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 Frank Boulben.
Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I am an engineer by training and like many, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do after university. I actually started my career in management consulting and got an assignment from a client for something called “wireless” while at the firm. I had a feeling wireless was going to be big, and that one day, everyone would want to have a phone in their pocket, so I stuck with it and learned a lot in the process.
From there I joined SFR, which was a French start-up at the time and now one of the largest telecommunications companies in the country. I was within the first 100 employees and within six years, we got to 10 million wireless subscribers. I was hooked, and I haven’t left wireless since.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting?
In the early 1990s I was serving many functions across the business for SFR—from marketing to pricing to product. I was invited to a meeting with my peers across Europe and we were discussing a new feature called “short message service.” It was a new way to communicate on mobile devices with a limited number of text-characters—what we now know as a text message.
Across my peers, unanimously, we felt there was no need to text message. So obviously, that was a big mistake as it’s now the most-used form of communication globally.
There’s a big lesson here that I've kept all through my career—timing is everything. In the tech space, one of the most difficult things to do is get timing right. It can be a challenge to predict when an innovative product or service will intersect with customer demand and acceptance. For example, in 2000, during the internet bubble, there was a promise we’d see mobile web usage with 2.5G, but we didn’t see it until 10 years later with 4G.
Getting the timing right forces you to be modest when you forecast how quickly consumers will adopt a particular technology service, and it shines a light on the importance of truly knowing your customer base and listening to their feedback. What they’re telling you is the key to the future.
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?
All of the CEOs and leaders I’ve worked with are unique, with different strengths and weaknesses. When you become a leader, it’s all about learning from each one of them, taking the best out of each and assembling a talented team under you to make it all work together cohesively. There are two specific anecdotes that come to mind:
Very early in my career, there was a CEO of a large bank who was the only one on his executive committee that didn’t attend college. One day, he pulled me aside and asked about where I attended school.
He told me, “I didn’t go to college and am the only one at this management level without a college diploma; but, they all report to me. I’m where I am today because I have the soft skills to make them work as a team. If it was one of them, it wouldn’t work.”
Later on, a CEO at another telecommunications company told me that all of his direct reports were stronger than he was in their respective fields. “But, I know enough about each field to ask the right questions and push them to do their jobs more effectively."
These stick with me to this day and I think about them often.
In your personal opinion, what is the telltale sign that a recession is looming?
The top indicators are employment and a drop in consumer sentiment. In our industry and in a recession, we see customers migrating from postpaid to prepaid mobile plans, which are more affordable and don’t require certain things, like a credit score. But what’s interesting is that we aren’t seeing that now—and unemployment is at a 50-year low.
What are your thoughts on the current state of our economy? Is there anything you’re anticipating or preparing for now?
It looks like our economy could have a soft landing, meaning that the Federal Reserve can tame inflation without causing a recession or a substantial rise in unemployment.
In our own business, following Verizon’s acquisition of TracFone—the largest reseller of wireless services in the U.S. and leader in the prepaid market—we’re equally strong in post-paid as we are prepaid. If there is a shift, we are prepared to manage the flows from post-paid to pre-paid and not lose those customers.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader in challenging times?
My favorite metaphor is “A leader is like the captain of a sailboat. You can’t tell the difference between a great captain and a weak one in fair weather—instead, you recognize a great captain in challenging times through a storm.”
First, everybody on the boat needs to know what they’re doing. You need everyone to align on their role and responsibilities because there’s no room for error. On the other side, the captain needs to have a clear direction on where the sailboat is and where it needs to go. If you don’t know the direction you’re going, you may never emerge from the storm. A clear focus to move forward and execute on all the little things is essential.
These traits are critical for leaders, or you won’t emerge from challenges.
Lastly, are there any opportunities that can come out of a recession? We’d love to finish on a positive note!
I think in this particular recession, we have forgotten about what got us here. The current recession was driven by COVID and a disruption in the global supply chain. Then, a series of global impacts, like the war in Ukraine and tension in the energy sector. This has highlighted how globalization has unfolded and how fragile it truly is.
What I see coming out of this is that countries—the U.S. being first among them—will emerge knowing what needs to be done to build a stronger economic system. We know that we can’t be dependent on a single geographic source for raw materials, IP, and other goods. We are more focused on localizing some activities, which will serve to make the global economy stronger in the next decade.