Embracing the Curve

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“A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.”
– Jeff Bezos

 

Local Leaders on How They Handle Unexpected Change

When it comes to change in the workplace, experienced leaders will tell you that it can take months of careful consideration to put a solid plan into action. But when unprecedented circumstances arise, leaders often have to take decisive action to quickly avoid catastrophe.

Here, we’ve asked eight local leaders to reflect on how they’ve handled unexpected challenges in their careers. While it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, they’ve certainly learned a thing or two about weathering the storm and coming back stronger.

hiren desai

Hiren Desai

CEO, 3H Group

Tell us about an unforeseen circumstance you’ve had to navigate as a leader.

In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, our industry was hit particularly hard as a result of the travel shutdowns that took place. Unfortunately, this required us to furlough and lay off nearly all of our associates, which was incredibly difficult.

How do you mitigate stress for your team in challenging times?

As a leader you don’t panic. My team was with me for years. They all came back with 100% support for our company and did what they needed to do. We rallied together to get to where we are. We continued to do things that we all enjoyed as a team.

When facing unforeseen challenges, what should leaders prioritize?

Our focus has always been on maintaining the principles of hospitality. Prioritizing communication and treating people with respect is the key. We stuck to our fundamentals and weathered the storm, and in fact almost doubled our portfolio during the pandemic. It also made us more diverse in the business we do.

How do you anticipate future challenges?

We continue with the attitude of “prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” we are going to stick to our core fundamentals and, as mentioned above, continue to diversify.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The most important part of doing business in good times and bad times alike is maintaining respectful relationships.

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taylor monen

Taylor Monen

Owner, Monen Family Restaurant Group

Tell us about an unforeseen circumstance you’ve had to navigate as a leader.

My husband and I opened our first restaurant together in the fall of 2008. Our first big challenge was that just two months after we opened, the financial crisis of 2008 happened. I was seven months pregnant with our son, our daughter was two, and we had just put our life savings into opening a restaurant when we watched the entire world crash. I think our whole success was kind of born in crisis, if that makes sense.

What challenges did you have to overcome, and what did they teach you?

In the restaurant industry, people always see your success but they don’t realize what it took to get there. There’s been a lot of failure, too. That’s the part that most people don’t see, the failures that you face, whether it’s a restaurant that you opened in the wrong location or a concept that was not as successful as you hoped it would be. With these one-off, unique restaurant concepts, sometimes you don’t get it right. But the quicker you can admit that you got it wrong, the quicker you can fix it and find success. We’ve opened restaurants, we’ve closed restaurants, we’ve moved, and we’ve reinvented ourselves in the same location before.

When facing unforeseen challenges, what should leaders prioritize?

For us, it’s always been our team. We’ve found success in opening restaurants from the ground up, conceptualizing and building our concepts, but I’ve always said it’s not the buildings that the restaurants are in, it’s the people who run them. We wanted to grow our business with a team of great people, and we always focus on providing opportunities for them to advance. During hard times, we focus on our teams and look to the future together.

How do you mitigate stress for your team in challenging times?

We’ve always been extremely transparent with our teams, whether it’s our financial situation, the growth plans that we have, or just the way that we expect daily operations to be run. Transparency has always been something that we’ve had with our team, so I think that that alleviates a lot of stress that comes from the nature of the restaurant business. It’s not as predictable of a work environment as other industries may have, so you really have to build trust with your team.

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Taylor (left) and Mike (right) Monen, Owners

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jack fromm

Jack Fromm

Partner at DX Management LLC., American Family Care

Tell us about an unforeseen circumstance you’ve had to navigate as a leader.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to manage processes and CDC guidelines that changed almost daily while remaining committed to delivering high-quality healthcare with compassion and protecting our staff.

What challenges did you have to overcome, and what did they teach you?

We overcame this challenge by being flexible, making adjustments, listening to our staff, and remaining committed to reviewing our patient platform so that we could use all of this information to create processes and protocols and continue to deliver services. Throughout this experience, we learned that staying committed to the basic foundational principles was and is our pathway to success. We also learned that we, as a human race, are remarkably resilient people.

When facing unforeseen challenges, what should leaders prioritize?

Don’t panic, remain calm! Never lose sight of the fact that the patient is most important, and never lose sight of the commitment to operating with a servant’s heart. Take your staff and patients’ perspectives into consideration throughout all of your decision making. 

How do you mitigate stress for your team in challenging times?

Stand firm on your core principles and beliefs. History shows that cooler minds will prevail!

How do you anticipate future challenges?

By paying attention! Markets change, supply and demand change, products and services change, and you have to pay attention.

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pedro cherry

Pedro Cherry

President & CEO, Chattanooga Gas

Tell us about an unforeseen circumstance you’ve had to navigate as a leader.

We have a unique business. While most utilities can do their work on the outside of a customer’s home or business, we routinely enter premises for service calls to establish new service, relight customers to get the gas back on, and check for leaks or emergencies. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, we had to quickly pivot to ensure the safe, reliable, and affordable delivery of uninterrupted natural gas service.

What challenges did you have to overcome, and what did they teach you?

Starting with the mindset that we are providing an essential service and interruption was not an option, we established new protocols for our field employees to focus on safety. We constantly listened to our employees and engaged external industry experts to adjust as we continued to learn.

We were navigating waters no one on our team had ever experienced. More frequent communication, active listening, collaboration, and flexibility to pivot were vital in our ability to succeed. We relied on our established culture and values – safety, unquestionable trust, total commitment, and superior performance.

When facing unforeseen challenges, what should leaders prioritize?

We began increasing our focus on overall well-being years ago, but the pandemic magnified that need and affirmed our commitment. We must reinforce discipline, self-care, focus, simplification, and being brilliant at the basics. Displaying empathy and courage, intently listening, connecting the company’s purpose, and promoting teamwork, empowerment, and agility while inspiring confidence are key during these times. It’s extremely important for leaders to model the way and be willing to take the first step, speak the first word, and be the first to fail at something new in order to help the team grow to achieve short- and long-term success.

What steps do you take to anticipate future challenges?

We stay informed and encourage diverse perspectives and thoughts to ensure our plans are robust and flexible. This includes listening to our employees and all external stakeholders. Anticipating the future is not about predicting it with certainty, but being prepared, adaptable, and open to change. We want to have a framework that can adapt to black swan events while being bold and prepared to seize opportunities that exist.

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adam kinsey

Adam Kinsey

Partner, Kinsey Probasco Hays

Tell us about an unforeseen circumstance you’ve had to navigate as a leader.

I was surprised in 2016 when I started redeveloping the Chattanooga Choo Choo that not everyone was on board with the changes. I view the property in three lives: the train station that existed from 1909 to 1970, the tourism-focused complex that opened in 1973, and the new iteration currently under construction that is geared at welcoming both locals and guests of all types. Closing concepts that had grown tired and that were no longer viable was difficult but necessary.

What challenges did you have to overcome, and what did they teach you?

We learned to communicate with both team members and the local community as much as possible about the changes underway and to build excitement about the new businesses coming to the Southside. We also hosted several free events to reintroduce people to the area so that they could experience the vision. There are more locals enjoying the historic property now than at any time in the past 50 years. We took a 25-acre property that focused inward and literally opened it out to the community with new roads, sidewalks, and entrances.

When facing unforeseen challenges, what should leaders prioritize?

Relationships. A lot of real estate development is about relationships with tenants, lenders, contractors, and the community. At the beginning of COVID-19, no one knew how to proceed but we knew we had to try and help our tenants as much as possible, so we were able to pause rent payments until a clear path came into focus. We also helped connect tenants with local and state resources as much as possible. We view ourselves as part of the tenant’s team and work to promote them as much as possible.

What steps do you take to anticipate future challenges?

Real estate development is about how cities grow and evolve. I like to zoom out and look at the bigger picture, and with the explosive growth of the Southside area there are a lot of big projects that will have a push and pull affect downtown over the next decade. Plan for where you think the ball will be, not where it is now.

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travis lytle

Travis Lytle

Director of Community Development, SmartBank

Tell us about an unforeseen circumstance you’ve had to navigate as a leader.

I’m responsible for making sure we make the appropriate amount of loans to small businesses, businesses located in low-to-moderate income areas, and entities that serve low-to-moderate-income individuals. When loan rates increased, loan volume tended to slow down, therefore I had to be more intentional and proactive to ensure we were still servicing our communities.

What challenges did you have to overcome, and what did they teach you?

I implemented a few of our core values: be enthusiastic, create positivity, and embrace change. These have always been our core values, but you never know when you may have to use them.

“Be enthusiastic” is a reminder to remain optimistic and excited during unconventional times and adopt a “this too shall pass” attitude. 

“Create positivity” means remaining positive and taking a proactive approach with your job and current circumstances. 

Embracing change is about having an attitude that will allow you to endure. If you don’t embrace change, you will become negative and give up. You must embrace change for the morale of your team and coworkers, and you must remember that the community is counting on you. 

When facing unforeseen challenges, what should leaders prioritize?

I think leaders should first focus on being solution-oriented and solving the problem. We should focus on the current situation and the positive elements of our role and the company’s objectives. We should adopt a “what can we do under the current circumstances?” approach. You may have heard the phrase “make lemonade out of lemons” – we all know lemonade can be very refreshing on a hot day!

How do you mitigate stress for your team in challenging times?

Continue encouraging your team, providing updates, and communicating wins. Creating a “pivot plan” is also instrumental; your team wants to know that you have a plan regardless of the circumstances.

What steps do you take to anticipate future challenges?

I always have a plan B or “pivot plan,” which in my case consists of other ways we can help our communities and meet our goals. 

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darlene brown

Darlene Brown

Founder, President, & Downtown Managing Broker, Real Estate Partners Chattanooga

Tell us about an unforeseen circumstance you’ve had to navigate as a leader.

After 40 years, the real estate industry has taught me to expect the unexpected. Even the sometimes-turbulent circumstances of recessions, brand mergers, or partnership changes can be overcome if you lead your team to think, plan, and respond with a long-term mindset. Short-term thinking can be devastating to a person or business.

Real Estate Partners Chattanooga experienced a 92% increase in the number of REALTORS® at our company over three and a half years. Inevitably, it has introduced new challenges for our team to overcome.

What challenges did you have to overcome, and what did they teach you?

Some examples include increased workload on employees, changing needs in office space, and new technology and systems to benefit our agents and their clients in an ever-changing industry.

First, we hired to our weaknesses and added to our team. This both alleviated some workload from current staff and brought specialized, new skills needed for this season. We learned that hiring people who value teamwork was important in a company like ours and that you must be intentional to keep a growing staff connected across multiple office locations. 

We also expanded and renovated all three of our office locations over three years. We added more individual offices, group workspaces, and large training areas. We learned that allowing room for future growth is important as you expand.

Lastly, we invested heavily in our technology toolkit and many of our internal operating systems to respond to our agents’ and clients’ changing needs. However, change can be uncomfortable. We learned that introducing change over time is best, if possible, and that our industry requires providing diverse options because every agent’s business needs are different.   

How do you mitigate stress for your team in challenging times?

Keep people first. Communicate clearly and often with your team so they feel a part of the growth and changes. Look for opportunities for team members to contribute in ways that progress them toward their personal goals. Be intentional about taking time to connect as a team, even when you’re busier than ever. Give your team a reprieve when they need to recharge and recognize and reward their contributions to the company’s long-term success. Expect the next unexpected thing, and welcome it with a positive, calm response.

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rebecca ashford

Dr. Rebecca Ashford

President, Chattanooga State Community College

Tell us about an unforeseen circumstance you’ve had to navigate as a leader.

We recently had to navigate a cyber incident that forced us to shut down our computer systems. Immediate challenges involved assessing and limiting damage. They shifted into how to continue courses (which all have an electronic component) and give our employees and students access to their accounts with little to no access to IT systems. In a way, we had to rebuild the college in short order.

What challenges did you have to overcome, and what did they teach you?

To overcome the many challenges we faced, we had to widen our decision-making team to allow internal and external experts to assist us through the process. Our vice president for technology became the “incident commander” for the situation, and we all followed his lead. My role shifted to supporting him, and this situation was a reminder of the importance of shared leadership.

When facing unforeseen challenges, what should leaders prioritize?

This cyber incident made us all keenly aware of our core functions: teaching and learning. Very quickly, our focus became how to get students and faculty access to their classes so that they can fulfill our mission. I am truly proud of how quickly our Chattanooga State family made that happen.

How do you mitigate stress for your team in challenging times?

For the first week, almost no employees had access to email or any other computer system. This meant most employees could not do their jobs, so we decided to host a “campus workday.” On this day, faculty and staff from across the college helped our plant operations team lay mulch, clean windows, tear out flooring, and many other tasks. We ended the day with a cookout for employees. Everyone who participated had such a great time, and we all felt more connected to one another. Additionally, the extra help put our plant operations team two weeks ahead of schedule. We plan to hold this event twice a year in the future, so we were able to forge a new tradition out of this stressful situation.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

While this is not an incident I would like to experience again, I am grateful for the way it made our college stronger and enabled me and other leaders at the college to grow.

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