Daniel Farrar Of Assembly Software: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

At Assembly, we communicate regularly how we are performing at a monthly, virtual all-hands meeting. We discuss initiatives and updates across all relevant functions and areas highlighting both the good deliverables and where we can improve. Each member of the Executive team and their colleagues present a candid, balanced view to reinforce stability, and as a company, we are in action on every front for our stakeholder’s benefit.

As a 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 Daniel Farrar.

As CEO of Assembly Software, Daniel brings over 25 years of experience successfully leading Fortune 500 companies and technology and SaaS businesses. He most recently led a global UCaaS and Cloud Services business, after CEO positions at two leading B2B SaaS enterprises. Daniel holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

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. 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?

A good place to start is where and how I was raised, in a small town in New Hampshire. Living there were hard-working families and citizens weathered and reared by immigrants with strong work ethics. My family was no exception.

All four of my grandparents had a deep appreciation for the life and opportunities provided to them living in the USA and were immensely dedicated to family — values they clearly passed to my parents.

My dad was an electrical engineer, a tireless worker, and at times intolerant of those who would not put in the effort required to match a task. He built the family business, and both he and my mother had an excellent command of both right- and left-brain elements. My parents encouraged us to strive for lofty goals and to never be afraid to put the effort in to succeed. They have always been there for my siblings and me throughout school, sports, and later in our careers.

When I got married, my wife and I made it our goal to raise our two boys with strong values, too. The boys were raised in Europe and in the USA and continue to be a never-ending source of pride and joy for me.

From college, with an engineering degree in hand, I was selected to General Electric’s (GE) management training program. From there it was onto assignments in Quality Assurance, Production Control, Management and Supervisory posts, and Product Marketing Management before heading off to graduate school for an MBA. Upon completion of post-graduate work, I went into strategic consulting before returning to GE at Corporate Headquarters to work on establishing the company wide strategic initiatives, M&A and Business Development during the Welch era. I went on to run GE Capital financing businesses in the United Kingdom, the USA and later for all of Europe before departing to become a partner in Private Equity. After 5 years in PE, I jumped back into the operating roles again turning around SaaS technology companies in the Silicon Valley, leading a telecommunications UCaaS business and later brought me together with the Assembly Software team.

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?

During my time at General Electric in the early days, I was often deployed or requested by various business units to come on site to teach and implement Six Sigma, Lean production, and Kaizen techniques to reduce inventories and improve cash flow in real time. While in Hungary, I was at a lighting plant on the shop floor demonstrating how to redesign fixture heads to eliminate timing-consuming screws and bolts necessary to conduct lightbulb changeovers — wearing a nice crisp white business shirt.

One of the line workers pointed out that we would have to reach into each station head to pull out various components for redesign to simplify the changeovers. Without thinking, I reached directly into the station head with my tools and removed the components. When I emerged, my nice white shirt was covered in grease, much to my chagrin. The shirt was ruined and many of the employees got a good chuckle out of me in my spoiled garment. They then surrounded me to see what I was doing to alter the fixture station components.

Later, when we finished the work, I was informed of the impact that simple unknowing and unintentional gesture of soiling my shirt had made with the staff. For the line workers, it showed that I was on the team and prepared to make real change. They told me that if someone who didn’t have the background they had with the machines could come into their shop and make meaningful improvements, imagine what they could do with their knowledge. It started a flow of ideas and changes to the lines that ultimately cut nearly 2 full shifts of time, creating capacity for more runs and reduced inventories by 40%.

It highlighted for me that people embrace change when directed properly and leverage team strengths — and that real hands-on leadership does inspire and makes a difference in the engagement of others to succeed together.

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?

Along my journey there have been many wonderful and thoughtful people who assisted in penning my story — each of them surfacing at a different time, almost as if they knew when to arrive, to ensure my footing was in place and I was ready to take each next step. To every coach and colleague, I say THANK YOU for making me a better person and in turn a better counselor, friend and leader for others.

It begins all the way back in grade school with teachers who embraced my energy versus trying to suppress or control it. With coaches in football and wrestling who took the time to instill the purpose, benefits and discipline of drills, practice and training to hone skills towards mastery and excellence. And during my professional career, there were too many mentors and sponsors to mention who took an interest in me, helped shape my career path to general management, and onward to business leadership. Honestly, without their guidance and coaching on how to set strategy, communicate effectively, make data-driven decisions, and engage and reach people — without question — much of the success I have enjoyed over 35 years leading companies from multinationals such as General Electric to Silicon Valley tech start-ups would not have been possible.

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?

In the early days of the creation of Assembly, the founders at Ridge Road Partners had the vision of creating a platform of scale by combining two stalworth brands, Trialworks and Needles, launching modern cloud-based technologies for the customer base and bringing the industry to a new standard of quality and service. The purpose surrounded the opportunity in a nascent vertical, legal case-management software, to develop and deploy appropriate contemporary technology solutions in the cloud for law practices of any size in the country, providing the firms growth, productivity and efficiency.

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?

We certainly are going through a new paradigm for all aspects of conducting business and building relationships. The pandemic changed the rules of engagement. At Assembly, we have been assessing the best way to engage our employee and customer base during the pandemic with an eye to supporting our clients — law firms who are also embracing the needs to change their businesses. We have embraced concepts, new ideas, and best practices around being virtual and flexible. We have had to introduce new procedures and policies across the company to address safety concerns, remote working, and employee and customer support.

We took a multi-pronged approach, starting with safety. We put the health and safety of employees and our customers first. Whether choosing to come to the office, to travel, or to work from home, our job was to assess and ensure we provided all the tools and processes necessary to be safe and productive in any environment. Obviously, for employees who choose to travel , we provide guidance to the risks and the up-to-the-minute CDC guidelines. There are no guarantees, as we have seen with the pandemic, so we must maintain our diligence and focus for sound and safe practices. Mask up, sanitize areas, safe distancing, and companywide support for personal decisions.

Second, we embrace the requirement to change. Flexibility has been critical and a key to keeping everyone safe, productive, and happy on the job. Assembly has fully embraced remote working, and our employees dot the location landscape of the United States. With every interaction we become more efficient in our communications. Much of the success we have seen has been through utilizing technology software to not just conduct meetings, but also in honing our dashboards and access to communicate more effectively to conduct business, make decisions, and take action.

Lastly, we monitor and update. At Assembly, we communicate and ask for input regularly. If something isn’t working and a customer or an employee has a better idea, we are listening and ready to change. We use team meetings, focus groups, and surveys to bring improvements to the table regularly.

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

“There is no tomorrow, Rock,” as Mickey so eloquently put it to Rocky Balboa. For me, short answer is — No. I started walking at 8 months old and haven’t slowed down. Having always had a fire in my belly, I’ve generated immense energy (hopefully a contagious energy) for everything I have interest in accomplishing and for sustaining a drive to the goal. Giving up on something you desire or want to achieve feels like code for failure or that you didn’t give it your all. Personally, I would rather go down in flames, crash into a heap on the ground than simply quit without effort. As the old adage goes, “It is better to have tried and failed, than never to have tried at all.” Or as Yoda said, “There is no try. There is only do or do not.” When I was younger, my ambitions and goals drove me onward to becoming a champion wrestler, earning an engineering degree and an MBA, racing Ducati motorcycles at Imola, paraskiing in the French alps, a solo assent to the top of Kilimanjaro, deep sea cave and reef diving, designing cars, advancing software technologies, skiing the Forcella Rossa of Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, collecting and creating art, skydiving, dune riding, GT racing, running global companies, and building businesses. Seeing the world (several times around now) by rolling up the sidewalks to live and see the things locals do — it all seems a long way from a small New England town kid who rode around on a red Schwinn bike with a dog named Floppy. For all of that, I am grateful for the privileges and experiences of what life has brought to me.

As I’ve gotten older, more seasoned and more reflective, my personal goals have given way to more balanced goals, which have become more inclusive of those around me whose lives I may be influencing or touching along the way. The people around me, both friends and colleagues, matter in the equation. Every person is another intersecting point and connection at a different point on the journey. My hope would be that a little of my enthusiasm for life rubs off on those lives I touch and maybe inspires a few along the way.

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

There’s no one thing but there are 3, I believe, that are essential.

First is to clearly prioritize. Keep the organization companywide, every function and team focused on the 2–3 big goals. Determine the key drivers, measure them, resource them, and stay on them. Focus on what matters strategically for your customers and business advancement. In challenging times, communicating what matters to sustainability, especially with your customer base, is essential even if the messages are tough. Let them know what you are doing, why you are doing it and its impact.

Second, marshal and align resources. Keeping everyone in the boat rowing in the same direction makes the work and our jobs more interesting and more fun no matter how hard the challenges may be or how turbulent the waters. When we know that we are working to the same end goals, we can marshal investments in our people, our teams, tools, training, and cash on the agreed initiatives for the highest impact to our desired outcomes. Lastly, I believe in over-communicating. Communicate. Communicate. And communicate some more about the big stuff and the small stuff too. Give customers, partners, and employees time to engage with you directly. Have constant communications and transparency with teams, individuals, and customers in every function. In this time of the pandemic, it’s important to use the tools at our disposal now to virtually engage every day, every week with employees and customers.

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?

The one thing I’ve always been mindful of all the way back to working for my dad’s company — there was no job too small for my dad. He was the owner, President/CEO, Proprietor, chief cook and bottle washer in the shop. He did everything from managing the business, engineering designs, machining, motor repair, ordering, billing, traveling to sites for repairs and extractions of equipment to the very basic task of cleaning the washrooms if it was required at the end of the day. I have never forgotten that work ethic and have put into practice in my own career with every company I have had the privilege of leading. So when I say to people “I’ll never ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” I mean it. If we have to stay up late, run the numbers, deal with process problems, fix, close or sell to get something done — I’m going to lean into it with the team when needed. I believe that part of inspiring people is that they feel like you’re willing to put on a jersey, get on the field with them, and play ball in the mud. When they see their leader as a member of the team, and not just someone standing in the background, you get more engagement, more spirit, and more camaraderie with a lot more collegial sense of getting the job done together.

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

Communicate both the good news and the bad news and communicate progression transparently and with unyielding integrity in every word. Anything short of that is unacceptable at every level in a company. Make it known to every employee that this is part of the culture and creed of the company. Share with employees, customers, colleagues, and partners a clear and present voice in every communication. Don’t just communicate the problem — provide context. Communicate what you’re doing about it, and how customers or teams will be affected by the decisions or be a part of those decisions. Everyone can handle good news, but they can also handle tough messages about changes, downsizing, setbacks, or marketplace changes that impact the organization when delivered with sincerity and honesty. My rule of thumb: Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself.

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

Most of the time in business, we must make decisions with limited or extrapolated information, which is often imperfect. Like the old galley ships of early explorers, true North and the direction for finding success were unknown. They had imperfect data and cartography to pick a heading to chart a course and didn’t know if success lay before them at all. In some ways that’s what we’re doing in business. We chose a heading for our business with the best data available to us. There are no guarantees and ultimately it all falls to our ability as a collective team to work together, act with agility, and constantly improve our operational execution. We are regularly taking our position in different directions to keep the sails full and the tailwinds behind us. When we set a plan in motion, is it a perfect plan? No. If it’s a B+ plan that we can execute, I’m okay with that concept versus awaiting the A+ plan with perfect analysis that, frankly, never materializes. Getting the team and company in motion with momentum and inertia gets us in action and delivering.

At Assembly, we’ve had to do a number of things new and differently than when we first set out. Many have been challenging and highly unpredictable, requiring new structures, team dynamics, processes to be redefined and tasks to be learned or re-learned as we navigate the technology needs of our customers in a rapidly changing industry. We’re delivering new products, services, and content as we go fearlessly into aggressive competition. And all with the pandemic as the backdrop, that requires being immensely flexible, transparent, and supportive of people.

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

I already mentioned over-communicating but it’s worth mentioning again. In the absence of the facts, especially in turbulent times, people will create their own version of a situation. That will only breed anxiety and frustration among the troops. Often those same stories may be based in an element of fear, so it’s important as a leader to remain centered, clear, and cogent — providing a human, approachable, and empathetic posture to what people may be experiencing. Employees and customers are not always thinking about hitting all the metrics; in tough economic times, it may be about their future or whether the company will even be around tomorrow. They are thinking about things not necessarily on your morning agenda, like ensuring the children are in school, can they pay the bills, do they need multiple incomes, etc. The concerns on peoples’ minds when times are tough need to be considered in your leadership voice when communicating. If you sound like you don’t care or aren’t truthful, you can bet that is exactly the voice people hear.

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?

When things go from smooth sailing to rough waters, it’s important not to lose your heading. Key metrics and strategies have been put in place after thoughtful analysis and debate. They are rooted in value creation and normally in growth for your customers. Keep them front and center to everyone in the business and when they need adjustments, no matter the reason, in tactical employment, make them quickly and efficiently. Don’t get distracted.

I would also say to not get over-extended or over-react. Resources, people, and capital are precious. Put your best and brightest on the toughest problems you face. Don’t keep asking for more from everyone and adding more issues to the pot for your teams to try and sort out. That is a selfish and wasteful use of talent. Have the courage to change structures and initiatives to align resources to your goals. When markets and competition change, be adaptable. Doubling down on old ideas that may have become mediocre in changing winds never ends well or with the intended results. Be prepared to act and change as required. What was working yesterday may not be the best way forward anymore. Don’t be afraid of that outcome or asking your team for help. If you aren’t willing to leverage the collective talent of the company’s intelligence, you’re off to a poor start already. If the markets have moved, embrace the change, and take action with counsel from your teams and customers. At Assembly, our integrated voice of the customer structure, which is aligned with our competitive intel and market pulsing, provides us with keen insights on how to best anticipate what the customer is experiencing and what marketplace demands are allowing us to make critical, real-time adjustments to our products and services delivery for customers.

It’s true, everyone doesn’t have the thick leathery hide of a business leader but it’s a mistake to lack empathy. Employees and customers alike can often be quite sensitized, often polarized, to changes and trends in the marketplace. We all have different biases and reactions to how we see things based on our unique vantage point. In difficult times, make yourself available and be approachable. Everyone isn’t looking to bring problems to your desktop. I have found that most people in the company and with our customers want to hear from the business leader to gain confidence, a greater appreciation of particular areas of focus, or to begin a relationship with which to build upon. Being open to listen and approachable to anyone will, more often than not, provide insights and new perspectives that shape your own leadership agenda in engaging the teams.

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?

It sounds basic enough but it’s all about metrics, monitoring, and transparency. Yet companies don’t always get it right and into practice, and they often can’t sustain it when they do. Clarity on the direction and the key priorities with business-wide and functional alignment, including shared goals to reinforce accountability with regular reviews, keeps us on track and focused at Assembly. We re-aligned to be product-led and cloud-focused with a disciplined release management process using an Integrated Voice of the Customer (“IVOC”) approach with metrics and accountable ownership.

The IVOC has been critical ensuring that at every “moment of truth” (where the customers touch our internal process), we are capturing and engaging customers for their input, which we use to improve every aspect of the company deliverables into the market. Bringing the customer voice and thoughts into both our product definitions and our process delivery for service and support has accelerated and refined our strategy, key priorities for value creation, investment focus, and our financial results,

Our metrics and dashboards are completely dialed into the critical areas we must deliver on from the eyes of our customers and the marketplace. We share them, review them, and drive our actions to improve them daily.

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.

At Assembly, we communicate regularly how we are performing at a monthly, virtual all-hands meeting. We discuss initiatives and updates across all relevant functions and areas highlighting both the good deliverables and where we can improve. Each member of the Executive team and their colleagues present a candid, balanced view to reinforce stability, and as a company, we are in action on every front for our stakeholder’s benefit.

Next, I’d say be transparent about where the true heart of the issues exists. Explain what you are doing to address them and of equal importance what you are not doing. It is important not to sugar coat or water down key messages, whether it is reinforcing why key initiatives are important, or what is not being done enough of to correct it. We constantly are self-evaluating the Assembly performance across all processes and incorporating an IVOC into all our product discussions and investment decisions.

Being Human (and vulnerable) with everyone is another good one. Pretending you are a rockstar or have all the answers is a sure-fire recipe for disaster, disappointment, and disengagement. There is not a single person at our company, or any company for that matter, who wakes in the morning with the idea they won’t do a good job on any given day. People inherently want to succeed. They want to know what they are working on matters that make a difference, and that they are an important piece to the company’s success. So, it’s important to allow good ideas to surface and flow. Good ideas come from all parts of the market, your customers, and employees. Have a listening ear for insights from all points, be ready to act on them, and celebrate the person or team.

My fourth tip is to ensure alignment and dialogues between teams. In my experience, once functions and organization structures are decided with a budget, people and teams may become insular and siloed with focus only on their own areas. This doesn’t maximize team dynamics or foster a stronger, more cohesive team. At Assembly, we have functional leaders in charge of shared metrics, which requires working together across functions to solve problems. We have company wide metrics surrounding the customer experience and success, such as NPS scoring, to ensure we are all reminding each other that our actions or our inactions impact our customers. Every conversation is a moment of truth with our customers and part of our IVOC.

Lastly, be ready to celebrate. When a person, a team, or a function hit those precious three-point shots, don’t miss the opportunity to share in the success. At Assembly, we have company wide shout-outs, management awards, and personal outreach programs to say well done and thank you. Everyone is experiencing the same pressures and challenges during turbulent times and working hard to keep an even keel in those waters. A little recognition in any form goes a long way for that extra effort, which may have been unexpected yet well received.

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

There is one quote, which I come back to again and again, and has been with me since it was right under my high school graduation picture. The quote I used there was “Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion; you must set yourself on fire.” As a very ambitious young adult, I took that approach to heart with everything in my life — sports, work, fitness, schoolwork, music, designing, languages, reading and writing, art, and especially as a parent. I wasn’t going to let one piece slip into the cracks nor allow any endeavor I chose to apply myself towards be left to simple chance.

Others quotes that resonate with me are “Everything’s happening right now. Be in the moment”; “In life there is no dress rehearsal”, and as Mae so beautifully put it, “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful” and finally — an all-time favorite, Nike’s now infamous slogan “Just Do It!”, which may be the best ever.

Each of the quotes are action oriented and speak to being ready to seize a moment, immerse yourself, and to remember to enjoy the ride.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can follow me on LinkedIn or at assemblysoftware.com

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

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

Daniel Farrar Of Assembly Software: 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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