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 Greg Samios, President and CEO of the Health Learning, Research & Practice business at Wolters Kluwer.
Greg has more than twenty years of experience in key leadership roles across critical sectors of the information services industry. He is noted for his proven track record of success delivering strong growth while guiding businesses through periods of digital transformation and industry disruption. Greg’s passion for lean principles to drive product innovation and growth extends beyond product teams to applying the lean philosophy and approaches to other functional areas in his organization.
An ardent proponent of across-the-board employee engagement, Greg has introduced highly regarded major internal initiatives such as Great Place to Work during his tenure at Wolters Kluwer that has led to increased opportunities for mentoring, diversity & inclusion awareness, and community service activities.
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’ve always liked problem solving. I graduated with an engineering degree, but once I started practicing I found the work to be too narrow and a bit isolating. I then decided to go to business school because I could apply my interest in problem solving in a more collaborative way. I earned my MBA from Duke University and soon after moved into several internal consulting roles. From there, I shifted gears to running a business, which was a tremendous opportunity and responsibility. That was about 20 years ago now. Over the last two decades, I’ve been at the helm of larger, more global businesses. I’ve learned a lot, some from trial and error, but always guided by my passion for problem-solving.
Looking back on how my career has progressed, I think it’s important to find roles that play to your strengths and in industries that inspire and motivate you. Lastly, but by no means least, work culture should align with your values. Taken together, these elements can help lead you to work you love.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I’ll never forget a big mistake I made early on in my career. We were developing a new product and I thought we had gone through a pretty rigorous vetting process to make sure it was viable in the market. I had a great team, including one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with to this day. We put the idea in front of customers and had received positive feedback. Everything was looking good and we were ready to launch. I was so confident, in fact, that I made t-shirts for the launch and distributed them throughout the organization — beyond my division and to the CEO. Well, the product was a failure in that it generated very little revenue, and while prospects were interested, no one was cutting checks. Overconfidence got the best of me in that instance. I learned that even when you think you have it right, launching new products is challenging.
This mistake early in my career led to my journey embracing lean product and process management that has been the cornerstone of my leadership and business approach to this day.
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?
In my very first general manager position at a business of over 150 people, the CEO offered to connect anyone interested with an executive coach. To my surprise, few people raised their hand, but I raised mine high. That coaching experience has been instrumental to my growth and success. He was brutally honest about how I was doing, and I realized later how hard it is to find people in your career who will tell you what you do well and be direct about what you need to work on, particularly in a day-by-day way. He would sit with me, observe and comment, which is exactly what I needed at that stage in my career. So many aspects of business and leadership are learned in the role, but if you can accelerate that learning process, you will accelerate your career.
I recall one example of his honesty that influenced my leadership style. He listened in on a sales call with me that I thought went great and that we were making good progress. I was smiling when I hung up and reported to my coach that we were going to have a strong month. He replied, “No you’re not, you didn’t hear your team.” He had me call back two people and ask if orders were in the system or not. They weren’t. His direct, honest feedback may have been difficult to hear at times, but a coach that can take you off your game and help you to listen, be objective and reset is tremendously valuable. I’m grateful to have had that mentorship in my formative years of taking on new responsibilities.
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?
Purpose driven business is important to me and has been a core foundation of Wolters Kluwer. For more than 180 years the company has been helping professionals make better decisions for optimal outcomes.
The Wolters Kluwer business I manage is in the healthcare sector. I don’t see a higher level of purpose than helping healthcare professionals improve the lives of patients around the world. Clinicians and healthcare students really trust and rely on our content, products and solutions, and that gives our team a tremendous amount of resolve in bringing our best to work every day. When I first took on managing this business this sense of purpose was very clear from the team who are energized by this mission.
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?
COVID-19 is a very recent example of uncertain and difficult times for our company, like so many others. While most of my career has been focused on transforming or turning around businesses and I have experience helping companies navigate tough times, this is a truly unprecedented situation.
In my view, effective leadership during difficult times is built on transparency and communication. You need to be upfront and honest with people for them to feel comfortable and engaged. Employees want to know where the business stands, particularly in challenging times when things are constantly in flux, and you need to be diligent in communicating consistently and providing that information. An important part of communication is listening and having a good mechanism for feedback to make sure you’re doing a good job of keeping your team informed.
Over the past few months, I’ve increased the frequency of my communication and made it a point to respond to questions that people want answers to. We quickly shifted to monthly town halls from quarterly meetings, and I continued with my regular schedule of twice a month coffee chats with small groups of employees, as well as one-on-one sessions. I’ve seen companies push aside communications in hard times and that can be damaging. I never have to remind my leaders to focus on results, but I do have to remind them of the importance and value of communication to ensure their teams are informed and engaged.
I’ve also turned to employee surveys to make sure messages are resonating and that everyone feels supported. Because we’ve had these surveys in place to measure the effectiveness of other initiatives, I was confident in our ability to navigate our COVID-19 response appropriately and in a way that would help put employees at ease.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I honestly never give up. I know that might sound extreme, but I truly get energy from solving problems. In fact, the bigger the problem, the more excited I am to roll up my sleeves and get involved. I distinctly remember taking a job that no one else wanted because of the dire situation the business was in, and I loved it. I naturally tend to be more optimistic and take pride in finding several paths to success. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about failure. I know that in trying to solve hard problems, there are going to be failures, but you don’t get very far focusing energy there. Problems are solved one step at a time, and you have to strive to build momentum in a way that feeds on itself over time. That process sustains my drive right to the end.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I see communication, transparency and honesty as critical, foundational success factors for leaders today. In turbulent times, steadiness is important too. It’s a combination of seeing a path forward and talking through how pieces will come together that instills confidence. Presenting a big vision or idea won’t resonate. You really have to bring people along the journey with you. High frequency, transparent communication makes it possible to keep everyone moving forward at the same pace and in the same direction.
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?
In working through challenging situations, celebrating the little wins along the way is so important. There will be stumbling blocks for sure, but celebrating the wins, and being emotionally invested alongside your team goes a long way. It’s being able to say, “Hey guys, it’s tough out there.” Again, by prioritizing communication and transparency, you can shape the narrative and avoid the slippery slope of “what if this fails” that can be tough to come back from. I make it my mission to keep people focused on the right things that I think will translate most directly to success. I’ve taken this approach at Wolters Kluwer and we’ve done very well in the midst of the chaos brought on by COVID-19, which I’m really proud of.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Delivering difficult news is required of effective leadership and it doesn’t really get easier. In my experience working with businesses that are in a phase of turnaround or digital transformation, I find honesty and ethical behavior is the best foundation. If you are honest and ethical, you will be perceived that way.
What you say and how you say it needs to be well thought out. Being direct without jargon is probably the number one rule in communicating hard news. The more specific and fact-oriented you can be, the better. Conversations at the 30,000-foot level just aren’t satisfying.
Being able to provide options to get to a better outcome is crucial too. That kind of thinking provides an element of control so when you’re on the receiving end of tough conversations, you don’t feel backed into a corner. Control over your destiny is usually welcome.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is often unpredictable in businesses that are going through transformation, and now further complicated with COVID-19. In complex situations, planning and predicting is challenging. Navigating a business through challenging times, I never claim to have the full, right answer and instead focus more on scenario and probability building. It’s not authentic, honest or ethical to say, “Here’s where we’re going,” with too much confidence. Oftentimes, the best you can do is say “Okay, here are some outcomes and where the probabilities lie.” Framed that way, it’s easier for people to digest and it puts you in a favorable position down the road.
It’s also important to recognize that decisions being made in an unpredictable world are not binary. They are often not yes or no answers. There are many shades of grey and taking an intermediate position is okay. Sometimes there is a tendency to make decisions about the future when you don’t yet have the insight or data needed to make an informed choice at that time. Instead, think about what decision needs to be made today, in the short-term, and what decisions need a bit longer to ferment. Forcing yourself to do that, and monitor how things unfold, enables you to set expectations across your organization much more effectively. In these shorter decision cycles, however, it’s important that the communication strategy is in sync too.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I feel strongly that good leadership is grounded in high ethics and trust. A leader who lives by these qualities―meaning it’s in their DNA― makes a difference that permeates throughout their leadership and organization. In challenging times, having a leader that you know is an ethical person makes a world of difference. When you can trust the decisions of your leaders, you worry less about the tough times. I think it’s also important that company values model and support these behaviors. The values at Wolters Kluwer, for example, provide a framework that guides our actions, are authentic to who we are, and creates a sense of community and action.
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?
One mistake I see often is reactive decision making. When decisions are based on panic and impulse rather than informed by data, it’s very apparent to the rest of the organization and in worst case scenarios it can actually incite fear. Employees want to know that their leadership has a level-headed approach in responding to difficult situations. As much as leadership can take a step back and really try to work through the problem in a rational way the closer to a solution they’ll get.
The second mistake goes back to a point I made earlier. Leadership shouldn’t feel compelled to make a longer-term decision when smaller or shorter-term ones will do. It’s not always necessary to have a fully baked conclusion. Related to that is the third mistake I see, which is organizations including too many or too few people in important decisions. Often companies are unnecessarily fearful to bring people “under the tent,” when including more people can lead to better outcomes.
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?
A strategy I employ that helps me stay focused is using data to drive decisions and understanding root cause analysis. It’s important to reduce or eliminate the emotional part of decision making and let the data steer you to the right answer. The challenge when you’re in turbulent times is the need to fight speed. In those cases, synthesizing data quickly to get to the solution needs to be a priority. Success or failure is dependent upon the speed in which you can get to the data and solution so you can start executing.
I would also say that when you’re trying to prioritize and keep traction during challenging times, take a sharper edge to deciding where to put dollars for investment and where to pull from. I keep a steady focus on investing in product as a growth driver. In fact, Wolters Kluwer has a strong philosophy around product investment that has positioned the company very well throughout difficult times. Product is an area I believe companies really need to protect during tough times and it forces tougher priorities.
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.
- First and foremost, a business leader must be authentic, unquestionably ethical and trustworthy to lead effectively during uncertain times. I had the good fortune of working for an amazing leader whose ethics no one ever questioned. I recall a monthly management meeting following a really tough quarter we did not anticipate, and the CEO called a break after delivering the bad news. During the break, one of my colleagues stood up and passionately voiced his concern about how we let our leader down and reiterated our responsibility to results and protecting the business. I found that kind of commitment and loyalty by a subordinate to a CEO was amazing and was a direct result of his authentic, ethical and honest nature.
- Second, use data to make thoughtful decisions. Quick decisions in turbulent times can easily lead the business down the wrong road. I’ve seen this play out time and again. I recall a situation when a recommendation was based on a narrative, rather than the facts. If I had agreed, it would have been the wrong decision for the organization.
- Real-time prioritization is extremely valuable in a leader, particularly in challenging times. Having a clear mind and understanding urgency around where it’s needed most is critical. This is a leadership muscle that requires building over time. Having gone through many business transformations and turnarounds in my career, when you have a short cycle for priorities and you’re working on the right things, often you can do better. Instead of setting priorities monthly or weekly, I find shifting it to daily really works.
- A capable and accountable team is a must for effective leadership. When things go wrong in turbulent times it’s hard to create a productive, steady team environment if there is no accountability.
- Finally, fostering a positive performance culture is key. Being quick and transparent in rewarding results makes a big difference. I also believe there’s tremendous value doing the unexpected with respect to unplanned monetary or other rewards and I have found this to be very effective at reinforcing positive performance. It goes a long way when I can say to an employee, “you went above and beyond on that project and delivered a great result, so I want to recognize your efforts with a spot bonus.” I find that the value of the unexpected far exceeds the impact of what you can deliver monetarily.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Both professionally and personally, I believe that if you love what you do, you won’t work a day in your life. As a society, we spend so much time at work. So, if your job is truly fulfilling, you can achieve fulfillment in other areas of your life as well — at home and in your relationships. I’ve been fortunate to be in that position for most of my career. I was influenced by seeing my father, who is a scientist, get real energy from his work. In fact, he still works today. Work is his hobby and it’s what he loves. I try to emulate that as much as I can, and I strive to make that the case for everyone in my organization. This has led me to implement at Wolters Kluwer and previous companies, a program called Great Place to Work that’s all about employees bringing ideas forward to make their daily work lives better. We focus on social activities, professional development and community engagement. Navigating through the current COVID-19 crisis with our teams working remotely, we’ve had to pivot to a virtual Great Place to Work concept which has been instrumental in bringing forward programs to help colleagues balance work-home pressures, stay connected with their peers, and support their local communities. Making a positive difference in the lives of our employees — particularly during this unprecedented challenging time — is one of my proudest achievements as a leader.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I encourage anyone interested in following the work at Wolters Kluwer to visit our website where you can find expert insights and our latest news. Visit https://www.wolterskluwer.com/en/health.