The Podcast for Agency Leaders

Join Kelly Campbell twice a month as she goes deep into what it means to lead a creative agency, with interviews discussing leadership, culture, mindset, and more.

EP 77: How Emotion Dictates Our Behavior, with Kevin Perlmutter

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Kevin Perlmutter discuss how emotion dictates behavior in the new now, the neuroscience behind it all, and how brands need to shift in order to speak to the rapidly changing emotional states of being.



 EP 77: How Emotions Dictates Our Behavior 

Duration: 23:56


Kelly: Welcome to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. I'm joined today by Kevin Perlmutter, founder and chief strategist of Limbic Brand Evolution, the consultancy helping brands increase desire, engagement, and loyalty with a distinct focus on emotion. And that's actually what we're going to be diving into today. How does emotion dictate our behavior? And what are brands and creative agency leaders need to know, as we sort of enter the new now or are in the midst of the new now. So Kevin, thank you so much for joining me on the show today.


Kevin: Thank you so much for having me.


Kelly: So I do always like to start, especially with agency leaders, and I know that you've had some in house brand experience as well. What is the origin story of Limbic and why did you feel the need to go out on your own and create this consultancy? 


Kevin: Yeah, I started Limbic in early 2019. And it was after many, many years of working in the business for other agencies. I spent the first 16 years of my career working at ad agencies. And then for 7 years, I was a Senior Brand Strategy Leader and Client Relationship Leader at Interbrand, which is a global brand consultancy. And there I became a full on brand strategy leader for the clients that I was working with. I actually had an incredible opportunity to launch their first ever customer experience practice.


Back in 2008 or 2009, I created the infrastructure for that practice, train strategists in multiple offices around the network, spoke at a conference or two. And it was just an incredibly influential time for me in my career growth because I was really starting to think about the customer perspective, having come from advertising. This was really important to me at that time, and becoming really important in marketing and branding. I did a lot of other things there. But then in 2014, I had the opportunity to join a music studio that focuses on Sonic Branding, and my job there was Chief Strategist and Chief Innovation Officer.


And the role that I played there was one as an internal business architect to help the company evolve, to help think about offering expansion to help deepen the strategy capabilities and the innovation, ways of working for that company and for its clients. But more importantly, for me, the bigger takeaway was a deep understanding of behavioral science, and learning how to think about brand strategy and brand experience through the lens of emotion and how you want people to feel. One of the capabilities that I created there was a neuroscience based research capability. And I did that in partnership with an outside research agency. We customized it to be an exclusive capability of this music studio. And I really learned a lot about neuroscience based research, how emotion impacts behavior, and lots of other things that we'll get into details as we go.


Kevin: Yeah, for sure. So, yeah, so let's just talk about that. How does emotion dictate our behavior in what you're sort of calling or terming, the “new now”? How does that work? And like just from a 101 standpoint?


Kelly: Yeah, well, when I decided to form Limbic and bring all of these things together, I felt that there was a really distinct opportunity to think about emotion, and apply emotion to how brand leaders and CMOs strengthen relationships with their customers. This is something that is often talked about, and it's something that most friend leaders, most CMOS don't really give a lot of credence to. So one of the things that I think about quite a bit is the power that emotion has on people's decisions. So 95% of the decisions we make are subconscious and instinctive, only about 5% give or take depending on a situation are rational decisions. We're constantly making these instinctive decisions all day long.


And it's guided by our feelings. The name of my company is Limbic Brand Evolution. And that comes from the limbic system, part of our brain, which guides emotion, motivation, behavior, and memory. So all the time when I'm thinking about how to work with clients, and how to bring emotion based techniques into the relationships, I'm thinking about how is it going to make people feel, and using that as a lens for the different ways that I guide them forward. So another statistic that's really important is that when people are emotionally connected to a brand or an experience, they're 50% 53% more valuable than people who are just highly satisfied. So it really has tremendous impact on the way people behave. And sort of the value that they bring to a company as a customer. So I might not have answered your question exactly.


Kelly: What do you mean by 53% more valuable? You mean in terms of like monetarily as a lifetime?


Kevin: Yes, that's exactly what I mean, because they are more eager to buy your products. They're more interested in talking about them positively. And I carry that experience with other people. They'll go deeper into your product line. They'll be willing to try new things. They'll be more forgiving if they have a bad experience once in a while. On the flip side, 47% of customers according to the CMO Council, 47% of customers will abandon a brand experience if it's frustrating and personal, or they're just having a really bad experience, if they have not developed that loyalty to that brand. Definitely, I'm sure the statistic is higher for those who have not developed the loyalty because on the other side, it's gonna be a lot lower for those who are more forgiving.


Kelly: Right. So let's talk a little bit about the neuroscience behind it all because I think that that's probably the most interesting part. I mean, we all know, because even all of those CMOS and all of the people watching who are creative leaders, or listening are creative leaders, we ourselves are consumers. So we know that what you're saying is true. We know that our emotions guide our purchasing decisions and our behaviors in general in the world. But I think the neuroscience aspect of it is the most interesting and I think that gives a lot of credence to just as human beings, being sort of detectives, like wanting to know why do I do this? So neuroscience really helps to explain that.


Kevin: Yeah. So there are a few different things going on in neuroscience that actually do explain why emotion is so powerful. One of them has to do with the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and there's a great book that was written many years ago called Drive. And that book really explains this theory really well. And there are many others out there. But basically, what this book calls motivation 2.0 is really rooted in extrinsic motivation. And that's like give and get scenarios that if you do this, you'll get that and there's all sorts of information about customer relationships and employee to employer relationships, where extrinsic motivation and almost bribing people with a reward for doing something well, has a limited life span.


But when people are motivated intrinsically, it's based on something that they really desire, based on something that they really feel, something that motivates them to actually get up in the morning and do things. So as it relates to brands as one scenario, if brands are doing things to make people's lives better, which I believe is the appropriate calling for any brands in the world today, is to make people's lives better. If brands are really doing that, and communicating what they're up to in a way that gets people excited, that draws them into the experience, that makes them feel that emotionally, this is going to be something that they want to be a part of, associated with, that it's going to solve some unmet need or even unarticulated need in their lifestyle, that they're going to be drawn to that brand more deeply.


So intrinsic motivation is a huge piece. There are also things that happened to our emotions around cognitive biases. So we're walking around with cognitive biases all day long. And there are many very effective cognitive biases that can be applied to marketing and are successfully applied to marketing everyday by smart marketers, to help people make decisions in your favor. And I don't believe for a second that any of that is manipulative. Anyway, it's really tapping into the neuroscience of how brains work. And it's helping to guide people towards decisions that you would hope that they would make in favor for brands. Because it means something to them. But you can offer things up like the scarcity effect, when something is out of stock soon, when there's only a few that are available for sale, that's going to cause people to feel a little bit more compelled to maybe take advantage of it sooner if it's something they're interested in. If there are choices that people need to make between different options, there are lots of different cognitive biases that we have that inform those choices.


So for instance, the ambiguity effect means that if there's too many choices, people just are unable to make their decision. But if you know there's another one out there called the decoy effect, which this familiar example for the decoy effect is like as old as a wine list in a restaurant. There are certain wines that are on the book ends of the spectrum of that list that they know most people aren't going to buy. Most people aren't going to buy the most expensive wines. And very few people are going to be with guests and friends with the restaurants and buy the cheapest bottle of wine. But they'll typically buy something else within a range that's in between the two. And those are choices that marketers could make to help address how people think and how they make decisions.


Kelly: Yeah, I think about that in terms of like SAS platforms as well when you can subscribe on a monthly basis or an annual basis for some SAS platform and you have sort of like the good, better, best, the good options, but entry level option typically has very few bells and whistles, if any; maybe there’s like a free and then good, better, best. You might do the free version just as a trial. But once you jump up, most people jump up to the better option because they like sitting in the middle. So yeah.


Kevin: Yeah, it definitely helps to draw people in. But depriving them of a few things along the way is going to help them move forward. But when I think about the neuroscience of this, I want to make it clear. I'm not primarily focusing strategy on cognitive biases that sound like they're manipulative. If you're listening in the wrong direction. What I'm really thinking about is what's going to motivate people, what's going to help people make decisions in your favor, because they fully believe that what you do out there is most important. So when I'm working with clients, in addition to helping to think about the consumer motivations and how to link with consumers in a way that addresses their need, I'm also incredibly interested in thinking about what motivates the brand leader or the company leader, thinking about what it is that they feel is the most important thing they could be doing to help others is super important to my process.


And another area of neuroscience that I bring into it has been to do with the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. And the difference between the two is that the sympathetic nervous system is really about fight or flight. It's really about asking questions that make people concerned and nervous and kind of put their guard up. So a technique that we all use with our clients with executive interviews, helping to understand what makes them tick. And I'm really leaning into questions that tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, when I'm asking interview questions. I want to understand from a client when their business is working in the way it should, what is their best day? What are they most excited about, that they do for the customers that they want to serve? What is it that they wish people knew about their organization that they fear some people don't and would give them a better impression of the reality of what the organization's purpose in the world is. So I bring neuroscience into the work that I do because it taps into the way people actually make a lot of decisions; the way it dictates their behavior.


Kelly: Right. And so the natural question for me after that is, how does all of that translate into branding? And then how do brands need to shift in order to speak to this rapidly changing emotional state of being that consumers are faced with at this moment in time? Which is different from anything that we've seen in history.


Kevin: It's such a great question, and it's the question that I've been dealing with for the last several months while all these have been going on in the world. And as a brand consultancy leader who prides himself on having, I think it's distinct and important approach to the way I serve my clients. I keep trying to think how it can become more distinct or what's most relevant in the work that I'm doing right now. I actually started this business with a belief that a focus on emotion, in how you want people to feel is the most important thing that marketers should be thinking of. And in the last few months, it's become clear to me that that is even more important than it ever has been before. I think it's super important to understand your customers. So first and foremost, understanding what makes your customers tick, what's driving their decisions and their behaviors is a lifelong pursuit of any marketer.


But right now, there have been so many shifts and changes in the way people are feeling and the way people are behaving and what they have access to and what they're afraid of. So people right now are looking for greater security. They're looking for more normalcy. They're looking for emotional releases from the stresses that they're dealing with. These are all things that brand leaders can tap into if they understand them. But on the flip side, they’re looking for things like contactless payments, contactless interactions with brands. They're looking for more healthy alternatives. They're looking to be more value conscious. There are some industries that are going to change dramatically forever moving forward, health and wellness and the tremendous increase in virtual health care is going to continue.


The doors are open. And as a great marketer, a friend of mine once said, “You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.” I mean, these things are out and they're going to happen and they're going to continue and people are enjoying them. So the things that marketers should be thinking about right now is in the new now, as all of this is changing on a daily basis. You need to stay in touch with what's going on in your customers minds. What's changed for them recently, that could impact not only how they might no longer need or desire, what you've been offering in the past. But what is it that you do in the world that you can actually bring into their lives that will make their lives better? That's what you should be thinking about.  How can you adapt your services to suit the needs that they have right now?


Kelly: And thinking about those things is super important. Right? But how do you recommend getting the data from the consumers themselves? How do you recommend like, either serving or what are the ways in which you think are the most impactful in order to get the most honest answers from the consumers that these brands are essentially trying to serve?


Kevin: It's such a great question. And it's just the question is, how much does a car cost? It's that age old question where there are so many ways to approach it, from a limited budget to a large budget. So if you have a limited budget or you're a small business owner. be observant, talk to your customers, understand what's changed in their lives. Look at research. Do a Google search on brands in your industry and how they've adapted to serve the customers in their local markets. Look at consumer trends and what's changed. If you look online, there's so much information you could find right now that robust research may not be necessary. You can send out surveys to your customer base to understand what they need most now and what things you can do to better serve them.


You can just talk with people. That's super important. But on the flip side, there are incredible research capabilities out there. When I have the opportunity, I like to use cognitive and behavioral science based research capabilities that truly understand what needs people have, what their fears are at a subconscious level. There are studies you can do rather inexpensively that allow you to tap into the subconscious, and then even understand how that subconscious reaction affects conscious behavior choices. So there’s an incredibly high correlation between how somebody feels, and then how they act. And sometimes research spends a little bit too much time, a lot of traditional research spends a little bit too much time asking people how they will act. But it's not wholly accurate, right? Because you're not tapping into how they feel. And they're getting back to cognitive biases or stated bias. The way people describe what they're going to do sometimes isn't the reality of their instinctive reaction. So I like to use research techniques that combine the two when I have the opportunity.

Kelly: What I'm curious about and this is a little bit of a curveball, but what I'm curious about is, so right now, if we're talking about emotion, when we're talking about either surveying or talking to people or whatever the methodology you're using, there are a lot of people, let's be honest about it, maybe myself included. Some days that we don't know how we're feeling from on a day to day basis. I mean, sometimes my emotions can change hour by hour. And maybe you don't have the answer for this, but I'm assuming that you could at least lead us in the right direction. How do we account for the fact that people are either overwhelmed? They're feeling so many things, or they're actually pretty numb, and don't necessarily know how they're feeling? How do you get the information that you need as a brand in a situation like we're in right now?


Kevin: Well, it's such an important question. It's such a great question. And, like everyone else out there, I'm feeling it too just that time when things change on a moment to moment basis, because of all that we're dealing with right now. And I think that the answer to the question relies on flipping. Flipping the perspective a little bit. So you asked a great question about how do we tap into consumers. How do we do research? How do we understand what they're feeling? But we're all humans. We're all consumers. And as a marketer, the most basic thing you can do, just focus on how you want people to feel. Think about how you want people to feel, think about what is in your arsenal, what is in your product line, what can your brand do in the world right now to help people feel better? What is it that you do that makes your brand special, your business special? And how can you put that out there in a way that makes people feel better? I really think that that's the most important thing you can do with or without consumer research. You can probably figure out some good answers.


Kelly: Do you find that some of those answers are really just doing a lot of maybe North star vision, mission, purpose statements, things along those lines? I mean, even though those change, like we know that those change over the course of time, but do you think that some of those answers are embedded in doing some of that work with what you said before, part of the beginning of your engagements is to talk with the executives.


Kevin: Yeah.


Kelly: I would imagine that some of that probably comes up in those conversations.


Kevin: It definitely does. I mean, brands are never going to be static. They're going to start a brand. Any brand, any business started because a leader felt that there was something important that they can do in the world to make people's lives better. Let's give the benefit of the doubt that that's how these brands and businesses started. Sometimes they get a little off course. Sometimes the world around them changes, the dynamics change. And what I like to do when I'm entering a relationship with a client is help them focus. I like to help them focus on what makes them unique and desirable. What is it that they are in the world do for people to make their lives better? And then how can we start to express that in ways that give them that guiding light.


And then when we think about the flip side, which is the questions we already talked about, related to what the consumer is feeling and what the consumer needs, I like to create that intersection. I said the name of my business is Limbic Brain Evolution. Limbic is that part of the brain that controls emotion, motivation, behavior, and memory. And my objective when working with clients is to create what I call limbic sparks, and limbic sparks happen when your audience is emotionally motivated by what you're all about. So everything I'm doing when working with clients is looking at those two sides.


What is this brand all about? What is their purpose? What is their guiding light? How can we bring that out in a way that is meant to help people? And on the flip side, what is it that the consumers, the audiences they want to reach need, want, desire could use right now, whatever the right question is, and then how do we connect the two? How do we find ways for that intersection to happen, because we're talking here about how emotion dictates behavior. And if you're creating limbic sparks, you're tapping into emotions that people have and your driving behavior.


Kelly: Really, really good stuff. I love this conversation. Kevin, thank you. Thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate your time. And best of luck with everything.


Kevin: Thank you so much for having me on the show.

Start Watching

EP 76: The Sustainable Money Mindset, with Robina Bennion

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Robina Bennion uncover why the conversation around money is so difficult for creative leaders and how to transform one’s relationship with self-worth.




 EP 76: The Sustainable Money Mindset 

Duration: 19:57


Kelly: So welcome to this episode of Thrive, your agency resource. Today, I am actually here with Robina Bennion, a relationship coach for the soul, the self, and money. We are going to have an amazingly interesting conversation. Robina, thank you so much for joining me on the show today. I really appreciate it.


Robina: Thank you, Kelly. I am so excited to be here today.


Kelly: So today, we're talking about what we've determined we're calling the sustainable money mindset. And I'm kind of curious to know what that really means to you, and then how that sort of unfolded or manifested in your own life, bringing you to the career path that you've taken up to this point.


Robina: Sure. So to me a sustainable money mindset would be making choices with my money that I can maintain long term. Often the choices can be based on emotions or things that are happening unconsciously. And so I'm trying to be mindful of those choices and ensure that they're not coming from fear and I'm doing something that I feel like will benefit me in the short term. But really, if I look at it down the road, a couple of months, it really does not help me or my business. And for me personally, where I feel like I've implemented that in my life is when I left my career in public accounting. I'm a CPA. And I practiced for 23 years. I had gotten to a pretty high level in my career. So I was making a decent amount of money when I decided to transition out of that and that required me to make some big choices about my finances, and how was I going to structure things differently so that I could sustain my business in the long run.


Kelly: I'm curious to know, so it sounds like you were really successful with the CPA business. Did you choose to leave that because it just wasn't kind of feeding your soul anymore? It wasn't making you happy? Or what was the reason for that pivot?


Robina: Yeah, that's exactly what it was. I started working with a coach and I started answering questions that really I didn't even ponder which was, what do I want to do with my life?


Kelly: Oh I can relate.


Robina: Because I decided at 15 I was going to be a CPA. And that's what I did. And I just kept going forward and going on that path and doing everything that you're supposed to do within that career. I decided that when I was 15. I've changed a lot since then.


Kelly: I’m just laughing because literally we have the same exact track. I was like, I'm gonna be a graphic designer when I was 15 years old. And I was like, that's it.


Robina: Yes. It provided me a wonderful life but I got to a point where I wasn't happy. My career had kind of taken over. Whereas the majority of my career, I made it a part of my life, and then it became my life. So I was really unhappy with just who I was in general. And going down that path and asking the question of what I wanted, I realized, there's so much more that I feel I could be contributing to the world than just doing tax returns.


Kelly: Yeah. That's awesome. Yeah, we're definitely aligned. I think that this is such a resonant conversation for so many people who are listening, who are maybe owning creative or technology or media agencies, or other organizations. And I would bet a good number of the people listening are kind of nodding their head like, I've thought about that. But I've taken that thought, and I've really pushed it down because I don't want to look at that. Change is hard.


Robina: It is.

Kelly: Yeah. And I won't say that it was an easy process for me. It took me a long time to even decide to leave my career. I mean, 23 years is a big investment.


Robina: Yeah. I mean, that's almost basically your entire adult life.


Kelly: Right. So one of the things that I kind of picked up on from your website, which really, really struck me was woven into goals, dreams, and fears. There's always this underlying element of money. So the question there is, why is the conversation around money so difficult? I mean, it's difficult for maybe not every person, but it's difficult for a lot of people and specifically here we're talking about creative leaders, in whatever context you want to define that. But why is that conversation so hard?


Robina: I think I can only speak for myself personally. And I think part of it is that, again, there's these emotions that we don't even know that we have. There are beliefs and behaviors that we pick up early on. And then we kind of mimic them in our life in how we view money. Money isn't talked about. We talk about our relationships. We talk about our children, but we don't talk about money. And everybody has their own emotions woven into that, even how they set their goals and how they structure their business. Like you're saying, for creative people. I find when I work with creative people, they want to go into creative direction, but people would say, well, you can't make money out of that.


And there's this real love hate relationship with money and how it shows up in their business. And so I think there is this perception that when it comes to money, if you're not handling your money right, you're doing something wrong or people are just real private about it, like there's something to be ashamed of. And even for myself as a CPA, everyone would think, oh, you must have it all dialed in, you balance your books every month, and you're doing all of this. And so quietly, I was thinking, man, I must be doing something wrong because I had great spreadsheets. But my goals and my results, they didn't always line up. And that was the piece I felt I was missing like why are my goals and my results not lining up? And there was something happening at an underlying emotional level that was into all of that, that I wasn't aware of.


Kelly: Yeah. So I'm sort of talking specifically about that, a lot of the work that you do with clients is helping them create a guide to transform their relationship with money. So what does that often look like when you're working with someone?


Robina: Yes. So it's different for every client because every person is different, their history is different, and where they are currently is different. But I will take an example of one of the clients that I worked with when she came to me. She wanted help getting her finances kind of back in order. She had accumulated a little bit of debt and she tends to want to be debt free, and just wanted to help realign. But that was the same conversation that you and I were having, as she wasn't really happy in her career. And she wanted to make a transition in her career. It's all interwoven, because people are afraid to leave their jobs because of money, or they're not able to step up higher in their career or transition into a job that they're really qualified for, that they don't believe that they are.


So we started having conversations around all of that and what her end goal was, but it all started with going back to well, let's talk about your childhood and your life and events and look at what's happened and through that talk, through how those events have impacted the way that you're showing up today. And in that, when we first started talking, she didn't really share finances with her husband. They didn't talk about it. They maintained everything separately. So looking at where did that come from in her childhood? Why is she approaching her relationship with her husband that way around money? We just started uncovering all of that. And because we do that, I'm able to work with her, then when we get further down to create a guide for her, so that when something happens that can kind of rock the boat and get a little bit uncomfortable, it doesn't throw. It didn't throw her completely off track.

In fact, as we worked together for quite a while, towards the end, her husband got laid off from his job before all of this happens. So it allowed her to have a conversation with him. Even before then, they had started having conversations about money, they started putting things together jointly because she was able to identify where some of those fears were coming from and they weren't resting on him. They were resting in her, and then coming together working on their finances so that when they hit this rough patch, they're able to actually navigate it together. And she was able to do it with a lot less fear and a lot more comfort. But that's also in creating tools that were comfortable for her, because what works for me as a tool may not work for somebody else, and we have to take all of that into consideration. Otherwise, I'm setting them up for failure.


Kelly: Right. Yeah, it is about the holistic view. I know that we share a really, really similar approach and philosophy about how we can't look at these different things in our lives, whether it's money, or relationships or our businesses or whatever. We can't look at them as silos. Interwoven is a good word. Integration, but I think I guess just in our society, it's kind of like the things that are private, and more emotional, are over here in one bucket, and then who we show up at work with the perception that we convey to the external world has to be different.


Robina: Right.


Kelly: And I think that part of the world that we're living in now is that there is essentially a collapse of that happening in a really positive way that we can sort of let these guards down and start to really integrate these two, almost like different aspects of ourselves that we've created in terms of the differentiation but now they're coming back together. And I think it just makes for stronger relationships, like you say with yourself, and with money and with everyone else in your life so it's really good.


Robina: I was going to just touch that a little bit. And I agree, the one thing that I've been thinking about with everything that is going on, is there's not one person who isn't impacted. Whereas these last few years, I'm out in California, and we've had a lot of fires, but those fires impact a community. So while I may sympathize with where they are, I haven't been through it. So I don't necessarily know what it's like to lose your home whereas it's like we are collectively going through this. So it really opens the door to have a conversation with anybody, like how are you doing? How are you navigating this? How are you? How is your business? Like, I have business owners saying hey, can we talk this week? I'd love to know how other people are handling this, what's happening in business. And so, for me, personally, I'm enjoying that aspect of this. I can't say that I'm enjoying everything but at least that aspect makes my heart shine a little bit.


Kelly: Yeah, having the same experience. So kind of to bring it back a little bit to money and maybe business development. Having a business development strategy in order to increase our income and revenue on our companies, and to really develop that sustainable money mindset, that business development strategy is necessary. We can all agree on that. Some organizations don't have one. That's why they hire coaches and consultants and things like that. But having the strategy is not enough. So if an organizational leader, someone who is sort of sitting at the top of an organization has their own inherent self-worth or self-value issues, then any implementation of that strategy is really not going to be executed in the way that is going to set that organization up for success. So I want to talk a little bit about that because I think that’s something for whatever reason, we just have avoided. I don't know if it's just in the United States or if it's globally, but we avoid this conversation and I really, really want to talk about it.


Robina: Yeah, I agree with you but part of what I do is working with businesses and we have these plans in place, but we're not taking into account the emotional aspect of it. We're not looking at the whole picture and how it impacts the business. So what I do with business owners even, is like we break it down into compartments, and it's maybe you have your marketing piece and your sales piece. You have your administrative piece, you have your vision piece, and really how are you showing up in each of them. Because by looking at each of those components, you can see where maybe you're showing up the strongest and other areas where you're not. And with that awareness, then you can bring in somebody else from your team or if you need somebody from the outside and put them in place.


If they're stronger maybe in sales, for example, for creative people, I feel like for me, when I move into my creative space, it's a little bit more challenging for me to move into that marketing piece of it. Because I just don't feel as comfortable. So then it's, I might draw back from that. But having that awareness and knowing that whatever is happening in me, personally, is keeping me from pushing into that in the same way that I would another area of my business allows me to go out and get help from other people. But I think also it is just having an understanding, like, I'm just human, and it's natural, and that's going to happen in our business. But in order to move it forward, we have to also be willing to ask for help.


Kelly: Right. And one of the things that we chatted about a little bit earlier was this phrase that you've kind of coined like worthy is the new wealthy. I'm definitely stealing that. But I think it's great because I do think that this is where the conversation is going. I think we're going to be able to, and we've already started to see more emotional dialogue even in the context of business. And as we start to open up to other people, it gives us the permission to start opening up to ourselves. And if we realize that we have some issues around our relationship to money, and we've realized that that's rooted in self-worth, and we start to like really dig up all what's going on underneath the surface, if we can bring that up and start to really work through that, it really is worthy is the new wealthy. It says it all. So well done on that.


Robina: Thank you. I think it also helps when we start looking at that and I think identifying what it is that we're working against, but also understanding like this is something that came with us and we are truly worthy. And each person is, but it helps also to shift from that, like why is this happening to me? Like, how can I take this and turn it into something different? Like it changes the questions that we're asking. And I feel like when I just sit and say, well, why is this happening or why did that person do that, I'm almost just stagnant and dead in the water. I'm not making any forward motion in my business. But when I can move into like, okay, well, that happened, like I'm working with a company, and they're having to make some changes. And so I'm going to be one of those changes. And I could either be upset and say, well, why is this happening? Or I can just say, okay, well, how can I do something different in my business? Or how can I take this in and transform it into something new. That's the other thing that I'm looking at, like what new can I create in my business from this?


Kelly: Right. So as we are starting to wrap up a little bit here, how might you suggest that creative leaders start to take what we're talking about today, and sort of train for the marathon? Like this is a long term play. This is about change. It's about real change, very deep rooted like introspective change that's going to then extend itself to our relationship with money, how we run our businesses, all of that. How do we set people up for success for that long term play?


Robina: I think looking at it, just from what you're saying, like from a marathon perspective, is we have the tools; each person has those tools within them. They were running their business before we got to this point. Obviously, things are a little bit different in each person. It's different. But for me, personally, I went back to this plan that I created when things weren't kind of, going sideways so that I always had something to go back to. And it reminds me of doing marathon training. It's like I trained. I know what I need to do. I have the skills to do it. It is just like, don't be thinking about I want to get to the end faster. I want to make sure that I get to the end. So it's like creating a plan. I think of being, taking your time, don’t rush into stuff.


It's like I think of if you're in a storm, for example, and your boat is tossed around, your ship is tossed around, you don't just start setting sail in whatever direction. You stop when the water is calm. It's kind of like you get your bearing. You stop. You figure out what direction that you're going to want to go and then start charting the course to get there. So I do believe that's really important that as we come out of this and as every phase and whatever wave comes towards us, is even for myself personally is taking that moment to just get my bearings each time something happens so that I'm not making an emotional response. And I think another thing that I have found to be really important is having people that you can reach out to and connect with. If I share with people in advance like hey, this is kind of my plan if things go awry. Can you be there for me? Then we're supporting each other through that. And it's kind of like what I do is when I'm on a call with somebody, I can tell that everything is wrapped in emotion and they're not coming from that thinking part of their brain. It allows me to help guide them back on course, so that they're making choices from that thinking part versus from an emotional response.


Kelly: Right. Yeah, that's great advice. Well, Robina, thank you so much for coming on the show today. Really, really excited to have you on and really appreciate it.  


Robina: Oh I appreciate it too. Thank you.



Start Watching

EP 75: Integrating Feminine + Masculine as Leaders, with Emily Soccorsy

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Emily Soccorsy of Root + River get curious about how balanced feminine and masculine traits make the most effective leader




 EP 75: Integrating Feminine + Masculine as Leaders

Duration: 26:52


Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive. I am joined by Emily Soccorsy, who is the co-founder and strategist at Root + River, an intrinsic branding agency for defiant leaders looking to scale their brand around their mission. Today, we're going to be diving into the integration of feminine and masculine aspects of leadership. And I've been so looking forward to this conversation. So Emily, thank you so much for joining me.


Emily: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.


Kelly: So let's just, put it out there right from the beginning. The positioning of your agency is not like anything I have ever seen and that compelled me to be very drawn to it. So can you share sort of the path of how you arrived at it? Because it is just so different. It's so unique, and I'd love to just hear a little bit more about how that started. Maybe some of the work with your very first client.


Emily: Absolutely, yes. So thank you, because we work really hard to come at things from a different perspective and it comes naturally to us. But, yeah, let's see, 6 or 7 years ago, I was working. I was the VP of Corporate Communication for a human behavioral research company. And it had grown massively over the last 10 years in particular. So the brand was all over the place. I work directly with the CEO and he had 1000 ideas a day, and bought websites for all of them, bought URLs for all of them.


Kelly: I know not of what you speak.


Emily: Yeah, right. I remember I'd never forget, he handed me like the printout of all the URLs he had purchased. And I was like, wow, like, my God, Lord. And so I was really trying to get my arms around the brand in a very tangible way. My background is in journalism, mainly, and I get some PR mixed in there as well. And so I'm always looking for the story, right? I'm always looking for the lead. And it was just very difficult, very dynamic situation. And so, one of our major distributors knew somebody and he was a brand strategist. His name is Justin Foster, who ended up becoming my co-founder. But he and I began to have conversation around the brand, what it could be. He is brilliant and ended up bringing him into the company to help me sort of figure out what the brand was all about. When he came in, he did an amazing job. But he was like a street performer, right? He was playing guitar, hitting the drum kit, had the harmonica in his mouth. He's like facilitating and taking notes and doing strategy all at once and I just sat there going, that's pretty amazing, but I could make it so much better. And he had never really experienced someone like me where I was like, went up to him later and I'm like, this could be so much better. He's like, who are you? And let this conversation actually occurred. And I said, who are you? And so we have this like clashing of swords right away, but also, this deep alignment around the idea that every great brand is a spiritual experience. And people in business are so driven and they're so passionate, so spiritual in that sense, like they’re spirit is poured in their work, in their business.


Kelly: I like that you're redefining the word spiritual in this context.


Emily: Yes. I mean, that's how I deeply feel. I mean, having met hundreds of entrepreneurs and business owners. And yet, when it comes to articulating that, it's like a cliff. It's like they can't even navigate that paths themselves. And to me, that's a big injustice being a person who translates emotion into words just naturally throughout my life. So anyway, Justin and I had this meeting of the minds around this so he had a gig coming up and invited me. He's like, why don't you come join me for this gig? And, I'm gonna do my thing. I think he was maybe thinking he'd have another go and super impress me or whatever. But it was definitely this opportunity to work with somebody who is in the manufacturing industry in Chicago like hard-boiled Chicago guy. It was in Dallas, Texas. We rented like a conference room in a comfort suites or something like that, and spent the day and working with this guy, and going deep. I've always been an artist sketcher. Started college as a fine art major and left that behind. But it's always been a part of my soul. And I've always taken visual notes. So I just started taking notes in my notebook. And about halfway through the session, he's like, what are you doing over there? And I'm like, Oh; this is just the way I take notes. And he's like, well, can I see it? Like, yeah, sure. And so it was this moment of like bringing some worlds together. And at the end of the day, kind of immersed in our strategy and this deep dive into the soul. He was a puddle of tears essentially. And he said to both of us, I would have paid you 10 times what I paid you if I had known the power of what we were going to do. And we left the comfort suites. We got in the car. And it was just sort of that moment of like, exhale. And either I said, or Justin said, what was that? And the other person said, I don't know. But let's do it again. And it was just like, from there, we were sort of off and running. That was all we needed to realize this was bigger than both of us, and almost like a calling for us to come together and give people this missing piece, help them for that Canyon, and find a way to bring that energy of passion into the way that they articulated themselves in their business. So that has been what we call our intrinsic branding. We've played with the idea of calling it something else because it's so deep and it's pretty magical but it’s where we haven't done that.

Kelly: Yeah. I like the word intrinsic. I think, it's one of those memorable words that certainly like I said before, like compelled me to say I've never heard of an intrinsic branding firm. What are you talking about? Who are you? So yeah, learning a little bit about it certainly made me lean in. What I'm hearing is that there was sort of this balance or this dichotomy between you and Justin. And so I think, if you think about that, from the aspects of feminine approach, or feminine quality and a masculine quality, like being energy versus doing energy, we have this separatism around this. And what you showed just in that one story with that first client is that the magic and the power of what happens when you actually integrate the two of those because you need both of them.


Emily: Correct.


Kelly: I think that there's a lot of misconceptions in our culture about what feminine aspects and masculine aspects actually mean. I think that we have a lot of stigma around it. And I think that there's just a lot of misunderstanding and miscommunication. There was actually a book that you recently recommended to me Shakti Leadership. See that everybody? You have yours too. I mean, you told me about it. And I was like, I'm going right this second as we're talking to Amazon. But I actually wanted to share an excerpt from one of the books, early chapters, which is called transitioning from old to new, because I think that can sort of provide a little bit of basis for our conversation today. And something about it just really spoke to me. So I'm just going to read this if that's okay. There are structures and belief systems that have become rigid and calcified, causing people to behave in ways that are inconsistent with their humanity. This by no means makes us bad people. When we can look from the depth of our humanity and the humanity of others, we see that we’re all caught in some sort of a weird trance. If we can wake up from it, what’s waiting for us is love, compassion, forgiveness, commitment, courage and authenticity — true power. It’s just been blocked by the old way of doing things. There's something very powerful about that. And I think it's sort of embodies a lot of where we are right now. So just curious to hear your thoughts on that.


Emily: I agree. I love the word calcified.


Kelly: Yeah.


Emily: I love that because it is not cut off. The way that we did things in what we term, the old world and not in any derisive way. But in the way that things were, it is not concrete. It's just calcified. So there needs to be an energy through it and what else struck me out of what you read was looking from the depth of our own humanity. And I think that separateness really has been a division between that depth of humanity and everything else that we were doing and paving in life. And it was like this idea that we had to set that aside, really coming out of the industrial age, and even the imperial age of conquering and a lot of masculine energy and not in a bad way. Like that's why we have penicillin. Like, that's why we are able to have sophisticated water systems sanitation. Like there's so many beautiful things that came out of that. But we kind of did it in a very separate way in general.


Kelly: Yeah, it was imbalanced.


Emily: Yeah. And it was heavily weighted exactly towards that. And now we have this opportunity to sort of shake that off, break up that calcification, recalibrate from the deepness within us. And that's okay. That's actually what makes things easier and more difficult. Because I think there was another lie or another idea that was out there, that if you came from the depths of humanity, if you were that vulnerable, if you did show your spirit and your work, that was a dangerous thing. And I think that was true, because there were a lot of forces that wanted to bridle that energy. And in my experience, that has not been true for me. When I unleashed a little bit, and pushback against the way even I thought I was supposed to behave with those feminine qualities in a work setting, or even in my personal life; when I pushed back and I let it out, and I was unapologetic about it. That's when people rallied. That's when leadership was like, okay, let's try it your way. And so I really feel strongly that looking from the depths of our humanity at the way where we behave every day and that will lead to that loosening of those calcifications and new understandings of how we can be in the world, bringing the feminine, and also integrating the masculine. And Justin and I definitely do have that dynamic. And sometimes, we often say in our sessions, we set out what we call elements of trust, sort of create the space that we can work in. And one of them is there's no silent dissent. Silent dissent is this huge killer of ideas and momentum and breaking through to new ideas and understandings when we keep that dissent inside of us. But even in our relationship, we'll say like mom and dad fight, but they still love each other. Like we are going to have conflict where that is good, because we're bringing both of those energies forward and they do sometimes, but it's in the moment when they clash and then you keep moving.


Kelly: Yes.


Emily: That you keep integrating, and you keep searching and you release some things and you say, well, maybe that's overplayed there. Let's bring this in. Let's leave that out or no, this is the right way to go. Just that moment of collaboration. That's really where the magic happens. And for our clients, that results in better work for them.


Kelly: Yeah, I couldn't agree more. It's about having those difficult conversations, because there will always be difficult conversations. There's always going to be some whether it's in your personal life or in business with a client, a team member, whatever it is, there’s always going to be things that arise because everybody's bringing their stuff to the table. And so, if we have these difficult conversations, and we both can show up in a way where I'm going to listen to you, you're going to listen to me, I may not agree with you, but if we keep walking and we keep exploring, I think it's the exploration process where all of that magic is. And you relinquish a little. I relinquish a little. There's compromise. There's compassion and respect for one another. There's empathy on both sides of the table. But that's a practice, right? That's a practice. And having those difficult conversations or moving through conflict, whatever conflict means. It doesn't have to be aggressive. Conflict could just be, hey, this is how I'm feeling. And I know it's not gonna make you feel good to hear this.


Emily: Yeah.


Kelly: How can we move through this together? Are you in an emotional space right now where you're able to hear me? So this is all nuance, and I feel like as much as the society masculinity gets associated with power, I was absolutely of that mindset for pretty much my entire life. But now I'm on a completely different end of it where I'm like, no, all the power is in the femininity. And masculinity is for execution because we have to get something done. Like, we can't just all be staying in that being energy, but there's so much power in that.


Emily: I think the power right now is in the feminine because it has been so long sidelined and like pushed aside. And so we've neglected this power source that is available within all of us male or female. It's there. And so now it's something that you're finally coming back to, and it's this wellspring of opportunity. And it's like the masculine has just been so drained and so convoluted and used for other ends, manipulated in a way and it's really taken to the far extreme and I think that's an injustice to that masculine energy.


Kelly: Absolutely.


Emily: But I do feel that that power rising in the feminine and you mentioned too, it's how you come to the table and we're all ready to like have a coffee. But I think in actuality, people come to the table and they armor up. Like okay, we're going to have a conversation or we're going to dive into the soul of our brand, whatever the moment is, we just naturally armor up. And what I try to do in my life and work is just let down a little bit of those guards, let go of the old ways that are coming up. And one of our other elements of trust is you might be wrong. Have a beginner's mind. So this idea that whatever's coming out, like it might be, I might be dug into something, my ego might be leading here. I might be following an old way of doing things and it's okay in this moment to not attach to any of those ideas.


Kelly: Yeah, I think there's an element of surrender there. Right?


Emily: Yeah, absolutely.


Kelly: Surrender and grace. And these are things that we don't talk about in the business context. And I think we need to change that. I feel very strongly about that.


Emily: I think that's where the power lies, that's where the creativity begins. And for me creativity of power just like side by side. And that's what really comes through. And it's funny in our sessions with our clients, we say in the beginning, this is a time to let all the shit, bubbled up and been pushed down, whether it's emotional ideas, whatever stuff from your past, come up. Those are the moments when people allow themselves to do that and say, hey, guys, I'm not sure how this is relevant, but it's coming up for me. Let me share, that's when we start on the real path to finding something that's true and resonant. But it's that moment and you have to give yourself permission to go there. It's transformative.


Kelly: So your brand is basically well, let's put it this way, though. The way that you convey the services that you provide or the value that you provide is that you say, your brand is the culmination of your leadership decisions, right? So within that context, why is this integration between the feminine and the masculine aspects so vitally important?


Emily: It goes back to that division and I'm a huge fan of Parker Palmer. He writes about this in the Hidden Wholeness quite a bit. It's this idea that I'm a leader. I have leadership skills. Also, I have a company and that has a set of systems and processes, and oh the brand, this other separate thing.


Kelly: Silos.


Emily: Yeah, exactly. Right. And, no, it's all in one messy jar. I like mixing together all the time. And it's our rational mind constantly trying to separate them out and that's really a fool's errand. I mean, it really is. So the more we can go okay with all of that together, we often say that brand is the only thing in your work that touches every other thing. So how you live your life, how you live your work life, which is one of the same again, it is your brand. So your being the way you are a leader is the way your brand is. Our definition of brand is how other people experience what you believe. And I don't know a successful leader who doesn't have a set of beliefs that are guiding her and a lot of times they're guiding them in a very covert way, not that they're being hidden, but they're in a unconscious way. They haven't sat down and really done that deep work in their soul to say, this is what I believe, here's why I chose that word, and here's how I'm going to live it out. And they may have gone through a values process, but typically those are just again, done in a silo mentality. And they're done without the silos mentality and now we know that as a leader like one of our beliefs at Root + River is in beauty. And so the standard that's associated with that is create every day. And for me, that's like a constant reminder, a mantra. If I believe in beauty, what have I created today? How can I add beauty into this thing that we're working on? And so that is where as a leader, if you're tapping into the masculine, the feminine, consistently and you're really being mindful of how those are showing up in your beliefs, you can create a truly integrated leadership and brand style that will be also very genuine to your values and what moves you. And so it is a practice as you said earlier, but the main thing is like, do it in a way that it's all welcome. It's all one thing and there is no separation between your leadership style in your brand.


Kelly: Right. So just maybe to give some examples like how does that show up or guide creatives with respect to living their mission in their lives and their businesses? As you said, one in the same. Like, what are some examples as to like how they can really embody that mission, and then sort of transmit that or convey that in their lives.


Emily: So, again, kind of broken record here. It starts with the deep work of understanding truly what your mission is. And we often tell people, your mission, people will say in sessions, okay, do you mean like my personal mission or like for the company? It's like, yep. One in the same. Your personal mission, which in our definition is the thing you're here to do that only you can do, that has a direct line of sight into your work, into your agency.


Kelly: Does that show up like in the way that they build cultures? Does that show up in the way that they communicate with clients?


Emily: Yes, it should inform. It will inform the client experience. It will inform the culture inside of your institution, or your team. So for Root + River, our mission is to inspire leaders to go inward. It means the top and the bottom. Like if we're not doing that every day, then we failed. And also, if we do that in a way that will make a dent in the universe, like it will expand out and change people's mindsets. And so every day we're like, okay, is what we're working on inspiring them to go inward, and we're getting really practical, which we love to do. So let's add some magic back in here. Let's pause. Instead of telling, let's have them do a journaling exercise. So really can help be this wonderful guideline to help you make sure that you're being very mindful about the brand experience that you're creating every day.


Kelly: So it's almost like a measurement against the actions, the verbiage, like how we're showing up every day as leaders, in every context of leadership or life or whatever you want to talk about it. But it's a measuring stick of how are we showing up and are we truly integrating these two different aspects of ourselves, that feminine, that masculine.


Emily: Yes. Another client that we have. Her name is Suzanne Daniels. She is the owner of Brentwood Social House in Austin, Texas, which is a gathering space, tea, coffee in Austin. Her personal mission is she believes people need a place to experience love. They need more places to experience love. And so she has made Brentwood, this place where people can come and feel loved. And so that goes into every aspect, the food she serves. She recently added a play structure in the back of the facility so that families could come, so that people feel welcome to bring young children, that people weren't like locked in. And she's carrying that out right now even during the pandemic time. So she’s doing obviously takeout and she has blackboards out where people can leave messages of things. And the way that she's operating in this time in particular still focused on how am I going to make people feel loved when they're coming here to buy their coffee or their tea. So really informs the brand experience. And, when it's so emotional, we often say like our rubric for mission, it's got to be evocative of emotions. Because if you don't feel it, nobody else is gonna feel it either. It's got to evoke emotions. And it's got to be big enough to make a dent in the universe. And here's the tricky one Kelly. Your mission will bring up insecurities for you. It's tough. It's like, am I big enough to do this? So those are some guidelines to help people understand like the depth they need to go to understand what that mission is.


Kelly: Yeah. So I always like to ask as we start to wrap the conversation up, what piece or pieces of advice would you give to leaders who are just starting to consider all of this new language and the idea of integration of their authentic selves?


Emily: Well, this has been really helpful for me lately. So I love to share things that have resonated. So recently, I read The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist, and there was a line in there that we appreciate. And as a very driven individual, myself, I like to move fast. I like to get things done, and I'm very driven to be excellent at all I do. And I think in that pace, and that mindset sometimes really robs me of slowing down to appreciate whether it's things that I need to still work on, or excellent things I put out there and just sort of cast aside, to move onto the next thing. And I think looking at our abilities and looking at our masculine and feminine traits and how they're showing up, taking a moment to pause and appreciate the way we have showed up and then look at how we might show up in the future is an example of how we can appreciate what's within us and then let it go forward and then build upon itself and iterate in maybe more impactful ways. So I'd offer that up. That taking a moment to appreciate what you've done, where you've been, and then appreciate where you are in the moment and where you want to go. And really I love the word appreciate because it's not about self-gloss. It's not about being promotional or leaning too heavily on your strengths. It's about what we appreciate will grow for us. And that's a practice.


Kelly: Absolutely. I love that. Well, Emily, thank you so much for being here with me today and I use the word being on purpose. This is the conversation. This is where it's all going. So I really appreciate it.


Emily: It was just a pleasure to be with you. Thanks, Kelly.


Kelly: Thank you.


Start Watching

EP 74: Where Fearless Negotiation Starts, with Mori Taheripour

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Mori Taheripour, author of Bring Yourself, talk about what it really means to negotiate fearlessly. They discuss how mindful listening, curiosity, honoring one’s self, and the reciprocity of respect for one another’s value all play into the most successful negotiation



 EP 74: Where Fearless Negotiation Starts 

Duration: 20:84


Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive. I'm super excited for today's show because I'm actually joined by Mori Taheripour, author of Bring Yourself: How to Harness the Power of Connection to Negotiate Fearlessly. She's also an award-winning executive and educator and this is the book. Very excited. Just came out in March. Mori and I actually met because she was the negotiations instructor for my cohort when I was in the Golden Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program in 2016. And she's literally been like in my ear through a renegotiation since then. So Mori, thank you so much for coming on the show. It's great to see you again.


Mori: I am so excited to be here. Thank you for inviting me.


Kelly: So first, congratulations on publishing Bring Yourself: How to Harness the Power of Connection to Negotiate Fearlessly. I actually digested it over the last week and actually sent a copy to one of my clients who thanked me a million times over. It was sort of for me like a deep refresher. Your course, obviously it went much more in depth in the amount of time that we were able to spend together with Goldman Sachs. But it was a deep refresher. And it also aligned with so much of what I've come to know and believe right now. So did you finally just kind of like surrender to the call to write this or how did it come about?  


Mori: So it's really interesting because I feel like this chapter of my life that I've been into teaching. Now, the book, not only had been planned, I mean, it's sort of I stumbled across the teaching opportunity. Actually, I was sort of talked into that because I thought at the beginning, I was like, there's no way I am an introvert, like I'll melt in front of a classroom. And as they say, some people see something in you that you don't see in yourself. And so, I'm thrilled that I actually took that leap. And at some point, I started getting especially actually out of the Goldman Sachs program. They told me like something really special is happening in the classroom. And even though I felt it at Wharton, it became really sort of this dominating thought in my mind every time I left the classroom.

And I think it's because I've been an entrepreneur for such a long time that there was something like coming home in every classroom, almost like wanting to take care of people not to, as mothers often do with their kids. I want to make sure they don't make the same mistakes I made. It was some of that. But it’s just something transformative happened and with like the magic of every classroom, with the feeding of my soul, if you will, every time I sort of stepped into the room, I also became really aware of the fact that my students and this happens important too, but really, my students in the classroom see more of me than anybody else does.

I have more of myself and allow myself to be real, authentic and open and vulnerable in a classroom, which most people never see outside the classroom. So people who know me professionally, they don't see that side of me. So it makes you start thinking, what is it and how can I capture this? And John Rogers from Goldman Sachs, program, chairman of the foundation, said, “Why don't you go ahead and write a book.” And that’s literally the beginning of this conversation. I was like, a book. That's why I was pre-med in college because I took exams. I didn't write. But it was that little push that made me start thinking about it. It's been a long haul. It's been a long process, but it really started with what was happening in the classroom and thinking, I need to capture this. And then the book became an obvious choice for it.


Kelly: Right. And I think, most people would agree that you talked a little bit in the book about active listening versus mindful listening. It sounds like maybe in some ways, there was like mindful listening that was happening when you were hearing these things from other people, right? But just to talk about those foundational aspects in terms of negotiation for a minute, what is the difference between those two? And why do we need both of them?


Mori: So I think that active listening is always good, because it not only works for you, right? You're hearing more, you're sensing more. You're remembering more. I mean, absolutely. Especially when you do things like repeat what somebody just said, you're completely present. You're hearing everything they're saying, but you’re also I feel like it's settling it, like this is something you're not going to forget because you're doing whatever strategies people do to sort of actively engage in this conversation. I think mindful listening is something to that higher level, if you will, I mean, just the whole notion of mindfulness and stillness, if you will. You could be actively listening but still somewhere in the back of your mind.

That could be something that is sort of driving the conversation, driving your intention behind the conversation. Whereas I feel like mindful listening is really the quieting of all that in some ways. And the whole presence of your persona, I guess. You’re there sort of fully emotionally. You're sensing things. The whole emotional connection, emotional intelligence piece sort of comes in. And I don't even know once you practice it enough, I don't even know if it's something you have to be intentional about, because I think it sort of clicks into that when this becomes a big part of how you engage with people.


Kelly: Right, it becomes natural.


Mori: Right, but I think it's the connection of the two. One is much more active obviously. And the other one is really, I want to say it's complete. It's like every part of your sensory sort of jump in and take over and I think if you can do both, then it's great. Sometimes you can get really caught up in something and you're there mindfully. But, two days later, you're like, God, I wish I remembered that sentence that she said, which is like, the active listening part. But the two together are hugely important, I think.


Kelly: Yeah. And you talk a lot about, which I think is kind of a bit of an extension, like curiosity and presence and the combination of those two things, which a lot of people wouldn't typically associate with negotiation. But why is that combination so critical? I mean, obviously, the way that you're talking about this is there are so many layers and different aspects that over time become more natural as you develop your negotiation skills, but why curiosity and why presence?


Mori: Oh presence, that part is just easier based on what I just talked about in terms of the listening. To shut off distractions. I know you remember the no electronics rules in my classroom.


Kelly: I remember it very well.


Mori: And here we are, everything's electronic now, but it was so important to me to have people understand in my classroom that these distractions that we have around us, whether it's your phone, your watch, your iPad, your computer, TV, that now there's so many things that hold our attention, that we've become really good at getting a lot of information. But there's no depth to the information, right? So when you can practice, again, mindfulness being fully present. So the power of noticing everything around you, that I think is incredibly strategic in negotiations, obviously.

But it's also the thing that lets people know that you're seeing them and you're hearing them and you're messaging, everything your messaging says, this is a really important conversation fully present with you here. Nothing's more important. So that sort of goes to the curiosity piece. Because I think there's nothing more dangerous than to come into negotiations and think I'm so prepared, that there's really nothing else I need to learn, right? Like, I know exactly what I want. I know everything that I need to get to this deal. And so, you lead with that. Because, I was talking about compensation. I reserve the right to be smarter by the time we're done talking. So, I could have been wrong. I could have not seen something. I could have had biases that unintentionally, even in this conversation that that precluded me from seeing a better deal, a bigger deal, a better relationship. So I think the notion of curiosity says open your heart, open your mind. We don't know everything. And the more you go in, authentically curious, the more you can actually benefit from it. Very strategic.


Kelly: Right. And it's almost like, if you go in, like you said before, if you go in with this mindset of like I know exactly, I know all of the information, and I know exactly what the outcome is going to be or what I am hoping that my outcome is going to be, it doesn't leave any room for all of these other more creative solutions that the two of you can come together during that information exchange.

Mori: Right. And everybody has so much to offer us. I mean, we all have so many different experiences that I think curiosity level, to be honest with you, I think people has to be, what do you think is the number one characteristic of a great negotiator? I think I always lead into curiosity, because I think it has so much sort of involved in it like true curiosity means empathy. Curiosity means respect. Curiosity means openness to learning and understanding. And it’s powerful. It really is.


Kelly: Yes. And there's also a place of self-reflection in that too. Taking that sort of curiosity-driven approach to understanding others, and then kind of turning that inward. It sounds like your contention is that it's actually important for the management of emotions, which actually makes for better negotiators. Right?


Mori: Yeah, but not void of emotion. For so long, we've been told there's no place for emotions in negotiations, right? It's not personal. You can bring that with you into the conversation. But the truth is that we are not robots, right? And if you don't make room to at least recognize your emotions, then most people, especially if emotions get heightened, you get angry, you are joyful, whatever it is, they start kind of taking over without you even really noticing it. And you said it perfectly.

You have to turn that curiosity onto yourself and say, what is it that I'm feeling, what's important to me in this conversation. And, obviously there are emotions that are attached to that, and be prepared for them. So when you're walking into the conversation, you've already had that level of preparation where maybe you're even expecting it, maybe it's somebody that, there are those people that trigger us. And they always have. So, there's no reason to believe that this conversation is also gonna trigger you. So since you know that, be prepared for it, know how you're going to sort of take it in and how you're going to react to it. And again, it comes from turning that curiosity on yourself when you're preparing and saying, I can work with this. It's not gonna surprise me, but there's room for it, because I'm human.


Kelly: Right. I would love to spend some time on talking about sort of the end result of negotiation because I think there's a lot of misconception. I certainly was guilty of this before I took your class, like understanding what successful negotiation means. Sometimes, I think people come to the table thinking that in a successful negotiation, it means that I'm the one who's going to like, beat the other person in this game that we're going to play. Right? I think other people can see that there's a win-win scenario. But the caveat is actually that the best negotiations are the ones that could be defined as the most successful are when neither party is actually 100% happy. Right? So talk a little bit about that.


Mori: I think there’s a bigger conversation that sort of has to happen in our society about what winning really means. The word tends to really move towards more masculine characteristics. And so the aggressiveness, being goal focused.


Kelly: Dominance.


Mori: Anything else, the dominance, right? So I think it's time for that because I also think that that's really what leads people into this this misperception about what does winning really mean? Because if that's winning, it's limited, right? Nobody really enjoys negotiating with a very aggressive sort of bully, like a person who has no room for you. Like it's all about that, right? That's not fun. So what that does is it limits the potential for long term opportunity, right? We want to do business with people we like I always say, right? And so is it winning then when two people can come to a conversation and so enjoy the experience? Not yet even the result, but the experience of the conversation, getting to know somebody by connecting; that let's say a deal is not possible, right? Because somebody may not have the resources.

Maybe it's not the right time. But when you walk away you think, okay, not this time. Like I want to go back to that person when I have a bigger budget. Or maybe they move and go to another company where they do have a bigger budget. And so you're the first person they're going to call when the opportunity arises. To me, that's really winning, because in perpetuity, you've established a relationship of sorts, a trust, somebody that you want to go back to. And I think that that comes from a whole different set of characteristics; that comes back to the curiosity and the empathy and the connection and the value being put on the relationship as opposed to the outcome.


Kelly: Right.


Mori: There has to be room for both people.


Kelly: Right. Absolutely. And it's almost like what you're also saying is like thinking about it in the terms of sales and marketing and things along those lines. It’s like, really looking at what the definition of the lifetime value of a customer is or a client. Yeah, it's really, really interesting when you start to contextualize it that way. It's so much more about the long term, the long game, that relationship that's really rooted in authenticity. For sure.


Mori: Well, yeah. As you said, this whole notion of win-win is that it can't possibly at all times be that both of you come in and you get 100% of what you want it, right? It's not possible. But when you actually, I'll use this word because like, you have to sort of enjoy experiences, like they have to satisfy you in some form. But when you enjoy that experience, then you approach it in a way that becomes more about problem solving and making this work, as opposed to I can't wait to walk away and get everything and then comes in compromise, and then comes in conversation. So that's how you get to that true win-win.


Kelly: Right. Just out of curiosity, have you ever read The Infinite Game? Simon Sinek.


Mori: I hope so, yes.


Kelly: You did read it? Yeah. I feel like the way that he talks about the fact that there are so many games, that there is no such thing as winning, it just struck me when you said that. You're like, I hate that word.


Mori: Right. Because it's so complex. People are complex, right? There's so many layers to that onion, that even think about yourself different points of your life. What made you happy five years ago, would it necessarily make you happy today?


Kelly: Not even a little bit.


Mori: Right. So if you leave enough room to be able to go back and say, that works for me, then can we reevaluate this deal? That wouldn't be possible if the person's like, I don't ever want to see you again.


Kelly: Right.


Mori: But if now there's some foundation there, then sure. Yeah, let's look at this again. Maybe it is time for us to reevaluate. And that comes with that first sort of experience with someone.


Kelly: Yeah. There's actually a line that you wrote sort of early in the book, maybe in the first 20 pages that just struck me so much, and it kind of stayed with me throughout the book and the way that I read is I kind of underline different things. And I just want to read this because I think this is kind of an interesting way to sort of wrap up a little bit. You say, “It's not opportunistic so much as it’s strategic. It's also about honoring yourself and the value you're expending. A transaction is never just about a financial gain, but rather about the reciprocity of respect for one another's value.” That line to me was almost like the encapsulation of the entire book. Right? Because it's not about that. It's so much more about like you're saying. It's about the joy and the experience. I mean, there are going to be negotiations that are difficult, but we can find moments of connection and moments of at least coming away from these discussions, even the hardest conversations with like being seen, heard, understood, being valued by the person sitting across from us, or the person on the other end of the phone. At the end of the day, isn't that what negotiation really is? And it doesn't have to be just from a business standpoint. I mean, we're talking about negotiation with our partners, with our kids in all aspects of our lives. Isn't that really what it's all about?


Mori: I think so. In that particular excerpt, I think what I was also trying to say is that, and as you turn it back on yourself, and give yourself permission to take care of yourself, because that has to be a part of this equation. And that's why I said it's not opportunistic on either side. It is strategic, but in a way that sort of dictates again, benevolence and kindness and respect and leaves room for the future. This was all about why do we limit these opportunities to just one conversation, when there's so much more to gain from these connections and these conversations, that negotiation has to become something that makes you whole, I think. And people sometimes think it's very Pollyannaish to me, but I think we can dictate how we want these conversations to go. I think we can dictate how we want our role to be if not us, then who? And I think that we need it. I think there's room for it. And I think we're better for it. And I think we see that today more than ever.


Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. Well said, well, Mori, thank you so much for having this discussion with me. I wish you all the continued success on your first book and I say first because I do think that there maybe more coming.


Mori: I don't know. It's like it's giving birth to a very large baby but I love the experience and thank you so much. I can't tell you how happy I was that you like the book and enough to even give it to a client. So I'm grateful for that. It was great seeing you again.


Kelly: I mean, I didn't like the book. I loved the book. And yeah, and for everyone, I will post the information in the show notes. It's obviously on Amazon, but I'll post the link so that you can get your own copy as well and I highly recommend it. Thanks Mori.


Mori: Thank you so much. Thanks Kelly. Take care of yourself.

Start Watching

EP 73: Anti-Racism and Our Human Agency, with Ben Guttmann

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Ben Guttmann, founder of Digital Natives, model a difficult conversation on racism. They talk about the importance of listening, educating ourselves, observing our own biases, and leaning in to create an equitable future through our work




 EP 73: Anti-Racism and Our Human Agency

Duration: 33:34


Kelly: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Thrive, your agency resource. Today we're talking about anti-racism. And my guest is Ben Guttmann. He's the co-founder of Digital Natives Group. He's also an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College and an active community member with Long Island City and Queens Economic Empowerment and Development Groups. Ben, I am so grateful to have this conversation with you. Thank you so much for being here.


Ben: Thanks Kelly. Looking forward to it.


Kelly: So before we get started, I want to say a few things. I want to say that this was a very conscious decision to have this conversation between two white people. I feel strongly that inviting a black or brown person into a forum to have a discussion about racism is a little short sighted because racism is a white issue. It's been a white issue for over 450 years.


And something interesting that happened in finding a guest for the show, my naiveté left me a little bit surprised as to how many other white men declined having this conversation. They declined because they were uncomfortable. They declined because they said that they felt ill prepared, that they didn't know what to say. They feared saying the wrong thing. I get it. But my hope is that today's episode can be a small model for change in that regard.


 We are certainly going to say the wrong things. We are not going to use the proper terminology every time. But my stance is that silence, not having a conversation about racism, oppression, privilege, inequality, or imbalance of power, that's a lot worse than making any mistakes that are going to happen in this discussion.


So to everyone who's listening, I thank you for listening. And I encourage you to start talking more openly, more candidly with your friends, your family members, your colleagues, commit to looking at your own biases, and then take some small action in the right direction, especially as a creative leader. There's no more important role that you have in this moment. And each day for the rest of your lives than this.


So with that, let's dive into it. If it's okay with you, I think it's a great place to start by level setting, what racism is and what it is not. So yeah, let's talk about a little bit of that—racism versus bigotry versus discrimination prejudice—it's defined in a lot of different ways.           What do you think about that?


Ben: Yeah, what you said before, just echoing that, talking about people who were not interested because they'll be ill-prepared or saying the wrong thing or don't know what to say, I am as imperfect as anybody else, and I am going to say the wrong thing, ill-prepared and don't know what to say.


It’s an incredible moment we were talking before the podcast about how this doesn't all happen unless this all happens. We don't have this rising consciousness and reaction to the events with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, if we didn't have what happened with Amy Cooper and Chris Cooper, if we didn't have what happened before that, and if we didn't have 40 million people unemployed and people who don't have to go to work the next day, necessarily, so you don't have this type of consciousness about that. And we were also talking about being able to both participate over the past few days and some of these actions that were happening. And it's disheartening that it had to happen. But it's disheartening that it did happen and some of those reactions.

In terms of defining what racism is, I don't quite know. There's lot of definitions of it. I'm sure that I have been guilty at some point in my past of implicit racism or implicit bias at some point. And, that’s a struggle.


Kelly: Yeah, I remember sitting in my, it was a sophomore social studies class in high school. And the social studies teacher was pretty progressive. He really pushed us and whatever the curriculum was, we were talking. And I remember he started off this one particular class and he said, raise your hand if you're racist. And it was a pretty diverse school, but everyone looked around. Nobody's hand went up, except for Jose, who is sitting right in front of me. Jose's hand showed up, and I was like, I'm sitting right behind him. And I remember thinking, oh my God, Jose is a racist.


And the teacher illustrated this beautiful point. He was like Jose for the rest of the term, for the rest of the semester, whatever it was, you will get straight A's or whatever it is because you're the most honest person in this class. And I remember it changing my perception when we went into the entire curriculum about racism and civil rights and everything. I think, at this point my understanding of racism is that it's a white issue, because of this self-perceived superiority because of power and because of self-ascribed privilege. Those are the three things that I can sort of have as like an underpinning as my understanding of racism. I don't know how that resonates with you.


Ben: Yeah, I like what you just said in terms of it's a structure. It’s not somebody going out there and saying this word, that word, or the other word. It’s about being a system that is so fundamentally built upon economically, government wise, socially, upon a foundation of that inequality. I'm a straight white guy and I'm Jewish. So that's a whole other can of worms. That's not quite the same thing in any stretch of the imagination. But I walk down the street and my life is so much easier. And then everybody that doesn't check all those same boxes doesn’t have to face the same biases when I'm talking with a client.


People don't run away from me or look over their shoulder when I’m behind them on the street at night. All these things that I did, it's just easier for me. And part of the challenge is for people to acknowledge that, to say, I have had as many benefits as somebody can have. That's a challenge a lot of times for a lot of people.


Kelly: Right. And similar to you saying you're straight and white, and Jewish. I mean, I'm white and gay and a woman. So I have a couple of boxes “checked” against me, but I still have the exact same experience that you have. I have that privilege. I don't have to worry about driving across the country, worrying about what towns I can and cannot stop in, for the most part.


Yeah, there are so many things that we just take as the normal because you nor I will ever have any idea what it's like to be brown or black in America. We will not ever have those experiences. So I feel like this past week was a really great entrance into like listening, like really hearing but then really listening, listening to black voices, listening and giving platform and just the credit where credit's due.


I mean, listening, educating ourselves, reading whatever we needed to do because it's not the job of black or brown people to educate white people on racism. I feel pretty strongly about that, which is why you're here and it's not someone who's black or brown. I don't know. I think it sort of dovetails into the conversation or the question of why is it so uncomfortable. Why did I have to go through five or six or seven people to find someone who is willing to have this conversation? Why do you think racism is such a difficult conversation for white people?


Ben: So I grew up in a town in Long Island that was 98% white. It was literally one of the most segregated places within the entire country. And then I moved to the city and I go to CUNY. I go to Baruch College where I now teach. I'll talk about that stuff later, which at different points was named the most diverse school in the entire country. And so there’s an incredible culture shock going from such a cocooned environment like where I grew up in Smithtown to being at Baruch and meeting people from places I've never even heard of in my 17 years or 18 years from that point.


And one thing that's been kind of stewing a little bit in my mind is that a lot of people especially when they are in a segregated environment, a lot of white people who don't have any sort of real interaction with any sort of diverse communities, I noticed we're color blind, you're colorblind, I don't see color, and it doesn't matter. I didn't see that person's black or brown or whatever. That’s just silly.


Kelly: That's policy. Yeah.


Ben: It's policy. And the other thing that comes to mind is the idea of a melting pot which is great in some ways, but one of the best classes I took while at school was taught by Mario Cuomo, the former governor of state and he gave a little talk about, it's the mosaic of New York, it's the mosaic of America, it's not the melting pot.


It's not about blending everything together and getting rid of the differences and getting rid of the individuality, but it's about how each together produces a beautiful whole. And, instead of saying I don't see color, acknowledging that there is color, acknowledging that there is institutional racism, that there's benefits you get, with everything we've been talking about that is not only going to be anti-racist in this regard, but it's ultimately going to lead to a better end outcome in terms of the celebration of the diversity of who we are.


Kelly: Yeah, I think the conversation is difficult or uncomfortable for people we said at the top of the show because there's this idea that I don't know what to say. I fear from a reputation standpoint if someone's going to look at me differently. I don't feel prepared for it. But I think that there's conscious and unconscious privilege, guilt and shame for a lot of white people. Our ancestors had slaves, and now we're in this 450 years later of a situation where maybe I didn't directly participate in that, but the world that I live in, certainly feels very imbalanced.


So I think it's that. And then I think there's confusion between learned biases and the desire that most of us have. I assume or believe that most people are good at the core. So there's confusion between these learned biases and the desire to love and treat all people equally. And like you said, there’s that interesting conversation about not being a melting pot, really leaning into that mosaic. We're not trying to blend together. I had this conversation.


I started a project called spiritual shadowboxing, which is just like a little video series that we've been doing. And I recently had an episode recorded with a reverend. And here's somebody who said, “How do you reconcile the difference between oneness, we're all one, and the reality of the fact that we're not all one.” And he said, “Well, I do believe that we are a one, but I do not believe that we are the same. And that's okay. The issue comes in where there's the imbalance of that power.”


And I think that's what we need to look at. That's what we need to talk about, recognizing that there is that imbalance of power, and that there needs to be some type of re-distribution. That's what inherently what racism is all about.


Ben: Yeah. I think that's a really interesting way of putting it. And you mentioned the idea of redistribution. One thing that comes up in different kind of policy circles and talk about racial equity in the past has been the idea of preparations. What do you do in terms of that? And that's obviously, you talk about thorny subjects that may be the thorny subject of all of them, but I mean, there's been a lot of interesting discussion about is it justified. Maybe it is something that makes sense. Maybe it's worth studying. It's worth looking at.


Other policy things that ends up being, I know we're going to talk about this a little bit later but in terms of how we individually go about acting on these things. I mentioned before, I'm involved with several different economic development or r civic organizations. Here in Queens, the community board of the Queens Economic Development Corporation. That’s the way personally which I begin to activate on a lot of those things. And there's been talks now about the defunding the NYPD and how do we do something like that. How do you repeal 50-A here in New York State?


Things that weren't discussed a month ago. I'm on the community boards. We put budget priorities for our community every year and then they get commented on by the mayor's office. And we got a letter back with the commentary on the most recent one and it said…I didn't remember this. But six months ago or eight months ago, we all voted on saying new precinct for the local police precinct, the local NYPD precinct, here in Long Island City.


So, we had our most recent meeting about a week ago. We said, it was brought up without necessarily any objection, which I'm surprised from a group like that. We maybe deemphasized this. This shouldn't be what we're doing. So it's amazing to kind of see change. We passed a referendum in favor of Black Lives Matter and all the movements associated. We passed that unanimously. Again, when I joined that organization five years ago, I couldn't have imagined something like that being supported. And so these policy ideas are getting more traction, kind of by the hour almost, which is really incredible.


Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. So then shifting, we started off talking about racism. What do we mean by anti-racism? Because I think that there's a lot of confusion about that term. I came across a definition of it. I'd love to hear from you, if you want to talk about that first, and then I can share the definition that I came across that resonated more so with me, but I can let you talk about that.


Ben: I agree with the thing that you're going to read. We talked about that before, but what we've been talking about largely, I think has been about anti-racism. It's not enough to just say, well, I'm not a racist. I don't say these things. I don't support that organization X or Y. But it's about how do I proactively deconstruct or who can work to make a more equitable society.


So you can't be passive in it. You have to be active in it. How can you do it with your words, your thoughts and your actions?

Kelly: And your wallet, if you have the capacity in your wallet. So yeah, so this definition that I came across. Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies, practices, and attitudes. So that power is redistributed, and shared equitably.


I really love that definition. I think it's the strongest one. I think it covers the gamut of what it actually means. And I think for me, the pivotal and most poignant word in there is active process, because it's not something that you do for a week. It's not something that you do passively. So I think, there's definitely alignment there. And getting definition out there and having people understand more about what it actually means because people think, well, I'm not racist. I'm anti-racist. And then they take a passive stance. So you can't have both.


Ben: Yeah, hundred percent. That's a great way though.


Kelly: So talk a little bit more about the civic volunteer experience, because I think that that can actually help people in understanding as we sort of transition the conversation from not being passive to taking action. We talked a little bit about, maybe donating to anti-racist causes, community causes in your local community that would have the greatest impact, educating yourself. Listening. We can do all of these things, but from the civic standpoint, what are some of the ways in which you think that we can be supportive allies from a servant leadership perspectives.


Ben: So, as you just outlined, everybody has their own preferences and their own comfort level of doing different things. And if that just means I'm going to support a black-owned business versus somebody else, that's one way of doing it. If it's volunteerism, if it’s donations or fundraising, if it's hosting talks with your friends and family and doing that. I know people that do all of those things, and to varying degrees, I participated in all of those things.


For me, personally, and for anybody that's interested, I have been a big advocate for this issue and for other issues of being involved in the local political process and local government process. People pay a lot of attention to who's president. They pay a lot of attention to maybe who rather controls the Senate or the House, and those are all very important. But when you look at what actually matters in your day to day lives, your local and state government is actually probably about 10 times more influential on what happens when you walk out the door today.


It talks about, your school, your school board and who's chancellor or superintendent of schools. What is the curriculum that flows from that? The police department, as we've been talking about a little bit, when you look at city budgets for police department around the country, there's been a lot of discussion where a lot of cities are just police departments with some poorly funded social programs on the side. It's, 70%, 60% of the budget of a lot of cities in this country is the police department.


And there's almost nothing for housing and education and civil rights and social justice. Everything else that goes along with that on. So, I know people listening to this may be in all across the country of the world. And so there's going to be varying ways which you can get involved. At the very least you should register to vote, if you're Eligible through and you should vote in every election, because every four years the president is elected, that's great. But talking about New York City every two years is a legislative election. On those odd years, wide elections for governor and comptroller, anything else.

The local election in New York City is every four years but on the odd number of years in terms of 2021 its going be the next election for that. If the people that show up to those have a disproportionate voice than the ones that show up just every four years, because a lot less people vote in those elections. And so if you're sitting those out or whatever, as long as Trump isn't president, I'm fine or whatever. That's not going to be enough. You have to make sure the local leadership is somebody that actually represents your values.


And then beyond that, you have to hold them accountable. You have to be able to call and write into them. You have to be able to see them at their town halls. If you’re in a place like New York City, go to your community board meetings. Join your community boards. These low level things that can be very long, but they are those places, those are the rooms where things begin to actually inch forward in terms of policy.


Kelly: Yeah. It could be those things. I think everything that you just said is really important. Again, I share your view that there are like 27 things that you could do every single day, like pick one or two. I think it's about the fact that this is not a sprint. This is not like how do I do something super impactful in one or two weeks and then like I'm good, like I'm a good person, and I'm anti-racist. No, this whole thing is about the marathon, if this is for the rest of your life.

I might seem utopian, but I hope it's not. My hope is that if each one of us is committed to do just one or two things whether it was with our wallet or volunteerism, or voting or having conversations, educating ourselves, listening to audio books like white fragility to like educate ourselves, whatever you're doing, if you could do one or two things every single day consciously, to the point where it then becomes unconscious at some point, it just becomes organic. It just becomes how you exist in the world. That's when this giant grinding wheel starts to actually move. I feel pretty strongly about that.


Ben: Yeah, exactly. And this system has been built for 400 years, if not longer. It's not going to be unraveled in 400 days or whatever. It's not going to. And it's so foundational to our economy, to our culture, to our government, to the way we even interact with each other, that it's impossible to say…there's no one solution. I remember the protests for the march for our lives, not too long ago.


As improbable as it maybe, there is a one solution for some of that. You ban guns. That's an option. If there is a one solution for global warming in a way again however impractical, stop using fossil fuels. There's no one solution for this. There's no one thing where there's one law that's going to get passed. There's one company that's going to change the policy, one person that's going to get fired or voted out, that's going to change this. And it's about every single day, in every single way, making a little bit of change, a little bit of progress on this. And there's a million different ways to do that.


Kelly: Yeah. And I think it's important to say, choosing the ways in which you have the capacity to do it or the ways in which you know that it'll just be easier for you. So if you are a wealthy person and the way in which you can participate is to donate to anti-racist causes good, fine, that's fine. That's the one thing that you did today. That's fine. And I don't think that there's any judgment about that. It's just whatever you can do that sustained. Because like you said, none of this is a magic bullet. It takes all of us, right?


So, one of the things I wanted to sort of wrap up with in this conversation is that, we're talking to creative leaders who run marketing and advertising agencies, I feel pretty strongly also, I currently have a lot of strong feelings today, I feel pretty strongly that because of the work that we do, we have a responsibility.


And the work that we do impacts brands, it impacts the communications, and the messaging that is distributed, conveyed to the masses. That's a lot of weight on the shoulders of creative leaders. So there was something, Forbes just came out with an article a few hours ago called, How Can Leadership Break Down Racism and Make Changes Now? My question is, how can we as creative leaders start to create anti-racist agencies in order to contribute to a more equitable society?


Ben: Yeah, I'll tell you what we've done, or what we're going to do, and it won't be enough and will never be enough. My partners at Digital Natives are also other white guys. And we're conscious of the fact that there are biases that come with that as we've tried to build our team over the years. We try to integrate more diverse perspective for many reasons. One of them is also it's good for business. It's as morally right as it is.


Running an anti-racist company is going to be better for business because marketing is about a connection to the culture. And if you're only representing one small segment of it, you're only paying attention to one small segment of it, you're not going to do a good job in your creative pursuits. We've been having regular conversations with the team here. We’ve given people time off to do activism. We have a new benefit word matching so we’re doing monthly recurring donations to nonprofits of their choice.


And we're continuing in every way we can to push the envelope a little bit in that. I think those are all things which somebody can do. There's plenty more somebody can do, beyond your own work stuff. I want to squeeze in a little bit about where I teach at Baruch College. I've been doing that for about six years. A couple years ago, I added a lesson to the syllabus that was marketing ethics. And I go over a whole bunch of things, which is marketing good or bad. Stuff like tobacco and sugary foods and all that stuff is part of it. But also we talked about race.


And I mentioned before Baruch is a very diverse school and every time that I bring this segment of the present of the lecture up, I have a screenshot of that infamous H&M advertisement or photo-shoot with like the 10 year old black boy with the green sweatshirt that says coolest monkey in the jungle. And every time I pull it up, everybody in the class winces and goes, oh, my God. And I bring that up, because I know and you know most of our listeners, there were 100 people involved in that.


There were 100 people either on set, the photographer, the editors, the chaperones, the people who were editing the photos, and the people who were posting them on the website, not to mention the people that ran the campaign and that were up top. And the fact is, all of them either didn't say anything because they didn't realize something like this was wrong. Or they were too afraid to say anything, because they didn't want to rock the boat.


Kelly: Yeah, my bet is on the latter. Maybe a 50-50 split. I don't know.


Ben: And if you are not in the room, if you don't have people in the room that can either…or allies that are going to be able to stand up and say something, or the representative cross section of society itself in there. You're going to make those mistakes. It's bad for business and it's bad morally for this. And that's what we ended up getting to the ultimate lesson of that class is you should do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. That should be enough. But if for some reason that's not enough, there's plenty of other reasons to do the right thing. And making sure that you have that in each way and each day, you do a little bit to be able to move the needle and acknowledge your own benefits and failings, which I'm sure I've had plenty of failings in this conversation. That is going to be what we can do.


Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. And I think sort of holding yourselves accountable and really putting that commitment out there, you and I both know Michael Ventura and his organization Sub Rosa. They actually just put an email out yesterday, which I want to share a little bit of because I thought it was a great example of commitment on the part of a creative agency to being anti-racist.


And I saw the email come in, I forwarded it. We believe in anti-racism. It's hard to believe that despite how much we thought our organization stood for anti-racism a few short weeks ago, the events of the past week have shown us it has many companies, how much further we all need to go.


Like many this past week, the people at Sub Rosa had been listening to and learning from black leaders sharing their messages and interrogating the privilege. Many of us have benefited from in our careers and throughout our lives. We are an organization built on the foundation of empathy. And yet, even with the tools, resources and practices designed to elicit true understanding of this topic, we have fallen short of what needs to be done, we will do better.


And then it goes on for another half a page or so to talk about what they're committed to, what they're implementing at the organization. I would love to see more emails like this coming from creative agencies, and then more discussions around it. Maybe even having some of this information on their websites and for the long term, updating that, showing the progress they've made, showing what action steps they've taken each month or each quarter, whatever it is. I think this is it's just what's needed.


Ben: And I just want to add one thing too. Don’t work with jerks. Don't work with Jack. You don't have to work for everybody that walks in the door. You don't have to seek out business that is actively making the world worse. Be it with racism, or be it with the environment or be it with gun violence or whatever it is, we have turned down business every single year we've been in business because it didn't align with our ethics. And, it's a tough not to swallow. Sometimes when you got to meet payroll you only have so much time on this earth. You only have so much creative energy when you're here and you should not use that to further the pursuits of those who are not trying to make this a better place.


Kelly: Yeah, couldn't agree more. Ben, thank you so much for having this discussion with me. I really appreciate it and we'll talk soon.


Ben: Thanks Kelly.

Start Watching

EP 72: Can Your Agency Withstand a Recession?, with Karen Auster

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly talks with Karen Auster of the Auster Agency about what you can and cannot control when preparing for an economic recession, as well as what role mindset plays throughout its natural cycle.



 EP 72: Can Your Agency Withstand a Recession?

Duration: 17:16


Kelly: So welcome back to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. Today we're talking about planning for a recession. And I've got Founder and CEO of Auster Agency with me, Karen Auster. Thank you so much for joining me today and taking the time out.


Karen: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure to get up and shower today.


Kelly: It's the little things, right?


Karen: Absolutely.


Kelly: So your agency is a 25 plus year old experiential firm, right?


Karen: Yeah.


Kelly: So that means that you've weathered the recession. You've kind of been in a situation as similar to this as possible. Can you share a little bit about your experience with that, your story, and really how that impacted your life not just from the business sense, but you personally?


Karen: Well, it's funny you said something about this is going to be about planning for the recession. The truth is, you really can't. The plan is that there's really no plan, that you really have to go with wherever you're at. But something I talk about often is that, learn from your mistakes and move on from there. So what I did learn when it happened in 2008, 2009, my firm went through the recession. Auster Agency, at that time was in event planning. We did planning big events, festivals.

And 2009, 2010 when the recession hit, I had to kind of sit and listen to my clients, what they needed. And that's what the plan became. The world around us was changing at that time. I mean, today, it's hard to describe then and now because now it's about health and financials. The Coronavirus is totally different than the 2009 recession, but in the sense that my marriage ended. I was a single mom. I had an agency. It was petrifying what was happening in the markets and what was happening to my clients.

But at that time, and fortunately, I stayed nimble and I listened to what my clients needed. And they really wanted at that time, not just an event planning agency, but it was an opportunity for me to become a marketing agency and really take on all different services and to get revenue from different sources of services. It was really scary time like now. That's the only difference. It's scary. I think it's much scarier now. But if I use what I learned in 2008, it was stay nimble. Listen to your clients. Pivot where you see there's an opportunity and don't be irrational but to really sit tight, especially right now, it is really sitting tight and watching what's happening with the markets and what's happening with your services.

I mean, I do events. That is our niche. We bring products and places to the marketplace. We bring communities together outside and this Coronavirus puts that to a halt. Like over the years, we've built events for over a million people. And now it's all to a halt. So it's really about, what I learned in 2008, to cut back, cut your expenses back and really hold tighten the reigns and pay attention to what's gonna happen next.


Kelly: Yeah. And one of the things that you and I have talked about before is this sense of like, the energy of community in terms of your mindset. So I think that that's a good place to go because a) that's sort of like you just mentioned, that's your area of expertise. But I think you also take that a step further from the mindset perspective and like really anchoring into that sense of community. Why is that so important, that energy for you?


Karen: Well, that's why I chose to do what I do. Because I get energy from people and bringing together passion for projects. I love being around people. My favorite thing is creating experiences, to sit back and watch everyone enjoy what we just produced. I mean, there's a festival we produce that we grew from, a couple thousand people to almost a million people, which the greatest joy for me was sitting and watching the events while I'm producing it from afar and that goes on in everything we do. So watching people come together and enjoy something is an energy to it.

So now what's difficult is no one could talk, touch or anything. So driving, I'm hopeful with this like I was in 2008, that people are going to be really thirsty to want to be together to share the love and I think it's gonna happen slowly, very slowly. I mean, we're not even at the crux of it. I live in Brooklyn. It's a very unknown time. I don't want to use the word scared, because I'm healthy today. And I'm grateful for that. And when you just sit back, watch, I mean, there's a lot of things happening in politics right now that you're paying attention.

As a matter of fact, this morning, I don't mean to go off topic, but this morning, the crazy thing was a bill came in and said, oh, you owe your general premium insurance for the year. So here's a big enormous bill and I was like, ah, like, right now, it's expiring, of course, April 1. And, I'm like, well, we're not even going back to the office. We're not mandatory workers. So I have to pay this insurance though. But I sat on it. I watched the insurance agent. And then, minutes later, a note came in saying all general policy insurance, 90 day waiver, to be delayed. And it was like, okay, I didn't react, it didn't get crazy. And I just waited and that information just came in an email. It’s like the coverage is on it. Like he delayed the payment.


Kelly: Yeah. Well, that kind of, I think leads into this whole concept of being really self-reliant and trusting yourself that, that waiting, that pause, sort of you could even say, leading with love, and being as opposed to doing. I think that that's sort of how, from my perspective or my perception is like, that's how you show up as a leader. And for those who are struggling right now, how are you able to kind of see this light and remain so positive amid so much darkness?


Karen: Well, I lost my entire life in 2008, 2009. I mean, I lost everything I knew as what it was, and it was petrifying and sad and I did so much crying, just pure crying. And I always say, learn from your mistakes or learn from the past. You're smart. If you make the same mistake twice, that's stupid. So I see that I lived through that. And now again, I'm going to remain calm because I know that this too shall pass and I will survive this.

So I look back, obviously in 2008 my life was a catastrophe. Business was plummeting. My personal life is plummeting. Everything was taken away from me as I knew it. My new normal was creating nothing. I was floating around like a particle. And now, I know I did that. And that's why this experience for everyone on the planet right now, if we could get through this, whatever happens next, as you persevere and stay positive and, I mean, a lot of people are really suffering right now and I don't want to minimize that because it is so scary for people that are sick, actually ill.

So I'm grateful to stay connected. It's really important to stay connected to people and who shows up in your life. I say this about divorce. I say this about business, clients. Some of my clients called me when they were letting us go. They were really kind and human and very careful and then there was some that were just obnoxious. People you surround yourself with, it's like gold mining. You pick up some gold nuggets that stay at the top and trigger it, move it and then all the other sediment goes off. And that's what I how I feel now. Like those people that I love, they're staying around. All my good friends, all my clients that are amazing, they're staying with me. They’re in it. We're talking. We're connecting. That's what it's all about love and passion. They know I've worked really hard for them so they're sticking around. They're kind. And then there are people that just disappear and they just freak out and they disappear.

Kelly: Yeah. With all of that in mind and making sure that we filter out the people or the universe filters out the people that aren't supposed to be our clients that are in our life whatever your belief system is, we still need to be realistic though. So I know you mentioned before cutting back expenses, what are you personally and professionally cutting back, sort of in terms of planning for this inevitable or inevitability of a recession after this pandemic is over?


Karen: I'm cutting back on everything. There's just so much.


Kelly: Did you make a list? How did you arrive at? What were the things?

Karen: I looked at their MX and I looked at MyCFO. Literally we had meetings weeks ago about what expenses, I mean, really planning. That's where I am a planner. I'm an event planner by nature by who I am. And this is where you can plan. So this we're gonna go back to the planning. So you look at your expenses, what is your overhead? This is something I didn't really know in 2010. And that's what I learned. It was like fast learning.

What's the fat? Where can you skim the fat? So for me, literally, I stopped the water expense and bought the water holder. There were things that we just picked up on. The cellphone service, my assistant who's brilliant went out and renegotiated phone systems. And couple of weeks ago, we installed less expensive phone systems, like those kind of big expenses that I saw on a monthly basis. And we then went out and bid it out. When you're running an agency, you're just paying it out.

Because money's coming in, you're just paying it out. And then all of a sudden, a couple of weeks ago, I said to my assistant, let's take a look at MyCFO. And he was really great about it. He's super organized. And he said, here are your expenses. And this is maybe, this is where you can…I mean, there's just extra insurance you're paying for. And here's the news. There's no insurance for this Coronavirus for businesses, like I can pay billions of dollars in insurance, and nothing covers this. So there's a lot of things, as simple as parking garage, got rid of it, like the small but they all add up.


Kelly: But they add up and they compound and that's where you're kind of able to survive through this. And then that way you can sort of rebound on the other side, right?


Karen: Yes.


Kelly: Yeah. So I know this is sort of like a bigger question. But from your perspective, what do you think the lessons are in all of this? I know that there are probably so many, but I'm sure you have had a little time to kind of think and digest and just look at things about what you do, who you surround yourself with, who your clients are, like you mentioned before, what you will accept, what you won't accept, like have you started really diving in from that perspective to look at what are these lessons that I'm supposed to learn from this.


Karen: The two things I am going to say I'm grateful for. One is that I did learn my lesson in 2010, to be careful about monies like don't put yourself into debt for anyone, make sure that your clients are paying on time, so that I was not in trouble and all the work that we do was kind of current. And I have a lot of friends that run agencies that aren’t current and it's impossible to compete now. And there are 2 clients that haven't paid me and there's not gonna pay. So surrounding myself, my instinct about certain people, I should have listened to my belly. My stomach told me about certain people and I didn't listen.

And sometimes because you get hungry and you want to get more clients, the higher level clients but always my mother told me, listen to your stomach like listen, trust your instinct. I'm 53 years old. Trust that instinct. Go back to that and people show up who they are, like again a client that let us go who I liked, it’s been a bit minute. He just checked and wrote, how are you doing Karen? Just said that and then paid me a nice amount of retainer and he just couldn't see who I am just because he’s a nice person. So the lesson is don't overspend. Be smart about your business and your money and ensure that you're getting your revenue in and cut your expenses down. And I guess secondly is really surround yourself with whom you know you like and your stomach trust. Trust your instincts. You know who is a good person. They really show up at the end.


Kelly: Yeah, I think that's a really great point. I mean, trusting that intuition, number one, I definitely agree with that. You could call it instinct or gut feeling. For me that shows up as intuition. It's something that you just feel. It's not rational. It's like, I may not even know this person, but I get this vibe, or I get this feeling about whether I want to work with them or not. And, when you go against that, you know that you're going against it.


Karen: That's the great thing about being older. Like I love being 53, because I've been here in some capacity. I mean, I'm always learning. I'm learning so much. It's like so much fun. I have much more confidence now because, what am I gonna lose? Give it to me. But yes, I have that intuition. And I had it when I was in my 20s.


Kelly: Right, but you didn't trust it?


Karen: Did not know. Like, of course, you knew that. Come on Karen. The other person is not going to show up. They're gonna lie, literally lie. So it's business. It’s not personal. That's the differences here. There's a lot of things that I don't take personally at all anymore because it's a game. This is a game. I am moving forward. I'm only going to work with people. My life has changed now. I don't have to hustle kids, have to do college, but I don't want to. My instinct feels something. And my intuition tells me this person is not to be trusted. I'm going to move forward with that.


Kelly: Yeah. So I think that's kind of one the big lessons, kind of where I was coming from. It's about going forward, as we know that we're going to go through recession and a recession is cyclic, right? It's not this thing that oh, my God. We do expect this, like every 10 years we kind of expect something fairly big to happen from a financial perspective. So we know this is coming and maybe the best way to plan is actually cutting back on the expenses. That's more from a tactical standpoint, but also trusting your intuition about the clients that you do have or even other people in your personal life. And, figuring out, am I actually doing the thing that I feel really called to do and that I feel adds value to the world? I think this is really a time for everybody to plan. I use that term kind of lightly. To plan from that perspective. What do I want my life to look like on the other side of this, whatever the other side of this means.


Karen: Right, because setting goals again, it's like readjusting; setting goals, trim the fat.


Kelly: Well, your goals are different though. Your goals aren't necessarily oh I want to hit $5 million by the end of the year. Your goals might be I want a client roster that actually checks in to see how I'm doing in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe we need to change the metrics a little bit.


Karen: Yeah, I like that. I’ll take that.


Kelly: Well, Karen, thank you so much for joining me on the show. I really love this discussion. And just be safe and I will talk to you.


Karen: Thank you. Take care.


Start Watching

EP 71: How Will We Design the Future?, with Boyuan Gao

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly communes with Boyuan Gao of Project Inkblot around the topic of designing our future as one that’s rooted in diversity and co-creating real solutions



 EP 71: How Will We Design the Future?

Duration: 19:44


Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive. I'm here with Boyuan Gao, co-founder of Project Inkblot, which is a design for diversity consultancy—a team of designers, futurists—partnering with companies to create equitable products, services, content and experiences. Welcome to the show. I'm super excited to see you again. And thank you so much for joining me.


Boyuan: Thanks so much. I’m so excited. Good to see you too.


Kelly: So you and your business partner, Jahan come from like this incredibly diverse background. Each of you has had like a million jobs. And I think there's sort of something in that in the way that your experiences have kind of brought you to this place where you've created Project Inkblot and you talk about it in terms of filling a gap that you call plurality. Can you talk a little bit about that?


Boyuan: Yeah, sure. Yes. So both of us have had so many different jobs as you just mentioned. I come from a nonprofit background mostly. And when I first got out of college, I worked in youth development. I taught a basketball program in the South Bronx with middle school boys, which is really random. And Jahan worked at a church of All Things. She's half Jewish and her mom's side is atheist. She works at an Episcopalian Church. So things like that, really, really random.


Kelly: But not.


Boyuan: But not. Right. And this is what we're seeing now, like 12 years later. We met at a music and culture magazine. And both of us wanted to do our own thing. And I think what fair it is to say is that even though our journey seemed really circuitous where at the beginning there wasn't a clear, clear purpose. We always just chased our purpose. That was the commonality between the two of us.


And so when we were at this music and culture magazine, we started to do our own thing. The first thing that came to mind was to create an alternative online magazine that really showcases the voices and the talents of people of color and women. And we did that showcasing folks from all over the world, like the first we had many women photographer to food justice activists in Oakland and all over the place.


And what really came about is just this desire to look at the creative process, and how that could actually really benefit folks who are looking to transition out of purposeless work into purposeful work. And that really illuminated this gap where we just saw that there were a lot of tools like this, that we're available to folks, but not to people who look like us.


And so when we started doing this work, we moved it into in real life, and created a workshop series for folks just like us. We're like, how do we start a painting practice while also being an accountant at the same time, right? And then that led us to doing consultative work with creative institutions. And then the thing that really jelled us before we started Project Inkblot, as the consultancy that it is now, is that we started doing consultative work with big agencies and corporate organizations that were trying to fill this gap, try to bridge this gap between people who are from what we call misrepresented communities and the agencies themselves. So, namely women, people of color, how do we reach them? We don't know how to reach them.


And for us, it's kind of like, well, you just go and talk to them. Yeah, like, wow, what a novel thought. But I think what really was illuminated there is that we apply a process. There's a process that can be codified that can actually be taught to people. And in this case for agencies that are moving so quickly. Companies are trying to find partnerships that help them with the bottom line. There are all these things that are agenda points that are not actually beneficial to the communities that they're trying to reach in terms of marginalized communities. And so for us, it's like, how do we codify a process that allows this win-win orientation? How do we reframe how we create these partnerships with communities of people who are “diverse”.

Kelly: Right.


Boyuan: Yeah.


Kelly: So, I mean, we do have to talk about this current landscape that we're in, this whole Coronavirus pandemic. I think beyond the remote workforce aspect of it, though, how do we really rely on our people to co-create solutions together?


Boyuan: Yeah, oh my goodness, this is the best time to think about these things. So with design for diversity, I just want to backtrack and just say that it's the methodology that we developed that marries design thinking with a lot of really standard practices around community organizing, code design, participatory design. And there are tools out there to do these things. People have been working in this way. And if we look at our society as a whole, if we just look at, we just name what it is, right? We live in this capitalistic society where we're really focused on the bottom line. And a lot of it is individualistic. There's no make wrong to it. It just is what it is. And we see ourselves now in a situation where we're now forced to collaborate in these really remarkable ways, but it's actually a need to us to do that.


And so looking at this landscape now, there's a lot of pivoting that has to happen just out of force, out of necessity, out of whatever we need to do in order to survive. But there are a lot of really beautiful opportunities that have already come out of that, that we can just take a moment to see. Oh, actually, this does work better for everybody. So if we look at something very macro like the healthcare system. And we were talking a little bit about this before we hit record, which is that if we're focused on this really industrialized system that is like you get health care if you work for a corporation, and that's how it works, that actually works for no one at this point because of the scarcity of medical equipment and also the limitations and the capacities at the hospitals.


But if you take a very micro look at that, and then you just look at how we've been so focused on take the toilet paper thing, people are hoarding toilet paper. That's a very individualistic thing that people can actually take a moment to see. Why am I doing this? Is there a way that I can actually share the resources that I have, especially if you are somebody with more privilege, or you're in a situation where you have an abundance of resources or extra resources, where there's a neighbor, by you who doesn't have those things. It's not just to be a Good Samaritan or a good person to provide that but if this virus spreads, or if one person is in a dire situation, infectious diseases don't care. It really didn't care about our human desires. It's just like, it's going to spread, and it's going to impact everyone. So now we're seeing more than ever how actually connected we are, like biologically, spiritually so on and so forth.


Kelly: Yeah, all of it. And I think that kind of leads to this idea that like, the old paradigm, we'll call it, of how we were working, did actually work for some people. I think we have to be realistic about that. The problem that comes up is that it didn't actually work for the majority of people. And we have to be sort of realistic about that too. I think that that inward reflection—it is inward but it's also external—it's sort of looking at those things, as you said, sort of on the micro and the macro at the same time. When we think a little bit past that, long term, how will we design the future? How will this look different? And like what benefits can we start to imagine if we were to just design for diversity and really be more empathetic and do this in a way where we are co-creating and not checking boxes?


Boyuan: Yeah, that's a great question. And that's really the core of what we do. So just to level set a little bit with language. When we talk about design in our practice at our agency, and when we work with our clients, we're not talking about designer in your title. We're talking about everybody who has the ability to create is a designer. And if you look at the flip side of it, we have all these things that are defaults, which we call cultural defaults. They could be so many things. Like the way that I developed my website, for instance. Was it necessarily initially thinking about ADA compliance or how do I make this accessible? There's so many examples in our world where we're just defaulting to the “norm”. But that actually impedes our ability to be creative. It's actually the opposite of design. Because if you think about design, there's like intentionality, there's creativity. There's some sort of ingenuity around it. But a default is we're just saying this is business as usual. And we see ourselves in this unprecedented situation right now with Coronavirus, and the world isn't going to be the same.


And so right now we have this amazing inflection point, both as individuals and also as leaders in the world, in our organizations, companies, so on and so forth, to ask that question—how can we design a future that works for all? And a lot of people haven't been asking that question. They've been thinking about how do we keep moving on, how do we keep the lights on, how do we do all those types of things, and that's still going to assist with this all of a sudden, like we're in survival mode. But then once the dust settles a little bit, and then this becomes really the new normal, we had that moment to meditate on that question.


Kelly: Yeah. So speaking about questions, what are some of the questions that we should be asking ourselves during this opportunity of reflection? As creative leaders, however you define that, what are some of those questions that we can start to really anchor into?


Boyuan: Well, the first one that we always start with, and this is just pulling it from somebody else. We didn't create this. Einstein quote. So he said something to the effect of, if I had one hour to come up with a solution for a problem, I would spend the first 55 minutes asking the right question. So that's a little bit meta coz you’re asking. What's the right question to ask? That’s the first question.


But then there are so many other things that is just within our own framework designed for diversity. We ask and we employ other people and leaders, especially to think about this, which is, what are my cultural defaults? And if you are a business leader, and I know that there are a lot as part of your audience, right? The question is, what are the cultural default that exist in my organization? What are the cultural defaults that use this within my team? What are my cultural defaults?


And so I can tell you right now, for me, I'm an able bodied, this gender woman. So there are a lot of things that I just don't see. And it's not a make wrong. It’s just they're things that I don't consider on a day to day basis. So my defaults could be, I think about everything, I think normal is like able bodied, I think normal as like binary genders or so on and so forth. And, I don't necessarily think about that all the time, but it flows into how I design things, it flows into how I make things.


So now is a good time to ask, what are those cultural defaults? And then the next question is, what are the impacts of those defaults on the people that I'm creating for? So whether you're developing a campaign or a project or a piece of tech or a campaign, whatever it is that you're creating, there's always an impact that is distinct from the intention. Because the intention is personal to us. It's actually nobody else's business. It's just personal to us.


And then the impact is how it's lived out in the world, in actual communities and oftentimes, we conflate those things. And now is a good time to actually take them apart and see, okay, this is my intention. But what's the worst case scenario and on home? And we don't like to ask that question. But have we thought about that in terms of a lot of our social structures right now? Long, long ago, maybe we would be better prepared for this Coronavirus.


Kelly: Yeah, that's a good point. I'm just curious in the work that you do with Project Inkblot. I know that you've worked with so many incredible organizations. Is there sort of one example that you can share where speaking about impact, the work that you did, coming into an organization, an organization that was clearly self-aware enough to hire the two of you? Is there an organization or an impact that you can share that you felt like, wow, this is a really great analogy to all of the work that we're doing as an organization ourselves, but then also, what that could look like going forward.


Boyuan: Yeah, sure. I mean, there's so many, but one that just comes to me right away is advertising agency that we work with, and we train their entire team. So again, with design for diversity there. One thing to just break it down into is that there are five main modules. There are 5 key components to this framework that we train teams on. And the important thing here is, if you don't have a shared language and a shared framework, then as a team, you do not have a shared operating system. So it's really important to create a mindset shift on this new way of thinking before you start to introduce new processes, because you're gonna have all the tools and processes in the world but if you don't have the mindset shift, then ain't nothing gonna happen. Right?


So we did that work with them. But in the middle of this training, the strategists came up to us and they're like, dang, we just had an aha like, we are the gatekeepers for our company in a lot of ways. Like we're doing the research, we're writing the brief, we're doing all of these things that then get passed over to creative and then they build the thing. So there's something that can be illuminated in both their own tools in terms of the brief itself, but also how they work together, the brief process, their creative team, and just with their whole team.


So we started to deconstruct what their process look like. And then also the tools that they used, to start pulling out these inflection points of like, this is where bias can come into play. And then you have campaigns that are disseminated across the globe in front of millions of eyeballs.


So it's really important, not just from a harm mitigation standpoint, which a lot of people who are risk-averse, they think about diversity in terms of harm mitigation, but it's really about cultural strategies. So it's like how do we teach a team to use cultural strategy? And just to break that down. Cultural strategy is just being able to adapt to whatever the scenario is at the time. So there's a cultural strategy for anything that meets the moment and meets the needs of people at the moment. So the impact of that is that they actually change their entire brief process


And then they actually incorporated it into how they're briefing their clients. So they work with huge retailers, some of the biggest across the country in the world. And they also work with just so many different types of clients, but now it's part of how they reach their clients. So now there's an external commitment to doing this work. But also, there's a why.


So we were talking earlier about root cause analysis, right? Oftentimes in a fast-paced agency environment, we’re just doing, doing, doing, and then there's sometimes not the opportunity to ask why. And it's not just asking the first why, it's getting beneath the first one and getting to the second why. And then the third why and the fourth why and the fifth why until you get to a root cause, like, why is this important? And how is this going to benefit the lives of people? And you can do that personally. You can do that around a project.


And I'll give you an example of that. So you can do that in terms of if something isn't working, and I'm going to bring up an example around diversity. So we're working with a tech company, and they're an e-commerce company, and they were having a really hard time reaching black and brown sellers on their site.


So, initially, their inclination was, well, we just have to create some partnerships with black business organizations. That doesn't ask why, that doesn't address the root cause. So if you really get to the root cause of why don't we have black and brown sellers? Oh, it's because we don't know how to reach them. Why don't you know how to reach them? Okay, we don't have anybody who's black or brown on our team that's doing this work. Well, why is that? So you keep on getting to the bottom of it. And the answer is always that, dominant culture defines the design. It is not to get to that answer. It's the process of getting that answer. It doesn't matter what the answer is, it's the process of getting there and that you start to eliminate all these reasons, that then you can start building a strategy that's going to impact that root cause. Because if you don't do that, then you're just going to keep on being at the surface.


And before we hit record, we were also talking about root cause in terms of our own selves, our own personal development. And so we can ask the same set of questions to ourselves, like, why is this occurring? Whatever the experience is, and why, why, why—going vertically, not horizontally so we really get to the truth.


Kelly: Yeah. Oh, my God. I love this conversation so much. Boyuan, thank you so much for joining me on the show today. I know it's a really timely topic. I think it gives people a lens to look at the future which then sort of gives people more hope about what that future could look like and how we might all sort of co-create that together. So thank you again for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.


Boyuan: Thank you so much. And yeah, just to leave on. Yeah. How will we all design the future?


Kelly: It's such a great question and thank you again.


Boyuan: Thank you.

Start Watching

EP 70: Contracts, Compliance + COVID-19, with Audrey Glover-Dichter

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly chats with Audrey Glover-Dichter, an advertising law attorney, about the importance of agency contracts and compliance during the current pandemic




 EP 70: Contracts, Compliance + COVID-19

Duration: 25:56


Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive: Your Agency Resource. Today, I'm here with Advertising, Marketing and Promotions Law Attorney, Audrey Glover-Dichter. Welcome to the show Audrey. It is so good to see you again and I'm so happy you could make it.


Audrey: Thank you so much Kelly for having me on your show today. I really appreciate being here with you and with everybody. Thank you.


Kelly: So today we're talking about influencer contracts and legal review and we sort of have to start by talking about the fact that marketing during a pandemic does not need to stop. I know I'm getting a lot of questions about that. Maybe you are as well. But you say that this is actually the perfect time to be able to pause and review everything that needs, needed or currently needs to be reviewed—whether that applies to our existing content, our planned campaigns, things that we may not have had the “time to review” before. The whole point of marketing is to build trust, right? So now we have this point, this moment in time where we have that ability to pause and take the time that's needed. So, how are you sort of advising your clients from that perspective?


Audrey: Well, I have about eight points more or less. We can combine them real quick, but there’s time and I realized that in this crazy world that we are living in today, there maybe a slow down of business, which to me seems to be a perfect opportunity to do certain things like for example, everything's always due yesterday or last week.


Kelly: Oh you must have experienced with marketing agencies...


Audrey: Well, always watching. So this seems to be the perfect opportunity to take a deep breath and take the time to go back and review your campaigns because at this point there's certain things in campaigns that you're planning or your scheduling that it's not going to be possible to, go public like you can't do billboards right now. Yeah, I don't know about print. I'm assuming print is out of the question for the time-being temporarily, but of course to social media you can. But this is the perfect time to take those campaigns and review them for legal compliance in English and Spanish. I like to review campaigns in the language that they're going to run in, just because you don't want to lose your message and consistency, but also, obviously, the main point being compliance, legally compliant. So, I like the legal compliance review, take the time to do it now. Under FTC law, technically, you're supposed to review your marketing campaigns to be legally compliant before you go public, you launched publicly. I get that not everybody does that because not everybody has the time to take the time to go to legal, but it's absolutely necessary. So take the time. It might be an extra hour, but do it, because it could really save you, the agency to plan. Everybody such a big headache and hefty fines if it's taken a long way.


Kelly: Yeah, that was actually going to be my next question was like, what kind of consequences are there. Because it may be just that some agencies may not know, like what are those consequences? What are those fines? What are the things that could happen if they don't go through these proper channels of review?


Audrey: Well, this is the biggest thing where I tell my clients. If the client, the marketer, the business is being reviewed just now, I mean investigated by, like the FTC, the FDA, the SEC it doesn't matter who, or even the State Attorney General's office, or even the self-regulatory bodies. If anybody's investigating the business for their advertising campaigns, if there's some legal issues, trust me that the agencies are being investigated all along side as well because they want to know what the role of the agency is, in that marketing campaign. So if it's a misleading issue, what will the agency take play in creating a misleading advertising campaign? And the standard is always knew or should have known. So, obviously, there's a lot that goes into the knew or should have known because it goes back to what do you have on the client. What question should you have asked? You can't just stick your head in the sand and say, well, I didn't know. Ignorance is never ever, ever, ever a defense for any field of law. So if you see any red flags, ask the questions, don't ignore it.


Kelly: Right. And one of the other things that you and I have talked about in the past is that from your perspective agencies really need to be reviewing their advertising law contracts. You suggest twice per year, but at minimum annually. And I think a lot of the reason for that is because the laws change so frequently. So can you talk about a little bit like why you really recommend the twice per year?


Audrey: Sure. As an advertising law attorney, I like to review the advertising law of contracts from an advertising law perspective. And what that means is, law is a living thing, believe it or not, and it changes constantly. So it is crucial, it is very, very important that you have your contracts reviewed and that you have the proper clauses written legally correctly with the correct legal legalese to make sure everybody's protected and if you need to get out, you can get out.


But the most important thing is, the last thing you want is to have an on clause in a contract that could potentially null and void the entire thing. I mean, then what do you do? I mean, incredible amount of issues that could potentially come up if that happens. It's like, so, what happens to the scope of work? And how are you going to get paid? Are you going to get paid? You need to sue to get paid. I mean, there's just so much that goes into it. So I prefer to do it on a twice a year basis just to make sure because again the law changes, changes, changes. However, of course, not everybody can or wants to do it that way but at least once a year. And of course when you're dealing with different things like influencers, there are very specific clauses that go into advertising law contracts and depending on what they are.

And for influencers for example, those are whole a lot of things and whole of different clauses that you want to put it in there not just to protect the agency and the brand but also how to deal with this person. This is a person right?


Kelly: Right. And you are essentially like responsible for what an influencer says or does or posts on behalf of your brand, right?


Audrey: And there's a lot of litigation and enforcement going on right now because influencers may not get enough guidance on how to make that disclosure, that material disclosure that they need to make or when to make it or how to make it with the perfect wording. So these are things that I help put in the contract so that everybody's on the same page, everybody understands what needs to be done in plain English.


Kelly: Yeah, and I would imagine, I know that we're kind of only a few weeks into this pandemic, but I would imagine that because everyone is really or the majority of people are working from home, there is so much more online activity now, especially on social media than ever before, right? At one given time or over a pretty prolonged period of time. So I would imagine that those things are even more right at this point because you've got so many people that are following more, engaging more, commenting more, right? So I would imagine that this is kind of, like you said before a really perfect time to really look at those contracts and make sure even if those influencers are active or actively promoting a brand or what have you, making sure that the contracts that you have in place as the agency with that influencer are obviously more important now than ever before and that's sort of a consequence of the reality that we're in right now.


Audrey: And what I like to do is, like I said before, I'm fluent in Spanish. So, not only do I like to review the campaigns in Spanish, if they’re going to be wanting in Spanish. What if you're going to have a Spanish influencer or Latin influencer? Perhaps it's a good idea put a hashtag in Spanish you want to have them use. Given the very specific language, if it’s going to be in Spanish or if it's going to be in English because you don't want any wiggle room. You want to make sure it's tight and that everybody again is using the correct language and the correct hashtags to make that necessary disclosure. So that's what I like to do because If you're going to do it in Spanish, it's just as important to get it all right in Spanish as it is in English. You can just get in trouble for getting it wrong in Spanish as any much. It doesn't matter. The law applies regardless of what language you're writing in it.


Kelly: Right. I think that's a great point. So let's talk a little bit about online privacy policies and how information is collected. So, I know we've got GDPR in Europe, we've got CCPA in California and what a lot of people probably don't know at this point from the agency perspective, just because we are in the realm of COVID-19 right now is that the SHIELD Act of New York you just mentioned before we spoke earlier. The SHIELD Act of New York the second phase of that has actually gone into place as of March 21st. So this is really brand new content, new policies that are in place. So if you could share a little bit about that, I think that would be really helpful, especially to the agencies who operate in New York or have any kind of business dealings in the state.


Audrey: Sure. Well, the biggest thing, pattern that I'm seeing is that it's the who is on the other side of your marketing online especially your website's obviously because this really applies more to the online....


Kelly: Data collection...


Audrey: Right, data collection, and privacy, like how much private data do you collect? Is it identifiable? So the biggest thing is to me is always the who’s on the other side. You don't know who's on the other side looking at your website, right? So it could be a person from the EU sitting in New York. So guess what? Now the GDPR applies to you. Right? Because it doesn't matter where that European person is. The fact that that person is European the GDPR just attached. So the same thing with CCPA, it attaches; if it's a California person sitting in New York looking at your website because that person is a resident of California, then the CCPA attaches.


Kelly: What is the CCPA? Just for the benefit of other people who don't know.


Audrey: The California Consumer Protection Act and it's a GDPR wannabe. I mean, don't get me wrong, a lot of differences. Okay?


Kelly: I like that.


Audrey: Well, you know…


Kelly: It’s a good way to remember it.


Audrey: And then the SHIELD Act is another one and they’re all very different but the interesting pattern is that again now the SHIELD Act applies to New York residents. So, are you collecting data? private data, social security numbers, credit card numbers, bank card numbers, email, addresses like very identifiable data, right? That it could be breached and cause havoc as we all very well know. So, but again, so that New Yorker could be in Paris. Hopefully not now. So then the SHIELD Act applies because it's a New York resident sitting wherever that person may be sitting on earth because that person is a New York resident the SHIELD Act applies.


So I always tell everybody remember that it's the who, not the where or not the what. All of that comes after the who? So because we're so different, I always advise my clients like just play it safe and make sure you’re compliant with all three and sometimes you kind of feel like, huh? How do I do that? So what I like to do is I have GDPR language and you can click on GDPR page, and then maybe CCPA language and click on the CCPA page, and now we're going to have to add the SHIELD Act because that just came into effect and of course because everybody's so busy trying to figure out how to work from home for people who haven't been doing it and this whole pandemic thing is freaking a lot of people out obviously for good reason. It's not easy. So the SHIELD Act kind of fell through wayside where people are not exactly aware that it does exist and it does apply because it is a state act.


Kelly: Right. I actually have a quick question about that though because you just mentioned specifically with websites. If you have a page for each of these acts on your website to show that you're in compliance, to show how you're protecting data that is being collected. Do you have to have an individual page for each of the acts or could you just call it privacy compliance and data collection or something like that? And then have what you're doing for each one of these three on the same page or does it necessitate an individual page per each act?


Audrey: It depends on client and their each act has a very specific base as to when it applies, when it attaches. Of course, it always attaches to the who, like the CCPA and the SHIELD Act also have... for example in CCPA, I’m sorry, if I remember correctly it’s like 5 million dollars of revenue and then in New York it’s 3 million dollars.


Kelly: I see.


Audrey: So those numbers whether or not it attaches but because you never know who's on the other side, I always advise clients why not just play it safe regardless of what your revenue is. And the other important fact that I'm starting to notice is under the GDPR and law changes all the time. In the general GDPR, technically, you're not exactly responsible for third-party software, like if you use PayPal you're not responsible for PayPal, right? Because you’re whole different world and you can't control what they do. But on the CCPA if PayPal has a breach, now you also are connected to PayPal because you're using PayPal. So there's some responsibility there.


Now unfortunately, we don't have final regulations on CCPA and so a lot is constantly changing. We don't have the final regulations for that. I'm not aware that there are final regulations of the SHIELD Act so it just came to an effect. As those regulations become final, we’ll have better understanding at how to work things. So I just want to say it's just kind of muddy right now, very gray. Just that this exists and it may apply and the differences is on how it applies, it may necessitate to have different pages with different language, with differences because like I said one requires no responsibility for third acts where CCPA apparently is going to give you responsibility for the third party. And I'm not sure where the SHIELD Act is going with us. So I can't say right now because it just came into effect but yes. So sometimes it's just easier to have a different page for each one or maybe one long page and say GDPR or CCPA. It depends. And it's not so much about the structure. It's about having the proper language.


Kelly: Okay, so it sounds like you could theoretically have all of the compliance in one single page and just have it all put underneath a privacy policy, but there could be extenuating circumstances where it necessitates multiple pages. So again, just like checking in with your advertising law attorney.


All right, so as we start to wrap up here, obviously we're in the age of entirely remote workforces especially for agencies. We have no control over that and we don't know what the future of that looks like in terms of time frame. So this I think is another opportunity to make sure that we are making sure that our employees are really trained on advertising law. So not in the context of having them act as lawyers, but at least sort of being like a first line of defense in ensuring like checks and balances to protect your agency.


So if you could talk a little bit more about that as we wrap up, I think that would be a great place to land because this is not only from a professional development standpoint, but just from an agency protection standpoint, really getting/taking this opportunity, to get on the same page and be really consistent with how we're understanding where we're getting our content and our images and making sure that the copyright information is in place and all of that. So I'd love to just kind of hear your thoughts on that.


Audrey: Sure. I'm a true proponent of in-house training. The main reason for that is and again like you just said, we don't expect you to be lawyers. But the whole point of the training is everybody should be on the same page with the same basic understanding on how the law attaches and applies to the work that you're doing because, like I said before if the marketer, your client is being investigated, chances are that the agency is being investigated as well.


So this is a great way to be able to have a basic understanding of how the law works and depending on what you do and depending on the product or the service that you're working on. What you should be aware of? Where are the red flags? And then come up and then after that, what I like to do is sit down with the agency and try to come up with some kind of a checkoff list to have some kind of advertising or internal procedural policy. So it's just simple check off. We check for IP clearances. Do we need to do an IP clearance? And this is just an example like you're going to use this photo, just use some photo, right?


Where did you get the photo? Did you just download it from somewhere in the internet? And is it clear to be used? Did you pay for it? Are you allowed to use it? Is it copyrighted? There's so much that goes into that. Did you get the photo from the client? Really? And where did the client get it? And are we allowed to use it? Is there a copyright attached to that? So what protection does the agency have if the client demands to use that photo and whether or not that photo is copyrighted and whether or not the client did do it's due diligence as far as doing the IP clearance, as far as checking whether or not they can use it if they pay for it and all of that. I mean if they’re adamant about using it, and you're not comfortable by using it, what is the agency going to do about that? So what do you have in place to make sure that the agency is protected from using a photo that you may or may not be legally able to use.


Kelly: Right, because if that client has a photo that they've obtained in a way where, let's say that their copyright information is in question, they’re mandating that you as the agency need to use this photo in a campaign yet you technically are going to be liable, right? If something comes up where the client is investigated or whatnot, there's no way that you should go and use that photo without making sure that it's gone through the proper checks.


So I think this is a really big thing because I do see so many agencies and to be honest like we probably did that at my agency. We probably didn't run all of the clearances and all the copyright information and a hundred percent of the protections that we should have. I think this is a really good point and now that we have the time to kind of like pause, I'm really talking about the pause a lot in here. We have the opportunity to create a checklist and to train our people in a way that supports them, a way that supports our agency, a way that supports our clients. And in the end, that's really back to our value proposition. We're going to go through as an agency. We're going to go through and make sure that you're completely compliant with every kind of piece of content, imagery, video etc., if we're going to be using it in the campaign. So that's kind of what I hear you saying.


Audrey: Correct. And really, I'm going to go back to my original point. Under the FTC law, all campaigns need to be legally compliant before launching publicly. So the bottom line is if you don't do that, then you're opening yourself to not just the government issues and investigations and all that but also potential lawsuit.


And trust me, agencies do get sued. As a matter of fact I have a whole presentation on the reasons why agencies get sued. And if you do your due diligence right off the bat, it may slow you down in launching publicly but at least you minimize your legal risk because if you get challenged or sued, you can go in and hopefully nip it by showing all the due diligence that you've done and say look I have help to support my claims. I have the IP clearances, I have this, I have that, and then hopefully if it is a lawsuit it gets thrown out quickly and as you not already know, lawsuits are very costly and time-consuming. So if you can get rid of that lawsuit immediately, think about how much time and money you're saving and the same thing to having to defend at a federal government agency or state attorneys agency or even at one of the self-governing bodies because again, if you have everything done up front, then hopefully you just completely minimized that legal risk and minimize the cost and the time and the aggravation. So it's well worth the time.


Kelly: Absolutely. Well Audrey, thank you so much for joining me today. This conversation has honestly been so packed with just a wealth of information and your knowledge. Really, really appreciate you coming onto the show.


Audrey: Thank you so much for having me and thank you everybody for listening and I really appreciate your time and for inviting me. If anybody has any questions, may I give them my phone number?


Kelly: Absolutely.


Audrey: My phone number is 954-736-9787 and my website is


Kelly: I will. Yeah, Audrey, thank you. And I will put that in the show notes. The website obviously. I don't want to put your phone number in the show notes, but yeah, so thank you so much again. This is really helpful. And please be well during all of this.


Audrey: Thank you. You too. Have a great day and everybody stay safe and healthy.


Start Watching

EP 69: Planning During a Pandemic, with Drew McLellan

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Drew McLellan talk about the realities that many agency leaders are facing right now, from questioning the sectors we serve and the financial health of our businesses to planning for a viral resurgence later this year.



 EP 69: Planning During a Pandemic

Duration: 13:04


Kelly: Welcome to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. I'm here with Drew McLellan, a marketing agency owner himself and owner of the consultancy Agency Management Institute, which is where all of you probably know him from. He's actually been described as helping clients create authentic love affairs with their customers, which for me, that's one of the best descriptions I've ever come across. So Drew, welcome to the show. I'm really glad that we're finally able to connect.


Drew: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to have the conversation.


Kelly: So let's just put it out on the table. Many agency leaders from your perspective, from my perspective of what we do, these agency leaders are coming from a place and operating from a place of a lot of fear right now—questioning the sectors that they work in, questioning their own business models and even maybe their leadership capacity. So what are you seeing from a granular perspective with your agency clients?


Drew: Yeah. People are freaking out. I mean, I think that's the way I can see it.


Kelly: The only way to put it.


Drew: Yeah. And, here's sort of the start of every conversation I've been having with agency owners and like you had been having them pretty much from 7 AM till midnight in the last couple of weeks. We have to remember that we've done this before. It looks different because there's the health element to it and there's the working from home element to it. So that makes it weirder and it feels more intense. And we're also trying to work around our children and our pets and all the other stuff, which also adds to the stress of all these, right?


Kelly: Absolutely.


Drew: But the reality is, if you've got an agency owner for any length of time, you and your agency survived 9/11, you survived 07-08 recession. And so, the truth of the matter is we have to expect as business owners that every 8 to 10 years, whether it's just a financial crisis like a recession or it is some sort of external crisis like 9/11 or the virus, that we have to be ready to weather this and we have been ready to weather this in the past. And our job as leaders, our number one job as leaders, we have to think of ourselves as sort of the captains of a ship.


Kelly: Yeah.


Drew: And right now our ship is in the middle of a huge storm. Our job is to get the ship back to calm waters. There is an end in sight to this. This is not going to last a year. It’s not going to last two years. And then I was staying here before we hit the record button, I've been chatting with agency owners in Asia, and they're already back to work. They’re already back in restaurants. They're already back meeting clients face-to-face and they’re about two and a half months ahead of us in this experience. And so, part of this is we have to as hard as it is, remain calm, we have to be confident, and we need to be compassionate. That's what's being asked of us right now by our employees and by our clients. And so, that's where we have to come from but I get that we’re all afraid and for some agency owners they're actually busier than they were before because of the sectors they serve or like my PR agencies are crazy busy right now with crisis communications.


Kelly: Yeah. Same.


Drew: But I've also had agencies that have had 50% of their AGI walk out the door. And so, you also understand that you are probably if you're listening in the middle, you're probably not on either extreme, but you need to plan like you may get to either extreme.


Kelly: And, the other thing that you bring up is that you're pretty confident that there's gonna be a resurgence of the pandemic just based on what you're seeing with some of the clients and agency owners in Asia. So if we know that we need to plan for this, from a financial perspective, from a positioning perspective, what are those best practices that we should have really all been following all along?


Drew: Yes, so I think one of the truths that this crisis has revealed is which agencies have already been running a pretty solid ship. And so what that means is, depending on your client mix, so if you have a gorilla clients that’s worth more than 25% of your total AGI, then you need to have 4 months of operating expenses in the bank. So operating expenses of all your all-year salaries and all your overhead costs. If you are an agency where your clients are more scattered evenly and you don't have anybody that's more than 20% of your business, then you can get by with two or three months.


So now, it's probably not the time for most agencies to be stockpiling money away but when we come out of this, one of the first things they should all be doing is starting to—your mark money to have as a safety net. Many agency owners rely on a line of credit as a safety net and are now feeling like that's inadequate and that's because you need to have both. So I think some of the other things that we need to be doing are: a) If you do have a gorilla, the reality is for many agencies right now what they're going through is no different than if their biggest client fired them today. Right? It's just we have the health stuff and the other things that make it scarier but financially from our agency management point of view, it's exactly the same as if you lost your biggest client for a lot of those.


So part of it is having a plan, a regular active biz dev plan that allows you to—if you have a gorilla, offset that gorilla as quickly as possible. Right now, it's about having lots of conversations with clients. I have a lot of agencies who have said to me, “You know what? We haven’t been able to get the attention of the CEO for the last two years. And now all of a sudden, they want to talk to us.” And so, we should be making the most of those conversations. I think it's really easy to be a great partner when money is flowing and everything’s awesome. I think it is really telling if we can be a good partner in this moment in time.


And so that may mean telling your client to stop doing something that they're paying you to do because it's really not in their best interest. It is about helping them figure out how are they messaging this to their internal audiences, at their clients. So helping them pivot what they're doing and the resurgence, just for clarity, not a scientist. But what I'm hearing from Asia is that they are all back. They were all back at it and then they started letting people come back into the country and outsiders were bringing the virus back in so they had a slight resurgence of active cases, which they were confident they’ll be able to tamp down in a week or two but all of a sudden they're back working from home for a week. And so, we have to be ready for that too. This may not be a one-and-done for us.


Kelly: Right, for sure. And there's also kind of this thing that you talk about a lot which is there is this reality of something like this, some anomaly that happens, pretty much every 10 years.


Drew: Yeah.


Kelly: You can almost bet on it.


Drew: Right.


Kelly: And we can't really plan our businesses around that or change them from that perspective. First of all, we don't know what those 10-year glitches are going to be. But it's not something where you like necessarily need to completely pivot or completely rethink everything every 10 years. So from your perspective, it's more about staying the course?


Drew: Yeah. That's the equivalent of saying, the grocery stores closed on Christmas Day so I need to find another place to get groceries all year long because they're closing.


Kelly: Right. That's a good analogy.


Drew: For agencies that have positioned themselves or niched themselves in a certain way that maybe now is being adversely affected by this, that doesn't mean it's not the right thing for your business to do. For 9 and a half years, it's been a very lucrative smart thing to do. And, if you had built the safety net, you would have been able to weather this. Let's call it six month decline, right? Or recession, whatever we're heading into. And then you come back out and you keep doing what you're really good at. So I am a firm believer in we should still be selling from a position of expertise and authority and for many of us, that's around a niche or an audience or some sort of solution that we provide for our clients and this shouldn't stray you away from it.


Kelly: Yeah. No, we're definitely aligned in that thinking as well. And again, a lot of this is coming up because there are so many agency owners who are again going back to how I started the conversation, they're just so fearful and starting to question like if nonprofit or education or all of these other sectors are the area of my specialization, for all the reasons that positioning should be in place. I'm questioning whether that's even the place that I should be in, because what's going to happen to those sectors as, yes kids come back to school, maybe they're not doing online learning as much in the future, nonprofits, they're looking at marketing as like an expense versus something that's really critical to their mission. So there's this mindset that really I think what you're saying is we do have to be really clear that if we positioned ourselves the right way, there was a reason for that and we do need to put those other best practices in place from a financial standpoint so that we can weather things.


Drew: And the reality is the generalists are having as much trouble as the specialists right now. There is no industry that is safe from a pandemic.


Kelly: Right.


Drew: Though there are some industries that are perhaps more recession proof than others, but there is no island where you can stand and know that no storm will ever get to that island. That's just not realistic.


Kelly: Right.


Drew: But the reality is the specialist agencies, the niche agencies, the agencies that are known as an expert in something, when we come out of this, they're going to be the ones who clients are seeking because clients are gonna be hungry to make up what they've lost. Everybody is going to be champing at the bit and again they're already seeing this in Asia, that people are saying yes I paused for 3 months but now we got to go, go, go.


Kelly: Right.


Drew: And so if somebody doesn't already have an agency relationship and they're looking to really boost and come out of the gate strong, they’re not gonna pick a generalist. They're gonna pick somebody who understands their industry or their audience or whatever it is your specialty is.


Kelly: Yeah.


Drew: So just be bold and proud about who you are and what you are and know that this is just the reality, this is the lousy side of owning a business. Right?


Kelly: Yeah.


Drew: But the good news is we enjoy 9 and a half or more years of the good side of it. So in my opinion, it's still a whole lot better than being an employee.


Kelly: Yeah, well absolutely.


Drew: Yeah, right.


Kelly: And I know that you actually pretty generously put together some resources for agencies particularly around COVID and just let us know a little bit about how we can access those and what we can expect from those resources.


Drew: Yeah, so I have been sending out like emails constantly to our own members and things like that and finally I thought this is: a) I'm killing them with email but b) I need to have a resource. So we’ve put together a page on our website, And it's organized by week so I'm putting all the stuff we're creating but I'm also curating what other people are sharing specifically stuff that’s agency specific. But right now, this week there's some information we're recording this in late March. There's some information on what will hopefully pass the Care Act. So also there is some generalist option. There's no firewall. There's no email asked for. I'm not going to know that you're there or not there. We're not going to try and sell you anything. I just want agency owners to have vetted resources and help them survive this storm like I said at the beginning, get the ship through the storm and to calm waters.


Kelly: Right. Well again, that's incredibly generous. I'm definitely gonna put a link to that in the show notes. And Drew I just want to thank you so much for taking the time to come and talk with me today and really convey a lot of this advice to other agency leaders. I know there are a lot of people really hungry for this content. So thank you.


Drew: Oh my pleasure. Thanks for having me.


Start Watching

EP 68:Integrating Agency Leadership + Humanness, with Leslie Peters

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Leslie Peters, author of Finding Time to Lead, discuss the importance of being human at inflection points where ambiguity and fear arise. 




 EP 68: Integrating Agency Leadership + Humanness

Duration: 20:41


Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. I am really, really excited to have Leslie Peters on the show today—speaker, author, guide, all in the context of leadership development. We actually met at Owner Summit from Bureau of Digital just a few weeks ago in New Orleans. So that was super fun and I loved her talk and we chatted afterwards and I was like, you’ve got to come on the show. So Leslie here you are. Thank you so much for joining me today.


Leslie: Thanks! I'm really excited to be here.


Kelly: So you talked about this a little bit in your keynote but something that really resonated with me was that leadership isn't something you do, it's something you are, right? So you talked about how you show up and really why is that so much do you think on the minds of the agency leaders?


Leslie: Yes. So part of it is on the minds of agency leaders because they are the leaders. They are the bosses. And so, I think that sometimes particularly when maybe you didn't set out to be the boss, some people go into it the gamut and be the boss. If you’re founder-owner, you’re like, I started doing my thing and now there are all these people and I could be the boss of all these people. Like I really didn’t sign on for that.


Kelly: Accidental management.


Leslie: Exactly. And so then, I think you get in this mindset of I have to do leadership today, like I have to do the boss thing. What does that mean to do the boss thing? And we’re make a list. We’re gonna do the boss things. And it's actually in a way simpler and more complex than that, which is as the agency owner and leader at the top of the org chart like you have a lot of influence all the time. So every time you walk into a room, every time you’re in a meeting, every time you make a comment, people are like, whoa, paying really close attention.


Kelly: Yeah.


Leslie: And so, you’re leading all the time so it's really someone you are. It's about how you show up and not something you do because everything you do is leading and that is just about you personally.


Kelly: Yeah, totally. And what I also hear you saying like as the undercurrent of that is it's actually a lot about self-awareness because if every comment, everything that's coming out of your mouth, how you show up, when you show up, when you leave, like all of these things from all these different perspectives are essentially communicating something to that team, right? So like what are you communicating? It's really being super self-aware of that.


Leslie: Exactly. And exactly to your point, you're always communicating and so you can be intentional or unintentional about that. The self-awareness is about being intentional about that. What does the fact that I say to this person. If you always are, for example, reinforcing how quickly people get things done. Thank you for getting that done so quickly. People are just going to just try to move fast. That's what they're going to do because that's what you reinforce. If you are also reinforcing I really appreciate you took some time with that and we're very thorough about it, then people have freedom to do both of those things. But if all you reinforce is how fast people get things done, people will just keep speeding up. And maybe that's what you want. That's fine. Again, there's an intentionality around it.


Kelly: Absolutely. And that's sort of like what you're talking about with that the feeding into or rewarding or praising that quickness. Right?


Leslie: Uh-huh.


Kelly: It's also like unintentional culture development at the same time, right?


Leslie: Yes. It totally creates the narrative. I will often ask people sort of what's the narrative, what do people talk about a lot, and if people are comparing the number of emails they have, right? Like I got 32 emails while we are sitting in this meeting. Well, I got 54 email.


Kelly: It’s like a competition.


Leslie: Exactly. You’ve now created this competitive around how busy everyone is.


Kelly: Right.


Leslie: And that is actually not helpful because then the winning, being successful is about how busy you are and how many emails you got as opposed to the thing you might really care about, the quality of the work or how many times you have a client into your capacity to sort of go deep on a project. And so, again one of the ways to think about this is to look for whatever the narratives, what do you hear people are saying very frequently.


Kelly: Yeah, that's a great point. And I guess sort of ancillary to that, a lot of the work that I do is around scaling or it's a component of what I do, where a lot of people who do leadership development or agency growth, do that. So scaling as you put it, it entails a lot of ambiguity and that ambiguity then leads to the creation of a lot of fear—fear among the team, fear among the leaders as well. So why is it so important to be human at those inflection points?


Leslie: Nice. Thanks for the question. Yes, so what happens when we scale and grow is a lot of change. We don't know what things are gonna look like in the future. Sort of like we used to be 6 people and now we’re gonna be 15 people. And that's really different and as things change and the ambiguity increases, our level of personal risk increases as well. Like I used to know the answer or I used to have this role. I knew the answer. I could get VA. I knew exactly what to do when I would do exactly that and feel really good about myself. And now, I have to do something really different and there’s a different scale and a different level of accountability. And so now, I’m really personally at risk. That’s scary. I don’t want to put myself out there because I might do something wrong. And so people starts to then like our limbic brains kick in, and we start to either fight or flight or freeze. We're just like people get really stuck. I had an agency owner say to me, “Why does everybody keep asking me for my permission? Why don’t they just get their stuff done?” And it's because they were scared.


Kelly: They’re scared.


Leslie: It’s that I want you to tell me that this is okay, that’s the time I can do it. And that's by responding with that sense of humanness and really integrating that into the way that you are. So say to people, “It’s gonna be okay. You can do this. You can take this risk. Nothing terrible is gonna happen.” And then they start to build that muscle and they start to see, how they can start to really, I call it brave participation. Like actually step in and participate in what's happening with a sense of courage, that you don't get if you're leader isn’t gonna take care of you at that level.


Kelly: Yeah, I love that. I'm definitely using that hashtag brave participation.


Leslie: Great.


Kelly: One of the things also that's kind of coming up for me as you're talking about it, is I see such a parallel between how you're describing what the team is needing and raising a child. So in a lot of ways, the team members if they're asking like, is this okay, am I doing it the right way, they're looking at you, almost to like parent them in a way. So if you are the type of leader who is encouraging and empowering of their bravery as you put it, like that's incredibly important for the success of the company and the scalability of it as well.


Leslie: Absolutely. Because what happens is as the ambiguity increases, there's this inflection point that happens when we start moving into things that are unfamiliar. And so, we make a choice at that moment, each of us. Am I just gonna continue to do what I've always done and like secure myself in sort of familiar territory or am I going to really grow and expand and think differently about what's coming. And the choice that we make right there is really important because what happens is if we're in that new space, I now, I'm not as competent or confident as I was in the work that I was doing. So that's gone and I'm feeling very exposed. The first thing I will do is I will disconnect. I will disconnect from the leader. I will disconnect from others. You can see in a culture in individuals when they're feeling that, because they will do one of a couple of thing—they will either start to hoard the information coz they don’t want everyone to know that they don't know what's happening.


Kelly: Right.


Leslie: Right?


Kelly: Yeah.


Leslie: So they’ll do that. Or they'll just to advocate. They’ll just start saying, I don't know, ask someone to. And all the memos start to have like big CYA on them, got 15 people on this email because I am totally covering my you know what, because I don't know if this is okay. And so, people start to disconnect and then you move into what I call “the pit of despair.” Everyone just starts complaining and being mad and feeling exposed and they fight each other and pretty soon you've sort of got this whole mass of people who are just whining and complaining and feeling bad and that's a lot to clean up.

Kelly: Yes, it is.


Leslie: You can be human with people and help them feel okay in that ambiguity and start to show up, you don't have to clean up all of that other stuff like that.


Kelly: Yet this is what you're saying, sort of preventative medicine from needing to hire somebody like your eye.


Leslie: Exactly.


Kelly: So we actually want you guys to do this.


Leslie: Right. Exactly. Or yes, like think about it now. Get ready to do this so that we can come in and help you be even more successful as opposed to try to like clean everything up.


Kelly: Untangle.


Leslie: Yes.


Kelly: Yeah, untangle the bird's nest, as I like to think about it.


Leslie: Oh I like that. Yeah.


Kelly: So we're talking all about what actually happens in these situations but what are their perspectives or the skillsets that leaders really need in order to integrate this humanist that we're calling it.


Leslie: Yeah, so I think that your point about self-awareness is one of the most important first steps like just to know sort of a little bit about who you are, when you can show up in ways that when your natural default mode is a helpful thing, and when it's not. So that you can have some time to rethink if showing up as you would naturally show up maybe isn't the most helpful thing right now. So self-awareness is the first thing. Also being aware of your own values, which I define as your decision about what's important to you in life. You can be clear about that. You can start to see how those are showing up in your culture, either in a positive way or negative way. So that's a really good piece of this self-awareness. The actual skillset, one of the things that I teach that is most valuable to people is just the idea of listening, sort of really deep listening to understand instead of listening to respond.


Kelly: My favorite phrase.


Leslie: Yes, exactly.


Kelly: My favorite, yeah.


Leslie: It's so important and again simple but not easy. And so I teach a coaching class and one of my friends in the class said, “Oh, I really have to tame the fixer.” I said, yes. That's a really good way to think about it, like not always fixing and solving but actually just listening.


Kelly: Yeah, it's interesting because so many agency owners like start out as practitioners. So whether that's design, creative, strategy, what have you. We're sort of hardwired especially for founders/owners. We're hardwired to be that practitioner, to be that problem-solver, to come up with the solutions to fix the problems. So it is really hard to sort of like unwire that or maybe it's not so much on unwiring of it, like we don't want you to change who you are because that's a great skill set to how to be able to problem solve. Really, think quickly on your feet. However, there is that pause, that pause of like, wait a minute, if I'm listening to someone as they're talking, a team member, a client, colleague, whoever it is, my business partner—if I'm listening and I catch myself already formulating what I'm going to say, cut it off, just pause.


Leslie: Exactly.


Kelly: Put that over there. You can always come back to it, still in your head, but like being really present with that conversation so that you take the time to understand not only what they're saying but also more of what is not being said.


Leslie: Exactly. My example of this is I taught this, and then I had another class with the same group a couple of weeks later and this one came back and I call it epic listening. She came back and she said, “I got it! Epic listening. I got it, I got it!” I said, “Tell me what happened.” She said, “Well, I was in my office and one of my direct reports came in and he was just, flailing, he was like, they're not getting their stuff done and they're not getting their stuff done and we can't get our stuff done and the school is ridiculous, and all of these things. And she said, “What I would have done before is as he was talking I would have said, okay I'll talk to them. I know it's hard. And I would have just been like solving all through the conversation.” And she said, “Instead, I just listened. I was just really present with him and I listened to what he said and it got done, and I said, it sounds to me like you're really overwhelmed and he sat down in the chair and he said I am so overwhelmed.” And she said, “Okay, I don't want you to feel overwhelmed. Let's figure out what we can do. Then they were actually getting at the real problem. He was participating in the solution in a way than he wasn't when he was ranting and she was fixing and they were able to make some plans and he left feeling better and more empowered and not so freaked out and all the things we talked about with that ambiguity and change and challenge, like she really got into a place where he can engage and bravely participate in what was happening.


Kelly: Yeah. That is such a perfect example because it's not just about him feeling empowered but she was holding space for him. And so look at all the positive things that you just mentioned like he felt, seen, heard, understood, he participated in the solution process. If there are some of you listening wonder like why can't my team just like do this themselves, why can't they just take the initiative? It could be because they're fearful, that they're not doing something right. It could be because their roles are maybe not defined really well or what's expected of them isn't really defined very well. But if you want them to take an active role in the problem-solving, sometimes it is just about empowering them. So that was a great example because I'm sure that a lot of people have team members who come into their office like that all the time.


Leslie: Absolutely.


Kelly: I know.


Leslie: And I think the other thing is people are like, “I don’t have time for all of that. They just have to solve it.” And I would say that that took less time than it took for her to be interrupting him the whole time he was talking and then just her running off to solve things that weren't actually the problem.


Kelly: Right.


Leslie: So I would also challenge people to think about time. And the things that you think I don't have time for that, and just challenge yourself to think about how much time does it really take in comparison to the time it might take to clean something up or to rework something after the fact. Because often it is much more effective to listen and to pay attention and to coach and bring people to their own solutions. It may be more efficient to just give somebody the answer, but I think we really have to pay attention to that sense of effective versus efficient.


Kelly: Yeah, and again the thing that comes up for me with that is it's not just the time that it takes to have that conversation and whether you're solving a particular problem if that person comes in with. But ultimately what we want to do is we want to teach our people to fish. So like for me, it's look at the lifetime value of the time, like if you can help them to figure out, okay well once I recognize like yeah I'm feeling really overwhelmed, let me try to figure this out on my own, what are the core issues. Now I don't necessarily have to come back into my boss's office for that solution.


Leslie: Exactly.


Kelly: So like lifetime value of the time that you're saving is a huge one.


Leslie: Absolutely. And then they will also be able to do that for others. So everybody's leading all the time. So they then have experienced that with you in such a way that they can offer that to another colleague. Somebody comes to them and they're all worked up, they can actually think, oh what was helpful to me was sort of allowing that space and understand what's really happening. And so, now you've also expanded, you’ve extended yourself with these other people who know how to do this and that also is about your culture.


Kelly: Yeah. So that's actually a great segue. I know that you authored a book a few years ago called Finding Time to Lead. So tell me a little bit about that and then also where people can find that.


Leslie: Sure. So here I have one. It’s called Finding Time to Lead. And I named it that because of this idea of sort of who you are is more important than what you do. So if you're like I don't have time to do all that leadership stuff, actually you just need to do your own work and think about how you show up and that is the leadership stuff. And so finding time just becomes what you do. And so there are really specific practices in there. I talk about the listening in there. I talk about some of the values, deciding who you want to be and how you want to show up and then some really specific ways of doing that. To. It's really written for CEOs. It's applicable to everyone but it's pretty specific to CEOs. So I think for owners, there might be a lot of really good information. And also I wrote it specifically to be a pretty quick rea and to be very practical. A lot of business books I think are really long and I feel like I could have read the most important parts in an article. And I tried not to do that so this really has like here's three tips at the end of each little chapter about things you can do and why that might be helpful.


Kelly: That's actually really funny because sometimes I read books like that as well and I'm like I definitely could have, like if this was consolidated down to about 15 pages as opposed to like 150, I would have been pretty happy about that.


Leslie: Exactly.


Kelly: So Finding Time to Lead and you're letting them find time to read so I love it.


Leslie: Exactly. That's what I always get. If I could just find time to read and it's on Amazon, you can get it there.


Kelly: Perfect. And how can people find out about you other than for your leadership development training.


Leslie: Oh there's also a website that goes with the book called And you can actually download a little workbook that goes with the book there so you can get some sheets and things that go with the tools in the book. And then I am at


Kelly: Perfect. I will put both of those in the show notes for today's episode and thank you so much for joining me on the show today. This is a great conversation.


Leslie: It's been great fun. Thanks Kelly.


Kelly: Take care.


Start Watching
Workamajig is a robust project management system that allows you to collaborate, organize, and streamline every project, every time.