As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gregory Samios.
Gregory Samios, the President and CEO of Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S. Mr. Samios joined Wolters Kluwer in his current role in September 2014, with more than twenty years’ experience in key leadership roles across critical sectors of the information services industry. During his tenure at Wolters Kluwer, Mr. Samios has overseen the firm’s successful evolution into a company unique in its ability to seamlessly integrate both cutting-edge technology, and unparalleled substantive expertise directly into practitioners’ workflows, spawning a new generation of enterprise-level, lifecycle offerings that align and adapt with customers’ continually transforming business imperatives.
Jason Crowley: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Gregory Samios: I started out as an engineer designing laser systems for defense work. I found that I enjoyed solving problems, but I wanted to transition those skills from technology to business. After business school, I worked in several analytical roles in strategy and business development before running my first company turnaround roughly 20 years ago. My first turnaround was moderately successful, and I learned some important lessons about problem-solving under time constraints while business is losing money.
While the turnaround experience was high pressure, I found it rather exhilarating to solve so many problems against the clock: it’s similar to being challenged to solve a puzzle as quickly as you can. From then on, I knew I wanted to follow this route of transforming businesses in the future.
One key lesson I took away from these experiences was that turnarounds can be preempted, if you ensure that you continue to transform your business — over time, and also sometimes in an accelerated way as the forces around you change rapidly. In my current position, I have employed this philosophy by ensuring that we moved quickly, made smart, decisive changes and focused our business to deliver a transformation that has continued to fuel our growth. We now enjoy a very strong reputation within the legal industry and deliver greater value to our customers.
Crowley: Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
Samios: What I’d like to share with you is something I think is most relevant for business leaders today — and that’s how I’ve applied what I learned in previous roles to ensure that I never get to those dark days again.
When I first started in my current role, I noticed that we were taking too long to get new products out the door — and our customers rightfully expected better of us. I wouldn’t characterize this as dark days, but it concerned me and I saw it as something we needed to fix immediately — I knew it was the most important thing we could do.
We had some work to do right away, and it had to start at the product level. Once we were able to demonstrate to our customers and the market that we could respond quickly with customer-driven product development, our customers’ perception of us would begin to change.
Over the course of the first two years, we changed how we developed new products, shifted resources to digital solutions, and got a lot closer to our customers. We were lucky to have a few early, fast new product launch successes that helped to confirm confidence with our customers, and also had good business results.
Now, our challenge is to accelerate our pace of innovation and continue to scale our successes.
Crowley: What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
Samios: When starting a new transformational role, it is important to pick a few potential quick wins and work hard to achieve them. More specifically, within the first three months, it helps to have a significant success that you can rally around. These quick wins, which normally take the form of introducing a new product, exceeding a sales goal, or some other demonstrable customer/market impacting program, can help to fuel the momentum when times are hard. It is important for all of your stakeholders — including your employees — to see that your hard work is translating into tangible results quickly.
Internally, consistently communicating those wins in the early days — and linking the positive outcomes to specific activities — is important to keeping employees engaged and encouraged. Your team should understand that what they are doing matters to your customers and to the business, and telling them often can be very helpful for bolstering morale and building your team up to continue to succeed.
Crowley: Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
Samios: I believe that sustained success comes down to driving organizational urgency around the initiatives that matter the most. At the beginning of a transformation, there are often many areas that need attention; but a leader’s true value comes from an ability to quickly diagnose which initiatives will have the biggest impact on the business, and then be single-minded in focusing the organization’s energy on those initiatives. At times, you will need to be very direct in not entertaining, supporting or talking about other initiatives that are not on the priority list. After a few times through this, people throughout the organization will understand this, internalize it, and will respond accordingly.
I have found that it is important to get directly involved in these prioritized initiatives to ensure that they have the urgency, plan and right resources to drive them to success. To successfully execute a transformation, I believe my time is best spent on initiatives at opposite ends of the bell curve: areas that can create the greatest growth for the organization on one end, and areas that present the greatest risk on the other.
Crowley: Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Samios: Leading a company through a period of transformation requires a broad view, a tight timeline to drive change across your organization — and a leader should be prepared to sacrifice precision for decision. A few things I consider whenever I start a new job include:
- Be very quick to diagnose business issues first (i.e. stage organization and people issues after you figure out the business issues — or as they say, strategy before structure before people). A leader should speak to as many internal and external stakeholders as quickly as possible, and use the imperfect information gathered from them to establish a blueprint for the business. The blueprint is just a starting point and will change as one continues to learn, but a leader should be quick to set up a blueprint that can be used to guide the team, communications, and strategy.
- Challenge the common wisdom and follow the data. Taking the first 90 days in a new transformational position to listen and learn can help to build your institutional knowledge of the organization — however, it is important to keep your long-term vision in mind at all times and “listen to the data.” You are likely to encounter some “this is the way it has always been” mentality along the way, but keeping your long-term transformation goals for the organization front and center and challenging the common wisdom will help you drive the most impactful change when making decisions on strategy and people.
- Treat your job as a change manager and not the CEO/President/GM. A transformational leader’s role is to drive urgent change in a way that leverages the full potential of the team. To build a compelling case for change, ensure that you have the same visceral backing from your leadership team to the cause, and then work with your team to figure out how to get to the end game.
Crowley: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Samios: I have had many mentors and amazing bosses who have helped me over the years, and I am very grateful to have worked for people who really cared. In my first GM assignment about 20 years ago, I was fortunate to have had an executive coach for a year who would shadow me for a day or two a month and was brutally honest about the things I did well and not so well. It was great to very quickly learn how to better manage situations, problems, people, communications, and business. To this day, I still think back to those lessons. I would encourage anyone to take on help from external or internal mentors and coaches whenever they can, especially ones who will be brutally honest.
Crowley: Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Samios: Absolutely! We have a lot of new products that are reaching the scaling phase of their developments and provide a lot of opportunity for growth. For Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., this includes integrating cutting edge technology with our expert content and services. The entire legal industry is undergoing a significant transformation, and content and solutions providers like ourselves are looking for new ways to provide more value to our customers. This process provides opportunities for our people to continue to develop their skills and careers and stay competitive in the market.
Crowley: You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Samios: My greatest impact is on my organization. My hope is that I could have all of our employees get personal fulfillment out of their jobs and to look forward to coming into work. For the vast majority of my career, I have been fortunate enough to be in this position and I am committed to ensuring that as many people as possible within my organization feel the same way. We have many programs at our company aimed at making Wolters Kluwer a great place to work and have recently received some recognition for our efforts. Last year, USA Today named our organization on its list of companies with the best managers.
I think it is a shame that such a high percentage of employee nationally are not committed to their jobs. In 2017, Inc. cited a study indicating that 68 percent of employees are disengaged at work. To me, that is a measurement of management’s failure to inspire employees, and I think that organizations should find new ways to make that a priority.
Crowley: Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
Samios: Running business transformations is not for everyone. Make sure that you get energy when faced with really challenging problems, and if you do, then the bigger the transformation, the more fun, energy, and success you will have!
Crowley: How can our readers follow you on social media?
Greg Samios: LinkedIn