By anchoring in an organizational value system, companies are able to better navigate uncertain and challenging times. — Leah Sicat
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Leah Sicat.
Leah is head of U.S. communications at ASML, a multi-billion dollar, high-tech public company that makes big machines that make small silicon chips. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Leah rose through the military ranks to become a U.S. Army Captain. Her first civilian job was with GE Energy where she joined its Junior Officer Leadership Program. Leah was also an entrepreneur and marketing leader of a small business before joining ASML in January 2020.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in a military-turned-civilian expat family, so I had the opportunity to live around the world as a child. I was born in Germany and moved 10 times before graduating high school, never living anywhere more than three years — from Mexico to Switzerland to the U.S. While it had its challenges (after all, what kid wants to leave her friends and move every couple of years?!), my unique upbringing provided me with many opportunities to travel the globe as a young child and teenager. This experience largely shaped my world view, broadening my understanding of different cultures and ways of living.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
As head of U.S. communications for ASML, I’m leading a team of experts supporting the regional business with external, internal, and recruitment marketing communications support. ASML is the most important tech company you’ve never heard of, with more than 24,000 employees across 60 locations in 16 countries. In the U.S., we are a diverse research and development (R&D) and manufacturing powerhouse. We aim to foster a strong employee experience and engagement while attracting top talent to join our company.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
After I graduated from West Point in 1999, I served as a platoon leader and then executive officer in an Army transportation unit. Our unit’s mission was to move all types of mission-critical equipment and cargo via air, rail, truck and water terminals/ports worldwide. Besides leading soldiers, the thing I liked best about this job was the joint nature of the assignment. I worked closely with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force as well as Department of Defense civilians. My final assignment was in South Korea, where I served as a protocol officer supporting U.S. Forces Korea. In this role, I managed logistical support for high-ranking military officers and VIPs visiting our command. I had the opportunity to support the visits of many distinguished leaders, such as Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and legendary entertainers like Wayne Newton who visited as part of the USO tour.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
I think everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001, and my experience was no different. My unit was days away from departing for a multi-national joint training exercise in Egypt, yet everything changed in an instant. As second-in-command of my unit, many young soldiers looked to me for direction, clarity, and reassurance in the midst of an unprecedented situation. The world was changing, but you didn’t know how — it was scary and unsettling.
As our unit’s departure date and mission shifted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, my fellow officers and I found ourselves thrown into the middle of a crisis with little information, yet we had to move forward with our plans and ensure the well-being of our soldiers.
This was my most memorable lesson in leadership. The situation required a delicate balance of strength and empathy. I learned first-hand that leaders must provide the clarity and trust people seek during uncertain times. Every individual needs to understand how their job contributes to the success of the mission/organization. Finally, leaders must embody empathy and sincerely listen to their subordinates’ concerns. People want to know their emotions are valid and that you, as their leader, care.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
I was fortunate to serve alongside many men and women who put service before self. Many of my classmates and friends — and their families — have sacrificed deeply for our country. A story that is especially close to my heart is that of a West Point classmate and dear friend, Capt. Brian Freeman.
Although Brian left the military to raise his family and start a civilian life/career, he was recalled to active duty in 2004 to support the U.S. mission in Iraq. While in Iraq, Brian focused on doing as much good as possible, taking it upon himself to help an 11-year-old Iraqi boy with a heart condition who needed medical care. After months of work, Brian successfully facilitated a life-saving surgery for the boy in the U.S. But while he was able to deliver the good news to the boy’s family, he, unfortunately, didn’t live to see it come to fruition. Brian was killed in action on January 20, 2007.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Brian embodied selfless service, putting the needs of others above his own interests. He wasn’t the type to embrace the term “hero” — he was kind and funny, but most of all, he was humble. I’ve found that most of the people to whom we try to assign the label of hero are resistant because it’s not about them. At the end of the day, service members are willing to sacrifice for their country, and for their brothers and sisters in uniform beside them. Brian fit that description completely. He left behind a beautiful family, devoted friends, and an amazing legacy.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Everything I learned about leadership as a military officer has translated to my life beyond the Army, both professionally and personally. Certain fundamentals — such as leading by example, taking responsibility for your team’s actions, and the whole concept of servant leadership — have shaped my view of work and life.
As a young cadet and officer, I also learned how to push myself beyond what I thought I could achieve. I never dreamed that one day I would jump out of airplanes or, as a 22-year old new college graduate, lead a platoon of 45 experienced soldiers. The Army and West Point provided me with many opportunities to develop myself as a leader and a lifelong learner. I learned how to be resilient, and get through prolonged periods of stress by relying on my teammates and maintaining a sense of humor (humor is critical to surviving military life, just ask any former service member)! I’ve been able to apply all of these lessons to my civilian life and to my current leadership role at ASML. If you truly care and put your people first, it will translate to higher-performing employees and a more successful business.
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?
As a young West Point cadet more than 22 years ago, I didn’t have many female officer role models. I remember seeking the advice of one of my instructors in the Department of Social Sciences, then-Major Cindy Jebb. Not only did I respect Major Jebb’s many academic and military achievements, but she was also married to a fellow Army officer and was a mom of three kids. Major Jebb became a role model and a valued mentor who made a big impact on me. She is now a Brigadier General and the first female Dean of the Academic Board at West Point. In 2017, I ran into Brig. Gen. Jebb at the Army-Navy football game in Philadelphia, and I was able to introduce her to my daughter — a real full circle moment for me. Female mentorship and representation is so important. Brig. Gen. Jebb invested her time in developing me, and I hope to pay it forward as a mentor to younger female professionals as well.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
Any challenging time can be defined as a crisis. It can be a moment when you have to make critical decisions, but the right thing to do is unclear. Information may be limited, so you must set clear priorities and use them as a guide rail, while constantly evaluating and course-correcting according to an ever-evolving situation.
This can be seen today as many companies grapple with the best way to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. From the beginning of the crisis, ASML leadership clearly defined our two priorities — first, keep employees safe, and second, maintain business continuity for our customers. By anchoring in an organizational value system, companies are able to better navigate uncertain and challenging times.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Clearly, having a business continuity plan and a strong crisis management team in place is essential. Planning ahead is the key to being able to react effectively to a crisis. Again, strong leadership and clear communication are critical to helping get a business through a crisis scenario.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
First, recognize that your mindset is very powerful, especially during difficult times. I try my best to embrace a growth mindset and remind myself that challenges can also be opportunities to learn and develop. This has helped me persevere in the past, even after a failure.
Second, seek clarity and maintain your focus. Leverage all the things within your control and just as importantly, acknowledge the things you cannot control. Focus on the former.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Three skills: Leadership, resilience, and flexibility.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I’ve long admired the late Senator John McCain for his incredible courage and lifelong service to our country. Certainly, leadership and resilience were required for him to endure something as difficult as five years of imprisonment during the Vietnam War. I read his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, twenty years ago and it inspired me.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I’ve accumulated many, many failures throughout my life! In fact, the first two years at West Point are designed to make cadets fail, with the knowledge that only through failure can a leader learn how to persevere and eventually succeed. I failed the night land navigation course twice in a row during summer training as a sophomore cadet. Thankfully, I passed on my third attempt, or I would have found myself repeating the same training the following summer!
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know your non-negotiables — Whether you are an individual or a company, it’s critical to establish a list of priorities that serve as a guiderail during uncertain times. At ASML, we led with our values in response to the ever-changing COVID-19 pandemic. This brought order in the midst of evolving situations and decisions, and has resulted in positive outcomes to-date.
- Set small, manageable goals — In the midst of a crisis, a day can feel like a week, a week like a month and a month like a year. So if you don’t know what will happen next, plan in small increments. The strategy of setting small, manageable goals helped me get through challenging training like U.S. Army Airborne School. I focused on getting through each day and mastering the skills necessary to proceed to the next phase of training. A series of small goals will eventually get you to your bigger goal of completion.
- Seek out (and rely on) connections with friends, family, colleagues, employees and managers — It’s important to stay socially connected during challenging times, as it can provide a real boost to your morale and ultimately, productivity. I have a strong circle of friends from my days at West Point, the Army and GE. Our unique, shared experiences help me maintain my personal well-being and provide me a trusted network of confidantes I respect and trust to help me make decisions.
- Be human, empathize — A crisis will universally impact people, but often in different ways. It’s important to understand a wide variety of perspectives and experiences, which can only be done with a people-focused response. This philosophy never failed me as a leader in the military, and I strive to lead my team at ASML with the same approach. Get to know your soldiers or your employees as individuals. By understanding what motivates them and showing you care, you will be able to help them succeed to their full potential, especially in difficult situations.
- Don’t forget self-care — It’s important to take time for yourself during times of prolonged, high stress. For me, that means starting each day with some form of physical activity, preferably a run or a CrossFit workout. Although the workout itself might be painful, I’ve never finished a workout feeling worse mentally than I started. A crisis often extends over a longer period of time, so it’s important to establish healthy ways to manage the additional physical and emotional stress it triggers.
Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Selfless service. Every person in our country should be expected to give back through service in some way. It doesn’t have to be in the military, but I believe every American should feel the obligation to serve their country in some manner.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I’ve always been fascinated by the British Monarchy — I still remember getting up incredibly early in the morning to watch Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding in 1986. So I have to admit, I’d love to have lunch with Meghan Markle, now that she and Prince Harry are living on the west coast. Bonus if they could bring baby Archie!
How can our readers follow you online?
LinkedIn @LeahSicat https://www.linkedin.com/in/leahsicat/
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.