BrightLocal Spotlight is a brand-new series exploring the human side of digital marketing. This month we’re hearing from BrightLocal CEO and Co-founder, Myles Anderson, about his personal experiences dealing with the crisis in Ukraine, going head-to-head with Google, and what he’s learned about leadership.
BrightLocal itself was born out of my own personal crisis. Losing my job resulted in an all-time personal low, and it was a huge learning experience for me. In the time since BrightLocal was born, we’ve had four instances of true crises. Each of these has helped shape both who I am as a person and BrightLocal as a business itself.
The crises I’ve worked through since starting BrightLocal have made me acutely aware that people look to you much more in these times to see how you react and behave. I’ve had to accept that responsibility.
Now, a year on from the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I wanted to reflect on what leading through a crisis means for me.
And it’s simple… it always comes back to the people.
When I think about the crises we’ve been through over the last 13 years, there are four distinct moments or periods of time that come to mind.
The first of these came when Google made major changes to how they work. Many in the SEO industry worry about algorithm updates, but for us as an SEO tool provider, the important part is access. Rarely, Google changes how scraping happens on their platform, and on two of these occasions, they’ve completely blocked us out.
As we go to Google to provide data, not only for rank tracking insights and monitoring but also for reviews and Google Business Profile audits, you can imagine how much of a nightmare this was
None of our tools worked.
No data was coming through because of bot detection. That’s an instant crisis.
We had to work out:
- How could we get this data back?
- What did it mean for our customers?
- What does it mean for our business and people?
To better focus our efforts, and to avoid butting up against future Google changes, we diversified our data sources.
These are crises that, while predominately technical, have a big human impact, which to some may not be easy to see.
The other two times of crisis are more immediately obvious for their human impact. And, while the Google fixes could generally be resolved in a few fractious days, these have taken huge chunks of time.
First came COVID-19. While there were rocky days early on (we lost a full 15% of our customers in the first three weeks), we were lucky to be working in an industry that thrived during the pandemic. After eight weeks we’d already regained what we’d lost, as local businesses turned to their websites, offered curbside pickup, and other workarounds.
We were lucky that this crisis allowed us to play specifically to our strengths, offering market-leading local marketing tools when people were pivoting to online, during a time of digital transformation.
Finally, and most critically, there’s the Russia-Ukraine invasion and subsequent escalation into war: a crisis that we are still well within. With 30 members of our team based in Ukraine, this introduced a completely different set of circumstances that affected us and our wider team directly. It has led to intensely personal and professional stress for them and those within BrightLocal.
Not only that, but the war itself has caused wider shockwaves across the marketing world and economy, with price increases all over the world.
Each crisis provided its own unique set of challenges and stresses. Each offered me the opportunity to step up and lead in a way I’d not had to before.
Being a Leader During Times of Crisis
If I’m being honest, these times really bring out the best in me.
I functioned well during these periods. I’ve discovered that I function at my best with time pressure. I always did university papers last minute and thrived in time-pressured exams. Having all the balls up in the air lets me dial up my skills to their maximum potential.
I completely understand that this way of working isn’t for everyone. It’s perfect for me, but understanding that there are all sorts of different types helps me lead more effectively.
Personally, though, I come alive and deliver my best work when under pressure.
It’s imperative not to try and manufacture these situations though. While pressure brings out my best qualities as a leader, it’s not something I seek out.
The crises I’ve worked through as a leader since starting BrightLocal have made me acutely aware that people look to you much more in a time of crisis to see how you react and behave. I’ve had to accept that responsibility. This focus means you need to take a lead and assess how bad the situation is.
I have a habit of internalizing my panic and fear. The concern is very real and something that impacts me—my sleep and my stress levels in particular. While this is the case, I know I can’t panic everyone around me.
I have to moderate my own outward behavior to be much calmer. While I will make sure I don’t completely hide my stress and concern, I strive to make it clear that I’m not visibly shaken. I exude calmness to keep the team steady.
The theory goes: if the people around me see I’m not panicking, then they’ll have faith that they’re okay and that the situation is fixable.
For example, on the two occasions that Google effectively shut down our key tools, members of the team were naturally questioning their immediate and long-term employment.
What if Google blocking the scrapes simply meant “that was it”, and we’d have no other way to find the data? I had to show my team that I understood the situation and that I shared some of their stresses. But, at the same time, I had to show I was calm and that I was working toward a solution.
Communication is key to successfully navigating any crisis.
Regular, detailed, and clear communication is imperative, especially internally within the business. You can’t let people feel like something major has crept up on them. Control your own narrative and you’ll stop people from creating their own myths about what’s going on.
Be open. You never want hidden skeletons suddenly emerging from the closet.
I’ve always found that you need to make sure you work with a group to solve key issues, too. You want to involve enough people, but not everyone. If you’re not careful, you burden everyone with the responsibility, and the rest of your business can grind to a halt.
You need to let most people carry on doing what they do best, to help keep everything running, then dedicate the right focused resource to fixing the problem.
All of this allows for trust in leadership. It shows you have at least some element of control over the situation at hand. Trust and authenticity are key.
Be truthful. Don’t hide anything. Show that you understand the situation.
Communicating with our customers during a time of crisis is also critical. It’s important that we make sure we’re open and honest, but, it needs to be said, it does work a little differently.
We don’t always give our customers the full insight immediately. We don’t want to panic them, or cause alarm. We want to show them that, whatever the situation, we can rectify or minimize the impact of it, and that we are always able to find a solution and get back on track.
It’s essential to make sure they aren’t impacted.
We’re lucky that we have an incredibly loyal customer base that has supported us through thick and thin over the years—especially during those early issues with Google, as I mentioned earlier.
The key, we’ve found, is that you can be a lot more open in a retrospective sense. Once you’ve found a solution, you can talk about a positive future and avoid causing customers completely undue concern.
Company Culture Is Essential at Times of Crisis; Don’t Let It Slip
We’ve been big on culture at BrightLocal right from the start. It’s always been about treating individuals as individuals and caring on a personal level. We are generous and considerate to each other, and to our customers and suppliers.
We’ve always wanted a combination where we offer long-term value to our customers that provides great value, while we create a good environment for people to work in.
Time and effort go into recruiting and developing our people. We have to make sure we get stronger with each addition to the team.
In good times, it’s very easy to maintain this and to invest in culture, whether that’s training, coaching, expanding your benefits, or company socials.
But, when bad times come along, it’s easy for panic mode to kick in.
It becomes easy to lose sight of the culture you’ve been building. It’s when a good company culture is tested the most. Can you be as strong and true to your culture when you’re grappling with major issues? When the sun isn’t shining, and everything isn’t rosy, are you still investing in your culture?
A great test of our own culture has been when people have really come together around a challenge or problem. It’s been excellent proof of our investment in culture paying off. People are willing to put in hard shifts to solve problems. The openness has made communication and collaboration smooth and made people willing to put in the effort to solve challenges.
The way our team dug in to solve the Google blocking issue is one example of this, as is our transition to virtual teams during COVID-19.
There’s no greater example, however, than how our teams have reacted to the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022—how we rallied and came together.
When the invasion began, we helped people to flee. We had to get properties in western Ukraine to give them a safe place to go, and we had to help them get there. We supported our Ukrainian brothers and sisters to do what they needed to do.
We had to help in every way we possibly could.
On the other side of things, we also had to keep the lines of communication open with our customers to show them that not only were we still operating, but that we were keeping our people safe.
It was a true test of, and proof of, our strong culture.
When the bad times hit, we still saw investing in culture as valuable. We never stopped providing training and coaching. We continued to support our team members in whatever ways we could. We leaned into the strongest parts of our culture.
Never Forget the Human Aspect of a Crisis
Dealing with a crisis can make you laser-focused on a solution, especially if it’s a technical problem. You want to instantly know what’s gone wrong and how you can fix it. It makes it easy to ignore the human impact and the toll it can have.
The instant urge is ‘to do anything’ to get a fix in place. This can put intense pressure on team members: asking them to do extra hours, drop other tasks, skip breaks, and all sorts of other things. Leaders at these times can forget that there are always people they’ll be impacting.
Niceties can go out the window. They shouldn’t.
It can be simple to find a solution that resolves the crisis at hand but that has huge human capital damage. When this happens:
- People lose faith in the leader
- There’s no trust left in you or the business
- You’ve likely acted in complete contrast to the culture you preach
People will think, justly, “Well, you didn’t look after me during a testing moment. My humanity was thrown out the window. Why should I trust you?”
You must recognize their contribution. And recognize if something is too much for someone. Don’t put them in a situation where they can’t cope. At these times, pressure can make people reluctant to speak up as they feel the need to go “all-in”. You need to make sure they aren’t put in this position to begin with.
Keeping an eye on the long term allows you to recognize the human impact. If you let it slip, it could tarnish people’s view of you and your relationships with them.
Focus on teamwork and collaboration. Understand this is a real test for your culture. You must keep doing what’s important. People around the crisis will see that culture means something to you when they can see you’re focusing on the human aspect.
Morale is important and should be protected.
Don’t Ignore the Impact on You as a Person
Each of these crises has impacted me on a personal level, particularly during the Ukraine war, which began a year ago this week.
During the Christmas of 2022, I took a long break. I hadn’t realized just how exhausted I was. I’d taken holidays, and had time away from work over the year, but at the end of it, I was truly shattered.
What I worked out was that even though I’d taken time off, I’d never truly disengaged from the crisis.
I realized that my daily routine had become update-centric. I’d wake up earlier than usual. Often 5 or 6 am. First things first: check the news and social media stories. Work out what’s going on in Ukraine and see whether our colleagues are affected.
Across the day I’d be taking any chance I could to get updated. It would also be the last thing I was doing before attempting to sleep. It took a big emotional toll.
It was always in the back of my head.
Of course, it hopefully goes without saying that this was nothing compared to the realities of our colleagues in Ukraine. But, when you can’t switch off, it’s constantly chipping away at your energy and undermining your mental and physical health. It makes it harder to lead.
Even when I’d take holidays, I’d be checking in, or arranging some aspect of our Local SEO for Ukraine supply trip. I simply wasn’t having a real break.
When Christmas finally came around, I slept. Finally.
I spent some time reflecting on how I dealt with the crisis and came away with some key learnings.
Next time I’m in such an intense crisis, I’m going to properly manage my energy levels and make sure I maintain what’s important to me. I realized that sleep and exercise are key to my own wellbeing, and I’d let those slip.
I didn’t exercise for the first three months of the Ukraine war. I slept horrendously, often getting to bed at 1 am and waking up at 5 am.
And I’d go from that straight into the news cycle…
I left myself no chance to recuperate. It made me a bad husband and father. It reduced my effectiveness as a leader. All this took a remarkable toll on me.
I learned that while I am desperate to be engaged, you have to take breaks occasionally. If I’m not careful, being consistently “on” actually makes me less effective. I have to understand that those around me can also provide support.
Self Belief is Key
Each of the four crises I’ve mentioned in here has shown me that people can, and will, come through these things. Maintaining that belief is important.
BrightLocal was born out of this deep, personal crisis.
Before Ed [Eliot, BrightLocal Co-founder] and I jumped off the deep end and founded BrightLocal, I’d just been made redundant. I had been working at eHarmony for 11 months, looking after business development in the UK. I loved it all, from the ethos to the culture, but unfortunately, it just didn’t work out.
When I lost my job, I questioned everything about myself. It hit my self-esteem hard. I felt like a total failure. Hated myself. Hated the experience. I had two young children and was desperate that they wouldn’t look at their father as a loser, and say “you can’t do this!”. What if they thought I’d never amount to anything?
At this point, I decided I had to do something for myself. I had to put myself in control of my life to make my kids proud of me. And so BrightLocal was born out of this deep, personal crisis.
The truth is, we tend to come out the other side. We always have done.
This means I always have faith that the good times will come and that better things lie ahead.
I’ve learned how important it is to let others in, and to share responsibility with the right people. Not everyone needs to be involved in solving a problem directly. Make sure you keep enough people focused on what they’re good at too.
But, and I cannot stress this enough, do not do it alone. Share the responsibility. Done properly it will provide real empowerment for others.
And finally: never, ever, lose sight of the people, as without them, what are you?