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 Steve Seiden, CEO of Acquired Data Solutions.
Steven Seiden is CEO of Acquired Data Solutions (ADS), Inc., a 22-year old engineering services company specializing in solving customer’s complex engineering problems serving the Aerospace and Defense, Transportation, Critical Infrastructure, Medical, and Food and Beverage industries. These solutions include Internet of Things (IOT), software and hardware development and design, test, automation and cybersecurity. ADS serves federal agencies such as TSA, NIH, DHS, DOD and many large prime contractors including Northrop Grumman, AT&T, SAIC, Leidos, ManTech and Raytheon. Steve received his undergraduate degree in Computer Science as well as two Engineering Masters Degrees from North Carolina State University. For the past 5 years including this tumultuous year, Steve runs a 6 -week STEM literacy program for underrepresented technology students from Washington, DC High Schools focused on the skills required in manufacturing facilities such as coding, 3-D printing and microelectronics. See here. He currently serves on the board of On Ramp Careers that specializes in intern and apprenticeships for kids 14–24. Steve has also served as board chair of Byte Back and PTA president and vice president of his children’s schools.
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 founded ADS out of graduate school 23 years ago. I was raised by two entrepreneurial parents and as a result, my dream was to go from graduate school to starting my own business. I had no idea how that would happen just that I had that dream.
While I was pursuing a PhD at North Carolina State, I was doing graduate research in Mississippi for the Army Corps of Engineers, where I learned a software called LabVIEW.
After I finished my PhD course work, I moved back to the Washington, D.C. area, where I was born and raised. Fortunately, there was a small business doing LabVIEW software development that I contracted with and shortly after, I started there, the business owners decided to shutdown the company and then my boss told me HE was leaving! He told me to take over the company or get a job.
So roughly in a month’s time, I renamed the company and began the Acquired Data Solutions journey.
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?
There are so many, from thinking the business would skyrocket to success in the first few years to having employees sleep in their cars. What I quickly learned was that the joke was on me and that I didn’t know much except learning that experience is expensive and that I needed to figure out how to have cheaper experiences. To that end, I did THREE things to try to develop my leadership skills as quickly as possible:
- I joined a non-profit board to see if I had any leadership skills. Byte Back helps inner city adults bridge the digital divide. Unfortunately, the digital divide is still alive and well thanks to Covid-19. I was with the organization for nearly 20 years serving in all leadership roles.
- I volunteered as an 8th grade basketball coach even though I didn’t have any kids at the time because I wanted to figure out if I could get 8th graders to move and play their positions! I found out that the only way to get 8th graders AND people in general to move at all is through clear communication which is a lifelong lesson.
- Lastly, I joined an entrepreneur business group, Entrepreneurs’ Organization, to hear people’s stories so I didn’t have to jump off the bridge myself. This was great except we only discussed business problems rather than life problems. I discovered that it is often our struggles with life that causes us to have struggles in business.
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 am most grateful to my parents. My parents both instilled many of the core values we have at ADS: Family Friendly, Grit, Loyalty, Stretch, Life-learner, Teamwork, Passion and Empowerment. Without their guidance, ADS may not be in business. I owe them a huge THANK YOU! for this and for providing ADS startup capital.
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?
Our vision was always to help our customers solve their complex engineering problems. Engineers love to solve problems and sometimes create them too. In addition to helping our customers, we wanted a double bottom line business where GIVEBACK was equally as important. ADS has always been involved with several non-profits that empower people to succeed — from cancer survivors to the digital divide.
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?
Best example I can give is right now. Since the shutdown on March 15, 2020, the world has been upside down. To add insult to injury, we had one of our long-term colleagues and shareholders pass away on May 11, 2020 and then my COO passed away on May 21, 2020. I had spoken to Steve Whitcomb, our COO, at 10 pm on May 20 and he died at 7 AM on the 21st. The entire company was in shock and we had no way to truly comfort Steve’s family or ourselves. This journey has been completely uncharted and I had to dig deep to steady myself and the team. The pandemic was bad enough but this was heart wrenching.
During these times is when you truly find out if you even know how to lead. I always believed
you lead by example — by being innovative and relevant, by creating stability and giving hope and compassion to your team. After Steve passed away, we managed to come together in this new virtual world and we provided each other the space we needed to become a closer team.
I also learned that my DNA and my leadership qualities actually were perfect for times like this. You see to be a great leader, I believe you have to love swimming upstream. And when you’re always swimming upstream the chaos becomes manageable. Many people like a steady state. I like to feel the wind and heavy seas. I might fall asleep otherwise! Also, some people have really strong executive functions and a need for organization and structure, they have difficulty dealing with clutter and things that upset the apple cart.
My executive function explodes during hectic times. Because this is what I love.
I love the rough seas. I love figuring things out and finding calmer waters. During this period, we authored three articles on getting America back to work, we established two partnerships — one on Cyber Security and the other on The Green Economy. We have been on television twice as a result of hosting 50 high school and college interns virtually this summer and fall. We created an internship program based on S.T.E.A.M (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) called T.E.A.M.S (Technology, Economy, Art, Marketing and Socialize).
I am so proud of my team and what they have accomplished during these most challenging times.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Absolutely, all the time. When I started this business, I had terrible negative self-talk issues and even worse coping skills. However, quitting was not an option. Very early in my career, I went to my father’s business partner who had been my mentor and I said I wanted to quit. That it was too hard. He gave me the best advice of my life and I still follow it every day (or maybe it wasn’t): “He told me I could quit when I collapsed.” Because he knew I wouldn’t collapse. I often might feel like I am going to collapse but somehow, he knew I WOULDN’T.
He continued to say “Keep churning. Keep moving your feet and something will happen.” And his thing was “keep climbing the stadium stairs.” In 23 years, I’ve never collapsed even though it feels like I have come close a few times
Best advice ever.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of leadership anytime is showing up for your staff and being the first person to grab a bucket and start clearing the deck. To me this means leading with compassion so that your team feels hope and stability and can continue to move forward, innovate and grow.
Great example of this is that we offset childcare cost for one of our key employees so that she could have the space she needed to regain her work-life balance. She had been working with a baby in one arm and a keyboard in the other since the pandemic started. It was clear she needed your own self-care. There are many ways for a leader to show up, the most important way is just to show up.
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?
I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but showing hope and compassion not only to your team is vital but also to yourself.
I had to learn self-compassion and mindfulness. Through meditation, I give myself the space to think, fail, succeed and grow. If I did not learn how to sit with my own thoughts and feelings, it would be impossible for me to sit with others and provide them compassion and empathy. In other words, I have to provide space to myself so I can provide space for others so that they move forward and thrive. Only through this space can I figure things out and attempt to be at peace with myself.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Straight at ‘em! I find delivery of bad news to customers to be way easier than having to let someone go. Bad customer news generally only happens if we wait too long to tell our customer the issues unlike personnel issues. As Brad Pitt explained in “Moneyball” if you have to cut someone or tell them bad news, just tell them and let them have the space to process it. I certainly have not always been able to do this. I want to comfort and support them, but there is no getting around bad news. It is really hard to do and even harder to be skillful at it.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The only way you can adhere to a plan is if is a very flexible plan and you have a growth mindset not a fixed mindset. As we live through the 3Ps: politics, protests and pandemic, we have stuck to our plan of practice, progress and partnerships. We have consistently practiced our values to create progress by levering our partnerships. Also, as my Dad’s partner told me, “Keep churning. Keep moving your feet and something will happen.” As they say “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes! The number one principle is to know there will be constant ups and downs much like a “sine” curve. It is a manic experience to be a business leader and not everyone is cut for the ride. For me, I learned to flatten my own curve, I had to become a situational introvert. In other words, when the world around me gets too turbulent I have to find refuge through meditation. I have to learn to sit with myself and not resist the pain I am feeling. Growing up and for much of my adult life, I had terrible negative self-talk, very poor coping skills and very little capacity to sit with myself. I was a human doer and not a human being. During the past decade, I have been dedicated to creating peace with myself by learning new coping mechanisms. Somebody said coping mechanisms work until they don’t work. So, in all seriousness, maybe the number one principle is to constantly adjust and learn new coping skills.
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?
Far be it for me to list the common mistakes of others. I make plenty of my own!
My point is…I’ve been in business for 23 years, I have made and still make mistakes every day. It is hard enough for me to recognize and fix my own mistakes, let only judge others, and if they are so common, I am sure I have made them too.
So, I guess the most common mistake is judgement of ourselves and others because truth is, none of us are perfect and we wouldn’t be in our businesses if we were.
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?
Again, I am not sure they are strategies or not, but I can share with you that we have hired a public relations firm for the first time and have spent more money on sales and marketing than any other time. I certainly would not have the opportunity to answer any of your questions if we did not hire a PR firm. We have attracted lots of press during the pandemic. Our current marketing and PR strategy are to be real, cool, relevant, and fun to attract as many eyeballs as possible and to position us for future growth.
In addition, there are two concepts I promote to generate new business. One is called being a “cluster buster” and the other one is being a “bowling ball.” Let me explain.
What is a cluster buster? Imagine you see a group of people and you’re on the outside. If you’re on the outside, how do you typically feel? An outsider, right? “Left out syndrome” is a real thing.
But think about it, is anyone leaving you out besides yourself? So, a cluster buster is someone who steps into the middle and maybe just says “Hi, where are you from?” Etc.
Now I also believe in “collision” marketing. I’m a HUGE collision marketing guy.
Which brings me to the second point: Being bowling ball. As a bowling ball, everyone is a target because everyone has “gold.” It’s my job and everyone else’s job to find a target and dig for gold. And if you don’t dig for gold that’s on you.
So, by being a “cluster buster” and a “bowling ball” maybe you can generate new business, increase profits and maintain your financial stability in both good times and bad. I met Michael Bloomberg this way.
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.
Again, leadership is about how to lead.
So, to answer your question you lead by:
One: Being innovative.
Two: Being relevant.
Three, four and five: Creating stability and giving hope and compassion to your team. And, remember the leader is still part of the team.
A leader needs to be able to sit with themselves and reflect, be at peace and have space to think. Without giving yourself that space there’s no way to create and perform. That’s why meditation has been a huge part of my practice in my life.
Live your values and let your values guide your plan.
Another example is to deconstruct the problem of today such as the three “P”’s: Politics, Protests and Pandemic and transform them into something positive like the other three P’s: Practice, Progress and Partnership.
Maybe the most important thing is not to be self-destructive. Often when things get too tough, we have so much negative self-talk and constantly thrash ourselves. We need to practice self-compassion, look inwards and create new coping mechanisms so we don’t self-sabotage.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are many. But let me tell you about a couple of recent ones. My daughter is a competitive equestrian she went to this new barn that publishes a blog every Monday and sends out a “quote of the week.”
Here are the last two: “If you want to, you can find a million reasons to hate life and be angry at the world. Or…if you want to, you can find a million reasons to love life and be happy. Choose wisely.”
“Good things come to those who believe, better things come to those who are patient, and
the best things come to those who don’t give up.”
They were both so timely for me…
How can our readers further follow your work?
If your readers want to follow our work, they can go to our website and read the press releases and the newsletter we put out in the “resources” section www.acquiredata.com.