Ep. 44 – A COO's Daily Life In Babel Street with Eric Bowen

Ep. 44 – A COO's Daily Life In Babel Street with Eric Bowen

Babel Street is a provider of advanced multilingual search and analytics software solutions. Former CIA Operations Officer Eric Bowen gives insight to his role as a COO at Babel Street. Eric shares the importance of maintaining focus and managing distractions in the organization and deciding when to say no to new ideas. He also touches on the power of listening and saying thank you and supporting employees with their growth in their skillset and confidence. If you’re trying the route of being a COO, you don’t want to miss this episode as Eric shows how you can align yourself with the vision and mission of your company and your CEO.

A COO’s Daily Life In Babel Street with Eric Bowen

Eric Bowen is the COO for Babel Street, a provider of advanced multilingual search and analytics software solutions. He’s been with the company since 2013 in various operational roles. Prior to Babel Street, he was formerly a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer engaged in human intelligence operations in numerous and diverse environments working with areas of conflict and instability. He is also a former US Marine officer with experience leading dozens of personnel, managing logistical payloads and implementing programs. Babel Street serves many of the world’s leading brands in financial services, transportation, entertainment, sports, higher education, hospitality and government and Eric plays a key role in company initiatives. Eric is alumni of the United States Naval Academy with the degree from the Hough Graduate School of Business at the University of Florida. Eric, welcome to the show.

Cameron, I am so happy to be here. I’m honored. Thank you for having me.

We started a group called the COO Alliance, which is the only network of its kind in the world for second in commands. I’m in this one mode of getting ready to talk to all these new people and a bunch of the existing members and then I see your bio. I’m like, “We don’t have anybody in the COO Alliance who’s come out of the CIA and come out of this deep military background. I’m intrigued to learn some of your backgrounds. Why don’t you give us a real brief helicopter overview of what Babel Street is? Even though I read it in the bio, I don’t think it explains it. Give us a rough description. Tell us how you got involved in the organization and how you rose into the COO role.

As you noted, Babel Street is a software company. We have a text analytics focus. We work to enable clients to analyze both contextually and visually global sources of multilingual data as they see actionable signals in real time. In essence, what we’re trying to do is translate extant data and to the knowledge that customers can use. Going back several years with the internet data in the form of blogs, forums, social media and the number of URLs that were being created, all those were being generated at here to force unprecedented and alarmingly exponential rates. Because the volume of the data and the velocity that it’s coming at organizations and the difficulty using techniques at the time to look for the needles in the haystack, that data was largely ignored.

We posited that it should have been an integral component of the way the organization thinks about its situational awareness. Another critical problem that we were seeing was linguistics. Estimates put internet content roughly at 50% in languages other than English. It’s hard to ignore that, but it’s also difficult for someone who’s not multilingual organically to be able to sort through that data. One of the problems we set out to solve was to build this multilingual thesaurus such that our engine understands that a United States correlates to USA, correlates to Estados Unidos in Spanish or Soyedinennyye Shtaty Ameriki in Russian and so on. We think that the value here is extraordinary gains and opportunity as well as substantial improvements in the quality of the data that comes into to say analyst’s hands. It doesn’t require a lot of copious additions to the linguistic staff. In the end, this value was born of bringing relevant and actionable data from disparate sets that are unbound by language and format that help organizations optimize efficiency, improve the quality of the data they’re analyzing and enhance decision making.

The way you’re talking, you’re a techie guy too.

I am the exact opposite of that. I have never written a line of code in my life. As I get into my bio a little bit later, I’ll mention now that I have authored the majority of our responses to things like RFPs and RFIs. With that writing, you start to get an intimacy with the offering. You talk about it on a whole bunch of levels.

You’re clearly marketing into the enterprise level like the government. Can you give us a layman’s view of like a simple case study of how you’re taking this data and what people would be doing or their companies are doing with it? “We took X and we did Y?”

I have a couple of quick examples. In 2017, there’s an organization that’s called the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. It goes by the acronym of NCS4 and its focus is on exactly what it sounds like. They had bestowed on us their Golden Eagle Award for work that we did in venue management and safety for spectators associated with Super Bowl 49 in Phoenix. This venue management and brand management is an important used case that a lot of our customers look to us for. We’ve had organizations that have used the text-based capability that we have to track global disease pandemic signals. It’s difficult to get fidelity data on where diseases are cropping up. There’s obviously a medical single side of that, but tech space sides where people were reporting in a blog or on social media, it says, “We’re seeing a lot of cases of X, Y or Z in this location.” That’s the thing they’re looking for their understanding, breaking the news so there’s a couple of used cases. Those are super cool stuff.

What role did you come into the organization doing?

I came into the organization when we were young. When I joined, I was the number three employee and we had about six people. I was coming from the public sector. I had a connection with our CEO from a long time ago. We had spent time in school together. Over the years, we had reconnected. We had talked a little bit about what role I might play if I decided I was going to leave the public sector. Public sector employees like myself, there’s a certain set of skills that they bring to the table. In terms of the Xs and Os of business management, there’s definitely a gap that needs to be learned. Luckily for me and certainly a testament to our CEO’s risk tolerance, I came on and at the very early stages, aside from the CEO title, most of our titles were of paper tigers.

We were all doing it all and carrying our own water, taking out the trash. Over time, we specialized a little bit and that’s where I stopped my start on the customer-facing side. That gave me a whole bunch of at-bats in front of customers to cut my teeth. I eventually took on the role of trying to manage our first enterprise roll out. Back customers tripled its commitment to us over a year period, which is a great accomplishment for the company. It was moving through that progression of understanding the customer working on a written product side that moved me towards the COO role of a CEO. The president who also held the role of COO at the time was kind enough to move me into a chief of staff role for about nine months to allow me to look at the business in a more centralized fashion. Eventually, we freed our president up to take on some other actions for the company and put me in the role of COO to manage the day-to-day aspect of it.

You mentioned a term chief of staff and it’s a term that I’ve been hearing a fair amount that a lot of people aren’t even aware of. How would you qualify or define the chief of staff role?

I’ve seen the chief of staff employed in a number of ways, both of my time in the Armed Forces and my time at CIA. From a business perspective and I ought to go back to this word again, but it’s a little bit of a paper tiger. I was a utility player at the central component of the company to fill in the gaps and pick up the footballs. Our president and COO at the time was a busy guy. When special projects came up that he had a hard time focused on himself, I got the role of managing that. At the same time, I was also trying to work with the CEO to improve the quality of our communication channels with him. If you’re looking at the chief of staff’s role in a classic sense, that’s what the chief of staff is doing. It’s trying to help the CEO manage the communications that are coming his way and that he or she is pushing out to the direct reports.

You mentioned some of the skills that you’re going to have to learn along the way. What skills do you think you brought into Babel from the military or from the public sector?

SIC 44 | Babel Street
Babel Street: We need to thoughtfully assess the manner in which we’re engaging with various people and to bring more tools in our own toolkit.

 

I have a couple of takeaways from the Marine Corps that I’ve always stuck with me. It’s two maxims and a story about three colonels. I can talk a little about some of my agency takeaways. My first maxim is if you expect it, inspect it. My second is if it can be misunderstood, it will be. Going back to that first one, young officers would be given this rubric to issue an order for some operational undertaking. It was a six-letter acronym BAMCIS: Begin planning, Arrange for reconnaissance, Make a reconnaissance, Complete the plan, Issue the order and Supervise.

The lesson that always came out of these exercises is that you would task somebody with doing something and you’d never follow up on it. At the very end, it was clear that you never followed up on it. You just assumed it got done. The instructor would say something to the effect of, “Don’t forget the S in BAMCIS for Supervise.” I’ve always stuck with me. We all need a little check on what we’re doing and I don’t think that supervising means that you’re telling people how to do their work. In fact, I think that you can show a lot about how much you care about the task by checking in on it. My last thing for the Marine Corps that I would add is the Marine Corps is big on historical studies.

I remember being forced to read this passage that was written by a European general in the early 20th Century and he was opining on how he would lead his three colonels, his direct reports. One needed no additional guidance and one required a lot of very specific instructions and one was in the middle but needed a little more rapport building and emotional support. I’m bastardizing it a little bit, by the way. My take away from that was always that we need to thoughtfully assess the manner in which we’re engaging with various people and to bring more tools in our own toolkit. That relates to the way we interact with direct reports, colleagues, partners, customers and investors.

That thoughtfulness about how we engage to optimize communication is a big takeaway from my time in the service. A couple of takeaways from my time at the agency is the power of listening. That translates well to a lot of modern writing that goes on for business management. There’s plenty of sales books out there that extol the idea of spending 30% of the time talking and 70% listening. In human operations, we’re taught that we need to let people tell their story. It’s likewise important to recapitulate and establish the next actions. Any of us who’ve ever spent any time in a meeting with more than a handful of folks that resonates with us.

The power of thank you, I had a colleague approached me after a meeting and she had said, “I wanted to thank you for taking some time to recognize me and thanking me for what I was doing.” She had come to a certain milestone and what she was working on. I didn’t do that to score any points with her. It certainly wasn’t disingenuous. I had put myself in her shoes and thought about how far along she had gotten. I figured I would want someone from the executive team when I reached that milestone to thank me. When we move at the pace of business, it’s easy to let something like that go especially from the corporate level may be the accomplishment seems a little pedestrian, but it wasn’t pedestrian to the person who did it. Saying thank you goes a long way. Finally, I’m sure this makes sense given where I came from, but just the supreme importance of being adaptable and flexible in highly uncertain situations. I certainly don’t want to have anyone on the team who spends a lot of time in a querulous mode or is unable to adapt when the circumstances change because the only guarantee is that the circumstances are going to change.

You brought some good skillset. What about the learning along the way? You mentioned that there was a gap between the skillset you brought from the public sector and the skills you needed in the private sector or the entrepreneurial world. What skills have you had to continue to hone with yourself then along the way?

The importance of understanding some basic business fundamentals, I probably couldn’t have told you the difference between net 30 and net 60 payment terms the day that I walked into Babel Street. Some of us was blocking and tackling, understanding how we determine margins and how we reach toward a goal or certain margins. I think trying to think through sales strategies so that we’re thinking about the end in mind and working backwards. In our data analytics world, there’s a lot of shiny objects out there. It’s easy to get distracted by something that seems like it’s cool. We have to wrap ourselves back to whether or not it’s part of our core vision or whether or not it’s aligned with the revenue generating activity that works for us. I spent an enormous amount of time listening to members of our executive team whose virtues I would extol on any stage. Our general counsel is best in class. Our product team and our head of product and our chief strategy officer, revenue officer, CFO and CTO, these guys are amazing. I break out the notebook whenever they talk. I would add that our CEO and our president, I can’t say enough about these guys.

When you watch them in the business acumen, they have in terms of thinking about how we’re going to negotiate certain deals and how we’re going to approach certain problems. The equanimity that they’ve shown in stressful and challenging times and the ability with dexterity and effect of this communicate with people in a one-on-one setting and a compassionate and powerful way and at the same time stand in front of the company and be as authentic. When you watch a pair of guys like I’ve had the opportunity to observe, there’s a lot of positive ability to fill in the gap. The last part of that is going to work on my MBA made a big difference for me. I approached it late in life. I can remember how much older I felt that most of my contemporaries in the room there. I felt like a lot of the core concentrations ranging from accounting to negotiating to marketing made a big difference for me.

You would have gone back for your MBA as well. How many years after being in school did you go back for your MBA?

I went back roughly twenty years later. I have this vivid memory of sitting in there at the orientation. The recruiting team is doing a profile on the class. He made the point that, “We have five naval academy graduates here, Class of 2014, 2012, 2011 and 1990.” I certainly felt my age when I walked in there. Everybody treated me as kindly as they did each other. I can’t say enough about how good I thought that program was. It made a big difference to me.

I haven’t got back to college in forever and I was on a university campus with one of my kids walking around and looking at all these kids. I’m like, “These are children that are at university.” How did I even think I was an adult when I was in school?” You talked a little bit about vision, some focus and distraction. How do you get on the same page as the CEO with vision? How do you get the employees to be on the same page as the CEO with vision?

We have a number of weekly stand-ups that we do maintain some fidelity to. Those are both with the CEO. We do a session with a larger management team. That’s the CEOs meeting. The notes are for him to understand the decision points and other important considerations that were going on in different components of the company. We also have a little bit of a smaller group session on a weekly basis with the CEO. That’s the time for us to talk about the nonstandard things or bring him up to speed on something that had popped up that he wasn’t aware of. We do a regular, not quite weekly but a pretty regular session with the employees to keep them up to date both on the business side and on the product side. Beyond those, I feel like the contemporaneous conversations are important. My CEO, in particular, has a way about him that if there’s something on his mind, he’s got no compunction about picking up the phone. If it starts a line, he’s talking about it right then and there. In my case, in particular, I try to allow him to call me back or stop by and see me if he’s super busy. If I need something from them, I’ll pick up the phone. The freedom to approach it in that way makes a big difference as well.

How do you and he stay in sync? Do you have a meeting with him to stay in sync? How do you and the CEO stay in sync?

It’s a process of hearing him out on his general guidance and going into some regular updating mode. Some of that is temporally-driven, a regular update in the form of a weekly brief. Some of that is based on the project or the initiative itself. It’s making sure that he remains up to speed. We do use email a lot for that especially if he’s on the move. The importance of keeping him abreast of what’s going on is considerable. When you’re not the CEO, your assumption is that the CEO is super busy and he probably doesn’t want to be distracted with a whole bunch of things that are not the type of activity that he has to deal with on a daily basis. In my case or at least in our CEO’s case, the opposite is true. He’s hungry for information. He wants to have a finger on the pulse of what’s going on. It’s my job to make sure that it gets it.

Talk about some of the focus and distraction, how do you keep yourself focused? How do you keep the team focused? Jim Collins who wrote Good To Great talked about working on the critical few versus the important many. We’ve got so much distraction in the normal day-to-day plus in all of our competing priorities instead of a business, part of their lives. How do you keep people focused? How do you keep yourself focused?

SIC 44 | Babel Street
Babel Street: Give insightful questions that are going to prompt your colleagues to think about how it can fit into the company’s overall strategy.

 

That’s the magic question right there. It’s such a good one and I’m sure that it matters in every industry, but it makes a big difference in ours because as I said, this data analytics and data science world is amorphous. It’s not as easy to conceive a product the way that it is to conceive what an automobile looks like or what a laptop computer looks like. It is easy for people to get distracted when we think about new ideas. One of the great things about working at a company like ours is that everybody is excited about the product that we all have many ideas about new ways that could be applied and new things that we might consider doing to it.

We’ve had to put some controls in place to make sure that we take the input of that feedback and drive it into a program where we can discern what’s best for us. We have this management of ideas on the product side. On the business side and the customer-facing side, the way that I personally try to spend a lot of time keeping us in line with the overall vision and I know it sounds probably elementary when it’s going to come out of my mouth, is I’m a strong question asker. The question of, “How’s it going,” or something like that, I always issue because the natural offset for an answer like that is, “It’s going fine,” and that doesn’t tell me anything.

I try to work insightful questions that are going to prompt my colleagues to think a little bit about how this fits into the company’s overall strategy and that helps to avoid some distractions. Finally, we have a weekly standup meeting that we affectionately call a go/no-go session. It’s at that time where we evaluate anything that is a little bit unusual that we hadn’t seen before. We debate the efficacy and make a determination based on the consensus of whether or not we’re going to move forward or whether or not we’re going to let something pass. It ranges from process-driven methodologies to keep us on track and a few more that are softer skills to help us keep going as well.

Can you walk us through the go/no-go? How that sets up? How you make those decisions?

We have representatives from various concentrations of the company that would be most impacted if a company was to make a decision to pursue a particular effort. We have a charter for the meeting so there’s a representative from those. At this point, we’ve run at a number of times. Everybody knows what their role is. The key is feeding information to that group in advance so that group has some time to deliberate on it. We’ve definitely worked a little bit more on short notice. We probably needed to in the past. We’ve improved on that a lot. Once everybody has seen it and we’ve whittled down what the decision point is, we deliberate on it. We’ll oftentimes have the champion of the idea in the room to promote the idea of why it’s going to help this person with the portfolio that speaks to the overall corporate vision. We deliberate on it in a positive idea driven-way. Everybody gets a chance to say their piece. We don’t interrupt each other. Nobody takes it personally or offensive. We walk out of there and press on.

Talk a little bit about your direct reports. What business areas report to you and how do you try to support them?

We’re matrixed in a way that I’ve been able to drive down the number of direct reports I have. In the past, having had upwards of 20 or 25 direct reports, that’s a refreshing change for me. What I ended up having is a lot of functional responsibility, but the administration of some of the direct reports goes in different directions. For instance, our revenue team has a chief revenue officer and a hierarchy within that organization. For the purposes of driving sales strategy functionally, that’s put over to me. Sales operations is a big functionality. I hired a director for sales operations who’s fantastic. I’ve heard you speak on a podcast about the importance of hiring people that are smarter and better than you in certain areas. That’s been a huge help to me. He’s been able to take on some of the transactional elements in doing that. I have a functional relationship with our product team in trying to come up with some go-to market strategy type of exercises as we think about our innovation and roadmap.

Finally, our customer experience team. I don’t have a matrix that they’re not reporting to me on the org chart, but we have an overlap of functional responsibility that we need to interact with each other and certain things that those guys have the responsibility for. That way we’re matrixed. It’s worked well and allowed me to tackle a whole bunch of issues that regularly come up in running the day to day operations of the company. Property, insurance, all manner of special projects, industry certifications and these things all require an operations focus and end up taking up a lot of time.

Where do you find the company is struggling and not in a negative way? I was talking to a CEO that I was coaching and he’s 45. I said, “When you were 5, 15, 25, 35, 45 years old, you were still the same guy, but you’ve evolved.” Maybe I’m not saying struggling, but where is the company evolving right now? Where are you moving from being 15 years old to 25 years old or 30 years old?

We’re at an inflection point where having been a startup years ago, we’ve made it in that respect. It’s about growth and new ideas. The part that we struggle with goes back a little bit to the conversation you and I had earlier about the managing distractions is the overwhelming opportunities that sit out there. It’s so hard to say no to certain things when in the early startup stages you don’t say no to anything because it’s all about catching on and building customer bases. The thing we struggle with is managing the initiatives that initially seemed shiny and perhaps have an elegant, glamorous feel to them. In the end, they may not be the best initiatives that are keeping with our long-range vision. If we struggle with anything, it’s sometimes saying no.

That’s another one that kept coming up as well. I was talking to a CEO. He’s talking about the demands on his time. I was like, “Say no or quit the organization you’re in.” He’s part of the Young President’s Organization. He’s been there for five years. I’m like, “Move on. If you’re not getting anything out of it.” “I can’t leave because of various reasons.” I’m like, “You can.” It’s a great organization. It’s an amazing one. Most of my clients are in YPO, but at some point, you graduate. It’s like high school. You move from high school to college. At some point, you move from YPO to something or you move from something into YPO. It’s not a negative.” For him, his big struggle is saying no to a group. How do you work with the team on saying no? How do you say no to competing priorities? How do you say no to decisions? How do you say no to investments?

A lot of it goes back to training and staff development. As we bring people on, they’re moving their feet quick to find their footing. One of the major growth areas we have is trying to give them opportunities to learn from the lessons that those of us who’ve been doing this for a while. We’ve already learned. Some of that is building ways for them to access that information and some of that as a function of training people a little bit on what we’ve seen along the way. We’ve also done a nice job of hearing people out and taking ideas from within the company and leveraging those ideas to get a better understanding of what people were seeing out there. Then deciding if we need to make any strategic shifts based on what we’re seeing or if we need to make sure that we maintain fidelity to what we’re doing and spend some time on what the workforce to try to emphasize that.

How old is your workforce? Do you guys run the gamut in terms of age? Are you running a lot of Gen Y, Gen X?

We do run the gamut. If we were to take a bell curve, we’d probably hit about most of the age demographics that the modern workforce probably has. We definitely do have a lot of young folks. Everything from a college-age intern, at various times to a handful of people where this is their first or second job. We have people that have joined the company in mid-career. I don’t know if their change is necessarily as drastic as the one that I made. They’re definitely in a mid-career, at an inflection point and they think about where they’re going. We have some who have seen it all. They love being around the energy that we have. We’ve been able to benefit from their experience. We’re running the gamut.

The typical question is how are you working with Gen Y? I don’t want to ask that question anymore. I’m getting tired of the answers. How do you work with the Baby Boomers? The youngest Baby Boomer is 54 now and the oldest Baby Boomer is 76. How are you getting that 55 to 70-ish-year-olds to adopt technology? How are you getting them to work in a modern workforce? How are you getting them to understand that 9 to 5 doesn’t matter? How are you bringing them up to speed?

SIC 44 | Babel Street
Babel Street: When people come in and they believe in what you are doing and are aligned with the way you think, the relationship usually works out.

 

We don’t have a ton of employees in that demographic. We do have a few. A lot of that gets accomplished at the early stages of establishing the relationship where they’re coming to work for us. The process of screening for any employee as we’re seeking a fit for attitude, experience and skill sets. We do the same here. If we take the age aside for a second, we think about a time and place in a career that someone who has spent 20 or 30 years doing something and then going out and doing a second career. In my capacity, I’ve seen a lot of people from the public sector do this. They have retired from the US government or they have retired from the US Armed Forces and they go out and they’re looking at what they want to do.

Those that are most successful at a company like ours are the ones who understand that point I talked about earlier that we may be a little specialized, but everybody picks up the trash around here. We don’t have secretaries for everybody. We need everybody to approach this with the same energy. We’ve had a lot of success by spending time with people as we consider bringing them on and making sure that we have a strong cultural fit in that perspective. It’s been my experience that we haven’t had to spend a lot of time with those guys and gals trying to motivate them to get up to speed say with the technology that we’re in use. They are fighting harder than some of the younger people because they want to prove their own metal in that respect. They know it’s maybe not a strong suit that they grew up with. It hasn’t been a huge challenge. It speaks to making sure we get the right people.

Are you biased against the Baby Boomers?

No, not at all. I’ve got a lot of good experiences with some of the company. The transition is a little harder for someone who left a previous career where they had a lot of organic support in what they were doing. Maybe they have a secretary or a staff that took care of maybe some of the more mundane tasks. The people that have been most successful for us have been the ones who, without even being told, rolled their sleeves up and said, “I’m in.”

You talked about something that crosses all the demographics and core values because you have to hire for that. Do they fit your core values, not aspire to live them? What are your core values for your company? How do you on the frontend hire to that to match core values?

When we talk about core values, we’re talking about it from our perspective that number one, we don’t let customers fail. Number two that we’re going to know our customer’s business. Number three, we’re going to understand our own product and how it can positively impact customers. Number four, we’re going to do good with what we have. When we think of our values in that way, they’re usually pretty self-evident. People can wrap their brains around that pretty easily. We do have a process when we’re interviewing people. Obviously, we have a screening process when we interview folks. We do have several people talk to them and they may come from different disciplines throughout the company so that we can get a holistic perspective on who we’re talking to. I have found that when it comes to the idea of core values, we’ve been lucky in that respect. I don’t feel like we’ve had a lot of misses from a core value perspective. When people come in, they believe in what we’re doing and they’re aligned with the way we think. From that perspective, it’s usually worked out.

I’ve always believed that a leader’s job is to grow people. Our job is to raise them up, grow their skill set and grow their confidence. They almost ladder up. As you take them up or run on confidence, they grow in their competence. You’re going to keep going up the ladder. Do you guys have any systems internally or do you do anything yourself with your team? Are there any core areas that you’re working on growing the skills of people more than others?

This is a large initiative for us, especially at the stage that we’re at. Our CEO is the driver behind this to his undying credit. He has said to me on a personal level and it manifests itself professionally that he likes to leave people better than you found them. We have that same approach professionally. What we’re starting to do is try to work with employees about what their career goals are to the maximum extent possible that we can support them in that and we’re doing that. From a process standpoint, we’re improving our training and our onboarding. We set up various concentrations within the company to have natural levels of growth and prospective advancement. Whereas before when we were working perhaps in a little bit more loose way, that wasn’t as tightly defined.

We’re trying to improve the internal training that we’re trying to provide whether that’s on the technical side or on the sales side, on a periodic basis beyond the onboarding. Whenever we’re able to support an employee who wants to attend a particular function or a short class or maybe even a conference that is not only going to run down to their success within the company, but it’s also going to benefit them from a personal growth perspective. When we are able to do that, we do make every effort to. We’re simply at the stage where we can say, “We’re going to send twenty people to graduate school this year.” The things that we are doing greatly outsize what is hard for a company to do these days and our employee base has responded pretty positively to that.

I was talking to a CEO that I coach. His team has gone from around $5 million to $20 million in two years. They’re going to do $40 million. It’s a rapid growth phase. He’s got about 200-ish employees right now. His CFO asked what the budget was for 2019 for people development and for training. He said, “There is none.” She goes, “No, we need a budget.” He goes, “I’m sorry. There’s no cap.” She goes, “There has to be a cap.” He goes, “Nope. If everybody wants to spend their entire year getting trained on stuff, let’s do it. Because the more I grow them, the more they’re going to grow the company.” She goes, “That’s crazy. What if twenty people want to go to Tony Robbins?” He goes, “Awesome. We’ll put them on the company jet and we’ll fly them all down there.” He wasn’t kidding. He’s decided that he is going full on, all out on growing as people. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of commitment to that level where his second in command is in the COO Alliance. He sent eight people to a Tony Robbins event. He’s in a couple of coaching programs. The guy is ramping up the training.

That’s what we should all aspire to. I’m definitely envious of his position to be able to do that with that confidence. I would love to be able to be a part of us growing that way. For companies that maybe have some resource constraints in that, there’s a lot of ways to be creative with that. At the same time, that’s what we’re putting a lot of time and effort into.

II was talking to another CEO at lunch. I was saying, “I don’t think we spend enough time training our people on the core parts of their role that they do every day. We spend a lot of time teaching them about the company itself, our product, our service and maybe how to run our software, but we don’t teach them how to interview people. We don’t teach them how to coach people. We don’t teach them how to delegate or do time management or project management, like all of the soft skills leadership.” My gut is that you pulled a lot of those skills out of the military and you carried them with you.

I would say that that’s the case. I would much rather hire someone that my assessment was high of their soft skills or what they were bringing to the table than worrying about whether or not will they be able to train a lot on that. That’s a hard thing to train on and it goes to the concept of experience and how important that is for certain hiring within a company. I think that we can work a lot with that for employees that are coming in and maybe a little bit of a younger stage. There are a lot of opportunities to help people along with those soft skills. I do think it takes a little bit of forthrightness and maybe even a real commitment to telling people in a very politic and positive way what the observations are.

We all got to have some thick skin. If you see at a time when maybe a soft skill isn’t being employed as effectively as it could be, it is incumbent on the manager or the leader in that respect, to be honest with the employee, but to do so in a positive way that’s re-motivates them and re-recruits them to know what they’re part of. That’s the way that it has to be done. To ignore it and pretend like it isn’t there, certainly doesn’t help the employee grow. It probably has maybe some longer range major problems. Course correction takes too long to manifests itself.

It’s a disservice to everybody. One of the things that seem to be popular these days, especially in social media, is the idea of being vulnerable. Leaders are being more open and vulnerable. There’s almost a blurred line between our personal lives and our business lines. I’d love to get some thoughts from you around that, to leadership in this day of vulnerability and being open and being a completely open book. Our thoughts and feelings and also with your personal life as it relates to the business. How do you deal with all that stuff?

SIC 44 | Babel Street
Babel Street: People appreciate the level of introspective honesty and humanity that’s there.

 

That’s a very interesting question. One of my shortfalls in the soft skills has probably been maybe empathy and some of the people whose opinions I care about and take a little time to talk to me about that. I don’t mean empathy in the sense that I don’t care because I do. I suppose that it’s not as easy to maybe see from the look on my face or my actions at a given the time that I’m expressing it as much as maybe I should. For the sake of being vulnerable in this capacity, that’s something I personally I’ve had to work on. For the sake of being vulnerable in this capacity, I think that it is something that I personally have to work on. I really do think that it goes a long way with employees. It goes a long way with friends and family members when we can let our guard down and be honest about ourselves a little bit. It’s certainly not the natural inclination for a lot of people.

Certainly for me, maybe that’s a function of my background and where I came from, to the extent that it’s authentic and it’s at an appropriate time. The people appreciate that level of introspective honesty and the humanity that’s there. I do think it goes a long way. I suppose on a personal side I could probably go a lot more towards that at home. I have two kids, a beautiful daughter and a fantastic son. My daughter is in high school and my son is in middle school. I can be one-minded in certain ways. In all seriousness, we need to get this done or this is the time to do this. As they get older, they have these new ideas. It’s taken me some cycles to figure out the importance of expressing the same flexibility at home that I demand of people when I’m at work.

I wish there was a manual for being a dad. Running a business is easy. I said that to one of my kids. I’ve got two boys that are seventeen and fifteen. I’m like, “Being a dad is freaking hard because running a company is so simple compared to raising you two. I can’t do it. I don’t think I can ever do it right. When I’m doing it right, I think about how to do it better too.” How about one final parting gift? If you were to have wished that you knew something at a younger age, what would it be that you could tell yourself? If you could tell the 21-year-old Eric something in leadership that you now know to be true but you wish you’d known earlier on, what would it be?

I might focus in a little bit on what young Eric would tell COO Eric and not necessarily Eric and the professional sense in general. When I wasn’t the COO, I can think of a lot of times when I would bring a problem to the COO or I’ve been a solution to the COO who I’ve greatly respected. When we moved out on my solution because the COO endorsed it, I felt validated because the COO knows what he’s doing. I’m the COO and people bring things to me. There are times when there’s probably some assumption or expectation that I know what I’m doing.

Sometimes if there’s an issue that the CEO or the president isn’t all that involved in, the answer that I’m giving, the guidance, the signature or whatever is the answer for the company. That’s been a humbling experience for me. It’s led me to the conclusion that if you take the Truman mantra, “The buck stops here,” that’s like the CEO’s maxim going forward. The COO’s maximum is that, The uncertainty stops here,” because the value I feel like I’ve tried to bring and that I’ve seen other COOs do is they take the uncertainty that comes from an amorphous and uncertain conversation, teases out the decision points and establishes some tasking. They’re relentless in bringing that uncertainty into something actionable for the company. If I had to give advice to anyone who was eventually going to try to go the route of being a COO, it would be that be prepared to turn on certain the action.

I also loved the first one that you gave us, which was, “Inspect what you expect.” That’s a mantra that I’ve used for years. It wasn’t because people were not delivering, it was because often I didn’t delegate as well as I clearly could have more people got busy too. Eric Bowen, Chief Operating Officer from Babel Street. I appreciate you spending the time with us, giving us some of these insights and getting to know you a little bit. Thank you very much for all this time.

Thank you so very much. I appreciate the opportunity.

Thanks. I appreciate it.

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