Amy Mills of Kincentric: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain and Turbulent Times

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
11 min readNov 7, 2023

--

Outstanding leaders are those who inspire others toward a compelling vision of the future and, therefore, help employees find true purpose and meaning in their jobs. Such leaders have the ability to shift from flat statements around the products or services they offer to energizing messages about how those products or services can change lives and communities.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Mills.

Amy Mills is a Partner and Managing Director at Kincentric, a Spencer Stuart company focused on improving leadership impact. She holds a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a certified coach with the International Coaching Federation. She specializes in leadership assessment, development and coaching. For more than 25 years, Amy has focused on directing large-scale leadership programs with the world’s largest and most successful organizations. In addition to providing leadership consulting to her clients, Amy is a leader herself, having built and led large client delivery teams of Ph.D. and master’s level psychologists, as well as service associates, sales executives and marketing professionals.

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 grew up in a very small rural Pennsylvania town and was influenced by both my father’s job at a large Big 10 university, and my mother’s job as an accounting professor at a small liberal arts college. Straddling both country life and higher education gave me exposure to a wide range of people, all with fascinating and equally varied careers. This made me curious about why some people are drawn to and excel at certain jobs. My interest in how people behave at work led me to study Industrial-Organizational Psychology, and ultimately earn a Doctorate in the field before entering a career in leadership consulting.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In my first year as a consultant, the top partner at the firm asked for a volunteer to plan the company picnic. Wanting to shine and prove my capability, I quickly raised my hand and started working through detailed plans, menus and games to provide a flawless event for the entire office. I took total responsibility for everything. The venue was great and the food was delicious. However, I planned the non-refundable festivities at the exact same time as the biggest football playoff game of the season. I continue to be teased about my oversight to this day, but I learned the importance of taking the time and effort to understand others’ needs completely. Had I asked for input and pulled in others for help, the conflict could have been avoided. It is critical to ask others what is important to them, what they expect, and what they want when delivering any kind of solution — even company picnics!

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 had an incredibly capable and inspirational leader serve as my manager when I was an entry level consultant. I was working on several difficult and demanding consulting assignments at once and was falling behind. Not wanting to signal failure, I kept working longer and longer hours, barricading myself inside my office between meetings to work on client deliverables. We had a big client project due, and I promised my manager that everything was going well. Right before the client meeting, I proudly showed him the final presentation that I had worked so hard to complete. He could not hide his disappointment, however, when he quickly found an error on the very first page. But rather than give me a lecture, he coached me, patiently saying “You needed help, but no one knew that because you did not say anything. You have to raise your hand and ask for help when you need it.” Given teams can often achieve so much more than any one person, this advice has stayed with me all these years, and is often something I share with others.

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

Our firm’s mission is to help organizations unlock the power of their leaders and teams. Specifically, my team’s purpose is to enable organizations to develop leaders to be as inspirational, engaged, passionate, resilient, capable and transformative as possible. This purpose drives our team to deliver outstanding support to organizations so their leaders will thrive and grow. Watching this happen is extremely rewarding for all of us.

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 was asked to lead a team that had just gone through significant changes due to an acquisition. I met with each team member, asking them what they were working on and what they thought they should be working on. While each team member was incredibly busy and productive, they were not engaged, and their work was not connected to the core mission of the organization. Instead, each team member was focused on disparate tasks, stemming from unrelated assignments. Not surprisingly, when I asked each person what the team’s mission was, I received as many answers as team members, revealing there was no shared purpose. It was clear we needed to quickly clarify our mission and redefine goals, roles and responsibilities. We built a team charter together and we connect back to this often, both as a whole team and individually.

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

The demands associated with consulting can pile up and feel insurmountable at times. Given that I coach leaders on concepts like resilience, I try to “practice what I preach” and apply what I teach to my own personal and professional lives. What helps me is to reframe failure as situational and something to learn from, as opposed to a character flaw. Leaning on others is also helpful for motivation, especially when talented peers share stories of how they overcome adversity. It is also helpful to return to the basics of self-care like exercise and good sleep when facing challenges at work, as without this critical foundation it’s extremely difficult to build resilience.

I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

I really enjoyed the book by Shawn Achor called Big Potential. It is a personal favorite and one I often recommend in my leadership development and coaching work. The book inspires readers to understand the true value of developing deep relationships with others, partnering with others on meaningful work, and enabling the growth of others rather than competing with them. We can accomplish so much more working in a high-functioning team than we can as individuals.

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

Leaders need to connect people to a purpose, particularly during challenging times. When each team member can clearly share — and agree with — the reason they come to work each day the leader has been successful. I also believe leaders must inspire their teams to work tenaciously toward that shared purpose, and care about and support them as the unique individuals they are.

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?

What motivates and inspires one person may not be the same for another. It is every leader’s job to discover the goals, motivators and expectations of each member of his or her team. When leaders know what engages each employee uniquely, they have the knowledge that will enable them to put each team member in situations where they can thrive and do what they enjoy. I work with a lot of leaders, and I have been stunned to learn the vast majority of them do not know the career goals and motivators of their direct reports. They don’t think to ask, even when doing so will enable them to direct and shape the work and career trajectory of others.

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

Leaders should communicate difficult news as soon as possible and with care and candor. Our own research shows that leaders who communicate authentically, but also with concern and empathy for the other person, have the most engaged teams.

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

I would argue this is a critical competency for anyone in the role of a leader. We often discuss the concept of leading in a VUCA environment (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) in our leadership development programs. The Army War College is credited with coining this phrase to describe the challenges facing leaders following the end of the cold war and suggests the role of a leader is to help their teams see above and beyond the complexities in front of them so they can move forward. Similarly, organizational leaders need to rely on their training, skills, experience, and expertise to help their teams face difficult situations and inspire others to move forward and progress.

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

I believe strong, skilled and principled leadership transcends the ups and downs that challenge organizations. We see over and over again that when organizations face uncertainty, people look to their leaders to provide a shared purpose, authentic communication, motivation to pursue goals, care and support. Organizations with such leaders experience higher rates of employee retention and engagement and will weather turbulent times better than those that lack such leadership.

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?

The most common mistakes I observe are withholding or delaying the communication of critical information, failing to connect employees to a clearly visible and defined future, failing to align team members to a shared purpose, and putting employees in a situation in which they feel they need to compete with rather than rely on their teammates. Organizations should keep in mind that what makes leaders and organizations successful in good times are often the exact same principles they must continue to adhere to in difficult times.

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.

Outstanding leaders are those who inspire others toward a compelling vision of the future and, therefore, help employees find true purpose and meaning in their jobs. Such leaders have the ability to shift from flat statements around the products or services they offer to energizing messages about how those products or services can change lives and communities. For example, is it more inspiring to work for a bank with “a lot of ATMs” or one that “enables everyone in the community to be financially strong”? People are more likely to get up in the morning and go to work if they believe they are helping their community.

The most effective leaders we work with also provide very clear direction so that team members can be productive even in ambiguous situations. They remove obstacles for their teams in order to enable them to persist and continue making progress toward goals. We coach leaders in innovative industries such as vehicle electrification and those who remove obstacles for their teams keep them focused on delivery. These leaders outperform those who get sidetracked and distracted by issues such as politics, compliance risks, or threats to material supply. Employees can’t influence the time it takes to build mines to obtain the material needed to produce electric batteries, so they should not spend their time and energy worrying about it. Instead, employees should be able to look to their leaders to manage larger issues while staying focused on a clear and stated goal.

Further, top leaders are those who are straight forward and candid in their communications and are often described as being authentic and relatable. We are partnering with a company in the midst of a large reorganization and their leaders engage in daily communications with employees to honestly share what they know in a timely fashion. This is in contrast to their earlier efforts at managing significant transformation, which consisted of holding a comprehensive town hall. Town halls can be a fantastic way to connect with employees, promote teamwork and share information. However, they can take significant time to organize and employees were waiting for weeks to receive critical information that impacted their work. This time around, the use of frequent and consistent communication with candor is working much better for them. The organization is more stable, and they are seeing higher employee engagement and enjoying higher retention.

Other characteristics of outstanding leaders center around their genuine care for others; they always show consideration and empathy toward others even in difficult situations or when bad news needs to be shared.

Finally, we find that top leaders are life-long learners and enjoy staying connected to industry trends and investing in their own development. This focus does not stop solely with the leader, however. They also have the belief that others can grow and develop and, thus, prioritize and invest in ongoing learning and growth for their team members as well.

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

I have found a lot of solace in Max Ehrmann’s 1927 work on the Desiderata. My favorite quote from this poem is “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should”. Both myself and the leaders I coach are always in a wide range of challenging business situations. This quote helps me shift from what we want or what ‘should be’ to one of openness and acceptance of what is. When people can focus on what they can control, they have more efficacy over the situation and real growth can happen.

How can our readers further follow your work?

As a leader and coach, I pride myself on being open and available to other leadership enthusiasts. You can connect with me on LinkedIn, look for me at Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologist conferences, and access my profile at International Coaching Federation’s website.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

--

--

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator