From Authority Magazine: a Medium publication. www.medium.com
As part of our series about how to become known as a thought leader in your industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Domenic Aversa. He has worked as a crisis manager and corporate restructuring professional for more than 25 years. Domenic has advised and operated small and middle-market companies in 45 different industries and worked through every possible extreme with his clients, including coup attempts in developing countries, the dot com bust, 9/11, Ponzi schemes, corrupt bankers, and the Great Recession. In his book, “Corporate Undertaker: Business Lessons from the Dead and Dying,” he shares his best advice for dealing with adversity and crisis.
Diagnosed with a rare eye disease in 2002, Domenic suddenly lost most of his eyesight and was told he could go completely blind at any time. Amazingly, he continued to grow his business, fighting through personal adversity and using the experience to benefit his clients.
When he’s not working, Domenic enjoys cooking and making handmade shoes for loved ones. He holds a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of Windsor, a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Waterloo, and is a graduate of the Moscow Institute for International Affairs, where he earned a diploma for his study of Eastern European economic development.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Iwas 23, working part-time as a child-care worker at the Children’s Aid Society and attending law school full-time. I was disillusioned with the notion of practicing law and I was also tired of being poor. I wanted a change and I wanted to learn about making money. So, in the summer of 1991, I registered for a business school program that was a joint venture between the University of Manchester (England) and the Moscow Institute of International Relations (Russia). It was the first program of its kind to be opened by this institution to the Western world.
The Soviets were still in power and resisting any change toward democracy and capitalism. That summer, rebels launched a coup attempt to overthrow the communist leaders. There was a lot of fighting in public and they even brought tanks into Red Square. Despite the barren landscape and the political upheaval, I was fascinated at the notion of starting a business in Russia. I had absolutely no business experience or money but everywhere I looked, I saw an opportunity for a business to be started. I imagined a capitalist economy being established and I wanted to be a part of it.
Within a couple of months, I managed to find two Russians that would help bring all these things together. By 1992, we became partners and were exporting food and alcohol to the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States. During this period of time, I completed law school while I worked full-time. Quickly, one company became several companies. By the time I turned 28, I owned a food distribution company, a professional soccer team in Canada, a real estate development company, and a small private bank in Moscow. I had come a long way from being a broke, naïve student.
Russia, in the 90s, was an extremely violent place. I managed to survive in this environment with the help of an extensive security team and a great deal of caution. However, by 1998, I had grown weary of the lawlessness, corruption, and sheer danger. Despite the great success we had, I closed up my companies and decided on a fresh start in the United States — a place that I believed was much more stable and safe.
I had owned businesses, but I never went to business school or learned concrete business methodology or tactics. I wanted to learn more about what made businesses successful. It was then that I discovered corporate restructuring and crisis management. This “corporate repair shop” seemed like the perfect place to learn about the dos and don’ts of business.
I started as an analyst, studying troubled companies. Then, eventually, I began leading and operating distressed businesses. I started with smaller companies and then moved up in size and scope. I loved the speed and uncertainty, along with the creativity and resolve needed to work in this environment. In the next 20 years, I would work with more than 200 companies in 45 different industries, selling and operating in more than 60 countries. I served in various roles, either as an advisor or manager (CEO, COO, or Chief Restructuring Officer) overseeing tens of thousands of employees and billions of dollars in revenue and debt restructuring, working with some of the largest banks and private equity firms in the world. I also became a speaker; academic audiences included Harvard Business School and The Sloan School of Management at MIT.
Recently, I published a collection of lessons and stories that I gathered over the first 25 years of my life in business. The focus of the book is on how you can survive any crisis that you may encounter. It is called Corporate Undertaker: Business Lessons from the Dead and Dying.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?
The world of corporate restructuring and crisis management is principally comprised of professionals that specialize in finance and law. When companies get into trouble the focus is on securing the assets and recovering the loans. This is done through a banking and legal process.
My formal education is in Sociology. I was working as a child-care worker for the Children’s Aid Society when I started my first business. When I see a company, I see the movement and interaction of people — first. In my meetings with bankers, lawyers, investment bankers, accountants, they also see people — last. In public, they will tell you “our thoughts and prayers are with these invaluable employees.” However, in private, those employees are only viewed as a means to an end — they are valuable until the debt is repaid. After that, no one cares. To the lenders and other advisors, a business is at a minimum a pile of assets and at most, a machine for cash flow. I see things differently. To me, a business is a living entity. It breathes, moves, and leaves an imprint as big and wide as all the people that touch the company in one way or another. My work process from start to finish is to respect and harness all of this power.
I also respect the creditors that may be involved with a troubled company. They loaned money, and now they just want to be repaid. Everything else from their perspective is irrelevant. However, for more than 25 years, I have been showing all stakeholders that the path through a crisis is through people. A business has to make logical sense. It has to generate revenue, cash flow, and profit. All those things need to happen in order to satisfy debt obligations. However, observing customers, motivating employees, communicating with suppliers and getting all of these people to go along with the process of revenue, cash flow, and profits is where the real challenge resides. If you can harmonize all of these disparate parts, you can overcome any challenge.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
A typical day at work for me is one that is fast-paced and filled with drama. All of my clients are out of time, cash, and emotional stability. So, in this environment, there are a lot of interesting stories. I have seen corruption, fraud, and abuse at the highest levels of business and politics. I have seen banks steal money and healthcare insurance from employees while they were receiving federal bailout funds. I have managed several companies that were more than 100 years old. I have received death threats, had guns pointed at my head, gone to work with a police escort, and seen laid-off employees commit murder. The range of “interesting” is compelling. However, I think the most interesting story that helped me look at the world and my work differently is a personal story.
At the age of 36, within a few weeks’ time, I lost most of my vision in one eye. I was diagnosed with an eye disease called keratoconus. After meeting with several specialists, the conclusion was that I would eventually lose all of my vision in both eyes and would require cornea transplant surgery. Today, cornea transplants are more common, but at the time of diagnosis, I wasn’t prepared for that physical change in my body. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the thought of having someone else’s “eyes” in me. I knew it was necessary, but I also knew that once they made the first incision, there was no turning back. I would forevermore be looking at the world through someone else’s eyes.
From that moment on, my personal and professional life changed significantly. Up until then, I moved fast, I could “read” a room with a quick scan, and I could go through documents easily. I had moxie and great enthusiasm when I went to meetings. But now, everything changed. I struggled between vertigo and not being able to see my own face in a mirror. I could no longer rely on my eyes, so I had to rely on all of my other senses. I began to listen more intently. I began to “feel” people and situations. In order to see someone or something, I needed to be very still and stare at them closely and patiently. I began to memorize names, faces, places, numbers. Every night, I went to bed thinking “This may be the last day I can see anything, so I better remember what I saw today.” The loss of my vision made me move very slowly and very thoughtfully. I wasn’t cavalier in the past — but now, I was much more attuned to how fragile life was and also how much more intricate it was when we took a closer look at things.
I delayed the cornea transplants for twelve years. My vision progressively and steadily declined during this period of time. However, during this same period of time, the companies that I would manage and lead became bigger and more complex. My actual visual world became darker and more confined at the same time my physical world was expanding and becoming more illuminated. I moved slowly but I became a much more thoughtful, compassionate, and creative leader when I stopped being able to use my eyes.
Eventually, my eyesight diminished to a point I could no longer tolerate. I prepared for transplant surgery, but then I met a surgeon that had developed new techniques in the treatment of keratoconus. I had three different procedures performed on me and shortly thereafter, I had 80% of my vision restored. It was fascinating to be able to see clearly again. At first, there was an excitement that wanted me to go back to moving fast. I wanted to see everything I could, as quickly as possible. But, then, I remembered the past twelve years…I did not want to give up the “slow motion” that made life more meaningful and impactful for me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My work is filled with chaos, loss, frustration, anger, fear, and often crime…so “funny” is contextual. I do laugh throughout the day and I encourage others to laugh, or else the stress and tension of our work environment would cause us to self-combust. That being said, here’s a story that I thought was funny and impactful on my career, even though it was a bit harrowing.
I was hired to assess the viability of a company. I spent two days speaking with senior managers and various employees. It became readily apparent that the company was experiencing many operational and growing pains because the owner, acting as CEO, was reluctant to let go of many day-to-day activities and he was hesitant to implement universal processes and procedures that would give his company a great foundation to build upon.
One by one, I went to each key manager and they told me the same thing; the CEO was the major roadblock. Not wanting to waste any more time in looking for solutions, I asked the CEO to convene with me and his senior managers. I figured, “If he just sits and listens to everyone, he’s going to see that this is the best for him in his company. It’s logical. It all makes sense.”
We sat around a large boardroom table. One by one, I called on the managers to give their thoughts. One by one, they shared their views. Some tentatively, some with confidence. In the end, I turned to the CEO and said “Well, what do you think? Should we start on these changes?” The CEO paused, looked around the room, let out a sigh and said, “I don’t know; I need to think more about it.”
Still convinced that it was just about logic and that this was an open team meeting, I innocently asked “I think we can do this. What are you afraid of?”
I was just trying to keep the conversation moving along but the CEO interpreted my question very differently. In his mind, “What are you afraid of?” became “Stop being a coward.”
His face turned red, almost purple. He stood up from his chair at the head of the table and said, “I’m not afraid of anything.”
I was surprised by his answer and tried to clarify, but it was too late. He started pacing at one end of the room. I was seated in the middle. He began to speak under his breath and occasionally utter profanity. Eventually, it was just profanity. There were no other discernible words. I could see sweat build on his forehead. He looked directly at me, called me a few very colorful terms and then picked up his leatherbound executive chair and threw it at my head. He was a big man — 6’5”, 250 pounds. The chair flew through the air as if it were a common occurrence. Like nothing new was happening, this awkward piece of steel, plastic and leather sailed right for my face. Fortunately, I was still young and nimble. I moved out of the way, unharmed.
It took three of his senior managers to physically restrain him so that I could leave the building. He was very determined to beat the living daylights out of me just to prove he was afraid of nothing. I didn’t stick around long enough to examine further — I believed him.
I find this situation “funny” because I was so naïve at the time I asked the question. I was in my late 20s and thought everything in business was logical. That incident taught me that all of us are unique and all of us are harboring our own world of wounds, insecurities, and motivations. And all of us have a unique way of communicating. The word “afraid” means one thing to me but means something entirely different to others. The same can be said for all words — words like “happy,” “rich,” “peaceful.” You don’t know what it actually means to someone until you get their personal definition.
Since that day, I spend a great deal of time trying to understand the inner dialogue of people. I tend to ask a lot of questions and take a lot of notes on everyone I meet.
I also embraced a new practice when going into a sensitive or difficult meeting. Rather than simply toss out new ideas in meetings — ideas that may change how people work or change the power structure within a company — I have one-on-one meetings to test the idea. One by one, I call key decision-makers or meet with them in person and I float “trial balloons.” I introduce them by saying “We’re just exploring options…but what do you think about this?” One on one, without the eyes, ears, and judgment of others, I give people the opportunity to express themselves openly and freely. Often, because we’re in a desperate situation, people hate new ideas. They don’t want to change, and they are vocal about it. So I just listen. If ten out of the ten people tell me “It’s a lousy idea,” I won’t introduce it in the meeting. Conversely, if I get a consensus or close to it from the ten people, then when I do introduce the idea, we can have a productive meeting and not worry about flying chairs. Everyone had time to reflect on the idea and now they feel like they are contributing to the new path.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define what a ‘Thought Leader’ is? How is a thought leader different than a typical leader? How is a thought leader different than an influencer?
I believe that a thought leader is someone that challenges the current convention. Their role is to introduce new ideas and practices that others in the company or organization can explore and develop into use. Challenging existing norms is not easy. Generally, we are creatures of habit. We find the path of least resistance which allows us to survive, and that gives us a feeling of protection and satisfaction. Once we have that, we don’t like to change it. Thought leaders come along and say “How about this? Try a new way.”
A typical leader must embody certain qualities that make people want to follow him or her. Ideally, we want them to be knowledgeable, good communicators, well organized, fair, and trustworthy. Whether we are volunteering our time and service or working for a paycheck, we want leaders to create a mostly agreeable environment for us and others. We want to be safe, productive, appreciated, and happy. Generally, that will satisfy most of us. Being inspired to new heights and new worlds is great, but something most consider as a special bonus.
A thought leader can be an influencer; however, I generally see an influencer as someone that promulgates a new idea. They spread the good word and cheer. They are the bees and hummingbirds of humanity. Important, colorful and busy…
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader? Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?
The benefit of becoming a thought leader is that you are always searching and creating. If you are always engaged in these two activities, ideally, you should be having fun. It’s a constant world of exploration. I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor because it helps provide your life and others with a sense of newness. You are moving beyond administering and executing — you are playing with new ideas.
Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?
In the corporate restructuring and crisis management world, the vast majority of professionals constantly comment on troubled companies with questions and statements like “Why is it so bad?” or “This company is terrible; shut it down.” However, when I look at a distressed company, I ask “Why isn’t it worse?” and “What if we could save part of it?” I look for LIFE — so I find it. It’s my belief that no matter how troubled a company is, there is some life and some value in it. Consequently, everyone that works with me is constantly looking for ways to improve, build upon, highlight, and save. It’s my belief that an operating company, as a living entity, can serve society much better than a liquidated pile of assets. When this dimension is added to the analysis, the conversation among the decision-maker always changes.
Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry? Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.
First, you need to study what exists. You can’t improve what you don’t understand. Study everything you can about an industry, product, or service that you are interested in.
Second, respect what exists. You may have ways to improve upon what you are studying, but know that you are only getting there because you’ve studied the path of others.
Third, go study things in other fields that have similar phenomena to your work or area of interest. See how others deal with things like speed, limited budget, complexity etc. For example, in my work, I am constantly responding to emergencies. I wanted to learn from other professions and how they respond to a crisis, so I began reading books and interviewing people like emergency room doctors and nurses, firemen, police, and EMTs. This helped me improve many aspects of managing and communicating during a crisis.
Fourth, go study areas of interest that have nothing to do with your work. The practice of looking at something new will help your brain and being when problem-solving. In this exercise, there is no limitation; read and study anything that grabs your attention. For me, I like learning about plants, animals, biology, paleontology, anthropology, metaphysics, food, and wine. I study the ways things come together, interact, and come apart. The color, texture, and new metaphors always help me to feel refreshed about dealing with an older or existing issue.
Fifth, engage others. Move beyond your own thoughts and share them with others. Try new ideas and concepts on them and then listen to their response. Spend much more time listening than trying to convince them of something new and better. Once you have gathered enough data and opinions, you will then be in a position to try to lead others down your path. At that point, people will know that you have actually listened and considered the perspectives of others, so they will be more willing to accept your ideas as something “proven” or “worthwhile.”
In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has that has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach?
There are thought leaders in every industry, and some come up with monumental ideas like Paypal or Google. However, there is one thought leader that has left an indelible impression on me and millions of other people. His thoughts encourage you to challenge your thoughts.
To me, Tony Robbins took on the world of human behavior and performance optimization and lifted it to new heights. He incorporated the teachings of many, many different authors, academics, professionals, leaders, etc. and presented them in a way that was both understandable and actionable. He didn’t just give you long dissertations of the evolution of the primordial brain — he succinctly explained it and then said, “This is how you can use it…and we’re going to do that RIGHT NOW.” He has successfully shared the same thoughts and practices with Nobel Prize winners, political leaders, top athletes, artists, and financial investors as often as he’s shared them with people that struggle with addiction, are suicidal, or are encased in other personal or relationship struggles. It is an incredible achievement to positively and continually influence people across all of these dimensions.
I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?
I don’t think it is trite or too casual to use the term “thought leader.” Do we say that about the word “hero”? Or “captain,” “coach,” or “CEO”? Just using the term inspires people to want to become a “thought leader.” As a society, we should always be looking for new ways to be inspired — encouraging and recognizing thought leaders helps keep all of us on the path of creativity, exploration and excellence.
What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?
Be as joyful as you can be while you are challenging existing or old ideas. Know that it’s okay to have fun while exploring serious issues.
You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
I would like people to see every business as a living entity. I would like people to stop seeing companies as faceless corporations and stop using the phrase “It’s not personal; it’s business.” In my view, business is personal. Whether you are a one-person contractor or a 500-person corporation, business is personal. Everything you see in a room, any room, someone made and someone sold. If that “one-room” business goes away, every company that made and sold a product or service for that one room is affected. When a company dies, a community dies. If I could change anything it would be to help everyone see that their job matters, and their company matters. Our actions, no matter how seemingly small, can have a tremendous influence on countless lives. If we can see our jobs and our company in this manner, I believe we will continually elevate the level of creative development, job satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and ultimately, the happiness of the community.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. You were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love, 1992.
I have this quote laminated and have carried it with me every day since the mid-90s. I still keep a paper calendar. At the back of that folio, I have this laminated quote. I look at it every so often. It reminds me of the path that I have taken to get where I am. I started in the business world very naïve, completely inexperienced, and financially broke. I made a tremendous amount of mistakes. It was often frustrating, exhausting and demoralizing. I questioned my path and my worth constantly. At the end of those days, I would read this quote, then tell myself “Okay, tomorrow we try again.” I kept trying. Eventually, I became better and explored worlds I never could have imagined.
To me, this statement is immeasurably powerful for the entire world. As we march through life we confront obstacles, threats, and unplanned events. These things can take a toll on us. They weigh us down, confuse us, and often, make us doubt and give up. Each time I read this quote, I am re-inspired to just go give my best…and to welcome the best in others.
We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
There are two people I would like to have a meal with:
- Anthony Robbins. He has dedicated his life to seeking out the best in human beings. Whether it is business, athletics, politics, relationships, or personal growth, he has helped millions of people overcome fear and limitations. He combines physiology, psychology, sociology, mathematics, art, and philosophy in an effort to give people every tool possible for them to succeed on their path through life. His wealth of knowledge and commitment to share it with others is admirable and inspirational.
- Mark Zuckerberg. There are thinkers and innovations that have had an immeasurable impact on people’s lives , such as the desktop computer, mobile phone, email, and GPS — but I don’t think there has ever been a global phenomenon like Facebook. It has changed how people interact with each other and with commerce in a dramatic way, both positively and negatively. Approximately 1/3 of the world’s population are listed as active users on Facebook. If you include their families and friends that are not listed on accounts, the number of people touched by this technology increases significantly. To be at the helm of a company and a phenomenon that is so intricately woven into the lives of billions of people on a daily basis has to be a surreal experience.
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