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 Arash Arabi. He is a transformation consultant, international speaker, entrepreneur and Taekwondo World Champion. His company Sprint Agile, uses an empirical approach to help businesses move from opinion-based decision making to evidence-based decision making. Arash is the author of the best-selling book, The Wise Enterprise: Reshape your organization for the age of uncertainty. For more information on Arash’s work please visit https://SprintAgile.com.au/the-book/
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?
It’s my pleasure, thanks for having me. I started my career as a computer programmer and then worked in various roles such as engineering manager, product owner, and agile deliver coach. I have worked at the major Australian retailers, banks, telecoms, and investment companies. I started my company, Sprint Agile, about 3 years ago. Sprint Agile quickly became a major player in enterprise transformation consulting and training space in Australia.
I have always been very passionate about sports. I do rock climbing, I dance, and in 2019 I had the privilege of winning the gold medal for sparring in the ITF Taekwondo world championship. Recently I have published my first book “The Wise Enterprise: Reshape your organization for the age of uncertainty” in which I provide a blueprint for transforming your team to be successful in turbulent times. As quoted by E.O Wilson we are today drowning in information but starving for wisdom. In my book I have attempted to provide a paradigm for bringing more wisdom to our organizations.
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?
Instead of the funniest mistake, I’ll share with you one of the scariest mistakes I made. I once made a mistake that resulted in the website of one of a major Australian retailers going down. I can remember clearly how scared I was when this happened. Even though I was really scared I decided to take full responsibility and accountability for what happened.
And the interesting thing was the fact that I took that accountability and did not come up with excuses or play the blame game resulted in becoming a more respectable person in the organization. It’s ironic, I didn’t get fired or get into trouble, instead owning my mistake made people respect me more.
My biggest take way was to avoid involving myself in politics. I decided to always try my best to be clear, transparent, and objective, even if it feels scary at times. To make mistakes is human.
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?
Ah, there are so many people. But to pick one person who has recently played a pivotal role in my development, I have to pick my coach, James Cassese. Over a year ago I signed up to Daniel Goleman’s Certified Emotional Intelligence Coaching program. James was assigned as my coach.
He is a well-known American executive coach and psychotherapist and helped me so much in finding my true self. He guided me through my self-explorations to find and remove my self-limiting beliefs. I have been driving with my handbrake up. James helped me push down the handbrake.
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?
We want to help organizations and individuals be at their bests. There is so much potential that is lost in organizations due to ineffective management systems. Decision making is typically focused on firefighting and short-term horizon, especially in middle management. We want to help organizations move from opinion based decision making to evidence based decision making. But not only that, we want those decision to be wise, resulting in not only better financial results, but better customer experience, better employee experience, and ultimately a better society.
On an individual level our goal is to help professionals be the star performers in their organizations. I am passionate about creating a ripple effect. There is nothing more fulfilling when I see people who have been trained by us go back to their teams and start making changes and improvements.
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?
When Australia went into the lockdown because of COVID-19, our revenue virtually dropped to $0 within the first month. I wasn’t personally worried much, but that wasn’t the case with some people in our team. So, the first step was to make sure I exercise empathy. I needed to make sure that I can see the world from the perspective of other people.
Different people have different personalities, life experiences, and constraints, and I could not simply assume they feel about the situation the same way that I felt. With that in mind I had to create a positive vibe in the team so we could problem solve effectively.
And then it was just a matter of coming up with creative solutions and testing them. And within just over a month our cashflow was back to normal.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes, I have given up so many times. We use a fancy term for this called “pivoting”. If the evidence suggest that something will not work, I give up on it and try something else. But this does not mean that we should give up at first sign of challenges. What it means is we have to take a scientific approach when faced with challenges and decide to pivot or persevere.
I believe this approach is very motivating because you don’t have to use willpower to keep on going based on hope and faith alone. When you see evidence that you are progressing towards your objectives you will get a dose of dopamine in the brain which will give you that little boost of energy that you need to keep going. Sometimes I work for very long hours, and I don’t really know what sustains me. But I find my work fulfilling and I guess that probably plays an important role in my drive.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It is to make sure people are at their best. And a leader can do this using his/her emotional intelligence competencies. Challenging times make us feel stressed and anxious. So, a leader first needs to understand his/her state of emotions. Then they need to make sure these emotions are not disruptive. A leader first needs to be in his/her best before he/she can help others be at their best.
And then the leader needs to apply his/her empathy to truly understand how his/her team members feel. Next, using his/her emotional intelligence, the leader needs to influence the emotional state of his/her team members towards a more helpful state.
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 personally feel calm when I think big. Humanity has gone through much worse periods than this. We had the plague, the Spanish flue, world war 2, and so on. And every time the difficult times passed. When it feels uncertain, I remind myself I am only a tiny insignificant being in an incomprehensively huge universe. This gives me a sense of humility which then inspires and motivates me.
Having said that, a leader must not dismiss the feelings of his and her team members. They may not be motivated by the same things that motivate me. So, a leader needs to listen, and provide a safe environment for his/her team to talk about their feelings. And it is important to remember that as a leader your job is not to solve their problems. So please don’t provide advice, just listen, be curious, and ask questions to understand them more. Then your team members will find their solution themselves just as a result of talking to you.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The answer is 1 word, empathise! And to empathise it is not enough to care for the other person. You need to understand them. What motivates them? what are their challenges? what are their goals and objectives?
With that in mind you can formulate your message in a way that would be less hard on their feelings.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
By being empirical and experimental. We need to think of our plans as hypotheses. And we need to come up with leading indicators to tell us early if the plan is likely to fail. Then adapt those plans based on the indicators.
I typically take a “sense, respond, revise” tactic when in unpredictable situations. Also, it is important to have multiple options up your sleeve, so you can change your plans quickly when things don’t work out.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes, it is the same principle I talked about in the previous question. In turbulent times we need to be empirical and experimental. We are operating in the dark. We don’t know what is going to happen. So, the underlying assumptions that we have based our plans on may change any time.
We need to come up with experiments that validate those assumptions as early as possible so we can change our plans before it is too late.
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?
Number 1 mistake is focusing on short term solutions only. Saying things “Let’s survive now and we will figure out a way out of this later” is a fatal mistake. In the words of Peter Senge (the author of the Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization) “The easy way out usually leads back in”.
Another big mistake is complacency. We need to operate under constant sense of danger. We need to improve relentlessly, otherwise we will get hit from where we least expect it.
And finally I would say, not focusing enough on the feeling of our employees. The decisions that leaders make, and how those decisions are communicated affect the feelings of employees. A company is a huge, interconnected network (we have a technical word for this, we call it a complex system). And if we disregard the feelings of our employees even in one section of the company it could have unforeseen consequences in the other areas of the business. What people do and what they talk about propagate in strange and unpredictable ways across the complex network of the organization
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?
I think the number one strategy is to be open to possibilities. When things change quickly, we need to come up with creative solutions quickly.
Things that have been working before may not be working any more. We need to think outside the box and be open to crazy ideas. And I guess that is the definition of creativity, making something that did not exist before.
I remember when I first heard about Zappos, the online shoe retailer, I thought to myself, who wants to buy shoes online? That’s a crazy idea, I wouldn’t buy shoes online. Yet, Zappos makes a $2 billion revenue annually. Crazy, creative solutions and “pivoting” without mercy or guilt are the ways forward in difficult economy.
Another example is how AirBnB changed their business model creatively just in a couple of months since the start of the Covid pandemic.
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.
By now you probably have gathered how I think. I believe in turbulent times business leaders need to further improve their emotional intelligence, experiment empirically, create an environment that promotes creativity, look at the big picture, and of course be humble. Now let’s look at each of these.
As I mentioned earlier, when you improve your emotional intelligence competencies, it becomes easier to take yourself into your best performing state. It will also make it easier to help your team be at their best performing state. Empathy is one of the most important emotional intelligence competencies. And of course, great leaders have growth mindset, they understand that there is no end to these competencies, and they can always get better. No matter how emotionally intelligent you are, you can always get even better at it.
In turbulent time there is no better strategy than to experiment empirically. When faced with uncertainty, we need to make decisions in a way that maximizes our flexibility and adaptability. To do this, we need to find a way to empirically validate the outcome of our decisions before committing to them. We need to ask ourselves how can we design a small experiment to validate our hypothesis and gain more insight?
Most leaders love to have a team that comes up with creative ideas proactively. One way you could promote creativity in your team is to run ideation sessions regularly. Ideation is a session in which we provide a safe space for our team to come up with crazy and impossible ideas. No idea is wrong, and no one is allowed to criticize anyone. Even if your solution involves wormholes and time-travel it is still a valid solution. In ideation sessions no one is allowed to say “but that’s not going to work”, the only feedback allowed is constructive feedback. If you think something is not going to work, you are only allowed to say how to make it work.
Great leaders understand complexity and can see the big picture. We have a technical term for this, we call this “systems thinking”. Systems thinkers solve problems holistically and consider the broader ecosystem that their subject is part of (hence the name systems thinking). Systems thinkers understand that today’s problems are usually the result of yesterday’s solutions and they know that the easy way out typically leads back in. When making decisions, these leaders ask themselves “What is the future price we may have to pay across time and space as a result of this decision?”
And finally great leaders have humility. Humble leaders don’t see themselves above the team. They see themselves as part of the team and collaborate with them closely. Humble leaders are wise. They ask their team members to disagree with them freely as they want to be illuminated by the perspectives of others. Humble leaders show vulnerability and courage. These are the leaders who are willing to take a pay cut in uncertain times so that they do not have to reduce the workforce. This is the type of leader that Simon Sinek describes in his book, Leaders eat last.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My most recent favorite quote is from the 13th century Persian philosopher and mystic, Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
When I started Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence coaching program I was cleaver. I wanted to change the world for the better, I wanted to have a lasting impact, I wanted to be like Elon Musk! But, I graduated from the program a different person, A less ambitious person, I now want to make myself a better person instead of wanting to make the world a better place. And Ironically that has resulted in me having a bigger impact on the world.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best way is to read my book “The Wise Enterprise: Reshape your organisation for the age of uncertainty”. In the book I have many practical examples. If you liked the concepts that I was talking about in this interview but found them a bit abstract please read my book for examples and stories of how I applied them in various organizations of different shapes and sizes.
You can get the book on Amazon or on my website https://SprintAgile.com.au/the-book/