Brian Pallas of Opportunity Network: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Have a clear purpose, and genuinely believe in it. Our purpose is central to everything we do, from our recruiting process to our product innovation, to our sales pitch, to our customers. We have made many tough decisions over the years to stay true to it. During the pandemic, we stood to gain financially from the huge inflow of new members, but instead, we decided to offer the year’s membership for free to all the companies that joined while struggling due to the pandemic. It was a big commitment on our part, but we felt it was the only ethical choice.

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 Brian Pallas.

Brian Pallas is an Italian entrepreneur, CEO, and Founder of Opportunity Network, a private business matching network for vetted CEOs and private investors worldwide. Brian holds a B.S. in Business Management and an M.S. in Economics, graduating with honors from the Catholic University of Milan. He also worked at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where he gained experience in venture capital, private equity and investment banking, before being sponsored by them to complete an MBA at Columbia Business School in New York, where the idea of Opportunity Network first began.

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?

I was born and raised in Italy, where I completed my BSc in Business Management and a Master’s in Economics with honors from the Catholic University of Milan. After that, I worked for 2 years at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and gained experience in Venture Capital, Private Equity, and Investment Banking. I then moved with my wife Henriette to New York to study for an MBA at Columbia Business School.

Intent on helping my father expand our family business, I joined the Family Business Club and started circulating an internal newsletter anonymously connecting my fellow club members with each other’s business opportunities. Soon I found myself with almost a billion dollars’ worth of deal flow passing through my inbox, and when I saw people successfully closing deals, I realized we were on to something.

That was just the beginning. Now, 7 years later, our digital deal-matching network hosts 50,000+ CEOs across 130+ countries and 100+ industries, as well as $450Bn deal flow.

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?

This is a hard one, while we did make many mistakes at the beginning, none of them felt particularly funny at the time… If I had to pick one it would be my first hire. He did not last a day. I was eager to find someone to help me as I was swamped and barely sleeping, so I picked literally the first person who came forward and after 5 minutes, I was already onboarding him. By that same night, he started asking how much longer he was expected to work. I looked at him with a puzzled look and responded: until we’re done, of course. He nodded, smiled, and resigned.

I am glad to say that we have since learnt to put the most attention into selecting the right people for our team. We want to make sure everyone that works with us really shares our burning desire to make our purpose come true and leave a dent in the world.

Every 3 months we run a survey asking people three simple yes or no questions. We ask whether they believe we will manage to increase global GDP, whether they think everyone does their best to live according to the values we picked for ourselves, and if they would recommend us to their best friend as clients, employees, AND suppliers.

Everyone receives the survey from myself all the way down to the interns and even contractors. It’s completely anonymous and untraceable.

It’s now 11 quarters in a row that we’ve received a 100% response rate and >90% of people responding yes to all 3 questions. The last one was 94% average, and what we love the most are the comments from people.

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?

Everyone talks about some famous mentor or inspirational leader they look up to. I must admit that I learned more from my colleagues than anyone else.

We are fortunate to have people that are incredibly senior in our team and on our board. If I had not founded this company, they could have easily been mentors for me.

Working with them every day is what really enables them to give me punctual input and to grow. The most important thing that we’ve achieved is a culture where no one is scared to speak up and ideas are truly accepted and welcomed.

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?

We’ve always dreamt of a world where every reliable CEO/investor has equal access to business opportunities. A world where it doesn’t matter whether you are located in the New York, Bologna, or Nairobi.

Most companies’ success is driven by having access to the right people at the right time.

Finding an investor when capital is needed, new clients for global expansion, new suppliers in times of crisis… These are the things that separate winners from losers, sometimes even more than the quality of one’s product or service.

Our purpose is to foster economic growth on a global scale by breaking down first vs third world barriers in an effort to increase global GDP and improve standards of living, wages, and employment opportunities in emerging markets.

Our network connects vetted CEOs and decision-makers worldwide with their reliable counterparts for any business need. We want to address issues such as unmet financing needs and eliminate economic inequalities in order to create a real global level playing field where every entrepreneur grows based on merit.

Since the pandemic, we’ve also been striving to help businesses recover, whether it be through helping them replace trade partners, address urgent liquidity needs or overcome logistical and supply chain disruptions.

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?

Transparency has been key for us. We want people to be aware of any risk they’re taking by staying with us.

A few years ago, we had very little cash left, and we put our bank balance on a screen for everyone to see, alongside all the other KPIs.

People saw the number decrease each month; 3 months, 2 months, 1 month and a half…

A few people (very few) looked for other jobs, scared by the uncertainty. Everyone else fought ten times harder to make it happen, and I believe it’s because of that, that we’re still around to tell the tale.

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

No, I have not thought about giving up, despite the fact that we’ve had no shortage of challenging moments.

I believe that very few people have the privilege in their lifetime to be able to fight to make a real difference on a large scale.

Here we all feel proud that we have a shot, even during the times when it looks like a very long shot.

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

Show resilience, have empathy, and be fully transparent.

People need to know how hard it is going to be and how risky it is going to be. Hiding the truth only destroys trust.

What really builds trust is recognizing challenges, showing a clear direction, and proving with concrete actions that we’re all here shoulder to shoulder fighting tooth and nail to make it happen.

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?

Every month we have a Town Hall where we meet any newcomers, discuss our targets and KPI progress, inform everyone of what’s going on in each area of the company, and answer any questions.

And when I say any, I mean it.

We pride ourselves on being a transparent company and any suggestions or questions are welcomed. By being so transparent and open with our communication, we are able to create an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable to speak up and trusts one another, which I feel is what makes us such a strong team.

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

First, transparency, transparency, transparency.

And then again, a little empathy goes a long way. Before you even speak to your team and customers, think about how you would feel if you were receiving the same news. Keeping your teams’ emotions in mind will help you navigate the situation better.

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

Moving forward, leaders must focus on their ability to adapt. And for that, you need a Plan B mentality. Executing strategies are far more difficult than creating them. There are too many forces at play during the execution phase of the plan to prevent it from succeeding.

Whether it be the introduction of a new technology/innovation, a new competitor to worry about, market pricing dropping suddenly, or government policy and customer demand changing without warning.

The only effective coping mechanism in the face of such situations is to have multiple contingency plans ready to go.

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

Yes, and that’s never to lose sight of why you’re there.

Your purpose is what will guide you through turbulent times and tough choices.

Many companies during times of crisis just try to survive and weather the storm.

I believe that companies go down when they start playing for survival rather than to achieve their purpose.

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?

  1. Failing to adapt to market demands — Lots of organizations like to lay low through challenging times when what they should be doing is re-evaluating how they can evolve their business model to adjust to the ever-evolving market needs. We can always do better and keep growing. Who knows, you may even find areas of new revenue that you’d missed previously.
  2. Failing to measure business operations — Storing and tracking data is key to measuring the success of business operations. After all, you can only manage what you measure. If you don’t have a clear, objective picture of what is happening in each aspect of your business, it is very difficult to pinpoint the areas that need improvement or attention.
  3. Under-communicating — Business leaders who under-communicate tend to exacerbate issues rather than alleviate them. Business is all about people. People are human and they have insecurities that can be a significant hindrance to daily work life. Over-communicate and eliminate that air of uncertainty.

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?

Well, since we offer a means to continue growing your business at a time when it is easy to stagnate, business leaders have actually been drawn to the platform. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 15,000 new companies have joined Opportunity Network, and our levels of activity have skyrocketed. We’ve seen a 70% increase in conversations among members and a 60% growth in the number of new business opportunities posted.

As we all know, we are now in the digital era, and people are starting to realize that many of the things that were previously done in person can now be done by the click of a button, at a fraction of the cost, and at much greater convenience.

Our members simply have to post their business opportunity on the network and our matching algorithm and account managers share it with potential counterparts within our network of 50,000 business leaders. On average, every opportunity receives at least one connection in the first 48 hours. This offers unprecedented scale and capacity for any type of company to grow faster than any competitor.

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.

1. Have a clear purpose, and genuinely believe in it. Our purpose is central to everything we do, from our recruiting process to our product innovation, to our sales pitch, to our customers. We have made many tough decisions over the years to stay true to it. During the pandemic, we stood to gain financially from the huge inflow of new members, but instead, we decided to offer the year’s membership for free to all the companies that joined while struggling due to the pandemic. It was a big commitment on our part, but we felt it was the only ethical choice.

2. Set a clear direction towards that purpose, one that everyone can understand and embrace. Every year we write an email to all employees and investors. It always starts with the purpose, and then goes on to discuss our honest understanding of the business and its direction, the choices we’ll have to make and the assumptions on which we’re relying on. We then hold a town hall meeting and allow everyone to ask any questions about it.

3. Be unyielding in the pursuit of the purpose, and very flexible on the means. We have often tried different paths to achieve our goal and switched around things until we found a solid sustainable recipe. Looking backwards, we feel that for the first few years, we did not have a solid economic model on which to rely. The reason why we were able to continue our journey in an industry such as business matchmaking where there is not a clear market leader example to follow is due to our relentless pursuit of our purpose. As a result of our unwavering commitment, our investors kept backing us.

4. Be completely transparent. In our company, every employee that stays for more than a year gains access to the same information we share with all existing and new shareholders. The shares they own are the same we issue to new investors. We’re all in the same boat, and we all have full visibility on where the company is going.

5. Remember to create occasions for celebration and socialization. Otherwise, the daily struggle will make the mood unnecessarily gloomy. Recently, we organized a BBQ for the first time in a while (due to COVID, all in-person activities were suspended) and the turnout was amazing. It was wonderful to see everyone socializing and getting to know each other on a different level. In fact, many of our team members got to meet their colleagues that they had been teleworking with in person for the first time. And even though the occasion was purely social, many took the opportunity to brainstorm ideas, talk about their roles in the company, and understand more about what others’ roles entail, too.

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

I’m not too keen on inspirational quotes. They often just sound nice.

I’m a big believer in full dedication to a worthwhile purpose.

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

Brian Pallas of Opportunity Network: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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