Learning as a CEO During COVID-19

Innovation drives everything we do at Rubicon. From our founding, we knew that we had to think differently if we were going to achieve our goal of reinventing the waste and recycling industry. As we mark one full year into the COVID-19 pandemic, I am thrilled to say that our spirit of innovation has been recognized by Fast Company Magazine and we were recently named to its 2021 Most Innovative Companies list alongside an incredible lineup of other transformational companies such as Microsoft and Honeywell

We are extremely proud of this award, and of what it says about the work our team has done over the course of the last year. Our business not only survived, but thrived under extremely trying circumstances, and that is a testament to the resilience and commitment of our team. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 prompted an abrupt change to how our company went to work. When we established Rubicon in our home state of Kentucky more than a decade ago, we built a culture that thrived on the energy that is created when people work closely with one another: The spontaneous strategy sessions, the ability to bounce ideas between teammates, and the opportunities to get to know the person sitting beside you beyond simply who they are as a colleague. 

Our company’s last full day in the office was Monday, March 16, 2020. We are now approaching an entire calendar year since Rubicon went remote; a move as unexpected and unplanned for me as it was for countless other CEOs across the United States, and the world. 

Our belief in free-market solutions to complex problems got us to where we are today and, while we are fortunate to be a software platform unburdened by the physical assets that many of our industry peers have to manage, the pandemic still forced us to innovate even further and faster than we ever had before. We are not alone in this. Some industry analysts estimate that digital transformation has accelerated by as much as a decade. 

I started Rubicon with maxed-out credit cards and a $10,000 line of credit. Today we are a software leader democratizing the waste and recycling industry — an industry that had not changed much in 2,000 years. Through all of that, one thing became very clear: I was, and always would be, in a perpetual state of learning. 

Reflecting on the past year, three main lessons come to mind: 

Digital-First is No Longer Optional

Waste is a complicated, inefficient industry rooted in antiquated processes. Rubicon has always been digital-first; this was built into our founding. The industry as a whole has at times been skeptical of our digital-first approach, but with the onset of COVID-19, my team and I were vindicated in our belief that digital was not simply an answer to these issues, it was the answer. 

From the way we manage relationships with our customers and partners to how we stay connected to our employees, investing in digital tools and resources is critical to our operation. Rubicon, at its core, is a software company, and the creation and maintenance of software tools to enable cross-departmental collaboration, and intra-company meeting and sharing has taken on a new prominence during this challenging time. What were once "nice to haves" are now essential, and I am proud to say that Rubicon has risen to the challenge and exceeded expectations. 

In addition to a variety of day-to-day technology solutions, which have allowed Rubicon teams to stay connected and productive while they work remote, Rubicon has implemented an emergency alert system which is deployed in the event of an emergency situation. Customized, or pre-created messages can be sent via Short Message Service (SMS) text-based messaging integrated with our internal personnel database direct to team members' phones, alerting them to dangers and potentially saving lives.    

Culture and Communication are Crucial

One of the issues that concerned me most with our move to remote work was the risk of losing our culture. Rubicon was one of the first, and is today one of the largest, Certified B Corporations in the world. We are also repeatedly rated as a great place to work by leading workplace evaluation organizations. We have built a company that stands for something good in this world and is a place where people love to work. 

From day one, the strength of our culture came from the camaraderie of the office. Sharing ideas, solving problems, disagreements, and their resolutions — these are the things that shaped Rubicon. My concern was that we would lose all of that if we were not working together every day.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we engaged heavily with our team members to brief them on our plans for moving forward with remote work, and how we intended to remain connected through what we assumed to be a brief period of disruption. As it became clearer that a return to “normal” life was not coming in the short-term, we invested heavily in team engagement and development. From online learning resources to new internal communication tools to employee recognition programs, we wanted our colleagues to feel as much a part of Rubicon as they ever had before, even though we could no longer sit across from each other every day. 

The lesson that I and our leadership team learned was to invest even further in those aspects of our culture that emphasized employee connections and well-being. The lines between work and home life have become less clear, and employees are balancing their obligations to their jobs and their families in real-time. This meant we had to commit to not just supporting employee physical health through our fully-paid health coverage, but to also encourage our colleagues to use the mental health services that came with it. 

We understood that open, regular communication was going to be essential if we were to maintain our culture. We run a weekly “All Hands” meeting during which we share updates from across the company and regularly bring in insightful guest speakers. Previous “All Hands” meetings were seen as a forum to deliver regular information, but we have purposefully evolved its programming so that every week we have a meaningful agenda with actionable content and updates. It is now the most valuable opportunity we have each week to keep our teams connected, engaged, and motivated. 

Decide with Confidence, Act with Purpose

In a remote world it is easy for team members to feel isolated. Communication goes a long way to keeping everyone together and moving in the same direction, but there is almost always some level of uncertainty. This can be avoided if a company’s leaders make confident decisions and act on them with purpose. 

As COVID-19 spread across the country, we made clear, conscious steps to advocate publicly for the safety of waste and recycling workers. We believed these groups were among the most at-risk of all front-line workers, and that they should receive job protections as "essential workers", access to vaccinations in line with other essential workers, and access to Paycheck Protection Plan funds though the Small Business Association. Our letters to both Congress and the President demonstrated to our employees and other stakeholders that our commitment to our industry and our mission was unchanged. 

I wrote:

"As thousands of businesses that make up these independent hauling companies’ customer base are shuttered, haulers are experiencing an unprecedented strain on their bottom lines. The risk to these small businesses going bankrupt is real, and they need immediate help to maintain operations and ensure that they will survive this crisis. Most importantly, our society needs these businesses to remain operational because our country and communities cannot afford an additional threat to public health caused by uncollected waste and recycling."

Ambiguity kills morale. So can suspicion that leadership is not committed to the decisions they make. As a CEO in a world that changed overnight, I knew that teams across the company needed to see there was no loss of focus. They needed to know decisions were being made to first stabilize our business and then keep it moving at the same pace of growth as it had been prior to the pandemic. 

The last year has taught me that confidence is contagious, and it starts with the CEO. It is imperative that leaders earn the trust of their teams, and they do that by making decisions and acting upon them with honesty, transparency, and assurance.

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