As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jared Pollacco, President at Impact XM.
Jared is a passionate and driven leader focused on spearheading growth and client satisfaction at Impact XM. Jared leads a world class team that delivers innovative and engaging solutions to the world’s most exciting brands. During his tenure, Jared has led Impact XM’s transition from being a top-of-the line exhibit house to a strategically led, creatively driven event and experiential marketing agency. Having grown up in the industry, Jared has held a variety of positions at Impact XM, moving up through operations, sales and management to now lead one of the industry’s most creative and dedicated teams. As a devoted and compassionate leader, Jared brings a Player-Coach mentality to his work on behalf of the company and its clients, always inspiring his team to achieve their professional and personal goals.
Jared resides in Oakville, Canada where he enjoys spending time with his wife and two children. An avid traveler and active snowboarder, Jared is excited for a return-to-normal post-COVID.
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 father founded the platform company that evolved into Impact XM. So, when I entered the company, I began working from the ground up. I started at the warehouse as an installer, getting a great view of the production side of the company. From there, I moved into project management and account management, which was more client-facing. As time went on, I started dipping more in sales and oversaw the sales team to provide strategic direction from a marketing and client service/sales standpoint. In each of these different roles, I learned the ins and outs of the entire business, and got a better understanding of what each client needed.
During that time, we grew as an organization and evolved from being a traditional trade show company to an experiential marketing agency. And then I took over the company as president and now direct every avenue, whether it’s internal, strategy, client-facing, or otherwise.
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?
At the time it wasn’t funny but now I would say that when I had first started in my project management role, I accidentally sent the client the cost sheet with all mark-ups, rather than the quote. From that mistake, I learned to put in the extra effort into my work and to double check everything, to focus on what I’m doing — carefully dotting my I’s and crossing my T’s. Our business is all about the details, so from that, I quickly learned to pay close attention to the nitty-gritty.
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 won’t admit this to him but it definitely would be my father. Of course, since he founded the platform company that became Impact XM, he’s had an impact in my career from the start. But deeper than that, I picked up my people skills from my father. Growing up, I witnessed his charisma and fantastic way of dealing with people. From him, I learned the importance of treating people nicely across the board. People will always remember you treating them with respect rather than your success or smarts.
Especially in challenging times like this, that’s been a really valuable takeaway for me. We’ve had to make some tough decisions for the company last year, including difficult cuts in pay and personnel. As a leader, it’s really tough making those decisions, but at the end of the day, it’s what we had to do. Our employees were willing to adapt in large part because of an ongoing level of respect throughout our company that everyone contributed to. It was clear that, during these difficult conversations, our employees looked back on the way they were treated not only in 2020, but throughout their time with us. As a leader, you have to make choices that impact others. Thanks to my father, the tough decisions I had to make during this pandemic were widely received with acceptance, appreciation, and understanding.
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?
Originally, we were more of a commodity-driven company, transactional in nature. But as we’ve grown, we’ve become more focused on the holistic view of the program, continuing to emphasize and develop our turn-key services. When it comes to relationships, our company has been steadfast in its practices, even as we’ve pivoted. From the beginning, my dad instilled in me and the organization that we always have to be very focused on clients, not customers. In a customer-driven company, people come in, receive a service, and leave. A client-driven practice is more of a partnership. Our focus and purpose from day one has been to serve clients, not customers. We’ve always seen our purpose in light of ongoing partnerships with different clients and brands.
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?
From the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve found two important themes woven throughout my leadership experience: leading by example, and open communication. In uncertain times, leading by example is so important when motivating a team. It was really important for me to recognize that I don’t want to ask any member of my team to do something I wouldn’t do. COVID unfortunately forced us to make some general business cuts and pay cuts across the board. I made sure that I was included in that number, and took a double pay cut. I’ve also found that the weekly management calls we began with our team led to greater transparency and understanding throughout the company. Making sure our internal Impact XM community was on the same page was crucial in navigating the uncertainty of the pandemic, especially early on. Open communication gave company-wide insight into high-level decisions we were making.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Throughout my time in leadership, I’ve faced many challenges, whether they be internal, at a company level, or due to external circumstances around us, but none of these measured up to the amount of obstacles and difficulties presented with the pandemic. Personally, I believe the pandemic has been challenging for me and my team not only because we must navigate our industry as it changes, but because we see our clients forced to make really difficult decisions. As a company and a community, our clients aren’t “customers,” but rather a part of the creation process. We work tirelessly with these incredible companies and brands as our equals, and build real relationships with the people on their teams. So, witnessing the struggles of others during this turbulent time as we also experienced tough moments was really difficult. Still, as we worked with each of our clients to find a flexible path to success as partners, I found our clients’ determination and excitement to focus on new solutions and horizons extremely inspiring.
Along with the motivation that comes from working with current clients, it’s also exciting to think about how much untapped business exists in the world. There’s always the opportunity to pitch a new client and build a new relationship. Seeing the work my team does and receiving a compliment from the client they were working for is such a fulfilling experience. That’s what I remember when a challenge arises. Many times, we all focus on the challenges along the way, not the success at the end.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
It’s important to practice patience without being safe. In this industry, things are changing constantly. Client’s needs change, goals shift, consumer behaviors evolve. It can take time to get to where you and your client want to go. That being said, leaders can’t lock themselves in the practice of playing it safe. When we experience a win for a client, I immediately think “what can we do next?” Leaders need to be able to walk that line between being patient and being overly comfortable.
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?
You need to stay focused on the vision of the company and the purpose it fulfills. Even as the industry, the economy, and the world around us continues to shift in uncertainty, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, even if we can’t see it at the time. We have to remind employees of the relevance of their work. There’s a need for their services and expertise. I’ve found that keeping a larger purpose in mind is key in centering and engaging employees.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and clients?
We’re not just a believer in face-to-face communication when it comes to marketing — everything we do revolves around human interaction. COVID has shown all of us that we need human interaction. But, whether it was before COVID-19 or in the midst of the pandemic, I believe that important information needs to be communicated person to person as much as possible, rather than through email or text. With such reliance on technology we can lose the human element of life and business, proper communication, and people’s feelings.
Regarding delivering bad news, any cuts or changes due to COVID-19, I personally talked to individuals one-on-one or as a group. So much can be lost in translation via email that I found it really important that we were having conversations about these decisions. Whether it’s over video call or the phone, it’s been really important that we maintain a level of human contact when communicating big decisions. I found that writing it on paper or spreadsheets dehumanizes the decision or news and we can forget that these decisions have consequences that can really affect people.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Anyone that tells you that they currently have a completely solid and permanent plan is probably exaggerating — there will be some point where a plan isn’t enough. That’s why I have always loved this quote by Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the face.” For us, we’ve learned that preparation for the future goes much further than an outline. For IXM, even during times of uncertainty, staying focused on our vision while pivoting our business model has been key in equipping ourselves for whatever is on the horizon. We’ve kept the same principles and goals, and just tweaked the way we get there.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Honesty is key. I find that as long as you’re honest with the people you work with about where you’re going and challenges you’re facing, you’re able to make it through even the most turbulent of times. Everyone respects transparency. With honesty comes clarity. Providing a clear direction on what the organization is trying to accomplish helps employees see a direction past a difficult time — it helps them see a way forward.
When COVID first started, we implemented weekly calls (in April) with staff every single Monday all the way until early summer. Each week, every employee heard direct communication from me and other members of the leadership team. We discussed changes in the industry, customer concerns and potential solutions, and internal news of the company. These calls were a great way to make sure everyone was on the same page and saw the same direction forward.
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?
- Rapidly and definitively changing who they are, rather than continually adapting and pivoting their company. I’ve seen people panic very quickly in response to a headline and completely change what their company stands for, instead of focusing their old business objectives in a new light. You obviously have to adapt and adjust your plan according to changing external situations, but you can’t ever lose sight of your long-term vision.
- Making rash and dramatic cuts. Cutting may not be the solution all the time, and can send the wrong message to clients and employees.
- Keeping customers and community in the dark. The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all of us in some way. By keeping an open and transparent line of communication between us and our clients, we’ve found that we’ve actually built on our already existing relationships to make our connections even stronger.
- Failing to step back and see the big picture. COVID-19 will impact us for years to come, and the idea of “getting back to normal” is, at this point, ineffective in continuing to lead a business during these difficult times. I believe that, by looking forward towards a “new normal,” companies can prepare themselves for the future while supporting themselves during the current climate in an efficient and successful way.
At Impact XM, we constantly strive to include these values in every piece of work we produce. Still, I think a clear moment in which I’ve seen how important these practices can be was during our weekly all-staff meetings, at the beginning of the pandemic. I cannot express how important clarity and empathy was for our team cohesiveness, trust, and respect. Even as we went remote, our team continued to build relationships and bonds with each other (through virtual team building and employee morale events) and our clients that led to incredible levels of efficiency, happiness, and success. I’m so impressed and grateful for our successes, especially during these novel challenges, and I know that it’s because each of our employees is intentionally putting forward these values in everything they do.
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 soon as COVID hit, our immediate focus was no longer on profitability and growth. Our focus was keeping our core team and maintaining the core resources we needed to continue to serve our clients. As much as I agree that businesses need money to be successful, I don’t think that can be our only focus during this pandemic — it’s just as important for us to maintain infrastructure to move past the pandemic. We won’t find ourselves having to train new people or re-learn our clients. We’ll have an existing team in place, so we’ll be able to grow from our current position instead of starting from scratch. We’ll have the people and resources at our fingertips for when things start to round the corner.
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.
- Vision. Setting a clear direction of where we’re going, and why we’re going there, has ensured that every person involved understands the larger picture.
- Communication. Weekly meetings, monthly newsletters, and bi-annual company updates have helped us in making sure every employee and client is on the same page. Not only is constant communication very critical, you also have to pay close attention to the format in which you present the different information so that it is clear and relatable.
- Honesty. It has been so important to be realistic about the industry and business during COVID-19, both to set legitimate expectations for our company and to keep our employees and clients satisfied.
- Sense of humor. Keeping a human aspect in communications and relationships with staff and clients allows leaders to build morale and team community.
- Empathy. Just because times are tough for a company doesn’t mean a cut is everything. A decision that costs money but supports hardworking staff within reason can be the best decision to make.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Perception is Reality.” Especially in turbulent times, both professionally and personally, reality does not necessarily depend on how you view it, your intention or by the actual facts. Rather, it’s how others view it and conceptualize it that becomes the reality in the end and it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong. Many times, we look at everything in black and white but, unfortunately, others may not view it that way. So when making decisions or leading people personally or professionally, we have to look at how this will be perceived by others as that will be their reality of the situation.