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To see the original publication of this article visit Thrive Global.
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 John Castleman.
John Castleman is the Chief Executive Officer of Mobiquity, a digital consulting firm for leading healthcare and consumer brands with offices in the United States, Europe, and Asia. John joined Mobiquity in 2016 following the sale of Alliance Global Services to EPAM Systems. He was President and CEO of Alliance from 2008 to 2015. Alliance was a product development services company specializing in building software for large corporate clients based in the U.S. and India. Prior to Alliance, John worked for several technology services and venture capital firms including Elemica, Safeguard, and Internet Capital Group (Actua). John holds a degree in History from Princeton and an MBA from University of Virginia. John lives in the Philadelphia, PA area.
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?
For the last 20 years I’ve been an investor and leader for software and technology consulting companies. Prior to Mobiquity, I served as the President and CEO of Alliance Global Services. While there, I lived through the 2008 economic crisis, helping the company thrive in a difficult market. We persevered through the challenges of the Great Recession and came through a stronger company that was acquired by EPAM Systems, Inc in 2015. After that successful venture, I joined the Mobiquity team where I have served as CEO since 2016.
Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As I mentioned, I was at the helm at Alliance during the Great Recession — this was good practice for leading through the COVID-19 epidemic. The greatest difference being that right now people are dealing with both an economic crisis and a health crisis — not to mention a good deal of political upheaval here in the US, as well.
No living person has led through a time quite like this so there’s no playbook to follow but I think you have to be balanced. Acknowledging reality while not over or underreacting is important because if you get too worked up in either direction, you’re going to be wrong. Employees want someone to cut through the noise and help ground them in the current situation.
I try to provide employees with as much information as possible and remain flexible because sometimes you’ll make the wrong call and you need to change directions quickly. At Mobiquity, we have regular regional standup calls to keep everyone connected. We use these calls to inform employees about how the company is doing, ways in which we’re contributing back to our communities, and the activities we’re planning to support them while we’re working from home.
The best thing we can do is be as transparent as possible and keep the lines of communication open in both directions. Especially because we are a global company, we’ve found employee feedback to be incredibly helpful during this time when the experiences employees in Florida are having may be very different than those in Amsterdam.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
As a CEO, when things are rough, it’s ultimately your responsibility to make them better. You have more resources at your disposal than anyone else at the company so if things aren’t going well you have to take charge and create a plan to march the team forward.
I’ve been in situations where it’s my job to enter a challenging situation and make things run more efficiently and profitably. There can be a lot of anxiety and turmoil for the people who don’t know you and what to expect, but I’ve come to find that these tough moments help me focus and figure out how to get things done. The only way to truly persevere is shifting my focus to the actual problems at hand and creating a plan to address the biggest areas that are holding the business back. When you put your energy into resolving the real issues, and people start to see the success, the other issues disappear too.
These challenges motivate me because they are the ones that offer the biggest impact on a company, its culture, and success. If we adjust our mindset to focus on the transformation we can make, we’re much more likely to experience the success that we seek.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During difficult situations, there will be ups and downs throughout the experience. The important part is to balance reality with optimism. Finding a way to bring positivity, while also acknowledging the reality of our collective experience, gives people hope for the future. At Mobiquity, we had to reassess our goals. We had planned for a certain amount of growth at the beginning of the year and by March we knew that we needed to pivot those plans. Throughout the spring we focused on data points that would help us assess our progress. These metrics included pipeline, actualized revenue, and even recruiting. As we started to see incremental increases in these areas, we were able to share them with our organization to prove that this difficult time will eventually end. As a leader, being transparent like this helps boost your credibility within an organization and gives your team a reason to persevere.
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?
Optimism is a quality that people respond to in a leader. Employees want a reason to get out of bed in the morning and to come to work with a feeling of purpose. For us, we find that every single day there are multiple reasons to celebrate our teams and the great work that they’re doing. Even during a pandemic, we want to show them that there is more normalcy in their lives than they might realize. One way that we do this is by boosting morale through our all-hands calls where the entire company joins us for an hour to hear about new projects we are working on while also celebrating select employees who were nominated by their peers for demonstrating and living our core values.
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 short story or an example for each.
At Mobiquity, I find that it’s important to have a balanced approach in how our management team communicates updates to the business. It’s really important that we discuss the reality of the current climate, while also being careful not to under or overreact. Our approach has been regular regional standup calls where we share updates on the health of our business, share employee engagement activities, and answer questions submitted through our “ask anything” email inbox.
Even when things get tough, there are always successes to share. The pandemic has moved our all-hands calls to a virtual format, but we still showcase recent work that our teams have accomplished and celebrate employees via a peer-nominated award program that rewards employees with a gift and company-wide recognition for exemplifying our corporate values.
Reassess metrics & checkpoints
When you’re in a chaotic environment, anything you can measure to validate how the company is performing is beneficial, along with increasing the frequency with which you go back to those metrics. Reassessing these processes are critical to helping a company make decisions during difficult times. At Mobiquity, we share updates to our pipeline, actualized revenue, and recruitment efforts to give people a sense of hope that we are turning a corner. We do this to avoid the “black box.” We don’t want to make people wait or guess about what’s going to happen. I want them to give them hope and confidence that we are doing everything we can to keep them safe and informed.
There isn’t a single person that knows how to maneuver through something like the current coronavirus pandemic. We have to be flexible as the situation evolves. COVID-19 cases grow, decline, and new information becomes available everyday, and all we can do is adjust accordingly based on the data that we have in any given hour, day, or week. At Mobiquity, we’ve adjusted our plan a few times. At one point we thought that we could begin to safely return to work, but then we saw cases surge in Florida and we knew we had to put those plans on hold. So, remaining flexible when things change is important and gets back to the idea that we need to be balanced in how we approach a situation like this.
Remember employees are human
Everyone is experiencing some level of stress or frustration as we navigate COVID-19. At Mobiquity, we value our employees and want to help them through these challenges. To keep human connection between employees strong, we’ve added Zoom happy hours, skill share sessions, and a women at work program to our growing list of employee engagement activities. We are also actively working on a plan to support our employees who will be balancing work with virtual school for their children. All of these initiatives are our way of showing employees that we know they’re human and we are here to support them.
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