Belma McCaffrey Of Work Bigger: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Have a vision. Know what you stand for and what you’re building. My vision to redefine work keeps me anchored in my values.

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 Belma McCaffrey.

Belma McCaffrey is the CEO and Founder of Work Bigger, a career coaching platform for dissatisfied high-achievers who want to find their purpose. Through coaching and community, Work Bigger helps individuals connect to their mission and step into their purpose and full potential.

Belma’s work has been featured in Forbes, Fortune, Thrive, and other media platforms. She has a B.A. from Syracuse University and an MBA from Baruch College. Belma is also a refugee from Albania, a mom to two boys, and prior to Work Bigger, she spent 10+ years working in media and strategy roles at companies like the Associated Press and Conde Nast.

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 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 made so many mistakes when I was first starting out! It’s challenging to think of one that’s funny, but looking back I see I made so many wrong decisions that seem obvious now..

One of the earliest mistakes I made is trying to apply a lot of the theories and frameworks I learned in business school to starting a company.

I tried to take everything I learned in accounting, marketing and strategy — lessons and theories based on large, established corporations — and apply the learnings to a business that didn’t even exist yet. I was eager to build something scalable with impact!

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?

There are so many people who have helped me get to where I am. One specific person who comes to mind is my coach Jess Geist. I worked with Jess for 2+ years, and the work we did together transformed my life and my business.

I met Jess in 2016 when Work Bigger was just a blog and while I was still working full time at the Associated Press. Work Bigger was still just a dream. She offered a bonus call for a referral, and I remember how powerful that call was for me. It opened up memories and experiences I hadn’t thought about in years, but these memories were deeply shaping the journey I was on and the decisions I was making.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to work with Jess then. I kept going, regardless, and eventually I got to a place where I could work with her for 9 months. During that time, I started making big decisions and taking massive action in my business. I took Work Bigger from beta to launch with two sustainable revenue streams. That was really the beginning of creating a business that has impact and soul and is also profitable.

I continued to work with Jess after that. She supported me in developing a customer journey that takes our members from finding their purpose to fully stepping into their purpose and potential.

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?

My vision has always been to redefine work. I see so many people leveraging work as a way to check off boxes or climb a ladder that society has created. I see so many people making unconscious decisions about their lives and work, and as a result, there’s a lot of suffering.

Instead of pursuing this unconscious path, individuals can leverage work as a vehicle that leads to creativity, growth, impact and creating a life full of meaning. This means learning to work from a conscious, healthy place and understanding your own purpose and mission as a leader.

Because of this, we first support our members with finding their purpose, then we help them through their leadership journey. We support them with stepping into that purpose by developing healthy mindset habits, deepening their confidence and also supporting them with prioritizing their wellbeing and life.

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?

I think the past two years have been full of difficulty and uncertainty for everyone. The way I lead my team here is to treat everyone as a human first. Many of my team members have experienced grief, loss, illness, and so much more.

For example, in a span of two months, my executive assistant lost her brother and had several family members hospitalized from COVID. We’re a small of team of 4. We stepped in and took on her workload so she could be with her family.

As a team, we always prioritize life. I give my people space to process what they need, and I think that’s really important in allowing them to feel seen, heard and supported. Nothing is more important than one’s health and wellbeing.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

The only times I’ve ever considered giving up is when I’ve experienced burnout. When you’re burned out, you’re so exhausted that continuing to build a business feels very daunting.

Burnout doesn’t happen often for me because I’ve done a lot of work personally in this area, and it’s something we also support our clients and members through. However, I’m human and I do think burnout can slowly happen without realizing.

This past December was a really challenging time for my family and me. We recently moved from the east coast to the west coast and have been adjusting to a new life. My husband and I have two small kids (ages 1.5 and 6.5). Our kids, especially our youngest, were sick repeatedly in a 3 to 4 month period. And our oldest has been missing family back home. Add a pandemic to the mix, and it’s been a lot physically, emotionally and mentally.

I’m still coming out of this challenging month, and I don’t know that I’ve “motivated” myself to keep going.

What I did do and what I’m doing is allowing myself to be exhausted. I’m not pushing myself to do all the things. I’m scaling back some work projects and pivoting. I’m letting go of the pressure to do it all. Unexpected family demands happened that were out of my control, and I have to pivot as I go.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

The most critical role of a leader is to lead by example. I’m very vulnerable with my team. I let them know when things are tough and when I don’t know it all. As a result, they also open up with me and let me know when they’re experiencing something challenging.

My Program Liaison who is in charge of our program enrollment and I especially have a great relationship. She shares with me when she makes a mistake and directly asks for feedback to improve. It’s amazing! The trust we have in each other allows us to pivot and learn quickly.

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?

The best way to boost morale during uncertain times is to hold both space for the uncertainty and the vision. It’s important to acknowledge the fear and the uncertainty. It’s there. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

At the same time, encourage your team to hold on to the purpose and the vision of what you’re all building. Always highlight the impact. The impact isn’t about you, it’s about what you’re all working on together as a team, and it’s important.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

I’m a big fan of nonviolent communication. There are limitations to this method and it’s quite complex, but what I love about NVC is that it encourages us to share facts rather than stories. Communicating data is a powerful thing, and we often don’t know how to do it. NVC also allows us to connect to and share our feelings. There’s a vulnerability element that’s really important.

Overall, I think leveraging parts of NVC can build empathy and understanding.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

We have to focus on what we can control. If we focus on what’s unpredictable, we’re going to operate from a place of fear.

There’s this exercise in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People that I love to use both for myself and with my clients, which is called the Circle of Influence. The Circle of Influence consists of everything that’s under our control — how we show up, how we react to the unexpected, and the work we do on ourselves to be conscious, healthy leaders. It’s an empowering way to lead.

At the same time, we acknowledge what’s in our Circle of Concern — everything that’s creating worry or stress. We can then choose consciously to focus on what we can control.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Anchoring yourself in your purpose can help a company navigate turbulent times. Your purpose is your north star and is rooted in your values. And if you’re truly connected to the deeper aspects of the business — why you’re building it in the first place and the impact that you want to make — you can find the faith to get through difficult times.

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?

  • One mistake is to not listen to customers, team members or ourselves. During difficult times, there’s a lot of fear. And when there’s a lot of fear, we’re in fight or flight and we tend to make decisions that don’t serve us. To avoid this, slow down. Take time to acknowledge the difficulties. Let yourself — as a leader — be with the fear of things not working out. Once you’ve given yourself some space to do this, you can shift and continue to make decisions from a place of possibility.
  • Another mistake is making decisions from a place of burnout or exhaustion. This is similar to the first point, but leaders are often exhausted. And when they’re exhausted, they’re just trying to get through the day. You can’t be creative or innovative or serve your customers from this place. When this happens, stop. Take note of what’s going on in your body and give yourself the space and care you need to start operating from a healthy place. One way that I process my burnout is by journaling. I spend time just writing out what I’m feeling and thinking.
  • Another mistake is putting profit before people. To me this is a short-term view of building a business. Great businesses are led and created by people. I truly feel that people are our greatest resource. To avoid putting profit before people, anchor yourself in your values and why you started this business. And consider the impact you have outside of yourself.

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 important to me that I’m building a business that supports my life goals and my family. This is contrary to what I’ve learned in business school and what we hear in the media, but I focus on paying myself first. I have specific percentages allotted for operational expenses, profit, income — and I try to stick to that. I consider it a healthy business when I can pay myself what I need to support my family.

Also, I’m building a reserve fund for slower months. This gives me the peace of mind I need when we need to shift strategies.

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.

Have a vision

Know what you stand for and what you’re building. My vision to redefine work keeps me anchored in my values.

Have clarity of purpose and values

This is so foundational. Without clarity of purpose and values, making difficult decisions will be impossible. You need your north star and you need to be connected to why you’re doing this. It will keep you going when things feel impossible.

Heal your trauma

We are human beings, and many of us have a lot of trauma that’s unprocessed. As a result, we bring this to the workplace and in how we lead. I believe healing ourselves is one of the most responsible things we can do as leaders. Healing my own trauma and making this part of my leadership journey allows me to be a better listener and coach. And I can hold the challenges that come with building a team and business because I have the capacity to do so.

Learn to listen actively and deeply and work on your communication skills

If we all slowed down and listened instead of talked, we’d learn so much about each other, including our needs and our struggles. Learn to listen to your customers, your team and also yourself. You’ll be much more equipped to build a business that serves all stakeholders.

Be quick to pivot

Learning to make decisions quickly is so important. Time is our greatest resource, and the faster you can pivot when things aren’t going well the better. This applies to who you hire or fire and what you need to do to grow the business.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This too shall pass.

This helps me remember that painful, challenging times are temporary. I go to this quote when things feel challenging in my personal life, and when I’m dealing with a disheartening, stressful work situation.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Go to and @workbigger on Instagram

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Belma McCaffrey Of Work Bigger: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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