Britt Nichols of ExamSoft: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Be transparent. Keeping your employees in the know about where the company stands leads to fewer misunderstandings down the road. We provide a monthly revenue report to the entire organization that doesn’t just share the actual revenue, but shows all the various activities we’re doing to achieve revenue goals. We want people to have that level of clarity so they can see what new accounts are being onboarded, what areas we’re focusing on, and what we’re doing to try to be successful.

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 Britt Nichols.

Britt Nichols is SVP at ExamSoft, a Turnitin company, that builds scalable education technology software solutions that provide the highest level of exam security and integrity to education and certification institutions across a variety of verticals, settings and modalities.

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’ve had a varied background across different industries and with diverse roles. I started in the entertainment industry and transitioned to executive recruitment in the financial services industry before moving to entrepreneurship, which included launching a job board for senior care professionals. I learned a lot from that role, including many digital marketing elements that are still useful to me today. After selling that company, I moved into higher education working for an organization that was at the forefront of partnering with non-profit universities to them develop online degree programs. Now, I am at ExamSoft leading sales and marketing. With each role, I valued the opportunity to embrace accountability with a creative problem-solving mindset. Regardless of industry, I always look for the opportunity to work with talented people who are willing to work with me to tackle interesting challenges that will hopefully make a meaningful impact.

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?

After college I lived with roommates, and I didn’t trust a communal answering machine, let alone a roommate sticky note using the shared house phone number — it’s important to note this was long before cell phones. So I set had up a cheap voicemail service for people to get ahold of me and then I could call them back from anywhere in Manhattan. The problem was, when I had applied to a new professional opportunity, I couldn’t actually speak to the people doing an in-person phone screen or calling to talk about setting up an in-person interview. For this one opportunity, the gentleman kept leaving messages, and I’d call him back and leave messages of my own. This went on for six or seven messages before I finally just left a voicemail with the exact dates and times I was available for the initial phone screen and then I sat by the phone. The interviewer took this as positive persistence and decided to bring me on, but in reality, it was a very frustrating experience for a young kid trying to get a new job. From that experience, I learned to always have a good way to keep in touch and to set clear expectations of availability, especially when applying for jobs. Of course, that’s much easier with today’s technology!

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?

Yes, one person who did have a significant impact on me was a man named Greg Finkelstein. He firmly believed in hiring for talent, not just focusing solely on industry knowledge or a specific skill. He always said, “We can teach the business; we can’t teach the talent.” This was particularly meaningful to me when I met him because I had previously worked in executive recruitment and often saw companies that would hire the second-best candidate because they were only looking at a very narrow area of experience or skill, and not necessarily the inherent qualities — whether that be a thirst for knowledge, strategic insight, or passion — that would be critical for success in the role or organization. Hearing his refreshing approach, I promptly joined his team and continue to employ that line of thinking when hiring today. I am very grateful to him for that opportunity and the license he gave to take risks on developing people with potential.

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?

ExamSoft started out as a computer-based alternative to a pencil-and-paper exams. The company has grown since then and the software has evolved into a comprehensive assessment solution that provides meaningful and useful data to our users. Our vision is to harness the power of data to transform learning for everyone, everywhere, and our mission is to deliver superior assessment solutions to increase learning performance for every student, teacher, and institution. Our vision remains our north star and guides us in delivering an elevated testing experience up and down the educational ladder.

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?

Throughout the pandemic, our organization has kept all employees in the know on our protocols and return to in-person plans. Any plans we had for team members to work in-office were made far in advance and according to CDC guidelines. Employees were then given a 30-day notice before that specific date of any changes, to allow for accommodations to be made. We’ve currently pivoted to be a remote-first organization, meaning that for the most part, employees can choose whether to go into the office. We know navigating these COVID-times has been challenging for everyone, and we believe being transparent with our employees helps alleviate any unnecessary stress. Being transparent and having effective communication can make all the difference during uncertain circumstances and instill confidence in your employees.

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

As the song goes, knowing with hold ’em and knowing when to fold ’em is really important, but that is very different than giving up, and for me, giving up isn’t often an option. It helps to have a clear vision of what you’re committed to and to know how your actions may affect others. Maintaining a sense of ownership and a responsibility to my team helps me keep going even during the ups and downs of the day-to-day.

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

Knowing your company’s mission, vision, values, and direction and effectively communicating them is imperative for a business to succeed. Having this strong sense of direction when things are going well, will prepare the company to move forward when inevitably hard circumstances come into frame. When someone leads with the company’s core values and purpose for being in mind, everything else falls into alignment.

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?

Some people say to find a common enemy. I believe it’s more successful to identify something positive to help motivate the team. Try to focus on the things that you’re already doing well and why you do what you do and then bring the areas that have room for improvement and need more attention to that standard. For most people, when they know what their core areas are to focus, and they can see that by focusing on those areas they are moving the needle, they become more motivated. If they understand the why and believe in it, then they’re going to try to do what’s best for both them and the organization.

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

The best way to communicate difficult news is to remember two things. The first is to be honest and truthful, and the second is to try to understand all perspectives. For example, it may be time to sunset a product and the employees working on that product and team may be frustrated by that. They need to understand the reason and logic behind the decision and how they fit into the organization as those changes materialize. Communicate those reasons and then listen and try to understand their point of view and concerns. A client using that product may also feel frustrated because perhaps they have a very specific need for it though they may be one of the few users. Again, sharing the reasoning for the product change and helping the customer find an alternative solution is necessary for mitigating a negative response or pushback. Above all, when communicating difficult news, do so with honesty and integrity.

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

When it comes to facing an unpredictable downturn, I like the Mike Tyson quote, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” This has played out throughout the pandemic. Everyone has a plan, until, suddenly, that plan no longer works. So, it’s really important to be flexible and to have structures in place that you’re able to quickly pivot and communicate the what, why, and how.

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

The number one principle is being able to have a plan for quickly creating a plan. This is almost more important than having an actual regular operating plan, because the standard operating procedures can get disrupted as soon as the challenging times approach. The same holds true for good circumstances. You can be in perfectly normal times and sailing in calm, smooth waters and suddenly there’s an opportunity that appears. If you don’t have that plan for disruption, then you can’t take advantage of change for the good opportunity either. If you have a plan for creating a plan, you should be able to take advantage of the best path forward.

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. Having an unclear direction. Leaders need to always know the answer to two questions: What are we trying to do? Why are we trying to do it? You need to know the motivation behind the goal and task at hand. Without these two questions in mind, you and those you’re leading will feel lost. Get everyone working toward a common goal and purpose.
  2. Only focusing on financials. Doing the right thing is always more important than solely focusing on the revenue. This doesn’t mean that revenue isn’t important, because of course, it is, but only focusing on the revenue misses the bigger picture. Missing this point can not only mean losing focus on your core values, or worse the talented people in the company, but focusing on only finances puts you in a box. By focusing on trying to do what is right, you typically find that the revenue will follow and profit and loss will balance.
  3. Not prioritizing people. All businesses are built on people. You have to appreciate and understand your clients, their customers, and just as importantly, your employees. Leaders need to do the work to understand everyone’s perspectives and communicate in a way that’s meaningful to them.

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?

If you maintain a clear goal, are flexible, keep the plan for change in mind, communicate effectively externally and internally, and remember the perspectives of everyone involved, you’re going to ultimately be able to get all the boxes checked to support the business. It’s important to take one step at a time, knowing that acting with integrity and doing the right thing is the best you can do.

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. Communicate effectively. The most important thing a leader can do is to have open communication internally and externally. Both are equally as important, especially when moving through difficult times.
  2. Keep mission and core values top-of-mind. Organizations won’t lose sight of their vision if they keep their values at the center of everything they do. At the beginning of company wide update meetings, highlight a core value and have a short discussion about what it means as an organization. This sets the tone of the meeting and helps guide decision-making to align with the mission.
  3. Regularly touch base. Encourage frequent check-ins with your teams to make everyone feel more connected while working remotely. For us, this means cross-functionally as well — marketing meeting with sales regularly, for example. Finding small ways to stay present with each other helps bolster our company culture even when we can’t meet in person.
  4. Hire the right people. Casting is the most important part of any film. If you hire people aligned with your mission, vision, and core values, then you’re always helping move the organization in the right direction. It’s much easier to keep people focused if they believe in what you’re doing.
  5. Be transparent. Keeping your employees in the know about where the company stands leads to fewer misunderstandings down the road. We provide a monthly revenue report to the entire organization that doesn’t just share the actual revenue, but shows all the various activities we’re doing to achieve revenue goals. We want people to have that level of clarity so they can see what new accounts are being onboarded, what areas we’re focusing on, and what we’re doing to try to be successful.

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

A couple of quotes that stand out to me and that seem particularly relevant for turbulent times are: “It’s not the size of the man in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the man” and “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” Especially during challenging times, it’s the ability to keep working toward your goals that will drive success. Another lesson I like, especially given my interest in the education industry, is the Dr. Seuss quote, “The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can keep up our company’s work on our website or follow us on LinkedIn. We also regularly publish insights on our blog, where readers can stay informed on the latest assessment and education-related trends and topics.

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

Britt Nichols of ExamSoft: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent… 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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