How to Throw Out the Leadership Playbook and Succeed During a Crisis With Simon Berg From Ceros [AMP 224]
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When you’re in a leadership position, sometimes it’s hard to know who to ask or where to look when you need answers to questions and solutions to problems — especially because others expect you to have all the answers and solutions.
Today’s guest is Simon Berg, CEO at Ceros, an experiential content creation platform that empowers marketers and designers to create engaging, interactive, and immersive content experiences. Simon talks about what to do when forced to use your own critical-thinking and problem-solving skills instead of a paint-by-numbers playbook. Creativity matters!
Some of the highlights of the show include:
- COVID vs. Conventional Wisdom: Layoff people during global catastrophe?
- 2020: Incredibly difficult year of suffering, fear, desperation, anxiety, uncertainty
- Real Life: Other feelings of presence, pause, introspection, reflection, unity
- Adversity and Constraint: Ceros chooses opportunity for growth and creativity
- Big Deal: Happy Birthday, Mr. Berg; time to get drunk because the deal is dead
- Creativity in Captivity: Takes transparency, compassion, doubt, experiences
- Survive and Thrive: Commit to not touch salaries/jobs, if you support each other
- Best Year Ever: Build confidence and grow by believing in yourself and others
- Advice to Leaders: Stop looking in the book, instead look up and in front of you
- I can’t…What can you do? Only thing that you can truly control is yourself
- Reminder: Opportunities and problems are never easy, but hard to do
- Leadership Playbook Police: Break free from constraints by reframing goals
Ben: Hey, Simon. How’s it going this morning?
Simon: It’s very good. Cold but good.
Ben: You were just mentioned you’re in Connecticut, which we are no stranger to cold here in North Dakota. But it sounds like a lot of the rest of the country is getting a cold that most folks are not really prepared for right now.
Simon: Yeah, how is Texas?
Ben: I don’t know. I really feel awful just for everything that’s going on down there.
Simon: Talk about a state that was not prepared, but anyway.
Ben: Before we digress too much further, would you mind taking a moment just to introduce yourself to our audience and explain what you do at Ceros?
Simon: Sure. It’s Simon Berg here, and I’m the CEO over at Ceros. Ceros is about 10 years old. We’re a software business (formerly), but we’re also an ecosystem. We’re out there in the world unlocking the creativity for people through liberating technology. The shape and form of that at the moment is a digital creation platform that helps marketers and designers to create really rich, engaging visual experiences on the web without the need to code.
Ben: Cool. Great stuff. Something that we’re going to talk about on this show is leadership and just throwing out a lot of the conventional wisdom around leadership.
Before we get too far into the weeds, just from a high level—you’re coming at this as a CEO of a company that I imagine has probably gone through a lot of challenges throughout the years and probably seen a lot of stuff, so to speak, how did 2020 go for you? Just at a high level because I don’t think it was really great for any of us, or certainly not the years that we wanted but it’s the one that we got. It’s a pretty open-ended question, but from a leadership perspective, what did 2020 look like for the CEO at Ceros?
Simon: Sure. The first thing I want to say before I mention anything in 2020, you said I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of things over the years in Ceros, I mean it’s 10 years. That’s true, but I felt a lot of things too. That’s one of the first things I would say about leadership before we speak about 2020 is that there’s a lot of feelings involved—feelings of the people that you lead and the feelings as the leader. That really is an important thing that gets lost in a lot of people.
In terms of 2020, it’s been a really interesting year for my company and for me as an individual. Obviously, it’s an incredibly difficult year for everybody and you saw a tremendous amount of suffering, pain, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, desperation. That was clear to me as it began to unfold in the early part of the year.
What became apparent to me as I moved forward was in reality, much like life, there were a lot of those feelings, but there were also other feelings of presence, pause, introspection, reflection, intimacy, empathy, and unity. There were a lot of really interesting very powerful emotions that […] at once.
Those feelings for me, what I did as a leader was I did what I’ve always done, but I think I turned the volume up to 11, which was I attempted to lead through predominantly authenticity and being authentic myself. Then also trying very hard to make sure that I was at the right time, in the right ways leading through vulnerability because I think the common misconception in the world is that leaderships are […] at all times.
Vulnerability is weakness, and I call complete bullshit on that. It’s an absolute fallacy, it’s wrong. It doesn’t bring about joy or happiness to the leader. It doesn’t bring about true loyalty in those that you lead. I think it has the opposite effect. The simplest way to think about that is every single person in a position of leadership or otherwise is a human being. Human beings are fundamentally flawed, and all human beings have fear, doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty.
If you’re a leader and you pretend that you don’t, everybody that you’re leading just discounts everything that you say by 50% or more because they know that it’s impossible for you to not feel those things especially in a world like 2020. Showing that compassion, empathy, and—when it makes sense—vulnerability to my team is key.
The other thing I will say to you is that I have a huge passion—it’s my thing—creativity. Why we do and what we do at Ceros, creativity matters. I think it’s important. What 2020 presented amongst all of that for us was a tremendous amount of adversity and constraint.
You have a few choices when you face adversity and constraint. You could look in the playbook. There was no playbook for 2020. You can then conclude that you’ll curl up in a bowl and hide under a rock and wait till it goes away. Or you can see that adversity and constraint—as I am fortunate enough to see it and did see it—as an opportunity for growth and you see that adversity and constraint as the birthplace of creativity. Recognize that will help you make your way in a time where you know the playbook doesn’t work, and that’s what we did at Ceros.
Ben: Cool. It’s a very thorough answer. There’s a refreshing level of candor there too. I think everything you have to say about you can’t fake authenticity and you can’t fake strength either.
Simon: Nope, people will see through it.
Ben: Right. Getting a little bit more specific, what were some of the biggest challenges that you and your company faced in 2020? I think beyond the obvious things that we all went through like society going into lockdown, everybody’s working remote. For you specifically, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a leader, and how did you navigate your way through them? Obviously, you’re still here. Your company is still here. You got through it somehow.
Simon: The answer to that is in continuation of candor, we were in the middle of the largest deal of my career and an incredibly important transitional period for Ceros. We were in negotiations with a new financial partner to come in and deploy a large amount of capital onto our balance sheet and basically become a new investment partner to take the lead on our mission for the next five to six years.
I received that term sheet in December 2019, and I signed that February 23, December 2020. We were in the middle of due diligence with a view to closing in early April, and that deal died on March 15. Got a phone call from the partner over there. He called me up and said, look, I know I said we were going to get this done regardless of this pandemic, but it’s just too much. The uncertainty is piled up to the point where we have to stop. March 15 is also my birthday. You didn’t know that.
What happened when that happened was I put the phone down. My wife was with me, she cried, I cried, and I went and I got drunk with my chief revenue officer who lives about three minutes drive from where I live in Connecticut. I woke up the next day and had this bizarre burst of energy. I can’t define where it came from exactly, but I just felt an unbelievable calling to step forward, solve the problems, and do what needed to be done.
That culminated in the first email I sent to the team, which was on a Monday. I called it Creativity and Captivity Week One and I’ve sent 48 of those sent every single week. They are a mix of transparency, compassion, personal experiences, pictures of me with my kids, moments of sadness about telling my team that anxiety is okay and I’m here for you. It was a really interesting thing.
What I also did was I gathered my team together in the town hall and said to them, listen, the markets are uncertain. The future is uncertain. We are all scared, but I will give you my commitment as your CEO that there were probably 100 levers I can pull. Lever 99 is your salaries and then lever 100 is your jobs, and I’m not going to touch lever 99 or 100 until I pull all of the 98 other levers. I have a caveat and that is every single person in this organization that wants to be here, puts every single ounce of energy they’ve got into it, and they don’t get involved in anything other than looking after each other and making this company a success.
As a result, I said to them, we were moving into a phase that I framed as survive and thrive. We were going to survive by being prudent, but we weren’t going to hide in a cave. We were going to thrive by finding opportunities in the adversity that we faced, and a testament to that team, they all did that. No one lost their job—not a single person, including the guy that managed their in-house building construction and events building space. He now works in the IT team on support. We moved him over.
We went to battle against the world and did what we needed to do. We seized the opportunities of being a digital-first company. We had some tough conversations with the board. We may have suggested that it might be prudent to pull lever 99 or 100 right away. I didn’t, I told them no, and we marched forward.
We’ve come out tighter, the culture is stronger. My personal growth has been tremendous. Our place in the marketplace has increased. Then those investors came back in about June and we finished the deal.
Ben: That’s incredible. Something that you’ve brought up there that I think might sound counterintuitive—if you’re looking at it from a traditional business-minded perspective—is that not only did you avoid cutting salary and cutting staff, which I think sometimes those kinds of things are viewed as a shortcut to balancing the books. By not doing those things, you actually came out far ahead of where you would have been had you pulled those two levers first.
Simon: 100%. Not lost on me.
Ben: Right, and I hope it’s not lost on our listeners either because I think I could definitely hear someone looking at the same situation or someone being faced with the same situation with a more—I don’t know how to put it, but maybe someone who fancies themselves as more hard-headed or strong-willed in a more callous sense. Telling you you’ve just got to make the tough decision. You just got to start cutting dead weight or whatever, however, they would put it in order to keep your company afloat. But by not doing that, you not only—to use your own words—survived but you thrived.
Simon: We had the best year we’ve ever had last year, which is difficult to say out loud because I know there’s a lot of suffering in the world, but we had the best year. The team’s growth as individuals, the management’s growth. Every single manager in my organization, whether it’s an executive or a manager of a small team in the organization, is all three times as confident today as they were in March because they did it. They survived through one of the worst times in modern history, and they know that viscerally in their hearts.
As they step forward in 2021, they have a different sense of self-belief, and that’s a gift. I said to my team last week in a town hall I said, guys, if Ceros went bust tomorrow, you all have the gift of knowing that you did something tremendous—survived and thrived, came together, and built something incredible in one of the worst periods ever.
When you lay on your deathbed, the dollars won’t matter, but those moments that you experience together and the things that we did, they’re one in a lifetime. It’s very very rare. We have that gift and we should all be really grateful for it. I think that’s important. I think it’s true. It really was something special. We’re just very fortunate that it worked. What I will say in terms of what you asked is how do you find the strength to do that and how did you make that tough decision? Those folks that would say you’ve got to do the tough thing now.
The reality is that’s not the tough thing. I said it on a call with some people that suggested that’s what I should do. That’s actually the weak thing to do. The amount of courage it takes to step forward and do what we did is far, far greater than the shortcuts, costs, and hibernate because hibernation doesn’t work in business anyway. It’s much, much, much harder.
Oddly, the courage that I found as the leader—and we built as an executive and management, wherever it was relevant—actually came from transparency, vulnerability, and compassion. Sharing the I felt sad and fear allowed me to get the energy back that we kind of were in it together, which then in part allowed me to step forward and fight for what I believe made sense, and have the courage to do the difficult thing. Because without that ability to be transparent, it would have been a very difficult and very lonely thing to have done.
Ben: Something I think that we can all take away from Simon’s story is that when you’re faced with a situation with no clear answers and where traditional advice seems like it’s going to make your situation a lot worse rather than better, you have to instead rely on your own problem-solving skills rather than worrying about doing things by the book. Otherwise, you’re just following someone else and trying to follow someone else’s lead for fear of doing something wrong according to some sort of invisible rulebook that doesn’t actually exist rather than just looking at what’s in front of you and figuring out what you can do next to get around whatever roadblock is in your way.
If you can’t do that or you won’t do that and if you’re just following someone else, it might seem obvious when we put it this way, but that’s literally the opposite of leadership. Now, back to Simon.
If you had followed generic, old school, tough-minded “business advice,” you would have gone in the wrong direction. I think that’s an example of best practice, not really being best practice, and sometimes conventional wisdom not really being all that wise at all either. In your view, what’s wrong with typical leadership advice? What’s wrong with so much of the advice that we get told that just doesn’t hold up when you actually put it into practice?
Simon: I’ve got an aversion to playbooks. Don’t get me wrong, they have their place in the world and you can look at them. Specifically, at a time where there is no chapter for the current play, I can almost hear the pages of the playbook being turned on both calls where they were searching for the chapter.
I was saying, guys, stop looking. You won’t find a chapter that says how to run a company in a global pandemic with civil unrest, economic crisis, and an insane president. It’s not in the book. It’s not in there. You won’t find it so stop looking in the book, look up, and look at the landscape in front of you.
I said this on a board call to them. It’s a quote. It’s alcoholics prayer and I’m not a religious guy. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I knew that we couldn’t change that stuff, guys. I have the wisdom to know that, and courageously, I know what needs to be done. It’s just not very comfortable for you, and you don’t have certainty around it but needs to be done.
That sort of ability to reflect on it and see it through that lens is what helps you do that in those times. The metaphor I use is if a tornado is coming towards your house, there is no point standing on the deck of your house ranting at the tornado and screaming at it with your fist. It’s coming whether you scream about it, you’re scared of it, you laugh at it, it doesn’t matter. The tornado is coming. You can’t control it.
What we were experiencing in 2020 was basically a […] of things creating a tornado that we’d never seen before, all of which you can’t control. In my case, actually, the […] President, I can’t vote because I’m a Brit. I’m a green card holder, so I couldn’t even do anything there. In reality, all you can do at that time as the tornado is raging toward your house is pause for a second and go okay, just survive and thrive. I can bolt out my house, get my family in a safe place. And if I want to thrive, maybe I’ll build a wind farm and capture the energy when the tornadoes here. That’s what it takes.
A lot of people at that moment from fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, stood on the deck of the house and waved their fists in anger or sadness. It’s just a futile exercise. No grudge and there’s no winning there. What we did in Ceros was essentially bolted up the house where relevant, got families safe, and then built wind farms.
Simon: Something I’m hearing, something that you’re advocating for is really just looking at your own situation and using your own common sense and moral compass to guide you out of that situation rather than trying to look outside of yourself too much or outside of your situation to find some generic playbook, is one way to describe it, that’s going to just tell you what to do and you just check the items off a checklist and everything works out.
Simon: You also mentioned just point at the adversity and constraint and say, it’s that. I can’t, the economy. I can’t, civil unrest. I can’t, the virus. Because the reality of life is—and the minute you recognize this, it really is quite profound. The one thing in the world, the only thing in the world, that you truly control is you.
So no matter what you face and I go through this, I have since I was a young man. I still go for it to this day. There are moments in my life where I get caught up pointing at the tornado, and I have to slap myself and say, stop it. What can you do? How can you grow? Where is your opportunity here? What is the authentic thing to do? What is the courageous thing to do?
It’s so easy for people to do that to point out the adversity and constraint. Sure, you want to connect with it and have a moment. If it’s your boss, I don’t like you or you’re doing the thing, or tell your friend, my boss is oppressive. It’s a tornado. Say, you damn tornado. Then take a pause and go, what can I do? What can I do internally? How can I only get strength from this or grow from it? It’s hard because looking courageously yourself and looking for your weaknesses and what is required of you is terrifying.
Ben: Absolutely. I feel like you’ve got a lot of very hard-earned wisdom and perspective, I’m going to assume, just from having a lot of experience doing what you do and being in the type of role that you’re in.
For marketers, for creative professionals in general who are maybe either moving up the org chart or the ladder or maybe if they aspire one day to move into a leadership role, what are the things that you think that they should know that they’re not going to hear or they’re not going to learn just from trying to look for a playbook or a checklist? What’s the actual advice you think they need to hear so that they can equip themselves to be able to steer themselves out of adversity without just pointing and yelling at problems until they go away?
Simon: The first thing I would say is as you see those problems—whatever shape or form they take, or those opportunities—whatever shape or form they take, know this or at least remind yourself of this. Can you think of anything in your life ever that was significant and impactful that you were proud of that wasn’t […] hard? You can’t, can you?
Ben: No, I personally can’t.
Simon: No, you can’t. The reality is you’ve got to accept that and go, okay, if I want to change something I don’t like, a problem, or I want to seize an opportunity that I think looks great, the first thing you need to recognize is it won’t be easy, it’s going to be hard. If you can’t connect with that first, don’t bother because it’s going to be hard and then you’re going to revert to it’s the damn tornado. I think you’ve got to get your head around that and keep reminding yourself that all the way through.
Practical advice, it’s a boss that doesn’t think creatively. My business exists because I think creativity is a powerful force and it matters. I think if your boss is not able to think creatively, you need to understand that the boss isn’t going anywhere (probably), and if they are, fine.
If they’re constraining you and causing you a sense of adversity, you need to recognize that the change that you see, the problem that they’re creating for you or the opportunity that you’re after is going to be hard and that you’re going to have to take that back along yourself with them, and you’re going to use everything at your disposal to do it.
Data, logic, emotions, feelings, passion, Powerpoints, keynotes, videos, blog posts, songs, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever you have in your arsenal, obviously with the caveat of respect, but it’s going to be a hard slog and you need to pull those things together.
What I often say to people that come to me with this and I say it to my team as well. The other thing you should do is that if you look inside and you’ve lost respect for your peers, boss, or yourself, or they’ve lost respect for you and that goes on for two, three, four weeks. Actually, the courageous thing to do at that point is leave.
Oftentimes, people get stuck in organizations and unfortunately don’t necessarily have the right leadership. They get stuck in that cycle for years sometimes, when in reality—as I say to my team, I always say to them in town halls, and I’m fortunate that […] suggests 85%-90% of the people love or like Ceros, but there’s still some folks that don’t.
I always say to them, if you feel that deep in your soul and you know that you’re not happy, fundamentally this company isn’t going to change its culture or its purpose. I’m really not going anywhere as a leader until I think I’m not capable of doing the job. You need to then say, well, what can I do? What you can do at that point—having decided that you can’t win the battle, and you’ve lost your soul somewhere, and you don’t respect the company, the person, or even yourself. The courageous answer is leave and go do something that you’re passionate about and you love.
That is so difficult for people to get their head around, especially some of the younger folks because I think that hard knocks living the lifestyle that you talked about are missing a little bit, and that advice is key. I think it’s really key.
Ben: Absolutely. Approaching the same or similar question, from the perspective of someone who is already in a leadership role. How would you advise they begin freeing themselves from the leadership playbook police? I took some verbiage from the pitch that I was sent to bring you on the show, which I was really intrigued by.
If someone’s listening to this, they’re in a leadership role and they just feel like they’ve been doing things by the book and it’s not working, and I’m going to assume it’s not working. If that’s the approach they’ve taken, how do you get out of it? What’s the first step to breaking free from those constraints?
Simon: I think the first thing you should probably do is recognize that you’re reframing it. It’s a little bit like tai chi or the martial arts where you take the energy from it and turn it against it. You have to reframe it and realize that the adversity and constraint that you’re facing, that playbook isn’t working. You’re like this isn’t working.
If you reframe it and see it like a puzzle—a creative problem that needs solving—and you put down the playbook and check the chapters and make sure there’s nothing in there that works. But if you’re sure deep down and authentically it’s not working, then what you need to do is say, okay, this is a puzzle. This is a game, I’ve got to solve this. It’s okay if I fail. Failure isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually a way to learn and grow.
If you can get your head around that, then you can say, I conclude that there is no answer in the book. I know none of what I’m trying to do is really important, meaningful, that matters to me. If I fail, it’s okay. That’s a leadership thing in terms of the CEO and/or others in the organization making that acceptable.
Then what you can do is start to ask yourself why it is that you want to do this thing that you’re looking in the playbook for, design the framework to some degree, and outline the goal and the outcome. I don’t mean a metric, not a mathematical metric, really. It’s more of what are you trying to achieve? What defines success, even if it’s not […].
If you can see that, write that down, and free yourself from a prescribed solution, you allow the creative part of your brain to just start to work and say, okay, the goal here is we want to connect more emotionally with our customers and build more loyalty to our brand. I’ve looked at the playbook, it’s not working. Then you can start to go, what dots can connect that the others might not? That’s a creative process.
Actually, we’re in this industry, and in this industry, we have customers in this forum and they think in this way. They’re scared of this thing and we feel this way. What is the creative way if I break down the barriers and just open it up to anything that I can achieve and you let yourself run free? You don’t need a plan, just an idea. Write them down. Get it on a piece of paper, scribble them on a whiteboard, share it with a friend, chat about them, doodle it, whatever it might be, let it out a little bit.
If you do that, what I find happens is what starts as a doodle becomes a name, which becomes an icon or a logo, which becomes a strapline, which becomes a mission, which becomes a 5-person company, which then becomes a 60-person company, which then becomes a 250-person company, and you’ve got what I got. It started with a little sketch on a piece of paper where I wrote creativity matters 10 years ago.
So take a small action—a little micro action—and don’t stop because you don’t have a full brain, Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream,” not ‘I have a plan.’
Ben: Right. Who was the famous boxer who had the quote, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Simon: Mike Tyson.
Ben: Yeah. A very different type of character, I suppose?
Simon: Yeah, but everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face by a global pandemic.
Ben: Yeah. No kidding. It’s all too real. Well, Simon, thanks so much for taking the time and sharing your insight on leadership. I think this has been a really refreshing conversation just for myself. I hope that our listeners agree. But before I let you go, are there any parting thoughts that you’d like to leave us with or any things that you think are particularly important that we haven’t touched on yet?
Simon: Yeah. I’d say this, actually, if you are a CEO, a C-level executive, or VP and you’re listening to this, do me this one favor. Pause today, just for a second, and ask yourself, am I being authentic in my everyday life as a leader? What do I know that I’m doing that’s broken or wrong but I’m too scared to say?
If you can identify that second thing, do something about it, because those that you lead will thank you for it, and ultimately, you will be happier as an individual for doing it.
March 2, 2021