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 Jean Freeman.
Jean Freeman is the Principal and CEO of the award-winning creative agency Zambezi, which is one of the largest, female-owned, full service creative agencies in the country. During her time at the agency, Jean has successfully grown Zambezi from a startup to a thriving business, attracting a number of blue chip clients including The TaylorMade Golf Company, The Coca-Cola Company, PayPal/Venmo, Apple, Beats by Dre and UKG. Jean also plays a central role in leading her family’s privately held $100MM personal planner business, Blue Sky.
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 little better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m the Principal and CEO of Zambezi, which I’m very proud to say is one of the largest certified female-owned advertising agencies in the country. I got my start in the industry in a somewhat unexpected way. After graduating from college, I signed up for the Peace Corps, but my trip was postponed and ultimately cancelled, so I had to rethink my plans. Because I had been an intern at Fallon, which is considered to be one of the first modern creative agencies in the country, I was able to get a position there. From there, I went on to work with some incredible people and companies, and held marketing roles at Intel and Nike. While I was at Nike, my husband had an opportunity to start an agency with the late Kobe Bryant and another partner, and we decided to take a big risk and move to California and launch the agency. We ended up buying out our partners, and in 2017 I took the helm as CEO. In addition to Zambezi, I’ve also played a big role in growing my family’s personal planner business, Blue Sky, into a $100+ privately held company. I’m very proud of that, too, and especially the work we have done to boost female designers.
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?
During college, I was an intern in the marketing department of a professional sports team. When the person who was normally the mascot had a family emergency right before a home game, I volunteered to be the substitute mascot. This proved to be a big mistake, given that mascot protocol is not to speak and that is basically impossible for me. I failed miserably!
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?
Without question, my father has helped shape my understanding of the fundamentals of business and has inspired me to be the leader that I am. This is not exactly a story, but we had breakfast together every morning as a family. And from the time we were little, my brother, my father, and I spent breakfast reading the Wall Street Journal and discussing what we read. Not your normal family breakfast discussion, I know, but these mornings really sparked my entrepreneurial spirit.
We also moved frequently for my dad’s various job opportunities, and by the time I was 15 years old, I had lived in five different states and attended seven different schools. The experience of constantly being thrown into new, unknown situations gave me a sense of fearlessness and resiliency. I’m not afraid of change, and I think it is because my childhood taught me to expect and embrace 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?
We named our company after the Zambezi shark, which is known for its resourcefulness, adaptability, and ability to swim in both freshwater and saltwater. The agency emulates these qualities in its approach to business by creating solutions tailored to best serve client challenges and propel their brands forward. That might sound obvious, but often agencies are so mired in their own creative version or way of doing things that what is truly best for their clients gets lost.
The Zambezi shark is also the inspiration for our mantra “Take Bigger Bites”, which is a call to action, to step up, take big swings, and think and execute outside the status quo. This ethos has always been our North Star in everything that we do, and, ironically, it is more relevant now than ever, as all businesses must adapt to meet new market conditions and find new growth opportunities.
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?
Sure. The year 2018 was a very challenging one for us. We mutually decided to part ways with our largest client (I know companies say mutually when it’s not true — but in this case it really was). Although this was clearly the right thing for the company, it meant a significant revenue loss and staffing adjustments. Of course, this caused a lot of concern among our staff about our future and their individual futures at the agency. I think that transparency and openness are absolutely essential, so at that time an employee asked me if his job was in jeopardy, and I answered honestly that it was. I think leaders need to be both optimists and pragmatists in these moments. We need to share all the ways we’re working to avoid tough outcomes, but also what those outcomes might be. I felt that my staff appreciated the honest dialogue and also felt reassured that we were making every effort to keep the business on track and our team intact.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I think that all entrepreneurs have moments of hitting significant obstacles and reassessing every aspect of their business and process. The tough times are inevitable, even for the most successful leaders and businesses. While we’ve certainly had our share of difficult moments in our company’s history, I never once considered giving up. It’s not an option because I love my job and my team, and that passion and commitment fuels me and trumps everything else. I believe that if a business leader does not have the tenacity or motivation to push through the tough times, they are likely not in the right job or working with the right company.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
When business is tough and the world feels crazy (hello, 2020), the most critical role of a leader is to be the calm guide through the storm. There’s a lot that goes into that — doing your research, developing the right strategies, engaging the right support team, etc. — but a good leader will also always build confidence, instill a sense of hopefulness, and pave the way for positive solutions.
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?
I’ve noticed that it’s difficult for larger organizations to boost morale across entire teams at once. For us, we focus on making a positive impact in smaller group settings instead, so that individual needs can be discussed and truly met. Each department is deeply committed to supporting its team members and building camaraderie. When we strengthen the bonds among each small group, we start to see positive ripple effects across the entire company.
Additionally, I believe that these uncertain times are the perfect opportunity to try new things, and to test and learn. Exploring new possibilities will not only support the health and future success of your business, but also energize and challenge your staff in exciting and fulfilling new ways.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
The best way to communicate is always with honesty and transparency. Share the difficult news and all related, pertinent information in a timely manner. Clients and team members will respect your openness, and will be more invested in turning around the tough situations with you.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
This is a business leader’s greatest dilemma in this extremely volatile year. How do we evolve and adjust our businesses to meet the many unknowns in culture and business ahead? It’s all very daunting. When there is so much uncertainty, I think the best way forward is to first go back to basics. Use your company’s core mission, vision, and values as your guide as you stretch and reimagine your business to meet changing consumer needs and market conditions.
It’s also equally important to explore new possibilities during uncertain times. Formulate new strategies, and do a lot of testing and learning. The insights you gain from this process will give you greater confidence and more control over future outcomes.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Objectivity is key when your business is in the midst of challenging times. There is a great quote from Churchill that rings especially true today: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” To me that means taking a close look at your strengths and weaknesses, both as a business and as a leader, during the hard times, so you can improve moving forward. Every business will face tough moments, and if you do the hard work to improve in that moment, chances are you will not face similar obstacles or challenges in the future. Use these moments to objectively analyze and learn where improvements can be made, and then do the work to put those positive changes into practice.
Can you share three or four of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid them?
There are a number of common mistakes that businesses make when they are facing tough times. Some companies make extremely reactive, knee-jerk decisions to immediately create more capital, and these decisions can be completely disjointed from who they are as a brand. While we all must adapt and make quick pivots at times, recognize that some “pivots” are actually knee-jerk reactions. Knee-jerk decisions are often not strategic, whereas valuable pivots take long-term strategy into consideration and, therefore, support more significant goals.
Similarly, many businesses will quickly pursue any piece of new business that can help generate revenue quickly. While these actions can help your bottom line in the short term, they may actually hurt your business and reputation if they are not truly the right fit for your organization and aligned with your core values.
I’ve also seen some businesses make the mistake of being completely stagnant during tough times when, in fact, they should be hustling to learn and adapting as necessary. Standing still and being in a state of denial during tough times will never create positive results. Turbulent times are an opportunity to dig in, try new things, and unearth new possibilities for your business.
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?
One important strategy is to build key relationships in the good times, so that they are solid and there for you when you need them the most in the hard times. For example, build your banking partnerships and invest in lines of credit when business is good, because this will be incredibly difficult to do if or when your business is facing a crisis.
I also believe that conservative management of cash is critical. If you’re in a turbulent time and you have a non-compromised cash position, you are much more likely to weather the storm. Cash truly is queen in my view, and can help ensure steady growth over time.
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.
Empathy is paramount.
The world is changing, and our personal and business needs are changing rapidly too. As leaders, we have to truly make the effort to understand our clients’ and employees’ current challenges and pain points in order to devise solutions that support and solve them. Our clients have business targets and goals that are literally changing overnight, and we’ve shifted the focus and scope of our work to meet their evolving needs. Many of our employees, on the other hand, are simultaneously juggling both professional duties and remote learning demands with their children this year. Understanding this untenable situation, we’re now giving parents 80 hours of emergency sick leave in 2020 to care for kids at 100 percent pay, plus an additional 10 weeks at partial pay. We are also keeping Friday afternoons meeting-free to allow employees to catch up on emails and projects and encourage work-free weekends to spend with family. I have also been encouraging employees to block off family time on calendars to help keep kids’ routines, and to work with managers to break up their day around family obligations. This is an extremely challenging year for everyone, and I believe that greater empathy can help us all get through it.
Run toward the problems.
Our natural instinct is often to duck and cover when difficulties arise, but I’d challenge leaders to run toward the problems instead. I believe it’s important to remember that even the most challenging circumstances hold great possibilities. Cultivate fearlessness and take calculated risks to bring about the best outcomes during turbulent times. Shift your focus from uncertainty and nervousness to creative problem solving, tenacity, and resourcefulness. Don’t miss out on the great opportunities that exist in the tough times.
Stay true to who you are.
As mentioned previously, I believe it’s critical to stay true to yourself/your company’s core mission and values when challenging times arise. These principles should be your beacon always, though particularly when you’re dealing with chaotic or difficult circumstances. And as you push to adapt to new market demands, ensure that you are evolving in a way that continues to support your core mission as a business. As part of this, it’s important that everyone in your organization understands your mission and the core values of the company. Make sure to share them in an email, a company meeting, or whatever works for your company.
Be clear about expectations.
In a year filled with many twists and turns, it’s important to set clear expectations for your team. When this happens, collaboration will be smoother and the work output stronger. Clear expectations will also help your team stay focused and motivated when challenging times and outside distractions arise. To ensure that everyone understands exactly what is expected of them, especially if you are not all physically together, I like a combination of larger meetings and smaller one-on-ones, similar to the way we share our mission.
Maintain your culture.
In tough times, business leaders are so focused on keeping the business on track that their company culture is often placed on the back burner. I believe that these are actually the moments when attention to culture and culture initiatives are most needed. A thriving, supportive culture will get your team through the hard times, and keep them focused on your collective goals. Bring some fun and levity to your hard work together, too. During the pandemic, and despite our physical distance, we’ve continued to invest in culture efforts that build our team bond and connectivity. We recently held a company- wide dinner party on Zoom, where dinner materials were delivered to each of our employee’s homes. We toasted each other and the crazy times we are navigating, and were reminded that we can get through any tough situations together.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson” quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Good judgment comes from experience, which comes from bad judgement.” — Bill Gurley
I have experienced the realities of entrepreneurship over the years, and for all the highs there have been an equal amount of lows. Launching and growing a business is hard, and mistakes and setbacks will inevitably happen along the way — especially in this crazy year. Keep the faith in yourself and your dreams, because with tenacity, focus, and the right support network all great challenges can be overcome. This is how I live my life.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Zambezi’s website is https://zmbz.com/. Our Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook handles are @zmbzagency.