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 Dennis Self, CEO of Acoustic, the largest independent marketing cloud with a total focus on the marketer.
Previously, Dennis was the President & CEO of Acxiom, and he led the sale of the company to IPG. He has also held senior roles at Deloitte, Gilead Sciences, and Electronic Arts. Throughout his career, Dennis has focused on helping customers connect business results to their marketing, data, and technology investments. He also served in the U.S. Navy Reserve as a Supply Corp Officer. Dennis received his bachelor’s and master’s degree in management information systems & decision sciences from Old Dominion University and his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of 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?
I joined Andersen Consulting and the U.S. Navy Reserve right out of college. After my time at Andersen, I received my MBA from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business
I held various managerial and director roles in information technology at HP and Deloitte, among others. I served as CIO at Electronic Arts, Gilead Sciences, and Acxiom — and was most recently the CEO of Acxiom before joining Acoustic.
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?
My example isn’t from when I was first starting in my career, but from the beginning of my tenure at Acoustic. My first day was in June, so I started right in the middle of the work-from-home transition all companies were going through. My kids were so fascinated with the fact that I was starting a new job from home and they were constantly popping up in some of my really big and important meetings. The key takeaway here was to deal with it as the new normal. How often do we hear dogs, cats, or kids in the background of calls? Before the pandemic, funny videos where people’s kids walked in were news stories. Now, it’s very much the norm.
One of my favorite quotes is from Charles Darwin: “It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” To thrive in the changing work environment brought on by the pandemic and its subsequent restrictions, we need to be able to adapt and work within our new normal, especially with the challenges that working from home presents, particularly as a parent.
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 have many people I am grateful for — often, they believed in me more than I believed in myself at the time. I’m very thankful to all of them. I consider myself something of an “Accidental Executive” as there were two moments in my life where I resisted taking the next big job. First, when the CFO at Electronic Arts wanted me to take the CIO position, I told him I wasn’t ready for it. He said, “No Dennis — you are.” I’ve been a three-time CIO since then. In a near parallel, Scott Howe, then CEO of Acxiom, asked me to lead one of the three divisions there. I didn’t feel ready, in fact, I told him three times I wasn’t ready, and he promoted me anyways.
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?
At Acoustic, our purpose since our inception has been to make life simpler for marketers. We’re reimagining marketing technology by lessening the burdens of repetitive tasks and equipping marketers with powerful technology that is simple and easy to use. We give marketers more time to do what really matters — to think bigger and put themselves back into the work. We help marketers aim higher, bringing humanity back into marketing.
Marketers shouldn’t have to be data experts or tech experts — instead, they want to lean into both of those disciplines to ideate, be creative, and collaborate. Acoustic lets marketers get back to doing what they do best — and our open platform approach connects with various systems marketers already use, offering them flexibility and increased capabilities.
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?
I joined Acoustic during a unique time for both the company and the country. I started as CEO in June 2020, right as Acoustic finalized its carve-out from IBM, during a global pandemic, economic turmoil, and a period of significant social unrest. Not only were we navigating a very changed world as a standalone company, we were determining our role in the wider societal and economic issues affecting our team and our customers. Leaders must be empathetic and recognize the external challenges facing our team members outside of work — and there has been no shortage of macro challenges this year. During the first all-hands meeting I hosted, via Zoom, I asked each employee to send me an email to introduce themselves and their role, share their proudest accomplishments, and also provide advice for what they would do if in my shoes as CEO. At any time, but particularly now, I believe leaders need to solicit feedback from employees across the organization and really assess, evaluate, and act upon that feedback.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
When I was much earlier in my career, it was sometimes easier to quit when things got hard or find excuses to shift course. At some point in my career, my mentality completely changed to never wanting to give up. I gained confidence knowing that I would eventually get to the finish line, I just had to figure out how to get there. With a little bit of creativity, hard work, and some grit, we can power through anything. Think about the amazing things people have done — we even put a man on the moon! If we are patient, confident, persistent, and creative, we will eventually reach our goals. That perspective still drives me today.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times, lead with empathy, and stop showing up as a businessperson at work and show up as a human being. Recognize that a lot of things are going on in the world and also in your employees’ lives. As a leader, it’s your job to ask questions, listen, and be empathetic.
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?
A leader has to help the team stay focused on long-term goals and again, be empathetic and listen to the team. By actively listening to their employees, a leader helps to build up trust and comfort levels, so employees feel safe to discuss, take risks, and make mistakes.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There’s a saying that bad news takes the elevator, and good news takes the stairs. Communicate early and be straight with people. Don’t sugar coat difficult news and be transparent with both your team and your customers.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I went to business school 20 years ago and I learned something there that has stuck with me since: during times of uncertainty, open up as many options as possible. People tend to hold on to one idea or one play, especially when they’re unsure of what the future or economy holds. If that idea or plan goes upside down, they’re forced to throw in the towel because they have no backup plan.
As a leader, you need to help your team develop options and assign probability. If you have four possible plans, go after the one with the highest probability of success. If that fails, go to the next one, and so on, until you prevail.
Living in the world of probability — and ensuring you have options — is the best way to lead in unpredictable times.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Leaders guiding their organization through turbulent times should act as a lighthouse that shows people the way. Employees need a beacon — something to help them have confidence that progress exists over the horizon. A leader needs to be that person to chart the course and demonstrate that success is indeed achievable.
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?
Giving up, shifting priorities, not having options, and not following through are common pitfalls that any business can get caught up in. In my view, these mistakes all stem from the same issue: lacking confidence in your mission. To avoid this, you need to stay focused on your goals and be confident that you will succeed. Try new approaches as alternative paths to 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?
When you’re faced with a difficult economy, supporting your customers must be your primary objective. Navigating difficult periods together builds deeper relationships. In trying times, customer centricity becomes even more important — it’s a core value of mine and of our company.
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.
- Be empathetic: Lead with empathy. Be a human being first. Understand that your employees have their own lives and may be going through difficult challenges outside of work. I held a call with a few employees at Acoustic who are members of our employee Ambassadors program, and folks were really open, discussing how lonely they felt amid remote work. I gave everyone my cell phone number and asked them to contact me — not to discuss work, but if they ever felt lonely or needed a personal resource.
- Listen: Leaders need to constantly listen to their employees and foster open discussion and conversations. I’m a big believer in the wisdom of the crowd — if you take the time to listen to the crowd, you’ll find more creative solutions to existing and future problems.
- Demonstrate that Leadership is a conversation: This relates to both empathy and listening, but leaders should always engage with employees in a conversational, “everyday” way, rather than only interacting with employees when they need something done. By fostering informal and frequent personal conversations, leaders will create a comfortable and safe environment for employees to be able to perform their best work. There’s a really great article in the Harvard Business Review that explains this concept in more detail.
- Be transparent: It’s always better for leaders to convey honesty and transparency in situations. Even if the situation is dire, employees will feel more trust for their company when they know all the facts, and thus, feel more secure. The sooner leaders share and identify the problem, the faster the entire company can work together to solve the issue.
- Be intellectually honest: It’s important to admit when you made a mistake and not hold on to any idea too tightly. If it doesn’t work, modify the idea and try again. At a previous company, I was certain a new product we were about to offer would have explosive growth and be a new flagship product. We invested a lot in it, but when we took it to market, it was a complete bust. We tried, it didn’t work, and so we had to move on. I learned you can’t just “build it and they will come.” You need to listen to what your customers want and react. As a leader, I had to let go of what I thought would be a success and be honest about it when it didn’t work.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but awaken within the heart of man the desire for the vast and endless sea” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
When you’re a leader, you need to tell your team where you want to be, and the team will determine how you get there.
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