Profiles in VUCA

How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?

Basically, Offspring Solutions is a full-service technology services provider. For the last 15 years, we’ve helped government agencies like the TSA and HHS in three areas: updating their tech infrastructure, modernizing their applications, and optimizing their business processes.

Three years ago, I developed the concept of a subsidiary entity to build custom solutions for specific client problems. This entity is the Solutions Optimization and Innovation Lab, or SOIL. SOIL is basically the product development arm of Offspring Solutions.

 

What led you to create Offspring Solutions?

I spent about 6 and a half years in the military right out of college, then I worked for a couple of organizations. One was a management consulting group called KPMG LLP where I learned the delivery mechanisms and economics of management consulting, then I went to a company called Peoplesoft where I gained my IT experience. A few years later, Peoplesoft was acquired by another company called Oracle. When that happened, I figured it was time to combine my experiences and take that leap of faith to create my own company.

 

You’ve now spent the majority of your working years as an entrepreneur. What have you learned?

I’ve heard some people say you’re only an entrepreneur after you’ve built and sold a large business—otherwise, you’re a business owner.

I say that definition does a disservice to those brave enough to step outside the security of a standard organizational relationship and trust that their instincts and skill set will enable them to build something great. That’s an entrepreneurial mindset. 

Entrepreneurs also have the ability to step back from the status quo and figure out how to improve upon it. Whether it’s for your own business, or an organization that employs you, you still have to have that entrepreneurial mindset.

So I’ve learned being an entrepreneur is less about selling a company, and more about a creative and innovative approach to your work, and most importantly, on your terms.

 

What characteristics make a good entrepreneur?

Consider people who currently make a good living working for a good company, but they have this idea and this desire to build their own business. Often, these people get stuck where they are, held back by a fear of failure and a fear of being judged harshly by those they care about, mainly friends and family.

So, the first characteristic you need to be a successful entrepreneur is you have to be willing to march to the beat of your own drum, go your own way, and not be held back by what other people think. I think this stops a lot of would-be entrepreneurs from making the leap.

You also have to have perseverance. That is what will shield you from the effect of that negative judgement from the same set of people, usually friends and family, and keep you going when the marketplace tests your mettle.

So if you have thick skin, perseverance, and of course a good product and/or service, the sky’s the limit.

 

As an entrepreneur, what’s the biggest challenge you face—the one that keeps you up at night?

Back in 2010, my biggest challenge was to change my mindset to start working on the business instead of within it.

Up until that year, I was still in the weeds, spending 50 hours a week on projects and at client sites. That didn’t really bode well for someone trying to grow a company. I had to learn to put my technology and consulting expertise away for a little while to allow myself to set up systems, hire people, and build the business.

So I went from billing my own hours and having that as take-home pay, to being reliant on the business itself to support me and my family. If leaving the security of a large company was my first leap of faith, this was my second.

Fast forward to 2017 and I think the biggest challenge is finding and keeping good people.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the level of loyalty across the board between employee and employer has gone down over the years. No one goes into a company thinking they’re going to stay there for 20 years anymore. Instead, it’s more of a project-based relationship.

That’s a big challenge because you can lose some good people simply because they want to go work on another project that’s more to their liking. 

 

How does each part of the VUCA acronym manifest in what you do?

Things are moving so much more quickly today, especially for me as technology services provider! There’s so much technology coming out on an annual basis that it’s extremely hard to keep up.

At first glance, it may seem not all industries have to worry about the pace of change in technology, but from where I sit, everyone is affected. We all have to develop a good understanding of the impact of these changes in the short, medium, and long term.

Technology is just pervasive throughout our economy—you can’t escape it. And if you don’t pay attention, it can put you out of business, because your competitors will be paying attention, and they may be more willing to make key investments than you might be.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the marketplace right now, especially in the federal government. Current budget proposals cut a lot of programs, and the impact would trickle down to state governments, local governments, and commercial organizations.

Everybody’s basically trying to keep their powder dry, to make sure they always have a cushion just in case hard times hit in the future. There seems to be a general undercurrent in the marketplace that says, “a lot of change is coming. We don’t know how bad it might be, but we don’t feel that the short-term future is very bright right now.”

That thought process being so pervasive in the market is enough to provide ridiculous uncertainty. People don’t spend, they don’t hire, they don’t try to improve their organization; they just kind of stay put and wait on the wave to hit and subside.

So while the threat of deficits is a big thing in the federal space, I think it’s the same for large companies. For instance, IBM just asked all its off-site employees to begin working onsite. You have to ask yourself, what kind of uncertainty are they seeing to make that move at a time when telecommuting is so highly favored for technology workers?

I’ve found people tend to be the biggest drivers of change. This is where developing strong relationships can play a huge role. You can significantly drive down complexity if you have good relationships with the key people with whom you do business.

For instance, I can find out if structural changes in the organizations I work with would affect my projects. That’s why I’m always paying close attention to how my customers are feeling about their organizations; are they going to be staying with the organization? Are they going to keep the same level of power and influence? How will political cycles affect things?

Complexity can be driven down or up based on the level of intimacy you have with your clients.

If there are unknown unknowns, I just handle them as they come along—that’s part of the excitement of being an entrepreneur.

In 2010, when I decided to work on the business instead of in it, there were a lot of unknown unknowns. I had not been the CEO of a company before. I knew what it took to do so, but I hadn’t actually done it. One concrete example: I had to cut ties with a business partner I had at the time, and I did not see that coming when I decided to sacrifice my day-to-day career in favor of growing the business.

That was one of the downsides of my 2010 decision…not understanding the motivations of those around me. That said, within 6 months, we won a major contract because of the choice I made!

So ambiguity can seem negative at first glance, but it can also play out positively. As an entrepreneur, you have to be okay with not knowing everything, as long as you have total control to manage the unknowns when they do manifest.

 

When you think of all these VUCA elements together, how do you process it? How do you react?

There’s drive and motivation that comes from being an entrepreneur in general, from the ability to chart my own path. Most people are afraid of change, but I look forward to it because as things change, opportunity bubbles to the top.

I look at VUCA through that lens, and realize that I have enough perseverance and resilience that the VUCAness of the environment doesn’t really affect me. The adage of “what does not kill me makes me stronger” is indeed the truth. There is no victory without struggle.

So, I take a couple steps back, you know, take a deep breath and recognize that it’s just my life experience. It’s a really exciting time and a really exciting lifestyle to be an entrepreneur. It suits me.

 

How do you react to VUCA?

Alex is definitely a resilient leader—with his feet firmly planted in a long-term vision and goal so that he quickly bounces back from any setback.

It’s part of what makes him a successful entrepreneur, along with being adaptive and transformative.

Now it’s your turn. Take our quiz to find out what kind of VUCA leader you are.