Be of service. When leading a team, there are a set number of team members all following the leader’s vision. Being of services means each person is playing a role unique to their skillset. The best leader will help everyone perform their best.
As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Abraham Shafi.
Abraham Shafi is the Founder and CEO of IRL, a Social Calendar helping people come together and meet over shared interests and events. IRL is one of the top social networking platforms and the only one designed to encourage users to spend time off of the platform and engage with their network “In Real Life.” Prior to founding IRL, Shafi co-founded the highly acclaimed social recruiting platform getTalent.com.
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 was studying computer science, business, and social anthropology at the University of California Berkeley, but I dropped out to build a recruitment software startup, getTalent.com. With getTalent’s software, I had the opportunity to work with some of the largest employers in the world, including Walmart, Jetblue, Kaiser Permanente, and Viacom. The startup grew to be highly acclaimed in the recruitment world and in 2013, Dice, a job searching platform for technology professionals, acquired getTalent.com and I became the VP of the product team.
After some time, I felt like I was losing a connection to my work. I wasn’t creating anything, so I left Dice and did some soul searching into what I wanted to do next. I started thinking about calendars and how a tool for organizing your social calendar wasn’t actually a social platform yet. After much research and development, I launched IRL or “In Real Life,” a Social Calendar mobile app and desktop platform where you can discover everything happening around you and connect with your friends both remotely and in real life. You can follow your friends, favorite musicians, influencers, comedians, TV shows and more to stay informed about their upcoming events. IRL is making calendars as communal as Instagram did to photos and in doing so, hopes to enable users to curate and create relationships while spending their time well.
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?
The first product I built was a facebook app and when we had our first thousand users, I accidentally sent each of them 10 notifications at one time. I freaked out and thought I ruined everything. Turns out it had zero impact on the future success on the product. I learned that everybody is so focused on their own life that most small errors like this are simply a blip on their radar.
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?
My father is my inspiration. My dad came to America from Egypt with nothing when he was 23. He didn’t have a formal education and hardly spoke English. But he learned, made his own way, and went on to own several successful cafes and restaurants. I saw what he was able to do even though he had every reason to fail. He made me realize that anything is possible and he continues to inspire me to this day.
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?
IRL’s mission is not for people to spend time using the app, but rather for people to use the app to find the best ways to spend their time. We’re all so glued to our screens and devices, but I want IRL to connect people with each other through the things they love to do — creating new or deepened relationships over shared interests and experiences. IRL’s purpose is to become the first truly social calendar.
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?
When COVID-19 hit, in-person events took a nosedive. No one was able to go out and do things in real life with friends anymore. IRL was very focused on live events, but we quickly pivoted and placed a larger emphasis on virtual events. We even changed the name temporarily to “In Remote Life.” Our goal of helping people stay active remained the same, but we simply had to change our tactics and strategy to align with social distancing guidelines.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
All of us get tired. There are times when I feel exhausted. The key to keep moving forward is understanding my why. Why do I get up and do what I do everyday? What is driving me? I discovered my “why” after my last company. I learned whatever I work on I become so I asked myself what I want to become. What is something I could work on for the rest of my life. I want to become a person who helps people spend more time together and develop relationships while having an impact on global culture. With IRL, I’m achieving these goals and I can measure my impact everyday. My business gives me value beyond money and feeds my soul. Everyone has their own “why,” so overall, it’s critical for each entrepreneur to understand why this job or mission is important to them.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Vulnerability is the ultimate strength. The world is unknown. No one has all the answers. When you’re strong and vulnerable enough to admit to your team that no one knows what the right answer is, this creates space for everyone to collaborate and participate on a level playing field. Vulnerability creates space for everyone to work together effectively.
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?
Be vulnerable, open, and filled with gratitude. Anyone who is able to work right now has a lot to be grateful for. Being able to create a space to speak to what is happening directly with your team will go a long way in trust between coworkers. This vulnerable space also helps team members speak up and share ideas they may have previously kept quiet about. We have a weekly check-in with the entire team at IRL where people share personal updates with everyone as well as high-level work updates.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be vulnerable, open, and honest. Facts are facts and at the end of the day whatever circumstances have created the situation, realize you are simply in the position to give the news. Real life is messy and the truth will come out. Everyone is human and will understand. The world will continue on and the best way to share any negative news is with compassion, empathy, and honesty.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Work for the best and prepare for the worst. I have been inspired by Tom Conrad. When he ran product at Pandora early on, they only set quarterly goals since they would learn a lot each quarter and make new plans. Being nimble and quickly updating based on new information is a great skill during these times.
The most important skill in life is adaptation. Darwin was right — it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Understand what makes your company and team unique. What is your team’s core superpower? What is everyone best at? Maneuver, adapt, and find magic in places you didn’t look previously. If you can truly understand and follow that, then you can put yourself into a position to succeed.
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?
Some mistakes I’ve seen are:
- Being blind and not changing directions even though everything around you is changing.
- Succumbing to fear and making decisions based on fear of what is happening in the world.
- Not being compassionate. People aren’t robots, so you have to meet everyone where they are emotionally and mentally.
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?
In every moment, there are opportunities and in extreme moments there are extreme opportunities. The key is to adapt and show up where those extreme opportunities are. They wouldn’t have shown up without these difficult moments. The key is to find where you fit in this landscape.
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.
- Be vulnerable. Once COVID-19 happened, a leader can show up and say we’re all scared and adapting but there’s a lot of things to be grateful for. Usually how you’re feeling is similar to your teammates.
- Be compassionate. Being human is messy and we never know what everyone has in their personal lives. Your coworkers are on the team because they’re capable of the work but we aren’t robots. Everyone is usually going through something and can use some compassion at work.
- Be of service. When leading a team, there are a set number of team members all following the leader’s vision. Being of services means each person is playing a role unique to their skillset. The best leader will help everyone perform their best.
- Be Grateful. Being a leader of a team means you’re leading a team that’s putting their blood sweat and tears into a mission. Show gratefulness to your team, who is spending a majority of their day working on the same mission. Being grateful allows people to be seen.
- Show the way. We all learned as kids that actions speak louder than words. The key here is when you want people to act a certain way, you have to lead by example. If you ask people to work all night, you need to work all night too. Whatever actions you take will be reflected in other’s actions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“How you do anything is how you do everything”. Essentially, from the smallest thing I do in the day to the biggest thing I do, I want to give all tasks the same amount of care. If I’m sloppy on small things, I’m sloppy on the big things. If I’m angry at myself, that’s how I’m going to show up to work. But if I believe every day is a new opportunity, I’m able to see the opportunity all around me. It’s how you see yourself, your team, the world, everything.
How can our readers further follow your work?