Kent Gregoire Of Symphony Advantage On the Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Integrate your company’s purpose and stakeholders into your operating system. A company won’t be able to unleash its full potential and make it through difficult times if its higher purpose and stakeholders aren’t fully integrated at all levels of the company. And, your mission and stakeholder can’t just be a program or initiative on the side. They have to be at the very core of your operating system in order to create the kind of impact (and associated engagement and performance) you seek.
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 Kent Gregoire.
For over 35 years, Kent Gregoire has worked as an entrepreneur, consultant, speaker, and angel investor. He is one of the first certified conscious capitalism consultants around the world and the Founder & CEO of Symphony Advantage. Kent is also an active board member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), serves as president of the EO U.S. East Bridge Chapter, and is a member of the Conscious Capitalism Senior Leader Network.
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?
Absolutely! My name is Kent Gregoire, and I’m the Founder and CEO of Symphony Advantage, which has been providing advisory and consulting services to executive-level management for over 35 years. I launched my first manufacturing company at age 14 and, since then, I’ve founded or led about a dozen companies at different stages of their growth. In my consultancy work, I’m known as the ‘CEO to ‘CEOs,’ as I focus on a win-win approach that delivers exponential value to all stakeholders, including leaders, shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers, and the environment.
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?
There’s one mistake that comes to mind, which happened when I was a CEO in my late 20s. Our target market was presidents of English-speaking private schools across the world, and we had one major competitor (also on the east coast) that I was determined to outdo. So, I invested heavily in popular print materials that were fashionable at the time, formatted with tear sheets and small graphics. That day, my mentor Robert Skiff, Ph.D., the former president of Champlain College in Burlington, VT, stopped by to visit with me. He was carrying with him a stunning hardbound book with a picturesque cover right on the front. Our building was in an old mill factory building on the shores of Lake Champlain, and our offices were all surrounded by brick walls. I showed him the new materials we had invested in, but he wasn’t impressed. Out of frustration, he threw the book against the wall, and my first thought was “Why would you do that to such a beautiful book?” This was sort of an “a-ha” moment for me–it changed the way I thought about marketing. I immediately asked our company’s marketing department to change direction and, although we did not publish our materials in a hardbound book per se, we did engage artists to create tasteful marketing pieces, laid out like a map, that showed each module from recruiting to registration, housing, finance and alumni relations. We then had these delivered in beautiful packages to the desks of the presidents and CFOs of our target market. At that moment, I discovered that the secret was to create marketing materials that people not only thought of as helpful to their daily lives but also something that deserved to be cherished.
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?
I really credit my father for helping me get where I am today. I was experiencing great success at the beginning of my career; however, things started to change in the spring of ’92. That’s when my dad took me aside and told me that I was focusing on the wrong priorities in my business and my life. He told me I was not living the values he -and my mother- had instilled in me, showing care and kindness to others. For me, this was a pivotal moment. His words planted a seed in my psyche. I realized then that there ought to be a way to be successful while conducting business with care. Since then, I’ve been committed to leveraging the power of capitalism for good, which is what drives me each and every day.
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 first started Symphony Advantage as a typical consulting company, in which I worked closely with CEOs and senior executives to help them achieve the traditional notion of success. But, a few years ago, I became determined to find a win-win approach to conducting business that delivers exponential value to all stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, and the environment around us. When I attended my first Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit, I came to realize that conscious capitalism was the answer I’d been looking for all along. I was so utterly changed by that experience that I decided to complete the first certification program in the world dedicated solely to conducting business with care. Now, our mission at Symphony Advantage is to foster the widespread adoption of conscious capitalism around the world and to elevate humanity by aligning businesses with people, purpose, and profit.
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?
Of all the companies I’ve led as CEO, only one was purchased that wasn’t rolled up into an existing organization. It was a manufacturing company that required a swift turnaround–yet, I had no experience in the industry. The culture set by the previous owner, who retained 49% of the company as part of the buyout, was poor, to say the least. He wasn’t honest in his dealings with his employees, customers or suppliers. Early on in my leadership, a new customer issue was brought to my attention and, to correct it, would require a substantial investment, practically wiping out all profits and even possibly resulting in a loss. I asked the production and installation team for solutions, but what they came up with wasn’t at all ethical and could even compromise the safety of the users of our products. Because of the way the previous owner led, they had become accustomed to protecting profit at all costs. So, I asked the team to walk me through the problem, prompting them with questions so they approach the situation with a new lens. They immediately came up with several recommendations that worked for all stakeholders, and I accepted these recommendations on the spot. The team’s recommendations were incorporated into future projects, so the loss taken on this one job turned into a better product and margins on future jobs. But, this wasn’t the only situation that we ran into, and we found ourselves bleeding cash fast. To get us through this difficult time, I took a step back and asked my team what the company would look like if we were to start fresh today. This started the rebuilding of the entire business from the ground up, in which we introduced ourselves to new markets and with a new brand name. Although I sold my interest in the company shortly after, due to personal reasons, I leaned into my father’s sage advice from years earlier: your success is based on the relationships you have with your key stakeholders–employees, customers, distributors, and suppliers–and that’s when I turned to what today is referred to as stakeholder capitalism.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think it’s safe to say that every entrepreneur has felt like giving up at one point or another. When we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, geopolitical instability and an ever-changing market, this really comes as no surprise. But, for me, I find motivation in the fact that I have a purpose that goes beyond making money. I’m driven by the potential that I have to make the world a better place by conducting business in a more caring way, and helping others do the same.
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?
Early on in my journey to conscious capitalism, I read the book that many consider to be the spark that ignited the very movement itself. Written by Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey and Professor Raj Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business outlines a new way of thinking about capitalism and business that better reflects where we are in the human journey, the state of our world today and the innate potential of business to make a positive impact on the world. The book was truly revolutionary, and, to this day, I still pick it up every now and then when I need some inspiration and guidance on unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit for good.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
One of the most important things you can do during challenging times is to show empathy for all of your stakeholders. It may seem that there’s no time for empathy when everything around you is chaotic and work still needs to be done. Yet, this is the perfect time to make a conscious effort to empathize with your team and invite them to work together to get through tough times. It’s never easy to manage people through tough times, but conscious leaders know that problems are a part of life. They’re committed to living in the solution to focus on what’s working and what’s not, and finding creative ways to solve challenges. This commitment allows them to be more positive and proactive, both of which are essential for effective leadership.
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?
I think it all comes down to purpose. When conscious leaders operate with a higher purpose in mind, employees are naturally inspired and engaged, even during challenging times. This is because they have concrete “why” that motivates them to truly show up for work every day. I like to use the example of former President JFK’s visit to the NASA Space Center in 1962. He noticed a janitor carrying a broom, walked over to the man and asked him what he did. The janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” His job wasn’t simply to keep the place clean but, rather, his efforts contributed to the bigger picture — he understood the connection between his daily tasks and the purpose of the organization. When your team feels as if their work has meaning, they are much more inclined to become more committed and engaged.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
These types of conversations don’t always have to be difficult. First, try to change your mindset, and look at this as an opportunity to be authentic with your team. In my experience, the best approach is to communicate transparently and with integrity. Be direct as to avoid any mixed messages that might leave your stakeholders confused. Confidently convey the difficult news and leave no room for interpretation. As a leader, it’s important for you to be thoughtful and compassionate, but avoid sugarcoating your message–your employees and customers deserve your honesty.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In my experience, the best thing you can do — in both business and life in general — is to make your plans with the knowledge that they can, and most likely will, change. One of the most important qualities of a successful leader is flexibility. It’s important to be able to switch modes seamlessly and bend without breaking as the situation or context requires. So, my advice is to practice being comfortable with change, which will help you adapt as needed when plans change down the road.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I’d say it’s being purpose-driven while also remaining transparent and accountable for the challenges your company faces. That way, employees and customers alike will be more engaged in and loyal to the business, helping it weather whatever storm it might be facing.
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?
Prior to the conscious capitalism movement, I noticed that many business leaders believed that by providing extra “perks,” they could motivate and engage their employees. Now, we’ve come to realize that people increasingly want to work for companies that matter. It’s not the casual Fridays or popcorn machines that make people stick around–rather, it’s the part they play in a company’s mission to do good. But, I still see countless businesses that believe these perks alone will attract and retain talent during difficult times.
I’ve also noticed that leaders often struggle to find a purpose that is ambitious and worthy enough. Almost every organization has a stated purpose but, oftentimes, it is too broad or vague. Starbucks’ mission is to “inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” A purpose statement like this fails to provide any insight into the concrete actions that the company is taking to better the world. Rather, to truly be ambitious, a company’s purpose needs to focus on solving an important environmental or societal problem. It should communicate a clear, collective vision that is the business’s reason for existing.
Another common mistake I see is when companies try to help advance a plethora of issues, rather than focusing on solving one problem in a meaningful way. And, more often than not, the goal remains to maximize profits at all costs rather than to make purpose a central part of a business’ operating system. To be successful in making an impact, companies must focus on one single area of significance and align their entire operating systems accordingly.
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. Build a company anchored around solving a worthy problem.
A conscious (and successful) leader aims at solving an important societal or environmental challenge with their business endeavor. Profits, therefore, become the fuel for the mission and not an end in itself. This purpose establishes a deeper meaning which, in turn, inspires and engages employees, customers and other stakeholders.
In 1994, Interface, a carpet company that relied heavily on petroleum-based products, pivoted and launched its first sustainability initiative entitled “Mission Zero.” Interface set out to transform its business to have zero negative impact on the planet when others in the industry were just beginning to even talk about sustainability. It was an aspirational goal but, 25 years later, the company achieved its mission, having built an operating model designed to go beyond minimizing environmental harm to actually maximizing environmental benefits. Many others in the industry have followed Interface’s lead, creating a powerful ripple effect that exceeded the company’s original ambitions. Because of this holistic approach, the company is now consistently recognized as a leading global sustainability practitioner. Now, Interface is continuing to lead with purpose, embarking on the next phase of change-making entitled “Climate Take Back.” The new goal is to take what was learned during Mission Zero and share it with the world, inspiring other business leaders to enact change within their own organizations and help create a better future for everyone.
2. Integrate your company’s purpose and stakeholders into your operating system.
A company won’t be able to unleash its full potential and make it through difficult times if its higher purpose and stakeholders aren’t fully integrated at all levels of the company. And, your mission and stakeholder can’t just be a program or initiative on the side. They have to be at the very core of your operating system in order to create the kind of impact (and associated engagement and performance) you seek.
In 2009, Southwest Airlines decided to go against industry standards that were shifting toward fees for checked luggage. What was pilloried by analysts at the time as a missed opportunity to provide much-needed cash for the company, proved to be a smart and profitable decision that resulted in both customer retention and attraction.
3. Create an ecosystem of partners around you to advance this issue.
My experience is that vendors can also play an important role in advancing (or impeding) an organization’s higher purpose. I found that, when your goals and interests align, it’s like magic happens since you start building an ecosystem of like-minded organizations moving towards the same vision with the same determination. On the contrary, let’s say that you’re building a sustainable company but that several of your vendors employ harmful practices for the planet. In this scenario, you’ll have a hard time reaching your own environmental goals (and your reputation will suffer along the way).
Take the 2010 Virgin Airlines shutdown that left 50,000 passengers stranded as an example. The incident was caused by the airline’s Internet booking, reservation, check-in, and boarding system error. One of the reasons the situation was so dire was that the SaaS vendor at the time chose not to switch to backup hardware, leaving Virgin Airlines at a heavy loss of finance, loyal customers and reputation. Your vendors are critical to the success of your company and, when they’re not aligned in supporting your purpose, they often make challenging times that much harder.
4. Focus on “us” not “me.”
Successful leaders operate with their entire business ecosystems in mind and support the people within their organization by purposefully cultivating a culture of trust and care. They concentrate on optimizing equal value for all stakeholders without tradeoffs. This includes customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders, society at large and the environment. In turn, strong and engaged stakeholders lead to a healthy, sustainable, resilient business, creating a win-win-win proposition for all.
Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani, is a great example. About five years ago, he shocked his employees — and the world — when he gave them 10% of his shares in Chobani. He knew employees were at the very heart of his company’s success and wanted to help them thrive in return.
5. Strive to inspire, not micro-manage.
During challenging times, it may be tempting to micromanage your employees, but this is arguably the worst thing you can do. Instead, act as a coach rather than a manager. Ask questions rather than provide answers and make active efforts to facilitate the development of your team.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I recently stumbled across a quote that has stuck with me for a while now. The premise was that if you lead a meaningful life, you never really die–instead, your legacy stays in the people whose lives you touched along the way. This resonated deeply with me, as it falls perfectly in line with what I, and so many others, are trying to accomplish through the conscious capitalism movement. Purpose-driven leaders create value by solving problems, but that’s not all we do. Every day, we interact with our stakeholders: our partners, vendors, employees, community and planet. The influence that comes with being a business leader is a huge responsibility, but also a huge opportunity to leave a positive impact on the people around us and make the world a better place through the lives we touch.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!