Making the right pivot at the right time is what allows companies to thrive in the midst of big market disruption. Elisabeth Sanders-Park shares insights from her journey in this video interview.
Transcript of Interview with Elisabeth Sanders-Park
David Mills, Chief Growth Officer, Story Collaborative
Elizabeth. Thank you so much for joining me this morning. I'm really excited to hear about the changes that have happened in your business, your industry. I know that you've been an industry leader for really quite a few years. You were at the forefront last year of really, helping people through the huge challenges of 2020. I think the Lord is 2021 now. Why don't you, just tell us about your company and yourself.
Elisabeth Sanders-Park, Founder WorkNet Solutions
Thanks, David. I run a company called WorkNet solutions and our goal is to equip and inspire specifically providers of employment and career services. We run a B to B and our customers are organizations that are moving a lot of people into the world of work every year. That might be college and career centers at universities, workforce centers. We have a specialty to help people with significant barriers. We also work with correctional systems and mental health care providers, but we help those organizations and their teams do that work better.
Would you also work with companies that have kind of a large entry-level workforce people that have lots of people who are coming maybe out of life transitions into a entry-level position?
Good point, because we started out helping people get into the workforce in a way that makes them incredibly successful. One of the things we teach is how to think like the employer and how to understand business. As a result, we also do work with organizations to help their existing workforce to better employees. We teach soft skills, we teach career management. We now teach a lot of how to do this work virtually. We increasingly work with organizations with their incumbent workers, their existing employees.
That's great. Well, thanks for sharing that. So, we all had a really interesting year last year, and lots of things happen. What, what were the big bumps in the road that you saw in your industry, that really precipitated some changes in some innovation on your part,
Last year before COVID we had recast the website of a major project that I work on to really focus on the human element, teaching soft skills, helping people be great on the job is all about the fact that work we used to say for work for most people is a live group, human interaction. Were teaching everything in live group, human interactions. We had just recast everything to be about the human aspect, and then suddenly everything went virtual and all the humans are siloed into their own spaces and with this zoom connection. That was a huge change right after we had embraced a piece of the puzzle that shifted dramatically.
You were really leading your industry toward a more kind of a people centered approach to improve the quality of those in-person experiences. All of a sudden, poof that evaporates as a reality in the market. At that point then, what signals did you see as you're talking with your customers, working with folks that you realize that you as a company and you as a leader needed to make some changes to help them.
We saw a lot of, reactions to the situation in our customers, but if we can rewind about 11 years to October, 2008, when the great recession hit us. I remember where I was in October, 2008. I remember the week in which about 90% of our fourth quarter income evaporated, I got three phone calls that put one project on hold, canceled an event and downsized an event by like 90%. And we did not pivot. I want to say we didn't pivot well in the great recession. We actually just didn't pivot. We worked a lot harder, but not much smarter. And it took us years. We barely made it through and it took us years to recover. And we looked back and learn lessons. At that point. I have colleagues who I look back now and I realized they pivoted very quickly and very well.
I will tell you when March 13th rolled around, I was on my now I understand last business trip of the year. And that was a Thursday. I was in Maryland. The governor came on the line about two thirds of the way through our meeting and shut down the state. Were told we had one hour to finish up, which was the time we had a lot of anyhow, we finished our, this consulting gig. It all went very well. They grabbed their laptops and they haven't seen each other since in person. The next day on the airplane flying home, I just thought we need to pivot. Part of our response was not just a reaction to what our customers were facing, but our reaction to business wise, what we had been through before. I knew we had to make changes.
When I lifted my sites in the following days, literally that very week to look at what my customers were dealing with, they were completely disoriented. That is the word I would use. I mean, were all in of shock. We were all anticipating what was next, but they were completely disoriented. One of the big organism or the big, departments I work in across the country, the industries as human services. Again, suddenly all the humans are separated and I'm working with people who are supposed to be dealing with people one-on-one as they come into their organizations. Most of us had less than five zoom meetings in our entire career. It felt inauthentic, it felt disconnected. It felt like it wasn't enough to actually do this work well.
What we saw in our customers was that they had been scattered, they were disoriented and they really didn't even know where to begin to respond. So that's where we came in.
You're you see this just seismic shift in the daily, like the daily performance of the entire industry in which you're working, since then, since almost nothing was virtual. What did you decide that you would try? What was your, initial kind of pivot or innovation that you rolled out to begin addressing this kind of huge change?
Gosh, it seems so long ago and what we're doing now has become so natural and so effective. It's a little hard to even remember what it felt like in those moments and what we try. We certainly tried some things that didn't work and abandoned them very quickly. We found some things very quickly that did work and we've done them ever since. We immediately went virtual and I will say, I'm a trainer, I'm a speaker, I'm a consultant and a writer. If you would ask me at any point prior to March 12th of this year, about virtual training, you would have heard my, worn out spiel about how life is a group human interaction and work as a group, human action training should be a group human interaction.
Virtual training is not the way to go while I abandoned that cause that wasn't going to work. We started embracing immediately the idea of doing virtual work, and started to realize that there are some real upsides to it. What we try that didn't work is doing it all ourselves, which is my tendency as a business owner. I realized immediately that was not going to work. We found some partners that we began partnering with a company that works in a completely different industry. They needed trainers and they needed things to be converted trainings, not just to be transferred from in-person training to online training, but really to be transformed. We realized that the way that we built training before was not going to work. We had to start learning how to build training in a way that is brain-based and interactive and truly effective virtually.
We are leading our industry in that it's not rocket science, but it is very different than the way you build training for live interaction or in-person interaction. We abandoned the way we used to build training and started doing that new. We abandoned trying to do it all our own and built partnerships. I would say I have one big lesson that I look back on now. And it has to do with pivoting. When you think of the word pivot, we often think of just shifting right, moving in another direction, and that's a big part of it. The first step in pivoting is not to shift is to plant your foot. When you think of a basketball player, who's about pivot.
They've got to plant their foot, usually their dominant foot, and then they can do lots of different things in terms of pivoting, shifting and doing something new, seeing where the rest of their team is, seeing where the opportunities are and making a move, but without planning your foot, you're just flailing. We did plant our foot before we pivoted and we did it in days, but we figured out that what we're teaching is works. We can keep that, but how we teach it was the big shift. We really dug into what we're doing and then we shifted how we're doing it. I think if you're thinking about pivoting before you flail figure out what's solid and own that, and then make your.
That's great insight. So, so really this whole process of, moving to a new focus, starts with understanding what you're good at, where your strengths are. Also looking around to see how you can best put those strengths to work in a new environment. That's really, I really appreciate you sharing that. That's great. What was the hardest part? And I, I appreciate, we all go through a journey when we go with a pivot, when we have these market disruptions. By the way, the companies that are doing the best in the market disruption are those who have the ability to pivot. They do understand that they can't abandon their strengths in the process. As you, and you shared about your journey, I think that's really helpful to everyone. This is not just a, a single step and you were perfect the first time out.
What was the hardest part of this for you? This whole transition? It was so abrupt.
Let's see. I think part of the hard part was just that all the lines were erased in terms of knowing where to go and what to do and what might work. It was like a clean slate in the sense that anything was possible, but also so much of what we had done before. Just it wasn't working, how we did it before it wasn't working, even how we communicate with our customers, how we find customers and when customers and nurture customers and serve customers. So knowing how to proceed was challenging. With those lines erased that also met in terms of time and space, the hours that we worked and we work insane hours in April, may and June in June is when we really started launching a lot of our new services after having research and develop throughout April and may.
I taught 98.5 hours virtually in the month of June, I, myself alone, just me, not my team. That was in more than 15 countries at all hours of the day and night, a lot of our core curriculum, actually some of our core curriculum about how to win careers and do them well. A lot of the content was new. A lot of it was how to be a great virtual trainer, how to be a great virtual coach, how to run virtual meetings, virtual retreats for teams to get them connected and keep them connected. I was doing how to create virtual engagements with your customers, with a team of people who work in the medical industries, I'm training pharmaceutical reps and medical sales reps. We can no longer go in and meet with their doctors.
Now I'm meeting all across the world with an entirely new industry on fairly new content at wacky hours. I think part of the challenge was managing my own energy, our focus balancing time with marketing and serving existing customers and delivering new services. Everything just felt all over the place. It wasn't until July, which for me, June 30th as the year end closing for the vast majority of my traditional customers. July was quieter as usual, and we could recoup, but we got to try a ton of things in June and after June embraced and catalyzed, what seemed to be going to work for the foreseeable future and abandoned a few things at that point.
That's, that's great. Well, the work you have to put in to do this well, and of course your company really stands for the delivery of services with excellence. It's part of what you teach, everyone you work with. You had to do it yourself and not just phoned it in. So that's a great story. This whole idea of starting with a blank sheet is so challenging to us. Part of the problem is there's no boundaries on it. If we're not careful, we can draw way outside the lines because there are no lines.
If you had just had one piece of advice for a business owner or a nonprofit leader, an agency manager who is really looking at some things that are really not working still, what would you tell them to do? as they look at their landscape of, try to stay alive as a organization,
Two things come to mind, and I realize as I'm thinking of them, that one is internal and one is external. The internal piece really echoes back to what I was saying about pivoting. That is similar to what we did. You got that blank slate. Part of the first thing we did was figure out what we do, what we have in our hands that is powerful and still irrelevant. And to embrace that.
Looking at what are the strengths of your organization, what has been your mission and your vision to this point and what do you stay true to? I want to say, even if you're not sure it will work in this environment, the question is, how do you make that work in your environment? Is that if that's, you're here to do, how do you do it now? The second thing is looking externally, what are your customers need? Now? They're just like, your opportunities have shifted. Their needs have shifted.
What do your customers need today? Where are they in pain? Where are they afraid? Where are they ill equipped? What have they been doing that no longer will work? And is that a place where you can pivot to? So I would look at those two things and I think you'll find some boundaries and that'll inform how you kind of color within those lines.
That's great advice. If people are sitting, talking with you about the services, you provide, speaking, writing, program development, training of all the things that you do, how would the best reach you Elizabeth?
So we are work net solutions.com. Our website is WorkNet solutions.com and hop on there and take a look. There's lots of ways we can serve you, as a business owner, as you serve your customers, as you train your team and your constituents. Take a look there and reach out and we would love to hear from you. Okay.