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 Kim K. Melillo.
Kim served as VP of Marketing and National Marketing Director for companies in the Fintech and leisure industries, as well as successfully ran and sold her own agency. She currently serves as the CEO of Sure Oak, a thriving SEO agency in New York. Now, as a C-level professional and passionate woman leader, she is in a position to tackle the very real challenges faced by a world looking for new solutions. A wife, mother, avid gardener, and volunteer for various causes close to her heart (Food for The Hungry, Hope Kids, and Phoenix Rescue Mission, to name a few), she is a huge advocate for integrating career success into a life that is packed with meaning.
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?
The path from gymnast to CEO may not seem like an obvious one — but straight lines never make for interesting stories, nor are they food for real growth.
I have been an entrepreneur for as long as I can remember. From running a profitable sucker-making business in Grade 7 that turned over a whopping $200 a week to roping my friends into teenage business schemes with festive names like The Sunshine Club, being an entrepreneur is utterly intertwined with my identity.
To be born with an entrepreneurial spirit is both a blessing and a curse. While it offers you a lifetime of adventure, it is also known to unleash absolute fury if you ignore it for even a moment. As the magnificent poet Mary Oliver said, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” I see entrepreneurship as a creative pursuit — one that I would only abandon at my own peril. Entrepreneurship for me is not simply about making money. It is about finding solutions to the world’s problems. It’s about creating things that were never there before and fulfilling the needs that are expressed when the world cries out.
You’re probably wondering at this point what any of this has to do with gymnastics. Fair question. Well, I was a competitive gymnast from the age of 5. That means, from the age of 5, I learned how to work hard, to never give up, and to understand that there are benefits to putting the hours in. I also learned the falsity that relaxation and pause are not necessities — something I’ve spent years unlearning.
When at the age of 12, I injured myself and was no longer able to compete on a professional level, I poured myself into productive activities. All my favorite books were about how to be a successful businessperson, even then. I held down a plethora of jobs simultaneously during my middle school years. From nannying to working in both a movie theater and t-shirt shop simultaneously before I was of legal age, I simply never stopped. This drive led to the opportunity to be editor of my high school newspaper and having a column in the city newspaper — and finally to the life-altering opportunity of interning, while still in high school, at an advertising agency.
I accepted a full-ride scholarship to a college an hour away from my hometown in Idaho, but I couldn’t shake the lure of the big city and all the opportunity that awaited there. So instead of taking the easy, well laid-out path, I persuaded my parents to let me hit the road to Los Angeles — with $300 in my pocket, a bag full of dreams, and Janet Jackson’s “Control” blaring through the stereo. I made my own way through college, working in various capacities to both gain work experience and pay my bills. A non-linear academic path ended with a degree in Business Management and Marketing — and a freelance position doing the newsletter for the largest golf course management company in the world. With 350 golf courses, American Golf was thriving in a burgeoning (and completely male-dominated) industry. The journey with American Golf was one that shaped much of my career — but while it was fulfilling in many ways, that entrepreneurial spirit of mine would not rest. So I did what every overworked person should (never) do, and started working on developing my next company as a side-hustle out of my house, late nights and weekends, with a tiny baby daughter attached to my hip.
My agency InOne Advertising quickly turned into my main hustle and I was able to leave my job to focus on it. After year-over-year growth, I sold it in 2004 for the reason that many women end up dead-ending professional projects that they still care about: work-life balance and the fact that too often, it can be a complete fallacy. The thing was, I was pregnant with my second child and, not only did I want to focus on my role as a mother in a more intentional way and not repeat my last mistake of bypassing any maternity leave at all, but the doctor had also put me on bed rest for five months. My company simply was not going to last through having an inactive leader for that long. I spent my newfound “extra” time focusing on passion projects — of course, starting other side-hustles, first a B&B in the bucolic North Fork of Long Island, NY and, later, an organic gardening business.
This, I was to learn, was only the beginning of a descent towards the darkest time in my personal and professional life. After having given up my business to focus more on family life, I found myself in the midst of a divorce that did its best to try to destroy me both financially and emotionally. As a now-single mom, I simply couldn’t spend adequate time and capital getting a new business off the ground. I had to reinvent and get back to a more regular “job.”
After some time commuting to Los Angeles to work with American Golf again, collaborating on developing a philanthropic marketplace called The Network of Giving, and finding my forever husband, I somewhat serendipitously connected with Sure Oak. As I spend every day communicating with a remote team of stellar team members and engaging with clients whose dreams I care about as if they were my own, it now seems hard to see the story turning out any other way.
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?
I once made the happy mistake of giving someone a hand. Alright, it wasn’t my mistake at all, but rather a quick cover-up for somebody else’s.
When I was just starting out in my career, I was working at a publishing company in Los Angeles called Creative Age. I was a typesetter and layout artist. Our director botched lining up talent for the cover shoot on deadline for one of our trade publications, NailPro. This was a fireable offense. As you can imagine, chaos and a last-minute scramble ensued, and I found myself knuckling down (literally) so she wouldn’t lose her job. There I was, in the middle of nine people looking at my hands and nails to see if I was about to catapult to hand model stardom.
As it turned out, I ended up being prepped to be the cover model for this magazine when I had zero modeling experience.
At any rate, one of my team members said that the moral of the story was that if you ever get in a pickle make sure somebody on your staff has good hands! And while my career as a hand model never really took off, I learned another lesson from the experience too — if you can give someone a hand, do. It will probably land up being an interesting experience for you and a beneficial one for them.
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?
The list is long and seems to be ever-growing but one person that truly helped me get to where I am today is a marvelous entrepreneur by the name of Garry Pearson. Garry was not only an exceptional business mentor to me when I was starting out, but also a father figure, providing me counsel when my own father had passed away and I needed business advice.
Garry was good friends with one of the major leaders of American Golf where I worked at the time. They were part of the same country club and he asked me to let Garry quote on some large printing projects. Now, I’ve always found it difficult to promote myself. As is the case with many women in business, the line between self-promotion and bragging always felt too thin — so when Gary told this important leader that he was super impressed with me, he gave me the boost that we as women so often don’t give ourselves.
Garry taught me the importance of doing this for others in turn. When you are excited by the work of your team members (or your clients), say so. You never know how a brief remark may do anything from boosting someone’s esteem to launching their career.
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?
Entrepreneurship answers the needs of the world. If a business is not fulfilling this simple mandate, the outcome will be twofold: firstly, it will struggle to grow in a meaningful way and secondly, the team members that make it up will be left searching for connection and purpose.
It is from this philosophical space that we envisioned Sure Oak’s mission:
To empower people to reach their full potential and live their wildest dreams.
So what does this have to do with SEO? As it turns out, everything.
We see every company that we work with as the product of somebody’s dream to solve a problem or ease someone else’s pain. If people are hungry, give them food. Entrepreneurs dream of ways of doing so.
But answering a need is not enough. You then have to nurture growth. Every entrepreneur imagines a future where they are able to grow their business to a level they are satisfied with, and to do so in our contemporary world you have to be visible online. The problem is, it’s hard work getting your website getting found! That’s why the need is great, and, because of the skillset of the team we have assembled, so are the results we are able to achieve for our clients.
Our mission is to use the skills that we have to help companies meet their dreams. It was our vision when we started and, as we ourselves have grown, has only been further entrenched in everything we do.
Purpose is everything — in both one’s personal and professional lives. It is a guiding force to integrity and intentional growth.
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?
As was the case with most businesses on the planet, our biggest challenge so far was presented to us this year when the world shut down to respond to a situation most people had never before imagined would ever happen.
For Sure Oak, what had previously been one of our selling points — the long game of SEO — was now cause for concern. What does a long game look like when one can’t even make predictions for tomorrow? Many of our clients, understandably, got scared. Cash was simply not flowing and many felt as if they were navigating their way through a storm with not a single guiding light to speak of. Leads were more anxious to convert and even our sure things started to retreat. As more and more workers throughout the world were laid off, our team too started to feel the weight of the moment.
I realized quickly that the most important thing to do at this time was to meaningfully connect. I spoke to each of our team members individually and reaffirmed to them that our first priority was them. We would do everything we could to keep them busy and happy.
It paid off.
By further bolstering the already solid morale that existed in our company and putting our incredible Sure Oak family first, we have managed to find our way through this together. We are unified, perhaps even more so than when we went into the crisis. With our willingness to erode our margins, sometimes down to nil on some projects, if it meant keeping our team busy and even flourishing.
As a unit, we are now identifying opportunities that were never there before, seeing that, as consumer behavior moves even further online, our services look to be more needed than ever.
There are many superfluous distractions that will beg for your attention in difficult times. My experience has taught me the importance of staying focused on your mission, taking care of your team first, and finding a way to innovate. There is always a path out.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
After my many years navigating the landscape of female leadership, I have cultivated a resilience where I now no longer see giving up as an option — but this is only after having hit the hard, cold ground of rock bottom.
Some years ago, my world fell apart. A divorce brought destruction to both my emotional and financial security, and the path to rebuilding was completely obscured from my vision. I was now a single mom, in need of a way to support the material and psychological needs of my two children. While I had been building a start-up organic gardening products business, this now seemed almost impossible. I was suddenly not in the position to be investing in something new and rather had to find a way to earn a consistent income. Having lost most of what I had spent years and years building, I suddenly had no idea where I was going to live or any idea what my life was going to look like.
I had also been midstream building my “dream garden” in my backyard when the rug was pulled out from under me. In the midst of this, I heard that there were plots available at a community garden club. With my passion for gardening and a need for some sort of meaning in this chaos, I stopped by on my way home from my Master Gardening class. The community garden aspect drew me towards it. Maybe I could get a plot here — something that nobody could take away from me.
Standing in that community garden, I had what now I can only describe as a spiritual experience: instead of building a small garden for myself I felt moved to build a big, beautiful garden in this place to share with other people who were going through difficult times.
And that is exactly what I did.
The garden became a meeting point for a range of different people who were struggling. From children who were battling cancer to food banks to women dealing with alcoholism, the garden became a productive solace for so many in need, including myself.
The garden fed me in so many ways.
I ended up finding a place to rent with my kids and getting my company off the ground to the level of supporting us. Then two years ago, when my commitments at Sure Oak meant that I no longer had the time to run the community garden myself, I donated it to one of the Hope Kids families who are in the process of turning into a 501c3.
The thing that sustains me is an unfailing entrepreneurial spirit, which is not simply a desire to make money but to create solutions in the world. Running a community garden, being a parent, running a company, all stem from this same desire: to find a way to make things work, to create, to build, and to grow.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
This tumultuous moment, where the structure of our professional and personal lives has been thrown into question in a way that is unrivaled in our lifetimes, is just the sort of time when great leadership matters. In my definition, that means leadership that prioritizes care, kindness, and creativity. It is a leadership that concerns itself with the human element, that understands that this is by no means business as usual for anyone. People are afraid for their health, economic security, and the safety of their communities. True leadership has to understand that. It is leadership that listens, that knows that ultimately we are dealing with the lives of individuals, each one with its own unique set of challenges to face and gifts to offer. True leadership prioritizes creativity and innovation; it is a leadership that is not afraid to admit when it is wrong or uncertain and that sees the value in innovation. It is also leadership that can pivot on a dime. It’s never been more important to have quick feet.
As Margarete Wheatley said, “The things we fear most in organizations — fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances — are the primary sources of creativity.”
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 return back to the idea of leadership as service and, at its core, this means cultivating a practice of listening. How can you inspire, motivate, and engage a team if you do not know them, what makes them tick and what gets their juices flowing? I think the idea of listening is underestimated as a cornerstone of effective leadership.
As a fully remote team, it’s imperative that our communication channels remain open and that nobody feels as if they are an island floating away from the mainland of our company. As is the case of many businesses in our contemporary world, we don’t have the luxury of bumping into each other while grabbing coffee in the kitchen. As far as possible, I try to engineer these otherwise organic moments by checking in with individuals, getting to know where they’re at personally, and finding out if they have concerns.
And sometimes it’s just the simple things: sending out a Monday morning greeting to our Slack channel, ensuring that they all know that we’re in this together, that I value their dedication and that the efforts they are putting in are paying off.
To cultivate a feeling of community, we’ve also, pre-COVID, held annual in-person retreats. We’re looking to create a virtual version this year — with a very important twist. Each team member is going to choose a charity that they are passionate about and spend some time giving back during work hours. This ties into many of our values as a company, from ensuring that we create a strong knit community to understanding that we as Sure Oak are part of a larger global community that we too have to be in service to.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Transparency is critical. Seriously. I know this means that sometimes hard pills have to be swallowed but I have learned that there is simply no other way.
This is truly written into the very foundations of how we run Sure Oak: we have a policy of honest communication with both our team and our clients. We tell our clients from the get-go that SEO is a heavy investment, and that you won’t be making money hand over fist from the beginning. Our goal is to manage expectations, act with integrity, and ensure that everyone always has the information they need to make the best decisions possible. As well as this, if anything ever deviates from the plans we set together, we see no point in trying to cover up any mess.
This means that things are not always easy for us. We have to compete against big promises made by other agencies — but we’ve learned that in the long run, no amount of sugar-coating can change the reality of how digital marketing works.
When it comes to our team, we embrace a similar perspective. While we were busy smashing the glass ceiling at our company, we managed to smash the walls between us as well. My goal is to keep the communication channels flowing as openly as possible. In all my years of experience, being real with people has only ever yielded positive outcomes.
So far, this policy of staunch transparency is working — and I’ll always let the team know if it isn’t.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I believe the only way to engage in effective planning right now is to allow for malleability. The world is going to call out for new solutions, so you have to listen in to what those are and respond quickly. Simply trying to continue with old methodologies (and even old products and services in some cases) is going to show a lack of responsiveness to the times, and ultimately sink your ship. While long term plans are important, it’s also a time to be quick on one’s feet.
The way in which you can use this time constructively is, rather than plan for the long term, use today productively. We’ve been reassessing many of our internal processes, weeding out anything unnecessary, and revamping our own marketing channels. You know all those little projects you’ve been meaning to get to? Yes, now is the time. Think of it as spring cleaning for your business.
That, and making sure that you do not spend your money all at once. Keep adequate cash on hand to cover multiple months of expenses if you want to ensure your business will be around for the long haul. Saving for a rainy day has never been more important.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Look after your team first. They are your business. Even if that means that you take a cut on your paycheck or your profits, keep them working. You are only as good as your people, and if you value them above all else, their loyalty will pay dividends when things turn around.
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?
-Getting stuck. Businesses that are still coming up with solutions to yesterday’s problems are going to drown. You have to listen, read, talk, respond. Difficult times are the playground of the most innovative and aware. If you are not willing to adapt, your survival is unlikely.
-Not having enough cash flow. I’ve seen too many entrepreneurs leave only the dregs in their company accounts while they roll around in take-home income. This is never a good idea. Cash flow oils your entrepreneurial machine and, unless you keep this in mind, difficult times are going to bring you to a grinding halt.
-Not taking care of their team first. Remember that there is always the other side of the tunnel. Your team (and your clients) are going to remember how you acted when chaos reared its head. Make sure that you don’t decimate what you have spent your time building.
-Not being transparent. I get it — we go into panic mode and then think the best way out is through trying to mask the truth. Resist this urge. You will only land on slippery slopes that give you no control.
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?
Always ensure that you have a decent cash position to weather storms. One of our biggest saving graces while weathering the COVID-storm was that we hadn’t distributed all our earnings in cash.
Of course, this requires sacrifice on the part of the owners — but, as is my mantra, entrepreneurship is an act of service. You are in service to your employees, to your clients and, if you’re doing things right, to the world. That’s a responsibility that you have to be willing to take on.
As well as this, during turbulent times, you not only have to make sure your company is solvent but also take the time to redirect your own processes. This often means searching through your day-to-day operations and ensuring that there are no wasteful activities sapping your resources.
This is an important time for introspection. When you’re busy and flourishing, you don’t always have the opportunity to look inside. As a result, you tend to go along with systems without analyzing their worth too much. Now is the time to look internally, at your marketing strategies, at your communication flows, at the makeup of your teams and optimize everything you can down to the last detail.
If you do this effectively, turbulent times can paradoxically be a blessing.
As we come out of this unprecedented time, I can feel us rising. We are gathering strength for whatever future awaits.
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.
- Embrace leadership as an act of service. I often think of the etymology of the word “company”. It implies community, coming together, connection. When uncertainty comes your way, your best resource is the community you have built. Take care of them first. When COVID hit, this was our priority. Our team had to keep working regardless of whether the business was turning a profit.
- Get creative. Ah, the all-important pivot. Turbulent times call for innovative responses — but to find out what your potential customers’ needs are, you have to listen. Our pivot has come in the form of where we place our attention and how we reach out to new clients. As digital behavior changes and increases, being found online is going to matter more than ever. We have the tools to make this happen, and so evolves our business offering.
- Maintain transparency. I’m a bit of a stuck record on this one, but that’s because it is utterly vital. When the crisis hit, we were totally honest with our clients and our team about where we stood. This has allowed all of us to make decisions with all the necessary information at hand.
- Cash flow. You have to ensure that you have enough money to keep rolling. If you need this week’s sales to meet next week’s payroll, hard times will mean the end of your business. Luckily, Sure Oak has always orientated this way, meaning that we were able to last through the stormy seas.
- Be kind. This is as important for your humanity as it is for your business. When the world settles down again, people will remember how you acted in crisis. We are offering a range of complimentary services to companies in need over this time. In some instances, these may grow into future customers, but we don’t expect this. Instead, we are responding because it is simply the right thing to do right now.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” (Attributed to Basil King)
I’ve learned this lesson time and again and keep learning it. A tepid response to a given situation will always yield mediocre results. Go for it. Jump in. What’s the worst that can happen? You fail? Is that really so bad?
From leaving a cushy job to start my own agency, to making my way through many a male-dominated industry, bold leaps have carried me forward.
Now, with Sure Oak, we continue to make these leaps together.
How can our readers further follow your work?