Deidre Alves Of ExuLAB On The Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Sara Connell
Don’t Flip Flop, PIVOT!- There is nothing worse than a leader who flip flops. Flip flopping usually happens with incompetent leaders or leaders who have no business being leaders in the first place! Flip flopping is a stagnant repeated back and forth that causes disfunction, confusion, wasted re-work, frustration and moves you backwards. In uncertain times, this inertia is your enemy- so pivot, A pivot is decisive and clear new action, builds on where you are and catapults you forward- with momentum toward your end goal.
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 Deidre Alves M.Ed.
Changing the way organizations think about learning and leading, Deidre Alves M.Ed. is a visionary leader who creates, produces, and leads inspired enterprise-level learning and leadership development strategic solutions in both the public and private sector for industries including: Energy, Cybersecurity and Convergence, Luxury Hospitality, Education, National Security, Infrastructure Development, Law, Environmental Awareness, Engineering and Public Policy producing results generating more than $15 million in revenue from more than 51,000 learning & leadership experiences (& counting). As Chief Leadership Officer, Deidre helms ExuLAB www.exulab.com and is responsible for the direction, design, development, launch and lift of the full arc of learning and leadership development programs, products and services. She considers herself a “steward of purpose” where she champions ExuLAB’s dream of imagining a world where leaders harness their power of leadership as a force for kindness and good in our world- even when it seems impossible and is a frequent advisor on board, high potential, and senior executive leadership performance.
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 laugh and say that I got started in fourth grade! During that year, I was invited to be a part of this class called “Workshop”. It was this really cool learning experience that happened half a day, once a week. We got the chance to ride to a new location during the actual school day which was pretty thrilling in and of itself for a fourth grader! Then, when we got there, oh boy- I never knew what to expect but there was always a sense of thrilling wonder, excitement, urgency and potential. Our teachers were AMAZING- they believed in us and encouraged us but also expected independence, responsibility and direct ownership of our learning- pretty impressive goals they gave to us- in fact ownership of learning and this desire are drivers that organizations are starving for in the marketplace today. This is one of the goals we help them achieve- it’s not easy but it can be done- you need to unlock it and we help them do this effectively. Unbeknownst to me at the time, “Workshop” was the beginning of my work in learning and leadership development. In this world we could dream, create and learn about anything our heart desired- and they would coach us to get there and teach us powerful innovative lessons along the way that stretched and developed our thinking…but we got to be in charge of our own projects, presentations and outcomes. I remember working on a project about the artificial heart and actually reaching out to Dr. Jarvis M.D. at Humana Hospital! Was that really possible? Could I, a little 9 year old, do this? You bet I could- everything was possible in that world! Imagine my heart thumping moment when he actually personally responded to me! WOW! I can still feel that exhilaration. So, this became the world, the feeling, the atmosphere that I wanted to bring to all my future leaders, learners and teams. This world of possibility…this was the world I wanted to create for the future flourishing of organizational learning innovation, leadership development and success cultures. This was the world I wanted them to feel- conducted at a professional level of course with the perfect healthy dose of enthusiasm and fun. This inspired exhilaration and unleashing of human potential moves mountains, creates success, joy and prosperity. I knew what was possible and it’s been a constant through line and cornerstone of my work in elevating human performance and organizational learning and leadership development to this day.
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?
Ok this one has to do with our website- basically after working months and months on the design and build of our website, it crashed and we lost- everything! I mean everything!! They had said it was a “one in a million tech glitch”. Really?? This was not a prize I wanted to win! But the irony of it was that they responded with such care that our trust actually increased together as a result. With resolve and resilience we re-built from scratch even better than ever. We’ve received positive feedback on our website and learned that sometimes a setback is really a golden opportunity on many levels.
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 am blessed and honored to have an extraordinary mentor in my life who is a leader in global association management with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. What inspires me about him most is his selflessness and dedication to developing his teams. The most precious gifts he has given to me are his time, kindness and trust. I have immense gratitude to him for the countless hours listening wholeheartedly, coaching me to reach my own conclusions, developing my critical thinking and analysis skills, challenging me and believing in me. He is the embodiment of a true leader. For a true leader, I believe, is not about being the boss, it is about bringing out the best in yourself and others in service to our beautiful world. And that is who he is. That is what true leadership is. I remember one day, a particularly stressful day, he came into my office and said he needed to meet with me ASAP and could I break away from what I was doing- as a member of his senior executive team, I came to know his sense of urgency and immediately complied. But he left and came back a couple of minutes later with a piping hot bag of popcorn and a beautiful contagious smile. Suddenly my fear was gone and I felt safe to meet, I trusted him and that whatever we were going to talk about, even if it were challenging, would be ok. It turned out to be an extremely high stakes conversation. But, we sat down, met and hashed out a great strategy together that would prove to be very successful with our stakeholders. His time, kindness and trust were gifts he generously gave to me and remain gifts I strive to give.
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?
ExuLAB inspires the growth of global executive leaders- to lead empathetically and perform successfully as a force for good in our world — -even when it seems impossible. This is our purpose and it has been our purpose since Day 1. I believe the “even when it seems impossible” is the most important part because it is easy to lead and learn when things are going great, but the true test is in how you perform in the turbulent times. Our dream is imagining a world where leaders harness their power as a force for kindness, good and prosperity in our world- inspiring and unlocking excellent executive performance, encouraging, guiding and providing hope to leaders is my core purpose. Real ROI (Return on Investment) is developing and believing in your purpose and the people on your team- when this happens profits soar and people prosper- on many levels. Our purpose grounds our work and everything we do- every action, every program, every product, every service. All decisions are made against this barometer and if it passes the test, we do it- if it doesn’t, we don’t. It sounds simple but takes guts.
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?
During a corporate restructuring, the business was thrown into intentional chaos- not pretty to hear but true and it unfortunately happens a lot. Internal politics will kill the spirit and prosperity of an organization. If you are in leadership, be adamant against this happening. During this time, a new and vetted program was just getting traction and a lot of success. The juxtaposition of such success and chaos was painfully confusing as a leader to deal with. And if I were confused, imagine everyone else! I had spent a lot of time on building trust with my team and they were highly invested in the program. I worked hard to have them learn to trust me, trust themselves and trust each other. Clear communication without fear enabled this trust to grow and I was committed to this and held it as a standard. This trust building was what enabled us to function in this chaos and execute beautifully despite the odds. The program was so vital because it developed the talent pipeline in the organization. It was a unique program that met the functional and business objectives but also had a ton of heart and spirit. That became the legacy. And I say this because, while the organization floundered, the legacy of this program remained. And that is what you build for as a leader especially during uncertain and turbulent times, that is what you strive for, that is what you push through and fight for.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes. But I kept thinking about the legacy, I believed in it. I kept thinking about my team, I believed in them. They had worked so hard up to this point and I was determined to bring us through and honor their work by getting a great result. I felt a tremendous responsibility to them- and to the legacy. Everyone wanted it, our data, feedback and metrics revealed this, but the chaos was against it- I could see down the line that this legacy was going to glow long after the chaos. I wanted this for them. I wanted their success. I think what sustains me is that hope for light- there is so much darkness out there- especially in the chaos and confusion of uncertain and turbulent times- that a little light tries, a little light wins- and it starts with a belief that it is possible.
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?
Without a doubt- High Tech High Touch by John Naisbitt- I studied this as part of my Master’s work- it changed me and is embedded in the work I do. When I coach organizations, I remind them that the human component is the most important part to leading and learning. It seems funny to me that we have to remind people of this- but we do! So often, learning and leading are designed around tech first, or metrics, data and outcomes first, or scale or scope first- while all important- you must, I repeat MUST design around people first. At ExuLAB we say we put the learner and leader first, front, center and always in our design of products, programs and services. Everything else is in service to them. Period.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The leader must be a champion and a communicator especially during challenging times. As a champion, you are the one that believes in the mission and the team. You set the intention, the purpose, the tone, the trust level, the energy and the momentum to succeed. Your team will take your lead. As a communicator, you are the one that ensures understandability, alignment and accuracy of the mission and message- and who safely and enthusiastically, without fear, encourages productive dialog toward meeting the goal. In challenging times, an effective leader must establish a clean clear direct hotline of communication with their team and not hide.
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?
Dance- no joke. You can even do it when remote or virtual. I was once working with a colleague in a leadership development program we were running who used to work in the Peace Corps. When things became stressful- I trusted this person implicitly and learned a ton- what an extraordinary leader- the response was “when things get rough…we dance!” The group of us started to dance and soon we were laughing and in a better state- immediately. My friend did this while working on the ground and leading with the Peace Corps and I think it’s a great practice. Strong and confident leaders pull this off. Your weak ones will criticize it. Don’t let them- because it is so highly effective especially during times of high stress, boosts team spirit, is non-threatening, and gets your team to a higher place where they can think, act and perform better.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way is to begin establishing and working to first develop true trust with your teams and customers Day 1 and try to work at it every single day. Trust is the currency of authentic effective communication. It does not take away the difficult news, but it values the relationship more than the problem. And that’s ultimately what you want with your teams and customers. They will long remember how you made them feel more than what was said and that can go a long way in the future.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Have the courage to commit to and get really clear on your end goal. I tell leaders you need to really know where you are going, what “land” looks like for you if you were the captain of a ship and then execute accordingly. The course you chart may change, or your port, but your end goal of getting to land will remain unchanged. That is what you look for, that is what you aim for- find stability in the chaos and execute against it. Many leaders use an inductive reasoning method, and try to stich action together without knowing what “land” looks like- and this does not work for leadership and certainly does not work in uncertain times.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Put people and purpose first.
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?
- Avoid Toxic “Group Think and Group Do”- I have seen whole organizations cave and capitulate to a negative “group think and group do” mentality. If you notice your leadership doing this, don’t let it happen and put a stop to it immediately because it will devour your organization from the inside. As a strong leader, you must encourage robust thinking, differing of opinions and respected debate but with a positive attitude and commitment to your purpose. A strong leader requires this. It takes courage.
- Avoid Giving into the Fear- It is very normal for senior leaders to be frightened in difficult times. There is so much pressure. They freeze. Fear can take over and when it does, clear thinking can’t. This is a very vulnerable time for an organization because they can fall prey to internal often nefarious manipulative forces. This is prime time for the bad actors, mis-hires and narcissists in your business to do what they do best because they thrive on creating fear- often these internal forces are the cause of or exploit the difficulty. They will threaten and covertly bully others to capitulate and this is often how negative “group think and group do” can take over. As a leader you and your leadership team must be strongly aligned to guard against such toxicity. Let your purpose propel and guide you forward.
- Avoid a Weak Bench- Organizations must take pristine care in appointing their leaders. A weak bench will fall prey to #1 and #2 above, a strong bench will not. Leadership is not for everyone- it sometimes takes a superhuman courage to be a leader. But it is possible- strong, courageous, ethical, kind leaders exist- they are out there. The success or failure of your organization is a direct reflection of its top leader and core leadership. Leaders have a tremendous amount of power. Part of our work is in identifying, developing, inspiring encouraging those leaders who will rise to the ranks and use their power as a force for prosperity, kindness, good in our world. Getting your leader bench right is perhaps the most important act an organization can take.
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 is a video on the 5 Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader in Uncertain and Turbulent Times:
- Be Fiercely Focused on Your Organizational Purpose- The only way out of an uncertain future is to have a certain purpose. A highly effective leader must uniquely be able to first clearly define and build purpose- see it, feel it, know it, live it, breathe it- and then establish a clear shared vision for leadership unity around this purpose. See, the purpose never moves, never changes- but the decisions, communication and motivation do based on their alignment with the purpose. Highly effective leaders and organizations live and die by their purpose- they make all decisions and action based on this crucial litmus test. Those actions that move forward pass the litmus test- they are aligned with purpose. And those that are not aligned with purpose do not pass muster. The leader and the leadership must have the courage to put purpose first and act. It is not easy but with the right team and the right purpose orientation- and unity of purpose- it can be done. The purpose becomes the unshakable calm in a sea of chaos and confusion… and illuminates your path forward.
- Build a Team of ALL Great Apples- before the storm- If you want to succeed through uncertain and turbulent times, you better make sure you have a powerful trustworthy bench way before the storm hits. From board members, to senior staff to the front line and everything in between, organizations must insist that those selected for your bench, especially your leadership, are highly capable in function and have the courage to animate your purpose, value building others up and powering through and forward together as a team. Yes, even one bad actor will derail your mission- in turbulent times an A Team is a non- negotiable.
- Be Obsessed with Team Morale- Morale can make or break your mission- period. It is that secret ingredient that makes winners. A leader is directly responsible for the health of the team. The team’s success or failure is a direct mirror reflection of the leader. Your team will reflect your degree of optimism and care and perform accordingly. Believe in your team and each individual contribution. Genuinely care about, value and appreciate each person. Show them, tell them. But be genuine in this- they will feel it. Be kind and encourage them- make time for this even in the eye of the storm. Believe that success is possible and that you will all get there together. Your team’s esteem must be more powerful than the turbulence.
- Don’t Flip Flop, PIVOT!- There is nothing worse than a leader who flip flops. Flip flopping usually happens with incompetent leaders or leaders who have no business being leaders in the first place! Flip flopping is a stagnant repeated back and forth that causes disfunction, confusion, wasted re-work, frustration and moves you backwards. In uncertain times, this inertia is your enemy- so pivot, A pivot is decisive and clear new action, builds on where you are and catapults you forward- with momentum toward your end goal.
- Get Comfortable with the Uncertainty- As part of my own executive leadership development, I was asked to go trapezing! I had no idea what trapezing had to do with my own development- but I trusted the process. What I realized was that when I was up what felt like hundreds of feet in the air on this shaky little piece of wood ready to take the bar and jump that there was a moment in my intense fear that a calm took over. It was a moment where I accepted the uncertainty. In this acceptance came clarity, courage and an ability to jump. The flight was exhilarating and I landed safely on the net. Getting comfortable with adversity is not easy believe me but with practice it will give you the clarity and courage you need to act- and to use your leadership as a force for wholesome good, success, and prosperity in our world even when it seems impossible.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” e.e. Cummings
This is where I think the real essence of potential in learning and leadership development lies. I see it as creating the optimal conditions to unlock human potential and unleash the power of the human spirit to do great things in our world and to be free to be our real selves and care, be kind, and love… without fear.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We’d love to meet you and thank you for the opportunity to connect with your readers, feel free to stop by and visit us at www.exulab.com
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!