Lessons in Life and Leadership in 2020

We started this blog concept as an interview with our President, Josh Vail, to glean what he has learned about life and leadership during this tumultuous year. After responding to a few of my questions, I felt the tables turn as some of the responses ended up being mine. We decided to publish the whole exchange. Hopefully, our conversation about this unique year, both professionally and personally, is a beneficial read.

Mary: Let’s jump right in. Obviously, this year has been difficult on several levels. How does this year compare to other difficult years?

Josh: Laughs. Like as a rank? It’s up there! I think for people in the financial services industry it has been particularly stressful relative to some other years for a couple of reasons. The roller coaster of market and client emotions for one, but this year has the feeling of being a collection of never-ending days. Those of us that worked in the business in 2008 certainly remember the stress on the job that perhaps led to personal financial stress as well during that time. But unlike ’08 when you could put the day behind you when you got home, this year saw those professional stresses bleed right into personal ones. These stresses were not trivial either, big questions like, “Are my kids getting a reasonable education?”, “Are they emotionally in an okay place?” and for many of us we had family or friends fall ill, and sometimes seriously ill. So, as a manager of people, it was more necessary than ever to approach your decisions with a level of empathy, combined with the needs of the business.

Mary: You said “it was a particularly stressful year for a couple reasons” the blending of work and outside of work life is one, what else?

Josh: Well, I think in addition to the obvious stresses, our whole civilization was put into a situation in which most of the population had zero first-hand experience. That led to a wide dispersion in opinion on every topic. There was not a readily available blueprint. You may remember when the COVID cases were low over the summer and we thought about reopening the office. With an office with only 20 employees, we had some individuals that thought we never should have closed it down in the first place, and others that thought we should never open back up again! That is a tough to place to be as one of the decision makers.

Mary: Yes. I might have fallen into the ‘take our time to reopen camp’ if I recall…but, as a leader how do you make everyone happy?   

Josh: I think that is impossible to do in the best of times, and certainly harder-than-impossible in uncertain times. I read a great quote from the book “The CEO Next Door” that said something to the effect of, “A CEO/Leader should be making all stakeholders a little unhappy with them if their doing their job right.” At first that sounds crazy, but if you think about the role of the CEO for example, they have all these different stakeholders from investors in the company, to board members, to employees. His/her job as CEO is to do what is best for the collective entity in the middle, the company. Ultimately if he/she does a great job everyone “eats” so to speak, and has a chance to realize their individual goals which in turn leaves everyone content. But if you try to make everyone happy at least one stakeholder will not be fulfilled and that will lead to a potential breakdown across the firm.

Mary: Then how do you know you’re right when you make certain choices?

Josh: I thought these were going to be softballs. I don’t know that anyone ever knows they’re right if they’re being honest. I suppose you can get to a point where you feel like the odds are in your favor. Any time people are put into a position where they are making decisions, whether it’s investment management decisions or personal decisions, you’re probably doing so with an incomplete data set. The more complex the decision is, or the less information you have, then our natural heuristics take over, i.e., an emotionally driven decision process. The trick is to be aware of this and be honest with an assessment of the process you took to get to the decision. This year gave us plenty of opportunity to practice those skills.

Josh: What about you? What’s the biggest work lesson you’ve learned this year?

Mary: Well, I would call myself a planner and I’ve learned to adapt to changes faster. I like to lay out my plans months in advance, but I’ve learned several times this year that the best laid plans may still fall apart. We had big market shifts this year and that meant some projects that were in the works, or even nearing completion were put aside and I needed to restart. I’ve definitely learned to get over that frustration faster and just pivot.

Josh: Ah the Mike Tyson quote, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. What about the shift to work from home for you – how has that been?

Mary: Working from home has definitely made my work/life balance both better and worse. It’s nice to close up your laptop, make the one-minute commute to the kitchen and start making dinner, but it’s also made it harder to draw lines of when work begins and ends, as you mentioned. I can always answer the call or write one more email.

Josh: So, you’re expecting your first little one to come into the world, what is the lesson you’re going to take from 2020 and make sure your child learns?

Mary: I thought I was supposed be asking the questions? At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I think the lesson that had the biggest imprint on me this year is that life is incredibly fragile so we should enjoy our time here. I’ve tried to remember that in moments when I struggle with my work from home/life balance. There has been incredible loss of life through COVID this year and it makes you realize that you don’t want to look back and think, “I wish I had called dad more” or “I wish I had been more present when spending time with my significant other”. Life is delicate and it can be over tomorrow, so go build that snowman with your kids. You won’t regret it. “Oh wait…I’m being interviewed by our President [laughs] …so obviously I would only do that after my work is done for the day, but you get the point.” We could all learn to be more present after a year like this with so much uncertainty and I hope I can carry that lesson forward.

Josh: Well said. That seems like a “mic” drop. What more could I add to that? Thanks Mary.

Mary: Sounds good, thanks to you too.

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