Ashley Stahl: 5 Things You Need to be a Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times
Thinking they can do it all alone or believing they are alone in their struggle. It’s common to think that no one else can do the job as well as you and your team. Instead of alienating yourself from business connections, lean into your network and work together. Chances are if your business is struggling due to economic issues or industry shifts there are others who also need help. Ban together and combine your forces, teams, and client base to create something new. Reach out to mentors, advisors or trusted people in your life for guidance and advice. Difficult times will become much more difficult if you try to weather them alone.
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 Ashley Stahl.
Ashley Stah is a counter-terrorism professional turned career coach and author of the book You Turn: Get Unstuck, Discover Your Direction, Design Your Dream Career and she’s on a mission to help you step into a career you’re excited about and aligned with. Through her two viral TEDx speeches, her online courses, her email list of 500,000 and her show, You Turn Podcast, she’s been able to support clients in 31 countries in discovering their best career path, upgrading their confidence and landing more job offers. She maintains a monthly career column in Forbes, and her work has been also featured in outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, CBS, SELF, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and more. For her FREE quiz to get clarity on your best career path options, visit AshleyStahl.com.
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 will never forget running a program for the Pentagon when I was 23 years old. In my book You Turn: Get Unstuck, Discover Your Direction, Design Your Dream Career, I share the moment I realized I was the youngest person in the room and the only woman in the room. With 80 million millennials in this country, I thought this was a huge issue, so I started hosting coffee groups around DC on the topic of career.
I quickly realized that most professionals in the workplace feel exhausted, confused or uncertain of what they were truly meant to be doing in their career. Most of these talented people were either tired of pretending to be someone else, or were ready to step out on their own but panicked at the idea of change.
These experiences and feelings were all things I had recently gone through, and it was through this connection that I realized I could help. Today, I’m a career coach, empowering people around the world to discover their authentic careers, land more job offers and launch their dream businesses.
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?
When starting out, I focused on sharing my services in other Facebook groups. While at first, this was a great way to put my name out there, I was relying on other communities’ platforms. Plus, it wasn’t a good look to show up in someone’s hard earned community and spam them with my services! My advice is to invest the time into building your own unique audience and community to create lasting success instead of relying on other networks.
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?
Through the highs and lows of my entrepreneurial journey, my best friend Nicole Nowparvar has been my rock. She’s a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, and there have been so many moments when I simply needed someone wise to listen to me and strategize — Nicole always knew exactly how to show up.
Nic and I took a trip to Bali in 2016, and we ended up getting lost in Ubud’s Monkey Forest, scared we’d get attacked by monkeys! She was, as usual, grounded, while I was in a panic. Life is like getting lost in the monkey forest: have a friend who will talk you off the ledge and make the scary feel more safe.
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 started my company out of the need to solve a major problem for people I cared about. First of all, when I worked at the Pentagon, I was often noticing that I was the only woman in the room. This needed to change!
Through naturally talking with friends, it seemed everyone was experiencing some career crisis, be it wanting a higher salary or finding a job in general. From my personal job hunting success, my friends would turn to me asking for advice, instead of talking about dates gone wrong or obnoxious roommates, we would find ourselves planning how they were going to ask for a raise, pursue a promotion, or make a lateral jump to a new industry. Brunches and coffee dates were naturally turning into coaching sessions that I loved. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized I was naturally leaning into this career path and business.
My vision and purpose since have been to help as many young women and men in the workforce do work they love and be compensated accurately. We spend roughly 90,000 hours of our waking life working and it is my goal for it to be something that lights you up!
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?
In moments of uncertainty, it is so important to remember that your company is filled with people, and to lead from a place of compassion and empathy. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, none of us were sure what was going to come next. Before I could vet out whether the changes would impact my business, I reached out to each team member to see how they were doing and give an update on where things appeared to be standing. That brief touchpoint of connection helped everyone feel a little safer and supported.
Deeper than this, I think being able to lead during uncertainty actually begins with knowing how to hire the right team of people. When you hire talent that works well within ambiguity and is adaptable during change, leading through a challenging time is more manageable. For anyone building a business, I advise looking for these key attributes in candidates through asking them situational questions to assess their judgment calls and adaptability in their job interview.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
In one of my first companies, I spent years building a thriving business without knowing that all my financial success would evaporate just months after it showed up. In You Turn I really open up about this experience and the impact my childhood had on my relationship with success and my worth. After a rough call from the debt collector, I had to make a choice, fall apart, or pick myself up and move on. It was at this moment that I had to stop holding onto my vision for what I hoped things would be, and instead choose to accept the reality of the situation. I knew deep down in that moment that I could pull myself out, and while it was going to take a great deal of work, I had it in me. For most people, it’s when the misery you are living in outweighs the fear of the unknown that we become more courageous. I choose to be courageous and face the truth when life is feeling lukewarm.
What sustained me was the incredible community I am a part of. Oftentimes, when we’re going through something difficult, we feel like no one will understand, or we simply feel alone. But that isn’t the case. By creating the courage to share my experience and current state with others, I received a level of support that I didn’t even know existed. I also discovered that some of the best entrepreneurs I admire most have also gone through extreme financial loss on their way into success.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Communicate with the long-term vision in mind. So often when something drastic happens, our vision is limited to a few inches in front of us. This reactivity is such a natural response; we need to survive today. But a great leader is one who can strategically address a challenging time by resolving short-term needs that are still aligned with long-term goals.
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?
Sometimes it’s the small gestures that make the biggest difference. As a leader, the slightest act — giving a gift card, calling to check in, anything thoughtful — can have the most profound impact on an individual. Many people put on a happy face in front of leadership, even when their workload is overwhelming them. Take time to individually ask team members how you can help out or simply listen to them. If you have some time to spare, offer it up. In turn, they will feel valued and recognized for the work they’re putting in.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
If anything, overcommunicate with team members so there are no unaddressed concerns, rumors, or assumptions. The last thing you want during a difficult time is to lead your team astray by not sharing information clearly and consistently. When sharing challenging news, calm your own nerves first, and do what you can to have actionable next steps prepared.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Prepare for multiple outcomes. View the future from an “if, then” perspective. This looks like having multiple scenarios played out for what is possible in your preparation work. While this may be more work upfront, you will have managed all that is within your control. Nothing is ever certain, even during certain times, and the more you can anticipate multiple outcomes the easier they will be to face.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay connected to your deeper purpose. When you can quickly recall and reconnect with why you are doing your work or why you are building your business, it becomes easier to remain constant and focused. If I’m going through a difficult time or working on a challenging project, instead of allowing myself to linger in frustration, I pause and ask myself, “Is this going to help others do work they love?” It may be tempting to create a plan to turn a few sales or make a decision that isn’t aligned with your values, but that won’t keep you aligned in the long run. Turbulent times will come, and it’s the businesses that stay connected to their core values and purpose that remain.
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?
- Thinking they can do it all alone or believing they are alone in their struggle. It’s common to think that no one else can do the job as well as you and your team. Instead of alienating yourself from business connections, lean into your network and work together. Chances are if your business is struggling due to economic issues or industry shifts there are others who also need help. Ban together and combine your forces, teams, and client base to create something new. Reach out to mentors, advisors or trusted people in your life for guidance and advice. Difficult times will become much more difficult if you try to weather them alone.
- I see businesses moving forward with what I call blind optimism. Believing in yourself and your product or services is mandatory in entrepreneurship, but there does come a point where this optimism can be a double-edged sword and be dangerous. This happened to me at one point, I wanted to believe things would turn around, but instead they got worse. This is what I call in my book, You Turn, “hope addiction.”Looking back, I wish I had been able to catch myself sooner, to be realistic about the situation, and take steps from that place. Wishful thinking is great for inspiration to begin, but not when things are falling down.
- When times are tough, I see businesses holding back from quickly adjusting their expenses. While it may be difficult to face the hard truth, or eliminate the positive thinking that things will be okay, you must be willing to eliminate services that don’t have strong ROI, to pause projects that haven’t launched, or to halt expansion projects and unnecessary expenses.
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?
Create multiple streams of income that are not directly reliant upon one another. If you have all of your income tied up in a single product or service, or if all of your sales are generated through a very specific lead this could become a problem down the road. Target your reach but then diversity your offerings. Easier said than done, but the problem with only one revenue stream is it’s too close to zero.
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.
1. Fearlessly innovate. Fearless innovation is key to remaining relevant and engaged in your business. Businesses that are not open to change won’t be able to survive within this fast-moving world. I think the pandemic has been a major example of the magic that happens when businesses pivot and change versus those that stick with the status quo expecting to survive. Change forces us as entrepreneurs to either grow or die… Build a culture of innovation into your business so that when difficult times arise, the need to rethink or redesign your business isn’t something completely foreign.
2. Minimize expenses. You must adjust your business model constantly, this is something that must be reviewed quarterly, monthly, even weekly depending on your company. While finances aren’t necessarily the sexiest part of entrepreneurship, they are definitely important to understand and always have a pulse on. Have a clear understanding of what is a “nice to have” versus a must-have, and prioritize what expenses you must always plan for versus what you can remove if needed. The more you know this upfront, the easier it is to quickly adjust when turbulent times arrive.
When Covid-19 struck, job hunting support was suddenly in high demand so I put a few projects on pause that were not launched yet and pivoted to marketing my services around job hunting. By minimizing my behind-the-scenes projects temporarily and listening to what the market was asking for, I was able to not only continue growing but use the funds to now reinvest in the unpublished projects. I also learned that lots of brands are counting on influencers even more so for their marketing, and thus I signed with a talent manager to add brand partnerships as what I now have experienced to be a very FUN a revenue stream.
3. Eliminate services that don’t have ROI. In my business coaching, I have worked with clients who have great business models. Nonetheless, sometimes they are offering and marketing services that aren’t returning a strong ROI, if any at all. When you build your own business, it becomes your heart and soul and removing a product that you poured passion, time and energy into is hard. But if it isn’t making money, you must be willing to eliminate it. It’s not always just about what YOU want to create; it’s about what your ideal client wants to buy from you.
4. Overcommunicate with your team. Instead of hiding the impact as long as possible, be upfront and communicate honestly. When your business is hit hard, so many emotions flood in embarrassment, shame, and fear, to name a few. This may push you to hold back from sharing with your team, your stakeholders, or your client base but this may end up hurting you more in the long run. Overcommunicate with your team what is happening as updates unfold. The clearer you can be, the more prepared everyone associated with the impact will be.
When my first business went through turbulence, I had to communicate with my team what was happening. This is one thing every entrepreneur dreads: your business impacting the livelihoods of those around you. But the moment I knew I had to let some of my team go, I didn’t hold it back. It was hard to do, but by being upfront I was able to compensate them fully all the while helping them find new jobs faster than they had time to worry.
5. Give yourself space and grace. Don’t neglect caring for your own wellbeing. You can’t care for others or your business unless you take care of yourself first. Before you dive deep into meetings and problem-solving sessions, take a little space to center yourself, review your mission goals and purpose. When you can ground yourself in your intention, it becomes easier to see clearly and take strategic action as opposed to making frantic decisions.
Every time I am faced with a large business decision, I like to sleep on it, or spend time reflecting and journaling to see what comes up. I check in with my intuition and gauge whether my body is somatically responding to a potential decision in a positive or negative way. By doing so, I feel far more confident stepping into a decision and managing a difficult time.
Through the process of writing my book You Turn I was faced with practicing a great deal of grace for myself. The process of writing has incredibly exciting days followed by intense periods of blocks and moments of doubt. The process was a huge lesson for me that, with patience and trust in yourself, things will work out. It comes down to staying the course and knowing great things take time.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandmother once told me that life is like living in different time zones. Some people are eating their dinner right now because they are in New York a few hours ahead, but just because it’s too early in Los Angeles for your dinner doesn’t mean it isn’t coming…your dinner, your time, is always coming. Stop comparing yourself to others and trust your own journey.
This advice has shown up multiple times in my life.
When I was looking for answers in my own career path, I wanted them right away, and I wanted to know exactly what was right. But this was a powerful reminder that sometimes you must sit in the silence and trust that the answer will arrive when its time is right. It is also a beautiful reminder anytime comparison sets in, remembering that you are on your own path, and living in your own time zone dissolves this need to compare.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You Turn Podcast
On Social Media @ashleystahl