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Thinking with Leaders - Resilient Leadership

I was recently invited to sit on a panel to talk about Resilient Leadership hosted by Google. It was an great panel with Aireen Omar (Air Asia) and Ruma Balasubramanian (Google Cloud), and facilitated by Diane Britt. Check it out below.

Unsurprisingly, we didn’t get through all the questions. So here’s a short blog of some of my responses to some of the questions.

Jane Nguyen, CEO of Pretzel Lab

My BIO

I studied my whole life to become a hardware engineer. When I failed that I studied Science, majoring in chemistry and computer science.

I love solving interesting and complex problems. When I wasn’t able to do that as a hardware engineer (not actually smart enough), I moved into “front end development” and managing software development. It turns out though, to solve really interesting problems you need to be part of a team, so I joined all the teams. Business, technical, design and product, all the teams.

You know the thing about teams? They have people. And people, are complicated! So I spent ages learning about people, which led me to the growth of people. Then I took a detour into people and culture, focused on leadership development and developing a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy, before taking on my role as the CEO of Pretzel lab.

What does resilient leadership mean to you? Could you give us an example on how you demonstrate resilience for your team?

Brene Brown talks about how we armour up when we are challenged. She also says we put on a strong front, to protect a weak spine. She suggests what if instead, we had a strong spine and kept our front soft and open? To learning more? This is resilience to me. Sticking to our values while staying open to learn new things, especially when challenged. 

So how do I show this to my team? I am new to this whole building a business from scratch thing, so I face a lot of unknowns and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. We had some growing pains and the last 12 months have been no exception. It was really hard on the team. 

I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t feel like I knew how to lead my team through it. What I did/do know is that I am a true introvert, needing to process with my emotions on my own first, recharging energy on my own etc, and, I am a master stone waller. 

So my immediate and initial reactions to these situations is to keep my distance, disconnect and process until I think I’m ready to start solving it, or just facing it. And of course, as a leader, you can’t just lock yourself away. 

Despite not being ready, not really knowing how the team might react to some of the things going on, if they would blame me or if they had any confidence in my ability to lead, I still showed up. Physically (on the Google meet) and emotionally every day.

And I'll keep showing up, with a strong spine with a soft and open front.

There is no doubt now is a challenging time as we’re in the midst of a world pandemic, how has it impacted your industry? Has your perspective on resilience changed during Covid? Can you share any difficulties that you’re proud of overcoming during this time?

Does trying to incubate, build and launch a business during the pandemic count as one difficulty or many?

We started and incubated in July 2019, with the intention of launching the business in March 2020. Well, obviously that didn’t happen. We, Mantel Group, like most organisations diverted all brain power to making sure we didn’t let people go and that we kept the business going.

My team and I were already working on a framework to help clients move through the design squiggle, from ambiguity to clarity, and be confident they are focusing on the right problem or opportunity. This framework is problem agnostic and technology agnostic. It uses divergent and convergent thinking to help clients rapidly explore, ideate, evaluate and prioritise their ideas for business, in days.

As you know, when covid hit, all businesses were thrown from reasonable clarity to nebulous ambiguity, total chaos. So the first thing we did was use the framework on Mantel Group so that we were confident we were working on the right things.

Now we faced a few different challenges:

  • No credibility
  • No collateral
  • No clients of our own, so totally relate on our sister brands
  • Nobody wanted a new partner, most people were getting rid of their existing ones!
  • No one wanted to spend money

Our saving grace was when Google reached out to Kasna (a sister brand and premium Google partner) to brainstorm how we could collectively help businesses in this strange and uncertain time. It was great to be part of this collaboration, and it was clear everyone at the table really cared and wanted to help.

Amongst other suggestions, running my framework with a number of Google’s clients, co-funded by us and Google was one of them. We wanted to make it easy for clients to accept the help. We also helped build out the proof of values or solutions.

We did this all throughout 2020, got the chance to refine the framework, and got a number of awesome case studies to share as part of our launch earlier this year.

With the second pandemic wave hitting many countries recently, business uncertainty is rising again. Can you share your approach and best practices you’ve embedded while navigating ambiguity?

To be honest this is what my whole business is about. We use design and product thinking to help our clients move from ambiguity to clarity. 

The pursuit model helps us with this. Pre Covid we developed a model to help our clients with exactly this problem, how do I know I'm building the right thing?

Covid really exacerbated this need for not only our business, but every business. And with everyone scrambling with the changing climate everyday, this process had to be short and fast. 

We use divergent and convergent thinking and extend the notion of fast feedback loops to include fast decision loops. We validate and learn quickly so that we can decide if we should continue to pursue/invest or not. 

The biggest thing though, is that you have to trust the process. I always say to my clients, I can’t tell you what the outcome will be exactly, what I can tell you is that we will definitely get there.

There’s no right answers in a time like this, there’s only the best answer with the information you have and ways to get more information.

Before we go to Q&A, can you leave us with a nugget of wisdom that you learned as a leader during the pandemic?

Brene brown talks about how we armour up when we are challenged. She also says that we put on a strong front, to protect a weak spine. She suggests what if instead, we had a strong spine and kept our front soft and open? This is resilience to me. Sticking to our values while staying open to learn new things. 

Don’t armour up. Remember to have a strong spine, an open front, open to learning about each other.

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