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 Margaux Fraise, owner and creative director of Harmony Creative Studio, an award-winning boutique wedding firm in Los Angeles, CA. Since moving from retail consulting to events in 2011, her goal has been to design weddings with intention, infusing celebrations with her signature organic and minimal style yet still tailored to each couple.
A Stage IV breast cancer survivor, she has a unique perspective on what is truly valuable in love, life and weddings — and brings that viewpoint to help her clients hone in on what matters to them. As a result, her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Style Me Pretty, Brides, and Green Wedding Shoes, among others.
Margaux serves as a wedding business educator, frequent podcast guest and motivational speaker. Her meticulous onboarding, planning, design and execution procedures have also caught the attention of her peers, and she shares insight regularly on efficient systems for creatives.
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?
Absolutely! I wasn’t always a wedding planner, my first career was as a retail consultant. I worked for a firm out of New York, and I was essentially a go-between for brands like Nike, Lucky Brand Jeans, and Ben Sherman who were getting their wholesale account pads designed by the firm that I worked for. Wholesale accounts meaning stores like Macy’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods — larger stores like that. Essentially when you go into a larger retailer like Macy’s, sometimes you will see different fixtures, different signage, etc. for brands like Nike and Lucky Brand; the company that I work for was designing and implementing all of that.
In 2008 when the recession first hit, it was a slow decline for that company and they started making a transition between creative which I really loved, to more of a focus on merchandising. Essentially this made me a manager of a small army of merchandisers who would go out and upkeep these pads that we had designed, and that was not what I had signed on for so I started looking elsewhere for career inspiration. The last account that I worked for that company was with Yahoo. Yahoo used to have physical stores filled with Yahoo branded products. But, you see, the only people that were interested in Yahoo branded products was the marketing and events department of Yahoo. I spent a lot of my time working there in tandem with their events department and I discovered that their job was a lot more fun than mine. Around the same time, a couple of my friends were getting married and it was then that I discovered my love of weddings and personal social events. Much more fun than corporate events in my opinion. So I came into weddings and events in kind of a roundabout fashion.
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?
Oh dear, so many lessons learned in those first couple of years! I think the funniest mistake that occurred was at my own wedding actually, a few years into my business. I have made this elaborate wine glass chandelier out of recycled wine glasses and I had given it to my husband‘s cousin to install. But instead of putting rubberized pads on the clamps, I had put furniture moving pads — the little fuzzy ones that don’t adhere to anything that allow you to slide furniture across the floor — and of course about an hour after installation that wine glass chandelier came crashing down on our sweetheart table. But it was a great lesson to learn, because ever since I’ve only allowed professionals like rental companies for florists to hang things, we don’t hang anything. It’s all about knowing your lane. By the way — no one was hurt, except my pride, and just a lot of broken wine glasses.
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 have to give all credit in the world to my husband, Chad. In the early days of my business he was there to lend a hand before I could afford to pay assistants, and during the course of Cancer treatments, I would not have been able to make it through without him. He was doing all the heavy lifting such as dealing with the insurance company, taking care of the house and our dog — to ensure I could just rest and get better. To give a specific example out of a hundred little things: People don’t realize how hard it is to get pain medication because of the opioid epidemic. Pharmacies aren’t allowed to tell you if they have any on hand, and sometimes they wouldn’t accept when the system said he could pick it up on my behalf — So there were times when he had to go to 5 or 6 pharmacies to get what I needed after a surgery, and I had over a dozen surgeries.
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 really wanted to change the discussion around weddings — to make it both more inclusive and less ‘traditional’. Expectations are heavy when it comes to weddings, and I wanted to help further the trend I was seeing of people really doing what they wanted for weddings, not what was expected or traditional.
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?
When I was diagnosed with cancer, it was a very difficult time for my business and my team. While I was lucky to only have four part-time employees, I understood that not having any work for them for an indefinite period of time — I was likely to lose all of them. And I did, save for one. While I had no work for them, I had the foresight to connect them with a few of my trusted planner peers to see if any of them could use valued team members. Several of them still work for these other planners. While they were upset about the situation and my diagnosis, they understood I had done all I could to try to take care of them during that period, even while going through something traumatic myself. Because of that, when I let the four of them know I was able to start up again and take on new clients, one of them was very happy to come back and help me rebuild. She is now my main assistant and has worked with me for over 8 years. The others help out at event days as their schedule allows.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
During treatment I gave up all the time. And then the next day I started again. It’s like that; you feel terrible and think things are never going to get better, and then the next day you feel differently.
Since I don’t have children as a motivator like some of the other breast cancer survivors I met — I really leaned into my business. For me it was very helpful to work on my systems, processes, tech, etc — so I had something to look forward to. There were definitely days that I just wanted to stay in bed and watch Netflix all day, and I did. But having something to work on, something to look forward to — getting back to my business — was very motivating for me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Being a leader during challenging times is like being a port in a storm. I was the calmest one in all those discussions about my business and cancer, because if I wasn’t I knew it would go downhill quickly.
It’s not pretending nothing is wrong — it’s having the strength to act while being open about how challenging things are. It’s about being honest when the truth is hard. Anyone can be honest when everything is great — it’s when things are hard that your team needs to know you’ll tell the hard truths, and also what your plan is to deal with them — good or bad.
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?
Again, I think it’s honesty. If I were to tell my team, everything’s fine, not to don’t worry for a month and then suddenly let them all go because really everything was terrible and uncertain, then that’s not honesty. I’m not suggesting you be all doom and gloom, but you can tell your team — especially now — that things are up in the air. Because frankly, no one knows right now and anyone who says different is lying. And liars are bad leaders in my opinion. So just giving your team honest and timely updates, including how you have hope that things will get better — can really make a difference.
Just as important is showing up for your team. You never want to discount the importance of showing up.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Calmly and frankly, whatever mode you choose. There’s really no other way to do it. Also, anticipating their reactions or follow up questions and working through some answers beforehand so you’re not caught completely off guard. No one likes to be told difficult news and then be told ‘I don’t know’ to every question they ask about that difficult news.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Here’s where the planner in me comes out! I am always anticipating the worst-case scenario for my events, and I’m doing that now with the pandemic. But while I’m anticipating, I’m planning for the best until it becomes clear that I have to go with plan B due to circumstance. Plan B of course is what I have in my back pocket because I’ve thought of all the worst-case scenarios. So don’t invite trouble, but be prepared for when it shows up.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Again, I think it has to be honesty. Note that doesn’t mean 100% transparency — not everyone has to know every little thing. But honesty has to be paramount.
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 biggest one is panic. Not taking a beat to figure something out and just reacting out of panic is the worst for businesses and leaders during turbulent or unsure times. The other mistakes I see are not communicating clearly and/or timely, again not being transparent when asked, and lastly not being available. I’ve heard of a lot of businesses going quiet during this time because they don’t know what to say. That just allows your clients to fill in the gaps and assume the worst, which is never a good idea. You have to control your own business’s narrative during difficult times — or someone else will do it for you.
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?
One of the big things is that I had the foresight two years ago to diversify my income streams. I started speaking, I became an online educator, and started selling online courses. And I’m doing the same thing now — I’m putting on a digital summit next year, and I founded another business here in LA with several other wedding planners that focuses on elopements. Look for opportunities. They might be full pivots; they might just be little tweaks you open some doors to new income. If all your eggs are in one basket — and in my case that basket is gatherings and you’re not allowed to gather — then it’s going to be difficult to recover. So work on diversifying, it’s never too late.
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.) Remain calm and keep your wits about you. It sounds old fashioned, but it has served me well especially in my line of work. I’ve had plenty of high-pressure moments in my wedding career and yet, the clients need you to stay calm if they want any chance of maintaining composure. I find that there will almost always be a solution to see you through and maintaining that mentality helps.
2.) Communicate clearly and honestly. There are so many moving parts in an event and oftentimes, you’re balancing the needs and requests of clients as well as the wedding day team simultaneously. Being clear upfront with your ideas and intentions keeps the day running smoothly.
3.) Don’t panic. Take a moment to figure it out before you communicate or move forward with a plan in haste.
I was actually speaking at a conference in Las Vegas the week the world turned for the pandemic. I was literally stepping on stage when they called a stay at home order for my hometown of Los Angeles. My first client of the year who was set to get married in 2 weeks called me in a panic trying to postpone her wedding while I was in my car driving home. I could have easily fed off her anxiety and made poor decisions, but I had the peace of mind to ask if she could give me an hour before she started calling her caterer and canceling things. In that hour I strategized over the phone with my assistant how we were going to do these postponements, because when talking to her about how things were in LA it was clear it wasn’t the only wedding we were going to have to postpone. Just that hour helped me get a handle on things, communicate to my team, and make something resembling a process, which in turn calmed the client and allowed me to handle her postponement when I got back into the office the next day.
4.) Show up for your team. I always strive to be the first one in the Zoom or at the workplace with an upbeat — but not false — sense of purpose. This has especially been essential this year, with so much in the industry influx. Your presence as a leader impacts those around you and that must be remembered in the best, and worst, of times.
5.) Look for opportunities. In difficult times it can be easy to put your head down and go to work, but looking for and being open to opportunities for your business can be a lifeline when things are not going well. As I noted, one of the best moves I could make as a business owner was to diversify revenue streams a few years ago and now, despite the downturn we’re facing in our industry, I’m doing it again by planning my first summit, slated for early 2021.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place with no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and be calm in your heart.” — Unknown
Really that sums it up — I’m all about remaining calm, no matter what!
How can our readers further follow your work?
I love to connect on Instagram — I’m @harmonycreative. Or they can also see my main business website at www.harmonycreativestudio.com