As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Adamopoulos.
Alex is a hands-on executive with more than 25 years’ experience and a successful track record in global professional services and technology organizations. Alex founded Emergn, a company that can influence the way people think about change, in 2009. His work has spanned early stage and startup organizations and also Fortune 1000 companies. Alex has extensive international experience with a deep understanding of culture, work and life ethics especially in relation to establishing alignment and crossing cultural barriers.
Alex has served in several key leadership roles in his career with well-known organizations always with a distinct focus on leadership development, change management and international growth and expansion. Emergn‘s education led transformation approach is a culmination of a career centered on learning as a change agent.
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?
I’ve been an entrepreneur since the age of 19 and have always steered towards technology-oriented consulting businesses. It’s been the love of helping and advising others that has kept me motivated to continue in this field.
I’ve had the privilege of working for some great leaders and mentors and have worked across a variety of company sizes including start-ups, early stage, and large, global enterprises. I’ve been able to mix in private equity and venture capital work and ultimately that led me to starting Emergn. At Emergn, my goal is to create lasting, positive change by supporting people who drive innovation forward. I believe in helping improve the way people and companies work.
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?
Early on in my career, my boss would send me emails that were often long and full of attachments. As a way to know if the recipients, like myself, were actually reading them in detail, he’d start asking questions about the content he shared and what I thought of it. I quickly realized that he had made up the content he was asking about, proving that I hadn’t read the documents at all. I now do this with others as a way of joking with them. That lesson was learned very quickly — read everything your boss sends you!
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?
One of my mentors who started as my boss called me into the office one day to tell me how grateful he was for my work but then asked me to explain exactly what we do as a company. I clearly didn’t explain it well and he took the opportunity to teach me the importance of being a student of your industry. He said the idea of being a student of your industry was the difference between a job and a career. Know your industry, know what makes it tick and stay informed. His mentoring on that one topic has helped me in turn teach so many others and it’s something that has proven to be invaluable in how I’ve worked and shown up as a manager.
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?
In 2009 when I founded Emergn, the purpose was to help companies learn how to lead their own change and not remain dependent on external help longer than needed. This was an unorthodox message for a services company, but I wanted to offer a service that had integrity built in from pre-sales through to the completion of an engagement and communicate value at every step.
This purpose eventually became our mission statement: to improve the way people and companies work. Forever. The ‘forever’ was added as a stretch goal but to also tell our customers that we really believed that after engaging with us they would work and operate so differently and better that they would never want to go back to the old way of working. We are fortunate to have many customers who’ve said just that over the years!
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?
Like everyone, the global pandemic changed a lot for us. One of Emergn’s value statements is that we ‘care for and invest in people’ and in 2020 we were given an unexpected opportunity to demonstrate that within the company. The immediate realization for me was that we would lose the personal touch we have with our people by not being in offices together and for those that lived alone or in remote parts of the world, this meant we needed to quickly consider how to remain connected.
We rallied our leaders to start connecting with people one-on-one, conducting regular check-ins, organizing social team calls and over-communicating where possible and not taking anything for granted when it came to communication.
The real outcome or message is that leaders can’t be invisible in a virtual world and we need to show up well and often for those we serve — some refer to it as servant leadership; I just call it common sense. It takes effort and it means being deliberate.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The inside joke was that I would quit every Friday and come back to work every Monday. So yes, I’ve considered giving up plenty of times because it’s easy to hold on to the challenges and problems and forget the opportunities. As one person told me, “you can hold a coin to your eye close enough to even block out the sun.”
The thing that sustains me is remembering I’m not doing this for myself. When I look around and see that I’ve created a safe environment for others to work and thrive, to have a fulfilling career and provide for themselves and their families, it motivates me to keep going.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
For me, I’d say empathy. Empathetic leaders build bridges where there aren’t any and it’s how they demonstrate they care about the people not just the profit.
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?
One lesson I’ve learned over time is that throwing money and perks at employees isn’t how to boost morale. People want to feel valued and appreciated and they want to know their contribution matters, so taking the time to tell them is one important way to keep morale high. The other is to communicate early and often and be transparent with people about the challenges that affect the company so they can see you’re vulnerable as well. I believe this helps build stronger connections.
It’s the old adage that meekness (strength under control) isn’t weakness. As Peter Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast and culture is shaped by leaders who stand alongside their people not above them.”
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I think the best way to communicate difficult news is to be honest and transparent — people want the truth and they want to know how you will respond and help solve the problem. Telling others that honesty is the only policy will make all the difference in how a leader is respected or not.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We’re assuming that before COVID-19, life wasn’t unpredictable. It’s always been unpredictable. None of us have certainty about the future; we think we do, but that’s a false belief.
During difficult seasons, leaders need to keep investing and keep making plans because that’s how you create motivation and direction that others get behind. Sometimes we buy into the problem or admire the problem rather than pushing beyond it. Life has always been unpredictable. Nothing has changed in that regard, it’s just that we all have had to pivot in the last year much differently than we would have expected.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes, don’t confuse effort with results — I live by this as it was once taught to me. Especially in a virtual world where teams aren’t in the same room, there is the tendency to work and produce output that isn’t always valuable or doesn’t lead to the right result. This principle for me is around scheduling priorities not prioritizing a schedule. It’s knowing what the expected outcomes or results are for the work, getting others to prioritize and rally around them and having achievable and believable goals. Incremental value is better than no value produced over lots of effort and work.
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?
One would be lacking a sense of urgency in responding to customers. Right now, more than ever, being responsive is key to keeping relationships healthy. Another is a lack of humility in leaders or teams — operating with a mindset that tells others ‘you need me’ vs. ‘how can I serve you better’. And lastly, a lack of clarity — not being clear on roles and responsibilities, expectations of work or direction of strategy only causes confusion and disruption.
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 most important thing for Emergn has been stabilizing operationally and knowing what we absolutely must have in order to continue delivering a high-quality customer experience — in other words, managing the bottom line more intelligently so we don’t add waste.
Another strategy is to innovate around new value propositions — get creative on how to deliver your service differently or better so customers can engage you in this current climate and not lose momentum on their side. Don’t be afraid to experiment with new ideas.
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.
- Listen to the voices and heartbeat of the organization
- Communicate early and often
- Be visible to the organization
- Give the company clarity on expectations and objectives
- Don’t confuse effort with results
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve mentioned a few of these throughout our interview, but I have three quotes I live by when it comes to my work. Two are, “student of industry” and “don’t confuse effort with result.” The third is one that likely governs both, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
How can our readers further follow your work?