Pierre Bertrand of Neurolens On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
I’m an average person who wants to make a difference, and I’ve been fortunate to have people in my life who saw potential in me and bet on me. I’ve also been fortunate to work with people who are smarter and more talented than I am, who sensed my feeling of duty to them. I have relationships with people at Neurolens that have lasted over 15 years, and they’ve joined me here simply because of the person I am. If you’re in a leadership position, always be looking to stretch people beyond their current roles. They’ll surprise you by doing things that they probably didn’t even know were inside them.
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 Pierre Bertrand.
Pierre Bertrand is the CEO of Neurolens, a company specializing in diagnostics and devices that treat binocular vision disorders prevalent in a generation synonymous with a digital lifestyle. With a career spanning finance, marketing, brand management, and business development in the eyecare space, Bertrand is a passionate believer in bringing technology to improve quality of life. He believes that setting the destination is the most critical step in life and business. Under his leadership, Neurolens has been recognized as the 28th fastest growing healthcare company in America on the 2022 Inc. 5000 List. This list includes companies that have managed to not only survive but thrive amidst challenges in an uncertain world affected by COVID-19, the global supply chain crisis, and other economic hardships.
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?
A common thread through these past 20+ years has been my desire and passion to impact people’s lives. I started in the pharmaceutical industry and spent 15 years there, first as a finance person, and then I went into sales, brand management, and strategy.
One day, I got a call from Essilor, a French optical company, and we discussed the world’s most prevalent, untreated disease: poor vision. They talked about how they aimed to eradicate it within a generation. I was impressed by such an ambitious goal, one that would help billions of people live better, longer lives, and I wanted to be part of that. So, I joined their marketing department and spent over a decade with Essilor before being given the privilege of leading Essilor Canada as president.
Almost 4 years ago, I got a note in LinkedIn from a person and company I didn’t know. It was Davis Corley messaging me from Neurolens, and he shared with me the opportunity to transform eyecare by correcting the largest unmet need in the industry: digital eye strain. We all spend the majority of our waking hours staring at digital devices. And in doing so, we are asking our eyes to converge in a very uncomfortable posture for extended periods of time, which they’re not meant to do.
Our eyes naturally want to look out into the distance; that’s where food is, that’s where predators and prey were. Forcing our eyes to look at text, screens, or objects close up for long periods of time causes many symptoms, and this is not new.
In the 1800s, there was a condition called asthenopia that was commonly seen in jewelry workers, textile workers, and people who spent a lot of time focused on close objects. Their symptoms were the same: headaches, tired eyes, neck pain, tiredness, a gritty sensation. Though we refer to it now as digital eyestrain, it’s the same issue that’s been around for hundreds of years. At Neurolens, we believe we’ve got the solution.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? What lessons did you learn from that?
Each of us has a moment in our career when we’re given the opportunity to do something completely new that stretches us outside of our comfort zone. I was a person who studied numbers; my undergrad degree is in economics, and my MBA is in finance and strategy. So, the beginning of my career was all financial, manufacturing, mergers, and acquisitions.
When I was at Pfizer Animal Health, my colleague Peter Mumford gave me the opportunity to go into brand management, which I’d never done before. My first assignment was to launch a new vaccine in a new category that didn’t yet exist. But I froze. I didn’t know how to build a model to forecast what would happen.
Because of my insecurities, I kept putting it off and pushing it back. Eventually, Peter sat me down, and I’ll always remember what he said. “What I can tell you about a forecast is that it will be 100% wrong. Whatever number you come up with will not happen. You just need to put a stake in the ground and build a robust plan to get you there. The plans and numbers will change over time.” That was an epiphany for me in many ways.
His comments showed me that the beauty of being in marketing is that it’s like being a weatherman. You can be wrong every month. You just need to be directionally correct and adaptable enough to get there. Peter mentored me with grace, candor, and the patience to invite someone who had no idea what he was doing to try. He allowed me to fail, and then he helped me to learn from my failures without making them terminal. What an incredible way to mentor! That was 20 years ago, and I still try to emulate Peter’s mentoring principles.
We could all do with a mentor like Peter! Based on your experience, what are the most important things that business leaders should do to lead effectively during very uncertain times?
First, always set the destination. Everybody needs to understand where we’re going. For us it’s always been about transforming eyecare beyond visual acuity, about becoming that fourth dimension of vision. Once we establish that goal, it tells us where we’re going. Success is never linear. And creating a new category is a very difficult task. As we’re going through ups and downs, having a clear purpose is so important.
Next is clarity of communication. When Covid hit, we were a small, cash-burning startup. The world suddenly stopped, and we worried about what we’d do to survive. Thankfully, we have a very supportive board, so we communicated clearly to our employees that people were part of our journey, part of why we’d be able to succeed. We did not lay off or furlough a single person. We kept everybody on full benefits, and we knew that, at some point, the world would re-open, so we wanted to retain the very best and brightest. We did the same for our customers. We reached out to them and said, “We understand that the world has stopped for you too, so you won’t see an invoice from us until the world comes back. We don’t expect you to pay us until then.” That was another way that we showed our customer-centric values, by clearly communicating our plans.
Third is living your values. We’ve all worked for companies in which the plaques on the wall are very different than the behaviors and practices. Our values are something we believe in and practice. We pressure-test them every 6 months by bringing all of our employees together and asking them, “Are these the values that get us to our vision? How are we living these values?” It’s very powerful to have every individual in our organization weigh in on that. It’s one of the most energizing practices I’ve ever participated in.
Fourth is focus on the critical few items that are most important. We run a high-performance management system here, a process that’s been run in several large companies. It keeps us focused on our organizational vitals, which come from the bottom up. In our semi-annual all-hands meetings, we talk about our current state (where we are), our desired state (where we aspire to be), and the 1 to 3 things that we need to improve. We call these gap items. We put our very best and brightest people in cross-functional teams, and we put resources and urgency on those gap items. Within about 4 weeks, that team presents an action plan that we execute, monitor, and tweak. It’s very powerful. We’re not trying to accomplish a thousand things, instead, we’re focused on a few things that we want to do extremely well.
Fifth, challenge people to try things they might be uncomfortable with. I’m an average person who wants to make a difference, and I’ve been fortunate to have people in my life who saw potential in me and bet on me. I’ve also been fortunate to work with people who are smarter and more talented than I am, who sensed my feeling of duty to them. I have relationships with people at Neurolens that go back over 15 years, and they’ve joined me here simply because of the person I am. Just as my former colleague Peter mentored in me, it’s incredible what people do when facing a new challenge. If you’re in a leadership position, always be looking to stretch people beyond their current roles. They’ll surprise you by doing things that they probably didn’t even know were inside them.
In your professional journey, what are some common mistakes that you have observed other businesses do, especially during uncertain or difficult times? What should leaders keep in mind to avoid those kinds of pitfalls?
The first thing that comes to mind is scoreboard watching. What I mean by that is being overly focused on short-term results rather than on those critical few processes and tactics that will yield the results over time. We all fall victim to this if we don’t pay attention.
In the startup world, in which your sole mission in life is not to die, most die off — they run out of cash, or they can’t achieve scaling. We’ve been fortunate to have great people, strategies that are on point, and execution of those strategies so that we’ve been able to grow from a very small startup with less than a million dollars to where we are today. We were the 28th fastest growing healthcare company on the Inc. 500 List in 2022 because we were very clear about what we wanted to achieve. I learned from many failed startups, so we’ve had our strategies and tactics nailed down first, and we executed those.
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?
Always share where you’re going. If you focus too much on the near term, it can be very easy to get lost in the challenges. Maintaining focus on where we’re going together is essential.
Then, pause every once in a while, and look back. When you’re climbing a hill, and you’re just looking forward, it can be daunting. But if you pause to catch your breath, looking back can be invigorating because you see what you’ve accomplished, and that can motivate you up. This is the message I’ll give the team at our national sales meeting. We’ve got something special here, and here’s where we’re going, but first, let’s pause and look back. In the past 2 years we’ve quadrupled in size. There are few companies that can or have achieved this. And we’ve done that together.
A leader needs to find ways and times to just have a little fun. We’ve gone to the go-kart track and spent an afternoon together having fun. We love to bring out food trucks. One of our optometrist customers from Longview, Texas, started an ice cream business during the pandemic. We had them come in one day and they wowed us with all their flavors. It was fun, and it reinforced that entrepreneurial spirit that we’re always looking for.
Throughout our conversation today, you’ve discussed keeping the destination in mind. Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, its purpose? Can you talk us through how that has helped anchor you through all these tough times?
Purpose is the greatest superpower because it allows you to fight through short-term obstacles. We each have these, whether in your personal or professional lives, and especially in a startup. I often say that we’re building the plane as we’re flying it, and sometimes, this can lead to short-term stumbles. The beautiful thing about a shared purpose is that it allows teammates to believe the best of each other, to lean in and help each other through those short-term blips. It keeps your heart in the game when maybe your mind is frustrated. That is huge.
I don’t see myself as merely having a job — I see myself on a journey, and we’re beginning a movement. That’s how I jump out of bed every morning. I’m not here for a paycheck. I’m here because I know that every year in the US, 140 million people go for their annual eye exam, and 90 million of them could be living a better life through Neurolens. That’s my goal in life: to change lives through technology. It makes every day so much fun.
Thank you. We all know that books have the power to change lives. Are there any books in your life that have helped or inspired you to be an effective leader?
There are a few books that I love, and they’re not business books per se, but I think they apply so well to business and life. David Goggins’ concept in Never Finished is that human beings typically only use about 40% of their potential, and our minds are programmed to regulate the amount of exertion and stress that we put ourselves through. If we fight through that, that’s how we really reach our potential. That’s a fantastic book. David Goggins is an individual who once weighed over 300 pounds, had a night shift job as an exterminator in restaurants, and wanted to be better. One day, he saw a commercial for the Navy Seals and put himself on a path to achieve that by power of the mind.
Jocko Willink wrote two books that I love, Extreme Ownership, and the follow-up, The Dichotomy of Leadership. He is a successful person and consultant who wrote the follow-up book because he found that there was too much black and white in his analysis of success, ownership, and leadership, in his first book. So, he explores some of the nuances in his follow-up, and I admire the humility and dedication to constant improvement that he demonstrates by saying that his first book was a little off track.
How can our readers keep in touch and follow your work?
I’m not a social media guy, though I am on LinkedIn because it’s a professional platform where you can learn and grow by building relationships with other professionals. People can follow Neurolens on LinkedIn. I don’t write about the company so much as I write about the principles of outstanding people, how they think, and their perspectives on excellence.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Pierre Bertrand of Neurolens On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.