Though certainly not least, is to seek first to understand. We practice “big listening” internally and externally. It’s the idea that we go in with an empty cup — without preconceived notions as to what the other person’s or organization’s needs are. We seek first to understand and this empowers us to be more empathic in our communication as well as the way we do business.
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 Thiru Thangarathinam.
Thiru Thangarathinam is the founder and CEO of MST Solutions, one of the largest Salesforce implementation partners in the Southwest specializing in higher education, healthcare, and the public sector. He founded the company in 2012 and has built it into a thriving global organization that has become well known for designing, building and implementing innovative technology solutions that help their clients achieve stronger business outcomes.
Thiru is an accomplished executive and lifelong learner who is passionate about building an organization that leaves a legacy through the pursuit of its purpose, values, vision and mission. As a result, MST Solutions has been named one of the Inc. 5000 fastest-growing companies several years in a row, a Great Place to Work, and one of the Top Companies to Work for in Arizona.
An active member of the community, Thiru volunteers time and resources to organizations like the Phoenix Children’s Hospital and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. He is also an active member of YPO Arizona and Conscious Capital Arizona.
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?
After earning my bachelor’s degree in engineering, I moved to Arizona where I took my first job as a web developer. Over the years, I worked my way up to senior director and platform architect for a group that owned several for-profit educational institutions. It was a great job and checked all the boxes. It challenged me, provided me a steady paycheck, and enabled me to support my family. But I eventually reached a point in my career in which I felt the desire to control my own destiny. I also wanted to be closer to my and my wife’s aging parents. This led me down the entrepreneurship path, and eventually, I launched what is now MST Solutions. Initially, I built the company in India but then expanded operations to Arizona, which has since become our headquarters. We still maintain two offices in India and now have an additional office in Dallas in addition to our corporate headquarters in Chandler.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I believe the notion of “ignorance is bliss” really played a key role in my decision to start MST. I didn’t know how hard it’d be to start and grow a business. But now after 8 years of having done this, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything else in life considering the amount of learning and growth I’ve experienced in the last 8 years.
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?
My mentor Michael Denning who is a long-time professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and a master chair for Vistage. He has helped me through a number of challenges that I’ve dealt with as an entrepreneur, primarily by providing me with objective feedback that enabled me to view each roadblock from a different viewpoint. He is someone I trust implicitly when it comes to business leadership.
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?
When I was starting MST Solutions, I knew I wanted to do more than simply build wealth. I wanted to leave a legacy and provide others a platform to do the same. The vision for MST was, and continues to be, to prioritize purpose over profits. So, early on I activated our small, but growing team to help create what that would look like. Collectively, we came up with what we call our “3 Cs: Community, colleagues, customers”. These are the areas in which we seek to deliver impact and have become the underpinning of our culture and decision making.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
In many ways, we were already structured in a way that enabled our team to get through challenging times. A couple of years ago, we began implementing the EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) model as a way to reinforce our company vision, establish and track goals at the company and individual level, and commit to a meeting and communication cadence that foster transparency and collaboration. This has provided us a structure for keeping the entire team inspired, motivated, and committed to innovation and fulfilling our deeper purpose.
We also resorted to our commitment to our 3 Cs. We began looking at ways we could better serve our customers as their needs suddenly shifted and they were dealing with a new set of challenges. We looked at the communities we serve to identify problems we could solve, and we restructured our communications internally to reinforce our collaborative and transparent culture — particularly as our team went to a fully remote work environment.
In the middle of this pandemic, I had to reflect on my leadership style and adapt it based on the three foundational leadership building blocks of leadership: Connection, Communication and Collaboration. In addition, leading with empathy, authenticity and transparency have been key themes during these unprecedented times.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I wasn’t born with a silver spoon dangling from my mouth — quite the contrary. It was instilled in me at a young age to work hard in every aspect of life. I attribute these early lessons to many of my successes today. As I worked tirelessly to get my company off the ground during its beginning stages, I was confronted with one challenge after another. Knowing that I never wanted to go back to the career I once had — one that filled me with anxiety and paranoia — I set out to tackle each and every setback that came my way, determined to continue moving forward.
As I continued to progress as an entrepreneur, I came across two books that really helped me to put my future goals and ambitions into perspective. “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck talks about how to overcome shortcomings and limitations to rise above. “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” by Angela Duckworth played a key role in instilling resiliency through passion and purpose. Essentially, these books remind us that each moment of adversity is a learning opportunity to grow and become the best versions of ourselves. I try to implement the lessons from these books in all aspects of my life as much as I can.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
At MST Solutions, we subscribe to the tenets of Conscious Leadership. I believe the characteristics that define a conscious leader are critical to effectively guiding a team regardless of the climate. Of course, these characteristics do bring a sense of stability to the organization when times are challenging.
Conscious leaders are first and foremost authentic in their approach. They are cognizant of their actions and behaviors they display. They are passionate about serving a deeper purpose and empowering their colleagues to do the same.
They also take a vested interest in their stakeholders — their colleagues, customers and community. In doing so, they make a concerted effort to inspire, challenge, and collaborate with them to serve a greater good and ultimately, leave a legacy.
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?
We turn our focus outward and look for ways to create impact. For instance, when the coronavirus pandemic really took root here in Arizona and stay-at-home orders were issued, our team came together to launch a platform that enabled individuals from our community’s most vulnerable populations to request groceries and other household items be delivered to their homes. Our team worked around the clock to get it launched within 24 hours and then began volunteering their time to pick up these items and deliver them as the requests began funneling in.
The team was deeply engaged in this project and it brought us all closer together during a time when we had to practice physical distance.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
We have a very transparent culture at MST and have found this is the best way to mitigate concerns over potentially difficult news. There are rarely major surprises because we have implemented a regular communication cadence and process. We practice radical candor and address issues head on so issues don’t build up.
Of course, when difficult news has to be delivered, we approach it with empathy and compassion. It has to be treated as a two-way communication channel in which the team or customer has an opportunity to be heard and understood.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is always unpredictable. We never have absolute certainty tomorrow will play out as we planned. The best we can do is draw upon what we know to be true today and allow that to help guide our decision making while retaining the optionality of changing the plan or pivoting based on what unfolds.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
For us, the one thing that has served as our North Star through the ups and downs is our purpose. Every decision we make is tied to our purpose, core values and our 3 Cs. When we hold that vision, it keeps us all rowing in the same direction and motivated to make a lasting impact for our customers, colleagues, and community.
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?
While every business is different, there are a few common threads I’ve seen that tend to be detrimental to the long-term viability of the business. These include:
- Failure to adapt — during difficult times, needs change. The needs of your customers, your team, your community — in other words, your stakeholders — will change. The degree to which those needs change will always vary, but as leaders, we have to be clued into, and empathetic to those needs and be ready to make the necessary pivots.
- Not considering stakeholders — similarly, when stakeholders aren’t considered in the decision-making process it can lead to knee-jerk reactions that could eventually result in employee and customer attrition.
- Straying from the purpose — companies that remain focused on their deeper purpose, particularly during tumultuous times, often emerge stronger on the other side.
Staying focused on your purpose and your stakeholders will always keep you in tune with changing needs and demands, and prepare you to make the necessary pivots to deliver on that purpose.
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?
Through these challenging times, I have started using a framework named VUCA to lead the company. VUCA is a framework used in US military for thinking about handling the external environment using following techniques:
- Volatility — should be met with Agility
- Uncertainty — should be met with Information
- Complexity — should be met with Restructuring
- Ambiguous — should be met with Experimentation
In addition, we always go back to our deeper purpose and our 3 Cs. We always strive to remain in lockstep with our customers, continually looking to learn from them and gain a better understanding of their current situation. That becomes more mission-critical during challenging times. We want to better understand how they are being impacted and how we can support them.
That is always our first course of action. We talk to our stakeholders to assess the need then figure out how we can support that. In some cases, this can lead to the development of a new product or expanded business, but our goal is to first and foremost be of service. A recent example was the development of our licensing solution for Salesforce. In working with various organizations in the public sector, our team quickly realized that many were challenged by suddenly managing virtual teams and delivering their services in a virtual environment. This solution directly aimed to solve that.
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.
This goes for any time, not just during times of uncertainty. One is to reinforce your organization’s mission or purpose. For us, that is our 3 Cs. One way we did that was to identify a need in our community during the pandemic which led to our team launching the aforementioned Salesforce portal to manage grocery requests and deliveries to vulnerable or immunocompromised individuals.
The second is to adopt a management model. The EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) model has become a way for us to reinforce our company vision and establish company-wide, as well as individual, goals that all contribute to reaching that vision. Company meeting cadence and communication are critical components to the EOS model, and these have become imperative to our team, especially through this crisis. EOS has provided us a structure for keeping the entire team inspired, motivated, and committed to innovation, which enables us to continuously make an impact in the communities we serve.
The third is to lead by example. As the saying goes, “Be the change you want to see.” For instance, when it comes to our community volunteer efforts, we don’t just leave this to employees. I and everyone on the leadership team share a passion for community service and actively give back. This inherently inspires the rest of the team to do it in a way that’s equally meaningful to them.
Fourth, consider your stakeholders. Take the time to get to know your stakeholders — customers, employees, vendors, partners, community members. Understanding the world through their lens will always lead to improved methods of doing business or building a product.
Finally, though certainly not least, is to seek first to understand. We practice “big listening” internally and externally. It’s the idea that we go in with an empty cup — without preconceived notions as to what the other person’s or organization’s needs are. We seek first to understand and this empowers us to be more empathic in our communication as well as the way we do business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Sleep your way to the top — more of a concept than a quote — was the title to a past Thrive Global article written by Arianna Huffington. While it was the title that caught my attention, it was the message that has stuck with me.
As a leader of a young, fast-growing company, I regularly find myself in a spot where I have to make an impactful decision without having access to all of the data. To this end, being mindful and emotionally intelligent is a fundamental mental state that I must maintain to confidently make those decisions. In her article, Arianna explains that many of us fall prey to thinking that we measure our success based on “the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in.” She even quotes Bill Clinton, who admitted, “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” I don’t want to follow that same path. I need the decisions I make for myself and my company to come from a clear, level-headed place.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best place is on my LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/thiruthangarathinam