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“Rethink how to collaborate and drive creativity.” with Jen Dalton

Rethink how to collaborate and drive creativity in a virtual environment. For leaders, consider checking on what collaborating could look like in a virtual world. A first step could be to train your team on how to show up in a virtual world — coach them on presence, lighting, getting comfortable on screen. When it […]

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Rethink how to collaborate and drive creativity in a virtual environment. For leaders, consider checking on what collaborating could look like in a virtual world. A first step could be to train your team on how to show up in a virtual world — coach them on presence, lighting, getting comfortable on screen. When it comes to meetings, keep them focused and potentially shorter. It is important to allow people the opportunity to engage and not just be a talking head. Maybe an hour meeting every week becomes 15 minutes twice a week and is more of a round-robin check-in. It is critical to set rules that include video must be on and no multi-tasking (however this is likely only possible if meetings are being run efficiently). A key action for leaders when it comes to collaboration is to consider how to engage — ask your team what they want to keep doing, stop doing, starting doing, and change. Don’t be afraid to try tools like Loom for videos, Mural.co for post-it-note like brainstorming, or tools like Kahoot for engagement.

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 Jen Dalton, Founder of Brand Mirror. She is a personal brand strategist, international speaker, and author. She collaborates with CEOs, executives, and entrepreneurs to build authentic personal brands, growing their revenue, and accelerating their impact. Jen has delivered hundreds of talks across the U.S., Canada, and the UK including at the White House, State Department, Fortune 500 companies such as IBM and GE, and at large events such as the World Trade Center Institute’s Global Conference.

Her forthcoming second book, Listen: How to Embrace the Difficult Conversations Life Throws at You, out December 7th, 2020, shares stories and tips from people who have navigated difficult conversations to improve relationships and change their lives.

Jen’s first bestselling book, The Intentional Entrepreneur, shares her process for launching brands that disrupt the status quo. Jen delivers ground-breaking and actionable content through her presentations, podcast, and books. She earned her Bachelor’s and Executive MBA degrees from Georgetown University. Jen has also been featured in Inc.The Washington PostHLNBusiness Owners Radio, and Waypoint.

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?

How I was born is probably a good indicator of how I approach life. Instead of waiting the normal 40 weeks to venture into the world, I was born at 32 weeks weighing in at a whopping 2 lbs and 12 ounces. To this day, no one really knows why I was so early. My family jokes that I was ready and nothing was going to stop me.

Given that scare, my parents decided one child was plenty and raised me by their side all the time. My parents were in the retail business, selling women’s and men’s shoes. I grew up hearing my parents discuss difficult conversations with employees, customers, friends, you name it — we talked about it around the dining room table at night.

After being in the corporate workplace for a decade, I decided I wanted to try the next decade on my own. In 2009, I had my second son and the day he was born happened to be my 10th anniversary at a large company. I just thought that I wanted my children to experience growing up in an entrepreneurial family. I decided to pursue my Executive MBA, working during the week and school on the weekend at Georgetown University (which is also where I received my undergraduate degree). Many of my classmates were interested in better positions and yet needed help marketing themselves.

As I began to help them, I became familiar with the idea of building personal brands and that led to me starting my company focused on helping people identify their passion and purpose in order to move the needle on their impact and visibility.

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

I remember being so excited about launching a business that I chose my family name as the company name so I could start working. I laugh at myself because as a branding expert you would think I would slow down and think about the company name…but no. Within 3 months I was brainstorming a new name and officially launched as BrandMirror. Just because you have expertise does not mean you always remember to use it — especially when you are under pressure or excited to take action and throw that expertise out the window momentarily.

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?

My husband has been pivotal in providing space and support, both in time and financially when I pursued my Executive MBA and every day since launching my business. He is a third-generation entrepreneur and understands the importance of owning a business and making a difference. His thought process is different than mine and I cherish the conversations we have where our views are different because that is when I learn the most.

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?

When I first started studying personal branding, I was fortunate in that I studied hours and hours under William Arruda, the personal branding guru. One of the approaches he shared which changed how I thought about setting a vision was one simple question: “What do you see in the world that bothers you, that you want to fix?” For me, I was very frustrated that so many people in the workplace were not happy. 73% of people in the workforce are unhappy with their role and work. Seeing that bothered me and I thought if 7 billion people knew their purpose and what they should be doing, the world would be a lot better off. That observation and focus to help people identify their purpose became the foundation, purpose, and vision of my business. My personal mission statement is, “I am a gutsy leader committed to helping individuals find their purpose AND their passion in order to move the needle on their visibility and impact.”

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 think one story we can relate to is navigating COVID. I was asked to be President of a networking group of forty-six business owners in the fall of 2019 (Business Network International). I enthusiastically said yes and was excited about the challenge. The term started in October 2019 and was for 12 months, with meetings every Thursday in person. Our goal at the beginning of the year was to pass business between us totaling $5.5 million, up from $5 million the year prior. In March, right before COVID hit, we were at around $2.5 million. It did not occur to me that we could not succeed, even though I did not have all of the answers. I asked the group, as well as the past Presidents, for advice and feedback on what the group needed. Within one week, we moved to online and held educational sessions on financing, pivoting, and rethinking how to pursue business. Fortunately, through lots of virtual team building led by great members of the group as well as consistently pressing forward on helping each other, we not only hit our $5.5 million goal, we actually surpassed $7.5 million. This is business (revenue) that we identified and members helped find for each other to make sure no business owner was left behind. The BNI group, McLean Business Forum, even added members in a virtual environment and when I stepped down in September was at 56 members.

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

I definitely remember thinking wow, we have a ways to go, however, it never occurred to me that we could not do it as a team. Leading a group of entrepreneurs, which meant I have no authority over them, just influence, really challenged me to step up, delegate more, empower more, and ask for help. With a great team, I found my focus was around not failing them. This amazing group of business leaders motivated me to be a better leader and figure things out on their behalf.

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

A critical role for a leader during challenging times is to remain calm, focused, and set a vision that can move people forward even when things seem extremely hard. One of the most important elements of setting a destination or vision is to give people hope and then provide communication and transparency on what everyone’s role is and empower them to own their role in getting to the destination. People want to feel connected with others and to feel valued and like what they do matters. That is where listening and constant communication can play a huge role in helping a leader keep their pulse on how the team and organization are doing.

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?

When writing my latest book, one of my interviewees shared that during his most challenging health crisis, he started to schedule travel plans 1–2 years out. He shared that having that vision of the future gave him hope and kept him fighting through the difficult times. Setting a vision and helping people see their importance in achieving that future and why they matter is critical. We each want to matter and when leaders are positive and not punitive, they can motivate people to move mountains. Leaders can and should hold people accountable for their actions. However, this can be done with positive reinforcement and motivation, versus punitive consequences or threats.

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

When it comes to communicating difficult news, I believe it is important to do so quickly and clearly. Even if you do not have all of the information, let people know what is going on and what you are doing about it. For example, if there are layoffs, that has to be communicated quickly to individuals one by one and broadly very quickly as well. It is critical to share context when communicating challenging news and share what will happen next as well as how you will support people and help them through the difficult times. One of the most important things to do is craft your communication and get input on it from trusted resources. You really have one chance to get it right in some situations and getting input and feedback on how and what you are sharing can be extremely helpful.

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

For leaders, even if the future is not predictable, it is important to recognize what rituals need to be maintained or even created to help make the day to day as predictable as possible. Give people actionable steps they can take around things they can control where possible. I am not saying create work for the sake of work, however, as leaders, we can pause and identify what we can impact and our team can impact and do that. For some organizations who had to press pause on their work — consider investing in training, team building, or community service. There is always something that needs attention or help when the future is not only unknown but also unpredictable in its volatility. Creating stability as a leader matters.

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

One of the most important elements is to assess a company’s communication practices and re-evaluate what formal or informal communication might be missing to help their team, clients, and other stakeholders navigate the unknown together. As humans, we crave being connected, seen, and valued. Establishing clear expectations around what is known, unknown, and how people can stay informed is critical. Leaders need to remain visible and not out of sight, out of mind. The number one principle is for communication to clearly and consistently happen from the top down and for leaders to also have ways to get insight and information from the bottom up as well.

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 buckle down and stop spending. Usually, marketing is the first thing to be turned off and when I look at businesses during COVID, marketing has to continue in some form or fashion that fits the new situation. One of the other things that businesses need is to have an informal advisory board that includes an attorney, accountant, banker, at a minimum, to navigate cash flow challenges and advise them on options. Without cash flow, a business cannot survive. This leads to another point, businesses want to ask for money when they don’t need it and not when they do need it. If possible, try to have a 3–6 month cash reserve available, if not more. Lastly, many businesses had knee-jerk reactions to stopping, closing, etc. and one important step to take is to press pause for a moment and take a breath. I firmly believe there is always a way forward, we just may not have thought of it yet. For businesses under stress (i.e. leaders under stress), it can be helpful to pause and brainstorm how to move forward creatively. This might mean rethinking your business model, or focusing on one area of your business — but don’t make any rash decisions without speaking with your employees, trusted clients, advisory board, or peers on what they think you could do and spend time brainstorming options.

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?

During times like these, communication and cash flow are key. I have reached out to clients and past clients to check on them and see how they are doing. I continued to deliver speaking engagements, even though they moved virtually for now. Businesses need to let the market know they are open and how best to engage. Again, it may be that the only thing you can do right now is a coat drive, let people know that. Highlight your employees, partners, and other stakeholders to stay visible and positive. That may seem hard, but people want to hear positive news and know that things are still happening in some form or fashion. One idea is to interview your employees and ask them about their favorite part of the culture or maybe even their favorite charity or new TV show to binge-watch. We are all human and crave connection, so I highly recommend being intentional about how you are staying visible and keep it on brand where possible.

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.

Here are five important things a business leader should do during difficult times, especially when things are unpredictable.

  1. Leaders will need to show up and navigate conversations with empathy. When it comes to leading a business and managing people, we never really know what is going on outside of the work world in turbulent times. This is a critical reason why leaders will want to practice having conversations with empathy. If someone is having a hard time in their role, check-in, and ask how they are doing and how you can help. We never know what someone is going through until we ask. This is true all the time, and even more so in today’s environment. One of my favorite books is Leadership and Self Deception. A key theme is that if you see a person as a problem (or obstacle for you), instead of a person, then it is definitely time to step back and re-engage the empathy muscle.
  2. Assess and tweak/revamp your formal and informal communications. For leaders, it is about retaining and building authentic connections that help people feel connected. It is a great time to revisit what communications and touchpoints you have with your stakeholders and which ones are informal versus formal. For example, in a pre-Covid world, one could stop by someone’s desk and check-in. That is not possible in the same way right now, so what would that look like? Potentially it is just a virtual lunch with a small group or a phone call. It is important to create opportunities for structured discussion and places where people can truly be heard and connect in more informal ways to help build relationships. This might include virtual coffees, team building, etc. It is imperative to give people time back too — if your company was “over-meeting” before Covid — then revisit how you can be more efficient and productive with fewer/different meetings. People have a lot more on their plate now with their home and work life colliding. A simple question about when meetings should occur given school schedules (or any new obligations your team faces) is a great first step.
  3. Rethink how to collaborate and drive creativity in a virtual environment. For leaders, consider checking on what collaborating could look like in a virtual world. A first step could be to train your team on how to show up in a virtual world — coach them on presence, lighting, getting comfortable on screen. When it comes to meetings, keep them focused and potentially shorter. It is important to allow people the opportunity to engage and not just be a talking head. Maybe an hour meeting every week becomes 15 minutes twice a week and is more of a round-robin check-in. It is critical to set rules that include video must be on and no multi-tasking (however this is likely only possible if meetings are being run efficiently). A key action for leaders when it comes to collaboration is to consider how to engage — ask your team what they want to keep doing, stop doing, starting doing, and change. Don’t be afraid to try tools like Loom for videos, Mural.co for post-it-note like brainstorming, or tools like Kahoot for engagement.
  4. Assess your personal brand as a leader. As a leader, it is helpful to ask for feedback and understand how you are showing up to different audiences. For example, your direct reports or peers might perceive you differently than front line employees or customers. How do you make sure you are showing up consistently and the way you would like to show up? Ask. One great exercise is to simply ask people to describe you in a few words and compare them with how you think you show as well as how you would like to show up. Identify if there is a difference and what actions you might need to take to close the gap. There is an excellent book, Relevance, and it shares a formula for how to increase your Relevance. The key drivers of relevance include mastery (or expertise), authenticity, empathy, and action. How do you show up as a leader in each of those categories?
  5. Identify how you want to show up as you look ahead. Growing up there seemed to always be a mantra around what success is — what do you have, what have you done, and who are you. Instead, another way to approach this is to think about who do you want to be, therefore what do you have to do to show up that way, and then what would you have if you showed up that way? These questions are provocative and helpful, thanks to Dianne Falk and Mark Silverman, two of my favorite executive coaches who helped me understand these questions and really define success on my own terms versus what society or others want.

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, “Seek to understand before seeking to be understood.” which shows up in Stephen Covey’s work.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I am constantly writing content on LinkedIn and my websites, www.brandmirror.com as well as my personal site, www.thenoisebreaker.com — please check out the content and send me questions or requests that you would like me to write about as well. My books, The Intentional Entrepreneur and my latest book Listen: How to Embrace the Difficult Conversations Life Throws at You, are both available on Amazon and other platforms too.

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

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