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 Brady Brim-DeForest.
Brady is a serial entrepreneur, digital pioneer, and technologist on a mission to transform the future of innovation. He serves as Chief Executive Officer of Theorem and Managing Partner at Halmos Ventures.
Brady helped pioneer the application of lean product design, Agile development, and autonomous, self-empowered teams within the Enterprise and has helped numerous Fortune 500 companies implement radical new processes that enable them to design, build, and ship competitive products at startup speeds.
Brady is an elected Life Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and a Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
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?
My first foray into the business world was during the first dot-com bubble. When I was 16 I worked for a company that went on to realize an early acquisition by Geocities, which was later bought by Yahoo.
That experience and initial taste of the Silicon Valley experience struck a chord — I had a passion for entrepreneurialism.
I stayed involved, later going on to work for a small software firm that built out the first streaming video lab in the western US.
We serviced cable companies and actually worked with Paul Allen’s team at Charter to put 40 cable television channels online. We had a room full of iMacs with a dedicated cooling system and were able to produce choppy postage-stamp-sized video streams using QuickTime player. It was really on the bleeding edge.
This experience with streaming video re-ignited an old passion in me, so I packed up and moved down to Los Angeles, attending film school at the University of California.
Coming out of school, I worked for a couple of years in TV production with some really interesting folks. But Hollywood was too much of a machine for me — a lot of great stuff went in, but not a lot of great stuff came out.
What I loved about making film and television was that it was a team sport — people with different specializations coming together to realize a big, crazy vision.
For me, there were a lot of parallels between film/TV production and the startup world. You had to have a bit of a crazy idea, a team with a wide variety of skills, and this unwavering belief in telling a story that you felt was deeply important.
From LA, I moved to the Bay Area, where I started my second company.
I continued over the next several years, building and scaling companies in and around the enterprise software ecosystem.
I went back to LA and founded my 5th company — TubeFilter — in late 2008/2009.
This was the second coming of online video. Incidentally, I had arrived at the right place at the right time during a writer’s strike in Hollywood, which freed up a lot of mainstream talent — and they all turned to the web. We were building analytics for episodic video content to compete with Nielsen.
It was an exciting time — we built out a couple of media properties alongside the core platform, including the Streamy Awards. We later signed a long-term, co-production deal with Dick Clark Productions. The Streamys are still presented annually to recognize and honor excellence in online video, including directing, acting, producing, and writing.
Around 2010 I decided I wanted to get back into the software ecosystem and joined Theorem as a partner, with a focus on building out our enterprise book of business and developing our product management and design practices to complement the core engineering capability that already existed. I’ve been here ever since!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I have a strange relationship with sleep — I tend to get antsy if I’m in bed for too long. I like to go to bed late and get up early. I see it as the one strategic advantage that I can control for as a human!
At one of my very first startups, I found this amazing muralist that I really loved and thought it would be really cool to inspire the team with a message that I found to be particularly motivating.
Over the weekend I had the muralist in and she painted this incredible, wall-sized mural with the saying “Sleep is the Enemy” in big, red script. I was really excited to see everyone’s reaction and high-five about our mutual rejection of sleep.
But, on Monday morning — when the team saw it — they were super disturbed. I had accidentally and unintentionally created a hostile workplace!
The mural was only up for a few days — I had it painted over later that week — but it was a really important lesson for me in empathy and how I had to be more thoughtful about how the messages I conveyed were interpreted by the people around me. That experience really changed the way I think about how I communicate — I’m a lot less blasé than I was in my younger days!
I think it’s really important to think about the words that you write, the words that you say — and if you’re not able to do that, sometimes it’s better to say nothing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Will Jessup, the founder of Theorem (which was then known as Citrusbyte). He spent the early years building a truly phenomenal team.
I had run several companies as a founder/CEO before joining Theorem, but had never worked with someone quite like him — someone who had a deep desire to understand everything around him.
It inspired my own journey — learning how to unpack the assumptions we all make about the way things work, and to really think about how they could work better.
The most important thing Will taught me was to learn to trust people earlier than you’d normally feel comfortable doing so, because half of the time, people will surprise you with how capable they actually are. You can move faster by distributing decision-making to the edge.
I’ve always been a detail-oriented person and a bit of a perfectionist, so it was hard for me to let go. The risk of doing this is that I can become a bottleneck in the process.
Will showed me that not only was it possible, but that it could make you infinitely more scalable as a leader.
Of course, you’re going to have some misfires along the way, but the upside significantly outweighs the risk.
Will also showed me that it’s critically important to look for and understand other people’s truths.
My world is only informed by my experiences and intuition… which can be right and good, but there’s a multitude of ways to do something.
Don’t spend too much time getting people to do things the way you want them done. Find people that think well, not that just think like you.
Everything is ultimately about the outcome. Once you recognize that, then the specific approach is a lot less important. Focusing too much on the approach makes you lose sight of what really matters, which is getting to the right destination/outcome.
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?
Theorem has always been focused on quality, but we know that in order to achieve it, we must first build the kind of organization that enables each and every team member to do their life’s best work.
As our organization has grown and matured, we have realized that this is also what our clients actually need most. We are most successful when we leave an imprint on their organization that enables their teams to work more effectively to deliver the same quality of outcomes that we create for them from the outside.
While we can’t help every client that wants to work with us, we can make the way we work accessible to a broad audience of business leaders and operators. This has become our raison d’etre.
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?
As a leader, you have a responsibility to see around corners, but we’re all naturally pretty bad at doing that. So, the question becomes, how do you modulate the amount of energy you spend thinking about the future without becoming overwhelmed by all the things you can’t predict.
It’s all about placing bets in a way that reduces the risks and increases the rewards.
For Theorem’s first 7 years, our model was nearly 100% dependent on referrals from our network, which was extensive, but still had its limitations.
The forces of supply and demand have their peaks and valleys, and in 2017, we found ourselves with those two competing forces misaligned. We foresaw a significant potential future gap in our sales pipeline — not 6 or even 12 months out, but on the horizon nonetheless. It wasn’t something many in the organization needed to know or worry about, but it is a leader’s job to worry about these things.
Some would say it wasn’t actually a significant risk, but I saw it as a clear and present danger because every day that went by without addressing it was one less day we could do something about changing the way our demand generation model worked — crucial days we would have wished we had later on.
It was considered an unpopular decision by some, who thought unraveling the model we had been running for ten years could be a mistake, especially when not immediately necessary.
We placed a bet and made some of the most significant organizational changes we had ever made.
It was impossible to predict the quality of that decision in the moment, but it’s a critical example of why you need to look around corners and take action when you first see the risk because you will eventually reach a point where making a decision can no longer save you from an inevitable outcome.
You have to make decisions early, and you have to make them often. Look around corners and make decisions that allow for maximal rewards and limit risk. Understand that there are likely to be stumbles in the early days of implementing any decision, but if the overall trajectory is the right one, stay the course and double down.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ve never considered giving up at anything, but that’s probably due more to my own stubbornness than anything else! I have always thought and firmly believed that the best way out is through.
If you give up, you learn nothing. You don’t even get an opportunity to succeed or fail.
You have to accept failure as just as valid an outcome as success in order to remain committed to continuing on.
There is always a healthy dose of fear in mind when I’m confronting a new challenge. But I’ve always re-centered myself on the basis that all I have to do is make another decision, and another, and that eventually — through all those decisions — I’ll make the right one.
I never want to find myself in a position where I wonder “what if” — that only happens if you stop, or give up. As long as you keep your hat in the ring, as long as you keep making decisions, then you never have to wonder. You can test every single possibility as long as you don’t give up.
Sometimes an initial decision does not go the way you originally envisioned, but it’s easy to misinterpret the results. It’s too simple to assume failure and hit the eject button.
You have to keep placing bets. You need to know what failed and why, and the only way to do that is to try again.
Experimentation always yields learnings, whether through success or failure. This is the essence of the engineering-based approach that Theorem was founded on. It’s how we approach our client work and how we operate internally. There’s never a sense that a decision was empirically bad, even if was a complete failure because there’s always something to learn that informs the next decision and sets the basis for the next experiment.
Experimentation requires a certain amount of commitment, and you can’t give up after the first failed result. Be passionate about finding a solution.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A leader has to keep a steady hand on the till. Your team needs to know that you’re confident in your plan and can adapt that plan as circumstances change. The team needs to know that you’re thinking about their needs as well.
During turbulent times, the most critical role of a leader is to keep the people around you focused and calm. Make sure your team is not distracted by the unknown unknowns — focus them on the things they can control.
A good leader remains focused and isn’t an alarmist. You’ll see plenty of things that have the potential to alarm you and those around you, so your most important job is to keep your team from being distracted by them.
Let them know that you know, and understand, what’s going on. Let them know that you have a plan and that you’re executing against it.
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?
Lead from the front. The best way to boost morale during a challenging time is to get in the trenches alongside your team. People want to know that when the going gets tough, their leader will be right there in the fray with them.
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Nothing is worse than a leader who remains at a safe distance during tough times.
Sometimes this means stopping or altering your focus on the big picture and going deeper into the details — not in a way that undercuts your team, but in a way that supports them. Let them know that you’re there to add a little more muscle to help get things over the finish line.
I can’t think of anything more unappealing than a leader who stands on a hill, overlooking the battle below. You have to be alongside your team on the frontlines — shoulder to shoulder.
There can be a pleasant side effect to this. When you are on the frontlines, you start to see problems that you are uniquely capable of fixing — problems that might be imperceptible from a distance. With the perspective gained by being on the frontlines, you can add an enormous amount of value simply through the decisions you make.
My job is to help everyone maintain perspective — even in the grimmest of circumstances, there’s always a glimmer of hope. No matter how bad things get, they can always get better.
Good times make millionaires, but bad times make billionaires. The strong survive — they’re willing to see opportunities that others are too overwhelmed to see.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Move fast. Acknowledge quickly that you see the problem. There is nothing more unsettling than thinking your leaders are unaware of an impending storm. Therefore, you must get out in front of it. You may not have any answers yet, but you need to be present and let your team know that you’re just aware as they are on the cloud on the horizon.
Having compassion is important. At the end of the day, every organization is composed of humans.
Generally, leaders have the highest fidelity information available. When speaking to your team, it’s important not to get frustrated if someone asks a question you feel has already been addressed. In fact, if you need to speak with every single member of your team regarding an announcement you made, that’s actually a good thing. People coming to you means they trust you and want to hear it first-hand — they want you to reassure them, to share more of your understanding. This should be interpreted as success. Alternatively, if you push out a message and hear nothing, that’s scary and means the message was either ignored, wasn’t believable, or wasn’t inspiring enough for people to engage.
Maximum transparency is important, but interpreting the data is really important as well. There is a lot to be said about communicating confidently and transparently about what’s coming and what you’re doing at the management layer to ensure the best outcome for the team. You want to let the team know that leadership is not walking blindly down the path — that you see the risks and challenges ahead, and are taking steps to mitigate them.
I think the frequency of communication during turbulent times is critical. It’s easy to be an alarmist, so you have to suppress the urge to share all of the risks you see with everyone around you, especially since the likelihood of 100% of them coming to fruition is unlikely. As you categorically identify the risks and put a mitigation plan in place for each of them, that’s a great moment to share with the team about the steps you’re taking (vs. simply stating a risk without a proactive strategy to mitigate it).
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is always unpredictable, we’re just often lulled into a false sense of confidence that it isn’t. The same tactics needed during times of turbulence are also important to employ at times that aren’t. At the end of the day, it’s all about what you’re doing to prepare for a future that you can’t consistently predict.
I think what’s most important is to focus on building a resilient organization and distributing risk as broadly as possible. This starts with people.
You create a durable organization by building a team of people who are adaptable and resilient.
The difference between success and failure for an organization in turbulent and unprecedented times is ultimately dictated by how well you’ve prepared your organization by recruiting and retaining the right people.
From day one, Theorem has explicitly focused on the fundamentals of good business, in short, generating profit — enough profit so that we can set aside capital to weather a rainy day. We’ve doubled down on this approach, the downside of which is slower growth. But the upside is that we’re not red-lining all of the time, which gives us greater control over our destiny. Another upside is being able to protect against outcomes that we can’t foresee (the unknown unknowns).
As an innovation and software engineering firm, Theorem is in the services business. During times of widespread uncertainty, it’s important for our leadership to connect directly with our client stakeholders and let them know — proactively — that we’re aware that their business is going through the same challenging time, and that we want to be a good partner and to proactively offer them flexibility.
When push comes to shove and they have to make a reduction somewhere, it’s important for them to not feel like they’re alone.
This kind of collaborative communication turns us into an ally — not a vendor they need to go to battle with.
It’s as simple as acknowledging the challenges they’re facing and offering solutions — such as more flexible payment terms, options to mitigate cash flow constraints, or even changes to the way we’re delivering the service.
Our biggest risk is that a customer decides to cut our services instead of something else, so we want to ensure we’re in a position where we’re the last one to be cut.
It’s important to know where our boundaries are, but we can leverage the war chest we’ve built internally to provide our customers with more flexibility and offset those risks. We see this as an absolute advantage during turbulent times.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I think the #1 principle to help guide a company through turbulent times is focus.
It’s really easy to want to focus on a lot of things at the expense of the one thing that you do best.
Even in normal times, it’s easy to get out of focus, so you have to constantly re-align and re-focus.
During turbulent times, it’s even more important to remain focused, because if you let that slip, a lot of things can come crashing down quickly.
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?
#1 — Reacting too quickly before you have a clear sense of what changes the disruptive event is going to drive in the broader ecosystem, for you, and for your customers.
There’s a value in delaying a little bit before responding or reacting to an event. Be very thoughtful about investigating the change that’s going to come about because of a turbulent experience.
It’s important to get your house in order and put the right amount of thinking into how you will address a disruptive event before taking action.
#2 — Not looking at the data.
It’s easy to focus on what the pundits are saying, what your advisors are saying, what the market is saying, and what the press is saying. These are all important inputs, but don’t make your decisions based on them. Make your decisions based on the way your business is actually working.
You may find that your business performs in an unexpected way during a disruptive event. If you react too quickly based on what you expect to happen, instead of what the data shows you is actually happening, you can easily course correct in the wrong direction. You could easily engage in a headcount reduction, or ramp down your sales efforts at the wrong time.
Don’t jump on the bandwagon because everyone else is doing it. Figure out what is right for your organization.
#3 — Failing to invest in the downturn.
When the going gets tough, a lot of organizations will pull back on investments in critical projects and infrastructure.
Most of your competitors are going to do that.
Be thoughtful about how you’re deploying your capital, but if you want to come out stronger than them, continue making intelligent and educated bets on the future.
Invest in the areas that are going to help you weather the storm but also emerge stronger than those who just battened down the hatches and retreated into their most conservative position.
It’s important not to just “stop.” You have to keep going and make investments that are going to drive the future of the business because bad times will always pass.
#4 — Not promoting from within.
Take the opportunity, inside of a disruptive event, to promote from within.
During such an event, you have an amazing opportunity to identify leaders and visionaries inside your organization that have the mental fortitude, composure, and confidence to step up.
Seek out and identify those people who are still willing to take risks, want more opportunity, and are eager to shoulder some of the burdens.
It’s easy to be aggressive and confident when everything is working out, but it’s really hard to do so when things get tough. You may find that some of your current leaders, who you thought had those qualities to help build and scale your business, weren’t really able to perform in the tough times, and that others were.
Use this time to identify and groom future leaders.
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 number one most important thing to do is to focus on the fundamentals of what makes your business work.
Be explicit about where you won’t compromise. Don’t eliminate the things about your organization that make you successful, even if it feels counter-intuitive to continue spending big in those areas.
Example: It’s tempting to batten down the hatches. But how good are you at predicting the future? Probably not better than the rest of us.
You’re more likely to slow down your growth artificially because you’re anticipating something that may not happen.
It’s easier to stop doing something later than to re-start it. Delay this kind of action until the last responsible moment.
Focus on the kinds of decisions that enable you to do well and continue to grow, diminishing the likelihood of prematurely stalling your engine.
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.
#1 — Remain calm. Don’t call a disaster before it occurs or create a moment for chaos. Be thoughtful about the risks you can see and develop an action plan to mitigate them.
#2 — Acknowledge the challenges. People need to know that their leaders don’t have their heads stuck in the sand. Do this early and do it often.
#3 — Lead with compassion. Acknowledge the fact that people are nervous and uncertain about the future. You have to be their rock. Help them to understand the scale of the challenges they’re about to face. Inspire them with confidence by sharing your plan.
#4 — Be present. Get into the thick of it. Go down to the floor of the factory, show your people that you’re with them on the frontlines, and not just up in an ivory tower giving orders.
This helps you uncover really important opportunities for optimizations. When you go through a disruptive event, waste and inefficiencies can become more visible.
You have the ability to make quick changes as a leader, so take advantage of this opportunity and be a visible collaborator.
#5 — Be decisive. When it comes time to make a decision, make it quickly. Don’t delay.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“No decision is the worst decision”
This quote reminds me, time, and time again, to take action.
None of us can predict the accuracy or the quality of our decisions in advance. The only thing we can do is to make the best decision possible and to do so quickly.
It can be a small decision vs. a big one, a conservative one vs. a risky one, but make a decision and don’t wait.
It’s critical to have that conviction and focus on making a decision. If you don’t:
People around you will lose confidence; and
People will make a decision for you. If you want to accomplish anything exceptional, then that’s too big a risk.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Theorem recently launched their new thought leadership hub, Journal (journal.theorem.co).
Journal features original research, industry-leading insights, and other timely content from Theorem’s team of digital innovation experts.