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Todd Skiles: “Assess the risk”

“Do what you can to ensure your actions and communications align with the values of the company” — Todd Skiles 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 […]

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“Do what you can to ensure your actions and communications align with the values of the company” — Todd Skiles

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 Todd Skiles.

Todd is the Senior Vice President of Sales for Supply Chain Solutions (SCS) and Dedicated Transportation Solutions (DTS) at Ryder System, Inc. focused on matching Ryder’s solutions with the real and vital needs of customers. Todd is responsible for overseeing the sales and solutions team for SCS and DTS. Under his leadership, sales revenue has grown by more than 130% and sales productivity has doubled.

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?

I was one of three children who grew up outside of Philadelphia. Both my father and mother were teachers in the school district that my siblings and I attended. I attended Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania where I applied for, and received, a two year Army ROTC scholarship. I attended basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and then advanced training at Fort Brag, North Carolina. I was commissioned in May of 1986 and attended the Army Logistics School at Fort Eustis in Virginia. At the conclusion of that school I returned to Philadelphia and accepted a position at Ryder and was also assigned a second lieutenant platoon leader for a medium duty truck company in Philadelphia.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Today I am SVP of Sales for Ryder’s Dedicated Transportation and Supply Chain Services. Over my last 34 years with Ryder, I’ve leveraged my military training to enhance my leadership and rise through the sales and sales leadership positions within the company. Today I report directly to the president of our division and our Chief Sales Officer with sales goals of just under ½ billion dollars and a team of 100 sales professionals and support staff in three countries. Put shortly, I coordinate the efforts of the sales team in order to take those offerings to market.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I received a two year ROTC scholarship at Shippensburg University and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the transportation branch. I also attended airborne school at Fort Benning, Georgia. After that I was given the command of the 121st Transportation Company as a first lieutenant, and we were activated and deployed to Desert Storm in November of 1990.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

When I was just 26 and serving in Desert Storm, I served as company commander in a war zone. My orders were to combine the resources from all five units in my battalion and lead a convoy of over 200 transportation assets through Iraq. This experience taught me a few things. First, as leaders, we have to be cognizant of our own mental stability and ensure that we don’t get overwhelmed by the pressure of command. In situations like that, keeping a level head is crucial. It really prepared me for elongated high-stress situations where you have to take care of yourself and those around you. That experience also taught me the importance of making executive decisions. In many situations, especially those where deadlines are far out, collaboration is key. But when a decision has to be made on the fly, it’s crucial that leaders be able to make executive, actional decisions in high-stakes situations.

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 saw heroism in all of my soldiers every single day as they worked under dangerous, miserable war time conditions to complete their missions. These men and women completed hundreds of missions, driving hundreds of thousands of miles to move ammunition, rockets, medical supplies, food and water for the Third Armored Division. I watched these men and women make critical deliveries while under the constant threat of surface-to-surface missiles and ground attacks — all while looking out for themselves and those around them. Their selflessness, commitment to their mission and love of country is the true mark of a hero.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

A hero isn’t someone who is fearless, but rather is someone who summons their inner strength to conquer their fear and serve the well-being of others.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

Absolutely, I know it did. The military instilled numerous invaluable skills in me, including a commitment to people, the ability to handle elongated stress, a sense of decisiveness, solid communication skills and an understanding of the value of collaboration. All of these have enabled me to find success in my career at Ryder.

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?

A few people come to mind when I think of those who helped foster my success. First would be my parents. My father and mother were instrumental in raising me to know that I was important, but I was not the most important. I remember my father telling me, “You are part of a family, son, but you are not the family.” He taught me about sacrifice and about how the group is more important than the individual — something I came to really appreciate during my time in the military. My parents also taught me a sense of right versus wrong and the morals of being a leader.

I also wouldn’t be where I am today without my wife. We’ve been married for 25 years now, and she’s dealt with the ups and downs of living with someone who was in the military — someone who is driven, opinionated, aggressive, passionate. She inspires me every day, and I know I owe much of my success to her unconditional love and support.

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?

A crisis is really anything that has the potential to knock you off your feet. That looks very different between an office setting and a military setting, but at its core, it’s something that causes significant disruption. And during a crisis, especially in the military or during a pandemic, my definitions of surviving and thriving look very similar. If I’m doing okay in the present moment, and my team is safe, I consider us to be thriving. The key is managing expectations and focusing on what is most important.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

First, businesses have to acknowledge that disruptions will happen. Rather than scrambling to react to them on the fly, do what you can to prepare in advance for the inevitable. For instance, create partnerships or emphasize employee training. Have backup plans in place and know your stance as a leader and as a company. It’s important that a leader’s attitude remains consistent. Do what you can to ensure your actions and communications align with the values of the company, and use those practices as a guiding star.

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?

The first step is to assess the risk. If it’s associated with a physical risk, leaders have to be more decisive and react quickly. For risks that are further out, leaders may find they’re not in immediate danger and thus, can go about it differently. Regardless, the next step is managing fear and anxiety — emotions that often go hand-in-hand with crises. A level of anxiety can be beneficial over a short period of time — both in the office and in the military — but anxiety over an elongated period requires greater intentionality to control it so that it doesn’t impair judgment. Once a leader understands the risk and has managed his or her emotions, as well as their team’s, they are able to better address the problem and identify viable solutions.

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Some of the more prominent ones that come to mind are discipline, a commitment to your team, strong communication skills, and empathy. Especially during a time of crisis, a high level of emotional intelligence is crucial.

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

I’d have to say Ryder’s CEO, Robert Sanchez. I’ve worked with Robert since 2004. Of course, then, we both held different positions within the company, but his commitment to people has been unwavering. Robert has demonstrated time and time again the characteristics of a leader during a crisis, both during the 2008 recession and again in this pandemic. He’s remained consistent with his communication and approach, and I know it’s something that I and my colleagues appreciate.

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?

My wife and I experienced years of infertility. We had three failed in-vitro fertilizations and spent years trying to conceive. Having those conversations with my wife was hard, and that was long-term stress without a foreseeable win. After three years, we tried to adopt a baby, which also did not work out. But today we’re fortunate to have a beautiful daughter.

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.

  1. Assess the risk: We have to know our enemy in order to fight them. Try to remove as much emotion from the risk assessment as possible in order to create a clear picture of what you’re up against.
  2. Manage expectations: Crises and uncertainty often go hand-in-hand. It’s important that leaders keep this in mind and work to manage expectations, both with themselves and with their colleagues. I’ve seen how unrealistic expectations can be a blow to morale by leading to frustration and disappointment.
  3. Communicate consistently: Set up a cadence for how you’re going to communicate. Without the appropriate information, rumors and misinformation can spread. Remain proactive and you can minimize the likelihood of this.

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 see a lot of millennials getting a bad reputation, and I think it’s undeserved. They had more of a challenge entering the workforce than maybe any other generation. Many went into it around the recession, and now they’ll deal with the pandemic. They’ve dealt with wars, school shootings — things that no other generation has dealt with in that same velocity. They are gifted, creative, passionate, committed, and they want to find success, however, they define that. I believe you will find them as valuable as any generation before them, and I’m thankful for each of them that I work with.

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 🙂

I’d have to say Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and author of Lean In, one of the best books I’ve ever had the opportunity to read. She talks about the commitment each of us has as contributors and leaders, and she addresses taking risks and dealing with ambiguity. She’s an inspiration to me, and I know she’s inspired many others that I work with.

How can our readers follow you online?

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn!

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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