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 Bob Weiler.
Bob Weiler is the Managing Founder of Brimstone Consulting. Bob partners with CEOs and their leadership teams on accelerating business results and large-scale change initiatives. Much of his work focuses on advising CEOs and C-suite executives on methods to address short- and long-term results, while simultaneously achieving alignment, developing leaders, and energizing the organization.
Before launching Brimstone, Bob served as: President and COO of Grand Circle Travel, an industry leader in direct marketing of travel to mature Americans; Associate Director of the Global Leadership Program, a renowned executive development program at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan; and EVP of Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, the largest Outward Bound School in North America. Working with leadership expert Noel Tichy at General Electric’s Crotonville management training center, Bob designed key modules for developing high-performing teams and individuals.
Bob has competed in the Hawaii Ironman World Championships, the Spartan Peak to Peak 50-mile race, and the Leadville 100 MTB. He has also participated in expeditions in Nepal and the Swiss Alps.
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?\
When I was in high school, I took an Outward Bound program at Hurricane Island. Then, as a college freshman, I applied to be an Outward Bound instructor. I soon found myself teaching winter courses in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and summer courses on Hurricane Island in Maine.
In the early days of the Hurricane Island Sea Program, a US Coast Guard licensed Captain was required to be aboard the boats. As I was still in the process of getting my license, I needed someone who had a license to sail with me. The person who sailed with me was Peter Willauer, the Founder and President of Hurricane Island Outward Bound. I spent many, many days at sea with Peter. This unique opportunity enabled me to lead at other Outward Bound sites, within other programs, and eventually return to Hurricane Island as the Executive Vice President.
Working with Peter, a visionary, and watching him navigate challenging and tricky operational and political situations with the board was foundational. I use much of what I learned today.
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?
Shortly after taking on the role of Executive Vice President of Hurricane Island Outward Bound, I went to Crotonville, General Electric’s management training center, and knocked on Noel Tichy’s door. Noel was the then-famous change management guru hired by Jack Welch to transform Crotonville into an engine for change. I invited Noel and his Crotonville teaching staff to Hurricane Island, a small island off Maine’s coast, to participate in a three-day action learning program. Noel initially said no, but I finally convinced him.
When Noel and his team of 24 arrived on the Island, I was off on a business development trip. When I returned, I found that the program had been a disaster, and Noel and his team had left. I immediately went to Crotonville, and I sat outside Noel’s door for close to seven hours. When he finally opened his door, the first thing he said was, “Where do we start?” My answer was, “With an apology.” For the next three years, I worked closely with Noel, Hiro Takeuchi, and the team at Crotonville. This experience was foundational.
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?
When we begin working with clients, we often start by having people share their Journey Lines — their journey, including pivotal people and events. We use Journey Lines because they help to bring people together and establish trust. They also help people to develop empathy.
I bring up Journey Lines because there are many people and many events that have impacted and shaped my journey and who I am today.
In very different ways, three people gave me the confidence, knowledge, and kick necessary for me to leave Grand Circle Corporation and found Brimstone: my wife Wendy, my brother Peter, and Alan Lewis, Founder and Chairman of Grand Circle Corporation.
And, as I said earlier, Noel Tichy has played a significant role in my journey and life.
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?
Our vision was, and remains, helping business leaders drive their success by simultaneously delivering results, transforming and aligning the organization, and developing leadership talent. Our purpose- to build an extraordinary organization.
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?
In March 2020, we pivoted from working face-to-face with clients to delivering workshops and programs virtually — in less than one week. We were able to do this because we were, as an organization, aligned on a common goal — helping and supporting our clients.
Our success was also because of the focus placed on our people, on our team. We increased our communication across the organization. We did regular check-ins to see how everyone was doing, and to see if they needed anything. We emphasized (and continue to emphasize) that people take the time necessary to care for themselves and their families.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have never considered giving up. I don’t see hard; I see the next challenge. I am tenacious, and I am extremely fortunate in that I have been able to surround myself with people and a team who also lean in and are willing to work through challenges.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Communication. Communicate on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis. In the absence of communication, people spend time trying to figure out what is going on rather than focusing on the present and what needs to get done. Additionally, stress levels rise as people become more anxious and uncertain about what is happening. Establishing a regular cadence and ensuring communication is transparent is critical.
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?
Times of uncertainty are ripe for change. Gathering insight and ideas from employees across the organization and from stakeholders will help to identify opportunities and weaknesses and will help transform the organization. I often ask: “If you were me, what is the first decision you would make?” Other questions I advise leaders to ask are: “What’s working?” and “What’s not?” and “What can I do better?” Asking these questions will engage and inspire the organization — and generate ideas and insights to accelerate growth, performance, and profitability.
Also important is taking the time to highlight the work people are doing. Share and celebrate wins and actions — big and small. Do this consistently.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Make sure people understand the why. Be honest and be transparent — communicate the brutal facts, the situation, and market realities. Ensure people have the information needed to understand the why behind difficult decisions and actions.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
When faced with unpredictability, putting a plan in place is critical. Without a plan, without a goal, no one knows what they are working towards. Creating a plan in an unpredictable environment requires flexibility and for perfection to be placed aside. Leaders need to create a plan based on the information they have, no matter how limited. Once a plan is in place, execute the plan until it is determined that the plan is leading you in the wrong direction or until new information shows you another way. Then, create a new plan. Be agile.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Reassess, reassess, reassess. As the saying goes, the first casualty of any battle is the plan of attack.
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?
A common mistake for leaders and their leadership teams to close themselves off from the rest of the organization and go head-down. Rather than support and build the organization, this creates fractures and impedes success. Taking the time to focus on communication and leadership team alignment is crucial, as is being flexible and leading with empathy.
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?
Start by looking at your market realities, understanding your customer needs, and understanding where you are vulnerable. Once you understand the competitive forces, customer forces, and external forces, you can quickly make assumptions and see opportunities.
I also recommend taking an agile approach to strategy. An agile approach is iterative and engenders collective ownership within the leadership team and across the organization. It accelerates execution, enhances employee engagement, and drives performance and profitability. It also identifies barriers to alignment, fosters communication, increases engagement, increases trust, drives better decision-making, improves operating discipline, promotes individual leadership development, and builds the capabilities of high-performing teams.
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.
Communicate. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I prioritized communication with my team and with our clients. Internally, we connected each day. With our clients, the cadence ranged from daily to weekly. As I shared earlier, in the absence of communication, people spend time trying to figure out what is going on rather than focusing on the present and what needs to get done. And, people get stressed and anxious. Communication is an incredible tool.
Create a vision. Our business was based on working with our clients, in-person. When it became clear that travel was not safe and not possible, I made it clear that we would pivot. And pivot we did. In less than one week, we had redesigned and reimaged upcoming workshops and sessions. In the past year, we have delivered on all of our contracts, added new clients, and creating new offerings. By articulating a vision, everyone on the team knew what we were working towards — and we did it.
Build an aligned team around the path forward. If the executive team is not aligned, leading (and getting results) will be challenging. Let’s look at the example of a leader we worked with at a global pharmaceutical manufacturer. Following an acquisition, the leader, a newly appointed VP of Global Operations, was charged with converting European operations to a global operating model. She faced a complex task with a tight timeline, a high level of skepticism among country leaders, and a strained relationship with her new boss, the CTO. We worked with her to align her executive team and to transform ambiguity and skepticism into clarity and alignment around a new direction. The result — in addition to gaining alignment, the organization added over $7M to the bottom line.
Be fast, flexible, and time competitive. Start with your market realities. If you do this, you will begin to see opportunities. What does this mean? It means talking to customers and assessing where they are now, what they need now, and identifying what they will need. It means understanding not only your competitors but also your supplies and vendors. Once you understand the kind of competitive forces, the customer forces, and the external forces you don’t control, you can make assumptions and quickly see opportunities. And in disruptive times, there are tremendous opportunities. You need to move quickly to get those opportunities.
Finally, reassess, reassess, reassess. In turbulent times, things change — fast. Use new information, new knowledge to adjust or to change your plan.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” resonates with me. Unlike my peers, I decided to become an Outward Bound instructor prior to going to graduate school. I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
How can our readers further follow your work?