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 Justin Sharaf.
Justin Sharaf is Vice President of Marketing at Jahia Solutions, a global Digital Experience Platform (DXP) provider with customers in over 20 countries. With a background in analytics and technology, Justin believes that building a core foundation of data and technology helps optimize marketing programs and empowers marketers to be more effective and efficient in their jobs.
Justin is analytical, but not a data scientist. He is technical, but not a developer. He is creative, but not a designer. He is a modern marketing leader with a deep background in Marketing Operations.
Prior to Jahia, Justin was Director of Marketing Technology and Operations at LogMeIn, where he built and managed a team responsible for over 70 marketing technologies. Justin also worked in Marketing, Analytics, and FP&A at Vistaprint and Time Inc. He has a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College.
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?
Before graduating from Amherst College with a degree in economics and psychology, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life or my career. I was thinking about being a sports journalist, or a sports psychologist, having interned at a newspaper and with a psychologist. But I ended up accepting a job at The Synapse Group, at the time, a $250M fully-owned subsidiary of Time Inc.
To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what I was going to be doing in my first job, and I didn’t fully understand what the company did until a few weeks into the job! I started as a product analyst, moved into a role as an FP&A analyst, and eventually when one of the marketing leaders I supported left the company, the leadership team decided I would be the best replacement. That’s how I got my feet wet in Marketing. Synapse was a direct-response company, and I gained a ton of experience in direct mail and migrating a print business into an online business.
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 my second year at Synapse, when I was 23, there was a large industry event in Vegas. About 15 employees, including many I worked closely with, were attending the event and hosting a large party at The Hotel at Mandalay Bay. My boss, who was 26 at the time, and I decided it would be fun to fly to Vegas, crash in our colleagues’ hotel rooms, attend the party and the event and have a great time. I won’t get into the details, but I was immature, and to this day, those former colleagues still bring up my juvenile antics at the party. It was a memory that group will never forget.
That said, I took a risk, and I got to spend a lot of quality time with industry veterans who exposed me to a culture I was not at all familiar with. I made some great connections and bonded with people I never would have interacted with under different circumstances. The situation taught me that when you have a chance to make an impression on executives or people that can influence your career, you should take advantage of those opportunities.
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?
A few years into my career, I was feeling very confident in myself and my contributions to the business I was supporting. Honestly, I was getting a little over-confident. At one point, I went into the office of a senior leader and started complaining about how someone I worked with had made a bunch of mistakes and at one point I called this person “incompetent.”
The senior leader put me in my place. He told me that just because I was doing great work doesn’t give me the right to look down on other colleagues who aren’t as skilled as I was. He asked me if I would want to trade jobs with this person, and I quickly said absolutely not, as the person had 20+ years of experience and was doing a job that I thought was beneath me, a 25 year old. The leader told me that every successful company has employees of all abilities and capabilities and roles and I better get used to that if I hoped to be a leader myself someday. He told me to respect the job of everyone, whether it is the lowest person on the ladder or the CEO. You have to be willing to do the most menial work and have respect for the most “insignificant” work in order to gain the respect of the employee base.
That advice has stuck with me, and I’ve become very tolerant and accepting of not just the different abilities and capabilities of every employee, but I’ve also become more aware and sensitive to everyone’s individual situations, whether professional or personal.
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?
In my opinion, 2020 made most of my “difficult times” examples insignificant, so of course I must provide an example from 2020. I’ve always been an honest leader, and always tried to connect with my employees personally as well as professionally. This year, being a leader was all about personal connections. Two of my employees and I have young children, and to me, giving those parents the flexibility they need to balance work life and family life was the most important thing I could do as a leader. My team knows that I am not their babysitter and I don’t expect them to clock-in or clock-out. Making sure they know that their family comes first helped get the most out of them as employees. Employees who are struggling at home are probably also struggling at work. I tried to support them as best I could while also sharing examples of how I was following my own advice. I gave all my employees the space they needed to process what was going on in the world and in return, I’d like to think they were better employees than they would have been otherwise.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
There were so many times in 2020 that I thought things couldn’t get more stressful. Being home 24/7 with my wife, who also works, and my two boys (ages 5 and 3) during the pandemic has been insanely difficult. Knowing that I had flexibility in my job to break my day up to take care of the kids and then work during off hours was really critical. I’m very proud of my work, but I’m not obsessed with work. That attitude helps me avoid burnout and helps me get the most out of the time I am working.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During challenging times, leaders often go into “squirrel mode,” meaning their attention whips from one thing to another just like a dog gets into a frenzy when it sees many squirrels in the yard! I forget who said this, but I believe it: “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Helping employees prioritize their work is extremely critical during challenging times.
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?
Celebrating small wins is extremely important. Telling someone they did a great job, or giving unsolicited positive feedback can really boost morale. It’s simple, but it’s effective.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Honestly. If you are honest, people will understand no matter how bad the news. Giving and receiving bad news at work pales in comparison to giving and receiving bad news in someone’s personal life, especially right now in the middle of a pandemic.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Again, being honest about the uncertainty is very important. Making plans and contingency plans can help, but you must be careful not to over plan. Sometimes planning too much can be demoralizing because it feels like a lot of wasted time and effort if those plans don’t come to fruition. I try to build plans that are flexible by nature so that we can always have the ability to adjust if need be.
This may sound crazy, but having no plan can also be a good plan, as long as it’s communicated clearly and honestly. If you tell your team that the plan is to wait and see, that’s still a plan and sometimes can work out successfully!
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I’ve always believed that the most important thing you can do is try to put people in a position to be successful. If you’ve done that, people will recognize that you care about them and care about the company, and they will more often than not achieve success. Adjusting and creating new goals that are achievable can boost morale rather than chasing an unachievable and unreasonable number.
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?
- Losing focus and having too many priorities.
- Trying to go too fast and forgetting about the importance of doing the basics well.
- Forgetting that people at the lower levels of the organization are usually the ones who keep the company moving forward. A boat with a coxswain and no rowers will not move. A boat with rowers and a coxswain will always move forward, just not as optimally.
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?
At Jahia, we made it a priority to tighten our belts in all of the “nice-to-have” areas of the business instead of doing layoffs. People are so important to the success of an organization, much more important than office space, or travel, for example. We also tried to focus on areas of the business that we could invest in during slower times, like improving processes and collaboration. You must control what you are able to control and try your best to grow in the areas where growth is possible. That could mean focusing on existing customers, or focusing on foundational technology and process, or focusing on people development. All of these will set you up for successful growth when times become less turbulent.
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.
- Weekly team meetings so the entire team is aligned on priorities and goals. This prevents confusion, encourages collaboration, and makes sure that all team members are working toward the same ultimate goal. It also creates opportunities for team members to provide help or feedback on projects that they wouldn’t have otherwise been aware.
- Weekly one-on-one meetings with team members to encourage open, honest communication and feedback. For me, weekly one-on-ones are the most important meetings of the week. People are our greatest resource, and they should be treated as such. I want my employees to know that they always have an opportunity to talk to me about what’s on their mind.
- Be honest, vulnerable and open to feedback. Don’t try to “protect” employees, as everyone is an adult. Ensure employees know that these are uncertain times for you as well and you appreciate their feedback and are able to empathize. Employees all have different professional and personal situations, and I want to ensure they have all of the information they need in order to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. For example, if someone is living paycheck to paycheck working in a volatile industry/company and cannot risk that, maybe they would be better off finding a new job if the uncertainty was too risky for them. They need the information to make those types of decisions for themselves.
- Make tough decisions quickly and decisively. Don’t rush, but don’t let things linger. You must think about making decisions that are both quick and effective.
- Don’t put yourself and your team in a bubble. Make sure that you are communicating with fellow leaders and have a strategy at the leadership level that is consistent. If you tell your team one thing and another leader tells their team something different, that can create confusion and distrust that can ruin the culture and morale of an organization.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mom taught me this one: “Think before you do anything.”
Sometimes people interpret this as “don’t make quick decisions” but that’s not it at all. That quote taught me, or really, forced me, to be able to think and react quickly. While other people might act before thinking, which can be problematic, or act too slowly after thinking, which can be problematic, I’ve learned to think and act quickly, assessing and measuring the risk and benefit of decisions in real time. I’m not only able to make decisions quickly, but I’m generally able to provide my thought-process and my reasons for that decision more quickly than my peers.
How can our readers further follow your work?