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 Roy Simrell.
Roy Simrell is the CEO of Prometric, a global leader in the development and delivery of secure and reliable certification, licensure and educational assessments that protect the public welfare and enable academic and professional advancement for people around the world. Roy is an accomplished executive with over two decades of experience leading data and technology-enabled services companies across a wide range of industry sectors in the United States and Europe. He has held senior leadership roles at such companies as Inmar, Retalix USA and Symphony EYC.
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 so much for having me. I’ve been working in the technology and professional services market for close to 30 years now, always with an eye toward how businesses can use technology to create data-driven insights that power meaningful, customer-oriented connections and innovation. I’m now applying that experience and thinking to the assessment and testing space, helping Prometric continue to advance and accelerate the assessment industry’s strategic use of data and technology to better serve our customers.
Before joining Prometric in 2019, I was President and Chief Client Officer of Inmar, a tech-enabled intelligent commerce company. Prior to that, I served as Global CEO for Symphony EYC, an enterprise cloud solutions company, and also as President/CEO for Retalix USA, a retail and CPG software firm.
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’m not sure how funny this is, but when I was hired into my first real professional job, I signed up for every training class they offered that required me to travel to different cities for weeks at a time. The original reason was more personal than professional. As a young professional starting out, I was broke. The company allowed a per diem for meals, which I was able to save and pay bills with if I didn’t spend it all. I quickly came to learn that the unintended consequence of that pursuit was far more important for me. Because of the accelerated education and training I experienced during that time, I became one of the only people in the company trained on all of our products which made me very valuable. When there were necessary staff reductions, I was always safe. And when there were promotions, I was well positioned for advancement. I’d like to take credit for thinking ahead back then to the real benefits I would experience, but it really happened by mistake. The lesson learned was to purposely invest my time and money into my continuous learning and growth because this is where the pay-off is — don’t depend on others to do it for you.
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?
I’ve had many great mentors and coaches over the years, and I have learned a great deal from the people I have worked with and to whom I am incredibly grateful. Without a doubt, though, the person that has had the greatest impact on my career is my wife Christine. We married each other 30 years ago, and if it wasn’t for her sense of adventure and willingness to go on this journey together — one that has required the family to pull up stakes and move many times — I would never have benefited from the diverse experiences and opportunities for growth and advancement along the way.
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?
From Prometric’s inception, the company’s goal and mission has been to provide the industry’s most reliable, convenient and secure access to testing programs that support professional and academic advancement. Along the way, Prometric has greatly expanded its capabilities, functional expertise and global experience to become one of the industry’s leading providers of a full end-to-end suite of assessment services and software solutions to certification and licensing organizations. In this light, it would be easy to simply refer to Prometric as an “assessment company,” but we see our purpose as much more than that. By enabling individuals to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and abilities in their professional field or area of study, we’re helping them to advance to the next phase of their lives and careers. In those roles, they also enhance the lives of individuals and communities globally. For that reason, we believe and often state that “Futures Start Here.” Our teams take that purpose seriously every day and it inspires our culture at Prometric.
By collaborating with our clients to develop valid, reliable and fair assessments, and making them available to the end-users in a way that is convenient, secure and accessible, we’re helping to open career pathways for the next generation of highly skilled professionals — whether they are dentists, doctors, lawyers, accountants, technology professionals, or any range of career professionals leaving their unique mark on the world. “Futures Start Here” describes our “why” or purpose.
The needs of future candidates and the job market continue to rapidly change and evolve. Today, we’re strategically focused on shaping the future of the testing and assessment industry by serving test takers in new ways with new solutions. With the advent of new technologies, new approaches to data analytics and advances in psychometrics, we’re increasingly able to deliver assessments in more flexible and accessible formats — without sacrificing security, reliability or validity. So, we’re now building on Prometric’s history as a trusted leader in testing and assessments, while also expanding the boundaries of what great assessments can be, building new solutions that solve for the challenges of educational assessment, licensure and credentialing in the 21st century.
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 Covid-19 pandemic presented some of the greatest operational challenges that our business and industry have ever encountered. The declaration of the global pandemic in March 2020 resulted in the immediate temporary closure of our worldwide test center network across 180 countries, with no advance warning and with no reliable ability to predict when operations could resume or under what circumstances. As a result, we were confronted with the challenge of providing scheduling support for hundreds of thousands of test takers in a very short window of time — many of those individuals were striving to enter essential workforce roles such as doctors, nurses or other healthcare practitioners so that they could provide desperately needed services in their local communities. To accentuate the scale of impact, the pandemic required us to support more than two times our annual candidate service transactional volume in the period of a single month. The urgency of action under rapidly changing circumstances created a great deal of strain on our organization and our clients and required Prometric’s leadership to pivot and adapt quickly. Add to this the reality that I had joined the company just six months earlier.
Thankfully, we have an amazing team that understands that in times of crisis and rapid change, innovation must also be accelerated. So we accepted the challenge to build an even stronger portfolio of solutions and services, leaning on our 30+ years of experience and knowledge.
At Prometric, we utilize an “Incident Management Team” comprised of a global, cross-functional group of staff and experts to respond to crises or critical business challenges. While Covid-19 was certainly on a new and unprecedented scale, our team shifted quickly to accelerate the capabilities and scalability of our proprietary remote assessment platform, ProProctor™, enabling clients to offer secure test-from-home options in lieu of appearing at an in-person testing center. We also began the hard work of resuming operations in our test center network safely and carefully. We worked with leading public health experts to enhance our test center operational policies to create a safe experience for our staff and test takers as centers re-opened. We quickly scaled our ability to provide test taker support services remotely while local government regulations prevented us from going into our global office locations. We stayed in close contact with our clients throughout, providing timely, transparent information about the actions we were taking to support them and their stakeholders, including when we would re-open, what safety precautions we were taking, and how we would support the increasing backlog of testing appointments created by the necessary site closures. Every step of the way, we communicated, audited, measured, learned, adapted, and optimized.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
This was not an easy time by any means. In my nearly three decades of business leadership, I’ve rarely seen such a level of crisis and challenge compounded all at once on a global scale. It takes courage to run toward a problem or a crisis. However, there was never a doubt in my mind that the team could rise to the challenge and find ways not only to survive but to thrive in our business. We’ll certainly be a stronger, better company for it.
Given the talent, passion and ingenuity of our team, I never had any real doubt in our ability to succeed, and to help our clients succeed, even in light of the pandemic. We also leaned on the strong relationships founded on trust and transparency we’d built with our clients and partners, and we kept our core mission and vision in clear view. At Prometric, we know that our test takers have a lot riding on the successful completion of their examinations — many of them working to get to the front lines during the pandemic — and we kept this in mind as we worked to implement every solution possible to ensure that these assessments were still carried out in a safe and timely manner.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is identifying the company’s most critical priorities and getting the team focused on how to address those. In times of challenge or crisis, team members are understandably concerned, worried and stressed. It’s important to let them know that your door is always open. Even more critical, it’s important for a strong leader to listen to team members in order to understand what the true problems are and to collect as much information as possible to make data-driven decisions concerning potential solutions. Feelings and emotions tend to run high during difficult times, but decisions need to be made based on data and facts.
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?
The best executives lead by example. It’s important to show your team that you are working just as hard and are just as committed to success as they are. It’s important to focus on the most critical core needs of the business and its customers by setting priorities and communicating them often and to have a vision of what the future will hold as a result of perseverance through difficult times. It is also important to acknowledge the real challenges the organization is confronting, and to highlight the opportunity that such circumstances present and celebrate the milestones and wins along the way. Create and encourage a culture of transparency and engagement — make sure your team has a safe environment to discuss difficult issues, provide candid input and work to solve problems collaboratively. Be present and accessible and be quick to celebrate successes gained by individuals or teams.
Finally, always be honest and humble — your team will recognize and respect that you are human, just as they are, and this will give them more confidence and trust in you and your leadership.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In my experience, I’ve found that it always pays to be upfront and honest and that time is of the essence in difficult circumstances. Committed and engaged professionals will give you their best when they have confidence in their leadership and know that they have a fair understanding of the situation. You must also have a balance of realism and compassion with delivering difficult news. The most effective leaders are transparent, honest and carry the right amount of empathy.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It’s important that you build in a mindset and framework of flexibility into your strategic planning. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, business situations can shift overnight and it’s important that your team is equipped and able to shift plans, processes and procedures in short order to accommodate new developments. Sometimes making big bets or accelerating investments during times of challenge is critical.
For the assessment industry, the pandemic challenged many of the foundations of the conventional business model, from timing and access to testing programs, to the means and methods of providing customer support, to client engagement and communication. Our team members and partners acted quickly to work with our clients to ensure that our evolving business operations would continue to support their critical business requirements and strategic objectives. At times the response was bumpy, and we learned a lot along the way, but as a result of our focus on our customers we were able to introduce solutions to meet our client needs and help to shape a new path for the industry. This included the rapid acceleration and scalability of our remote assessment capabilities, achieving an increase of 100x the number of individuals supported in a compressed amount of time.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I believe in turbulent times, focus is everything. You have to stay focused on your overarching vision as an organization, clearly communicate the core components of the plan and give people strong reasons to believe. It’s critical to show your team the path through the challenge and to help them see what success looks like on the other side.
For Prometric, this means staying focused on providing the most credible, safe, accessible, and effective assessment experience for our clients and test takers — in spite of some of the challenges we’ve faced during Covid-19. It also means having a strategic focus on the future beyond the crisis, accelerating investments in technology and talent that allow us to position our solutions for a changing marketplace and consumer.
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?
1. Underestimating your talent. Make sure you have a solid understanding of the skills and abilities of those on your leadership team and be prepared to engage them on the high priority jobs that need the greatest attention. Be prepared to get the most out of each individual by matching them with the right opportunity or role. Your team members are your most valuable asset and the insights, experiences and creative thinking they bring to the table need to be utilized and maximized in every way possible. Listen to them and, at every opportunity, find new ways to inspire them and unleash their intellectual and creative power.
2. Not innovating soon enough. In a crisis, it’s important to look ahead to where the industry is going, or perhaps where it should be headed, even if it doesn’t realize it yet. We must always be thinking of how to engineer better, smarter solutions for today and for tomorrow, especially in critical times like we all experienced in 2020 during Covid-19. Crisis often accelerates innovation if you are ready for and committed to that change.
3. Lack of timely, transparent communication. It’s crucial that you keep both your team and clients abreast of the latest developments and what immediate actions you are taking to resolve the situation on a regular and frequent basis. When the pandemic first hit, we established a standing meeting every morning with the senior team to communicate the key issues, action items, and align on client and test taker-facing communications.
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?
Strategic relationships and innovation are key to forward progress. At Prometric, we take pride in the strong relationships we have with our clients, built on a foundation of credibility and trust. These have proven crucial during the pandemic. As our clients have focused on their own organizational needs, they rely on Prometric to act with urgency and to implement solutions that are safe, valid and reliable. Staying focused on strategic objectives and remaining committed to innovation and advancement are the keys to future success. Prometric had remote assessment capabilities prior to the pandemic, and our organizational commitment to accelerate investment in its evolution and continued advancement to meet the future needs of the marketplace is one example of the importance of leadership focus and commitment.
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.
1. Stay focused. Be true to the core vision and mission of your organization, while staying laser focused on the top priorities of your organization. Establish and communicate often what those highest priority objectives are (as few as possible, I like no more than three). In the spring of last year, we knew that we needed to continue providing the best assessment experience possible during the pandemic, but in a way that was safe and secure. We worked with leading health experts to establish the safest testing environment in the industry. We also delivered a remote testing solution for clients that needed an option outside of the traditional test centers.
2. Leverage expert insights from across the organization. At the height of the pandemic, I instituted twice daily leadership team meetings with participation from individuals from around the globe and from every functional area of the business. These meetings provided a forum for open communication among key contributors in the company. People were able to share insight into their actions, express and discuss challenges and concerns, and ideate in real time on proposed solutions to address the dynamic problems that we confronted. This created a strong, cohesive team working together to achieve common goals at an accelerated rate.
3. See the opportunity in the challenge. The challenges of the pandemic accelerated many trends — such as remote testing and enhanced use of technology in assessment — that would have taken several more years to achieve and become mainstream. This offers us an opportunity to take more of a leadership role as a technology-led and -enabled assessment company.
4. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Especially during challenging or turbulent times, it’s critical to stay visible and communicate often to your teams at every level of the organization.
5. Celebrate progress. Sometimes progress and solutions come in large, dramatic moves, and at other times they come in the small steps you can take on a day-to-day basis. When you and your team take these steps and see successful results, be sure to promote the outcomes internally and learn from the success to ensure even greater positive results in the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Find something you love to do, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” I truly believe that if you are passionate about what you do, you can do great things because you are fully committed to it.
How can our readers further follow your work?