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 Alvaro Vaselli, President and CEO of SKYDEX, a global leader in advanced impact mitigation and energy absorption solutions. Vaselli started his career with Dow Chemical in Brazil. He then led the development of ARCO’s business in South America. After moving to the U.S. with ARCO/Lyondell, he was appointed SVP at Foamex/FXI and later the President of Personal Care at Tredegar Corporation and Founder and CEO of Nuvanna. Vaselli has spent his career working with advanced materials and consumer products.
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 was born in São Paulo, Brazil, had a typical childhood in the largest city in the country, went to a Catholic elementary and middle school, spent a lot of time going to the beach, where my grandparents lived, during my teenage years, and developed a passion for the ocean and scuba diving. As far as my professional interests, I honed my passion for innovation, advanced materials and business shortly after earning my Master’s Degree in Marketing. Although I graduated as Mechanical and Production Engineer, I had an early interest in business and consumer products marketing. My education served me well as a good foundation for everything else I aspired to do. I always loved the challenge of problem solving and logical thinking to find solutions. I started my career in Brazil and eventually found myself in the U.S. advancing to growing executive positions with a focus on business management, materials and international expansion. I went on to lead multi-hundred million-dollar businesses with a global presence and honored my entrepreneurial spirit by building my own e-commerce company for sleep products. More recently I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to lead Denver-based SKYDEX — a global leader in advanced impact mitigation and energy absorption solutions — and help the company accelerate growth with an incredible team, technologies and investors.
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’ve been fortunate to have wonderful mentors, supporters, cheerleaders along the way in my career. Many have watched my journey of successes, learnings and challenges and are still a part of my network today. Encouragement, risk taking, guidance, mentorship, support and feedback are just a few of the benefits I have received over the years from this network of supporters. The biggest credit, though, goes to my family — they have always been there for me, regardless of circumstances.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you became involved with SKYDEX, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
SKYDEX is in the business of protecting people and things that matter. We service markets such as military, law enforcement, marine, sports, electronics, office furniture, etc. with a wide range of products and solutions that provide safety, protection and comfort. Knowing that our technology is relied on by so many people to keep them safe, ultimately gives us the purpose and higher calling you’re referring to. When you play a significant role in protecting the lives and wellbeing of others, there is a necessary standard of excellence that naturally drives progression and innovation for myself and our team. Protecting People and Things That Matter® is what truly moves us every day at SKYDEX.
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?
Last year brought a lot of unexpected challenges and we did not anticipate a global pandemic. During difficult times, teams look to their leaders for clear direction. It’s imperative to remain calm, balanced and purpose-driven in a crisis and reassure the team that eventually the storm will pass. Keeping an eye on the destination, working with and supporting the team while weathering the storm is critical. As many businesses around the world, we were also impacted by disruptions in various sectors of the industry; however, we stayed focused on our destination, made investments in people, process, capital and advanced our business to where we wanted to go.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I don’t really remember getting to a point of considering giving up on something, except for when I argue with my wife. She always wins! But on a more serious note, risk taking and challenges can be intimidating but I’ve always had a growth mindset. Not only does it make things more exciting but it increases our chances for success. And even when you fail, which is inevitable at some point, there is learning and growth associated with it, and in my opinion, equally or even more important. I’ve always been thoughtful about the risk-return equation and have embraced many risks in my career and personally. Most have propelled me forward; others have strengthened me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
In my opinion, regardless of circumstances, the role of a leader is to enable the team to do their absolute best in pursuit of a meaningful and rewarding purpose. During challenging times is no different, you embrace the team, connect with them on a human level, get vulnerable and move forward with intensity, determination and discipline.
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?
In times of crises, purpose takes precedence over strategy. Long-term plans are replaced by focus, discipline and prioritization. When things feel volatile and unpredictable, it helps to give our teams a common ground to hold onto: a shared purpose. Everyone is affected by adversity in different ways, placing a high level of importance on shared purpose and keeping an eye on the destination allows for the collective strength of the group to overcome the doubt and vulnerabilities.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Just tell the truth. I learned a long time ago, with my dad, that lies have a way to catch up with you. Communicate truthfully, transparently and timely.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Making plans is a necessity but staying flexible, nimble, adaptable is even more important. If 2020 taught us anything it’s that you can have the perfect plan and know exactly how to execute it, but life does not always play fair. Having the right people “on the bus” and the wrong people “off the bus” is also critical. When things change, they can drive the bus through different roads and still get to the destination.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
What it really boils down to is adaptability — which is the number one principle that can help companies navigate turbulent times. For example, we’ve seen the mass integration of technology in restaurants that didn’t exist before the pandemic. The willingness to adapt has allowed the industry to make the most of a rather grim situation.
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 of the mistakes I’ve made earlier in my career and that I have seen others make as well are: 1) overreact to circumstances, 2) take too long to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, and 3) lose sight of your “why”. So, what I suggest, based on my experience, is to not over react, focus on the team first, never lose sight of “why” you do what you do.
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?
Weed and feed. In other words, rebalance resources. Get efficient, leverage technology and remove costs from areas not directly related to growth and over-resource areas that drive growth.
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.
- Re-frame Adversity as Opportunity — Challenges force us to learn quickly and adjust on the fly. Leaders should provide direction and create the framework for people to do their jobs effectively in the midst of ambiguity — and in times such as COVID, it’s ideal to let teams become more fluid and less hierarchical, which can lead to new opportunities. Leaders should model the mindset they wish to instill in their teams.
- Rally Around a Common Goal — As mentioned before, “we are stronger together” and directing your focus towards your ultimate purpose give teams common ground to hold onto and makes any challenge seem less daunting. Identify a core value and mission to rally your teams around. A common goal and meaningful purpose will help people focus, inspire confidence, instill decisiveness, foster collaboration, and build trust.
- Be Authentic — Connect with your teams transparently and on a human level. It allows for flexibility, empathy and ultimately the optimization of organizational capabilities.
- Build A Diverse Team — A diverse, high performing team is characterized by open communication, constructive conflict, mutual respect, trust, collaboration, flexibility and willingness to renounce individual control to achieve greater collective results.
- Get Aligned Goals — When people understand, are engaged and excited about the direction of the company, financial results follow. But often take one step forward with the concept of alignment: aligning company’s goals with individuals’ personal motivations. This is much harder to do and it requires complete dedication from the leader to achieve a level of trust with his or her team members so that these personal motivations can be discussed with full transparency.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline — Jim Collins
Although Jim Collins’ quote comes from his work studying how companies transition from being good companies to great companies, and how most companies fail to make the transition, I take this as a life lesson. Based on my personality and background, I’ve always been disciplined; however, when I started paying close attention to the power of intention, in many aspects of my life, I felt more connected to greatness, which to me is this universal force that connects all of us.
How can our readers further follow your work?