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 Bryan Peña.
Bryan joined MBO Partners — the leader platform for the independent economy -in early 2019 and leads their overall market strategy, partnership development, business development and enterprise capabilities to support the growing demand for independent workforce solutions. He is a widely sought-after speaker, an advocate for the extended workforce industry, and a recognized global expert on open talent platforms, flexible staffing strategies workforce management programs, labor models, HR technology, variable and full-time labor, pricing and revenue strategis, RFx processes, and supplier negotiation techniques
“It’s no secret the world of work is rapidly changing. MBO has always been at the forefront of that change. I am excited to have joined the MBO team in creating the next generation of workforce solutions in an increasingly challenging global economy.”
Previously, Bryan served as senior vice president of contingent workforce strategies at Staffing Industry Analysts. During his more than ten years with SIA, Bryan and his team crafted the Certified Contingent Workforce Professional (CCWP) program — now taught on three continents and widely credited with fundamentally changing the global services industry. He also led SIA’s research and advisory practice to Global 500 companies as well as global conference content for the CWS summit. The CWS summit is the largest event in the world dedicated to the extended workforce and the enterprises who rely on them. Bryan has also served as senior global commodity manager of professional services at Avery Dennison, as well as acting director of strategic sourcing and professional services at Vivendi Universal Entertainment (now NBC Universal) North America.
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?
Wow well how much time do you have?
After graduating from UCSD with a degree in economic and a minor in performance theater. I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an actor. Fast forward to several years later, after what can charitably be described as a smallest of micro-level of success., I had gotten married and my then wife was pregnant with our second child. I had broken my back due to a congenital defect and was recovering from back fusion surgery. We were broke and I had no idea how I was going to provide for my family.
Well through a crazy combination of coincidences out of the blue, my pager — I’m dating myself — goes off and it is a number I didn’t recognize. It was from an executive at Universal Studios who had volunteered on a small short film I had worked on previously. Well they were starting a new department at the studio called Strategic Sourcing and after having more experienced people struggle n the new function, he wanted to hire someone whom he could train to fit the new role. I started out negotiating manufacturing inputs, VHS tape contracts etc. And I was fascinated by the strategy and interpersonal challenges of the role. It just worked for me.
The key learning in all of this is that we all succeed when we hire the person not the resume. Frankly, this experience early on became the driving force that infects so much of my personal and professional life. Someone taking a chance on me and giving me the room to grow and learn.
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?
Well ironically the one mistake that continually comes back to haunt me was the time when I was juts starting in my professional career. I had working at Universal and I was contacted by a casting director at NBC to audition for producers for a role in the sitcom “Friends”. At the time friends was at the height of their popularity and this would have bypassed several steps in the audition process. To make this opportunity more stark it included several episodes and a kissing scene.
But I had made a mental commitment to my new job, so despite the magnitude of the opportunity I told a shocked casting director that I would not be interested in the role I remember clear as day her saying “But this is Friends!”. I felt a pang of regret but didn’t feel like I had a choice.
Fast forward two weeks later and I’m having one of our weekly meeting with my boss. I proudly told him about turning down the Friend’s role to which he replied “You dumb son of a bitch, I would have given you the time off! How could you have turned that down?”
The lesson here is that you can never assume how people will respond unless you ask and are open to possibilities. I had assumed that my leadership would not have supported me outside of work. But in truth successful organizations want their people to thrive in their professional and personal lives. That may not always be true of course, but
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?
I truly believe that everyone who has some level of success gets there with some level of luck and the support of that person who pushed them over the line, be it directly or indirectly. Well for me it was Rick Smith. He saw something in me that at the time I didn’t see in myself and took a chance.
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?
MBO Partners is founded on the deal that people should be empowered to do the work they love to do the way they want to do it. Our founder Gene Zaino was a true visionary when he started the company in 1996 and saw the need for professional independents to build their own services business. Our ideal use case is the executive MBO stands for MyBizOffice and we were in the gig economy before it was headline news.
From those humble beginnings MBO is now a global powerhouse in the independent economy. With revenues approaching $1 billion and a global roster of 60 plus globally recognized enterprise brands across dozens of industries. At any given time, we are engaging as many as 10,000 independent professionals and processing 1,000’s of invoices.
To this day the mantra of “helping people do the work they love the way they want to do it” is present in every meeting and a part of every decision.
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? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Anyone who says they don’t even slightly consider giving up at some point in a time of difficulty is either lying to others or lying to themselves. Most people who have had some level of achievement are by definition high capacity people. They have an innate ability to handle more than others.
For me when the chips are down it’s the best time to pursue creative solutions. It is here where my background in the arts gives me an edge. One of the rules of improvisational theater is to confront every statement with a “yes, and” to move the scene forward. I have found that approach has served me well in confronting challenges. To be able to see an old problem in a new light or from a different perspective in my nirvana.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader in challenging times is to provide a calming presence in the face of chaos and keep the organization focused on the brighter future. There is always a tomorrow and you need to keep your teams grounded in the challenging present with an eye to the brighter future.
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 my opinion the best way to boost morale is to keep the team focused on the mission of the company and communicate how your company is acting connection with that mission. At MBO we feel passionate to our very core, about putting people to work. And during the COVID crisis this mission has been more top of mind than ever. As a leadership team we are reminding team members of this mission on a weekly basis during weekly calls with the whole company. We showcase people whom we have helped in social media to show to the world how we live that vision as well.
More than achievement, people are motivated by progress. Also, times of great crisis can also present great opportunities. While many companies may feel the need to defensively retrench and batten down the hatches, successful organizations can keep their teams motivated by encouraging offense as opposed to defensive action. Maybe its time to release a new product? Or pursue a potential acquisition of a competitor. Doing this reminds to the market , clients and team members that the organization is committed to thriving, not just surviving.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Immediately and with candor and empathy. So many organizations compartmentalize or temper bad news. This is a mistake. Obviously as leaders we need to understand that some information is best kept discrete, but the fact is that negativity loves a vacuum. Human nature has a tendency to fill gaps in understanding with the worse possible outcome and the collective imagination is a going to consider a much more dismal future than most realities. So it is always better to treat team member with the respect they deserve and be honest with the situation. No emotion, no judgment , just the facts and -this is key- what you plan to do about it. Simply dumping bad news without a plan is the worse possible thing one can do. Even if the plan is not complete share that there is one being developed and provide a timeline when it will be communicated.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
They can remember what they are there to do. One of my good friends had this saying that people need to learn to “embrace the grey”. While it is normal to look at things in a binary manner the world doesn’t work that way. To me a leader earns his salary by embracing the uncertainty of the world and making the difficult decisions to act in the face of incomplete information.. In fact a leaders primary job is to assimilate the available information and decide. BUT it is important to leverage your team and solicit trusted feedback from as many trusted sources as possible. Every decision comes with a set of data points and assumptions, track these decision elements constantly and measure your ongoing results again them. Then upon acting be willing to course correct quickly.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Fall in love with the customers and company mission, and not just the customer problems that your company can resolve. Turbulent times are a shared experience and while it is easy to think our clients may have it easy the truth is that each of them are also struggling with some professional and personal challenges. Encourage your team to regularly communicate with your customers and check in. Sometime these human touchpoints can make all the different in the world where it’s easy to become overwhelmed and forget that on the other end is a human being that might just have it harder than you.
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?
Focus on the fear and not the opportunities. Rahm Emanuel famously said: Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Breakthrough companies are born during recessions and being willing to act contrarily to the crowd is the hallmark of a good leader.
Forgetting to manage cash. During challenging times cash is the lifeblood of the organization. It’s easy to let days sales outstanding slip for your best customers but do your best to hold the line. Be willing to trade low cost value adds in exchange for keeping payment terms in line with historical or better yet consider early payment incentives to get cash early. Also consider going to your bank as early as possible and open or expand your line of credit to increase your stock of cash to weather the potential volatility in burn rate.
Forgetting to have fun — People can get depressed and over stressed during challenging times. While it may be counter intuitive, do your best to try and pay attention to the teams psychological well-being by incorporating appropriate fun activities into the workday. Trivia contests, online cooking classes etc. can yield huge dividends in keeping the team engaged for the long term.
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 simplest advice I can give it to go on the offensive. Try new products or services, consider new technologies. Revisit old or lost proposals. Challenge every business assumption of the past 5 years. Just because something didn’t work previously doesn’t mean it will not work in the present reality. The pkayer may have changed, competitors may have left an industry or had a service failure. Dust of the rolodex and start dialing, you may be surprised what you will find.
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.
Make Hard Decisions First — Our CEO Miles Everson has a saying that unlike wine problems tend to not age well. For example; if an organization is going to have make the difficult decision to reduce staff, it is important to do it quickly. If you must do layoffs do them early and with the worst possible scenario in mind. It is better to do one difficult cut of 15–00 people than 2 rounds of 100, if team members know that their roles are safe for the time being they will be more productive instead when they do not have the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads. If you wait till last minute to act it might be too late and you may have burned unnecessary resources and that may make the difference between success and failure.
Treat effected employees as generously as possible. Studies have shown 43% of employees who were laid off during the Great Recession say they still harbor a negative perception today of the company that let them go, nearly 10 years later. Negative treatment of employees will create a whole new army of “Service Terrorists” who will refuse to buy from the company that laid them off and even worse tell ten or more others to do the same. This also allays the fears of the remaining employees to know that not only are their former co-workers are being taken care of, but in the event anything happens to them personally, the company will take care of them as well.
Lead with the mission in mind. During challenging time it is important to remind people of the company vision and how each of them will contribute to that ongoing success. At MBpartners our mission is: “To Help People do the Work They Love the Way They Want to Do it”. This mission is accessible to everyone in the company and drives everything we do.
The best offense is a good defense. After shoring up your balance sheet and cash flow, consider expansion or acquisition. Turbulent times can also present the best opportunity to strategically grow. Perhaps a particular competitor maybe a good target to acquire. What about penetrating a particular market or opening a new line of business? During turbulent times being able to motivate organizations on the transformative growth opportunities such situations present is the hallmark of an exceptional leader.
Focus on YOUR family –Remember that behind every team member is a family that may also be dealing with challenges both financially and personally. While it is important to encourage work life balance as part of corporate culture, it is even more important to live that as a leader. Make sure you and your key leaders work hard but also take the time to rest and recharge. Go home on time -if possible — and make sure to take time off to recharge and connect with your own family. Employees often feel that the only way to keep their job is by delivering more and working all hours of the day. By living your commitment to keeping your mental and family health a priority, you show that you are more than lip service.
Remember the “3 C’s”- Communicate & Collaborate Consistently — Transparently communicate the state of the business early and often. While many green leaders hoard data and information for fear of losing control or potentially alarming team members, rest assured that they are preparing for the worst anyway. You can rest assured that for the most part what their greatest fears almost assuredly worse than the reality. Collaboration is next: To thrive, smaller teams need to be more nimble and turbulent times tend to break down traditional department hierarchies. This encourages and if necessary require true collaboration. This is easier said than done — especially if people are unsure of their role in the organization. To encourage collaboration the experienced leader needs to understand that and have cross department collaboration by their leadership team. The final C is consistency. While living your word and doing what you said you were going to do is a sign of a good executive, this can make the difference between life or death in the organization. Consistency combats fear of the unknown.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“All things are possible to him who believes.” Mark 9:23. I have always felt — with some level of hubris I acknowledge- there nothing is truly unknowable or undoable, if one truly believes it can be done. Now I recognize there are limits to this idea. But I have learned to fall in love with ideas and learning and I think this had made the difference for me in my career. I have learned to hate the comfortable feeling of the being to certain in my understanding and this has led me to voraciously seek knowledge in all it’s forms and from many different experiences.
From teaching improvisational theater in Hollywood to negotiating a tough contract with an intractable supplier, to putting together a client presentation love the process and be committed to growing through it.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can follow me at LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/bryanpena or by calling our company switchboard 703–793- 6000