Michelle Schafer on How To Navigate Uncertainty.
Michelle Schafer is Owner and Career Coach of Michelle Schafer Coaching and is a thought leader on the topic of leadership. In this interview, they share 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 love learning about the career stories of my clients, and how I got into coaching is a story on its own. I've been restructured twice and reinvented myself twice in my career – first from financial services to not-for-profit, then not-for-profit to small business ownership (just over 8 years ago!) as a coach and the owner of Michelle Schafer Coaching. I joke that at age 46, I finally knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. A good coaching friend planted the seed years ago, as I had always coached as part of my job - then, when my position was eliminated a second time, I started networking with coaches to learn more and find out about their coaching specialization and what coaching school they went to. I realized after taking my first level coaching certification that this was something I wanted to do as a career (not just off the side of my desk), so I established my own practice and, because of my own transition experience, chose to focus my coaching in the career space. The book “Answering Your Call” by John Schuster provided a lot of inspiration to me as I was contemplating this huge pivot in my career. I love Simon Sinek’s “The Power of Why”. I believe that everyone deserves to find a career that allows them to do work that gives them energy, for a company that believes what they believe in. That’s my “why”, and it applies whether you are a leader or whether you are exploring a new career path. This purpose is the same today as it was 8 years ago when I started my business.
“How” I do this is by creating a safe space for clients to explore and reflect, combined with providing practical activities to help them try new approaches and take baby steps forward to get them closer to their goal. Many baby steps amounts to one giant step! As a business owner, I've navigated plenty of challenges and uncertainty with my coaching practice, and also work with leaders to develop their leadership competencies. So I work with leaders and also provide leadership. These two hats have allowed me to develop my ideas and perspectives around leadership. Leadership has changed a lot over the years, and leaders need to adapt to respond to those changes.
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?
This is one of the joys of small business ownership: just when you think uncertainty is at its peak, there is more uncertainly lurking somewhere around the corner! The first time I questioned whether I would survive staying in business was during the pandemic.
In those early days, workshops and coaching were being cancelled (partly because they were in person, and partly because workers everywhere were needing to take time away from work to care for kids learning at home, parents needing help getting groceries etc. I wondered whether I could regain business I lost - I even paused my mortgage payments and property taxes! At that time, my leadership supported me - I nudged myself to try new things, to generate new business and promote myself in new ways.
So I started writing - a lot! Where before the pandemic, I regularly hid behind the words of others (and rarely posted my own content), I started observing what was happening with the changing world of work, and writing about this.
And getting noticed. To this day, people find me on LinkedIn and reach out wanting to work with me. I've recently experienced uncertainty - earlier this year, I suffered a femur fracture and had to give up business as well as drastically scale back my client schedule while I recovered. When disability insurance denied my claim, I realized my business was going to suffer - again.
Another leadership lesson supported me this time around: the power of networking, and not waiting until a critical moment to revive relationships. Over the years, I've come to realize the network needs to be stewarded and nurtured, all the time. My network has been tremendously supportive during this latest tough time, and new business opportunities are emerging from those relationships.
Without giving up, I accepted that the circumstances I was in were uncomfortable, but I would be okay. And I was.
From your experience, what are the core principles or values that guide a leader during uncertain times?
The role of a leader in challenging times can be a difficult balance– as the leader is looking after the needs of the team while also holding their own discomfort and stress with the changes and challenges the organization is faced with. Ultimately, it’s important for leaders to inspire confidence and project stability when things are shifting and uncertain, or in a crisis. Encourage communication, and create a safe space for people to speak up and be heard. Make decisions with confidence, and solicit the input from others to gain fresh perspectives (and perhaps perspectives you hadn’t considered). Having a strong team foundation strengthens the organization’s chances of surviving challenges with few casualties.
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?
Earlier in my career, I led a team which prepared severance packages for individuals affected by a large-scale layoff. My team was advised of who these individuals were before they even received the news themselves. This was difficult for all of us – not only because there were a number of people displaced and the organization was going through huge changes, but also because we all knew people on that list. It was highly confidential work that affected us all personally as well as professionally, as most of us were friends with a few people on that list. I needed to support my team and validate their discomfort and feelings of sadness for their friends, as well as oversee their work to ensure the packages were prepared in a timely way to facilitate delivery of the termination message to individuals. Although our role was an important one, it was challenging to lead this team as I was feeling a lot of the same discomfort they were, and yet still needed to follow the mandate of the organization. I came to realize that this team was doing important work - helping displaced team members receive all the information they needed in a timely way, and providing them access to support they would need to give them a "soft landing".
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?
Failure can be a leader's best teacher. When the business is struggling, you can learn so much from why which can help you recover from the present and plan for the future. My most supportive strategy is to lean on others - talk to other business owners about your struggles and be open to new ways of working to help turn things around. Receiving support in tough times is key, and this support can also provide the inspiration for new ideas What seems like uncertainty in the moment can develop into clarity if we pay attention to it and sit with it versus trying to run away from it.
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?
From personal experience and as a leadership coach, the one thing I’ve seen consistently is leaders get silent. There is little or no conversation about the situation, what’s being done about it and how it will affect others.
So people jump to conclusions, or assume the worst. And they have no way to address their concerns or questions. Minimal communication creates anxiety, so leaders have an opportunity to be up front as much as they can, talk openly about what is happening, and check in with team members on an individual basis to see how they are and what they need to cope. Open communication should be welcomed – not feared.
The other mistake I see is senior teams will make decisions amongst themselves, without involving other team members. This creates a “wait and see” approach where teams receive the direction from senior leaders, without contributing to decisions, approaches or solutions. In this way, the voices of only a few are heard – those few voices are not representative of the whole organization. Solicit input, ask questions, and encourage team members to feel safe contributing a dissenting idea or opinion. In challenging times, there can also be a tendency to focus on the problems at hand which leads to neglecting employee well-being.
Especially in tough times, leaders need to check in with their team members, and see how they are coping with changes and uncertainty. It may seem like there is no time in the day for these conversations, and yet this is one move that demonstrates to employees that their leader cares about them.
Asking “what questions do you have about the changes we are experiencing?”, “how are you coping?” and “what do you need from me?” can go a long way in helping team members feel like they matter.
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?
Flexibility is key – assess, reassess, and pivot where necessary. Change is not linear, so show your ability to adapt and accommodate, and lead your team through this change. Seek out opportunities to learn, and connect with others.
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?
I’m in love with a relatively new leadership offering titled “The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully By Being More Human” by Minette Norman and Karolin Helbig, which contains 25 easy-to-implement “plays” to help leaders create psychological safety and establish a foundation of trust in teams. This is a must-have for every leader’s toolbox! Another book that inspired me early on to take a leadership role in my career development was “Answering Your Call” by John Schuster.
This latter book really shaped my thinking around what direction I would take my career. I first read it before I experienced my first restructure (I’ve had my job eliminated twice in my career) and again before I decided to get into coaching. It helped me connect to my calling – to coach, develop and help others. I remember a friend of mine encouraging me to reach out to the author John to thank him for the impact this book had on my professional life – we had a few conversations after that, and it was valuable for me to share how meaningful this book was, and rewarding for him to know the impact his writing and insights had for me at a pivotal time in my life. In my office, I have a sign that says "find the joy in the journey".
I truly believe that every journey (leadership journey or career transition journey) has ups and downs, and there are beautiful, reflective moments in there that teach us a lot. The key is to pay attention to what these moments are teaching us.
Two years ago, I listened to a podcast by Brene Brown that featured leadership expert Doug Conant. He shared a quote which I taped to my wall: “Your life story is your leadership story”. So true!