Robert Heil of Financial Aid Services On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader…

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Robert Heil of Financial Aid Services On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Listen closely to your customers. Don’t pitch to your clients; listen. Gather small groups of clients to be on an advisory panel. Get out in the field to visit your key customers. Go deeper into what your customers need or how market shifts impact them. Customers are the heartbeat of your company. I often find the innovation or creativity I need to uncover solutions comes from listening to our customers.

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 Robert Heil of Financial Aid Services.

Robert Heil is CEO of Financial Aid Services (FAS). Robert brings more than 25 years of higher education and executive experience as a university administrator, a highly respected consultant and thought leader, and executive for multiple EdTech and consulting firms. Prior to being named CEO of FAS in 2022, Robert served in a range of executive roles for start-ups through $100M+ companies such as RuffaloCODY, Everspring, and RNL. The organizations he led created significant innovation and value for clients and employees, while generating exponential growth for those companies.

Robert brings valuable strategic insights and a rare foresight on emerging trends which makes him a well-recognized and respected leader in higher education, EdTech, and business. Under Robert’s leadership FAS has become one of the fastest growing companies in higher education.

Robert is passionate about higher education and creating impact for campuses and the students they serve. He brings a collaborative and growth focused vitality to advancing the mission at FAS to empower colleges and universities to strengthen their financial operations, optimize enrollment and enhance the student experience.

Robert has served as a corporate advisory board member for several organizations. He is a graduate of Abilene Christian University. Originally from Austin, TX, he now resides in Atlanta, GA with his family.

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 was headed to law school, convinced a career at a top corporate law firm in LA or NYC was my future. I was taking a short break before law school, and one of the university administrators at my alma mater asked me to work for him. I thought it would be for just a few months, but here I am, all these years later, having never made it to law school. I discovered leading a university combines every facet of running a business, a school, and a small city for thousands of faculty, staff and students. The work is incredibly complex, but especially meaningful. That challenge, combined with mission-driven work, was attractive. I eventually spent over a decade as a university administrator before transitioning into management consulting. As my career progressed, I served in a range of executive roles for start-ups through $100M+ companies in the education technology and consulting space. I joined Financial Aid Services (FAS) as CEO in early 2022, where we provide colleges and universities regulatory compliance, consulting, staffing, and financial processing services in financial aid and student business services.

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 took over an underperforming business division in my first significant management position. Soon I was scheduled to present our new go-to-market strategy to our Board. Eager to make a good impression, I was determined to be prepared for anything that could be thrown my way. During my presentation, one member of the audience, a very successful, well-known football coach, asked, “What is your vertical leap”? I had no clue what the question had to do with anything I was presenting. Confused, I paused. With a long southern drawl, he asked again, “What is your vertical leap”? I obviously wasn’t prepared for this. After another awkward pause and some painstaking clarifying questions, I began to ascertain the question, had something to do with identifying the most important business KPI. Eventually, my answer satisfied his question and the main discussion resumed. I quickly learned that no matter how prepared you think you are, you can’t control all the variables or prepare for everything. I’m still occasionally accused of over-preparing, but that experience taught me to have peace of mind that if you really know your business, your numbers, and your customers, you can handle any curveball question that comes your way.

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?

Life’s greatest achievements usually happen with or through others. That has certainly been the case for me.

My father was my first leadership coach, whether I realized it or not at the time. He set the expectation for me to lead, not follow. He modeled servant leadership. And while he never pushed me too hard, he certainly was intentional about putting me in situations at a young age where I could learn and exercise leadership.

Early in my professional career, I was fortunate to have mentors and leaders who gave me what I consider “stretch opportunities.” They gave me projects or put me in positions I probably wasn’t ready for, but they saw something in me and were confident I would quickly learn and step up to those challenges. Looking back, those opportunities allowed me to develop my business acumen and accelerate my leadership. Those mentors were Bart Herridge, Tim Johnston, Jack Rich, Michelle Morris, and John Baird. I would not be professionally where I am if not for them. Now I am thankful to be able to pay it forward. So, I intentionally look for those rising stars in my organization that I can mentor and create stretch opportunities for too.

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?

FAS has always been a purpose-driven organization. When I arrived at FAS, one of the first things I did with the management team was codify our mission, vision, and values.

It immediately connected everyone and gave us a straightforward narrative across the company of what we wanted to accomplish and how we wanted to achieve it. It quickly became our NorthStar and enabled us to transform the business in a way everyone embraced because the change was anchored around the mission. Now, as one of the fastest-growing companies in higher education, we are scaling rapidly. That shared purpose and narrative around our mission and vision continue to connect our rapidly expanding team. When you don’t have clarity around a common purpose, companies can fall off-track.

Our vision is to make college more affordable and accessible for all students. We do this by accomplishing our mission to empower colleges and universities to strengthen financial operations, optimize enrollment and enhance the student experience.

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? (note: can be related to FAS or supporting your clients during difficult times for them).

COVID gave us an extended period of difficulty and uncertainty in every arena of life. I still appreciate learning from stories of how organizations navigated through the pandemic. I am also saddened to know many businesses didn’t make it, and many careers were lost. With more time since the pandemic, I see how COVID has made me a better leader. It wasn’t just about strategy and execution anymore. Compassion and empathy had to move to the forefront. Observing the needs of my team members was just as important to me as observing the needs of the market.

I mention COVID because while we may be through the pandemic, I’m not sure we are over it. COVID changed the world of work in significant ways. Its mark is permanent. Many of us view our work differently now. The structures of how and where we work changed. The meaning of our work, connections in the workplace, and well-being are more important themes to our team members today. Stress remains high, and uncertainty now feels like the norm for many. We are all still learning to lead our organizations after the pandemic. The right leadership is needed more than ever.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Every leader, including me, feels discouraged and doubtful at times. I recall wanting to take on a bold new career opportunity many years ago. My manager then told me I should give that aspiration up. How about that for a supportive manager? I didn’t have the pedigree he told me, meaning I didn’t have experience in a Fortune 500 company, and I didn’t have an Ivy League degree. That feedback stung, but it caused me to step back and reflect on what I wanted and why. I realized my motivation is all about “impact,” which is my drive and conviction. That manager’s feedback turned out to be wrong, but challenges sometimes uncover insight.

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?

Early in my career, First Break All The Rules and StrengthsFinder shaped my leadership view. As a young executive, I led with a flawed assumption that everyone should perform the work as I do. Finding ways to recognize and play to people’s different strengths and talents enhanced my effectiveness and was a powerful way to help my teams perform at their best. Patrick Lencioni’s books also impacted me. From the 5 Dysfunctions books to Working Genius, Pat’s focus is making organizational health a competitive advantage, which has shaped my leadership approach.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

At FAS, we talk a lot about “seeing around the corner.” The ability for leaders to see and communicate clarity is the most critical role for a leader today. Seeing around the corner is not about possessing a crystal ball to know every problem or anticipate every market shift that is coming. The meaning is to step into uncertainty and bring about clarity for the organization. This is the most important role of a leader, and too often, its importance is underestimated.

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?

Help your team find wins. An uncertain future blurs the markers of success. It makes it hard for our team members to see the wins. Calling out those wins inspires confidence and a sense of progress throughout the organization. A sense of progress is the best antidote to uncertainty.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Be concise. Be clear. Communicate with empathy. Doing so provides the clarity, trust, and respect needed. More complicated comments often need clarification in an already difficult situation. Communicating difficult news is rarely the time for elaborate speeches. Compassion and empathy belong at the center of these conversations. This requires us as leaders to step outside ourselves and into our team or customers’ shoes.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

In business, certainty is rare. Uncertainty is the norm. Leaders who can step into an unpredictable future and communicate clarity to their organization are invaluable. The leaders and organizations I see as the most successful embrace uncertainty versus avoiding it.

At FAS, I encourage and challenge our leaders to develop multiple scenarios to achieve our strategies. There are usually multiple paths to achieve strategic outcomes. If our playbook has 2–3 alternate paths or options, we stay agile, flexible, and better apt to pivot when internal and external factors shift. And we fully expect those shifts will occur. We expect a few false starts or planning assumptions that won’t work out. Uncertainty is why you need a strategy in the first place. Strategic planning is looking at an unpredictable future in the face and determining the most likely paths to success.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company (or institution) through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Keeping a growth mindset. I was first introduced to the concept of a growth mindset through Dr. Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford. Later, I read how Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, applied this to a business context and transformed their corporate culture with a growth mindset at the core. The mindset of always learning and always improving allows us to embrace challenges, learn, and ultimately reach higher levels of performance and achievement. This is precisely the mindset we want in turbulent times. The growth mindset sparks innovation, collaboration and persistence — the characteristics we need to navigate the ups and downs of turbulent times.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses (or institutions) make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Too often, I see organizations abandon their long-term vision for short-term fixes. It’s a common pitfall, especially when there is pressure to demonstrate growth and earnings quarter after quarter. While organizations must adapt to changing times, oversteering in the short term can derail the long-term momentum of the business. Think about air travel. Turbulence is common but usually temporary. A pilot might temporarily adjust the course to find smoother air, but the pilot never alters the destination.

Leaders must be careful not to inject more angst into their team. Sometimes in difficult times, the leader’s intensity, stress, and passion can unknowingly manifest itself in ways that inject more angst into the organization. It is counter-productive. You want your team to be their best; most people don’t perform their best under pressure. Great leaders find ways to relieve that pressure valve for their team and empower them to perform at their best.

Everyone begins working down a level in the organization. VPs start doing the work of directors. Directors do the work of front-line managers, etc. It feels like the right thing to do and provides a sense of control over the circumstances, but it is usually counter-productive. Instead, it stifles innovation and creativity. In difficult times, we want the opposite. We want everyone in the organization to feel empowered to uplevel and think outside their functional area of responsibility. When this occurs, great things happen.

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?

Communicate clearly. Speak with confidence but be realistic and genuine with your communication. Sometimes those challenges and opportunities are complex, so communicating in ways that help team members synthesize the information and understand the situation is needed. Without that clarity, the rest of the organization has no choice but to make assumptions. And those wrong assumptions can compound negatively. At FAS, we conduct an All-Hands meeting across the company every 2–3 weeks. Our remote employees attend via video. We openly discuss the top 4 things happening across the business — opportunities, and challenges. The goal is for every team member to clearly understand what opportunities and challenges we’re up against and get everyone thinking and contributing ideas.

Reduce complexity. Organizations naturally drift toward complexity, but in turbulent times, simplicity wins. Resist the urge to chase every opportunity you see. Focus on your core growth drivers. Remove barriers that slow down your business. Knock out a few policies that slow people down. Cut low-impact activities. Our management team at FAS repeatedly asks these questions: For the activities that take three weeks, how can we reduce it to three days? And the activities that take three days? Can we take out the complexity and get it down to three hours? This focus on reducing complexity energizes the team and puts our organization in a better position to be agile and flexible.

Listen closely to your customers. Don’t pitch to your clients; listen. Gather small groups of clients to be on an advisory panel. Get out in the field to visit your key customers. Go deeper into what your customers need or how market shifts impact them. Customers are the heartbeat of your company. I often find the innovation or creativity I need to uncover solutions comes from listening to our customers.

Keep developing your people and their talents. In good times, this comes more naturally. We have the time to invest in coaching. Talent development can shift to the back burner in uncertain or turbulent times. The urgency of the challenge keeps us buried in our to-do lists. Tactics consume us. We may not feel we have time to develop our people. I’ve learned from experience that the turbulent time is the best time to coach and develop your team members. Use the current adversity as an opportunity to accelerate people’s growth. In doing so, your organization becomes stronger for the next challenge. And there is always a next one.

Take calculated risks. We are all risk averse. It’s just a matter to what degree. Uncertain and turbulent times heighten our risk aversion. It’s said the Chinese character for crisis is the same character for opportunity. Out of crisis or adversity comes opportunity. Too often, the aim is to weather the storm until certainty appears, when there are likely emerging opportunities to capitalize on. Consider that new product or service launch. Test that new messaging strategy. Experiment with new AI capabilities. Move towards the opportunities. The key word is “calculated” risk, not a gamble. Measure probabilities. Determine your upside and downside. Good decisions are made with good data.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’m a big fan of Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), the retired basketball coach at Duke University. His basketball program is often considered the measuring rod for sustained excellence in NCAA College Basketball. One of Coach K’s philosophies is “Next Play.” After every Duke possession, he would tell his team, “Next Play.” Whether the possession resulted in a great score or a bad turnover, his team heard “Next Play.” The philosophy is about focus. It reminds me to let go of mistakes quickly and refocus on what comes next. Nor should I let success distract me from what the organization needs next. That 2-word prompt reminds me to look to the future, not the past. What just happened is not as important as what comes next. I still haven’t mastered this.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can follow our work at FAS at I am proud of the innovative work our team is leading for higher education.

You can follow me on LinkedIn where I post about leadership, higher education, and EdTech.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Robert Heil of Financial Aid Services 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.