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 Luis Soares and Rafael Oliveira.
Luis and Rafael are joint Managing Directors of TOPdesk UK, a global IT service management company with 16 offices worldwide and over 750 global employees. The duo have been in their position since 2016, overseeing the rapid growth of the UK branch. Luis is responsible for commercial and business development, while Rafael manages services and operations.
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?
Rafael: Myself and Luis worked together for around three years, respectively managing the consultancy and sales teams, before we decided to jointly apply for the position of managing directors of TOPdesk UK. While we worked in different disciplines, there was often overlap and when we worked together it was always very successful. Applying for a position such as this as a partnership is very uncommon. But, TOPdesk began with a partnership. Frank Droogsma and Wolter Smit, founders and current CEOs, joined forces as students to create TOPdesk, meaning collaboration is in the company’s DNA.
Luis: Wolter and Frank have always had clear areas that they oversee in the company which is a big factor in their success, they shared equal responsibility for the business. Rafael and I approach the job with a similar attitude.
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?
Rafael: As soon as we started in our role, we faced a challenge that neither of us expected! Building management of our London office told us of their plans to renovate the building. We didn’t grasp just how big this project was, and so made the decision to keep our office in the building throughout. Well, this ended up being a big mistake! The next 18-months were spent trying to do business with walls being taken off the building, construction noises, dust and cold, it was far from ideal. I think this story reflects our early days in the job — neither of us had a background in managing a company and we we’re surprised by just how complex the job is, we had so many responsibilities outside the range of the obvious ones that we didn’t anticipate. It was a big learning curve.
Luis: A funny mistake that comes to mind from when we started out is our first annual general meeting (AGM). We hadn’t planned a full event before and didn’t quite realise how much time and effort goes into organising one, so we left our presentation to the last minute. The night before the AGM we had to spend the whole night in the office planning our presentation, before quickly grabbing a change of clothes in the morning and then hosting the AGM! Luckily, the day went well, but we learned from this mistake and it’s never happened again.
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?
Rafael: It has to be Luis. This journey wouldn’t have been the same and as enjoyable without him by my side. We have had to learn a lot, faced many challenges, all while keeping a motivated team and successful business — I cannot imagine doing this with anyone else.
Luis: Hindsight is a beautiful thing because it gives you time to reflect. If somebody asked me what I would do differently, there are many things I would have taken a different approach towards, but would I have done this with a different partner? Definitely not.
Rafael: We would recommend leading a business as a partnership, but it has to be with the right person. I can think of a number of people who are trustworthy, respectful, and professional but that doesn’t mean they’d be the right fit as a business partner. It must be the right combination.
Luis: I think there are three fundamentals for business partners: respect, loyalty, and honour. There will always be differences in opinions, but you need to be able to come together and discuss things. To respect each other’s views, trust each other’s judgement and conduct yourself with honour whether decisions go your way or not.
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?
Rafael: The purpose and vision of TOPdesk has always been to help the customer, not just locally but globally. And to achieve this we have always put a lot of focus on our employees. Happy employees make happy customers!
Luis: I think this vision is really important for us. Being focussed on our staff and customers, I would say we’re not even on the spectrum of sales aggressive organisations.
Rafael: When I joined TOPdesk in 2012, there were around 11 or 12 employees in the UK and the goal was to grow the business. But, the focus was not to grow revenue at that time, instead it was to grow the workforce with people who would help to drive revenue in the future. This approach has continued, we are a much bigger team and profitable business now, but we still prioritise finding those people with the ‘TOPdesk DNA’ to join the team.
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?
Luis: One of the most difficult and uncertain times is the one that we’re going through at the moment. If we look back to 2008, the last recession, it was a purely financial crisis that we could work through together in the office. Right now, that’s not a possibility, but we still need to be connected to get through these times. For Rafael and myself, our first instinct when leading our team through the COVID-19 pandemic has been to communicate, to offer full transparency and clarity.
Rafael: The key thing with difficult and uncertain times is that they’re unpredictable, both the leaders and their team don’t necessarily see the challenges coming but the leaders are responsible for deciding how to deal with them. For us, the move to remote working wasn’t brand new, we had the technological capabilities to do so but we had never had a full team working from home before. On top of that, myself and Luis didn’t know what was going to happen tomorrow, in a week, month or year, as things were unprecedented and changing really fast. Full transparency with the team has been key for us. We can’t predict the future, but we can communicate how we’re dealing with the right now and make the team confident that we are taking all the appropriate measures.
Luis: We have also made sure to be empathetic during our communication. There’s a lot going on in the world and we cannot assume that everybody in the team is dealing with these external influences well. Or that everybody is going to be comfortable working in their home. So, while communication is key for dampening fears about jobs, the business, etc, it’s also key to show that the lines of communication are open. The team can come to us about any struggles they’re having in this crisis, either on a personal or a professional level.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Rafael: Personally, I felt quite anxious when the global pandemic forced us to begin remote working. I was unsure how it was going to work, whether my team were alone or were going to face other challenges in their home. But I never lost motivation, if anything this motivated me more. I was responsible for making sure that the situation did work for everybody.
Luis: We stepped into this job knowing there were going to be challenges, if you don’t expect that then you’re mismanaging your expectations. It’s never going to be plain sailing, but with the right mindset challenges aren’t walls that stop you, but hurdles that you must jump over. Managing my expectations sustains my drive for the job, I expect to face adversity and attack it with the mindset of jumping over a hurdle.
Rafael: Another thing that’s always been clear for me and Luis is that it’s not about us. If we give up, we’re not giving up on ourselves and our jobs, we’re giving up on all those people who work for TOPdesk UK. Yes, somebody else could take over the role, but we have built relationships and we’re proud of the people we work with. When we face challenges, we’re motivated by knowing that we’re not doing this for us, but for everybody else.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Luis: The role of a leader is to set an example and support the team, among many other things, which are all very important during challenging times. But I would say the most important role a leader must play in critical times is to ensure that the team are cohesive together. As long as there’s harmony in the team you can overcome whatever the challenge is. If your team breaks down, no matter how great you are, how much money you have, or what your brand is, it will be extremely hard to overcome problems. Whereas if you stick together, utilise the smart people in your team, and all work together towards the same goal, you have a much better chance of success. If the team feels like they’re part of something then they will be invested, if they feel alone, the motivation levels will drop and it will affect the entire organisation.
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?
Rafael: Focus on the positives. Even in a crisis, positive things happen and it’s key to focus on these to boost morale, inspire, motivate, and engage the team. That doesn’t mean ignore the negatives, but if you focus on the ‘doom and gloom’ aspects of the situation this will filter to the team and affect their mood, the same filtering will happen when we highlight the good stuff.
Luis: Alongside recognising and praising the positives, like Rafael said, I think the key word is support. An example of this is when we first began remote working, I set up a daily meeting with the account management team. They had gone from closing business deals every day and meeting clients face-to-face to almost all projects being on hold. For a team that thrives on being busy, I wanted to ensure they didn’t get into a rut. I was engaging with them about what was going on so that I knew exactly how I could support them and how to keep the team morale up.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Rafael: Transparency is key when communicating. If you’re transparent at the beginning of difficult times then bad news shouldn’t come as such a surprise to the team and customers, instead they will be prepared and have action plans ready.
Luis: I think that one of the key things is: don’t put it on email. You may need to confirm it in writing, but you must deliver difficult news face-to-face. It gives you the opportunity to demonstrate empathy and understanding, explain the situation properly and answer any questions or concerns then and there.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Luis: The key to making plans when the future is uncertain is to analyse the market. Often people are very reactive when going through challenging times, making impulsive decisions based on what feels appropriate at that moment. A better approach is to step back and look at the big picture. Avoid the impulses and instead consider all your options. You may not be able to make big plans for the future, but setting small milestones is achievable. Imagine you’re in thick fog, you might not be able to see into the far distance, but you can see what’s immediately ahead of you and make decisions based on that. Instead of running blindly into the fog (an impulsive decision) you head to the first lamppost that you see (small milestone), and then reassess the situation when you reach it.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Rafael: It’s hard to name a ‘number one principle’ because often principles go hand-in-hand. For example, communication is key, but it must be transparent and honest communication. If you think of all the principles needed to help guide a company through turbulent times, they can be grouped into one word: agility. To be agile means to be open and flexible, which leaders must be when setting and adapting goals, supporting each individual team member, and ensuring business operations continue to work smoothly.
Luis: In turbulent times a leader must be strong, both from a business sense and personally. At the end of the day, the company has to come first so a leader must be prepared to make tough calls. But on a personal level, leaders need to be the opposite of turbulent, in turbulent times. They must embody consistency and strength, to give the team confidence that the company will get through whatever difficult time it’s facing.
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?
Rafael: We have already touched upon companies making impulsive decisions and this is definitely a common mistake. Challenging times effect the business, but also employees and their livelihoods. Being impulsive puts all of these at risk and that must be recognised by businesses and avoided. For example, many companies took immediate action with regards to keeping employees in their existing capacity when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, even before the government announced measures to help save jobs. Some of these couldn’t be taken back. Employees lost their jobs and employers lost skilled workers who may have been key to getting them through the crisis.
Luis: This brings us onto the next mistake: cost-cutting. CFOs and finance directors often look first at how they can lenify the company. While this may seem like the obvious thing to do, if you cut costs how can you continue to deliver your services? The right approach is to review where you’re investing money, rather than just cutting out all big expenditures, which are often vital for the company’s success. Having cut costs, organisations then make the mistake of pulling the plug on investments. Back in the 2008 financial crisis, this led to labour becoming cheaper and more available — providing a fantastic opportunity for investment. This type of smart investment during a crisis can help companies to move ahead of competitors. Just because there’s a crisis doesn’t mean it’s time to stop everything and return to the bare bones of the organisation.
Rafael: Being prematurely fearful is also a mistake made during turbulent times. The future can seem dire when challenges arise but being led by fear is only going to result in failure. Instead a ‘glass half full’ approach should be taken. Trust in your decision making, in your company and product. Fear can be the number one nemesis of an organisation in difficult times.
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?
Rafael: We try not to lose momentum because there can really be a domino effect during challenging times. If we start being impulsive, it will naturally make the team feel unsafe, which will affect motivation and morale, resulting in less positive work and worse customer service for our clients. Whereas if we keep momentum, assess, make small milestones, celebrate success, communicate, and be transparent, there will be a sense of togetherness and strength in the team.
Luis: When it comes to generating new business, increasing profits, and maintaining financial security, flexibility is key. What do I mean by this? Well it’s no secret that new business meetings have reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. With people working remotely, it’s harder to reach them on the phone to spark those conversations. So, we must be flexible and think on our feet. How can we reach people? It could be events or social media. Whatever works for the business, you need to be flexible and open to give it a try. Then when it comes to the financial aspect, we have to appreciate that it’s not just us in this crisis. Everybody is struggling and budgets will be decreased. Being inflexible on price can be a blocker to new business, so where it’s possible, flexibility is key.
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.
Rafael: I think first and foremost, it’s essential that when facing difficult times leaders must look after themselves. Earlier, I mentioned the anxiety I had when we were forced to remote work because of the global pandemic. I had to make sure I was okay. If there is something you need to do to make the situation is easier for yourself, do it. As a business leader you are there to lead, to set that example and going into a challenge with the right mindset is key to be able succeed.
Luis: Be honest. Don’t paint a picture to your team that’s unrealistic as being dis-honest in turbulent times will cause panic in the team. You also can’t gloss over problems, it may feel like you’re protecting the team, but the reality is it’s just as harmful. They won’t realise their impact in the business and their responsibility. The team will be motivated by knowing their place and how they can make things turn out for the best. For example, we have regular company update meetings. During the pandemic these meetings have continued and we have used them as an outlet for discussing the realities of how the business is coping. We’ve been honest about saying we’re doing okay (dampening fear), but also letting them know that we can’t drop the ball, (emphasising their responsibilities).
Rafael: Being open and involving people are also vital. We hire smart and experienced people, and the reality is that they’re on the ground speaking to the customers on a daily basis. They know the market and have ideas on the best tactics we can use to generate new business. Also, when it comes to making decisions about work, we talk to our employees because it makes no sense to make decisions without their input. Take the remote working situation, we have spoken at length with many people to find out how they are doing, whether they want to go back into the office, and how they see their future playing out with working from home. And these conversations are always at the forefront of any decisions that the management team make.
Luis: Be consistent and encourage consistency. No matter what’s going on around you, consistency is key. Often in challenging times things change dramatically and you have to be able to act and react accordingly. But whatever decisions are made need to be in line with the business’s goals and visions. Consistency really helps with stability in tough times because there’s trust in the process. Despite being uncertain about what the future holds, you stick with what you know and what works, gaining the trust of both customers and employees. Throughout the pandemic, at TOPdesk we haven’t changed who we are. We still believe in our main value that happy employees make happy customers.
Rafael: A key aspect of any leader is their strength, and that’s not to say we can’t have doubts or anxieties. As a leader, you are responsible for a company and its people, they need somebody who they can look to who inspires confidence. And this becomes even more important in turbulent times. These are the times when customers and employees need to trust leaders, believe that they are capable, and draw strength from them to get through the difficulties. How can leaders show strength? By being a prominent figure and not shying away from the challenges. Luis and I have ensured that we are visible and available for every TOPdesk UK employee throughout the COVID-19 crisis. We have led by example, encouraging cameras to be on at meetings to keep that face-to-face interaction, advocating for work-life balance to ensure the wellbeing of the team is good, and been honest and transparent with the team throughout.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It is courage that counts.” — Winston Churchill
Luis: This is a quote that I live by when life throws me challenges in business and personally. Winston Churchill said this in the face of world war and it definitely puts things into perspective. If we’re succeeding that doesn’t mean we always will, an important reality check, but failure isn’t the end, we must dust ourselves off and continue.
Rafael: This is such an important quote. Life doesn’t always go our way but it’s up to us how we cope with life’s difficulties. When one door closes, others will open. It’s up to us to choose to look so long and regretfully upon the closed door or to motivate ourselves to look for the ones that have opened.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Connect with both Luis (https://www.linkedin.com/in/soaresl/) and Rafael (https://www.linkedin.com/in/rafaeloliveirauk/) on LinkedIn. You can also find out more about TOPdesk via topdesk.com.