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 Brian Day, CEO of Fuze.
As CEO, Brian is responsible for the operational leadership of Fuze. Brian has a 25 year track record as a successful financial leader and operator at high-growth companies, most recently at Apperian where he served first as CFO, and then President and CEO through its sale in 2016.
Prior to Apperian, Brian held financial and operational leadership roles at Goal.com, Gomez, Inc., and Octave Communications. He began his career with Fleet Financial Group as a Vice President in the Bank’s structured finance group.
Brian has a B.A. in Economics from the University of New Hampshire, and a J.D. from Suffolk University Law School in Boston.
Outside of work, Brian is an avid sailor and skier and has even been known to show up at a triathlon or two.
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 background includes CEO and financial leadership experience, as well as a law degree. I find it to be a great mix of experience that has prepared me well for my current role as CEO of Fuze. While I started out in finance with Fleet Financial Group, which is now part of Bank of America, and later became CFO at Octave Communications, I have always been interested in much more than just the financial aspects of a business, such as how to balance growth versus profitability, what is the right capital structure, etc.
I’ve really spent the past 20 years working with a number of venture capital firms conducting CEO, CFO and COO work. I love numbers — they never lie — but I’ve also been very operationally focused throughout my career.
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?
This story isn’t from the beginning of my career, but it’s a funny anecdote that I love to share. While I’m glad we were able to adapt quickly to fully remote work at Fuze during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing that I really missed (and still miss) about being in the office was having casual interactions and run-ins with employees — video is great, but there’s just no substitute for in-person, face-to-face conversations when grabbing a snack or a cup of coffee.
So for a while, I made a goal for myself to choose five people to randomly call per day and just have a chat. But nobody wanted to talk to me. They all kept saying, “Well, why is the CEO calling? Am I in trouble? What’s happening?”
I gave up after about a week. While it was well-intentioned, I learned that it’s not a good idea to force casual office conversation. There’s no real substitute for it, and it’s something I’m going to have to live with until we’re back in some sort of office environment.
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?
While I graduated from law school and was figuring out my next career move, Don Whitson who ran Span Instruments in Dallas, Texas, reached out to me and offered me a position as CFO at his company. Over the next four years working with Don, I learned many important lessons, two of which I especially cherish.
The first lesson that I learned from Don was that in order to be a successful leader and CEO, you need to be truly passionate about your company and business. For Don, his company was his life — he was so passionate about his work and it rubbed off on everyone. I learned that energy breeds energy, and if you show up every day excited and motivated about your work, so will most of your employees.
The other lesson I learned from Don was the importance of empowering people to do their jobs and take on responsibilities. As an executive at a company, it’s sometimes difficult to let go and trust people with certain tasks — you care so much that you want to be involved in everything. But Don entrusted me with some big tasks and decisions early on that demonstrated to me the value of knowing when to step back and trust employees to do the best job they can.
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?
Maintaining focus as a business is critical to success, but for many companies it’s easy to lose that focus and get distracted by other markets, products, or shiny objects that take away from their core purpose. I am proud to say that Fuze’s vision and purpose hasn’t really changed since it started. Our initial goal was to be the best UCaaS (unified communications-as-a-service) company out there for the enterprise, and our vision and purpose is still the same today. And our business has become even more relevant and critical with our increasingly remote and distributed workforce, as our customers rely on us to communicate effortlessly across devices and from any location, at any time — from home, from the car, from the office, around the world.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
There has never been a more difficult time to lead a company than right now. But if I could bestow any advice to other leaders, it is to hire good people and empower them to do their jobs, and to be as transparent as possible with employees. Make yourself available, communicate honestly with your teams and employees, and don’t be afraid to have real conversations about challenges, planning, and expectations.
One example of how we’re leading with transparency at Fuze is during our monthly all-hands meetings where we walk the entire company through Fuze’s full financial performance from the prior month. If something is not looking right or not trending in a positive direction, we need to all understand what it is and what we can do to fix it. But first, we need to talk about it. It’s all about transparency.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The answer is simple for me. I consider myself lucky to be the CEO of a company in a dynamic industry and to be working with so many great people. Despite all of the negativity in the world right now, I’m grateful every morning when I wake up to be entrusted with leading this company, and that in itself motivates me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I would say my number one piece of advice is to just lead, power through, and make sure things aren’t falling apart around you — your employees need to be able to trust in you to carry them through. With this comes the need to be confident, decisive in your decision making, and transparent.
During times like these, it’s critical to be a leader that your employees can lean on and trust. I’m a firm believer that no relationship, including business and professional relationships, can survive without trust. As a business leader, it is your duty to provide a trusting and safe environment, especially during increasingly uncertain and challenging times. This is what helps empower teams to stick together and persevere through difficult times.
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 general, I spend a lot of time thinking about how employees are doing and what we can do to make their lives easier and better during this unprecedented time. We’ve implemented a few practices and strategies since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged to help boost morale, motivation, and engagement throughout the company:
● Regular ask-me-anything sessions: We initially created these regular video meetings to have a channel for open communication and transparency from the executive team to the entire company. We have since expanded these sessions to include other Fuzers providing updates on major projects or general company news. We’ve seen great engagement, and it’s a valuable time for us all to connect and have open and honest conversations without any pre-set agenda.
● Creative remote community get-togethers: Over the past 8+ months we’ve experimented with different virtual events such as wine tasting, yoga classes, baking club, and trivia night to see what works best for our team and culture, boost employee morale, and stay personally connected to colleagues.
● Flexible schedules and hours: Flexibility is everything these days, especially with children back in school (in-person, remote, or hybrid). Understanding that employees are often managing other responsibilities outside of work, it’s important to remember to be open, flexible, and empathetic to one another. We’ve consistently encouraged employees to embrace flexible work schedules so colleagues can continue to be their best at home and for work.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s never easy, but I would say go for a combination of honesty and empathy. Be sincere and truthful. And depending on the situation, follow up with a plan or next steps for how the situation can be improved or resolved.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I find that the future is always unpredictable — some years more than others — so you always have to plan for the unknown. Just do the best job you can in planning for what you believe the future holds.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
It’s never been more important to remind employees that we are a team — in every communication, email, and message. We are a team of “Fuzers,” and a “we’re in this together” attitude is critical as employees should know that you also have their best interests at heart, in addition to that of the company. No one should be going through this alone.
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?
- Waiting too long to make tough decisions: As a leader, there will be times where you will need to deliver bad news and make difficult decisions — it just comes with the territory. But I’ve seen situations spiral downward with other organizations that have avoided making these difficult decisions and/or did not handle them appropriately. While it’s easier said than done, sometimes it’s just best to rip off the Band-Aid before things get out of hand.
- Settling for someone other than the best person for the job: Hire once and hire smart. Don’t settle for the first person that comes around when you’re hiring (unless they are truly the ideal candidate).
- Not trusting your team to do their job: If you have hired the right people (see #2 above) then you need to let them do their thing. If you need to hover over them, you hired the wrong person. Don’t micromanage — it doesn’t scale (and no one will want to work with you)!
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?
A large part of it comes down to perseverance, grit, and smart decision-making. And while we may be working longer, stress-filled hours, it’s also important to establish balance in your life so that you don’t burn out. Set boundaries for yourself and be realistic when setting expectations.
Also, a successful business is not only one that is growing, but one that is profitable — an aspect that has become a challenge for many businesses during the pandemic. Find ways to save money where possible, and be strategic where you spend.
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.
- Persevere and show up for your employees: It’s never been more important to be there for your company and show your employees that they can rely on you through difficult times.
- Empower employees to do their jobs: Know when to step back and allow your employees to do their best work. It can be easy to make the mistake of micromanaging during stressful times. But if you hired good people, let them do their jobs.
- Maintain trust/transparency: I have found that trust is built through transparency, communication, and empathy. By leading with these qualities, your colleagues will likely reward you with their loyalty during these trying times.
- Show your passion for your work and company: As I mentioned earlier, energy breeds energy. If you show up passionate and motivated about your work, that energy will likely rub off on employees.
- Team mentality: Always emphasize a team-first mentality. As a team, we are more likely to look out for the well-being of others, motivate, and support each other. Also, remind people that in order to be an effective teammate, they need to be well-rested. Make sure people understand that it isn’t “hours in the seat” that matters, it’s what they accomplish while they are in the seat.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is one of my favorites at the moment, by Winston Churchill — “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” If things are tough, power through — they’ll get better.
How can our readers further follow your work?