Doug Jones of MoneyGeek On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Look for opportunities during uncertain and turbulent times. While you and your competitors are struggling there will also be new opportunities for business or just opportunities to better position your company. A recent development for us was initially bad news, but over the last couple of months we can see how it’s made us stronger operationally.
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 Doug Jones.
Doug Jones founded MoneyGeek in 2016 to address an all-too-common pattern of people making life-changing personal finance decisions effectively in the dark. MoneyGeek makes the worlds of insurance, loans, mortgages and credit cards more approachable and accessible, so anyone can be a “geek” when it comes to the choices that matter. Since the onset of the pandemic, and even more so recently, employers in the tech sector have cut tons of jobs, but MoneyGeek breaks from the pack in that way. Through careful leadership, management, and successes in both product development and marketing, MoneyGeek is not only profitable with money in the bank, we are growing. Doug is prepared to speak on what it takes to be an effective leader during turbulent times as he has led the relatively small-but-mighty remote team at MoneyGeek through some of tech’s roughest waters, all the while the team on the path for the growth the company needs to achieve. In 2012, Doug co-founded ABUV Media, alongside Dan Schuessler, where he served as co-CEO until the successful sale of the business in 2018.
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?
As a kid, I must have knocked on every door in my town. I say that because by 12 years old, I can remember a steady flow of customers around my neighborhood who needed someone to shovel snow, mow lawns, and fix fencing. I’m fortunate that my community offered what I saw to be fun work, as it gave me my very first set of jobs, income and my first opportunity to go out to find work. That time is a key part in my memory of being inspired towards entrepreneurship while I was still so young.
I like to think I started so early because my parents fostered that hunger for success early in my life. My mother immigrated from Hong Kong with almost nothing and my father was the first in his family to get a college degree, so while we were never left hungry, it’s not like I came from money. I can remember my parents explaining to me that there were some things that, if I really wanted them, I’d have to save up money myself to afford.
Throughout my life I’ve continued to work on passion projects and side hustles. They, and the ethos for MoneyGeek, come from understanding that taking control of your finances and wealth generation is empowering.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A mistake we made first starting our business was not knowing ourselves. It’s funny to look back at any organization’s beginning and see how different they are from the first version of it. For example, MoneyGeek is in its second iteration of itself. When we started, much of our content wasn’t hitting the mark of the type of company that we truly wanted to be. Obviously at the time, no one would have thought it funny, but now that we have our full focus on who we are as a brand, it’s surprising we even went through that.
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?
My parents are my number one inspiration. My mom is what some might call a classic “tiger mom.” She was always pushing to make sure I reached my full potential, and I’m grateful for that drive. The hunger for success is largely what led me to where I am today.
My dad also played a big role in my financial awareness and understanding of what I wanted to do to feel successful. I can still remember being the age where I started to care about being in the newest style; my father explained why he and my mom weren’t just going to buy me the latest fashions and I’d need to earn my own money and manage it to get what I wanted. While painful at the time, this ended up being an enduring lesson that impacts how my wife and I raise our children.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Something that has always driven the people working here is the fact that many people make life-changing personal finance decisions effectively in the dark. MoneyGeek was founded to bring the good habits and resources that professionals would use to the hands of the average consumer. We are a team of builders and creators — we inform / educate our users with phenomenal content products and tools to guide our customers to smarter financial decisions.
We’re making sure anyone can be a “geek” for the choices that matter. Our vision is to illuminate some of the trickiest parts of folks’ personal finance journeys, and provide straightforward and relevant advice for our users.
One big piece of this is our careful approach to how we advise people. Lots of companies advertise the quick solution, “come to my seminar”, “do these 3 things”, “real estate is the best investment”. Sure some people get lucky with these strategies, but they are not paths to building wealth for the long-term.
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?
This year is a great example of a difficult time for us and our industry, but it’s also an example of how financial planning and budgeting resources wisely can help weather a long winter. Major players in our industry have all turned to layoffs recently, especially as advertisers have cut back on their online spending. The macro economics have impacted our topline as well. Fortunately, we have stayed disciplined with our spend levels, so despite the challenging environment, we are not one of the large cohort of companies undergoing mass layoffs.
One piece of advice I would give is to be as transparent as possible in situations like these. We didn’t hide the tough truths from our team because we believe that we run best when we’re at a point of shared consciousness, a concept that has helped the Navy Seals become one of the most effective and high performing teams in the world. If everyone has all the possible information and can align successfully on our goals, we end up naturally making informed, thoughtful, and ultimately better decisions. For our internal teams, we let folks in on what our major revenue streams were, in which projects we were investing the most money, how much money we have in the bank, and importantly, the how and why behind our decision-making process.
One decision I can pick out of the many choices down forking paths the company has taken is making the decision of how long we would take declined revenue at our spend levels and cash balance. By first understanding that we needed all of our current resources to mount a comeback in revenue, we had a plan of how long we could sustain ourselves and ensure that our users didn’t suffer as a result of a bad few quarters.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m motivated by the way people can come together with a common purpose, pursue a goal, identify the issues that come with their collective journey, problem-solve by recruiting or developing talents and skills that help them overcome obstacles, and eventually realize success.
There is something so human and yet so inspiring about the ability to work together and achieve great things. It’s possible that there’s something to be said about an “American Entrepreneurial Spirit” or me inheriting the dreams of my parents to do better than they did, but I see goal-setters and goal-crushers all around me. Their spirit and my love of seeing something get done sustain my drive.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World changed the way I see leadership and decision-making in general. Any organization can take inspiration from the way General Stanley McChrystal used management practices to meet unimaginable challenges. The lesson that I carry with me from the Gen. McChrystal’s leadership of the Joint Special Operations Task Force has to do with their commitment to effective communication, cooperation, and the ability to experiment while still serving the ultimate mission of their team. Their effectiveness relies in large part on the entire team having all of the possible information on both what the situation and a successful conclusion to it would be. With full information, teams are empowered to make key decisions that impact the future of the organization, creating and virtuous cycle of increasing ownership, better decision making, stronger culture and ultimately growth / performance of the team. The concept of shared consciousness is something we strive for at MoneyGeek.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader is to balance the needs of the team and the needs of the organization. If you lack information and fail to take action on either side of this you will eventually fail to keep the ship steady.
Setting reasonable and safe goals that still make progress on reaching the ultimate vision is the aim of most leaders during challenging times, but without listening first and understanding the situation one is in, it is nearly impossible to make progress.
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?
At MoneyGeek, we are committed to clearly communicating our goals, vision, and progress to our team so they understand the overarching mission of the organization and can be rallied around it. We also work to celebrate the small wins and recognize the progress we make along the way. Especially as your company is growing, there’s no shortage of ‘what next?’ that can lead you to overlooking a teammate’s accomplishments.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
MoneyGeek is run in a data-driven way. We work hard to communicate the facts we have and connect the dots between our decisions and those facts for our team and customers. While what we say is important, often just as important is when and how we say it. That’s a real skill, one that I work on everyday.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader can make plans with and as a team that are better than the ones they would make individually. We have great folks working at MoneyGeek and I try to seek out different perspectives to make more informed decisions, or better delegate those decisions. Open dialogue and healthy debate — a true and open discussion of ideas — has helped us navigate this current situation. This can often lead to “healthy friction” if done well, which can be incredibly powerful for any team, if the friction does not become unhealthy / detrimental. A couple of months prior to seeing the markets tighten, our senior leaders debated increasing our spend to drive growth. We landed on a set of financial guardrails that stopped us from getting too far over our skis, following a bit of “healthy friction”.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
With every decision you make, be measured, thoughtful, and disciplined. At MoneyGeek, we seek to be data-driven leaders. When we find ourselves at a crossroads we look to find out what the data is telling us about the situation. Data isn’t always about numbers, it can be about events. What happened? When? So often, if a company receives a piece of bad news it isn’t acted upon at all or it’s assumed to be true. Many times, bad news turns out to be a more nuanced and mixed bag as you dig into it. If you understand it you can craft strategies to address real problems.
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?
- I have seen many fall into the trap of taking short-term pain-relieving deals that may be detrimental in the long-term. While the immediate relief may be attractive. Usually this is a cascade from other poor decisions, for example a string of poor financial management leads a company into taking a down round.
- Hiding bad news. Working in the Bay Area, there are no shortage of stories where failing startups treat their employees like mushrooms (kept in the dark and fed…). To really be forthcoming with your team, you need to communicate and do it consistently. If you’re sharing revenue numbers with the team only when you’ve had a win, you’re doing it wrong.
- Not recognizing change and not adapting/not leveraging the crisis as a benefit. There’s a quote often misattributed to Winston Churchill, ‘Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.’ Our team has recently gone through its own fire drills and it was grueling. Yet it has led to new insights and changes in our thinking that are going to help us.
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.
- Look for opportunities during uncertain and turbulent times. While you and your competitors are struggling there will also be new opportunities for business or just opportunities to better position your company. A recent development for us was initially bad news, but over the last couple of months we can see how it’s made us stronger operationally.
- Recruit your whole team to the problem. We use communication and transparency to align our teams and get them working on the most important problems. I strive to encourage respectful debate to get more perspectives that shape and refine our thinking.
- Confidence and a steady hand. While our team knows what’s happening, they aren’t getting that information in a way that conveys uncertainty in our ability. We might not know what will happen and we’re honest about that, but we are confident in ourselves and our team.
- Stay disciplined, not rigid. Our team sets goals and uses them to drive progress. I’ve got to remind you how powerful they are in motivating the right work. However, we revisit these goals every 3 to 6 months to ensure we’re not missing something. At times we’ve essentially thrown the goals out when we get new information.
- Lead with empathy. Uncertain and turbulent times aren’t just for the business itself. Understanding the needs of your team can help prevent burnout and ensure that everyone is operating at 100%. A missing piece here is making sure that you are not only inspiring passionate work from your team, but also retaining your most valuable minds for when the storm eventually ends.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Winston Churchill.
Given the number of times I’ve failed in nearly every aspect of life, one might believe that I am a failure. I have failed many more times than I have succeeded. But it is the perseverance and willingness to take action when the road ahead appears dark and dangerous, with a high chance of failure, that has led to my biggest successes in life. From finding the woman of my dreams (my beautiful and loving wife, Mimi), to college sports and climbing mountains to entrepreneurial ventures, these successes have stemmed from an appetite for risk and taking on challenges that others may not have been willing to do for one reason or another. Having the stamina and energy to take a chance, even when you’re scared and the odds are against you and you’ve failed numerous times, is one of the most helpful mindsets I hope to instill into my two young sons. At MoneyGeek, to truly innovate and perform at the levels we are striving for, we need a culture that not only accepts but encourages failure in the pursuit of long term growth and success.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find me and my updates on LinkedIn. You can also keep informed by viewing our up-to-date personal finance analyses, surveys, advice, and tools at MoneyGeek.com.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Doug Jones of MoneyGeek On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.