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 Cyrus Aram.
Cyrus Aram brings over 20 years of private and public sector experience in customer strategy, business transformation, planning, program, change and quality management. Global and national initiatives delivered hundreds of millions of dollars in savings and increased revenue by as much as 30 percent under his leadership. As the CEO of Unleashing Leaders, he enlists a network of change agents to accelerate the changes clients seek. Aram’s current book of business involves 20 million customers and $300 billion in spend. Aram earned his MBA from the UC Davis Graduate School of Management and is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Project Management Professional.
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?
I guess you could consider me an accidental business leader who experienced good fortune. I started my professional journey 25 years when my father and I thought it might be a good idea to join a big computer company (EDS) on a hunch that tech might be a big industry. From there I just followed the opportunities and trying to learn as much as possible about as much as possible. I spent time working for large companies (GM and HP), large public institutions, working on everything from strategy to operations and process to project management.
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?
A long time ago, I was a personal assistant to the late Robin Williams. I used to run errands, deliver scripts and execute other “runner” duties. One time, I picked up 30 cigars from a place in Hollywood for Robin. I was pretty young at the time and thought smoking one of the cigars would make me blend into the Hollywood scene and look like a star. Suffice to say, it didn’t, and that wasn’t something a personal assistant should do. I definitely learned my lesson and ended up as the brunt of many jokes from some well-known celebrities.
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?
Easy. My father. He didn’t come from much and through hard work and dedication rose to create healthcare for an entire country. He then was wrongfully imprisoned and had to escape his confines — and his country — to start over again in the United States. I’m lucky that he chronicled his story in a book, Escape from Tehran, by Dr. Assad Aram.
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?
Our vision and purpose haven’t changed since launching in 1997, and I think we owe it to the fact that our mission and value is really timeless: to unleash leaders at all levels to enhance their ability to better serve their teams, their customers, and their communities.
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?
300,000 employees. A $125 billion company. 10,000 pages of playbooks. And, at the time, the largest integration of technology companies to happen ever. To say the stakes were high was an understatement. While at HP, I led the integration of EDS (Electronic Data Systems) into the organization. It meant merging two different company cultures to create a unified workplace. But what could have been a two-year process was accomplished in one because of the same competencies and strategies I noted above.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Honestly? No. My motivation comes from the energy our teams create solving complex business problems. We are the ones who aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions, get to the root of a problem, make bold moves, and ultimately come out on the other side with creative and impactful solutions.
It also comes from the work our clients do each day. We have a few clients alone that manage more than $500 billion in spend with 20 million customers combined. And while the scope of their work is herculean, I’m inspired by the mission-driven aspect. For some, their job is to foster an efficient and effective healthcare system for all Californians, and I get to help them tackle tough challenges and accomplish their goals. It doesn’t get better than that.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It might seem oversimplified but, quite frankly, leaders need to get back to the basics. Focus on your company value from the outside in. Know the customer needs and build systems and processes to support the end-user. Seize the opportunity to question the status quo instead of assuming the old way is the right way. Build strategies to withstand uncertainty because they’re based on your understanding of the customer
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 turbulent times, leaders need to embrace vulnerability and clarity to drive their team forward. Vulnerability isn’t a trait of a weak leader. I have worked very hard at being vulnerable with our teams, leading with empathy and understanding where the staff is personally. Creating a shared understanding helps them feel their work and contributions are valued and helps keep them motivated. At the same time, it’s important to focus on clarity around assignments and deadlines. Now is not the time for assumptions when people are facing personal challenges.
I also balance the need to give our team the opportunity to connect while still focusing on efficiency and effectiveness. I leave the first few minutes of each meeting to talk, be humans, and connect as people, but making sure to quickly pivot from extraneous to essential. It’s okay to acknowledge the social time is over, move onto the agenda, and foster an environment of effectiveness.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
No one wants to give or receive difficult news. And right now, it seems like that’s all we’re getting. Which is why honesty is always the best policy. It’s critical to acknowledge the challenges we’re all facing, connect on a human level, and create space for clarity.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The best tool for someone feeling uneasy about their ability to plan for the future is a visioning exercise. It’s simple: today I am here, tomorrow I’m there. Bucket their realities and vision into three categories: type of work they do today vs tomorrow; lifestyle design today vs. tomorrow; and type of relationships I have today vs. tomorrow. It’s a tried-and-true exercise, but what’s different is how to plan and execute in this new world. Are you looking to build new relationships? Ask yourself how you can be creative about growing your network when you need to be socially distanced.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Unpredictable times reinforce the need to get back to the basics, focusing on the tried and true methods of successful businesses. Invest in strategic planning to ensure your goals and objectives align with the needs of your customers. Invest in process design to create connectivity between teams or products. Invest in the people and systems that create success in your business and help you execute efficiently and effectively.
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 my professional career I’ve seen companies lose sight of the customer need, lose trust in their teams, and especially during these past months, fail to acknowledge the toll a crisis takes on not just their teams, but themselves. People are our greatest asset. For a business, they’re your backbone and your customer base. You can’t lose sight of the fact that people are at both ends of your strategy, operations, and success.
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?
At Unleashing Leaders, we value freedom because we start with trust. It’s a value that has worked well for us for the past two decades and is now a model for other businesses navigating this uncertain time. When given the freedom to manage your own schedule, determine when you do your best work, you’re going to do just that — your best work. And that supports your bottom line. As long as your team is delivering, freedom shouldn’t be perceived as a reward, but an expectation of trust between an employee and their boss.
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.
- View change as a constant. If we know that change is certain, we have to develop and implement the infrastructure necessary to bend — not break — when change inevitably occurs. The companies and organizations thriving are the ones that created systems to navigate periods of uncertainty.
- Don’t stop after you set up systems and processes. I work with my clients to think about how teams, processes or procedures connect. Not just focusing on the individual boxes a person inhabits on an organizational or process flow chart, but instead on how the lines that connect each box function. Understand what systems are in place to ensure continued connectivity when change occurs.
- Outside-In: I always advise my clients to think from the outside in, starting with their customer and the inherent need or problem a company needs to solve. In order to be innovative, you need to deeply understand the customer’s needs and be comfortable questioning the status quo. Because this crisis seemed to impact everyone to varying degrees, it was the perfect opportunity for companies to reevaluate their strategy from the outside in.
- Efficient and effective. Leaders need to balance the desire for innovation with the need for efficiency. That balance is where you can measure effectiveness. I encourage clients and my staff to enforce simple but important rules: meetings need agendas, clearly defined action items, and agreed-upon deadlines. I give my staff permission to pass on a meeting if it doesn’t have an agenda or clearly defined topic. Setting boundaries for efficiency creates space for effective innovation.
- Be a Connector. Working across the private and public sector, I encounter organizations working toward the same goal, but stuck in silos and unaware of opportunities to connect. Those connection points can be made across people and processes, leaders and staff, operational functions and aspirational goals — regardless of the roadblock, connecting the dots sparks possibility and inspiration. Connection is really a credo of my firm, Unleashing Leaders. We inspire clients to move away from broken or ineffective systems by connecting the dots in new and innovative ways.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Everyone teaches… Everyone learns. It’s so critical to approach everyone with respect and an open mind. I treat an entry-level staffer with the same respect as a CEO, because either one might have the next great idea to take us to the next level.
How can our readers further follow your work?
More to come on my LinkedIn later this fall!