Authority Magazine - 11/1/23: Michael Sonbert Interview - "Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain And Turbulent Times."Dec 01, 2023
Collaborate. Too many leaders think they need to do everything alone. Ask for help from your strongest players. Understand, though, that you’ve had to have built a culture of collaboration to do this. Otherwise, this could be perceived as a weakness and could hurt the cause.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Sonbert.
Michael Sonbert is a bestselling author, speaker, performance coach, educator, endurance athlete, autism dad, and the founder and CEO of Skyrocket Education and Rebel Culture. He’s turned his passion for educational reform into a global call to action for educational and corporate leadership transformation. Michael has dedicated the past 20 years to coaching, partnering with, and researching leaders from public schools to Fortune 500 companies. He’s committed to helping business leaders grow thriving, impactful, purposeful organizations. His leadership philosophies are currently being taught in a graduate course at the University of Notre Dame’s leadership program. Partners include Google, Northwell Health Systems, and Paul Mitchell Schools. Currently living in New York with his wife and three children, he sits on the board of the Autism non-profit organization, Families for Inclusion.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Mypleasure. Thanks for having me. I’m an educator by trade. I was an English teacher in South Philadelphia. I eventually became a teacher coach, and then the director of strategic partnerships for the district. In that role, I saw a major need around school leader support and development. I started Skyrocket Education to fill that need. I then noticed that the same gaps that existed in school leadership were present in leadership all over: poor communication, unclear roles, toxic culture, and so on. I started Rebel Culture to work with leaders in the corporate space to help solve those problems.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It didn’t feel funny at the time, but in hindsight, I guess it is. I’d contracted with two people to help me penetrate a new market. They had connections and relationships, and I had the model. Their connections helped us garner multiple new partners. After a year, I decided to terminate the agreement. They were good, but I wanted to build out my team. They continued using my model, against my will. I remember they secured a forty-thousand dollar agreement using my stuff. I was livid. I got lawyers involved but was told by them that it would cost double or even triple that 40k to litigate it. It was a good learning. Less about the need to be more contract-savvy (though that was a lesson), and more about sustainability. If my business couldn’t withstand losing forty thousand dollars, I wasn’t going to be at this very long.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve had great coaches along the way. I could shout them all out. But I’ll never forget my little sister loaning me money for my mortgage payments when I first started. I had an idea, but not much more. So things were lean for a little while. Once that first check came in, I was able to pay her back. It’s been lean at other times. But really, I haven’t looked back since.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
For Skyrocket, our purpose is simple. We are striving to level the playing field for students and families for whom the playing field isn’t level. We do this in the zip codes that most people see on the news but go out of their way to avoid. For Rebel Culture, I think it’s a complete rip-off that so many people spend 33% of their adult lives at jobs where they’re unfulfilled. In so many cases, that work could be fulfilling, but leadership is failing. We’re striving to transform that.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
We live our values. They’re all-encompassing, and there’s nothing we’ve faced that hasn’t been made easier by leaning into what we’ve agreed to as a team. When one of our biggest partners pulled out from a deal at the last minute, I reminded everyone that we will find a way (one of our values) to persevere. And we did. I can’t stress this enough to the people we coach. Live your values. Reference them, always. So often that people make fun of you for them.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m obsessed with the mission we’re on. Giving up was never an option. Somebody asked me recently what motivates me to go all-in on work and family and on my own development and how he could do the same. I told him, “I don’t have a choice and neither do you.”
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I read a book called, “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” years ago, and it changed my perspective on pretty much everything. It’s about a wealthy attorney who has a change of heart, gives up all material possessions, and begins to live a simpler life.
I had all my friends read it, and I even (this is obnoxious and I don’t recommend anyone do this) insisted my then girlfriend and now wife read it before we started dating. Just to make sure we were on the same page. Oy. It was written by Robin Sharma. I wrote him a letter after I read it, and to my surprise, he wrote back.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Being predictable. No one wants to be on a turbulent flight with a screeching, whining pilot. No, we want to know the pilot has things under control. It’s the same at our companies. Be predictable. So predictable that it’s boring.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In person, if possible. Or on Zoom. Definitely not through email unless the team is hundreds deep. Regardless, it should be shared honestly and with humility. If solutions are possible, so not that everyone is getting laid off, those solutions should be shared. People want to know they’re in capable hands when things are tough. This is a great time to message this.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Everything is unpredictable. Now is no different than ever before. It’s just that we’re living in the now. Make plans. Be prepared to pivot.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Sure. I’ve seen folks either pretend that things aren’t that bad until the problem nearly swallows them whole. Or, act as if the sky is falling whenever a challenge comes up. Neither of these approaches leads to being able to navigate the issues. They both can lead to distrust from the team as well.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times?
- Lean into values. Shared agreements for how the team approaches the work and acts in both good times and bad provide a North Star for everyone.
- Be brutally honest about your current situation. There’s no reason to pretend our circumstances aren’t exactly as they are. Even if we’re committed to being successful in spite of them.
- Collaborate. Too many leaders think they need to do everything alone. Ask for help from your strongest players. Understand, though, that you’ve had to have built a culture of collaboration to do this. Otherwise, this could be perceived as a weakness and could hurt the cause.
- Make decisions swiftly. Action beats inaction every time. Once you have the information, make a decision. There’s no sense in wallowing where you are. Get outta there.
- Be open to pivoting. When new information presents itself, act on it. Not so often that your people get whiplash, but often enough that you don’t get left behind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If everything matters, then nothing does.” I believe it’s Patrick Lencioni who said this. Either way, it’s a great reminder to focus on fewer things and to do them really well. Versus trying to do everything and struggling to get them done at a high level.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Sure, they can check us out at SkyrocketEd.org or RebelCulture.com. Also, my LinkedIn or IG. Drop me a note. I’d love to chat.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thanks so much. Same to you!
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