Alex DeBarr Of Naylor Association Solutions: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine
13 min readFeb 23, 2022


Take Care of yourself — by getting rest, family time, exercise and eating well.

As a 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 Alex DeBarr.

Alex DeBarr is president and CEO of Naylor Association Solutions, a leading provider of innovative association tools and services that strengthen member engagement and increase non-dues revenue. He has led Naylor since 2006 in its exclusive service to professional and trade associations in the U.S. and Canada. During his 15 years of leadership, Alex has piloted the company through a period of substantial expansion and strategic diversification through organic growth and acquisition, evolving the company to be a full-service provider of solutions that help associations communicate and engage with members, build their brands and generate important non-dues revenue. During Alex’s tenure, Naylor has tripled its client base and more than doubled its revenue. Before Naylor, Alex spent 22 years at Advanstar Communications (now part of Informa plc), the last nine years as an executive vice president overseeing the integrated event, publishing and digital franchises in the travel, hospitality, healthcare, powersports, veterinary medicine and automotive industries, among others.

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 graduated from college with a degree in journalism and started my career in 1984 as a writer/reporter for an automotive trade magazine at a large B2B publishing house. After a few years, I realized I wasn’t going to be happy in that kind of role, plus my wife was pregnant with our first child, so I started applying for other positions within the company. About six months later, I landed an advertising sales role. I was able to use my writing experience as an advantage in selling and understanding the publishing business.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I was younger than most peers as I moved up in the company, so my mistakes tended to be from being too aggressive or trying to do too many things at once. The first sales meeting I led had a five-page agenda for a one-day meeting and I was horrified when we only got about 25% of the way through it. I also showed up at a big in-person presentation with Champion Spark Plug and their ad agency with enough material for two days of pitches, but we only had an hour. I was about 26 at the time and I won the business but one of the Champion executives took me aside after and was pretty direct about how I almost didn’t get the business because I tried to present too much material. It was two valuable lessons about how to prioritize — be succinct and to the point.

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?

Early in my career, I was very fortunate to have been exposed to a number of executives who were very generous with their knowledge. I had several great mentors along the way who were very encouraging and helped me understand the need to continuously evolve as a person and as a professional. I learned that when you stop evolving, you will start failing. My mentors helped me learn how to do things — and sometimes, more importantly, how not to do things.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

I wasn’t at our company when it started, but the owners had the foresight to instill a clear purpose into the core values of the company. When I arrived as CEO 14 years ago, the company was under new ownership for the first time and we were actively trying to evolve what we did for our customers, how we did it and how to be more driven by results. It was a steep learning curve for the organization that had been run for many years like a small business.

Over time, we have crystallized our purpose — our primary customers are trade and professional associations and our company focus and tagline is “Naylor is devoted to building strong associations.” I think this has helped our customers understand who we are and helped our employees rally around our clients and focus on their success. Associations play such an important role in their industries and our job is to help them succeed. If we focus on that and on creating new opportunities for our people, we will be successful.

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?

Like many, we have faced plenty of adversity because of the COVID pandemic. I am very proud of our company’s response to the pandemic — we found ways to keep our employees safe and our customers front and center and re-invented our entire organizational structure to ensure the best possible service. We made some difficult decisions and a few mistakes along the way, but our people responded amazingly well to working from home, dealing with the COVID downturn, managing the personal anxiety they faced — and they trusted their leadership. I think the keys were that we acted quickly, communicated frequently and stayed positive.

As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to have a close-up view of executives in action early in my career, which spanned the recessions of 1987 and 1992, the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11. This exposure was probably more useful than an MBA in seeing how to deal with a crisis.

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

I was a pretty shy kid but in my late teens, I started to seek out leadership roles in school and at work. My parents were the children of immigrants who lived through the Great Depression, World War II and many other difficult moments into the ’60s and ’70s. They were very well educated and very down-to-earth and caring people, but in a crisis, they showed real strength and courage without losing their compassion or humility. Giving up was never an option for them, so I think I inherited from them my strong determination and ability to focus intently in the most difficult of moments. When there is a crisis, you really can’t think about giving up, nor can you let fear creep in and confuse things — whether it’s a personal crisis or a professional one.

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

There are three critical elements.

As a leader, you must fully embrace the responsibility that comes with leading, which means you stand up tall, you keep your head up, your eyes and ears open, stay positive and strive to be totally honest. In difficult times, people want to be led — whether it’s government, a company or family. I think real leadership is simply being visible, communicating often and being balanced and clear in that communication. If you don’t communicate about the crisis, what it means and what is being done to address it, your employees will start speculating about what’s happening. As leaders, we shouldn’t put them in that position. It isn’t fair to them.

I also think you must make sure you fully understand the crisis and what it means to your business. You can only create plans for leading out of the crisis if you understand it. And to fully understand it, you have to be the most pragmatic voice in the room. If a leader over or underreacts to the crisis, it ends up hurting everyone.

Finally, a leader must be the calmest, most measured and focused person in the room. That doesn’t mean being relaxed; it means maintaining a laser focus on what has to be done. It’s critical to keep your company focused on the right path.

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?

You have to be realistic about what you consider “boosting moral.” There are short-term actions you can take to help ease the stress of the situation — holding virtual happy hours, contests and other fun things that engage employees and build a sense of community.

I think the most important way to keep employees positive is to build and maintain the confidence they have in the leadership who are navigating the crisis. You do that by communicating with them regularly and in a way that helps them believe that leadership is aware of the crisis, has a plan or series of plans and will do the right things to move forward.

At all times — but particularly in tough times — letting your people see the human side of their leaders is very important. I think they want to know that you’re human and that the crisis is something that we are all dealing with together. Showing compassion in your actions, not just words, is important to earn their confidence and frankly, to maintain your own sanity.

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

The best way is to be direct, clear and concise while also showing confidence and compassion. In this day and age, there are few reasons to communicate important news — good or bad — via email. Face-to-face is always best and start with the folks who are impacted the most. Thankfully during the pandemic, we all had the technology to be able to speak directly to our people via video — it would have been so much more difficult without those tools.

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

You always must have a plan and this is particularly critical in times of crisis. Oftentimes, plans and goals get chopped up into shorter timeframes and smaller tasks, but employees and teams need extra guidance in a crisis and they generally welcome the discipline of following a plan and appreciate updates on progress.

Part of any plan should be identifying opportunities that often emerge during a crisis, such as opportunities to add new services or update processes for efficiency.

Obviously, when in a crisis, you have to keep a close eye on the crisis, proactively evaluate what it means to your business and then build contingency plans to cover the most likely scenarios. You have to dig in, be as informed as possible and be prepared to be surprised.

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

I don’t believe there is one principle. As we’ve discussed, identifying the issues and threats, developing a cohesive plan and attacking the issues and opportunities expediently are the keys. From there, you need to communicate early and often. You can’t be fearful of the crisis or afraid to make mistakes. In a crisis, what matters is forward movement — you can reverse a majority of bad decisions quickly if you are staying on top of the impacts.

The leadership team of a company must be able work well together and trust the effort, judgement and skills of each key member. Employees can usually tell if a management team is on the same page or not and senior managers need to help communicate and lead through their teams. It takes a cohesive team to succeed in tough times.

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?

  1. Some companies jump to conclusions or fall into the trap of following consensus thinking or conventional wisdom that is not always accurate or has proper context. It’s very important to analyze and assess the impact of a crisis on your company rather than rely entirely on outside information. Generalizations can be dangerous.
  2. Speed in assessment, taking swift action and increasing company-wide communication is vital. You can always reverse a decision, but you never get the time back that can be lost to inaction. Moving too slow to recognize issues and taking action is something I’ve seen hinder companies.
  3. Being overly conservative and simply “playing defense” during a difficult time is a natural reaction that can mask the opportunities that come from turbulent times. There are almost always opportunities during a challenging time, such as showing market leadership or creating new offerings. Look for opportunities to go on the offense — difficult times often reveal opportunities for improvements. Tough times slow us all down in some way, but I believe smart companies find ways to keep moving forward.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

I think it’s all about maintaining a balanced approach to your business — eliminating risk where possible (playing defense) but also acting on opportunities that are there to drive revenue and win market share — “playing offense.”

This is a little simplified, but to do this effectively your financial and operations teams must be the defense and your sales and marketing teams must be the offense. It sounds obvious but some companies lose sight of this.

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.

  1. Be the most informed about the crisis and the impact to your business and/or your customers:

Example: During COVID it was important to stay fully informed about the national and local impacts, rules, regulations, risks and how they were evolving. Employees and customers expect the CEO/Leader to be the most informed about the crisis and the specific impact to the company. Anyone can listen to the news; you need to get fully informed on the crisis impact to your business, keep your ears open for what other companies are doing, share your knowledge and make good decisions quickly.

2. Communicate more frequently to employees and your customers about what the crisis means to the company and/or what is being done to manage the crisis and update them on progress made:

In turbulent times or a crisis, employees look to leadership more than any other time for direction, inspiration and affirmation. And frankly, toughness. During COVID we increased the frequency of our company-wide video sessions to monthly, and even as the crisis has subsided somewhat, we are still doing that today. The leader has to be informed and have a planned message and format if he/she is going to put themselves out front. The benefit, if done well, is that employees can better focus on their job and not have sleepless nights knowing their leadership is on top of the situation and is open and honest about it.

3. Lead with enthusiasm, pragmatism, and humility:

The saying goes, “Leaders lead…” and you can’t lead from the back seat, or by appearing unprepared, insincere or arrogant. I believe people want to know their leaders have a plan and the chops to execute the plan — but especially today, they also want to know their leaders are human and have empathy for their people. In 2020 when there was a fair amount of political and social unrest on top of COVID, we tried to make clear to our people that we were paying attention to what was happening in the U.S., encouraged debate and activism. We reiterated our support for the fundamentals of fairness and equal opportunity for all without getting into political debates or specifics. We spoke with our people who are spread all over the country and come from a very wide variety of backgrounds, religions, sexual orientations, and races. They needed to know we were aware and had core beliefs. Also, if you are too positive or negative, employees will react to that, so I believe it’s important to convey a pragmatic approach but also find ways to convey a sense of humility and/or humor. Let your personality show.

4. Teach your organization to work with more speed and focus — and with less resource:

Not everyone is comfortable in stressful times. It’s upsetting, its distracting and can keep your employees from doing what they do best. The only way to learn how to function in troubled times is to live through it and learn how to stay focused on short-term goals, work as a close team, and to root for each other. A crisis sometimes creates animosity and short tempers so it’s very important to take the time to help the organization and leadership team understand how to channel efforts and focus on goals, not the crisis. Troubled times often bring changes, reductions, and other unpleasant actions. Be direct and timely with employees about reductions or other changes, then help them get reset and focused on getting through the crisis. Setting goals, and having some fun trying to achieve them, can help your company and people evolve in a way that will help them function better at work during and after the crisis is over.

5. Take Care of yourself — by getting rest, family time, exercise and eating well.

A crisis is stressful enough for leaders, but they often come with higher time demands, loss of routines and the addition of personal life stress. The best way to combat the unhealthy habits that can form during tough times is to be more diligent about your health and the health of your loved ones. You are no good to your family and company if you are not in good enough physical condition to make astute decisions and lead from out front. Many years ago, after a large acquisition that I lead, I was working way too many hours on the integration and running other businesses too. I got away from my regular exercise and eating routines, was getting little sleep and ran myself down. I literally dozed off for a second in a one-on-one meeting one night. I learned the hard way that you can’t lead effectively if you aren’t managing yourself and your health.

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

“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them and strong enough to correct them.” — John C. Maxwell, author, speaker and pastor

I have made plenty of mistakes. While the pain doesn’t always go away, I have learned from watching others and from my own experience, you cannot dwell on them. We all make mistakes — we have to take what we can from them and move forward.

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



Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market