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 Richard Jeffery, CEO of ActiveOps, PLC.
Richard Jeffery is an expert in service operations management. Richard started his career with PA Consulting Group, before moving to Coopers and Lybrand specializing in organizational change management and operational effectiveness. He joined specialist consultants OCP as a partner in 1993, where he began developing the Active Operations Management (AOM) method and Workware. He launched ActiveOps as an independent business in 2005 with fellow OCP partner Neil Bentley.
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?
I’m a brit from a farming family — but I escaped the farm gate by going to boarding school from the age of 7. I studied a systems and management degree in London, which is a great qualification for a generalist. Knowing a superficial amount about a lot of things was an ideal setup for my first job as a management consultant!
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?
In an early assignment, I was working on a project for well-known bank, working out of an office above a branch of the bank. One evening I was working late and was so absorbed in my work that I didn’t realize everyone had left — and I was locked in the building! After exhausting other options, I ended up climbing out of a first floor window, only for my suit jacket to get caught on the bank signage for the building. It was tricky convincing the passers-by that I wasn’t robbing the bank, and please would they catch my laptop whilst a detached myself from the building! The lesson I learned was that you shouldn’t confuse working extended hours with productivity — it has funny ways of catching you out!
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?
Every step of any career is a function of so many people creating the opportunities you take or supporting you with the context and experience to progress, so picking one to single out here is hard. I think I have to highlight my extraordinary luck in being interviewed and then employed by one Mike Thomas for PA Consulting Group. Mike created an amazing team where even as the most junior person I felt valued and felt I was making a contribution. When Mike and others founded a consulting business, he invited me and my subsequent cofounder of ActiveOps to join as full partners. From that petri dish, we were able to create ActiveOps — so without Mike, our business may never have existed. Thank you, Mike.
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?
So many organizations — often without meaning to — evolve a culture where people are stressed, uncertain and feel like victims in a hostile environment. At ActiveOps, we have a burning conviction that it doesn’t have to be this way — and that in large enterprises in particular there is a massive opportunity to create safer, more rewarding ways to organize and manage work and capacity that are good for individuals, the organization and the customers it serves. Our purpose has always been to provide the means for organizations to control the complex challenges they face and create a rewarding, secure environment for anyone involved.
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?
I have to answer this thinking about Covid — it was a hugely unsettling and unique experience for everyone, and it either superseded or crystallized many of the things I learnt from previous times of turbulence. For our business Covid meant an immediate stop on our work with clients, but because our product is aimed at organizations with large offices, there was a bigger existential question — would they even need our services going forward?
To focus the question on the immediate situation and our response to it:
- The key was to keep everyone’s confidence and self-belief up, while recognizing that different people have widely differing needs for certainty — not everyone needs frequent communications to feel secure.
- We established and publicized a team of people charged with Issue / situation management. The establishment of the group was to communicate to the business that “we’re on this.”
- We repeatedly communicated the financial strength of the business, but in the background — for instance by emphasizing how we were continuing with key investment projects and other nominally discretionary activities
- I made sure I was present in more operational team meetings and set up end of day huddles to check and respond to the ebbs and flows of daily work.
- We focused our time on being super-supportive of our clients, making sure both that we were stretched and that our clients felt the value of our efforts.
These steps meant our business was both busy and feeling useful. Give people purpose and they feel better!
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I love the challenge of the journey — so for me it’s genuinely never about giving up. I believe passionately in the purpose and the importance of the issue we address. While there is a level of motivation to achieve the lifestyle you aspire to, financial success is a hygiene factor for me, not a driver. It is an indicator of delivering our purpose than a target to be achieved. I do what I do because I believe in our product, I love the experience of learning new things every day, and I love creating something that supports others to enjoy their work. To give up on those things would cause me more pain than the challenges they bring ever could.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I think a defining capability of leadership is ability to handle uncertainty and exposure to risk better than others! That’s because the better you can handle uncertainty, the easier it is to sustain the confidence of your employees. There are always risks and you can never know where your team are in terms of their personal situation or wellbeing. Projecting certainty or at least confidence in your organization’s ability to ride the ebbs and flows of any situation is critical to keeping your people productive and, if not exactly happy during uncertain times, at least keeping them from despondency.
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?
Give clarity of direction, (any focus is better than no focus and there are always things which need attention). Keep people busy on work that matters. Keep them close, while communicating and projecting confidence. Make the goals clear and short term so reinforcing value.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be authentic and honest. Don’t delay or be defensive. We are all pre-conditioned to avoid seeming at fault, but excuses don’t repair or build trust. As leader, making it clear that you are accountable creates a focus that gives your team confidence to act. We have an internal comms channel for managers called “It’s Richard’s fault…” because for better or worse, as CEO it is!
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I try to create a bubble of known knowns which I and the team can work from. Secondly, it’s worth recognizing that agility is a critical business competence — so focus on and celebrate ways your business adapts. In business we see time and time again that speed of evolution is the greatest guarantee of long-term survival. And if you want to evolve quickly, it’s crucial to:
- Give fast, frequent and accurate feedback to colleagues. Having information on your environment is a competitive advantage — are you collecting data to keep you attenuated to the situation you are truly in?
- Focus your energies. Resources are scarce, as are financial and mental capacity, so make conscious decisions about what you do. It’s always been my experience that spraying (resources) and praying (you do something right) is not a strategy
- Not play the victim. Sometimes difficult things happen, giving context and confidence is crucial to seeing past the immediate problems or challenges
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Be authentic to yourself with customers and staff. People see through posturing.
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 think, overall, the biggest mistake I see businesses making is sticking their heads in the sand and hoping their problems will go away! There is so little margin for error during difficult times that inaction can have disastrous consequences.
Next, thinking financially, I would say inaction can be a mistake. It’s better to take early action than to spend reserves in the hope that something will change, or things will go back to normal. If they don’t (and let’s face it, that’s more and more common these days) you’ll be in an even weaker position.
Businesses that don’t talk to their customers will soon get a reminder that no one like surprises and disruption — and customers always have the option to vote with their feet.
The same goes for employees. I have seen organizations in difficult situations where the workforce is uncertain, unhappy, and unproductive because there’s a wall of silence from the leadership when there should be communication. Bad news (if it’s explained) is better than no news — communication with employees is essential if you want to hold on to those employees.
Lastly, I would say that big strategic bets are dangerous. I have seen a number of companies pivot and go all out in some new direction in response to challenges in their market, but simply run out of resources and energy when the next big thing fails.
Pivots and changes are best done from strength or clarity of an opportunity rather than defensively or out of desperation.
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?
Focusing on supporting and adding value to your existing customers is always a smart move, since they not only provide economic support but are also the best sources of references and long-term business success. In turn, great results and happy customers build your employees’ belief in your product, which gives them the conviction and confidence to sell more. So much success depends on mental state. In difficult times, people — be they employees, customers, or prospects — are worried about making mistakes; having confidence and self-belief offers them the precious commodity of certainty, and certainty sells!
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.
We have touched on most of these above, but to summariזe:
The mental state of the people in your company is crucial. Are they frightened and isolated victims of circumstance, or are they a coherent and focused team that adapts? To help them become the latter and not the former, I recommend that leaders:
- Be present. During the pandemic, I was on Teams talking to the company but in approach speaking directly and personally to each person. Require that your senior leadership behaves in the same way, keeping close to their teams and being genuine leaders.
- Find real things to feel good about. At ActiveOps, our customers were making new uses of the reports we provided — thanks to some excellent rapid internal development by ourselves. We established a quick response MS Teams Chat to all managers but used it as a “good news” channel so we could share reinforcing positive news immediately. We deliberately made it to managers, so they had the opportunity to be engaged with their teams.
- Ensure people are busy and stretched with things that deliver clear outcomes. When we had a complete stop to implementations last year, we repurposed our delivery teams to support rapid product development of new client services and resources. Alongside the benefits this delivered for our clients, it meant that our teams were busy and helping others’ issues and problems. Far better than busywork which can feel like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic!
- Conserve cash. This is fairly obvious, but we did scenario planning for significant movement in our revenues, and prioritized those activities that: Delivered an immediate and obvious client benefit, improved our operational agility, and accelerated cash collection.
- Have a plan with thresholds for survival beyond the presenting issue. We developed a three-stage survival strategy based on severity of revenue impact of Covid. Thankfully we never went beyond level one — but if we had needed to, we had in place agreed principles and basic steps that the senior team would take to minimize uncertainties and ensure consistency of message should we have to respond further. It is critical for the business to feel led — even if the path or plan is not either popular or obvious.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m a great fan of Douglas Adams and his book the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. One of the themes in the book is anyone would go mad if they realized just how insignificant they are in the grand scheme. I use this to keep myself grounded but motivated. Uncertainty is the biggest cause of stress, so I don’t try and look for certainties, absolutes, or logic. I do my best to accept that the world is messy, frustrating, and has no straight lines! If you can get your head around that, then you can focus on getting peace of mind by making the best of the circumstances you are in, and as a leader you can do your best to create a bubble of confidence that others can feed off. Creating a platform for others to be fulfilled and develop their own self confidence is, for me, the greatest form of success.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My cofounder and I recently published a book on the ideas behind our product — “Active Operations Management: The playbook for service operations in the agile age” and that would be a great start. ActiveOps’ website regularly publishes thought pieces on the world of work and I can be contacted on LinkedIn.