People want to learn from people. COVID has made it more challenging to connect on a personal level with coworkers, but it hasn’t changed the fact that people work best when they’re pushed to learn from the best practices of others. Find ways to spark that personal inspiration and get creative with ways to connect while we’re still virtual.
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 Ed Jennings.
Ed Jennings joined Quick Base as chief executive officer in May 2020 and has a proven track record of accelerating enterprise growth for SaaS leaders. His unique strengths combine innovative market strategies, velocity sales leadership, and extraordinary team building. Previous roles include chief operating officer at Mimecast, chief marketing officer at Veracode and general manager of ADP Taxware.
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?
Sure, thank you for asking me to participate. Let’s start with what’s new. Back in May, I joined Quick Base as chief executive officer. I made the decision to take the job after realizing the potential of Quick Base’s technology firsthand.
In fact, the first time I heard about the company was during a sales pitch while I was at Mimecast. We were expanding very quickly and had outgrown our systems. We needed a platform that could connect our teams and make our existing applications more powerful.
I actually see a lot of similarities between Mimecast and Quick Base as high-growth SaaS companies with the potential to define their categories, and over my career in tech, I’ve learned that’s my sweet spot. At Mimecast, I helped bring the company public in 2015, extend its geographic footprint, expand its roster of enterprise customers and grew the team to more than 1,800 globally. Before that, I led Veracode’s worldwide marketing strategy for nearly four years and helped define its expansion as a security company.
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?
When I was early in my career, I was living and working in Japan. After a few years, I was returning to the U.S. and my work colleagues invited me to a farewell dinner. My Japanese was not great, but I had memorized a brief thank you speech. I finished and at the end they were happy and grateful and complimentary. So, I raised my glass, and instead of cheering with the Japanese word “Kampai,” I used the French cheer “Chin Chin.” Everybody gasped and then started talking amongst themselves. I clearly had said something wrong, but when I asked, nobody would tell me and just kept saying politely it was fine. I found out later that “Chin Chin” in Japanese means… something else entirely. My takeaway is don’t use words you don’t understand.
Honestly, I make mistakes all of the time. We all do. It’s only natural to make mistakes. What counts is what you learn from them. And you learn by looking back and asking yourself questions like “How could that have turned out better?” It’s OK to say, “I don’t know this.” It’s OK to ask for help. When you accept mistakes with humility, that’s when they become the greatest teacher.
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?
Actually, the longer my career goes on, the more I realize teachers and mentors and people who can help me grow are everywhere. You just need to be open and listen. It often has little to do with hierarchy. That said, I have had a few mentors that helped me to make significant pivots at specific crossroads in my career. One, in particular, helped me understand how to lead other leaders. Many of us start in management as the leader of a team of individual contributors. Moving to the next level of leading a group of managers who have their own teams, especially different functional teams, is a real adjustment. Oftentimes those functional areas are out of your wheelhouse. My first opportunity as a General Manager, where I had a team of senior leaders running entirely different functions, was where I “unlearned” how to be a boss and learned how to be a coach and advisor. I had a great mentor at the time who really helped me learn how to empower and partner with senior leaders on my team to enable them to be successful. I had to be clear in direction and hold them together, of course, but it was less about being in the first chair violin seat in an orchestra and more about being the conductor.
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?
Well, I wish I could say that I founded Quick Base, one of the first low-code platforms to enter the market, but that ship sailed more than 20 years ago. What I can speak to is our vision today. We’re living in an age of agility. Despite decades of transformation, the way we work isn’t keeping pace with our potential. Rigid systems, siloed data and inaccurate information hold people back.
To reach their true potential, companies need to transcend conventional approaches to software and develop at the speed of their people. Quick Base frees enterprises to flex and evolve by safely connecting people, information and ideas everywhere.
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’d consider myself a data-driven person. It’s important to evaluate information from different sources — and consider where it comes from. But sometimes the numbers don’t tell the full story. You have to lean on the people and teams that are closest to the day-to-day business to get the extra color that’s needed for truly informed decision making. And you ultimately need their buy-in, or at least understanding, to become a leader they respect.
When I was younger in my career, I was more apt to rely on my gut feelings. After all, it can be easier to dictate an answer than to come to a consensus. But that instinct can and will come back to bite. Command and control is not a viable long-term option. In these uncertain times, not listening to your employees or customers to make decisions is the worst thing you can do. Even if a matter seems urgent — because people are relying on your word now! — that’s the wrong instinct to listen to.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, I’m not the kind of person to throw in the towel. I consider myself an optimist. Where some people see roadblocks, I see challenges. And that motivates me to do more.
However, just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, it wasn’t built by one person. No one individually has all the right answers. That’s why I think there’s nothing like the real-time feedback you get in a room when problem solving with a small team. You can feel the energy. The give and take. That direct exchange feeds others to think dynamically and sustain each other.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leading with empathy and authenticity. You have to put people first and put yourself in their shoes. Try to see things from their perspective and you might see a whole lot clearer. That clarity will help you make better decisions overall. You may well have to make some hard calls, but if you begin from a position of empathy, your teams will hopefully understand and respect you more for it.
Let me offer what I hope is a recent example of this in action. In the weeks following George Floyd’s killing by police, our executive team thought long and hard about what responsibility we bear as leaders. We sought out new perspectives. We did a lot of reading and listening. Ultimately, we had a long, meaningful conversation about how to respond to the issues posed by the Black Lives Matter movement. We tried to see how we might look from the outside looking in and think about what steps — large and small — we can do to make our society more equitable. We’re not there yet, but I believe empathy and authenticity are key to moving forward.
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?
Make the time to connect. Working remotely, we’re missing the organic, off-the-cuff connections that happen in person. For example, that casual touch-base while grabbing coffee can’t happen in between Zoom meetings. So we as leaders have to be intentional in order to inspire and motivate employees. That’s not to say you can’t engage employees digitally. You absolutely can. You just have to be more intentional and creative, and you can’t rely on physical proximity. Make a point to schedule virtual one-on-one meetings that involve more than task-list checking. And as the pandemic continues, consider having small groups of people get together in a safe and socially-distanced way.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With honesty and empathy. Communicating difficult news is one of the hardest things leaders have to do. No one wants to hear bad news. Especially from someone who risks coming off as cold or callus. But don’t make the mistake of sugarcoating bad news or dressing it up as something that it’s not. Be clear and direct. If needed, explain how the decision was made, and communicate that you understand the impact the news might have. Above all, be human.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
What’s the old saying? Planning is everything, and plans are nothing. It’s important to plan for the unexpected. In today’s fast-paced world, situations can change in minutes. And sometimes pre-planned activities don’t line up with on-the-ground realities. Successful planning today requires a degree of flexibility. Otherwise, you’re only setting yourself up for failure.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Act with awareness and authenticity. Even if the road ahead is uncertain, knowing your core strengths and acknowledging your weaknesses in a way that’s authentic to your company’s mission will go a long way.
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?
Well, one of the biggest mistakes businesses are making right now is not considering the reputational impact of their actions. This is a time when brands are being tested, and the way they respond will be the way their customers perceive them for years.
Another big mistake can happen when communication ceases. Today, everything feels like a game of telephone. Even with video turned on, people can be easily distracted, and they may say they understand something, but in reality, they still don’t get it. That’s because messages passed in virtual meetings don’t carry the same weight as they do in person. Much more effort is required to ensure your staff is aligned, and it means you might have to have the same conversation over and over again to ensure its stickiness. The problem is that disconnect may not emerge immediately, causing problems down the line, so it’s important to reinforce messages in different ways.
Finally, and this is a big one for enterprise-level organizations that are digitizing and revamping their processes in light of COVID, organizations need to do a better job of involving front-line employees in process transformation. Companies are spending billions of dollars and countless hours right now rethinking their strategies, and if they don’t take that extra step, they might be setting themselves up for failure.
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?
There are a few strategies that are more important than ever in today’s difficult economy. First, businesses have to listen intently to their customers. Their feedback needs to inform everything from marketing to product development, even operations. The market has changed so much over the past six months, and by keeping their ear close to the evolving needs of customers, companies can pivot to stay in sync. Second, don’t let tradition be the enemy of progress. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s still the best way to do it. In fact, it may mean the exact opposite. Companies can innovate by empowering employees to take charge and rethink the processes they are closest to on the frontlines of the business.
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.
Here are the qualities and actions that I believe define effective leadership during these times:
- Listen and care deeply. Demonstrate empathy by actively listening and making people feel heard.
- People want to learn from people. COVID has made it more challenging to connect on a personal level with coworkers, but it hasn’t changed the fact that people work best when they’re pushed to learn from the best practices of others. Find ways to spark that personal inspiration and get creative with ways to connect while we’re still virtual.
- Don’t delay action. During moments of uncertainty, taking a wait-and-see approach can do more harm than good. Remember, action can be incremental. But if you only ever stand by the wall, you’ll never get to dance.
- Communicate with transparency. No one wants to share bad news. But if you can get out ahead of it with candidness and regularity, with a view to the future, you can soften the blow and deepen trust.
- Be authentic. People know it when they see it. If you act with authenticity, it’s easier to not only rally employees behind the company’s mission, but it also helps them offer the benefit of the doubt, even when you make a mistake.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a big fan of the quote from Jocko Willink that goes, “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.” The point? Your team is only as strong as its weakest link. It takes a good leader to recognize each individual’s strengths and weaknesses to set the team up for success. It also falls to the leader to inspire their teams to greatness, otherwise, they’re not doing their job well.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’m not very active on social media, but you can follow me on Twitter at @edwardvjennings, or you can go to Quick Base’s blog for my posts there.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!