“I believe that leadership is like a wilderness and that you can learn to read the map.”
– Zoe Routh
In today’s episode, Zoe Routh of Inner Compass talks about how to better your business. You may be in a position where you’re worried about possibly a looming recession (or maybe you’re not). Some businesses we have been working with have gone from 30–50 employees down to 3–5, so it’s scary times. But Zoe is an expert when it comes to building relationships and making sure the relationships you have with your teams and with yourself are on point. She helps leaders manage that kind of process and its effects on their people, instead of cutting expenses and other business decisions.
Josh: All right, everyone. We’ve got a fantastic guest. We’ve got Zoe Routh here who’s going to be able to talk to you all about how to better your business. You might be in a position where you’re worried about possibly a looming recession, or maybe you’re not, maybe you are. Some businesses we have been working with have gone from 30–50 employees down to 3–5, so it’s scary times. But Zoe is an expert when it comes to building relationships and making sure the relationships you have with your teams and with yourself are on point. So Zoe, tell me a bit about what you do.
Zoe: Hey, Josh, welcome. Thank you. Welcome to your show. I’ll welcome myself to your show.
What I do is the people stuff in leadership. So as you said that story, some people have gone from 50 people down to 3. I’m like, “Wow! That’s very scary.” So the kind of work I do is to help leaders manage that kind of process for their people. Not necessarily the massive business decisions around cutting expenses and stuff, but how you actually manage the effect on your people, those who stay and those who go.
I’m obsessed with helping people enjoy their work and where they do it and who they do it with. And I’m kind of like a navigator, if you like. I believe that leadership is like a wilderness and that you can learn to read the map. My job is to give you the tools and resources to help you read the people’s stuff and the leadership landscape, so you can get to where you want to go faster, easier, and quicker.
Josh: Cool. That sounds like all the things people need to know, obviously. The big things I guess in business is that your mindset plays a huge part in it. And as you said, people changing from having a 50-person business to a 3-person business is huge, and that can definitely change around the way the relationships and the ecosystem that you would have created over the organic growth or even accelerated growth of a huge team. So would you say there is something in particular you should focus on more than other elements as a priority?
Zoe: In that particular scenario you mean? If you’re downsizing?
Josh: Yeah. If you’re forced to have relationships with four dozen people, not forced to have relationships, that sounds terrible. But you’ve got relationships with four dozen people and you have to make the decision of who’s staying and who’s going and making sure you’re pulling the ship in the right direction and making sure you’re doing the people’s stuff right. How can you make sure that you’re not stepping over your toes and collapsing into a heap?
Zoe: Well, there’s lots of, I guess, to do. I mean, first of all, it’s terrible news for the business owner and for the people. Especially if you didn’t have a plan necessarily to do that, like it wasn’t part of your strategic intent, and circumstances are dictating that you have to let people go because of financial constraints. That’s pretty shocking. So I think a lot of, first of all, a lot self-management around that and a lot of stress management techniques will have to come into play so that you can show up as a leader—calm, cool, and centred and compassionate. I think that’s the real big piece.
No leader wants to tell their staff they don’t have a job anymore. Because we feel for the impact on the people that we work with and the knock-on effect it’ll have on their families. So showing up with care and compassion is the first thing, first of all, for self, and then also for the person that you need to sit down and talk to.
I think the next thing to keep in mind is, from a mindset point of view, as leaders, we always have a responsibility to people, not necessarily for them. Now, this comes with lots of little caveats around it.
As employers, we have a responsibility to provide a safe workplace, to treat people with respect and consideration, to follow all our duties and responsibilities and legal obligations. And yet, we can never know the impact of such an event on somebody and we tend to catastrophise that it’ll be the worst thing ever. Whereas it’s interesting that oftentimes these kinds of events can be a trigger for something amazing for that person. We just don’t know.
In any case, we are not responsible for how they receive the information and the event and what they do with it. We are responsible for how we deliver the message, how we look after them, how we set them up for success in the longterm. Do we offer them counselling? Do we offer them a platform so they can get their CV up and going? Do we offer them career coaching to help them transition? There’s a lot of things that we can do to support and do well by people.
I think the other important thing that people often get wrong is that in a crisis, sometimes we just tend to batten down on the information and don’t want to let any of the information to leak out because we’re afraid of large spread panic. This is kind of what happened in China around the coronavirus. It’s like, “Don’t tell anybody anything, we just got to control this thing.” And it was the wrong thing to do because the whole thing morphed anyway. And I think when signs of an economic downturn are threatening, I think one of the things that’s important to do is communicate, communicate, communicate. And that applies across the board in any context, whether it’s a crisis or whether it’s general business as usual. As leaders, we can never communicate enough. I think people always fill in gaps in information with their own made-up stories. And the more we can do to downplay that, I think the better. So that’s a hand full of things. So self-manage, show up with compassion, be supportive around your people, and don’t take ownership necessarily for how they’re going to react because that’s the part you definitely don’t have control of.
Josh: Yeah. And everyone’s not on necessarily the same wavelength or underneath the same stresses or seeing the other side. They might just be looking at it as, “Why did you choose to get rid of me instead of someone else?” As opposed to “This is the only thing that can be done.”
There are different businesses and different people that we’ve had on the show about recession proofing your business, some people are talking about, “There is absolutely no chance of a recession.” And then other people are saying, “It is absolutely going to happen, it’s just when.” And then other people are saying, “We’re already in it now.” So people that are not affected currently, if you’ve got a team and you want to make sure that you’re doing the right thing by them in staying productive and making sure you’re having the right relationships or the hard conversations, what would you say is the best way to change your round the ecosystem that you’ve got that might’ve been working and it might’ve grown too quickly for you to manage that or something has changed? It could be a life circumstance has changed, your relationships.
Zoe: I’ve always been on the edge of leadership in difficult circumstances for a long time. Even when I first started working at a summer camp in Canada and I was a summer camp counsellor, I just turned 17 during staff training. So I was young and tasked with a lot of responsibilities. Composure really is all about being fully present at the moment and it’s about experiencing emotions without having them drive your reactions. So I liken it to putting your emotions in the passenger seat, so we’re reactive when we let our emotions drive the show. So I think composure and that capacity for composure is the ability to have emotions, to experience them and not let them choose the direction in which we go, not choose our reactions. So we may be like the fellow whose whole personal world is crumbling around him. We don’t disconnect from that necessarily, we learn how to feel things fully.
This isn’t an awareness thing, it’s a focus thing. So what I mean by feel things fully is that you pay attention to where you’re experiencing this drama in your body. And if it’s stress, some people experience it differently. It might be in their chest, might be in their throat, might be in their stomach. It could be a sense of volcanic overwhelm and so on. And no matter how much we meditate, how much we do mindfulness, all of us will have an emotional response or reaction to the situations around us. It’s how we actually process it and metabolise it.
So the first technique is deep self-management. A deep connection to self is like, okay, this group is hitting the twirly thing. Things are not going well. I’m experiencing a rise of stress, breathe through it, connect to the body and just purge your body of the energy of that emotion. So that’s the first technique, if you like.
And taking a leaf out of Brené Brown’s book, it’s to acknowledge what’s there in the room. When you do that deep self-mastery piece first where you sit and process and breathe and acknowledge, you can show up to your team and say, “I’ve got some challenging things in my personal world at the moment that are quite distracting. And at the same time, this is what we need to focus on.” So I think you can acknowledge the stuff going on, acknowledge that it’s having an impact and say, “We’re still in charge. We can still move on this thing.” So I think that is a way to present chaos to your group while staying centred. If you as a leader are broadcasting stress, anxiety, and chaos, people are going to have that as a major ripple effect and it can really derail the people around you.
So deep self-mastery in terms of awareness of your emotions, breathing through it, purging the energy of that emotion and then naming the emotion. Actually, without saying, “I am stressed,” you change your language a little bit and say, “I am experiencing stress.” It sounds like such an easy tweak and such a simple thing, but it’s incredibly powerful. It gives us a little space between the emotion and the nature of our reality so that we can say, “I’m a human being. I’m bigger than my emotions and this is the one I’m experiencing right now. I’m experiencing frustration.
Josh: I was going to say everyone has all the emotions at some stage in their life and understanding it, acknowledging it, and then making a decision to take that on board and then moving away from it, I guess.
Zoe: Yeah. I love that. So putting it in the past tense is a nice way of trying to unplug from it, I guess.
Zoe: So getting it out by receding to the passenger seat. And something that you can observe. Now it’s like, there’s this thing that happened and I’m a witness to it, as opposed to a victim of it. Let’s not be Pollyanna about this, sometimes you do have to make really tough decisions, like cutting your staff by multiples. And I think to help people with that, because they’re all going to go into survival mode, is you can bandy them together and start to lead strategy. And before you have to make the final cut, I think you can incorporate people into the decision-making process around that. And regardless, sometimes we have these very unplanned crises that are short term and some of them are very big unplanned crises that are longterm and it’s possibly the coronavirus is one of them, possibly the recession is one of them.
What I encourage my leaders to do is to not just be optimistic saying, “Yeah, it’d be right.” Is to do some scenario planning around this and that is okay. Let’s look at some of the variables that are at play here. What are some possible drivers that could create different potential worlds? So, okay, let’s do one. One scenario is coronavirus takes over the world.
Zoe: One extreme. Another one is coronavirus extinguishes quickly. And so you have this pole and then you have another one that might be the recession. So recession accelerates, recession retreats. And so you map out these different worlds based on that. And then you ask yourself, okay, which is the most likely, which are possible, probable? Which ones do we want? But to be realistic, what’s likely? What’s possible? And then you create action steps you can do right now that can either prevent the fallout of those particular effects or it can mitigate it.
So that no matter if scenario coronavirus accelerates and takes over the world and recession accelerates, which is kind of like we would call that world pandemic disaster or something then what are we going to do?
Armageddon, thank you. So we have Armageddon. As a team, what are we doing now to look ahead for that? And I know you’ve written a white paper about some of the things that people can do around that, if Armageddon comes up and that make sure your cash flow is really done, minimise expenses and so on. Those are some examples of some of the things you can do as a team to mitigate this. And then you go, okay, if this, then that. So if we reach this threshold, this is what we’re going to do. These are the things we’re going to put in play.
And then we can also ask the question, what’s the opportunity in this? What’s likely to happen if businesses shut down. So like in my case, in my business, doing leadership training. So what’s the opportunity in that? Well, the opportunity might be we pivot a little bit and we start offering support for how to deal with a crisis, how to do leadership in a crisis, as opposed to the deeper work that we do on how to lead change, how to lead culture and so on. Then we just focus on that one particular piece and we’re in service to our clients in that particular mode at that moment.
So I think that’s how we can be Pollyanna ask in terms of there’s a silver lining to any crisis, but we have to be proactive with that as opposed to reactive. It comes back to the emotional self-mastery piece too. We don’t want to be reactive in our emotions. We don’t want to be reactive in our businesses either as much as possible so that we have enough resources and resilience to handle what gets thrown at us, whether it’s a fire in the kitchen or a meltdown on your mobile phone or whatever. You have redundancy built into your systems.
Josh: Yeah. Couldn’t agree more with that. The ability to pivot and look at the opportunity in a crisis before the crisis, or at least build-out scenarios is very sensible. We had a look and thought, okay, when the fires were happening. So what can we do to help businesses out? I mean, it’s all we’ve got. A lot of automation with the way that our business is set up and we thought we’d be able to supply a service that other IT companies can’t. And it would cost us a 10th of the price. And we thought, well, any business that’s affected by the fires, we’ll jump in and help them out. And I thought that that’s helping them out, pivoting the mindset and it’s creating a feel-good story as opposed to just a standard boring generic, which no one should ever have marketing.
One of the big things that we’re huge advocates for is automation in your business to improve productivity. So look at the processes. If there’s any element of repetition, I say that twice, if there’s any element of repetition, if I say it a third time, I’m going to get it on the recording because I don’t want to say it again. And that’s how it works. If you have to say it more than twice, or you have to do it more than twice, there should be a standard operating procedure. There should be something there so that your staff and the team are following it in the way that we want you to have that process works and, or it’s automated with software.
Having productive teams means that the quality of the work that your team is doing is much more beneficial to the business and that in turn, I found means that there is a downturn. All the grunt work that can be automated, has been automated. And you’ve just got a very, very lean machine with the employees that would be very, very difficult to get rid of because they’re all core parts of the business. How can you make sure that they are happy and willing to embrace change and go in that direction?
Zoe: I love this question because it’s the big juicy one. And it’s a lot of what my clients are struggling with. Because they know that they have to make these big changes to respond to all these massive environmental factors and systems factors and global factors that are creating a demand for a new direction. And I think a couple of things we need to keep in mind is that uncertainty is one of the things that puts people into unproductive defensive survival modes. And so anything we can do when we’re leading change to mitigate uncertainty is really, really important.
So even if you don’t know what the future is going to be, you tell them what you do know. You explain it over and over again with the communicative approach. So uncertainty is a big thing to mitigate. Sense of belonging is another piece to ensure to help people feel like they are safe. So we’re tribal animals and our contemporary tribe is the organisations in which we work. And so anything that you can do to maintain a sense of belonging. So the tribal rituals, which also helps reinforce a sense of certainty. The things that you do on a regular basis that identify the sense of tribe is really important. Other factors to look out for if you’re leading change is making sure that you are aware if the change is being imposed on them. Because again, that will put them into unhelpful survival threat and you need to communicate as much as possible the rationale behind the decision. Incorporate them into the decision as much as possible.
I think when it comes to leading productive teams, whether it’s through a change process or not, there are five things that you need to really take care of as fundamentals. One is purpose and having a clear line of sight to the purpose of your particular role and the organization’s role and contribution to the world is really important because that will help guide you through whatever structural assistance change you want to introduce. It’s like, this is what we’re here to do in the world. This is why it’s meaningful to all of us. And unless you have that resonating, it doesn’t matter. People are going to get a disconnect from whatever message you tell them. And the other framing part of this.
So there are five parts. There’s a front wheel and the back wheel. The front wheel is the purpose, the back wheel is results and being really super clear on the results that you and your team are producing in the business. So what are the things that are going to happen for your clients and your customers and the business as a whole once you do the magic process of your work and being really clear about that and measuring those, because those are your key outcomes and that’s how you track whether or not you’re being successful. So those are the two, front wheel and back wheel. The gear is in the middle. There’s three of them and you alluded to one of them. And it’s part of the big gear in the middle. It’s structure.
So when you have really solid structures, including cleaning up redundancies and processes like that, including who reports to whom, which helps downplay some of the tension you might have around fairness and ego and all that kind of stuff, how decisions are made. Clarity on feedback and how you can raise issues. All those kinds of structural things are really important gear in the middle of your productive bicycle.
Another gear is skills. Do you and your team have the skills to have difficult conversations? Can you give each other robust feedback in a way that’s supportive collaborative, where the relationship is never in question but the ideas can be challenged and the two are separate? And in fact, when you do challenge ideas or situations that you know that the relationship is never threatened. In fact, they can strengthen. So the skills and communication and interaction are really, really critical. And then the fifth piece, which is the third cog is understanding and valuing and leveraging the strengths of a team member. So if somebody is really good at data analysis and process, put them on the job related to the change. If someone’s really good at communication and enthusiasm, put them on the job of communicating what you’re coming up with. If someone’s really good at risk mitigation, put them on the job so that you don’t have to rely on yourself to do the whole thing but you leverage those pieces of the puzzle.
So that’s the overarching strategy I would use to make sure that your team is humming and thriving, whether it’s going through a change process or not.
Josh: Once you’ve got a humming thriving team, I guess one of the key metrics that you to be able to do is, which you brought up there was making sure that you know what their core skills are, and I guess where their interests lie. And would you do that through profiling Myers-Briggs type settings to better understand the best way to communicate a certain problem to them or a certain situation to them? Or what would you-
Zoe: I love that you’ve raised this because there’s any number of instruments that you can use, profiling instruments that help unpack different patterns of interaction in humans. And I use a number of them. DiSC is a really easy one. So that looks at behaviour preferences, how people like to operate at work. And it’s simple to understand, simple to explain and easy to put people through that profile. And you can see what the strengths and challenges are of the team and it highlights culture as well. So that’s one. Any of those resources are really useful and there’s an important quote by a gentleman whose name I forget, and he said, “All models are useful, some are flawed.”
Zoe: That means no model is perfect. Any map that you use to map the territory of humans is going to be helpful. And we’ve just got to remember that none of it is the didactic exact representation of the human beings in flesh and blood in front of you. We are all very complex. And yet some of those map reading tools help us make sense of each other and helped us to see patterns of interaction that can help unplug some of the people’s stuff, tensions that happen when you bring humans together and they get a little bit messy.
For example, this week, I’m doing work with a group of eight professionals and they’re all quite strong personalities, and they’ve got a lot of tension in their team. And I know one of the key things that they’ve got going on apart from having different strengths is that they don’t have their structures in place for their team. So we’re going to do some of that middle gears of the bicycle work with them. We’re going to look at the structure of their team. We’re going to refer to their strengths and look at what’s happening there and where the conflicts are happening and then we’re going to do some work on skills. How do we actually raise issues with each other without feeling like we’re stabbing each other in the eye? I think it’s really important for teams to help understand each other a little bit more.
Josh: From my understanding, you’re shooting up to Brisbane very shortly, and you’re doing a bit of a tour around with some of the stuff that you’re doing.
Zoe: Yeah. So I’ll be in Brisbane. I’m talking on the future of leadership and I’m looking to launch my amplifiers program in Brisbane. So I’m looking to build a cohort of leaders from across sectors who are interested in the changing world and how we need to respond differently as leaders to manage things differently. So we can’t continue to operate the way we have been doing as leaders if we’re going to contend with all this crazy complexity. So yeah, that’s what I’m heading up to Brisbane for. And I’m working on my fourth book as well. So that’s kind of a big project over the next couple of months. So yeah, those are the main things I’m looking forward to meeting you in person in Brizzy.
Josh: Yeah. I’m very excited. What’s your book about?
Zoe: Yeah. Kind of dropped that as little seed, didn’t I? My fourth book is about people’s stuff; you, them, us. An advanced handbook for the tough stuff of leadership. So that’s my current subtitle I’m working with, but yeah, it’s about people’s stuff and it’s about how we engage with each other and how we see each other and ourselves and the world in order to deal with the complexity that we’re finding ourselves in. So yeah, it’s a bit of a fun, little book that’s on its way. So I send out the first chapter this week to my editor. So yeah, a bit of activity now behind the scenes getting that stuff done.
Josh: Oh, I know. When writing a white paper and then finding references to it, it’s nothing like writing a book and then the love and enjoyment you get for reading a book after you’ve written one is completely different, isn’t it?
Zoe: Yeah. You know what, I have not read any of my books once they come out in a book. Like, I’m done. So much work has gone into that. I don’t sit down and read it. I might pull out a few pieces, but I’m like, “I don’t want to sit down and read it from beginning to end.” I don’t know if other authors are the same, but I definitely couldn’t sit down and read it.
Josh: Do you have any other questions you’d like to ask me before we jump off?
Zoe: Yeah, sure. Since you threw the tables back over to me.
Josh: Let’s do it.
Zoe: What are you most excited about?
Josh: I’ll do a plug here. As per the book “Composure”, I was looking and thinking, what is my 10-year plan and what would be the word that would encompass that for me? And that would be completion. And it’s not that I don’t complete things, it’s that I manage to do a lot of things all at once. And instead of having 100 things completed 1% a week, I’d like to complete 100% of things every two weeks. My personal life, I would like to have less of those interruptions that are completely out of my control. Did I answer your question?
Zoe: Yeah, mate, it does. And I recommend if you haven’t read it already, Cal Newport’s book Deep Work.
Josh: Okay. I have not. So Deep Work, I have to pick it up.
Zoe: Yeah. It’s all about rigorous focus on the things that matter.
Josh: Cool. Well, I’ve written a page of 680 different things that I know need to be done in the business and I’ve prioritised the list of prioritising those items. They create money. They save time. They save money. Then any of them that have a higher value then man, I think, okay, these are now in the … they’ve made the touch list and then I prioritise those into categories of who can fix them, who can’t.
So I’ve probably spent about three and a half years writing a list. It wasn’t that long, but it was definitely more time than, I guess, what normal people would put into a list that I know exactly the direction in that regard, but I’d definitely be interested.
Zoe: Yeah, it’s a good one. You’ll enjoy it.
Josh: Cool. Well, anyone that would love to hear more from Zoe, go to Zoerouth.com and you can probably check in an inquiry there, say, hey, check out some of the cool stuff. Grab a couple of books. There are very good reads and very light reads I found. It wasn’t one of these books that were difficult to turn the page. I’m not just saying it because she’s listening. It was quite good and relaxing. There’s something that I was getting a bit out of. It had the emotional ups and downs which I wasn’t expecting. It was good. I thank you for coming on the show. Anyone that would love to leave any feedback, jump across to iTunes, leave us a review, give us some love.
Zoe: Hey, thanks, Josh. It was a real pleasure. And I mean that genuinely.
Josh: Thank you very much. I’ll talk to you soon. Stay good.