As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Conor Smith, Co-CEO at Cella, a nationwide staffing, consulting and managed solutions firm.
Since 2002, Conor has played a pivotal role in Cella’s tremendous growth where he focuses on business strategy, operations, and portfolio development. Applying energy and decades of staffing experience, he has innovated the way companies acquire and retain talent. For this (among other accomplishments), Conor has won numerous awards, including SmartCEO Future 50 honors and twice being named to Staffing Industry Analysts North America Staffing 100 list of the industry’s most influential people.
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?
Mypleasure. I’ve been with Cella for almost 20 years now and started with the company when we were a much smaller organization. I started as a Selling Branch Manager in our Philadelphia branch when the company was exclusively a creative staffing organization with about 16 employees doing less than $4,000,000 in annual revenue. I had and have the immense fortune of working with some fantastic people who have helped me grow into the role that I have today, co-CEO.
Prior to joining Cella (known as BOSS Staffing back in 1999), I held various sales, recruiting, and management positions. I was successful in my early sales jobs but wasn’t fulfilled. I loved sales and interacting with clients, but I didn’t have a passion for the industries I sold. I read a book called “What color is your parachute” by Richard Nelson Bolles, which was a workbook that seeks to align your skills with jobs and industries for which you have a passion. This led me to pursue opportunities in sales and recruiting and in the creative industry. I never looked back.
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?
I have had no shortage of mistakes in my career. I am a big believer that if you aren’t failing often, then you aren’t trying hard enough, or the bar is too low. This isn’t necessarily a funny example, at least not to the people it impacted, but early on in my management career, I led with “authority.” I didn’t have any management training, and I thought the best way to get people to perform was to firmly instruct them what to do. I am a very driven and passionate person, and I expected everyone to be the same way all the time. I quickly realized that respect is earned and that the best way to lead, manage and motivate people is to get to know them on a personal level. You have to understand what motivates them, what their purpose is for being with the organization, what factors outside of work may be motivating their behaviors etc. I had to learn these things on the job and there were many mistakes made along the way.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I am an avid reader, and there have been so many books that have made a tremendous impact on my life. I mentioned “What color is your parachute” earlier. This is a fantastic book for anyone trying to find their way with their career. “Good to Great” by Jim Collins is another must-read for any leader. My favorite of all time, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, isn’t a business book, but has many incredible lessons.. Finally, a book that completely changed my life as I battled personal health-related adversity is “The Obstacle is the Way’ by Ryan Holiday.
My go-to, must-listen podcasts are Tim Ferris and Rich Roll.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Well, I certainly couldn’t agree more with that research! I am not a founder of Cella, but I am a board member and, along with my co-CEO, Terra Campbell, have been with the company a very long time. We are both very aligned with our founders and fellow board members, Linda and Rossi Bonugli. Cella has always been about creating a company and a culture that is different. Our vision continues to be that we can be a cutting edge, high growth company AND have a great employee-centric culture. We are very serious about success and winning here, but at the same time, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We are casual, we laugh A LOT, and we have fun. Is there anything more fun than doing great work with people that you like? We also want people to be themselves here. And I don’t just mean their “work self.” I mean who they really are. We want there to be very little difference between the person who shows up on Monday vs. who that person was over the weekend. Our culture has allowed us to thrive and endure many difficult times. Cella is a special place.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Our values. We have four values at Cella that are our north star. Passionate Performance, Employee Centricity, Entrepreneurial Spirit, and Service Excellence. The value I lean on the hardest when times are tough is Employee Centricity. Our definition of this value is that what is best for the employee should be best for the company and vice versa. The two should always be in balance to the highest degree possible. There are times when we need to make tough decisions, but we do so through the lens that ultimately, the decision will benefit our employees in the long run. It is a difficult balancing act at times, but it is a great filter to run our decisions through.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I think I will look back on this time as the most challenging and also the most rewarding period of my life. Professionally, by far, these are the most challenging times I have ever been through. We have had to make some very swift and definitive actions to react to this ever-changing situation. Many of these decisions were hard because they impacted the lives of people we truly love. Again, the Employee Centricity value is our guide. In these challenging times, I have also seen many people raise the level of their game to incredible levels.
Personally, it has been incredible to spend this amount of quality time with my family. My boys are growing up too fast, and frankly, this pandemic has really shed a light that our lives were moving too fast. Like many Americans, we were too “busy.” It is so great to just have blank open chunks of time to be together with nowhere to be. We are a very close family, and this has only made us closer. To that end, I will always treasure this time.
That being said, there is also a high degree of fear and uncertainty involved. I am a Type 1 Diabetic and it is a scary and confusing time for me. It is scary for my family, knowing that I am in a “high risk” category. I think managing fear and uncertainty has been a real challenge for all of us during this time. There truly is a dichotomy between the tragedy and beauty of the current situation.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The decisions that we had to make that impact our employees’ lives were very challenging. There were a few weeks in March that were the toughest of my life. I cried on more than one occasion. I have a deep love for Cella and our employees. This is very personal for me.
I leaned on my co-CEO Terra, our founders Linda and Rossi, our executive team, my wife, Amy, and a strong peer group for support, and they leaned on me. I was not alone in this. None of us are. It is so essential for me to be able to have people to “be real” with.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
One of the biggest challenges for me by far has been balancing my “information consumption.” At the beginning of the pandemic, I just couldn’t pull myself away from the news cycle. I was reading anything and everything on the topic. I’ve gotten way better with my information diet and genuinely treat it as such. It is so critical that we manage our consumption of media and news and pressure test information through various sources. I do some reading in the morning to stay current and then try and step away from the news cycle from there and spend my time digesting more meaningful and impactful content.
Self-care practices are also critically important to me. I meditate, read, and pray every morning and get some form of exercise every day. Yoga is a massive part of my self-care routine too. Everyone is looking for hacks, but it always comes back to the basics. Mediation, exercise, limit alcohol, eat well, and get the proper amount of sleep. That being said, just because something is simple doesn’t mean it is easy. I tend to “grip the bat” very tight and strive for perfection. It is SO important that we give ourselves space right now. We are hardest on ourselves; I know I am. I would NEVER be as critical to someone else as I am to myself. I need constant reminding of that. I keep going back to the basics but also trying to “let it be easy” and give myself space to do the best I can today. Every day is a new challenge and opportunity.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I 100% agree. That’s again the challenging dichotomy of this situation. It is and will continue to be a challenging time, but it also is going to be filled with tremendous opportunity and innovation. This crisis will most certainly expedite an already fast-moving trend towards digital marketing. There are a lot of opportunities here on my levels. I also believe the meetings and events space will be forever changed. That’s not to say that there will never be large in-person meetings again, but this pandemic really showed that a large portion of events could be done very effectively remotely. Many companies relied on conventions and conferences to connect with their buyers. There’s a lot of opportunities to rethink this space.
It is so critical that our company remains very nimble and listens to our clients and employees as to where the trends are moving. Agility is key.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
This story remains to be written, and we may not know the answer for years to come. The pace that this pandemic moves and the related information streams are swift. I’d hope the lessons of simplicity, valuing time with our family, focusing on what matters, and spending more time in nature will live on forever. We all need to embrace more simplicity in our professional and personal lives. That being said, we know that human beings have short memories and tend to fall back to our old ways of living as the pain subsides. I’m curious to see if this situation truly creates lasting positive change. I know I will be working hard to ensure it does for me.
I certainly hope that the biggest lesson that carries forward for all of us is that workplaces in this country genuinely do allow for more flexibility as a norm. And not just flexibility for flexibility’s sake or purely to drive cost reductions, but rather to empower flexible work environments for employees to find more harmony between their personal and professional lives. I believe as a country we have made more strides in this area in the past 6 weeks then we have in the past 10 years. We need to capitalize on this opportunity.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
It is amazing how times of crisis provide opportunities to expedite decisions that may have been procrastinated on in good times. As I mentioned earlier, we are always relying on our values to be our north star. Now is the time to truly listen to your clients and find new and better ways to serve them while also listening to your employees and keeping them very engaged in the purpose of the organization. A tactic Terra, my co-CEO, and I do often is pressure test our organizational chart without the names in the boxes. Does the org chart truly match what the market is demanding? Is it nimble? Are there bottlenecks? Is there any bureaucracy? Did the decisions we made two years ago still work today? Then based on that blank slate, we start filling in those boxes with our current talent. We have a Top Grading culture where A players thrive, and A players love to be constantly challenged and given new opportunities to succeed and learn new skills. If we do not have the talent internally to fit the new org chart, or we do not have a high potential person that we can groom to grow into a new role, it gives us the opportunity to hire new talent that will elevate our collective game.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Adopt a Top Grading talent management philosophy and strategy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”. Marcus Aurelius
This is from the book “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday, and I read this book about six months after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Type 1 Diabetes is a really hard and challenging disease, and I had fallen into a state of depression after my diagnosis. I really had a hard time adapting to managing the disease and was in deep mourning for the life I once had. This book, and the people who introduced me to these concepts, changed my life. We all are going to face challenges in our lives; right now is the perfect example. However, each challenge, no matter how great, presents an opportunity for personal growth and reinvention.
I became determined to use my diagnosis to do epic things and be a positive role model for those struggling with chronic disease. I completed a full Ironman and two half Ironman with Type 1 diabetes while managing my career and family life. I became very involved in various organizations, including Diabetes Training Camp, The Diabetes Sports Project, and Riding on Insulin. And I have A LOT more that I want to accomplish. I can honestly say that while it has been incredibly challenging managing my condition, I am a better person because of Type 1 Diabetes. The obstacle became the way.
Every time I am faced with an obstacle, I continually remind myself that the obstacle is the way even though it may be painful in the present moment.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can visit Cella’s website at Cellainc.com My LinkedIn Profile is https://www.linkedin.com/in/conorsmith/ Readers can follow me on twitter @ConorPSmith
For anyone interested in my work with Type 1 Diabetes advocacy and exercise as the best prescription for managing the disease, you can visit my website activeoninsulin.com or follow me on Twitter or Instagram @activeoninsulin