Build mental fitness — learn to view the world with optimism, but not with rose-colored glasses. My dad’s passing catapulted me into a life of constant self-awareness and mental toughness. Those are the traits of resilience one needs to be a founder or CEO.
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 Harley Lippman. Harley is Founder and CEO of Genesis10, a New York-based technology staffing and services firm providing workforce optimization and domestic outsourcing solutions. Lippman is consistently named among the top 50 “Best CEOs” by USA Today, ahead of well-known companies such as Apple, Lockheed Martin and Chipotle. Prior to starting Genesis10, Lippman was the founder and sole owner of Triad Data Inc., an information technology consulting firm. He serves on the boards of many business, educational and cultural organizations. He is an Executive Committee member on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Lippman serves by Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation as a member of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. He is a board member of the Yale School of Management Board of Advisors and is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board at Columbia University’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs.
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?
While studying abroad at the University of Manchester, England, midway through my first year, I received the terrible news that my father had passed away, leaving my family in financial turmoil. As the oldest of the four Lippman kids, I came back to New York to manage the family finances and try to recover losses incurred by my father’s company. Everything he did was on trust and a handshake. On his deathbed, my father had given my mother a list of clients who had owed him money and, since we needed to put food on the table, I reached out to each of his clients and reminded them of their obligation. It was difficult at times because people were not being as honorable as one would hope. But, suffice to say, I got enough of the debts paid to take care of my family.
I returned to school, graduated from SUNY Stony Brook near the top of my class and, with a Fulbright program in hand, became the first American exchange student to study political science in a communist country (Poland) since the end of WWII. On my return to New York, I earned my master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University, graduating third in my class.
I took my first “real” job at an IT outplacement firm and significantly exceeded expectations. With the confidence I could maintain this rate of success, I started my own company, Triad Data, Inc. In five short years, I built Triad into a successful company. But in 1990, the recession wiped out 80% of the business. After nursing the company back to health, I sold it in 1998 for 15 times EBITA, at a time when the industry standard multiplier was only 6 to 8 times EBITA. It was a take-it-or-leave-it all-stock transaction. The buyer bought a lot of companies, and mine was one of only two that exceeded projections; nevertheless, the stock plummeted, wiping out virtually all the personal wealth I’d acquired in corporate shares.
In 1999, I reached out to 12 of my former colleagues from Triad and told them I wanted to start a new IT consultancy. Ten of them agreed to join me, taking pay cuts of 40% to 80%. I didn’t take any compensation in the year to lead by example. The company name Genesis10 has a special meaning to me. Genesis meaning new beginning and 10 is a nod to the 10 who believed in me to take a chance and join me on this journey. Twenty years later, our workforce has grown to approximately 3,000 and eight of the original 10 employees are still with me.
Two years ago, I moved to Miami, where I now run Genesis10 remotely.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The most interesting story in my career was the building of Genesis10 from scratch with the help of 10 former colleagues. They all had good jobs and were very successful when I approached them with my idea. I knew it was unlikely they would leave the security of their full-time positions to join me in a completely new endeavor. But they did, and with their help we have built something strong and enduring.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Genesis10 is known in its industry (technology staffing and solutions) as a company with a strong internal culture. We are no longer small, but even with nearly 3,000 employees, we remain nimble and agile, able to pivot and adapt to business and employee needs, while staying relevant in our industry and maintaining low turnover rates for each. Over the past 20 years, our agility has allowed us to focus on the needs of customers and employees, even at a personal level.
For example, during the “Great Recession” of 2008–9, several of our consultants were on the verge of financial collapse. We were able to shift resources quickly, allowing us to provide pay advances for many of them, offering interest-free payback plans that helped them keep their jobs and continue to provide consulting services to our customers.
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 so many people I could credit for my success. I guess if I must pick one person, it would be the dean of the Yale School of Management, who took a chance and believed in me, bringing me onto the board of Advisors when there were many candidates more qualified than I. He saw something in me that I had yet to discover for myself.
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?
The short answer is: Resilience is all about not giving up. In a way, it’s also like a game of chess. You have to find a way to move forward despite obstacles and opponents, both known and unknown. You must learn to think multiple moves ahead, planning for several possible future realities. You have to make sacrifices, allowing yourself to fail in order to achieve the greater goal. You also need to anticipate the moves of the other player, which in this analogy could be a competitor, the global or local economy, your industry and market or consumer behavior.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
As noted above, resilient people have a sense of situational awareness and are driven to a purpose. They have focus and are inspired to make progress toward the goal, regardless of potential setbacks. Resilient people are decisive, yet are able to pivot. They have grit and determination and are able to embrace failure and constructive feedback. But, most of all, resilient people are motivated by their fear of failure.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I’d have to say Winston Churchill. He was a maverick. He had made many mistakes and had fallen out of favor on the world stage, as well as in his own country. What he said the world needed to do sounded alarmist and a bit grandstanding. Yet, he pursued a path that eventually, undeniably, set in motion a course of events that saved the world.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
One day, my sixth-grade teacher, who shall remain unnamed here, brought a classmate and me into his classroom. He told both of us…“to be successful, you need to be one of three things: smart and good in school, and that’s not you; good at sports, and that’s not you; or you need to be outgoing and/or good-looking. Neither of you are cut out for success.” After that meeting, I was determined to prove him wrong! Much of my life since then has been dedicated to that cause.
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?
When Triad was acquired, I accepted 100% payment in the form of stock and continued working for the company under new management. It was not long before I realized that I had made a devastating mistake. The acquiring company’s leadership was not interested in my ideas and was moving in a direction that eventually would wipe out much of the value of the company. Shares of the stock fell to next to nothing and my personal nest egg was gone…again.
I was scared to try again. Still, I had to do something. I ripped off the mask of fear and set out to build something bigger and better than Triad. That is when I launched Genesis10.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
If I go back far enough, I could point to some early episodes that could have contributed to my resiliency. I told you about my sixth-grade teacher, but he was not the first to disparage me, and he wouldn’t be the last. In high school, my guidance counselor actively discouraged me from applying to college, but I was already determined by that point to prove the world wrong.
However, just a few years later, I was hit with several catastrophes. I was 19 when my father died. I had been in arguments with him and my last words to him were very unkind. I felt so much guilt. But my brother felt worse. He was arguing and fighting with my dad the moment he had the heart attack that eventually killed him. He never got over that, blaming himself for our dad’s death. He fell into despair, then drugs, became homeless and eventually died of an opioid overdose. My father’s side of the family was quite large, as he was one of five children. So, I had multiple uncles, aunts and cousins. Before his death, we would meet every Sunday. After his death, they disowned us and never invited us over again.
I’m not saying all of this tragedy made me a better person, but it certainly made me stronger.
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.
- Build mental fitness — learn to view the world with optimism, but not with rose-colored glasses. My dad’s passing catapulted me into a life of constant self-awareness and mental toughness. Those are the traits of resilience one needs to be a founder or CEO.
- Learn to embrace failure — If I had given up after Triad, I have no idea where I would be today. But I didn’t give up, and now I am running a successful, 20-year-old company.
- Be inspired — read other people’s stories of resilience to reaffirm your own sense of self and unleash what you can accomplish.
- Always think about Plan B — Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, as they say. I learned that the hard way when I sold Triad in an all-stock deal.
- Surround yourself with people you trust and can count on –When I “circled the wagons” and recruited the initial “Genesis10,” I put myself on the right track. The people you’re with make all the difference.
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 want to protect our planet. I am inspired by the young Greta Thunberg, standing in front of the most powerful people in the world and dressing them down for failing to set our planet on a course to healing. I would love to spark a movement that ultimately forces countries to address policies that affect real change.
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 🙂
One person I would love to have lunch with is Mark Cuban. His is an inspiring story of resilience and reinvention — two traits that I believe we share in some small way. Mark started out with $60 in his pocket and built his empire from the ground up by following his passion and pursuing success with relentless tenacity. He possesses a wisdom about business that is unparalleled, and I would enjoy comparing notes and war stories with him. There are many quotes attributed to Mark, but the ones that constantly replay in my mind are: “Sweat equity is the most valuable equity in the world” and “Know your business and industry better than anyone else.” In my opinion, regardless of where you are in your career, this is sage business advice.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Readers can reach out to me on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/harley-lippman-1918968/) or follow Genesis10 on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/genesis10/) or Twitter (@Genesis10Corp)
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!