Ep 35: Leading Through Uncertainty

BuzzSprout Audio

“If we focus on what’s in our control, we can keep forging ahead.” – Josh Sweeney



Josh Sweeney: Hi, my name is Josh Sweeney, joined by my co-host, Taylor Barnes. Taylor, how are you?

Taylor Barnes: I’m OK, Josh, and I say OK, because I’m a little confused at the direction that everything’s going right now, and it makes me wonder who is going to lead this country, who is going to lead a lot of corporate America, where are we going? It’s pretty confusing, one might say. I’m pretty uncertain about the future.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of people that are uncertain right now, and luckily, you know, there’s been times of uncertainty in the past and we’ve always made it through.

Taylor Barnes: I guess we have gotten through it.

Josh Sweeney: And there’s a lot of uncertainty out there for the future and with leaders. That’s really the thing we want to talk about today, how to lead even when you and your team are uncertain about the future. We have to take initiative by leading through uncertainty.


Leading Through Uncertainty and Disruption

Taylor Barnes: You know, I think that’s one of the reasons that leadership was invented, especially in times of uncertainty and disruption. I’m taking those two specific words from our lead pastor, Andy Stanley, here at church. He talks about uncertainty and disruption. I think that is absolutely one of the big reasons that leadership exists. It’s no secret how odd 2020 has been, but whether it’s this year or whether it’s in your organization and you’re going through a very disruptive model change like the taxis did with Uber, for an example, or like technology did with virtualization, what you need as a leader is to show up and be present and get your organization through, especially during times of uncertainty and disruption. So I’m looking forward to getting into it.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, most definitely, it’s all about leadership and that’s what this podcast is about. So, let’s talk a little bit about why some of this uncertainty happens. What are some reasons that people get really uncertain and start focusing on everything except what they need to do in their role?


Change is Inevitable

Taylor Barnes: You know, I think a lot of this just comes down to the fact that it’s kind of always been this way, there’s always been change. A lot of external stuff comes about whether it’s personally or professionally. Change is inevitable. And so when we talk about the importance of leading through uncertainty, one of the reasons why that’s so important is because, just generally speaking, I think it’s kind of always been that way. Do you know what I mean?

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, there’s always some level of uncertainty, I think it just comes down to what that level looks like. If you look at 2008 where we had an external crisis that affected a lot of people, they were able to channel it and say, here’s the cause and here’s how it does or doesn’t affect my role in the job directly. Whereas now we have multiple different external challenges coming together in 2020, which seems to be causing just more distraction for a lot of different people, because if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Taylor Barnes: Yeah, exactly right. Let’s use COVID as an example. COVID has come in and disrupted everything. Now, COVID obviously affects humans at a personal level, but at the professional level, which is what we’re talking about today, it has completely shaken up the way that people spend money, the way that budgets are allocated, the way that people view where their organization is going, where their personal income might go, and where their day to day might go.


External Challenges

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, I think that’s the challenge for sales leadership. The reality is we still have to forge ahead. Leading through uncertainty involves telling them what is going right and focusing on those things. So we’ll talk about a few more of the external challenges in addition to COVID, and then we’ll get over to some solutions. So, another challenge is government legislative change.

Taylor Barnes: Absolutely.

Josh Sweeney: We’re in an election year. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. Four years ago I had a deal go completely flat. The client said, “we don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re putting this on pause. All of our analysts are saying that the market is about to tank and we’re not spending any money right now.” They lost a ton of time by taking that action, but that was a decision they made. There’s all kinds of different impacts, depending on the way people look at things.

Taylor Barnes: That is the very definition of uncertainty. We know that there is going to be governmental legislative change. We know there’s going to be things, generally speaking, in the market that always disrupt, that always change. COVID was a large change. But I love some of the solutions that we’ve come up with.


Taking Control and Leading Through Uncertainty

Josh Sweeney: Yes, so let’s take a look at some of those solutions. One of the solutions I really like is focusing on what’s in our control. If we focus on what’s in our control, we can keep forging ahead. No matter what happens with COVID or the government or social unrest or anything else. We still have to feed our kids and have a roof over our head and all of that. So we really have to look at what’s in our control, stay positive, and take action.


Being Honest and Authentic

Taylor Barnes: Yeah, I agree. One of the things that I always like here in terms of the solution is being present. Showing up to just put in face time, whether that’s in person with distancing or doing a video call. Here’s an analogy that I really like to give: in the hospital, can you think of a time where you would say to the surgeon, “you’re coming in here and you’re talking too much. I don’t want to hear all the different things that you’re thinking.” The answer is no. You’ll never have enough information from a doctor or surgeon or somebody that is trying to sustain the livelihood of someone in your family. The communication alleviates some of that uncertainty. And I love that analogy as it relates to leadership. As the leader, you can kind of take on the surgeon in that analogy. You can never over communicate that we are in this together, that we’re all going through this together. If you bring that level of authenticity and vulnerability, you immediately become more relatable as a human. And I promise you, guys and girls, your employees, when they see that, will feel way more comfortable in their own skin. The last thing that we can do as leaders is guarantee that everything’s going to be fine and guarantee that we’re going to increase revenues. You need to be honest about where you’re at. 

Josh Sweeney: And to talk more about being in it together, one strategy for that is making the time to go to your sales reps and say, “I know lots of different things are going on. I just wanted to see how you’re doing. What are some of the struggles you’re having?” That gives them the idea that you care as a sales leader, and then it also goes into coaching. What can we change? What can we go after together? If a lot of their struggles are pointing to external issues, you have the opportunity to guide them and say, “well, what’s in our control?” There’s an opportunity there to drive those conversations. When leading through uncertainty, leaders need to go have those conversations and not just treat it like somebody showing up for a job.


A Positive Tone

Taylor Barnes: Mm hmm. Absolutely agree, and the tone has to be positive. It just does. The last thing that you’re going to want to see is one of your leaders or one of your organizational heads say, “well, this sucks. I think we’re screwed.”

Josh Sweeney: Yeah. Throwing up their hands, too, like, “I don’t know, the pipeline is dry, let’s all go home.”

Taylor Barnes: Right. Now, clearly, we’re not asking you to lie. But, what I will say is make sure that you sustain a positive tone throughout the communication.That’s going to be considerably better received on the other end than it would be if you are potentially losing your mind.


Failure Is Not An Option

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, there are different ways to look at it, right. I can look at COVID as this huge bad thing that is being done to me. I have no action and it’s over. Or I can spin it to my team as a dry spell, but there’s only really one way to go from here. We just have to go after it. And here’s the thing, if you leave here and go somewhere else, they’re having the same challenges. So it’s not like the grass is greener over there. We’re in this together. When this starts to recover, we’re going to be hitting it. So what can we do now to make that happen? You can definitely take a positive look at it. I’m not saying that’s easy. Sometimes, you just want to go home and crawl in bed. But, there’s always that light.

Taylor Barnes: Right. In that same regard, controlling what we can control and then really boiling it down and taking ownership of it. We have to be able to take ownership of what we can control and have this “failure is not an option” mentality or else you’re just going to, what, shut the doors? No, of course not. You have to feed the top of that pipeline and maintain a positive tone. Again, it’s a whole lot easier said than done. I want to be very practical about that. But when we really boil it down, Josh, we’ve got two options. One is that we throw up arms and say we’re screwed. Or, we lead and we focus on Purpose-Driven Sales, Purpose-Driven Leadership. And that is intentional extreme ownership with a positive tone. You have to be leading through uncertainty by using some of these solutions, showing up and being present, letting everybody know that we’re in it together, that we’re going to do it together. So important for the end result.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. We all know it’s going to happen again to some degree. Every business goes through disruption or uncertainty. It’s all about how you’re leading through uncertainty We’re all going to go through it year after year. So, we really have to level up the way that we motivate and engage our sales team and lead them through these times. After 2020, we should be experts at it.

Taylor Barnes: No kidding.

Josh Sweeney: Anything else should almost feel trivial.


Don’t Be a Victim

Taylor Barnes: Right, exactly. This is happening to me versus what could happen through me. What we’re trying to talk to you all about is what’s possible to happen through you as a leader, to drive your organization out of something like this. If you have a victim mentality, then things tend to happen to you. It’s unfortunate that things happen to you and there’s nothing you can do about it. And again, that’s so much easier said than done because there are a lot of things that are out of our control. You can either focus on that or not. I recommend not. Figure out what can happen through you as a leader. How you can get everybody riled up. Lead your organization through these times of uncertainty so that your people don’t run out the door with their hair on fire and freak out. I say that in jest. I know that I shouldn’t joke about that because there have been some very unfortunate times this year, but I do hope that everybody is taking some of these solutions seriously, because I think it’s required.


Coming Out Stronger

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. It’s extreme ownership, go out there and own it. Failure is not an option. There’s going to be setbacks. What do we do during those setbacks and what is the opportunity in the setback? We have clients that heavily generated a lot of sales from their referral relationships, from industry events. And when that goes flat, it feels like the end of the world. But it’s also now a point at which they can pivot to do other things. When that industry comes back, if they’ve already fleshed out another way to do sales, they’re better than they ever were. Sometimes that’s the only way we can look at it. Let’s look at the long term, 10 years from now. This will be something we remember.

Taylor Barnes: Right. This has been a very, very challenging year. We’re not taking anything away from that. This isn’t a “suck it up” kind of conversation. This is just giving you tactical approaches on how to lead by showing up and being present, being clear, being vulnerable and authentic and honest with your organization. Here is what we are going to do. Here is the path that we are going to take. And if that changes, that’s OK. But lead by giving clarity to your organization, using your voice instead of your words on an email. That’s going to really move the emotional meter for your organization.


A Clear Vision for Leading Through Uncertainty

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, part of it is restating the mission, restating the vision for the organization and keeping them focused on that. I find that when you redirect to that more of their mindshare goes to that instead of the external items. Sometimes you just have to pull attention away from these other things that are happening. I think I even saw an article on it yesterday where a CEO came out and said, “look, there’s a lot of distractions happening and we’re feeling it in the organization. We just want to reinforce what our mission is and how we’re going to get there and where we need to be focused.” So while you’re working each day, keep that focus in mind.

Taylor Barnes: Right, well, I don’t know about you, Josh, but I’m feeling a whole lot more clear and confident now, and I have a lot more more reason to go after it. So thank you for this amazing conversation.

Josh Sweeney: Yes, it’s been a good one, and I think it needed to happen. So for you sales leaders out there, the question is, how are you leading through uncertainty?

Taylor Barnes: And this has been Purpose-Driven Sales with Barnes and Sweeney. Now go lead on purpose.

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