Carla Williams Johnson on How To Navigate Uncertainty.
Carla Williams Johnson, known as The CEO's Publicist is a Thought Leader on the topic of leadership and is also an expert in Crisis Management & Response. In this interview, she shares insights with The Industry Leaders about how to navigate uncertainty as a business leader.
Could you please share a bit about yourself, your background, and the journey that has led you to become an entrepreneur? What makes your perspective unique on the subject of leadership and navigating uncertainty?
I just always knew that I wanted to get into the field Even at a young age, I was always in awe of creative executions and how absolutely brilliant one must be to convince someone to buy something from just a few words and an image. As time went on, my passion grew and it landed me to work with some of the most prestigious advertising companies with global brands. It was there I learned that there was so much that went into the final product and I was finally part of the strategic process. I realized that there was so much brainstorming and creativity that went into a single campaign and, working in media, I had the single most important job of getting that creativity out to the right people. I also learned that there must be a plan of action in place in case things don't go according to plan. Fast forward, now I have my own company, where I manage the reputation of brand owners to ensure that they get seen, heard, and paid internationally. You see, visibility is great but knowing how to manage and quickly respond to negativity is crucial in order to turn things around because left unmanaged, bad publicity can wreak havoc on a brand and negatively affect the brand's reputation, and by extension the bottom line.
You and your business have presumably faced some interesting challenges and changes over the years. Can you describe a key moment when you felt uncertainty was at its peak?
I think the peak of uncertainty was back in March 2020……I think we can all remember those days right? I always joke and say March 2020 had 'about a thousand days' because everything moved so slowly….the world was in turmoil and no one knew what was going to happen. The pandemic placed the world on standstill and we had no idea what the future held. Like many other businesses, I had to deal with clients canceling; Being in the industry my whole life it’s pretty standard that marketing budgets are the first to cut when things go south with a business but this time it was different. I literally lost four clients in a day because, as I mentioned between the pandemic news, quarantines and lock downs it felt like the end of the world. The company was, quite literally, in crisis mode. My mindset definitely shifted and I was resolute in my decision of NOT GIVING UP. Here's how I turned things around. I made up my mind to step out of my comfort zone to show up everywhere. No exaggeration, I lost count of about forty media features/interviews within a one month period because every single place I could be, I was. I spoke to mompreneurs who were struggling with productivity because they were now working from home while homeschooling. I used my experience to help them cope with the challenges; I spoke to entrepreneurs who didn’t know how to pivot to this ‘new normal’ and gave practical advice on how to stay afloat; I spoke to solopreneurs who where literally now in crisis mode and gave them the strategies to manage that crisis and tips on how to turn that negative into a positive for their business; I reached out to some of my entrepreneurial friends who were struggling and helped them show up as well by booking features and interviews so that they can share their knowledge with a whole new audience; I was on a mission to save EVERYBODY and I did. This was the year I was recieved the Best Promotions Company, Courageous Marketing Leader awards and was named one of the top 100 Marketers to Follow.
From your experience, what are the core principles or values that guide a leader during uncertain times?
1 — Make up your mind By this I mean you’re going to have to change the way that you think about things so make up your mind that you’re going to do things differently in order to get a different result. Be okay with thinking out of the box and understand that things will only get better from here on out
2 — Get rid of the negativity During those dark days, I stayed away from social media; between the pandemic, conspiracy theories, and negative news it was way too much for me. I needed to protect my mind and spirit if I was ever going to get through.
3 — Surround yourself with great people This is so crucial because you’re going to need that positive energy to recharge you. Have the right people to lean on, to bounce ideas off of, and who will steer you in the right direction.
4 — Get into the habit of self-care Whatever it takes to get your mind right…..do it!! For me it was meditating and journaling……getting my feelings and emotions out really helped me cope. For others that might look like exercising or running a marathon but whatever it is, take care of yourself so you’re in the right frame of mind to take care of others.
5 — Know that you are enough During these times we tend to second guess everything but understand that you are more than enough and well-equipped to handle it. Go forth and conquer!!
How do you cultivate a culture of resilience and adaptability within your team? Can you share a practical example where this culture made a significant difference?
The most important thing is to always be prepared. We live in a world where anything can happen and social media can amplify negativity at lightning speed. We have a plan of action for anything that may affect our business and we create one for our clients as well. So if there's a disgruntled customer, a cyber hack, or loss of service we have a plan that we can refer to to ensure things get back on track. This allows us to remain calm despite what might be happening around us (which also helps us get more done).
Many aspiring leaders struggle with the fear of failure, especially when the path ahead is unclear. What strategies or mental frameworks have you developed to overcome this fear and embrace uncertainty as an opportunity?
This framework allows my team and I to stay calm and get to work. This is a basic overview of our crisis response plan (or what I call the ABCs of Crisis Response) should the unthinkable happen:
A - ACT IMMEDIATELY Move swiftly so as not to incur any damage to the brand, but do so strategically. Communicate any decisions immediately verbally and of course include the media to get the message to a wider audience.
B - BE VISIBLE This isn’t the time to hide. Pay special attention to how you present yourself in public & in the media. Use social media and traditional media where possible to convey your decisions, thoughts, and emotions and how you intend to remain in service to your customers. Also, this is a time to use to media to feature your brand in a positive light and to remain being seen by the public. Look for publications or podcasts where you can share your story and how you are pivoting to cope with the pandemic.
C - CREATE STRATEGY As in create a new marketing plan. Your business has taken a major blow and you need to now factor this in. What can you do to recover and get back into everyone’s good graces? What is the lesson learned? Clearly, there was something that was not done previously, what was it and how can it be implemented now to help you overcome this? Depending on the extent of the damage done, you may need to embark on a public relations campaign to specifically address the situation.
In your opinion, what are the most common mistakes leaders make during uncertain times? Can you offer a real-life example where recognizing and avoiding such a mistake led to success?
As a business owner, you absolutely need to expect the unexpected and prepare as much as possible. During times of uncertainty, we need to move quickly because the longer we take to make decisions the more damage can be done to your brand's reputation. It's always good to have a 'Plan B' for all your campaigns. There was a time when my team had to come to the rescue of a client who, after spending so much time preparing could not launch due to major flooding in her country, We helped her pivot from 'sales & launching' to 'public relations & goodwill', helped her build her awareness during this time which resulted in $10k in sales in one week. Another major mistake made by business owners is ignoring the obvious and hoping it 'all goes away'. This is a terrible strategy to employ and can cost you much more than just a few dollars. It can cost you your business.
Looking towards the future, how do you plan to continue evolving your leadership style to meet new uncertainties and challenges? What advice would you give to others looking to do the same?
A good company is one that reaches the goals that are set, makes money, and serves their customers efficiently but a GREAT company goes above and beyond that. It’s reaching out and helping their customers and partnering with other companies to give them what they need; it’s giving back to the community and helping them thrive. A great company understands that it’s not just about business but it’s about life. We all should move from good to GREAT.
You've clearly demonstrated a willingness to learn and grow through experience. Are there any books, mentors, or resources that have particularly influenced your leadership style? How would you recommend others to approach their leadership development journey?
There are quite a few books I would recommend but I think the absolute best resource is Essentialism. The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. My favorite line: What if we stopped celebrating busy as a matter of importance? The author walks us through his four-step framework on focusing only on what's important to achieve success. I have to say that so many of us get caught up in the trap of being busy and as business owners, we have to remember, that it's not about getting more done but getting more of the RIGHT things done (… and maybe asking for help when we need). Truly a great book and it has helped me become much more focused and productive.