Carolyn Stern of EI Experience: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Improved Mental Health — It is normal to feel anxious, overwhelmed, or nervous during uncertain times. All feelings are valid. The world is undergoing immense change, and people are being tested every day. To help cope with these feelings, make mental health a priority. Leaders and their teams must take care of themselves and pay attention to their needs. People should review their daily activities to ensure they get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat proper meals. Taking care of yourself is not selfish; it will build resilience and grit as the body learns to respond to these emotions.
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 Carolyn Stern.
Carolyn Stern, author of THE EMOTIONALLY STRONG LEADER, is the President and CEO of EI Experience, an executive leadership development and emotional intelligence training firm. She is a certified Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Development Expert, professional speaker, and university professor whose emotional intelligence courses and modules have been adopted by top universities in North America. She has also provided comprehensive training programs to business leaders across the continent in highly regarded corporations encompassing industries such as technology, finance, manufacturing, advertising, education, healthcare, government, and foodservice. Stern lives and works in Vancouver, British Columbia. For more information go to: https://carolynstern.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?
As long as I can remember, I have always felt things deeply and had strong emotional reactions to people, things or situations. For the longest time, I believed this was a negative personality trait. I thought being emotional was my weakness. But that mental model was turned around for me when I was studying for my Master’s degree and took an EQ assessment. All of a sudden, a mirror was being held up to show me something important — that although my emotional makeup was hurting my leadership and life in certain ways, my emotions were also the basis of some of my strengths.
The problem wasn’t that I felt deeply about things, but rather I was letting my emotional outbursts ruin my life. In short, I was not being INTELLIGENT about my EMOTIONS.
Since then, for over two decades, I have been studying Emotional Intelligence (EI). The more I learned about EI, the more I realized that it could help people:
1. gain fresh perspectives on challenges and opportunities,
2. improve thinking and decision-making skills,
3. increase resilience and mental toughness,
4. enhance interpersonal effectiveness,
5. boost communication,
6. increase confidence, and
7. strengthen engagement and morale.
My company, EI Experience, is a management training company specializing in creating leadership development training programs with a foundation in Emotional Intelligence for all levels of management and businesses of all sizes and scopes. Our goal is to help small, mid-sized and large multinational companies bring HEART into the organization by teaching EI skills to connect authentically, communicate effectively, and thrive collectively.
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?
Although this was not “funny” at the time, early on in my career, I made a mistake that was one of the best leadership lessons of my career. It slapped me in the face and made me realize the difference between my intentions as a leader and my impact on others. One of my employees told me she was much happier working in a different city from me.
Wow, that was an arrow to my heart.
Getting that feedback hurt, but more than anything, it shocked me. I thought I was a great leader. I included her in all company decisions and asked her many questions to get her feedback and perspective. But to her, I was overinvolved. She knew what she was doing and did not need me to be involved in her day-to-day tasks. She wanted to be left alone to produce high-quality work.
That experience made me realize that as a leader, you can have the grandest intention, but the impact you leave may land very differently from what you hoped for. I learned I could have lofty goals or a genuine desire to show up in a certain way, but that does not always equal my impact — how others experience me as their leader.
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?
That is a no-brainer — my mother. Growing up, my mother worked three jobs to pay for my education. She was the sole reason I was able to earn all of my degrees. Her perseverance and dedication taught me at a young age that if you work hard, you will reap the rewards.
I am forever grateful for all that she sacrificed to make my life better. She provided me with countless opportunities to advance my education, which ultimately led me to find Emotional Intelligence.
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?
At EI Experience, we’re committed to making it OK to be human in the workplace.
This is our guiding principle. We evaluate everything we do based on this objective and only those projects that will further our progress towards this goal qualify for consideration.
Our mission statement is Learn More. Be Better. Teach Others. We stand by our purpose of making a difference in the lives of others, helping them achieve more and maximizing their unlimited potential.
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?
None of us knows what is coming next or can control what the future may hold. That uncertainty can be paralyzing. However, as a leader, I have learned that you must buckle down, make decisions, and move forward even in the face of ambiguity. The main question is, how?
I have found that the best way to manage ambiguity and lead my team through uncertainty is by using Emotional intelligence.
Tapping into how you feel throughout the day and conducting regular check-ins with your staff is essential. It provides a safe place for your team to express their fears and stressors and have a candid conversation about what is happening right now. It’s hard for people to focus on work when their emotions run amuck.
Lastly, it is essential to pay attention to what the uncertainty and difficult times teach you about yourself as a leader and what your company can do better. Model the way and be emotionally resilient and mentally tough for your employees. They are watching how you respond during these challenging times. Offer them the time and space to vent and share how they feel. When people feel cared for, it’s incredible what they can and will accomplish.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Being an entrepreneur is not easy. No one gives you an instructional manual. And even though I have a slew of degrees, the best education I ever had was gained running my own business. And yes, within my career, I have had many moments when I wanted to give up. There were many failures or mistakes I made along the way.
But I’ve learned that we need to allow for failure as it teaches us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, learn from our mistakes and try not to make the same mistake again. Losing and making mistakes can teach us lots of crucial life lessons, including having self-compassion, emotional resilience, and empathy for others, to name a few.
Having said that, what keeps me going is my love of learning. One of my core values is constantly learning, discovering and growing. On those days that I screw up or make a mistake, and perhaps my emotions get the best of me, I apologize, feel bad about it, and then learn from it. I mean, we are human, not perfect. But that is the point. All we have to do is get up, learn more, and be better than the day before.
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?
One of my all-time favorite authors is Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
In this influential book, Pink examines the three elements of true intrinsic motivation — autonomy, mastery, and purpose — and offers clever and interesting techniques for putting these into action to change how we think and transform how we act and live.
This book changed how I motivate my staff, students and clients. Pink digs deep below the surface and gets to the heart of what humans want and need.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
As a leader, you must support your team to be all they can be. It’s not how good you are; it’s how good your employees can be and how well you can unleash their potential that counts.
To do this, it’s essential to find out what your people are feeling and be open to listening — not solving their problems, but actively listening to their concerns. In these cases, you can ask them what they need to feel supported through challenging times. They can teach you how to lead them. You don’t have to know the answers. I think that is one of the biggest fallacies that leaders believe. They believe they need to be a problem-solving hero when all they have to do is listen and coach their teams through their challenges.
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?
Senior employees typically possess superior technical abilities; however, this is only one-half of the equation required to increase the effectiveness of an organization. Management and senior leaders must focus on the skills necessary to work with others and get the best results from their teams. They need to inspire, motivate and ignite passion by leading with Emotional Intelligence.
A leader with high Emotional Intelligence builds mutually beneficial and nurturing relationships based on trust and compassion. They actively listen, can put themselves in other people’s shoes, and see things from perspectives different from their own. They speak up, ask for support to complete a task, and are willing to help others.
Building Emotional Intelligence and resilience requires intentional preparation so that you, as the leader, can be ready to improvise, think fast on your feet, and be successful. You do not have to be perfect. You just need to start. And if you do, the result will be that you develop more grit, your work becomes more enjoyable, and your teams become more adaptable and emotionally intelligent.
What are the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
When you have difficult news, you need to be transparent and truthful. As a leader, you are responsible for holding up a mirror and sharing what you see. But also you need to be humble and make sure you ask questions as your reality may not be everyone else’s reality. Challenge your assumptions. The way you may view something might not be how others view it. It’s essential to have a dialogue and not just share a monologue.
Always state your intention first, what are you hoping to achieve from this conversation. Share what you are noticing, and more importantly, how that impacts others and what you wish to see in the future. Have a two-way conversation on what the future action plan may look like.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
If there is one thing I could tell every business leader struggling during turbulent times, it would be: don’t be afraid of emotions, yours or those of your team. Feelings are not facts. They are just feelings. Not good or bad, right or wrong, just an emotional reaction to a person, thing or situation.
And even though feelings are an emotionally-charged, triggered reaction, and are not always factual, they can be full of wisdom if you look for it. Feelings are filled with insights and should be used as data to learn more about yourself, others and the world.
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?
Leaders need to stop being scared of emotions in the workplace. There is no doubt that repressing emotions can be detrimental to leaders themselves, to those with whom they have relationships, and to the decisions they need to make at work. Instead of always trying to be stoic and unhindered, leaders should share how they are feeling. They should also check in with others. How people feel affects how they perform, so it is important to always ask how employees are feeling and how, you as their leader, can support them.
Leaders try to be problem-solving heroes and think they need to have all of the answers. They don’t know how to coach others through their workplace challenges and issues, so they try to save the day and provide solutions to their workers’ problems. But that creates a culture of dependence and does not empower others to find the answers themselves.
Leaders need to remember that they are teachers. If you give people the answers, they are not learning and growing. Think about it; as a university professor, I have the answers to the student’s exams, but if I give them the answers, they are not learning. The same applies in the workplace. You need to ask good questions for your people to find solutions to their issues and challenges.
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.
Improved Mental Health
It is normal to feel anxious, overwhelmed, or nervous during uncertain times. All feelings are valid. The world is undergoing immense change, and people are being tested every day. To help cope with these feelings, make mental health a priority. Leaders and their teams must take care of themselves and pay attention to their needs. People should review their daily activities to ensure they get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat proper meals. Taking care of yourself is not selfish; it will build resilience and grit as the body learns to respond to these emotions.
Lead with Core Values
Instead of formulating a contingency plan for every possible unknown, leaders should turn to the anchors of their business — the company’s core values and purpose. When the world is shaking, grab hold of the things that bring stability to your organization. Your corporate values are your guiding principles that dictate your behaviors and actions.
Focus on the Learning
Try to focus on what you learn during uncertain and turbulent times. What has the uncertainty about our future made you realize about yourself? How do you show up for your team or family in stressful times? How has your emotional state impacted how you lead and make decisions? Take some time to reflect on the learning you have gained and decide what you need to work on to be a better leader, life partner, parent, and human being. The more you know yourself, the better you will be at adapting to life’s challenges healthily and successfully.
Mental Toughness and Emotional Resilience
Productivity is one of the many obstacles that come with dealing with uncertainty. Highly distracted or stressed people don’t innovate and change. As a leader, you must develop your staff to take risks, spur ingenuity, have autonomous thoughts, and innovate when change is upon them. The first step towards encouraging innovation is to value knowledge and lead by example, seeing challenges as learning opportunities.
Foster a Positive Work Environment
When leading through uncertainty, one of your significant duties is fostering a positive work environment. Strong leadership that encourages open and honest communication is vital to creating a positive feeling in the workplace. Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Remember that every employee has a different tolerance to ambiguity. Having empathy for those around you who don’t cope well with change or the unfamiliar is essential in leadership.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Who we are is how we lead. –Brene Brown
When you are clear about who you are, what you want, and how you will get it, the rest is all doable. Understanding this helps people lead more consciously and purposefully.
How can our readers further follow your work?
All social media platforms via @carolyn stern
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!