Entrepreneurs

Vulnerable Leadership Inspired This Team To Pull Together And Save The Company

Most mornings, Rob Dubé makes a cup of coffee and settles in near a window in his apartment that overlooks Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit. An urban core of the city, Rob loves to observe the energy of thousands of people streaming through and going about their daily lives. On a gray morning in early March, Rob looked down at the familiar landscape of high-rise buildings and was met with a surreal emptiness: almost no one was out there.

Rob and his business partner Joel Pearlman are Co-CEOs of imageOne, a managed print services company based in metro Detroit. The day before, they received word that one of their larger clients would be testing out working from home for the rest of the week. It was March 12th, and the pandemic was just starting to enter mainstream consciousness in Detroit.

“I picked up the phone and called Joel,” says Rob. “I told him what I was seeing — downtown Detroit is nearly empty. This is real, and if other companies follow suit, this is going to hit us hard. Let’s get ahead of this.” 

Keeping the Team Together

That Friday, imageOne’s executive team gathered for a weekend of intensive planning. Rob and Joel, along with their controller Emily Kmita and president Josh Britton, put themselves to task modeling out the worst-case scenario and financial impact. Pretty quickly, they identified the two priorities that would serve as a litmus test for all of the decisions that lie ahead: they wanted to remain a financially healthy company, and they wanted to protect the financial and mental well-being of their team members. They knew each of those goals couldn’t happen without the other. 

“People often wonder if culture really pays off,” says Rob. “This is when we find out if our culture is what we think it is. This is where all of the hard work we’ve put into building our culture shows up. We’ll find out if it’s for real.”

imageOne has team members in eleven different states, and as stay-at-home orders went into place around the country, the impact on its business was swift and significant. A large portion of the company’s recurring revenue relies on people being in the office printing pages, and they watched those numbers decline in real time. New business was put on hold, service calls declined — worst case scenario, they predicted a 70 percent drop in revenue.

“Based on our projections, we knew we needed to make deep cuts to payroll,” says imageOne President Josh Britton. “Making cuts to expenses and travel was easy — the painful part was jobs. Rather than resort to lay-offs, we wanted to share the pain with the objective of keeping everyone together. We decided to put it to the team to share ideas on how we could get through this in one piece.”

Financial Transparency

After briefing the management team, they made plans for an all-hands video conference meeting on Friday morning to share information with the team and bring them into the planning process. They came up with a simple math problem that projected the reduction of revenue in the worst-case scenario. Josh would lay out the situation and ask for the team’s help in finding additional cuts and deciding how to reduce payroll. Starting the next week, each department would meet to come up with alternative ideas for protecting the financial health of the organization.

“Practicing open-book management gave us a head start,” says Rob. “They know the numbers, they know what an income statement is and they understand the importance of cash. Financial transparency really shows up in times like these — there’s no getting people up to speed, they just get it.”

But financial transparency doesn’t make delivering bad news any easier. Friday morning rolled around, and Josh delivered a clear yet vulnerable message to the team: we need to make payroll reductions and we need your ideas on how we can do that. Walking through their projections, they explained the guiding priorities they’d come up with, and showed what it would look like with full compensation and with reductions. In any scenario, Rob and Joel agreed to forgo their pay during this time.

“It was the hardest meeting I’ve ever led,” says Josh. “You’re looking at 62 faces on your screen, and it’s going to impact every single one of them. There were a lot of tears, and there was a lot of shock. But I was most overwhelmed by feeling the energy of the call shift in real time. People immediately fell in love with the idea of keeping this team together.”

One by one, people started chiming in to encourage one another and express gratitude. One person spoke up and said, “We’re a family, let’s stick together.” Another team member gave a 5-minute long, impromptu motivational speech. Of course nobody liked the new reality — pretty much everybody spent the afternoon away from their work, adjusting their family’s budgets and calling creditors, but the energy was positive and united. 

“After the call, I broke down,” says Rob. “I’ve never been in a position to make a decision that so widely impacted everyone’s financial situation. It felt surreal, I didn’t know what to do next. It was a difficult moment but also uplifting, because there was so much beauty in how it unfolded.”

Let the Answers Come from Within

For the next few days, team members went to work generating new ideas. As each team met, they were guided by the two priorities originally defined by the leadership team: to protect the financial health of the company and the financial and mental well-being of its team members. By the end of the week, they had nearly one hundred cost-cutting and revenue-generating ideas. Ultimately, the team landed in the same place as the leadership team: they would all take a deep payroll cut. Not only that, but team members started stepping up behind the scenes to take additional concessions.

“The true test of one’s character is what they do when no one’s watching,” says Josh. “Team members started calling me offline and offering to be at the back of the line when we start returning to full compensation. They thought others might be struggling more, and they wanted to keep the company together and healthy. Not for merit or accolades – just because they care.”

With some team members having more time on their hands, they’re taking the opportunity to get creative and dream up new possibilities for the future. People from across the company have formed an ideation committee for six weeks of facilitated creative thinking. At the end, everyone will take their best idea and pitch it to the company in a Shark Tank style presentation.

“In a way, we’ve been given a gift. We’re using this time wisely,” says Rob. “Most of our competitors have laid off at least a third of their staff, and eventually, they’re going to have to retool and get people back in and get organized. We know that we’re stronger together, and we’re proving that we can get through anything.”

Make Tough Decisions Early

Every day is a new day in this crisis, and imageOne’s worst-case scenario projections have yet to come to fruition. So far, the decline in revenue hasn’t been as bad as predicted, so team members haven’t taken the full paycheck reduction they planned for. imageOne also secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, and the team will be back to full compensation by the time the next paycheck hits their bank accounts. With things changing so quickly, the key is staying close and keeping everyone well-informed.

“Information is top priority,” says Josh. “Without it, negative talk gets going and people can make assumptions and it causes panic. We meet regularly and we’re open, honest, and transparent. Information automatically lowers the temperature for everyone.”

Genuine Care for the Team

On paper, the events of the last month would be catastrophic for a small business like imageOne. But all the work they’ve done to define their purpose provides a strong foundation for navigating this new terrain. To ensure they are genuinely caring for team members through this time, they started surveying everyone three times a week: do you feel cared for, connected, and informed? It’s now a company metric included in their scorecard, and the goal is to have 90 percent of team members reporting positively.

Even with social distancing, the team is staying close and keeping tabs on each other’s overall health and wellness. imageOne uses a method called the Simple Six to meaningfully check in with team members and the most important aspects of their well-being: mindfulness, sleep, nutrition, movement, connection, and gratitude. It’s a practical list that tends to uncover underlying issues pretty quickly, and gives leadership an opportunity to provide support. In the battle of crisis versus culture, culture is winning at imageOne. 

“This is a reshuffling of the deck that really caters to people who are purpose-driven,” says Josh. “I have a deep sense of hope and faith in this moment, and that comes from every single person in this company. That’s the only place I need to look to believe in what we’re doing, why and who we’re doing it for.”

In the Small Giants Community and beyond, purpose-driven leaders are stepping up to do what’s right when it matters most. Read their stories here.

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Forbes – Entrepreneurs

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