As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Flynn Zaiger.
As CEO of Online Optimism, Flynn Zaiger spends his day keeping his marketing agency employees happy, his clients happier, and the office dogs happiest. Flynn started Online Optimism in 2012 with little more than a laptop and a lot of hustle. He’s worked since day one to improve the digital presence of small to medium sized businesses through social media, SEO, digital advertising, and engaging website design. In the eight years since, he has led the company through six expanding office spaces, improved the provided coffee from a hand-me-down Keurig to cold brew on tap, and grown the agency to 14 employees.
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?
My backstory begins about ten years before I actually started my agency, Online Optimism. My family has had a retail store since 1980, and as a precocious teenager, I helped them get the store online. What started with eBay and Yahoo Stores sales became a Shopify and Amazon third party business. Using that knowledge, I got internships in college, and post schooling decided to try to go into business for myself.
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?
My favorite story that I think is fair to call a mistake was a request from a client for a “services” list after I was in business for six months. While the request is innocuous, I hadn’t actually made a full services list by that time. Instead, I was piecemealing everything as requests came in. While that was very customized to clients, it wasn’t a good long-term solution. The easy take-away is to know what you’re actually planning on selling from day one.
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?
I’m very grateful to the many organizations that exist that are dedicated to helping entrepreneurs like myself grow. From the start, our local New Orleans Chamber, Idea Village, and Stay Local were incredibly helpful to our beginnings, and provided education and networking opportunities. As we’ve grown, larger national programs like Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, and EO, as well as government organizations like Louisiana Economic Development have been instrumental in helping us reach where we are today.
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?
It took more than a few years for us to figure out our purpose. As a young business, I was really only driven by one thing: making sure I could cover my rent each month. After four or five years, it became helpful for our whole team to sit down and really talk about what Online Optimism stood for. Those weekly discussions led to the creation of our vision: “Be the marketing agency that organizations want to work with and people aspire to work for.”
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?
When facing uncertain or difficult times, it’s important to prioritize your team’s well-being. Since COVID-19 first swept the country, we have regularly checked in with our staff to gauge their mental health and well-being. Everyone in leadership roles checks in regularly with their team, and we try to catch burnout before it becomes serious. For example, a team member had shared with the team that her pet dog had died. Right away, we made the decision to give her the rest of the day as PTO so she had the opportunity to grieve. Taking an empathetic approach builds trust through the whole team and makes a stronger leader.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think every entrepreneur has giving up in the back of their mind, particularly at the start. No business is perfect, and the challenges are always out there. When things are going badly, it can feel like it’s never going to end. When things are going great, it can be overwhelming how fast changes happen. There’s not really any easy days as an entrepreneur. It’s helpful, to motivate myself, to look at how far myself, and our agency has come. By stepping back and considering how much we’ve grown even over the past couple months, all of the challenges feel a lot more easily overcome.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A leader’s most critical role, especially during challenging times, is to set an example for others. Many people freeze when presented with new challenges, and are unsure how to act. Strong leadership will, through clear instruction and by example, shepard their team through these situations. For example, we always expect our team to put work away when they aren’t on the clock, but know this is extra difficult when they are working from home and have easy access to their work computer. So, we regularly state in emails and in meetings that employees are not expected to work when they’re not on the clock.
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?
Through COVID-19 we have boosted morale by setting aside time and creating ways for employees to interact and communicate with each other. For example, the last hour of every Friday is now dedicated to Happy Hour and games. Employees are sorted into groups of 4–6 people and are able to play a variety of online games — alcohol is optional. Not only has this kept our team close, but employees have enjoyed getting to know those they do not work with directly.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers is to be direct and tell the truth. It may not be easy, but it is the best way to build on trust. If possible, I also find it best to prepare solutions and ways to avoid the issue in the future, although some situations are completely unavoidable.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
This pandemic has presented us with unpredictable times and an unclear future. While leaders can try to plan, it is most important they be ready to quickly adapt and take action should a new or unexpected situation arise. For example, we have updated our remote work policy to be much more flexible now that COVID-19 has shown us that it is possible to run our business entirely remotely. This remote work policy will not even go into effect until the pandemic has ended though, and we are prepared to potentially make further modifications as COVID-19 presents further challenges in the coming months.
It’s important to realize that it is impossible to truly plan ahead in such unprecedented times. This is why it is particularly important to exhibit strong leadership with the ability to adapt and make decisions for your team.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My number one principle with regards to dealing with turbulent times is transparency and communication. We have a small tight-knit team at Online Optimism and what has helped build trust not only with our clients but also with our staff is that everything is up for discussion. All team members have a say about the way in which our company is run which really helps everyone feel included. During COVID, being able to share openly with our staff how we plan to move forward and getting their input has helped everyone feel secure in their position and confident with the knowledge that if any changes are made, they’ll be in the loop.
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?
With regards to COVID, a number of businesses have made the mistake of ignoring public health guidelines. Not only does that affect the staff and their customers but it has a ripple effect throughout the city and causes more people to become ill. Many businesses have been forced to close and further restrictions have had to be put into effect for our safety.
Often times, businesses keep their employees out of the loop when it comes to major changes within a company during a turbulent time. Unfortunately some employees end up finding out the next plan of action the day the intended plan is to take effect. This can cause your staff to feel like an outsider and build animosity between staff and higher levels of management.
It’s quite common for businesses and management to be so wrapped up in what is causing the turbulent time that they forget about the hard work their employees do to keep the business running. It’s important to show your employees that their hard work is noticed and appreciated. On top of that, some businesses fail to give their employees advice where needed. During any type of turbulent time be it a pandemic or a natural disaster, there are often a ton of resources available, provide them to your employees. Even if the information is open to the public, provide them the resources they need regardless. This really helps employees to stay on top of what is going on.
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 a New Orleans-based company it has been particularly difficult as COVID continues to soar around us as well as the fact that the biggest industry in our city is hospitality and tourism (both of which have taken a huge hit due to COVID). Our business has had to adapt by focusing on bringing in clients from industries that are succeeding despite COVID. Luckily for us, a number of our current clients are from industries that typically are not affected by COVID (e.g. healthcare, cybersecurity etc.).
We have also focused our efforts on businesses that are out of state in order to broaden our client list but also tap into businesses that are less affected by COVID elsewhere. We’ve started a Google Ads campaign to target particular cities across the US to accomplish this. As we’re all in quarantine and still working remotely, gaining new clients in other states has become a little easier as we can onboard them remotely which is something that we never did before COVID.
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.
- The first thing is to be open and honest with your team. It’s fine to admit that things are uncertain. When we first realized we’d have to be remote, we set up a structure for frequent, recurring updates to the situation. This allowed our team to understand not only what work-life would be like tomorrow, but in the upcoming month as well.
- Secondly, you should choose to be Optimistic. Yes, times are tough now. But if you’re reading this, you’ve made it through every crisis before in your life! You’ll (hopefully) get through this one, too. At our agency, we’ve been trying to find the positivity in our workday, even if it means getting gift packages through USPS rather than by them being left on our desk like usual.
- Another important thing to do to lead effectively is to keep your team communicating. When things are changing rapidly, it can be easy for rumors to start, or for people to feel out of the loop. Secret secrets are no fun. Secret secrets hurt someone. Have your team work in small groups often, whether it’s on internal projects, or through Happy Hour meetings. By working with others, you’ll build on trust that’s essential in challenging times.
- As a leader, you should look to see who is thriving during these times, to consider for future growth opportunities. It’s been helpful for me, as a leader, to give people interesting projects during these crises. It allows you to see who’s aiming to step up to challenges, and who’s become too frightful to really grow in their new roles.
- Lastly, uncertain times represent incredible opportunities for those that are nimble enough. At the start of COVID-19, we looked around at what industries would be struggling, and which would be thriving. We immediately adapted our own internal marketing strategies to consider which organizations would likely have significant budgets throughout these crises, as well as considering those that would be going through recovery for years to come. Only by shifting strategies can you survive in turbulent times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite life quotes is “It is our choices … that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Oftentimes, life can be unpredictable and challenges are thrown our way that we sometimes are not prepared for. However, by making the right choices and learning from those instances, we can adapt and be better in the future.
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