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 Michael Brush.
Mike is a founding partner of COREinternational, which focuses on unleashing human capability and accelerating profitable, sustainable results for large complex businesses, and is a recognized leader in strategic organization design. Along with management of the business, he provides advisory services in a variety of industries and sectors, including communications, financial services, pharmaceutical, biotech, retail, transportation, automotive and natural resources.
Mike is regularly called upon by clients for his expertise in designing and implementing organization structures to accelerate performance and positioning the organizations for future success. He is recognized for his facilitative approach and ability to create and implement specialized management practices and systems that help clients achieve their business goals.
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?
After graduating from university, I went back and forth between corporate roles and consulting roles. My first consulting job was to go into large businesses, help them set up balanced scorecards, and teach management how to use the scorecards to involve and coach staff and drive performance. After completing 3 major projects I was living on the west coast, and my wife and I decide to move back east, so I quit my job packed up a moving van and drove across the country. At that point I believed I could parlay what I had learned out west into a business and discovered that doing great work for clients was only part of the equation of running a consulting business. I was running low on cash and went back to corporate work for about 5 years. I was responsible for an “internal consulting shop” and determined that if we gave internal clients top notch service then one day, they may become real clients when I returned to consulting, which turned out to be true. Next, I joined a medium sized management consultancy with the objective of learning the full art of consulting, and later hung out my own shingle for a year before setting up CORE International.
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?
My first consulting meeting was an event that I only realized was a consulting meeting years later. I was a third-year social work student and a course requirement was to write a report, after completing a one day per week, eight-month long placement in a skid row not for profit organization. At the end of the term my professor asked me to write a report assessing the organization and suggesting improvements. Being young, enthusiastic, and a bit self-righteous, I wrote a fairly scathing report and presented it to my professor. What I did not know was I had one more step. My professor instructed me to present the report to the community organization’s Executive Director. Not taking time to assess the situation or edit the content of the report, I brought it as is, to the meeting. I presented my report to the Executive Director moving through it, page by page. Now the Executive Director was a big man, who grew up in a rough part of town, and built this grass roots organization from scratch. He was listening to me, a too earnest white kid from the suburbs, telling him how he needed to run his shop, and he was not happy with what I had to say. With every turn of the page the Executive Director’s face got redder and redder. He started shaking and sweating as I watched him get angrier and angrier. When I was finished, he didn’t say a word but angrily stared at me, visibly enraged, and as I made my retreat, I felt I was lucky to get out of his office with all my limbs intact.
- I learned that my version of the truth was not necessarily the truth.
- I learned if I was going to be helpful and contribute, I had to begin by establishing a common language, having a willingness to see the situation through the other person’s eyes and position my recommendations in ways that are useful and helpful.
- I learned that providing advice has to be done in a way that the other person is able to hear it, understand it, and use it.
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?
My father-in-law opened my eyes up to the idea that trusting in yourself and embracing risk and being your own boss was the only way to live. This contrasted my personal experience where, my grandparents, my parents, aunts and uncles were all employees and the expectations set for me growing up were to get a good education and a good job. My father-in-law was a dentist, and in his spare time started the first dental equipment leasing company in the country. He always kept his eye open for new ideas and new opportunities. That exposure set a great example and gave me an interest to move out of the corporate world and change my views regarding what is possible.
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?
CORE International’s vision Better companies, better workplaces. Setting a standard for organizational management in the 21st century that raises the bar on business plan execution and fully unleashes human capability at work.
CORE international’s mission: Our business is to help corporate executives and managers achieve superior results by aligning the right structure with the right people, managerial processes and practices. We work with your executives to unleash human capability. We identify challenges that hinder growth. Our processes and tools increase productivity by creating a structure that ensures people are working to the right level of complexity. Our insights align structure, leadership and strategy to transform businesses and accelerate proﬁtable, sustainable results.
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?
When my founding partners and I started the business, it seemed like a fairly risky endeavor. We all had various backgrounds and came together, as independent consultants, to help a large communications provider reorganize. The President of that company introduced us to each other, indicating that we had a common expertise that he wanted but needed us to work as a team to pull off the transformation. We had to develop our methodologies, tool sets, and overall approach, learn to work together and transform his business all at the same time. That experience created the foundation for how we have worked ever since. We would meet weekly to work on our business, and the rest of our time was used to transform the communication provider. Establishing our business required lots of open communication, constantly looking for common ground, balancing individuals interests with the needs of the business. We were successful in meeting our client’s goals, formalizing our business structure and business model and had our first referenceable client.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes, at times. The motivation to keep going was a product of belief in the value of our services supported by a good deal of resilience. The source of that resilience began with expectations of my parents. I was expected to find part time jobs and pay for the things I wanted. My first job was a paper route where I had to deliver daily papers, collect payment from customers and what was left over was mine. How much I earned was directly dependent upon how well I did that work. Later I was expected to pay my way through university. The message was clear, don’t give up there is always a way to accomplish your goals. Over the years I have purposely put myself in challenging situations that require resilience and perseverance. I ran my first marathon a couple of months after completing my undergraduate degree. My graduation gift to myself was to 30 Outward Bound Survival Course. Outward Bound’s motto is “To serve, to strive, and not to yield” which has stuck with me Those experiences stick with you. What sustains me? Overtime sticking with it comes from believing in the services we sell. Getting feedback from our customers that they are receiving real value is motivating. Additionally, I believe that human beings are genetically geared to work. I continue to get a lot of satisfaction from what I do and will keep going until that situation changes.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The leader needs to set the conditions that allows the organization to overcome challenges, grow and thrive. The leader needs to provide a vision for the future and engage people in creating the path forward. Involving people in dealing with the challenges by engaging them in identify solutions and holding them accountable to deliver on solutions based on their roles ensures that everyone is working towards a common outcome. It is important to create a trust enhancing work environment that allows people to contribute and innovate, experiment and celebrate wins.
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?
Share the vision for the business, and give people challenging important work aligned to that vision. People want to work and contribute and to see that their contributions and hard work matter. When people know that the roles are aligned to the organization’s vision, mission and goals, and they can see that their work is helping to deliver those goals then they get motivated and engaged.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It starts with the work environment that thrives on open communication and an expectation that every team member will inform their manager and others if the work they are doing is better or worse than expected. In this way trust becomes an underlying foundation of the business culture. When there is open communication difficult news does not send shock waves but becomes another issue that must be addressed. The right people are brought together to tackle problems. In a trusting environment it means that people can take the news and use it to course correct. People want to know the truth and can deal with the truth. Being straight with everyone when things are going well and when things may not go well creates an open environment where difficult news can be shared and managed. If the news will impact individuals, then be empathetic but stick with the facts. Treat people the way you would like to be treated. This approach can be extended to customers. An open flow of communication is critical. When problems occur, be proactive in reaching out to customers, communicate that you understand any issues and that you have a plan to solve them. Make commitments and meet. These activities create trust and will ensure that your customers will stay with you in difficult times.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Winston Churchill said,
“Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even thou they rarely stick to their plan.”
The world is moving faster than ever. Business models once had life expectancies which were measured in decades may be now only be viable for a year or two. Leaders need to have a vision of what they want to accomplish and an ability to take that vision and engage their organizations to innovate to bring the vision closer to realization and be able to pivot when necessary. Value creation, innovation and agility are all capabilities required to thrive in an unpredictable world and were all evident in responses to the COVID-19 pandemics. When it became evident that COVID-19 was something that could not be contained, businesses began adjusting how they operated starting with restricting travel and asking employees to work from home. What quickly emerged was a requirement for businesses to manage through a crisis that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. Leaders had to answer the question “What do we need to do to keep our business viable during and after this crisis?” and respond accordingly. The first step was to assess and contain the damage, realign cost structures and establish a solid platform from which to move forward.
Next successful organizations began to undertake a continuous innovation cycle of planning, testing and adaptation. Identifying new and different ways of delivering current services, developing new products and services and implementing them. Lastly organizations have had to scale up putting in the systems, processes and technologies to enable them to be successful. The agility to respond quickly, innovate and implement at all levels of organizations is resulting in more valuable business positioned for current and future success. This is not a one and done event, these capabilities will be the hallmark of successful organizations going forward.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Build the foundation of a reliable organization capable of executing the right work at the right time to deliver your vision. Put the right people, in the right roles to do the right work positions an organization to develop and execute a strategy while at the same time being able to anticipate, flex and respond to changes in the external environment. Right people in the right roles means that leaders are focused on creating future success while those closer to the customer are focused on responding to customer needs in an effective and efficient way. Reliability is achieved when everyone understands their roles and understand the work of others. Everyone knows who can make what decisions and trusts that they will make the right ones.
Build into leaders’ roles the accountability to develop and evolve the organization to deliver the strategies while at the developing people for the future ensuring organization capability grows as the business grows. The right organization is a foundational element upon which to adapt and grow.
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?
In difficult times managing cash and controlling costs can be the difference between survival and failure. Not moving quickly enough to cut costs can damage the organization’s ability to weather the storm.
How you cut costs is equally important. We often see organizations choose to “share the pain” by asking every department to cut expenses by a defined percentage. On the surface this seems fair and can promote a feeling that we are all in this together. However, this approach can mortgage the company’s future. Taking a strategic view to postponing discretionary projects, eliminating unprofitable products or reducing staff in areas where work has dried up are tough decision leaders have to make but will speed recovery. Maintaining investment and spending on critical improvements and strategic initiatives will further enhance an organization’s growth coming out of a downturn.
When survival is not an issue it may benefit the organization by maintaining staff during the hard times. On the surface this advice seems to contradict the cost cutting advice shared above. The challenge is to balance your cash position with and ensuring you have the staff and expertise necessary for the future. Businesses often calculate the savings in salary expense but fail to anticipate the cost of hiring, training and developing new staff when business comes back. A full analysis may save headaches down the road. Additionally, talent retention can foster engagement and loyalty from employees well into the future.
Overall making the right decisions requires management to complete an analysis that encompass both current performance and future performance balancing current realities with future opportunity.
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?
The answer to this question begins with the response to the previous question. It starts with knowing your business, doing a thorough analysis and making decisions based upon that analysis and facts not gut feelings and fear. Do your homework:
- Reach out to your customers — do they have needs that you can meet?
- Look at your strategy — is it still relevant? Are your competitors making changes that you can leapfrog?
- Look at your processes — can they be updated, modified, automated to allow to provide new products and services?
- Look at your improvement plan — are there innovations planned for the future 2 years out that can be brought forward for today?
Overall, the message is focus on what you can control, deploy your team to innovate and improve your capabilities, and ensure the business is ready when opportunities open up.
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.
Invest in yourself
Lifelong learning is something we can all invest in. Staying in current by reading online business, attending courses and webinars, or self-learning by exploring topics and ideas, joining professional or industry associations are all ways of developing knowledge and skills, that I have found useful. Exercise is important to maintain your health, at any time, but it is essential to your health during these turbulent times. 3 days per week I head out for an early morning run and often get my best ideas and solve problems on those runs. Something as simple as setting time aside time each day to go for a walk energizes, relieves stress, and helps you maintain your health. Look after your mental health by volunteering and giving back to others, and you will get many benefits in return. My ten years as a board member for a well-known not for profit organization has taught me a lot and made me a better leader. The bottom line is if you are not at the top of your game then it will be difficult to lead in turbulent times. If you look after yourself then you will be ready to respond when the unexpected happens.
Invest in your organization
As discussed earlier invest in your structure, your culture and your people. Align the work to your strategy. Ensure the right people are in the right roles doing the right work. Create an environment that fosters openness and trust makes for an agile workplace that can see large complex projects through to the end but can also pivot when necessary. The starting point is role clarity, ensuring everyone understands their roles and understand the work of others and who can make what decisions. Through this simple act of clarifying roles, one leader that I have worked with moved his organization from being seen as the worst in the country for customer service and experience to being an international award winner as the best in the industry.
Containment-Assess your situation and stabilize the business
Containment involves identifying critical risks to businesses and the actions required to contain that risk. This work starts with reviewing, adapting and implementing business continuity and risk management plans that have been developed over the years but rarely executed. Critical decisions must be made regarding employees, customers, finances, supply chains and business operations. Ultimately, we are answering the question “What do we need to do to keep our business viable during and after this crisis?” Involving team members these decisions will engage them and develop the right solutions.
Leaders should consider the following questions when tasking teams:
- What is the problem or issue we need to solve for?
- What needs to be done to maintain the viability of our business?
- How should our mission and values inform us about the actions we need to take?
- What are the statutory guidelines we need to work within?
- Are our recommendations in line with the business strategy?
In completing this analysis at the start of the COVID-19 we were able to reduce expenditures, stabilize our cash position and equally important set the foundation from which to improve the business.
Sustainment involves a continuous cycle of planning, experimentation and adaptation. Experimentation by its nature means there will be successes and their will be failures. Failures are as important as successes as they teach where not to deploy people and resources.
We get great knowledge for a small price. We have had successes and failures over the years and have been able to adapt our business model with knowledge gained from both. Adaptation is another critical success factor providing services while dealing with ever changing conditions on the ground. This can range from sourcing new suppliers, to having a large percentage of the workforce working remotely, to temporarily shutting down parts of the business as has been required for many organizations during COVID-19. Ongoing cash management will continue to be critical to survival as the duration of the shutdown extends out farther into the future. As we continue to learn, we will need to adjust our thinking, and therefore planning, and execution of our business plans. Using this approach has enabled us to bring in new technologies to support customers remotely in a robust fashion.
Returning to Growth
Your work during the sustainment phase will set you on a strong footing for a return to growth. Focus will be sharper, employees will be engaged, processes will be stronger and you will have remained current with the needs of your customers and your employees. The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates this. COVID has not only changed the way we work it also changing the way we live. With the knowledge that their work can be done remotely, people are permanently moving to more affordable areas where their housing dollars go further. Daily commutes, for many, will be a thing of the past as physical location will be dependent on the nature of work being performed. Employers will need to accommodate these changes if they are going to attract and retain top talent.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I was fortunate to grow up at a time when life provided many choices. As a young person I struggled with how to make these choices and how I would know they would be right for me. Enter Shakespeare and this famous quotation from Hamlet:
“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
Whenever I have had a difficult decision to make in my life, I would complete an analysis, identify the pro’s and con’s and likely impacts and consequences of the decision. Then I would put all that aside and ask myself the question “What decision will ensure I am true to myself?” Answering the question would bring me the clarity I needed.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find the latest news about Core International, organizational design, and leadership on our blog here: https://coreinternational.com/blog/ You can also sign up for our mailing list through that link, so you never miss industry news.
You can also connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-brush-4445291/