With Crisis Comes Opportunity: CEO Leadership Roundtable

December 02, 2020
For the feature article of this issue, we brought together a group of CEOs in our ecosystem to discuss how they led their businesses throughout the year.

CEOs around the world have had to navigate their companies through myriad challenges in 2020, a year that has presented even the most seasoned leaders with many unforeseen issues. In May, Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH) brought together a group of CEOs to share their perspectives on communication and leading through crisis. In the weeks that followed, the BBHers in the discussion continued reflecting on the conversation and concluded that the group’s ideas would be interesting to a wider audience. Fast-forward to the end of 2020, and we reconvened this same group to see what had changed throughout the year. The leaders shared insights on lessons learned, the role of values during periods of disturbance and innovation during crisis. They also discussed how they are positioning their companies for success in 2021.

Headsots of Jodi Berg, Kevin Coleman, Chris Gleason, Greg Hodgen, Jose Antonio, Richard Soultanian and Bill Tyree.

What’s your approach to leadership?

Jodi Berg: My leadership approach is centered around how I capture each person’s self-driven intrinsic motivation by aligning their individual purpose with what the company is trying to accomplish. When you release that intrinsic motivation and help people understand their purpose, you get this incredible trifecta of engagement, commitment and life satisfaction. In addition, by making the end game something that is personal, employees don’t want to give up when challenges arise.

Kevin Coleman: Leadership to me is about empowering our employees. Each year, we set our core priorities and determine KPIs. Then, we give our employees the playbook as to where we need to go in the organization to achieve those goals, and we empower them to go out and make it happen.

Chris Gleason: I have a similar view. I think of leadership as me providing a direction and vision for the business, and then surrounding myself with the best people I can find and letting them do their jobs. It’s showing them where we are heading, and letting them get us there.

Greg Hodgen: I am very into collaboration with the team, which is important in a decentralized business like ours, where we have about 1,000 trucks all over the U.S. This collaborative emphasis has spread throughout the organization and improved how we operate. I’ve also learned to trust people to take responsibility for projects and know what needs to be done. Lastly, it’s important to communicate frequently and clearly. If you are clearly communicating what is expected and what people are accountable for, people are capable of meeting or exceeding your expectations.

Jose Antonio Iturriaga Travezan: I like the concept of servant leadership. I believe my job is to facilitate the work of all employees – if they achieve their goals, I achieve mine. I enjoy giving employees the support to achieve their goals. It could be a really small thing – such as helping where there’s a communication issue or setting the right example in a difficult situation. I think it’s important to be aware and try to help all employees from your company, and that will drive success.

When you release that intrinsic motivation and help people understand their purpose, you get this incredible trifecta of engagement, commitment and life satisfaction.

Richard Soultanian: I am a big believer in leading by example, which starts with being willing to do anything I ask my team to do. I also try to set the example of excellence and improvement, and this involves taking an interest in employees’ development and helping them improve their skills and become more valuable. My goal is that they look back on their time here and say they learned a lot.

Bill Tyree: I believe in leading by example, too, as well as in positioning yourself as someone who has a series of core values that are consistent with those of the organization. Then, you have to give people clear instructions as to what they’re supposed to accomplish and hold them accountable. If something goes wrong and we have to course correct, everyone should know what happened and how we can improve it. There’s also a big difference between leadership and management. Leadership is about painting a vision and showing a path toward that, whereas management is about the tactics that one has to employ to move people in the right direction.

Thinking about 2020, how has your approach to leadership changed due to the events over the course of the year? What lessons have you learned?

Jose Antonio Iturriaga Travezan: I have tried to move further into servant leadership. Supporting our employees goes well beyond helping them achieve their goals or driving performance – it now includes taking care of their health. We have employees who are working in high-risk retail environments all over Peru, and as their leader, I need to take care of them.

You have to be closer and more empathetic, too. In a recent presentation I gave, my first slide was my family photo. I told my employees that since I consider them part of my family, we need to get to know each other better. I encouraged them to post their family photos in our Facebook group, and two hours later, I had more than 2,000 photos. That was powerful.

Communication is also key. Everyone is leaning on their fear and uncertainty. Having a CEO who actively communicates – about both the good and bad – is necessary.

Kevin Coleman: I agree about the importance of communication and transparency. As I look at the year, COVID-19 was obviously disruptive, particularly as it relates to visibility – it was difficult for everyone to see what the future was going to look like. Early on, we realized that we needed to be even more transparent than we had been in the past. I started to do weekly videos for the entire organization, and that helped us to be more transparent and helped support our culture. For years, I’ve been traveling from office to office instilling the culture in employees, and I found that doing it virtually via video was more effective in getting out the message.

This period has also given me time back. I’ve had the opportunity to spend more time with my executive leadership team and focus on long-term corporate planning. Don’t get me wrong – the second quarter was very difficult for all of us. However, the lessons learned have helped the organization, and leadership has remained resilient and focused.

Communication is also key. Everyone is leaning on their fear and uncertainty. Having a CEO who actively communicates - about both the good and bad - is necessary.

Bill Tyree: You mentioned travel and your executive leadership team, and those relate to one of the biggest changes for me in 2020. I like to lead with people, and I typically visit every BBH office annually to meet with leadership and our employees. It has been difficult this year to replace those face-to-face conversations with virtual interactions. These video meetings are more formal and less familiar, and it can be confusing to understand certain communication subtleties, such as body language. And in order to have that communication, you have to set it up. You can’t be walking down the hall or in the elevator and have a personal interaction with somebody. So learning to lead indirectly through other people more than I have done in the past has been a big difference for me.

Greg Hodgen: Like everyone else, we have also had to adapt to this virtual working world. I will admit, as this was beginning and people were starting to work from home, I was worried about how we were going to maintain productivity. However, I have learned that people are adaptable. We have all had to learn how to distill a lot of new information this year and figure out what to do.

I have also learned to find joy in the challenges this has presented, because we would not have changed some of the things that were longstanding beliefs. When our revenues dropped in April, I am appreciative that we learned there were costs we could shed, and people all jumped in with ideas they believed in because it had to be done for the benefit of the business.

Culture came up repeatedly during our session in May, and it’s an area we know that you put significant emphasis on. How have you reinforced your mission statement and/or values through this period? In other words, have your values bolstered you or your company in some way this year?

Jodi Berg: We were fortunate to have a strong culture in place at Vitamix already, and when we went into crisis mode, our values came through in every activity that we did. Communication was huge. For instance, the group in our production facility was back to work early, and we would have socially distant huddles every morning to discuss what their day looked like and if they had thought of any safety measure they could improve. The leadership team would implement these suggestions, and then we would regroup for feedback. We would continue these throughout the day, making sure to include everybody so they would feel empowered and fulfilled.

We do engagement surveys regularly, and in the ones since the pandemic, we have scored higher than ever before on living our values and everyone feeling they are part of something big. So, our values didn’t change, but we got the opportunity to test them in a way that people could see that they really mattered – that we believe in and live by them. It gave us the opportunity for people to see our culture in action.

Chris Gleason: More than 75% of our workforce is remote, so culture is everything. We place every employee into a virtual team of eight to 10 people, and these teams reinforce cultural alignment and encourage continuous learning and high performance. When you come to work at NextMed, you walk through the door on the first day, and the first thing you do is recite our mission and vision statement and our values from memory. You are told that this is the first thing we are going to ask you, and if you haven’t memorized them, we send you home and give you one more chance the next day. Then, 50% of our quarterly employee assessments and participation in the bonus pools is based on cultural alignment. All of this to say, we did nothing special when COVID-19 hit because our culture was part of our DNA already. We were already living in it.

Greg Hodgen: I think one benefit of a family business is that we can live our values without having to hold them up on a piece of paper all the time. People feel them. For example, when we say we value people, and then a time comes when we’re hanging onto jobs even though we’re not making money, people really understand that the values of the family and the business matter. People have told me how much they appreciate our efforts to take care of our employees and communicate with them frequently, and they feel like that is part of being a private, family-owned business.

One of the values on our mission statement is “change.” During the early days of the pandemic, we accepted the fact that we had to change, and we changed things that will stay with us. We’re an 88-year-old company, so we have some pretty long-held beliefs, but we were able to innovate and do what was best for the company.

Richard Soultanian: There are two facets to this for me. First, being client-centric is an essential part of our culture. The most important thing is to focus on our clients’ needs and then not only meet, but hopefully exceed, their expectations. That is something that has carried us through this time.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how you imbue culture into your team when working remotely. Long-term employees have had the opportunity to work in the organization and understand the culture. However, for new hires, how do you continue to build a strong culture when you don’t have people together? I love technology, but I also cling to the fact that every organization has a culture and a history that comes with it – and how do you get that when you hire someone and they’re working remotely? As a leader, that makes me wary, which is why a lot of our offices reopened once we could implement the proper safety cautions.

During our Zoom session in May, we referenced the Winston Churchill quote: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We’ve seen many of our best and most creative ideas come forward during periods of major transformation. Talk about your approach to innovation and how this contributed to helping your company navigate 2020.

Jose Antonio Iturriaga Travezan: For us, it has been a great opportunity to expand into areas we have been wanting to for some time, particularly ecommerce. We were prepared and had invested a lot over the past years to have the right digital channels in place, despite low usage. Before COVID-19, just 4% of our sales came from ecommerce, whereas 96% were traditional in-store retail sales. Our stores were closed for 60 days at the beginning of the pandemic, and that is when ecommerce skyrocketed. This trend has continued even after we reopened stores, and in September, 30% of sales were ecommerce. We’re seeing tremendous growth in sales, mainly from these ecommerce channels, and from a market that usually didn’t buy from us. We are planning to have the best results in the history of the company this year.

Looking further ahead, our big opportunity is in the Peruvian capital, Lima, but it’s much easier, cheaper and more efficient to reach Lima with ecommerce vs. the traditional store, so we are excited.

Chris Gleason: I agree that there are several places where this crisis has been positive for our business. One area is the adoption of technology, particularly videoconferencing, which has allowed us to increase our touches with customers and investors significantly. We are also able to present information much more effectively this way, which was especially important when our locations were shut down.

We’ve also seen good market opportunities – in terms of both profitability on our side and convenience for doctors and patients. A lot of it involves moving procedures that would normally be done in the hospital into a doctor’s office. Doctors saw pretty significant decreases in their patient volumes, which are still low, so we were able to help them think of new ways to get patients back to the office. We’re starting to see really encouraging adoption of some of our ideas, which would not have happened if not for the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Bill Tyree: At BBH, some of our greatest moments of creativity have come at times where there are clear constraints placed upon us. We’ve all participated in various ideation or creativity sessions where we try to come up with new, innovative ideas. It’s difficult to do in a vacuum. I think the greatest ideas come when an obstacle has been put in front of you, so people know what it is that they are trying to solve and what the stakes are. Then, a team can brainstorm about how to overcome it. We have hundreds of examples where constraints have led to new ideas.

People have told me how much they appreciate our efforts to take care of our employees and communicate with them frequently, and they feel like that is part of being a private, family-owned business.

Jodi Berg: On a similar note, we conducted a companywide trigger exercise at the beginning of the pandemic, where we identified all the things that could trigger an event during this time, either good or bad. Once we had a list of triggers, we told anyone who was remotely connected to that area in the company to go out and get creative about how we would respond to these. This gave us the opportunity to have purposeful innovation – one of our values – to address the triggers, vs. people trying to take a creative idea and attach it to something relevant. It allowed people to release their creativity in a way that is going to be purposeful and have a positive impact. Then, in terms of prioritizing, our focus and planning were on the triggers where the probability was getting higher.

Richard Soultanian: Churchill also said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, and an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” I think that is right and that there are two ways to look at this. The pessimist says, “This is terrible. We need to pack it all in and hope for the best.” The optimist says, “This is difficult, but we are going to persevere through it and find opportunities.” I have been telling my team to use this time wisely. Look at what we are doing, and see how we can make improvements. That way, when we come through this, we come through this stronger than we went into it.

COVID-19 has negatively affected some sections of the market and is accelerating transitions and transformations in other parts. We have to minimize our exposure to the negative impact and reposition ourselves for that transformative section so we can target those opportunities. That’s where I think Churchill’s quote is so true. If you’re an optimist, it doesn’t mean you’re not a realist. It just means you’re going to find something to focus your attention on and try to extend your operations.

I wish I could look through a crystal ball and tell everyone that the year ahead would be more normal. With so many unknowns on the horizon, how are you positioning your company to thrive in 2021, and what types of changes have you had to make to try to ensure success? 

Richard Soultanian: I think next year is going to be another challenging year. We’re planning for another year of COVID-19-impacted operations. Everyone is trying to keep everyone optimistic, and there’s a benefit to that, but my team is preparing for the worst. If it is better, wonderful. If not, we’re ready. You have to be a realist and look at the facts, but that doesn’t mean that you lose hope. It’s going to be difficult, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that we will make it through to the other side and come out of this a better organization.

If you're an optimist, it doesn't mean you're not a realist. It just means you're going to find something to focus your attention on and try to extend your operations.

Kevin Coleman: We’re currently working on our 2021 goals and forecasting for the remainder of this year, and I feel confident that we will see significant double-digit growth as we enter 2021. A lot has to do with not only market opportunity, but some of the changes we have made over the past few months. It’s amazing how rapidly things have evolved, and one thing that has stood out to me throughout this period is the resiliency of our business model. We have been able to rebound through so many disruptions over the last 17 years, and this is just another example. It gives me great confidence in the future and the resiliency of what we do.

Jose Antonio Iturriaga Travezan: This year has been positive for us besides the COVID-19 situation, but it looks like the beginning of 2021 is going to be difficult again in Peru. We have to be light, efficient and focus on our customer experience to navigate another potential year of disruption. We are focused on investing in technology to be more efficient across our channels.

We’re also looking at a different competitive environment, and we believe that the only thing that will let us differentiate from the competition is customer experience, so we have hired a team to review all of our customer journeys to make sure that next year we have the best Net Promoter Score in the market.

Jodi Berg: Two fundamental beliefs that we hold at Vitamix have become even more important during COVID-19 – that the impact of food on the human body is critical, and that the last thing restaurants should be worrying about is the equipment they’re using. We are honored that we can help our customers in these areas, and we feel more bullish than ever before about our future. This period has reiterated that you can run a company that can make a difference and where employees feel like they are living their personal purpose – and you can do it profitably. We can truly all come together and be successful.

Greg Hodgen: For Groendyke, the first thing that comes to mind is keeping our cost structure in line. We should be reluctant to give up the cost savings that we’ve achieved. The digital transformation we’ve undergone will also continue. It has shown the power of data management and digital workflow.

Another place we have become more attuned to is what businesses make the most sense for us to be in for the long term. We will put our resources where we are going to get the most return and where it makes the most sense for the family and for people to have good, high-paying jobs.

Chris Gleason: At NextMed, we’re pushing new service methodologies. We’re trying to move from highly bureaucratic settings – hospitals – to more efficient environments – such as doctors’ offices. We’re also focusing more heavily than we already were on automation. We’re thinking about how we leverage that to reduce variants, increase quality and then reduce costs.

Bill Tyree: That’s a huge question. The first thing I would say is that we’re still trying to determine the best cadence for informing our employees about future plans. There’s a balance between going out too far and giving your employees enough of a look into the future so they can plan their lives. We’ll continue to try to get that balance right.

My other piece of advice that I have been dealing with a lot recently is don’t overreact. Just because we have done the impossible and moved from a fully in-office environment to a majority remote working situation with actual measurable productivity gains does not mean life post-COVID-19 will be fully remote. I think there’s huge value to being together, and while we’ll probably do it more intentionally in the future, I look forward to when we can all collaborate like we have in the past.

Thank you everyone for your time and insights. We’ll close by reiterating Bill’s remark that we too look forward to being able to collaborate with all of you in person soon.

Interviews conducted by Leonard Fishman, Fernando Soto, Laura Salibello, Kaitlin Barbour and article written by Kaitlin Barbour.

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