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 Wes Adams.
Wes is the founder and CEO of SV Consulting Group where he works with high-performing companies to build organizational resilience, develop leadership capabilities, and deepen employee engagement through a meaningful work lens. He has spent more than two decades growing successful ventures and consulting for Fortune 500s, startups, and NGOs. Wes is a facilitator for the Penn Resilience Program and has been a featured speaker at South by Southwest Interactive and the Nobel Peace Prize Forum. His work has been covered by the New York Times, Forbes, Business Insider, Fast Company, and others. Wes is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and holds a Master’s from University of Pennsylvania in Applied Positive Psychology.
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?
Thanks for having me!
My first career was in hospitality, where I learned an incredible amount about effective leadership, teamwork, and building customer relationships. I started as a bartender, worked my way up to become the Marketing Director of several successful nightclubs in Miami Beach, and eventually started a hospitality company with a couple of colleagues. We opened restaurants, bars, and event space all over the country and were even nominated for a couple of James Beard Awards for our restaurant, La Condesa, in Austin.
I think I launched and grew nearly a dozen businesses in those first ten years. Hospitality can be a tough business — margins are slim and the failure rate is high. At the same time, there’s a real magic that happens when a team comes together. The venue staff become a sort of family.
Great service requires everyone to perform in concert together. It’s not about getting everything perfect — it is about all of the players constantly paying attention and adapting to what’s going on in the house. They have to work in partnership to support each other and the larger goal of providing a great experience to customers. That requires collaboration, a willingness to go beyond the strict duties of your job, and a good deal of autonomy. When it comes together it’s a truly beautiful thing to see.
I’ve been out of the business for a long time now, but the lessons I learned there have stayed with me. Last year, my business partner, Tamara Myles, and I conducted a research study with University of Pennsylvania to understand how leaders at high-performing companies make work meaningful for their teams. We interviewed senior leaders at Google, Microsoft, Hubspot, Zappos, Marriott, KPMG, and others and found ten leadership practices that high-performing leaders share. It’s no surprise to me that fostering relationships across the team and giving people the ability to make decisions about how best to do their work were among them.
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 was temping one summer at a big insurance company in New York where I was helping to organize client contracts from about 50 offices around the country. It wasn’t an exciting job and let’s just say it wasn’t the most mentally challenging. I found it was pretty easy to do things like read the news or check my personal email while I was also doing my work.
I was on a conference call with reps from all of the offices and was replying to an email from my Mom at the same time. The call wrapped up and my boss asked if there was anything I’d like to add? I said, “Nothing on my end.” and then added, “Love you! Bye”, which was what I happened to be typing to my Mom at that moment.
I immediately hung up the phone and was mortified. My boss thought it was hilarious and one of the reps that was on that call started saying, “Love you! Bye” at the end of every business call we had together. I was so embarrassed and learned that multi-tasking doesn’t always pay off. Since then, I do my best to give people my full attention.
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 incredibly grateful to have found my business partner, Tamara, who is a daily inspiration. We originally connected at classmates in our Master’s program at Penn where we partnered on research and wrote a joint thesis together. We got on so well we ended up going into business together. We are both passionate about helping leaders make work meaningful and share similar values. At the same time Tamara brings a very different perspective to the table. She shines in many areas where I don’t and often challenges me to be a better leader.
Tamara is a well-known author and sought-after speaker with a lot of accolades, but she has the most amazing growth mindset and never pretends to know it all. She recently posted a candid photo of herself on LinkedIn looking nervous before a big speaking engagement. She used the opportunity to highlight that even experienced public speakers face doubt and fear before getting up on stage. Publicly displaying that kind of vulnerability takes a lot of strength and is a prime example of how leaders can help create the space for people to talk about challenge and growth.
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?
Connecting daily work to a higher purpose is a core practice that I teach to both established and emerging leaders. Research that Tamara and I conducted last year found ten key practices that leaders can leverage to make work meaningful for teams. Nearly every one of those behaviors relies on having a strong sense of purpose and values at the organizational level.
There is a fair amount of research from folks like Adam Grant and others that shows a huge increase in performance when people can clearly see how their work has a positive impact on others. I think people often feel that you have to be saving the world to be a “purpose-driven business”, but that’s not the case.
For example, I recently started using Calend.ly to schedule meetings and it has saved me a huge amount of back and forth with partners and clients. For me that’s translated into more time I can spend on work that I love, or with family and friends. If you’re a developer at Calend.ly and you are able to connect the fact that your coding has allowed me to spend more meaningful time with my family, that’s really powerful.
My own individual purpose in life is “To help others stive for their highest potential” and the work my company does is designed around advancing that. I chose to work specifically with organizational leaders because I believe they have an outsized impact. Helping a leader become more effective creates ripples that touch everyone in an organization and the positive impact can be exponential.
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?
Back in 2013, I was helping to lead an international LGBTQ advocacy organization. Over the summer of that year, Russian president Vladmir Putin spearheaded a national law that made it illegal to identify or even publicly speak about being gay, effectively silencing LGBTQ voices in Russia and criminalizing the community. The passing of the law also kicked off a surge in violence, and videos of LGBTQ Russians getting beat up and humiliated were popping up regularly on YouTube.
It was a pretty disheartening time and there was no reason to believe we could do anything to stop the law. Putin certainly wasn’t open to outside pressure. For me, and I believe many of our team, this was the biggest challenge that we had faced. We could easily have admitted defeat and focused our efforts on other parts of the world where there was more potential for impact.
While we knew Putin was immovable and the law wasn’t going to change, we were able to take a step back and ask ourselves what really mattered here. Were we really going to abandon these people when they needed us most? We were able to get past the fact that we had no control over the laws and focus on the things we could impact.
We developed a year-long campaign around the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics in partnership with the Russian LGBTQ community and other international organizations. We recruited over 100 Olympic and professional athletes to join the fight and pressured Olympic sponsors to speak out.
I helped build a coalition of dozens of partners across sectors from Vogue to the United Nations to American Apparel. I also worked with our Russian partners to find creative ways to fund their work without running afoul of the new law. This allowed them to continue their work and keep hope and optimism alive among the struggling LGBTQ community.
Eventually our hard work paid off and, along with the efforts of many other organizations, we convinced the International Olympic Committee to amend the Olympic Charter, which now prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in any country that hosts the games. In addition, we added millions of voices to the fight for full equality all over the world.
This victory was possible because we had spent time investing in building a strong team and culture that allowed us to collaboratively drive forward in the face of harrowing odds. If we hadn’t made that investment a priority from the start, I don’t believe we would have been in a position to act.
As a leader, your role is to always be investing in your resilience bank account so that you’re prepared when it’s time to make a withdrawal.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I definitely thought about giving up. I don’t think anyone faces major adversity without considering throwing in the towel at some point. I believe facing that choice to give up or press on is necessary to spur the growth that comes from navigating challenge.
I’ve spent a lot of time this past year teaching resilience skills to leaders. Research on resilience has found several factors that contribute to an individual’s ability to deal with and grow from adversity. Among those factors are optimistic mindset, ability to see things from different perspectives, and meaningful connections to others.
For me, the relationships I have with my colleagues and collaborators are what drive me forward. When I’m able to get out of my own head and start focusing on the impact I can have on others, I’m able to tap into the source of my strongest energy and do my best work.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Being a role model for your team.
As a leader, your team is always watching you for cues on how to act and what behavior is appropriate. This is especially the case during challenging times. What you say matters, but what you do is paramount.
Moments of crisis are when company values and the company purpose we discussed earlier are truly put to the test. In trying times, a leader has to role model the behavior that they want to inspire in others. Often this means being vulnerable and admitting that you don’t have all the answers.
In a remote work environment, your team doesn’t get to see you interact with people in the office or overhear conversations you may be having with clients. This means you have to be intentional about showing up and actually create and schedule consistent opportunities for your team to see you in action.
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 most effective way to unleash potential, build resilience, and foster well-being is to make work meaningful. When someone experiences their work as meaningful, they are up to seven times more engaged, 64% more fulfilled on the job, and are significantly more resilient in the face of challenge.
The idea of making work more meaningful has gained a lot of traction this past year. With everything going on in the world, people are more focused than ever on doing work that is personally significant and contributes to something bigger than themselves.
Leaders have an outsized impact on an individual’s experience of meaning at work. From taking a whole-person approach to management to fostering relationships across the organization to connecting daily work to larger purpose, there are a number of practices that are shown to increase meaning for team members. Meaningful work provides a constant source of fuel to face challenge and helps bring a team together around common goals.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
When I was studying at Penn, one of our guest lecturers was the doctor who leads pediatric palliative care at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This is a guy who regularly delivers the worst possible news to parents every single day. I’m still blown away when I think about his work and the grace with which he approaches it.
He shared strategies with us on how to deliver bad news, and how to do it while still leaving room for hope. As the person delivering bad news, it’s important to be honest, transparent, and compassionate. Frame the news and share your own disappointment to help demonstrate that you are on the same side as the people receiving it. Start by saying something like, “I really wish things were different.”
From there, find out what else is important to those people can guide the next steps. This one thing isn’t going to work out, but what else might they be hoping for in this situation? Do your best to honor and fulfill those hopes.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think this is a great example of the power of purpose. If you know the “why” of your organization, you can adapt the “how”.
We’re living in a time of constant uncertainty. We’ve seen this past year that world-changing, unpredictable events can pop up without warning and dramatically change the course of the world. Even setting global pandemics aside, technology is advancing and global markets are shifting at such a rapid rate that it’s hard for organizations to keep up.
The most adaptable and resilient organizations are the ones that have a clear sense of purpose and a culture that encourages people to bring new ideas to the table. The future of work looks a lot more like jazz than a symphony.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Invest in your team. A company is only as resilient and adaptable as its people.
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?
- At the beginning of Covid when everything stopped, we saw companies break into two camps — the first laid off or furloughed (and then laid off) a significant portion of their workforce, while the second doubled down on their teams. I know of companies where full teams took a 20%+ pay cut so that everyone could keep their jobs. Some CEOs deferred or outright returned their salaries. In some cases, layoffs may be unavoidable to save a business, but they should be a very last resort. Research shows that the negative long-term impact on the business almost always outweighs the short-term gain. Layoffs destroy morale for those left behind and also mean that those who remain are expected to do more with less. It can take years for the team to recover psychologically, if it happens at all.
- In moments of crisis, leaders often feel they need to have all the answers and sometimes dig in to unpopular decisions. I was just reading about a CEO’s push to require everyone to be back in the office full time by this summer — a view that is not shared by the majority of employees. It’s pretty clear that the hybrid work environment is here to stay and, regardless of the pros and cons of that, making a unilateral decision isn’t going to win loyalty or longevity from your team.
- Leaders often make the decision to cut investments in learning and development during difficult times. They should be doing exactly the opposite. Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends reported that more than half the workforce will need to reskill in the next three years. If you consider how little most companies invest in professional development to begin with, that’s a pretty scary statistic. The only way to keep up is to invest in the growth and capacities of your team.
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?
Play the long game. If times are rough for you, they are rough for others as well. Figure out where you can help, where you can add value, and support the people in your community as much as you can. Things will get better and they will remember who stuck with them through the tough times — and who didn’t!
A downturn can actually provide an opportunity to invest in strategic priorities. If you’re able to take a step back from the turbulence and think about where you want to be in a year when things have recovered, you have the chance to position yourself well for future growth.
At the beginning of the pandemic, nearly all the work I had booked was canceled or indefinitely postponed. I had nothing to do and no idea of when I would get clients back. Tamara and I spent a lot of that time researching leadership practices and building training programs that help people find meaning in their work.
As we return to a workplace that looks much different than the one we left, that effort has paid off in a big way. Leaders are hungry for evidence-backed strategies to bring out the best in their teams and the work we did last year has already translated into engagements with a number of large-scale 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.
- Invest in the wellbeing of your team
When the pandemic first hit and everyone was unexpectedly stuck at home, the leadership at Hubspot, a company consistently ranked as one of the best places to work in the world, immediately thought about which members of their employee community might be struggling and would need extra support. They hired musicians to hold virtual concerts for parents with small kids who were suddenly overwhelmed and needed a break. They also found facilitators to conduct virtual AA meetings for employees or their family members who were in recovery and had just lost their lifeline of in-person meetings. Their first instinct was to support the team, and that has paid off as the company continues to do well through the pandemic.
2. Be a role model
Jimmy Collins, the former president of Chick-fil-A, was known within the company for exemplifying the values of servant leadership and putting customer satisfaction above all else. On the way to work in the morning, Collins could often be seen on the side of the road leading to Chick-fil-A corporate headquarters picking up trash. While Collins never mentioned or promoted these efforts to others, word got around within the organization. It was so important to Collins that visitors to the building, which often included store franchisees, had the best possible experience that he took the time to make sure the drive in was beautiful. Even now, many years after Collins’ departure, devoted employees still clean up the road leading to Chick-fil-A headquarters all the way back to the highway exit turnoff.
3. Connect daily work to larger purpose
In Microsoft’s Cloud Operation and Innovation business unit, a large percentage of employees are tasked with physically setting up servers and maintaining close to 100% uptime in data centers that are far removed from the companies and communities they serve. At the start of the Covid crisis, a huge proportion of workers across the country began working remotely. This required a major increase in computing power to support additional video calls, remote collaboration on documents, remote schooling, and sharing of critical pandemic resources. The business unit leaders were able to connect the work setting up new server boxes in the warehouse to the critical efforts of frontline workers in places like New York City to care for the critically ill and safeguard the broader community. Making that mental connection between maintaining servers and critical efforts to fight the pandemic helped bolster the team’s morale and gave them a sense of contributing in a meaningful way.
4. Foster relationships across the company
In the first couple of months after Covid hit, Zappos, a company famous for its customer service and a highly coveted place to work, realized that company culture was suffering. Employees weren’t getting to casually interact with people outside their own teams like they had in the office and morale was taking a hit. The people leaders started organizing virtual trivia competitions during the workday to bring employees together outside of task-focused meetings. This small effort helped people reconnect and provided a platform for sharing personal concerns and providing support.
5. Have a growth mindset
Google X, a subsidiary that’s charged with developing “moonshot” technologies, brings together engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs to solve the worlds hardest problems. They try to do things like turning seawater into fuel and were one of the pioneers in self-driving car technology. When you’re trying to do things that have never been done before or facing extreme uncertainty, you’ve got to believe that you can rise to the challenge and learn from failure. X is so committed to this that they actually bonus employees for killing a project that isn’t working out. Normalizing failure is the only way to make it safe for people to take the risks required to do something new.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.” — James Lane Allen
It’s taken me a long time to learn that you don’t rise to challenge, you prepare for it every day.
While it’s impossible to anticipate many of the challenges you will face in uncertain times, waiting until they show up to deal with them rarely works out. As a leader, you should always be investing in your people so they have the skills, mindset, and support structures they need to succeed when trying times arrive.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Connect with me on LinkedIn — linkedin.com/in/wesadams1
Sign up for my newsletter — wesadams.com
Follow me on Clubhouse — @wesadams1