Monday, May 25, 2020

Out of the Crisis #4: Carl Liebert, crisis veteran and radical optimist

In Out of the Crisis #4, I talk with Carl Liebert. He's led a number of iconic organizations through crisis during his 30-year career, including Circuit City after the 9/11 attacks, 24-Hour Fitness through the Great Recession and USAA in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Carl was also worldwide head of stores at Home Depot when Hurricane Katrina hit, running sales out of the backs of trucks and accepting IOUs for payment. The 98% repayment rate of those small loans made in good faith was perfectly aligned with his guiding philosophy: radical optimism.

This approach has made him the person many companies are calling for advice during the pandemic. Carl believes that times of crisis are also times of opportunity that can be approached with positivity even in the face of tragedy. The stories he told me during our conversation, somber as they are, show the truth of that belief. They also show how taking a long-term view of difficult times allows us to make decisions in the moment that will put us on the right path for the future.

The choices we make now will have a huge effect on what the world looks like when we get through this period--and we will get through it. We don't know what that new normal looks like yet, but what we do now can lay the foundation for prosperity for individuals, organizations, and our society as a whole.

As a veteran of many disasters in which improvising in the moment to meet an immediate need led to innovative solutions, Carl has been impressed by how many businesses, small and large, have reinvented the way they serve their customers during the pandemic. As events have unfolded, many have asked the question he asked in the days after Hurricane Katrina, when customers had an array of urgent needs and Home Depot wanted to meet them: "Well, why can't we?" Then they've gotten to work.

Remaining flexible and doing what’s right--rather than what’s easy--have been hallmarks of Carl's experiences with crisis. He shared his reflections on why these approaches work.

You can listen to our conversation on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or wherever you like to download.


In addition, the full transcript is below.

Highlights from the show:

  • Carl details his background and experience. (4:22)
  • Carl experiences running the northeast division of Circuit City after 9/11 and the company's crisis response and relief efforts for first responders. (7:01)
  • The importance of both customer and employee experience, brand building, and pivoting to anticipate the new normal that's coming. (9:33)
  • Scaling Up Excellence, process debt, technical debt, and human capital debt, plus rapid prototyping during the pandemic. (13:58)
  • Advice for companies who think it's too late to start looking for new ways to operate, including some examples from Austin, Texas. (15:55)
  • People are rebooting their businesses quickly now in ways that never would have happened before. (18:08)
  • Carl's experiences at USAA following Hurricane Harvey's devastating 2017 hit on Texas. (18:21)
  • Carl on optimism and what he did as head of stores at Home Depot post-Katrina to take care of customers and employees, including selling products out of the back of a truck via an IOU system. It became brand building and culture building moment for the company. (21:41)
  • The leader's role in conveying optimism and keeping employees informed, engaged, and inspired by company plans for the future. (28:12)
  • The pandemic as a moment to invest in people and technology, have a plan and execute. Stanley McChrystal's Team of Teams. (29:34)
  • Investing for the long-term and the pain of discipline versus the pain of regret. (31:55)
  • The falling away of constraints as the next generations focus on innovation. (34:28)
  • The mortgage industry finally goes digital. (37:22)
  • Approaching healthcare with optimism and Carl's aunt's illness. (39:34)
  • Humility in leadership and learning from the mistakes. (42:07)
  • On how the 2008 financial crisis prepared banks for the pandemic. (44:25)
  • Parallels between the pandemic and previous crises, and Carl's thoughts on some of the new norms that will arise. (45:28)
  • Organizations Carl has been working with that have grappled with the crisis in an impressive or interesting ways. (48:52) 
  • The importance of transparency and building trust as a leader. (51:43)
  • First responders are the true heroes, including Carl's daughter-in-law. (53:33)
  • "You either serve people, or serve those who are serving people." (55:11)
  • Covid relief efforts Carl is involved in. (56:06)
  • Carl on working together for the common good and sharing information and resources as we move forward. (57:51)

Show-related resources:

The "reopening" of Circuit City's Union Square Store in New York City for first responders after 9/11

Transcript of Out of the Crisis #4, Carl Liebert

Eric Ries:  This is Out of the Crisis. I'm Eric Ries. We are still in the early days of the pandemic and we don't really know what's to come. We're all grasping for information, we're all trying to make sense of this reality and it can feel like these are the darkest days. But if you look at the data, if you study the experts, it's actually going to get darker before it gets better. The human and economic toll of what's about to unfold is unprecedented in our lifetime. And yet, when I talk to leaders who are in the midst of this right now, who are trying to lead us out of the crisis, a lot of them are feeling optimistic. They have their eyes set firmly on what the new normal will be on the other side. And that sense of optimism, that sense that now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get busy, that is a principle antidote to despair as we see this darkness envelop our society.

One of the special obligations of leadership in a crisis like this is both to take the long-term view, but also to recognize we have an obligation to take action now. We have to act quickly and decisively to set ourselves up for where we want to be as an organization, but also as a society in that new normal. And it's precisely because the future is uncertain that we have to take a long-term view. We can't make a 5-year plan or a 10-year forecast right now, but we know there are investments we can make today that will set ourselves up for success in the future. There are some parallels between what we're experiencing and crises of the past, even some crises that have unfolded in our lifetime. Although, the magnitude and the devastation here is likely to be different and greater. Yet, I still think it's worth trying to figure out what can we learn from past crises, and how can that allow us to be optimistic about the future?

That's why I wanted to talk to Carl Liebert. He has been the leader through many different crises. He was at Circuit City on 9/11, he led Home Depot through the response to Katrina, was at 24 Hour Fitness during, what we used to call, The Great Recession, and led USAA as COO and president, starting in 2014. He has worked at iconic American companies, public and private, large and small, and he's someone that many companies now are calling for advice. I wanted to know what can he tell us about those special obligations that leaders have during a crisis, and I, frankly, expected some war stories that were pretty somber. But as you'll see, Carl is in that class of leaders who is radically optimistic. Carl thinks that although we don't know where we will be a year from now, we can still take steps right now that put us in the right direction. We can have our eyes firmly fixed on what that new normal might be. And like a lot of leaders I've been working with on relief efforts, Carl believes that a time of crisis is also a time of opportunity.

The consistent theme that he stressed to me was we have to take a long-term view, we have to understand that things will get better. As dark as things get, there will be a recovery. But the actions we take now will determine the path, both for ourselves as individuals, for the organizations that we're members of, and for our society as a whole. The future is not yet written. We don't know what kind of recovery we'll have, we don't know what that new normal will look like, we don't know what values will be embedded. The choices we make today will reverberate for a long time and if we sow the seeds, we will reap a harvest of plenty and broadly shared prosperity in the new normal to come.

Here's my conversation with Carl Liebert.

Eric Ries: So first of all, Carl, thank you for coming on. You want to introduce yourself a little bit? And this is not your first crisis, so share us a little bit about your background and some of the things you've seen before.

Carl Liebert: Well, sure, Eric. Thanks so much for having me and it's great to be here, especially with everything going on in our world. So, been through a few of these. This one is extraordinarily different and I have some experience, but in a lot of cases, I'm learning just as other leaders are as we go through this. I spent my early days ... Once I graduated from the naval academy in the United States Navy. Then spent eight-and-a-half, nine years at General Electric in the '90s, working for Jack Welch and significant other leaders there. From there, I went to Circuit City in Richmond, Virginia and was there for four years in the throes of battle against Best Buy and all those things. From there, I was fortunate enough to go to Home Depot and be a part of a rather large transformation into Home Depot, as well as navigate through lots of, I'll call it, natural disasters between hurricanes and tornadoes and, obviously, Hurricane Katrina went down while we were there.

And then from there, I was running a fitness company on the west coast by the name of 24 Hour Fitness, which was private equity backed and quite a bit of debt. And half our clubs were in the state of California in 2008, so was a very interesting time to be a CEO and learned a lot. And then from there, I got to go spend some time at USAA, which is probably one of the finest companies in the world. It's member-owned. We wake up every day thinking about our members, our customers first and our team members, employees are right in that conversation and really think about this long-term value conversation that that organization brings. And then I did a brief stint at AutoNation, America's largest automotive retailer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. So now I'm home-based in Austin, Texas and I'm spending a lot of time with a lot of startups and a lot of CEOs that are trying to scale their companies. And lately, I've been working with a lot of former leaders who were on my team that are either CEOs or senior leaders in companies, trying to help them navigate this COVID-19 crisis. So, hopefully, hope that gives you a little bit of background.

Eric Ries: No, that's great. And I think it'll be really helpful for our listeners, many of whom are going through something like this for the first time, to hear from someone who's seen a lot of this kind ... Well, a lot of devastation and difficulty. I don't know what exactly is comparable to what we're going through now, but certainly some difficult times in the jobs that you mentioned.

Carl Liebert: Yeah. I think one of the first one was I was running a ... I was the division president for the northeast division on 9/11, and all the stores in New York and New Jersey and, obviously, all the east coast stores for Circuit City were mine. And we had decisions to make in the matter of seconds to what we were going to do and how we were going to show up. And you make those decisions, Eric, really for when you're leading is start with your customers first and how do you protect them and take care of them, and how do you take care of your employees? And I remember the decision, our Union Square store, which was just up from where the barrier was to get to Lower Manhattan, lower midtown, and we made a decision right away. We were closing the store and all the first responders were going to be able to sleep in our stores. And it wasn't about getting the store reopened or anything to that effect, it was about having policemen and firemen sleep in the store, heck, who had more TVs in one place than we did. And we started feeding first responders.

And after we opened the store, one of the things that I ... Some of the pictures I have that I cherish the most are out in front of the store with families and leaders of many of the firehouses that lost their brothers in some of those fights in the fires, in the towers. And we launched Message From America with Sony, where you could come in and tape a DVD and send it to your soldier or sailor or marine that was being deployed. Which we know for the holidays, we were ramping up a campaign and we said how can we participate? What a great way to reopen the store and work with Sony to play offense again coming through that. But you start with your customers and your employees and if you ground yourself around taking care of them, you can do no wrong if you start with that.

Eric Ries: That's such an interesting example and it's so resonant with the current crisis because that was one store that you had to shutter. We have companies now who have every store, globally or in a whole country, shuttered. Their offices are shuttered, all these facilities are shuttered. And so I think someone who is more narrow-minded might say well, if I can't keep my store open, there's nothing I can do for my customers. And yet, you took a very expansive view about who your customer is and who you could use that facility to serve. You think there's some lessons in that for folks who have idle capacity, idle employees right now?

Carl Liebert: Well, and I think this is the conversation around the customer experience can be no greater than your team member or employee experience. And you have to really think about when you're building a brand for the long-term and this, I'll call it, built to last or scaling excellence is you're in a perpetual state of really thinking about what you need to do differently. And I can't tell you how many leaders who I'm spending time with that are in the gym space that are utterly devastated with, basically, you're mothballing your gyms. And you are thinking about trying to put content online to serve your members and take care of them. Meanwhile, they're canceling their membership because that content is not what people want or it's not how they want to consume that content. And you really have these assets that are sitting in shopping complexes with empty parking lots that are really mothballed, to use a naval term. Those are really frightening and difficult decisions.

And what you can do now in businesses like that is to think about a day when we moved from where we are to, let's call it, a modified social distancing, where your treadmills have to be six feet apart, where your class sizes have to be six feet apart, where they're a third of what they used to be. And you have to actually count how many people come into your gym and you have to keep people separated for a while until we really get to a vaccine. Those are the things that you should be testing with, trying now and figuring out. Taking pictures, getting your photography ready, because when we do get the ... We can go back to a modified position, which is what I think we'll end up going to, what you would want to be able to do is quickly share the game-plan for what that looks like with your team. And that includes what the treadmill areas would look like, what the classes would look like, what your cycle room or spin rooms would look like.

Those are the kind of things that you can be doing now for when we get on the other side of this, and we will get on the other side of this, to help your team stay focused on outcomes. Be very outcome-driven in the world we're going to. And I think how you think about that, whether you're a restaurant owner that didn't invest in curbside pickup, what can you do to, I'll call it, hack it or in an agile mindset, how do you think about bringing a way to be able to do curbside and do that well, and not just rely on the delivery folks to be able to support you? I think all that is connected to a rapid learning period that you should be taking advantage of in your business with your teams as much as humanly possible.

Eric Ries: So many of the examples that you gave remind me of, I don't know how many hundreds of conversations I had with companies during the boom times, and especially big public companies, where there was this conversation about is now the time to invest in business agility, digital transformation, building these new capabilities, and how many companies were complacent, thought well, we'll get to that eventually. It's not especially urgent, but we'll do when it's a nice thing to have and let's spend the money on share buybacks or something else. It just doesn't seem that important. Now the companies that were farsighted and made those long-term investments now are able to respond so much faster to these new opportunities and the ones that don't, they must all be feeling this incredible sense of regret. Are you seeing that in the conversations that you're having with CEOs?

Carl Liebert: Look, this is the hard part, Eric. I guess you do see it. If you're a CEO or leader of a company, you're in a perpetual state of second-guessing yourself. You're usually your own worst critic. And the truth is that's yesterday and you don't really have the ability to change what you did yesterday, but what you do have the ability today, is to lean into this. I'm a big fan of Professor Bob Sutton, who wrote the book Scaling Excellence, and he's-

Eric Ries: Amen to that.

Carl Liebert: Yeah. It's one of the books that I cherish. And Bob and I debate this idea that every company has three types of debts, there is process debt, there is technical debt, and there's human capital debt. And as you're scaling a company and it is continuing to grow, there's always ... Your company is in a perpetual state of this process, technical, and human capital debt, where you're constantly trying to scale those. And I always come back to as whether at Home Depot or 24 Hour or USAA, really thinking about the customer's experience and just because you were great this year and this is the way you did it, next year, you have to be even better. So, how are you investing in being even better? And this rapid prototyping thing when your back's against the wall and your revenue model's gone from 100% to 10%, if you're a small business, restaurant owner or you're running a small curbside, even a consignment store, I'm trying to help a leader understand how he can serve.

This is a really good time to rapid prototype, through an Instagram, through Twitter, through all ... And really gather your followers. But you can't beat yourself up because you didn't have a good email address as before you started, or you didn't have their social media counts. Go get them. Find a way to go hack that and go get them. And then realize that on the other side, this new normal you're going to be in is that these channels are going to be business channels for you and you're actually going to use this four, six, eight, 10, 12 weeks to actually learn and put some of these new processes in place in your company, and then decide that we got to invest differently going forward.

Eric Ries: So what about someone who says it's too late? I should've made those investments before, but I didn't, so now it's too late ... I can't just start hacking stuff today, I'm already too slow, I missed my moment. What would you say to someone like that?

Carl Liebert: Oh, I just tell them it's never too late. If you lean in and understand this is a brilliant time to play offense. I think about this in customers and protecting your employees and customers, always protect your P&L, your revenue. Try to understand where your largest revenue streams are that are at risk and how you can minimize them if you can. See that new normal and then how do you play offense? And what I sense is there's always a way to play offense. There's a bike shop here in Austin that is ... Every morning, I get up and I'm practicing social distancing, but I'm a retailer and a customer person, so I'm constantly shopping.

We have a great retailer in Texas called HEB and they're one of the best grocers in the world and I'm such a fan of their business, and Walmart and what they're doing and I'm in a Target store. But I see a bike store in downtown Austin that is quasi if it's deemed essential or not. And Austin's a very fit town, it's an innovative town and the bike store is ... They put a tent out in front of the bike store and it's basically we'll fix your bike, you can't get out of your car, we'll get your car out of your ... They're almost doing NASCAR-style pit stops with this tent. You don't get out of your car, you don't interact with anybody. You're on the phone and they pull it out and they take it into the shop and they change your flat tire, they adjust your gears, and they bring it out and put in the back of your car-

Eric Ries: Wow.

Carl Liebert: And I'm just like, that's such a great hack because when you go back to a new normal and I just want my bike fixed, should I really have to go bring it into the shop, all the way to the back where the mechanic is, leave it, right? Or should we-

Eric Ries: Well, I'm sure a couple months ago, if you'd gone to them and said, listen, I think you should add this extra feature. And they would've been like, well, I guess, if we had a few months to work it out. You're like, no, no, I need it done in a week.

Carl Liebert: Yeah.

Eric Ries: It would've seemed impossible and now, here it is.

Carl Liebert: And anybody would've said you can't do it, right? I mean, this is the beautiful thing that I ... Gosh, I really want people to not put their heads down, but keep their heads up and to really raise the ... Practicing an agile mindset in this idea that we could all try new things today and probably none of them will work, but because of what we tried today, we will learn some things and we can apply those for something tomorrow. And I remember us at USAA, it's a dynamic customer-driven business, and we were down on the coast when the hurricanes hit south Texas in Rockport, and it was just devastating.

And the whole area was quarantined and we were talking to some members and, Eric, the members said, "I know you have aerial footage of my home and can I have access to that?" And Saturday, we're all down there, we're like, "Hold on. Let's go." So we went back, got our agile teams engaged and in 48 hours, we could put up aerial of people's homes. They literally couldn't get to their houses, but then they could see our footage, either through the drone videos we were flying or our aircraft videos. And they could see their home to see just from a picture, how much damage they ... So they can anticipate what they needed. And then couple of them said, "Well, you've got the footage. Is there any way you can open up to my neighbors? They aren't USAA members, but"-

Eric Ries: Oh, that's great.

Carl Liebert: “My neighbors really would like to see this too." They were 90 minute, I'll call it, sprints and the team started scrumming really as soon as we got back on Saturday night. And by Monday, we were able to put the footage out there in a secure way, in a way to share it with our members. We still couldn't get into their homes yet because we weren't even allowed to get there from an insurance perspective, but our members could see, oh, I've got some roof damage. Oh, gosh, my carport's caved in. They could actually see what we were seeing, but none of us could get to the home. And you start to recognize what kind of loyalty and this idea of connecting back with your customers. I'm convinced this bike shop in Austin, on the other side of this, people are going to say thank you so much for finding a way to stay open because without my bike ... I don't like to exercise any other way, I needed that fixed. And I'm seeing a real growth opportunity for them to take on.

Eric Ries: I’ve got to admit, I find it almost a little bit jarring to hear your optimism here. And I'm usually the rah-rah business transformation, startups guy, so even I feel like I've been infected by the sense that we're in a really dark place. If you make the mistake of going on social media right now, you will see nothing but death and devastation, the news is incredibly bleak. Maybe tell us a little bit about where that ... Why do you have that sense of optimism about this? Why do you see it as an opportunity when all the rest of us are feeling like it's such a devastating tragedy?

Carl Liebert: Look, I think, probably, I'm an optimist at heart and it is believed that this idea of being positive and getting everybody's in the game leads to great outcomes. And you asked for some sea stories, so I was a naval officer, I can share one. But I was 48 hours after Katrina, Bob Nardelli, the CEO of Home Depot at the time and myself, I was the head of stores worldwide, and we were flying over Katrina. And if you remember, we were being shot at. Helicopters were being shot at. People were cutting through the roofs of their homes because they wanted to be rescued. Coast Guard was flying over. All of our stores were underwater or without power and we basically said okay, what are we going to do? We had a stated strategy to get every store open in 48 hours after a catastrophe. This was not a home improvement problem, this was a survival problem.

And I remember, we set up a war room that we managed, we met twice a day. We broadcast it out to not only the stores were affected, but all the leaders in the field and the company, everybody participated. And I remember listening to the district manager in New Orleans going, "This is ..." And what did we need? And he goes, "Well, I need diapers. We need formula. We need water. We need ..." And I remember looking at the merchants and the merch ... "We've never carried diapers or formula."

Eric Ries: Right.

Carl Liebert: And I'm like, "Well, why can't we? We’ve got a great relationship with P&G. Let's make some phone calls and let's ..." And literally, within 48 hours, we were delivering those to our stores. And by the way, our stores were underwater, weren't open, we were doing it out of a back of a truck, which, guess what? We had no point of sales system, we were literally taking IOUs in a cigar box from people for stuff like that because there was no electricity to actually run a cash register and we didn't have mobile registers back then in 2005. And look, it was a scary time. Our loss prevention folks were worried we weren't going to get paid, that we were going to get taken-

Eric Ries
: I was just going to ask about that because the thing that flashed into my head is what will your compliance people say?

Carl Liebert: They were crazy at us and we said, "This is a brand building moment for us and we're going to figure out some new things that we can do." All our cleaning products. We were good on cleaning products, but we weren't great on cleaning products. I'm telling you, you go into a Home Depot now, they're great on cleaning products. I don't know if we were great before this catastrophe that happened. And it's serving Home Depot today extraordinarily well. I think the compliance and loss prevention people thought I had lost my mind, but I had great merchants and great teammates that said, "Do the right thing and it usually works out in these kind of situations." And I said, "What's the worst could happen? How much could we lose?" And so, surely, I had my CFO model, how much we could lose, but how could I model what we gained through all that? And I think a little over 98% of the people that wrote us IOUs, I still remember going back, landing the helicopter in Slidell store.

We had a store manager and a cashier that, for seven days, without power, escorted customers in one at a time to get what they needed, to get the generator, and then escorted them out and took IOUs. And I remember him saying, "Carl, a little over 98% of our customers came back and paid us." I said, "Well, what do you need?" He said, "Well, my cashier's taking my clothes home and washing them at our house and she lives 45 minutes away." And I said, "Would you like a mobile trailer we can put here and you can just sleep in the trailer?"

Eric Ries
: Yeah.

Carl Liebert: "And with a washing machine to wash your clothes at this time because ..." Yes, we’d like that. How soon can we get it there for him? So I share that with you, Eric. That created a hustle factor that changed the organization. At the time, we had 250,000 employees and 2000 stores and before we were done, the culture of Home Depot had, I'll call it, the foundation had been riveted even deeper than ever and built to last in how to serve customers. And I'm just thankful for the leaders that helped us pull that off and make that happen. And I'm hopeful that if CEOs and leaders see this as an opportunity, and it's difficult to do that in some industries, more difficult than others, that they'll play offense with their teams because when you get your teams playing offense, it's amazing how their attitudes turn from the sky is falling, the world's coming to an end to wow, I have a job. Oh, I have to figure out how we're going to get this ship started back up again on the other side of this. Oh, I have to have a whole playbook built. Oh, I have to figure out how to bring furloughed employees back without touching it with paper and doing it digitally, so that HR doesn't have to go validate these things.

And you think about how hard it is to hire a normal employee in any business. If your benefits team now and your HR team are thinking about okay, how do we bring these people back on? And how do we bring them back on with a person ... Doesn't touch a single piece of paper? You'll be able to use that on the other side with everybody you hire going forward. And that was something you never invested in before, but it's something, if you do now, you're going to get your business started up faster. It's a little bit like Le Mans. You're going to run to the car and the car, you're going to get in and you're going to be able to go. And if you're going through the normal bureaucracy it takes to hire an employee, I'll call it the slow lane, then everybody else is going to beat you to the punch on how to bring people back on.

And so as we're thinking about this optimism, the leader's role is to inspire and bring everybody along. So you should be bringing your furloughed employees along, what your plans are, where you're going, telling them how valuable they are, that you're going to need them on the other side of this. Tell them the things you're working on to make bringing them back on easier and simpler. Tell them the things you're working on to prepare the company for the other side of this. And I know some CEOs go on to daily blogs where they're sharing their issues from bookmarking a website on their laptop to using Zoom to not using Zoom now to moving around and using various things. But it's a beautiful moment for leaders to get closer to their teams and you should never squander that moment.

Eric Ries: One of the things you're saying, it's so important and I want to underline this. Because in a recession, the thing that turns a recession into a depression is there's a shock like this, we're all afraid for our business, our balance sheet. And the thing you said that really hit me was we can see the problems of the crisis, they're really obvious. You can't really see the opportunities until you're on the other side. So, companies are afraid, they start cutting costs, they start squeezing their own vendors to save money.

But, of course, the macroeconomic lesson of the depression is that your spending is my revenue and vice versa. So if everybody cuts back, everyone's revenue goes down, everyone's got to cut back more and it's a vicious cycle. And so part of the path out of the crisis, from an economic point of view, has got to be for the far-sighted businesses to say wait a minute, this is not just a crisis, it's also an opportunity and there are these moments to make these investments in people, in technology, in things that lay a foundation to take advantage of the recovery when it inevitably comes.

Carl Liebert: Just beautifully said, Eric. And I think one of the leaders, a mentor of mine and dear friend, General Stanley McChrystal wrote a book called Team of Teams, and it's one of my-

Eric Ries: Great book.

Carl Liebert
: One of my favorite, favorite leadership books because it talks about how to get everybody in the game and it's about getting everyone's talents to the table. But he would talk about this idea of a common enemy and it's really something that you just said is ... I started this crisis like everybody, thinking the common enemy was coronavirus or COVID-19. And very quickly, I use the word pivoted to fear and panic is the common enemy. And what I think we, as leaders, owe to our teams and to our customers and really to our communities and our families, by the way, is this idea that the common enemy we're fighting against is fear and panic.

And the best way to fight against that is to have a plan, execute a plan, communicate with confidence, and be willing to try new things, fail at new things, being transparent about that, but celebrating this idea that there is going to be a new normal on the other side and it's going to be dramatically different than what all of us are used to. Let's celebrate the fact that we're going to be ready for that new normal and let's go in this together. And it's just so much about how everybody's fear and panic is spread, it's a little bit more of a difficult virus, to your point, moving from a recession to a depression. And that's what, if you study the 1920s and '30s, there was quite a bit of that, as we all know.

Eric Ries
: One of the ideas that I've been trying to promulgate and I just want to get your feedback on is the idea that this is the moment for long-term investors to step up and go long on America. We all have this tendency to pull back our investment dollars in a crisis like this, the market's crash, we're afraid, so we make less investment. But this is actually the moment when the cost of capital's going up, the cost of everything else is going down, so all the inputs to production that allow us to make long-term investments are about to get relatively more attractive.

So how about a deal where long-term investors agree to make non-liquid investments into private and public companies and say listen, we'll make an investment, we'll take a discount because everything's down right now, but we'll commit to hold the stock for a long time. You, as a company, commit to spend that money on R&D and not financial engineering and we try to finance the recovery with all the long-term investors who really should have a multi-generational timeline. And it's not just pension funds and family offices, but I was thinking about every ordinary American who's saving for retirement. If you're a young person and you don't have money in the markets or you took money out of the markets during the good times, when the markets are down, when there's a crisis, that's the best time to make those long-term investments.

Carl Liebert
: Yeah. And you're touching on ... it's the pain of discipline versus the pain of regret. And as you start to lean into this conversation, is how you think about your balance sheet, right? You touch on you're seeing the companies that have run their businesses with a bulletproof balance sheet that are going to come through this and do extraordinarily well because they plan for this. Insurance companies, you never want to plan for a 100 year event, but that's what insurance companies that are triple A rated, like USAA, have to do. And so you're constantly stress testing your P&L. You're not just doing that in crisis, you're constantly thinking about liquidity in doing this. And to your point, this is going to be a brilliant moment. We're all going to be a little gun-shy for a while, it just happens.

I think about what happened to millennials and the Gen Zers coming out of The Great Recession, and I think about this next group and how they're going to really behave and think about social distancing and all this activity. What I believe is this is going to generate a next period of growth for innovators and our country that we can't even fathom. And why I say that is to see the medical community begetting to do rapid prototyping, to explore, bringing potential vaccines to test at the pace they're doing. I'm on the Jimmy V Foundation for Cancer Research and it takes eight to 10 years to get a relevant cancer drug to the marketplace. And you know why that is, but I think about the innovation in technology of what we're able to do now. If we can use this virus as an opportunity to now turn this on medicine, how we care for people, both medium and long-term care, the innovation that is potentially going to come from this is ... It's going to change society for the better because these are the things we've been ... I'll call it the constraint.

Another one of my favorite books is The Beautiful Constraint. And we had this constraint that well, no, we can't do it that way. Well, right now, you're listening to Doctor Fauci and the doctors and they're pushing the limits to the constraints that they've long established. And when we break those constraints and, by the way, good things are going to happen and potentially, bad things are going to happen. But overall, I think more good will come about. Then we'll have a new normal and a new level of innovation that I believe some of the long-term capital that's out, with both individual investors as well as some of the investors that are most famous that we know about, are going to really, really benefit from it. And you just have to believe that this is going to drive a whole new level of innovation to go along with it.

Eric Ries: My conversation with Sam Altman, he was talking about his ... Just marveling at the fact that the entire biotech sector has just instantly pivoted on a dime, everyone is working on COVID treatment no matter what they were working on before. And he said the clock cycle of biotech is going to get reset. People are discovering that things that they thought had to be slow for some reason before, just that's the way it was always done, they're breaking those boundaries and they're going fast and that's going to pay incredible dividends on the other side.

Carl Liebert: Oh, one of the ones I was chuckling about a little bit, and please don't ... I always kind of laugh, is this idea that your mortgage is 1000 pages long and when it gets done, you have to go sit with a closer and you've got to sit at the title office and it all has to be in person in most of the states in the U.S. And you've got this whole process that is paperwork and it's cumbersome, it's painful to get a mortgage. Well, guess what's happening right now is people are figuring out how to do that and otherwise, the business shuts down. So it's amazing to watch ... Oh, we can close that over video conference now? Don't have to go sit in a title office and go through that process and go through the paperwork. No, we can close digitally now. Wow.

So, tell me why we couldn't break through that? Well, we couldn't break through that because it was just a constraint that there was a rule or a law that ... Now we're looking at it going, well, why did we do it that way? And I think your point on biotech ... Those are innovative people, but we put parameters around them, or constraints, and we said those constraints aren't moveable. And the truth is is when you're in a crisis like this-

Eric Ries: They are.

Carl Liebert: Those constraints become ... And it's just beautiful.

Eric Ries: Yeah. I've been talking to research labs and science-based startups about how they're raising funding and people are still trying to use the conventional grant-making and investment process, which was incredibly slow and inefficient, has always been and that's been a perennial source of complaints. And that's not going to get it done now, so we're going to have to invent new funding mechanisms, new grant-making facilities. We're going to, sure, as you said, we'll run into problems too. But it seems like this could be an opportunity to really question a lot of these assumptions and say hey, why didn't we do it differently before? And I think a lot of the time, the answer's just going to be well, complacency. We didn't really have to, so we were lazy about it and now we're going to see there's no longer an option.

Carl Liebert: Yeah. I'm hopeful that we embrace that as health care, how we do health care, how do we bring everybody along? It's a brilliant time and just as all great crises expose these things. You asked me why I'm optimist, I think we're going to get better on the other side of this and it's going to be horrific for the folks that are affected. I have a family member back in Indiana and she's my aunt and she's been on a respirator for ... Today is day 10. She's never been-

Eric Ries: Oh my God, I'm so sorry.

Carl Liebert: Never been sick a day in her life. Oh, you know what, she's going to make it. She's a fighter. And we live in a small town. I think there's 250 beds in our county in southern Indiana, and I think there's 22 respirators. And she went in-

Eric Ries: Wow.

Carl Liebert: And fortunately, she got one and she's fighting like crazy. But she volunteers at the church five days a week and who knows how it happened, but she did. I'm optimistic because I have to be, but the other side of this is we're going to figure out we should've done more broad testing, we should've understood the antibodies a little bit better, but we can't beat ourselves up because we didn't. Let's make sure that when the next thing happens, we're a lot better going forward. And I think it's going to change how we think about safety and how we think about, I'll call it, cleanliness. How we think about taking care of one another. All those things are going to be different on the other side and it'll be better for our society and in the long-term, it's going to do great things for us.

Eric Ries: There's going to have to be a truth and reconciliation style commission, probably, to look at all the mistakes and misdeeds that were done. And yet, I've been surprised how many people working on relief efforts have all said look, this is not the time for recriminations, it's not the time for blame. We'll get to that, but right now, the need is too urgent. And so I hope everyone will be able to maintain that attitude, but then not put it down the memory hole when the crisis does pass. There will be a time to examine and to learn from those mistakes and to hold those responsible accountable, but most importantly, to make those investments so that we're better prepared next time.

Carl Liebert: Oh, and the military's pretty good at this. We certainly practiced it a lot at USAA, this idea of after action reviews. And I'll tell you, when you're a field leader or you're a leader and you're doing the after action review and there were things you look back at it and you could've done differently. One of the most important things you have to practice is humility because boy, there's lots of things that we could all be second-guessed for each and every day of our life. But when the stakes are this high, what we want are leaders making the best decision that they can at the moment that they can make that decision and ensuring that on the other side of this, we'll go review those decisions and say okay, how could we have made a better decision? What could we have done to be more prepared? That comes back to that process debt, technical debt, human capital debt. What were our debts before, and how do we shore those up so that if something similar to this or is like this happens again, that we can respond with much more alacrity?

I can only imagine the IRS and running the query to go say we're going to send checks to 300 million Americans and we need to get that done in two weeks. It would take a programmer with some of the code and the technology, I can't imagine what that conversation looked like with the technology debt we have in a lot of those places. And I'm hopeful that on the other side of this, we'll say wow, the Federal Reserve, we need to be clearing more frequently. We can't just batch process five nights a week in a seven day market and sometimes, we have to have a technology stack that allows us to do those kind of things if we want to move with agility. So, I don't know, I think there will be lots of inquiries just like there were in 2008 and 2009. And Michael Lewis will write a book about it like The Big Short, whatever it'll be. But we're all going to learn from it and we won't repeat those same mistakes, they'll be different.

But I do say, Eric, you know this, is because of what we did after the financial crisis to our banks, and it was painless, having run a big bank at USAA, the stress testing and the balance sheet, liquidity requirements. But golly, if it wasn't for the banks being ready right now, there is no way we could be moving on, really, the two trillion dollars to get out there and it's probably going to need to be more. But if you think about-

Eric Ries: Yeah, a lot more.

Carl Liebert: The balance sheet of JPMorgan Chase, if you think about it at Citi or B of A or Goldman and even all the mid-sized banks, because of the changes that came out of the financial crisis, those banks are equipped to deliver liquidity, loans, and much needed money to business leaders and consumers. And without the financial crisis, there's no way those banks would've been ready to do this.

Eric Ries: Reminds of a historical parallel when we were talking about The Great Recession, I remember learning in school that people called ... What we call World War I was called The Great War, and then something much worse came along and they realized they had to think about it in a different way. And I wonder now how that will change our relationship to The Great Recession. Will we see that more rather than as a earth-shattering crisis in its own right, but rather as a prelude to something much more dramatic that is happening now? What are other parallels do you see between what we're going through now and some of these past crises?

Carl Liebert
: Well, look, I think how we think about the new norm on the other side and what'll be different, right? Clearly, 9/11 changed air travel for all of us and with TSA and the security requirements and all the things, and it changed it forever. I think about what the new normal will look like and until you can guarantee my safety, will I go to an NBA basketball game or will I just watch it on TV? Will I go to the Eagles' concert or will I just play my Eagles' album? Because I don't know who's got it, I don't know who doesn't have it, and I don't know really if I'm at risk more so than someone else. I think all that connectedness of will we check temperatures before you get on an airplane? Will we check temperatures before you walk into a Walmart? How to think about where that's going and this idea of, I'll call it, the confluence between privacy and health and what this is likely going to mean as you start to think about some of the things that went into play in Wuhan and those things.

I believe it's likely we will have to give up some privacy for the better good of everyone else, and I'm not sure how that's going to play itself out. And I think a lot are much smarter than me, but I know if you're in these businesses that are service-oriented, that bring people together and they're revenue-generating and they're important, we're going to have to figure out a new way to be able to ensure other people's safety, just like we said it was safe to fly again. It's safe to fly again because we put TSA there, we put all these rules in place and you can't bring this on planes and so, therefore, it's safe to fly. Tell me when it's safe to go back to a gym. Tell me when it's safe to go to a concert or an athletic event. And I think how we think about what those new norms are going to be are going to be really some of the largest changes in our lifetime to what we've seen.

Eric Ries: Do you mind talking a little bit about some of the organizations that you're either helping or talking to that are grappling with the crisis in a direct way? Are there any specifics you can share of people who either have impressed you or who are grappling with it in an interesting way?

Carl Liebert: I mentioned I was working with an NBA franchise that are really thinking about how they're going to come back, what that looks like. They have resisted furloughing and getting rid of their people. They're working diligently, I think most of their leadership team is going to forgo a significant portion of their income in order to ensure they keep their team and their franchise healthy and keep as much of the employees that work in the stadiums and work in the gift shops and run the program on this side, because they believe they're a part of their culture and they do not want to lose that culture on the other side and what that looks like. So, they're navigating some tricky decisions with what the NBA's going to likely do or not do. Are they going to play in Las Vegas and quarantine the players and bring everybody back? Are they going to play in their current stadiums and just try to social quarantine, or quarantine, the players in their home? I think these are really, really big conversations.

And you have a tendency, you want to wait for the league to tell you what you want to do. But at any rate, what they're doing is okay, if we had to play in our own stadium without fans, how many people would it take to open up the stadium, run the stadium, how many people are players? So we've got to have several scenarios of what that looks like and what it would take, so we would know the impact on the other side and doing that. So, that's one and it's really tricky. Several entrepreneurs here, Eric, that are here in Austin that are looking at anything from financial services to sports performance. And I've got a seed round, an A round and a B round of people, group of folks that I'm just trying to help them. And all of them are just really keeping an upbeat, positive attitude. And depending on where you are, the most important thing is keep your shareholders in the loop of what you're doing and how you're reacting to these things, and especially your investors.

Carl Liebert: And I know, as a CEO, you want to put your head down in a founder and go execute. Well, this is a moment where everybody's executing the other home or through a Zoom or a call like that, you've got to be engaging with your investors and reassuring them of how you're leading the company through this period and what you're learning and what are the kind of things you're doing. And to his credit, one of these CEOs was so great. He started doing Friday afternoon ... Opened it up to his investors, saying I'll tell you how things are going, you can dial in. And you always worry about letting people too inside your business, but in this case, it's created an enormous amount of transparency and trust. And the CEO, if anything, the investors have more confidence. And I think when he gets to the B round, these investors are going to say man, I'm ... A lot of the time, you're betting on the leader and I think this guy's going to have a huge leg up as he starts that process, because his investors have just tons of confidence in him because they believe he's going to tell them the truth and create transparency. Man, you can't buy that kind of trust from an investor, you earn that trust.

Eric Ries: Trust is such the vital currency in a crisis like this.

Carl Liebert: It is. So I'm so proud of him. So, hopefully, that's a brief synopsis of some of the things people are battling and what they're doing. And just trying to keep people hopeful and positive right now, and keep them learning and thinking are the things that we're talking a lot about.

Eric Ries: So, Carl, who do you think are the real heroes of this crisis?

Carl Liebert: Well, this is the first responder conversation. My daughter-in-law, she works at the Stanford Pediatric Hospital, she's a nurse. And every day, I start with a call with my son, a video call, who's out there in tech and he's taking his wife to work. And I kind of see things through their shoes in a whole different way. These nurses, doctors, paramedics, people that are in long-term care facilities that are taking care of loved ones that we care about, that we can't even see or get to anymore because most hospitals, you can't go visit. Heroic stories, I reflect on them greatly. From 9/11, where the firemen and police officers that were the first responders, today, are medical, the folks that are supporting the front line of fighting this virus. I'm so thankful and I think on the other side of this, we're all going to have a much better appreciation for what it takes to be a doctor, what it takes to be a nurse, and what it takes to be a caregiver.

Eric Ries: Let us hope that this leads to a resurgence in faith and science, faith in our medical experts and a respect for the people who do the actual work that keeps our society functioning. And, obviously, we've spoken a lot in this conversation about business leaders and their obligations in this time of crisis and I think that is important, but I think we all got to keep in mind that we, who are in a leadership position, are acting in service of, in support of the people who are literally on the front lines fighting against this invisible enemy.

Carl Liebert: Right. And there's a simple phrase, we've always talked about it, I'm not sure where I stole it from because I know I didn't invent it, is you either serve people or serve those who are serving people. And I used to talk about this, you serve customers or serve those who serve your customers. It's really great to walk around Austin and see Austin apart, but we're still supporting our first responders and there's signs popping up everywhere. It's a lot like after 9/11 when people were supporting first responders and the military. What's really great is to see people embracing and supporting that medical field and having a whole new appreciation for what it takes to take care of people that are in peril, like nurses and doctors and caregivers.

Eric Ries: Awesome. Before we go, any COVID relief efforts or things that you're involved in that you'd like us to talk about or to link to?

Carl Liebert: Well, what I'm trying to encourage for us is education and find something ... There's a big piece for every company, is what is your thing, right? What is your company and your employees or team members going to rally around? And there are national programs, there are local programs, there are community-based programs. And for us, the food bank is something that's always been near and dear. We got involved with it when we were in San Antonio. It's such a terrific food bank, it serves seven counties in south Texas. And this is a crisis in so many ways of shut-ins.

My wife's a big believer in Meals on Wheels, and so we've anted up our ability to support those who can't help themselves. Because if we can help those to social distance and to stay in their homes when they're most at risk, then it's a great opportunity for them not to become somebody that a first responder that's in a hospital has to take care of. So, Amy and I just said that's how we're going to fight this battle. But for individual companies, I'm hopeful that they're rallying around their community and opportunities and they're bringing their whole employee base with them.

Eric Ries: So one final question, where do you think we go from here? How do we get out of the crisis?

Carl Liebert: Well, I'm optimistic, as I said. Look, I'm proud of our country. For us, we're not perfect at everything, I know there were videos of spring-breakers and various things. But our country, and I believe this, is the greatest country on earth and we're used to freedoms. And I believe for the first time, maybe, maybe since the 1940s, when you think about what was going on in Europe and the things Churchill was fighting and what we were trying to figure out. But there was a galvanizing moment when Pearl Harbor happened, where we stopped fighting each other and we started playing for one team and this idea of one team. And so I'm hopeful that through this, and we demonstrate that we can flatten the curve and that we can all do this, it's painful, it's inconvenient. I don't like not going out or doing these kind of things, but I'm doing it for one team, our team. And then what's interesting, Eric, is this is not a moment for nationalism, right? You can say we're doing it just for the USA, but we're doing it for the world. And there's a brilliant opportunity here to say that we're all in this together.

And I'd like to see it start to morph into this idea that we're going to share information a little bit better, we are going to work together a little bit easier and then go create a more globalized environment. And the tendency, I think, will be to contract and close borders and all those things. But if you really think about what happened after World War II, after this moment where America finally came together as one team, from then on, it launched a whole wave of globalism that we were able to navigate, whether it was segregation in the '60s or all the things that we were able to navigate in the '70s and the '80s. I'm hopeful that we're going to come out of this with a renewed sense of self and a renewed sense of our neighbors and the people around us. And that what I do actually affects them and what they do affects me, so let's work together for a common good for both of us. So, little Pollyanna-ish, but I'll take that any day.

Eric Ries: This has been Out of the Crisis. I'm Eric Ries. Out of the Crisis is produced by Ben Ehrlich and edited by Jacob Tender. Music composed and performed by Cody Martin. For more information on the COVID-19 crisis and ways you can help, visit or If anyone has ideas or is working on a project related to COVID-19, please reach out to me. I'm EricRies on Twitter. Let's solve this together.

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