Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dan Martin.
Dan Martin joined Xpress Global Systems, LLC (XGS) as Chief Executive Officer in April 2021. During his time with XGS, Dan has been a proven leader, devoting both his time and energy to strengthening the company’s overall operations while building on the strategic growth objectives of XGS. Under his guidance, XGS has expanded the company’s footprint in Texas, the Midwest, the Carolinas, and New England. In addition to growing XGS’s service area, Dan remains focused on enhancing company culture through a people-centered approach to business.
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 parents were both in the business world, and I followed in their footsteps. Prior to making my way into the trucking and logistics industry, I had a series of internships in the food business and consumer packaged goods. Right out of college, I had a great opportunity to join an accelerated training program with Ryder Systems, which got me into the transportation field. That experience involved a succession of relocations and role progressions, which gave me a great foundation to succeed in the logistics space and beyond.
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?
It wasn’t really funny at the time, but in one of my first roles as a trainee, I was running a truck yard — literally hooking up tractor-trailers to go out in the mornings. It was probably around 5:30 in the morning — o-dark-thirty. I was backing into a lane in Boston between two other tractors, and it was a tight squeeze. I was going back and forth and back and forth — it was hard to see, but I finally decided I was lined up and I floored it. I blew out three mirrors. I remember sitting there thinking, “What am I doing? What did I go to college for?”
My lesson learned in this experience was that sometimes a little patience goes a long way. Sure, there are times when you need to act quickly, but in certain scenarios, it’s beneficial to slow down and do a little more planning.
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 mentioned my father and mother in my first answer. They had a significant impact on me as I grew up watching them in the business world. They instilled a great work ethic in me, and I would say I get my attitude from my mother. She is the most optimistic person I know. They both believed in me and to this day, I never forget the power that believing in someone has on people achieving their full potential.
I also had an early mentor, Nick Rossetti, who was always able to get the most out of me. He’d say, “I’m going to get you out of your comfort zone.” When you’re uncomfortable, you’re growing. And Nick was able to push me in a way that nobody else ever could. I am still a firm believer that you have to get uncomfortable from time to time to keep progressing and stretch your limits of growth.
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?
For me, it’s all about the people. When you think about what we do as simply moving flooring, it isn’t terribly compelling. But people are at the foundation of every element of our work. People fill the orders, load the trucks, drive the trucks. People purchase the products we’re moving so they can live comfortably in their homes or work comfortably in their offices or stay comfortably in hotels while they’re traveling.
If XGS failed to deliver, about 30% of the flooring industry would struggle to fulfill their orders. We have a responsibility to our customers and the consumers — as well as to our own employees and shareholders — to do the work we do as efficiently as possible. Ultimately, that work enhances the lives of all parties involved.
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?
When are we not in uncertain times? Things are always uncertain — every day.
Leading well during difficult times starts long before challenges arise. You have to have a solid mission, vision, and values in place ahead of time so that when you’re faced with adversity, you have those guiding principles already in place. They are the foundation of your business.
Servant leadership and employee enablement are two additional components of successfully navigating challenges. By spending time to support your team members in developing the skills and knowledge required to carry out their roles effectively, you’ll be setting them, and your company, up for success during turbulence.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Sometimes, against all odds, you have got to figure out the path forward. As I mentioned in my previous answer, you have to have a good plan in place — a good foundation.
For me, my obligation to people is a consistent motivator. I’m in an amazing role, and I am honored to serve in it. As a leader, you have an even stronger obligation to serve people — your team, your customers, and their consumers — and to not let them down.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
There are a number of things, but most importantly, you need a risk management plan. It’s your guide to “what if?” You essentially map out all the things that could go wrong, and then answer the question: “What if this went wrong?” What are the consequences? How can we prepare our business ahead of time?
I say this to our team often: We have got to build a moat around our business.
To speak to recent events, we reviewed our crisis management plan when Hurricane Ida came through New Orleans, where we have a fleet and a facility we needed to protect. Fortunately, we had a plan to follow.
The key is to communicate — maybe over-communicate — and be transparent. The first thing people think, whether it’s customers or employees, is, “How does this affect me?” Be open, honest, and transparent, and tailor your message appropriately to each audience.
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 first step here is to build trust amongst your team long before times get tough. That involves making sure people have a clear understanding of what success looks like and rewarding them for good behaviors and high performance.
People are motivated differently. Motivation isn’t always about a plaque or reward or gift card. Sometimes it’s being able to get to their child’s baseball game. That’s why it’s so critical to check in with people, have an outlet for them to share their needs and goals, and then work with them to achieve those.
Putting in work to build an environment of trust will pay dividends in a crisis situation.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest, and be straightforward. Think about the person that’s receiving the news, and consider what concerns those individuals may have ahead of time. If you can speak to those concerns before someone has a chance to ask, you’ll show them that you’re thinking of them and proactively working to solve the issue. Have these conversations early, and don’t wait until the issue at hand becomes an even bigger problem.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think people always plan for things like how to grow, how to control costs, and how to manage people. What people don’t always plan for is potential risks or failures. What about the economy? How do we put sensors and measures in place to know if a particular part of the economy is robust enough to continue growth in a particular area? How should we plan for competition? Some people call this negative management, but really, it’s not. It’s why we wear PPE to prevent the spread of COVID-19, or why we wear orange vests on the manufacturing floor to reduce the risk of accidents and injury. By answering these types of questions ahead of time, we’re working to prevent something negative that could happen from happening.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Trust should be the number one principle at all times — good and bad. Trust is the only thing that will get you through challenges. To work well as a team, you need to work openly and transparently. If you’re interested in this topic and its impact on your organization, I highly recommend the book The Speed of Trust by Steven M. R. Covey.
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?
- Retracting during a crisis. This can be a huge mistake. In trucking, that generally means cutting pay, cutting drivers, and/or cutting your fleet. It’s a reactive approach. If you’re planning and forecasting properly, you will be much better positioned to make informed decisions about how to move forward. In many cases, times of crisis are temporary. In trucking, a shortage may turn around with pent-up demand. I think proper planning has been a component in every one of my answers, and this one is no different. Planning ahead can prevent you from losing talent, losing customers, and losing revenue during times of crisis.
- Ignoring the competition. You can find a lot of content out there that says to ignore your competitors, but in today’s rapidly advancing business climate, I just don’t think that’s the best advice. By keeping up with what your competitors are doing, you can get an idea of what your customers need, want, and expect. Look at their service offerings, news updates, customer reviews… All of these things can provide insights into what you can do better.
- Not focusing on customer service. When things get really tough, people tend to put decisions squarely in the hands of CFOs and lawyers. Unless you are truly at the end of your rope, I think this is a mistake. You should be thinking more about offense than defense. What can you do to better communicate with your customers? How can you cater to the needs of your existing customers to ensure they stick around when you are navigating some difficulty? That’s where the focus should be.
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?
I think it starts by “building a moat” around your existing customers, making sure you don’t lose ground with them. Are there additional ways you can create value for existing customers while using existing products and services? Can you hold collaboration meetings with them to find out what their goals and needs are? Focused efforts are always important, but they become even more critical during times of crisis.
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.
If I could boil it down to five, I’d say:
- Be positive. Positivity rubs off on people. Especially during uncertainty, your team is looking at their leaders to provide vision. Having a positive attitude can go a long way in boosting morale.
- Have a plan. Whether it’s following your mission, vision, and values, or a detailed crisis plan, having something in place ahead of time gives you guidelines to follow in times of crisis. When you’re having to make hard decisions, having a plan to cross-reference may help provide clarity and confidence.
- Be a servant leader. In our current economic and business climate, people have choices about where they work — especially drivers and frontline workers. Being a servant leader means supporting each individual in your company so that they can be successful in their roles, which leads to greater job satisfaction and enhanced retention.
- Communication. I said this earlier, but I’ll say it again: You have to communicate. With team members and with consumers. Transparency builds trust, and trust builds strong relationships.
- Go on offense. By that I mean: You can’t save your way out of challenges, you have to sell your way out. Have a really good commercial plan, think customer collaboration, and be proactive about implementing your plan when times get tough.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I used to have this on a plaque: “Within every adversity is the seed of an equal or greater opportunity.” Everybody hits a wall. Even the most successful people in the world have hit a wall or gotten into a crisis. Knowing that somewhere along the way, there’s an opportunity that exists and that it’s up to you to take advantage of it can be a great motivator, even during some of the worst times.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can check out my personal LinkedIn or the Xpress Global Systems company LinkedIn page.