Bert Miller of MRI Network: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

Having control of your emotions is very important but also very difficult — few people […]

Having control of your emotions is very important but also very difficult — few people can actually execute leadership in this manner, but when people see a calm leader, they’re also able to execute on what they need to do as part of the team.

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 Bert Miller.

Bert’s expertise in search and recruitment dates to 1995, when he co-founded Protis Global, an MRINetwork member and award-winning search and recruitment firm specializing in the F&B, CPG, cannabis, and hospitality industries. Protis Global has built some of the most iconic brands in the CPG space and has consistently ranked in the top 10 of MRINetwork offices over the last 15 years, generating over $75M in permanent placement fees.

In 2019, Bert acquired MRI to lead the organization and its global offices through digital transition and into a new era of talent access. His vision is to effectively scale MRI’s unique network model while supporting existing members with proven tools, training, digital media products, and technology.

Bert is an active speaker, mentor, advisor, and investor. He hosts the MRINetwork Podcast and his new video podcast series, Beyond the Bottom Line, debuts this fall in which he will be interviewing CEOs and leaders from across categories on issues impacting the World of Work.

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?

Miller: I started my career hired into the E&J Gallo program and placed at Monarch Beverage and then moved to Revlon, where I had 6 roles and ultimately became the Division Director and led a team responsible for $180 million in sales of Revlon Classic Cosmetics & Fragrances and Almay Cosmetics. In 1995, I left Revlon when I was 33 to co-found Protis Global, an MRINetwork member and search and recruitment firm. Then, in 2019, I acquired MRI to lead the organization and its offices, an industry through transformation toward the new world of work.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?

Miller: I was promoted at Revlon North America and on my first trip ever to New York City. I flew into LaGuardia Airport and met my manager, and he asked me to hail a cab so we could get to the office, but I didn’t have any cash, and my boss said, “You came to New York City without cash?” We didn’t typically use taxis where I lived — I’m from Indiana — and I quickly learned to carry cash to help navigate the city. The lesson here is to be prepared for different geographies.

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?

Miller: Roger Anderson was my first field manager at Revlon, and on a business trip, he asked me, “How are you going to spend your time over the next month?” I pulled out my schedule, and as we were looking through my meetings, he asked me why I had scheduled time with people who were not my home run hitters. I explained that I needed to develop those people, and he said, “You want to spend the most time with your best people. Certainly, you want to try to develop your weaker team members, but if you don’t develop your great people, you’re going to lose your great people.”

Then he gave me some great advice. He told me that as you’re progressing in your career, carry yourself for the role you aspire to have. Observe how the person in that role dresses, carries themselves, engages with others and networks — you still want to be yourself, but you want to try to mimic these behaviors as best you can.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision and purpose?

Miller: Companies that do well have a strong foundation of purpose, and our purpose from the start was to build companies and careers — that’s still our tagline at Protis Global today. Every day, we talk to individuals, not hiring managers and candidates, but individuals who are connected to other people through their personal lives, and we impact all these people.

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?

Miller: I lead with consistency. My team knows how I’m going to approach each day, no matter how great or challenging that day will be. When you’re consistent, your team can rest easy — that consistency allows them to feel comfortable because they have a safe place to be. It might be counterintuitive, but during an economic expansion, I push my team, which sometimes they don’t like, and during a recessionary period, that’s when you remain calm and put your arm around people the most.

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

Miller: Yes, without question. When I started Protis Global, I wanted to quit a few times during the first twelve months. I started the business with my wife, Laura Gonzalez Miller, and we hired one person to greet people and answer the phone, but no one walked into our office. I’ll never forget — I was setting up the computers and the phones, and I was relieved everything worked. Then, I looked at Laura and asked, “What next?”

That’s when I realized that no one was going to walk in the office and the phones were not going to ring — we had to get moving to make this business work. We had an empty office with cheap carpet and furniture that I put together myself, and golf photos on the walls that I bought at a local office supply store. I was 33 years old and walked away from a job that paid well into six figures a year in 1995 to start a business that didn’t pay me anything. I had two children, a home, and a modest savings account.

Before I left Revlon, I applied for seven credit cards and took cash advances on each so that we’d have a small safety net in case we needed it, which we did. That was both stupid and smart all at the same time. My wife pushed me though because we had a life and responsibilities. If my business didn’t work, I could have returned to Revlon, but they would have doubted me as an employee.

What fueled me was not just my fear of failure because everyone fails but also my fear of surrender — that’s when someone quits even though they are so close to accomplishing their goals and reaching success.

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

Miller: A leader has to be parental — I use that word in a positive, very caring sense. During challenging times, some people need to know that they’re safe, that we over-communicate, that we put our arms around them, and that we’re there. When we make those tough decisions, people need to know that these decisions are coming from a very caring spot, and a leader has to be honest and talk to their staff in person, even if that means getting on a plane to fly to different cities to look everyone in the eye as you talk to them rather than having those conversations over the phone. Certainly, during a pandemic, we moved quickly leveraging our digital assets and our 4000 square foot studio to provide guidance since traveling was not possible.

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?

Miller: The best way to boost morale is to provide a visual picture of where we are and where we’ve been — that’s what success looks like. A leader wants to get the team in the right spirit and mindset so they can lean in to build a very tactical plan to persevere through challenging times. The team needs a visual of what future success looks like, and they also need to understand that while success doesn’t happen overnight, as the team makes accomplishments along the way, they see how they’re moving forward. Motivation is temporary, and leaders need to lead through inspiring their team.

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

Miller: By being direct, empathetic and concise.

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

Miller: 2020 is a great example of needing to be prepared for the unknown. A leader should not react, but be prepared and out front, peeking around the corner. If business starts to turn, they should know if that’s an aberration or sign of things to come. It’s important to prepare for financial insecurity and to look at your balance sheet and revenue streams, like if you rely on just one client. If you do, you might be making high profits today, but you’re one phone call away from perhaps losing everything.

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

Miller: This world is all about belief. Hope is not a strategy, but belief is something that’s important and can help people move mountains. Belief, a mindset and choices we make are the biggest influencers to where we each sit today.

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?

Miller: The most common mistakes leaders make is that they pull cash out of a business too quickly when they should live below their means. If your business were to take a hit, can you survive for a year? That’s an important question to ask.

The other thing is getting comfortable — if you sit back and when you read the headlines, you believe everything written about you, or you believe that the bank account will always be there and that you don’t have to work to maintain that, when you get that level of comfort, you are setting yourself up for disaster. You have to continue working your craft and driving to remain at the top of your game.

Many companies end up losing to their competition because they stop being innovative and they stop putting pressure on the competition. That’s the key, but that means a leader needs to have the endurance and grit to continue applying pressure on the competition and be willing to maintain that pace.

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?

Miller: For both MRINetwork and Protis Global, in March of 2020, we immediately reviewed a forecasted budget that included a forecasted revenue decline through the end of 2020, with more severe declines in Q2 and Q3 than Q4. Then, we discussed if this visual became our reality, whether our business would be able to survive — the answer was yes though it was not going to be easy. Thankfully, we far outperformed our dire forecast.

During this time, we continued to hire and increased our marketing and branding budgets. Most companies cut these during difficult times, but talent is important, and people are what make you successful. While the competition might institute a hiring freeze as they wait through this period, that’s when you can attract the best talent because you’re giving them a vision. Even though times are challenging, you’re forging forward and still investing in PR and marketing to take your brand to another level where people are continuing to see you.

One good strategy is to think back to how you reacted during the Great Recession that started in 2008 — and even how you reacted during the pandemic — and consider what you wish you would have done differently back then. Now, bring those ideas forward and incorporate them into plans as you persevere through challenging times in the future.

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.

Miller: Ensure everybody feels safe. Overcommunicate. Be transparent — I’m a huge believer in transparency. Reset where you are in your company relative to the objectives, and level set at that current moment in time as to what the recasted objectives might be. Provide that picture to your team along with the steps to get there versus the outcome –you need to explain the intermediate, smaller goals that are a part of the larger goal. A lot of people want instant gratification, and they won’t see the big picture until the end. So the smaller wins help quench the thirst along the way.

In challenging times, leaders need to provide their staff with the right data points and triggers so that they know they’re moving in the right direction, but it’s crucial to break up the larger goal into smaller, more manageable goals for your people.

Lastly, be consistent as a leader. Having a lot of energy and intensity is a great thing, and people know and feel that, but you don’t want to be angry. You don’t want to show worry though — sometimes you have to get through challenging times, and you want people to see you as calm and guiding the team through each hurdle. Having control of your emotions is very important but also very difficult — few people can actually execute leadership in this manner, but when people see a calm leader, they’re also able to execute on what they need to do as part of the team.

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

Miller: I really like Robert Frost, and I live by his words: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

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