WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork was true business podcasting at its most dramatic—charting the big idea, big money, big egos, and big screw-ups that mesmerized tech, venture capital and real estate glitterati, not to mention co-working hipsters everywhere. With the podcast-based limited TV series recently wrapping up filming with stars Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto, media interest in WeWork is buzzing again.
But that interest isn’t limited to a dramatized version of controversies surrounding former CEO Adam Neumann. This October, in the ongoing, real-life story of WeWork, BowX stockholders met to approve their SPAC’s merger with WeWork. “WE” will start trading on the New York Stock Exchange, and behind the reins now—salving the wounds of the badly injured unicorn once heralded for its $47 billion valuation—is a smart, humble real estate veteran, CEO Sandeep Mathrani.
Listen to Mathrani on The University of Miami’s Distinguished Lecture Series videocast or on CNBC. He may yet successfully execute one of real estate’s toughest turnarounds of the new century. He’s done it before. Mathrani is exactly the kind of unpretentious and insightful executive who gives PR teeth with his applied thought leadership, backed by balance-sheet accomplishment.
Reworking WeWorking—the space-as-a-service model worth saving
WeWork’s a lively place. The excitement of startup and maker culture is palpable in glass-filled interiors, creatively designed office space, and happy hour cheer. Opportunities for collaboration with techies, freelancers and entrepreneurs are real.
Digital and pandemic-accelerated transformation of business has only furthered the argument that WeWork’s brand of scalable commercial space-as-a-service is more viable than ever. Well studied in the history of real estate, Mathrani has pointed out that space-as-a-service isn’t new in commercial real estate, but WeWork’s implementation has been category-shifting.
Mathrani makes the business case for the model. Enterprise clients want to consolidate real estate with the flexibility to scale physical space up or down. They want to build collaboration hubs and spokes in secondary and tertiary cities. Mathrani is delivering, while still embracing the “feel” of WeWork and the importance of its creative culture, all in a certified deep-cleaned environment.
Offering reflective and actionable thought leadership
That resurgent WeWork model is the stuff of good articles. But Mathrani, who considers it “arrogant not to do deep research” and regularly acknowledges wisdom that’s been shared with him, offers much more. Listening to him, it’s easy to compile thought leadership themes, any of which could yield byline placements, broadcast spots and much more. Here are some interpretations:
- Have the humility to deal with failure. To effect change, take defeat to heart by learning from it. Don’t be afraid to pivot and pivot again until you’re on a course that rights the ship. Leaders are often afraid to acknowledge their mistakes, afraid of the flexibility and humility required to fix big mistakes. Everyone can understand the upside of a transaction, but can you understand the loss or downside of each transaction that can lead to mistakes?
- Admittedly, it can be hard to know when to pivot—or not. But think about how you make it down a ski slope. You make long “S” curves that give you time to reflect.
- In every industry there’s obsolescence. That’s happening faster and faster. Flexible thinking is a future-proofing requirement. Combine the linear analysis of engineering with the critical, creative thinking of liberal arts.
- Establish short-term and long-term strategies. Short-term strategy is straightforward: make sure your fundamental business is sound, with the right capital structure and streamlined SG&A. Make adjustments with procurement. Apply the 80/20 rule for corporations, and release assets that lose money. Do it right. Honor lease terms. After turning the company to profitability, assess pivoting the brand. What you learn in executing short-term strategy will change your long-term strategy. Remember that strategy is a moving target.
- Build a great team, the right team for the mission. Understand and empower that team. Keep in mind that it’s hard to over-communicate with your team in a remote working environment. Overdo outreach and listening sessions. People want the level of connection they’ve been deprived of during the pandemic. When it comes to human behavior, think about Peter Drucker’s truth: “Culture will eat strategy for breakfast.” Every time.
- Studying a model isn’t enough. No one can expect to jump successfully into decision-making without hands-on operational experience. There aren’t shortcuts to mastery. To know what can and can’t be done, to know what should be a norm and what’s an outlier, you have to be in the field, touching and feeling the realities of your business area.
- Take advice from leaders you trust. Take it constructively, not with offense, even tough-to-hear advice like “see a therapist.” Therapy can help leaders (or anyone) be more confident and understand their personal challenges and traumas they’ve faced that manifest in behavior. Sometimes you have to be torn apart to become a different person, your best self.
Even better than Hollywood drama is Mathrani’s clear thinking and resurrection of the unicorn.