I would say that it’s always important to act with grace and kindness in any situation as the reality is none of us know what the other person could be battling or going through. The business world is extremely tough and stressful and not to mention incestuous (especially in the Silicon Valley) so you never know who you’ll run into again. As twisted irony would have it, several years later that CEO would become one of my consulting firms first clients.
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 Stephynie Malik, CEO & Founder of SMALIK Enterprises.
Stephynie Malik is an award-winning CEO whose business career spans 25 plus years and each position she has held has provided her the specialized knowledge, operational experience, and reputation for achieving exceptional results that she brings to the table today. After successfully running her previous business, Malikco, for over 16 years Stephynie founded SMALIK Enterprises, a Crisis Management, Executive Performance, and Business Consulting firm that serves clients all around the world.
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 had the great fortune of being able to grow up in the Silicon Valley which afforded me the opportunity to work at some of the best companies in the world and do so at a time in which cutting edge technology was at the forefront. After holding several Director and Vice President roles and gaining invaluable experience along the way, I founded what would become a highly successful global consulting firm. After nearly 15 years as Founder and CEO, I didn’t just want to ride off into the sunset as I knew deep inside that there was so much more that I wanted to do and so much more that I wanted to give back to others. It was then that I founded my most recent venture, SMALIK Enterprises. SME is a Crisis Management, Executive Performance and Business Consulting firm that was founded with the deliberate intent to promote change, make a greater impact, give back and to ultimately transform not just companies, but also the lives of those we work with.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Where do I start? I’ve made several mistakes in my journey. I guess the funniest would be when I “sort of” told off a high-powered CEO at an early stage in my career. I say ‘sort of’ as I really didn’t tell him off, but rather laughed when he told me to get out of his office, followed by the question: “Was that real? Did you really just tell me to get out?” Thinking back, it wasn’t even by design but rather a nervous reaction by my young self to just being utterly stunned by his words and demeanor. I was sent there by my boss to pick up a contract so essentially I was just the messenger or in this case the courier. Despite our company delivering a contract that provided them with all that they asked for, the CEO had stalled for weeks on signing it so my boss at the time sent the lowest on the totem pole to go and try to pick it up in person. Lucky me. I will never forget that drive back to the office, I was a complete mess and surely expected to be fired on the spot. When I pulled up, my boss was waiting in the parking lot for me. As I exited the car (without a signed contract of course) he walked up to me with the sternest of faces and said, “Did you really just laugh at that man?” But before a lump could even form in my throat, he walked over to me and gave me a giant hug and said, “I didn’t know you had it in you, Malik.”
As far as the lesson or take away, I would say that it’s always important to act with grace and kindness in any situation as the reality is none of us know what the other person could be battling or going through. The business world is extremely tough and stressful and not to mention incestuous (especially in the Silicon Valley) so you never know who you’ll run into again. As twisted irony would have it, several years later that CEO would become one of my consulting firms first clients.
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?
There were and still are so many people along the way that have been highly instrumental in my success. I measure success differently than most, as I think I take a more holistic approach. I could name so many high level, powerful people that were paramount in my business success, but two people really stand out and helped me grow my perspective on developing my emotional intelligence, my self-awareness and my listening skills. These are some of my attributes that other leaders comment on most. These two are Richard Belluzzo and Bucky Issacson. Both made themselves available to guide and mentor me, even when they were at the height of their own careers. They consistently made time to develop my internal beliefs about myself and my capabilities. I have never seen anyone be able to take the most complicated deals and deliver flawlessly. I remember saying to them, “Three weeks ago I felt like you were speaking another language and now in 15 minutes, I not only fully understand, but I want to be involved.” The countless hours they spent developing my business acumen, my financial awareness, my self-confidence and consistently educating me selflessly came at a much needed time in and was absolutely instrumental in catapulting my career. Might I add that they afforded me all of this time, energy and guidance while operating multiple global multi-million dollar businesses. Their patience, guidance and mentorship was truly invaluable.
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?
SMALIK Enterprises was started with a deliberate intent and sheer will to give high performers a second chance, through our business consulting, crisis expertise, and performance coaching. While we have three areas of practice, they all share the same purpose and goal: to take a company’s or individual’s performance to the next level. After being in this industry for such a long time, the one thing that I saw over and over again statistically was senior level executives, athletes, celebrities and high wealth individuals don’t get lasting results using standard methodologies of therapy or counseling. As a therapist once told me, “How much can I be expected to do with 50 minutes a week?” Over time, I started to see that the demand, stress and pull applied to such high performers was naturally taking its toll on them and was compromising their performance in the office, on the field and at home. Generally, a breakdown in performance will enable poor behavior, and sometimes some are highly detrimental. Through a lot of research and hundreds of insightful conversations we drew the conclusion that high performers need goals and for the perfectionist and truly elite, micro goals. They are on a constant quest to be the best and it’s our job to help get them to the “next level” performance-wise while also transforming their lives, both personal and professional, in the process. Our research showed that when they would attend therapy, they believed they were going backwards instead of moving forward or gaining momentum. Most of the time it doesn’t move fast enough for them, so in turn they disconnect, disengage, become bored and leave all frustrated in the process.
SME has a methodology around all 3 of our offerings — Business Consulting, Crisis Expertise (Reputation Management) and Executive Performance Coaching — that attacks and enables quick, viable and most importantly actionable steps to higher performance. We achieve this through our years of experience, team of experts, proven methodologies and strategies and an undying commitment to our client’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?
The COVID pandemic has sparked a global awakening and awareness of what the word “uncertain” truly means. Naturally, myself and thousands of others immediately went to their laptop or bookshelf to grab the manual for leading your team through a pandemic. Only one problem, it doesn’t exist. With no manual in sight and no time to write one, I defaulted to my instincts and that was to simply “lead”. I know it sounds cliché, but with my team facing unprecedented times while overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, I knew it was my job to lead them versus attempt to “manage” them through this. To do so, I made it a personal mission to truly serve them which involved me being 100% present and available. I listened more and talked less. I used thoughtful questions to engage minds and collect actionable feedback that we could apply as a team. I listened aggressively and responded empathetically and always remained present and at their service as I knew my behavior would ultimately drive our outcomes and determine if we made it through these times. I became astutely aware of my nonverbal behaviors and strived to create a safe environment that allowed for full transparency, engagement and trust. Good leaders know that trust sparks engagement and engagement establishes your credibility. In such times of uncertainty, I knew credibility was my greatest capital and ultimately was a key piece in leading through the early stages of the pandemic.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I don’t think I ever considered giving up but I would often think about how I could be better, deliver more, engage larger audiences, be more effective and make a bigger difference. Giving up was never an option for me. Giving up for me is the same as giving in. I didn’t give in when my Father drowned when I was just three years old or when I learned my Mother had severe mental illness. I didn’t give in when I became emancipated at 15 and I didn’t give in during the 2009 downturn. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to give up and give in and I never have and suspect I never will. It’s not in my DNA and in my case simply wasn’t an option given the circumstances. I’m a firm believer that people who find the inner strength to persevere and not give up generally go on to do great things. In terms of sustaining my drive, it’s quite simple: there is so much more that I want to accomplish and so many more lives I still want to impact.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Listening. Research shows that one critical factor of increasing employee engagement and improving team culture is creating an environment where people feel “psychologically” safe. The more you consistently model effective listening behaviors, the speed at which employees will engage naturally accelerates. Leadership credibility creates trust and trust eliminates fear and creates a sense of workplace safety which is absolutely critical during these challenging times
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?
For me, I call it “using my touchpoints”. Every interaction you have with your team members is an opportunity to inspire and engage. Every individual or team meeting, coaching and development session, performance observation or review, zoom encounter, and any other contact you have can be used to say hello, ask a simple question, show appreciation, recognize effort and results, or solicit feedback and suggestions. I find that this simple and easy effort ensures that I remain present and accessible to my team and in turn their engagement and morale increases.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Given the current state of affairs in the world right now, leaders have been tasked with the challenge of maintaining effective communication during very challenging times. As you know, leaders are responsible for communicating both positive and negative news and unfortunately in the midst of a pandemic, I’ve had to deliver some very discouraging news at times. For me, it starts with transparency and ensuring that I take ownership of both the situation and the messaging. When I was very young, I was told bad news doesn’t get better with time. I can honestly say that I’ve held onto this and have definitely had it in the back of my mind throughout my career. So while I’m cautious not to rush the delivery of difficult news and make it a point to take a thoughtful approach, I definitely don’t wait. I do my best to act with clarity, compassion, empathy and most importantly honesty when messaging my team and our clients and make it a point to allow for the necessary space for the information to be processed. Additionally, I always let them know that I am committed to resolving the issue at hand and come equipped with thoughtful next steps and solutions.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I have chosen to embrace the fact that times are uncertain and that I will ultimately be responsible for leading my team through unchartered waters. To offset the unpredictability we’ll surely face, we’ve made it a point to ensure that all of our move forward strategies are “flexible” in nature. Throughout my career, I’ve never been scared to pivot and I realize now more than ever if a company’s leadership isn’t able to pivot quickly it could ultimately determine if they remain in business or not during these times. Therefore, our future roadmaps are no longer linear. We’re making sure that we account for several different scenarios that may present themselves and are doing our best to create contingency plans for each and building in redundancy where we can. We know the road isn’t a straight one and will have many twists and turns so it’s my job to ensure my team is prepared to pivot when necessary and do so in a resilient manner.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Become a “trusted advisor”. In times of uncertainty, it’s critical that leaders gain as much information and knowledge as possible to effectively lead the teams that trust them. They say that knowledge is power, but effectively applying that knowledge is even more powerful. Through active engagement and effective communication leaders can build trust and credibility with their people, which is absolutely critical during turbulent times. Invest in knowledge, invest in your people, ensure collaboration is at its peak and look to enhance company culture. As a trusted advisor, it’s your responsibility to ensure your company and its people are connecting and not isolating in times of crisis.
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?
- Not Communicating Effectively: Communication is a two-way street, dictating is not. Be thoughtful in your communication, be empathetic, be clear and concise and most importantly, be prepared to listen. Deliver a message that everyone can understand and that includes next steps.
- Panicking: Uncertainty can be a very scary proposition for many businesses and leaders, but it doesn’t mean you should panic. As a leader, you’re expected to lead and your actions and behaviors play a big part in how your team will react. If you panic from the top, you can almost guarantee that chaos will soon follow. Try to remain calm, gather information, seek help where needed and put yourself in a position to lead your team confidently through the difficult times ahead.
- Reacting Too Quickly: During trying times, your composure will most certainly be tested. Upon new information, make sure to take a step back, hear and feel the information and allow the appropriate time to process it. Consult with peers and advisors if necessary and be methodical in your next steps versus reacting rashly.
- Missing Out On Potential Growth Opportunities: “Growth” isn’t just measured in revenue. Most people associate difficult times with crisis and immediately focus on the potential negatives. Revenues will be down, we may lose clients, we may have to lay people off — While these are often very real scenarios many are blind to the fact that opportunity still exists. Seize the opportunity to empathetically connect with your team and clients, increase collaboration, determine new roadmaps and strategies and strengthen relationships. While these actions won’t produce immediate revenues, they will most certainly grow your company’s morale, culture and performance, which in turn will better position the company for success once the difficult times have passed.
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?
For me, it starts with messaging. Leaders should develop and deliver a bold and audacious message that defines the new post-COVID goal and the strategy that will achieve it. The best messages include a detailed explanation of WHY this change is needed, how it will get done, and an invitation and challenge to join you in making it happen. By doing so, leaders are able to engage their teams, build confidence and forge ahead.
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.
- Take Responsibility and Show Accountability: You are it. It starts and stops with you. Take responsibility, own it, and create a blame-free culture. This is your organization and it’s your responsibility to effectively run it despite the uncertain times upon us. Lead!
- Be Extraordinary: You have a simple choice. You can yearn for a return to normal. You can adapt to what others are defining as the new normal. Or, you can become energized and commit to settling for nothing less than an extraordinary and most exceptional future for your company. If you consider yourself a leader, now is the time to show up and prove it. You have many challenges, choices, and decisions to make. The next several months will define your legacy in many ways.
- Engage: Leading transformational change requires “real” employee engagement. Leaders must inspire the hearts and engage the minds of every employee to make that happen. It’s hard work that will require patience, persistence, and your complete and absolute presence. It’s work that could be delegated to external coaches and consultants with ease, but such an approach will always fail given its lack of authenticity and more importantly, the lack of “you”. True leaders lead and develop their teams to deal with any business challenge, contingency, or crisis and they do it themselves.
- Communicate Effectively and with Empathy: In trying times, your company and team are relying on you to get them through. To do so, leaders must be committed to communicating effectively. Make it a point to be thoughtful in your communication and exercise empathy. Be sure to be clear and concise with your communication and have a message that is understood by all and doesn’t leave your audience confused. Most importantly, good leaders make it a point to communicate frequently so that their teams feel connected and in the know.
- Listen: Now more than ever, leaders must learn to listen. Of the four essential communication skills (reading, speaking, listening, and writing), listening is the skill we use the most. Yet for many, it’s often the weakest and least developed skill. If there is ever a time leaders need to quickly develop this skill and “learn” to listen, it’s now. When leaders listen, employees feel valued and heard. When that occurs, engagement, productivity and performance increases. Learn to listen
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of the best pieces of leadership advice I received very early in my career pointed out that when it comes to leading a team, “the team’s members could be my greatest allies or greatest enemies — and it would be my behaviors toward them that determined which camp they would choose to be in.” Life and work are much easier and more enjoyable with a team full of allies.
How can our readers further follow your work?
LinkedIn: Stephynie Malik
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!