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 Mitch Luciano.
Mitch Luciano is President/CEO of #1 Ocean Carrier Trailer Bridge, the #1 Place to Work in Jacksonville and an Inc Best Workplace for 2020.
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?
Thank you for this opportunity, Charlie. I’m proud to serve as President and CEO of Trailer Bridge Inc., an Inc Magazine ‘Best Workplace for 2020’ and the #1 Place to Work in Jacksonville, Florida. I’ve been with the company since 2012 and in logistics/transportation since starting out with C.H. Robinson in 1997. Coming up in an industry that can be all about the grind and just hustling to stay on top of things, I’ve really become an advocate for more positive and caring company culture. I’ve seen firsthand the difference that truly loving your employees and building trust in your organization can make. In fact, we’ve been able to take Trailer Bridge from bankruptcy recovery to this award-winning brand with 90% annual revenue growth, and I credit this to the passion of our people.
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?
Looking back to my beginnings 23 years ago, I don’t know that there was one moment that stood out as the funniest. As a young person that had just moved from New York to North Carolina, my focus was on doing the best job I could. What I quickly found out was the trucking industry is culturally diverse, and if I was going to be successful I better make sure that I had an open mind and learn the different cultures of individuals I was dealing with. It was easy for me to connect with people from NY or NJ, though those born and raised in other countries or other parts of the US were a different story. I definitely made mistakes that others found hilarious, but I quickly learned other cultures and how to understand various accents.
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 several people that have had a huge impact on my life, though specifically in my career there are two that showed me what it meant to work hard and keep my word. My first boss in logistics was Chris O’Brien and he taught me that effort pays off. He also taught me that you can still be a great family man while working hard and leading with passion
The other individual that had a huge impact was CJ Charlton. I had the good fortune to work with him for 3–4 years and he showed me the value of a handshake. He was the original traffic manager at Wal-Mart and went on to build several amazing companies. CJ’s word was gold! He taught me that if you say you will do something, you better do exactly that. His mentorship meant the world to me.
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?
Trailer Bridge was founded in 1991 by Malcom McLean, a true pioneer in the container shipping industry, moving freight between Florida and Puerto Rico. I think the vision and purpose we live and work by today really came to life in 2015 and has grown into an exceptional model of what’s possible when you simply put your people first. I realize that sounds trite to some because we talk about culture so much in business circles, but actually making it happen has proven a challenge too great for many.
Company culture isn’t a directive or a policy; it’s the natural by-product of consistently applying kindness, love, and caring in all of your business processes and decisions. Our TB Family members are guided by 12 core values:
- Deliver exceptional service to everyone
- Be kind & fair
- Be honest & fearlessly authentic
- Act with integrity
- Be passionate & determined
- Be flexible & embrace change
- Be accountable for your action
- Build open & honest relationships with communication
- Create & be fun
- Be curious & adventurous
- Pursue growth & learning
- Be fast & accurate
We asked our TB family what they wanted from TB and that became our purpose. Providing excellence in ocean shipping and transportation logistics is what we do; our core values are what we are.
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 Coronavirus pandemic has certainly been devastating for many and the ongoing nature of it has made life uncertain for so many Americans. This is particularly true in the shipping and logistics industry, where people rely on us to keep the supply chain moving and critical goods getting where they need to go. We had to make some major decisions early on without really knowing the full scope of this thing, and that’s where you have to rely on your purpose and values to guide you through.
When the lockdown went into effect, a lot of companies cancelled shipping routes or reduced their frequency. We committed right away to keeping our regular schedule, even if it meant losing revenue in the near-term. Our customers rely on us to keep goods moving, and our employees need to know their jobs are safe. That led to the second major decision: we pledged not to lay off a single employee. My colleague Indie Bollman, VP of Organizational Development, actually launched an upskilling program in the heart of the pandemic, in May, which funds training and professional development opportunities for team members. We also introduced practical measures to ensure employees’ health and safety: increased office sanitization, remote work for a portion of the workforce, physical distancing in-office, reduced office access for vendors, temperature checks, and more.
I hosted town hall meetings with an open Q&A session each week for all employees to stay up-to-date. You can’t expect your people to do their best work when they’re afraid they may not have a job next week, or worry they may not be able to feed their children or care for an elderly relative. In times of uncertainty, employees are looking to their leaders for reassurance and compassion. And like I said, when you come through for them, they give it right back. They have the energy and the capacity to go above and beyond for your customers. They build the business for you.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
My motivation comes from the positive, joyful energy we share when each person in the company feels wanted, supported, and appreciated. We show each day and make the decision to treat one another well and to build each other up. I think it’s a myth that successful people are just “on” all the time and have that supercharged drive every waking moment of the day. It’s not realistic. It’s not even really a desirable state. Employees and leadership alike need to know it’s okay to have an off day or take time to deal with whatever else is going on in their life. When you’ve built this culture of compassion and love at work, you don’t have to sustain your drive and motivate yourself every minute of the day. You have a team to keep moving you forward, and that’s super important.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
In challenging times, the most critical role of a leader is to give all of the people in your company the trust and confidence to propel you collectively in the right direction. You can’t save the world (or your company) on your own. Realize that steering the ship is both a privilege and a responsibility. Your people are going to follow your lead, and they’re not just listening to the words you say. They’re watching how you behave, how you treat others, whether you keep your word, how well you listen (or don’t). You don’t need to have all of the answers to be a great leader. But you need to be cognizant of the fact that wherever you are at, you are steering that ship and guiding your people to follow along. Are you leading them with kindness, humility, openness, and love? Or are you perhaps protectionist, stressed out, angry, blaming? How you show up each day and in each interaction sets the tone.
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?
Communicate openly and really listen. You don’t have to implement every employee request or champion each new idea, but it’s important that people feel heard and know they were considered. If you make another choice, explain why. Beware a void of information… maybe you aren’t ready to announce your plans yet, but in the absence of information your employees and customers may speculate, instead. We all currently live with lots of uncertainty, so fear and anxiety can spread like wildfire if you aren’t proactively managing your morale and culture. Stay on top of it.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
This is challenging, particularly for teams like ours that are now partially remote. You want any difficult news to be conveyed in a way that is appropriately personal and takes into account the needs of the person receiving it. Due to physical distancing recommendations, there may be times leaders cannot physically bring employees or customers in for a face-to-face. Video isn’t a perfect format, but it does enable you to have those physical cues that simply speaking over the phone lacks. When you do have to share difficult news via video chat, make sure you’re leaving time and space for the person on the other end to digest and respond. If there are any resources or alternatives you can offer, have them ready to share.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think those who’ve felt the greatest disruption around their planning and overall strategy are those who were not particularly agile even before COVID-19. This pandemic has caused massive shifts in consumer behavior and the economy but good planning is still about listening to your customers, projecting based on various possible scenarios, and being ready to pivot as necessary.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Reinforce your foundation when times are good. An awful lot of leaders have realized this year that trying to fix their culture issues when the entire workforce has switched to remote work is a near-impossible task. I don’t even want to think about what business would be like right now if our employees didn’t trust their managers; if our customers were dealing with a bunch of people who felt hopeless, anxious, and burnt out. The best way to guide your company through turbulent times is to proactively buffer your business and teams against the full impact of turbulence.
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?
- Failure to communicate. Don’t leave your employees and customers hanging. Let them know that you understand the challenges. Ask for their feedback, and truly listen. Update them honestly, and often. Make sure key information is making out across channels in a format your people can easily access.
- A knee-jerk reaction to slash costs. You very well may need to cut back, but take a breath. Consider the exponential losses if you have to close locations or lay people off. Don’t hamstring your eventual recovery with poorly thought out cuts that lead to loss of talent, company knowledge, etc.
- Staying married to the way things were. Be ready to listen, test quickly, and take advantage of new opportunities as they arise. The 2008 financial crisis, as devastating as it was, also gave rise to a lot of innovative businesses that were able to see their way through the logjam and move first.
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?
Sure, we’ve actually continued to grow throughout the pandemic, adding hundreds of new customers on the logistics side and sailing at full capacity on the ocean side. We not only avoided layoffs but have grown our team by nearly 15%. I think in any business vertical when it really hits the fan you’re going to see some competitors pull back and perhaps cut their services, let go of talent, or go quiet on their customers. When you’re the company that’s still trucking along hiring up that great talent, filling those gaps in service, communicating reassuring messages, those people are going to stay with you.
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.
Wow, that is a great question. First, I have already mentioned this, but you have to communicate. Don’t hide behind the unknown; be out front and let everyone know what is happening and how you are handling it. The toughest job of a leader is to be open, so even when you don’t have the answer let them know. It’s human. At Trailer Bridge, we have monthly town halls, though early on in the Coronavirus pandemic we immediately implemented bi-weekly town halls. I wanted to make sure the team was hearing from me on a regular basis. I was also on Zoom calls all the time with different individuals at TB, and would answer any question they had.
Be human. Share what you are going through during these challenging times — or any time. When your team realizes that you are experiencing the same things they are, because you are human, then you can better understand what each person is going through. There seems to be a stigma in catching the virus, which makes no sense to me. My daughter ended up becoming infected with the virus. I have openly shared this with everyone at TB and the love and compassion I have received for my daughter’s health has been unbelievable.
Be patient and show consistency, as it is critical to trust. Be dedicated and be faithful to your purpose. When your business environment changes so fast, even on a daily basis, you have to believe that your plan is still executable. At TB, we experienced a major setback in April and were losing millions of dollars. That was not the result of our efforts up to that point; it was the result of so much unknown from our clients and what their customers needed. By being committed to who we are as an organization, that quickly turned around to an increase in business revenues north of what we saw pre-COVID.
Be honest. Make sure that you are sharing with your team and your customers exactly what is going on. Typically, leaders like to hoard their ideas and processes because they think it is proprietary. Let’s be honest, any successful company is completely transparent, that is what makes them so damn successful. Share what you are doing with the team and share with the world what makes your company amazing. Not only will your organization be more successful, but you may also make others better… how amazing is that? The best part about our town halls is I get the opportunity to answer every question asked, and I get to share back what is happening with the company. Being honest about everything that is happening truly eases the mind of all and allows them to do more for your clients.
Trust your team. It is important to make sure you have done a great job of hiring the right people and there is a lot that goes into that. Once you have the right people, it is critical to make sure you trust their decisions and their efforts. You don’t have the luxury of questioning their efforts; you must trust them. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, we had more team members volunteer to go to Puerto Rico to help our family. The loyalty to our own family was unlike anything I had seen before, and it was driven by trust. We had people cutting up fallen trees, others volunteering their homes for those traveling, and others doing work at places they had never seen before. That only happens because of the trust we have all established as a family.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Abraham Lincoln once said, “I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down”. From Chris to CJ, to the employees who I have led in the past, and to all those that I love so deeply at Trailer Bridge they have believed in me and the last thing I am going to do was let them down.
How can our readers further follow your work?
We would love for readers to stay tuned to the Trailer Bridge blog and join us on LinkedIn, where we regularly share news and perspectives on company culture, training and development, and logistics and transportation.