When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Sebastien Tondeur, CEO of MCI, one of the biggest event companies on the planet, faced a potential crisis. All events were canceled. Thousands of staff members were on payroll and he had no idea when things would return to normal.
Two years later, not only did Sebastian manage to save his company, he laid the foundations for making it a better business than ever before. His entrepreneurial mindset and ability to communicate effectively were key to the survival of his business. He shared his experience with us on a recent StratChat (watch it here). Now, let’s break down exactly what he did.
Alex Osterwalder (CEO, Strategyzer) and Sebastien Tondeur (CEO, MCI Group) pictured above respectively on the StratChat show in January
The first thing Sebastien did was focus on communication. He immediately gathered his management team. But instead of talking about data and facts, they shared their feelings, emotions and beliefs. Sebastien knew how important it was to make them feel heard and involved. Then, he dedicated himself to filtering this type of communication across the rest of his company through video calls, chat forums and via email. What this did was galvanize the company and help ensure everybody was ready to respond.
We began by sharing our feelings and emotions. How does it make you feel? What are your beliefs? We didn’t talk about what we thought we should do. - Sebastien Tondeur
Soon after, Sebastien identified three important steps - Survive, Reset, Thrive. A lot of leaders make the mistake of communicating a strategy just once. They then wonder why the rest of the organization doesn't remember or understand what the strategy is. Sebastien avoided this error. He communicated the message across the business and he wasn’t afraid to repeat it again and again. This helped everyone understand the process and the direction they were moving in.
In my town halls in 2020 and 2021, I answered over 200 questions. I made a point to answer all of them. - Sebastien Tondeur
As part of the Survive phase, Sebastien created a business plan (or what he calls a “vision document”.) He didn’t do it in isolation though, as many leaders might do. He ran workshops with lots of different colleagues, gathering their input and feedback. Sebastien is an advocate for transparency and camaraderie in the company. This open book approach reflects that.
Long before the pandemic, Sebastien was given some advice:
You need to go to banks and ask for a lot of money when things are good, because when things are bad, they don't want to lend you any.
Sebastien took this advice to heart. Prior to the pandemic, MCI already had significant cash reserves available. Therefore, they didn’t need to go to the bank again in the crisis. He could keep the business running and keep his employees on the payroll
The brutal fact was that without those reserves on hand, MCI would have faced closure and everyone would have lost their jobs. Sebastien’s foresight saved the business.
The Survive phase lasted about three months. But the company had to move forward. So Sebastien shifted gear into offense and started looking for new opportunities. This was what he called the Reset phase.
Sebastien took a moment to step back and reassess what the company really did. MCI was in the events business. But what he realized was its role was not about booking planes, trains and hotels. When a client has a challenge and they come to MCI, what they really get is a team of strategic planners. MCI is actually a marketing and communication specialist. It provides clients with ideas and strategies. During the pandemic, all of the physical elements disappeared. What was left was the more creative elements. Sebastien saw that really they were a creative partner to their clients.
Their next task was to rebuild the future models of communication and engagement between their clients and their audiences. That became their focus and they invented new models. This is something they are of course still exploring.
It’s new territory. It’s like Christopher Columbus crossing the Atlantic [for the first time.] There’s a huge amount of uncertainty and we don’t know what we’ll discover. - Sebastian Tondeur
As part of the Reset phase, Sebastien started exploring new business models. But MCI has a lot of large clients with long-term contracts; pharmaceutical companies for example. There was an element of reputational risk associated with running business experiments. If they failed, it wouldn’t be a good look for his company.
So about a year into the pandemic, they decided to create a new corporate entity. It would be a bit like Alphabet and Google. Alphabet is where Google does a lot of their breakthrough innovation activities. Whereas, Sebastien had MCI Group and MCI. MCI Group housed the startup accelerator.
What this meant is they could experiment and explore new ideas by setting up separate business entities under the MCI group accelerator. They then didn’t have to worry about potential reputational damage to the main brand, MCI. The market was able to understand what they were doing as it was separate from the existing business. The brand was safe.
If a big client, like Sony, came to them with an idea that didn’t fit with what MCI offered, they were able to pass it on to MCI Group and create a separate venture around that idea. This approach really helped innovation blossom.
If somebody has an idea, but it doesn't fit within MCI for whatever reason, say it’s to do with a new technology for streaming. We can now do something with it. The idea has somewhere to go in the organization - the MCI Group startup accelerator. - Sebastien Tondeur
Here are some examples of the ventures that Sebastien and his team created. They are run independently with a stand-alone governance. MCI isn’t liable in any way for obligations incurred by these ventures.
Source: MCI Group
Sebastian is an entrepreneurial CEO. He spends a huge amount of time focussing on the explore side of his business, looking for new opportunities for growth. He has hired what he called a Chief Strategy Officer on the exploit side of his business. This means MCI is an ambidextrous organization. They can innovate and grow a new portfolio of businesses while still maintaining their established businesses.
Sebastien is a great example of an entrepreneurial CEO. He is responsible for both sides of the business but spends a significant amount of time on innovation.
While the company has managed to survive the pandemic, they have more work to do. Sebastien and his team are still in a transitional phase. They are optimistic about growth but they still need to manage their resources carefully, taking a page from Vinod Khosla, the venture capitalist, who says when a team gets too much money, they're actually at risk of failing because they'll spend it on building something that maybe nobody wants. Sebastien now tries to win the new business before setting up new legal entities. In other words, he gets real evidence that clients want his new product/service ideas before building them.
The feedback from the MCI team has been incredibly positive, Sebastien says. They believe they are taking the right next steps in transforming the company. Some have even said they are surprised they didn’t make these changes sooner. There is a sense of relief in a way. They are living their culture and values.
Sebastien now has a growing portfolio of agencies and ventures under the MCI Group umbrella entity, and is firmly on the road to building a stronger, better business.
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This article is based on January’s StratChat Show called Surviving the Pandemic. You can watch the full episode here.