Bhumi Bhutani of Way.com: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Encourage honest feedback- Not to sound cliché, but it is important, if not vital, for leaders to be open to hearing the good, the bad and the ugly about what members of the team think about the company, the mission, projects, and strategy. It is important to be questioned, as it yields more reflection and enables leaders to take a second look if something is missed as well as firm up their position.
As 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 Bhumi Bhutani.
Bhumi is the Co-Founder and VP of Sales of Way.com, where she’s responsible for the sales and operational leadership of the company’s online organization.
Bhumi brings with her over eight years of industry experience, during which she has made hundreds of direct alliances with parking companies and operators, further establishing Way’s presence to include thousands of parking locations throughout the United States.
Prior to Way, Bhumi was the Co-Founder and COO of Raksha International — and has held management positions at Genentech and the California Department of Health. Bhumi received her Master of Science degree from the London School of Economics and her Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California, Berkeley.
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?
Thanks for having me here. I grew up in the bay area and saw this place transform as Silicon Valley. I had the pleasure to see this first-hand when my father in partnership with Nolan Bushnell was able to change the gaming world with Atari. That was my motivating factor, and then slowly watching how Silicon Valley was able to transform the world with innovation fascinated me further. I always related innovation with convenience, and everyone was ready to pay for convenience. So around 8 years ago, when Binu (Girija, CEO of Way.com) and I were meeting up in San Francisco for a quick meal, it took me over 20 mins to find cheap parking, and during our dinner Binu pitched the idea of transforming the parking industry by adding convenience. I connected to that right away, and that’s how our Way journey started.
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?
Yes! It was one of our first Thanksgivings actually. We never anticipated the demand that we had and sold out of our airport parking inventory! We were scrambling, looking for more spaces to help our customers with their travels. We realized that the holidays required more sophisticated planning. A funny and true story which led us to think more deeply about market trends, develop a far greater understanding of travel, our customers’ needs and paved the way for available data in-house to equip up in advance for the peak seasons!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’ve been fortunate to have met and build friendships with smart and thoughtful leaders who were generous enough to offer their time to me at various stages in my journey. I recall in 2014 when I first met Frank Ching, Deputy Executive Officer at LA Metro. Frank was being honored by the National Parking Association with the innovator of the year award for his work in transforming the City of Santa Monica to adopt shared mobility programs and the latest eco- technology in his city sites. I had the pleasure of being introduced to Frank and within minutes we sat down sharing experiences. We had so much to share, and he had so much insight on the industry. I was new and he was open to listening to my challenges. He offered strategies, solutions, and helped me network across the industry. He never said navigating the industry would be easy, but he understood what we were trying to do and wanted to help because he understood the problem. His mentorship has been a boon for me and to this day I am grateful for him and his willingness to help me.
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 we set out to start Way.com we recognized that there were some key problems facing drivers when it comes to their vehicles. To start, car services are inconvenient to use, they are priced too high, and more than 40% of drivers are in debt due to a car-related issue, more than 50% of them are millennials. We set out to understand the industries and have set out to solve these problems.
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?
Fortunately, for the sake of this interview, I do not have to think back too far. Let’s take March 2019. The world stopped for most, but not for us at Way.com. In fact, we went into hyper-mode. The individuals who thought the “ship would sink” jumped almost immediately, but those who remained worked because they believed far deeply in Way’s purpose and did not want to lose all that we had struggled to win. As a leader, your organization looks to you for stability, growth, and vision. At that time, no one could see from one day to the next as news headlines would lead to more unknowns. We did know one thing though; we knew our company’s mission and we knew we had to organize more closely with our partners and each other to sustain. At the most critical and uncertain time, I aligned myself more closely with each team member and spoke to each of our clients personally. I was not afraid to have the difficult conversations. The team saw that and gained confidence to do the same. Our CEO seized the uncertain time to reflect on a pandemic-resistant product line leading our engineering team into a full R&D cycle. As leaders, we aligned more closely with each other, were empathetic, supportive and transparent with our team about the company’s next steps. During the height of this challenging time, leadership asked the most difficult questions of everyone around them, reflected on what was working and what was not. We made our team more inclusive in the decision-making. The heightened level communication and clarity within our company during the period of uncertainty was energizing for the team and became deeply motivating. You could say that it made up for the lack of uncertainty around the world.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, that is one characteristic that I refuse to take up. In fact, the thought never arose. For me, Way.com and the vision that we have, the problem that we set out to solve is far bigger than any of us and we know it is a big problem that needs solving. This is where my drive comes from. My motivation is derived from knowing that someone has to solve it and we have!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Over-communicating and articulating and repeating both the mission and targets of the company’s vision. During challenging times, people become insecure. Leaders need to ask the hard questions and include their team. Teams tend to look at leaders as having the answers all the time, but during challenging times, the role of the leaders shifts to one that asks the team the harder questions and creates a safe place for others to reflect on the business goals, the shifts in the industry, market changes, competitors’ strategies to enable new growth opportunities and new corporate strategies to take root.
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?
Stay calm, focused, and confident. People follow good leaders and learn from them if they are at ease and stay consistent. In uncertain times, build more opportunities for team building. These moments do not have to be expensive, in fact it can be a white board session in which the team brings a dish to share. The purpose is for others to remain comfortable, engaged and open in their work environment. As a leader, be vocal of the challenges and ask questions of others in these sessions. Be open to receiving honest feedback and allowing the team to speak freely. You hired these individuals for their expertise — so trust their insight. Having these opportunities boosts morale and productivity and when people are at ease it allows for the free flow of ideas. There could be a new strategy which seemed impossible at the time. Another morale booster is sharing success and recognizing others for their accomplishments. Sharing your successes even if they are small wins daily, acknowledging and thanking teams for delivering their tasks and going above and beyond if they put in a great deal of effort. Staying engaged with the team as much as possible. If you are distant, they will read the signs and think something Is wrong. If you are engaged and going about your interactions with optimism, this will rub off on your counterparts and boost morale. I believe inspiration comes to those who watch leaders who roll up their sleeves and get work done. This is what inspires me.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
In-person. During the pandemic this was a struggle, however, I took the opportunity to make a personal call to all of our clients and whenever possible we would be on zoom. Difficult news should always be communicated verbally. It is critical that you can make eye contact with the recipient of the news and express the tone and emotions attached to the news. Empathy and sincerity are difficult to convey over email and you need both deliver difficult news to anyone. In fact, they are vital to keeping the relationship.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
As a leader, you look at uncertain times as opportunities. A great example is when the travel ban was mandated in March 2019, we faced uncertainty as overnight our airport parking sales had plummeted. The decline forced us to think beyond our day to day and reinvent our next product line.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I would say companies are meant to have ups and downs, successes and failures, that’s the beauty of innovating and part of the growing pains of expanding. You need to fail to listen more closely to your customers at times or evaluate your product so it can improve. The principle I follow is to remain agile and never stop learning. It’s a mindset for me. If you have this you can face anything your company goes through, learn and grow from it.
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?
Keep doing what you have been doing hoping things will get better. It’s a mistake because difficult times would require you to pivot and try something new. It may mean taking a risk; make sure it is a calculated one, but if you do not shift you will only sink further. Another mistake is pretending or disguising that the company’s doing fine internally and/or to your clients. This is a huge mistake. During difficult times it is imperative that you over communicate and focus on solutions. Firstly, you will gain trust and support among your teams, and they will be motivated to brainstorm with you. Secondly, your clients will become trusted partners. A thoughtful leader shares the difficulties along with the vision and plan towards a solution.
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?
I read as much as possible on market trends, politics, industry and technology. I use what I read to help influence my daily work with the intention to grow. There are many strategies, processes, and solutions one can utilize from outside one’s own industry to positively shape your growth strategy.
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.
- Transparency — One of our most challenging financial times was in 2017 when we had switched to a new database stack during holiday time. Our system was failing us because of the exponential growth of traffic on the site. We couldn’t wait any longer and our team had to make the switch, otherwise we would collapse. It was one of the most challenging times because we didn’t have any reports for our vendors for weeks. We had the difficult conversations with our business development and account management team as well as with our vendors. We were open and honest about the reason their reports were no longer available. They were upset, but we were committed to delivering whatever they needed even if it was manual. The vendors were trusting, and we stayed committed. It brought our teams closer and our vendors closer.
- Stay Agility- We’ve heard this often and that is exactly the reason it is near the top of my list. In turbulent times, acting swiftly is most effective because you are quickly working to figure out what is working and what is not. As an example, when we started our city parking program at Way, we were not the first to market and it was a completely new product for us. We thought we knew what we needed to deliver to the customer from a business standpoint, which was successful, however we couldn’t quite get more eyeballs on our amazing deals, and we couldn’t figure out why! If we sat around waiting for customers to check us out without trying different levers on our side, whether it was adding more parking locations in San Francisco, or swapping out better images, we needed to be open and agile to shift and improve. When we did, we saw an improvement overnight!
- Encourage honest feedback- Not to sound cliché, but it is important, if not vital, for leaders to be open to hearing the good, the bad and the ugly about what members of the team think about the company, the mission, projects, and strategy. It is important to be questioned, as it yields more reflection and enables leaders to take a second look if something is missed as well as firm up their position.
- Nurture Collective Self-Confidence — I am big believer in Ronald Heifetz’s work in leadership, so I take from him and Donald Laurie here. It is critical to instill confidence in your workforce rather than have them place their dependence on you. Instead of controlling people give them the space to make mistakes because that is how they will find solutions. As a leader you must instill this for scalability.
- Push Collaboration- As a business leader you often have to peel through layers of work politics to draw out individuals or teams working together. Blame tends to go around during challenging times quite frequency. I like to start my meetings with an agenda that expresses the mutual objective which I know everyone wants to reach. If you start with everyone’s best interest in mind and encourage open and thoughtful discussion this tends to encourage a spirit of collaboration even during the most difficult times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Where there is a will there is a WAY.” There have been several obstacles and failures that I have had in my life, both in personal and in business. When I started, not all the deals came flooding in. Clients didn’t know who I was or what our company was. On top of that, I had to build awareness about our company, our value. I had to be persistent all the way and shake off moments of despair. I keep this quote close to my heart and it’s the first quote I have taught my daughter. If you are resilient, tenacious, and can envision yourself with the success you are seeking — whatever that might be, I truly believe you will achieve it eventually.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow all the news about Way on all of our social channels and on LinkedIn.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Bhumi Bhutani of Way: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Time was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.