Sean Behr of Fountain: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Invest in the right talent. This is an opportunity to find the right people for your company and your team. Investing in the best people around you, and hiring the best people, make a world of difference. And it could mean, unfortunately, saying goodbye to some people that may not be the right fit anymore in an uncertain or turbulent time. But those are the decisions that leaders need to make if they want to keep that focus and sustain growth.
As part of our series, “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Behr, CEO of Fountain.
Sean Behr is the CEO at Fountain, the high-volume hiring platform that empowers companies with an hourly workforce to streamline and scale their recruiting operations across the globe. Previously, Behr was the Co-Founder and CEO of STRATIM (acquired by KAR). Behr previously served in leadership roles at Adap.tv (acquired by AOL), most recently, as SVP, Global operations. Before Adap.tv, he held various management roles at Shopping.com (acquired by eBay). Behr also advises, mentors and invests in entrepreneurs and early-stage companies. He holds a B.A. in History and Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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 came up right at around the time when people started to realize the power that the internet could have in our lives. By the time I left college, I had an email account. I saw that transformation first-hand, going from a world where your only options were writing letters and talking on the phone to one where you could write letters, talk on the phone, or send an email.
When I left university to start my career, there was a surge of startups coming up, but many of them had unsustainable business models. I was lucky and chose the right ones. I knew then that software was going to transform the world. I just didn’t know when and where it would take me. I didn’t think this is what I was going to do with my life, but I chose well and here I am today.
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’ve made plenty of mistakes along my path, despite working with four companies that have all been amazingly successful and I’ve led through three exits. The funniest one that jumps to mind is from my past when I was working with a company to build an advertising business. We thought people loved the ads that we were putting in front of them. It turns out people hated the ads. We went from thinking that we had a massive business where everyone loved our advertising to nobody loving our advertising, and we needed to pivot fast.
I still remember the day when we realized that almost everyone clicking on our ad was doing so by mistake. Which, in hindsight, is a very funny thing to realize. But I learned that things may never be as they seem on the surface. When you think things are going well in public, and the reality is that things are significantly better or worse. But you can’t let the fluctuations of the highs and lows really affect you.
Some days are great; some days leave much to be desired. You have to remind yourself that even when things are down, there are better days are ahead. Conversely, when things may be going great, know that there are probably challenges coming. That’s the business of competition in the world we live in.
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?
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?
Fountain has been a purpose-driven business from its very origins and it’s been part of our mission to find open opportunities for the global workforce. We believed then that the technology and products didn’t yet exist to meet the needs of the large population of people doing manual labor. Those frontline workers around the world need support.
That’s what drives us. That’s our focus. We believe that by opening the door to new opportunities for that world, we can make a powerful impact on the planet.
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?
I have the benefit of living through three challenging periods in time: the first .com bust around 2000 to 2004; then the recession from 2008 to 2011; and now through COVID and navigating these turbulent post-COVID waters that we’re in. To lead a team through this, I think there are two main points to remember.
First: They need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and the uncertainty. It comes down to encouraging your team to be comfortable while allowing them to thrive and do great work despite the uncertainty or the difficulty. There are some CEOs who don’t want to confront the uncertainty and difficulty, and in my experience, that’s been a huge mistake. Your employees know that it’s a difficult time. Being upfront and acknowledging that you’re in an uncertain or difficult time is critical for keeping people engaged in the business. Now, it doesn’t guarantee success, but it definitely lessens failure. So, you have to get them comfortable with the uncertainty of the situation.
Second: Focus is paramount when things are difficult. In good times, a lack of focus is not so bad and you may even be able to thrive in those conditions. However, in uncertain times or difficult times, you’ll need to make hard choices for your team. What you ultimately put attention toward is critical.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Like everyone else, there are good days and there are bad days. It boils down to this truth: I love doing this. I love building companies. I love leading teams. I love providing opportunities to people around the world. Millions of people around the world are finding their next opportunity, job or a way to make money because of the work that Fountain is doing every day. That is what sustains my drive even when times are tough.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role for any leader during challenging times is to set a direction, repeat that direction and be willing to make difficult choices in support of that direction. That may mean cutting costs, shutting down different products, or shutting down different initiatives. It may mean making difficult choices when you’re not sure which one is the right move. Setting that direction and being clear and focused is really important.
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?
I know that not everyone will agree with me, but I don’t think leaders need to focus on boosting morale anymore. It was a practice often seen some 30 years ago, but the world has changed. Employees are smart and they will know exactly how things are going within a company. The best way to truly boost “morale” is to deliver success as a leader. Focus on making the company successful, which in turn makes your employees successful, too.
This is primarily within the world of a for-profit organization. If you are successful as an organization and you’re enabling your employees to be successful at what they’re doing, enable them to make a contribution to that success, then they will be inspired, motivated, and engaged. On the flip side, if you are not successful as a company and you don’t make them successful in their career, no matter how many jackets or parties or happy hours or swag that you give, they will not be inspired, motivated, or engaged.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Again, this goes back to being focused — not on the day-to-day, but on the bigger picture. You must make a choice on where to put that attention, then focus relentlessly. Track all your objectives back to that, lead your team through that and stay focused on that message. This is especially true now that so many organizations have a hybrid workforce, so ensuring everyone within the company is aligned on that focus — no matter where they are — is crucial.
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.
It comes back to focus. Leaders need to focus on something that is going to sustain them through these difficult times. That is probably the number one thing to do. And the decisions you make aren’t always going to be easy. This was true even at Fountain. When I had to make a decision between two equally good options for our company and the answer wasn’t clear. Neither option stood out as being significantly better or worse. It’s the same for most: Usually, both ideas are good. But a decision needs to be made or leaders risk having confusion in the organization. So having a focused direction is key.
The second most important thing is nurturing sustainable growth through turbulent and difficult times. As I tell my team, growth is the most important, most valuable coin in the realm. But sustainable growth, growth that you can do every day, every week, every month, every year, without having to get additional capital to sustain that growth, that’s really critical. So focus on sustainable growth.
Finally, invest in the right talent. This is an opportunity to find the right people for your company and your team. Investing in the best people around you, and hiring the best people, make a world of difference. And it could mean, unfortunately, saying goodbye to some people that may not be the right fit anymore in an uncertain or turbulent time. But those are the decisions that leaders need to make if they want to keep that focus and sustain growth.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
On a personal level, I’ve been around long enough to know that even when days are cloudy, there are sunny days ahead for all of us. That’s a life lesson I’ve learned.
From a business lens, I would say that it’s no longer a world where the big eat the little. It’s now the fast that eats the slow. If you’re in a company that’s not one of the biggest companies in the world, your advantage is the ability to move fast. You can move faster than much larger companies. Use that to your advantage. If it comes down to a question of who’s got more capital, somebody who’s bigger than you will always beat you. But your advantage is speed. And if you can deliver things faster, if you can close customers faster, if you can operate more quickly, be great.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow all of our social channels on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and our company Blog, which includes all the latest from Fountain as well as recruiting and management tips for every company hiring manager and leader.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Sean Behr of Fountain: 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.