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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.


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EP 67:Designing Conversation, with Daniel Stillman

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Daniel Stillman, author of Good Talk, discuss maximizing human connection in our intentional design of conversation




 EP 67:  Designing Conversation

Duration: 26:50


Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive. Today’s conversation is about designing conversation. And I'm here with Daniel Stillman, who is a coach, a consultant, a keynote speaker, and author of the new book, Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that Matter. We were actually introduced by a friend of ours and mutual colleague, Jay Malone of New Haircut, and I'm super excited that he felt compelled enough to connect the two of us. So Daniel, thank you so much for joining me on the show today.


Daniel: Thanks for having me. I expect an excellent conversation since we've already had a good conversation before we even hit record.


Kelly: Well, maybe we can start with sort of the backstory of how did good talk come to be, how did it come to fruition? And just would love to hear a little bit more about what either the pain points or the gaps in the market or whatever that story was for you.


Daniel: Yeah. Well, I mean, there's layers with everything but for me I used to work in industrial design and UX design. And I worked with my clients to try and discover what they needed, what they wanted, what their customers needed and wanted. And we did that thing where you go out, you do the research, you do the insights, and you design workshops to bring them together, you design presentations. And no one really taught me how to do that in design school.


And it wasn't until many, many years later that I was working as a facilitator teaching facilitation and design thinking with a group in Australia. They call their facilitation practice, conversation design, and I initially thought that that was a super douchey way to describe what I did. I was like, you're not designers. What does that even mean? But it really put a little bug in my brain because as a designer moving from industrial design to UX design, then I became aware of experience design and service design.


And when you have those new words, you start seeing the world in different way. When you start to see the world as services, you're like, well, this product is just connected to this big intangible surface service. And so, I was just like, what does it mean to design a conversation? I knew how to design an experience. I knew how to design a service. And so I actually sat down, I did four interviews with four people I knew and respected; Dave Gray, who wrote a book called Gamestorming my friend; Abby Covert, who wrote a book called How to Make Sense of Any Mess, a wonderful book about information architecture. My friend, Leland Maschmeyer, who is now the Chief Creative Officer at Chobani. And my friend, Philip McKenzie, who has a podcast now as well.


And I said to them, I was like, “What does conversation design actually mean to you? Like, what those two words mean?” And they were like, “It’s weird. It's interesting. It's intriguing. It means this. It  doesn't mean that.” It was a provocation. And honestly, I thought, this is weird. And, it took me a year to finally get around to starting a podcast about it. And in a way, like, that's the origin story for me. And so I started this podcast in 2017 to say like, okay, well, if we can, in fact, design conversations, and it seems that you are like, what are we designing? Like, literally, what's the material of design? And I don't know, like two years in, I got tricked into writing a book.


Kelly: That’s a good way to put it.


Daniel: Right, exactly. And so that to me, is the origin stories like one is, the pain point of working in a creative agency and being like, how do I guide this conversation? Like, when you learn about design thinking, like, wow, there's a structured approach to having this dialogue with my clients. And then when I saw someone else run a workshop, where they physicalized what we thought our ideal experience for this product was using collage, I was like, I can do this. I'm going to tell my boss like for this workshop we have coming up with our clients, like, I'm going to do this word and photo collage thing. And he's like, what is this? Is it? Is this gonna? That sounds weird? Is it gonna be? And I’m like, it's gonna be okay. I saw someone else do this. And I could totally get away with this. And it was amazing.


Kelly: Yeah. Sometimes you just have to trust.


Daniel: Yeah. Well, I mean, that's what he had to do.


Kelly: Right.


Daniel: I had seen it for myself. And we had this conversation where one client was like, “No, I don't want this product to be magical.” And the other guy, the client, he was like, “This thing should be magical. And so we could have this conversation about, well, what does magical mean?” And that's to understand what your client means by magical and why one half of the team doesn't want it and the other half of the team does, like that was a gift — to be able to facilitate that conversation. And so, to me, I don't think in my bio now I say like Daniel Stillman designs conversations for a living and insists that you do too. And, I think we are all designing conversations as well as we can with whatever tools we've been given or stolen or absorbed. It's like, we remember maybe being taught how to play chess, but very few of us remember being taught how to talk. Right? And so, I think it's really important.


Kelly: Yeah, that's a good point.


Daniel: That's a long origin story. But that's how I feel about it.


Kelly: No, it's great. I mean, it gives a lot of context. And I love your mantra, which is like we live our lives one conversation at a time. And what you talk about a lot in the book is the fact that we need this range, right? Like conversations have structures, you just mentioned, and give a good example. But we're not great at sort of the dichotomy of the structure of those conversations, right? So we can be, as you say, in the book, like forward-thinking or forward and fast or we can be slow and methodical and thoughtful. Why is that so challenging for people?


Daniel: It's interesting. Maybe it's a false dichotomy. There's definitely attention. You know the Rudyard Kipling poem If—? There's one phrase where he says, if you can talk to crowds and not lose your virtue and talk to Kings and not lose the common touch. There's this idea of like, can you, in fact, wow a crowd? Can you talk to some to power? Clearly, like, that's range. I think a lot of people are scraped like you do, you’re a keynote speaker. It's scary to go up on stage. And it's a different type of conversation because you can't see the audience. You don't get the same…


Kelly: Sometimes those lights are a little blinding.


Daniel: Yeah, those lights are a little blinding. If you've ever done a webinar, right? Like you're talking to the air. And so you don't get that feedback that you get in a normal dialogue. And I think team dialogues they need to be designed and are usually poorly designed like half of what I think or designers do, that I've seen as they just give people better team patterns, team dialogue patterns, making sure that everyone speaks the same amount.

But this thing that you and I were talking about, which is how hard it is to introspect, and to have time with ourselves. I don't think that's a modern malady. I think it's very easy to say, oh, it's because of phones. But it's slowing down is hard. And doing inner work is hard. Because we are human doings, not human beings. What we do is we output and there's this classic Zen concept of the ball being, being but the space in the bowl is nonbeing. And what you actually need is the space in the ball. And so we see what we do, but the nonbeing emptiness silence looks like nothingness. And isn't valued in the same way because you buy the ball, coz there's no way to buy space.


Kelly: Right. You buy the container.


Daniel: You buy the container.


Kelly: But by buying it, you're buying it to fill it up or to do something with it.


Daniel: Yeah. And so like, this is something I talked about with, I think clients are actually buying their time from me. Right?


Kelly: That's interesting.


Daniel: Like when I am on site, or when they are on a call with us, they are required to set aside their regular everyday lives and to be present, and to put away their phones. They're like, oh, Kelly's gonna be here tomorrow. We have to actually get our s*** together, and focus and do real work. And so, I think time is obviously the most precious thing we have and time with yourself is the hardest thing to get.


Kelly: Yeah, yeah. There's this concept that you also talk about, like the fact that we are constantly designing conversations whether we know it or not.


Daniel: Yeah, yeah.


Kelly: We are clearly not conscious of it. I mean, hopefully this episode will bring consciousness to it. But we're not conscious of it. But we do it all the time. So you're asking the question, what would happen if we design these conversations from a holistic perspective, to maximize meaning and connection? So what do you actually mean by that? 


Daniel: Well, so the first thing is, you have a good step back. I'll break it down for you like a math problem. Maybe, it's just because I come from a combination of like, I have a degree in physics, and I studied industrial design. And so there's this idea that if we're designing, we're designing something. Like if I want to make a curve more interesting, we spent an entire semester thinking about fast versus slow curves. I'm looking at the painting behind you. And I'm like, looking at those curves and like, oh, I see it, how it speeds up and slows down. And if I wanted to change or critique the physicality of something, I know what to critique. But with conversations, we don't even know what we're looking at, because we don't see the structure. And it's like trying to play chess without understanding moves. Right? And, modularity of moves.

And so, for me, one of the things I started to realize was that, I wanted to try and give people the smallest number of things to look at when they're designing a conversation. And one of the most interesting ones is space, and interface, the fact that our conversation happens in a place. Like right now, Zoom is the interface between our conversation, but our conversation is also happening. You've got a piece of paper nearby you with a series of questions that you want to try and address. And so, you're having a constant conversation between your plan and what's happening. Right? There's a narrative structure that you have. That's another thing that conversations are made out of stories. And it's being held in the space.

And so, one of the stories that I thought was interesting enough to put in the book was the story of this woman who, on NPR, she talked about leaving voice messages to herself. She'd walk her dog, and she would call herself and talk through her problems. And so just literally taking that time is one thing, but then you can listen to them afterwards. And we all know how much it is. We are so much better at solving other people's problems than our own. Right? And so, what she did was she put her problems on an interface outside of herself, and she could listen to her problems as if it was someone else's problem.

So she literally like peeled the conversation, her inner conversation out from inside her head, where we think at 4000 words a minute, right? Speech is, I wish I could remember the statistic right now. We can talk much, much more slowly than we can think. Our thoughts are so fast, and so peeling it out, bringing it outside, changing the interface of the conversation immediately makes it easier to address and to process. It slows things down immediately. And so, I think one of the challenges that people don't even know what they're designing. And so you can steal patterns, you're like, okay, let me start leaving voice messages to myself. But to me, I think, understanding the why is more interesting, because there's another story of like Amanda Palmer, deciding… Do you know Amanda Palmer? She's super famous TED Talk on the art of asking?


Kelly: I don't. I'm gonna put that in the show notes though and listen to it afterwards.


Daniel: She's married to Neil Gaiman, who's also a badass, and there's a story of them having a dinner conversation and she's like, hey, what if we didn't talk but we just passed notes to each other? And they asked the waiter for a pen and paper, and it was basically texting. But with time to think because writing as an interface for a conversation, it slows things down, and so they would doodle something, she’d write something and slide it across the table. And while he was writing, she got to like enjoy her dinner and just be in her thoughts. And maybe think about what she was saying while he was writing something back. And so this is what I mean by designing conversations. There are ways to slow it down, to speed it up, to physicalize it, to internalize it, to switch it up, and to be playful with the way that we interact. And that will radically change the way that we're communicating.


Kelly: Yeah, it's really interesting. As soon as you were telling that story, it made me think of a story. Just recently, I went up to a Buddhist monastery in Pine Bush, New York. And I went with a friend of mine, and in the middle of the day, there was a lunch with the monks that live on, the residents of the campus there. And so the entire time it was a silent lunch, right? So we're all eating the only thing that you could hear were like the clanking of the utensils and chopsticks and whatnot. And it made me have a conversation with myself while I was eating and I was so purposeful and so intentional. And also really excited that once that silence was broken, I was so clear about some of the questions that I wanted to ask my friend about her experience or ask one of the monks sitting next to me. And it was the slowing down on the silence that allowed me to do that. Really, really interesting. I hadn't thought about it that way until you just told that story.


Daniel: So good. Great music is not just constant noise at like one volume. There's musicality to great conversations. And that is what I would call cadence. When does a groove become a rut? You listen to a baseline where it's like, oh, you know when it's like it. It pulls you forward and there's interest. There's a variety and I think that's something that we're missing too. And so just having a pattern of silence and not silence, is essential and loudness and softness and high and low. People don't know how to vary their voices and speak with a musicality. But we don't do that for ourselves at all.


Kelly: Well, that was going to be sort of along the lines like my next question was about like, the inner voice work that you do. I think, for me, that's super fascinating and love to hear a little bit more about that.


Daniel: Well, step 1, if you've never listened to Julia Cameron. She wrote The Artists Way and The Artists’ Way at Work. I did a writing workshop with her. I took my mom. It was super fun and when anybody would step up to the microphone with a problem, the first thing Julia Cameron would say is, are you doing your morning pages? And the morning pages are these three pages of free hand, free thinking, just like scraping off the first layer of your brain first thing in the morning? And that is like her base level of like, you must be doing your morning pages. Like that is the fundamental first conversation that happen.


Kelly: Is that like the same thing as journaling or just calling it something different?


Daniel: It might just be fancy journaling. But Julia believes…


Kelly: Fancy journaling.


Daniel: It’s just fancy journaling. The morning pages is not like, oh, this happened. And this happened. It's literally like, you write it as quickly as possible. It's free association. It might be a list of song lyrics. It's sometimes I've written a half a page of, I don't want to be doing this. I don't want to be doing this. I don't want to be doing this. I don't want to be doing this. Whatever it is. So I think journaling is like, oh, so last night, last week, Tom did this and I don't feel good about that versus like morning pages. It's just like, I don't care what's in it. It doesn't matter at all.


Kelly: And it doesn't have to be a narrative. It doesn't have to be sentences. It's yeah, okay. Got it. It’s like a brain dump.


Daniel: Brain dump. Exactly. Don't like barely pick up your pen. Don't think, just get it out.


Kelly: But handwritten, not typed.


Daniel: Handwritten. It's absolutely essential. I just got back to my morning pages like a week ago. Because I like to have space. I don't want to just be, I want to have a flow between doing it, not doing it, but the inner voice stuff, it's fascinating. There's a whole school of therapy called Inner Family Systems. There are some Inner Family Systems cards where you look at a grumpy, sullen teen being yelled at by like a mother and there's a mess everywhere. And there's a beautiful happy family picture in the back. And it's like, okay, well, what is the family dynamic in here? And then where's that dynamic exist in me? But the way that I've done inner voice work with my therapist is, whenever I have an internal conflict, it's actually naming the parts and sometimes physicalizing the parts so that if I have an inner critic, maybe you have an inner critic, too.


Kelly: We all do.


Daniel: Really? It's not just me? I'm normal? So when I struggle with my inner critic, we name it, we give it a name. And we actually localize it in a room. We put it in a space.


Kelly: Like give it a name, like calling it what it is, or giving it a name like David?


Daniel: Like, yeah, whatever. It could be David or it could be like the taskmaster.


Kelly: So like an archetype. 


Daniel: Well, yeah, well, I mean, I name it for myself and I drew it. I have drawing somewhere where I drew all of the different parts where it's like, he's like at a millstone. Like you put an ox around like a millstone, just like push around and grind out that. That's what I feel sometimes. I find out more stuff. And so you're like, okay, well, let's put the taskmaster over there. And what do you want to say to him? What does he want to say to you? What do you need from him? What does he need from you? And that is actually having a conversation with yourself.

And it is much easier when you have somebody coaching you through it. You can also do it for yourself. So when I teach my facilitation masterclass, I do an exercise called the facilitators hats. And people draw the roles that they think they take on as a facilitator, ones that are hard for them to take on, which ones are easier and joyful for them, which ones are sort of like outside of their reach. And then we do some physical sorting where they start to think about like, what's in the core? What's in the shadows? What do they want to bring into the center? What's the pyramid of facilitation for them, and getting introspective about what is the role that I really need to be focusing on right now.

And it's been really interesting because I made this deck of cards and it was internally very struggling for me because I enjoy people drawing their own. But I decided to just take. I've been doing this for like 5 years now. So I went through 5 years of people's facilitators’ hats, drawings, and just made a deck of like 40 some odd ones that I liked. And the other day, I had them in my pocket because I was going to show somebody a prototype and I was going to this event. And like many people suffer from mild social anxiety.

And I thought to myself, how do I need to show up at this thing? Like, what do I want to be? What's my goal? Like, what am I going to do here? And I literally pulled out 3 facilitators hats at random, and one was the nourisher. It's this big top hat where like, the brim of the top hat is filled with food. So that's something we have to do. When we gather people we have to nourish them. And the other one was the fun hat. Like it's got a big propeller on it, because sometimes we just need to have fun.

And the other one was a detective hat. And I was like, whoa, I'm going to be the fun nourishing detective tonight. Like I don't even know what that means. But it was just wonderful provocation for me to think about how to show up playfully and be like, yeah, I know how to pull those parts out of myself. If I'm thinking to myself, Daniel, let's be nourishing today, I know how to pull out the nourisher in me. And I know how to be a detective, to ask really deep questions.


Kelly: And that's really interesting because we all have all of these different parts, archetypes, aspects, whatever you want to call them. We can pull from all of these different things. And I like the fact that you pause and you had that moment of reflection of like, what is my intention? Who do I want to show up as in this particular event? And let somebody else decide that, which in this case was the card? Right? Or the set of cards?


Daniel: Right.


Kelly: That's pretty cool. I think that's a really, really cool thing that the cards themselves remind me a little bit of… are you familiar with Q&E cards, questions and empathy cards from Michael Ventura that go along with his book Applied Empathy?


Daniel: No, I don't, but I do know, Michael. 


Kelly: Okay. So he's been on the podcast, and yeah, so I have actually right behind me a set of those cards. And funny enough, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine over text message this morning. And she was talking about convening and I like pulled the cards out and I was like, oh my God, these questions are great. That's exactly so applicable. So yeah, it's really interesting how you can use different cards like that to either ask questions or to sort of, not dictate, but give you some inspiration as to how you want to show up or who you want to be in each given day. Right? And that goes back to your whole thing about like, we are really living our lives and designing these conversations one at a time.


Daniel: They have a choice. It’s to illustrate that we even have choices, is huge. Because most of the time I think we just… respond reflexively, right? So if I'm thinking about how I'm going to show up at this party, I'll just be like, I'll just pull it for myself or I'll make a choice or I'll be anxious about it. And so giving ourselves the recognition that I've got a whole deck of cards of how to be empathetic to somebody. Right? I have an infinity of choices. I don't think it is scary. I think of it as liberating. Oh, I could show up. And I could be a dick. Like, that's choice. Right?


Kelly: That is a choice.


Daniel: But some people make that choice without even realizing there are other choices, right?


Kelly: True. It’s just lack of awareness.


Daniel: It's lack of hard-nosed on purpose. It's a lack of introspection and time and being like, what do I want? What do I need? Just taking a moment saying like, well, what are my ways? What are my options on the table of showing up and which is the best to actually get me what I want? My fiancée and I talk about this all the time, because we don't really fight much. Because there's this idea of like, well, why would I yell at you about the ironing board being out for 3 days? Like that's not actually going to get me what I want. And honestly, I don't really care. But the other day, I was like, hey honey, I noticed you took out the ironing board, which we never, it's not ever really used. I was like, what's the ironing board doing? And she's like, oh, like, there's this thing I pulled out of the back of my closet. I want to iron it. So I thought if I took out the ironing board, it would have encourage me to do it. And I was like, cool. And then like another 3 days later, I was like, hey, so what's going on with the ironing projects? And she's like…


Kelly: How’s the ironing project going, honey?

Daniel: Yeah. I know. And she's like, well, I'm beginning to get started on thinking about doing it. I was like, oh, let's dig into the process of beginning to get started on doing this. Tell me more about this. And we just laughed hysterically about it.


Kelly: Oh my God.


Daniel: And so then she's like, the next day she irons the thing and put it away. Because like, that is just such a different way. Now I was able to do that because I love her tremendously. And I find her hilarious and amusing in everything she does. So to me, like I could be like, what's the goddamn ironing board doing out? And in fact, we sometimes pull up voice out, the old Jewish married couple for fun, and just like we pretend. And I was like, you take out the ironing board and what is it furniture now? It's gonna be there for how many years? Should I put some flowers on it? What do you think? Right? Because that's even more ridiculous like yes, let’s just play that role.


Kelly: Oh my God. That is designing a conversation. That's just designing an amusing fun, amazing conversation.


Daniel: I’m letting out my aggression in a hilarious way, potentially at least to, Janet. And so, that to me is like being thoughtful and playful with how we express ourselves.


Kelly: Oh I love that.


Daniel: Try that on. It's always fun to be a crotchety old couple. 


Kelly: Okay, I got to practice my Jewish accent though.


Daniel: Yeah, yeah. Just watch The Princess Bride. It always helps. Miracle Max and, and his wife whose name… “I'm not a witch. I'm your wife.”


Kelly: All right. Well, I am going to put links to the book and some of your social channels in the show notes. Daniel, thank you so much for joining me on the show. This has been such a great conversation. I don't know if I've laughed so much on the show before, so I appreciate that.


Daniel: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. It's been really fun.


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EP 66: Navigating Agency Life Transitions, with Annie Scranton

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly talks to Annie Scranton of Pace PR about the many transitions she’s had to move through within the context of integrating agency leadership into her personal life. 



 EP 66: Navigating Agency Life Transitions

Duration: 27:15


Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive. I'm here actually today with Annie Scranton, who’s the CEO of Pace PR in New York. We're chatting about the many transitions that agency owners face on a continuous basis whether that's personal, professional, and she's going to share her story about how she's actually been able to navigate them. These are some of my favorite conversations, real agency owners, real challenges and just being really transparent about what those things are that people are facing and then how we kind of come to resolve those and solve them. So Annie, it's great to see you again. Thank you so much for joining me on the show today.


Annie: Thank you for having me.


Kelly: So first of all congratulations on hitting your 10-year mark with the PR firm. That's amazing.


Annie: Thank you, thank you.


Kelly: So let's talk about this first, will call it the first transition of many with the agency where you actually went on maternity leave, how you kind of navigated that because that in and of itself is pretty challenging or could be and then we'll maybe dive into some of the issues about growing and scaling the team as a new mom with a brand new baby at home.


Annie: Yeah. So I would say that definitely having a baby was obviously like the biggest life change I've ever had but it certainly in the context of my business, it was absolutely the biggest moment where I just kind of felt like even though I did tons of crap beforehand I had just no idea like what it was going to be like and how things were gonna kind of shake out.


Kelly: How do you prepare for something like that, right?


Annie: Well, a client gave me a good advice. He said write down every single thing you do every single day for like a week or two straight and so I tried to do that so that way my two VPs would have a little, a look, a glimpse, into like sort of what my day to day was like. And before going on maternity leave, I really was acting like the CEO, the president, the founder, the CFO, I was doing like all of those roles, but I was very entrenched in like the day to day with the clients stuff. And so what I figured and what became true was that once I came back I was not gonna be able to be as entrenched in the day to day client work. So that was something I had to kind of relinquish in terms of like control which isn't easy, I don't think if you're an owner of an agency or a company.


Kelly: We tend to all be a little type A.


Annie: Exactly. But really what really was like so surprising and like the best way is that when I, I had so much anxiety about telling my clients I was pregnant and I would be out on maternity leave and they all surprised me, every single one of them was so happy for me, was like don't worry it'll be fine we'll figure it out or work with the others on your team and they truly meant it actually. And so I think that was something that I had underestimated because being in the service industry you're there to serve and so you're not really there to take time off and not to be working but I think for my clients particularly those who are parents themselves I think they understood it and I guess believed in me and believed in the foundation of what we were doing and I should say I only I only took like two months where I was fully off. So it was not a long maternity leave and then I came back slowly like sort of couple of days a week until I hit five months and that was when I came back from maternity leave sort of right after the holidays.


My experience was that the first few months after maternity leave or after I had my daughter actually went really, really well because I was still working right up until the day I gave birth. I had lots of planning meetings with my senior staff about how they were going to fill in the gaps and what was most important etcetera. And I really was able to just enjoy my daughter and not worry about work for two months which was awesome and everybody should do that a hundred percent because you never get that time again. And it was really wonderful and then dipping my toe back in like a couple days a week was good. It was definitely like one of the benefits of being a founder and owning an agency. It is just sort of write your own path back in after. So that was really good.


But then going back full time was really hard and it was hard I think because I felt really lost like in terms of what my role was now at the company. It’s been running really smoothly while I was gone and so I came back and I was like, alright, what am I doing here, like what’s my purpose. And then I realized what it was, was that, the one component that I hadn't been doing that nobody else was really doing was keeping up the new business relationships like getting new business is not really a skill you can teach somebody. It's just sort of I think innate and probably something that all owners or agency founders are good at. That's why we started our own agencies because we had a pipeline into potential clients. And so I realized that when I was sort of reviewing the Q1 numbers after I had just come back and they were not as strong as the previous year and that was the first year in nine years in business at that point that that had ever happened to me.


Kelly: That was just last year?


Annie: That was just last year. Yeah. Almost exactly a year ago and that really freaks me out because I had always been on this slow trajectory up and now we were like looking to maybe just break even with the year before. And so that was a big realization for me. Running the day to day and keeping the current clients happy and sort of keeping up with that work, my team totally expertly handled but having sort of foresight to keep the company growing was something that I wasn't in the headspace to do while I was enjoying my new baby and that was sort of the first big challenge of 2019, figuring out okay what are we going to do here to keep growing.


Kelly: Yeah, so it's interesting one of the things that you said early on was that you had all of this anxiety about telling the clients, right?


Annie: Yes.


Kelly: So that anxiety I'm imagining was coming from a place of like are they going to think that I'm incompetent, are they going to look at our agency as less valuable, would there potentially be some attrition because of this, was that all of the underlying feeling of that anxiety?


Annie: All of it. Yes, a hundred percent. And also being the one who primarily signs the bulk of a new business, the bulk of the clients, many of our clients want me. They want me involved. They want to talk to me. They wanna make sure I'm working on their accounts. And my staff is tremendous but there’s still that connection and so yes I was very worried about, would they feel like they weren’t getting their money's worth if they couldn't get me on the phone. Would they feel like their account wasn't going as strong if I wasn't actively pitching them to producers and different media?


And then just from my own perspective before I started my agency ten years ago, I always worked in a corporate culture. I was at various TV networks, like Fox, CNN, MSNBC and I remember being younger like in my twenties and seeing people take their maternity leave and then realizing okay now the bulk of the work they were doing is going to fall onto me and feeling like I mean I was so naive at the time but feeling sort of like well this isn't fair. Now I have all this extra work to do so I was worried about my staff too like feeling like they weren't feeling supported because I was out. So yeah, it was a lot of anxiety but one of my clients actually who I had a conversation with about it really like put my fears at ease and he said, Annie, people are going to be happy for you, you work really hard like you have the right connections, you're doing things the right way like people will support you. And I did find that to be true.


Kelly: Yes, so all of the potential like that story or that narrative that you created that this was going to be devastating for the clients and it was going to impact the employees like none of that was actually true. It was all just coming up out of the sphere of like if I'm not involved like everything's gonna go and fall by the wayside.


Annie: Totally. And like my ego was a little bruise because I was like oh, like okay everything's going fine. I wasn't even needed here for the past few months.


Kelly: Right.


Annie: I say that jokingly but there was a little bit of that, real feeling in there, and it was an adjustment like for sure but my mom always says to me, she's like, whatever you're worried about it's not going to be that thing that happens to you; it's gonna be something else.


Kelly: Or nothing.


Annie: Or nothing. Exactly. But I'm a worrier and so I always think something's gonna happen. But for me, it was not the operational side or the client side or even the staff side, it was really just continuing the growth of the business. I mean I didn't have the foresight. I don't know if I even could have for that being the one thing that I needed to pay attention to.


Kelly: Yeah, but that's also really self-aware that you said yeah my ego was a little bruised like I used to have sort of control over almost every nuance of this business, right?


Annie: Yes.

Kelly: Hand in clients, leading the team, developing culture, new business, like all of these things and so when you step back in and everything sort of running aside from new business, but everything else is sort of running smoothly without you, you're like wait now you said I felt lost. There's also like for me what natural extensions of that is, there's a little bit of loneliness and there's a little bit of question about purpose which you mentioned so it's like how did you get over that, how did you transition back in and sort of redefined what your purpose was and then get over that challenge of not necessarily prior to that only focusing on new business and now you're in this place where that's what the agency needs and that's what your primary focus, like how did you manage that transition.


Annie: I mean, to be honest with you I'm still managing it. I honestly, sometimes I do, I'll have conversation my husband something like I don't know what I'm doing, like what is it am I supposed to be doing right now. But when I came back from maternity leave, it was even harder because I was getting used to not seeing my daughter from nine to five every day. I was nursing. At the times I was pumping in the office. Forget it, like that was a whole other life challenges. It was hard because I was feeling sort of like I was feeling at home, feeling in the office and it wasn't easy. What did I do to get over it? I think somebody just told me another piece of good advice was to spend your time doing what only you can do and not what others on your team can do.


And so on that is where I tried to really dive then in terms of new business of course, just like oversight generally speaking of how the company was working and flowing, hiring, like that was something where my resume senior team was knee deep in, in the day to day work. I was like okay I'll take on the responsibility of actively hiring and doing these interviews. And now I think, my role it's harder to define because there's not like I'm always thinking about how to keep growing and scaling my company and what are more services that we can offer to clients and how can we implement that without burdening the staff that we currently have and it's hard because I before I had Rose, my daughter, every day I feel like I could do like a checklist of like every single thing I needed to do and I got it done and here's how I made the clients happy.


Like now when you say okay I'm working on how to scale the business like I don't know it's more like nebulous. It's more like I need to just spend time thinking and talking to people and whatever and it kind of comes in more of like an abstract way. And it's still really hard because I'm very type A and so my brain doesn't work like that. So I don't know I'm just trying to like lean into it as much as possible like if my email isn't crazy busy then I'll go on like Fast Company or Inc. or  Entrepreneur, and like read an article that I think I could benefit from, whereas before I feel like I literally didn't have like five minutes in my day to do that.


Kelly: Right. I recently heard somebody say if you replace your task-list with a to-solve list and take let's say you had ten things each day on your task list and now you're to-solve list becomes like much more strategic, becomes much more high level. That to-solve list maybe should have like four things on it for the entire week. I thought that was a really interesting way to sort of reframe exactly what you're talking about.


Annie: I am going to try that because that is a good way. Sometimes that's all it takes, just like witching the way you think about it.


Kelly: Yeah. So just kind of moving into the next big challenge that you faced. At some point between what we're talking about with the maternity leave and coming back, you had four employees actually quit and give notice, some leave within like just a couple of months of each other and you were pretty clear when we talked last time that you knew that the issue wasn't systemic. They were all for different reasons but that it actually did impact morale. And so I'm curious to know how as the visionary, as the founder, as the leader how did you sort of help that transition as well.


Annie: Well, I just try to be as honest and forthcoming with my staff as I could about each specific situation and I try to also very quickly hire freelancers or finding new people to fill in the gaps so that way at the very least the current staff wouldn't feel overloaded by having to pick up the work. So I think those are just very easy tactical things that I could do but it was really hard like super hard because most of my staff has been with me for years and years and years and so it was just like it was a shock for sure. Each situation was really different and I think in each situation I just was as honest as I could be with the team about why that person had left but we try to just to keep the morale like up, like we just try to do more like have more moments where we were sort of trying out all feel good about something that we did or like a big accomplishment we do every week.


On Thursday afternoons, we do weekly wins so it's like what was your big win for the week. So we try to just do that. I tried to highlight when a staff member had a great booking or had a great client, initiative that went well. I tried to make that feel more like a moment within the team so people would feel good about their work. And I think that's all good and I think people do appreciate that but at the end of the day, what people care the most about is either, are they getting more money or are their perks that are going to benefit them, so we try to just be even more flexible than we could about like time off, for people needing to work remotely sometimes. It kind of sucked. It was like I'm not gonna lie, it was very hard for sure.


Kelly: Yeah. So I'm curious to know like through the spectrum of a lot of these experiences that you're talking about which are so common in agency life, so many agency leaders can absolutely resonate with one or all of these things. I'm curious to know like how would you describe your own mindset as you were going through those, like were you really freaking out, were you able to compartmentalize, were you able to just kind of be authentic like what was your mindset, what was going through your mind to kind of help you get through it all.


Annie: I feel like I went through different phases and like different phases almost within each day. At home with my husband or talking to my mom on the phone. I'd be like freaking out, crying. I mean not like I was doing this all the time but I definitely have my moments. Having trouble sleeping, you wake up and you're like oh god how am I gonna fix this or what are we gonna do. I don't know if that ever goes away as long as you're still like involved in running the company because like I have twelve people that are on payroll like that's a big responsibility that you have to worry about. But in the office and from my staff I definitely tried to be reassuring as possible about everything because I mean losing some of the staff members was hard but we were fortunate in that the business was never at a point where we have to be worried about loss or anything like that.


So that was good but I think we all have some level of imposter syndrome and I definitely felt like I knew it was a learning experience for me but it was hard to feel confident that I was gonna see myself to the other side of it. So I just, I don't know, what did I do. I worked really hard. I tried to just like put myself out there to get more biz and to meet new people we can hire but then I also just tried to take advantage of like where I was at in my own life and my own career. This summer I realized in New York it feels like nobody even works in the summer but especially in August and so my daughter was turning one and then I had a lot of clients who are away and it was just sort of slow. And I just took a lot of time off like in that month just to be with her. I mean I'm always on my phone, accessible or whatever for work but I tried to just not freak out that like things were slow and I tried to just be like okay let me enjoy this time and I'm so glad I did that because literally the day after Labor Day, I feel like oh my god everybody just woke up, everybody's back like it’s crazy and things started to really pick up.


Kelly: Right. So it sounds like you're saying like with the team, you were really transparent. You were very reassuring to them. But did you also feel like you had this innate sense of like I don't know maybe from an intuitive standpoint or just like a deep knowing that everything was going to be fine. You just couldn't necessarily see how in that moment. Would you say that you had that or not necessarily?


Annie: Yes, I think I did because I was already nine years in business and so I'm like okay what are the chances that then after nine very successful years all of a sudden, it's all gonna come crumbling down. So I was like okay that's probably not going to happen and I try to remember pieces of advice that people gave me like an executive once told me like you can't expect every single year to grow, and grow, and grow. You have to have some flat years, you have to have some time that you are down, there's no business that just goes completely up every single year forever. And so I feel like I did have that knowing but if I also didn't have the anxiety and the nerves and the drive within me that like wanna make sure a hundred percent that that was going to be the case then I think that's how I balanced it.


Kelly: No, that’s great. So it was definitely like an intuitive or deep innate knowing that everything was going to be fine but also an action like action steps or actionable things that you did to realize like I can't just sit back and be like yeah, everything's gonna be fine. I know it'll be fine without me having to do something. It's like a little bit of both in terms of that dichotomy.


Annie: One hundred percent. Like somebody said to me like after I had a baby like are you even going to go back to work? You should just like relax and let Ross and Megan run the company and whatever. And I was like no, I mean like I could but again like I think as a founder, if you want to keep it moving and keep going to the next level only you until you're ready to completely check out. Like there was no like half in or out for me.


Kelly: You weren't ready at that point to make yourself optional in the business?




Kelly: You wanted to remain as whether it was from an oversight perspective in addition to doing business development, whatever it was, but that was what you wanted, like that's what was fulfilling to you in that moment, that that may change in five years but in that moment and right now that's where you're at.

Annie: Yeah, I think I think too like for people who are moms or dads like continuing to have that other purpose is so important at least for me, like just because Rose gives me so much purpose, but if I didn't have something that I was day in and day out working for myself, I do not think I would be as good of a parent or as patient or as just happy. So yes I think absolutely and also just tactically for the business, yeah, I think we still needed to have someone like myself sort of driving things from a higher perspective.


Kelly: Right. It is such a great conversation and I really appreciate your complete transparency and honesty and like sharing this story because a lot of people aren't really willing to be that vulnerable I guess we could call it to say yeah these are the things that I've gone through and this is how I am either I've come out of it or solved it or I'm like literally in the process of solving it. So I do appreciate that really. I guess my last question is really for some of the agency owners who are dealing with one or more of these things literally right now, as they're watching or listening to this. What's the best piece of advice? It sounds like you often like will ask other people for help and assistance and advice, which is amazing. Because we don't know everything ourselves that's why we surround ourselves with amazing people but what's the thing that you would actually advise other people who are going through this. What would be your number one like best piece of advice?


Annie: Therapy or a business coach, like for sure. I have a great therapist who has a lot of business experience too so we talk a lot in there about all the stuff we just talked about so I think having an outlet of some kind and for your business staff is so important and whether that's a mentor or a therapist or a business coach or whatever. I would say definitely that. I think I did for a long time just keep a list not everyday but as much as I could of things that made me feel happy about the business and about the job like to kind of keep practicing that gratitude part of it because it's so easy, especially as an owner but especially you’re the founder but especially when you're going through one of these issues or another big issue to like just y’all totally like burdened and just overwhelmed and my mom would always say like, you love this.


Kelly: I don’t love every part of it.


Annie: But it's like remembering why you're doing it and trying to just not feel like in every single moment I'm rushing to do the next thing or whatever and to like enjoy it a little bit would definitely be part of it and then I think to just like being as kind and easy on yourself as you can because if you're running a successful agency, you have for years and then you have a blip in the road like chances are high you're going to be able to get through it. And just remember to be good to yourself through that process. It is not easy but that probably would be helpful.


Kelly: Yeah, that's amazing. I literally couldn't have scripted a better answer to that question. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you joining me on the show today. Best of luck and all the success in the world.


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EP 65: Workplace Transformation, with Lauren Bachynski

On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Lauren Bachynski of Steelcase discuss workplace experience design and how agencies can begin to think differently about the impact on productivity and culture, as it relates to creating intentional physical spaces for their teams




 EP 65: Workplace Transformation

Duration: 21:53


Kelly: So welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. Today, we're going to be talking about Workplace Transformation primarily in a physical sense, maybe a little bit of the research behind it and how it all leads to larger benefits for our agencies.


So my guest today is Lauren Bachynski. She is one of the applied research consultants with Steelcase and I'm sure many of us are familiar when we look around our creative agency offices with all of the furniture and everything there, probably coming from Steelcase in many cases. So welcome Lauren. It is such a pleasure to have you on the show today.


Lauren: Thank you so much. It's great to be here.


Kelly: So a mutual friend of ours introduced us, someone also that works at Steelcase and was sort of teasing this idea to her talking about the fact that this isn't really a conversation that a lot of people think about. They don't think about how the design, just how are our physical office environments really affect our culture. They affect the depth or the breadth of communication that we have, the quality of the communication that we have with one another. The physical comfort that we experience throughout the day. Right?


So there's so many things that go into this and I think some people in the industry sort of refer to it more as like workplace experience design, but it's really about transforming the organization. Right? I think it extends so much further beyond just like the physical environment. So what do we mean by organizational transformation with respect to these physical spaces?


Lauren: Yeah, I mean, that's a great question and it's definitely one that a lot of organizations are grappling with today. And I would say that there's two primary aspects here. The first one is that, the physical work environment is really like an artifact of that organization's culture, whether intentionally designed or not. It sends a lot of messages about who the organization is and what it values.


And the second thing that I would say is that it not only plays a role in who the organization is today, but also what it will become in the future. So we always say that space shapes behavior and behavior over time becomes culture. And so the work environment can play a really important role in sort of fostering and enabling some of the behaviors that are going to enable that transformation.


Kelly:  Yeah. Can you repeat that? That was a great soundbite. About the transformation.


Lauren: Yeah. It's space, shapes, behavior and behavior over time becomes culture.


Kelly: Yeah. I love that. I love that. I think that's so true. And I think starting with the physical space is certainly like a good foundation, a good starting point. That's great. So I guess talking about maybe some of the statistics or maybe some of the research done around productivity, maybe employee attrition, or retention, hopefully and even profitability. Where can we sort of find some quantitative measurement here?


Lauren: Yeah. Well, what I would say is we get that question a lot and how we generally answer it is that, those things really depends. We want to understand like the metrics that are important to that organization in how they measure productivity is going to be very different than how another organization would. So I wouldn't say that there really is any standard measures or predefined solutions, that it's really on a case by case basis.


And that the approach we take is that we really want to listen to understand. And that we're able to combine both, that understanding with a lot of experience in years of research, working with other organizations to develop a set of measures, a set of variables, a set of metrics that create a really representative of like what is the ideal state or like the best, sort of like the best case for that organization.


Thinking about not just sort of comparing yourself to a norm, which may in fact include an average that is based on a lot of organizations who may not be well leveraging, who may not have a good work experience, who may not be leveraging their space well, but instead of really determining what is ideal for that organization and then using that as sort of the bar going forward.


Kelly:   Yeah, no, that's a great point. Sort of like creating your own metrics based on what's important to you.


Lauren: Absolutely.


Kelly:  Yeah. So I guess my next question would be like, I'm just curious, what process do you sort of implore in Steelcase? Like when an organization comes to you, they're looking to improve their workplace from the initial outreach to the actual installation. I don't know if you call it installation, but to that end product or that end environmental designer transformation. Like what does that process look like?


Lauren: Yeah, no, it's a great question. Again, I mean, we really begin this process with trying to understand what the organization's needs and goals are. And then we want to develop a tailored strategy around that. So at a high level, we have a user centered process that is very sort of like holistic in nature. No two projects look the same. 


Kelly:  I could imagine.


Lauren: Yeah. We're always adapting and customizing that to the specific needs of that organization. But that being said, in terms of sort of that higher level process that we follow, the first step is really diagnosis, which is really trying to understand through a number of different research activities, how people are working in the organization today and how they need to be working in the future. What is that desired future state? And then understanding the scope and the scale of the gap between the two.


We then move into a phase which is all about working with leadership and sort of defining what their critical success factors are and what their goals and objectives are both for the project, but for the organization more broadly as well. It's really important to have sort of those two levels, so that the goals of that project are very much aligned with where the organization is going more broadly.


We then go into what we call like an engage stage which is with employees. So it's very much like a top down, bottom up approach. And we typically engage users for like a cross section of the organization, across roles, positions different work groups to make sure that we're getting all perspectives at the table. And that's where we really start to gain a really in-depth understanding of the organizational culture, how people are working, what are the unmet needs.


And then from there, we go through a deep sort of analysis and synthesis of all our findings and inputs. And with that, we develop a set of key insights and those key insights inform the recommendation, the workplace strategy going forward, but also the change management effort that's going to be required. That's usually a really important part of the process.


From there, we deliver those recommendations to the key stakeholders involved. And then we go into a guide base, which is essentially the change management phase and looking at how we can really address the different considerations to make sure that the solution is successfully adopted and implemented.


And then we'll finish with a measurement phase where we're going back and we're measuring how that solution is performing and what improvements we're seeing and what are we learning and where can we continue to make refinements to ensure that we're really ending up in the best place possible.


Kelly:  Yeah. And that last phase, the measurement phase, is that a combination of qualitative and quantitative?


Lauren:  Yeah, absolutely. So it's often a mirroring of sort of what we do in the diagnose phase. So the diagnose will often do to your point. But we’ll do the more qualitative, which is typically interviews. We'll do them like workshops with the more quantitative, which is typically like surveys, utilization studies. So we'll typically go back and then we sort of have to have the pre to have the post. You know what I mean? So you can sort of compare the findings of both.


Kelly: Right, right. I just think it's so interesting because I could imagine a lot of the agency owners and leaders who are listening or watching this and sort of, I'm thinking like, wow, I thought Steelcase just kind of made office furniture, you know? And it's, I could imagine in their minds like, wow, I didn't realize that all of this went into it. And if I actually want to affect change in my organization on pretty much every level, including my own leadership and change management, then this is a really, really viable option.


And I don't think a lot of people think of it like that. It's like they think of it potentially as like another vendor or looking at just like the design of, or the aesthetic of what the options are, right? Color and form and things like that as opposed to, okay, this is really strategic in the same way that a creative agency is strategic with their clients, right? With their deliverables. So yeah, I think that that's going to be a pretty big takeaway from this. I mean, that's awesome.

Lauren:  I mean, that’s often something we hear again and again, which is that, people, it's sort of like build it and they will come, but in our experience, we know that that isn't that, that it doesn't really work that way, but you need to really have a broad and holistic approach. I mean, we generally think about we don't think about workspace. We think about work experience and we think about sort of different elements that are incorporated into that.


So you certainly have the space, but you also have the culture and the behaviors of the organization. You have the work process, you have the tools, and technology and all four of these things are like deeply connected and interrelated. And it's really hard to affect meaningful change in one of those areas without touching the other ones. So we really make sure that we're through all the phases that I just mentioned. That's always sort of like the lenses that we're looking through from the research activities themselves to the synthesis, the frameworks that we use to synthesize that material to our final recommendations.


Kelly:  Do you have an example that you could share of like specifically at like a creative organization or agency that has gone through the process that you just talked about and really saw some kind of significant improvement? Whether it was quantitative or both? 


Lauren:  That's a great question. What I would say is that I'll use the example of actually maybe a more traditional organization, but that organization was really trying to implement sort of a more creative approach within the organization. So I've been working more recently with a large airline company who has a number of, they're implementing a process called Agile within their technology department.


And we've been working with them to study how these teams are working within these spaces and just start to develop the space that would best support not only that process but also like the ceremonies and the rituals and the interactions that are inherent in it. And in tandem with that, it's been interesting because Steelcase has been going through a very similar change with our technology teams. And an interesting thing about Steelcase is we really like to experiment on ourselves.


So we've been testing the same thing in our Grand Rapids headquarters where we've been prototyping and studying different spaces to look at how these teams work and how to really support that. So we've kind of taken the research that we've done with this organization and we've taken some of the research that we've done on ourselves and kind of merge that and to develop sort of some recommendations about what this space might look like.


And what's been really interesting about the entire process is we've been doing this closely in alignment with their teams kind of working as a partnership and we've applied the Agile process actually to even how we're approaching doing that. So we're taking the solution and we're prototyping it through like multiple different cycles of learning and measurement and iteration.


And what's interesting about it is the intention is that there's never a final or a fixed solution, that there are always constantly an iteration. And so, it's really interesting to kind of work with them on this and to kind of see how they're taking. They’re not only trying to find the right environments to support these teams, but the kind of creative approach that they're taking to finding them. It's been really fun.


Kelly:  Yeah. It's such a great example because so many of the agencies that are active listeners or viewers of the show definitely employ some kind of Agile methodology, whether it's from a development sense, which is pretty traditional or in other senses in the work that they do. So it's a great example and what I love about it is that you are actually taking layers of Agile methodology, right?


And then on top of that, creating sort of like an agility to the way that you're putting this together with the client. I think that's great and I'm sure that what that means at the end of the day is that even though it is constantly iterative, the outcomes of what the client ends up with is going to be that much more effective because of the way that you've applied this research and are constantly working with them in partnership. So yeah, really, really interesting case study.


Lauren:   Yeah. It's been great to be a part of it.


Kelly:  Yeah. So as we start to wrap up, what would you say is the best piece of advice for creative leaders who are currently sort of considering the impact of workplace transformation for 2020 and beyond?


Lauren:  Yeah, so I would say understanding and internalizing how the workforce is changing. I think the younger workforce is really representing a significant shift in terms of like the values and expectations that they're bringing to the workplace. And I think, some of the things that we're seeing is definitely a greater desire for purpose-driven work. Greater sense of community, more flexibility, greater autonomy in how they're working, but also, the area of supporting greater wellbeing and work life balance has really seemed to like very top of mind.


Kelly:  Yeah. I was just going to say I love to use work life integration instead of balance. Just because I feel like it's really hard to kind of visualize, especially for creatives. It's almost like, it's difficult to visualize these two things being on like opposing ends of the spectrum, but trying to be like balanced as if we think about like the scales of justice for example. So like more of like a meshing or an integration. And every time someone says in the show, I always say it, so I didn't mean to cut you off. Go ahead.


Lauren: No, no, no, no. That's a great point. I'm going to use that. But no, so I mean, I think what's interesting about it is this is kind of all happening at the same time that like creative firms, organizations more broadly are having to think hard about how they're differentiating themselves in a marketplace in which unemployment's at an all-time low. And in which talent scarcity is kind of increasing.


And I think something that a lot of creative organizations have been thinking about for a long time, that like other organizations are really just kind of coming to is that as work becomes increasingly automized through technology and digital transformation, the value that humanized work brings is really the hunch. Creativity and innovation and engagement.


And so, starting to think about how this very high order level of thinking needs to be supported differently. There's really sort of like a renewed emphasis on wellbeing, but not physical wellbeing. I mean that's obviously important, in terms of the ergonomics and the physicality of where you work, but also like the emotional and the cognitive aspects of wellbeing. And how do you really support engagement? How do you create psychological safety within a work environment?


What is the right degree of stimulation so that people can really focus and concentrate deeply for sustained periods of time? So I think the workplace has a real role to play. I mean, it is the context that enables those in which those behaviors and processes happen and has a really important role to play in fostering that. And I think it's kind of brought a renewed emphasis to our role in that and also like the importance of thinking about some of those things moving forward.


Kelly:  That's great. That's great. I think that that's really helpful. And again, back to what I said earlier, I don't think, or again, it would be my assumption that a lot of creative leaders, creative agency owners and I would put myself when I owned an agency, I'd put myself in that same sort of head space. I don't think that I would have ever thought about all of those things from that perspective. For me, it was just, hey, we need office furniture. Where do we buy office furniture? Right?


Where’s that commercial furniture vendor, what does that look like? And we're basically looking at price. You're not thinking necessarily, and almost, I would say even more than that, you're looking at the physical space of your building that you own or lease, whatever your space is that you rent. And then looking at, well, what are the dimensions that I need that I can fit into this space?


So that yes, it's comfortable for the employees, but more so like how many can I fit in without it feeling like, there is a small level of or decent level of consciousness about the environment, but it's certainly nothing to the extent that you're talking about. That was just my experience. So this keeping in mind or starting to bear in mind all of the things that you're describing, I think that is, to me, the definition of transformation for sure.


Lauren:  Yeah. Well, you're definitely not alone in that. And I think it's only now that I think workplace is starting to be recognized for the design of their work environment, is starting to be recognized as the strategic tool that it is and then it can play, like culture, it exists. Sort of getting back to this idea of it being like a physical artifact of the organization. You can do that intentionally or unintentionally, but either way you're saying…


Kelly:  You're doing it.


Lauren:  Exactly. So it's like, how can we really leverage that to its fullest extent.


Kelly:  Yeah. Fantastic. Well, Lauren, thank you so much for being on the show today. I really, really appreciate your time.

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