For those working in Revenue Operations, high inflation or signs of a possible recession can be worrisome. But even during a challenging economic environment, there are steps one can take to try and ease the blow. What are the strategies that CROs and financial experts recommend to successfully navigate a recession or challenging economy? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Doug Adamic.
Before we dive in, we'd love to 'get to know you' a bit better. Can you tell us about your backstory and how you got started?
I’ve spent my career in sales, starting out at Kronos, a software and services company. I moved from Kronos to Concur as an individual contributor and, during my 16.5 years there, held virtually every role within distribution, eventually becoming Concur’s global CRO. I joined Brex almost a year ago as CRO to lead revenue and growth strategy.
Our mistakes can sometimes be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a funny mistake you made when you were first starting?
I’ve made a lot of funny mistakes throughout my career that turned out to be valuable lessons. One that comes to mind is the time I just started at a new company and went on a sales call with my boss. I was so eager to impress him and I worked all night on my presentation and pitch. The prospect was a big global pharma company and one that I knew from a previous job. The day finally came and I began the presentation—BUT I realized that I kept referring to myself as working for my former employer. Ugh.
My boss was confused, the room of people was confused, I was embarrassed and spent 10 minutes apologizing and having to reset myself. It’s kind of a good lesson! Even if you are prepared, you can lose credibility if you lose your composure.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful towards?
The co-founder of Concur, Raj Singh, was a true role model to me. His leadership style, authenticity, transparency, vulnerability, humility, sense of humor, and vigilance in the business was inspiring. He had a unique ability to get large groups of people rallied and excited, which amazed me throughout my tenure.
Mike Eberhard was another executive at Concur who played a huge role in my career. Through him, I witnessed the discipline and rigor that goes into being a CRO and being able to put yourself in the shoes of your customers. It’s not just about selling—it's all the little things that go into architecting a business model that can support the weight of expectations while paying attention to detail. He taught me how to lead.
Another influential but less-expected model for me was my high school football coach. He was tough and expected a lot. He pushed me into situations I didn’t think I could handle, but he had faith in me. He taught me to take risks, and he was the first person to help me understand that I’m capable of more. This life lesson that has stuck with me.
Can you share a time that was challenging for your business based on external factors like the economy? When was it, how prepared were you and what changes did you make to get through it?
The 2008 financial crash, the recent global pandemic, and now an inflationary and potential recession era all stand out as challenging times. What I learned is that whether it’s a recession or a housing crisis, organizations look for ways to do more with less. During those times of hardship, I oriented how the service, offering, or platform I represented at the time could drive value or savings. In fact, 2008 was my most productive time at Concur because everyone was looking for ways to save costs and we introduced a new way to do that.
But the pandemic was different. Everyone was at home. At Brex, we adjusted the business to focus on maintaining and protecting our customer base by utilizing this downtime as a way to refresh our system. Rather than lamenting that businesses had slowed down, we used it to our advantage. Coming out of the pandemic, we built out Empower and innovated a new way of doing things to support modern, distributed businesses. With every new challenge, there is an opportunity to reimagine the way things are done, and to strengthen the business for the next inevitable crisis.
Was there anything about the whole experience that surprised you? What was your expectation and what was the reality?
In every one of those situations, I led teams whose initial reaction to the economy was complete and utter fear that the business wouldn’t survive. What was surprising was that once we adjusted the way we approached and interacted with prospects and customers, the customers’ reactions were positive. We thought everyone was going to shut us down but customers were really appreciative that we were trying as hard as we could to help them improve their business, even during tough times.
We went from feeling like the world was ending to actually strengthening relationships and solving business problems. It was amazing to see what we were able to accomplish and it was also a great opportunity for people to step up and participate more than they might have otherwise.
Is there anything you would do differently in future downturns? What would be your advice to others navigating a recession for the first time?
For businesses: Harness innovation and provide a solution that helps people save time, money, or cost. It’s a cliche but true—when the going gets tough, the tough get going. It’s under these pressures when you’re partnering with business owners and presenting them with real value during a difficult time that helps forge partnerships and relationships that benefit them. It also helps you get great insight so you can improve and hone your offerings. If you can help people in the most stressful and difficult economic times and still add value, the value proposition resonates even stronger.
For business owners: Show up and be a partner during difficult times. The value proposition Brex brings to a situation like this is the fact that we’re capable of helping an organization develop an ROI mindset, even in the most stressful times. We provide tools that enable our customers conduct business with a cost-conscious mindset, helping them get better as an organization.
Do you believe that businesses can prepare in advance for such occasions? Is it about being appropriately proactive or reactive?
It’s a little bit of both. There are ways to be proactive, even when you don’t know what’s coming. I like to think of this like a palm tree. Palm trees expand their root structure and strengthen when the wind blows them as hard as it can. If the palm tree never experiences such harsh wind, it doesn’t have the ability to grow and strengthen its root structure and it will die. The sentiment here is to strengthen your business during difficult times and grow during the good times.
Another notion is that tough times provide tremendous opportunities for people to step up because new thinking is required and new entrepreneurial ideas can be formed.
In your personal opinion, what is the telltale sign that a recession is looming?
I’m not an economist, but the pattern I see is that spending and hiring have tightened. Interest rates increase, and more people borrow. That said, the labor market still feels strong and it feels like business fundamentals are good.
What are your thoughts on the current state of our economy? Is there anything you’re anticipating or preparing for now?
During the pandemic, we lowered rates so much that money was practically free. Now, some of the growth and investment is drying up. That doesn’t mean businesses are failing. As the world continues to open up, we’re going back to the fundamentals of running a business with the right kind of discipline and rigor, holding ourselves to a higher standard. We’re exfoliating things that were a little gratuitous and concentrating on things that are more germane and core. I anticipate a delayed period of stagnancy, seeing a material rebound in 2024 and 2025 when rates go back down and the global economy kicks back in.
Based on your experience, what are the five most important things a business should do to successfully navigate a challenging economy?
1. Financial discipline: When you’re in a difficult and challenging economy, you have to make difficult decisions and focus on the most important things for your business and the success of your organization. When things get tough, you have to refine yourself and be fiscally responsible.
2. Human capital discipline: Look at your employees and human capital as an advantage and ask how you are measuring performance, refining, developing, and retaining those people.
3. Strategic discipline: Ask yourself whether you are as focused as you need to be or if you’re dipping in too many areas.
4 . Focus: Have the courage to rid of things that do not align. At Brex, we’ve made difficult decisions—to get out of the SMB market and retire products that didn’t fit in the overall plan. It doesn’t mean we can’t continue to innovate and make advancements, it means we need to focus our energy on things core to our current and future survival.
5. Investment: Where you’re investing? What’s your ROI? And are those areas of investment aligned with your company strategy?
Can you share the most common mistakes you see other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind?
The three most common mistakes I see businesses make during difficult times are:
- A focus on growth at all costs
- Not having the courage to rid things they know aren’t working
- Not being prepared
To avoid those mistakes, businesses must act responsibly and plan ahead. Anticipate that the good times aren’t going to last forever and save for a rainy day. I promise there will be some external factor in the future that puts stress on your business and if you don’t prepare for it, it’s going to be a surprise. Don’t let it surprise you.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
As a leader, you need to be able to think long term. Assess whether your business fundamentals are strong and how you can drive value and outcomes for customers in good and tough times. The unfortunate reality is another tough time is always around the corner. Sometimes teams do not recognize that or have an awareness of that fact. Guiding teams through those moments requires consistent messaging, execution and focusing only on those activities and initiatives that contribute to the goals you’ve set. Know the value you bring, mobilize teams to relentlessly deliver that value, and provide a steady hand to quell any anxiety that may detract from the work that needs to be done.
Lastly, are there any silver linings or opportunities that can come out of a recession? We’d love to finish on a positive note!
The silver lining of the pandemic is that there’s now a new breed of organization that is taking a digital-first approach to business and doing so with a distributed workforce. It is enabling businesses to build sustainably by meeting talent where they are, globally.
The silver lining for Brex is that we are in a unique position to help these new kinds of organizations operate with speed, be fiscally responsible, and employ an ROI mindset. And with the leadership role we’re taking, we’re solving business problems that others aren’t capable of doing.
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