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 Jolanta Piela, president and founder of Good Division, a consulting company specializing in working with entrepreneurs from the IT sector, industrial technologies, automation, robotization, artificial intelligence, and the startup market. She is also the originator and creator of the newly created Gods of Business platform aimed at micro-entrepreneurs or people who are just planning to open their own business. She gained experience in some of the largest global organizations as a strategist: Grey Worldwide, Oracle, Havas Worldwide, Young & Rubicam. She is actively involved in spreading the idea of entrepreneurship in Poland, co-creates acceleration programs, and runs mentoring programs for startup founders. She is also a university lecturer in several fields of study and the creator of a unique field of study devoted to innovation in entrepreneurship. Its mission is to spread the idea of taking a healthy, happy, and rewarding path as an entrepreneur. Author of numerous publications on entrepreneurship strategy. Privately passionate about high-performance, endurance sports, yoga, painting, music, and unrestrained absorber of books.
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?
Thank you for having me! I need to warn you: the first part of my story will not make you like me. But if you give it a shot and stay here with me, you will understand how much I stand for honesty and being truthful. I also want to emphasize one funny thing, especially important for people who — like me — came from the media and advertising industry: the sooner you realize that business is not about being liked but about being useful — the sooner you will become not only more successful but also more liked.
I also encourage you to stay, because I will share a few amazing mental tactics that helped me go through the most difficult times in my whole life and now are the crucial elements of my daily practice.
My journey from employee to leader is a journey of a spoiled golden child of the advertising industry, from working for the biggest and the coolest brands to becoming a real entrepreneur who loves to work for other real entrepreneurs doing real business, with the real results and — for the first time in life — with the real satisfaction.
I usually say that my professional life has two parts:
In my “first life,” I used to be an arrogant know-it-all. A girl with my nose up high, feeling way too self-confident with the big brands behind my back. What my colleagues and I mostly cared about was how we were perceived, the awards we won, the fame we gained, and of course, the salaries we received. So, our image helped us move from one famous agency to another, doubling our pay and gaining even more fame. So, as one of my favorite authors- Steven Presffield says — “We were like the Platte River, a mile wide and an inch deep.”
Little did I know about real life, real business, and the real struggle. But I was just about to receive one of the biggest lessons of my life. I decided to move on to another agency, much smaller and much closer to the business itself. Long story short — things didn’t work out. My boss and I didn’t get along at all, and I was fired with a speed of a bullet. Just between us (I wouldn’t tell him myself), he was totally right about sacking me. Me and my ego wouldn’t fit any real business at that time ;)).
And that was the first time in my entire life that I had no job. I had no savings (I never thought that I would need them, it never took me longer than a month to get a new well-paid job). My friends and I have booked a trip to the Caribbean Sea. I knew that wasn’t a good idea. But as my friends say- my name Jolanta comes from YOLO, so… “Okay, let’s do this” — I thought to myself — I will figure out what to do with my life when we get back.” And after an amazing time, oh yes, we got back. And it was cold, and it was a dark winter here in Warsaw. My telephone was silent as never before, and nobody answered my e-mails, just as nobody was interested in my resume and my *spectacular* portfolio. And I was too proud (or — to be honest — too embarrassed) to tell anyone that I’m in real trouble, so obviously — there was nobody there to me out.
Weeks passed by, and I just couldn’t get a job. I started running out of money, and things got hard on me (and on my ego.) I realized that I just needed to figure everything out my own way. Having totally no cash, no professional e-mail, no big brand behind my back, no access to any digital platform or data. I realized that I have no idea how business works… I got so scared that I didn’t know where to start…
And this is where the second part of my life begins: what I considered the biggest punishment for me was one of the most valuable lessons I have ever received. Because I had no other option, I just needed to learn all that. And along the way, I realized that I don’t want my “previous life” back. I don’t want to produce any more PowerPoint documents that don’t change a thing. Moreover, I don’t want to make advertisements anymore!
I want to help people build their businesses! As I found myself in a real dark place when I lost my job, I lost all my money and realized that I lack the basic knowledge how to, just, you know, start… And I know that if it weren’t for my bad luck at that time, I wouldn’t be resilient enough to go through all that. I would give up. I know for sure that I would give up. And from this point, I know that my lack of choice at that time was my biggest gift; Because entrepreneurship is the best thing that has ever happened to me. It has taught me the most important lessons of my life. It has helped me meet the best people in my life. It has made me the strongest, the most powerful person I have ever been in my entire life. And that wouldn’t happen if it wasn’t for my lack of choice.
And I realized that people just give up on this amazing path because nobody showed them how to do that. Nobody showed them what it’s worth. Nobody prepared them for this struggle, not only from the business side but also from the perspective of their mental and physical health, healthy habits, and life balance.
And it is hard, and it is stressful, but you can protect yourself. You can gain and use the tools that will help you along the way. And by working with small companies, with startups, with students at my university, I realized that I can give them all that using my experience as an entrepreneur. Things I had learned from the global companies, and my sports background (I’m a former triathlete, I have yoga teaching credentials and also I’ve always been a healthy lifestyle freak into high- performance lifestyle). So I can help them become successful entrepreneurs and happy, healthy people.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I remember my very first client. Piotr Granicki, founder of the great company called Custom Art- fantastic earphones for musicians and sound engineers, selling his products worldwide to such amazing superstars as MØ, Behemoth, Gojira. But… he was 25 at that time. I never had such a young client before (in the corporate world, it happens very rarely)… I knew that I couldn’t hide behind any “fancy words” and “bullshit bingo” as I did at the agencies. I needed to work his business out, like, for real. To genuinely know what to do. And although he sold his products across the globe, it was a small company. So any wrong business decision could harm him. I was so stressed and soooo unsure of myself, and what I say, that I decided to rent a whole music studio of a fantastic progressive rock band I knew he liked (It was Tides from Nebula) and let him sit behind the drums and show him round the place. And it was all just to distract him from my panic attack.
Well, I learned that — first of all — it was nothing to be afraid of. Because Piotr and I still have a great connection after a few years, we have done some great business ventures together, we grew to understand each other, and even though his business is very specific and challenging, I can learn anything and work within any field, I just need to put enough hard work in it. And I also could meet the guys from the band — which was a great adventure!
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?
We are not. And the sooner you realize that the happier and more enriching your path becomes. You know, we often have this habit of shutting down when we have to solve a problem. Albert Einstein once said that the system that generated the problem is not the one that is going to solve it. You just need more data and another approach. And this is what other people give you.
I think I can’t point to one particular person, who shaped the trail of my professional and private path as a leader, but I can show you a few who certainly influenced it:
My mom; a beautiful and brave person. A powerful woman who created a vision of the world for me, as a little girl, that not only are women no less powerful than men are, but we are even stronger. Because we have more personal strength, stronger hearts, stronger intuition, more powerful skills to build networks and we can achieve whatever we want. And at the same time we can have our tribe, our family, our passions, and still learn, and still grow and still look badass in our super high hills. Thank you, mom!
My beautiful friends who never let me stay alone, even in my darkest moments. Who were brave enough to say “B*** **it” when I replied, “No, I’m fine, I don’t need any help.” Who taught me amazing things about life, adventures, meditation, growth, sports, showed me the way to acceptance. Who cheered me up when I was down, and who kicked me when I was too chilled. Who showed me that I could do more while staying true to my own self, doing it my own way, and forgiving me for not answering my phone or postponing meetings thousands of times. Thank you, guys!
For my colleagues, especially Justyna, the communications director at Good Division. You were here with me when all the things collapsed in 2020. You were a great leader, calm and understanding, and at the same time ready to fight for what we need to survive difficult times. We wouldn’t be here, and we wouldn’t have such a great time if it weren’t for you.
All the people who tried to bring me down along the way, take advantage of me or told me I couldn’t make it. Thank you for making me stronger and making my inner fire so strong that I know that I can achieve ANYTHING that my imagination can produce.
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?
To work with real entrepreneurs. To help them achieve their business goals and, at the same time, to let them stay happy, healthy, passionate, and satisfied with all the areas of their lives. We want to work with entrepreneurs who want to bring value to the business area, their community and have values aligned with ours.
Our values are bravery, passion, joy, strategic thinking, and innovative ideas that shape the world around us.
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?
Last year has been one HUGE test for all of us. My team and I weren’t any different. I am a totally honest person, a natural jester. I made jokes even when I was lying down the road hit by a car just a few minutes back with a twisted spine and bones broken down in my body. I just truly, deeply believe that a smile and good energy can save lives. So I learned, deep to the (nomen est omen) bones, how important it is to stay positive. I try to convey that to the team so we stay united.
The other part of the story is more serious. It’s honesty. I believe in telling the truth to my people. I remember when the Polish market froze still when the pandemic disease arose. Right after our company lost a lot of money because of our client from the United States. Our remaining clients decided to freeze their budgets, and I was truly terrified. I knew that we need a downsizing just right now, just to keep the company alive.
I knew that if we don’t act quickly, we won’t survive this crash. So I told my team how things are going and discussed what we need to do to turn the events. We had ONE vision, ONE plan, ONE understanding of what needs to happen since the very beginning of the crisis. Everyone felt responsible, and — what I think is the most important — we all feel satisfied with what happened next. We survived, we are stronger than ever, we hired more fantastic people from all over the world: we have people in different places like Uganda, London, a few Polish cities, and HQ in Warsaw. We are growing strong, so are our clients from around the globe. That fight made us stronger and united, and this is all thanks to responsibility and, most of all — honesty.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes, I did! I thought that having my own company was the most stupid decision of my life. I worked more, had less money, I needed to do things I did when I was an apprentice because I couldn’t afford employees. I couldn’t organize my work well, I took too much work on myself, I started to suffer from the results of my own chaos, and I wanted to give up.
What made me stick to my decision? Well, I finally had the option to come back to my previous business lifestyle. I received an offer from a global giant based in the US, with great money and great responsibility. It was tempting as hell, but I thought to myself- “okay, if I give up now, I will never come back to my own business ever again. I need this experience in my life”. So I kept working.
Also, I knew that I need this pain. You know this is something very subjective. Something easy for one person may be extremely difficult for others. I’m a natural-born artist. I paint, write, create. I’m a wild, vivid soul. I’m chaos. When I talk, I dance, I laugh, I make standups in the middle of the street, I’m a crazy spirit. So leading a business for me was torture at the beginning. But I knew that if I go through that Rubicon — I will see and feel and understand something that I have never had an access too. Gain another level of existence. And I was right! You can’t un-see, un-feel, un..- understand this kind of realm that a real entrepreneurship shows you.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Never let the short term relief lead to long term disaster. Keep the focus. Spread good energy. Stay brave. Don’t give up on the ultimate development goals and vision of growth for the sake of temporary reward.
Keep the focus and energy high, take care of yourself and your people. Discomfort is a natural part of the game, fear, too. You never lose them, but you play for the bigger reward. Never forget that you are made to accomplish great things, never settle for less. Let these hard times be a lesson, not suffering. This is the role of a leader.
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?
THE MUSIC. Laughter. Staying healthy. Remembering about yourself. ALWAYS remembering about the things that DID work out. Take time to celebrate. Take time to reflect on what has spilled. FAIL WELL, as Ray Dalio says, and by failing well, I mean not failing for nothing, fail for the lessons you get out of failing.
I have my few personal tricks to stay boosted along the way.
First of all, I take a look at this chart, at this chart and remind myself that all the hard stuff is just the part of the game. This chart strongly refers to trader’s mindset: Nassim Taleb in his book “Fooled by Randomness” (in my opinion Taleb’s best book, much better than the overrated “Anti-Fragility”, writes that one of the most common investors’ mistakes in trading is constantly checking charts. Every now and then. And then making decisions nervous decisions basen on the temporary snapshots of the situate. Read that again: the overall trend is the key.
My another secret weapon is the music. I often listen to Nordic folk which puts me in a state of an angry warrior that is going to do — whatever it takes — to gain his right place right in Valhalla. Also, I love to listen to empowering music with strong drums, whick makes me fully energized and ready to face any challenge.
Here are some of my best track to keep mi mind focused and my energy high:
Apashe, Vo Williams — Work
Dermot Kennedy — Power over me
ISAK — MAZE
Yelawolf — Till it’s gone
Danheim — Hefna
What are we fighting for — The Federal Empire
Shinedown — State of My Head
Welshey Arms — Legendary
Donnie Daydream, Richie Sosa — Undeniable
The Sidh — Shake that Bagpipe
Chris Webby — Rooky of the year
Merkules — All night Long
Oh I can go like that for hours. When things are soooooo heavy. And I have a bad day, I listen to the most motivating stuff you can imagine — The Path of Akira The Don featuring amazing badass — Jocko Willing (the author of extreme ownership).
This stuff is like a drug, gets your brain to another lever. You can’t NOT to your work after listening to this.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Honesty. Put it simply. Show that you understand the way it influences them. This builds the partnership. If it leads to schism, that’s okay. It would fall apart even though. This is business. Hardship is a natural part of the game. The less you complicate, the less you suffer.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Get your vision of how things are very vivid. Know your outcomes. You will figure out the tactics along the way. The road changes, the tools appear, and — most importantly — you learn along the way, so you can’t even predict how you will get there. Just know where you want to be. Grab a pencil in your hand, make a draft vision of the direction and just go there
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Don’t wait. The time will never be just right. I believe this is what Napoleon Hill said. The other saying I love is
Just be brave. Prepare in the best way you can, but do a crash test. Become the master in your field but do the work, get your hands dirty, check your ideas on the battlefield. Times are turbulent, but this is where you grow. If you want to grow, you need to play this game. When the rules change — you adapt. And then you grow, and then you set your own rules.
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?
- Making perfect theoretical models.
- Stopping to develop.
- Waiting for the time when things are perfect before taking action.
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?
Be useful. Take care of your network. Be interested. Business is about relationships. If you take care of your people, your telephone will never be silent. I have this game I like to call “Godfather thing.” People use to tell me, “Hey, you do too many things for free.” I say, “I never do things for free — they owe me.” I’m laughing right now, but the truth is that when you keep this flow of energy around you alive, when you keep sharing, giving a helping hand, you are building strong relationships. I never have my phone silent. I, too, suffer from difficult times, but I know that things will work out because we are not working in a vacuum. I am open, I give trust, and I gain trust. The longer I am I the business, the more — let’s call it that way — intimate are my relations with business partners. They reach out to me when they are in deep sh*t, and they know they can trust me. And my team and I will find the way.
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.
- Take care of him or herself. COVID happened at the same time when I had the most difficult time in my private life. I have lost all my private plans, my home, my place, my imaginary picture of my future. I have lost my clients, my team, my schedule, and my money. But at the same time, I have developed the most precious routine of taking care of myself. This was when I started going to bed earlier, waking up at 4:30 AM, making time for meditation, for writing down my goals, my dreams, and my way to achieving them.
- Take care of your health: never forget to take time to exercise, sleep, and eat well. This will give you the energy to survive any battle.
- Never forget to learn and to grow. It’s very easy to sink in the duties when things are going not so well. But a good leader should never switch to permanent survival mode. Always remember than the sun will go up, and you need to be ready and healthy to take advantage of that
- Talk to other people, change the environment, remember that you don’t have to solve every problem by yourself. There are a lot of smart people who have been when you are now. And — guess what — they survived.
- Take care of your mental health. Your thoughts are what you let your mind consume. Stay away from negative people. Listen to this one: stay away from negative people. This will save your life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Courageous, unconcerned, sarcastic, violent –thus wisdom wants us: she is a woman and always loves only a warrior.”
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
How can our readers further follow your work?