As part of my series about “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Erika Flora.
Erika Flora is the CEO & Principal Consultant, Beyond20, and co-author of the essential global business ITIL 4 textbook, “Digital & IT Strategy,” available on Amazon. She started her career as a Microbiologist turned Program Manager and discovered a passion for improving how organizations manage the flow of work, deliver great products and services, and better serve their customers.
In 2006, she co-founded Beyond20, a Digital Transformation consulting and training firm based on ITIL, DevOps, Agile, Lean, and other best practice frameworks. Erika works with leaders in global organizations as a Digital Strategy facilitator and coach. Over the years, she has led several successful technology implementation initiatives and has helped organizations find more success with their Digital Transformation efforts.
Erika is an avid blogger, speaker, and advocate of expanding opportunities for women and minorities in technology. Erika calls Washington, DC home. When not at work, you may find her cycling, reading, sailing, or performing improv comedy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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 as a Microbiologist but realized pretty quickly that, although I had loved studying the subject in college, it was not something I felt passionate about as a career. A few years later, I moved into a position as Project Manager in the pharmaceutical industry. It was there that I found my calling — helping organizations transform the way they worked. I got the opportunity to solve several people, process, and technology issues and loved making a meaningful impact in how products and services were delivered to customers. That led me to co-found Beyond20; a Digital Transformation Company focused on Changing Work Life.
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?
When we started Beyond20, I naively thought that you could “build it and they will come.” At the time, I thought all we had to do was hang a virtual “shingle” — create a website — and customers would beat a path to our door. It was a valuable lesson to have learned early on. It caused us to dramatically shift our focus towards writing and speaking to build a reputation in the industry, thereby attracting customers. In order to survive, I quickly became an outspoken voice in our industry. It’s amazing what you can accomplish and the fears you can conquer when you have no other choice but to do it.
Probably the funniest mistake we made in our first year of business was getting a DC phone number when we still lived and worked on the west coast. The phone would often ring at 5 am, and I once answered the phone while half asleep.
After a very strained hello, the woman on the other end of the line asked, “Did I wake you?” I tried and failed to play it off. So embarrassing. After that humbling experience, my husband and I developed a trick of (very quickly) singing the entire alphabet before picking up the phone. That experience, along with the one million (and counting!) other things we’ve tried, failed, and learned along the way, has taught me that failure isn’t permanent, and you can always use those moments as opportunities to get better.
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’ve had some wonderful mentors along the way, including my parents, who were both entrepreneurs. They taught me to work hard and become good at my craft. My co-founder and husband, Brian, who is also the son of entrepreneurial parents, is a great mentor to me — and I to him. Neither of us could have built Beyond20 without each other. The journey of building a business is difficult. It takes longer than you expect, and it’s very easy to get discouraged. Having a business partner helps you see things from a different perspective and provides the much-needed encouragement to keep fighting the good fight.
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?
When we started Beyond20, we had a passion for helping companies become better. Even though we’ve grown and changed over the years (and offer new and different products and services than when we first started), the core of our mission has remained the same. A couple of years ago, we sat down with our leadership team and talked about our “why” — why we work here, why we get up in the morning and come to work each day, what makes us passionate about working with our customers; and we found a common thread, that of Changing Work Life.
Our training and consulting work gives our clients’ teams new skills and knowledge, and our software implementations help our clients automate manual work and improve how they serve their clients. We get a chance to do meaningful work every day, and that’s pretty great.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
We are a Digital Transformation consulting and training firm that focuses on fixing the challenges that digital organizations face today. That can include current issues like helping them navigate cybersecurity challenges when dealing with a remote workforce or devising a plan to strategically move technology to the cloud. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We’re working with a global nonprofit to define, manage, and govern their approach to data and their data science practice. We have another multi-billion-dollar technology client that we’ve helped strategically shift from a product-based company to more of a service-based business to increase revenue and compete in new markets.
Ultimately, we serve as advisors to help clients solve their challenges — whether they be people-, process-, or technology-related.
We also provide best practice training in several areas — from cybersecurity to project management to IT Service Management and beyond. We’ve trained over 15,000 students across 24 countries, 40 US states, and in over 100 federal agencies (while maintaining one of the highest pass rates and customer satisfaction rates in our industry). We’ve also had a chance to work with several state and local entities like the State of Arizona and the City of Portland and 30% of the Fortune500 companies in the US.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
The pandemic has been a disruptor to business-as-usual for all of us.
Overnight, we could no longer do any of the things we had taken for granted, namely, delivering in-person courses and consulting work, where we got to meet our customers face-to-face.
Fortunately, we’ve learned over this past year of working remotely that work is not a location — it’s people, and we are capable of amazing things.
We all know cloud-based video communication platforms like Zoom have taken over the virtual meetings market in terms of specific technological innovations. They’ve been a tremendously helpful tool for us. However, we’re starting to see the “next generation” of immersive collaboration tools grow in popularity. Our team is constantly experimenting with new and innovative internal and external collaboration and learning tools. For example, we use Remo to run virtual simulation events for clients and Miro to facilitate interactive engagements internally and externally.
Leaders need to give their teams space to experiment and innovate to improve how they work ultimately.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
For our Beyond20 team, it forced us to innovate and improve in ways we hadn’t before. On the training and consulting side, we experimented with new techniques and toolsets to recreate our interactive in-person sessions (virtual whiteboards and sticky notes, immersive simulations, and new ways of facilitating group activities and collaborating within and across teams to solve problems). It also drove us to radically streamline and automate several of our key processes like onboarding new employees. In many ways, it’s propelled us to think more creatively, create our new products and services, and form stronger, more personal connections with our employees and customers.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
In 2019, before the pandemic, we realized that we needed to fundamentally change and expand two practice areas within our organization. They were programs we had talked about implementing for several years, but we hadn’t focused our time and resources as much as we needed to. We could see that these areas of weakness were only going to worsen and that we were missing out on two major revenue streams.
It required our leadership team to spend the time needed (several days, in fact) to develop a solid strategy — and then an entire year of disciplined, committed, hard work to get those two practice areas off the ground.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
We went through the “miserable middle” of organizational change for almost a full year, but we’re now seeing many success in these two practice areas. We recently won a multi-million-dollar contract that has renewed our team’s energy, motivation, and resolve. It’s interesting — each week, we lead our customers through their own disruptive transitions and change, and to do it yourself gives you renewed empathy and understanding. Change is messy, frustratingly difficult at times, and never happens as quickly as we would like. However, change results in growth and learning and, when you look back, it’s rewarding to see the progress your team has made along the way and the organization you’ve become.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
When you build a company from scratch, you learn to work effectively in several organizational areas — you learn to sell, learn to deliver. It often feels like your “baby.” However, you get to a certain point where you have to start letting go of many things you were previously good at and help your team develop those skills themselves.
You have to let your baby grow up and go off on their own.
This past year, I’ve seen several leaders in our organization grow in ways that make me so proud — everything from leading sales calls that I used to run (and now only hear about after the fact) to hiring, leading, and developing teams of their own that accomplish work we’ve never done before. I’ve been able to step away and focus on other areas, which has been amazing and inspiring to watch. I’ve also spent a lot of time working on and changing myself to become a stronger coach and cheerleader rather than a “doer.” It’s definitely pushed me to learn (and stumble with) new skills. However, I’ve found that learning and growing as an individual is necessary to getting better — and leading teams to greatness.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
First and foremost, our job is not to panic. Instead, we as leaders must remind our teams of our “why” — our reason for being — as well as where we’re headed; and we must make that path clear. During a crisis, people need to be reminded that the disruption is temporary, that we’ll get through it together, and to make sure we’re all rowing in the same direction to make our way through the storm. A crisis may significantly alter what we do and how we do it, but if we are all focused and clear on our “why,” it becomes easier to change, adapt, and persevere.
In mountain biking, there is a saying that you should look 20 feet in front of you, to “look where you want to ride” rather than looking at the (sometimes very scary) terrain that is directly in front of you. If we are busy staring at obstacles right in front of us — those things we want to avoid — we will ride straight into them and likely crash. Instead, we should take a longer view in the direction we want to head.
The same is true at work. If we are too busy dealing with and focusing on the crisis of the moment, we will lose sight of the bigger picture and long-term opportunities. The situation will eventually pass, and we want to set ourselves, our teams, and our organizations up for long-term success. We do this by rising above the crisis and looking beyond it toward the future.
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?
When going through chaotic and uncertain times, it’s easy for people to become discouraged. The middle part is tough, and we have to prepare people for that fact. When organizations are changing, reacting to a crisis, and/or forced to try new things, it can feel like we are losing for a very long time before we’re able to see the very real progress being made. It’s good to remind people of Kanter’s Law: everything looks like a failure in the middle. Things will get better, and our job is to help our people focus on the end goal.
It’s also important to reach out to people personally (both our employees and our customers) and make sure they’re OK. We frequently set up formal meetings throughout the week, but we don’t often spend time connecting one-on-one, and it’s so critical to understand what people need and how we can help. It shows we genuinely care and allows us to learn from, listen to, and better support those around us.
Lastly, we must make time for silliness in stressful times. During the pandemic, we started running weekly virtual meetings where our teams could get together to celebrate our successes, tell dumb jokes, talk about our mistakes, and have fun engaging with one another. When we send out internal surveys to our staff, this meeting is by far everyone’s favorite new tradition, and we plan to keep doing them. As Voltaire famously said, “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.”
Is there a number one principle that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Leaders may not have great answers to give during times of crisis. However, we can be honest and transparent in communicating the following:
- Here’s what we know.
- Here’s what we don’t know.
- Here’s what we’re doing.
Saying something and communicating frequently is far better than saying nothing at all. We may not be able to give good news, which is OK, but if we’re silent, everyone will immediately assume the worst. By giving people the information we have, we provide them with the ability to breathe, make decisions, and move forward.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
There are some common mistakes I see leaders make when faced with technological (or any significant) disruption. They go into survival mode and do the following:
- Focus inward: In survival mode, we look at the issues around us and try to tackle them as quickly as possible. When we’re focused on what’s going on around us, we often miss larger forces and opportunities at work.
- Become reactive: We spend all of our time fighting fires, thinking the worst will happen; This can make us easily overwhelmed, overcommitted, and stuck. Unfortunately, we often fear threats without taking any proactive steps to counter them or turn them into opportunities.
- Make seemingly safe decisions: We cut anything non-essential and spend conservatively, focused solely on running the business. We make decisions based on fear, and we try to solve things with the same few answers.
Unfortunately, when we’re in survival mode, our ability to think analytically, creatively and solve problems is impaired. Survival mode, over time, saps us of our energy and joy. On the other hand, innovation requires the opposite mindset — risk-taking, bold decision making, and trying things we’ve never done before. In innovation mode, our choices don’t narrow. They broaden and become more plentiful. Innovation mode is also a lot more fun to be in, frankly. Focusing outward towards our customers and their needs and focusing on experimentation and ways to try new things can help us move into more of an innovative model.
We should also seek order rather than control. When a crisis hits, it can feel like things are spiraling out of control — and most of us want to control the things we think or feel we can. While seeking control in these moments seems like a natural, sensible reaction, we often end up micro-managing everyone around us, slowing everything down and doing our organization a disservice. Instead, we should seek order rather than control. This means making sure everyone is clear on what’s expected of them and what they can expect from us. Instead of managing every detail, we should figure out what can be delegated, communicate overall goals and values, and trust people to do good work. We want to look for ways to steer the ship out of the crisis, remove roadblocks, and create an environment where our team can find solutions and make good decisions. It is precisely during these times that people need to be able to control how they work, not have it controlled for them.
OK. Thank you. 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 pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
As leaders, we need to educate ourselves on emerging technologies, communicate our “why” and where we’re headed, really listen to our employees and customers, lean into the changes that need to be made, and work on improving ourselves. We do ourselves and our organizations a disservice when we avoid dealing with issues and hoping things will get better on their own. They never do.
I’ll give you some examples. Our team stays relevant by researching, testing, and presenting our findings to one another on leading “best practices” and emerging technologies. We also write, speak, demo software, and teach classes every week on a variety of topics. Having to explain and demonstrate concepts to our readers, students, and clients forces us to make sure we understand what we’re talking about at a deep level.
We also regularly meet within and across teams to talk about lessons learned (what we call retrospectives), risks, and issues and select at least one improvement area each week to tackle.
Improvements can range anywhere from people to processes to technology tools. We regularly check in with our customers, at a minimum every quarter, to talk through technology-related or other trends they’re seeing, as well as what’s working and what’s not in their organizations. Last, every member of our leadership is actively working on improving something about themselves (habits, behaviors, gaps in knowledge, etc.) for the larger team’s benefit.
In times of disruption, many things around us must change — our organizational structure, roles, responsibilities, levels, speed of decision-making, even the products and services we offer. If we don’t rapidly change, we are headed toward failure. We must seize the moment we’ve been given and not wait for things to return to normal. Our problems will not go away (and opportunities will not magically materialize) on their own. We must realize that we are in a new world that has fundamentally changed, one that requires different solutions, and we must take action.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is, “One becomes brave by doing brave things.” There will always be things we’re fearful of, but the best way to tackle our fears is to face them. The great news is that it becomes less scary each time. I’m still doing and trying things as an entrepreneur and leader that are new and terrifying, but I have to remind myself that I can be scared and still do it. Taking a risk and trying something (and inevitably failing and, hopefully, learning from it) is far better than running from it. Accomplishing great things is just a matter of trying.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We have tons of free resources, templates, articles, white papers, and downloads available on the Beyond20 website at https://www.beyond20.com/blog — We also have more than 600 helpful how-to videos on our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/Beyond20LLC. You can find the book we co-authored, “ITIL 4 Leader: Digital and IT Strategy” on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/ITIL-4-Digital-strategy-print/dp/0113316488/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1614215483&sr=8-2