Ray Grainger of Mavenlink: “Learn to Compartmentalize to Rise Through Resilience”

Learn to compartmentalize. We can become overwhelmed with all the negativity and just plain challenges in life. If you’re going to have some predictability in life, learn to put boundaries around problems so you can focus on them one at a time and get past them. In this interview series, we are exploring the subject […]

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Learn to compartmentalize. We can become overwhelmed with all the negativity and just plain challenges in life. If you’re going to have some predictability in life, learn to put boundaries around problems so you can focus on them one at a time and get past them.

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 Ray Grainger, co-founder, and CEO, Mavenlink.

Ray began his career at Accenture, where he spent 17 years honing his expertise in professional services management as Global Managing Partner, consulting for both large enterprises as well as small and medium-sized businesses. During his time at Accenture, Ray also invested in several technology companies through Accenture Technology Ventures, including enterprise knowledge management vendor InQuira. He later became Executive Vice President of Professional Services and Strategic Alliances at InQuira (acquired by Oracle in 2011), where he met his Mavenlink co-founders, Roger Neel and Sean Crafts.

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’?

What I love to do the most is to solve business problems with technology. I also enjoy business building, applying my expertise after years of consulting to companies large and small during my nearly 20 years at Accenture. I have built my career in tackling tough problems to help organizations work smarter and more profitably. I have always been a problem solver, and Mavenlink, my new endeavor, is all about disrupting the $3 trillion services industry with a new services model enabled by technology.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to work for the National Science Foundation on two expeditions to Antarctica. That experience was foundational to everything I’ve done professionally since. While on these expeditions, I learned to be adaptable with people as I didn’t get to choose with whom I worked. I also learned to be resourceful: To accomplish the task at hand we had to be creative in finding ways to get things done with limited resources.

My experience in Antarctica helped me understand how to push through obstacles and find a way to succeed even in the most challenging situations. The skills I learned proved to be very transferable, especially as a software company founder and CEO. Startups exist in environments that require adaptability and resourcefulness, and my time in Antarctica allowed me to develop these necessary skills.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

While recently speaking with a group of new hires, one person asked me what makes Mavenlink different from other companies. I replied in a word: resilience. The pace of change in our market, our products, and the business challenges we face are rapid. We’re in a constant state of flux, which means we need to hire people who are comfortable with ambiguity and with stepping into roles that may be loosely defined. We make it a point to hire people who can respond and adapt to rapid change. Our resilient company culture is what makes Mavenlink more successful.

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?

I had the great fortune to work for one of the finest firms in the world, Accenture. The people at Accenture have exceptional talent and character. In particular, there are two folks from my tenure there, now going back more than 30 years, who made important contributions to helping me succeed in my career.

Charlie Brown, a former managing partner at Accenture, taught me how to lead and take care of my team. He also taught me how to take ownership of my actions.

More than thirty years ago, Jim Madden (a former Accenture executive and now co-founder and managing director at Carrick Capital Partners), interviewed me on the campus of Harvey Mudd College and hired me into Accenture. Twenty years later, after founding Mavenlink, I called him to gauge his interest in investing in my early-stage business. I invited him to my office to hear about our business plan. After explaining the concept to him, he responded, “I get it. I’m in. Let’s go raise some money.”

Subsequently, Jim became our largest investor through Carrick Capital Partners and has been there for me and for the company through thick and thin. Through this experience, I learned that the network you build doesn’t have to be extensive, but it does have to be impactful. The strength of a few important relationships will pay dividends during the course of your entire career.

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? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is the ability to overcome a setback. I think the major defining characteristic of resilient people is the desire to shoot for the stars and consider getting to the moon instead of a success. Resilient people are unafraid of taking risks; they know that failure can happen and they believe they can overcome obstacles on the way to achieving their goals. Not only do resilient people set aspirational goals, but they are also able to reset those goals and focus on the next thing when the original goal is clearly unattainable. They’re very good at compartmentalizing and focusing on the task to be done. They move on when it’s time to push forward onto the next task.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

Ernest Shackleton, despite the ill-fated nature of his Trans-Antarctic expedition, exemplified resilience and leadership. He fits my description of resilience as if it were defining him. Shackleton set ambitious goals for himself and changed course to overcome the setback of a thwarted journey by helping his crew survive and safely return home.

During the entire expedition, he knew that failure was a likelihood and that he’d have to adapt to and deal with unfortunate events along the way.

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?

I’ve been told frequently throughout my career that my idea or project was likely to fail and I should reconsider. I’ve always wanted to tackle the hardest things or most difficult problems to solve, believing there was always a way to get it done even while knowing failure was a real possibility.

I remember in the early days of building Mavenlink I met with the former CEO of Accenture about my idea. He told me that I wasn’t on point and that my network services model wouldn’t work. It really disappointed me as I was certain he would be enthusiastic, and I was really seeking validation and encouragement.

Even as the company grew, the recession made validation for our idea hard to come by. It was too difficult, we were told, to try to raise the amount of capital we would require in that environment. We were told we had a product and not a business and that our model was poorly formulated. Instead of giving up, we realized there were nuggets of insight into the negativity. We used that to our benefit, tuned up our approach, and persevered.

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?

Like many people, I’ve had significant setbacks. My most notable ones have been Mavenlink-related. In my career before Mavenlink, I worked for companies that had resources I could tap into. If I failed, there were other resources I could leverage, so I could recover. These failures did not represent near-death moments. With Mavenlink however, there have been near-death moments, principally related to capital. We always believed strongly in the concept, but like any business endeavor, turning that concept into a company required capital to execute.

During the early stages of the Great Recession, for example, there was a time where there was far less capital available than there is today. We didn’t anticipate that when we decided to quit our jobs and go start the company. We didn’t think that we’d struggle to the extent we did to raise money given the early stage of our business. During that difficult time, we continued to believe strongly in what we had set out to do, funding the business ourselves way beyond what we originally anticipated. That perseverance paid off, and three years later Mavenlink became a leader in our core market. We were able to attract the necessary capital to scale our business and ultimately succeed.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

My biological mother and father were married five times between the two of them by the time were 18. As a result, I lived in different households — I was principally raised by my stepfather — and had to adapt to many different environments. I believe it was in those formative years, in that difficult environment, that I established self-reliance, adaptability, and resiliency.

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.

  1. Learn to compartmentalize. We can become overwhelmed with all the negativity and just plain challenges in life. If you’re going to have some predictability in life, learn to put boundaries around problems so you can focus on them one at a time and get past them.
  2. Be comfortable with the fact that you could fail at something and that’s ok. Failure at some intermediate point in the journey allows you to focus yourself and your resources in a way that may work better to achieve your ultimate goal.
  3. If you fail to succeed in your endeavor, set a new goal quickly and get alignment on the new goal.
  4. Have an important few. A few people who support you through thick and thin. Colleagues, trusted advisor, spouse. People who know you well and whom you trust.
  5. Have a backstop. The adage, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is sage advice and knowing that you have a backstop can encourage you to be bold in your endeavors, knowing that you have a way to climb back if things all go wrong.

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 believe in leveling the playing field and that everyone deserves a chance to succeed. If everyone subscribed to more WE vs. ME, at every level in society, we’d have a shot at leveling the playing field. The 1:1:1 program that Marc Benioff established with Salesforce would be an example of this.

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 🙂

It would definitely be Elon Musk. I’ve never met him, and everything I know about him is through what I read. What impresses me most about him is his ambitiousness in setting audacious goals…and then pulling them off! While many people set and achieve notable goals, it’s rare that someone achieves them as many times as he has, with that scale and impact. It’s truly remarkable.

It would be interesting to learn over lunch what he thinks about when deciding what project to take on next, what motivates him, and how he perseveres through all the naysaying and near-death moments to succeed the way he has.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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