Lessons Learned from a Lifetime in Business

Published:04/09/2020 | Posted by Don Zinn

lessons learned from businessman

The StevenDouglas leadership is comprised of executives that have decades of business experience and many stories about navigating success, despite what life or the economy throws at them.  We want to share these valuable lessons to help others prosper in uncertain times, be inspired, and know that there is always a way to progress, regardless of the circumstances you face.


Over the course of my business career, I founded 7 companies, raised over $25 million in private and venture equity, and sold 3 companies.  A very important thing I learned is that a great leader can adapt and evolve to changing markets and situations.  I understand that companies do this all the time, but it’s typically at a snail’s pace, or “as needed”.  During a time of crisis, the world seemingly changes in an instant, and in just a few short weeks, nearly every employer must adjust its operations, execute new processes, and quickly alter capabilities for most of its workforce.

While it is true that certain industries get hurt far worse than others in any crisis, some businesses face difficult decisions with respect to possible layoffs, pay cuts and/or hiring freezes.  Other industries are able to do quite well, even sometimes flourishing.  I’ve seen both sides of this every day for the past several weeks.  On the talent acquisition front, there are many companies still hiring and moving forward with interviews and hiring decisions because bringing in new talent is essential to continuing operations and achieving growth plans.  With just a short window of observing and interacting with companies operating in this new reality, we hear real anxiety about moving forward to evaluate new talent in non-traditional ways.  If you think that sitting on the sidelines and waiting for this to pass will result in your having a bigger pool of talent to choose from, you may be right on bigger, but we don’t agree on better.

I vividly recall October of 1987, when I very excitedly signed an offer letter to sell my first company. Then the market crashed on October 29th.  Not only was the deal falling apart, but as a tech consulting company, our clients immediately cut back.  We were in a state of shock. What do we do?

We assumed that if our clients were stalling, so would others, and we were short the talent we needed for our Business Intelligence practice.  We knew BI was going to get more important, not less, in a more competitive and frightened world.  The decision was made to withdraw the deal to sell the company, and we immediately hired a new leader for our BI team. We also further diversified and started working in marketing analytics and supply chain analytics – that expansion saved us.  The company grew over the next 18 months way beyond expectations, resulting in selling stock in our company at the end of 1988 to the earlier buyer for a higher valuation than we had the year before.

It was scary, and at the same time we made that big hire, who was key when we looked at our team to trim some fat – it is funny how profits hide ineffectiveness.  When demand is “full speed ahead” everyone is billable, but when demand for our services pulled back a bit, we easily identified our bottom level performers, and replaced them with better, top end performers.  Regardless of the economy, there is always an opportunity to improve business performance, and most of those opportunities involve identifying and accessing the right people.

The truth is, great executives are rarely on the sidelines, and never are they more needed than now.  The further truth is that, mediocre executives, who have struggled to add value even during the best of times, are not going to be able to get by anymore, and they are the ones that will find themselves on the market.  Just filling a chair is not going to do it – those “empty suits” are going to be the talent that is available on the sidelines, and the demand for great CFO’s, strategic HR leaders, amazing sales generals, and incredible marketing and operational leaders will be even greater in times of crisis.

It seems every crisis comes with a “new normal”, so you can’t wait for the old normal to return.  That is not a business strategy that has ever worked.  It won’t work now.  Change is hard, but those who leverage change most effectively become the champions of tomorrow.  Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines in the talent wars – now is the time to be counter intuitive and take advantage of the best opportunity to find and land game changing talent you have had since before 2015.  During times of instability, while your competition is frozen, or worse, in a panic, you have the chance to upgrade your leadership talent.  Take advantage of that opportunity to evolve. Help Me Hire Leaders.

Written April 02, 2020 by: Don Zinn, VP – Executive Search at StevenDouglas

don Zinn steven douglasAbout the Author: Donald J. Zinn is Senior Vice President of Executive Search and a senior member of the StevenDouglas search team. Don helps clients in NYC, Westchester, Southern CT, NJ and all over the USA to scale their organizations by identifying and landing the right talent in their quest to find the very best business leaders for their organizations. He focuses on helping fast growing companies build optimal and functional leadership teams. Don holds a BS in Industrial & Labor Relations from Cornell University and an MBA from New York University.

StevenDouglas Locations