We are living in a time of extreme disruption, there’s no denying it. In this episode, we hear from a woman who has centered her life around extremes: Ebony Smith. She specializes in training and coaching in Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (V.U.C.A.) work environments. Previously, Smith achieved a Masters in operational safety, worked for BP and Sunoco, before pivoting her career to leadership.
Ebony Smith talks with Jon Tota about the importance of creating a coaching culture, how VUCA translates to traditional businesses and the significance of tree bathing and self-care.
Interested in Ebony’s company? Learn more about Ebenum Equation
Follow Ebony on LinkedIn for more insights.
Jon Tota (00:00):
Hey everyone, Jon Tota here. I want to thank you for tuning into the show each week. We love our Learning Life community and are so grateful for your support. We’d appreciate it. If you would take a minute to rate us and write a review for Learning Life, wherever you’re listening right now. Your ratings and comments help new people find the show so we can keep growing our community and bringing great interviews on the topics you care most about. Thanks for being here. Now on to the show.
Ebony Smith (00:24):
So just these kinds of little things that we can build in, help us build a better life for ourselves. And in the end, that’s how we want to show up- is to live life a little bit better each day. We’re all not competing against each other. We’re competing against ourselves from yesterday.
Welcome to Learning Life, where top experts share their business knowledge and personal journeys each week. “And The thing that I realized from the CEO to the NFL football player, to the janitor – we’re our toughest critics, and we’re hardest on ourselves.” – James Lawrence And wanted to bring education to the market. I wake up in the morning and I am constantly learning.” “The only way to grab somebody’s attention is with a story” – Cal Fussman. Happy learning. And now your host, Jon Tota,
Jon Tota (01:08):
Welcome back to Learning Life with Jon Tota. My guest today is Ebony Smith. Ebony is a facilitator coach and speaker training leaders to manage volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous work environments, otherwise known as VUCA. Ebony is also the founder of the Ebenum Leadership Academy, where she’s developing certified coaches for large organizations. After spending 20 years in the oil and gas industry, seven years in the field, and 13 years trading oil derivatives, Ebony knows a lot about dealing with unpredictable situations in the workplace, and she’s now developing leaders to operate effectively in all unstable situations. So Ebony Smith, welcome to Learning Life.
Ebony Smith (01:43):
Hi Jon, thank you for having me.
Jon Tota (01:45):
This is really fun to have you here. Obviously we’re dealing with lots of unpredictable unstable situations in the world right now, and all of us are always looking for solutions on how we can deal with that more effectively. Obviously you’re an expert in this area. For all of our listeners just right out of the gate, VUCA is kind of a new term that I think a lot of people don’t know. I just recently learned about it. And it’s speaking specifically about volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous work environments. Can you tell us a little bit about the background of that term and how you became an expert in that area?
Ebony Smith (02:18):
Sure. The background of the term is that it joined the modern day lexicon right after 9/11. It’s a military term in actuality that after 9/11, it kind of joined organizational lexicon. It’s a term that really explains how they’re training leaders inside the military to react in ways that really works for the environment in which they need to lead. And so as it joined and, you know, we, there’s a lot of uncertainty that kind of developed after 9/11, we entered a new era of how organizations were going to operate. People began to expect the unexpected and it needed a term that was already out there that could be applied to, you know, our normal kind of non-government life and so that’s where it gained its popularity. I would tell you that before the label was present for me, it was really something that I studied in my master’s degree program, which is in operational safety. But I went to school with a lot of first responders, almost everybody in my class when I was in graduate school was either a police captain or a fire captain in my graduate school program at St. Joe’s. And it was really about how do you operate in a way that you keep people safe while also looking to complete the job at hand? And so that’s where I really became familiar with the concepts. We spent a lot of time studying the first World Trade Center bombing when I was in graduate school.
Jon Tota (03:37):
Now tell us a little bit – it’s so interesting to me because I look at it and I think, wow, that’s something that you wouldn’t have even thought of going into that field. And before September 11th, before this was branded as kind of a, a philosophy or a way of dealing with situations, what was it called when you studied this? Would, would it would have been situational awareness or what was it called previously?
Ebony Smith (04:00):
Jon Tota (04:01):
Ebony Smith (04:02):
Yeah. Cause this was really, it was for first responders. And so the entire program was around crisis management and employee health and safety and occupational health and safety. So how to, for the firemen in my program, how do they protect their firemen? How do you protect your police officers? And for me, it, eventually that skillset turned into how do I protect my construction workers in an oil construction environment. And that’s how I applied it right out of graduate school for the beginning of my career.
Jon Tota (04:27):
Right, right. I know you spent two decades in this space, in the oil and gas industry, a large portion of that was for BP. Tell us a little bit about the field work you were doing, because I think that’s so much the basis of what your expertise is built on- some of the safety situations and and dealing with the uncertainty out in the field is an oil and gas industry.
Ebony Smith (04:49):
It really was about education, so everything comes back to learning, and then also about auditing and then preparing for the unknown unknowns. And so a big part of the things that we were going to do were one, around prepping and getting a cohesive team together so that we can function really well under stress. And then the other part was ensuring that everybody had a game plan; we called them tabletop drills. And we did a lot of scenario planning and a lot of active drills as a part of their training. And just ensuring that we had the shorthand that it takes in order to do dynamic leadership in a crisis environment. So I remember my very first oil spill. It was somebody- a construction company, had hit our pipeline as they were building a large box store; and I’d been with the company maybe a month and a half.
Ebony Smith (05:36):
I’d done safety for another organization, but not in a hazardous chemical environment. And I remember my very first one. I’m with the team. I knew all the books stuff; I’d done a lot of tabletop drills. And I had a really amazing crew. All of them had been working longer than I’d been alive. Cause I was kind of, you know, fresh out of graduate school. And I knew a lot of the technical and theory it, but to see the practical application in a dynamic workforce environment is really what got me hooked. It’s one of those things that you realize you’re as good as the people that are standing next to you and their worth is then validated by how much education and training that they have. And that’s how I knew it was important part of how companies operate and then also how they thrive.
Jon Tota (06:19):
Transitioning this to the corporate space. Is this now -obviously oil and gas is like probably top of the charts in the safety and just, I guess, present danger at all times. Are you dealing in all industries or is it just specific verticals that you’re really working on?
Ebony Smith (06:36):
You know it’s interesting as I started my company who became a client. SoI have an interesting number of healthcare workers and clients. So whether it be pharma to actual clinicians who are working in the infectious disease space. So that’s been quite active considering where we are right now in our history in America. Working with those teams on how they’re showing up and how they’re taking care of themselves and working a little bit, some things around palliative care, but also having conversations about what’s the safety plan here? How are you addressing that? How are we taking care of our clinicians that are actually providing services? So, or it’s even dealing with you know, companies that are tech firms looking at how their business continuity plans were not designed to be used for six months.
Jon Tota (07:20):
New Speaker (07:20):
And so they’re, they’re seeing the fraying at the edges for their leaders and now they need to put some stop gaps in place. You know, I live in Florida. So a lot of the business continuity plans for my local customers are really around hurricane prep, right? What’s the hurricane evacuation look like? Where’s our offsite location? We can operate there for two or three months, but for many of them, they hadn’t done any scenario planning around an extended quarantine at home and taking their businesses a hundred percent virtual in a week.
Jon Tota (07:51):
Yeah. And that must be really kind of fascinating to you right now because you you’re in the business. Like you said earlier, it’s all about preparation. Preparing for the unexpected, knowing that you’ve got option, you know, plan A, plan B; probably 10 different plans. But then we’re dealing with the situation now with COVID and the aftermath of it, where we all thought it might’ve been three months and even planning for a remote team and remote operations for three months was a big deal. Now it could go on for another six months or a year. How are you seeing people deal with that? What are some of the biggest problems that you’re helping companies and leaders with right now as there they’re dealing with that uncertainty?
Ebony Smith (08:30):
I think it’s finding harmony between work and life. For a lot of the people and especially for some of the groups that I’ve spoken to, you know, people started off doing lunch and learns in April. They kind of froze everything in March/ sometime around the end of April, they’re like, all right, our people need help. They don’t know how to find balance. And I was like, you need to stop seeking balance and start seeking harmony. Understanding that you may have to tell your boss at your six year old is not doing so well in her distance learning program and you’re going to have to hop off the call. Or, you know, for other leaders understanding that they, their teams may not be synchronous all the time. So you may have had a typical workday between, you know, seven and six. Most people had some core hours during that timeframe, but when they also have to manage family life, along with it, people may become much more asynchronous. I had a client very early on in my career where their entire team globally was asynchronous. So it was an understood practice. And it was a tech company. They had about 700 employees that were global with a lot of them being nomadic because they were programmers and designers. And so their company culture was built for that. I would say for most mainstream Fortune 500 companies, they had never considered the fact that they would need to have an asynchronous workforce and what core hours would look like for global teams.
Jon Tota (09:46):
So with all of the people that you’re working with now, and you looking at this and being an expert in this space, what do you see the a year from now, 18 months from now? How do you see companies existing beyond this period of time? Do they go back to the way they were? Or is this kind of an evolution of the way that we’re all gonna operate going forward now?
Ebony Smith (10:08):
So it’s interesting you say that. Another part of my work that I do along with helping people figure out the leadership skills that they need in a VUCA environment is to do something called foresight strategy. And foresight strategy really is about acknowledging that anything can be different in the future, and how do we begin to scenario plan those futures whether it be a negative future or a positive future set for the direction of where the company would like to go in three to five years? I would say for a lot of my clients, I’ve been asking them to collect the signals. Since day one of quarantine, I would say organizational life inside of companies have given them signals every day. The thing about a signal is you have to know what to do with it. It’s that story that you read in the newspaper and you go, huh, that’s interesting, but you don’t know what to do with it.
Ebony Smith (10:57):
Or maybe your company doesn’t have a mechanism to collect those signals. So that collectively as a leadership team, you can begin to review them. So you can create policy around future trends that may come up from the signals that you saw very early on. For a lot of my clients, when we went into quarantine season, I said, you need to collect the signals. This needs to become something that you’re discussing every week, so that you can begin to make dynamic shifts in your organization that will meet the needs of the organization. Getting back to your longer-term question. I think we go into an endemic response. This becomes something that we live with. And so some companies have already faced that because they’ve said like, Oh, we’re going to, everybody’s gonna work at home until July 2021. I think others will need to get out of that crisis survival response and say, our recovery response will look like an endemic response and this is now permanently shifted how we operate as an organization.
Jon Tota (11:49):
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Jon Tota (12:50):
I think the role of leaders has evolved so much. And I know one of the things that you’re really passionate about is particularly in these VUCA situations, really helping companies or organizations develop leaders to be more like coaches. So tell us a little bit about that and is that one of your solutions for how you can operate or make this transition as a leader, running a remote team that you may not see in the office, you know, more than a couple of times a year and potentially going forward now?
Ebony Smith (13:24):
Yeah, definitely. So I would say one of the things I noticed after I became a coach and working with people is that I realized in order for companies really to change, you can hire lots of coaches, but you really need to institute a coaching culture. And so that’s why I developed my coaching school, the Ebenum Leadership Academy, which is created around using coaching skills to create better leaders inside of organizations, using design thinking and UX methodology. I really believe that learning gets better with iteration. And so for leaders they’ll need to shift how they build better relationships with the people who matter most. So whether it’s with your employees, your clients, your peers, this will really become a relationship building game. And if you have relied on, as a leader, the ability to walk past somebody’s desk or to be at a conference with them in order to get the relationship going, this is where the nuance of having the exact skills you need in order to thrive really comes into play. For introverts, they’re great at, you know, building one-on-one relationships remotely. For extroverts, I think for them, it’s going to be a little bit harder of a lesson because they actually get their energy from being around people. And so for a lot of my clients who prefer extroversion, they really are . Are having an adjustment. Introverts are living their best lives and extroverts are figuring out how do I get the same impact that I’ve always had without actually being in the room? And this is where training comes into play.
Jon Tota (14:51):
Yeah, that’s so interesting. I hadn’t actually even thought about it from that perspective as introverts and extroverts because you’re right, like this virtual format becomes predominantly one-on-one in, because you’re not forced to do things in large group situations as much. So introverted leaders are really made for this time and this format that, that we’re, that we’re operating in. What are some of the things? When you’re dealing with someone who is extroverted, who kind of leads in that way, where they thrive on the community and the kind of that tribe mentality that they can develop inside of their physical location, how do you help them deal with this new reality that we’re living with and working with?
Ebony Smith (15:35):
I think that they actually have to be a lot more intentional than they would have been. And so where the desk time dropped by just as impossible, they’re going to need to schedule out the meetings, the activities, the engagements that they have with their teams. Typically they’ve hired a team of extroverts like themselves. And so to keep that team motivated and going, and they’re also going to have to figure out what other skills that they can use to bring some of their other qualities that may not be as dominant in their leadership style to the forefront so they can develop those and still continues to thrive.
Jon Tota (16:08):
It’s interesting. And for just to cover both sides of the equation for the introverted leaders, what would you say for them? What would be some best practices or things that they could develop and thrive on in this new world?
Ebony Smith (16:23):
It’s the exact same thing. Introverts thrive on being with themselves. So they also have to make a concentrated effort to reach out and join groups and forums and company happy hours and start social media campaigns on their internal yammers. All of those things are about what builds connectivity. There’s basically four things you need, you need frequency, duration, intensity, and proximity. All of those things can artificially be created in order to build a great relationship, whether you’re trying to find a spouse or you’re trying to build a team. So if you put some equal effort into those four categories, you’re going to get better results.
Jon Tota (17:01):
Right. Right. And I know too, because I get a little bit of the zoom fatigue after days of video calls that I used to probably would just bump into people in the hallway and have this conversations and now you have to schedule them. But now, so the other side of the coin, this extended life of balancing your family life, homeschooling slash remote learning and your work in this format, that’s about as uncertain and potentially volatile as a situation can geet, other than the oil and gas industry, right? But what are you, how are you helping people with the personal side of this, how they deal with this at home and even the uncertainty of schooling?
Ebony Smith (17:44):
I would say that, you know, one in order to pour into somebody else, including your family members and your co-workers and team members, you first have to pour into yourself. So I first with every client, we always start off with how you’re taking care of yourself? Like, what is your self-care resilience practice look like? And resilience and self-care is like hygiene. The shower you took yesterday does not work for you today. So telling me that you run twice a week to get out, and that helps your mindset does not work. Even in a normalized situation. It is one of those things. And I, I tell my clients, I’m like, look, when we first start off, I have a 5% methodology. You have to invest 5% of your day in yourself in order for you to be able to show up for the people you care about and to get the goals and tasks that you’re looking for done.
Ebony Smith (18:27):
So there are 1,440 minutes in a day that looks like 72 minutes, and this is irrespective of nutrition or hygiene. You need to figure out how you can give yourself a 5% investment in your own personal care and resilience. So it can be things like taking a walk, doing a mindfulness walk when you take your dog out, picking a color before you walk out the door and just looking for that color; not listening to a podcast, not talking to a friend, not being on a zoom audio call, just really focusing in on I’m going to be present in this moment. It could also be something a little bit more complex, like meditating, or doing mindful cooking or deciding you’re going to deep dive into some learning that you really love, but it’s not core to your job or how your family chooses to show up. But you’re going to put about a half an hour into that. It can show up in a bunch of different ways, but it should be something that’s done daily. And 5% is the starting point.
Jon Tota (19:17):
Got it. Got it. I think that’s great. And 5% of your waking time or of 24 hours.
Ebony Smith (19:24):
Jon Tota (19:25):
Okay. All right. That should be achievable. Shouldn’t be too hard. But totally present. Meditation’s okay, exercise, but not listening to audio books, podcasts?
Ebony Smith (19:37):
No, it totally. That could, if that’s a way that somebody wants to relax and I listened to podcasts on my morning walk.
Jon Tota (19:42):
Ebony Smith (19:43):
But I’m present in that walk and I’m present on a podcast and I’m not trying to do, you know, 50 11 different things while I’m in the process of doing some deep learning and getting a bit of exercise in. And so it’s really about saying, Hey, I’m going to go out. This is my time. Mine is a 6:30 AM walk. I go out for it; I walk for about three and a half miles, and then I’m back home in about an hour. And it’s a great way for me to kind of one get some some exercise. Two, there is the Japanese practice of tree bathing. So I’m walking under enough trees to hit the research number that it has an impact on your day. So just these kind of little things that we can build in, help us build a better life for ourselves. And in the end, that’s how we want to show up is to live life a little bit better each day. We’re all not competing against each other. We’re competing against ourselves from yesterday.
Jon Tota (20:31):
5% should be on, you know, for yourself. Are you recommending to people that you’re working with to try and create some stable routine in your life to help have something that you can kind of adhere to in these types of times?
Ebony Smith (20:45):
Yes. I mean the whole reason when you’re tabletop drilling for a crisis situation is that you want to establish a routine. A lot of times, I, this is the analogy I use. I always know I’m going to bake a cake. I just don’t know what kind of cake I’m going to bake that day. So it could be a cheesecake, could be a chocolate chip cake, could be all butter pound cake. If you know, with the routine that you set your day up with that you’re going to get up and you’re going to make something and you have the same wake up time. And you have, you know, these kind of markers that pass your day, that you know, that things are going well. That level of routine with some buffer blocks inside for the unexpected to happen will begin to set you up for success.
Jon Tota (21:22):
That’s great. Such good advice. I love everything you’re talking about, particularly with what we’re all going through now. Tell me a little bit for our audience who wants to know more about you and where they can kind of learn and develop their own skill sets in these areas. I know you have a bunch of online resources, what’s the best place for people to go and what should they be
Ebony Smith (21:42):
You’re looking for? So I would go to my website, it’s EbenumEquation.com Ebenum just, if you’re wondering where the name came from, I needed a clean trademark- it’s Ebony in Latin. And I was able to get that with using ebenum. And if you go to leadership solutions under that tab, there’s a lot of different learning opportunities and then also a list of services that we provide. It’s been a great experience really to help do strategic thought partnership with people that are, you know, changing the world.
Jon Tota (22:13):
Awesome. That’s awesome. And you have an online academy, correct? Or, or is it remote? How’s it, how’s it delivered?
Ebony Smith (22:18):
It’s a virtual leadership coach training program. And sowe were in person for, I would say, 30% of it. And now we will be for this next cohort, a hundred percent virtual. And so that is the Ebenum Leadership Academy. It’s ebenumleadership.com, if anybody is interested in getting more information. And it’s a 77 hour ICF approved coach training program; it was designed for leaders in organizations to bring that coaching skill and methodology throughout their management style.
Jon Tota (22:49):
That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Ebenumleadership.Com, right?
Ebony Smith (22:53):
Ebenum leadership.com. Yeah.
New Speaker (22:55):
Just Ebenum Leadership.com. And we’ll put, we’ll put that in the show notes for all of our listeners, so you can check it out. Ebony, thank you so much for taking the time. I know that you’re very busy right now because everybody is probably really trying to figure out how to deal with what’s going on and you’re probably in great demand. So thank you for making the time to be here with us.
Ebony Smith (23:15):
Thank you so much. I have appreciated the time with your audience
Jon Tota (23:18):
And for all our listeners. Thank you for being here. As you know, we have a new episode that comes out every week, so wherever you’re listening, be sure to subscribe, leave us comments. We’d love to hear from you. And until our next episode, Happy learning!