As someone who leads any sort of team during difficult times where everyone is at different stages of how they feel about uncertain situations, everyone is coping or not coping in their own way, a leader needs to act with empathy and grace. During the pandemic & lockdown periods more than ever I did my best to give people as much ‘slack’ as possible whilst also doing my best to support them where they were at. Sometimes I would find myself getting worked up at the lack of productivity in a particular meeting or task but would tell myself that when human contact had been limited so much, this ‘chatter’ was maybe what was keeping them going. So far, so good.
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 Martin MacDonald.
Martin is a clinical performance nutritionist, motivational speaker, educator and CEO of The Mac-Nutrition Collective, a syndicate of companies dedicated to the furthering and promotion of evidence-based nutrition. In recent years his Instagram persona has become synonymous with unwavering endeavors to promote integrity and bring evidence-based practice to the forefront of the industry.
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 actually started out as a university lecturer and started practicing as a Registered Nutritionist in my spare time, working on a consultancy basis with some professional football teams & the GB Olympic Weightlifting & Paralympic Powerlifting teams. I actually ended up working with a celebrity, helping her with some evidence-based strategies for fat loss, which she then turned into a DVD & mentioned my name on television multiple times. While I loved teaching, the red tape and essay marking were intolerable, so I went all in on my consultancy. Mac-Nutrition quickly grew into the UK’s leading consultancy for nutrition advice; we provided innovative and expert advice on clinical issues, weight loss, sports performance, and later, workplace wellness too!
I started doing a lot more public speaking and this alongside my social media presence, led to me becoming a name for other professionals to learn from. It was this that led to the creation of our headline business, Mac-Nutrition Uni, the world’s first ever 12-month, evidence-based, online nutrition course that can be completed alongside full-time work, from anywhere in the world! The rest is history really, MNU is now the industry standard and has garnered endorsements from all corners of the health, fitness and medical industries.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I can only call this ‘funny’ in hindsight, but when we first created our 12-month online nutrition qualification back in 2016 we actually called it Mac-Nutrition University. At the time there were several relatively forgettable courses/platforms using the term ‘University’ however, what I foolishly didn’t know was, 1) we were going to be much more high profile and 2) those with successful businesses using the term ‘University’ weren’t in the UK where it is a protected term! Needless to say, as soon as things took off, we were contacted by Trading Standards and had to change our website, our merchandise, our banners, everything to Mac-Nutrition Uni! To make it worse, our competitors then jumped on this and started reporting us to Advertising Standards, which was another headache but thankfully led to nothing. Anyway, it’s funny to look back at it now and I’ve learnt that you can’t run a business like a child’s lemonade stand. You can ‘wing’ a lot of stuff; I think a lot of business owners will tell you they are winging it a lot of the time, but sometimes, when it comes to official bits and bobs, legal bits, it’s worth speaking to someone before diving heads first into it.
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?
She won’t like me mentioning her as she doesn’t like the limelight, but I couldn’t not mention my Head of Nutrition, Sarah Duffield. She was my first fulltime employee and she’s worked tirelessly ever since. One of our courses has in-person residential teaching weekends — we had planned to get paid actors for a session on consultation techniques but had run out of time… so Sarah, not an actor or even an extrovert, dressed up as a man to get into a specific character role to help teach the students. It ended up being the best teaching weekend we ever did.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
It’s funny, I don’t see myself as a particularly good goal setter. I’ve never had a ‘vision board’. I love what I do, and I just do it. I do nothing by any clever business ‘book’ and didn’t have the humility to get a business coach (my silly younger self). But one thing I did, for reasons I’m not quite sure of, was I wrote down the core values of the business. Every new employee that joined I would talk them through these 4 things.
Integrity — Unwavering integrity in everything we do, specifically (but not limited to) the use of evidence-based nutrition
Empowering — Nutrition advice accessible to all, not just the wealthy. An improved alternative source of nutrition information to government guidelines
Resourcing — To create jobs for those passionate about health and nutrition & to create initiatives to donate a percentage of company profits to charity
Justice — To affect nutrition policy on a national level
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?
Often business owners reward staff in good years, as though they have worked extra hard to bring that about. That’s all well and good if it is the case, however it often isn’t. It begs the question, what about hard economic years, where staff work just as hard or even harder but perhaps the profits of the company don’t reflect that.
During our hardest year, financially at least, I actually made the decision to do a company-wide pay rise. I was of course, confident it would not worsen the state of the business, but the lift it gave across the whole company was far better than when I’ve done it during ‘good times’. This isn’t always possible when there are major financial constraints but maybe it offers a different perspective for some readers.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I can distinctly remember at least twice where I wanted to just give up, either through working all the hours under the sun and not getting the traction I thought we deserved, or through being fed up with the industry and thinking no-one ‘got it’. One thing that helped me hugely — expecting less of others and the world in general. The world doesn’t owe any of us, anything. Likewise, having expectations of others simply leads to feelings of letdown. By expecting less of others, my focus, drive and ultimately happiness became much more intrinsic. Focusing on ones ‘why’ is always very helpful when facing challenges. It comes back to purpose driven businesses; if your only purpose is to make money and that is slow or uncertain, then motivation will inevitably cease. Re-focusing on your ‘why’ can often bring a new lease of life to your drive and passion.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the most crucial role of a leader will depend on the type of business and what the challenges faced are. Using the COVID-19 global pandemic as an example, I think a critical role for me was to talk to staff of all levels, through as much of the companies plans and processes and how things would be adapted due to these times. More often than not, it’s the ‘not knowing’ or ‘unknown’ that worries, annoys or takes up head space for staff. Taking the extra time to communicate and listen to any worries or concerns makes a difference.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Something I’ve learnt over the years is indeed this, that as a leader you do need to inspire, motivate and engage. Making that a priority is so important; no matter your own stress levels of workload, it’s imperative you make room to do these things. I will often simply reflect on the many things I can be thankful for (personally or in the business) before entering a busy room or zoom call full of employees. If I can bring some positivity, a nice or funny story or just an air of happiness it makes a difference. I don’t always succeed but when I don’t, it’s another opportunity to learn.
One of the reasons I left lecturing was because of the arduous task of marking coursework and exams. It was something I felt bad that I would inevitably end up imposing on my staff when our online course launched. So, I made the decision to offer them all a pay rise, or a commitment from the company to take them on a team building & exam marking retreat every exam period. That year we went to Cape Verde, stayed in a 5-star all-inclusive hotel and I think it’s safe to say… exam marking had never felt better.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The only thing I can tell you here, that I think will universally apply is that you must find a way to show empathy, if it exists of course. It can be so easy to get bogged down with facts or logistics that you forget to just be human in an email or even verbal announcement. Those working in customer relations, and indeed managers, need to have boat loads of natural empathy if they are to deliver bad/difficult news.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think it’s worth saying a leader doesn’t have to make plans when that just isn’t possible to do. Sometimes just focusing on the day-to-day processes and making sure the business meets its daily objectives is enough. Having ‘If This Then That’ plans can be helpful to hit the ground running should things change, it’s just important to weigh up the time and effort that comes with making such plans. We specifically chose not to make any plans for one arm of our business, simply so we could be really clear in our communications with our customers and so that we could focus completely on areas we could actually make progress in.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Know. Your. Why. Without a doubt this is the best guiding principle for company strategy and the mindset of a CEO. As I said with regards to sometimes wanting to give up, it’s this ‘why’ that can provide that new lease of life. Turbulent times can mean a business needs to adapt or even change direction slightly; again, having this ‘why’ in the forefront of your mind as a leader can help when making decisions for the collective that is your team.
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?
A common mistake I have seen is businesses trying to rush things or leaders not having the patience to really see things through; this becomes magnified in times of difficulty. While it is important to be adaptable, it can be tempting to hop on a new trend and completely forget what got you to where you are or what brought your customers to you in the first place. Diversifying too far from your core business for short term wins may be a short-term win that has long term negative consequences.
One mistake I saw businesses (including our competitors) make several times during the pandemic was making plans too prematurely, essentially in an attempt to get ahead or regain lost revenue as quickly as possible. Whether these decisions are made out of naivety, fear or for the pursuit of profits the result remained the same, when the pandemic and lockdown restrictions lasted much longer than expected, it meant all the time used on these initiatives was wasted as well as more time needed to be spent ‘cancelling’ things.
Naive decisions can be forgiven, sometimes we just make mistakes. However, it’s good to have people around you to bounce ideas off, to check if you’re making decisions based on fear or pushing too hard for business growth/revenue.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
It’s very difficult to give a specific answer here but I will try to give some examples. First of all, the obvious situation to focus on here is the COVID-19 pandemic; in this situation, those who fared well were those who didn’t stick their head in the sand and hope it would be over soon; instead, reacting quickly and even pausing to consider where new opportunities might arise is a much better strategy.
My advice would be to be prepared for bad months/years. We were prepared and hadn’t stretched the business unnecessarily in the hope of faster growth. Therefore, when March 2020 hit and the UK went into lockdown and many of our customers faced financially difficulties, we were able to act compassionately through payment holidays and even refunding all of our customers two months worth of payments to ease the initial burden of the pandemic. I can’t say if this left us in a better place in our business almost 12-months on, but I know for sure it was noticed and appreciated by many.
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? Please share a story or an example for each.
- One of the best things I’ve ever done was learn about and embrace a ‘stoic attitude’ as much as possible as a leader. If you’ve never studied stoic philosophy I’d highly recommended it; there are many facets that relate to good leadership. In turbulent times a foundation of stoicism regarding not worrying about what you can’t control really comes into its own. It’s certainly easier said than done but with practice I’ve come on hugely in this regard and it’s helped me a great deal.
- Secondly, and continuing on the same theme. Practicing daily gratitude really sets a great leader apart from the rest. Practising the practice of gratitude, is one thing that led to me coping well during a hugely turbulent time for the business when my own life was in its own turmoil. It helped me to keep on keeping on despite obstacles and tragedies along the way. It can be so easy to focus on what is going wrong, what you’ve lost or are losing instead of focusing on what you do have. It’s something you can get better at; I aspire to be so good at it that even when I ‘lose’ I can smile and genuinely say… “I’m grateful and lucky to even have something to lose.” I’m not there yet.
- Going back to one of my earlier answers in this article, having a great team around you will benefit you as a leader. This means cultivating this environment before the turbulent or uncertain times, but it will pay off! You need to have a team that you have built up, encouraged & fostered self-motivation & independence in. You’re not always going to be the one who pushes things forward or leads from the front. You will need downtime. That’s when your team steps in and keeps the ship on course!
- As someone who leads any sort of team during difficult times where everyone is at different stages of how they feel about uncertain situations, everyone is coping or not coping in their own way, a leader needs to act with empathy and grace. During the pandemic & lockdown periods more than ever I did my best to give people as much ‘slack’ as possible whilst also doing my best to support them where they were at. Sometimes I would find myself getting worked up at the lack of productivity in a particular meeting or task but would tell myself that when human contact had been limited so much, this ‘chatter’ was maybe what was keeping them going. So far, so good.
- I put this as my number 5, because everyone knows it, it’s boring, but it’s 100% true. A great leader needs to be a great communicator. That doesn’t mean a great public speaker, it can be on a one-to-one basis or even via emails, but a great leader needs to keep his or her team informed. Especially when things are uncertain; the COVID pandemic was a great example of that and back in early 2020 we were already going through a time of change. I wanted to speak to my staff in a different setting, so I took them to a little grassy patch under a tree near our office (sounds idyllic doesn’t it — the reality is there was machinery that made the meeting a little difficult at times!). I just sat down with them and had a really open, honest and transparent conversation with them and then allowed them all to speak or ask questions. Again, in the moment I didn’t think anything particularly grand about the act but looking back I’m so glad I did it with the way things continued after that. Another side of communication, that I think can get overlooked, is transparency. Sometimes the humility that comes with transparency with regards to mistakes
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have many favourite quotes I live and work by, but I think a great one for business owners and people who want to do great things is this one by Aristotle: “There is only one way to avoid criticism: Do nothing, Say nothing and Be nothing.” It’s reminded me many a time in this age of social media that the more you do and achieve, the more you will be seen and heard and the more you will be criticized and judged; all you can do is continue being true to yourself and your values and recognize that their criticisms and judgments are just a reflection of themselves, not you. Personally, every time my businesses have had a spurt of growth or have evolved, there have been those that have chosen to criticize. When it has been friends, family or even customers, it is often I think due to them feeling like they are being left behind — those new to business would do well to understand this and prepare themselves.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me one of three places; I have recently launched a podcast called Not Another Nutrition Podcast that can be listened to or viewed in all the usual podcast places! Secondly, I interact with people and post most of my ‘content’ on Instagram these days, although I can be found on most social media platforms. Finally, my website is a central hub for all my work, with details of my public talks that anyone can attend.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!