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 Simon Allen.
Simon Allen is the CEO of McGraw Hill, a leading global provider of educational technology and content. Simon has substantial experience in the education technology and publishing business, having led large teams across six continents focused on K-12 and higher education, as well as science, technical and medical digital and print products for professional, governmental and institutional markets.
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 for having me! I’ve been in the education business for my entire professional career and what a wonderful 35 years it has been. I got started purely by accident — responding to a recruitment ad in The Dallas Morning News for a publisher’s sales rep to cover North Texas. I loved it! Fast forward 34 years and I am, today, working with many of the same authors and some of best people still at the company. What has changed — massively — is how technology is now used to help teachers teach and students learn. The combination of wonderful authors and world-leading content now embedded in the most flexible and adaptive platforms has transformed our business. It’s so exciting to see this transition and recognize just how much we help the learning process. What we do is important — I often say that this is a noble business; education is vital for society to grow and develop.
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?
As I mentioned, I began as a sales rep and traveled a lot. On one trip home from the University of Texas, I came across a car had that broken down, apparently from overheating, and a woman standing by the car. I stopped my car to see if she needed any help — and she pulled a gun on me! In retrospect, I could see she was afraid, and that I might have startled her, but coming from the UK, let’s just say I haven’t had too many guns pulled on me!
If I’m feeling humorous, I might say my takeaway is that I now think twice before stopping to help stranded drivers on the side of the road. But I think the real takeaway is that you need to be mindful of where other people are coming from, what they’re going through, and how they might interpret something differently from how you interpret it. In business and in personal life, it’s critical to always put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and take care to address their needs thoughtfully, rather than to just jump in with an answer.
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?
This is easy to answer. David Littlehale, who was my boss from 1988 until 1994. David was one of the most uniquely talented people managers whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting; he was singularly insightful and was always thinking about how he could most effectively lead the people and teams for which he was responsible. I learned a great deal about motivating and inspiring large groups of people from David. Some of the most important qualities that he taught me to continuously work on and refine include: listening, empathy and understanding; knowing when to push and when to pause; and getting the best out of people by recognizing their unique talents and abilities and giving them the space they need to flow and perform.
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?
At McGraw Hill, we often say that our vision is to unlock the full potential of each learner. We’re focused on accelerating learning, and we do that by delivering engaging and effective learning experiences, always grounded in research.
When our company was founded in 1888, our purpose at the time was to publish excellent books. Today, we still publish excellent educational content, but we’ve elevated our objective considerably: Our purpose today is to create a brighter future for students worldwide, applying our deep understanding of learning science — how learning happens and how the mind develops.
To that end, educational content is no longer everything we do. Today, we’re equally focused on developing and delivering the best possible educational technologies — technologies that elevate the content, engage meaningfully with students and educators, and directly support the learning process.
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 transition to fully-remote working and learning during the pandemic presented an unprecedented challenge, not only to our company and employees, but to the educators and learners that we work so hard to serve. Internally, we managed this challenging transition by taking the utmost care for employees’ safety and health, both physically and mentally. As we rapidly transitioned to a fully-remote working environment, we gave all of our employees a number of “chill days,” separate from ordinary vacation and personal days, to disconnect. I was very pleasantly surprised, and quite heartened, to see just how easily we were able to transition even amid such uncertainty. One particularly memorable moment from the past year was our December Higher Education Sales meeting: ordinarily, this would be an event with 600–700 people in person, but out of necessity was entirely virtual last year. The care, creativity and enthusiasm that went into planning the event meant that we were able to generate terrific excitement around it, which was very encouraging.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
As a leader, people are looking to you not only for direction and instruction, but to serve as an example. That means giving up is absolutely never an option. No matter what your personal and professional goals may be, if you are feeling discouraged, it can help to remember why you’re pursuing those goals in the first place, and to keep everything in perspective. At times it’s natural to feel disheartened but keeping your purpose in mind can help you keep going for the benefit of those who depend on your work. It is so important to focus on positive developments in difficult times and, thankfully, we have many of those at McGraw Hill.
Challenges do arise, of course, and it’s important to remember that none of us can reach our full potential on our own. Throughout my career — and particularly at this moment — I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by very strong teams of colleagues and collaborators. I regularly turn to my team to help solve challenges, and I’m always glad that I did. Sometimes a fresh perspective on a problem is all it takes to find a solution.
In the past year, throughout the pandemic, it goes without saying that we’ve all faced unprecedented challenges. But at every step of the way, I’ve been struck and frankly inspired by how our company, our customers and the education sector more broadly have risen to the occasion. It wasn’t easy to move so many students and instructors online, and there have been (and continue to be) major gaps and hurdles, but the scale of the effort and the degree of success that was achieved has been nothing short of inspiring. We still have a lot of work to do — particularly to close gaps and inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic — but having seen firsthand the swiftness and compassion with which our company and our sector responded during such a time of great crisis and need, I’m confident that we can achieve virtually anything.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most important role of a leader during challenging times is facilitating teamwork. The only way to steer a ship through stormy waters is to make sure you have all hands on deck — and it’s the job of a leader to ensure that everyone in the crew is able to do their best and work together. This also means being a good listener and having an open mind. It often takes fresh ideas, innovative thinking and outside-the-box solutions to successfully navigate challenging times. Practicing active, close listening with your team will foster an environment that promotes those mindsets and solutions.
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 way a leader can boost morale is by carefully listening and responding to the needs of their employees and teammates. If your colleagues and teams are experiencing challenges, working with them to address those challenges — and what they need to overcome them — will mean a great deal to them, and your company will be far stronger for it.
In times of uncertainty, finding ways to bring joy and engagement in the here and now can do wonders for team morale. For example, in December of last year, I organized a sock drive “for” my dog Jasper (who loves to chew socks), and encouraged employees to donate socks. For every sock we received, I made a donation to Save the Children, and after the drive we donated the socks to various homeless and animal shelters. The drive provided a boost to morale and a sense of joyous, charitable camaraderie that was much needed. And Jasper now has a lifetime supply of old socks.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
If there is difficult news, it must be communicated with a tactful balance of candor, empathy and dignity. You must be forthcoming and honest without being callous or harsh, and you must do your best to soften the blow without sugar-coating or making light of the situation. It is a delicate balance to strike, but an essential component of effective leadership.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It’s important that, rather than plan for what you think is going to happen, you envision what you think must happen to reach whatever goal you may be pursuing — and then structure your short-term plans around arriving at that goal based on what is happening. Focusing on the things you know to be important is invaluable, as it will help prevent you from losing sight of your broader goals.
In the education sector, the pandemic brought immense uncertainty about how we were going to educate our students (in addition to the wider danger and fear surrounding COVID-19 itself). But even as unpredictable as the challenge was, educators and education professionals sprang into action. Was the response perfect? Absolutely not. But our education system was nonetheless able to shift millions of students to online learning within a matter of days, simply because we knew we had to help as many students as quickly as possible.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Compassion is essential. If a company’s employees know that they are cared for, that their work matters, and that they matter to their employer, they will much more easily remain steady — which, in turn, will result in the steadiness of the company ship as it sails turbulent waters. Additionally, you absolutely must remain focused on what’s truly important without getting distracted, and you must ensure that everyone with whom you work is on the same page. If your whole team is driving the same direction, and you lead with compassion and focus, you will succeed even amid challenging 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?
1. Not listening to employees: Businesses that don’t heed the concerns of their internal stakeholders are sure to see their troubles amplified during difficult times. If employees’ concerns and needs aren’t being addressed, the quality of their work will inevitably suffer, and subsequently the whole business will suffer.
2. Not Being Flexible: Difficult times are often unpredictable, and in the face of unpredictability it’s very important that a business and its leaders be adaptable. If you can adapt to new challenges, developments, and situations during hard times, you will be more likely to come out ahead.
3. Short-sightedness: During challenging times, it can be easy to get tunnel vision and focus on the challenges of the here and now while losing sight of your ultimate vision and purpose. It’s extremely important to be forward-thinking at all times so that you can see the whole forest and not just the trees.
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?
Whether you’re in the midst of good times or turbulent times, it is critical to stay ahead of the curve. Business leaders must constantly be optimizing, ideating, and innovating — because if you’re not filling your consumers’ needs, another company will.
Long before the pandemic, we had already invested heavily in digital and remote learning tools — so in many ways, we were prepared. Our business had already been moving online, so we were already laying the groundwork for even greater digital adoption. The pandemic therefore wasn’t as much of a “shift” for us as simply an acceleration of everything we had already been working on.
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.
- Don’t lose sight of why you do what you do. You’ve got to give clear direction about what’s important and take pride in your work. In March and April, it was clear that students and educators needed our support, and keeping that in mind — and taking pride in our ability to help — was a large part of why we were able to navigate the first months of the pandemic so successfully. We try to think about our business as a family. We reach out and see how our people are doing. I spoke this week to some of our team in Mexico, then our US head of sales in higher ed, our ALEKS team in California… It is important to connect across the company and deep into the organization in a personal way.
- Listen to your employees. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our employees expressed that they needed support, and we listened and delivered that support. It made a substantial difference to them — and, consequently, it made a substantial difference to the company.
- Be Compassionate. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve made a point to reach out to a great deal of our employees across the globe. It’s important to understand what people with whom you work need and do your best to accommodate them.
- Be Flexible. If you’re stuck in your ways, you will not be able to withstand the pressure of turbulent times. If our company and its leaders had not been flexible and open-minded at the beginning of the pandemic, we would not have been able to respond to the needs of our stakeholders, both internal and external, as effectively as we did.
- Encourage leaders in the company to trust their instincts. The leaders you choose have been appointed for a reason. It’s essential to trust the expertise and good sense of the people you have hired. I could not have led the company alone during this challenging time, and making sure the company’s other leaders felt empowered to make the decisions they thought were best contributed greatly to our collective success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is “trust your instinct.” It’s essential advice in business and in life. If you know that you’ve hired people who are experienced and knowledgeable, they’re going to be correct 9 times out of 10.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me personally on LinkedIn to keep abreast of my work. On occasion, I also write and share thought pieces that are relevant to the world of education. Additionally, if you’d like to stay informed with regard to what McGraw Hill is doing on a regular basis, you can follow the company on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.