As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Amir Sahba, CEO and Founder of Thinkingbox.
Amir moved to Canada at the age of 12 from Iran. Growing up in Vancouver, he loved theater production and set design. This led him to study Graphic Design and Art, and eventually, enter the advertising industry. After getting an internship at a local agency and getting laid off from it (it was unpaid), he decided to start freelancing using his company name, Thinkingbox. The rest is history!
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started Thinkingbox 11 years ago, hoping to bring together like-minded creatives, in hopes of building an agency that focused on the craft and ability to push boundaries in what storytelling could be. The desire to create a space for like-minded individuals looking for perfection in the craft and the ability to admire the work is as true today as it was the day we started. Founded and driven on three main rules; make sure I take care of my team like family, never take a back seat, and try to create something that makes me smile every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Interesting stories develop constantly. That is one of the reasons I love what I do! However, a few have been particularly impactful in my life and career. One such story at the top of my list is that I found myself serving as the CEO of a company with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, after our latest acquisition. I couldn’t point out Salt Lake City on a map previously. Now those amazing people are my business partners and colleagues. It’s interesting how the perception of our industry makes you think of the “big” cities as the most compelling, but the truth is, the most fascinating people live all over the world. You just have to keep your eyes open and your mind welcoming.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I learned quickly that you should not pack for a work trip like you do for a vacation. During my first few business trips, I packed a carry-on with way more clothes than I needed. This was more work than it was worth. It was a small thing, but it taught me to be impactful and care for the tactical needs of my job and business. What is truly important in this example and overall is the value of using the right tool for the job.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My advice to anyone who wants to start a business is to find a great mentor. I was very lucky to find one early in my career, and I’m grateful every day to have his guidance with my decision-making, both professionally and personally.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity is in our company DNA, with 36 nationalities, 26 languages. We are equipped to address any client business need and recognize, acknowledge and support diversity, equality, and inclusion. As a minority myself, I was only 12 when my family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, and even being from a multicultural city like Vancouver is not enough. One of the first initiatives I started in our early days was monthly meals called “Snack Attack.” We budgeted money to have a home-cooked meal from everyone’s nationality to share. This encouraged the team to have a sit-down meal together, to get to know one another and their backgrounds. That simple concept has evolved into a huge push for diversity for our team dynamic.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I feel a great way to increase inclusion is by simply hiring internationally. At this stage in our global economy, it is easy for many businesses (especially in North America) to start looking outside the local region for recruiting. By looking beyond your city, state, or ideally country, you allow for a greater understanding of other cultures, adding diversity of thinking for your organization and clients.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
An executive recognizes that accountability lies within you. You have to understand that everything starts and ends with your ability to guide.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Well, first, a CEO works very hard. You have to have a great work ethic to succeed. Second, it’s interesting to learn how often you choose between a bad decision and a difficult decision. The myth is that decisions are either good or bad, but in reality, you’re often choosing between two difficult choices, and they’re not always black and white.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The challenges a CEO faces and the need to make decisions are much faster than you could ever imagine. I always thought the bigger we got as a company, the more I would evaluate my decisions before making them. But, unfortunately, this is not really the fact. You can slow down but dragging your feet will result in uncertainty and confusion in your team. So you have to think on your feet and not try to make every decision perfectly, but make it suitable for the circumstances.
Presumably, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
A really good trait I find that serves me well is stubbornness. That might sound counterproductive to everything you’ve read on the subject related to success as an executive, but let me explain. I’m referring to the determination to stick to your goals, the ones shared by your team and, ultimately, the company. There will be many days where you feel like you’ve won and countless more where you feel you’ve lost. Having the stubbornness to forge ahead is beyond critical. If you are not goal-oriented or don’t have an innate passion for leading, I’d suggest that you consider a different career path from that of an executive.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Make work culture the key to your business, and the rest will follow. You and your management team must lead by example. The old saying actions speak louder than words resonates when you’re defining your work culture. Immediately after we went into full lockdown due to COVID-19, one of my biggest focuses was to ensure we could still have the same culture as we did in the office. I prioritized our marketing and culture team to create new, innovative ways to have water cooler talks or happy hours while working from home. We initiated a weekly happy hour for all staff, where everyone across three time zones would be able to spend time together. We also launched “Thinkingbox University,” where senior staff members virtually educate junior staff members on various topics like Touch Designer or Production 101. I wanted to make sure that the team, during this crazy time, wouldn’t feel alone or abandoned.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My success is the success of my employees, so I try my best to encourage them at every opportunity, urging them to always strive to be better. At Thinkingbox, we work very hard to instill values such as empathy, integrity, and a human approach to everything. If we all work on those three values every day, the world will be a better place.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- If you have a business partner, he or she should have skill sets that compliment your own so that, together, you can tackle different sets of problems with tremendous combined success. For example, even though I may be the CEO, I look to the leadership team to help me, especially as we grow year by year. Finding a leadership team with different skill sets gives you a fresh and different perspective on managing a 120+ team.
- Find a mentor so you can step away, discuss, and assess decisions. Having a mentor for the duration of Thinkingbox has been extremely helpful. It’s evolved from being a business mentorship to mentorship on everything in life.
- Slow down. Not every decision needs to be made today. There have been times when I waited to make a decision, and while it felt like a loss at the time, looking back, these slower moments were the most important.
- When people leave your company, always look at the ability to hire a person that’s a better fit. It might feel like an emotional breakup. But it’s definitely an opportunity for growth.
- Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. I teach this to all our senior team members. Delegate to your team so that they learn and you have a chance to do more.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
When hiring, or encouraging talent, be blind to who they are and focus on what they do. Look beyond the resume, and measure their character.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is not final; failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” — Winston Churchill. This quote is important because it takes a lot of courage to keep pushing forward, especially when you fail. A lot of people are obsessed with being successful and compromising values to do just that. When I was let go from my first agency job, I didn’t give up. I opened up my own agency instead.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Bob Iger, Executive Chairman of The Walt Disney Company. I really enjoyed reading his books and found him to be a great business leader. He transformed Disney into the powerhouse it is today, with multiple acquisitions like Lucas films, Pixar, Marvel, and others. He’s transitioned the business to what it is today, and I implement some of his strategies to our business today.