As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ginger Zumaeta.
3X Emmy Award winning writer and producer, Ginger Zumaeta, now advises companies on positioning and communicating big ideas. She’s the Founder and CEO of Zumaeta Group, a positioning and messaging strategy firm, and author of the forthcoming book Deckonomics: Design Presentations that Spread Ideas, Drive Decisions and Close Deals.
After going from an award-winning career at NBC to advising large businesses on messaging and marketing, Ginger is now on a mission to help corporations avoid “Death by PowerPoint.” She uses her experience in storytelling and persuasion to train corporate teams in telling better business stories in order to move high-stakes work forward. “People are having a harder and harder time getting to the point,” she says. “We train teams to deliver clear and succinct presentations that accelerate better decision-making with structures backed by brain science.”
Ginger has worked with some of the world’s largest brands, such as Coca Cola, Verizon, Union Bank, Amgen, Anthem, Infinity Insurance and many others. Her insights have been featured in publications such as TheNextWeb, Better Marketing, Storius, and Marketing Profs and she’s spoken about marketing and messaging on numerous stages including Verizon’s Hispanic Marketing series, the Latina Style National Conference, Union Bank’s Personal Branding series, Kaiser Permanente’s Annual Brand Conference, and the Promax National Conference. She’s the winner of over a dozen awards for her work in television, and has held positions as an adjunct professor at UCLA and Cal Lutheran in marketing and research.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Well first, thank you. I love learning from others’ stories, so it’s an honor to share mine.
In the most basic terms, what I do now is help companies translate what they have to say to the people who will care and benefit from hearing it. But that certainly wasn’t what I set out to do.
I went to Notre Dame undergrad and, after washing out of pre-med, I got accepted to their amazing Great Books program. I got to study the development of Western thought basically from the beginning. It was fascinating to see how our understanding of the natural world and sciences connected to our ideas about theology, philosophy, art, literature, politics, etc. and vice versa. I attribute much of my success in marketing and messaging to that Great Books program, which was really a course in how to think and in recognizing macro patterns.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Well, it’s kind of embarrassing but it’s also kind of awesome. One of my first jobs in media was in my home town of San Antonio at the local cable company. I was the assistant to the national ad sales director. At this point I had a passing understanding of TV research and the ratings system from a previous job — meaning I knew that the higher the ratings a show had, the more you could charge for a commercial. My boss recognized my ambition, so when he learned of a Research Director role opening up at a local TV station he encouraged me to go after it.
I remember sensing that I was crushing the interview very early on. I was wearing a new suit. I could feel the energy. There was great rapport. The hiring manager and I were talking as if I already worked there. He offered me the job on the spot. I was practically floating on air as he walked me out of the building when he casually said, ‘You know the formula behind ratings, right?’
I went cold and had a strong urge to run. I had talked ‘TV ratings’ as an assistant, but I didn’t know there was an actual formula.
I said, “The formula?”
“Yeah, you know. Share x HUT = Rating?” he replied.
“Is that all there is?” I asked.
When he nodded up and down, I said, “Yep, I know the formula.” — because now I did.
Afterward, I put in a lot of time teaching myself everything there was to know about media math. I think my overcompensation turned me into a bit of a mini-savant.
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?
There are so many I could mention. But I think the one who taught me the most valuable lesson was the one who taught me a lesson about humility. After I left San Antonio, I went to work for NBC as a Vice President still in my 20’s. I was very quickly working on repositioning the NBC station in Philadelphia and we were starting to generate results — the ratings started to go up. The problem is I was starting to get a little full of myself, and I was impatient with some of the older department heads that weren’t keeping pace with changes I wanted to make. My GM pulled me into his office one day and without a hint of hostility or frustration asked me a simple question, “Ginger, do you think you’re smarter than the other department heads?” I thought for a minute, and then said ‘Yes.” And then he said, “OK. Do you think they know that you think you’re smarter than them?” And I got it. I was being an arrogant asshole, which was completely unnecessary and ultimately counterproductive. I was young, and thought I needed to look smart to hold my own. But in fact it was a sign of immaturity. That lesson was a gift from a man who cared about the leader I would become and I’ve never forgotten it.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
At Zumaeta Group our goal is to help good companies be more impactful by super-serving their customers. All business is really just value exchange, but many companies don’t know how to communicate their truest and highest value to their clients and customers. And very often, if they can’t communicate it, they can’t deliver it either. So we help them with that. We help them discover and express their noble purpose.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I think the toughest thing I ever led a team through was the great recession in 2008 and 2009. I was the Vice President of Advertising and Promotion at NBC in Los Angeles and I had a large and very talented team of creatives. But during the recession, the TV business was really hurting. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that if you watch traditional broadcast television (if anyone still does that!) you’ll see a lot of car commercials. Automotive advertising is the #1 source of ad revenue to TV stations. But during a recession, people stop buying cars, which means auto dealers stop advertising, which results in TV stations and networks losing their primary source of cash flow. I knew something was off when I realized that we had a lot of excess production capacity. In other words, we had a lot of manpower, but not a lot of work to give the team. This is not normal for an in-house promo department that handles pretty much all in-house production that isn’t actual news programming. It was a wake up call. I realized that not only was the work slowing down, but I suspected that some of it was diverted elsewhere in the organization too. My spidey senses told me that It could only mean that upper management was siphoning off the work in preparation of making cuts. Things were just too quiet.
I decided to be straight with my team. I had no official information, but I had a hunch that cuts were coming and that they would be significant. I showed them what had happened to our production flow, and many of them admitted that they were having to make an effort to stay busy. I know from experience that it’s easier to find work when you have work, so I told them to get their resumes together and to start looking, and that I would help as much as possible. While not everyone found new work prior to the fateful day, some did, and the others were thankful that they’d had time to prepare themselves for what was coming. I laid off the entire team except for two people to keep the bare minimum of work going. After I was done, I got my pink slip too.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
For me, it was important to get through that time with dignity and with respect and gratitude for my team. We all suspected the end was near. Some people in the organization were starting to behave badly and become petty out of desperation and fear. People were starting to imply that we should lower our standard of quality in favor of just ‘getting things done.’ That period made me really reflect on what I stood for. I have to admit, there were days when I wondered why I cared so much. But I knew I didn’t want to pass that attitude on to my team. It just wasn’t helpful. After I was laid off myself, an opportunity came to me with ABC very quickly — the next day in fact. But in a strange way, that period of uncertainty had given me an opportunity to think about Plan Z (which I’ll explain in a minute), and ultimately I decided to take a leap and do my own thing. I’m glad I did.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Leadership during turbulent times can make or break a business culture. Why do some leaders emerge heroes and others emerge villains when times get tough? A lot of it has to do with the story they tell themselves about the challenge they face. The story they believe is the biggest predictor of how they’ll behave under duress. In my view, one of the most critical jobs of the leader is to frame the narrative about how the organization came to be where it is, and where the organization might go from here. A leader has to look at the future in terms of its optionality, temper it with lessons from the past, and then be decisive about the next move — whether that move is advancing or retreating. The way that the leader frames the journey is the story that the staff, clients and partners will remember long after the crisis is over.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
In times of uncertainty, it’s wise to take the long view. Time is funny. When you look at things with a short time horizon, things look very noisy — there are lots of abrupt ups and downs. But when you take a longer view, those jagged lines start looking a lot more like gently sloping curves. Time passes. Things tend to work out. When things get tough, leaders need to isolate what is under their control, and then communicate what’s happening and what will be done about it. I don’t remember where I learned this, but I like the idea of having an A, B, Z plan. The A plan is your best plan. The B plan is what you’ll pivot to if the A plan isn’t feasible. And the Z plan is the scorched earth plan. The Z plan is important to face, and a lot of time you’ll be surprised by how unscary it is once you actually take time to consider it.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I’m a big fan of communicating early and honestly. And follow it up with what you’re going to do about it. Then, just listen. Be human.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future will always be unpredictable. What’s most important is establishing your strategic intent and then communicating it clearly. The thing about plans is that they almost never go according to plan. But if your team knows your strategic intent they can expand their optionality on the fly.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yeah, listen to your customers and help them through their ups and downs. Serve them better than the next competitor. If a bear is chasing you, you don’t have to be the fastest runner, but you do have to be faster than the slowest. To borrow the words of Dory, just keep swimming. Keep delivering on your purpose.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Don’t panic, and don’t make an irreversible decision until you’ve exhausted your optionality.
- Get resourceful and get perspective. Talk to people, get advice, read books from the masters, learn from history.
- Don’t look at marketing as an expense — it’s what brings you customers! Cutting back on sales and marketing when you most need the business is kinda like selling a stock after it’s lost all its value. Marketing gets cheaper when times get tough. Take advantage of that.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
As the economic climate or industry climate changes, new needs emerge. It’s important to poke your head up and see what’s happening. What are your people needing NOW. How can you help? I’m always asking myself and my team, what do our clients need now? How can we help them?
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Frame the issue in a way that’s useful. Leaders need to pay attention to the way they craft their narrative and the story it tells. In times of crisis, there is a very high level of FUD — fear, uncertainty, and doubt. So how can you address the FUD? You find things you can be certain about. A while back we lost a really big client, and the team was nervous about what it meant for them. It wasn’t due to anything that had gone wrong; the client just had a big shift in top management and changed directions. I shared the news with the team early on so they could get their heads around it, and then we put a plan together to have an honorable closure of the business. That gave them something to do; that introduced some short-term certainty. Meanwhile, we talked about how we would mitigate the loss and change how we did a few things. We kept looking for things that were within our control that we could be certain about and we found new opportunities we hadn’t considered before.
- Tell the truth & stay in communication. In times of turbulence, it’s helpful to hear something from the pilot! It’s silly, but I’m a nervous flyer. Before these pandemic times, I used to fly a lot for business. Every time I’m in a plane and we hit a patch of turbulence that lasts for more than a minute or two, I expect to hear from the pilot. He or she is my eyes when I’m on a plane. They have a front-facing view and access to the instrument panel. I’m counting on them to tell me what’s going on — that we’ve hit a patch of turbulence, how long we can expect it to go on, and that he or she is trying to find smoother air. Leaders need to communicate through turbulence because if they don’t supply a story to explain what’s happening, their teams will supply their own and sometimes it will be a lot worse than reality. We all have very active imaginations.
- Don’t make a decision prematurely if you’re in a highly fluid situation. It’s important not to over-react in times of uncertainty. Leaders have to maintain optionality. I learned this from Jeff Immelt, former chairman of GE. When I was at NBC, I was at a leadership meeting and he talked about 9/11. That was his fourth day in the role of chairman and two jets with GE engines, hit the Twin Towers that were insured by GE insurance, one of which had the main antenna to GE’s broadcast network, NBC. It was awful, and it was chaotic. The situation was immensely fluid. So he talked about how he had resisted making any decisions before they absolutely had to be made — because there was always the possibility that the situation would change again.
- Gamifying the situation. Maybe it’s my Buddhist studies, but one of the biggest challenges about being in crisis is being present. The reality is that some of the greatest companies we all know were born in times of crisis. So it helps to ask yourself and your team, if we were starting right now, in this current situation, what would we do? What would we do if this was a game?
- And finally, take the long view and serve, serve, serve. Keep adding value. If you add more value to people, clients, partners, etc. you will survive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Can I cheat? I have two.
One is, “If you can’t say it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. Einstein said it, and it applies to some of the training we do with corporate teams. I’m on a mission to help corporations avoid death by Powerpoint which is such a drain on time and productivity in large businesses. We teach strategic teams who work on high-stakes and complex presentations to simplify their story and get to the point so they can accelerate decision-making. A big part of that is helping them say what they need to say simply and directly.
The other one is “If success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do… How would I be? What would I do? ” by Buckminister Fuller. This one is all about personal responsibility and doing the right thing. If we all took personal responsibility, I believe we could do things that seem impossible today.
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