An interview with Maria Angelova
Stay true to your Higher Purpose and Core Values. It’s easy to abandon these in times of stress. But straying from them almost always leads to regrets.
As a leader, some things are just unavoidable. Being faced with hard choices is one of them. Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. What’s the best way to go about this? Is there a “toolkit” or a skill set to help leaders sort out their feelings and make the best possible decisions? As part of our series about “How Leaders Make Difficult Decisions,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Sturdy McKee.
Sturdy McKee spent over 20 years as a Physical Therapist and practice owner, growing San Francisco Sport and Spine Physical Therapy. After deciding to use his expertise in a new way he transitioned into the field of business coaching around 2016, leveraging his experiences and learning to help others grow their businesses. He is a co-author of The Best Small Business In the World. He loves helping entrepreneurs, owners and founders achieve their personal and business goals.
He lives in San Francisco with his lovely wife and 3 wonderful children.
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?
I guess I’ve been an entrepreneur since before I could spell it. I was that kid at school selling candy bars, but not for the club. I bought my first lawn mower at 12 and started mowing lawns for money. But I was raised by school teachers and didn’t have any real understanding about running a business, even though I kept trying new ones. Eventually, after 8 years (off and on) of undergrad, I went directly to grad school to get my Masters in Physical Therapy. It was less than 3 years after graduating from PT school before I opened my own practice, where I once again learned very quickly that I knew very little about management or strategic work. So, I determined to learn what I could about business, a journey I’ve been on now for over 20 years.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are many. It’s one of those things you learn quickly in order to survive in business. Even though I thought, like everyone does, that I was on my own, I quickly discovered I was in a place where I was dependent on more people than I had ever been before. Joining EO (Entrepreneurs Organization) was a big turning point for me. I learned from my peers there, and from the learning events put on by the organization. And I’ve had several coaches along the way who were indispensable to my growth and learning.
One person I will call out specifically is Matt Fitzsimmons. Matt was my business coach back in 2011. He coached and guided me at a critical point in my business education and leadership development. I use the things he taught me everyday, to this day. And we are now collaborating on our new program, The Best Small Business In the World, that we created to help all small business owners.
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?
Sure. There were a few times over the 20 years that we needed to make some big decisions in order to adapt to an ever changing environment. At one of these times, I had waited a bit too long and thus had put myself, and the team, in an uncomfortable and increasingly stressful situation. I had tried to carry the burden myself. Realizing this, I called the team leaders together.
We met offsite and I showed them the numbers and projections. It wasn’t pretty. We needed to raise prices and make sure we kept our patients happy at the same time. Each person brought their perspectives, shared data, and looked at the problem from a different angle. As a group, they laid out the way forward with a priority on making our patients even happier with what they’d receive, and the increase they decided on was nearly four times what I thought we would end up at. It changed our projections dramatically and with buy-in and commitment from the entire team.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through challenges? What sustains your drive?
Of course. I mean the idea of giving up comes into your head sometimes. Just not for long. You think, there’s got to be an easier way. And there usually is. It just doesn’t involve giving up.
If I were to give up on my business, what would I do? Get a job? I’m a terrible employee.
The thing is, I love figuring out those ways that are easier, and having the authority and responsibility to make it so. I hate being told what to do, being directed. I want to have the freedom to think, create, solve problems, and test them out without anyone else telling me I can’t do that, or I should do it their way.
I try to bring that to my coaching and helping business owners. While there are some best practices and frameworks, I want my clients to be creative, explore, and figure out what works best for them. I want them to forge new paths while avoiding the mistakes others have made. When they marry those best practices with their own soul and personality, with their Vision and Values, that’s when things get interesting and inspiring.
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?
Early on, it’s easy to get mired down in the ambiguities of making decisions and “hard” choices. We see 2, 3, or 4 opportunities, or we’re faced with a challenge and we get stuck trying to decide.
When I was 10 years old, my Grandfather, a retired Colonel from the US Army, got really impatient with me one summer I was spending at my Grandparents’ home in Carmel. He would ask what I wanted to eat, or what movie I wanted to go to. And I would hem and haw and debate all the possibilities. Finally, he kind of snapped at me to make a decision, any decision. He shared that in the Army he had to make decisions all the time, often with inadequate information. But a decision must be made and putting it off didn’t help in any way. So, make a decision, quickly, and move forward. If it didn’t work out you could change course, or do it differently next time.
But I got tired of making bad decisions. Even when I learned from them, without a framework, it got a bit frustrating, those wrong decisions.
So, I later learned that step 1 is having a decision matrix. If you don’t want to start down a bunch of wrong paths, have a framework to make decisions you won’t regret.
I remember many years later, reading a book about the CEO next door. There were lots of stories, but my key takeaway was that every successful CEO interviewed had a set of criteria, a decision matrix, for making decisions about their business. Each of them used it for essentially all big decisions, no matter how obvious or how onerous. They put every big decision through the same process, the same set of criteria. If it passed, they moved forward to the next phase. If it didn’t, they didn’t do it.
I think this is what Gates, Buffett, and others mean when they say that successful people say no to almost everything. What they’re really saying is that say yes only to the few things that survive their decision matrices.
What process or toolset can a leader use to make a choice between two difficult paths?
Here’s my decision matrix. Level 1, does it fit with my Vision of Meaning? The way I use it, a Vision of Meaning has 3 components, a Higher Purpose, Core Values, and a BHAG (a Big Hairy Audacious Goal).
So, level 1 consists of 3 questions: 1) Does it serve my Higher Purpose? 2) Does it align with my Core Values? 3) Does it move me closer to my BHAG?
If the answer to each of these is “yes” then I move on to level 2.
Level 1 can be used for virtually any big decision including those around hiring, layoffs, messaging, expansion, new offerings, working with a strategic partner, you name it. It helps with making decisions I can be proud of later and not regret.
Now if any of the answers above are “no”, before I finalize my decision, I’ll ask “How can it…” serve my Higher Purpose, align with my Core Values, or move me closer to my BHAG.
Sometimes the answers are surprising and we can still move along to level 2.
For a business opportunity, Level 2, for me, consists of the following questions: 1) Does it, or how can it, serve my Target Customer? 2) Can it, or how can it, be systematized or automated? 3) Does it, or how can it, meet my target Profit Margin? 4) What resources will it take, and how long before it might reach our cash flow targets?
If the choice we’re entertaining passes all of these, then we can try testing it out and seeing if our Target Customer actually wants it.
Depending on the type of decision, levels 2 and 3 might vary. But Level 1 remains the same for virtually all decisions.
Do you have a mentor or someone you can turn to for support and advice? How does this help? When can a mentor be helpful? When is this not helpful?
Sure. Matt, who I mentioned earlier, having been my coach before, doubles now as my collaborator on The Best Small Business In the World and as my mentor for more than just that.
Having a mentor can serve as a second set of eyes, as a sounding board, or as someone who can hold a mirror up so you see what you might not otherwise see. They can challenge your assumptions and add depth to your decision making process. This is what I try to be for my clients, just with the title of Coach.
When I find a mentor is not helpful is when they lead you to do, or not do, whatever it is they did. This is the advice most people give, to do what they did (or to not do it that way in the event it didn’t work for them). This doesn’t take into account your context, who you are, where you are, who you serve, what you make, what your dreams are, where you live, and a hundred other things.
A good mentor will consider your context and help you navigate your reality, not impose theirs on you.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader when faced with a difficult decision?
You’re asking for “the most” implying there is only one. I think there are a few. And leaving any of them out can lead to unintended, even disastrous, consequences.
Honesty. It is critical that an effective leader is honest, not only with the team, but with themselves. Sometimes the truth isn’t pretty. But not facing it seldom leads to a good decision and outcome.
Integrity. By integrity, I don’t mean morally upstanding the way it might be interpreted by most. I mean that they stick to their guns. They are true to their Higher Purpose, they act according to their Core Values, and they stay the course on the way to their BHAG. Some might say Fidelity instead of Integrity.
Choose. Going back to what my Grandfather tried to teach me. Make a decision. Make a choice. Choose. They may even choose inaction. Inaction is a decision, a decision to do nothing. And there is a big difference between doing nothing because you’re stuck and choosing to do nothing because it’s the best decision.
Communicate. They make sure that the people affected by the decision are informed. Those affected may not even like the decision, or agree with it, but it is critically important that they know why and how the decision was made.
Do you ever look back at your decisions and wish you had done things differently? How can a leader remain positive and motivated despite past mistakes?
Of course. We’re human. We make mistakes. And we get to call those lessons. If we keep learning, AND effectively apply those learnings, we can make fewer bad decisions and dramatically fewer regrettable decisions.
A decision that doesn’t work out isn’t always a “bad decision”. Some things just don’t work out. And there are many things outside of my control, including other people. But if I stick with Level 1 of my decision matrix, and proceed from there, the number of decisions I regret decreases greatly.
Now, if your decisions are consistently not good, or there is no consistency in your outcomes, you might want to rethink and revisit your matrix. It may not be working for you the way you want it to.
What is the best way to boost morale when the future seems uncertain? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team during uncertain times?
Paint a Picture.
All leaders are Visionaries, meaning they see things that don’t yet exist. Because what they see doesn’t yet exist; others don’t see it. So it is imperative that the leader paint a picture of the future that others can see and understand.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses or leaders make when faced with a hard decision? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Abandoning their Vision and Values. Under times of stress this happens all too often. And it leads to regrettable decisions. So, stick to your Vision and Values.
- Going it Alone. By not engaging key people and listening to their ideas, leaders often don’t see all the options or ways forward. They can think they have 2 choices when there might be 13 available to them, if only they would share and listen to those around them. So, share with those you trust, or find someone you can. Their perspective might just save your business.
- Using the wrong framework. In the 1970’s a group of economists came up with a method of analyzing modern manufacturing methods. They were searching for a way of understanding what companies want in their products. The options they came up with were Good, Fast, or Cheap. But times have changed and technology has advanced, making this framework obsolete. A better way to compete today is being dramatically and meaningfully different in the eyes of your Target Customer. So, keep learning and use the right framework for the situation.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a leader should do when making difficult decisions? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Stay true to your Higher Purpose and Core Values. It’s easy to abandon these in times of stress. But straying from them almost always leads to regrets.
- Get help. Others have been down the path before you. And varied experiences and perspectives are a strength. Engage others to help see as many options as possible, as well as the associated risks.
- Apply the right framework. Figure out your rules for different types of decisions. Ask the questions. Make sure what you decide is going to have the impact you want.
- Be Honest. Confront the brutal facts. It’s hard. But a lack of brutal honesty, painting a rosy picture, can lead to dire consequences.
- Act. Make a choice. Don’t get stuck in limbo because you can’t decide.
- Communicate. Communicate with the relevant parties, your players, your customers, your partners, whoever is impacted or needs to understand why and how you decided what you did. Then repeat it, and ask them to explain it back to you to ensure your intentions were clear and heard.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Nobody cares what you know. They care what you do.
Knowing and being right won’t lead to success financially, professionally, socially, or in your close relationships. But actions can.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Visit my blog at https://sturdycoaching.com/blog.
Listen to my podcasts: The Focus Forward Business Podcast with Sturdy McKee
The Best Small Business In the World Podcast with Matt & Sturdy
Both are available on virtually every platform.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
Thank you for the amazing opportunity!
About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at [email protected]. To schedule a free consultation, click here.
Sturdy McKee Of Sturdy Coaching On How Leaders Make Difficult Decisions was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.