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 Erica Beal.
Erica Beal is the founder and CEO of AVIVV, a professional services engineering firm serving the energy and utility industry throughout the United States. Through her entrepreneurial spirit and resilience, she launched the firm in February 2020 and has since navigated through the pandemic to build a successful, growing practice. Erica is a proud military spouse to a decorated Navy Seal and mother to two boys. She has built her business on a foundation of servant leadership and a commitment to training military spouses and veterans as a means to reduce the 24% unemployment rates for the military community.
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?
First and foremost, thank you so much for this opportunity, Charlie.
My upbringing in a bi-racial, working class family has had a profound impact on who I am as a professional and as an entrepreneur. Growing up in Texas, I learned the value of hard work from my father, a welder, and learned at a young age the importance of family through my mother who was one of 13 children. Never taking anything for granted, I was the first in my immediate family to receive a business entrepreneurship degree from Baylor University. My entrepreneurial spirit was undeniable: I started two businesses before even graduating.
A deep appreciation for the military family has always been near to me as I have several close family members that served in Vietnam and World War II. It was at Baylor University that I met my husband, a now decorated Navy SEAL who continues to serve on active duty following more than 21 years of service.
Military life has not always been easy, and I learned that quickly upon our relocation to San Diego many years ago. I found myself part of a new community of close-knit military families that I would lean on during my husband’s deployments and rigorous mission requirements. Over the years, my husband endured nine 7-month combat deployments on the frontlines, many of which included life-threatening scenarios.
Above all, we consider our family lucky to have our service member return home from each and every mission. But this experience has cemented the sacrifice of military families into every aspect of my life, particularly in my entrepreneurial endeavors.
I’m thankful to have been able to thrive in my career as many military spouses are not able to do so due to frequent relocations and family responsibilities. I was fortunate to begin my long-standing career in the utility and engineering industry with Sempra Energy Utilities in California in 2004. I loved learning the complexities, the regulations, and the operations of the energy sector. Following 15 years of immersing myself into nearly every aspect of the business, I combined passion, expertise and my entrepreneurial spirit to launch AVIVV.
AVIVV now stands tall as a woman/minority-owned engineering professional services firm serving the energy and utility industry throughout the United States. We’re proud to have exceptional talent throughout our firm, 50% of whom are either a veteran or a military spouse that have been hired through our Impact Now program. This initiative is a core pillar of our servant leadership philosophy that seeks to provide those in the military community an opportunity to immerse themselves into the civilian workforce through training, mentorship and on-the-job experience.
As of March 2021, AVIVV became the very first engineering firm to be a certified military spouse owned enterprise in the United States.
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?
Well, there was that time that I asked my children to come up with the name of my new company….
I’m a proud mom of two rough-and-tumble boys. They are brilliant, funny, active and they always keep me on my toes.
I decided to bring my family into the brainstorming process to help decide the name of the firm. My only request was to find a name that was significant, strong and inspirational. As we scrolled through pages of the internet and flipped through pages of a few books, my sons identified the word “AVIVV”. I chuckled to myself but remained intrigued and put on my best face of support. I had never heard of that word.
“Um, ok. But what does that even mean,” I asked.
The definition was right there on the page.
My husband and I locked eyes because we both knew. It was perfect. It was sentimental and strong, representing so much of our mission in one word.
From that day forward, I realized that feedback, creative exploration and discovery are critical no matter your age. I’ve continued to seek feedback and collaboration from my children, even if it means their “memos” are written in crayon.
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?
Leadership and success are life-long journeys that are deeply impacted by those we seek out or allow into our path. I’ve been fortunate to have many mentors, professors and colleagues who were invested in my success.
As I mentioned, my parents took great measures to lay a strong foundation of principles that guide me as a professional: hard work, empathy and family. If I keep these at the forefront of my vision and mission in my professional life, I reap the benefits in my personal life.
Outside of my parents and family, Karl Miller has played an impactful role that has shaped where I am today.
Karl is the CEO of Jingoli Power, professional services firm for complex utility construction projects. With more than forty years of expertise in the energy sector, Karl has extensive experience building complex capital infrastructure projects both domestic and internationally.
While Karl taught me key business operations principles, he has more importantly helped curate the vision for AVIVV through my extensive utility experience and entrepreneurial spirit.
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 company’s vision is rooted in servant leadership where we prioritize the collective positive impact of the firm on our people and our community.
The 10 principles that we embody through servant leadership are:
Listening, Empathy, Healing, Awareness, Persuasion, Conceptualization, Foresight, Stewardship, Commitment to Growth, Building Community
As the CEO and leader of the firm, I set the example of servant leadership while empowering the entire team to do the same. My job is to hire diverse talent throughout the company to then prioritize their growth, well-being and success, often times ahead of my own.
We firmly believe that our people come first — they are crucial to our success and the success of our clients. As a woman- and minority-owned business, we place a high priority on hiring diverse talent. Currently, AVIVV’s workforce is over 75% of women, minorities, veterans, military spouses, and LGBTQ+. This is no accident, and we are proud to impact these 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?
Everything about doing business in 2020 was challenging: mentally, emotionally, financially, and otherwise. AVIVV was formally launched in February 2020, just before we had a true understanding of what the pandemic would mean for our company, people and world.
As a minority female, we often feel as though the odds are already stacked against us. Add in a global health pandemic at the start of launching a business of passion and expertise with the livelihood of several employees at stake, and it’s a recipe for heavy, fear-induced stress.
Miraculously, with the help of mentors, a commitment to excellence and a strong vision for the future, AVIVV survived and continues to experience strong growth. And frankly, we had quite an impressive start to our first year in business:
- Grew to 20 full-time employees, 50% of whom are military spouses (25%) and veterans (25%)
- Reached $1 million in revenue
- Expanded the business from its San Diego roots throughout the state of California, New Jersey, and Texas
- Recognized as the “Face of Energy” by San Diego Magazine
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Being the significant other of a Navy SEAL for more than two decades has molded me into a strong, resilient leader. I learned quickly to persevere through life’s challenges because they are a constant in many aspects of our lives. But it’s more important to determine how you’re going to tackle those problems, and my advice is to never do it alone.
I have been incredibly thankful for the business and military spouse communities as they have helped get me through tough times as a military spouse, mom and a business owner. In addition to leaning on friends and mentors, the key has been to remain optimistic about what’s around the corner and actively work towards a solution.
The reality is that we all endure and will continue to endure tough times that make us question our ability to withstand those challenges. Having a clear mission that makes an impact, an understanding group of supporters and a group of motivating mentors has been the secret sauce to never allowing myself to give up.
Our mission to impact veteran and military spouse employment serves as a daily reminder that our work is more than a box to check. Not only are we serving our clients and project teams incredibly well, but we’re also deeply serving our employees, community and clients. That’s something to be really proud of.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership is not a title. Being CEO means having power of decision, but it does not make you a good leader inherently. It’s easy to be in command of an organization but the reality is that you need the trust and confidence of your people to be a true leader.
In my experience, listening with intent and having deep levels of empathy are critical leadership skills that are most important during times of crisis. Leaders have an expectation to possess all the answers, which is not reality all the time. It’s more important than ever, especially in times of crisis, to thoughtfully listen to employees, our community and experts around us and then come to a decision with a level of empathy for what that decision means for others. That’s how you maintain a solid culture of trust, confidence and loyalty that extends past the moments of struggle.
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?
I take company morale very seriously and make daily commitments to connect one-on-one with team members. Since we have moved to a remote-first work environment, it has become more important now than ever to keep your people at the forefront of your mission. Please know that I’m not necessarily referring to workload when I have these conversations. My true priority is to determine ow are they navigating emotional, mental and financial stress during a global health pandemic while likely incorporating e-learning for their families. It’s equally important to do this consistently and make it part of your on-going schedule.
During this time, I have developed what I thought was short-term solutions to employee communications and morale into permanent ways of connecting:
- Recommending (and on the verge of requiring) all employees take a break to physically remove themselves from their computer after an extended period of time sitting.
- Weekly “walking” meetings with a new member of my team. This could take place around a lake in person socially distanced and masked, or remotely via phone as we both take a break from the computer screen
- Frequent open-ended discussions for employees to share feedback and connect with one another
My number one message to my team is to make sure they plan for the most important meeting they have: the meeting with themselves. Are they building in time for self-care? Have they scheduled a workout or time for journaling? Whatever that “outlet” may be, I emphasize the importance of their time to care for themselves.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
When communicating difficult news, it’s important to, again, truly listen and be empathetic.
Our company fosters a collaborative environment from the start, therefore we expect two-way dialogue in every aspect of our business and communication. It’s important to communicate difficult news in a timely and authentic manner. Help the team and your customers understand the 5 W’s: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. Perhaps even diving into “how” is helpful, depending on the situation and the way forward.
Before I communicate difficult news, my gut check looks like this:
- Understand why the decision was made before sharing the news
- Prepare and rehearse what you’re going to say
- Explain the rationale and the process for making the decision
- Let your body language contradict your words
- Allow people to debate the merits of the decision — focus on moving forward
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
This is when your greater purpose and mission are called into action. It serves as a compass.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
From the perspective of CEO, the most important thing I can do as a leader at every stage of business is to share our purpose-driven mission only to then trust and empower my team to carry out that vision in their daily work.
A lasting culture of trust and loyalty begins with building a team of empowered employees not only support a company vision, but to also bring it to life.
As challenging times come and go, we find long-term success by surrounding ourselves with others who are accountable, open, honest, and loyal to what is best for the company.
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?
The most common mistakes I’ve witnessed mostly stem from being unwilling to change. Change is constant and is happening rapidly in our technology driven world:
Common mistakes and ways to avoid them:
- Making decisions in a silo: the quickest way to avoid this is by creating a culture of collaboration and open communication from the beginning. When times get hard, our most natural inclination is to come to a decision together and then communicate it broadly.
- Responding out of emotion: leaders set the tone for their teams when communicating difficult information or uncertainty. Taking time to reflect and carefully assess a challenge is in the best interest of the decision AND how it will be received by your internal stakeholders.
- “We’ve always done it this way”: these can be the most dangerous of words. We must evolve as business leaders to find better ways of working and to tackle even more difficult challenges sure to come our way in the future.
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?
AVIVV is a fairly new company and all of our growth has taken place during a global health pandemic, therefore our perspective on this may look a little different.
I can say that our commitment to serving our clients above and beyond their expectations has allowed us to sustain healthy growth during our first year of business. If you take that a step further, we have continued to foster deeply authentic relationships with our clients, communities and industry, which allows us to improve our credibility with decision-makers.
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.
Being an effective leader during turbulent times begins when things aren’t in crisis mode, but leaders are tested when times get tough. I make every effort to practice the following:
- ALWAYS be willing to learn — during good times and bad
Seek to understand and surround yourself with people that challenge you personally and professionally. Acquire experience, deep knowledge, and abilities across a broad range of topics. I have learned how important it is to have a supportive partner and also to be a supportive partner. My husband is my rock. He reminds me of the importance of pausing and listening to others. He always reminds me that there will be noise: cell phones, social media, TV, and competition, but to seek advice and remain quiet. Seek input from trusted peers and mentors to then be open to feedback.
- Challenge the status quo
While my husband was away for many deployments, I was home caring for our two boys, one being a newborn at the time. Though many people thought I was crazy, I pursued an MBA during that time because I learned that there is no perfect time to do the hard things. I wanted to connect with intellect and challenge myself as I knew it would spur future growth as an entrepreneur. Looking back, it was during these explorations of vulnerability that taught me the importance of creativity and defining purpose. As an entrepreneur, you find yourself in a constant state of discomfort, and people will challenge your decisions. Believe me when I say that this a good sign.
- Accept the challenges from your mentor
Mentors are a gift, and I am grateful for mine! He’s kicked me in gear not once but multiple times. Through these lessons learned through my mentor, I built AVIVV on a servant-leadership philosophy.
My mentor/life coach reminded me of 2 important values: Respect and Trust.
In every meeting, in every contact, you must ensure you establish respect and trust throughout your team. This begins with being humble, authentic and ensuring we over-communicate how much we value our people.
- Trust from the start
I believe that everyone deserves an opportunity to succeed. Some say trust is earned; however I believe trust should be given the moment we connect. Everyone deserves an opportunity to have a fair chance.
For example, I recently hired someone that had a history showing up late and not turning in deliverables on time. Though I was discouraged by a fellow colleague to interview this candidate, I did and instantly came to see the value of this employee and how to course-correct moving forward. What was the outcome? They have not let me down.
- Set the Example for Work/Life Harmony
I am the best version of myself as a mom and as an executive when I have the autonomy of flexibility to ensure my obligations are fulfilled in both areas of my life. What’s more critical is empowering your employees to do the same. This creates a more sustainable, fulfilled team of professionals who don’t feel like that have to trade one part of their life for the other, and that starts at the very top.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Lean into discomfort.”
As business owners, we are inspired to grow and make significant attributes to society.
However, we are not taught the importance of growth and the impacts of those effects.
As entrepreneurs, we move quickly. We seize opportunity and value where others are reluctant to change. This serves as an opportunity to grow together. I love cultivating relationships and sharing knowledge exchange for those that accept the challenge.
Change is uncomfortable but inevitable. I live in a constant state of discomfort as a military spouse and female founder. Through it we can accomplish collective success.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I love connecting with fellow business leaders, entrepreneurs and members of the military and business communities on LinkedIn. Please find me there and then keep up with AVIVV through our website.