Listen — and I mean authentically and ferociously — to your customers. If you listen closely enough, they will show you the way.
Don’t underestimate the importance of small gestures in the face of grand strategies. Execution — the hardest part — often lies in the small gestures. Make sure those gestures are systemized in the plan — they should be time-based, resource-allocated, and with clearly articulated relationships in place. Hint — regular leadership presence is one of them.
Say thank you to those who did the work. Nothing, in the end, spoils the fruits of labor faster than a sense that justice was not done to the growers.
As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Clark Twiddy.
Clark is the President of Twiddy & Company, a hospitality and asset management firm along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. A second generation family business, Twiddy & Company has for more than 40 years brought vacationing families together in some of the finest homes in the country.
With more than 125 full-time staff, Twiddy & Company welcomes more than 250,000 guests a year to more than 1,000 different vacation homes. A veteran of the US Navy Clark also serves in a wide variety of civic and community roles.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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 grew up on the Outer Banks but took the long way to get back home. I was fortunate to have served in the US Navy for over a decade and that opportunity allowed me to travel widely and immerse myself in places that I probably never would have gone on my own. After going back to school on the GI Bill, I was again fortunate to have the chance to return home and serve again in a different capacity — I’m proud now to serve the team at Twiddy & Company which is a business my parents founded in 1978.
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?
Most of my best lessons center on mistakes I’ve made along the way and even to this day I consider myself much more of a student than an expert on anything. From my earliest days in the Navy, I can remember several instances where I would try and solve emerging problems all on my own and yet the culture of our military is very much one of not being alone. In fact, a key responsibility for any service member regardless of rank or tenure is to help those around you. From that, I changed my thinking on leadership and I find that I am most fulfilled, looking back, by not being successful on my own but in helping others succeed along the way.
But you did ask for a funny story…once, not long after my wife and I had welcomed our first daughter, I had her in the back seat of my pickup and was on my way to drop her off at her pre-school. I got on a phone call and when I later arrived at the office for a big meeting with a potential client just as I was leaving the car I heard her chatter in the back seat. I got back in the car and had to delegate the meeting, of course. My lesson learned was that I’m not great at multi-tasking and, please, slow down every now and then.
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?
Of this I am convinced — very few of us have the ability to realize our dreams all on our own. The rest of us mortals find ourselves constantly negotiating, building, failing, and trying again. Some of my best mentors — those who sent a hand down — have in many ways been the people who, whether they knew it or not, were able to share with me simple words of encouragement in a spontaneous way. Jim Collins talks about the importance of small gestures and those small words — those gestures of affirmation and encouragement — changed my trajectory early enough in my career to, decades later, changed the entire course of my life in meaningful ways.
My journey has also taught me to never underestimate the importance of a strong role model either — to systematize in the mind the behaviors of one you admire greatly is an incalculable advantage in life.
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?
In our earliest days, I think the purpose of our business was to find a way to make a living in a great place by helping others do something they couldn’t do alone — it was affirming and it allowed for a freedom of thought that I think any early entrepreneur relishes. Over time, as our business has grown we’ve never lost focus on the people that make it work — our purpose remains simply to bring families together for some of the best moments of their lives. Especially in the COVID world, bringing people together safely has never been more important particularly to loved ones.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
We’re in the vacation business — we hope to attract people to the Outer Banks and then while they’re here share with them our love of the place in a way that helps them connect with the Outer Banks for years — in many cases decades — to come. To do that in an exquisite way, we’re also going to have to be a world-class employer as well and that means we’ll need to be a force for good in the lives of our team even beyond the walls of our working lives.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
Over the past decade, the vacation rental business has gone from largely a “mom-and-pop” fringe lodging option to something, with Airbnb’s IPO, that is clearly mainstream and in fact has never been so popular. Recent travel research even suggests vacation homes have in some destinations become preferable to hotel stays. Of course, that kind of awareness has also lead to new and evolving forms of competition that in the end bring enormous value not only to the travelling public but to vacation homeowners as well. In short, the landscape has fundamentally changed.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
With the economic steel curtain that was COVID in the travel and tourism world, we probably changed more in six months than we did in the preceding ten years and I suspect we’re not alone in that pace of change. In short, we stuck close to our customers and listened with an urgency that was simply required of us to survive. We’re much more digital now and much more personalized, but we also made the deliberate decision that even with our digital push we were simply not going to surrender the personal relationships with our customers that we had forged over the years. Our mandate is to know our customers as people first and as data second.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
There were several but I’ll offer two; one good and one bad. For the good one, for 40 years we had held every year an in-person reception for all of our homeowner partners where we shared, in person, our performance over the past year and our look ahead for the next year. In those events, we’d often see almost 20% of our clients attend. COVID precluded that this year, of course, and we made the decision to host a “town hall” virtually. Right as we started, I watched the attendee number shoot past 20% — in less than sixty seconds, we had more than 60% of our clients on the call. We’ve done fifteen of those town halls since that moment and that “town hall” event will be an enduring pivot from the pandemic.
On a bad note, we saw a call volume this year that we simply were not built for and it swamped us at a time in our season when we needed to have exquisite customer service. As a result, I can remember distinctly a meeting where, when the data around this volume was shared and the impacts to our guests voiced in a survey cross-section, there was a palpable sense within our executive team that this could never happen again. Shortly after that, we began to fundamentally evolve our phone system to something that is today cloud-based and technologically-supported in a way we couldn’t have imagined on our own only twelve short months before.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
We are pleased with this new direction although we have a long way to go and, more importantly, we believe our customers and clients will see a big improvement in the quality of their interactions in the short-term. I will also note that we were very candid about these struggles with our staff and customers as well — one personal lesson is to not lose a moment in taking responsibility for a problem. A key role of any leader is to always define reality and your customers and staff are smart — if they sense you’re defining it in a way that’s not real, you’ll shortly have a credibility problem.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
I think we’d all agree that this COVID environment has been a time of both emotional and economic suffering. With travel restrictions, many of our long-time customers had no choice but to cancel long-standing family plans through no fault of their own and that’s an emotional decision. Rather than ignore that pain, a turning point for us as an organization was to embrace it and normalize it — we worked hard to help people through pain in a way we never thought we would have to and I am enormously proud of our team as they rose — very quickly — to that challenge. I’m reminded of a great quote from a Dr. Jim Goodnight, the founder of analytics pioneer SAS: “If you treat people like they make a difference, they will make a difference.” Our team did.
For a personal story, during the pandemic’s earliest stages when we were truly apprehensive about our short-term financial viability, we did a virtual staff town hall literally from my parents dining room table. My father talked on camera with the entire staff just as if they were at his table and shared, calmly and accurately, the situation we were all in. After his summary, he said simply that everything he had or would ever have was now at the disposal of the Company — think about that kind of commitment for a moment. That was a remarkable moment and went a long way to injecting some confidence in an uncertain time.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Define reality, say thank you, and be unabashed in making people the top priority. Remember, a crisis means making turning point decisions in the absence of time — trust those around you and get out of their way. Get the right decision-making authority right down to the front lines, too, as your customers will be delighted by it even if there is risk on the profit side. It is those delights that will be the seeds of your recovery.
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 think leadership, especially in a pandemic, is about two things; presence and a disciplined optimism. Simply showing up is hard to underestimate as is the ability to have what Jim Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox — to be able, at the same time, to have faith in an outcome while also embracing the most brutal facts of the moment. Great leaders do that consistently.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Two values that come to mind are to serve others first and to lead by example. For two specific disciplines, I’d share that listening to your customers is as essential as your next business breath and the commitment to make your people the top priority is something that has a remarkably high ROI over time.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
From my own perspective, I’ve seen two things emerge that are the enemy of adaptive discernment of innovative disruption. Hubris always precedes the fall and also — and I mentioned this earlier — a disconnection with the facts of the moment. If the facts are ignored, and by contrast opinions are given greater weight in decision-making than facts, that’s a recipe for lucky outcomes that are not, in my opinion, sustainable.
For a third, I might also add a culture of taking profits out of the Company as opposed to reinvesting them in the Company. I have watched from afar as several well-intentioned business operators starved the success of their Company in the long-run by taking cash out of the Company to use for non-core short-term uses. Plant a tree, in other words, for the next generation.
Ok. Thank you. 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 pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
1) Going back to something I mentioned earlier, I think it’s key to define reality constantly. That’s an antidote to hubris, and in defining that reality it’s important I think to make sure it’s based on facts. There’s a role here for intuition and experience, but that comes later.
2) From that, I think it’s important to have the twin disciplines of both self-awareness and self-reflection particularly around what Howard Gardner calls the multiple intelligences that will lead to team-based success. Without the right people on the bus, staying relevant will only be a matter of time. Look for those who truly help others.
3) Listen — and I mean authentically and ferociously — to your customers. If you listen closely enough, they will show you the way.
4) Don’t underestimate the importance of small gestures in the face of grand strategies. Execution — the hardest part — often lies in the small gestures. Make sure those gestures are systemized in the plan — they should be time-based, resource-allocated, and with clearly articulated relationships in place. Hint — regular leadership presence is one of them.
5) Say thank you to those who did the work. Nothing, in the end, spoils the fruits of labor faster than a sense that justice was not done to the growers.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I had a great chance recently to visit with a professor from North Carolina State University — Dr. Whitney Knollenberg. I asked her, at the end of our visit, about what she may like to put on a billboard off campus as her students departed on their way to the next chapter of their lives.
She didn’t hesitate — she said her billboard would simply say “stay curious”. I am reminded that Einstein mentioned at one time that he was only passionately curious about the world. For a life well-lived, I am hard pressed to disagree with that. That curiosity will open the best doors of the journey, and many that, without that curiosity, would remain out of site and unexplored.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’m on Linked In but, more personally, come see us one day on the Outer Banks and bring your family. We’ll take it from there.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!