Jim Vaselopulos of Rafti Advisors On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
15 min readNov 29, 2023

The first thing you need to do is remain calm and patient. ER doctors aren’t running around panicking and yelling at everyone. They are calm. They collect the patient and immediately start gathering information from the paramedics to assess the situation.

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 Jim Vaselopulos.

Jim Vaselopulos is a C-level business advisor and executive coach with a proven record as a leader, strategist, rainmaker, and expert in new business development. With his principled leadership, visionary approach, and effective execution, Jim has successfully established new companies and transformed underperforming organizations. As the founder of Rafti Advisors, Jim assists early-stage businesses in launching successfully, growth-stage enterprises in accelerating their progress, and established organizations in navigating complex challenges and strategic shifts. He teaches sales and professional development and frequently speaks on the subjects of leadership and innovation. Jim is also the co-host of The Leadership Podcast and the author of CLARITY: Business Wisdom to Work Less and Achieve More (Ignite Press).

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?

Here’s what I love about this question… I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with many people through the years and in recent years (the past 7) I’ve been interviewing leaders from all around the world on The Leadership Podcast. In that time, I haven’t found a single successful person who has had their life go according to “plan.” Everyone has had twists and turns along a path they never would have anticipated. The same can be said for me.

I’ve had countless jobs and at least four distinct careers. I’ve enjoyed them all and had success in each. But this last portion of my life, operating as a business advisor and executive coach could not have happened without my seemingly haphazard career ramblings.

I share this because it is important for younger professionals to know that everything doesn’t have to go ‘perfect’ or ‘by the book’ for success to find you. In fact, success may only find you when you have an open mind to the possibilities ahead.

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?

Mistakes never feel funny at the time. They are often painful and embarrassing. In one instance, however, I immediately knew exactly how funny it was.

I was climbing the corporate ladder early in my career and I was promoted quite quickly behind some superiors who were also ascending the ranks. At one point in time my direct boss and his superior were both promoted in rapid succession to run other business units. That left me alone with no superior. On paper, I was reporting directly to the CEO of a rather large multi-national organization.

I went about my duties for a while until I was invited to a rather important offsite meeting at a fancy golf resort in Florida. Attendees were all direct reports of the CEO. I’m quite sure nobody at the top-level administrative staff knew exactly who I was… but they knew I reported to the CEO… at least on paper.

I was given instructions to prepare a presentation on a topic familiar to me, so I assumed the invitation was legitimate. This assumption was my mistake. I should have inquired a bit deeper about the legitimacy of the invitation.

When I showed up at this event it was entirely obvious, I did not belong. The worst part was that I didn’t even have the appropriate attire for an event of this type. I fumbled through the event and a round of golf I’d rather forget. It was terribly awkward, mildly embarrassing, and honestly quite funny. You could hardly write a sitcom with a better plotline.

A few folks showed kindness and shepherded me through the event. Everyone was civil, but upon arriving home from Florida, I was promptly assigned to a new supervisor.

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 so many people who I am grateful for. I would not be where I am today without my parents and my family. Their influence is peppered throughout the pages of my book. You can read those stories there.

One person, that is not in the book, but that I always speak of fondly is Charles “Chas” Mulcahy; a successful lawyer and a huge benefactor of Marquette University, I was lucky enough to have him as a facilitator of an international business program during my MBA program there. Chas was exceptionally kind to me and a remarkable mentor. He helped me start my own business and guided me through some heady times at the dawn of the Internet age. His wise counsel is something I think of frequently.

One evening we were enjoying a Marquette basketball game together and I thanked him for all his help. I made the mistake of asking how I could ever repay him for his kindness. Slightly amused, he chuckled and responded by telling me that I was foolish to think I could repay him. He didn’t quite scold me, but he guided me toward a stronger position. He let me know that it was my responsibility to take what I’ve learned and “pay it forward.” I’ve been doing that ever since.

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?

I’m exceptionally grateful to have had many personal and professional mentors in my life. I would not have achieved the success I did without my parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, and many mentors guiding my development. The purpose of Rafti Advisors is to honor them by passing on the wisdom I received through their counsel. Additionally, I honor their contributions by intentionally nurturing the next generation of leaders that will carry the torch forward. The work I do on The Leadership Podcast and ultimately, the writing of my book Clarity, are important factors in the overall mission of helping people see the path forward as it was shown to me.

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?

Perhaps the most challenging time of my business career was the bursting of the dot.com bubble in the early 2000’s. The firm I had joined had just finished huge Y2K projects and had hundreds of consultants that were “on the bench.” I was the “Internet guy” and was supposed to help bring a new type of work into the business. The bursting of the bubble pretty much killed that idea.

The next five years were perhaps the most intense set of work experiences I would ever face for the remainder of my career. Our company experienced just about every problem a business could encounter. As consultants and members of an industry that was unraveling, we were able to observe and experience a concentration of existential business problems that was unprecedented in recent times.

From a leadership perspective it was critical to remain calm, remain open, be positive and be decisive.

In a world where everyone was panicking, it was a challenge to remain calm and positive. But the key was to be a bit of a contrarian. Other companies were hunkering down, making overly aggressive cuts, and preparing for a “winter storm.” So, while others panicked, we remained positive that not all was lost. Just because business activity had decreased did not mean it disappeared entirely. By staying open to new opportunities, we were able to adapt and take advantage of the many opportunities that still existed in the marketplace. By remaining calm, our customers saw a partner worthy of their trust and our employees were comforted by a firm hand guiding their future. Couple that with unabashed decisiveness and we outworked the competition and prospered as a result.

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

I’m one of those people who is driven by people telling me I can’t do something. That stubborn streak has stuck with me and has been a big part of my success. And while I’ve abandoned business plans that were poorly conceived, giving up is not something that exists comfortably within my DNA. I’m pretty good at finding a successful path when obstacles are placed in my way.

I’m sure some psychologist would have a field day analyzing this response, but it’s honest. I would rather die trying than give up when I commit myself to an objective.

I think this drive comes from a strong sense of responsibility instilled upon me by my parents and the way I saw other people trust them. When other people are depending on me, I never want to let my team or my friends down. That’s not to say I’ve never failed, but it does mean that I will leave “everything on the field.” I like responsibility. I seek it and I own it.

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 many great books out there and many authors who have had an incredible impact on my trajectory. If I were to single one business book out it would be The Experience Economy by Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore. I heard Joe speak many years ago and he blew my mind with that book. He presented the missing piece I was struggling to find as we fine-tuned the value proposition of our consulting business. As Joe spoke, I vividly remember looking at my business partner the moment we simultaneously realized this was the missing piece for our growing business.

At that time, I was one of those guys who was “too busy” to read business books. But Joe’s speech got me to read his book and open my mind. The book then got me to crave other books and the ideas within them. The Experience Economy holds a prominent spot on my bookshelf and a special place in my heart.

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

Remain calm. Remain open. Be positive. Be decisive.

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?

Everyone’s morale improves when we understand how to connect what we are doing today to a better and brighter future. It’s one thing to talk about a future replete with unicorns and rainbows, but it is an entirely different effort to describe how we can arrive there. Morale is low when the future seems bleak and unattainable. Morale is higher when we see how the actions we take today make the perceived better future a tangible reality.

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

It is important to recognize that all communication is received in stereo. What I mean by this is that there are two channels — the logical channel and the emotional channel. Consider them to be equivalent to the left channel and the right channel in any music you enjoy. If the two channels are not in sync, then the music doesn’t sound good. The same is true for any type of interpersonal communication. The logical portion of your communication (the facts) needs to be in sync with the emotional elements (the narrative) of your communication. The narrative and the facts need to be tight for a story to be credible, relatable, and effective. And when the news is difficult, the need for a tight storyline is even higher.

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

I’d like to challenge a big assumption embedded in this question. The assumption is that the unpredictability of the future is beyond our capacity to accommodate within a plan. In my opinion, the future is more predictable than you think. The key to projecting into the future is to focus on what you know — the knowns — and identify the parameters that you know less about.

A good business strategist is always looking at the odds of things happening much like a casino examines the odds of any particular outcome. Look at the rise of online betting within the world. What could be more unpredictable than the outcome of a football game on any given Saturday or Sunday. But the reality is that people make a good living setting the odds for these games with an incredibly high degree of variable inputs. To suggest that we can’t also do this within our business is to be quite lazy.

The key is that you can’t just have one plan. You must have many embedded and complementary plans. Together, you can weave these plans into a strategy that is stronger and more resilient than any single “perfect” plan. Think about it this way: A single fiber of polymer plastic is not very strong. But when it is woven into a rope it can anchor a battleship and when it is woven into a vest, it can stop bullets.

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

When you are dealing with turbulent times, it is important to triage your response accordingly. The sequence of events of your response can determine the difference between success and failure. Companies often do all the right things… just in the wrong order.

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?

Perhaps the most common mistake businesses make is to overreact to a crisis situation. Consider drivers who oversteer in response to a skid or pilots who overreact to a crisis in the cockpit. In these cases, both drivers and pilots face the very real risk of a crash. For this reason, military pilots are instructed to slow down and “wind the clock” on the instrument panel to break the impulse to overreact. Businesses overreact and “crash” all the time. Although counter-intuitive, patience is a virtue that pays dividends in a crisis.

Another very real mistake is to treat symptoms rather than problems. Difficult times are typically busy and businesses race for solutions that numb the pain, but do not address the root cause. A powerful analgesic we often use in business is throwing skills training at a problem. This practice can feel good in the moment, but rarely solves the underlying problem. This knee-jerk reaction is only useful when the time and space created by the temporary relief of skills training is used to further investigate and address the root cause.

A more obvious answer in this spectrum is that we often make the mistake of letting our emotions rule the day. Fear is a powerful emotion that has the ability to cloud our judgment and overwhelm our best sensibilities. It is essential to recognize our emotions, but to ensure they only inform our responses rather than dictate them. We get into trouble when we emotionally react to a difficult situation. But when we are in tune with our emotions and allow them to inform a more rational response, we are in a far better position to succeed.

Perhaps the last common mistake worth discussing is how we often fool ourselves with the comfort of data that does nothing more than placate our emotional response. Data is powerful, but it can also be dangerous. It is essential that we don’t succumb to the temptation to cherry pick data that only confirms our intuition. It is essential that we don’t prematurely stop collecting and analyzing data until we know we have accounted for the data that could possibly disprove our assumptions.

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.

Let’s start by recognizing that we live in uncertain and turbulent times; something I don’t see changing anytime soon.

With that said, Let’s lay out five best leadership practices in the context of a single story. I prefer the tight-knit fabric of a unified story (as I’ve done in my book) so that each individual practice is not isolated, and the interdependencies are easier to see.

Here are the five best practices:

  1. Remain Calm and Patient,
  2. Gather Information Properly,
  3. Pressure Test Assumptions,
  4. Organize a Response with Proper Timing & Sequencing,
  5. Act Decisively.

Let’s consider the backdrop of our story as a car accident. Imagine you are an Emergency Room doctor receiving a patient that has just been wheeled into the ER.

The first thing you need to do is remain calm and patient. ER doctors aren’t running around panicking and yelling at everyone. They are calm. They collect the patient and immediately start gathering information from the paramedics to assess the situation.

ER doctors follow the same mantra that elite special operations forces follow — slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Being calm and patient is an outcome of being prepared for a variety of situations and confident in your basic abilities. Every business leader needs to “wargame” for a variety of situations and ensure that they are confident in their ability to deal with the requisite amount of uncertainty for their industry. You can’t sail a ship across uncharted waters without expecting a few big waves. To think otherwise is to invite chaos into your business.

The second thing the ER doctor does is gather information. But they do this in a very disciplined way. ER doctors will ask for data (blood pressure, heart rate, etc.), but they will also ask for context. Was this a car accident? Did the airbags deploy? What kind of vehicles were involved? All of this additional data offers important context to inform the next set of questions and diagnostic tests. If airbags deployed and our patient was in a subcompact car that was hit by a cement truck, we may have a greater concern regarding head trauma or internal bleeding.

When we are dealing with stressful situations our minds are hardwired to enable heuristic shortcuts that focus our attention but make us far more vulnerable to assumptions. This adrenaline-fueled stress response works great if we are attacked by a bear, but it works against us in any intellectual pursuit. ER attendants and effective leaders are quick to recognize this and challenge — or disconfirm — any assumptions. Just because a woman appears to be beyond child-bearing age does not mean the ER can avoid testing for pregnancy. Just because a patient looks ok does not mean there is not internal bleeding or the potential for cranial swelling due to brain trauma. ER doctors check for these conditions. Jumping to conclusions serves nobody well in the ER or in business.

With our patient analyzed and a clearer understanding of their condition, it is now time to formulate a plan. The patient may have compound fractures, external lacerations, missing teeth, head trauma and internal bleeding. All of these conditions are important and need to be dealt with. However, the order in which they are addressed is critical. Major arterial bleeding must be stopped first. Airways must be cleared. Other conditions are dealt with until we finally get to the missing teeth.

In business, we are often quick to fully dismiss business problems in turbulent times. These dismissed concerns often reprise themselves later with far greater consequence. You may fully heal from your car accident injuries, but showing up to a meeting without front teeth will eventually present its own set of problems. It is far better to approach business problems like the ER doctor… we will still deal with it… just not yet.

The final element of dealing with turbulent times is to act decisively when action is determined to be the worthy and vital next step. If surgery is required to confirm and repair internal bleeding… prepare the patient and start scrubbing! If cash controls are necessary, initiate them immediately. Delays born out of fear or the desire for perfect information can stall out every best effort to resolve a tough situation. Good may be the enemy of great, but perfect is the enemy of progress.

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

“Only do what only you can do.” As you ascend in leadership responsibility, you must keep this concept in mind. If you fail to train, trust and delegate, you will let yourself get bogged down by hanging on to the comfort of your past success. The future that is unique to you and your talents is only open when you let go of that which you should no longer be doing.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I try to put out relevant content for leaders to better themselves on a regular basis. You can follow my work in several ways:

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

--

--

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator