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 Neeraj Sharma, CEO, Sprout Wellness.
Neeraj Sharma is a C-Suite Executive with extensive experience in multifaceted high-tech environments. He is a strategic leader that effectively translates corporate vision into successful execution while reducing operational costs and driving revenue. Neeraj is an adaptable leader who is able to foster and contribute to all core disciplines across any organization. He is a coach and mentor who develops and motivates teams to peak performance resulting in employee satisfaction while achieving 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?
My story doesn’t follow the usual trajectory. In high school, it never crossed my mind that I would one day be a CEO. I had every intention of becoming a police officer upon graduating high school. However, my police work aspirations came to a crashing halt when I shared my plans with my parents. They made it very clear to me that I would either go to university or stop breathing (said with the love that only parents can deliver). My parents’ consolation was that I could join the police force after graduating from university, but at least I would be a Police Officer with a University degree. So I picked the ‘keep breathing option’ and went to university where I found my passion for business. Although I did become an Auxiliary Constable for Peel Regional Police for seven years while I worked at Bell Canada, my professional passion has stayed in the business world.
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 are so many influential people I am grateful to have worked with but my dad has always been the most important influence in my life. He lived a true first-generation immigrant story when he came to Canada in 1967 with $8 in his pocket. As I built my career, I would often find myself comparing the philosophies and approaches of my senior leaders with my dad’s values and guidance. What I discovered, again and again, was that the values my dad instilled in me; treating people as you wish to be treated and trusting your coworkers to be part of the team, was in stark contrast to some of the corporate leaders I worked for. My dad created the foundation of the person I am today and I offer all of my success in business to the teams I worked with because, to quote another cliche that I believe to my core, you are only as strong as your team!
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?
Sprout is committed to developing innovative products to improve the health of individuals and the corporate health of companies. Our technical development is purpose-driven as we design and build our product in the service of enabling better health and happiness for all our users.
For every dollar invested in wellbeing, companies are seeing $3.27 in savings. Sprout users average 27% more steps daily compared to the average population in North America. As the saying goes, “health is wealth.”
This commitment to personal wellbeing has enabled us to attract top-tier talent who care about holistic health at a personal level while delivering value to Sprout’s customers. Our employees take the extra steps and that team effort has been a significant driver of the company’s success.
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 pandemic is as uncertain as it could get! I transitioned from being Sprout’s Chief Revenue Officer to CEO days before the pandemic closed our offices. As I entered that new role, I believed we needed to get back to working in our offices as soon as possible. We had a vibrant work culture and as CEO, I didn’t want us to lose the energy, creativity and productivity it generated. Like many people, I thought we would be out of the office only for a few weeks. That’s hard to imagine now. But as the weeks stretched on I knew that I, together with our leadership team, needed to create an environment for the entire team to knock down any challenges and create a new, sustainable way of working. My focus was to share clear communications, listen attentively to feedback and adjust as needed; creating an environment where we excelled to new heights as a company versus shrinking to market pressures. The leadership team stepped up and played that critical role of cheerleader and made it very clear how we were going to win with clear, concise and transparent communication. We instituted company-wide video touch points, team huddles, cross functional working groups and of course, virtual socials. Our team was flexible and changed roles as needed. If you were the quarterback on one initiative, it was ok to be the running back or the cheerleader on the next initiative as we found new ways to deliver value to our customers and, ultimately, a new product. Now, as we mark one year of work at home for Sprout, I am so proud of the accomplishments this team has made.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There are tough days when everything seems uphill. However, I have learned that those are also the times when not to make dramatic decisions. Instead, I dig into what gives me the motivation not to give up and keeps pushing forward — my kids and my team.
As a father of four daughters, I make sure to reinforce the notion that success takes hard work. Whether it’s school, sports or work, you need to give 110% in order to succeed. Giving up is not part of what I teach my daughters; it’s about finding a solution that works for you and those around you.
My team’s success means everything to me and if I give up, then I am giving up on my team. It’s better to double down and find a way to recalibrate with your team than take the easy way out. I believe there is always a workaround to get you out of any predicament. No matter the mountain in front of me, there is always a way to climb it. Collaboration and creativity always win.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role is to keep the company focused without letting the challenges define the company’s actions or success. Like many companies, our sales funnel ground to a halt with the uncertainty around the world due to COVID-19. A wounded sales funnel is definitely challenging but we saw an opportunity to review everything we do. It allowed us to strengthen our vision for Sprout. When do you as an entire organization actually get the time to look at your product, processes and strategy to this level when the day-to-day grind has everyone maxed out? The answer is never, unless you have a once in a lifetime pandemic halt your day-to-day operations and you’re forced to re-think your strategy. By using this challenging time as an opportunity to focus on strategy, Sprout revamped its platform UI/UX, revised client processes, and expanded its product offerings into the PaaS space with our APIs. This has allowed us to connect to new and existing technology solutions. We have never been stronger as a company which is an amazing statement considering the impact this pandemic has had on businesses over the last year. This year has also been the most rewarding to me personally as I have seen our team step up and drive change at what most would define as the worst crisis impacting businesses in years.
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?
There are four important steps to achieve this:
- Clear and open communications so the team understands the direction and gets the support they need.
- Frequent check-ins so the team can contribute and feels involved in decision-making processes.
- Celebrate the wins.
- Have a little fun along the way. If the team sees that it’s okay to smile and exhale, they’re more likely to unlock their full potential and enjoy the challenges
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The same strategy applies to both employees and customers: both deserve a direct and honest approach. It’s a sign of respect that you value their time and investment in a discussion to ensure they are getting the most valuable information. It also upholds your personal and corporate commitment to integrity. Difficult news requires fact-based discussions to eliminate speculation or emotion, and open, transparent communications lead to solutions.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
My solution to making plans even during unpredictable times is to provide clear and ongoing communication, take the time to do the deep, reflective work of rethinking your organization’s strength and opportunity areas, and most importantly, don’t let the challenges define you.
Be laser focused.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stop, take a breath, and build a plan together. There are no quick wins or shortcuts and you will need your entire team to get through turbulent times.
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?
- Pivoting too quickly and changing everything without really understanding the mid to long term ramifications.
- Not providing the empathy a leader needs to show. Tough times don’t just impact the company, they impact its people.
- Thinking you can solve the problem on your own.
To avoid this, trust in your team. Use the different lenses people bring to the table to understand different perspectives. Listening, learning and planning together as a team creates unity which brings stability back at a faster rate.
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?
We implemented company-wide, team-based and cross functional touchpoints and working groups which brought clarity and transparency to company goals. We made sure that our employees understood how their role affected the larger organizational objectives.
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.
- Transparency, Positivity and Over Communication
When our office switched to remote work on March 17, 2020, we continued an important tradition: our company-wide 10@10 meeting. When we were in the office, all employees would gather every morning for 10 minutes. By keeping this meeting and taking it virtual, we could still come together as a company and keep our team-first mentality while ensuring we made our priorities known. During lockdown each Leadership Team member was assigned to bring thought- provoking world activity, COVID-19 Facts, company remote activities or whatever they felt would engage the employees (work or personal). One other essential piece — we all turned our cameras on. Face to face interactions are important and possible, even when we are physically apart.
2. Double Down on Your Team
Communicating with, and investing time in your team, is more important than ever. Share the wins with employees and provide the positive feedback on progress being made by the company and individuals. I like to create what I call “unified excitement”. The pandemic has galvanized our leadership team and we did this by increasing our touch points to four mornings each week where we would discuss the company, opportunities, identify challenges and strategize what we could change. We have created an incredible camaraderie and the new leadership members have brought amazing energy and insights to make us even stronger.
3. Think Past the Turmoil
Don’t get caught up in the chaos. Take challenges as opportunities. Sprout redefined itself and I can confidently say that we are stronger today than we were pre-pandemic. Look for the rainbow and move towards it, whether it’s with your current strategy or something new altogether.
4. Relook at your all financial elements from end-to-end
The pandemic provided us the opportunity to revise our expense outlook. Smart spending based on circumstances does not mean cuts; it means smart allocation.
5. Get Focused and Stay Focused
Mobilize quickly, decide on a path, and then execute with urgency. Always scan the horizon and course correct as needed. Do not oversteer! Don’t shy away from seizing the opportunity a small company gives you, and pivot if it makes sense.
We are still evolving in our remote work capacity because our needs are shifting. The key learning from the past year is understanding that we can successfully pivot to the next requirements.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“What to do with a mistake — recognize it, admit it, learn from it, forget it.”
Our professional and personal lives involve making mistakes along the way. This quote is part of the business maturing process and even though each step isn’t always easy to do, especially the ‘admitting it’ portion, it is crucial. I learned this lesson early in my career and it has been an important part of my leadership style. If your team acts in this manner as one unit, there are no limits to what you can achieve. Effective teams and effective leaders often drive their best outcomes from something that started as a mistake. Take calculated risks and celebrate the wins and, more importantly, the losses with this quote in mind.
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