Honesty and transparency: Be honest and real, don’t under or over inflate facts. If things are rough and some people are going to lose their jobs, be honest and direct. Don’t hide what people likely already know.
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 Ryan Farris.
Ryan Farris is the President and COO of AlphaGraphics with over 20 year in the print, marketing and marketing technology space. Ryan has been a leader in public companies, private companies and several of his own companies including one that built an app allowing non-verbal children to have a voice. Ryan grew up in Texas and currently resides in Colorado with his wife of 20 years and his three children.
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 got into my current line of work, which is largely print marketing and related marketing technology, early on. In college, I had started two businesses that were reasonably good, but I didn’t have all the experience needed to scale and grow them — all the things you need to know that you don’t quite get at that young age. As graduation approached, I sought out companies offering leadership development programs that would build those skills. Ultimately I wound up at a company called Consolidated Graphics, now R.R. Donnelley, that had a three-year program where I learned a lot about the print and marketing industry as well as key roles and responsibilities for growing a business.
By 2015 I landed with my current company AlphaGraphics, and into the franchising space, in 2015. I had just sold a company, which we had started during the recession in 2009. A request from a colleague, who was working with the AlphaGraphics brand and looking for technology advice, led to an opportunity to work with them fulltime to implement an upgrade to all of their technology stack.
I actually joined the company to help them and modernize their technology stack. It was a good fit for me because you’re getting to work with entrepreneurs, which I have a heavy passion for, but doing it in a much more organized way as a group, which also fits my profile having spent extensive time in the corporate world. AlphaGraphics is quite anamazing network.
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?
One of the businesses I had started in the ’90s was building websites back when there weren’t all the tools and sophistication to do that. I needed to expand the business, but back then you couldn’t just sell someone a website. You had to sell them their internet connection, too. It was like a combo package: “Oh, here’s your internet, here’s your T1 line, and I’m going to host a website on that line and then people will be able to contact you.”
I was a little naïve, so I went to my local internet provider to try to get a package deal to resell internet connectivity. And, the head of the company said, “Oh yeah, come on back to my office and tell me your whole plan.”
So, foolishly, I laid it all out for him, “I’m going to go after this country club and this health club and this racquet club — basically membership-based organizations that had calendars and public or private schedules for the members that were hard to keep current and updated in traditional ways.” And, it was obviously a great idea. And he was like, “Oh, you know, we’ll get back to you,” and within about 30 days about half of my prospects had gotten poached out from under me. I learned the hard way that your partners today might be your competitors tomorrow and your business plans better remain your own or at least until they are executed.”
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 have been a number of mentors and colleagues that have been a great help to me, but the person who had a very strong belief in me at a very early age, was actually my uncle, Bill Rice. He was a quite successful entrepreneur himself, and he wrote the first check to fund my business. Uncle Bill not only put his money in but put his own time in as well. He was a phenomenal coach and someone to lean on those early years. He was fantastic.
Joe Davis, former CEO of Consolidated Graphics, was one of the most notable leaders and a phenomenal mentor, very disciplined in the financials, and just a great, great, great coach and a good person. He really believed that people are the heart of the business, and if you develop people it will develop your business. I learned more takeaways from him about how to train and groom people than anybody in my life. Also learned in order to be able to invest in people, don’t invest in fancy offices, desks, furniture and the like. Treat the money as your own and make sure every purchase is an investment with an expected return. People will help you make money and a nice desk won’t.
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?
This is a really good question because if you’re going to achieve greater growth if you have goals and a vision behind those goals.
Some people take business plans and mission statements as just paperwork or something that shows up on their website. But I’ve found that every time a business is successful, it has been working towards a plan that stretches for a number of years, and there’s a vision or visionary behind it. They are achieving something that is not just monetary. They are achieving something that serves and engages their customers.
When I took over the helm at AlphaGraphics, the very first thing we did was start what we call a NetVision plan. We spent a year, with colleagues and coworkers, subject matter experts and thought leaders, and even competitors, to look at the landscape, understand our value proposition, and understand how it would change over time. And then, we aligned it to our mission to provide the best marketing and communication services and products for customers.
So, we develop a plan to execute over the next five years to make our vision become a reality — becoming a leader in providing small businesses and enterprises marketing services and products and providing them the tools to be successful.
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?
Well to be honest when it started it was very hard. I actually was terribly sick and got quarantined the very week all the news started escalating and the shut downs started. It was a terribly long week trying to manage through being sick and not being able to lead the team as I would have liked from quarantine. Fortunately, I tested negative and began to recover by the second week. For me my primary goal in crisis is to be present, visually, and communicate the situation and how we will move forward, day by day then week by week, etc. At this point everyone was working from home and most of our centers were in or starting shelter in place. I determined video would be the best way to “be present” to see my face, eyes and expressions — to convey with heart and empathy then lead with strength and resolve. The harder things get, the more you’ve got to communicate and the more honest you need to be with your team; and, the more you’ve got to lean on your vision and look for the opportunities that align with that vision right. They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going, and that’s the same kind of process that we use here.
In normal times, the AlphaGraphics team plans in an annual timeframe, evaluating our progress during monthly updates. When COVID-19 began to sink in, we immediately paused all major initiatives and shifted to planning in real-time. What is this week looking like? What are we going to tell the network what they should focus on this week? How are we going to communicate it and get them to take advantage of it and then share the successes?
We literally did that week to week for months. On Fridays, we’d collect the results of the week and evaluate them with the team. On Sunday nights, I’d record a video to publish, saying, “Here are the results from last week, here are our victories in the midst of all this madness, here are the successes we’re seeing in the network, and here’s how you can do it for your own location.” In addition to regular broadcast communications, I spent time speaking directly with those highly affected owners to understand and help in any way we could. More importantly though was the HQ team. The stress during those first few months was intense and the expectations and reliance on our team was like being in a pressure cooker. I made efforts every week to talk with the team, help them handle complex situations, provide encouragement and even encourage them to take a weekend off just to decompress.
Leadership has to come from the helm. Be truthful, provide action items to help them succeed or just have a small victory, give people tools to work with their own teams and help their customers find hope or that same small victory. At AlphaGraphics, we have an interesting pyramid structure for serving customers. We don’t just provide tools for our team and owners to be better leaders, we provide tools that they can share with their own customers to help them become better leaders in their own right.
We create that thought leadership and build tighter communities, which has worked really well during the pandemic and brought the group together with a cohesive mission.
So, to me, that’s how you lead in a crisis — you recognize that it exists, you communicate as fast and as timely as you can, and you provide real updates. Not in a negative way, though. You give the facts and tell your team, “Here’s how we’re going to make it better and here are the things you can do to push through this.”
We continue to look at the future. It’s like driving at night. With the headlines on, you can only see so much of the road at one time. You know where the road is going, but you don’t know where it is going to end. We try to be the lights on the vehicle, helping them keep pointing in the right direction until the sun comes up, and they see the destination or the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Consider giving up, not sure I would ever say it that way but get worn out, fatigued, ready for a break or a change at time, absolutely. Anyone and anytime you put everything into something, especially during a crisis you are going to get drained, I mean literally drain everything you have and yet still have people work or family wanting more. That is the life of a leader, but give up no. Balance and make sure I can recharge absolutely.
As far as motivation, my motivation is very personal. When I was 25 years old, my wife became pregnant. During a trip, at the 26-week mark of the pregnancy, she wasn’t feeling right, so we went to an urgent care and found out that we were going to have the baby three months early and not in our home state.
When you go from what you think is normal stress in normal day-to-day life to the stress and of a child being literally touch-and-go for the next 365 days, life and death, your perspective changes quickly.
So, when I have crisis issues and things seem really serious in business, I just remind myself and in some relative manner without minimizing the situation that nobody’s going to die today. Things are certainly hard but keep it relative. We have what’s important — our family, our team and their health, we’re not going into a hospital, and we’re not weighing or working through life and death decisions today.
We’re dealing with marketing communications, and we’re working with customers that are, obviously, feeling a financial pinch, but we need to keep our perspective. So, I lean on that outlook a lot. The flipside is that family situation with a wife that full time looks after my son, both being dependent on me, certainly motivates me to push through every challenge, solve every puzzle if you will, because I need to continue to provide for my family.
Plus, I actually believe in helping others succeed. I believe if we do our jobs well and can help companies get out of difficult situations, we can help them retain existing customers, find new customers, and grow their businesses. And so, I get a lot of motivation out of those three components: Recognizing that this is not a life and death situation; knowing we need to continue to provide for our families and those that are employed by us; and knowing our customers need us, and we can be there to help them get through this and help their businesses stay healthy, and help them continue to provide for their families and employees.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader is to be present, visible, and engaged. Nobody’s going to follow someone that they can’t see or hear from. If not a video add personal touches, write personal cards, make personal phone calls, get on video calls, etc. Even in the worst situations, be there and spend time in those most critical departments, business centers, and operations. Roll up your sleeves and pitch in, even if a situation is not salvageable. It shows a lot of leadership.
Stay consistent and persistent with communications. Don’t change the frequency of communications unless the situation changes. So, when I said I was going to do updates every week, I had to do them every week without exception. Let me tell you that after about the 4th video I put together, I was getting pretty worn out, but I knew we couldn’t stop until we got out of that first major phase of shutdown. A lot of people have good energy for a bit, but then it wanes or fades out. Sometimes the hardest thing can be to continue with what you committed to do, what you said in the moment of crisis and seeing those commitments through.
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?
To keep people excited, you’ve got to highlights, victories, prior success and what future success can be. Highlight those amazing stories that they can relate to and engage with — things that actually didn’t happen that long ago. Despite what the last eight months have been like, don’t let your team forget their successes for the last 5 years, 10 years, 20 years and how those moments, days and years will return.
Help them get the smiles back on their faces, and then correlate those past successes with your efforts to thrive in the current circumstances. Emphasize how the organization will use this opportunity to come out stronger on the other side by streamlining operations.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I don’t see things as unpredictable. Plans are for the future to begin with. You might have to adjust your investments, your pace, your cadence, but if you have a sound plan tied to a certain vision, you’re just making adjustments for the current situation. Your actions adjust to the situation, but your long-range plans shouldn’t adjust dramatically. You shouldn’t change your vision from COVID you should just adjust your plan to get over this additional hurdle.
That said, we do see the current situation as a significant adjustment in our five-year plan. We’re going to have to be much more aggressive as we look at 2021 to make up for what we lost this year. We will have to innovate more than ever to generate additional revenue streams. We are committed to do it and I know with that positive focus, commitment and resolve, we will find those additional opportunities and get our goals back on track.
If you’re going to manage the unpredictable, you have to have contingencies built into your long-range plans to begin with. When you start planning, you develop your best- and worst-case scenarios. That’s how our budgets are already built. Even if the gap widens, you can adjust your actions to handle the variance.
What is the most common mistake you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
A downfall for a lot of companies is waiting for things to get better. From COVID the term I apply to those companies and leaders is “sheltering in place”. Waiting for COVID to go away is not leadership, waiting for programs or solutions to come to you is not a solution, even waiting for your customers to come back to you is not a solution. All of these actions are critical mistakes during this time. COVID will be cured at some point, but we don’t know when and more importantly business will never be the same once it is gone. This pandemic will forever change our work habits and social interactions and everything about the way business is done. If you think someone’s going to come rescue you, like through government funds or loans, or think that customers are just going to come back and do business with you the way they always have, you are at the most risk. Waiting for change to come to you is the most critical and unfortunately common mistake I am seeing.
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?
This is where the opportunity lies if you don’t hunker down and wait for things to get better. You have to recognize that there will be new opportunities because of any crisis. Businesses are still operating or need to. People still have to eat and feed their families. Both will just do so in new or different ways. That creates opportunity. So, if you seize the day and allocate a portion of your growth objectives to those new opportunities, a large portion, you can accelerate your business tremendously. Talk with your customers, see how they are doing, and then apply a solution to help them. Doing this will grow both businesses.
Worst case, you add new revenue streams to replace those that changed and are able to forge through this crisis as a viable company. Best case, you still add the new revenue streams and the old ones come back making you a bigger and stronger company out of this crisis.
If you’re making a huge push to net new business in many revenue streams, it will help balance out business loss from the pandemic. And as things surge back to normal, your company will be back on track or even ahead.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what is the most important thing a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share an example.
Here are five principles for leading effectively during challenging times.
Honesty and transparency: Be honest and real, don’t under or over inflate facts. If things are rough and some people are going to lose their jobs, be honest and direct. Don’t hide what people likely already know.
Heart: Lead with facts and plans but deliver with heart. Have emotion, empathy and passion. People want to be led with facts but need to be inspired with heart.
Humility: Recognize that you might not have all the answers or be able to fix everything right away, let your team know that you are all in it together, and that you will be right there with them figuring it out.
Hard work: Nothing is ever easy and in a pandemic, it can feel like a start up all over again. Less people and more work for small results. Things will not be easy. Extra time and effort will be required, but it will all pay off in the long run. Roll up your sleeves with the team and put in the time.
Humor: None of it works without humor. Nobody can make it through these challenging times without a smile on their face. I work hard to shoot every video with a smile. I try to weave in something funny. If I don’t have it in my tank, I find something or someone else — even my kids to do it.
To me, these are the five fundamentals. If you can do those things in a leadership role, combined with a vision and a purpose, you can really keep people on the right side of the pendulum: Keeping them on the optimism side of the swing and out of the pessimism side.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“What gets measured, gets improved.”
— Peter Drucker
That’s a classic. I’m a big believer in being able to quantify and measure things and not operate solely on gut feelings.
“If life were predictable, it wouldn’t be life.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt
You can’t have sweet and savory without bitter and sour. You can’t have tremendous joy and pleasure without tremendous pain.
A quote from my dad always sticks my head, too: “Make sure your know-how equals your do-how.”
I lean on that one a lot right now. Everybody knows what they should do, but there are very few that do it. But if you combine the two, you can get almost anything accomplished.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!