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 Aaron Vick.
Aaron Vick is the acting CEO for Cicayda. Prior to 2020, Aaron was Chief Strategy Officer for Cicayda providing tailored solutions and support within the realm of litigation eDiscovery. He routinely speaks and teaches on discovery best practices and trends as well as meets with international groups to discuss evolving discovery practice rules around the globe. He is also very active in the technology sector as a mentor and advisor in various verticals.
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?
My name is Aaron Vick and I got my start as part of the original design and ownership team of CaseLogistix, the eDiscovery/eDisclosure management and research application, and I have worked as a law firm consultant and expert witness for over 18 years. My consulting and software laid the foundation for what would become the EDRM as the process of discovery shifted from scanned paper to ESI.
I have worked in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Central America and the United States with firms and their clients on both the strategic and tactical level to overcome the unique challenges of modern complex litigation. Also, I have been the administrator and project manager over various United States Federal document collections, built & maintained the medical document productions repository for the largest actionable Federal MDL, and was instrumental in the remand and dismissal of thousands of claims due to the exposure of fraud in toxic tort litigation.
Post purchase of CaseLogistix by Thomson Reuters, I played an integral part of developing the Litigation Product Specialists team at Thomson Reuters specific to workflow, eDiscovery, and CaseLogistix. As a Partner with Standard CP, I have consulted on information workflow and procedures in order to design best practice procedures with various clients. Additionally, I have designed and built a secure data transfer, validation, and learning document & metadata routing system for an international government client to manage highly sensitive material.
Currently, I am the acting CEO for Cicayda due to the long time CEO’s activation by the ARMY Reserves to serve on the COVID-19 National Response Team. Prior to 2020, I was Chief Strategy Officer for Cicayda providing tailored solutions and support within the realm of litigation eDiscovery.
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?
When I was a teenager, in the beginnings of what became my first company, we were using my parent’s house to start up the first computer we had built. This was a big deal, as it was our first sale and kind of an important life moment. As we go to flip the switch and start our very first computer, darkness. We overloaded the power supply to the house! My parents decided we needed our own work space soon after so we went to find work and an office. It was a great lesson early on that you must always be prepared to pivot, you never know what’s coming next.
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 have so many mentors, partners and coworkers who have been instrumental to my success. I have learned a tremendous amount about emotional intelligence from Ed Bacon’s writing and walk of life as well as through reading Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman Ph.D. The key is to lead through prioritizing the happiness of others and creating a work environment that people enjoy.
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?
Purpose is undoubtedly important, but you don’t want to be overly rigid with your goals. One of my earliest companies, Rocket Science, was based around project development. We found an opportunity with one of our projects that led to it becoming a Product. We created a new company based around data storage and organizing massive document sets within the legal field. You have to stay proactive in setting and finding ways to achieve company goals while also being open to major shifts when unforeseen opportunities arise.
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?
COVID is really the best possible example because we have all been forced to make drastic shifts in every aspect of our work lives including leadership. I already put a good amount of work into improving my own emotional intelligence in order to be effective in communicating with my team. The pandemic has made reading emotions of employees difficult for me, so I have stressed checking in on people and giving them an opportunity to speak freely even more. We are all dealing with new roadblocks in the professional and personal realms. It’s important for leaders to offer true support now more than ever.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Listen, we are all going to face challenges that at the time may seem insurmountable. Just like everyone else, I have failed and in failure we find the best opportunity to learn. I’m driven by finding ways to solve problems, so in that sense, no I have never considered giving up. The chase to solve the problem is a driving force behind my passion for this work. Oftentimes, when I need a boost, I make sure to take some time for myself, through silent reflection, meditation, or just turning away from the screens. I then return with a new look at the situation and digest the incredible work my partners and employees are doing. That is all the motivation I need.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It’s difficult to really narrow down a single most critical role for a leader, let alone at a challenging time. I will say that retaining a core message acts as a true base to the pyramid of leadership. The team needs to feel comfortable in trusting your communication and judgement. By being able to consistently refer to and explain a plan based on a core message, you enforce belief and purpose.
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?
I’m a firm believer in verbal communication. We live so much of our work lives in the digital realm, now more than ever. When a coworker takes the time to talk to you directly, it can make a big difference. Reaching out to employees individually and asking about concerns can lead to increased morale. It’s also important to make sure employees feel they can express their opinions freely. Surveys on particular projects or situations can provide valuable information for your management team. I’ll freely admit there are many times spreadsheets, flights, and calls outside the organization take up many of my days. However, I try my best to ensure the team that management is there to help and I’m always available even if we have to resort to written communications.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I like to think that most people appreciate honest and direct communication. Part of being a leader and having success is dealing with uncomfortable situations. The reality of life (and business) is that we are going to face challenging circumstances. I’ve found that getting straight to the point in clear terms compassionately often leads to all parties feeling respected and that everyone is trying to find the best path forward.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
At Cicayda, we say, “Today’s truth is today’s truth, it doesn’t mean it’s tomorrow’s truth.” I didn’t coin that phrase but I believe it’s critical to always have the mindset that your future path will be full of unpredictable variables you can neither control nor foresee. Self-evaluation is key because by knowing how you best currently fit into your company, your level of preparedness for the unknown increases dramatically.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The main principle I use for so many aspects of my life can be applied to turbulent times and helps keep focus through difficult situations.
In turbulent times, you may use COAR to best identify and work through a problem. For instance, collaborate with your team to identify the issue. Organize your ideas for a plan and gather necessary resources. Accelerate the necessary action to achieve your end goal and repeat any items which must be reviewed to achieve a successful resolution.
COAR can be applied in many ways and to many unique situations, that is just a general example. Keeping COAR in mind has helped lead to many problem solving “eureka” moments throughout my career.
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?
Don’t look to an outside savior during difficult times. Of course, seeking an outside mentor or making a new hire can be sensible, but don’t think that a new hire, advisor, or consultant can fix everything within a difficult situation.
Make sure to avoid overworking yourself and allowing negative results to deplete your energy and ambition. It’s vital to keep the entrepreneurial spirit burning brightly, even if your plans are not working out as you’d hoped.
Delegating responsibilities and tasks can be lost amongst chaos or poor results. Remember that you can’t be Superman and fix every single problem. Work through the problems you can and continue down the leadership path you’ve found that works best for you. And, be sure to trust your most reliable team members.
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?
In business, leadership and in life, focusing on what you can control often leads to the best results. We can only spend so much time going over a situation and analyzing why something went wrong. Once you’ve collected the necessary information to identify the problem, it’s time to move on, learn what you can, and discover the avenues to best fix the problem.
At Cicayda we say: “We are a gaggle of prospectors that collaborate on finding the best opportunities to maintain client confidence, revenue, and the continued efforts to expand our offerings to customers through innovation.”
Whether the times are good or bad, I believe you can find a successful path by staying focused on what you can do right now. And, many times that is simply to provide the best service you can offer to your clients.
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? Please share a story or an example for each.
Keep focused on your people even when there seem to be an endless supply of hurdles coming your way. Remember how displaying a high level of emotional intelligence and caring about your team will lead to a better work environment and productivity.
Focus on culture. As you grow, the culture is key to ensuring a comfortable and energetic workplace. If the focus is only on spreadsheets, revenue, and earnings then your place of business may not be a place that gets people to work productively or long term.
The option to pivot is always out there, including during uncertain times. Making a rash decision is never advised, but think outside of the box. Maybe the current situation presents an opportunity you would have never had before. It’s up to you to take an assessment and advantage.
Turn to your mentors and those you trust the most for advice. It’s vital to have a network of mentors and mentees who share your general philosophies, but are not afraid to disagree with you and be honest about issues they observe. Oftentimes, harsh criticism can turn into a smart solution.
Make use of all possibilities to gather data on the issues currently stalling your business. Internal assessments and small group gatherings can be excellent sources of information if conceived and distributed properly. Encouraging staff to identify problem areas in a free form space allows for honest criticism which can lead to solutions.
We have a saying at Cicayda that goes, “People plus technology drives innovation.” During uncertain times it’s easy to get sucked into focusing on the bottom line or other direct monetary issues. Remember that the driving force behind your business is the people working there and the technology being used to find success. Just because you are facing a turbulent situation, does not mean you should stop ensuring you have a dedicated and hard working team. Continue to look for growth opportunities and advancing technologies which can fix issues and accelerate your business to the next level.
The example here is less specific and more general. I believe a great deal of Cicayda’s success has to do with the people working behind the scenes and our willingness in adapting to new technology and opportunities. Retaining this mindset has led us in a direction no one could have predicted and one which has panned out extremely well.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It might be a bit cliche, but I’ve found the phrase “Work smarter, not harder” is an impressively simple way to talk about a core truth. Often, those who come out on top were never trying to outlast or outdo the competition. They were coming at a problem from every direction and finding the easiest path to a desired outcome. One of the reasons I have a passion about software is the ability to fix a problem after being given a blank canvas. What is the issue and how can I make my version of the solution one that will help the most people in the most efficient way. I’m driven by finding those answers.