Rita Ernst owns Ignite Your Extraordinary, an organizational consulting practice emphasizing the convergence of happiness and productivity to create positive, committed, high-performing organizations.
She holds an advanced degree in Organizational Psychology from Clemson University. Her professional credits include adjunct professor for graduate and undergraduate classes, publication in national magazines, and featured podcast guest. Her first book, Show Up Positive, was released on June 14, 2022.
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Table of Contents
We are thrilled to have you join us today, welcome to ValiantCEO Magazine’s exclusive interview! Let’s start off with a little introduction. Tell our readers a bit about yourself and your company.
Rita Ernst: I’m Rita Ernst, and I own Ignite Your Extraordinary, an organizational consulting practice emphasizing the convergence of happiness and productivity to create positive, committed, high-performing organizations. I hold an advanced degree in Organizational Psychology from Clemson University. I spent the first 16 years of my career working inside Fortune 200 companies in HR and OD roles.
I’ve consulted in over seven industries, including manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, retail, construction, and healthcare, to name a few. I’ve also served public, private, and nonprofit organizations.
In 2008 I founded Ignite Your Extraordinary. For almost five years, I also taught graduate and undergraduate classes to working adults seeking degrees as an adjunct professor for McKendree University’s Louisville campus.
In recent years, I added national magazine feature writer, recurring podcast contributor, and conference speaker to my professional credits. In June of this year, I released my first business book, Show Up Positive, which is available worldwide through online and local bookstores. My current consulting work focuses on installing organizational infrastructure (people, process, structure, culture, and leadership) to match the pace of sales, sustaining change momentum through the messy middle, and restoring high-performance cultures derailed by disruptive events such as the pandemic.
I serve organizations of all sizes and industries, yet my favorite clients tend to be privately held organizations with under 200 employees. The owners’ commitment and the company’s flatter organizational structure allow impactful change to occur swiftly and somewhat effortlessly. Quick wins are always highly motivating for the client and me.
2020 and 2021 threw a lot of curve balls into business on a global scale. Based on the experience gleaned in the past couple years, how can businesses thrive in 2022? What lessons have you learned?
Rita Ernst: Global response during the first couple of years of this pandemic pushed the big reset button for businesses and our global economy. Disruptions in the supply chain have eased somewhat, but complete restoration is yet to occur. Therefore, it is essential to stop looking backward. Comparisons to your old sales, margins, and profits are useless guides for today.
Instead, now is the time to set a new vision and strategy grounded in the current business environment. Just as many restaurants have reduced menu items and hours of operation, business equivalent changes exist for everyone. This time is more akin to being in start-up mode because of all the uncertainty and changing landscape.
However, this is not all bad news. In start-up companies, discussions about dreams, aspirations, and desires occur daily. They generate the mutual purpose, meaning, and respect essential for strong team bonds. There exists a beehive mindset of growth and innovation. People thrive in this context because it is expansive and expressive. In contrast, mature organizations settle into an established playbook.
As business hums along, aspirational talk becomes passé, and airing complaints becomes more commonplace. Leaders who position this as a time to pursue shared growth and ambitious achievement can energize their workforce to be active participants in collectively creating the next chapter.
The pandemic seems to keep on disrupting the economy, what should businesses focus on in 2022? What advice would you share?
Rita Ernst: I highly recommend business owners and leaders revisit the essential lessons in Jim Collin’s Good To Great (2001) book. One of the most important, which I’ll take a moment to explain here and reference in my book (Show Up Positive, 2022), is ‘Confront the brutal facts.’ Collins describes the vitalness of speaking openly and honestly with your team about the reality of the business, no matter how scary or ugly the facts.
This candor expresses trust and respect, foundational pillars for forming high-performance teams. However, this truth- telling must include a call to unwavering faith that the collective will prevail despite the current challenges. To keep the efforts and energy of people focused toward resolution instead of wallowing in self-pity, leaders must emulate the message, “You’re right. We’re in a dire position,” with the call to action, “and I’m interested in your ideas about how we can keep moving forward.”
When people feel powerless and hopeless, negative interactions escalate and lead to toxic cultures which trap the organization and its workforce in a self- perpetuating cycle of depletion.
How has the pandemic changed your industry and how have you adapted?
Rita Ernst: The pandemic has brought many gifts to my consulting practice. Firstly, it necessitated the quick adoption of remote work and communication. Before the pandemic, it was rare for people to use video conferencing. Most of us didn’t see the need or were resistant to the technology. As networking groups moved online, they opened their doors to broader participation, and I took full advantage of their invitations.
I’ve made so many new and valued connections. It has also made my clients more comfortable with remote versus face-to-face meetings removing a perceived location barrier.
Secondly, it created a demand for my services. For decades, it was difficult to get many organization leaders to talk about workplace culture, let alone spend money on initiatives to address it. However, the pandemic brought renewed attention to the importance of tending to the company’s culture.
The discontent simmering under the surface of people’s lives formed a destructive force similar to hurricane Ian. The result was unproductive complaining that eroded interpersonal relationships and commitment and workplaces weren’t spared. Helping individuals and teams break free from the negative norms that ousted the happiness and productivity that preceded the pandemic has become my favorite work.
What advice do you wish you received when the pandemic started and what do you intend on improving in 2022?
Rita Ernst: I wish someone had whispered in my ear, “Help essential workers.” So much of the energy and conversations within business communities focused on solving the financial crisis accompanying the forced closure of businesses. It never occurred to me that significant struggles of a different kind were chipping away at the fortitude of essential enterprises.
Change management is my sweet spot, and I missed this opportunity to offer my expertise to companies I falsely perceived as in a “business as usual” state. By customizing every engagement to the exact needs identified in my assessment process, I can deliver immediate results, creating eagerness for more by people across the organization. I am not labeled an outsider who “doesn’t get it.” I am trusted and welcomed, which minimizes resistance to change.
I am not doing anything to the workforce. Instead, I’m creating safe and productive conversations to illuminate their needs, goals, and abilities to make the changes they desire. All of this creates a positive momentum that generates essential changes within 90 days. I intend to keep honing this practice and serving as many organizations as I can because work should be a place that fills one’s cup.
Online business surged higher than ever, B2B, B2C, online shopping, virtual meetings, remote work, Zoom medical consultations, what are your expectations for 2022?
Rita Ernst: I live in Louisville, Kentucky. Most business activities have resumed in person. I speak with
colleagues in other metropolitan cities where remote engagements remain the standard. I think we’ve gotten to the place where we are accepting that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is here to stay, and we need to adapt accordingly. Although many people prefer in-person to virtual gatherings, technical limitations are no longer a barrier, and so they will remain a legitimate option.
The more significant trend we see now is the decline in our capitalist, consumption-driven society. People
seem to be prioritizing their intrinsic satisfaction over the trappings of external symbols such as titles, working at highly esteemed companies, and even the purchase of material goods. From employers to marketers, businesses need to step back from old assumptions about who people are and what motivates them. Individuals are asserting their power through their choice to say “No,” and those who don’t listen will lose their competitive edge.
How many hours a day do you spend in front of a screen?
Rita Ernst: Too many! Because I own my business, I work whenever I need to do so. Since launching Show Up Positive, there is always work awaiting my attention. On days I am present with clients, I spend 2-3 hours in front of a screen. On office days, the average is about six hours.
It honestly doesn’t seem like an imposition for me because I currently spend more hours as a creator than I do as a consultant. Plus, my time is very flexible, so those hours fit around things I deem important such as exercise and family time. The hidden consumer is scrolling and interacting on my social media channels.
The majority of executives use stories to persuade and communicate in the workplace. Can you share with our readers examples of how you implement that in your business to communicate effectively with your team?
Rita Ernst: We’ve spent much time discussing the impact of the pandemic, but what I haven’t told you is the most significant impact it had on me, which was my decision to write Show Up Positive. People write books for many reasons. These days it is touted by book writing coaches as a credibility booster. Autobiographical books about overcoming personal struggles are also plentiful.
Books are also frequently produced as vanity projects to add the accolade of “author” to someone’s resume.
None of these reasons compelled me to spend 60 days pouring my wisdom onto page after page. However, seeing the genuine struggle of good people who had fallen into habits that were no longer serving their needs and offering them a path to return to positive habits and repair their relationships with their co-workers did.
As a solopreneur with limited reach, I knew I would have to do something dramatically different to make a difference to as many people as possible. So I decided to write a book and not just any business book. I threw away all of the traditional rules I learned in graduate school about business writing so I could write a book that would feel accessible and helpful to people who didn’t prefer reading as their method of learning. I included a narrative arch to keep the feeling of a story moving forward while sprinkling in all the practical nuggets and wisdom I teach my clients.
And at the end, I created a compendium of 50 actions (called the #ShowUpPositive Sparks) that readers could return to time and again for inspiration and beneficial guidance.
Show Up Positive is more than a book. It is an invitation to each reader to join the #ShowUp Positive
movement by using their agency to create the workplace culture they desire. These readers may not be on my payroll, but they are on my team.
Business is all about overcoming obstacles and creating opportunities for growth. What do you see as the real challenge right now?
Rita Ernst: I see the media creating wedge narratives that position management and workers on opposite sides. It is fear- mongering by pundits and consultants looking to sell their services correcting a problem that they’ve manufactured. The trend of #quietfiring is not the antidote to #quietquitting, and yet it is being positioned as the comeuppance workers deserve for being lazy, which isn’t the accurate context for quiet quitting.
We must remember that just a few months ago, a huge segment of the workforce packed up and moved their jobs into their homes. Outside of the stricture of the office, people found new routines that effortlessly
harmonized work as a part of their whole life. There was freedom and flexibility, unlike anything most of us had ever experienced since entering the labor force. And don’t forget, productivity stayed constant or improved through all these shifts.
People saw the volume of non-essential “filler” time that consumed their day at the office. Now, they are crystal clear on their work imperatives that make them a valued contributor and earn their pay. They no longer want to pour their effort and energy into extra work, especially when it goes unrecognized as contributing above and beyond.
And by the way, don’t forget that as a salaried employee, it is not about the hours a person works, but about fulfilling their job duties. If a salaried person figures out how to get their work done in 6 hours and then puts their energy into a side hustle for another 3-4 hours, they are doing nothing wrong (unless there is a conflict of interest). And why should an organization care about the hours worked if the team member is delivering their assigned results? If you measure professional contribution by the hours spent at work, you are focused on the wrong measure.
I’ll go back to where I started with my answer to the first question. Businesses that choose to see this time as an opportunity to lean into the start-up mindset and conversations will emerge the stronger victors. They are choosing to play offense. However, reacting out of fear and distrust keeps you on the defensive, and you aren’t going to score. Now is the time for building bridges and inviting people to bring their a-game to co-create a future that entices them. Anything less is inadequate and antiquated.
In 2022, what are you most interested in learning about? Crypto, NFTs, online marketing, or any other skill sets? Please share your motivations.
Rita Ernst: I recently attended the 2022 Start Up Lou conference, and there were several sessions on NFTs and Web3. I spoke with one of the presenters who promised to teach those of us who know nothing about this topic in a way we could understand. Unfortunately, a client meeting went long, and I could not return to the conference in time to hear his presentation.
The thimble full of learning I have so far on these topics is that they are about individual real estate in cyberland. The opportunities for creators to have a more significant financial stake in their work sound enticing. However, I need clarification on the full advantages and disadvantages driving these initiatives and am curious to know more.
We have many examples of pure intent going awry in the realities of life. As an observer of human behavior, I wonder about the longer-term ramifications of these shifts on the socio-economics of our society as a whole.
Will this spread the wealth more equitably, or will this become another capitalist practice with barriers to entry that perpetuate rewards for an elite few? Sometimes it is essential to understand what you don’t want to create, too, so that you can more readily identify when your intentions start to go off the rails.
A record 4.4 million Americans left their jobs in September in 2021, accelerating a trend that has become known as the Great Resignation. 47% of people plan to leave their job during 2022. Most are leaving because of their boss or their company culture. 82% of people feel unheard, undervalued and misunderstood in the workplace. Do you think leaders see the data and think “that’s not me – I’m not that boss they don’t want to work for? What changes do you think need to happen?
Rita Ernst: Culture isn’t about the list we post on the wall or the words we say in our company pitch. The daily experiences of the people inside the organization determine the culture. These experiences permeate every level of the organization—peer-to-peer, manager-to-subordinate, executive-to-staff. We are all storytellers, and we love a good villain, someone else we can blame when things go wrong. It is atypical to look within yourself and ask,
“How am I contributing to this problem? What do I need to change within myself?”
Managers are no less perfect than the people on their teams. It is easy to make managers the lightning rod for the team’s ire, but it is rarely that cut and dry. And nothing demonstrates that more clearly than replacing a “bad” manager only to have the negativity and falling performance persist. As I say in Show Up Positive, “…you are an architect of your organization’s culture. Your actions sanction what is or stand for change.” (p. 23)
Thinking culture is the responsibility of only the people at the top of the organization is false. I’ve seen a high- performing team persist despite the toxic behavior of a manager because they remained focused on the trust, respect, and commitment of their teammates. They chose to control their experience rather than allow the manager to spoil it for them.
I believe in the Gallup Q12. The tactics managers need to implement to create a work environment where
people feel heard, valued, and understood are covered in these questions. What is missing is what I offer in Show Up Positive. Culture isn’t stagnant; it evolves because every person and experience impacts it. Think of culture as fertile soil. You can sow the seeds to create the most extraordinary place to work.
However, if you don’t tend it, the weeds take over and choke out the plants you intend to grow.
Tending your culture garden requires ongoing conversations by everyone at every level to reinforce care for the whole as a shared value. It requires deliberate actions to strengthen belonging, autonomy, and competence, which are the foundational psychological needs of humans to perform optimally, and it requires courage to call out conduct counter to the cultural norms desired by the whole before it takes root.
On a lighter note, if you had the ability to pick any business superpower, what would it be and how would you put it into practice?
Rita Ernst: I have my own technical language and ways of thinking about this work, which have deep meaning for me. Getting out of my own head is a real struggle, so I would love to read the minds of my ideal customers.
Firstly, I could explain my services in a way that immediately resonates with them, shortening the close time in my sales cycle. Secondly, if I knew the right motivational buttons to push, my clients would take action more swiftly and completely. What an enormous advantage that would be for the speed and sustainability of change.
What does “success” in 2022 mean to you? It could be on a personal or business level, please share your vision.
Rita Ernst: My current challenge as the author of an independently published book is building awareness. I was very deliberate when writing Show Up Positive to design the book’s flow to fit the needs of busy people. I wrote as if I were conversing with the reader and shared stories from my work to make the content more relatable.
My readers love it, and I know I delivered everything I intended. However, it doesn’t matter how well I execute for the reader if they never find my book; they need to know it exists.
Success for me is to have my book reach over a million readers and for the #ShowUpPositive movement to restore belonging, delight, and community to individuals and teams worldwide. By the time 2022 comes to a close, my book will only be six months old, so I am very accepting that these ambitious goals are taking more time to achieve.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Rita Ernst for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Rita Ernst or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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