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 Eric Strafel.
For more than 20 years Eric Strafel, former CEO and Fortune 500 executive, has dedicated himself to building forward-thinking teams and scaling innovation to create transformational organizations that thrive in an increasingly entrepreneurial and purpose-driven world. His recent corporate leadership roles include Vice President of Strategy and Market Development for Boeing Global Services and President/CEO of Aviall, where he led the creation of the framework for Aviall’s 20/20 vision for future growth. Strafel is passionate about helping small and midsize companies grow profits and scale, which motivated him in 2019 to launch SUMMi7, an EdTech platform featuring a series of pursuits focused on improving business and society by creating opportunities for underrepresented communities. He is on a mission to share collaborative leadership strategies and create opportunities for a more human-centric and inclusive planet.
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’m a mechanical engineer by training and started out my career working with Pratt & Whitney military engines. Engineering taught me problem solving, systems thinking and about the need to keep learning. I believe you can lead in any position, but my first formal leadership position was with Honeywell as a manufacturing supervisor. It’s where the importance of being fair and balanced, and taking care of your people really sunk in. The energy people give to their work and in support of each other is proportional to the support they get from their direct leadership and the environment they’re in. I’ve had the chance to take on many different leadership positions since then, at all levels of the organization leading up to executive positions at Boeing and the CEO of the Boeing subsidiary Aviall.
It’s been a 20-year leadership journey with plenty of battle scars along the way, which is part of what led to the founding of SUMMi7 in 2019. I teamed up with a group of entrepreneurs to help small and midsize businesses and leaders scale with a mission of creating a more inclusive economy. We’ve tried to take a systems-thinking, continuous learning approach to help companies grow their business and their people to be more resilient, more sustainable and break through barriers to growth.
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’ve tried many approaches as a leader to try to be effective and inclusive, some worked, but many didn’t. Early on, I was in a position at Honeywell with 32 people reporting directly to me. I was committed to being transparent and inclusive, so the first big decision we had I got everyone in a room and tried to get agreement on the path forward. If you’ve ever tried to get 32 people to all agree on something, then you know it’s nearly impossible.
We spent two hours debating, going back and forth on different points, none leading to a clear decision. That’s when I realized that managing by consensus isn’t the goal, it’s giving everyone a voice — a chance to be heard with active listening. Then weighing the alternatives and making a decision that ultimately won’t align with everyone. But by communicating the reasoning behind the decision and taking responsibility for the results, you can still gain the trust and respect of your team.
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?
Absolutely, many people have helped me along the way, and I think that’s true for most people that have had some success. I’ll say the first step for me was being willing to accept help. I grew up with the drive to want to prove I could do things on my own, and I didn’t naturally trust many people — other than family — that tried to help. That started to change with a couple of teachers that really invested their time in supporting me, showing their belief in me and providing unconditional support.
It’s why I think educators are so important in shaping our kids and society and we should support them in every way that we can. I’ve also had many bosses over the years that were extremely supportive. One in particular was my first manager at Honeywell who later advocated for my first director level position at the company.
He would spend time every week sharing his knowledge and experience to help me, and others, get better. He had a way of identifying where I needed to improve or where the organization could do better without putting anyone down. It’s the honesty and candor that everyone needs to get better, delivered in a way that doesn’t crush your confidence.
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?
SUMMi7 was founded with a mission to create a stronger society by creating a more inclusive economy. We believe that an economy where everyone can participate, where you have the chance to work towards and reach your goals, and where businesses and leaders strive to serve the greater good — is what will build the bridges to keep the world moving forward together.
There are representation gaps today, especially in businesses with more than $5M in revenue, that make it much more difficult for some communities to reach their potential. That’s what we’ve built our company around. We want to help businesses and leaders break through barriers by making practical business education and the support needed to scale businesses, more accessible.
Our programs have inclusion, sustainability, purpose and profits built into them, so we hope to help small and midsize businesses — what we call the mighty middle — grow into the next large companies with social good built into their DNA. This guides our decisions, how we invest our time and how we think about our future product roadmaps.
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?
The COVID-19 pandemic had a traumatic effect on the world, including the aerospace industry that had seen consistent growth and stable backlogs for almost a decade prior. I was leading the strategy team at Boeing Global Services as we started to see the impacts on our people and our business. Overnight our company, like many others, nearly shut down. The world stopped flying, customers went into negative cash flow with many later going out of business, and we all had major liquidity issues just to keep the business afloat.
The first step for me was to look at how I was communicating and engaging with my team to keep everyone informed and make sure we had open communication at all times. Then next step was to prioritize and focus on the most important activities to support the team, customers and keep the business running. It’s maintaining focus, aligning my team with frequent communication and rapidly identifying and addressing issues with lots of listening, learning and making decisions that need to be made, that has been the common denominator for me in leading through challenges so far.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There have been really hard days that make it difficult to keep moving forward, but on those days I’ll take a mental break, try to be thankful for what I do have — my family, my health — and then remember that people are very resilient and have been through much worse and come out much stronger. From previous pandemics, wars and economic crises over the centuries to the cold war, 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic — it’s the challenges we face that build character, make us stronger and bring us together if we can maintain a positive mindset. It’s hard to do and I don’t win every day, but I win most, and that’s always my goal during tough times. Then eventually you make it through.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I’ve seen three critical things leaders do during a crisis that seem to be most effective. The first is to listen to their people, connect with how people are personally impacted and really try to understand how people are processing the situation. Get into the arena with them as Theodore Roosevelt would say, striving, willing to make mistakes, but not willing to give up. Then navigate and communicate continuously.
Evaluate the environment, the impact and bring in other perspectives to set a clear course of action while making corrections along the way. Finally, elevating others with a sense of hope and optimism that there’s a better future ahead. Whether you believe it or not, we need a vision of something better if we’re ever going to get beyond the challenges we may be facing today.
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?
It starts by acknowledging the current situation and the unique challenges that individuals may be facing. Without that it’s difficult for people to focus beyond the day-to-day challenges. By setting the tone as the leader, you can then foster an environment where everyone checks in with each other every day, to demonstrate that we’re in it together.
I’ve found that I can take on almost any challenge if I feel like I have a supportive, committed team around me. It’s the little things that get that started, calling a few people every day just to see how they are, giving people space when they need it, being vulnerable yourself with the challenges you’re facing and then highlighting the small wins that will add up over time to start to move you beyond the crisis.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Candidly, consistently and with context so people can engage and be part of the solutions. Without timely and consistent communication, you leave space for the rumor mill to churn and risk losing trust. Without open and candid communication you risk people feeling like you’re sugarcoating the issues and the feeling that you don’t trust them. So it all comes down to finding ways to strengthen trust, then sharing context so people have a chance to bring innovative ideas to the table and help navigate to a better future.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It starts by understanding the macro trends — what are the economic, social, technological and other trends that are creating uncertainty. Then determine how those trends will most likely impact your business and develop scenarios around those such as best case, worst case and most likely. Identify a set of actions that you would take in response to each potential scenario, then track the data and develop the “signposts” that will help you understand which scenario is playing out day-by-day. The more the uncertainty, the more frequently you should monitor the signposts, the wider the range of responses you’ll need and the more rapidly you’ll need to act on those.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle I fall back on is transparency. There are signs and signals, impacts and opportunities to be addressed at all levels of your business. The only way to activate your team and the full potential of their collective innovation to solve problems and navigate change is to be transparent about where you’ve been, where you are today and where you intend to go so everyone knows the course and can evaluate the daily actions they can take to stay on it or quickly identify pitfalls before you fall in them.
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?
A few common mistakes I’ve seen are not reacting fast enough, lacking transparency, often unintentionally, and missing the opportunity to strengthen your relationship with customers. During difficult times, we often hesitate with all the uncertainty or wondering if what we’re seeing is real. But most businesses have discretionary costs that they can stop immediately — things like travel, supplies, inventory buffer stock or discretionary projects that are consuming time and money. Doing a quick inventory of all expenses and projects consuming resources is a low risk way of stopping expenses and giving you some space to evaluate the situation.
Lack of transparency is often unintentional. If you’re communicating through the same channels, with the same frequency, then it’s probably not enough during hard times and will lead to a lack of transparency, whether real or perceived. The more uncertainty, the more you need to communicate through different channels, consistently. If you had a weekly team update before, you may need a daily update now. Hitting the same points every day for just 15 minutes can be very effective in minimizing gaps in communication that create a lack of trust and keep teams from responding effectively.
Last but not least, businesses are there because of customers. Even though you may be going through significant challenges, if you keep customers your priority and see what you can do to help them — even if it causes you extra work — they’ll see that, and you’ll build enduring relationships that you can only get by living through a crisis together. An example of that is retail pharmacy CVS and their response during the COVID-19 pandemic. They became the vaccination hub for many communities and therefore strengthened their relationship with all the people in those communities by being there for them when they were needed most.
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 times are good, it’s much easier to invest in a wide array of growth opportunities. However, during tough times it takes a much more focused effort to survive the storm and come out with the ability to grow. We’ve found some best practices in really understanding your core business and holding investments to make that better, more automated, more scalable and creating value for customers. Second, is to understand which markets and customer segments are most profitable for you and make sure you support those segments.
Finally, develop your future scenarios for growth when things improve and make sure you can revive those investments in the future. Some things you can pause and restart, some you may slow down but need to keep moving forward to sustain viability, and others may be a complete stop and then evaluate when business starts to grow again. The worst thing you can do is keep everything moving slowly, it will drain resources, distract from your core and cause your employees to question whether or not you have a good plan to make it through the tough times.
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.
There are five areas we focused on when I was a corporate executive that I later brought into discussions with businesses we support through SUMMi7 programming. The first is to take care of your employees and make sure they have the resources and support needed for themselves and their families. This is when your priorities need to show through, which is your people and their health and wellness. We saw this with how businesses re-engineered the workplace during the pandemic including social distancing, health checks, medical resources and working virtually with flexible hours wherever possible, to keep people safe.
The second is business liquidity, realigning and deferring any costs that aren’t absolutely needed right now, managing working capital, aligning supply and demand and watching all expenses. We saw many businesses stop travel, reduce office space, restructure contracts and realign inventory levels to shifting demand patterns.
The third is to then shift focus to customers and what you can do to support them. Are there ways that you can help them with their own liquidity, align your priorities with theirs and increase the frequency of communication so you can support each other. Many restaurants did a great job of this by shifting to take out and delivery. Some even donated extra food to local food drives to support people in need.
Next is looking up and down the supply chain to evaluate and manage risk, build contingency plans and help critical suppliers navigate uncertainty. Who are the critical suppliers you need to keep producing your products and services? How are they doing financially? This is an area we saw many large enterprises reduce the payment cycle to smaller suppliers to get them money faster and help with their own financial stability.
Lastly, you need to look around the corner to run scenarios on what the next month, next quarter and next year might look like so you can make decisions today that allow you to remain in business down the road. That includes running shock scenarios to understand the best and worst case boundaries and sets of decisions that you may need to be prepared for. At SUMMi7, we had to pivot to offer virtual programming — there were many questions around what learning and development would look like in the future. We’ve since been working on hybrid programs that are a combination of virtual and face-to-face as it becomes safe to engage in person again. By doing so, we hope to better pivot one way or the other depending on how businesses prefer to engage in the future.
All of these are important, but the order is also what we found works best — take care of your employees, stabilize your business, find ways to help your customers, expand that help to the rest of your supply chain and then start to run future scenarios to prepare for the extremes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is from former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” This is personal to me because I’m naturally optimistic, I think from my upbringing where my mom would start every day with a positive outlook no matter what the challenge was. This has stuck with me my entire life. No matter how bad yesterday was, today is a new day. It’s a mindset of hope that some discount as unrealistic.
But I see it as a way to set a constructive path forward towards something better. In doing so, I’ve come to a point where I enjoy the striving, regardless of whether or not I get there and I think that’s what life is about for me. I find that being optimistic attracts other optimistic people who see the challenges but believe they can be overcome. It’s a mindset that naturally brings people together in service to a higher purpose, creating that force multiplier that is needed to tackle the issues that we can’t beat on our own.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can learn more about my work at www.summi7.com, where we will soon launch our summer cohort to help business leaders push through barriers and break the plateau to scale and grow their businesses. I also have a book releasing in fall 2021 published by McGraw Hill entitled “The Frontline CEO: Turn Employees into Decision Makers Who Innovate Solutions, Win Customers, and Boost Profits” in which I share the leadership approach I saw as most effective to manage change in a fast paced world and tried to emulate myself through more than 20 years of experience as a leader at Fortune 500 companies.