In a stormy sea, the fate of a ship lies in the hands of her crew and, above all, the captain. A business leader faces the same tasks as this captain: keep the company ready for the unexpected at any moment, stay cool when difficulties arise, and adjust the plans accordingly. Sergei Chernovolenko, Softline Global CEO, talks about leadership during the pandemic.
–What are the goals and hardships of leadership in times of crisis? Have you faced any unfamiliar tasks in 2020 that you didn't know how to handle?
–I believe a market leader should have a sound development strategy and resolutely follow it. The Covid pandemic certainly was an unexpected blow and a major setback for everyone, including myself and other Softline executives. In response to the new circumstances, we all had to be more flexible, change work arrangements and adjust short-term priorities, yet our strategy remained intact. It had been developed before the pandemic to strengthen the company. The Covid crisis didn't make it any worse – it still serves our best interests.
Speaking of specific challenges, I would mention the sudden nature of the crisis that caught us off-guard, the need to address many new problems simultaneously and set the right priorities. On the other hand, the situation was not exactly new for me. I've been a businessman for a long time, I've gone through quite a few crises, and I have enough experience to stay cool.
The distinctive feature of this crisis is the lingering state of uncertainty. Since March 2020, no one actually knows what will happen tomorrow. It's not easy to stay calm and keep pursuing your goals in such a situation.
Another crucial task faced by a leader in difficult times is to support the team. Workers should feel encouraged by senior management and colleagues, they should be able to receive all the information about the company's work and share their feedback. Softline leaders put a lot of effort into supporting their employees. We have set up a hotline for all our staff, and executive committee meetings are broadcast to the entire company. Unit managers organize their own local hotlines. During the difficult period of the first wave, I was publishing a blog on our portal to share my experience in overcoming past crises with colleagues.
The Softline team did a great job. W have been growing faster than the market, especially in priority areas, and our operations suffered no interruptions. I truly appreciate the continuous efforts of our employees, and I promise full support to all these wonderful people.
–For over a whole year now, despite all the hardships, Softline has kept a grip on the situation. How has this become possible? What are the main keys to your success?
–As I said before, the main factor is the right strategy and its resolute implementation. Our strategy includes the right development areas and targets that we chose for a reason. That's the principal reason behind Softline's current sustained growth.
The second factor is that with the onset of the pandemic, we have redoubled control over day-to-day operations to ensure business continuity, that is, to guarantee all contractual deliveries of software, hardware, and services to our customers. It was equally important to be prudent in tumultuous times by tightening controls over accounts receivable and the warehouse.
The third factor is our secure leading position in the market and established reputation. In hard times, it is wiser to contract large, stable, and reliable partners such as Softline, and the market knows it.
By and large, Softline turned out to be pretty well prepared for the pandemic. Several factors have contributed to our success.
- Professional team
- The good financial standing of the company
- Softline's infrastructure and offices were ready for remote work
- Digital marketing has been up and running at Softline
- Softline itself had gone through digitalization before the pandemic
- Key business areas such as cloud services and cybersecurity, had already been developed
- Softline has a broad geographical presence, and business in some regions has been particularly buoyant
–You often mention flexibility. How flexible should a business be in times of crisis?
–Day-to-day operations must be organized in a flexible way, and it's not just about crises. Remember the Agile management principles?
- Responding to change over following a plan.
- Customer satisfaction comes first.
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
–Which technologies have come to the forefront in 2020? What did the customers buy most?
–In 2020, our customers faced extraordinary challenges that could be divided into three groups.
The first group is the quarantine-induced proliferation of remote work that has led to a surge in demand for:
- COVID-related technology (thermal imaging cameras, telemedicine, social distancing control, etc.),
- Remote and mobile workstations (VMware, Citrix, Aruba, HP, and Apple),
- Cloud services (including those from hyperscalers such as Microsoft, Amazon, Google and Alibaba),
- Communication platforms and omni-channel contact centers in the public sector (including education and healthcare), as well as in the private sector.
At the same time, this situation prompted many companies to upgrade their ICT infrastructure. We have seen an increasing interest in
- hyper-automation solutions based on AI and RPA,
- data analysis,
- low-code BPM platforms such as Terrasoft Creatio,
- custom applications,
- products for 3D building information modeling such as AutoCAD and Revit,
- hardware (AR/VR, drones, robots, etc.),
- education platforms including WorldSkills and Quantoriums.
Softline has delivered several
- HPC systems (NVIDIA, HPE, etc.),
- hyperconverged systems (Nutanix and VMware),
- SD-WAN (VMware SD-WAN by VeloCloud and Cisco SD-WAN) systems.
Last but not least, the third group of challenges is related to cybersecurity, particularly in government, the academy and healthcare. Some of our contracts in this area involved SOC, fraud protection and other proprietary services; import substitution solutions have also been in high demand.
–Every cloud has a silver lining. What new business opportunities, if any, have opened up for Softline? Did you take advantage of them?
–Indeed, in times of crisis almost any business can find new avenues for growth. Once you discover, explore and use these opportunities, your company would prosper rather than barely survive.
Softline's development strategy specifies the most promising areas of business where we invest and build up expertise. I believe that such areas exist for any company, you just need to discover them.
Also, as during any crisis, certain market segments are being vacated, and we would rather not miss our chance of moving in.
–Did you see a growing interest in digitalization last year? Did any of your customers realize that digital transformation was a must after the advent of the pandemic?
–Very much so! Many businesses that have not yet gone digital are now anxious to catch up. The pandemic has taught them a good lesson. With some companies, digitalization is an all-hands-on-deck effort to urgently establish remote workplaces, launch an online store, or online services. Many others, however, are upgrading their infrastructure on a scheduled basis by installing business management systems, moving to the cloud, and automating processes.
Well, all of our customers need to perform even in dire straits, and digital tools are a great help. No wonder they are so increasingly popular. Needless to say that many of our customers these days have to think twice before spending. Yet they gradually realize that the current situation may prompt them to tap the immense benefits of digital transformation – and Softline is always there to help.