Ron Dougherty of Aspire Transformation Services On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Visionary thinking: A startup founder, faced with a rapidly changing market and increased competition, realized that their initial business model was no longer viable. Instead of stubbornly clinging to their original plan, the founder took a step back, re-evaluated the situation, and pivoted to a new strategy that better aligned with the current market needs. This visionary thinking allowed the startup to survive the turbulence and eventually thrive in the new landscape.
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 Ron Dougherty.
A highly experienced financial management expert and operations consultant, Ron Dougherty has more than 30 years of experience working with Fortune 100 companies, leading private entities, and family-run businesses. He specializes in business analysis, cost and capital management, forecasting, strategic planning, reporting, benchmarking, and project team facilitation. Ron helps businesses prepare for sale by analyzing workstream performance, redefining business imperatives, and developing a future state operating model to achieve maximum valuations.
Ron resides in Western New York. He is a founder and Executive Director of the Raise A Glass Foundation which runs one of the largest international wine competitions in the US that raises money for various charities. Ron is an accredited member of the Forbes Business Council.
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 began my journey back in 1985 when I was recruited by a consulting firm in Manhattan called United Research, a few years after graduating from college. At that time, I was working in a field completely unrelated to finance or consulting. United Research was eventually acquired and became Gemini Consulting, a company more recognizable today, and one of the top consulting firms in the US at the time, competing with giants like McKinsey and Andersen.
Gemini Consulting had a very specific methodology around business reengineering, which was the big buzzword in the 80s and 90s. As we entered the late 90s and 2000s, this concept evolved into what we now know as business transformation, which is broader in scope. Gemini created a training program called Gemini University for its new consultants, focusing on their unique methodology.
I was also part of the early group that founded the Business Transformation Academy in Berlin, Germany, where we developed the Business Transformation Management Methodology. In short, I started as a junior financial consultant and gradually climbed the ranks in the business transformation world.
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?
One of the most unusual mistakes I experienced in my 35-plus-year career happened in the late 80s. I was part of a team of 8–10 consultants hired by a large multinational company to analyze some issues in one of their departments. We conducted interviews, performed diagnostics, and started to understand the company’s division. About two weeks in, we presented our initial findings to the leaders, and their reaction immediately told us something was very wrong.
They questioned why we were talking to certain people, and it turned out that we had been working in the wrong division of the company due to crossed wires. It was a horrible experience at the time, but looking back, it’s quite a memorable story.
After realizing the mistake, we quickly scrambled to reset and focus on the correct division. Unfortunately, I never saw that particular team leader again, but I learned a valuable lesson.
It’s crucial to ensure that both you and the client are clear about the project’s scope and the people you’re supposed to be working with. The wires crossing wasn’t entirely the project leader’s fault, as even the people we were working with didn’t realize they were the wrong ones. This taught me the importance of clear communication and thorough introductions from the onset of any project.
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?
There are two people who had a significant impact on my journey. The first one was my mentor during my time at Gemini Consulting. He was one of the senior leaders and apparently saw potential in me. He would push me hard, and when I got frustrated, he would challenge me by saying that if I couldn’t handle it, they would have to find someone to replace me. This motivated me to improve and not let him down, as I had immense respect for him and wanted to live up to his expectations.
The second person is a successful businessman in Rochester, NY, where I live, whom I’ve known for about 25 years. His example as a business leader and his contributions to the community have been truly inspiring. In fact, his influence led me to start a charity foundation to give back to the community. Both individuals played a crucial role in shaping my career and personal growth.
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?
Our vision for Aspire was rooted in the idea that just as people need assistance to take care of their bodies and health, businesses, as living entities, also require expert guidance and support. In the same way that we need doctors or dentists to help us with our health, we saw Aspire as a provider of specialized care for companies.
The purpose of our organization has always been to serve as “doctors for companies.” Our expertise enables us to diagnose, understand, and prescribe treatments for businesses, working alongside our clients to help them become healthier and stronger. This vision has guided us throughout our journey, shaping the way we approach each client and the solutions we provide.
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?
While I could offer up a story from Aspire, I would like to instead share an impactful story about one of our clients, Peter, who is the local businessman I mentioned earlier. This story takes place during the credit crisis when the economy was suffering due to a cascade of financial implications. Peter’s company was going through a tough time with a decline in orders and supply chain issues, like what many businesses experienced during the pandemic.
Peter gathered his entire team, with members from offices all around the world, for a crucial meeting. He explained the dire situation — sales were down, and they needed to cut costs. With a heavy heart, he told his employees that they would all have to take pay cuts, himself included. He allowed this information to sink in, giving everyone time to process the implications for their personal lives.
After a few minutes, he continued, saying he didn’t want anyone to take a pay cut. Instead, he proposed a plan that would only work if everyone stepped up together. He set ambitious sales targets for the upcoming quarters and stated that if the entire company — not just the sales and marketing teams — could meet these targets, no one would have to take a pay cut.
This brilliant strategy succeeded. The company rallied together, fought back, achieved their sales targets, and avoided pay cuts for anyone. Hearing this story was incredibly inspiring to me, showcasing how a great leader can motivate their team to overcome challenges during difficult times.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I must say that I’ve never considered giving up, and there are two main reasons for that. Firstly, I can’t imagine not being a business owner. I’m an unemployable entrepreneur — I need to work for myself.
Secondly, and more importantly, I genuinely love what we do at Aspire. I appreciate all our clients, even the challenging ones. When we help a business improve, we’re not only positively impacting the health and life of the company, but we’re also directly affecting the lives, happiness, and paychecks of the people working within that organization. In my opinion, there are few things more rewarding than this profession.
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?
There are two books that had a significant impact on me and inspired me to become an effective leader. The first one is Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” It’s a brilliant work, and not only did I read the book, but I also attended some training programs and seminars led by Stephen Covey, learning directly from him. That experience was incredibly influential.
The second book is an even older classic, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Both books are well-known and have greatly informed my approach to leadership. I’ve put many of the principles from these books into practice throughout my career.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is being present and showing support for their team. Whether you have two employees or 200 employees, it’s crucial to demonstrate that you’re behind them and doing everything you can to support them. It’s important to maintain a strong presence even when you may not feel like it. Being there for your employees and customers during difficult times is more important than celebrating during the easy times. A leader must be present and steadfast through it all.
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?
The best way to boost morale when the future seems uncertain is to break up the monotony. Oftentimes, people come in, do their job, and repeat the same tasks daily. If you want to keep people engaged, motivated, and interested in what they do, challenge them, and find ways to break up the monotony. This could involve organizing an intercompany challenge, hosting a surprise event like a cupcake hour, or introducing other creative initiatives. The key is to prevent the company from falling into a rut and ensuring that every role remains dynamic and engaging.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers is to be open and frank. Avoid sugarcoating the situation or downplaying its severity. You’ll find that people are more likely to rally when they understand you’re being honest with them and that you still value them. Assure them that you’re committed to making the relationship work and overcoming the current challenges. Emphasize that in the long run, you aim for improvement and want them to be part of the journey as a united team.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In an unpredictable future, leaders must embrace the uncertainty and focus on creating robust and flexible plans. While it’s impossible to account for every potential outcome, you can design plans that withstand various scenarios. Stress-test your plans by considering situations where you might exceed or fall short of your targets, and evaluate how your organization would manage cash flow, inventory, and other aspects.
During uncertain times, adopt a more adaptable mindset. Set up your organization like a willow tree that bends with the wind rather than a rigid brick wall. This flexibility allows your organization to better navigate challenges and adjust to changing circumstances as needed.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The most important principle for guiding a company through turbulent times is adaptability. Companies that are nimble and can quickly adapt to changing circumstances are better positioned to handle adversity than those with rigid structures and policies. Smaller and midsize businesses often have an advantage in this area, as they can react more rapidly to uncertainties.
A prime example of adaptability was seen during the pandemic when businesses that could swiftly transition to remote work, online conferences, and video teleconferencing thrived, while others struggled to adjust. In times of turbulence, being able to pivot and respond to change is crucial for any organization to succeed.
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?
Here are 3 common mistakes businesses make during difficult times, along with advice on how to avoid them:
- Cutting marketing budgets: Many businesses tend to cut their marketing budgets during hard times, not realizing that marketing is crucial for generating cash flow. To avoid this mistake, remember that marketing is an essential part of your business’s lifeline and should be maintained to ensure consistent cash flow.
- Offering large discounts: Companies may offer significant discounts to attract more customers, but this often comes at the expense of the bottom line. Instead of focusing on discounts, consider other strategies like improving customer experience, product offerings, or targeted marketing to boost sales without sacrificing profit margins.
- Neglecting the long-term perspective: In difficult times, it’s easy for businesses to become too focused on immediate problems and overlook long-term goals and planning. To avoid this mistake, keep a long-term perspective in mind and continue investing in your company’s growth, even during challenging times. This might involve employee training, innovation, or exploring new market opportunities.
By avoiding these common mistakes, businesses can better navigate through difficult times and emerge stronger and more resilient.
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.
Here are five essential things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times, along with stories or examples to illustrate each point:
- Adaptability: During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses had to shift their operations rapidly to adapt to new working conditions. For example, a leader in the tech industry quickly transitioned their entire workforce to remote work, streamlined their processes, and implemented new communication tools to maintain productivity. By being adaptable, they were able to keep their business running smoothly despite the sudden change.
- Resilience: In the face of an economic downturn, a small business owner faced the challenge of declining sales and tight cash flow. Instead of giving up, they focused on finding creative ways to cut costs and streamline operations while maintaining their commitment to quality. Their resilience allowed them to weather the storm and eventually rebound, stronger than before.
- Empathy: During a period of company-wide layoffs, a leader had to deliver difficult news to their team. Instead of merely announcing the decision, the leader took the time to sit down with each affected team member, express empathy for their situation, and offer support in finding new opportunities. By demonstrating empathy, the leader maintained the trust and respect of their remaining team members, making it easier to navigate the difficult times together.
- Communication: When a manufacturing company faced supply chain disruptions due to international trade restrictions, the CEO made it a priority to communicate regularly and transparently with their employees, suppliers, and customers. By keeping all stakeholders informed about the challenges and the steps being taken to address them, the CEO was able to maintain trust and confidence, ultimately minimizing the negative impact on the business.
- Visionary thinking: A startup founder, faced with a rapidly changing market and increased competition, realized that their initial business model was no longer viable. Instead of stubbornly clinging to their original plan, the founder took a step back, re-evaluated the situation, and pivoted to a new strategy that better aligned with the current market needs. This visionary thinking allowed the startup to survive the turbulence and eventually thrive in the new landscape.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite “Life Lesson Quote” is “Success doesn’t happen overnight,” attributed to John Gokongwei. John Gokongwei was a highly successful businessman who, until his passing in November 2019 at the age of 93, was the third-richest person in the Philippines. He was the founder of JG Summit, a conglomerate with interests in various industries, including airlines, telecom, banking, food, power, and property.
This quote resonates with me because it emphasizes the importance of consistency, hard work, and perseverance in achieving our goals. Gokongwei’s own journey is a testament to this principle. He started with a cornstarch plant in 1957, which has since grown into Universal Robina Corporation, one of the country’s largest food and beverage companies. His relentless dedication and determination to succeed have inspired me to value the small, consistent efforts I make every day, as they ultimately contribute to my long-term success and growth.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Ron Dougherty of Aspire Transformation Services On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.