Build a team and a business that can withstand challenges. In my experience, it’s much harder to build a company that is timed to be sold and make money than it is to build it right for the long haul (i.e., like gambling in a casino, you have to be lucky!)
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 Yuchun Lee.
As CEO and co-founder of Allego, Yuchun has successfully grown the 7+ year old Needham, MA company, achieving a 145% compound annual revenue growth rate since inception. Prior to Allego, he co-founded and served as CEO of marketing automation provider Unica, guiding it through a successful IPO and $500M sale to IBM. Yuchun is also an Executive in Residence at venture firm General Catalyst Partners, the Executive Chairman of customer experience software firm Clarabridge, serves on the board of Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: VRTX), and is an Executive Advisor with Summit Partners, a global venture and private equity firm. He holds Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT and a Master of Business Administration from Babson College.
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 am a first generation immigrant from Taiwan, and moved to the U.S. when I was 13 years old. I have been a software entrepreneur all my life.I started programming and started my first company when I was in high school. All of the companies I led are in the “enterprise software” space, covering sales, marketing, or services for businesses looking to optimize how they interact with their customers.
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?
In my previous company, we once sold a major contract to FedEx to automate their end-to-end marketing campaign processes. We dropped the ball completely when our delivery team shipped the software (yes, back then we would “ship” software and documentation physically!) via a UPS package. A day later the package got sent back, unopened, inside a FedEx package, to tell us to “try again.” Although it was sort of “tongue in cheek” and we were forgiven, it taught me the importance that when it comes to communicating with customers, details matters — and it takes real care from the entire company, top to bottom, to make sure we execute properly.
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 are hundreds of people who have helped me along the way, not just mentors, but many co-founders and employees that put their faith in me in building companies — at times against great odds to succeed. However, I would say the two people who fundamentally influenced my life trajectory were two high school math teachers. Being completely clueless as an immigrant who spoke little English and with working-class parents, they recognized my potential and pushed me to self-study programming and take on other challenges. I am a huge fan of educators and am a prime example of how they can change lives.
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?
At Allego, we believe success at work is fundamental to human happiness. Our mission is to help every professional achieve their full potential by ensuring their success through mastering, accessing, and utilizing key knowledge at their jobs. We are seeing our efforts paying off everyday in the success of our customers we serve.
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?
I have always managed teams with a high level of transparency, because fundamentally I believe the more people have all the information they need, the better decisions they will make. As such, in tough times, the first thing I do is to make sure “bad news” is heard and “reality” understood. From that point forward, we sprint into actions, which typically are a series of problem solving activities to reassess and to readjust to the new reality. In general, I believe ups and downs are part of business, and I actively build teams that have the fortitude to withstand these swings and teams that collectively have sound judgment in providing their best ideas, while simultaneously building a safe environment that allows people to voice dissent and “truth to power.” I believe this is the only way to manage through crises: transparency, swift actions, a strong team.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
In one of my previous companies, I came close. It was a time when I had close to $250k on my personal credit card and the company I started was close to running out of cash — even though I was working 90 hours a week (I slept under my desk often in that period). Things somehow turned one day when I finally put my foot down and decided that I was willing to put everything I had into the business (I think the phrase I said to myself was “even if it kills me”) — to be successful. Somehow that firm determination alters my outlook and how I approach work, which eventually led to uncovering additional sources of revenue to pull the business out of the temporary bind.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I would say it is both the accuracy of judging reality and the speed to which one reacts to the situation. One has to be right, and one has to act quickly. Of the two, acting quickly is more important, since even if one’s judgment is wrong (but can’t be too wrong!), taking action allows for opportunity to course correct along the way.
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?
I believe morale can be temporarily boosted with effective communications, but a more sustainable way to ensure high morale during tough times is to build teams that have strong fortitude during good times. This way, every employees’ fuel to keep going is “internal” in a crisis, and the only thing left for leaders to do is communicate the best available information as frequently as possible so everybody can use it to make good decisions. In my experience, companies with this type of culture rally and collaborate effectively in tough times, coming out of them stronger than ever.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I believe in communicating good and bad news truthfully. This is essential to build a healthy culture based on trust. As such, not doing so in tough times will break that bond of trust and be counterproductive to the culture of the business in the long run.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
When I was CEO of my previous NASDAQ-listed company, I remember a discussion with a Wall Street guru about predicting company performance and managing Street expectations. He told me that “long term is made up by a bunch of short terms.” This idea stuck with me because it draws the important relationship between long and short-term predictions. Even though the long-term future is often unpredictable, leaders must still “make a call” on what may happen utilizing the best information and the ideas and insights from their best people. That long range prediction doesn’t have to be right! It just has to be directionally right so that, as the future unfolds, we can incorporate the latest data, make adjustments and revise the prediction, making a new “call” incrementally.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
At Allego, we have a list of company “Operating Principles.” The foundational principle is the requirement for every employee to “seek truth.” Many companies falter because they misunderstand their business reality. Being able to accurately assess reality, which is built on top of a collection of facts, requires a team that is committed to building strong skills to assess reality and to communicate these “truths” up and down the chain. Without this foundation, no matter how smart people are in the business, it may not matter because they may be solving the wrong problem and making the wrong decisions based on faulty information.
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?
Being too slow to respond is probably the most common problem I’ve seen with respect to businesses in crisis. But this is only a symptom. Underneath, leading up to the crisis, there may be a variety of mistakes, such as (a) unwillingness to face the new reality, (b) a culture that lacks intellectual honesty, © unwillingness to admit mistakes were made before, (d) fortitude to take actions, etc. All of these are grounded on an organization’s unwillingness to assess truth and admit mistakes — so the right assessment and swift action can happen.
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?
I believe the most critical steps that are needed to survive an economic downturn are all things that need to be there BEFORE the downturn. In total, I’ve run businesses that grew through 5 recessions, 2 wars, and 3 economic meltdowns. Through the scars, what I’ve learned is that one should always assume there will be an economic downturn. It’s not “if” but “when.” As such, managing the company’s balance sheet, maintaining optionalities, is key (i.e., number one goal is “don’t run out of cash”). Once a downturn happens, the business should ideally already have a strong team built that has the emotional fortitude, judgment and speed to make necessary adjustments. I have always found that, when a business is built this way, it will create distance from weaker competitors during a recession.
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.
- Build a team and a business that can withstand challenges. In my experience, it’s much harder to build a company that is timed to be sold and make money than it is to build it right for the long haul (i.e., like gambling in a casino, you have to be lucky!)
- Keep your ego in check and build a team that feels the same way. Many leaders give lip service to wanting diverse opinions, but very few can keep their cool when directly challenged by their subordinates! I believe allowing people around you to speak truth to power is one of the most important elements of a leader’s ability to make good decisions.
- Freely admit you can’t be right 100% of the time! Even though we live in a culture where leaders should be somebody everyone can depend on to make the right calls, in my experience admitting I am not perfect lowers my need to be defensive when I am wrong (which I surely will be!), and it also gives my team the license to speak their minds. I sometimes joke with my team that I will routinely make 10% mistakes in my judgment, and it’s up to them to find them and tell me!
- Once you have the right culture and the right team, gather the best ideas,make decisive decisions and take swift actions. Time kills opportunities to course correct in challenging times.
- Increase the frequency of truth-driven communication, keeping everybody informed on what needs to happen, rinse and repeat the data-gathering, making decisions and taking actions cycle — looping through this cycle of improvement rapidly until you are out of the woods.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are too many great quotes frankly… but I do have a picture that I look at from time to time to make sure what I am doing is aligned with a meaningful and happy life:
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!