Be Ambitious — It is easy, in stressful and uncertain times, to lose your ambition. This is a test to stand tall. It is a test of courage, creativity, and initiative. More than ½ of the S & P 500 started during recessions and bear markets. This is the time that makes or breaks companies. The ambitious one usually wins! Those that play small, think small, and stay safe will miss enormous opportunities.
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 Howard M. Shore.
Howard M. Shore, founder and CEO of Activate Group Inc., is a bestselling author and serial entrepreneur specializing in liberating C-Suite teams from the barriers holding them back personally and professionally. After owning and selling several of his own companies, working with numerous top Fortune 500 companies, and training with performance-enhancing organizations like Scaling Up and Gazelles, Howard has become a sought-after business mentor, executive coach, and keynote speaker. His clients work in family-owned, multi-national, public, and private companies ranging from $1 million to over $1 billion in annual revenue. His expert keynote speeches cover employee empowerment, cash flow enhancement, human capital management, entrepreneurial freedom, and business growth. With a 30-year track record of success, he guarantees any organization that his methods and systems can help them become more profitable, stable, and scalable.
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?
Throughout childhood and most of my career, people failed to see my potential and tap into it. Growing up, I had ADHD, Sleep Apnea, Dyslexia, and coke bottle glasses. My teachers could not see beyond these issues and wanted to put me into special education. Only my mom recognized the potential in me, and she challenged the school system. Had I been down that track, God knows where I would be today.
My mom also challenged me to raise my expectations of myself and to see I was capable of so much more. Thanks to that advice, instead of special education, I went on to receive my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, passed the CPA exam the first time, and continued my education at Harvard and the University of Chicago. In fact, by age 18, I owned my first company and sold it when I was 21. I later advanced in three highly-regarded Fortune 500 companies. To all outward appearances, I was highly successful.
If I am honest with myself, the book did not match the cover. When looking back, I cringe at how horrible of a leader I was. Truthfully, there was a problem. I think the only reason I was successful was that I worked three times harder than anyone else to compensate. This caused me to miss critical moments with family, some of my relationships were starting to fray, and it was taking a toll on my mindset. Like my teachers, I could not see, nor was I unlocking, the true potential in myself or my people. Worse, I lacked fulfillment from my work.
I also realized that my fellow leaders were not doing much better. I was confident that the biggest asset in companies was people, and most leaders were failing to maximize the value of their biggest asset. After realizing this, I wanted to find a solution. I knew this issue was solvable. This led to the creation of a framework I called the Business Acceleration System ©. It helps leaders create an ecosystem that requires master systems: culture, team cohesiveness, human capital management, strategy, execution, and cash. I realized that most companies were truly great at one or two of them. I have never met a company that has mastered all six. I am now on a mission to impact at least 500,000 lives.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I am having trouble with the word funny. Too often, I spoke before thinking something through. While it was not intentional, I was very direct and could be abrasive in delivering what I had to say. I remember when I worked for KPMG, the hours were long. One challenge they had in our regional office of 300 professionals was staff logistics and deployment. I had no perspective on how hard a job it was to allocate team members to different assignments across three counties spanning more than a 100-mile radius. In the beginning, I got a few assignments that I felt were much closer to other people’s homes, and I was putting serious miles on my car, and in South Florida, traffic is brutal. I was frustrated because if you add two hours in driving to 10 hours (or more) a day working, it was taking its toll. So I decided to voice my opinion to colleagues on how stupid I thought this was. As I was voicing my not-so-subtle opinion, standing next me was the Senior Manager in charge of making these decisions. He was one of the most influential people in the firm and eventually became the managing partner. My relationship was never right with that person from that point on, and giving that first impression hurt my reputation. I learned an important lesson is to be more empathetic to other people’s points of view and to be more diplomatic in addressing my concerns.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Many people influenced me at different times and in different ways. One of those people was George Scanlon. He and I ascended together over seven years in the corporate office of $5-billion company. He was ultimately the SVP of Corporate Planning and went on to be CEO of Fidelity National Financial, a company with over 10,000 employees. George not only gave me my chance to work at Ryder, but he saw things in me that I did not see in myself. He gave me an opportunity where others would not. The corporate planning department and company were full of Ivy Leaguers who had MBAs. To onlookers, when I started, I did not fit, as I went to Florida International University and only had a bachelor’s degree when I first started. While that was a local school, Ryder looked at their graduates. At Ryder, it was very structured and corporate, they valued pedigrees, and I was far from that.
George encouraged and supported my getting an MBA at night and is the reason I took the continuing education courses at major universities. He helped me understand how to get ahead and not have to change what made me special. God knows there were times that it was obvious I was different from a lot of my colleagues. He played to my strengths and made sure I got the feedback I needed to excel. He helped me see and learn how to overcome the behavioral attributes that would prevent me from ascending within the company. He gave me the chance to attack new opportunities and problems every year. He also allowed me to make mistakes and learn from them. He was the reason I had the opportunity to become the head of the strategy department, helping steer our multi-billion global company. When I got there, I did not even know such a role existed, nor would I have seen myself in that position.
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?
All of the companies I have founded started a similar pattern. Activate Group was created because I knew I did not want to be beholden to anyone else to forge my destiny. The only vision I had was to make sure that I was not going to work for someone else. It wasn’t until I found “purpose” that things started to move. My purpose was, and still is, to unlock potential and enable results.
When I look back over my life, others have helped me do this. The most gratification I got was when I was doing that with, and for, others. I have never met a leader or company that is not leaving tremendous opportunity on the table. I shared that I recognized I was no different. I also knew that I was challenging myself to become a greater leader. I can share so many stories going back to my formative years, where I have helped others raise expectations for themselves, and then they went on to achieve and exceed those goals, just like my mom did for me.
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?
The most recent was the formation and development of Activate Group Inc. We are now building ourselves into a national firm, but it has been much more difficult than I imagined. When I founded the firm in 2004, I knew I wanted to have an impact on the world, but I lacked clarity on how I was going to make that happen.
To be completely honest, the first year went horribly and was well short of what I expected. Despite my track record, I underestimated the learning curve in how to convert that passion into clients. My partner and I lost money in our first year, and it took three more to start gaining real traction.
I remember toward the end of the first year, my mom and wife were trying to get me to consider going back to working in companies. From their view, I left a sizable income and now was making negative. I remember one moment at the dinner table with my wife, two kids, and my mom, who was living with us at the time. My mom asked me when was my “drop-dead date.” This question took me for a loop and caused me to stay quiet, which is highly unusual for me.
I spent 24 hours considering her questions seriously. What she was implying was, “When was I going to quit and get a real job.” I came back that next night at dinner and answered her question. My drop-dead date would be when “I dropped dead!” What I had realized was that my body language and tone told people that I was not happy. They could see the sheer frustration on my face. I recognized that I was failing to communicate and appreciate positive progress, the most important of which was that I had found something that tapped into my passion, played to my strengths, and could be that thing I spent the rest of my life doing. When I looked at my journey, this was the fourth time I had reinvented myself, and I had found my calling.
This was probably the most pivotal conversation I’d had in years. At that moment, I provided them the evidence that there was nothing to worry about. That conversation forced me to straighten my head out and do what must be done. Everything was different and better from that moment. That was, until we had the 2008 crisis. I was finally making an excellent income and feeling my stride. The Great Recession wiped that out as I lost almost 100% of my clients. It took another two years for the firm to start hitting full stride. It took me six years to accomplish what I thought would happen in one.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up is not part of my DNA. I look at our life journey as a series of pivots. When one thing does not work, learn from the situation and pivot.
With that said, there are moments of frustration where you question your sanity. To help me through those moments, I have hired executive coaches, joined peer groups, and aligned myself with people and organizations that could help me find my way through. It is important to talk to other people who have been through your journey and are like-minded. I have to say I have some great mentors and peers who keep me focused on the right things. The mind can be a dangerous place. We must keep our thoughts on the right things.
For me, staying motivated starts with finding a meaningful destination that I am passionate about. Going back to purpose, “why” is more important to me than “what” and “how much!” If I get too focused on the numbers, I am never happy. This is a vicious circle because then the numbers always move up. What I do helps a lot of people, creates jobs, and helps our economy thrive.
I also practice what I preach. I use the Business Acceleration System©. These systems are the routines that set me free. As I follow them, I plan and map progress towards that plan every week. This is important because many times, we are taking the right actions but won’t see the results until future years. I document and report on the successes every week. As I do this, I find I am moving faster toward the prize to impact 500,000 lives. More importantly, it gives me the satisfaction that I had good days and good weeks, even when the data might not be showing it this week.
I have a great family nucleus and peers who have always been there to support and encourage me. My wife and mom, especially. It is also important that I have been religious about taking enough time off to recharge my batteries, exercise regularly, and practice meditation. As they say in the airlines, you have to put on your oxygen mask first before you can help others.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The primary role of the leader is to help people increase confidence and sustain ambition. The true leaders establish a compelling vision and direction for the future. They think and communicate in ways that acknowledge the brutal facts, show empathy to those who have fears, and foster never-losing faith that we will prevail.
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?
Every leader needs to have a leadership operating system that fosters an ecosystem that allows it to take full advantage when everything is going well and causes them to rally together when times are difficult. The reality is that when your team is winning, everyone is high fiving and excited, even when they are screwing up. When you are losing every game, it is hard to stay motivated. We all naturally want to be winners.
The key to boosting morale is clarity, transparency, and clear and consistent communication. The CEO is the foundation of the ecosystem. A CEO can be the stabilizing or destabilizing force for the entire business ecosystem. The team has to be confident that the leader is the right person to lead them through. While being authentic, you have to show all team members they can count on you to take the right actions and that you care about them.
Transparency is key. What is our situation, and what is our plan to get through it? As pivots are needed, explain them and keep everyone informed. Most importantly, involve everyone in gutting it out. Think about when hurricanes happen. Communities come together, neighbors help each other, and when done right, it brings you all closer together. This happens naturally without financial compensation, job titles, or someone coercing them to help each other. We need to replicate the community ecosystem in our business ecosystem.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Trust is everything. Lack of trust increases costs and slows everything down. As we see in modern society, the truth will always be found. Once you are caught not telling the truth, stretching it, or withholding crucial information, you will find yourself sliding down the slippery slope. Maintaining authenticity and transparency in a way the fosters trust is vital. Once you have lost someone’s trust, it is hard to recover. They will spend more time focusing on your faults and trying to find reasons not to trust you.
It is best practice to pause and gain the perspectives of all stakeholders before communicating. Failure in doing so could alienate rather than unite. I like to keep it real, showing a balanced view of the situation. Too often, leaders try to hide the facts from the general audience, and this rarely works. Failure to answer their key questions cause fear. Like accounting, we need to discuss the debits and credits. Remember that your job as a leader is to help increase confidence and help others feel safe. We all make mistakes, and when one is made, you need to be swift in making decisions and communicating with all stakeholders.
The Johnson and Johnson response to the Tylenol bottle tampering (in 1982) was an exceptional case example of doing it right. People know when you are only thinking of yourself and are naturally thinking about how to protect themselves. Before you communicate, think it through. The truth always comes out. Think it through with the end in mind and work backward. It was expected that the Tylenol brand would be ruined. Instead, it grew stronger in the market over the long-term. The leaders demonstrated that the safety of the customer came first before corporate profits. This raised trust, set the example for all employees, and they were rewarded.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Focus on what is predictable. You will deal with unpredictable circumstances daily. You cannot allow this to be an excuse for not planning and forecasting. Make assumptions and update your assumptions and plans as new information is coming in. The more uncertainty, the more frequently we need to check our assumptions.
How we respond to and quickly adjust our plans as a result of an event is an important part of a business ecosystem. The problem occurs when leaders spend too much time hoping and praying the problem will go away, or they fail to give key events enough attention. It can be more comfortable to hide behind the daily grind than address the big elephants in the room. It is willful blindness.
If you allow yourself to see clearly with an open mind, you can find the best path. Make more time looking for data that contradicts your belief systems. Your belief systems are likely based on beliefs rather than facts. Be a heat-seeking missile for the facts.
Throughout our lives, obstacles are going to come, and we have to be ready to pivot. I look to develop best-, likely-, and worst-case scenarios for my plans. The problem with too many leaders is they don’t face the brutal facts and don’t want to consider the worst-case scenario and what might cause it. It is essential to spend time regularly thinking through these various assumptions. Your plans need to be fluid rather than static, based on impacts to your key assumptions.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Expect them, be decisive, and don’t allow ups and downs to shake your confidence and ambition.
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?
- Don’t throw out the practices that contribute to a healthy business ecosystem.
- Make fast but informed decisions.
- Get a strong handle on your cash runway, and make moves to increase the runway.
- Enroll everyone in overcoming your challenges.
Consider your entire ecosystem: culture, team cohesiveness, human capital, strategy, execution, and cash. Disregarding any of these systems can be fatal.
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?
Every business should have a plan for bad economies and when disaster strikes. There are cycles, and mother nature happens. Here are some strategies to consider:
- Determine the people that you cannot afford to lose and hold on to them.
- Take care of your existing customers.
- Have an eye focused on cash flow. Understand your cash runway and how to expand it.
- Exit all other nonessential investments and focus on your business.
- Consider increasing your marketing budget.
- Adjust segmentation to focus on customer segments that are thriving or unaffected.
- Evolve your products and services to meet the present needs.
- Be creative in contract terms.
- Revisit your strategic plan. While your vision may be the same, how to get there has changed.
- Cut unnecessary expenses, but don’t go overboard. While that can help, it can also hurt. Avoid those cuts that negatively affect the customer experience.
- Improve the customer experience in ways that increase your share of the pie.
- Adjust your marketing channels to find people where they are hanging out.
- Use this time to strengthen your weaknesses.
- If you have cash, take advantage. Adjust your payment terms and take advantage of buying opportunities.
- Rally the troops. Use the fear of recession to inspire your employees.
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.
1. Be Ambitious — It is easy, in stressful and uncertain times, to lose your ambition. This is a test to stand tall. It is a test of courage, creativity, and initiative. More than ½ of the S & P 500 started during recessions and bear markets. This is the time that makes or breaks companies. The ambitious one usually wins! Those that play small, think small, and stay safe will miss enormous opportunities.
I have a peer in a CEO Group I participate in that was in the events business. He made money driving people to live learning events. Rather than implode, in 30-days after COVID-19, they reinvented the company to be a digital events business. They held their first digital event in April and have exploded in growth. Not only were they able to achieve comparable customer satisfaction, but their business is also far more profitable and scalable. They are on track to triple revenues from the prior year.
2. Don’t stop marketing and selling — One of the first cuts in spending is marketing. Essentially, companies make a bad problem worse. They unconsciously make themselves invisible and turn off a crucial opportunity to generate oxygen (revenue). You likely need to change your messaging to meet the customer where they are now, but don’t make yourself invisible. If you are not marketing, it is time to start.
Our firm traditionally did little-to-no marketing. The majority of our clients were referred by other clients and came from speaking at the right public events. We now have a budget that most people would find crazy. However, this is the first time in over 10 years that growing a business has been difficult. Before COVID-19, anyone could make money. They just grew with the rising tide. Many of these leaders had significant weaknesses lurking in the company and were not compelled to resolve them. The pandemic changed all of that. While most of our competitors have shrunk, we are on track for a record year and may double our client base by year’s end. We have also leveraged our brand to increase our prices while competitors are prostituting themselves to recover.
3. Be the lighthouse — Success starts with leadership. The CEO must be the lighthouse. I interacted with hundreds of leaders in the first 30 days after the pandemic grew large. I noticed a big difference in the companies that were pivoting and keeping their stride and those that lost their footing. These are the three practices of the CEOs in the companies that responded well:
a. Calm — As Tony Robbins teaches, we need to approach everything in a peaceful, playful, and passionate way. During stressful and uncertain times, it’s normal to feel anxious and scared. Chances are, most people around you feel it, too. It’s easy to infect each other with anxiety and fear, but we can take steps to protect ourselves from these emotional contagions. People want to follow leaders who are calm and have self-control.
b. Clarity — People need clarity on how you are going to navigate the ship to and through the new normal. Now more than ever, you and your team need to be focused and aligned. You need a clear set of priorities and show employees the way.
c. Confidence — People want a strong leader who rises rather than shrinks during tough challenges.
4. Communicate Clearly and Often — You must over communicate! You need to communicate the state of the company regularly. Communicate frequently and proactively with employees, customers, vendors, and shareholders. And, repeat yourself often to ensure the message is received. Experts recommend that a message needs to be sent seven times before it is heard.
Your team wants to know that you’re at the helm of the ship and that you’re working and acting. We are recommending weekly updates to everyone in the company. It does not have to be a long communication. People want authenticity, and you will lose their trust if they find out what you are telling them is not the true and complete story.
The companies that are doing this well are conducting daily huddles, weekly meetings, and having every manager speak with each of their direct reports daily.
Great examples of these best practices are how leaders of industry are communicating with us as their customers. I am certain you are all experiencing the barrage of text messages, emails, and phone messages sent by your key suppliers. It is important that we know we can count on our vendors.
Most importantly, all of your stakeholders want to know you care about them and what you are doing about it.
5. Cleanup and Catch-up — Most companies have been running hard for years as we had unprecedented global expansion. Many of these businesses were having significant problems with several key processes but did not have the time to address them sufficiently. Our processes are like closets and garages. There is no time like the present for a spring cleaning. Find a few processes that will help you drive the customer and employee experience and make sure your business is ready to scale forward. In our firm, we are building world-class training systems so that we can add consultants more rapidly and shorten their learning curve.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“First seek to understand, then be understood.” Stephen Covey
I am a confident and driven person who can unconsciously be a bulldozer at times. I have found that this has been an essential skill to help forge relationships, work in teams, and get others to follow me. At the heart of this is having enough humility. By seeking others’ opinions, it has helped me learn and grow in tremendous ways. I marvel at how often I would have underestimated others and failed to harness their brains. The leader who accesses more brains wins.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I have two active books on the market: Your Business is A Leaky Bucket and The Leader Launchpad. They can follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and they can go to our website and sign up for our newsletter at www.howardmshore.com.