LB: Running a business in this environment, running a business through these times, health, health care, the social change, the economic environment. What is it like being a CEO right now?
BH: Very different. We’ve been remote since March 14th. We’ve had some people coming and going. Probably like you; I like to be in front of the troops. I enjoy it, it’s fun, and you pick up on lots of things just because you’re around, so when you’re not around, you don’t get to pick up on all that stuff, so I think it’s more challenging. We’ve been talking about communication. That plays an even bigger role, and staying present plays a huge role. But you and I are on video; this is tiresome to a lot of people. I think empathy right now, that’s a heightened sensitivity for us, and sometimes as CEOs, we can be a little terser, a little more direct, because of what we’re trying to get done, so it’s a big challenge.
LB: I think that’s a real challenge. Just being self-reflective, I would say that’s probably my Achilles heel right now. I’m used to building relationships with people who aren’t in the same office as me. And I’m aware some people are used to working and engaging with me more directly, but some have commented that I’m different in person, and I’m a different person online. I’ve sort of pushed back on it; what do you mean by that? And what I get to inevitably is, “Well, you’re less empathetic.” It’s an interesting thing to be aware of. And you think of your colleagues now listening to this podcast, or you think of younger executives who are developing their careers, how do they develop and improve the way we express empathy so that it lands for the people we’re interfacing with? I don’t mean all the time, and perfectly, I mean, how do we get better at this?
BH: I think we have to talk about it, number one. Number two, I think it’s harder for first-line managers to be consistent with that all the time, so consistency of leadership is something we talk about, no high highs. No, low lows, be steady. I do a fair amount of reading with my team and encourage them to send it to their direct reports. Current articles might be from Harvard Business Review or McKinsey or whatever, who are researching all this and talking to lots of people and trying to keep the dialogue up here instead of down there. Still, I think what’s interesting is there’s a change that is going to happen again. This remote thing is not for everybody, and it’s very difficult for some. I think it’s particularly difficult for working parents with young school-aged children. My heart broke the other day when a first grader was trying to learn to read over a laptop on a make-shift table in a kitchen. I mean, talk about a struggle. And so we’re worried about earnings and revenue growth and all that kind of stuff, and this parent is wondering, “Is my child gonna be massively behind here?” As leaders, we have to be empathetic to that.
BH: Empathy gets us this far. We also have a business to run in this new whatever we’re experiencing, and still, we’re capitalists, so let’s go. And how can we help you? And if this is not for you, then tell us it’s not for you, and maybe there’s something else we can have you do.
LB: That is a reality, and as employers and managers, what can we do to be aware that that affects some of the people we work with. We have the reality if we are running a business. As I was preparing to speak with you, I read some of the articles you had written, and if it’s okay, I am interested. One of the ones I read about was balancing work from home and returning to work. How do we approach that? When do we approach that? How are you assessing or thinking about the appetite for returning to work and planning to return to the workplace? What approach or approaches are you thinking about or taking?
BH: We were initially considering almost a pod approach of people coming back. I talk to many staff members; some are dying to come back, some are not. By the way, they do say, “Hey, I don’t have to send my dog to daycare. I love that I’m not driving, using gasoline, and all the other stuff.” But many people say, “I miss the water cooler chat, I miss, just that informal communication where you can walk down the hallway and solve the problem.” Today, we have Teams, we have email, we have text, and we have a phone. Many times, people are dodging communication and just moving the monkey to somebody else via email. We are thinking about how to communicate better as a company, and what does that mean? It doesn’t mean we can put people in small groups to come back. The problem is one person gets sick, and the ripple effect of that is massive. My team and I talk about every two weeks; we look at all the data and talk about our people. We’ll decide when it makes sense possibly we open in January, so we’re thinking about it. To your primary question a second ago, there is the cost of this to business and I think it’s going to gently raise our costs, because everybody’s not as productive as you may want them to be, working from home for any variety of reasons that they can’t control. I t’s not their fault. The pandemic’s not their fault. They have young, great, sweet children who require Mom and Dad. It’s not their fault, so we as businesses have to learn how to accommodate that and get through it.
LB: I appreciate you speaking so transparently about that. I think we’re lucky that we are… well, I was going to speak for myself grey-haired CEOs. At this time, I think this is an extremely difficult time to be a business leader. One of the things that I do is I work with other CEOs in our industry, sometimes first-time CEOs, and they talk about the struggle. This is not a normal time for any CEO, and it’s certainly an incredibly challenging time for someone going through that whole journey that I’m sure we all went through: Am I a capable CEO? Am I doing a good job? Am I a good leader? Will people trust me, follow me, believe in me?
We’re lucky we have seen economic cycles before. While we haven’t seen a pandemic, we’ve grappled with – I’ll call them – other types of existential threats to the business. It allows you to bring tools to the table. I wonder how you feel about this. We have operations around the world where local authorities allow people to come back to the workplace. One of the things that we’ve said is, we’ll let people make their individual and personal choice. So as long as we stay below, for example, 20% of our footprint, people can make a choice. And what we found is similar to what you said, is there are a tremendous number of people, certainly not everyone, but a huge number of people that want to spend some time in the office.
That may just be an afternoon a week. We are getting away from the kitchen table or the bedside table and being mindful of our social responsibilities as employers and our role in protecting our employees, protecting societies from the transmission, and being aware of just the human mental stress and wellness element. Being mindful of, we have to be employers of people, and people need to rely on their paycheck, especially at a time like this.
BH: You’re 100% right. The mental health side of this is not getting smaller; it’s getting bigger. I’ve mentioned it to many people, “Try meditation, try anything,” Because the same old view and the same old thing every day, day in, day out is not good for anybody.
LB: As we wind towards the end of our conversation, I like to ask people a couple of questions, and I’ll tell you the first one so that you can have it just playing in the back of your mind. I’d like to ask you, “Leadership in tough times requires… dot dot dot.” I’d like you to finish that sentence. While that’s playing in the back of your mind, I’ll ask this. You said you read a lot, are there any books or authors that you think young leaders or people who aspire to leadership in law, or any business, should invest the time in reading because that book or that author was impactful to you?
BH: On the book side, there’s probably a handful. The one I’m enjoying at the moment, I haven’t finished it, is Bob Iger’s book, he ran Disney. I’ve enjoyed some writings from Larry Bossidy, CEO of Allied Signal. Then there’s a book that I just ordered the other day. I haven’t cracked the cover yet. But it’s Bill Gate’s favorite business book of all time. If you’ve not watched The Mind of Bill Gates, I would encourage young CEOs to watch that, it’s not about Microsoft.
LB: The Mind of Bill Gates?
BH: Yeah, it’s a three-part series. I think each series is about 45 minutes long. But it’s how he thinks. And I say the more that young leaders can see how other people think, and see if that’s how they ought to think or shouldn’t think. I’ve always challenged my thinking, and that’s what I get out of reading.
LB: Interesting. I love the notion of reading books as a way of having a conversation, a dialogue with other people’s ideas. It’s a sort of, personal dialogue, but you’re learning things from other people. On that note, I’ve given you some time to think about leadership in tough times requires dot dot dot.
BH: Okay, I’d say courage, I’d say resilience and empathy.
LB: You don’t get off that easily. Why those three words?
BH: I think it’s increasingly difficult for many people to be resilient right now. People are tired of this, and it’s the unknown that bothers people more than the known. Are we going to have a vaccine? Are we going to go through another pandemic? Are numbers going to suffer because people just aren’t letting law firms do as much as they were? Being resilient and then saying, “Look, I can get through this, and we’ll figure this thing out.” Courage, the courage to tell the truth, the courage to tell people maybe what they don’t want to hear, but they need to hear it. Courage to be that guy or that woman standing up in front of everybody with the good story and their chin up. But a realist about what’s going on, not a fake leader. And then empathy, trying to feel what people are going through. You just don’t know what people are dealing with. I think to be a genuine leader today, you kind of try to get into that, but not so far you lose your perspective as a business leader because we’re all paid to get a job done. But if you can recognize that and be that person, to be a helper. That requires us to listen and ask the question. It’s not, “How are you doing?” It’s, how are Y-O-U doing? And mean it and stop, and when they say something, say, “Well, tell me what that means?” You’ll have a much more genuine conversation with folks.
LB: Bill, it’s been great. Thank you for your time, and I can see why you have improved the fortune of Quovant. I wish you, and your team continued good fortune, not too much good fortune, but this has been fantastic, thank you.
BH: Thank you for your insights. I enjoyed it. Have a great 2021.