Jose Miguel Berlanga of Onyx Residential On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Act fast, there is no time to waste! Don’t procrastinate during uncertain times, act and start moving towards your goals. Get the process going immediately to stabilize uncertainty and turbulence. Don’t just sit and watch the hurricane for too long because problems have a funny way of growing if you ignore them. Issues are better to be attacked in their early stages. Act like a drone and look at things from above without missing the big picture. Eliminate distractions outside of your immediate challenges and move them aside.
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 Jose Miguel Berlanga.
Jose Miguel Berlanga originally from Mexico City, arrived in Houston Texas during the mid 80’s where he began his career as an entrepreneur while attending the University of St. Thomas. Now a business owner with over 35 years of experience, Jose Miguel has been the founder and co-founder of numerous successful companies in various fields such as the oil and gas, import/export, service and restaurant businesses, manufacturing, distribution and most known for his involvement in the real estate and residential construction industry.
For the last 26 years he has been the CEO of several construction companies dedicated to investing, designing and developing residential projects. In 1997 he co-founded Tricon Homes turning it into an industry leader with yearly revenues of $100 million. Tricon Homes was a pivotal component in catapulting the revitalization of old neighborhoods as one of the most important pioneers in rebuilding Houston’s inner city. As the CEO, he has structured deals, invested, negotiated land acquisitions and sales transactions in excess of a billion dollars while managing the day-today operations building close to 2000 homes to this day.
Jose Miguel is a graduate from the university of St. Thomas with multiple degrees in Business Administration, Economics and Philosophy. Jose’s discipline and methodic approach allows him to create customized strategies to maximize the potential of each project. His passion for business and life have led him to inspire and motivate his teams by being an example and a mentor that consistently delivers results through a strong work ethic.
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?
I have been an entrepreneur my whole life, from an early age I began buying, selling and trading anything I could get my hands on. At the age of 8, I was performing activities that a child wouldn’t normally think of. My official career as an entrepreneur began right after high school when I arrived in Houston Texas, where I started brokering valves and piping for the oil and gas industry between the US and Mexico. I didn’t have any specific technical training, but I knew how to sell, and being bilingual gave me an edge in the import/export business.
The economy at that time wasn’t doing well so I couldn’t get an actual paying job, which is what forced me to create my own. Initially this was very scary but in retrospect it was the best thing that ever happened to me. This catapulted me into the world of business and from this point on I never looked back, becoming a serial entrepreneur to this day. For those like me who don’t necessarily know what industry to get into, my advice is to just get started! It doesn’t really matter where; the important part is to not sit around and wait. Get busy and life will take you where you need to go.
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?
I certainly have had my fair share of mistakes along the way, from simple ones to the big life changing ones, that will keep you up at night for days. I have made bad investments, chosen bad strategies, I partnered with associates with opposing values, attempted to salvage failed businesses, I have miscommunicated by sending the wrong message to clients and employees, I have hired the wrong person for an important position, grown the business at the wrong time or slowed down when I should have expanded. I have made many uneducated decisions or done things without thinking clearly. You name it, chances are that I’ve made that mistake, but it truly doesn’t matter! It’s very normal to make the wrong choices during the course of business and you wouldn’t be a great leader if you didn’t make mistakes, especially when you are first starting.
My belief is that the biggest mistakes are not single events but the accumulated consequences of bad habits that compound over time. The wrong lifestyle, a bad routine or an unproductive repetitive activity could become your worst mistake. For example, if you are a constant procrastinator, lack patience, or simply fail to manage your time or finances properly.
Personally, I have always been hard working and responsible with my time. However, I could have done better at the start of my career by not getting overly eager to live the “good life.” I started spending money on things like exotic cars, fancy clothing, name brand luxury items, expensive places to live, and the best hotels and restaurants that money can buy. In retrospect, I should have saved all that money and waited until I accumulated enough of it to secure my future instead of spending it. I was too young to realize that things can turn at any time and being financially responsible is a necessity to help through uncertain times.
This leads me to a funny story when I was starting out and beginning to do well. I felt the need to invest early on in different businesses for the purpose of diversifying, the only thing was that it may have been too early. I didn’t recognize that I still didn’t have a full grasp or complete control over the activities in my main business. I attempted to run before learning how to walk. I wasn’t ready at all and instead of solidifying my company and focusing on what was already on my plate, with the little spare cash I had, I began dabbling in other things. In my young inexperienced mind, I was already seeing myself running a conglomerate with multiple divisions, products and investments. I already had my hands full between my existing business while also getting my college degree.
Here’s where it gets funny. An acquaintance of mine knew of an opportunity to invest in a website directory by the name of Yahoo! He offered to bring me in. I believe it was $100,000 investment, through a venture capital firm called Sequoia Capital (I am sure you have heard of it) who was putting together a first round of funding. I didn’t have any knowledge or interest in computers, much less in the internet. Due to my complete and utter ignorance in the field, I respectfully declined and instead I went and made a few different ridiculous investments where I lost all the money! Soon after, in 1996 Yahoo went public, by 1998 it became the most popular search engine with millions of daily viewers. In 2004 the company was valued at somewhere around $52 billion.
I have numerous stories like that but this one was the biggest one. You could say that sometimes the biggest mistakes could have been the opportunities that you walked away from but at this point all you can do is laugh!
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 have been blessed with wonderful mentors who have taught me great things and who led by example. They contributed to my personal growth and to the process of understanding the road to success. These lessons were fundamental to grasping the concept of life and business. My father was my most important and greatest influence. He invested an incredible amount of time and effort teaching me about discipline, responsibility and basic organizational skills that are necessary to achieve any objective. He ingrained in me the importance of ethics and accountability that helped me move forward. My father was a hardworking, honest, charming, early riser who, by the time most people got up in the morning, had already done more things than most people do in a day. He constantly pushed me to work harder, to build my confidence, and to ignore distractions.
I eventually realized that the most impactful influences didn’t come from the people directly attempting to teach me, but from the people that I admired and whom I wanted to emulate. Watching them being great at something, gave me the strength and courage to improve my own results. Soon enough, my desire to learn attracted more people with similar goals, aligning me with smarter and more passionate individuals who constantly challenged me.
Mentors also want to invest their time on the new generation of individuals who care, want to learn, put in the effort to help themselves, and who inspire people around them. They did not become successful by wasting time on people who refuse to put in effort or interest, so if you want a good mentor, become a good student.
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?
It is true that working without a deeper and more profound meaning behind your financial goals could delay your success. If you want to become an industry leader, you need to find that spiritual driver that supersedes your basic functions. You must have the ability to see beyond the obvious business duties that can perhaps differentiate your concept and your mindset from the rest. It is also true that purpose can come from even the simplest emotions, as long as it comes from a genuine place, with honesty and selflessness. In other words, your purpose doesn’t necessarily have to be outrageously groundbreaking. It can come from something as simple as helping your family, your community, or simply expressing and spreading your values.
Throughout my multiple business ventures, I have had different purposes which are often simpler than you may think. My business plans have not always been planet saving missions. I have found that when I focus strictly on money, and not on a bigger purpose I struggle more and work harder, but I don’t seem to get anywhere. When I focus on the project itself, as opposed to how much money I expect to make, I tend to do better in both my results and financially. Yes, we need to generate profits because businesses cannot exist without them but there needs to be more than just profit as a motivation.
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?
Owning and operating a business can be a very tumultuous ride. Part of this journey needs to include connecting with your team on a permanent and ongoing basis. A strong team is based on respect and having similar objectives. This will be the foundation and strength that will carry your company through the most uncertain times.
Part of my strategy is to regularly communicate with my team members and discuss the present and future of the business. Devoting time to forecasting will better prepare you for those difficult times and allow you to reduce the anxieties of operating a business. Continuing to improve your systems and performance when things are going well is a good way to prepare for the downturns.
The best approach as a leader is to understand the precise situation regarding the cause of the difficult times, this way you can customize your plan of attack and set it in motion. It is crucial to clearly and concisely communicate the strategy to your entire organization. This will ensure that everyone is on board and moving in the same direction. What you do not want is a team that has more uncertainty coming from their leaders than from outside circumstances.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
As an entrepreneur I have been involved in many different businesses and all of them have gone through extremely difficult times. The bulk of my career has been either starting or growing small businesses that traditionally begin undercapitalized and full of uncertain circumstances. To specifically answer the question, the fact is there has been a million times when I wanted to give up and walk away, but I can honestly say that I have yet to give up on anything that I ever attempt to do. The business must officially fail, or I have to get bought out in order to move on to another deal. Now, giving up is very different than walking away while you’re ahead, or while you are on top.
Sustaining your drive and staying motivated is never an easy task and it can only come from within. Sometimes your nature provides the necessary adrenaline to keep you going but for the most part, it is your desire to reach higher goals that prevents you from slowing down. When you want something bad enough, and you have a very strong reason to conquer your objectives, your mind becomes very powerful. I personally find strength in my desire to not disappoint the people around me that depend on me, and who placed their trust in me. The least I can do is to always give my very best.
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?
I have started hundreds of books, but I rarely actually manage to finish one. I am always so busy that I prefer to read the news, articles, short stories and headlines. That being said, one of the few Business books that I managed to read from cover to cover is The Goal written by Eliyahu M. Goldratt. This is an amazing management technics book that impacted me because I have a “solutions oriented” personality. This story dives into the theory of constraints by narrating all the common obstacles that leaders face, who could easily get stuck on the reasons why something is not happening the way it should, rather than identifying the bottlenecks, then moving forward by solely focusing on solutions. The book is a wonderful tool to understand the concept of never finding excuses and only moving forward no matter what the obstacle is.
This book has a lot to do with the subject of uncertainty and difficult times because it clearly articulates the positive mindset that must be applied to overcome challenges and adversity that comes with every business.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To have common sense and the courage to make tough decisions in a timely manner for the best interest of the company. In other words, this is not the time to focus on small things.
I always like to assess the type, level, and gravity of the hard times. It is important to identify what the situation is and then design a customized strategy accordingly but, ultimately, it is important to act fast. Unexpected circumstances are better resolved in their early stages rather than when you allow them to grow and potentially get out of hand.
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?
This is exactly when the leader needs to excel and when his or her true passion needs to shine. Enthusiasm, and the willingness to fight, must flourish at every level. The team must feel that the captain of the ship is capable, confident, and here to stay! There is also more than one approach, even within the same company, because it is possible that the source of this uncertainty affects each individual area of the business differently. It may be that some departments feel at greater risk than others, so you may have to think outside the box.
Inspiring, motivating and engaging your team is an ongoing responsibility that you must always practice, not just during turbulent times. Therefore, the foundation of your company’s strength and solidarity will be evident when things get tough. Teams need to see their leader in control. Staying positive and optimistic is the best way to maintain and to boost morale. If you are doing a good job as a leader during difficult times, chances are that your team members are not truly as affected or as emotional about it as you may think. You as the leader are the one with the big problems and the sleepless nights. If you maintain a positive environment, communicate your plans, and effectively convey your mission, the team will respond positively. The lack of morale in employees comes more often from the absence of a positive business culture than from turbulent times.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
With Honesty, confidence, and with a plan! Again, good communication during difficult times becomes much easier when harmony and affinity has already been established. If you have a good marriage or a good friendship, tough times will only make you closer and stronger.
If the circumstances of the news are so bad to where layoffs are needed, the best thing is to deliver the message right away, with integrity, respect, and an explanation of the circumstances. During these unfortunate moments, you must take difficult steps to save the business and help those team members find a new opportunity while you restabilize things.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
By always being alert and knowing that it is just a matter of time before a storm shows up! As a leader, you can’t be in denial and expect things to always go well, you have to be mentally and emotionally prepared.
The way to plan when the future is unpredictable is by being open minded and aware of the fact that at any given point, you will have to deal with changing environments! The business world is very dynamic, and you constantly must pivot, redirect, and readjust according to whatever comes your way. You must avoid being stubborn, in denial, or ignore the possibility of repairing what once worked well. As a leader it helps to think as a fire fighter, where you always act with courage and strength, but with a lot of caution always knowing that although you want things to go well, and for routine activities to go smoothly, there is always a real and palpable possibility that the floor beneath you will collapse, and you better have a plan “B”. As an entrepreneur, you never want to be caught off guard or in a fully relaxed mode. Owning a business and being a leader is knowing that you are continuously walking in a mine field.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle that can help you is to know your business better than anyone! If you know your business inside and out, you will likely know the reasons why the most common turbulent times occur. This will give you an edge over the competition and allow you to have a contingency plan in place for each scenario.
Never stop learning and always stay on top of innovation. Constantly chase new technologies and continue to learn new things so that you don’t allow yourself to become complacent.
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?
The business world is very complex and highly competitive. There are endless mistakes that can be made at any given point. You never know where problems could arise. Here are some of the worse and most common mistakes I have seen in business:
Starting a company in an industry that you know nothing or not enough about. If you don’t fully understand a specific business or have little to no prior experience, don’t jump in it only because it sounds attractive or potentially lucrative. Becoming successful is already a statistical nightmare, and without the proper experience your odds of failure grow exponentially. In this era of highly specialized enterprises, you better learn every detail there is to know before attempting to go on your own.
Another mistake is to start your company under-capitalized. This is a perfect formula for disaster early in the game. Not knowing your numbers and the financial aspects of the business can be fatal. There are always hidden costs and expenses that may not seem so obvious when you get started and running out of cash is a common mistake.
The third mistake would be to spend money unnecessarily once you begin to generate a profit. You always need to save your resources to grow the business and when things start doing well, owners tend to get excited and celebrate too soon. It’s important to save during good years and practice temperance to prepare for contingencies that will inevitably show up. Not having a cushion to support growth, changing economies or unpredictable situations is an awful mistake. One of the hardest disciplines that any successful entrepreneur will face is to watch their savings accounts grow and have the strength to not touch them until they have more than enough to fix any future problem.
Lastly, a common mistake I have seen and a very delicate one would be to build your business around your team, instead of your team around the business. What I mean is that you can’t make certain team members indispensable in your organization to the point where the business would struggle to survive or even fail if they decide to leave. You want to create an invincible team, but you don’t want your business to become dependent on any one individual. Your systems should be designed to allow for replacements in the event this becomes necessary and the systems themselves should be the indispensable factor in the equation, not human resources, to the point where your company can continue operating no matter who is missing.
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.
By far the most frequent source of uncertainty and turbulence is generally caused by money, or better yet, the lack of money! My best and favorite way to lead during these times is by preventing it in the first place and always having reserves. But assuming that you’re not there yet or that you neglected to think in advance, then here are some of my top ways to navigate through the choppy waters:
- Always be mentally prepared! Understanding and accepting the fact that times will eventually become uncertain and turbulent is the perfect way to weather the storm when issues pop up. If you think that your business will not face resistance and adversity, you will be in for a major surprise.
- Clearly understand the nature and the reason for the uncertainty and turbulence! You can’t effectively address the issue, or produce accurate solutions, if you don’t understand the problem. Before acting emotionally, get pragmatic and evaluate the challenge. Then move forward with educated solutions.
- Play the part and embrace it. Act like a leader and step up to the challenge! When things are not easy, this is your time to shine. You are the boss and precisely why you are a leader. You don’t get to this position by just worrying about the small stuff. Convince yourself to feel excitement rather than fear every time things get scary. Enjoy the opportunity to be the champion that everyone expects you to be and don’t delegate this part of the job.
- Make your own decisions, come up with your own conclusions and attack the problem! It is always smart to listen, pay attention, receive opinions and recommendations, especially from experienced people that you trust and have been there before. However, at the end of the day, you are the leader, and this is your company, you will have to live with the outcome of your choices. You will never regret making your own decisions and acting from your heart, but you will always regret having listened to the wrong advice.
- Act fast, there is no time to waste! Don’t procrastinate during uncertain times, act and start moving towards your goals. Get the process going immediately to stabilize uncertainty and turbulence. Don’t just sit and watch the hurricane for too long because problems have a funny way of growing if you ignore them. Issues are better to be attacked in their early stages. Act like a drone and look at things from above without missing the big picture. Eliminate distractions outside of your immediate challenges and move them aside.
In my career I have been through ups and downs in several cyclical industries where I experienced difficult moments, reoccurring uncertainty, and plenty of turbulence. I could share dozens of interesting stories but the most dramatic one was during the financial crisis and housing bubble of 2008. My company happened to be overleveraged to the tune of close to $100 million dollars when suddenly, the light switch was turned off. Our cash needs exceeded one million dollars each month, while our income went to practically zero. This was an incredibly difficult time in my life but somehow, we survived it. Amongst all the things that took place, these 5 items above were certainly executed.
Extremely tough decisions were made to dismantle a structure that had taken 20 years to create. A fortune was lost overnight but amongst the many things that were done to survive, the number one thing that I attribute having saved the company was acting fast! We skipped the shock and denial phase that many of our competitors went through who assumed the crisis wouldn’t last. They hoped and waited around expecting things to turn around and to be saved but that didn’t happen and many of them drowned. We on the other hand assumed the worse and began immediately liquidating, unloading debt, reducing expenses, taking bids for assets below cost to the best and highest bidders simply to pay lenders and avoid going in default, moving aside pride and ignoring the infinite sleepless nights invested to have gotten to this level only to be faced with a crisis of this magnitude that wiped it all away.
At the end of this period, I lost my personal fortune, but every single lender and investor was made whole by being paid back every single dime, plus interest. This built a tremendous amount of credibility and when things went back to normal, we came back stronger. Identifying the problem, making tough decisions and reacting quickly saved our company!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Don’t look away from life. Face your problems and make decisions even if you make mistakes, don’t avoid the difficult step of making choices.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Jose Miguel Berlanga of Onyx Residential On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.