Aspart of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Kennedy.
Lauren Kennedy is the Founder + Chief Marketing Nerd of Coastal Consulting. Considered a unicorn in her field, Lauren is a technical expert in Salesforce and HubSpot and a strategic marketer. Lauren founded Coastal Consulting to create a space where people come first. That means a robust benefits package, continuous education and development, and a people-first approach to serving clients. Coastal Consulting’s growth rate as a HubSpot Solutions Partner ranks in the top 1% for partner agencies as they trailblaze a better way for organizations to succeed with marketing automation.
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?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an inquisitive person. I was the child sitting in the backseat asking, “Mom, what does that sign say?” and “Why?” repeatedly. Thankfully, my parents and grandparents were involved in my life and encouraged my interest in learning. My mom grew up all across the globe because my granddad’s career with the World Bank took them from England to Japan and beyond, and she worked hard to make sure that I was secure, adaptable, and open to everything life had to teach me.
When I started going to school, my natural curiosity helped me as a student. But I opened myself up to anxiety early as I placed much weight on how well I did in school and how my teachers viewed me. As I grew up, the school became even more important to me. I quickly outgrew the traditional curriculum, and my family decided that I needed a more challenging place to learn. My granddad, especially, was passionate about finding the right place for me to be successful.
So, I enrolled in Girls Preparatory School (GPS) in Chattanooga, TN, for middle school. GPS design existed for students like me that didn’t fit the traditional learning mold. The classes were more like college classes than middle school and pushed me to learn how to learn. We were always looking for the next significant achievement, and I was all for that atmosphere. Around the end of 6th grade, I started obsessing over where I was going to college and what I would be when I grew up. Adults always chuckled at the 8th grader that had her college application list planned and her sights set so far in the future.
When I applied to colleges, I convinced myself that I was going to be an attorney. I’d always been a stickler for the rules, excellent at arguing, and focused on a very black and white view of the world. So, a career in law seemed like the perfect fit. But, after one summer as an intern for a law firm, that quickly changed. I saw that life as an attorney was not as glamorous as it appears on TV. Many people around me seemed to lack passion. Because I wanted a career that I was passionate about, and I decided to pivot.
While at the University of Tennessee, I drifted between majors from English to Nursing to Psychology. So, I was the typical college student. Indecisive and confused.
I was drawn to the English major because I’ve always loved to write and have found reading to be a truly transformative experience. So many books have transformed the way I see the world, Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown, Untamed by Glennon Doyle, and the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, to name a few.
The English program didn’t challenge me. My close friend was diagnosed with Leukemia in her early 20s; I felt drawn to a career in nursing. Unfortunately for me, I have a marketing stomach. Working with cadavers led me to a bench in the hallway instead of the side of a hospital bed. So, it was time to rethink my future again.
Finally, I landed on psychology. People are fascinating, aren’t they? Learning how people connect, make decisions, and develop was, and still is, fascinating to me. Before graduating, I started interning in marketing. And, from day one, I was hooked. Psychology and marketing are intertwined. And, finally, I began to see a passion in this career path.
So, I graduated early from UTK and started my MBA in Marketing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. As a self-diagnosed chronic overachiever, I decided to start working full time while taking my master’s program. You could say that was a mistake and ended up being the first notable failure in my life.
I was booted out of the master’s program shortly after starting a full-time job because, to my horror, I couldn’t handle them both. I spent a year recovering from that rejection and then fought hard to get back into the MBA program. The art of persuasion won out in the end. I was readmitted to the program and finished with a 4.0. Note, a 4.0 for the second half of the masters; I prefer not to say where I landed for the first half. (Lauren laughs)
With my master’s under my belt, I honed in on the next steps for my career. Reflecting on it now, I realize that I’ve been a lousy employee. (Lauren laughs) I’ve always delivered high-quality work before it was due and exceeded expectations. But, as far as being an employee, I haven’t been the best.
I’ve always chosen positions based on the hiring manager and started each job with a strong desire to serve the leader of those positions. However, in all cases, that leader was pushed out of the organization by leadership that lacked vision, empathy, and, ironically, leadership qualities. While the new managers weren’t bad people, they weren’t good managers, and they indeed weren’t leaders. I, unfortunately, found them uninspiring and, when the administration made those shifts in staffing, I shifted with them.
This year, I’d had enough and decided I’d be better off on my own, to the relief of everyone around me. I’d been through enough leadership changes and agreed that if you can’t beat them, become them. So, now I’m trying my hand at leadership and plan to learn from all the mistakes I’ve seen others make.
I took a big deep breath, quit my job, and filed for an LLC the next day. Today, I’m lucky enough to lead a team of four inspiring women and work every day doing something I’m super passionate about, connecting with people via marketing automation and empowering our clients to make full use of HubSpot and Salesforce.
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?
Paranoia is one of my greatest strengths. (Lauren laughs.)
I remember all of the errors I’ve made as an employee and revisit them often. What comes to mind is the time I sent 80,000 people at a financial institution an email with the wrong first name. Honestly, Excel has never been my friend, and it initiates the send with a manual list upload, the furthest thing from a best practice. Oops.
Our call center was quickly overwhelmed with people’s calls thinking that somebody had hacked their account because they received an email starting with “Hello (insert the wrong name),” with an update about their account.
I no longer send mass emails (for personal reasons) and can look back and laugh. Also, I now have a multi-check plan in place to test any and everything we built, just in case.
The real lesson here was how my boss at the time, MaryAbigail Dills, handled it. She knew how self-critical I am and didn’t harp on the mistake. Instead, she asked how I would fix it, and we worked together to remedy the situation. I appreciated her ability to adapt management styles to me. Knowing that I knew what happened, I handled it and had it under control. I also owned my mistake. I didn’t reach out to her, saying, “Oh no! I don’t know what happened.” I looked into it and quickly told her exactly what happened. After we resolved the problem, we put together a 10-step plan to ensure it wouldn’t happen again, as we’re both lovers of process and systems.
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?
Recently, I’ve learned that starting a company takes a village. My company is a marketing “agency,” although I hate that word. Because I started this company on an impulse without a business plan, I’ve needed much help along the way. One of my best friends is running our ad campaigns, another has helped me with VLOOKUPs (again, Excel is not my friend), and my little sister’s an intern. My first employee was a colleague at a previous company that shares my rebellious spirit and passion for marketing. My second was a long-time friend looking to make her mark in the professional world. My fiancé helps me with recruiting and vetting candidates. And my close friends serve as counselors and cheerleaders as I navigate all of this.
I feel like my community has rallied around me to help make all of this possible. So, recently, it’s not one person; it’s the collective of the people in my life.
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?
As a past in-house marketer who had the displeasure of working with many traditional agencies, I intend to create a better way to do business. I’ve promised clients to build solutions that work for them and make sure they know how to use them long-term.
I’ve also made a promise to my team that, while what we do isn’t easy, the environment, culture, and overall vibe will be better than what you’ve experienced before.
My mission in life is to mentor, inspire, and empower as many people as possible to achieve their full potential — whatever that may be.
When I look at what I want to be doing every day, what I want to leave behind, it’s very much helping others help themselves. Making money is a way to sustain life; however, when we look at bringing on a new client or team member, we’re looking for people ready to learn, grow, and challenge themselves.
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?
My answer to this might be a little bit unconventional as I started our company six months ago. I have never officially been a manager until now.
I chose to become a leader and a manager during one of the most uncertain and challenging times we, as people, have faced globally in my lifetime. My leadership philosophy is very much — you’re a person first, a parent or family member second, and an employee third. So, if you are not okay because you’ve had a death in the family, you didn’t sleep last night, or you woke up to a sick child, it’s okay not to be okay. Whatever’s happening in your world, if you’re not functioning as a person, then you’re not ready for work. And that’s okay.
The greatest thing I can do for me, my team, and my clients is to continue hiring great people, treating them with compassion, and getting out of their way.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Honestly, I finally feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. For the first time, I think I am truly myself, which sustains my drive to figure out the following problem and continue working as hard as I do. Also, we’re offering something the market needs, and we’re doing it in a new, better way. I genuinely don’t plan on ever giving up.
My biggest challenge is getting out of my own way. I’ve always been a bit of a control freak, and I’m learning how to delegate. Delegation is probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced on this journey, as I’m so invested in every part of what we do. I am determined to always be on top of things, and I’m too involved today, but that will change.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Value people above all else.
We are a people-first agency. We prioritize learning internally and emphasize it in all of our client relationships. When designing solutions in HubSpot and Salesforce, we take best practices and tweak them best to fit our client’s technical skills and comfort level. Nothing we build is overcomplicated or too technical to manage long term. We admire Hinge’s slogan “the dating app designed to be deleted” and think of ourselves as the agency designed not to be needed.
Because we prioritize employee development and growth as solutions, I’m confident we will get through challenging times. Your people are your key to the future, not cogs in a machine designed for your benefit. Value them, and they will stand by you.
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?
Create a shared vision.
Motivation, inspiration, and engagement come when you have a clear vision of a future.
I recently committed to getting out of debt and followed Dave Ramsey’s baby step program. He firmly believes that the drive to make such a significant lifestyle change comes from painting a big picture vision and establishing your why. Similarly, in Start with Why, Simon Sinek shares, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it.”
We do not make decisions at Coastal Consulting in a vacuum. Our team is fully involved in strategic direction and feels personally invested in where we’re going and why. Personal investment creates inspiration and motivation.
Everything in our world gets impacted by more than just what’s happening at work; engagement is a bit trickier. If there’s a lull in the team, I set a time to call and brainstorm or talk. Underneath the tech-savvy, we’re a team of creatives and empaths. So, creating space to bring out our creativity and connecting engages us.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Quickly and transparently.
The longer you wait to say something you did or admit that you made a mistake, the more dishonest it feels. Waiting will erode trust in both business and personal relationships.
If you build a reputation of sitting on bad news or trying to sugarcoat information, you lose trust and credibility.
For example, I recently had a client share feedback with me about an employee. Rather than sitting on the information, I ended the call with the client and immediately got on a call with the employee and talked it out. I listened to her, and we designed the path forward together. We quickly resolved the issue because I was willing to have two tough conversations back-to-back.
If I had sat on that for a week and then later said, “We talked last week, and she said this about you,” that would damage our relationship. I mean, if there’s an issue that involves you, wouldn’t you want to know right away?
Also, after you’ve shared difficult news, offer a solution. If it was a mistake made, share how you’re preventing it from moving forward. Most people are reasonable people. Don’t insult them with misdirection or finger-pointing.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Lean on your team.
My only certainty for the future is that I want the people I have around me currently to be there. When I plan for the future, I make sure that the plan involves those people and their hopes and dreams for the future. Because the future is unpredictable, we revisit the plan often and revise. As long as they’re involved and heard, I’m confident that we can handle whatever the future throws us.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
People above all else.
If things are uncertain and you’re not sure what’s going to happen moving forward, the most important thing to ask yourself is: “Is my team supported?”, “Do they feel comfortable?”, “Do they feel safe?”
People leave when they feel unsafe or unsupported. If I create an environment where they feel safe, valued, and supported, everything else is just a cherry on top.
If your people are behind you, they will help you through whatever you’re facing. If you lose the faith and support of your team, it’s unlikely you’ll survive turbulent times.
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?
#1 — Shifting Expectations
With the pandemic, many companies increased expectations when they saw that people are more productive at home. But people were more effective because they used work as an escape when everything else was scary, and work was familiar. Many companies took advantage of that thinking, “Oh, they’re at home; they just perform better at home.” But that wasn’t it. Instead of realizing that people were escaping via work, they exploited it as an opportunity to increase the pressure and ask for more from their employees.
Unsurprisingly, this led to the mass employee exodus we see now. People pushed themselves to the limit and burned out faster than ever before.
Moving forward as a business is essential, but my advice is to stay on track towards your established goals and allow people to adapt to changes before increasing your expectations.
#2 — Lead with Compassion
Certain things happen that we can expect an employee to compartmentalize when at work. But, that’s not always an option. When tragedy strikes, personally or on a global scale, work shouldn’t be the priority.
As leaders, we need to recognize that we’re all victims of the human condition. Frequently, managers try to position themselves as immune to the problems facing the team. They fail to acknowledge that we’re all worried, uncertain, and nervous.
Luckily, I’ve had the privilege to work for a few compassionate leaders. Several years ago, I tragically lost a puppy a month after bringing him home. While, to some, it was just a dog, this event dramatically shook my worldview. Naively, I had previously felt that everything was in my control. And this destroyed that narrative.
My manager at the time, Katie Adgent, responded with concern and compassion. She created space for me to process and mourn. When I tried to come back to work several days later, she insisted that I go home. She showed me the power of compassionate, people-first leadership. Which, I’ve found, is a very rare and valuable trait.
Side note — For anyone struggling with managing grief or their control issues, a friend recommended The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F* CK by Mark Manson, and it got me through this time in my life.
#3 — Maintain Focus
Honestly, I struggle with this one. When I catch a new idea, it takes hold of me and easily captivates my full attention. But I’ve seen firsthand how damaging this can be to an organization, and it’s a habit I’m actively trying to break.
Tristan Schuler, employee #1, pushes me on this all the time. At least once a week, she asks, “Where does that fit in our near-term goals and current bandwidth?” If I don’t have a good answer, I (try to) put the idea to the side and refocus.
#4 — Fire Fast
Toxic leadership has a way of fooling us during the hiring process. We will all hire the wrong person at some point. The failure isn’t in hiring them; it’s in keeping them around.
Nothing kills a team faster than a leader that belittles, lies to, or ignores them. Invest in identifying the warning signals of a toxic leader and quickly take action.
Maya Angelou said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” Employees will quickly abandon a toxic leader and equip HR with candid exit interviews only for them to be filed away and never addressed. Don’t make that mistake.
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?
My vantage point on this is limited because I started my business in turbulent times, and they haven’t gone away yet. For agencies, the recent challenge hasn’t been acquiring a business. It’s been finding the bandwidth to take it on. With the shifts in the labor market, outsourcing for marketing functions has drastically increased.
We don’t have a “Sales Strategy” per se. I never set out to sell because I know that I will fail. My current perception of sales is negative, and I feel that sales don’t align with my values at the moment. To sell is human, but I haven’t internalized that just yet.
Whenever we look to attract a new client, we look for opportunities to provide value. I’m active on Twitter, Facebook Groups, Reddit, and the HubSpot and Salesforce community forums. But I never go to a platform and think, “Okay, how can I sell these people?” Instead, I ask, “How can I add value here?” Usually, that’s answering questions, sharing lessons learned, and mentoring those looking to grow in areas where we’re strong.
Our mission is to treat people well and build a solid company culture. And that’s a good business strategy.
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.
#1 — Surround Yourself with Passionate People
The day I left my first job, I was escaping a toxic environment. I knew I wanted to work in marketing and found the perfect opportunity to join a marketing team, travel, and put my planning skills to use. During the interview process, I had amazing conversations with each member of the team.
But, when I reached the final interview with Dave Hauptman, SVP of Marketing, he saw through me and could sense I was running. At the end of our conversation, I was curious, “Do you have any concerns about me as a candidate?” He shared that he felt I was a good fit but was concerned I was running away from something rather than towards something.
He was partially correct. I was running away from something, and fast. I was also running towards the future I wanted and an environment that I could grow. Thankfully, he extended an offer, and I had a genuinely fantastic experience working on his team.
This conversation has always stuck with me. Now, I make sure that I look for this when hiring. While I’m empathetic to fellow runners, I need to know they’re passionate about our mission and excited about what they’ll get to do with us.
Hiring quickly to fill a gap without considering the full candidate in front of you will create more problems than it solves.
#2 — Hire People, Not Roles
My first job was checklist-oriented and repetitive. I got bored quickly.
So, I looked for other opportunities to grow and to help other teams. My manager quickly noticed that I was no longer passionate about filling my specific role. So, without my buy-in, they took me from the role I was performing well in and put me in a position where I was answering the phone all day. My version of hell. Did I mention I was not a good employee? (Lauren giggles.)
I learned two key lessons there.
One, hire people, not roles. When I’m interviewing new hires, I’m not hiring for a position. I’m hiring a quality person to fill a function, and that function will change.
Two, do not squash interest in learning and growth. I make sure that all team members get to see all parts of the business. If they like a different role more than their current one, we’ll work on a plan to get them there.
Supported, passionate people will support your business through turbulent times and advocate for your success.
#3 — Leave a Positive Impact
I was close to my granddad when I was young. Until he passed, I knew him as my best friend who bought me Lisa Frank journals every week, followed by lunch at a Chinese buffet and Shirley Temple movies at home. After he passed, we flew to Scotland to bury him in Largs, a small town on the River Clyde. That is where he was born and raised.
The lesson I learned here eluded me as a grieving 10-year-old. But an overwhelming number of very diverse people attended his funeral to pay their respects. While my grandfather held a prominent position at the World Bank, that wasn’t why they came.
People came to his funeral to share stories of his compassion. He played a pivotal role in their lives and always took the opportunity to help them, or their families, reach their next position or goal in life. We had never heard the stories that his coworkers shared, but every one of us left knowing that his secret work moniker was “Robin Hood.” He may never have known that they called him that either. But, his legacy of caring leadership was far-reaching and will stay with me forever.
Now that I’m a leader, I hold this lesson close to my heart. People remember how you make them feel more so than anything you say or accomplish. Regardless of the challenges your organization faces, do what you can to make those around you feel valued and important.
They will remember.
#4 — Create a Safe Space
As I’ve grown up, I’ve watched my mom, Karen Walsh, live a life advocating for the health and safety of animals. She’s had a long career in animal welfare at various animal shelters, organizations, and, most recently, the national ASPCA.
From disaster rescue transport to playing a pivotal role in the fight against animal abuse, her team experiences intense emotions every day. My mom leads her team through these heartbreaking situations. As an empath and caring leader, she became a Compassion Fatigue Educator and offered frequent training and coaching to combat compassion fatigue. Her mission is to maintain morale and empower her team to keep doing what they’ve been called to do while protecting their mental health.
Compassion fatigue exists in all industries facing emotional and physical burnout. Healthcare, service industries, childcare, and teaching come to mind. Regardless of the unique circumstances your team faces, make sure you’re giving them space to recover and the tools to overcome the pressures they face.
#5 — Maintain Professionalism and Take Corrective Action
When presented with negative feedback, it’s easy to fight fire with fire. As a leader, it’s best to internalize the feedback and do better because of it. As Brian Halligan, Executive Chairman and Co-Founder of HubSpot, says, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.”
Brian and Dharmesh Shah founded HubSpot in 2006 to create a better way for businesses to grow. In 2017, a book came out from a former employee that aimed to damage their reputation and the company they had passionately invested in for years. Rather than fighting back with an empty PR campaign, Brian and Dharmesh internalized the feedback, filtered through the statements given out of impulse and what held weight and leveled up HubSpot’s culture. Fast forward to 2021, HubSpot was ranked as the #4 best place to work in the US and is said to have a lower acceptance rate than Ivy League schools.
Brian and Dharmesh’s leadership showed that making lasting change is the best response to opposition.
I’m honored to be a Gold Level HubSpot Solutions Partner. As a long-time admirer of and advocate for HubSpot, it’s been amazing to become more involved in their mission and ecosystem.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it has the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” — Brené Brown
I aim to lead with vulnerability and authenticity, and Brené has been such an inspiration in both areas. And, it’s true. We are the bravest when we find the strength to share who we truly are.
How can our readers further follow your work?