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Why Soft Leadership Skills Will Rise to the Top During Times of Crisis


At a time when everyone in the world is searching for the best way to come out of this current economic situation in once piece, perhaps we should consider not WHAT to do, but HOW we do it. A recent Fast Company article boldly stated, “Companies often prioritize real estate cost savings above employee well-being. That doesn’t work now, and it never worked well.” DeLinda Forsythe, CEO and Founder of ICE (Innovative Commercial Environments), a San Diego furniture dealership that has been on the Inc. 500 list since 2013, agrees.

When asked what is needed to succeed during these unchartered times her answer was clear: “The leadership skills most important right now are empathy, vulnerability, and courage."

ThinkLab research indicates that 60 percent of West Coast survey respondents' (comprised of both A&D and manufacturers/dealers) bid activity has slowed or stopped, and 46 percent of respondents have taken some kind of employment actions (be it layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, or a combination of all these actions). Yet, as of the time of this article, ICE has not been required to reduce staff to lower costs, even though Forsythe admits to dramatic reductions in sales related to the downturn.

In a recent interview with Forsythe, she shares how her company deploys the skills listed above to weather the storm with the intent of emerging stronger than ever. And her advice for other leaders in the interiors industry gives us hope for a brighter future.

Embrace the entrepreneurial spirit.

Forsythe was the first to admit that this mindset doesn’t come free. Keeping on staff during a downturn requires her team to sharpen their pencils and find opportunities to cut costs in other areas of business. And for Forsythe, this is a team effort where every member at ICE must equality contribute to lowering costs.

Since Forsythe likens managing employees to raising children. She feels passionately about modeling generational leadership and empowering her team to vocalize their own opinions with a sense of accountability. “Entitlement,” she shares, “should never hold a negative connotation. I believe employees should be entitled to their own opinion and their actions should follow suit. As a Boomer, so many people tell me how we had it so hard and these Millennials are so entitled. In my head, I’m thinking, ‘Yes, that is great information, but it’s not relevant. It doesn’t help us move the needle forward.’ We need an employee force, that, regardless of age, is willing to speak their mind, and share insights for a collective brainstorm of ideas. When it comes to cutting costs, this same methodology rings true—everyone’s voice matters.”

Forsythe believes this entrepreneurial mindset is what’s helping her company cut costs during these difficult times. She adds, “This is our opportunity to live the value that everyone matters, because we all are responsible for each other's employment. That means less mistakes in design. Going out there and getting more projects. Project management catching mistakes earlier in the process and making sure we don’t have any losses. If we have reduced sales, we can’t have reduced profitability. And everyone on my team is responsible for that common goal.”

Recognize the value of emotional intelligence.

Forsythe shares, “If there is one thing that I’m seeing as a result of COVID, it is that the downturn is helping us reframe the definition for success. And Millennials, as they tend to young children at home—most without childcare, while homeschooling, are leading the charge. They aren’t looking at Boomers to help define what success means. They’re finding their own unique way of achieving work-life balance in an environment arguably more challenging than ever experienced by their older counterparts. And as a result, they are reframing the concept of work-life balance.”

Here’s where Forsythe suggests that emotional intelligence comes into play. “We have always stressed intellectual intelligence, but to me, emotional intelligence is perhaps the most relevant leadership skill we have. COVID brought to light true leadership traits in our employee base, by showing who can excel during these emotionally challenging times. I give so much credit to our Millennial workforce who are proving day in and day out that they aren’t the unmotivated, undervalued employees so many people view them as. They are embracing these new challenges with grace and enthusiasm, and leading a charge for the next generation of leadership to oversee with empathy and compassion.”

Live out the principles of conscious capitalism.
Forsythe believes in the concept of conscious capitalism, which states that the authentic, truest purpose of business is to elevate humanity and create value for the benefit of everyone. She attributes her application of this principle to ICE’s success. As she puts it, “Many inaccurately believe that capitalism is based on greed and the exploitation of consumers, workers, society and the environment for the goal of maximizing profits, often at the expense of others; someone must lose to allow someone to win. This perception is based on a false narrative that has kidnapped the true character of capitalism as envisioned by our Founding Fathers. In reality capitalism is based on cooperation and voluntary exchange. To a certain degree competition keeps everyone honest and in check with a mandated focus on the customer to provide the best value. Additionally, since employees have more options than ever to work where they want, it forces management to provide higher wages, benefits, and a safe workplace.”

She shares her favorite quote from the book “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business” by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia both as a testament to her company’s philosophy on doing business, but perhaps also for a clear signal of where successful businesses will stand after we emerge from our current economic un-pause: “Conscious leaders…find great joy and beauty in their work, and in the opportunity to serve, lead, and help shape a better future. Since they are living their calling, they are authentic individuals who are eager to share their passion with others. They have an orientation toward servant leadership, high integrity, and a great capacity for love and care.”

For research on the interiors industry’s impact during this difficult time, take this survey from ThinkLab. We also invite you to explore ThinkLab resources for moving forward after we un-pause.

This article originally was published in Bellow Press and was reposted here with permissions.

Amanda Schneider is President of ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW. At ThinkLab, we combine SANDOW Media’s incredible reach to the architecture and design community through brands like Interior Design Media, Metropolis, and Material Bank with proven market research techniques to uncover relevant trends and opportunities that connect back to brand and business goals in a thought-provoking, creative, and actionable way. Join in to know what’s next at

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