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 Michael Saulpaugh.
Michael is a Managing Partner at Montclair, NJ based Elegant Music Group. In addition to his 18 years in the events and entertainment industry, Michael has a professional background in creative advertising. His work has been featured in Adweek and touted by Buzzfeed as “hilariously clever.” Recognized for his unique and diverse skill sets and record of business growth strategies, Michael was selected to become a contributing member on the Forbes Business Council in 2020.
Thank you for joining us! 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?
Isuppose my story begins, as I’m sure most do not, with a childhood love of business cards. I would gather construction paper and mass produce my own for a business I didn’t have, utilizing the very best print materials Crayola had to offer. While neighborhood kids were out playing sports, I obsessed over getting my logo just perfect and the contact information appropriately aligned. Ha! In retrospect, it was brand-building that I was mesmerized by and fell in love with. I had my first genuine and legitimate business (a mobile DJ company) by age 12, and we were off to the races. I did not receive a formal education in business and am, in fact, a teacher by trade. Trial and error resulting in a series of successes and failures over the last 20 years formed my business acumen. My love of branding and marketing was the gateway that led to every business venture and endeavor I am a part of now.
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?
Let’s just say that understanding cash flow and structuring sustainable capital was not an early benchmark of success. 100% of what was coming in on a particular contract had about 143% going out on a teenage date night before it was even collected. I learned early what not to do. I’m leaps and bounds better, but even today, I’m not the numbers guy. The big-picture and creativity remain my strong suit. Luckily, I’m surrounded by good people: my partners, accounts, etc. that I can lean on.
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?
My mother was a relentless force for hard work and achievement in my life. She never allowed me to take the easy way out, and I owe my work ethic to her. In business, I would be nothing without my various partners. To truly excel, you can’t take on the world as a one-man operation. You have to align yourself with others who have strengths opposite your own.
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?
To provide the highest level of service and talent in event entertainment, we must create immersive experiences for our clients. Previous generations had left us an industry plagued by quasi-professional companies bolstering mediocre talent rosters to match. My focus was to bring top-tier talent back to the private events space and exceed our clients’ anticipated expectations. Whether it’s one of our Broadway musicians, office clerical staff, or event roadies, we demand their personal best at all times, to fulfill our company purpose.
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?
COVID-19 absolutely decimated the national and international events industry. My team was reeling, frightened, and unsure of what was to come next. And so was I. My partners and I did not profess to have all the answers, but we acted decisively and with conviction. We worked to address present issues and proactively sought solutions to potential problems in our forecast. We identified new opportunities to exploit and capitalize on in this new economic landscape. The key to leading our employees was through constant communication of the actions we were taking and the reasons we were taking them. It helped ease anxieties and grew our rapport with the team. On the few occasions we had to deliver upsetting news, they were ready. No one got caught off guard, and they knew the reasons behind what was happening. The consistent transparency awarded us a team that has since openly shared their gratitude for being in the loop, and continues to display an ability to self-motivate and produce, despite a horrible situation.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Outside of Little League baseball (I was a musician at heart and had a swing like Ruth…Bader Ginsberg.), I’ve never quit anything, so that was never an option or thought. However, there was one long and arduous day that was particularly disheartening and unrelenting. We had built partnerships with two separate companies — representing our considerable efforts and successes over the last two years — -and on the same day, they both furloughed or let go of nearly every employee we had worked so hard alongside of. In an instant, we lost everything. Professionally, it undid two years of work and foundation building in an afternoon. Personally, it was upsetting to see the people we had grown so close to being dealt a devastating blow, and knowing we had no recourse to fix it. To compound the misery, it took place in the midst of what turned out to be our worst sales week during the quarantine. It was a real gut punch. I don’t really know where the drive to sustain comes from, it’s just something I’m hardwired to do. You get up the next day and play the hand you’re dealt. Or better yet: figure out a way to become the dealer.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To hold one’s poise. Leaders need the ability amidst chaos or strife to remain calm and collected so they may step back, survey the playing field, and then act accordingly with conviction.
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 don’t think it’s an automatic assumption given that circumstance, that one would need to boost their teams’ morale. Good leaders have already built a team culture where uncertainty is met by nervous excitement to explore, innovate, and define, rather than collective dread in need of morale boosting. Giving your team tried-and-true consistent positive results produced over periods of ups and downs will be all the motivation they’ll need to rise to the challenge of uncertainty together. If you wait until a dark day presents itself and think “rah-rah, go team positivity” will motivate or boost morale, then the train has already left the station, and you’re standing on the platform.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Directly and truthfully. You can tailor how you deliver the message based on who you’re talking to, but at the end of the day don’t BS or sugarcoat. People may not like the information, but they’ll appreciate the honesty.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I’m a hedge-better, and it’s served me well. When planning for the future and introducing new processes or initiatives, I use my best judgment and intuition to anticipate what’s coming over the horizon, but build in logical and available off-ramps should I be wrong. For example, we recently invested heavily in developing a new custom database. Once completed, we’ll own the IP and plan to bring it to market as a subscription-based CRM platform for companies in the events world. Now, I think the market demand for this product will be there. But, if I’m wrong and we aren’t able to court suitors, my business will still be able to utilize a multi-faceted CRM/database built specifically for our unique workflow and designed to hot-shot scalability and growth-spurts. Follow your gut, but be sure to aim small, miss small.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes. Hire correctly. Ask yourself if you have the right people at each position. If the answer is yes, you’re ready to take on the ebbs and flows of business. If the answer is no, address that right now…like, immediately. Re-train, re-assign, or cut your losses and hit their eject button. Your people are everything, so make sure you’ve drafted the best team and are playing them in the right position.
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. Spending too much time, energy, and resources holding onto and hoarding what they have out of fear that they’ll never replace it, as opposed to focusing on new money, new opportunities, and the new growth they could be seizing.
2. An inability to pivot. Being too stuck in their ways or traditions to change course.
3. On the flip side: Pivoting too often, or changing horses mid-stream showing no discipline to stay the course.
4. Focusing on what’s easy and self-gratifying, instead of focusing on what may be more challenging to accomplish, but better for the business in the long run.
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?
You have to challenge yourself to audit your operation, cut unnecessary expenses, and repurposed those dollars into the things that give your business a massive ROI. For us, it’s digital marketing. Finding new profits means identifying and exploiting new lead sources atop your sales funnel. SEO, PPC, Email, PR — you name it, and we reinvested in it at the height of this horrid economy. Sure we were already doing it, but we doubled down and took a gamble that our competitors’ hoarding would leave more spoils for the taking — and we were right. We upped our budget and added strategies like SEO link building, top-down page optimizations, adding click-to-call mobile ads, revamped our email automation flows, introduced new creative into our social ads, etc. We even leveraged old video and audio content to turn into written blogs that would help push our page listing up for Google’s next indexing. Whatever granular changes we could make, we made them. Now a few months removed from these decisions and changes, I can report the gamble paid off. Our leads and sales are soaring in comparison to the hoarders. Bottom line: spend energy focusing on finding new money and sales, rather than stress about holding on to what you have.
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. Be Positively Proactive — Don’t wait for the turbulent times to start modeling the behavior and mindset you’ll want to see from your employees. When it hits the fan, your team WILL have a response and personality, and it will be a composition of your mindset and personality. Act now how you will want them to act then.
2. Be Bold — Perform every task and make every decision with stoic confidence — no matter how unsettled you are deep down. Leaders inspire and build buy-in through confidence.
3. Out Work & Outperform your competition, your neighbors — hell, even your own team. Leave no stone unturned. Roll your sleeves up and get to the work of being the hardest worker in the room. This will put you ahead of your competitors and set a high base-line standard for employees to aspire to.
4. Dance With Ones Who Brung’ Ya — Lean on your support system and inner team. Business partners, spouse, family — whoever that is for you. Utilize their strengths to balance your weaknesses and forge a path forward together. There is strength in numbers.
5. Find the Levity. Exploit the Levity. — Remember to laugh. We’re emotional beings, and this can be a lot easier said than done. I grew up in a household where no situation, no matter how dire or terminal it was, escaped the cold sting of a biting joke. I have since learned the rest of the world views that as odd. In any event, it’s a coping mechanism. Remember to blow off steam, or you’ll never be in the frame of mind to think clearly and do all of the things that an effective leader needs to do in times of turmoil.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Sir Paul McCartney said, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” However simple and common its message of ‘what you put in is what you’ll get out’ is, it’s had a profound impact on how I live my life and lead my business, and time and time again proves accurate.