In this series, I chat with various industry experts on the intricacies of business and discover what advice they can offer to both seasoned and emerging leaders.
I sat with Mike Stevenson, an acclaimed public speaker and founder of Thinktastic — a motivational communications agency that helps brands unlock their full potential. Born in the wake of the 2008 recession, Thinktastic was an ‘antidote’ for people’s low spirits at the time.
Stevenson knows what it’s like to need a push from others on the constant path to success because he’s been there too. By the age of 26, he had been homeless, expelled from high school and held 29 different job titles. But despite what was thrown his way, he was adaptable above all else. Now at 70 years old, he reminisces on his experiences and how each one shaped his future. During our interview, Stevenson discussed the key components business leaders will have to tweak in order to thrive post-pandemic. Hint: It’s not your product.
How would you define leadership in a couple of sentences?
I think it’s the ability to sell a vision and give people a sense of what it looks like, feels like and tastes like. It’s about inspiring them and then empowering them to make it happen. The best definition of leadership that I’ve heard is: a leader creates other leaders, not followers.
What core principles guide you as a leader?
First of all, you’ve got to be clear about where you’re going. People around you have to see the end goal and then you’ve got to make everyone feel valued. You’ve also got to believe in the people you chose and give them the confidence they need. It’s not about assigning tasks, but instead delegating responsibilities and giving people the tools they need to complete them.
What’s your take on inclusion in leadership and the workplace?
I’ve worked in lots of organizations and I’ve had some terrible leaders. But there was an instance back in the day that really got me going. I was about 21 years old and I arrived at a building site in London. I was welcomed by a foreman. He put his arm around me and said ‘Michael, welcome.’ I’d never been welcomed to a workplace before. Then he showed me drawings of the palace we were building. I suddenly felt a surge of energy because no one had ever told me what the big picture was. You would have thought there was a hierarchy because I was just a laborer, but there wasn’t. Every day he would say if one of us dropped out, the site would lose something huge. So it made me feel like I was important and I had a significant role. That was the first example of inclusive leadership for me.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced while leading diverse organizations?
Today, I think it’s giving people hope. You’ve gotta be enthusiastic and authentic. I often give this talk and it really does get people going. It’s titled “The Best is Yet to Come.” That’s important to understand. As a leader, you have to keep giving people the sense that the world is going to change because we as people change it. We are not victims of environmental factors or outside forces. We are shapers of our future.
Another challenge is not letting habits take over. A lot of organizations let habits form into culture. You want to have a place where a constant stream of ideas is welcomed. In the last year, we’ve seen that everything has had to change. But should we see it as a deficit? No. Instead, we try to make the most of it. You have to make people feel like every week they can do better or otherwise they’ll feel like they lost something.
What do you think are some business opportunities that lie ahead?
I think there are probably more opportunities becoming available now than in the last 30 years. Not just in terms of technology, even though digital innovation is a huge part. But there are going to be more fundamental shifts in education, for example. I think we’re going to go through a learning revolution period where people are hungry to learn. I know about this because I’ve experienced it and that’s going to redefine the whole notion of a ‘career.’ For example, in Denmark, it’s not assumed that you have just one career. Instead, people can have three or more careers throughout their lifetimes.
The first thing people graduating right now recognize is that they don’t want to work for a company that is not doing well by its employees or damaging the community at large. So if you have a business, you’re going to do well if you’re contributing to the greater good. During the pandemic, people have had time to think and really be mindful of what they’re buying into.
Around the world, we’ve seen wildlife frequent cities that they didn’t before because of human presence. Moving forward there are not only opportunities for digitalization, but also reimagining the world. As a leader, if you’re working to capture the attention of the next generations, you’re doing really well. But also recognize that people want to expand their skills, so work on retaining your best employees.
What are some concerns you have for leaders post-pandemic?
One concern moving forward is that leaders will have to constantly work to lift people’s spirits as we get back on our feet. Your employees are living in a different world now and you have to recognize the impact it has on them. We’ve got an explosion of mental health issues right now. So organizations have to put well-being at the forefront of their business approach.
Another concern is the tendency to label your company as one thing. I think we need to be more fluid now. You’ve seen companies that produced clothing in normal times, now producing personal protective equipment. I think if we’re going to be adaptable, and we definitely have to be, then we have to train ourselves to do that from the start.
The other thing to think about in terms of future trends is people have been very lonely and we have to address the loneliness of our customers, our clients, and our staff. It’s a horrible and crippling feeling to be isolated from the world. So we have to redefine our office spaces. I don’t think offices will exist as they did before, but I think they could become culture hubs or places where people go to actually meet and generate ideas instead of sitting behind a desk. I think it’s exciting.
What is one piece of advice you would give a younger version of yourself?
What I can say to all young people is adversity can be a very powerful fall. So when you fall, fall forward. But if I were to advise my younger self, I would tell myself that I could achieve things a lot quicker than I think. Sometimes it’s taken me a while to develop the tools and the audacity to do something, which I simply could have done much faster.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
For my full interview with Mike Stevenson, head over to my Youtube channel. There you’ll find other leadership interviews as well as countless bite-size videos on all things related to business, negotiation, and learning to thrive both during and after the pandemic.