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 Neil Sahota.
Neil Sahota (萨冠军) is an IBM Master Inventor, United Nations (UN) Artificial Intelligence (AI) Advisor, Chief Innovation Officer at UC Irvine, and author of award-winning best business book of 2019, Own the A.I. Revolution. With 20+ years of business experience, he works with organizations to create their core business strategy, enter new markets, and develop next generation products/solutions powered by emerging technology. His work experience spans multiple industries including legal services, healthcare, life sciences, retail, travel and transportation, energy and utilities, automotive, telecommunications, media/communication, and government. Moreover, Neil is one of the few people selected for IBM’s Corporate Service Corps leadership program that pairs leaders with NGOs to perform community-driven economic development projects. For his assignment, Neil lived and worked in Ningbo, China where he partnered with Chinese corporate CEOs to create a leadership development program.
In addition, Neil partners with entrepreneurs to define their products, establish their target markets, and structure their companies. He is a member of several investor groups like the Tech Coast Angels, advises venture capital funds like Miramar and CerraCap, and helped create the UN’s Innovation Factory, a global program for social impact entrepreneurs. Neil also serves as a judge in various startup competitions and mentor in several incubator/accelerator programs.
He actively pursues social good and volunteers with nonprofits. Neil co-founded the UN’s AI for Good Initiative and is actively helping them building out their ecosystem of strategic partnerships. He is currently helping the Zero Abuse Project prevent child sexual abuse as well as Planet Home to engage youth culture in sustainability initiatives. Over the last twelve years, he has served as a Board Director to several non-profit organizations such as the OC Marathon and Cancer Computer as well as corporate boards from around the world like Legalmation, Lingmo, and Shineville.
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 backstory is based on the “path of most resistance.” I didn’t care about titles or prestige. Rather, I focused on learning and adding value, which often meant taking on “impossible tasks” like helping the United Nations find its inner-entrepreneur and launch the AI for Good initiative. Because of these experiences, I earned the nickname “game changer” from literally finding over a dozen once-in-a-lifetime” disruption opportunities for Global Fortune 500 companies. I believe that every business has massive untapped potential. My real value is to identify and execute the real opportunities from the get-go, solve the people’s challenges to ensure adoption, create the infrastructure and ecosystem needed to drive a successful launch, and make social impact a fully integrated mindset throughout the whole venture.
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?
Early in my career, I was parachuted into a troubled client at the last minute. As soon as I walked into the client’s headquarters, I was shuttled into a chaotic meeting where I wasn’t familiar with anything that was discussed. After 15 minutes, I realized I was in the wrong meeting. It was the right client but a different project that was being discussed.
Rather than excuse myself (or sneak out), I stayed and decided to turn my snafu into an opportunity. I started asking some general questions that yielded a lot of insight into the client and the general problems that existed in their portfolio. My bigger takeaway, though, was that I never went into a meeting again without understanding the goal for the meeting and how I would contribute towards that goal. If I didn’t add value, then I didn’t need to be there. (Yeah! Less meetings!)
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 mentor Jim Smith gave me the best advice of my career: culture matters. Getting people on-board with an idea, initiative, product, etc.is critical. However, we do it as one-offs… often because it becomes a task for us. Jim taught me that establishing a corporate culture based on shared values creates a foundation of perpetual adoption. It generates that interlacing of value-driven business with specific impact goals in mind. This gives people the innate sense of the why and the benefits of any initiative. This has been a powerful lesson for me, and I apply it everywhere I go. One of my first steps is to build and champion a values-based culture. I had one of the world’s biggest retailers as a client, and they already had the right ideas on creating a personalized shopping experience, but they failed miserably in executing it. The employees just didn’t buy into the idea. I helped my client not through coming up with different ideas but working to frame their existing ideas through the lens of their corporate culture. Business is really about people, so we must make the investment into corporate culture to reap the rewards.
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 was to help our clients “uber themselves before they get Kodaked.” In other words, disrupt themselves before someone else did. The purpose, though, was to instill the mindset of social enterprise/entrepreneurship. We often think about making money or doing good, but people are not usually taught that they can do both. That’s created a lot of lost opportunity. Thankfully, we have been very successful in getting businesses to adapt their mindset and seek impact solutions.
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?
Sadly, our current situation with the pandemic and chaotic political times is quite an uncertain and difficult time. As a result, I have had staff that are stressed, disengaged, and without the support of in-person human contact. When people are spending over 40% of their day (24 hours) working, it becomes work-life integration, and as a good leader, I had to adjust my style to meet their needs. First, I became more responsible for the inclusion of our employees so that each person felt that they still belonged to something. Second, I took ownership for the resilience of my employees so that they had the coping skills to not just survive but thrive. Third, I realized that working in a different modality needs different metrics. During these challenging times, I needed to adapt goals and the way to measure success that were realistically achievable for my direct reports.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never thought about giving up. After all, I’m the “path of most resistance guy.” There’s always a solution, even if we may not have the resources or technology to do it. However, not having the means to do something is different than giving up. That’s my motivation: finding a path. I may not see it myself, but that’s why I have great teams. That’s why I foster diversity of thought and perspective. Together, we will figure something out, even if it only partially addresses the problem. I just don’t find the alternative to do nothing (i.e. to not try) just unacceptable.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
In challenging times, a leader must take their cheerleading to a whole new level. People want to be inspired, and they look to leaders for hope. Imagine that during the pandemic that your manager, corporate executives, or even political leaders kept saying how much everything sucks and talking gloom-and-doom all the time. How would that make you feel? I’m not saying that they should be claiming everything is rainbows or smiles either. However, this is the real challenge that all of us leaders must step up to: inspiring hope. Help our employees see the light at the end of the tunnel, given them a meaningful goal to aspire to, and let our staff know that we feel their pain as people. It’s easy to generate engagement and excitement when times are good, but great leaders do this no matter what the circumstances are.
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?
In uncertain times, the best way to boost morale is by sharing relatable stories. People find comfort in things they can relate to, and in stressful times, comfort zones are often small. Part of being an effective cheerleader is for leaders to share their stories. During a client engagement, we had a young member of the team pass away in their hotel room from natural causes. My team was shell-shocked. Rather than give a speech, I shared the story of the first time someone close in my life had passed away. For my team, it was cathartic. My story helped them realize what each person was feeling was normal and part of the grieving process. It wound up bringing the team closer together and morale skyrocketed.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest and direct to the point. (And if possible, do it in person.) With difficult news, dancing around the issue or taking forever to get to the point always seems to make people more anxious so they take bad news with even more emotion. I remember when I was leading a spin-off effort where the company was going to split into five separate companies. While there was hallway buzz about what would happen, nothing was announced until I held a giant, company-wide town hall. We laid out, in detail, what was going to happen and how each company would operate. We provided handouts to everyone so each person could see where they would move to within the four companies and what their job responsibilities would be. Then, I opened it up for questions. Surprisingly, I only got two questions. Most people said they understood what was happening and why the decisions were made. That’s why being honest and to the point are so critical in communicating difficult news.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As Dwight Eisenhower said, “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Even in normal times, it is extremely difficult to predict the future with any degree of accuracy more than three months out. That’s why leaders need to make adaptable plans and continually do planning. Sounds counterintuitive? The planning process forces us to really think through scenarios, dependencies, and options. Because of this, we can do a better job at handling the unexpected. Moreover, planning empowers good leaders to something even more powerful than predicting the future… create it!
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Truthfully, the number one principle is adapt or die. Complacency is the killer of innovation. Turbulent times are the killer of “business as usual.” For the risk and contingency planning, unexpected events will occur. Too many companies hope that it will be a short blip, and then things will go back to normal. However, the smart companies realize that there is no return to normal, just a shift to the next normal. During the Great Recession, the global economy was cratering. I saw so many Global Fortune 500 companies going into survival mode to “ride out the storm.” The problem? When the storm was over, the world was different, and they were playing catch up to the smart companies that decided to create the next normal. I was working with Disney at this time, and we turned chaos into the Marvel acquisition that forever changed the entertainment industry.
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?
First, building off the last question, the most common mistake is waiting for things to get back to normal. There is no going back, only the next normal. So, don’t wait for the future, create it. Second, businesses ironically deprioritize people. When businesses go into survival mode during difficult times, employees become “statistics” and top line leaders bucket people together. One Senior Business Analyst is the same as another. They are probably not because of different experiences and knowledge. However, because survival tends to focus on the number crunching, many companies wind up making several poor staffing choices and wind up losing the very resources they will need to pull them out of survival mode. Third, many businesses forget that the “pie” (i.e. market) can be expanded. In tough times, the pie often shrinks (for a variety of economic reasons.) As a result, most companies wind up with a singular focus on protecting as much of the shrinking pie that they can keep… and forget that their pie can be expanded (as usually happens in normal times.) That is, they forget that they can turn threats into opportunities. They forget to innovate. They forget that there’s a next normal. They forget that they can create the future.
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?
There are three strategies that I’ve used successfully for forging ahead in difficult times. Unfortunately, two of them are proactive, meaning you need to do them before something bad happens. First, make the investment into planning. Eisenhower was absolutely correct in stating that it is indispensable. Thanks to good planning, I have been far better prepared with solid options in how to deal with a difficult economy. Second, have a financial buffer. It’s hard for a company not to use all of its capital as efficiently as possible. Often, I hear many companies state that they have lines of credit that they can always tap into for cash needs. Well, even during the pandemic, we saw the banks not having enough liquidity to honor these lines of credit, which is a killer for small businesses that need the cash flow just to maintain production and inventory. That’s why companies that tend to keep six months of operating expenses on hand tend to fare better during troubled times. Third, roll the dice. By this, I mean take advantage of a more risky opportunity than normal. If executive leadership is really worried about surviving an economic downfall, then this should be more incentive to try something new and create that next normal.
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.
Manage work-life integration
As much as we would like to keep things work related as leaders, it is not really possible in a troubled environment, like during Covid. Normally, the average American works 9.4 hours a day. (That number is higher for people who work remotely.) During the pandemic, when people are spending around 42% of their day (24 hours) working, it’s about work life integration. I had a situation where an employee had a horrific tragedy. Their teenage daughter died in a car accident. Even a month later, it was apparent this person was not moving towards “alright.” This is where a leader must move beyond being the “boss” to being an empathetic person. I was genuinely concerned about the personal welfare of my employee and their family. There was no “professional life” and “personal life,” but just life. By offering that support and encouraging professional help, the employee was ultimately able to move on. However, without this support, it probably would not have happened. We forget how much of life is intertwined (or absorbed) by work.
Create a sense of belonging for our employees
Even pandemic aside, many people often feel isolated or “I’m by myself” when there’s instability in the world. Humans are social animals. We need to belong to something. During turbulent times, many people lose that sense of belonging and feel disconnected. That’s not the employee’s problem. This is our problem as leaders. With Covid, many enterprises organize virtual happy hours, birthday celebrations, etc. to create that sense of camaraderie. It is not the same. Even when people are toasting a major project milestone in their homes among their virtual teammates, they often still feel alone. Leaders need to create (not force) moments where the meeting is not about work but just a chance to connect. When I was managing a team across thirteen countries, I started an internal channel for them to socialize. To drive this, I set up a weekly ice breaker question asking questions like what is your favorite movie, song, cartoon, or book? This worked wonders as it gave people a chance to open up, socially, without concern about backlash or unprofessionalism.
Leaders are responsible for the resilience of our teams
In stable times, it is more understandable to separate this out because of the normal, expected support groups. However, as we’ve seen with the two previous challenges, isolated employees often lack these channels. Now factor in the added challenges with Covid-19, this problem gets amplified. Resilience is no different than other soft skills we expect like communication, collaboration, etc. So, we need to invest in this employee development. I had a protégé in Asia who was newly minted as a manager. In getting to know their direct reports, my protégé discovered one of them had issues with alcohol to cope with stress. Rather than get involved directly, my protégé said it was not their place to get involved in a worker’s life, and this employee was expected to find their own help. Sadly, this employee spiraled downward for the worse until they nearly beat their child to death in a drunken rage. Even though my protégé terminated this employee, these actions had a profound effect on the other employees. Feeling that their personal well-being was not a priority, most of their top 10% performers left the company within three months. The well-being of the child and retaining their best workers might have been better served if there was some investment in building resilience among the employees.
Discipline is a must-have, not a nice-have
Being productive in an unstable time can be a challenge for some people because of the amount of distractions. Alas, some people may prioritize their personal indulgences over work during normal business hours. During the Great Recession, I had a newly, promoted direct report who was managing their first set of direct reports. For their very first hire, they brought on board a financial analyst to track and chase down the payment of client invoices. Within two months of the hire, I noticed my business unit had an unusually large accounts receivable, and it was concentrated on the portfolio of my recently promoted direct report. Speaking with them, I learned that they were having trouble with the financial analyst they hired. In fact, each time they called the financial analyst, this person either had the television on or was clearly not at home (with the sounds of a bowling alley, movie theater, or bar evident in the background.) I made it explicitly clear to my direct report that inappropriate reasons are not acceptable. Either they resolved this issue, or they would be terminated. The financial analyst was let go.
A different modality has different metrics
People do what they’re incentivized to do. In turbulent times, our workforce needs a different set of metrics to be measured upon as well as rewarded for doing. Too many leaders just try to apply the same metrics and expectations, and they fail miserably. For example, I had an operations colleague that would call an all-hands on deck stand up meeting four times a day to deal with an urgent problem. Their team would congregate at 8AM, 11AM, 2PM, and 5PM every day with the goal of giving updates and requesting specific help from their teammates. These meetings would last 5–7 minutes. They started off being quite effective. However, during the pandemic, the company faced constant urgent situations. This turned my colleague’s model turned into an albatross. Replicating the exact same process, these stand up checkpoints now exceeded on hour with lots of offline follow up among the participants. These meetings degraded into sessions where the updates were essentially nothing because we were all too busy meeting with other people, and then preparing reports for the stand-up meetings. Worse, no one on the team spoke up about the problem because their performance was primarily based on the expectations of these checkpoint meetings. By the time my colleague realized this, it was too late. With such little action on the urgent issues, the CEO corrected the situation by terminating my colleague.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite (and what I have based my life on) is the quote by Peter Drucker: “You cannot predict the future, but you can create it.”
Benjamin Franklin said the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I think he missed one BIG one: change. Change is always happening, and it is happening faster and faster. Too many people worry about what changes will happen and how they will impact them. That’s why I love Drucker’s quote. We often forget that we can be the driver for change. We can shape the future!
Taking this to heart, 𝗜 𝗲𝗺𝗯𝗿𝗮𝗰𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗲 “𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗽𝗼𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗯𝗹𝗲” 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗮𝗰𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗶𝘀𝗵𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 “𝗶𝗺𝗽𝗼𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗯𝗹𝗲” 𝗹𝗶𝗸𝗲:
● Helping the United Nations create and launch their AI for Global Good initiative
● Pioneering the current artificial intelligence (AI) and leading the way to the 4th Industrial Revolution
● Convincing Global Fortune 500 companies to embrace risk and to forge the first-of-a-kind products and grow them into nascent markets and industries
Each one of us can be the driver of change and innovation. Each one of us can be a force for leadership in the virtual office. Each one of us can help our enterprises uber themselves before they get Kodaked! The first step is to embrace what Drucker said. Don’t worry about predicting the future. Just create it!
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best way to follow my work is to follow me on social media, watch my podcast, and visit my website:
United Nations Podcast: https://www.ctscast.com/artistic-intelligence/