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Scott Gray Of Clincierge: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Plan what you want to achieve — Do the hard work of writing down and mapping out a clear plan for how you will achieve your goals.

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 Scott Gray.

Scott Gray is the co-founder and CEO of Clincierge, the leader in patient support services for clinical trials. Since 2015, Clincierge patient coordinators have managed logistics and reimbursements for more than 300 clinical trials worldwide. For more information, visit www.clincierge.com.

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?

My late teens and early twenties really formed who I am today. I took the prerequisite college prep courses in high school, but I knew I didn’t want to go to college. Back then, it was my mother, sister, and me living at home, and we were lower middle class if that. I wanted an income right away, so I could help support my family.

So, instead of college, I got a job in a factory where I worked for three years after high school. During that time, I took a course in travel career training, which led to my first job in the travel industry. I was quickly promoted and spent ten years learning the corporate meetings and events business. I was excelling, making new connections, and was rapidly promoted. My life was on an upward trajectory until June 1994, when I was laid off one day before my birthday. The travel company I worked for had been struggling and had no choice but to eliminate staff.

It turned out to be the best birthday gift I ever received. This is why I tell my staff now to embrace the failures because they are often the greatest learning opportunities! I launched my own company six weeks later. I had ten years of business relationships and began reaching out to my corporate meeting contacts to say, “Remember me, we’re here, do you have any work we can do?” I took a very client-centric, service-oriented approach to my first business, and that core value has always guided my business.

In those early days, my expectations were modest. Work hard, plan two or three successful corporate events each year, make money, and be sure to have time for fun and relaxation. What I didn’t expect was how quickly I would achieve success. My new company was quickly recognized as one of the top 25 corporate meetings and events planning companies in the United States, a position we enjoyed for many years.

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?

Back in the 90s, we took on a new pharmaceutical client who hired us to coordinate logistics at a San Francisco medical meeting. I was standing with the client outside the Pan Pacific Hotel, waiting for buses to transport 250 sales reps to Ghirardelli Square for an event. We waited and waited, but the buses didn’t show up, and time was ticking away. I made a call to check on the buses, and the reply was, “What buses? There are no buses ordered for tonight.”

Pushing away the urge to panic, I marched to the hotel front desk and asked the manager to issue me a cash payout. I had the concierge send every available taxi to the Pan Pacific and stood on the curb handing taxi drivers $40 until all 250 people were on their way to Ghirardelli Square. The lessons learned? One — don’t let them see you sweat and two — check your work three times.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person whom you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I am grateful to many people who have allowed me to prove myself. I remember a few key clients especially, who invited me to the table to share concepts with senior executives. Three people, in particular, had an impact guiding the trajectory of my business and whom I am thankful for to this day.

The first was a brief encounter with JP Garnier, former CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, who I escorted during one of GSK’s global leadership conferences. While chatting, he mentioned how he found it difficult to offer his opinion because his employees would take every word as a directive! Still today, I often precede an offer of my perspective with the reminder that they are thoughts, not instructions.

Next is Maestro Roger Nierenberg, an American orchestra conductor and author. I met him at a unique learning experience called The Music Paradigm, where he selected me to come on stage and conduct his orchestra. Maestro uses the orchestra to demonstrate different shades of leadership, both functional and dysfunctional. The impact of that exercise was immeasurable. It helped me realize the people I’m leading really want me to lead them, not just accept their ideas and opinions. They want to hear from me. It gave me permission to make decisions, take action, and help people solve problems.

And finally, Nancy Lewine, Ph.D., an organizational development consultant I first met in the 1980s and reconnected with about 15 years ago. Dr. Lewine has been critical to the success of my company; she is a true mentor to me, my leadership team, and my employees. Through Nancy’s guidance, we have established strategic planning, goal writing, selling, hiring, and performance management disciplines. I truly would not be where I am without her encouragement, expertise, guidance, and support.

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?

When I think back to the original consulting firm I founded 27 years ago, our goal was to improve the performance of corporate meetings and events. Today, if you read Clincierge’s mission statement, it also centers around clinical trial performance improvement.

In the meetings business, it was all about finding the best suppliers. Through the years, I learned big companies offering in-house capabilities aren’t always the best fit for customers. With Clincierge, we set out to stay small and outsource services while carefully managing vendors to seamlessly provide premium services to patients. We continue to function like this today, ensuring we partner with the best suppliers to meet our business needs.

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?

In the past twenty years, there were three instances when travel and meetings essentially stopped. The first was during the aftermath of 9/11, then the 2008 recession, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Managing a business through each of these situations required essentially the same recipe: act promptly, ask for help from colleagues, and communicate frequently with key stakeholders to convey the position of the company with transparency.

Looking honestly at the business during uncertain times means seeing its strengths in the context of potential threats or weaknesses. While considering the strength of the company’s position and how we will protect it, we also have to face our weaknesses and potential threats honestly and always plan to prevail.

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

I have never considered giving up. Back in 1994, just before I was laid off, I purchased a Jaguar sedan from a friend. So, I found myself unemployed, launching a company with no investment capital, with a car payment and mortgage to deal with, or move back home with my mother. I love her dearly, and we’re still very close — but living together again full time was NOT an attractive option! I always joke I had no choice but to figure it out.

I love solving puzzles. I reframe problems to see them as challenging puzzles. I actively reach out to colleagues to ask questions or seek guidance. It’s sustaining and energizing to be surrounded by people who also thrive on challenges and believe we can prevail through any hardship. These are key characteristics I look for in my team members.

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

During tough times, leaders should be prepared, remain calm, and be confident and forthright in how they communicate. They must present the enormity of the challenges in a way that also shows a path and creative ideas for moving forward positively. Again, it is critical to get input from others and provide frequent updates, sharing both good news and bad.

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?

The future is always uncertain. I believe it’s important to have tools in place to inspire, motivate, and engage employees. At Clincierge, we utilize an objective performance appraisal system, where employees start each year with a clear understanding of their goals and opportunities for achieving bonuses. A well-defined rewards program and clear expectations set employees up for success and often motivate them to go beyond their goals and achieve even more.

We have done our best to maintain a sense of normalcy and fun for our team during the past two years. We ask for employee participation in monthly company-wide meetings where we report progress and discuss noteworthy events. For fun, we have hosted online guest speaker events, happy hour scavenger hunts, and trivia games to keep the team engaged and motivated.

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

When faced with conveying difficult news, it is best to be transparent, forthright, and fast.

We have a process for communicating and evaluating situations called CAPA (corrective and preventive action), which helps determine how the problem happened, whether it was our responsibility, how we are changing the process so the situation is not repeated, and what are the costs involved. If something is our error, we take responsibility and absorb the cost without equivocation, then spend time learning about the situation and making appropriate adjustments.

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

Strategic planning and setting long-term goals are essential for navigating the unpredictable.

Staying focused on your business goals minimizes disruption, so whatever happens outside does not interfere with the path forward. Instead, these interferences can help determine if adjustments are needed. Is a goal achievable? Have the goals been impacted by things beyond our control? If so, accept the reality and adjust the plan, so the goal becomes achievable.

Consider the events of last year; we achieved business growth greater than 25%. Even amid a global pandemic, our travel-dependent company continued to hire new employees and created unique services that enabled clinical trials to continue. We achieved this success by strictly adhering to our five-year strategic plan and corporate goals.

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

Don’t let the noise get in the way. Stay focused and continue to work on your business. Although it can be challenging, do not let distractions derail your focus.

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?

Speaking from experience, a common mistake is not making difficult decisions quickly enough during difficult times. Our company’s income was disrupted following the events of 9/11. The business was sitting with solid profits from earlier in the year, but during the last quarter of 2001, I should have taken quick action to protect the company’s long-term financial position by cutting expenses. Not acting fast enough, especially as a small business, is not just about the individual employees but about protecting the company.

Other mistakes I have seen include:

  • Failing to plan with a realistic, formalized path to achieve goals. It’s like wishing for success instead of doing the hard work required to map out how to execute your objectives.
  • Allowing the current environment and external factors to affect your reality instead of adapting to create your own.
  • Allowing ego to intercede and prevent collaborative solutions. Asking others for help and building a good network of advisors is imperative — talk to your people and seek guidance when needed.

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?

The keyword is planning. Plan what you’re going to do and stay disciplined in monitoring results, especially during turbulent times. For example, at Clincierge, we have a quarterly company presentation where we report department results, corporate results, and team results. Although it can be challenging, monitoring these goals absolutely drives our accomplishments. We know where we stand, and everyone is accountable.

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. important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? And you’re welcome to share, you know, stories or any kind of, you know, expand upon any of them.

Communicate the reality and don’t sugar coat it — In the year following 9/11, we had to cut hours, transitioning employees to four-day workweeks. We communicated openly, explaining that the goal was to continue providing employees income and recover, and the company needed to cut expenses.

Demonstrate empathy — Beyond the pandemic, the past year saw enormous civil unrest, including some incidents in Philadelphia. One incident caused great anxiety among our local employees, and there was concern about rioting in local neighborhoods. I was worried about my team, so I reached out and welcomed anyone to come to my home in a quieter area of the city.

Seek out solutions to problems and communicate optimism — At one point, we faced underperformance in the accounting department and had a cash flow issue. I didn’t hesitate to explain to employees why we were struggling, and I asked them for ideas and input on fixing the problem.

Share the rewards — Later that year, everyone received bonuses because we had fixed the accounting problem. We had not only shared the work but the rewards, as well.

Plan what you want to achieve — Do the hard work of writing down and mapping out a clear plan for how you will achieve your goals.

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

I have a post-it in my office that says, “Resiliency is not about endurance; it’s about how you recharge.”

Early on, when I first started the company, I operated out of my basement. After about 18 months, I realized we needed more employees and more space, so I leased commercial office space. It was a huge relief to have that separation. I was no longer drawn to the basement 24/7 to continue working (because something always needs work).

Turning out the lights and walking home from the office at the end of the day was a joy. Shutting down and transitioning to home life is so important. It is a struggle I’m sure many can relate to with the events of the past two years.

Set boundaries. Take time to recharge. Find humor or comedy. Find a theater or a good book. Find family or delicious food, or whatever it takes to get your head out of work so you can recover, recharge, and be an energized, strong, inspiring leader.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can find me on LinkedIn and, of course, through the Clincierge website.

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

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