“Virtually any change comes with opportunities to do something new or different than it was done before.” — Roland Polzin
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management 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 Roland Polzin.
Roland is co-founder and the CMO of Wing AI, and a 2020 MBA of the Paul Merage School of Business at UC Irvine. Before his business career, he served as an officer in the German military for 12 years where he held several leadership positions such as Chief PR Officer for the German Army and Chief Communications Officer for the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission MINUSMA in Mali.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I was born in 1986 in Hamburg, Germany as the son of two church musicians. We certainly had all the essentials to live healthy, but we had to live frugally. Back in high school, I only received a small monthly allowance of about 30 dollars to cover all my expenses, except room and board. To be able to go to the movies, I started my own computer support company and solved issues related to hardware or software for consumers. I made a small fortune which I then invested in an ISDN internet connection that enabled me to watch unlimited movies.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
A couple of weeks ago, my team and I visited a tech conference in Southern California where we showed off a demo of Wing, our AI/human-powered on-demand concierge app. It was early in the morning and we drove about two hours to get there in time to prepare the screen mirroring for the presentation. When we finally entered the stage, we had everything set up and ready to go, but I was still a bit nervous since it was the very first time that we showed our app to the public. I asked one of the people in the audience to request a calendar change that involved our AI calling a dentist office to postpone the respective appointment. I asked Wing to do it and then nothing happened — apparently, our AI was taking quite some time “thinking”. I looked over to our CTO, Saideep Gupta, who was on the stage with me. But he didn’t seem to know what was taking so long. Finally, though, the voice of our AI filled the room and we could listen to the conversation with the dentist to reschedule the appointment. Right after the change was confirmed, the appointments on the screen got magically shifted and the audience was truly wowed. Showing people what we can do for them and making them excited about Wing had never been that rewarding!
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I joined the Army right after I graduated from high school. I had a strong desire to serve for a greater good and fight against terrorism and oppression, so I became an officer in the mechanized infantry. I did basic training, graduated from Officer School, received my bachelor’s and master’s degree at the military university, and completed my specialty training before I lead a company of 140 soldiers as an executive officer. I went to Afghanistan, served as Chief PR Officer for the Army, and got deployed to Mali where I was the Chief Communications Officer for the United Nations Peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA).
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
During a severe flood in northern Germany in the summer of 2013, my company was deployed as a counter flood task force. The mission was to reinforce a dam that was several miles long. In light of the ever-increasing threat of rising water that could eventually destroy hundreds of homes, all deployed soldiers did a tremendous job. However, I realized there was no supervision for several parts of the dam which resulted in unevenly distributed labor across the dam, increasing the risk of a breach at neglected areas. So, I took the initiative and left the area assigned to my company to find the other team leaders along the dam and instruct them to refocus their efforts so that the neglected areas were finally taken care of. I learned that thinking beyond your immediate area of responsibility is necessary if you want to make a difference. In this case, the difference was saving hundreds of homes from being swept away by the water!
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
I will give you a vivid example of this from my last deployment: When I assumed my assignment as Chief Communications Officer for the United Nations Peacekeeping mission in the desert of Mali, I met again a unit of my former company that was tasked with protecting the United Nations camp as a Quick Reaction Force. One night, only about 2 weeks after I got there, our camp got attacked by a vehicle born IED (essentially a car bomb). The heroes of the Quick Reaction Force were the first ones to go out and immediately counter the attack to protect the camp where soldiers, as well as civilians from all around the world, were stationed.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
Since heroism means helping others by risking your own well-being, being heroic is a necessary condition for being a good soldier. While instances of this can take many forms and go way beyond the military, I have met many heroes during my service. Fighting the attackers of our camp without any hesitation and putting their lives on the line to protect others makes the soldiers of the unit of my former company heroes.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
While the military faces a vastly different environment than businesses (e.g., monetary profits are nonexistent, funding is always guaranteed, society is the most important stakeholder), there is probably no other institution that provides equally good opportunities to hone leadership skills. As a military leader, I constantly received thorough training and ample decision-making assignments, was constantly faced with stressful and ambiguous situations, and always held to the highest ethical standards. While I had to pay attention during my MBA classes for accounting, finance, or statistics, the military has made teamwork and project management natural to me.
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?
While I am thankful to so many people that helped me to get where I am, there is one person that significantly shaped my character: my grandmother. My grandmother used to look after me read fairy tales to me when my parents had to be at work. While many German fairy tales are quite brutal, they almost always convey moral lessons. I remember one story where the protagonist was a child that tried to evade punishment from its parents by covering up the truth about its wrongdoings. While the child was a resourceful and creative liar, the story evolved so that the real-world consequences of covering up the truth became more and more severe — every lie had to be followed by a greater lie to keep the disguise. In the end, the whole family ended up losing their home and starving on the street because the kid had failed to recognize that keeping the truth from the parents will eventually lead to missed rent payments. While this horror story certainly wasn’t boosting my joy at the time, it taught me to always be straight-forward even if that means to face uncomfortable situations in the short-term.
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 how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
To me, a crisis is an unpredictable event that shakes the foundations of an existing system and poses a threat to a favorable status-quo. However, crises are an ever-recurring part of our lives. You can’t predict what will hit you and how, but you can be certain that something will hit you.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Crises are, by definition, unpredictable. Hence, the only way to increase the chances of dealing well with crises is to anticipate which crises are most likely to occur and to always have a plan ready that lays out how to deal with them. Since it is impossible to plan for every single eventuality, leaders have to realize that crises threaten resources and assets. Hence, leaders have to identify the resources and assets that are most important to their organization and find ways how to best secure them.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
Apart from protecting their resources and assets, people and organizations should always look for opportunities! Virtually any change comes with opportunities to do something new or different than it was done before. Ideally, you can leverage your existing resources and assets to help others in a crisis. This will lead to a win-win and might enable you to become even stronger during a crisis.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Foresight, agility, and a positive attitude towards change. Equipped with these, you will likely get through any crisis.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I admire the leadership style of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. Several times in her career, she has proven to find a mindful balance of the various stakeholders to whom she is accountable, to promote the well-being of not only the German society but also other countries and people. Despite being criticized badly for decisions like abandoning nuclear power or admitting a large number of unregistered refugees into the country, she prevailed. Her foresight allowed her to weigh risks and opportunities, her agility enabled her to make important decisions quickly, and she managed to calm Germany and other nations with her positive attitude towards change.
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?
During my 1-year long military specialty training, I had an instructor who was not only highly unfair but also had the whole class endure undue burdens that compromised the quality of the training. I questioned my decision to join the military was about to quit. Only the vocation I felt towards being a soldier kept me going. When the training was over and I finally joined another unit, I felt not only empowered by being in a much better place with a much better superior officer, but I also recognized what not to do as a leader. This experience made me realize the impact leadership has on people and the responsibility that comes with it.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be mindful and evaluate whether you are heading towards a crisis
Keep a finger on the pulse of the world around you to realize when changes evolve into something that can shake the foundations of this world. When the coronavirus crisis evolved, I remained ignorant of the threat for very long, dismissing it as a foreign problem while my housemate panicked and binge-watched COVID-19 stats. Balance fear and ignorance better either of us did lately.
2. Secure your resources and assets
Ask yourself “What are the most important material and non-material things that I have right now?”. Imagine your house was on fire and you could only pick three things — what would they be? Now, apply this analogy to your organization and identify the essential things that make up this organization. Then make a plan on how to protect them from potential risks.
3. Adapt and leverage your resources and assets
Ask yourself “How can I apply what I have to make it (more) valuable in this situation?”. For example, at Wing we developed a highly sophisticated set of technologies to provide you an affordable 24/7 on-demand personal concierge on your phone. When the coronavirus started hitting our hospitals, and protective equipment became scarce, we decided to quickly develop a web-based platform that leverages the part of our technology that matches our users with third parties. In doing that, we were able to facilitate an exchange of essential goods where established supply chains were broken. Additionally, we are still offering our concierge app for free for any healthcare worker in the United States!
4. Maintain a positive attitude
It’s easier said than done, for sure, but it’s not impossible. Focus on what’s working well and the good things you can make happen in the future rather than mourn about your losses. I already told you about my setback during military training — I certainly wasn’t always cheerful, but the prospect of better times and working for them to happen made me get through it! Since I put so much effort into shaping my future, it turned out to be even better than I imagined.
5. Standardize the “new normal”
When you realize that routine is starting to kick in after the dust settles, do not rest — it’s easy to become complacent when things are starting to get less stressful! A common phenomenon among soldiers in warzones: whenever there are long periods of time with no enemy attacks, discipline regarding self-protection (like wearing combat gloves and helmets) tends to decrease. Leaders have to keep an eye on this and enforce this discipline.
In order to make a decreased level of stress sustainable and truly reap the benefits of newly established processes after a crisis, you should keep your own discipline and look for standardization and optimization to free up your capacities. Only then you will be able to stay on top of your activities and have the time to evaluate the world around you and prepare for the next crisis.
Ok. We are nearly done. 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 would love to increase the sense of responsibility people have. We live in a great country where there are many institutions (think democracy and government, schools and universities, businesses and non-profits, etc.) that help us in countless ways to live a great life. In the end, however, these institutions all depend on us as the people who run them. I often observe myself and others not caring enough about issues that go beyond the personal context because we rely on institutions to solve them.
I would like to promote a better understanding of the society as a whole with all its institutions along with the sense that the actions of every one of us matter.
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 🙂
Hell yeah — Elon Musk! He is not only an amazing entrepreneur, but I would also feel very comfortable having casual conversations with him ☺
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.