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 Mandy Gilbert, speaker, investor, author, founder, and chief executive of Creative Niche, a company that provides creative staffing and workforce management solutions to multinational corporations as well as major advertising, digital and public relations agencies. Mandy has been recognized as the United Nations Global Accelerator and completed the Entrepreneurial Masters Program at MIT. She is the author of Just Go With It, a book that shares insights on how to navigate the ups and down of entrepreneurship. Mandy is based in Toronto and the proud mom of two busy boys, Isaac and Sam.
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?
I started my career working as a top performing recruiter at an internationally recognized firm. With a lucrative six-figure salary, I was offered a prestigious promotion that would bring me an executive level. Instead of jumping for joy, I quit my job.
In 2002, I left to start my own firm, and called it Creative Niche. I wanted to create a company that did things differently, where culture was more important than the bottom line, philanthropy was a core value, and people took precedent.
Almost twenty year later, I’m proud to say that Creative Niche has been responsible for over 14,000 placements across North America, and donated millions of dollars in philanthropic efforts.
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?
In the beginning of my business, I was a twenty-something leader and thought that in order to be respected, I had to be liked. Now I know it’s actually the complete opposite! However, I remember thinking that since I’m the boss, I should be the last person to leave at all of our happy hours, holiday parties, and events. Today I think this is hilarious, because if anything, most employees just want you to pay the bill and leave! While I think it’s important to have a good relationship with your staff, you also shouldn’t strive to be everyone’s friend outside of the office.
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?
I’m grateful to Verne Harnish for creating the Entrepreneurs Organization (EO). Twenty years ago, entrepreneurship wasn’t as popular of a career choice as it is today. At the time, I was the only person who started their own business in my immediate circle, and while I had an amazing support group of friends and family, no one could relate or offer sound advice for issues I was dealing with. Entrepreneurship can definitely leave you feeling alone and isolated.
When I joined EO, things changed for me. I finally had people who had been through what I was experiencing, and could offer incredible insights on how to navigate the challenges of owning your own business. I’m grateful to Verne for creating a community that’s been incredibly valuable to me throughout my entrepreneurship and leadership journey.
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?
I always knew I wanted to do things differently. Recruitment and staffing are often treated impersonally. People were equated to resumes and dollar signs rather than talented individuals who want to make an impact. My vision was to build an agency that really took the time to learn more about our clients and people looking for meaningful work. I also wanted to make an impact by giving back to our community, both through donated services as well as funds.
Today, I strongly believe that our successful results are rooted in the relationships our company has thoughtfully nurtured, both with our talent roster as well as the award-winning agencies and internationally recognized brands we work with. I’m also proud to say that philanthropy is a large part of what we do and an important value we will continue to support.
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?
From the Dot Com Bubble Burst to the Great Recession, and now through Covid-19, I’ve navigated my team through a fair share of uncertain times. When the economy gets hit and businesses are affected, it directly affects my company, since we’re a staffing and recruitment firm. So when layoffs happen, companies go into a hiring freeze.
In the beginning of my entrepreneurship journey, the first reaction was to panic. Now that I’m a little older and wiser, I know to stay calm. With every challenge comes an opportunity. As a leader, I have to think proactively rather than reactively, and therefore ensure my staff do the same.
In fact, it’s during turbulent times that my team and I have come together to brainstorm how to diversify the business. Now Creative Niche is more than just recruitment. We also manage payroll services, as well as place contract and freelance positions in addition to executive talent.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m not going to lie, there were times when I fantasized about quitting. Whether it was during the 2008 recession, losing a key client or employee to a competitor, or just feeling completely burned out, I sometimes felt defeated. However, I knew in my gut that I could never give up. When you’ve built something from the ground up, there’s too much emotional equity in your business to ever turn your back on it. The blood, sweat, and tears it took to create something from nothing isn’t something you can just easily close the door on.
When things got really challenging, I knew it was my responsibility to keep moving forward. Not for me, but for my staff. You have to keep going for them. There is always an opportunity to tweak, improve, or change your business model. Look at challenges as opportunities rather than roadblocks. If something’s not working, make fast (but informed) decisions.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is making tough decisions. Not everyone’s going to understand why you’re choosing to do things a certain way, but this isn’t a time to get people’s approval. Being decisive is not easy. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult. From layoffs to cutting approved campaigns, executing these kinds of plans is hard but necessary to sustain the business. Just make sure you’re constantly communicating with your staff, shareholders, and anyone else involved in the company.
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?
When times are uncertain, leaders need to do 3 things:
- Focus your energy on what you can do, not what you can’t do
- Drive innovation as a core value
- Talk, listen, and learn from your employees
When you do these three things, you’re bound to boost morale because you’re including the team to tackle the challenge together, rather than trying to lead alone. You’re showing your staff that you want to be creative and you trust them to take on the initiative. People want to contribute and feel successful. They want to feel valuable to the company. Don’t be afraid or too proud to ask for help.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Two words: over communicate. When you’re making a hard decision that impacts your team and your customers, you have to communicate it in a way which is honest and clear. Everyone should step away knowing what your game plan is and how you plan to get through this period.
Always deliver news in person. If that’s not possible, then make sure it’s through a video platform. Avoid text, email, or a messaging software. It’s too easy to have your message misconstrued or misinterpreted.
When you’re going through turbulent times, your employees feel uncertain. That’s when rumors run wild and people begin to feel fearful. Make everyone feel informed by sharing the game plan, weekly updates, and the company’s current challenges.
Also, don’t deliver bad news when you’re in a bad place. Make sure you’re calm, collected, and have thought through exactly what you’re going to say. Practice it out loud a few times. Listen, bad news happens all the time. You’ll get through it — so reassure your staff they will, too.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is unpredictable, especially after a year like 2020, when many of us never saw what was to come. Needless to say, planning for 2021 remains uncertain. For many of us, planning to network at conferences, develop business overseas, or even just meet in person are far from guaranteed. So instead, plan for what you’re able to do internally and externally.
There’s actually a lot of things you can plan for, so focus on what’s in your control. Set sales projections that are realistic and reflective of the past few quarters and hold the same standard to your sales and marketing teams. While we all want to strive for a successful 2021, you don’t want to set your staff up for failure if the current climate isn’t indicative of their true capabilities.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle is transparency. I’ve said it earlier and I’ll say it again: over communicate. Be honest with your staff, your clients, your shareholders, and more importantly, yourself. Keep everyone in the loop and don’t sugar coat the facts out of fear or ego. If you keep them informed, then there will be no surprises when hard decisions have to be made.
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?
The first big mistake is denial. No one wants to admit when things are going wrong, but pretending everything is okay serves no one and is a surefire way to belly up your business.
The second is indecisiveness. We all know the dangers of making decisions too quickly, but I would argue that waiting too long to make a decision is even more harmful. For example, during the Great Recession, I waited way too long to do layoffs, even when I knew our revenues were dwindling. In the end it cost me a lot more money, because on top of the salaries I had to pay, once I did decide to let them go, I had to pay severance on top of it.
The third is going dark. When the going gets tough, leaders need to step up and speak up. That means transparency, full stop. Let yourself be vulnerable. Tell your team the truth. People know what’s going on, so don’t go dark or try and hide from reality. If you’re losing money, be upfront and honest from the get-go.
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?
When you know cashflow is going to be tight for the foreseeable future, you need to immediately adjust your spending — and do it fast. Salaries are the number one cost and investment for businesses, so if your top line is dropping, you’ll have to make some tough calls and reduce overhead costs as soon as possible. Yes, that means layoffs, salary cuts, or reduced hours.
Secure a line of credit when you don’t need it. Because trust me, when you really need that extra cushion, the bank is much less likely to give it to you. When times get tough, you’ll feel a lot less stress knowing you have some runway.
Next you want to focus on what you’re great at as a business and capitalize on that. For example, if you’re a creative agency whose web development services are the most profitable, focus your energy on developing business there instead of on other areas where you don’t have as strong of a portfolio.
And finally, diversify. Where can you introduce new business opportunities? Whether it’s new products, new services, or a new streamlined system, double down on what you’re successful at and see how you can parlay that into new relationships.
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.
- Reduce your costs. I mentioned this earlier, but I can’t stress this enough. Go through your credit card statements, invoices, and bank statements. Often we’re signed up for subscriptions or additional services that we’re not aware of. Twenty-dollars here and five-hundred there really adds up. Analyze where you’re spending and reduce it as much as possible.
- Triage your clients and services. While we’re all grateful for our clients, we can also agree that not all clients are the same. If your slow and low paying clients are taking up a large portion of your time, you need to address this accordingly. Maybe that means cutting ties with them, or perhaps getting someone more junior to work on the accounts. Score your clients on level of importance and see where you’re spending allocated hours and salaries.
- Speak up. Don’t leave important company announcements to your lower and mid level managers. As the CEO and person in charge, you need to take charge. All communication should come from you.
- Be accessible. Your door should always be open (literally and figuratively). Whether it’s the new employee or the executive team, everyone should be able to reach you with questions, concerns, or feedback. If you have several hundred employees and individual communication may be too difficult, I’d encourage you to ask them to submit their questions anonymously, and then answer them on a company-wide video conference call each week.
- Practice self care. I know how overwhelming it is to try and stay positive, find solutions, be there for your team, and make hard decisions. Sleep, exercise, and eating healthy may seem like the last things on your priority list, but you’re going to need your stamina. You won’t be able to lead well if you’re sleep-deprived, overworked, and undernourished.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You’ll be as successful as you can successfully delegate.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can connect with me on LinkedIn, learn more about Creative Niche, and check out my book, Just Go With It.