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 Peter Thies, Ph.D.
Peter is President of The River Group, a management consulting firm that helps CEOs and senior executives transform their organizations and their leaders in order to execute their strategy. He has 25 years of experience helping global companies implement strategic organizational changes. Present and past clients include public company CEOs and executives in a range of industries including Financial Services, Consumer Products, Healthcare, Retail, Industrial, Professional Services, Telecommunications and the nonprofit sector.
In response to the pandemic impacting businesses across the globe, Peter and The River Group have crafted a whitepaper, “Emerging Stronger,” which addresses the ways in which effective leaders can successfully lead their businesses through this unprecedented time, and emerge a better, stronger organization. When navigating a crisis, Peter and The River Group believe that great leaders exhibit enlightened self-awareness — the ability to understand their impact on others and stay attuned to the unique needs of others during stressful times. Understanding how others work best, how they deal with stress and how they resolve internal conflict during a crisis sets a leader up for success.
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?
Given that this story is about leadership during turbulent times, I think it’s fair to say that I grew up in a turbulent environment. We grew up relatively poor and my parents divorced when I was 5 years old. We moved a lot and I was either the “new kid on the block” or our family was dealing with one crisis or another. This background taught me three important lessons about dealing with adversity. First, you must believe in yourself. Second, making excuses might “feel good” but does little to help you succeed. Third, no matter how rough you think you have it, there are many, many people who face even more significant challenges — so appreciate what you have been given. As a result, I am very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and the values my parents instilled in me.
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 worked in a large, new office layout when I first started my consulting career. I was responsible for welcoming a guest speaker and I was nervous about meeting her. The office layout was very confusing — it had a lot of odd-angled hallways and a repeating four quadrant pattern. I got lost when I brought her up to the floor. We were walking around for a while and I was really embarrassed — it was just nerves on my part. The lesson was “just breathe and think” during stressful times. It wasn’t funny to me at the time, but I find it funny now!
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?
Sanford (Sandy) Lyons was my client back in 1999. He had just become a CEO at the time, and I had the pleasure of working with him in three different organizations, each time with the purpose of merging two or more companies into one. It was a fantastic client-consultant relationship. He was the greatest CEO I’ve ever seen — he made everyone around him better, including consultants like me who were helping with the integration. Our work together inspired us so much that in 2013 Sandy and I started The River Group LLC. Sadly, Sandy passed away last year so the world lost a great CEO and our firm lost a great co-founder, but, his legacy lives on in us. We are “River Strong” because of him and I am forever dedicated to the mission of our company because of that relationship.
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 River Group is now in its eighth year, and while many things have changed, our mission remains the same. We created The River Group for the singular purpose of helping CEOs achieve transformational change. We believe that by improving the leadership of companies across the globe, thousands of customers, constituents and employees will benefit. Companies that successfully transform show greater shareholder value and have a greater positive impact on those they serve. At The River Group, we leverage our impact on the world through the leaders and companies we have the pleasure and honor of working with.
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 onset of COVID-19 was certainly an immediate and unprecedented challenge. Our team had been monitoring the situation and we knew that it would eventually have an impact on all of our clients. Once the economy shut down, I knew that it would be important for our River Group team to openly discuss the risks to our business, have confidence that we had a plan and prepare our team to deliver uninterrupted services to our clients. I made sure that we connected with each other much more frequently than we had before the pandemic — sometimes when clients would have rather just dealt with the issue themselves. In many ways, the way we responded as a team to COVID-19 set the stage for our recently published whitepaper, called “Emerging Stronger.” We focused on what we could control and I did my best to keep the team motivated during that time, especially those teammates whose situations meant facing the most severe conditions. As a result of the great clients we have and our team’s resilience, we have come through the crisis in a very strong position. I’m proud of our team!
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’ve never thought of giving up — through COVID-19 or any other challenging period during our small firm’s lifetime. Our mission is important to me personally and I believe in the power of what we do. Our work is important to our clients regardless of economic swings, because leaders need to be at their best in good times and in bad. Therefore, I believe in our value proposition and I believe in our team.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught all companies, including our own, about the need for leaders to connect others and inspire them. During challenging times, leaders not only need to care for others, but also to make sure they themselves are at their best. This is a concept we refer to as “enlightened self-awareness.” It’s the leader’s ability to operate at a number of different levels — take care of the company, take care of the employees and take care of themselves — all at the same time. It’s not easy, but it’s what leaders need to do.
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?
People have long memories about the way they are treated during a hard time or a crisis. So, when the chips are down, make sure you treat others the way you’d want to be treated — that’s the golden rule and it is the right thing to do. Be honest with people — they are adults and they need to hear the truth. While you are helping them deal with the actual difficult reality, you must also give them hope about the future. People can survive a prolonged difficult scenario if they see light at the end of the tunnel. Yet this light must be an achievable bright future with a clear path for employees to see how you will get there. Vague promises of a sudden recovery are not helpful and will damage a leader’s credibility. Finally, leaders should actively engage their teams in the definition of and path forward to recovery. As a leader, you do not need to come down from the mountain with the plan. Get your employees involved in the solution — this empowers them and will help make them feel stronger.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Make sure you are making any difficult decisions with values and principles at the forefront because you will need to communicate these tenets after the fact. For example, any economic cuts must clearly be done with long term sustainability in mind. If employees or others believe that management doesn’t really know how to get out of a crisis and is simply making the easy, knee-jerk decisions, you will lose them. In the case of bad news for customers, the same rules apply. If you truly believe that customers are important to you, communicate this belief along with your message and be honest about what concerns you about the action you’re completing. Customers also appreciate being dealt with directly and honestly. If they think you are ducking an issue or are afraid of bad consequences to your firm, it will erode their trust in you.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Be clear with yourself (and others) that you can only make decisions right now with the information you have to date. Seek as much information as you can about past trends and then prepare for 2–3 likely future scenarios. Lay out the best case, moderate case and worst-case scenarios. Identify the tangible metrics that will tell you which case you are in and have a plan for actions you’ll take under each. As mentioned before, engage your employees in this thinking.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Essentially, it’s just the golden rule again — treat others as you’d like to be treated.
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?
By far the biggest mistake is to under-communicate out of fear of “causing unrest.” Silence from leadership is deafening. In absence of communications, people will do what we call MSU — “make stuff up.” You are communicating at all times, whether you like it or not. Manage it as such.
A related mistake is for leaders to sugar coat any messages they send about difficulties. This erodes trust. People know when there are problems, so don’t dance around things — don’t insult their intelligence with spin.
Finally, while we urge leaders to be straight and candid about challenges, a common mistake is to forget to appeal to the company’s mission. While facing a difficult present, remind employees about why the company’s mission is worth working toward, especially during rough patches. Remind customers about why they are important to you and why their needs matter to the company.
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?
Our first strategy was to think about our clients — what do they need from us now, how can we help them through the crisis? We did not think defensively or go into “revenue protection” mode. To us, that would be self-serving and inconsistent with our values as a firm. We thought of their needs, not ours.
During COVID-19, we immediately determined how we could continue to deliver our services remotely to avoid any disruption, and we were able to do very well. We also discussed how our services should morph for the long term. In fact, it helped us position our firm in a more relevant way. It was during these discussions that we came up with “Emerging Stronger” — the whitepaper we’ve recently released. Relevant to any downturn, the broader point is to think of the difficult economy not as a threat but as an opportunity to add more value to clients.
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.
The first is to recalibrate strategy. Determine quickly how your business should adapt based on how your customers are affected. Then create a credible plan for making those changes so employees will be motivated to make them. An example is the whole restaurant industry — those that are succeeding are the ones who immediately went to a delivery model and quickly expanded outdoor dining. We’re all eating in tents in parking lots — it’s the new normal (an we’re happy with it!).
The second is to do all you can to unleash innovation. Involve teams in brainstorming new product or services or ways to respond to the crisis. Avoid shutting down ideas that at first seem too difficult. People need to feel as though they are contributing something. Listen very hard and, especially for those in leadership positions, concentrate on drawing ideas out and constructively debating them. Don’t feel the need to provide all the answers — that’s a trap. An example is telehealth — the health systems that have seized this opportunity the most are those that work through resistance from patients, doctors, insurers and regulators and bring them together to innovate.
The third is to activate your talent base. Stay visible and communicate often. Employees need to be engaged much more during a crisis than in steadier times. Keep them connected with each other. This is an ongoing effort. One client immediately created a cross-functional team to deal with COVID-19 response, then they convened a team to focus on maintaining strategic momentum. The CEO and I discussed how he could conduct video “drive-bys” — FaceTime people on an impromptu basis just as if you were in the office next door dropping by for a visit — to maintain some level of “office chat” and normal “check-ins.”
Fourth, focus on building resilient leadership skills. Leaders need to establish a heightened level of self-awareness and focus more attention on emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. This starts with themselves and then extends to others. As we have all been taught during airline safety briefings, in an emergency we must give ourselves oxygen before helping others. Leaders need to be more resilient than ever. A personal example is that I started the practice of cycling outdoors almost every day during the pandemic. I was acutely aware that keeping up my physical and emotional wellbeing was a higher priority than ever because I needed more energy for my team and my family. Because I live in Florida, I was, fortunately, able to cycle every day in warm weather, socially distance from others and enjoying fresh air while building cardio fitness. I’ve kept that up to this day and have been able to tolerate a lot more stress as a result.
Finally, to reinforce the points made throughout this interview, the best practice is communication. This is the key to everything during turbulent times. In the turbulent times we exist in now, the challenge for every leader is to “connect the disconnected.” Recent research by Deloitte shows that when managing virtual teams, distance lowers team engagement by as much as 80%. Even if you don’t feel the need for connection, assume that your teammates and employees do.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Whenever I’m asked this in interviews, I try to come up with a new one, but this always sticks with me and I think it’s relevant to restate it for this interview.
The quote is: “I will never allow the failings of another to prevent me from being great. I do not give anyone that power.”
I’m not sure who coined the term, but a mentor of mine shared it with me over 20 years ago. I find it empowering. It reminds me that I’m accountable for my own responses to others. In turbulent times, it’s also a good lesson for leaders. If others are not responding well to challenges, don’t telegraph disappointment to them. Instead, show them how to cope.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow our team on www.trgglobal.com. Our recent whitepaper “Emerging Stronger” covers many of the topics we’ve discussed above and is available at http://www.trgglobal.com/resource/emerging-stronger.