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 Brian Rainey, CEO of Gooten.
Brian Rainey is the Chief Executive Officer of Gooten, the globally distributed production and logistics company that operates a smart supply chain for brands and retailers looking to reshape their eCommerce business with on-demand manufacturing. As a “big picture” thinker, Brian elevates the organization through pivotal leadership and strategic direction. Brian maintains an entrepreneurial perspective by which he views every challenge as an opportunity. He solves problems by curating and motivating an inspired, highly skilled cross-functional team to ensure the seamless executions of processes by devising and formulating business strategies as well as creating short-term goals and long-term objectives.
Prior to Gooten, Brian worked in the accounting and finance industries, previously serving as the Chief Financial Officer of Buzz Points, Inc, based in Austin Texas, a FinTech company delivering local rewards for community banks and credit unions. Before that, he worked at Deutsche Bank in New York and the Venture Capital Services Practice at Deloitte in the Washington DC area.
Brian holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting and Finance from James Madison University in Virginia, and an MBA from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
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?
Prior to Gooten, I served as the CFO of a fintech company that delivered local rewards for community banks and credit unions. Before that, I primarily worked in the financial services industry at companies like Deloitte and Deutsche Bank. One of the reasons I wanted to move away from the finance industry is because it is a zero-sum game — meaning, for me to give something to someone I have to take it away from someone else. Instead, I wanted to create efficiencies within inefficient processes so that everyone can win. That is what drew me to Gooten because we only succeed when our partners succeed. It’s one of the reasons why we call our customers partners because at the end of the day, we are their business partner and our goals are 100% aligned with theirs.
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?
The first person that comes to my mind is one of my colleagues who recently celebrated his 6th year anniversary at Gooten. He started off as one of the first customer support agents and now leads our primary accounts and is the president of Gooten’s subsidiary company in Serbia. Because of him, we’ve been able to achieve significant growth at Gooten as he is always advocating and innovating on behalf of our merchant partners.
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?
When I took over as CEO of Gooten, I went on a listening tour with both sides of our business — our merchant partners and our manufacturing partners — in order to distill what our true value proposition was as a company. Throughout those conversations, I learned that Gooten was providing a fundamental service that was incredibly difficult for each side of our business to deliver. This was creating a technological solution for merchants to easily access the world’s manufacturing network in a transparent and scalable way. Because of the product and service we provide, over the past 5 years, we’ve been able to power the businesses of 50,000+ merchants.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The entire Gooten team motivates me through difficult times and challenges. One year there was a snowstorm in St. Louis at one of our manufacturing partner’s locations four days before 2500 items needed to be shipped out in order to arrive by Christmas. The orders we fulfill aren’t run-of-the-mill, everyday products that you can pick up at your local Target. They are personalized and customized. One of the core benefits of Gooten is that we offer redundancies — meaning our product SKUs are available in more than one facility. Even though the St. Louis location was out of commission, we were able to move all those orders to one of our partners in North Carolina and they were able to produce, ship, and deliver all those items in time for the holidays. We were not only able to persevere because of our production capability and network, but also because of the strength and dedication of our team members.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Communicate transparently and empower your team members.
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?
Having empowered employees who feel like their voice is being heard is critical in boosting morale. One of the best ways to motivate your team is by creating space for people to voice their feedback. In a remote setting, it can be even more challenging for your employees to communicate their concerns or issues. It’s important to go the extra mile — whether that’s through surveys, 1:1s, or town halls — to give your team the opportunity and freedom to express themselves in order to create a better working environment.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Human nature doesn’t change just because you are working remotely. We can’t allow technology to delude us into thinking human interactions are not important. The best way to humanize tough conversations is to ensure that video is on so that you are face-to-face, and communicate as transparently as possible.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Planning is critical for any business, however, when there is a crisis, it is important to have flexibility in order to respond quickly and effectively prioritize the most important tasks.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle that can help guide a business during uncertain times is investing and building a strong sense of culture. Having that trust that everyone is going to show up and do their jobs is critical in a business that is focused on delivering best in class service.
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?
In a remote, distributed work environment, not clearly documenting company goals, projects, and meetings is a huge mistake. When everyone on your team is working remotely and in different time zones, it is easy to fall into a giant game of telephone. Making sure information is readily available allows every team member to react and engage at the same time without something slipping through the cracks or getting out of context. Leading with written communication also allows for all personality types, especially introverts, to equally participate and puts everyone on a more level playing field.
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?
As a company that powers many online businesses, we were extremely grateful to grow exponentially as more consumers shopped online due to stay at home orders. However, due to this surge of orders, a wave of support tickets came flooding in, and our customer support team — typically able to respond to tickets within 24–48 hours — now had 4x the normal amount of tickets to respond to and a constant flow of new tickets coming in daily. In order to best serve our partners, we prioritized transparent communication in order to manage expectations and revamped our customer support workflow to better intake requests.
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.
- Communication: Effective communication during a crisis is critical for any leader. When there is uncertainty, your team will look to you to deliver clarity and direction. When we shut our NYC office last March, we immediately instituted a weekly company All-Hands meeting to keep lines of communication open.
- Transparency: Simply communicating is not enough. A leader must also communicate transparently to ensure expectations are appropriately set and there are no misunderstandings. There are already so many unknowns when a business is experiencing turbulent times, so leading with transparency becomes absolutely essential in order to foster a trusting and safe work environment.
- Empowerment: Transparent leadership ultimately leads to more empowered employees. When there is a crisis, speed is critical. Empowerment allows teammates the ability to make decisions quickly and efficiently. This was incredibly important at the onset of April 2020 when the eCommerce industry skyrocketed and we exceeded sales forecasts by more than 3–4x across nearly every product category. Our operations and support teams particularly needed to think quickly on their feet in order to keep up with the surge of orders.
- Prioritization: In a crisis, everything feels urgent. As the old saying goes, “don’t let the urgent get in the way of the important.” At the end of the day, the most important thing in our business is delivering high-quality service to our merchant partners. That’s why when our order volume nearly quadrupled overnight and our customer support team was slammed with tickets, everyone in the company, including myself, stepped in to be a customer support agent in order to help our partners.
- Community: Having a strong sense of community and culture that fosters employee engagement, growth, and empowerment is extremely beneficial during uncertain and turbulent times. When our whole company went remote last year, our teammates were able to quickly rely on each other because of the trusting community built with one another.
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