Don’t be afraid to fail — No leader ever succeeds without taking thoughtful, calculated risks. Anytime we take a risk, we invite the possibility of failure and that is ok. If a failure occurs, learn from it and move on.
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 Vernon Irvin.
Vernon Irvin serves as Chief Revenue Officer at Everbridge. He leads the global go-to-market and services organization responsible for driving the company’s enterprise transition with its market-leading Critical Event Management (CEM) product suite, as well as global adoption for Everbridge’s countrywide Population Alerting solutions.
Vernon brings over 30 years of enterprise and SaaS sales leadership experience across direct and channel organizations serving both public and private sectors at multi-billion-dollar scale. He has led enterprise sales organizations covering 60 countries, leveraging indirect channels, partners and alliances to grow deal flow and book orders.
Prior to Everbridge, Vernon served as EVP and President at CenturyLink, where he was responsible for leading a 3.5 billion dollars business operation with more than 2,000 employees. He was charged with successfully growing profitable revenue through a deep portfolio of partner relationships, communication solutions, security, hosting, cloud computing, managed services and SaaS-based solutions.
Before CenturyLink, Vernon held executive roles at Charter Communications and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. He served as EVP at VeriSign, as well as having worked abroad for British Telecommunications as President, Content Hosting and Media Services. In addition, he has served as a Board member of the Wireless Association industry group (formerly the Cellular Telephone Industry Association.
Vernon is former Chairman of the Board of Directors for Mile High United Way in Colorado and serves on the boards of the Colorado Technology Association and the Community College of Denver.
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?
One of the most profound lessons of my life came early. I grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood where kids are more likely to face a slew of difficulties in childhood.
My parents each worked multiple jobs to support us. I realized very early that to take control of my life, I would have to work harder and be better at whatever I did than everyone else around me. I knew I had to create my own opportunities to break through racial and socio-economic barriers.
While I faced a lot of challenges, I fondly remember my mentors and supporters along the way. For example, a lady who lived near us recognized a spark in me early on. She would say I was a smart kid with a bright future. That stuck with me.
When I reached college age, I felt called to artistic studies, but I knew that field would not provide me the financial stability I sought. So, I enrolled in a technology track and gained valuable computer skills. That time represented the start of a much brighter future for me. I graduated, and by 30 I had become a vice president running product marketing for a telecommunications company, a big break in my career.
Since then, I have served as executive vice president of several major public companies reporting to the CEO and managing up to 4,000 employees. My career has allowed me to visit over 60 countries, meet members of the Royal Family, greet, and dine with Bishop Desmond Tutu and more.
Today, I am a proud member of Everbridge’s senior leadership team as Chief Revenue Officer and Executive Vice President offering technology to help organizations keep their people safe and their businesses running in anticipation of, or during crises, whether natural, manmade or digital, including contact tracing tools that help organizations mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
As a 12-year-old kid, I never could have imagined this life.
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?
Earlier in my career at 21 years old, I had my first senior level meeting with the leadership team and wore an old suit handed down to me from a relative and accessorized the suit with a belt and clip on suspenders. Later that night, a gentleman I later befriended offered me the advice that clip-ons and a belt was not a good look in the board room.
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 am especially grateful for the many mentors who helped me achieve success and avoid pitfalls along the way. One such example includes an incredibly bright and passionate leader of mine. He taught me to come prepared to every meeting, as he viewed a lack of preparedness as a sign of disrespect and I never wanted to disrespect him. If someone was not on top of their game in his presence, the ferocity of his response was so uncomfortable that the team and I quickly learned it was far more advantageous to always come prepared with strong, well-researched and thoughtful recommendations.
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?
Founded in the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11, Everbridge originally focused on how to improve critical communications to better protect people during a crisis. Everbridge’s mission is to keep people safe and organizations running, faster. As the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, the services we offer business, healthcare and government organizations have never been more important than they are right now.
Over the last several years, we significantly broadened our capabilities to meet our customers’ life safety, operational resilience, supply chain, and IT alerting needs. Today, Everbridge provides a software platform to help organizations manage the full lifecycle of a crisis: assess risks and determine which are relevant to assets and people; locate all assets and people that are impacted or at risk of being impacted, including remote, work-from-home, mobile and traveling employees, as well as customers and responders, who are near or traveling to areas of risk; act to automate standard operating procedures to launch and manage incident response; and analyze performance to identify bottlenecks and improve response for subsequent events.
Following the onset of the pandemic, Everbridge launched its COVID-19 Shield: Return to Work and Contact Tracing software solutions, which currently help organizations manage the complex process of returning to the workplace and other public spaces during the pandemic.
Just as that time following 9/11, we continue to deliver on our mission and purpose today, especially during the pandemic and multiple simultaneous critical events. Being in the lifesaving business remains a source of pride for me.
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? How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is always uncertain. So, good leaders prepare for all kinds of events and contingencies. Throughout my career I have been a “scale it up” executive, as one of my strengths includes leading programs, building them up with the right teams, scaling them up and turning them into a flywheel. I have a plan, A, B, C and D. This instills confidence in the team when a leader shows that they are dynamic and ready for whatever business challenges arise.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Quitting was never an option for me. I simply had to succeed because I was not willing to accept the alternative that I remembered all too well from my childhood.
What keeps me going is a strong desire to pay it forward. I believe that anyone who achieves success inherits the responsibility to lift other people up and give them a chance to prove themselves. Right now, thousands of people around the world have a spark but few opportunities to shine, just like me when I was young. We need to give people of all backgrounds more access to education, careers, and the chance to live up to their potential.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Good leaders serve as a center of calm for their team when things become most uncertain or challenging, because they must direct the moment and lead the group to a better outcome.
Leaders must also screen out the noise, get to the bottom of the issue quickly and assemble the right people and processes to resolve an issue.
They must either anticipate challenges and prevent them or build processes to mitigate them that can be repeatable.
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?
Ideally, leaders prevent uncertainty from occurring in the first place through clear plans (including numerous back-up plans), clear and consistent communication, strong team culture, and so on.
Sometimes, however, uncertainty becomes unavoidable. In instances like these, I encourage my teams to take a step back, assess the situation and determine the next best step. In these moments, we take a breath, get new perspectives on the challenge ahead and determine what needs adjusting and who will be accountable for the resulting actions.
Sometimes leaders need to change the strategy, technology, or people. Regardless, leaders must be very decisive in these moments. In my experience, best practice would dictate addressing the problem head on and showing the way forward. Then morale tends to improve.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I believe strongly that its best to communicate difficult news in a timely manner, directly and without ambiguity. It is also important to explain why the event has happened and what the team is planning to do to resolve whatever the issue may be.
Best practices include cascading the information and tailoring the message for each part of the organization. For example, leaders should ask: what do my direct reports need to know, what do their direct reports need to know, and so on down to individual contributors?
If the difficult news will soon become public information, it remains vitally important to communicate with teams before it becomes widely known in most cases. That is important for building trust and fostering transparency.
Helping companies communicate effectively with their employees remains a key function of Everbridge’s platform, so we practice what we preach.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Everbridge represents a principle I strongly espouse: organizations must be prepared for critical events of all kinds, from the pandemic, severe weather, cyber-attacks and more. For businesses, it is not a matter of if they will be impacted by such a crisis; it is a matter of when.
Business, healthcare, and government organizations need to create a long-term sustainability plan and implement critical event management technology so they will be prepared no matter what event or series of events impact their people or other assets.
While companies have been doing this manually for many years, a growing number of organizations have pivoted to automate and scale this process with technology like the Everbridge platform.
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?
Some common mistakes executives make include 1.) failure to prepare, 2.) lack of market research, and 3.) failure to adapt.
Volatility is the new normal today. Leaders must continue to prepare for and adapt to all kinds of threats. For example, with a pandemic, wildfires, hurricanes and more all happening at the same time, organizations need a holistic and automated way for dealing with these kinds of threats.
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?
Companies that adapt stay viable and relevant, especially during turbulent times. For example, at the onset of the pandemic, Everbridge rapidly launched its COVID-19 Shield: Return to Work and Contact Tracing software solutions followed by the introduction of Everbridge Control Center, the industry’s first off-the-shelf physical security information management software platform to help organizations return to work while complying with social distancing and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) policies.
Since the pandemic began, Everbridge customers have used its software to send more than 780 million coronavirus-related communications with vital information and instructions to safeguard their populations, employees, patients, and students.
This has been just one of the ways Everbridge has increased its relevance during the pandemic and the uncertainty it generates.
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?
Five things effective leaders do:
- Embrace change — Successful leaders adapt.
- Have an optimistic view — Optimism wins the day and increases the likelihood of problem-solving behavior, better morale and a more cohesive team.
- Be inclusive — Better ideas come from a more diverse set of experiences and viewpoints, so be inclusive and invite a wider representation of people to the table.
- Don’t be afraid to fail — No leader ever succeeds without taking thoughtful, calculated risks. Anytime we take a risk, we invite the possibility of failure and that is ok. If a failure occurs, learn from it and move on.
- Be accountable / expect accountability — Accountability remains essential to good leadership and strong team performance.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve always liked Verna Myers quote: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
How can our readers further follow your work?