It’s always a good time to talk with Fred Hassan, but when the world is as topsy-turvy as it is right now, it’s a really good time to talk to Fred Hassan.
That’s because few people I know have more experience running companies—and more varied experience—than Fred. From running three global pharmas to then being chairman of two additional global pharmas, Fred demonstrated that challenged situations can be convincingly turned around. Fred also demonstrated that he can turn small dials (small enterprises) in addition to big dials (giant corporations).
Fred founded a family startup in 2010, then oversaw its scale-up, then guided to a successful exit with Nestle in 2020. Fred’s CEO insights have been honed by his coaching of CEOs in his numerous boards and CEOs of the portfolio companies of Warburg, where he continues as Director after a previous stint as Managing Director.
In other words, Fred has seen a lot.
So, what’s he telling CEOs now? I reached out and asked. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You counsel a lot of CEOs including portfolio company CEOs at Warburg. What are you telling them ahead of next year?
In the old days, detailed long range plans were all the rage. Long-range planning departments were glamour departments. Now, the problem with that whole construct is that we are living in a time of unpredictable and lurching change. I call it “mind-bending torque change.”
It is still very important to think strategically, to articulate a long-term vision, a future-state dream. A well-articulated and authentic long-range dream helps impart purpose and the unified force of passion, courage, and tenacity among the people. Especially passion—the real passion—and the hustle from the people becomes even more important in topsy-turvy times. But you must have a mindset of strategic flexibility so that you can sense fast, pivot fast and then move fast.
If you move fast, and if you’re in tune with your people and they are in tune with you (like a radio frequency), then your people will move fast with you. If you are moving fast on your own, but you aren’t carrying your people with you, then it’s not going to happen.
It’s a new mindset: Always be clear about what differentiates you and your offerings and always work on enhancing that differentiator. But don’t be too fixated with rigid long-term stuff in terms of how to get there. Still have the dream, but keep your people with you, keep your investors with you, keep your customers with you as you move fast to adapt to changing circumstances.
Give us some tips about how to do this. What needs to change in the CEO mindset? How do they operate a little differently there?
The idea really is to keep people tuned into the way you see the world and how you will proactively sense and fast-respond to changes. Right now people are reading a lot about things being horrible. The key is to acknowledge that there is increased unpredictability in the environment, but that the more purpose-centered teams and the more proactive and agile people will build-in the required resilience. In fact, for superior teams, topsy-turvy times become an opportunity to gain competitive advantage and to emerge stronger on the other side.
Focus on sensing early and being agile is key to building-in resilience. Efficiency and productivity remain the basics but now more urgent are agility and resilience during times like the ones we are going through.
It’s really three things: Having an ear to the ground, agility, and resilience.
As long as you are maintaining your authenticity by being candid in your communications and not over-promising the future—because it’s hard to make any predictions—people will accept that. Stronger CEOs have a bias for optimism, urgency, decisions, actions and resolve in getting through tough times. It’s important to keep people with you. “Soft skills” become even more important in hard times.
Talk about getting that ear to the ground. The more volatile the world becomes, the more you need more outside input. How do you do that? Give us a tip.
It’s a bit of a lonely job being CEO. Some CEOs get “yessed” too much and kept from learning the fuller truth; others feel that asking for help may signal weakness. Yet serially successful CEOs find ways to get and access their own set of advisors/mentors/coaches from the outside, or even within their own organizations.
Everybody seems to seek their own way of being in touch. Being out there with employees, with customers – helps keep isolation at bay. The closer you are to the frontlines, the more you learn. I would have my CEO panels with the frontline managers who would be maybe a level four, level five, it didn’t matter. Having an institutional approach to doing that is very helpful in sensing trends.
What do you ask when you engage from very high up to the frontline? What kinds of questions have you found most successful to really get under the hood of how the business is doing?
I ask: What’s making your people successful? And if there are a few things that are making them very successful, can we do more of those? What’s making them less successful? What’s in their way? What can we do to try to get rid of those barriers? What are competitors doing to us? And what are we doing to competitors?
Those last two questions often don’t get asked. There are too many times it becomes just conversational about themselves as opposed to competition and what’s out there. So, I always asked those questions. It was surprising how many good answers I got.
I was in Russia in 2006—it was a different country. Our business was growing like crazy at that time. I had my customary discussion with 10 of the more successful front-line managers and with none of their supervisors present. They said that when it came to comparisons with other U.S. multinationals in Russia, they were punching well beyond the weight of Schering Plough globally. Their outperformance could be helped further if there could be a rectification of the biggest thing in their way, which was how long it was taking for their newly hired sales reps to get cars.
They said the sales reps were going by bus to try to see the doctors and our internal bureaucracy was slow in terms of getting them cars once they were hired. These frontline managers were saying that good sales reps were in short supply because the other multinationals were also seeing the opportunity in Russia, at that time, and that we were holding ourselves back.
So, that to me, created two separate actions: Number one, we changed our car acquisition policy for Russia. Instead of being managed from a center in New Jersey, we said, “Let’s decentralize, let them get the cars fast, so that they can get the sales reps to do their work.”
Number two, the expat manager of the country was obviously not that close to the frontlines as this had not been brought up already. So a change was made. It’s not that I go and try to micromanage at the field level, but sometimes you learn a lot of things that are very helpful. It also gave me an appreciation of what an important market Russia was at that time, and that you have to move fast in a market like that. You don’t want to let go of opportunities. And we ended up doing extremely well.
You’ve been doing this for a long time. What else are you counseling CEOs as we go into 2023?
Talent and culture are critical success factors in normal times. In topsy-turvy times, they become hyper-critical. Good people, aligned people, motivated people can produce results well beyond previous expectations. In these times of the need for superior and motivated talent and the difficulty in accessing it externally, it’s often better to grow your own than poach from other companies. Bringing rockstars from the outside can become very expensive, and can create a lot of resentment, even dismay. Many times, good people can rise on the inside. That builds loyalty and retention. Because you’re going through a tumultuous time, you don’t want your people to start giving up on the company in any way.
My second piece of advice is: Don’t give up on long-term vibrancy, even as you take short-term actions on shoring up liquidity, strengthening the increasingly important ratio of EBITDA to cash conversion, passing through cost-push inflation via price increases. Actions for long term vibrancy include being smart and selective with price increases as opposed to all products getting the same percent increase. Also using product mix upgrades wherever possible to lift margins since that is better for customer relationships than straight price increases.
Also squeezing internal G&A costs while prioritizing the protection of costs related to revenue generation. As I mentioned earlier, topsy-turvy times can be an opportunity to emerge stronger, especially by increasing relative market share.
The final advice I’d give to CEOs is to keep a cool head, even as you take bold and decisive actions to respond to unpredictable and lurching change. A cool head is good for your own psyche, and it is especially good for the psyche of your team as it helps reinforce confidence and resolve.
CEOs’ body language, tone and emotions are amplified even more in the eyes and minds of their people during high-stress times. In fact, it’s in times like these that CEOs get to show their finest mettle.