“Every leader should be able to communicate clearly” With Ekaterina Shcherbakova

First and foremost, every leader should be able to communicate clearly. When I was interviewing candidates, who wanted to join my team of marketing professionals, I told them about the responsibilities of the future representatives of the chapter. Re-establishing is a complex process that needs a lot of time and effort. One should not expect […]

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First and foremost, every leader should be able to communicate clearly. When I was interviewing candidates, who wanted to join my team of marketing professionals, I told them about the responsibilities of the future representatives of the chapter. Re-establishing is a complex process that needs a lot of time and effort. One should not expect immediate results and perks, such as connections with top industry experts and recruiters. By setting right expectations I was able to recruit motivated professionals who were able to dedicate a lot of time to the organization.

As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ekaterina Shcherbakova.

Ekaterina Shcherbakova is a marketing professional with more than 10 years of work experience. She moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and in 2018 re-established a chapter of American Marketing Association, recruited 10 officers and organized multiple joint events with top Silicon Valley companies in order to build a large network of professionals and employers. Being a certified coach and a marketer with international experience of working with Embassies and educational institutions in 30 countries of the world, she started mentoring startups. She was accepted to Founder Institute with her EdTech project and also judged TechStars USA startup contest at a country level.

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?

Myparents have always told me that I need to study and network in order to understand myself and the world, and that it would help me to set the right goals for life. When a teenager, I started travelling, first to Europe as a tourist. Later, when I graduated from college, I started traveling to many other countries for business. I succeeded in international education industry because I had a passion for education, spoke several languages and was a skillful marketer. Thousands of prospective students requested me to match them with their dream schools in different countries of the world. Top world schools signed agent agreements with me and I used to recruit students for them. I have always been inspired by some of my clients’ stories: their academic and professional victories, their passion for entrepreneurship, their desire to change the world.

I felt that I could do more in order to share my knowledge with the international audience. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue a business degree, but soon started to organize professional and entrepreneurial events. One of the first events was Startup Weekend by startup accelerator TechStars. The event was sponsored by Google and was a success. I realized that I can apply my leadership and coaching skills here by working on the establishment of a professional network which would help its members to succeed in their professional endeavors. I re-established a chapter of American Marketing Association in East Bay, California. The officers of the chapter and me felt the community’s need for professional networking and mentorship. Thus, we secured funding and organized joint educational and hiring events with SalesForce, Tesla, MorganStanely. Participants of the events were able to build lasting professional connections and secured jobs. Inspired by my chapter’s success, I keep mentoring startups and working on research in business field.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?

Once I had a conversation with Vice President of Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley when I was organizing one of the first events for our chapter. We scheduled an interview in order to plan a joint seminar. The goal oа the interview was to identify the topics related to both financial management and information technology. He asked me how many languages I knew. I started talking about me speaking English, Spanish and German. He was surprised and then laughed and told me that he actually meant programming languages. I realized that I needed to be more open-minded and also needed to consider the fact that we met in the middle of Silicon Valley where people speak many languages, but they are focused on technology above all. Thus, my take away from this experience is that , in order to communicate clearly, one should familiarize oneself with background and interests of business partners.

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 am very thankful to my mentor Richard Fivis, who helped me a lot with understanding how marketing techniques work under unexpected circumstances. Richard owned a successful wholesale business in Northern California for 20 years. He also has a vast experience in business brokerage. I met Richard at a seminar organized by SCORE, the nation’s largest network of business experts. Later, we discussed some business ideas and the importance of marketing activities for everyday business operations. Richard likes to speak about his business experience. He is an example of a successful entrepreneur who can inspire and motivate. He has been working with SCORE for 14 years, volunteering his time and contributing to the development of small businesses in the Bay Area. I have always appreciated his advice and I am proud to call him my mentor.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

I totally agree with this statement. The purpose of AMA East Bay was to connect aspiring professionals with the opportunities that Silicon Valley provides. It is well known that about 80% of jobs are found through networking. However, social networks and other means of virtual connection are not sufficient for establishing a professional network with hiring opportunities. The purpose of establishing our chapter was to provide professionals with the benefits of face-to-face networking with recruiters and to give them an idea of what it is like to work at top world companies. I believe that everyone can secure a position at a well-established organization if there is a chance of connecting with its representatives and demonstrating skills and desire to contribute to this organization’s success.

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?

When I started working on the re-establishing of AMA chapter, I had several major challenges: no people around who would potentially be interested in organizational management, unfamiliarity with the current interests of local community, lack of information about the level of involvement in the life of the organization prospective members will be able to demonstrate, lack of funding. And with all that I had to be able to demonstrate to future officers how the organization they are working on would change the life of the community, how they will be able to create opportunities for themselves and the members of AMA. I was to draw a picture of the bright and promising future for those who considered to be on board. And when my officers had to do things new for them, when they doubted themselves while facing professional challenges, I always asked them to focus on the goal of their work: to provide people with opportunities. Empowering people is the best way to build a strong team of leaders during difficult times.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I have never considered giving up because I knew that what I was doing would change the lives of many members of our community. I have noticed that when I do something not for myself, but for a large number of people, then I feel empowered and inspired. When in doubt, I remind myself that there are people out there who need my knowledge, skills, services.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

True leaders have one feature of character in common. This feature is empathy. Nowadays, emotional intellect has become one of the main characteristics of a successful leader. While many consider empathy to be a weakness, true leaders realize that empathy is the approach that allows to understand employees. Knowing stakeholders’ motivation, a manager can always make adjustments needed for the successful implementation of change. When I was interviewing candidates for my team, I was asking them about their motivation that stood behind their desire to work with me. When my coworkers were challenged by complex projects which we were planning, I scheduled one-on-one meetings with each of the coworkers in order to collect their feedback. Often, stakeholders had some anxiety and the fear of unknown. Once their emotions were identified, we spoke about the ways of changing the perception of the project.

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?

Several years ago, I took coaching course and got certified by International Coaching Federation. Coaching techniques are the real asset for any change manager. When the future seems uncertain and the morale is low, I ask my stakeholders: “What would you do if you know that your success is guaranteed?” Acting “as if” boosts morale and helps to focus on goals while eliminating loss of energy caused by constant stress and doubt.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

People share common fears, hopes, dreams. It is impossible to accept difficult news without emotional reactions. Here, one needs to know that these reactions are predictable. I prefer to announce bad news followed by good news. In any organization, there is always a reason for good news: implemented plans, organized events, other achievements. Achieving goals in turbulent unpredictable circumstances can be hard, thus, it is impossible not to celebrate victories. After difficult news are announced, I usually schedule meetings with stakeholders and discuss their concerns in order to improve morale and to find the way to help them with embracing changes.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

A good leader should always have several plans for any event or goal. You need to have a plan with optimistic trajectory, a realistic plan and a plan that will be implemented in case of failure.

Having several options will allow you to prevent unexpected outcomes and frustration. It will allow you to be ready for multiple outcomes while aiming at the best possible one. Important role here plays your attitude towards failures. For a manager who is prepared for any outcome, any negative result is predictable. Thus, it can be changed. Moreover, a leader can demonstrate self-possession and enthusiasm while dealing with negative outcomes, and it will be a learning moment for his coworkers and employees. When I had to face unpredicted issues with funding for the next quarter, I announced to all the stakeholders that such an issue was a great opportunity for the team to work on joint projects with other organizations and to secure funding with their support. Thus, the stakeholders realized that the challenge we faced was actually a great opportunity for our team to work on a project that would impact larger number of people.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

For me, this principle has always been “keep in mind the greater good that stands behind your goal”. Statistics proves that 95% of businesses and startups fail within 2 years and that the majority of them are the businesses that were established for the sake of revenue. If there is no clear vision of how your firm can contribute to wellbeing of the humankind, there is little to no chance that you firm will survive in the long run. Even a small enterprise should have a vision and a mission which target large number of people. Such a perspective will allow the firm to grow and develop over time.

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?

All businesses are client-oriented. We cannot ignore customers’ desires and choices and keep generating revenue. It is crucial to hear customers’ feedback and to use negative feedback in order to improve services. It is 5 times more expensive to attract a new customer then to retain the existing one. All the companies regardless their domain need to know that and act accordingly.

Another mistake organizations often make is introducing some services or products without testing the market. Such a situation is typical for startups. Excited about their ideas which often involve innovative technological solutions, aspiring entrepreneurs focus on production and design. However, product-market fit is the first thing they need to think about before starting any project. Work with focus group, collect feedbacks, pivot, if necessary.

One more issue firms are facing nowadays is the dilemma of balancing between cutting expenses and providing better services. While financial crisis forces managers to cut expenses, it is extremely important to support employees who keep working. High morale, clear vision of the future perspective and well-organized bonus structures allow organizations to provide outstanding services due to the high level of employees’ satisfaction. I have seen firms where employees were treated badly due to pandemic. As a result, many workers decided to quit despite difficult situation on labor market and unemployment threats. Employees are a real asset of any organization, and they need to be appreciated for their daily contributions.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

When it comes to financial risks and challenges, having an investment portfolio sounds as a good idea. It does not matter what kind of business you own, but investing in perspective projects should be a priority. On a personal level, I would recommend diversifying both the investment portfolio and the sources of income. Multiple firms all over the world had to shift to online work format due to quarantine. Those who have already had online branches and transactions managed to avoid drastic revenue decrease.

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.

First and foremost, every leader should be able to communicate clearly. When I was interviewing candidates, who wanted to join my team of marketing professionals, I told them about the responsibilities of the future representatives of the chapter. Re-establishing is a complex process that needs a lot of time and effort. One should not expect immediate results and perks, such as connections with top industry experts and recruiters. By setting right expectations I was able to recruit motivated professionals who were able to dedicate a lot of time to the organization.

Another important thing that any leader should not underestimate is the ability to empower people. Among the members of any team there are always those who lean towards some business operations. It is the leader who identifies people’s talents and provides employees with the duties that match employees’ skills. It was important for me to learn out about my coworkers’ dreams and professional endeavors before I assigned the positions and the duties accordingly.

While working in a team, it is also crucial to create an inclusive atmosphere. I have heard about companies where only certain stakeholders are able to contribute their ideas to organizational change. However, I believe that every team member should have an opportunity to share optimization ideas with the management, especially during uncertain times. When I was working on a schedule of events for the next year, I asked all the stakeholders, including mentors and interns, to brainstorm and to come up with several ideas for seminars, fairs and tours. As a result, I got the list of multiple ideas and many of them were implemented.

Speaking of inclusiveness, I should also mention avoiding any kind of bias. The USA, and especially Northern California, is the home of people with diverse ethnic and cultural background. A person should be evaluated based on the contribution made. I have been in the situations where the youngest and the least experienced members of the team managed to do more for a firm then those who had vast experience and multiple degrees. When my team was to reach out to dozens of Silicon Valley companies in order to establish mutually beneficial partnership, some of the members who worked at those companies were skeptical about that initiative. However, those members who did not have such an experience agreed to be in charge of that project and they actually succeeded as they did not have any limitations in mind.

Leading by example has become one of the rules I follow as a leader. This approach is especially important in times of turbulence and uncertainty. This year many of us have to face employment, income loss and social life issues. Many of my coworkers are concerned about their future. Many have lost their jobs due to quarantine. The best way to stay connected with your community and to feel support and appreciation is to keep giving. Before the getting comes the giving. How can someone be seen, be heard and be appreciated? Only by expressing oneself, by making a statement. By standing out from the crowd for the sake of helping the community.

In order to encourage my community to contribute to humankind wellbeing, I have participated as a judge in 2 global US contests aimed at finding solutions to fight against COVID-19. The first contest, CalHacks, with Steve Wozniak invited as a keynote speaker, offered multiple mobile solutions for tracking new coronavirus cases. The second one, TechStars COVID-19 USA contest, organized at a country level, was featuring multiple startups which were established in order to assist healthcare workers and to offer innovative healthcare solutions. Similar events were organized by TechStars in 60 countries of the world. Thousands of entrepreneurs participated in this contest. In times of turbulence and uncertainty it is important to feel united and supported by your community. But personal example and ability to contribute and to give back to the community is even more important.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I am inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s life lesson quote “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness”. These words guide my professional and personal life. The most appropriate thing we all can do in order to improve our relationships or performance is to change ourselves, change our behavior and attitude.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shcherbakovae/

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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