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 Michael Levy.
CEO Michael Levy leads both Online Rewards and WorkProud and has achieved 13 consecutive years on the Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies list. His company is a leading provider of workplace culture and people success solutions who believe employees are a company’s greatest asset.
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?
There are two interesting anecdotal stories I like to retell. The first is you never know who you’re going to meet and where those meetings and interactions will take you. I used to play as a club DJ and finished the shift and picked up a friend at the airport at five o’clock in the morning. A gentleman walks out of Sydney airport with a Cleveland Indians baseball cap on, reaches into his pocket, pulls out a packet of cigarettes and I asked for one. From that moment we became good friends. I’m now an American citizen living in the United States as a result of that interaction. He’s a resident of Australia and I hope he’s doing well.
The other story is that one day while traveling with my wife, who chooses the restaurants that we eat at, chose a specific place to eat. On this night, I didn’t think much of the food. I say, “Why are we eating at this restaurant?” She said, “Because they are giving us American Airline miles.” I thought that was a stupid idea given I didn’t like the food or the restaurant. However, as a result of that interaction, I’m now the CEO of a company that for the last 20 years builds reward programs that were based on the same principles and ideas that had brought my wife and I to that specific restaurant.
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 wouldn’t call it a mistake; I’d say actually quite the opposite. I was sitting in Sydney, Australia and I said to a gentleman, “Well, I’m thinking about going to live in the United States and to pursue dreams and start a business.” He said, “You want to be a millionaire? At age 21 or 22?” That was my age at the time that conversation took place. My answer was definitely, “Yes! I want to go to America and start a business and make money.” He said, “Yes, you and 300 million others.”
When I look back on it, to the other others who might see this is there’ll be lots of people who will tell you no. But if your passion and your heart tell you yes, then you should follow the yes. Certainly, there were many people along my path in history that were saying no, that’s not a good idea, or you shouldn’t do that, or that’s not going to work. While nothing’s perfect and not everything that we’ve done is perfect and great. I’m certainly very satisfied that I followed the yes paths along the way. My takeaway is to follow your yes, follow your heart.
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 an earlier incarnation of my entrepreneurial life, there was a very strong mentor. We’d present these ideas of what we were working and some of the materials and he’d look at us and he’d say, “It’s like whipped cream on horse shit.” I didn’t understand any of it. He would say “Walk through the footsteps of your customer.” Such an insightful line. Amongst the many lessons that the founder taught, that was one that stays with me and I continue to use on a daily basis.
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 vision and purpose were probably a lot foggier than it is today. It may be easy to look back and say, I think this was the vision or I think it’s purpose. I think underneath it all we saw that there were services being provided in the industry related to what we do that we thought we could do better. Its purpose was to do it better than that, which we were experiencing as a consumer. The question then of the vision of creating a company that had a particular purpose and vision in mind beyond doing well. It’s hard to have a more altruistic vision and purpose in mind when you are not drawing a salary, your partners are not drawing a salary, and you wonder if you’ll ever be able to draw a salary and feed your family.
But once you get past that point, then you begin to see things a little bit more at an elevation above the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy. Now we can kind of feed ourselves. We’re alive. Now we can ask ourselves, why are we doing all of this? Then we do our work for a clear vision and purpose. And that is if we can make successful things happen for our clients. That’s the first and most important because if we don’t make things successful for our clients, what are we doing? Why are we doing it? The second is we have a responsibility to the company and the business for the company and the business feeds the families who work for the business. We have a responsibility to make it a successful business and then finally the purpose question can be around.
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?
The first reaction we had when the clouds of COVID-19 began to appear was to realize that we had to quickly adjust and adapt to workplace settings and environments. I think that was the first thing all of us can relate to, which is we don’t think you’re going to be able to come to the office anymore. That was a pretty dramatic change in shift for everybody. The first thing we did was say how do we pivot? What’s the kind of technology that we’re going to need to have in place? How will we change the way we would have our meetings? I work with a group of smart people and didn’t take them but a few days if not a week to reorientate and then quickly interact with the rest of the team in a manner that said, well, nothing’s really changed, and we’re still going to interact with each other, we are not going to not be able to do it in person in the same room and we’ll use these telephones and video cams and etcetera to modify.
I think the second challenge, the harder one, is what is going to actually happen to the business, and will we be able to continue to service our customers because we’re predominantly an online internet-enabled business? That wasn’t a challenge, but what was going to happen to our clients who were in retail or in food service or in hospitality and how will this impacts them and what can we do to help them and will they continue to be able to be clients and customers?
We’ve been pleased to report that the majority of our clients and customers have managed to make their way through this difficult time and look like they’re coming out the other side. Not quite to the successes they were in the beginning of the year but at least on the trajectory back to getting on their feet. What we did while we were experiencing some of that financial, psychological, and emotional uncertainty is we produced some videos saying, “Hey, you know, team members, you’re going to be okay, we’re going to get through this together.” We’re all still going to struggle but we’re all going to pull through. I’m pleased to report that as of late September it looks like we’re on the other side and I think our team has done a fantastic job and our clients have done fantastic job on their own accounts to manage and get through the challenging times.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Very, very rarely. And there’s a difference between giving up and you’re doing the wrong thing altogether. The you’re doing the wrong thing altogether is an important realization that entrepreneurs should ask themselves periodically if they are not solving real world customer problems and customers are not reacting to them in a manner that says what you’re doing is meaningful and I can see myself purchasing that. Then the entrepreneur needs to pivot and shift, because if you’re not solving some kind of problem or providing something that’s so exciting and interesting that people would be willing to part money with it then you better be asking whether you’re really doing the right thing at all.
I was certainly doing something that was more in the former category, which I think I was solving for a problem that wasn’t there. That becomes a much harder business to rationalize on the basis that you are solving a real-world problem and you have some customers or a customer that think what you’re doing is meaningful and it’s willing to pay money for that service or product, then you’re doing the right thing and you should never give up or try not to give up because it always takes much longer than you think.
Things will happen to knock you out of the way or to knock you down and you need to stand up and get up each time and say, “I know I’m doing something that’s meaningful and people are willing to use my service or buy my product so I know I’m doing something that has some value.” Once you’re at that point, I think everything else becomes details. Not that they’re not complicated details, but the details that you can overcome. You’ve got to have a vision for yourself and see yourself on the other side of whatever the challenge and that’s easy to say and a habit to do and it depends on what the challenge is, and you should draw your inspiration predominantly from within. But it doesn’t hurt to have, you know, family, friends and coworkers around you that you know can encourage you on the occasion.
And now in terms of what sustains the drive I think at least our business has grown into a fold; its purpose becomes clearer over time. And you know that mission, as I mentioned earlier about satisfying customers and building a meaningful business, that is a positive contributor to the people that work at it and to the customers that use it. It doesn’t hurt to have an encouraging, family and some friends that are fans, but most of the drive comes from within because you want to see something appear in the vision for which you help.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leaders are responsible for identifying the light houses that the company is heading towards. What is the journey and the path and when are we going to be able to articulate that vision so others can see the vision? That way they then connect to the vision or contribute to the journey towards that. A leader has the emotional responsibilities of bringing the right people in and inspiring those people together. Depending on the type of leader, they certainly have a responsibility in a business construct to have a formula or a format that the business can sustain itself and become what that vision is. It must be realistic. The leader has a responsibility to make sure that if they’re inspiring others to follow them, where they’re going is good and that the path to achieve it is realistic and attainable.
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?
Even though next week and the week after seems uncertain, you know the future is really not uncertain and we will all dust ourselves off, stand up and continue to pick up where we were a year or two ago. Even if that takes a little longer and even if there are still hurdles. We live in the most amazing times, arguably in the most amazing country that has faced uncertainty and in each episode in history, stands up, overcomes the uncertainty and progresses forward. This for sure will be just another one of those moments in time and maybe some of the things that have actually happened through COVID-19 and it is not the only thing that’s been happening in this time of uncertainty. There’ll be other actual learnings and platforms from which we can improve upon now in terms of boosting morale and what can leaders do to inspire their team during these difficult times is to remind people that we will get through this. It’s just a matter of the difficulties and overcoming the challenges along the way to get to the other side.
One of the things that we’ve done a lot is recognition and appreciation more consistently. In fact, we are in the business of building reward and recognition programs. WorkProud is that the name of the platform and it has a pretty simple mission that says, if you make people proud of the work that they do and proud of the company that they work for then all other things being equal and you’re going to get the best from your people. You’re going to be able to inspire them. They’re going to apply the discretionary effort to do the best that they can in their respective jobs. So that’s something that is core to the nature of our business, the way we interact with each other and the services that we provide.
If you’ve ever had any interest in looking at how to maximize the performance and productivity of your people, recognition is an inexpensive but highly powerful way to inspire individuals. We use our own platform internally and some of the clients have seen substantial increases in utilization of their programs that they attribute to the fact that people are more remote and that they’re looking for that emotional reinforcement and validation. People want to know that their work is valid and contributing to the business success.
If you want to make people proud of the work that they do, you have to tell them that the work that they do is meaningful and that they’re doing it well. Of course, paying bonuses and constructors are important, but recognition is in the moment and something that we see a lot of companies that have the potential to do much better. We’ve seen a lot of our clients do some amazing things and achieve amazing outcomes through well-organized recognition programs.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There is only one way to communicate all news and difficult, maybe most so, which is just honestly, clearly and as timely as possible. In business, the truth always rises to the surface. So, the faster you get to the truth of whatever is the issue or the problem, the quicker you’re going to get to a resolution.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think that leaders have the responsibility to see the lighthouse and remember that whatever the unpredictable element is that’s currently in front, if it’s permanent, then there may be needs to be a course correction and a new lighthouse bearing. If there’s just waves in a storm in front, which is what we’re going through at the moment, then we’ll eventually get back on path and we just have to grit and bear and work out what we can do to get through the storm assuming that the business is heading in a good direction, it will cause correct.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
If the fundamentals of the business, and the number one principle for a company in terms of business is that you are solving a real need in the marketplace and is the quality of your product good? Only then can the company get through it and the economic storm will pass. However, if one is not really solving real business problems or providing services that customers really want, then the storm may only be a highlighting and accelerating inevitability. It may be a reminder to the leader that you want to course correct. Because maybe you aren’t serving the needs of customers.
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?
I can only share with a very small lens and perspective of experiences that I’ve had. But if you’re going to have partners, make sure your partners are complimentary to the skills that you’ve got. That’s a recipe for success. If you have the same exact skills, then what are you all contributing by being a partner together? I think being realistic and in terms of what it needs for a business to succeed commercially, in terms of its plan and what does it need in terms of its financial? People underestimate the amount of capital required for the business and one needs to be realistic and honest so that you can have the way with those to pursue the business vision.
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?
In turbulent times, one might need to forego profitability or even growth objectives and stay focused on the trajectory of the business in terms of the quality of the product, the quality of services you’re delivering and the relationships with your clients and customers as the entrepreneurial leader.
You can only control so many variables and you certainly cannot control the variables affecting your clients or your customers but the things that you can control you should. We all want to increase profits and increase revenue growth and for areas where one can influence that in one should try and pursue those. During turbulent times of uncertainty, it’s better to make sure the ship is stable and running well and that existing customers are looked after so that by the time the storm is ended, you’re in a great shape to move forward and get back on the course that you want for the business.
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.
I’ve been the CEO and one of the founders almost 20 years now and the first lesson is that time goes quickly. Don’t underestimate it. The 20 years seemed like yesterday. Some of the business lessons that I have learned and apply on an ongoing basis that I think might be helpful for people as they consider an entrepreneurial journey or path, or if they’re in a leadership role in their company, is first walk in the footsteps of your customers. Think about your customers first. And when you think about your customers, remember to see the world through their eyes and their perspectives and understand their particular needs. You’ll always be on safe ground from a standpoint of influencing your business decisions or business strategy associated to them. Often the day to day excitement, distractions and busy-ness with running a company, one can lose sight of seeing things from a customer’s point of view. If you never forget that your customers are what drives the business and what creates the business and then walks through their footsteps. You’ll always make the best decisions.
I use the metaphor that a business is very much like a ship and the employees are the crew. We are working together with different functions inside the business. You’re at different parts of the business and are contributing very much like a ship’s crew working together. That ship sometimes has smooth sailing and sometimes it has tropic waters and the way in which a ship navigates is the way in which we also want to navigate our businesses too. It is to have a light house, destination, and point vision that we can articulate internally, that we can see ourselves as the business leader, and that we can also articulate to our team to say this is where we’re going. Even if we must course correct along the way, this is the destination. If everybody has that destination in mind as part of the crew, then the likelihood of that business of that ship reaching its destination is that much greater.
Leaders may often be in situations where they’re required to choose between a shorter-term profit motive and a longer-term business relationship. My experience has been long term business trumps short term profitability in every case. Of course, that’s easy for me to say as the executive leader. Sometimes one is in opposed decision points, but if you are conflicted, try to take the long-term point of view it will pay off greater than any of the short-term profit tradeoffs.
You must move forward, keep calm and carry on. Which as we know during the current turbulent times, there’s uncertainty. It feels like the world’s coming apart at various stages, but the world won’t come apart. We will get through this. It is a difficult and challenging time for everybody. The best thing that we can do under these circumstances is be calm, be respectful, be empathetic to our customers, to our employees and recognize that with all things in history, there is a beginning, middle and end, and I’m hoping that in talking to you today the end was certainly way past the middle of this.
Finally, no matter what is happening, good or bad, communicate with your internal and external customers. Jack Wells said, “Take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your customers and your business will succeed.” I think that’s a great vision communicate. Make sure people understand, what you’re thinking as the CEO. They’ll be able to follow your vision and understand what you’re thinking about. They will feel that they are part of the solution to whatever the current problems are. Particularly in current times, regular communications to your staff using technology tools or doing some videos, writing emails, subject to what your natural style is. People like to see faces, so I’d certainly recommend doing videos.
Hopefully those are some helpful tips all the best to your businesses. And maybe we all get through these turbulent and challenging times as unscathed as possible.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of the quotes that has stuck with me through my career was from a mentor that told me to walk through the footsteps of my customer. If you get one thing from this interaction today, and you’re looking at pursuing some entrepreneurial business, walk through the footsteps of your customers. When you see the world through their eyes, then all the marketing and the materials and the services and the products that you’re envisioning, then have a contextual lens that will help you refine an improvement.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me on LinkedIn and visit WorkProud to learn more about our comprehensive change management services and employee recognition technology. The innovative technology platform is a mobile, social, and global communications engagement service that aligns a company’s core values, culture, and objectives with the individual aspirations of each employee.