Leading through a Major Pivot with Stephen Aborn at Freightplus

Every leader knows the challenges of changing strategies and business models. Founders are required to have the skills of leading through a major pivot. Today’s guest is Stephen Aborn, CEO at FreightPlus. Inc Magazine ranked his company #783 on the 2021 Inc 5000 list. FreightPlus provider of outsourced managed transportation solutions, using data-driven technology and analysis to reduce costs for midsize and growing companies. Stephen discusses his approach to leading through a major pivot. Discover how you can lead powerfully through change.

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Stephen Aborn: The Transcript

About: Aborn began his career with retail giant Amazon, where he worked in inventory and supply chain management. A Harvard graduate, he joined FreightPlus (formerly Aborn & Co.) in 2015 to help navigate and usher in a data transformation proprietary service for the 30-year-old company – a freight and logistics industry first. “We are so fortunate to have someone like Steve step up to lead FreightPlus. During this time of transformation and growth, we needed renewed leadership to successfully continue to innovate, hire and provide a best-in-class outsourced managed transportation solution,” said Jill Clifford, President at FreightPlus. “Steve fits this role perfectly. He is a strong communicator, remarkably analytical, and customer-focused with deep leadership capabilities.” In addition to creating a data-first mindset, Aborn helped pivot the business model to match the complex needs of today’s transportation environment. In his five years as Director, he tripled employee size for the company. Servicing clients such as Cumberland Packing, Chex Finer Foods, Zendex, Norco, and Sheehan Family Companies, FreightPlus is a fully managed transportation solution and a one-stop-shop for growing-to-mid-market companies looking to gain cost control over their transportation programs.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Stephen Aborn: [00:00:00] We’re big believers in, in writing you know, kind of that Amazon white paper, white paper, five-page or six pager approach. So you know, we one of the big, you know, kind of cornerstones and backbones of our business is data and technology. And so, you know, for us, it’s how do we use data? How do we build arguments? How do we write those down? And. You know providing a strategy and a roadmap in those living, breathing documents are great reference points for, for our people as they, you know, as they think about solving problems, right? We write it down, we review it, we come up with a cadence and then we executing them.

Intro: Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett: Every company I know has to go through strategy changes or major pivots? Well, today’s focus for the interview is leading through a major pivot. We have a conversation I think will really help you because you know, we’ve all been [00:01:00] through some difficult times. We’ve all had the challenges of leadership through these difficult times. And especially with this pandemic thing that has happened, it hit us. And then all the other things that have cascaded down around it have really caused us to really look at our businesses. And we’ve probably changed a few things. So today we’re talking about leading through a major pivot we’re with the co-founder of Freightplus. Stephen Aborn. They were number 783 on the Inc list this past year. And it really is a great conversation. We talk about how important employees are to the entire operation of any business that’s scaling fast and how critical they are and how they’re the number one asset. We’ll find out exactly why inside the episode today. But we also look at what does it take for you as a leader to engage these people in a different way? And I think what. It’s something that people will say, but maybe not apply as well as they could. So you’ll have to tune in to figure out exactly what that is.

When we talk about leadership, hopefully, you’re thinking about how do you grow as a leader? How do you evolve? How do you push yourself? Maybe you even think about how do you [00:02:00] scale your team through the next level and how do you support them and develop them? Because that’s one of the biggest challenges. I think a lot of companies have. Well, that’s where I step in. My name is Gene Hammett. I am a coach to founder CEOs and their team. To help them through growth and I can help you figure out exactly how to be the most effective leader you can be. In fact, my job is to help you be an extraordinary leader. If you want to have a conversation about what’s getting in the way of your leadership and the growth of your company, all you have to do is go to GeneHammett.com and schedule your call. We’ll get to know each other. We’ll have a few questions that I walk you through. I’ll give you some insights back to reflect back on. What’s really going on to help you create a plan forward. This is not a sales pitch or a call. This is a really a chance for me to serve you. So take it for that and go ahead and reach out to me at GeneHammett.com and go to schedule your call right now. Now let’s get into the interview with Steven

Steven, how are you?

Stephen Aborn: Yeah. Good Gene, how are you doing?

Gene Hammett: I am fantastic, excited to talk to you today about leading through pivots and difficult times, but I want to check in with your company [00:03:00] first. So tell us about Freightplus?

Stephen Aborn: Sure. So Freightplus is a managed transportation service so we focus specifically really on, on high-growth companies in, in middle-market firms. So managed trans is a little bit different in the logistics space. You know, it’s really kind of a fortune 500, you know, type of business model. So, you know, it’s, it’s really a completely, you know I would think about it as an outsourced logistics partner. So we provide everything from technology to customer service, to data and analytics for, for our customers. And you usually see this a lot with larger companies and think where we’ve been successful is, is kind of taken that fortune 500 mindset and best practices and bringing it to companies that really. In, in high growth environments. And you know, with, with smaller growing businesses.

Gene Hammett: Stephen you’ve come here because you want to talk about what it’s like to be leading through a major pivot or a strategy change. First, before we talk about that process of leading, what, what is the major pivot we’re going to be talking about today?

Stephen Aborn: So when we started trying to throw what is now known [00:04:00] Freightplus we were actually a consulting company. So we went from a consulting company into really a service provider and data and technology company over the course of a truly kind of a five-year process. So, you know, we were, we were leading consulting projects for fortune 500 types of companies, companies that were spending hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars a year in transportation. Helping them with, you know, best-practice strategy, Carmen events, benchmarking, you know, kind of typical consulting type of engagements. And, you know, as we were trying to grow, we started to run into these high growth companies, you know, what might be called middle-market companies, right? So companies that are doing, you know, say between 50 and $500 million a year in revenue or companies that are growing really, really quickly and what we started to see is a little bit of that David and Goliath environment, where there was a certain set of best practices that helped brew across every business that we saw at that fortune 500 level.

And when we went down to work with these, you know, really large organizations, in some cases, multinational organizations, right folks [00:05:00] with, you know, European or Asian and American footprints, and they just didn’t have the same capability the same access to data, the same level of service from their service providers. And, you know, so for us, it was about, you know, how can we help these companies that really, you know, how can we be customer-centric and how can we come up with, you know, a service or a suite of services that allow them to compete with, with Goliath?

Gene Hammett: Well, I appreciate you talking about this that, you know, I think a lot of companies can relate to going through a change similar. Maybe it wasn’t, you know, going from a consulting company to being a service provider like you are today, but that we’ve all been through some difficult changes and strategies shifts. When you had to lead through this, what are some of the roadblocks that you encountered on this journey?

Stephen Aborn: Sure. I think first and foremost is the one that’s at the top of everyone’s mind is we launched. We launched this managed trans business in January 2020. So little, did we know that about eight weeks, you know, eight weeks later the whole world was about to change forever. So I think some of the roadblocks and challenges for us are, are somewhat business-driven and in [00:06:00] somewhat environment-driven. You know, we were, we were growing, we were recruiting, you know, we were bringing on new customers and we were doing it in a brand new world, highly remote. So I, you know, I think a lot of those challenges were like, how do we grow really quickly? How do we maintain the culture that we want? How do we do that in a, in an entirely remote environment?

Gene Hammett: Well, that’s certainly a big challenge that a lot of people have endured. And I know that the supply chain right now is, is really kinda messed up in a way. I don’t know what words you mean using around your office.

Broken and there’s a lot of factors behind it. I think a lot of people would like to contribute it to one or two things, but it seems like it’s a pretty complex set of things that are going on. It’s more than just these, the lack of chips and things like that. And people and things being stuck in ports.

Stephen Aborn: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think labor you know, even before pandemic the pandemic you know, truckers and the average age of a trucker and it, you know, there were labor shortages there, you know, the average age of a trucker is about 60 years old. You know, they’re not typically the healthiest folks. So what we saw at the start of the pandemic was a big pull [00:07:00] back on labor. It affects truckers, it affects warehouses. You know, and, and I think everyone sees that on a day-to-day basis now. It affects their restaurants, right? Our restaurants are closed, our gas stations are closed, there are reduced hours, and it really hit our industry really hard. So I think, you know, in addition to you know, some of the situations, like you said, at, at ports or different spaces, like the labor and the labor shortages have really hit our industry hard.

Gene Hammett: I want to turn our focus to this, this whole leadership side of this. Now that we understand things that were in front of you, the challenges. What had to change in your approach to leadership? Steven?

Stephen Aborn: I think the scale of it you know, it went from it went from a three-person team to a 40 person team awfully quickly so I think again, for us, it’s really about that problem-solving customer-centric culture. And so how do we, you know, how do we think about that and how do we think about developing people and really having champions of that culture as we, you know, as we onboard so quickly. So, you know, we’re, we’re not venture funded. , we don’t have some of those, those, some of those resources. So we’re, [00:08:00] we’re growing, we’re acquiring customers. And as we, as we recruit and bring people on, like, we need to get them as up to speed, as productive, as comfortable as fluent in, you know, Freightplus supply chain managed transportation as quickly as possible. You know, I think our, our biggest asset is our people. Our people are, are, are unbelievable. You know, we really, really pride ourselves in bringing on strong people. It’s our number one corporate goal is to hire and retain the best. So, you know, for us, how do we hire retain and then, you know, kind of step two is develop the best.

Commentary: Stephen just talked about going from three people to 40. Now your company probably didn’t go through these exact numbers, but you felt the pressure and the change as you’ve added more people to the mix. And here’s the reality that every time the company grows, you add 10 more people or 20 more people, you have to evolve as a leader, you have to continue to evolve the processes and the systems you have to evolve your own skills as well. So one of the things that I get hears back most about teams as their growing it’s communication that when we were smaller, it was very different as we’re bigger. And we have to [00:09:00] work through some of those issues, the different cadence, and channels, and sometimes there’s overload and a lot of noise. And we got to make sure that we’re communicating effectively as the company grows. And that’s a critical part of growing. We all must understand. Now there’s many other aspects. I work as an executive coach to companies and their teams, and I help them figure out what’s missing and I can help you figure that out too. I’d love to get to know you, but now let’s get back into the interview with Steven.

Gene Hammett: I don’t think anybody phrases it that way on here. Number one, corporate goal is to select and retain the best employees. Why, why is that the number?

Stephen Aborn: I think those are the folks that, that, that bring our mission to life every single day. They’re also the folks that are our customers work with our carriers work with, and we work on a day-to-day basis. So if we’re able to, you know, create a great environment, an environment where people are encouraged to take on big ambiguous problems. I think the ambiguity of the problems in a, in a new company you need really smart, driven, ambitious problem-solvers in order to succeed in those types of environments, right? This isn’t a, this isn’t a [00:10:00] fortune 500 company where you walk into a role and there are procedures and process and technology. And there’s a playbook. A lot of the times we’re asking these people to execute on their job and create playbooks at the same time.

It takes a really unique talented did person to do that, you know, and I think for us we need to support them with great development, great gears, great, you know, great leadership or else, you know, those talented people are gonna are going to go solve problems for someone else.

Gene Hammett: Well, I know how important people are because every, nearly every company who’s come through this podcast has said that our people are the most important thing, even more, important than our customers, which may sound odd for so those listening in.

Stephen Aborn: I believe it. Yeah, no, I believe it. It’s a great customer and you know, it’s, it’s absolutely a cycle.

Gene Hammett: I, I could, don’t go into that, but I want to go dive into this whole aspect of leading through a pivot change or a major, major shift inside the business. When you look at your leadership skills, what had to, what did you have to learn and do differently than you were doing before?

Stephen Aborn: I [00:11:00] think personally for me, it’s, it’s kind of communication. You know, my friends would, would give me crap all the time about, you know, communication skills, right. And if you’re going to lead an organization and you’re going to lead an organization that’s growing quickly you need to figure out how to be a very effective communicator and kind of do that at scale, right? Because you know, as a leadership team, we’re asked to come up with a strategy, we’re asked to be able to solve, you know, high-level problems. And how we do that on a, on a day-to-day basis at scale is, is we, we communicate, we trading ends, we develop kind of those, those functions, right?

And so I think for me, it was really trying to be mindful of, of how to be an effective communicator and how to get outside of my own personal comfort zone and really help people. And. We were talking before the show about how everyone who works here has a personal life and has a family. And when they come to work for you, they, they buy into you, right? On some level they buy into your mission, they buy into what you’re doing, the problems you’re trying to solve the culture you’re trying to create, you know? And, and so to bring those, those folks in, and [00:12:00] then, you know, not be a good leader, it’s just a if you’re trying to do things the right way, it’s, it’s not a great feeling. And it’s not a great option.

Commentary: Steven was just talking about how important communication is. To the company and really leading through a major pivot. Well, one of the things that I want you to think about is how well are you listening? Yup. I said it. How well are you truly listening to your people? Are you commonly distracted in meetings or do they feel like you’re somewhere else? Well, I’ve done some executive feedback sessions where we do a 360 degree of view and get feedback from employees. That’s one of the biggest things that comes back is. Our CEO or our founder team is so much involved with everything that’s going on. I feel like they’re really not present for the meetings. I’m not sure they’re really listening as deeply as they could. Now that may sting a little bit and it may hit home, but you want to make sure that you’re evolving these skills and really working on them because they’re, they don’t come naturally. You have to be very intentional about it. You’re so busy, everything running at the speed of chaos. But that means you have to listen even more and people need to feel that you hear them. They need to feel [00:13:00] appreciated value through all that. So my 2 cents on this back to Steven.

Gene Hammett: Well said, Steven, you really have, laid out a lot of us about the changes in the skills that are necessary to leading this team where you talked about. Just communicating effectively at scale, what would we see unique in the company that allows you to communicate? I don’t know, changes or mission or the necessary things at scale?

Stephen Aborn: Certainly, you know, I think like, like every effective leader, you know, parts of what we do while is. So before, before I was here, I was at Amazon. So I worked out in, at Amazon corporate in Seattle did that for a little bit. Over two years, had a ton of fun learning. There was, was, you know, had a lot of success had a great time and then kind of moved back to Boston where I, where I grew up to be an entrepreneur, and, and, you know, try to build a company. And so, you know, how do we do that at scale? Is, is we’re big believers in, in writing you know, kind of that. White paper, a white paper, five-page or six pager approach. So you know, we one of the big, you know, kind of [00:14:00] cornerstones and backbones of our business is data and technology. And so, you know, for us, it’s it’s how do we use data? How do we build arguments? How do we write those down and provide, you know, a strategy and a roadmap in those living, breathing docs? Our great reference points for, for our people as they, you know, as they think about solving problems, right? We write it down, we review it, we come up with a cadence and then we execute it.

Gene Hammett: So without saying the details here, I’m going to put a spotlight on this for a moment, because this is what are the unique elements. If I was going to give you an example that I would bring this up Jeff Bezos, fairly famous for an article that was written a few years ago that says, you know, PowerPoint is no longer welcome inside of our meetings. We’re going to take a different approach. And we’re going to, we’re going to have people write these five or six-page white papers if you will. And people will literally, I think the article said we sit in the conference room and we read them silently together and then we discuss intelligently after that so that we can move forward. Is that what you’re talking about?

Stephen Aborn: Exactly. Yeah, that’s exactly it. So we write down the start of every meeting kind of, kind of read the paper, read the [00:15:00] document, read the business review and then go through that page by page and ask questions. So we do that, you know, now we do that and this was new in 2021. So how do you, you know, I think it goes back to the conversation we were just having. How do you communicate effectively at scale? One of the tools and resources that we have is, is that QBR process. And, and, you know, I, I think kudos to our team, we’ve, we’ve done a great job. It’s, it’s uncomfortable for people to, right, right. It’s different. , people don’t love it, but I think our team has done a great job, you know, leaning in adopting that culture and, you know, really

Gene Hammett: I appreciate you sharing that with us. There’s another question in this, and you may not want to go there, but. I think a lot of people respect Jeff Bezos, but Jeff Bezos is one of those that has said that customers are the most important thing, not necessarily employees. And he gets a lot of backlash for what’s going on in this. And I’m not looking for you to toss stones, but you took a different approach. You’ve chosen that employees are the greatest asset of the company. Is that a conscious choice or something that just kind of happened as you were growing this business?

Stephen Aborn: I think it was a very intentional choice, you know, I think part of the [00:16:00] reason that you go into business, , you know, and I have a, I have an unbelievable partner, so I should mention Jill Clifford Jill, you know, Jill is an industry. She was a consultant for 20 plus years, worked with companies like Sony, Novartis, you know, was, was really, she’s, she’s amazing. One of the leaders in the transportation industry. And so she’s, you know, she’s the other half kind of the Freightplus story that I’d be remiss not to mention Jill. But I think you know, I think what we wanted to create was an environment where we loved coming to work every day and so in order to, you know, that the customers aren’t next to us, we, we love the customers. We, we do training and development around how to be customer-centric. It’s, it’s really at the core of our mission, but at the end of the day when you walk in the door at Freightplus that the customers aren’t here, but the team does,

Gene Hammett: I think that the first time I ever heard of a company getting like a best places to work was years and years ago because I just wasn’t paying attention to it, to be honest with you. But I remember the feeling. I felt that if, if a company is the best place to work, then they probably take care of their employees, and they, those employees take care of their [00:17:00] customers. And so it actually is a good thing. If they say customers are not first, do you have not that you have to win these best places to work kind of thing, but do you have the same approach to leading this team?

Stephen Aborn: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the struggles of being in a high-growth environment, one of the challenges that we have is that everything and everybody is new. Right. And we kind of talked about that. Whether that’s a process or whether that’s technology or a BI dashboard or some kind of an approach to data, everything that we’re building. It is new and everyone that works here on some level is new within the last couple of years. And so, you know, how, how do we recruit and retain great people and then keep them filled and keep them motivated and keep them happy. You know, if you put yourself in a customer’s shoes, you know, when I worked at Amazon, one of the things, one of their practices is, is people tend to transition pretty quickly. So you tend to work on a business or in space for about 18 months, and then you rotate. And the first place that I worked was in the retail space.

And one of the big complaints that these, these [00:18:00] large Amazon vendors would have is, you know, we were just getting up to speed. We just felt like we were starting to execute and speak the same language. We just feel like this person was, was trying to, was starting to understand our business and our goals and our strategy and what we were executing against. And then they went off and they worked at AWS or, you know, they went somewhere else. Right. So that consistency and that continuity was, was always a big stress point on, you know, on our vendors and I think it’s the same thing in our business where we are a logistics services business. If we have an environment that, that produces a lot of turnover, you know, that is going to flow through, into our customers where we are. You know, such an integral part of their business. So we’re, you know, we are managing every single shipment every single day, bringing, you know, bringing order to a kind of chaotic environment on behalf of our customers who are a lot of them in really high growth environments themselves. You know, the last thing that they want is is somebody working on their business for three months, four months and then they’re gone and then we, you know, we put somebody else in and then somebody else in, and then somebody else. And they’re really looking to us to [00:19:00] be, you know, you know, a partner, you know, , one of the things that we talk about all the time is, is how do we think about, and look for our 25 year plus relationships?

Like that’s, that’s our big goal. We want long-term relationships, you know, and we want long-term relationships with our customers, with our carriers, and with our people that, you know, we have to think really broadly about that. And I think, you know, to your point, if we do that and we execute against that, it’s going to flow through and all of the touchpoints that we have with outside, you know, outside companies, individuals, or, or whatever.

Gene Hammett: I want to ask you. One final question. As we wrap up today, you’ve mentioned multiple times about retaining talented people. And I think a lot of leaders are just kind of looking for answers in this area. You know, I know pay is, is an important factor, but actually that studies show that pay is not the most important factor. So, what is, what do you think is really helping you retain the talented employees there at Freightplus?

Stephen Aborn: I think it takes a lot of effort really on the front end from a, from a fit perspective, you know, whether it’s, whether it’s a customer or somebody who’s looking to work [00:20:00] here. I think we do a lot of work to make sure that it’s a mutually beneficial partnership and that we’re thinking about things the right way. And so. You know, whether it’s a prospect you know, we’ve turned plenty of prospects down because they didn’t necessarily have the right approach in our vision and our goals weren’t aligned, right? We’re not trying we don’t do business the same type of way. We want different things. And I think for us, you know, we, we have to take that approach with our people as well. You know, how do we in a high growth environment, you need really a consistent pipeline of people. But, you know, as we evaluate those people, as we talk to those people, how do we make sure that that they’re the right fit? And they’re the types of folks that want to solve big ambiguous problems? You know, again, we, we often talk about having a culture of problem solvers.

So, how do we make sure that we’re putting people in positions to succeed and then continue to coach them, develop them, you know, have patience with them, excite them, grow them, and invest in them? I think, you know, again, we’re, we’re fairly new on our journey, but I think. That’s really our strategy on how we’re going to keep really [00:21:00] strong people in the long term.

Gene Hammett: Steven, incredible conversation. Appreciate you sharing all this wisdom and you know, how do you lead through a major pivot.

Stephen Aborn: Thanks, Gene. Really appreciate. It was great talking to you.

Gene Hammett: And this is a spot where I get to reflect back on what Steven has said so that you can really focus on what you want to do next as a leader, he talked about the importance of people like saying that they’re the number one asset inside the company and hiring the right people and making sure that the right fit, even saying that, you know, we’ve let go of certain customers or not brought them on board. Because we didn’t feel like they would fit with our values and the mission of the company and with our employees to really strong place, to, to create a space where people are able to perform at their highest.

And so that’s the big takeaways I have for today’s conversation. You know, it takes a lot of courage to do this. It takes a lot of confidence. A lot of it just is something that comes naturally, but for some people, they need conversations to know what’s missing. What’s getting in the way of their own leadership. That’s where I step in. I love to help leaders figure out where their blind spots are. What’s really getting in the way, these are the conversations you’re not having with your board. You’re not [00:22:00] having with your executive team. And I want to have a conversation with you that you’re aren’t having with anyone else.

Just go to GeneHammett.com. You can schedule your call inside that conversation. I’ll get to know each other, or we’ll get to know each other. If you will, and I’ll help serve you through this. This is not about sales or anything like that. You’re listening to this deep into the conversation, absolutely want to be a better leader.

I can help you figure out exactly what’s missing and what the path forward for you. Just to GeneHammett.com. And schedule your call. When you think of leadership and you think of growth, think of Growth Think Tank. As always, lead with courage. Well, see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.




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