders to do, is to prioritize employee engagement, by valuing them and taking care of their development and needs. Many times leaders think their job is to actually do the job, while it is instead to develop the people around them so they are able to do the job in the best possible way. 

Lastly, leaders need to make employees feel comfortable and create a positive environment in which they can thrive while feeling supported in times of difficulties. 

This article summarises podcast episode 68 ”How to Lead in Times of Crisis" recorded by CX Insider. For more information, listen to the episode, or contact Meridith on her LinkedIn profile.

Written by Alessia Trabucco



Full episode transcript

Meridith: One of the things I think that is interesting about employee engagement is the statistics on it globally are so bad. Employees do not feel like they work at companies that care about them, where they see there's a future. And in and in a marketplace like that as a leader, you just make it your focus to get incrementally better. You are going to win this war on talent. And if you win the war on talent, talent is going to take care of everything else. Good employees will not only create an amazing team, but they will also drive cash flow and they will incrementally improve the customer experience. They will do everything you need them to do to grow your business and protect you in an uncertain environment.

Valentina: Hello, everybody, and welcome to another episode of CX Insider. Today Greg and I talked to Meridith Elliott Powell, a leadership expert who advises businesses on how to thrive in times of uncertainty. The next several minutes will cover your Daily Dose of thought, leadership, content, motivation, and inspiration on how to overcome the most burning challenges all businesses are facing at the moment. So enjoy the episode and don't forget to let us know your thoughts on our social media channels. Meridith is a sales strategist, leadership expert, certified speaking, professional, and award-winning author. We invited her to the podcast to tell us until you. Her thoughts on the current disruptive environment most people would describe as rather unpleasant. Last year, she published a book called 'Thrive Strategies to Turn Uncertainty to Competitive Advantage'. So, let's get into it. But first, we wanted to hear Meridith's personal story that shaped who she is today.

Meridith: I always thought that my career was sort of different or didn't really make a lot of sense. I started out in public relations and marketing, then I moved into healthcare and then I moved into the financial services industry. And I never really thought that that progression made much sense until one day I was actually doing a podcast interview and somebody had asked me about my career and I noticed that while it didn't look on the surface like those businesses had much in common, the truth was I went to work in each one when they were going through massive disruption. I got into the public relations and marketing and the travel and tourism field when a hurricane completely wiped the community out. I got into health care in the United States when we were going through managed care and a lot of government cutbacks to our system. And I got into financial services here in the US when we were going through a lot of regulation. And what I realized was my area of expertise is disruption, change, and uncertainty. And while most people don't like that, that's what I like. I like to help people take very challenging situations and find the opportunity in those. And I just decided when I figured that out, that I would be much more valuable to an organization and to people outside of a company working with them rather than working for them. So that's the path that really led me to create my own business of speaking and writing and coaching and consulting.

Valentina: As if 2020 and 2021 weren't bad enough. 2022 doesn't seem to be any better. The pandemic is over, and now we're facing inflation, high energy prices, labor shortages, and war. But to put things into a perspective, there's also an article on Google saying, hey, by the way, the year 536 was way worse. In fact, it was the worst year to be alive, and I have no doubt that it was. In fact, right now we're living the best times in our society, but there are still a lot of issues that we need to solve. And therefore, Meredith started by explaining the very first step leaders need to do.

Meridith: Yeah. You know, it's interesting, isn't it? I mean, the disruption, just when we think it can't get any more uncertain, it gets more uncertain. I think of the times that we're in right now and it makes COVID look like a small disruption compared to what we're experiencing. The biggest thing that I think leaders need to be doing right now is to stop looking at it as an obstacle and start to look at it as an opportunity. Start with your mindset. If you look back through history and you should look back on history, companies, leaders, organizations, and people have always thrived through times of uncertainty. Not many of them have. But about a segment of our global population has always done well. And you need to begin with that mindset to believe that there's an opportunity right now. Because if you serve customers and if you're listening to this podcast, you do serve customers. Your customers need you more than they have ever needed you right now to help them decide what they're going to do to stay in business and remain successful. So I would say my one piece of advice, I have a lot more coming behind that. But if I were going to start anywhere, I would start with the mindset and start to believe that this isn't a time to pull back. This is a time to embrace and go forward.

Valentina: So, moving to one of the most critical challenges right now, apparently labor shortages are the number one concern of CEOs in the U.S. Millions of people have their jobs voluntarily. It seems that during the pandemic, people re-evaluated their priorities and are not willing to accept the same working conditions they did prior to the pandemic. So, it's definitely more difficult for companies to hire people and improve employee loyalty.

Meridith: I don't care if you're certain it is more severe here in the US, but I don't care where you are in Europe, where you are in the world. It doesn't. This isn't about getting employees and people to work. This is about getting really great employees and people who are as passionate about your organization as you are. So you have to start to think about labor like you think about customers. This isn't something that when we need to fill an opening or fill a job, we go out and we hire somebody. You need to be thinking about this proactively. I think that you should carry a labor pipeline, a pipeline full of employees that you would like to come to work for your company. Because anybody who's really good has a job and they're working somewhere else and you're going to need to recruit them. The other thing you need to do is stop focusing so much on finding new employees but focus on completely re-engaging and rehiring and winning the employees that you have. Focus on those retention matters. The reason we have an issue here in the US, I mean it's complicated certainly exactly what you said people retired we've ah birth-rate is down. We haven't had as many immigrants to come in and fill the positions.

It's complicated. However, you know 4.5 million people left their jobs in November of last year. They left their jobs looking for something. So focus on creating a culture where employees are happy, where employees feel that they're a part of your organization, and where they feel like they can help you grow. So I think that as leaders, we need to start seeing employees for the value that they are and treat them like we treat customers. If you do that, certainly the labor shortages are going to continue, but they'll be your competitors' problem, not your problem. And I would say to anybody listening to this podcast who is not in the US, learn from us. We've made the mistakes here, and wound up in a labor shortage, but don't think that you're immune from it and never think that just because somebody is working for you, they're engaged. You need people on your team committed and excited. Margins are so skinny in today's marketplace, that it's hard to make a living. So you've got to make sure that every piece of your business is running right and labor is your biggest expense. Create the right culture re-win those employees that you have and work to attract new customers, I mean new employees, but do it proactively

Valentina: The issues that have been mentioned in this episode. The inflation and war have affected all of us. Your managers, your team members for managers is a sensitive topic of conversation to have with their employees. Also, it's very personal and there's not really a simple way to address these issues.

Meridith: First of all, leaders need to have the sensitivity and the understanding that when your employees come to work, even if they just come, virtually very few of us come through the door anymore. But I'm coming to work with so many issues already on my back. I could have relatives in Ukraine, I could have a spouse or a significant other who's been laid off, I could have someone in my family who's sick. So the equality that leaders have to have is empathy. And you can have empathy without crossing that line and going too far. So I think we begin, you know, if you have an employee who has always been a stellar employee, but they start showing up late to work or they're quite not delivering the work that they've delivered in the past rather than going straight to anger, begin with understanding, knowing your employees. And the other piece, Greg, that I think is important is that I can say to you, 'you know, I notice that you really haven't been yourself first lately, if you want to talk, I'm here. I'm open to listening. If not, just know that I understand.'

And so you have to begin with empathy and letting employees know that they are cared about. They have a place to come and share if they want to come and share. But at the same time, not to go too far to pry into something. That's also something that you can say in a group setting. I often say to leaders that I coach, don't be afraid to start a team meeting off by saying these are challenging times. A lot of us have things going on in our personal lives. And while we need to take care of our customers and we need to deliver our work, know that we're here for one another and I'm here for you as a leader. If you need help, if you need something, please reach out. Just blanket statements like that. Let people know that they're cared about. And if an employee does come to you, listen and listen without judgment and don't feel pressured that you have to solve their problem, if they're in financial trouble or something like that. There isn't necessarily something you can do. There's so much value just in listening to people.

Valentina: On the other hand, right now, there are also many people who decided to, as Meredith says, turn uncertainty into opportunity in the form of taking on a new role progressing in their career. And they wonder how to succeed with so much negative disruption around.

Meridith: First of all, I would encourage everybody to start to think this way. And I love that you've asked this question because I'm taking my 27-year-old nephew to dinner tonight to have this exact conversation with him. I think there's so much opportunity in the marketplace, and he's a smart young man who's worked really hard. He's well thought of in his company. And I want him to take some proactive steps to create a career opportunity for him himself. And so I would begin there by saying, if you have done a good job, if you have, you have delivered for your company, then take responsibility for your career and your progress. In a perfect world, we would work hard, somebody would tap us on the shoulder and tell us that the next promotion is just around the corner. But the world is far from perfect and understand that nobody is going to care about your career and your progress more than you are. So my biggest piece of advice is to take ownership of it. The second piece of advice and this is exactly what I'm going to tell my nephew this evening, is to, again, if you have performed in your role, then set up a 1-to-1 meeting with whomever you report to and sit down and have a conversation, talk to them about the fact that you enjoy your job, you value the opportunity that they've given you, and you see a future for yourself in the organization you want to progress, let them know you're looking for opportunity. Then beyond that, say. Here's what I'm doing to learn and grow. What else do you need from me in order to be well-positioned for the next opportunity that comes in the company? So you've raised your hand, which is so important in today's marketplace. The second is that you've laid out what you've done well. You've said, Hey, just in case you haven't noticed, here's what I've done really well. And then you've opened the door for more advice to understand what the roadmap needs to be for you to be ready for the next opportunity. The other piece of advice I have is whether you're in the position of your dreams or you're looking to move into it is twofold. Number one, build your network. It will change your life network inside your company and outside your company. The network is the key to career progression and career opportunity and then continuous learning. Don't wait for somebody else to offer you a class. Spend a few minutes every morning on YouTube or taking a LinkedIn learning course or doing something like that. But educate yourself consistently.

Valentina: Apart from the companies that are struggling to fill empty positions, there are also companies that manage to keep high employee satisfaction. So the last question we asked Meredith was what are some of these trends that have proven to be effective in terms of employee engagement?

Meridith: Yeah, I think there's actually a lot you know, one of the things about an uncertain marketplace is as leaders, there's so little we can control. I mean, just one blip in the economy one way or the other, and it throws things off, our supply chains are out of our control, the marketplace, our customers, so much is outside of our control, but the one thing you do control, the one thing you have a huge influence over are the employees that you surround yourself with. So I think one of the biggest trends and one of the biggest things I see working are leaders who make employee engagement their number one priority. Their focus is the development of their people. Far too often we move into the position of leadership and we think that our job is to do the job when it isn't. You've already proven you could perform in a certain role. Your job now is to develop the people around you to be able to do the job. So, begin with realizing that hiring great employees is proactive. You need to carry a pipeline just like you do for customers. You should have a pipeline of 20 people that you know in the industry that you expect in the next 3 to 5 years to come to work for your company. And then you need a strategy to go out and win those employees over.

Meridith: How are you going to network with them? What calls are you going to make on them? What things are you going to offer them in order to pull them onto the team? Then the other is you need to be focusing on your culture. Employees want three things in today's marketplace. They want a sense of purpose. People want to do work that matters. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. So as a leader, you need to clearly define the purpose of your team and help people understand that even if all they do is put a widget in a hole, putting that widget in a hole makes a difference in a customer's life, but they are important. The second thing they want is ownership. They want skin in the game. They actually want to help you grow your business. But far too often as leaders, we block them from doing that. And so rather than telling people what to do, you need to ask them how to do things. Because when we lead through the power of the question and we ask people how we give them ownership, voice, and responsibility, you know, if we say we need to you need to increase sales by 12%, that feels like a burden. If you came to me and said, Meredith, this year we have to increase sales by 12%. What are your ideas? What are your thoughts now? I feel like I'm a part of it.

Meridith: This feels different than anyplace else I've worked. And the last piece is, is performance. We ask employees to invest in our company and the question we really need to be asking ourselves is, am I investing in my employees? So again, leaders, if you want to retain employees, then you need to invest in helping them learn and helping them grow. You need to be clear where about what they want to ultimately accomplish, even if it's just getting better in their current position or if they see themselves with a future in the company. One of the things I think that is interesting about employee engagement is the statistics on it globally are so bad. Employees do not feel like they work at companies that care about them, where they see there's a future. And in a marketplace, like that as a leader, you just make it your focus to get incrementally better. You are going to win this war on talent. And if you win the war on talent, talent is going to take care of everything else. Good employees will not only create an amazing team, but they will also drive cash flow and they will incrementally improve the customer experience. They will do everything you need them to do to grow your business and protect you in an uncertain environment.

Valentina: If you enjoy the episode, please don't forget to like share, comment, or subscribe to the podcast on your preferred channel. If you are interested in learning more about what Meredith does, feel free to check out her website provided in the episode description below or her latest book Does It for me. Enjoy the rest of the episode, which is rapid-fire Questions and I will see you in two weeks. What do you do when you sometimes wake up in the morning or maybe go to bed and you realize you are experiencing this fear of uncertainty? What do you do at that given moment?

Meridith: Yeah, I have a great exercise that I use. First of all, don't fight it. I mean, do not fight it. Sometimes things happen and they're just scary. I mean, look back to 2020 and we all sat down in front of our computers or whatever and watched as the whole world shut down. But write down everything that you're afraid of, everything you're worried about, everything that you hope for. Just get it all out of your head and then divide it into a list of what you can control and what you can't control. And you're going to find that what you can control is a very small list, but focus your time and your energy on what you can control and forget about the rest. One of the biggest things that I've learned about uncertainty from researching is that success is not logical. Success doesn't belong to the people who are luckier. Success doesn't belong to the people with more money. Success belongs to the people who focus on what they can control. And they forget about the rest.

Valentina: Great. What time do you wake up every day?

Meridith: I wake up every day somewhere between 4:30 and 5:00. I don't set an alarm. And so somewhere around 4.30 and 5, I'll usually I usually wake up.

Valentina: What's the best advice you've ever been given?

Meridith: That's easy. Build your network. Change your life. I'm a passionate believer that at any given moment, we are only one connection away from somebody who can help us accomplish a goal, solve a problem, or create an opportunity. So when I walk into a room full of people, I don't know. Even though that makes me nervous, it makes me uncomfortable to shift my mindset and to believe there's somebody in there who can move me closer to anything I want to accomplish in my life. And that advice is 100% true. Everything good that has ever happened to me has happened through a connection that has been made.

Valentina: What are your three most important values?

Meridith: Number one, innovation to be constantly looking for what's new, what's different. Number two is to own it. Responsibility. Everything always stops with me. That it's never anybody else's fault. It's always my fault. I love that value because if it's my fault, I can change the situation. And then my last one is my last most important value is that is an old has to do with an old Buddhist quote that I found. And it has to do in essence to enjoy that I found this quote probably 30 years ago and it says, 'The master in the art of Living is somebody who you never know whether they're working or playing because you can't tell the difference'. And I live my life like that every day I play every day I work every day. I enjoy my family. At any given moment, my life is all jumbled together.

Greg: I love it. Meredith, can I ask one more quickfire question?

Meridith: That's all right? Absolutely.

Greg: I always like to ask people if you could interview anyone like we've interviewed you today, who would you interview?

Meridith: How did they have to be? Do they have to be alive?

Greg: Know anyone, historical present, anyone?

Meridith: Well, you know, right now, I think if I could interview anybody in the world like typically my answer to that question is always Winston Churchill. But right now, I believe that I would like to interview I would give anything to talk to the president of Ukraine. I am fascinated by his leadership techniques and just how brave and courageous and inspirational he is right now. He embodies everything that a human being and a leader should be. So I'm going to go I'm going to go with him today.

Greg: So true. What an incredible feat of leadership as well. Talk about rising to the occasion.

Meridith: Rising to the occasion. And in the face of. You know so much that is wrong and unfair. And he has just rallied people and stood at the forefront and just been eloquent and courageous and inspirational and real. And, yeah, we should all be studying Ukraine right now because it will, I think to myself quite often that this is going to go down in history as one of the most impressive examples of leadership. And a lot so much to be learned there.

Valentina: That got me a bit emotional. Sorry about that. Yes.

Meridith: It does. Correct. Correct. And you know, and just to add to that, you know, we all look at him and say, okay, well, that's war in Ukraine. That's what a leader should be or a leader should do. It doesn't have to be that, you know, looking at what he's doing and how he's leading, that's how we should be leading in our companies. That's what leadership is. It's about courage. It's about authenticity. It's about helping people make the improvements in their life that they need to make to really make a difference. Leadership isn't about the challenge in front of you being great or small. It's about doing what needs to be done. So the people that are working with you feel cared about, engaged, and feel like they are achieving and making the progress they need to make in their lives.