South Florida executives consider a workforce in flux as region enters new era
The Business Journal recently gathered some of the region’s top CEOs for a roundtable discussion on the intricacies of leadership since the advent of Covid-19.
More than a dozen chief executives, named South Florida Ultimate CEOs over the past two years, participated in the conversation, titled “Leadership in Challenging Times.” SFBJ Editor-in-Chief Mel Meléndez moderated the Nov. 9 discussion.
Panelists enjoyed dinner at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach prior to the conversation, which marked the first roundtable solely consisting of South Florida Ultimate CEO honorees.
Launched eight years ago, the South Florida Ultimate CEO Awards annually recognizes 15 men and women who, due to their extensive business acumen, leadership skills and community involvement, help shape the region and advance the local economy.
The 2021 Ultimate CEO Awards was presented by Comcast Business, with corporate sponsors the Florida International University College of Business, GCI Worldwide Corp. and Regions Bank. Associate sponsors were the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance and the Miami-Dade Beacon Council.
Company leaders are at the mercy of an ever-growing list of challenges that seem out of their control as they face the Great Resignation during a pandemic with seemingly no end in sight.
When asked how to avert these obstacles, South Florida CEOs urged their peers to take unexpected routes as they find their footing in a work climate that’s anything but business as usual.
Their advice: Top executives must become better followers as they lead, especially with regard to what their teams demand in a world forever altered by Covid-19.
This strategy was among the chief takeaways from “Leadership in Challenging Times,” a Nov. 9 roundtable the Business Journal hosted at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach.
Moderated by Editor-in-Chief Mel Meléndez, the panel featured 14 South Florida Ultimate CEO Awards honorees who shared their insights on leadership and the issues that will impact their ability to do business in the coming years.
Leaders from a variety of sectors said South Florida had bounced back from pandemic slowdowns and stood out as a key place to move companies, families and investments. But uncertainties remain because inflation has weighed down the economy, living costs have soared and a lack of willing labor has hit the most vulnerable industries.
The only way to come out on top, they agreed, is to let employees’ wants and needs in the workplace guide their steps forward.
“All my life, I believed leaders should lead. And now I believe that leaders should follow,” said Neisen Kasdin, Miami office managing partner of Akerman LLP. “This is the first time in my career where we are going to have to see what’s going to emerge and adapt to it.”
The remote work divide
Bosses often want their offices to be the picture of pre-pandemic life. In most cases, employees don’t get their vision. So companies that don’t choose their battles wisely when it comes to back-to-the-office policies might lose the talent war, panelists said.
“It’s very hard to do teamwork remotely, but things are evolving,” said José Cil, the Miami-based CEO of Restaurant Brands International (NYSE: QSR), which has about 1,400 corporate employees. “You have to be on the forward edge of that or you’re going to lose out on talent, the most important piece of the business.”
Some panelists admitted to letting go of long-held presumptions about the correlation between working in the office and being more productive as two weeks of social distancing turned into nearly two years.
“I had insisted everyone was going to come back to the office,” Nova Southeastern University President and CEO George L. Hanbury II said. “But I had a bunch of employees in finance and IT say, ‘We’re not going back to the office.’ What does a leader do? Are we going to lead or follow? I did the best thing: I started following.”
However, policies had to be put into place to protect the Davie-based private university, one of South Florida’s largest employers. Hanbury, who oversees more than 6,500 employees, said he personally approves who can and cannot work remotely when it comes to NSU’s out-of-state workforce. He warned his fellow CEOs that Florida’s employment laws don’t extend beyond state lines.
Like Hanbury, Miami-Dade Beacon Council President and CEO Michael Finney initially had doubts about the effectiveness of virtual work. Finney was concerned less frequent in-person interactions between colleagues and clients would dampen outcomes for one of the region’s leading economic development agencies, whose relationship-driven deals help fuel job creation countywide.
“I’ve never believed in remote work,” he said. “Yet, last year, we had the best year in growth and recruitment ever.”
Hanbury and Finney weren’t the only CEOs to pivot in this regard to help retain top talent.
As of this writing, unemployment had tightened to 4% across the tri-county area, and some companies – especially large employers – continued to push back their plans to return to the office.
About 93% of nearly 300 South Florida business owners expressed optimism about the remainder of 2021 in a September survey by the Business Journal in collaboration with BDO USA and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. Most respondents said their businesses were on the upswing, even as they planned to shrink their office space and simultaneously add jobs in the fourth quarter.
Fears of not being able to manage workers effectively proved unfounded. Instead, remote workers buckled down and boosted their employers’ bottom lines so significantly that more positions were created. Yet, 80% of respondents reported difficulty securing qualified applicants for open positions as their businesses scaled.
In this job seeker’s market, hiring and retention challenges were all too familiar to the panelists, including Broward College President Gregory A. Haile, who leads one of the largest colleges in South Florida, in terms of enrollment.
“About a third of the folks working from home said if they were forced to come back tomorrow, they would quit their jobs,” Haile said, citing a survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. “So how do we drive culture and not lose what folks have become accustomed to as they work from home?”
Culture still the last word
No matter where or how people worked, company values that predate the pandemic came to the forefront over the last 20 months, panelists said.
For many, mission and purpose were among the only factors bridging the distance between workers, their managers and teammates as the world changed.
“Culture trumps everything,” said Right Management Florida | Caribbean co-founder and CEO Maureen Shea, who runs one of South Florida’s largest woman-owned businesses from Fort Lauderdale. “We’re in the telemanagement business, so we don’t necessarily need to be face to face. If your team believes in your mission, they can feel really feel gratified working remotely.”
For nonprofits such as Feeding South Florida and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami, their missions had to withstand pandemic pressures, which dried up talent pools and pushed pay higher.
Virtual work wasn’t an option for Pembroke Park-based Feeding South Florida, which partners with 300 nonprofits throughout the region to serve more than 1 million food-insecure people. The need for its essential services grew as the Covid era created economic challenges that bore down on the most vulnerable populations. Through it all, CEO Paco Vélez sought to keep up with private companies to not lose out on purpose-driven workers who could help further its goals.
“We try as much as we can on salaries, we try on benefits, and we’re pretty competitive,” he said. “Right now, we’re trying to bring in talent that will hit the ground running [and be] a vital part of the organization …. For us, it’s culture. We can teach the other stuff.”
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami took its youth mentoring programs virtual initially. But as the months went on, CEO Gale Nelson found that the mission outweighed efficiencies found in the virtual workplace.
“My bottom lines are smiles … and when those kids went back to school, everything changed,” he said. “Those kids spoke loud and clear to us, saying ‘We want to see you.’”
Cervera Real Estate Managing Partner Alicia Cervera Lamadrid, who has built her brand over four decades, had a similar experience in Miami’s for-profit world.
“I’ve found, in my business, it’s not where my salespeople want to be, it’s where my customers are,” Cervera Lamadrid said.
For companies with more flexibility, CEOs have chosen a hybrid model, so workers can come into the office part of the time and work remotely part of the time. That model, they say, keeps company culture and goals intact.
“Hybrid is probably the way of the future. We can’t be rigid about that. The game is in employees’ hands, and we don’t have the leverage we used to have,” said Brett Beveridge, CEO of Coral Gables-based The Revenue Optimization Cos. “But people need to feel like they’re connected and feel like they have a higher purpose. I don’t think culture can be underestimated.”
The nuances of in-person office work remain integral to maintaining company culture, PNC Bank Southeast Florida Regional President Cressman Bronson said. From impromptu collaborations to guidance being passed from experienced workers to new employees, the impact of in-person interactions can’t be underestimated, he said.
But those benefits can’t outweigh considerations for employees’ newfound work-life balance, especially with today’s labor crush, Cressman added.
“We have an employee resource group, and this has improved commitment and loyalty,” he said. “But it’s a balance of providing that flexibility … as leaders, we have to embrace it. If we fight it, we’ll lose talent.”
No matter the challenges they face, whether inside the office or not, leaders who center their company culture on compassion will come out ahead, said Peggy Olin, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based OneWorld Properties, which specializes in preconstruction sales to international buyers.
“Everyone went through a time of uncertainty,” she said. “It’s so fundamental for retaining talent to show vulnerability and say ‘I get it, I’m with you.’”
True to form, the panel’s forward-thinking CEOs considered the solutions they could control in both today’s and tomorrow’s business climates.
What’s clear is that South Florida is in the throes of a transformative moment as the latest influx of wealthy people move into its neighborhoods and shape its future. That momentum could carry or crush any business plan, even one that’s thriving now. So established leaders will have to go with the flow, panelists said.
“If we’re really honest with ourselves, you have generations X and Z demanding a different lifestyle,” said Leah Carpenter, executive VP and COO of Memorial Healthcare System, who oversees 14,500 employees. “At the end of the day, it really takes leaders being flexible and nimble and being able to go with the times.”
South Florida CEOs can expect the needs of younger workers to become a primary concern as the region attracts more technology companies and professionals. They arrive as political leaders, economic development officials and entrepreneurs collaborate like never before to help the region claim the title of the nation’s next leading technology hub.
“People are underestimating what’s happening here,” said Manuel “Manny” Medina, a Miami business icon who took two Coral Gables-based companies public this year. “Shorting South Florida is a big mistake.”
THEY SAID IT
If you had to pick one chief takeaway from the pandemic – personal or professional – what would that be?
Olin: The industry is changing, and I want to be part of that change.
Haile: Over these 18 months, if you were in leadership, there was no hiding if you cared. If folks learned you didn’t care in the most difficult time, they may have already left.
Nelson: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Shea: Let it go.
Finney: We were more productive during this crisis than we were before.
Beveridge: You can’t underestimate the true power of culture.
Vélez: South Florida really stepped up to serve our families in a huge time of need.
Hanbury: When you emphasize safety and welfare of employees, and are legitimately concerned about their lives, employees rally around you.
Cil: In moments of dramatic changes and difficulty, you have to be decisive and, more than anything else, courageous.
Cervera Lamadrid: Fear is the enemy. Lead with love.
Medina: My No. 1 takeaway is how well it all worked. It worked out really well.
Carpenter: The onus is on all of us in this new world. Hybrid or remote, help connect people to purpose and culture. That’s our responsibility, not theirs.
Kasdin: I think people are going to wake up and say, “I’m tired of being home 24/7.”