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 Leon Goren, president and chief executive officer of PEO Leadership.
Leon Goren believes in purposeful leadership — the type that requires us to challenge the status quo, anticipate the future and be confident enough to step outside of our comfort zone to inspire and help those around us excel.
His 25 years of leadership experience and understanding of the needs and challenges of leaders come from leading multiple organizations and working with over 1000 Fortune 500 and SME Clients.
As the owner and CEO of PEO Leadership, Leon is dedicated to building communities of knowledgeable and respected business leaders by developing opportunities for shared insights and experience. The company believes in a holistic approach focused on helping leaders to realize both their personal and professional objectives. They’re focused on 5 key elements of success — Business, Health, Wealth, Career and Family/Personal Relationship. They believe success is achieved not through balance but rather having those 5 key elements working in harmony.
In addition to the above, Leon is also Toronto Chair of TIGER 21, where he leverages his experience and communication skills of developing exceptional leaders in working with high net worth individuals and families.
As founder and CEO of justwhiteshirts.com in 1997, Leon became one of Canada’s first online success stories, recognized for bringing the dot com retail experience to Canadians through a combination of online, catalog, and brick and mortar channels.
Leon is an authority on leadership, business strategy, and building a financial legacy as he is consistently invited to address various business audiences, including the graduating classes of Chartered Accountants. His thought leadership is published in the CA Magazine, The National Post and The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.
Former member of the North York Aquatic Club board of directors, Leon is on the Advisory Board of UMBRA and IHHP. Leon is a CPA, CA, he is married with 3 children and is active in sports, including cycling, triathlons and skiing.
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 been in and out of several businesses and investments throughout my career, which started as a CPA, CA. When I founded a company called Justwhiteshirts.com in early 1997, I was often asked to speak to business audiences around North America. At one of these conferences, I was approached by the founder of PEO Leadership and asked if I’d be interested in joining a shared advisory board within their leadership community. At the time, I had no one to bounce ideas off outside of our company and believed that having an external board, even if shared, would be extremely helpful to my own leadership development and the growth of our business. I found the experience to be fantastic and after spending several years as a member and following the sale of Justwhiteshirts.com, I decided my next acquisition would be PEO Leadership, which I completed in December 2010. The organization had tremendous potential at the time but had been floundering by a lack of investment and focus. I looked at it as an opportunity to not only turn the business around but to grow it.
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 don’t believe I have a funny mistake to share from my time at PEO Leadership; however, I can share a story of my first business at Justwhiteshirts.com. When we got into that business, we knew absolutely nothing about the manufacturing of shirts. I was a practicing accountant, and my two partners had backgrounds in Physics and Sales. The business started with the ordering of 800 white shirts from an overseas factory. We provided the size specifications of various dress shirts found in the marketplace at the time, thinking nothing about the fine fabric we were going to use in the manufacturing process. When the first 800 shirts arrived, they were beautiful. Our marketing campaign had been in full swing, articles were being written about us across the country and as the shirts cleared customs they were quickly turned around and sold. We were ecstatic, as we had launched the business and were making headlines! Everything was great until a couple of months later our first customers started calling us to complain about the challenges they were having with shrinkage around the collar and sleeves. Today we laugh about it as we imagine what it was like to go to work feeling like you were you were being strangled by your collar. We were faced with an interesting dilemma at the time, orders were continuing to flood in, and we worried about our reputation going forward. We quickly became experts in sourcing the fabrics and understanding the specifications required for the shirts. Those that had ordered the initial 800 shirts received a replacement shirt from us over the following months with no questions asked. It was one of those lessons learned when starting a business. It’s easy to look back and laugh today, although at the time you can bet we were extremely worried about cashflow and how we would recover.
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?
There have been a number of very close friends and mentors along the way; however, the one person who has always stuck by my side has been my wife. She has always been by my side when having to make difficult decisions. Back in March 2020, with the pandemic about to explode, Michele and I sat down and looked at the organization’s strategy moving forward. We pivoted the organization very quickly, moving digitally and more importantly, adapting how we operate as an organization. Our monthly advisory board meetings moved to weekly for several months to address the immediate challenges our members were facing. Rather than stopping all community events, we pivoted to look at what issues/opportunities our members were facing and quickly set up digital, interactive community events with not only our members but the community at large. We moved forward trying to help not just our members, but all leaders in the business community suffering and questioning how they should proceed. These moves, which took some heavy lifting from all my executive advisors and our small leadership team, really changed how our members valued our organization. The idea of a leader doing it all on their own in a world that is changing so rapidly is foolish. Covid-19 quickly pointed out the importance of a relationship web of trust and being able to lean on and learn from each other.
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?
The essence of our business has not changed for many years — we are here to help experienced business leaders realize their personal, professional and organizational goals and objectives. It’s a holistic approach to leadership that encompasses their business, health, wealth, career, and family/relationships. We believe that if any of those areas falter, your business and life will suffer, so why not be proactive in moving forward on them all. This vision and purpose has not changed.
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?
Uncertainty often creates challenges and elevates the emotion of fear. In March 2020, we were faced with uncertainty around the future of our business, health, families, and friends. It was imperative that as a leader I was present, supportive, understanding, and flexible. In doing so I needed to be vulnerable. I did not have all the answers; however, I was there to listen to my team and ultimately with their cooperation, develop a plan for us to move forward. A plan which we were all a part of building and therefore motivated to execute upon.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up is never an option if you want to be successful. If you run into a wall…reassess and pivot versus dwelling on the problem. Life is about being positively relentlessly focused. I have always been very goal oriented and focused. A lot of that drive came from participating in various sports teams and being actively involved in swimming. Last year, we had Harvard’s strategy and business legend, Prof. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, speak at one of our The Way Forward Live Webcast Series. She said something that really resonated with me and motivated everyone in attendance. She said “Everything looks like a failure in the middle. So don’t give up, because this is just the middle, it’s not the end.”
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
In order of priority:
- A leader needs to take the time to over communicate and listen to his/her people during a time of crisis.
- A leader must have the ability to adapt quickly and provide direction. The leader must believe they are on a path forward. One small step in front of the other with the intention of moving towards the overall vision of the organization, even during a crisis.
- A leader must come across as authentic which during a crisis often involves being vulnerable. No one expects you to have all the answers; however, they are watching and listening to you for strength and guidance.
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?
Communication, transparency, and authenticity. All conveyed with a sense of direction and belief.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In person. Using zoom will suffice during this pandemic situation. You need to be able to see the other person and read their emotions. Being authentic, empathetic, and transparent while delivering difficult news is very important. Teams look to their leaders to be open, honest, and forthright about difficulties; and they also appreciate and respect leaders who can confidently admit that they don’t have all of the answers. An important part of communication is being open to discussion and follow-up after the news is delivered. Finally, as a leader who has delivered difficult news, consider reaching out to a trusted peer/mentor to share your experience and decompress. Delivering bad news is not easy and takes a toll; it’s important to recognize this as well.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
How can a leader not make plans under any given scenario? It is one of the most important roles and responsibilities of a leader; to plan for the future so they can engage and inspire their team to move forward. There is no excuse for not planning for the future, even if the future is months versus years.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Absolutely — don’t dwell on the problem for longer than necessary. Control your negative thoughts and emotions, they are contagious; relentlessly look for alternative solutions to every challenge and/or issue you’re faced with. As a leader, you have to reprogram your way of approaching issues and opportunities. By focusing on the solutions rather than the problems, you will engage your team, give them a better sense of purpose, and motivate them to be creative. By looking at an issue and asking yourself and your organization what are some simple things that you could all do to make it better, you will be inviting creativity and solution-based thinking. By doing so, opportunities and a path forward will emerge.
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?
Leaders get caught up in the challenges and/or negative situation at-hand and their decision capabilities freeze up. Too many leaders get far too caught up in the media instead of rationalizing their intake and spending time to clear their mind and focus on their own situation.
They let their emotions take control of their thoughts, resulting in erratic decision making and a lack of clarity of how to move forward.
Leaders who haven’t spent enough time improving their financial acumen. A great example is too much focus on historical financial statements and little or no understanding of the importance of cashflow modeling during a time of crisis.
Many businesses have never planned for a crisis. There is no plan and for many, there is a lack of cash reserves to get over the challenge posed by this pandemic.
Some leaders have given up and/or just don’t have the energy or willpower to reinvent themselves and their organizations. Their people quickly realize this and either leave the organization and/or their performance resembles that of their leader.
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?
It all begins with a plan and understanding of what you believe the future will look like. Once you have that, it then becomes much easier to plan how you move the organization forward and what cash will be required to get you through to the next phase. Here are a few examples of how, we as a team, faced the COVID-19 crisis:
- We asked ourselves the question of whether our organization was and/or will continue to play an important role for our clients and prospective clients, in both the short and long term. The answer to that question was a resounding YES. Now more than ever, our members, who are experienced business leaders running both SMEs and multinationals, need a place where they can lean on each other for assistance during times of uncertainty; to be able to leverage the collective wisdom of their peers and the greater community; to be able to build a web of trust to assist their organization over the bumps so that they can excel in a new world. The reliance and sharing of experience among peers will never diminish if you’re looking to be successful. In fact, with the world changing so rapidly, it is more important now than ever.
- We also strategized around what we needed to do as an organization in order to service our clients and help them overcome their challenges and move through this pandemic. We adapted our processes and capabilities to fit in with that vision.
- Finally, we looked at what resources, and particularly what our cashflow should look like over the next 12 months. We analyzed whether we would need to seek external financial assistance and/or whether we would be able to move through these times with our own financial resources.
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.
- Be prepared — Have a preliminary plan and/or be prepared to develop a plan that is agile. At PEO Leadership we had a plan and yet when the pandemic hit, even that plan required rapid modification. We sat down as a team and relentlessly looked at various alternatives. I was open with the team around the challenges we faced and expressed my belief that as a team, we would succeed. My team, which also includes all our experienced Executive Advisors, is the number 1 reason we accelerated through those early challenging times.
- Watch your cashflow — This is not the same as reviewing your monthly historical financial statements. This requires you to plan ahead. What will your cashflow look 3 months down the road? Take the time to critique the assumptions being made and understand the circumstances of when and how they may need to change. In March 2020, we revisited our cashflow forecast and adjusted the projection with our new assumptions on moving forward. We then continued to review it weekly, adjusting it as we began to implement some of our short-term strategic initiatives of trying to reinforce our brand during the crisis. We took advantage of our competitor’s fear and invested heavily in in different strategies with an assumption that we would eventually be returning to a NEW normal. This continues to be our plan as we move through Covid-19.
- Stay close to your customers! Listen to what they have to say and be as supportive and flexible as you possibly can. Our essence is to help experienced business leaders realize their personal, professional and organization’s growth objectives. During a time of crisis, we will do whatever we can to ensure that we can be there to support them even if they are faced with a financial situation. People will always remember the support you provided them.
- Think outside the box. We will never be returning to the way things were in 2019. We are entering a new world as we emerge from this pandemic. If you continue to think, strategize and partner the way you’ve done in the past, your organizational lifespan will be shortened. This past year we stepped outside of our comfort zone and partnered with two similar organizations to us, based in the US: Allied Executives and Inc. CEO Project. As most of our competitors froze in their decision-making, we planned and pulled off what some consider the 2020 North American Leadership Conference in North America — Thriving in a Brave New World. Today, our new Global Executive Alliance has expanded our mandate beyond just the conference and are considering various ways for all our members to connect and build new relationships of trust. It’s an opportunity that has allowed our three organizations to take the member experience to a whole new level of value moving forward in this NEW world.
- You need to be positive and believe in both you and your team! A crisis will always create opportunities. As a leader, if you’re able to look past the immediate pain of those challenges and become relentlessly solutions focused, as my good friend Dr. Jason Selk says, you will be successful not only in business but in your life!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Mine is quite simple and comes from athletic days as a swimmer — “No pain. No gain!” In life things rarely come easily. You need to work hard, including training your mind to be mentally tough because we will always be faced with challenging times.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow us at www.peo-leadership.com and look at figuring out whether an advisory board makes sense for both you and your organization.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter loaded with thought leadership ideas that you may want to incorporate in your lives and businesses.
Register for our events, that are listed on our webpage in the Events section.
Subscribe to our YouTube channel and watch world renowned thought leaders share their strategies for success: https://www.youtube.com/c/PEOLeadership
We also encourage you to subscribe to our business podcasts: The Way Forward Webcasts with Leon Goren, where in hour long conversations and Q&A’s with business thought leaders, we look ahead, beyond the immediate crisis, to help leaders strategize in this unprecedented time amidst huge transition. https://wayforward.buzzsprout.com/
The Snippets by Leon Goren podcast, is a series where business leaders share personal stories, best practices and learnings with the rest of the community in 10 to 20 minute conversations. In short segments, Snippets delivers answers to important questions and provides inspiration and uplift in a time of change. https://peosnippets.buzzsprout.com/