As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Mark Jacobs.
Dr. Jacobs has held leadership positions in small and large professional services firms and higher ed. His experience with turbulent times includes managing through the loss of a client which drove 25% of firm revenue, working with a team of consultants that helped a Fortune 500 manufacturer stave off bankruptcy, and collaborating with leaders at the University of Dayton to help navigate the COVID-19 crisis. His focus is on helping companies become more successful through improving decision making and enhancing operational effectiveness.
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 started my career at IBM, but realized I missed the agrarian setting where I was raised. I began looking for opportunities back home and joined JL Analytical Services, a professional services firm, which I would ultimately lead. Later we sold the firm and I transitioned to a career in management consulting. However, my wife did not like the constant travel involved and this precipitated a transition into academia, which I love.
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?
An embarrassing mistake I made in my first few months working at IBM in San Jose was to misspell the name of a manager whose signature I needed on a drawing. He sent me back to correct it, refusing to sign the drawing until I correctly spelled his name. From this experience I learned the importance of attention to detail. The crazy thing? I ended up working for him 20 years later when I was at the University of Minnesota, which in turn helped me see how small the world really is.
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?
On a personal level there are so many; youth pastors, family, various professors. However, there are three that continue to stand out. Craig Geiringer, Jon Lake, and Julie Gilmore. These three friends who fate put in my path while at Cal Poly, were instrumental in my development as a person and as a professional. They expanded my world view, helped me see more potential in myself, and motivated me to work harder.
In terms of the success of JL Analytical Services, there was Ken. He was the most difficult, demanding and cantankerous guy I’d met, but deep down I knew that if we could deliver a service level that kept Ken happy, then all clients would be happy. Fortunately we were able to elevate our service level and keep Ken happy. The business thrived as a result. I learned that difficult people really can be blessing in disguise.
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?
JL Analytical Services was founded to provide technical and quality assurance services. The University of Dayton was founded to educate the heads and hearts of students. Both organizations still remain true to their original purpose, but have expanded on the vision in important ways.
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?
While it’s tempting to dwell on the pandemic, maybe the event that most concretely illustrates the topic is the surprising loss of our largest client while I was leading JL. It was a Thursday. A beautiful spring day and business was great. Then at about 2:00 PM, this client called and told us they switched their business to our competitor to save costs and that we were to finish up the work we had from them, but there would be no more. This was devastating in that they were driving nearly 25% of our revenue.
The first thing I did was think about what it would take to get through the crisis. At a high level, it meant reducing costs and increasing revenue. I made a list of large line items from the P&L and called the management team together to let them know what had happened. I asked them to identify opportunities for expense reductions in the categories I identified. We eventually developed a plan that was viable and would reduce variable costs. The next step was to assess revenue generation. I identified prospective clients and aggressively sought those that could bring the highest margin work.
The result was that between expense reductions and landing new business, we never had to lay off any employees. In fact, the firm emerged both financially stronger and more knowledgeable about what types of clients were the best fit for us.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, I never considered giving up. I had a family that was depending on me and employees I felt an obligation to.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think the most important role is to project calm and confidence. My motto was always “We’ve seen worse”. If staff sense your confidence, then they remain anxiety free and can bring forward clear headed thinking. Moreover, if they are feeling secure, then the solutions are less about protecting their own interests and more about what’s good for the organization.
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?
Leaders need to continue to point to the vision. There needs to be a focus on the end point. This helps employees remain solution and journey focused and not situationally paralyzed.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Directly and timely. Keep in mind that just like managers want staff to bring solutions when bringing problems, employees expect the same. Hence, be sure to communicate the path forward.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
This really is a challenge isn’t it? One thing to keep in mind though is that all planning should include a range of scenarios. While the specific future is unpredictable, markets, people, and organizations behave in predictable ways. This allows for a range of forecasted outcomes. I think the most likely scenario should be assumed but then leave some elbow room for operating a little outside the likely scenario. It’s a tired axiom, but I still think it’s true: Failing to plan is planning to fail.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes, remain focused on the end point.
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?
Taking actions to satisfice the short term is common and detrimental. We’ve seen this in higher ed where universities cut programs or faculty to match the new reality of lower enrollments. However, this proves to be the start of a downward spiral where more and more is cut until the institution closes or merges.
Another common problem is to treat the symptom and not the root cause. This leads to the problem recurring in different forms and places. It’s crucial to understand and address the root cause. We’ve seen this in higher ed where universities that are struggling financially cut tuition to drive higher enrollments. However, the problem is only partially enrollment driven. It’s also structural. Until underlying cost structures are addressed, they will continue to struggle.
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?
Remain focused on the vision, value proposition, and clients. Know the competition and thus what opportunities can be exploited. Monitor and manage to key performance indicators.
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.
- Remain calm and project confidence
- Focus on the long-term objective
- Communicate continually about the long-term objective and how it’s being realized
- Build relationships within and beyond the organization, particularly with suppliers, that can be leveraged
- Study and learn continually so that you are knowledgeable about the industry, market and economy
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A life lesson quote that is relevant here is “There is opportunity in chaos”. This has been relevant in my career in that it is in time of chaos that my preparation could shine and be recognized. Also, it’s in times of chaos that competitive gains can be made before competitors realize they need to respond.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Two easy ways might be to monitor my Google Scholar page to see when new articles I’ve written are published and watch my LinkedIn profile.