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Top leadership and motivational experts discuss the best practices of successful leaders during challenging times

Philip Van Hooser MBA, CSP, CPAE, keynote speaker, trainer and author (
Dr. Jeffrey Magee human capital developer ( (
Marilyn Sherman CSP, CPAE, front-row leadership expert and Hall of Fame speaker (

Do you and your organization have what it takes to navigate the rocky road of the current public health crisis and successfully emerge on the other side?

Following, top national experts on leadership, performance and human capital development share their perspectives on the characteristics of strong leaders in periods of great uncertainty and the opportunities that these challenging times can present us.


IMARK Electrical Now: Based on your experience, what are some of the key concerns you're hearing from your clients and what kind of assistance/guidance are they seeking in these difficult times?

Dr. Jeffrey Magee: Leading concerns include finding and on-boarding great talent, addressing all employees’ exhaustion and fatigue with the public health crisis keeping them motivated., All of this requires leaders from the top-down and individuals from the bottom-up to own and draw upon greater knowledge, skills and abilities to address the reality of the massive changes we have all been facing head-on since March. Everyone’s 2020 strategic plans were imploded by April 2020 and those who recognized this early and re-calibrated are winning today—not just surviving but thriving!

“COVID will cause (and has caused)a powerful market re-calibrator and equalizer of business problems that were hiding in the back rooms of many organizations”

Dr. Jeffrey Magee

Marilyn Sherman: Now more than ever, people need a message of hope and inspiration. Motivation isn’t about ignoring the reality of what's happening in our world, but about helping to put everything into perspective. I teach my audiences that in order to succeed, leaders need to recognize that their workforce is going through stages of loss (e.g., loss of routine, loss of normalcy, loss of the ability to go to work without worrying about safety protocols, etc.), but not in a linear fashion. I help them recognize that “acceptance” is the only stage where you can be innovative, creative and solution oriented.

Phillip Van Hooser: The most effective leaders are learning how to plan and execute effectively during a defined period of uncertainty, whether to move forward with business opportunities or wait for more certainty, how to balance the real need for employee empathy and patience against pressing business commitments and expecta-tions, and how to maintain timely communication and team focus during periods of isolation and separation. A number of my clients are struggling with the challenges of leading, guiding and supervising employees working remotely. Embedded in those chal-lenges are the continuing obstacles of maintaining open lines of commu-nication, evaluating individual work performance, coaching, counseling and building cohesive teams, and developing/maintaining a high level of morale and camaraderie.

IMARK Electrical Now: Please share some of the key characteristics of high performers in times of great uncertainty (such as the public health crisis and economic upheaval we're currently living through).

Sherman: One key characteristic is transparency. People are in high-anx-iety mode right now and uncertainty can cause undue stress. If they’re consistent and honest about strategies, direction and pivoting protocols, leaders can keep their team engaged by communicating—even over-communicating—what’s going on with the organization.

Dr. Magee: High-performing companies are “doubling-down” on the following key performance indicators:

  1. An attitude that addresses the current reality and creates an environment/culture of excellence at every level.
  2. The understanding that passion feeds ownership, commitment and execution.
  3. An appropriate assignment of workflow based on employee level and capability.
  4. Calibration of all employees to the organization’s mission statement, as this serves as the GPS for everyone and everything.
  5. The ability to engage, empower and enable all team members to make, facilitate and track decision-making at their own level so that nothing gets missed or passed on to others to handle.
  6. The ability to help people understand and best showcase their uniqueness within the organization.
  7. The ability to maintain a mental balance in all one does and bring out the best in others.

Van Hooser: High-performing leaders are vision-focused, willing to start even though the route may still be unclear. They are determined and able to persevere, able to demonstrate emotionless, “in the moment” decision making, flexible and unselfish with attribution. Key characteristics of high performers at any time and in any situation include honesty and integrity, skills in communication and active listening, employee care and com-passion, effective decision-making, engagement and authenticity and expanding knowledge and curiosity.

IMARK Electrical Now: By contrast, what are some attributes of organizations or leaders that are not faring well in this disrupted environment?

Van Hooser: In times of widespread stress and unexpected change under-performing individuals are often revealed for what they truly are; they have nowhere to hide and their inefficiencies and underdeveloped skill sets are laid bare for all to see. Characteristics of ineffective leaders and/or employees (and, subsequently, unsuccessful organizations) include a selfish, self-centered attitude, an unwillingness to accept change or adapt to changing realities, a tendency to feel sorry for oneself, a desire to assign blame to others, a reluctance to seek out help or assistance, an inability to recognize potential oppor-tunity, a lack of drive and ambition, a hesitancy to credit others and an unwillingness to learn and grow.

Sherman: Many people are hurting. They need to be heard and they need a way to reduce their anxiety. Now is the perfect time to double down on engagement, and, when necessary, have counseling or an Employee Assistance Program at the ready just in case management doesn’t have the bandwidth or expertise to help people manage their situation.

Dr. Magee: Recent Gallup research indicated that 56% of American work-ers self-assessed as “disengaged” and 15% self-assessed as “actively disen-gaged,” while only 29% self-assessed as “engaged” in their organizations. I suspect that these numbers are more accurate than not and are the attributes that have led to the implosion of some businesses in 2020 and beyond. Leaders need to view their “29%” as the VIP/MVP team around which to build a bigger, better, future-proof organization, as they’ll elevate everyone’s performance bar. Prior to the pandemic, many leaders had never really experienced “uncer-tain times” and they had limited experience or ability to be calm in the face of the new disruptive market issues and evaluate how to lead toward excellence. COVID has and will be a powerful market re-calibrator and equalizer of business problems that were hidden during more normal times.


IMARK Electrical Now: What top tips can you offer leaders to help them negate or offset any obstacles or resistance their employees may be expressing to learning new skill sets (for example, selling to, com-municating with or prospecting for new customers using virtual tools such as Zoom, etc.)?

Acceptance [of the current situation] is the only stage where you can be innovative, creative, and solution-oriented”

Marilyn Sherman

Dr. Magee: Many business tools still apply and just need to be nuanced, while others no longer apply at all, period. This requires employees to acquire new skills within their talent toolbox in order to connect, serve, grow and address their new job reali-ties. For example, one of my electrical distributor client's top sales profes-sionals before COVID remained one of their top performers during COVID by re-calibrating to Zoom, WebEx, Micro-soft Teams and SKYPE to maintain his face-to-face connectivity with clients and prospects. We worked to elevate that strategy with additional tactical touchpoints during his daily video client calls; he typically has one such call scheduled every hour of every day and has actually dramatically increased his outreach ROI in the past two quarters.

Van Hooser: Modeling desired behav-iors (leading by example) will always be one of the most appreciated character traits of memorable leaders, as recognized by grateful followers. Examples of desired behaviors may include an enhanced commitment to personal growth and self-develop-ment, a willingness to be transparent relative to sharing fears, anxieties and professional challenges, and an intentional effort to expand (not reduce) communication, including the use of new and expanded communication techniques.

Sherman: The key is to provide people with the tools they need to adjust to the new way of doing business. Teach them how to engage with customers and prospects, demonstrate best practices with virtual calls/conferences and connect one-on-one in the new reality.

IMARK Electrical Now: Overall, what elements of organiza-tions have you found to bring out the most in employees?

Dr. Magee: Transparency is critical. Be open, honest and fast with news—good or bad. Engage everyone in your reality and especially in ways to be client/market-focused today. Celebrate wins and acknowledge that the things that have you the most concerned or anxious are likely shared by others. Be humble and ensure that you value, respect, celebrate and acknowledge meaningful work.

Van Hooser: The most effective are those that are populated with highly engaged, well-trained leaders who are skilled in three critical leadership activities—planning, communicating and executing. The need for solid, foundational short-term planning has never been greater. The best-led organizations have always used effective leadership communication as their super power, but today more than ever, advanced communica-tion at every organizational level is critical; via clear, concise and intentional communication, the best leaders share immedi-ate plans and tactics, thus eliminating the nagging concerns of “what’s going to happen next?” Finally, regarding execution, effective planning and stellar communication are only as good as the actions we take and the skillful execution of those communicated plans. Opportunities don’t normally “appear” out of thin air, rather they’re “discovered” by those out working to make something happen. Most of us want to work for leaders who know where they’re going and are anxious to get started. Frankly, a lot of us follow such leaders for fear of missing out on something great.

Sherman: I’ve seen some very creative calls in which clients are hosting virtual happy hours, themed Zoom calls to engage employees and check-in calls to help employees feel connected to each other first and foremost so that they can then transfer those skills to their clients and prospects.

Putting It All in Perspective

Following, our experts share their best advice for success-fully navigating the unprecedented challenges we’re living through and proactively positioning for 2021 and beyond:

Phillip Van Hooser—“It’s always been my opinion that leaders don’t really know how good they are or what they’re capable of until they’re truly tested. Education, experience and desire are wonderful, but ‘leadership under fire’ proves our worth, establishing a new foundation for future performance activities and the confidence to undertake new challenges—even difficult, unexpected ones.”

Dr. Jeffrey Magee—“For 2021, the onsite, virtual and hybrid workforce is our new reality. In many cases, this has proven to be more productive and profitable than before. This will allow us to become more innovative, market-focused and better able to serve our customers. From the human capital side, the key is to stay focused on your core business and stay true to your core customers. Don’t panic or become paralyzed. Have a strategy at every level within your business and provide everyone with the talent development they need to be relevant in the reality of the 2021 business world.”

Marilyn Sherman—“It’s helpful for leaders to acknowledge the situation and then focus on what’s good about forced innovation. As an example, my keynote presentations are now virtual and attendees have to register for events, so what I’ve done to pivot is to add more value to what I offer. I suggest that when attendees register for the event, they answer a question pertinent to my topic (e.g., “What’s your biggest leadership challenge to staying positive in a negative world?” or “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received to take charge of your career?”). The answers are compiled and shared with me so that I can prepare a more customized, relevant presentation, and the intel on employ-ees is a valuable resource for the client. Any adaptation leaders implement today can be utilized for the rest of 2020 and well into 2021. Also, never forget that if you look and focus, there’s always hope!”