Always set aggressive goals set against a timeline with measurable endpoints. This will help you recuperate losses or, better yet, build a structure with manifold financial success and impact.
As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Gable.
Lisa Gable is CEO of FARE and has served as US Ambassador, UN Delegate, Chairman of the Board and advisor to Presidents, Governors, and
CEOs of Fortune 500 and CPG Companies worldwide. There is one common thread throughout her tenure within the organizations and administrations she has served — the need for a Turnaround. Lisa has become known as a Turnaround mastermind who operates with discipline and diplomacy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
As I look back on my career path, it seems as though every opportunity I’ve chosen has enhanced my ability to facilitate change with discipline and diplomacy. I’ve served presidents and governors, counseled Fortune 500 CEOs, led coalitions and nonprofits, and have had a front-row seat at significant inflection points throughout recent history. The result is that I am a person brought in to turn things around when they are headed south.
Most recently, two years ago, I was hired as CEO of the nonprofit FARE to represent and advocate for the 32 million Americans suffering from potentially life-threatening food allergies and related conditions when food makes you sick. At the time of my joining, the organization was working under the assumption that we needed to raise about an additional 3–5M dollars to be fully operational, yet that was a major underestimation. I quickly came to realize that the organization’s baseline operations were in the red. No significant funds had been raised the previous year, there was no embedded donor base, and several previous donors had departed in frustration. As I entered this important, life-saving nonprofit, we had just one high net worth donor, and past leadership had been using our financial reserve to pay bills.
Can you share your story of when FARE was on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
When I realized the nonprofit’s economics were unsustainable, I determined that we would use up the reserve in fewer than three years at the current run rate. Compounding the issue was that the primary fundraising vehicles were costing twice the amount they brought in. Events absorbed profits and served as distractions from the core mission.
To right the ship, I went into triage mode — first, to stop losing money. I immediately assembled and led a turnaround team to audit our financials and provide an accurate assessment of our cost structure. For example, we discovered that we had purchased and licensed top of the line finance and travel management systems, but neither was connected. Therefore, each member of the finance team would do their individual piece of work, then print off the information which was then uploaded in another system by another member of the team. The continual process of manual uploads meant that information was prone to error, and we were unable to close our books in a timely fashion or assess our current run rate.
Unfortunately, there also was a lack of trust throughout the community and the environment was acrimonious with disagreements between advocacy groups, grassroots and academia across the country. Rebuilding trust and industry relationships became job one, as that was the barrier to digging out of our financial hole and creating a sustainable path forward.
In 24 months, my turnaround team and I raised all funds to pay the previous year’s bills (15M dollars) in five months and secured a total of 85 million dollars in commitments against a 200M dollars goal.
How did we do it? In brief, through launching a Contains: Courage™ research-focused fundraising and awareness campaign and expanding our FARE Clinical Network that includes 50 participating academic medical institutions to conduct transformational research and trials. We restructured the organization by 83% in the first 12 months, increased revenue by 62% while keeping expenses relatively flat, achieved reductions in management and overhead by 30%, and reduced fundraising expenses by 10%. We also, importantly, increased diversity among FARE’s leadership and boards and elevated the voice of the patient to ensure access to care and therapies for underrepresented communities. Due to our doubling the organization’s grassroots network, we saw through the introduction of the Food Allergy Safety Treatment, Education and Research (FASTER) Act in the House in April 2019 (H.R. 2117) and the Senate in March 2020 (S.3451). Both bills were then passed by each chamber in late 2020. To see both versions of the bill move forward is a true achievement as it usually takes several sessions for legislation to move through Congress. In addition, in recognition of ‘FARE’s efforts relating to this critical legislation, two of its advocacy leaders earned spots on the annual Top Lobbyist list published by The Hill. Both Steve Danon, Senior Vice President and Chief of Public Affairs and Communications, and Jason Linde, Vice President of Federal Government Relations were named to the list.
What was your mindset during such a challenging time?
Thankfully, nothing energizes me more than solving a complex problem and motivating people to conquer that problem with me. My end goal for FARE was and is always moving the organization to a higher level of performance by using my battle-tested manufacturing processes which would enable me to visualize the future and build a path forward with speed, confidence, and agility.
I was transparent, starting my first staff meeting with an open announcement that we would be restructuring. I gave frequent updates at Town Halls on how we would handle each phase and the responsibilities of our employees. I acknowledged good works accomplished by my predecessors and focused on why we needed to make change as the economics of the business were unsustainable.
Our staff also did not let the perfect become the enemy of the good, as we had to move swiftly so as not to take on more water. A core turnaround team led the decision-making using a proven concept I learned at Intel Corporation called “disagree and commit,” which allowed us to review alternatives but leave the room with a united front.
Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
My drive came through relationships with others.
Number one, I stayed in close contact with my Board Chair through daily check-in calls throughout the first 80 days of the restructure. Being able to have off-the-record “OMG” calls where I could articulate the newest problem I had discovered enabled me to have hard conversations and brainstorm with a partner that was committed to the organization’s success.
I also relied upon inspiration from an interim Chief Operating Officer and HR director who were with me at every difficult decision point. Working together, we had an agreed-upon goal of making the hard decisions yet handling the outcome of those decisions in a manner that took into account the emotional impact a decision might have on employees. The organization was made up of good and committed people. The challenge was overcoming a history of poor management decisions combined with a model that would not enable FARE to grow and thrive. As we went through the restructure, we offered letters of support, coaching, made calls and helped set up interviews for those who expressed an interest in getting our help.
Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
To overcome our adversity and move toward success, we built our next chapter on a new five-year Strategic Plan, which aggressively and optimistically established a 200M dollars fundraising and awareness campaign. Using Management by Objectives, we annually identified our top 3–5 objectives and key results and put the Voice of the Patient at the center of every decision we made. Focus was also put on the one thing we were uniquely situated to execute better than anyone else — funding research to create therapies and diagnostics that mitigated the risks of the disease. Based on that, we successfully recruited donors, raising 85M dollars in the first two years.
Our next chapter, which we are well into, will focus on creating a pathway through the FDA for multiallergen therapies and expanded data sets (surveys, biomarkers research, registry), as data is seen as the regulatory circuit breaker.
Based on your experience, can you share three actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Determine what you can do which no one else can do. You don’t want to just be better. You want to lead and become a prototype of a new operating model against which others benchmark their success.
- Your turnaround will happen more quickly if you can identify partners who are willing to integrate their objectives with yours towards a common metric or outcome.
- Always set aggressive goals set against a timeline with measurable endpoints. This will help you recuperate losses or, better yet, build a structure with manifold financial success and impact.
None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
During my time in the Reagan White House Office of Presidential Personnel, I recruited Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett to be Deputy Administrator of the FAA. My boss, with whom she was scheduled to meet, ran late. Barbara and I ended up in the downstairs of the White House for a few hours talking. I was in my early 20s going to Georgetown at night for my Master’s and working on my thesis which focused on dual use product — products that had military and civilian use like semiconductors and supercomputers. Barbara mentioned I should meet her husband Craig Barrett, who would later become CEO and Chairman of the Board of Intel Corporation. Barbara mentored me and took me to dinner regularly. (As a grad student working at a low paying job, she made sure I ate!) At the end of the Administration, Craig hired me to be his technical assistant and his troubleshooter. Craig taught me to apply manufacturing processes to solving problems not only in business but in philanthropy and government. In later years, Barbara would nominate me to be on boards on which she served. I am grateful to have met this powerhouse couple so early on my career.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I have a forthcoming business book, which will be released in Fall of 2021, which will help people better understand and follow a process of turning things around. To learn more, visit lisagable.com. I will be revealing how I have used manufacturing processes to solve complex business, government and philanthropy challenges.
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. 🙂
The movement I would love to inspire is one that fosters environments of being collaborative and understanding.
- Be generous in your relationships. Instead of asking, “What can you do for me?” instead ask, “How can I help?”
- Be willing to share credit.
- Be able to see the world from the point of view of your opponents and partners.
- Be professional at all times, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
Never give up. Organizational turnarounds can take months before you begin to see the success of the changes you are making. Celebrate the wins together, as it is important to share the halo of success to further encourage your army of committed colleagues and partners who are actively supporting your cause.