Bill Simmons of American Leprosy Missions: “Always Honor Your Word In Order to Rise Through Resilience”

The third step in becoming resilient is to always honor your word, especially during the toughest of times. We are all human, and no man or woman has ever lived up to every promise they have ever made. When it counts, when others are fleeing the fire, the person who honors their word in spite […]

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The third step in becoming resilient is to always honor your word, especially during the toughest of times. We are all human, and no man or woman has ever lived up to every promise they have ever made. When it counts, when others are fleeing the fire, the person who honors their word in spite of the flames will come through the fire and be better for it.

In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Simmons. Bill is the President and CEO of American Leprosy Missions, and he is passionate about the mission of the organization. He sets the pace of the organization, helping to maximize the team’s potential. He brings more than twenty years of management experience to his role having served as President and CEO of two nationwide, Christian, retail chains. Born in Tennessee, Bill spent his teenage years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), where his parents were missionaries. Bill is chair of the Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy, vice president of the ILEP board of directors, an advisory board member for the Nippon Foundation’s funding of the WHO Global Leprosy Program and a founding and executive member of the Leprosy Research Initiative. He holds a degree in political science from the University of Tennessee.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

Iwas born in a mid-size town in the middle of Tennessee. We lived in a town of less than 400 people 15 minutes away, called Wartrace. All but one member of my entire extended family lived within an hour of our home. My mom was a school teacher, and my dad was a serial entrepreneur. When I was 12, we moved to Africa and settled in the Congo. That pretty much shook my world.

I spent all of my teen years in the Congo and graduated high school in the capital of Kinshasa. The experience of growing up in Africa, as shocking a change as it sounds and in fact was, changed me forever in so many ways. My life was richer for having grown up in two so very different worlds, and I wouldn’t trade it.

I came back to the US for college and met my wife of 31 years during my freshman year. We were married our junior year, and while still in school and living as newlyweds, I started working in a bookstore. I stumbled into my career of running business and haven’t left since.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career?

In 2006, I was part of a group who bought out the company I was working for with the help of venture capital in Boston. Two years later, I became CEO of that company. It was 2008, and the financial crisis hit. Amazon was at its peak of eating into brick and mortar book businesses. We had a loan from a bank in Manhattan, and I paid them a visit in November 2008.

Lehman Brothers had just folded in Manhattan about one month before that visit, and banks were on edge. I flew to Manhattan and met with our lender. I was informed if we missed even one jot or tittle of our agreement in February 2009, the bank would liquidate our business. It was a shocking wake up call.

We immediately moved to close a few of our stores and liquidate the assets. Since it was the peak of the holiday season, we were able to sell everything quickly. As a result, we paid the bank off and prevented them from shutting our business down.

The downside of having to make this decision was that we were not able to pay our suppliers, and they were hurting at the same time. I recorded a video appeal and sent it out to suppliers, inviting them to come to terms on paying back our balances. Ultimately, there were too many suppliers who didn’t understand what we were trying to do and that course of action failed.

When it became clear that we would need to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy, I called a meeting in Nashville where we invited the 12 suppliers who represented 80 percent of our unpaid balances. I sat in a room, face-to-face with the people who had sent us inventory on the trust that we would pay for our merchandise. I had to sit in front of the room of people and tell them that we would not be able to do that. I wanted them to know that we had no other choice but to take the ensuing course of action. And I wanted them to hear it from me.

2009 was a year when people in the US were showing up to work and finding the doors locked and the lights turned off. Many people had no warning. They were just out of a job. I was determined that we would walk boldly into the difficulty we faced. We had weekly calls with our national leaders who managed over 500 staff people around the country. We took questions and gave responses, and I don’t think we had one store manager quit during that time, even though they knew the company might not survive a Chapter 11.

We also had weekly calls with our creditors and kept them informed about the process. Ultimately, in June of 2009 we filed Chapter 11 in Cincinnati. Less than 90 days later, in August, we exited Chapter 11 with a new ownership group and restructured debt. The stores would stay open, employees still had their jobs and suppliers would not lose a valuable channel of distribution for their products in a tight market. That business survived for another ten years.

Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I will never forget sitting in front of the federal bankruptcy judge at the end of proceedings when he called me out by name, “Mr. Simmons, in all my years on the bench of this court, I have never had a proceeding go so smoothly and be run with such integrity. You sir are to be commended.” That statement is seared in my mind. We met with our creditors so often and openly that every time we went before the judge we had already come to an agreement and he only had to approve our joint conclusion. The judge never had to make a decision for one side over another. The attorneys, many of whom had been doing cases for decades, stood in the lobby afterward and couldn’t stop expressing their shock.

I learned that when you face the most difficult circumstances you can conceive of in business, you can still walk that road with integrity. Not everyone appreciated that we did all we could in a difficult circumstance, but we couldn’t control that. What should have been a dark hour, I look back on as a bright spot of learning and growth. I learned you could pierce the veil — the black curtain of bankruptcy — and still come out on the other side a survivor and a better person. I also learned you could walk that dark road with your head held high and still deal with people with integrity.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

After over two decades in retail, I left the private sector and took on the job of President and CEO of a 110-year-old international non-profit, American Leprosy Missions. I brought my experience in business and world view from my days in the Congo to the global mission of this organization. In the past nine years, we have built a team of people who are tackling some of the world’s most stubborn public health problems that affect some of the most marginalized people in the world. But that isn’t what makes us stand out. What makes us stand out is that we have become an organization who wants to change the way innovation is approached in the sector.

We adopted a lean approach to innovation which means we invest in a lot of early stage experimental learnings at low cost to understand if an intervention will work. When our team has an idea that might change the situation in a disease among a population, they ask themselves the following question, “How cheaply and how quickly can we test our hypothesis?” We are convinced that some of the toughest challenges facing neglected people can be solved by investing in an innovation cycle focused on solutions.

An example of this in action is the beginning of a program we now call the AIM Initiative. For most of the diseases known as Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), there were no maps showing where people who lived with ongoing morbidity from these diseases were living. How could good health service be provided if countries didn’t know where the people who needed help were?

We decided to try to do this in Ghana first. We had put in several grant applications to the Gates Foundation and others for about 18 months to no avail. So, we took a step back and asked ourselves the question, “Instead of a $200,000 grant, how could we do this project ourselves quickly and cheaply?” We spent $10,000 and invited a graduate student from the United Kingdom to come to Ghana. In about 6 weeks, we had a map of Ghana showing where all the people with co-morbidity in NTDs lived. That led to the creation of the AIM Initiative which is seeking to do the same thing in over 74 countries around the world.

Our learning from that one experiment changed the course of how we approach health challenges and is shaping the future of our organization.

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?

Les Dietzman, my predecessor at the company I led through Chapter 11, was my greatest career mentor. In fact, I left a job as President and CEO of another company and took a step back into a role of Vice President just so I could work with him. Les had been an executive at Wal-Mart in the early days, and he routinely flew around to visit stores with Sam Walton, with Sam piloting his own plane for their trips! Les declares he learned how to treat people by watching Sam interact with store staff all over the country. While that may be true, I think Les was wired to treat people well at birth, and Sam Walton just poured fuel onto an already burning fire. Les invited me to come work with him, and I took him up on the offer.

I learned how to appreciate people well; I also learned the value of a handwritten note. Les always listened and asked better questions than I ever will. But now, ten years after I last worked with Les, writing handwritten notes to people on my team is a habit I don’t intend to break. Sometimes, I will be on a Skype call with a team member somewhere in the world and in the background, I can see my stationery sitting on a shelf. That’s when I know that it matters. Telling people you care about them and doing it in your own handwriting is a lesson that will never go out of style.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

I am wary of creating a recipe for success and resilience. I’m not convinced that there is a “one size fits all” answer to these sorts of questions. Whether it is facing adversity or life’s changes, I think bouncing back and not losing the shape of who you are in the process can vary from person to person.

To me, resilience means returning something to its original shape or form, being able to recover quickly when life surprises you. For a leader to be resilient often requires being able to brave the fire and heat head on. I had the opportunity to leave my role as CEO during our bankruptcy process. I didn’t have to stay; I could have moved on and gotten out of the storm. I elected to stay and face all the heat and awkwardness of the entire process, and I came out the other side a better person. Did that make me resilient? Perhaps. It certainly gave me the capacity to adapt and change, but I still haven’t recovered from running an organization through Chapter 11, and I hope I never do.

For me, resilience is more about allowing oneself to be shaped by adversity as opposed to resisting the change that adversity brings. Leaders who face adversity and incorporate that adversity into their leadership demonstrate their capacity to learn and execute new ideas that will benefit them and their organization in the future.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

When I think about resilience, I think about a woman I met in Nepal named Thamini Majini. She had gotten leprosy in her community and had lost all feeling in her feet. She had also developed awful ulcers on one of her feet. Her community had kicked her out, afraid of her and her disease.

Distraught at the loss of her home and family, she grabbed a large knife one day and did the unthinkable. She cut off the part of her unfeeling foot that was infected, packed it with ash and returned home to her village. Thamini was willing to do whatever it took to get back to the people she loved. When I met Thamini she had the determination and will in her face of a person who had weathered hardship. She possessed her life with a grit I couldn’t fully comprehend. Resilience, sure, that describes Thamini. She faced an incredible obstacle, and undauntedly adapted to her circumstances. She had counted the cost, measured out what valued and had acted. She was a different person in the end, and that to me shows the resilience of the human spirit. When you can see beauty in life in the midst of adversity, that is resilience to me.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

As I mentioned earlier, going through Chapter 11 was really tough. As a family, we lost all our retirement, lost all our home equity, added to our personal debt and owed the IRS a tremendous tax bill. There is a steep price to being an entrepreneur and business owner, the price can sometimes be everything you own.

But I also learned you can gain it all back too. In the nine years since leaving the company that sold in Chapter 11, my family and I have slowly built our savings back, we built our home equity back and paid off our consumer debt. It was a long slow process, and we did it while working for a non-profit. Despite all of that, the past nine years have been the most rewarding years of my life.

Today, I am more focused and more optimistic about the years ahead than ever before. I am thankful for the scars.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

My mom always said, “When you grow up in the Congo, you learn how to adapt.” I think she is right. Every day was a bombardment of obstacles: three languages in one day, living between the extreme poverty to extreme wealth that exists in the Congo, facing the absence of law and the tyranny of a dictatorship. All of these served to galvanize me as a young person. It’s difficult to know just how influential being in Africa for those formative years was to who I have become today, but I know it put the rest of my life into perspective. It is a perspective I’ve never lost. When you have seen people face depravity day after day, and many times do it with a sense of joy that seems counterintuitive, obstacles of life here in the West never quite seem to compare. I have tried to never lose that awareness of what extreme poverty and sadness can look like, and it helps me remain thankful for all that I have, holding it in hands that don’t deserve any of it.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

Well, I know you won’t face adversity if you never take on a challenge that is bigger than yourself. What have you tried lately that you are sure may be too difficult? Go do that thing today. You will never develop strength without opposition. That’s the first step.

Second, I am always pushing myself in some way. For me personally, it is in the weight room. I have to have an outlet where I can measure my progress against an obstacle. The objectivity of knowing that you either lifted a certain amount of weight off the floor or you didn’t has a way of humbling a person. I like engaging in things that have clear wins and losses. Not everyone is competitive like that, but if you want to be resilient, I think you have to find a way to know where you stand.

The third step in becoming resilient is to always honor your word, especially during the toughest of times. We are all human, and no man or woman has ever lived up to every promise they have ever made. When it counts, when others are fleeing the fire, the person who honors their word in spite of the flames will come through the fire and be better for it.

The fourth key to resilience is to let it all go. You cannot possibly be resilient if you live your life holding onto things with clenched fists. When you lose everything, you have nothing to lose in life and all things are gain.

Finally, read. I don’t think a person who is not growing their mind and learning can remain resilient throughout life. I look forward to the future every day because I still have so much to learn and so much more to grow. If one approaches life that way, I think one can become more and more like a tree with deep roots. Isn’t a tree the greatest picture of resilience, bending and swaying and yet remaining tall?

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would do what I am doing. I am convinced that we can bring new ideas and innovation to stubborn diseases and neglected tropical diseases. I want others to know the truth about the millions of people who are impacted by these diseases, and I want to bring an end to them, or at least put the tools in place in my lifetime to know that it will become reality.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

Melinda Gates, hands down. Melinda has really taken on the issue of women around the world. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are on the front end of many global health issues. We have a project we have tested that creates lasting change in communities using women as the key change agent in their villages. Combining public health with women’s rights is a way to change the world forever. It is built on the idea that every mother wants the best for her family and her home. I would love to share this idea with Melinda over lunch. She could help fuel a women’s empowerment movement using a structure we have tested that can deliver sustainable, grassroots change in communities across the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I use LinkedIn as my social media channel. My linked in is:

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