Every day at InterimExecs we are reminded of how grateful we are to work with inspiring leaders, owners, investors, and boards. While 2020 was a year of huge challenges, we saw many companies take time to reflect on how they could do better, embrace change, and seize new opportunities.
It was a full year and we are excited to share the InterimExecs RED Team 2020 Year in Review.
We are eager to continue helping other amazing companies secure expert RED Team leadership for their biggest challenges and greatest opportunities. Let us know how we can be a resource as you charge forward into 2021.
When Barry Zekelman’s father passed away he was 19 years old and six months into college. His dad left behind a business employing 5 people manufacturing steel tubing. It wasn’t much of a head start with beat up machinery, negative $5 million of retained earnings, and losing $60,000 every month. The business was on the brink of bankruptcy. Everyone told Barry to shut it down and stay in school, but he admits, “quite frankly, school was boring,” realizing that for him he had already outgrown it. This was his shot.
Barry had to piece together how to run a manufacturing business, like a pilot learning how to fly as the plane takes a nosedive. “I learned how to read an income statement and put one together real quick. I learned that making money doesn’t mean having money. You can make a lot of income – but cash is king,” he says.
He had no sooner moved into his dad’s office when two employees came in asking for a raise. Problem was, he couldn’t afford it – and he honestly didn’t know how they were making a living off what they were paid. He told them to do that he needed more production. The cash wasn’t there. The employees pleaded, ‘well – if you gave us a $2 an hour raise, this machine would never stop.”
Barry remembers thinking: what comes first, the chicken or the egg? “If this machine never stopped, I’d be able to give you a $2 an hour raise,” he said. “If I give you a raise and nothing changes, are you going to give me the money back?” The guys looked at each other and said it doesn’t work that way. Barry told them they had to do this together to be successful.
Growing up with sisters, I longed for a brother. No such luck.
But when I got into the world, I got close to my cousins Keith and Craig Landy, and they became as close as brothers to me. The bonus with my Landy brothers was that they were growing a fascinating family-owned business, Germfree Labs, that I got to watch, and eventually help strategize over.
Germfree is a world leader in manufacturing glass and steel enclosures that contain biological, chemical, and nuclear stuff – think of the most toxic or nasty substances, and Germfree’s the go-to supplier, serving the US Army, NIH, thousands of commercial, government, and hospital customers with products ranging from small gloveboxes you stick your hands in, to fully mobile labs transportable anywhere in the world.
“Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” is a quote commonly attributed to John Kennedy as he accepted responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The idea, however, is an old one. Roman historian and politician Tacitus said that, “This is an unfair thing about war: victory is claimed by all, failure to one alone.”
When things are going well, it’s easy to share credit as a team. When things go sideways, buck-passing and finger-pointing rule the day. Success has many fathers, but for companies, so does failure. The thing about business is that it is always about the people, the process, and systems already in place. And those can fail over time, even at the most successful organizations. Errors, however, can actually help a business move forward – if the problem is identified and fixed. It’s how the owner and management team respond to those mistakes, misses, omissions — or even complacency — that can make all the difference.
InterimExecs surveyed interim leaders from around the world for our 2020 Interim Executives Survey. In addition to asking executives about who’s hiring them and the roles they’re taking on, we asked executives for insights into “The Biggest Mistakes Companies Make.” While their responses varied, clear themes emerged in the areas of leadership, operations, human capital, strategy, financials, and change initiatives. Focusing on these fundamentals is a good starting point for any struggling business.
The only certainty in business is change. But change is accelerating, less predictable, and increasingly, beyond the control of organizations. As technology and unforeseen events continue to drive exponential change, businesses that can’t keep up risk being left behind.
Companies struggling to generate growth and stay relevant amid rapid transformation often look to new leadership. A growing number of companies are also looking to a different kind of leader—one who specializes in change and embraces the challenge of helping companies solve their biggest issues. Enter the interim executive, a new breed of on-demand leadership that brings outside perspective, cutting-edge thinking, veteran experience, and a laser focus on results.
While many companies are facing new challenges and increasing volatility, we’ve found that most leaders’ responses and outcomes tend to be unique. While quarantined with COVID-19, Todd Herman, author of The Alter Ego Effect, decided to interview 29 CEOs to hear how they described their circumstances.
Each company was experiencing a downturn. Herman analyzed each CEO’s word choice and language to see how they were reacting, noting the importance of a leader’s pronouncements: “words create reality.” He saw big differences in how executives were wired and reacted to the economic rollercoaster. His findings led him to divide the CEOs into three groups:
Fear-Focused CEOs – emotional, concerned, and overwhelmed. Tended to use negative future pacing words like ‘struggle’, ‘fear’, ‘hard’, or ‘difficult’. Spent the most time watching media or finger pointing rather than what could be done.
Unfocused CEOs – dismissive, uncertain, wait and see. Talked about getting a plan, but tended to use the word ‘plan’ in a negative or needs-based way.
Strategy Focused CEOs – take and use what’s given, focused on growth/opportunity. Positive. Spending time leaning into networks.
Uncertainty is growing in the US with coronavirus cases
mounting. California, Illinois, Michigan, and other states have taken serious
actions with shelter-in-place orders, leaving many people wondering how this
will impact them personally as well as their companies and the economy as a
At the same time, we’re reflecting on how much there is to
be grateful for, including the strong relationships we’ve built over 10+ years
with inspiring leaders. These are women and men who focus their careers on running
into the burning building – the company in trouble – learning fast,
listening, assembling resources, providing fresh and objective insights,
developing new plans and actions for survival and ultimately blueprints for a
We recently convened a call with some RED Team execs who shared how they are adapting to new ways to work. Many executives shared experiences on the front lines figuring out how to help combat the virus and also help people work smarter and safer:
Leadership was a prominent topic at InterimExecs’ latest Rapid Executive Deployment (RED) Roundtable event in Chicago. Panel experts discussed leadership early and often as they reflected on change initiatives, the impact of automation on executives and workforces, and the values that make great executive leaders.
A recurring theme that cut across speakers and topics was the importance of having the right team in place, starting at the top. Executives set the tone for the entire company. Their values trickle down and play an outsized role in the organization’s success or failure.
“The message from our perspective is that if we have the right team and the right value set, I think any company can find a position and outmaneuver the competition,” said Greg Jones, Managing Partner at the Edgewater Fund, who spoke on day two of the Roundtable with Brian Boorstein of Granite Creek Capital Partners. “I’m looking for someone who puts the organization and the values of the business ahead of their own,” added Greg. “If you don’t have that, it’s a disaster in any scenario.”
Brian also singled out selfishness as one of the least desirable executive traits. “The worst people are those that are really only concerned with themselves,” he said. “If we don’t have the right management team to start, we’re in trouble. We generally go to InterimExecs to find people to help us out.”
Friends, we are kicking off 2020 energized by all the big wins to come after completing an excellent 2019 adventure. Ok, ok, 2019 is seeming a bit passé now that we’re in a brand new shiny decade (still letting that set in), but before we get into upcoming plans, will still need a quick recap and note of appreciation for your hard work and support.
First, a big thanks to our team of elite executives we call RED Team Ready, who performed in amazing engagements throughout 2019 in the US and Europe. We are nothing without your trust, your encouragement, and your daily support. Truly.
With a go-to team of brilliant leaders eager to jump in at a moment’s notice, we have an unmatched capability that makes up the essence of RED, Rapid Executive Deployment. While you hail from around the world and your skills and abilities are each unique, we can sum up your excellence with a common and shared passion and unstoppable energy to give your best in everything you do. We know you love the people and organizations you lead, and cannot say thank you enough for teaming up with us.
At the beginning of my career, I was involved in a lot of startups. I was starting with nothing – zero, zilch — so I’ve always had a lot of respect for entrepreneurs because you start from an idea and not much else. To be honest, in the beginning, I somewhat discounted my friends who were inheriting family businesses. When they’ve been at it for generations, I thought ‘well, how hard can this be?’
Thing is, the older I get, the more I’ve gotten to know various family offices and family run businesses and now, I’ve come to realize that running a family business is harder. Much harder. It’s a legacy that in some ways can be so overwhelming to continue to build, and not screw up, whereas with startups you have the luxury of low or no expectations.
Compare that with the legacy/obligation/burden handed to the second, third, or fourth generation, and there can be incredible pressure on the business and family to do well. And it’s even harder now, when no business – no sector – is immune to the kind of disruption, to the kind of disintermediation that technology has introduced into every industry and market. Nothing can be taken for granted, regardless of longevity.