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 Adem Selita.
Adem Selita aka Adam Selita— Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Debt Relief Company in New York, NY.
Adem received a Bachelors in Economics from New York University. While attaining his degree from NYU, Adem was instrumental in helping a startup get acquired by the largest beverage company in the United States.
Adem helped close family and friends negotiate on their debt obligations following the aftermath of the Great Recession — which eventually led to the conception and co-founding of The Debt Relief Company as it is known today. Adem has a passion for helping Americans become debt free and has helped countless Americans achieve financial freedom.
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?
Great question! I think my foray into helping US consumers achieve financial freedom and become debt free started during college, around the time of the Great Recession. Back then, we were living in a completely different world and seeing the negative impact the US economy was having on my close family and friends really inspired me to take a deeper look into the problem and figure out ways to help people make better financial decisions and evaluate outside-the-box solutions. After noticing a significant lack of financial literacy & awareness amongst my peers, I felt something had to be done about the genuine disregard for young adults and their respective financial prowess. Back then, we would have Chase, Citi, and other credit card companies promote financial services and credit card use directly on campus and alongside Washington Square Park. It was really disheartening to see this and I genuinely felt that many of my peers were very unaware of what they were getting themselves into. This need for financial assistance on behalf of consumers is really what inspired the backbone of The Debt Relief Company’s foundation. This is why our company now provides debt relief options to Americans that are carrying high interest credit card and personal loan debt.
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?
This is a really good one! I think one of the funniest mistakes I’ve made starting out stemmed from my inability to say no. I scheduled a conference call with a partner over the weekend (as this was the best time to speak, for them) full well knowing that I had a birthday party to attend. In the back of my mind I figured I would just step out when it was time for the call and everything would work out. However, life happens, and I completely neglected to check the time when I was at the party.
The timing of the conference call and the portion of the party where everyone sang “Happy Birthday” coincided perfectly. As I took the call, the party started loudly singing Happy Birthday to my friend Dan and the three individuals on the conference call heard every single word of it. Somehow our partnership actually panned out and I think the Happy Birthday singing actually broke a significant amount of ice for us all but this was extremely embarrassing to say the least! We all still laugh about it to this day.
My takeaway from this mishap was that it is okay to say no sometimes and that it’s extremely important to separate your work life from your personal life.
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?
If I could attribute my professional success to any one person, it would have to be my mother, Semi Selita. I feel a lot of my management expertise is derived from the life lessons she has instilled within me throughout the course of my life. Hers is a very inspiring story. Immigrating from Montenegro, she learned English as a second language and managed to climb the corporate ladder even when the odds were not in her favor (she rose from the position of bank teller to Managing Director at Wachovia — which was actually purchased by Wells Fargo during the financial crisis). She achieved this by working in every department within the company. After she fully understood all operational procedures of each corresponding department within the company, she had enough knowledge and know-how to become Managing Director of the New York office.
This story has always stuck with me. In order to be a great manager, boss, CEO, etc., you need to have a fundamental understanding of how employees operate within those roles and how these roles operate in cohesion with each other on a macro level. However, this doesn’t mean leaders and managers should micromanage, great leaders and managers are more akin to great coaches. The best way to utilize your team is by playing to their strengths and inspiring them to be the best version of themselves in their role within the company.
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?
The “Why” of our company is something that has firmly attributed to our success thus far. At The Debt Relief Company, it’s a question we always keep in the back of our mind, in regards to every aspect of the business. If we are not helping our clients save money or add value to their lives then it really doesn’t align with our purpose.
Our mission and vision as a company has always been two-fold. Our mission is to help Americans achieve financial freedom and help those that are struggling financially or not making progress on their debt obligations. Likewise, our secondary goal is to help raise financial literacy for all Americans and help them better understand the opportunity cost of their money and how to succeed financially.
US consumers are currently facing a debt crisis –total consumer credit card debt nears around one trillion dollars for every household across the US. Heavy reliance on credit card debt and personal loan debt is an epidemic and the vision for our company always has been to help eliminate the stress and negative implications associated with Americans carrying high interest debt.
To this day, our mission remains the same as when The Debt Relief Company was initially founded.
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?
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic is a great place to start with this question. Companies face turbulence and uncertainty all the time, but the swift impact of the pandemic and velocity of change is something that many have never experienced before. Within a few weeks the entire world and the capacity in which businesses operate — completely changed.
First and foremost, our priority was to make sure we adapted as quickly as possible and provided the safety for our team to operate in all their required capacities. We are huge believers in maintaining positive and inspiring work culture and first looked at how we could improve our internal operations above all else.
The next biggest setback was communication. Moving from a management culture where leaders are steps away from your desk to answer questions, and walking the floor and engaging with employees to a scenario where leadership isn’t physically present lead to many questions not being asked until it came time for performance reviews. Managers meet with their employees weekly, and a trend was spotted during the remote reviews. Employees were using much of their allotted time discussing small ticket items leaving them with little time to focus on development and what they can do better. By establishing more regular check-ins, as well as a performance review guideline, we’ve found that our team has been leaving sessions feeling more capable and motivated than ever.
Changes we’ve implemented: We shifted to a marketing strategy that is based on “value add” content and away from a “lead generating” and “take” mindset. Essentially, one that allows us to show potential customers why we provide a valued service or product. If you are not adding value to the lives of your customers during these turbulent times you are doing things wrong!
Moreover, we have been reaching out to clients to make them aware of lesser known ways to save during these times (i.e. car insurance tips/hacks, tips for how to handle banks/creditors, how to negotiate when making purchases, etc.)
The most difficult challenge we faced was transitioning and adapting to a work from home company and being able to sustain the same level of customer service prior to the outbreak. Thankfully we feel that we have now returned to normal and are performing in a “business as usual” capacity.
Although we are no longer able to meet with clients in person we feel we still are able to speak with our clients in the same manner and thankfully have utilized DocuSign to streamline the process of enrolling new clients with little to no friction.
In terms of work cohesiveness and unity, we are now successfully collaborating with our team in the same capacity and same level of productivity prior to the pandemic. We were able to do this by utilizing zoom and designating better management techniques for all team members.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Of course. I think being an entrepreneur means you have to roll with the punches. Entrepreneurs take a lot of abuse and often act as a veritable punching bag but our mission and the responses we receive from satisfied clients make all that evaporate. Knowing that we are able to help consumers get their finances back in order, eliminate stress and feel “free” is the most motivating part of our line of business.
The responses we receive from customer feedback acts as a positive feedback loop that continually sustains our drive and desire to improve our customer journey and improve our service offerings.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Courage is the largest prerequisite to make plans when the future is so unpredictable. A leader should exude courage in all that they do, but most importantly, in their ability to lead their team into the unknown and become a coach to those around them. Good leaders are very similar to an amazing coach of a professional sports team. They’re not the best shooter or ball handler (in fact they probably don’t perform at all), but they are great at assessing the strengths of their team and helping steward them towards victory. They make the right plays and place their top performers where they need to be in order to succeed. This is by far the most important role of a leader during challenging times.
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?
The best way to engage with your employees when they’re dealing with personal challenges is to be vulnerable. Show your human side and build true connections with employees. Moreover, leaders should never pass the buck and place blame on exogenous sources. In order to be a “great” leader you need to own your faults and retain an internal locus of control. If you do this, your employees will respect you more for it and will always look to you for guidance. This is where true inspiration is derived from.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
If you ask leaders what the most difficult part of their job is, most will tell you it is having to give bad news to their team. From conversations surrounding company performance or needing to fire someone, these are conversations that can really begin to weigh you down. I’ve personally found that while having to share bad news doesn’t necessarily ever get easier, there are steps you can take as a leader to make it easier for your team or customers. One of the larger mistakes I see some leaders make is not being direct with bad news. If you are a leader communicating bad news, it is important that you speak up and make the message clear for your employees. There is no room for uncertainty, especially with bad news. Your best bet is always going to be to relay the message in a transparent, accurate, and understanding fashion. Next, you must lay out next steps and the plan of action moving forward. Have a plan, or let your team or customers know that a plan is being worked on. With that, you need to be open to ideas and listen to your audience. Great leaders are there for their employees and customers through both the good and the bad.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders operate in unpredictable environments all the time. However, it can definitely be challenging to make plans with so much uncertainty surrounding us on a daily basis. For any leader to effectively plan for the future, you need to develop a strategy of planning for all goals, whether it be finance, operations, workforce, etc., that allows for agility and flexibility as we continue to decipher options and weigh the pros and cons of change. Leaders need to be proactive to potential changes in landscape and be prepared for multiple scenarios, as opposed to having just one plan. There will always be internal and external factors that will force you to tweak or adjust your strategy, but the key is to always plan so that you can adjust for any variables when the time to execute actually arrives.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Create a culture that encourages ideation and that always begs the question: “Does this better our company?”. As entrepreneurs, we need to constantly welcome and promote innovation and ideas from our team. Creating a culture in which your team is always looking to push the needle and strive for greatness is one that will help level the company through any veritable ups and downs. When given a clear vision and support from leadership, your team will be the ones to drive growth for the company. The ones who are a part of the day-to-day business are the ones who will have the best ideas for improvements, so always give them a platform to speak and express any ideas they may have.
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?
Unfortunately, many businesses fall victim to toxic culture and tunnel vision. Sometimes businesses make the mistake of focusing only on the bad and are not able to see opportunities that lay directly in front of them — due to this.
- Compounding Negativity — Like anything else in life, one bad apple can spoil the bunch. This by far one of the most common mistakes I see in workplaces. Negativity can spread like wildfire and if it’s left uncontested it can bring down an entire establishment.
- Not Breaking Down Big Problems into Smaller Tasks — All business will inevitably face significant problems or hiccups at some point or another. The key is to not let them overwhelm you and to learn how to carefully dissect each issue with a task-oriented methodology. Big problems need to be dissected into smaller tasks and be tackled one step at a time. Without doing so, things will inevitably become overwhelming.
- Sacrificing the long-term for the short-term or vice versa — All businesses are guilty of this to some degree but some much more than others. You take a short-term windfall in order to sustain a long-term goal or vice versa. This is normal but sometimes the scales tip too far on either end and obfuscate your ultimate goals as a business entity. Managing any business will always be a balancing act of weighing the future with the short term, the key is in how you chose to handle it.
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?
The main thing for us was to stick to our core business. Although we had many experimental marketing initiatives and service offerings we were looking to implement before the onset of the pandemic, we first needed to make sure that our core service was sustainable in the long term. Your business’ “bread and butter” should always be your main focus during a difficult economy. I think sometimes businesses tend to lose sight of this.
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.
- Courage — Courage is the largest prerequisite to make plans when the future is so unpredictable. Courage is a mission-critical quality in that any great leader which is an exemplary of courage knows how to guide their team into the unknown and portray a semblance of confidence and aptitude, even if they are unsure of themselves and the path they are headed towards. A leader should exude courage in all that they do, but most importantly in their ability to lead their team into the unknown and become a coach to those around them. Courageous leaders fail just like the rest of us. But the difference is that they “FAIL FORWARD”. If something doesn’t work out, they pick up the pieces, keep moving, take it in stride and learn from their mistakes. It takes courage to maintain a contrarian viewpoint, especially when the market may suggest otherwise. Whether it be a contingency plan in the face of a shifting market or something highly innovative that goes again the grain, executing any of the following is highly intrepid and a great gauge of how well refined your leadership is. Moreover, being courageous doesn’t mean you need to take on unnecessary inherent risk. It’s just means you’re not afraid of the unknown and unproven and possess the aptitude to see value in something others may not. Courageous leaders are adept decision makers during both times of great uncertainty and times of normal business, especially when there is no prior experience or data backing what they may be headed towards. Finally, it’s important to note that failure or success will never make your actions more or less courageous.
- Availability — Strong leadership all starts with availability. It is crucial that leaders are available for their employees in multiple ways to ensure employee engagement and success. In uncertain times, leadership should not be something questioned by employees. Having someone you can rely on, bounce ideas off of, get clear expectations from, as well as get advice from is more important than ever during turbulent times.
- Accountability — Accountable leaders do not pass the buck and do not place blame on exogenous sources. In order to be a “great” leader you need to own your faults and retain an internal locus of control. The market is not the same, isn’t an excuse you want to create for your team, it will spread like a virus and cause everyone’s energy and motivation to dwindle. If you are accountable, your employees will respect you more for it and always look at you as a continuing source of inspiration.
- Leading by Example — Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Leaders and managers that do not occasionally get on the phone or travel on site to close a deal are a lot less respected than those that do. Don’t believe me? Ask any sales consultant or employee working on the front end. You’ll hear murmurs about how the manager critiquing their sales skills hasn’t closed a deal in years, “so what do they know?”. Although, leaders might not always have the capacity to consistently be on the phone or close deals, since they are managing teams, doing this every so often is a huge morale booster for your team and a great way to win them over. Always lead by example!
- Great Interpersonal & 1 on 1 Skills — In order to lead your team to new heights you really have understand each individual on your team on a personal level and help the team bring out the best in each other. If you don’t understand your team you will never be able to bring about the best in them. It’s really that simple.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail” by Benjamin Franklin and “Plans mean nothing; planning is everything” by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
This was and still is highly relevant to my life because I think planning is an extremely underutilized tactic in the formation of any business or goal. Plans change all the time but being able to account for variables and being prepared for changes will make you that much more prepared for any incoming shifts. Strategizing and planning always will be a major factor of my decision-making process.
Everyone should learn how to better prepare and meticulously craft a business plan. Although, plans can and will change at the drop of a dime, the process of doing so will allow you to be better situated regardless of what life throws at you.
Moreover, the process of planning allows you openly discuss, better understand, meticulously strategize, assess timelines and success metrics, account for contingency measures and all around execute with extraordinary precision.
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