“if you’re going through hell, keep going”
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Per Ohstrom.
Per is a fractional CMO with Chief Outsiders. Born in Sweden, he worked in Sales and the Army reserve before coming to the US for graduate studies. He has broad executive experience in manufacturing and B2B service companies. Based in Tennessee, he consults with mid-market companies across North America.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in a small mining town in Sweden, North of the Arctic Circle. It is a real wilderness, with endless forests and mountains. The winters are long, dark and cold but the summer is nice and we get the midnight sun. Growing up in Lapland you spend a lot of time outdoors, skiing, hiking and fighting mosquitoes.
I went to college and got my B Sc at Lulea University of Technology, then worked with industrial sales and marketing for a few years. I came to the US to get my MBA, and ended up staying after I graduated from the Kellogg School.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I am a fractional marketing executive with Chief Outsiders. We work with smaller and mid-market companies that need strategy and marketing expertise, but can’t afford a full time CMO. Many companies are staffed to do the day-to-day tasks, but when there is a need to adjust the strategy or start a bigger marketing project there is not enough bandwidth. That’s where we come in to help.
A recent example was a Private Equity owned manufacturing company. It was really three different companies combining into one, with different customers and marketing channels. I helped them evaluate the competition, segment their markets better, and hire a marketing manager. We rolled out a CRM system to support the selling process and started an email marketing program to better generate industrial sales leads.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I did my compulsory military service in Sweden. Like it or not you had to go. I did 15 months of basic training as squad leader, then platoon officer and was assigned an Arctic Rifle platoon. I always loved the outdoors, and adjusted well to the structure and cadence of military life. When the opportunity came up, I applied to the reserve officer training program and later graduated from the Swedish Defense University.
I was appointed CO of a rapid response rifle company. All personnel lived near our rallying point, many had weapons and uniforms at home, we were ready to mobilize in a matter of hours. We had vehicles, equipment, heavy guns and ammo stockpiled in the assembly area. The arctic rifle company was stationed on the national border, where we had prepared defensive positions and knew the location of every last boulder and tree.
We trained a lot, especially in the winter when there would be 10 feet of snow in the woods, and temperatures could drop below -40. This put extra strain on vehicles and equipment, and maintaining combat readiness meant organizing hot food and drink several times daily. To get things done in this tough environment, I learned the benefits of servant leadership. Things go a lot smoother if the officers eat last, both literally and figuratively!
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
Oh, there were many interesting stories around leadership. I remember one long march we did, it was late fall but already cold and a few inches of snow on the ground. There was a breakdown in command when a platoon leader was exhausted and could not keep his unit together. Instead of walking in a tight column, the platoon started stretching out over miles. There were soldiers stopping and resting when and where they pleased, packs were left behind, some soldiers fell asleep in snowdrifts, others broke into a barn looking for shelter. As the night wore on, combat readiness approached zero.
It took hours to get everything under control, the men assembled, fed and evaluated. Some had to be sent off to medical care for hypothermia or frostbite. The platoon leader was reassigned to a lesser job.
It is one thing to learn about leadership in the classroom, another thing altogether to actually lead soldiers in the field. There is this concept of situation-based leadership that is very important. A leader who is people-focused, listens to his team and works to get buy-in can be effective if the environment is stable. If there is a time crunch or imminent threat, an executive must instead be very task-oriented and prescriptive until the crisis can be dealt with. Situation-based leadership is a sign of great maturity, few managers master it, but those that do can protect and get the most out of his or her people.
We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
I heard about a humbling example from my relatives in Finland. At the beginning of the Winter War against the Soviets, the Finns had no effective anti-tank weapons. To stop tanks, soldiers would cut yard long pieces of solid birch wood. They would hide in the ditch along the road and wait for tanks to rumble by. Since a platoon had three tanks, the hidden soldier would count “one tank, two tanks” and then quickly shove the log into the track of the third tank to jam the sprocket. The tank would stop, they had no radios back then and the last one could not use flags to signal for help. In the winter cold the crew would sooner or later emerge and could be eliminated. Through the conflict, hundreds of tanks were captured this way, repaired and used against their former owners.
Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?
A hero is a common man who sees a problem or a threat and uses whatever resources are at hand to deal with adversity without worry for personal discomfort or danger. Many see this in the bravery of soldiers in their white winter camouflage and in firefighters enter burning buildings. We have also see heroism in nurses, bus drivers, supermarket workers, and cleaning crews keeping society going during a deadly pandemic where the spread of the virus is not well understood.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
Yes absolutely. Leadership selection and training in the military is top-notch, it has to be for missions to work under confusing and dangerous circumstances. The culture of training, debriefing missions, and learning from mistakes makes you much more effective on the job.
In business, I always try to make sure people have the right skills and training, and understand the “leader’s intent”. If employees know the big picture strategy and have effective goals, they can perform at their best without detailed instructions.
Another great takeaway from the military is that instructions and communication have to be frequent and clear. Employees that are not kept informed will listen to rumors and misinformation.
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 guess we stand on the shoulders of all those who came before us, but my grandfather was a special inspiration. Growing up poor he never had a chance to get a higher education but did the best with what he had. Working for the railroad, he rose through the ranks and retired a stationmaster. An intelligent man, he always encouraged us grandkids to go to school and study the most difficult subjects. He knew fortunes can change and you can lose everything you own, but you can never lose what you know.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
A crisis to me is the time when your everyday processes and familiar environment breaks down due to some negative external event, and things will be very bad if you do not deal with it.
Interestingly, the twin of a crisis is an opportunity –when something goes terribly wrong, you need to come up with a new approach to handle the new reality.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Business leaders have a responsibility to plan for the future, no matter what it will look like, and make sure the organization can survive and be viable. A good approach in any size company is for leadership to formulate a risk management plan and assign a team responsible for implementation. The plan should cover potential risks, the probability of them happening, and the cost or consequence if they do happen. The team can then try mitigate each risk, e.g. by using several suppliers to assure access to raw materials, providing employees with laptops and VPNs for remote work, or maintaining backup databases.
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
The first thing a leader must do is take charge of the situation and make sure no employees are in immediate danger or stranded. Make sure vital processes can continue to operate, like sales, customer service, and the communications function. Cash is needed to pay bills, so even a small cash flow is important. Quickly try to offset revenue shortfalls, and do whatever it takes to bring costs under control.
It is a good idea to charter a nimble cross-functional crisis team to deal with problems and find a path forward. Throughout a crisis, communication is also essential –to employees, customers, and shareholders. Leaders need to communicate what they know, what they do, but also what they do not know, and when they think they will know.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Speed and initiative are great traits in a crisis, and so is empathy. Perhaps most important is innovation, the ability to combine skills and resources that you already have in an organization, with changing or new customer needs.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I think in this era of a terrible pandemic, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands out. She took swift action early on, anyone entering the country had to self-isolate, there was a national lockdown order, she grounded all flights and more. She kept communication going through interviews and on social media, explaining to the people what was going on and why. Her crisis management really limited the spread, they only had a couple of deaths in the entire country. That’s very impressive crisis management.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
A few years ago I competed with a couple of colleagues to become president of a company. In the end, the job went to another candidate and I was very disappointed. A few months later business started going South, adding insult to injury I found myself laid off as part of a cost-reduction initiative. What started as a professional setback had now also become a financial problem. Things did not look so great.
Rather than brooding over my situation, I took a big mental step back and thought about strengths and weaknesses. Thinking about what I do really well and what kind of environment I like to work in, I could pivot and start charting a new course. With determination and a lot of work, I landed another executive job in a different industry that was rewarding both professionally and financially.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
When a crisis first hits, it is important to be level headed and evaluate how bad the situation really is. Start by asking can we continue doing what we are doing or do we need to change? A good example is how restaurants first responded to Covid-19. When they were ordered to close down dining areas, many restaurants quickly ramped up deliveries and made it easier to order and pay for carry-out. They sold surplus ingredients like flour, rice, or potatoes and supplies like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. This way they could still operate on some level and have at least some cash flow.
Basic human needs must be taken care of. We all need to eat, sleep, exercise, and have some time to relax. In the field, officers and soldiers share the same rations, and the top brass plans ahead such that rest is possible in between activities or in rear areas after a few days of action. Physical training is inherent in daily activities like marches, and competitions organized when circumstances allow, like orienteering or ski races near camp. Likewise, if we are locked down at home we can alternate the Chef Boyardee diet with occasional delivery of fresher fare. For exercise jump ropes or stationary bikes are great, online workouts are too. Or why not head out early in the morning for a run.
The most important thing a leader can do in a crisis is continue leading. Giving up does not cut it, a leader must continue to motivate and inspire people and model the behavior he or she wants. To help people have a sense of control of their day, don’t micro-manage but give employees some autonomy. Some leaders are at their best in a crisis, think of Winston Churchill who led Britain through years of tribulations. He dealt with armed conflict, food shortages, bomb raids, and orphaned children. There was no shirking or blaming others. He accepted his fate, famously stating “if you’re going through hell, keep going”, and did a remarkable job holding his country together throughout the war effort.
For an organization to function during the crisis, a leader must take good care of their people. This means being very clear about expectations and the task at hand. There needs to be lots of communication and frequent updates on how things are going. This is not the time to add stress, but to help employees perform at their best. Understanding employees' needs and making them feel valued is important. Encouragement and kind words are in, that annual development discussion or overly negative feedback is out. If possible, leaders should keep people employed as there will be a need for trained staff in the future. A great leader taking care of her people is Laura Lyke, CEO at ICC International. The mid-market company refurbishes specialty electric motors. The work is very detail-oriented, and the workforce is highly skilled. Laura talks to every employee every day shows great empathy and tries to help them with what they need –even bringing in a barber to provide safe haircuts when barbershops were under lockdown.
A final step one can take to survive and thrive in a crisis is to establish structure and routines. In the military, situations are often fluid and uncertain and things are not ok. This goes against basic human needs for safety and security, and soldiers react in different ways. Some get angry, some get anxious, everyone gets stressed out to some extent. For the unit to cope and be able to carry out new tasks officers acknowledge people’s feelings but then work on establishing a new normal. Balancing optimism with realism the leader makes sure routine activities start and soldiers clean their weapons, take care of personal hygiene, eat and drink, get rest, and so on. The same works for all of us –we should not hope that everything will go back to the way it used to be before the crisis because it will not. We can talk about what is not going to change and share good news while putting in place structure and routines that pretty soon will solidify into a new normal.
Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The biggest threat we are facing is climate change. It affects both rich and poor and wishful thinking is not going to help. People and governments have to work together, use the full toolbox of science, technology, and economic incentives to switch over to cleaner energy. It will be a tricky transition, but also an opportunity for innovation and jobs on a massive scale.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them :-)
Oh, that is a tricky one! How about former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the “warrior monk”? It would be interesting to hear his take on leadership under stress and contrast leadership in the military and the highest political echelons. I would also like to hear about the significance of conscience and doing the right thing.
How can our readers follow you online?
Find me on LinkedIn /perohstrom/ or Twitter @pohstrom. My home page is https://www.chiefoutsiders.com/profile/per-ohstrom
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.
No, no, no, thank you. The pleasure was all mine!