Transcript from Glenn Engler: Lead with curiosity, heart and a sense of humor
To access the audio version of this episode with introduction and show notes, click here.
Introduction: Glenn Engler (@) is a Managing Director at Parthenon EY. Previously, he was the Global Chief Strategy Offer at Edelman, CEO at Digital Influence Group and President of Digitas Boston for nearly 10 years.
Fei Wu, Host: Thank you so much for joining me Glenn in your beautiful home. I had a complete, unexpected, a dream come true experience with all the kittens downstairs [Laughter]. I am so pumped. So thank you for joining me on the podcast.
We have met in 2012. You were the CEO of the company I was working for Digital Influence Group. Before that you were the President of Digitas for nearly 10 years and most recently at Edelman. What an unbelievable experience because when people print out my resume they say it is too long. Today after I printed out yours and realized you have so much you know beyond just work but there are so many organizations you are involved in and I wonder what gets you excited these days? What are your passion projects? What makes you happy?
Glenn Engler: Well bunch of different questions. So let me start with I guess what gets me excited. I think the world of marketing, business strategy, organizations, people talent, digital, social media is such a mashup of fascination and if you leave work on a Friday and you wake up on a Monday morning things have changed over the weekend whether it is you just go industry after industry after industry and technology after technology from wearables to who would have thought a few years ago you would be realizing that the best way to get around the city is by looking up your phone and calling up a connected set of drivers out there in this thing called Uber or you are taking a vacation and it is not hotels but you are looking at a B&B or what Amazon has done to the retail processes.
To me it is so interesting because if you think about all the changes that are going on from a business advisor to a CEO or their business there is questions about, “I have new competitors I have to think about and what is going on with how we build people and how we make our money?” If you think about the services industry how that has changed so dramatically. If you think about new skills that are needed.
Who would have thought that now if you look at probably the most valuable skills that are out there it is coding, engineering and analytics. You know the old math geeks from long ago are absolutely critical in absolutely everything we do. So it is just a constant pace of change that from an individual in the industry, advisor in the industry, whether it is an agency or a consultant firm it is something is changing all the time and I think the fact that it is not static is most exciting.
FW: Does it make you feel overwhelmed at all because I feel like when other people in or outside of advertising it is like, “I can’t keep up with this” but you always stayed relevant and we are going to talk about your writing as well. You write nearly on a weekly basis. So how do you kind of stay relevant? How do you get excited instead of feeling overwhelmed?
GE: It can be overwhelming. I think if you try to keep up with everything you clearly will fail. I remember talking to people about writing a blog and what you should write about and I think it is sort of how we have always looked at great talent like yourself coming into an agency you are looking for really interesting people that have a point of view, and that are curious. I love absolutely, absolutely, absolutely love the word curious. I think in today’s world given so much stuff that is out there curiosity is the most important skill to have.
So there are a bunch of things. I still love the newspapers, the printed form but I read key ones electronically. There are some interesting quotes. There is a daily email I actually love. It is a, they are just moving to mobile. They have just announced that but it is silly to think of as, “Gee an email is something to think of as a must read” but it is a must read and there are little snippets of 15 – 20 headlines and I found myself I will do a quick scan. We long ago talked about when we were together about snackable content. What is the quick snackable headline? Then you turn the corner and say, “That is interesting. I am going to dive in further or I have got enough to wet the appetite a little bit.” So I try to go as much a mile wide and an inch deep and then dive in to someone said there is some aquatic animal dolphin that goes along and then dives deep.
There are certain topics that excite me and I will dive really deep in and part of it is you don’t let the headline grab you and that first paragraph grab you but I think again given the whole landscape I try to go as wide as possible. I subscribe to a bunch of things I will fly through on airplanes – Ink Magazine, Fast Company and Business Week, Harvard Business Review and Advertising Age and Automotive News and I will take 5 or 6 of the magazines and fly through and scan it and to me that is the way to keep the juices flowing and try to get as broad as possible because it is so changing all the time.
FW: When I recently interviewed Srini Rao from Unmistakable Creative he said that there is a misconception that successful people are leading chaotic lives but in reality that is rarely true. People like yourself are very, you are conditioned for success because you figure out when you are deeply rooted habits so it sounds like even though you know it sounds like there is a lot of information but you find a way to really consume it very effectively and how to filter. I am so curious about your sort of daily routine. When do you wake up? What do you read? What kind of coffee do you drink?
GE: So I was smiling. It is Podcast and so you can’t see it. But the concept of routine and habits I was fortunate my parents are both still alive and doing great and very successful in their own ways and we all have a very focused probably not right to say compulsive but I am a little compulsive and you know organizational skills are key. I am pretty neurotic about a couple of things as you probably remember from Digital Influence Group like being on time, not having typos, and a couple of those things. I get up early. I usually wake up depending on where I am and I obviously travel quite a lot but somewhere between 5 and 5.30 and I workout. I am obsessed with the P90X like insanity. [Laughter] I love it and I have been doing it for about 3 years thanks to a former Digitas colleague and I absolutely love it. I will do it on the road. I will do it 7 days a week.
FW: Wow, wait a minute. [Laughter] This is great. So you wake up at 5 – 5.30. The first thing you hit is working out.
GE: I work out. I do P90X. When I am home I have a little place upstairs. I will go and do a little 12 minute warm-up and then there are 30 minute routines. Yeah that is the first thing I do. When I am on the road I will do it in the hotel room. You know there are a bunch of different, they are beautiful. There are videos on my laptop. I take it with me. I am obsessed by it.
FW: You should be.
GE: I am maniacally obsessed. I love it.
FW: I mean you should be their spokesperson because a lot of their models are really fake and people will have no doubts I mean no I mean endeavors of any sort and they are just working out but there you are.
GE: There is actually a pretty wide network of folks who are completely into it across all walks of life and for me once I was past a particular age I was I was always working out and I have been fortunate to be healthy and fit enough I have never been too heavy but I didn’t feel great even when I worked out in the gym or on an elliptical. I always felt a little like I was pedaling in place. Then I got into P90X and I absolutely love it. So that starts my day. So I will do that. I am a big breakfast person. [Laughter] I just love breakfast. It is the favorite meal of the day.
FW: What do you have?
GE: I am a cereal person. Occasionally I will do eggs when I am on the road. I am boring you will also find out. I am not that exciting. It is pretty typical routine. I will have cereal. I am an absolute Starbucks junkie. I always not whacky drinks but straight somewhere mild or bold coffee absolutely every single day religiously. I am a big fan of Starbucks. If you have read some of the stuff that I have posted not just because I love the coffee but everything about the brand and them as a marketing machine they are unbelievable - One of the best in social media. One of the best in brand marketing. One of the best in loyalty programs. They are the leaders in local commerce.
I always prefer to get in again depending on where I am in the world traveling-wise but start cranking right after breakfast early. I am a morning person. I am not a late night person. I crank through the day travelling wherever I am. You know different stage of life now with being an empty nester but when the kids were younger and home and this was beaten into me a little bit, pressed upon me by my dad. He was a very successful executive in the business world but he was always home for dinner when he wasn’t travelling. So it is something that we as a family have been fortunate to be focused on which is when I was not out of town I always try to be home for dinner with the kids.
Just the time that we would laugh and as the kid get older, no phones, no texting but family time and it was fortunate and just met my wife downstairs when I need to catch her and till to this day I feel strongly about getting home, having dinner, family time when I am in town and then I will collapse sometime between I don’t know 10.30 – 11 o’clock. The next day will start all over again. I don’t get up at 5 on the weekends but I do get up and workout first thing on the weekends as well.
FW: Do you meditate at all I mean any forms of mediation?
GE: I don’t. One of the things though that I like about P90X and the similar to the insanity is that they are a different workout programs that go from you know weights to cardio and then they alternate Pilates and yoga and then stretching throughout the course of the week. I wouldn’t say it is meditating but I love the peacefulness of both yoga and Pilates. They are part workouts but.
FW: Yeah in itself I think I remember there is yoga and Pilate infused into P90X and that is definitely that is part of meditation.
GE: Yep, I am a big fan of it.
FW: Yeah me too. I am going to try it again. I had a trial and it is really I mean very difficult, very challenging. You work so much with your body instead of looking of the right equipment or right fit so.
GE: I wish I knew about it 30 years ago when I was trying to play sports and other stuff because I feel more fit and certainly more flexible and limber than ever before. I suppose that helps in the daily life. I love it.
FW: Have you gone through like dozens of their CDs, DVDs because they have a whole collection?
GE: I am on their 3rd season now and I am pretty obsessed on that one and I love it mentally, physically.
FW: I have to try this now [Laughter]. So I think family has been a theme since the beginning of our chat and that is as you know I am originally from Beijing and family is such a big deal. It is everything and I have you know since traveling to America since I was 16 years old one thing that made me so happy is the fact that family remains to be very important regardless of how busy everybody gets because what people don’t know what the Asian culture is once you start working and kids are in school we have all excuses to not come home for dinner but to go to business meetings and people thrive on these things or excuses. So could you tell me little bit about your childhood, where you grew up, what your family dynamics like?
GE: You know it is almost quantity because as I compare with other folks we are incredibly fortunate and knock on wood it was a happy, healthy. My parents are married still and they are in their 60s something year of marriage. I am not allowed to tell my mom’s age because she would be offended but happily married. She is a professional violinist and still teaches. My father was a business executive who ‘retired’. He was up until this year he stopped playing competitive squash but was nationally ranked in the over 75 in squash. You know they set a great tone. I have two older brothers. So we joke, I am the youngest of three and have a little bit of the younger brother syndrome. We always joke about being the 3 Stooges. I am very close with my two brothers.
So it was the 5 of us growing up. My parents set the tone. You know I think it was a happy, healthy childhood and you know my mom was home with us when we were younger and then as we grew up got back into the violin and my dad would go off to work and he I knew he had a ridiculously stressful job but there were couple of things that when he would come home and go through the door he magically had the ability to leave his work at his office. This was before emails, cell phones and texts and other stuff that keep us always on but he turned it off and had a phenomenal sense of humor and that stuck with me and that is something that I can speak for my two brothers that is something that the three of us took to our families.
So family has been you know deeply embedded and I was what 25 when I met Kim. I was 24 when we met and got married when I was 25. We are coming up on our 30th year of marriage which is unfortunately too unique out there but we are very fortunate. She is great and we both keep each other in place and laughing at ourselves and have a great time together and two great kids. I absolutely cannot complain at all.
Family is hugely important it is something that I think some of my best bosses and mentors over the years always made family a hugely important part and it is certainly something I tried to do at Digitas and Digital Influence Group with teams was to make sure that people realize that you know, “Go take care of the family. Go do stuff that is hugely important because you know work is fine, important but really not compared to everything else.” I just think that is hugely important everywhere and I think we are seeing it with where people decide where they want to work. They want to work in a fun, engaging place but also have a life and have it feel like that is valued and not, “Gee, this is hard work for me to want to have dinner with my family.”
FW: Did you grow up in Massachusetts by chance?
GE: I did. Actually oddly enough grew up in the town that I live in. I did not think we would ever come back here. [Laughter] My wife is from north of the city here and we met and lived in Wakefield for number of years and then actually moved back here for the schools, sort of full circle. You hate to admit that, “Sorry mom if you are listening.” but you hate to make your parents right. They moved here for the schools and we moved back for the schools. So we are very fortunate that one set of grandparents live right around the corner and the other one is 25 minutes away which is really great for the kids as they were growing up.
FW: Yeah so that they don’t feel like they lost touch with them.
GE: Right. That was nice. We were very fortunate.
FW: Yeah. Before we get to the business world and I feel like you are so you are definitely you know in the primary sought leadership and have really influenced me in many ways but I am just very curious if you were to look back to when you were about 10 years old. So not a baby 10 years old and what are some of the things that you felt passionate about? What are some of the events you still remember?
GE: 10, well that means that I was about to get into the really awkward middle school goofy years. [Laughter] That was some tough times and memories back then. [Laughter] You know there was a lot going on in the world. I won’t date myself but back during the Vietnam time and I was the youngest of three brothers so following their footsteps. They were both ridiculously successful. I always had a few really good friends and I think there was you know this was when I was absolutely doing the getting heavily into music and theater and trying to be good at sports which I was not incredibly successful at it. I used to play tennis.
It was just sort of a fun, carefree age I think growing up in a family of brothers who were completely obsessed by all things Boston sports. That was the year that the Bruins won the Stanley Cup and I remember the picture of Bobby Orr. I had that poster up on the wall and sort of started my love affair of all things Boston sports and how spoilt we had been in the Boston area with their sports teams.
FW: He was signing a, he was giving out autographs at New England Book Fair and I was, it is so interesting that General Manager from the [Inaudible 00:18:28] was so obsessed with him as well and I was going to like buy his book and I had got all planned out and it was like 3 miles of people.
GE: Yeah he is an icon. He was beloved, beloved and changed the sports and the folks in Boston loved him. So that was me at 10.
FW: It is so powerful because somebody, I think James Altucher threw a question out and said, ’When you look back to when you were 10 years old that really shaped into some of your passions, your dreams today and how not necessarily what you do day in and day out but sort of I the background and what your passion projects maybe outside of what you do ‘Professionally’” because I feel like that line for you it is really blurring now. I saw Horizons for Homeless Children and so we will get there.
So let us talk about your professional work. I got to know so much about you. We worked on a project together briefly on a new business pitch. I was the producer and I loved the fact that you appreciated the notes, the next steps, decisions we made and because it was a very young company in the field with people in their early 20s they were like, “You are such a nerd. Why are you doing these things?” but you knew exactly why I was doing those things.
You know this morning I was thinking people said to me, “One of the reasons that Fei you will never be powerful is because you always have your heart.” I was thinking, “Wow that is interesting.” But then I thought about you, you know every time since I left DIG every time I wrote you a message you have always responded and not to mention that you continued to introduce me to new opportunities and I realized that you are someone who have your heart and have your power.
That is why I am really interested on how you think about that and how I mean it is so tough to be the President, to be a C level person something like honestly can’t quite imagine myself doing at all. I don’t do well when people complain to me or I have right in these certain tough situations. How do you do all that all these years?
GE: Very kind words thank you. Don’t sell yourself short by the way. I think sometimes people think of the word leader as the person who is the most outspoken and the loudest and getting attention which I think through the years is not always true and in fact all too often it is in fact the complete opposite. I think people lead in so many different ways and you know I remember the new business pitch.
My experience with producers and project management folks is some of the best leaders in the place because they tend to remove emotion from decision making and get focused on the facts. In our world of you know in the case of digital and social media and building websites and stuff you can get caught up in what a particular client wants and opinions and what creative things and a variety of parts and you need that sort of rock solid leader to sit there and go, “That is nice. We have 7 days to do this and it looks like we are going to need 14 if it doesn’t work.”
I think to me that is why I have always valued the compulsive organized side to help complement creativity and they have to go hand in hand otherwise it is this wonderful adventure of chaos that doesn’t get anywhere at the end of the day hard to phrase but we still need to build the website, launch it and make sure it is QC’ed and QA’ed, make sure it works and kind of this and that and that is why it is the blend of talent.
So with that to me I think the reason that I have loved being in consulting, the reason I have loved being in the agency world is it is people business and the back to the curiosity side I love people that are passionate, focused and want to work as a team. That to me in the agency world keeps me young to your point leading Digital Influence Group with whatever 25, 30, 40, 50 people at one point the average age under the age of 30 was energizing.
I had the fortune of leading big teams at Digitas with about 900 people across 3 offices. There is some great stuff about that and there are some challenges. And leading a small team there is some great stuff about it and there are some challenges. But the common themes are really good people who have fun working together, they work hard together and I think realizing everybody is bringing different strengths to the table and trying to create an environment, a culture that not only accepts it but embraces it that is why I am in this thing.
We are not creating a you know it is not a new hardware assembly of the new sheet rock fastener where it is automated. You crank it. You pull the lever and it is done. It is not. We are creating something unique each time. It is brains, it is data and it is creativity and it is whacky ideas. It is clearly the best stuff and it is not driven by hierarchy or titles at all. It is driven by you know - Can put the right people in a room? Can you feel some energy, unlock the creativity and then figure out how you romance it and tell it and get a client excited about it and prove it works. That to me crosses backgrounds, cultures, ethnicity, age, experience. I think for us as leaders we need to make sure that we are creating an environment that allows that to flourish otherwise the good people are going to leave. You are not going to like it. It is actually painfully simple in this business.
FW: Did it surprise you that I just found out that you are the youngest out of three boys and you have your parents. So everybody in the family was older than you and all of them were very successful, very powerful. Did it surprise you that you will then later on become the C level, the president of all these you know medium, small, medium and large companies? Was it, did it feel real? I mean.
GE: Look I was really fortunate to work with some phenomenal people.
There was one post that I did where I wrote about the 5 people who inspired me and started with my dad and one really on it was the managing partner David Morrison at CDI the consulting firm that I worked at long ago it is a Bain spin off and he was just an unbelievable leader and sort of need to say, “Oh I learnt that from him and that from her along the way.”
I was really fortunate at Digitas to work with David Kenny who was the CEO at Digitas and ended up being promoted in and more senior at Publicis Groupe, left to go to be President of Akamai, was the CEO of The Weather Company and actually just on Friday IBM completed the deal with The Weather Company and David got named to be the General Manager globally of the Watson Business which is unbelievably cool, huge business.
Each of those people left little imprints on me that are stuck with me. David is one of those I clearly not only one of the brilliant but ridiculously busy people and always, always, always has time for me. Your point of connecting that was beaten into me that he is somewhere around the globe and he will respond in a text or email and he always has time. When I was trying to figure out a next gig he would always make time and sort of it left the message about you know he says he will make time because I was great to him and we were great together but he didn’t have to. But he cared and we had a personal connection as opposed to just a business connection. That absolutely stuck with me over the years.
So I was fortunate to work with and for some great people and I think as we grow as individuals you try take the best you see, “Oh I loved working for that person” and “Gee, I didn’t really like working for that person. That person really annoyed me.” I think we try to learn to, “I want to mimic that and make sure I avoid this.” That is how we grow as individuals and leaders.
FW: That makes so much sense because when I was in my especially all the way through my 20s and I am in my 30s now I always look at leaders and people who are very successful, very happy, have good relationship with their family, their families still want to see them and I constantly have said to myself, “Oh I want to be like him or her when I grow up.” You know as a metaphor.
You know going back to just being powerful was very recently I was in Women’s leadership meeting just internally at Arnold’s and it was all girls and then there are a lot of females in leadership positions at Arnold, Pam and Barb, __ and Alison they all lined up there and I remember this one like little Asian girl she must be like 21 she raised her hand and said, “Pam I have a question for you. I just want to say that I want your job. I really I would love to be the President”.
I started chuckling and I had a question ready and I said, “Pam, I just want to make it very clear. I don’t want your job.” My question was this and there was almost silence and you know sometimes when they say they don’t want to be the CEO or the President it turns certain people off but also now I am telling the truth but what I also know is there are so many things that people don’t even know that as a leader of an organization how to deal with because when I talk to people they almost think it is like you know throwing coins on a rainbow, you know they take home a pay cheque, there is nothing to worry about.
There is a lot to worry about. I mean I see through the corners of people’s eyes and thinking, “I can be the CEO of Fei’s World I think. I have no problem doing that.” But what are some of the behind the scenes and you know challenges, and frictions and maybe some of the things that people don’t know and when you are in that position you are able to find your peace and find your balance and be successful?
GE: Look if you are running a business especially in the agency world or consulting world you have a bunch of pressures – You have pressures with shareholders whether it is public or you know a board of some sort or funders. You have pressure with the clients because you kind of need the clients otherwise you are not in the business. You have pressures around the team.
All three are important and as a CEO all three constituents are critically important and they pop at different times and they are handled differently and sometimes they are aligned and mostly they are not aligned. You know if you have shareholders that are looking to flip the business to make a profit they focus you on short term growth. If you have focus on short term growth you don’t tend to make decisions around investing in the long term or hiring ahead of the curve you try to balance that.
If your clients are completely maniacally obsessed on the variety of the work they are the pulse of the business but actually the pulse of the business is the talent and it is trying to figure out that mix of what is right for the business, what is right for the clients, what is right for the people.
So perfect example is, you got a really good person who is working on your biggest account and it is the most profitable account and they have been doing it for two years and guess what they probably want to change but the client doesn’t want to lose them but the person kind of wants to do something else. The economics of the business say, “Oh my gosh don’t do that.”
But as a leadership team you know that if you do it the normal thing that is going to happen is the person is going to leave. It is up to you to figure out, “How do I do it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the business? How do I have conversation with the client? How do I put somebody in place that they go, “Oh my God, I can get rid of Sally because I have got Fei. I am okay with that and it is the right thing for Sally and by the way it is the right opportunity for Fei and we are not going to lose the business.”
So I think it is those kinds of things you are going to have to factor in everything and it is a people business and people are mostly great, sometimes they are not, sometimes for good reason, sometimes it is for not good reason and you have to figure out and you have got people working for you. You have been in your own situation and you have to figure out what is going on. Is there something really bad going on in their life by the way that has got them ‘cranky’?
I had a former boss who said, “Assume positive intent” which is such a great phrase because especially think about an email and how people start to go, “Oh, they must be devious and they are trying to do something more.” Maybe they didn’t mean that. Take a deep breath before you reply to all of them [Laughter] and respond. But you know maybe someone is saying. It happens all the time around.
Every time there is a promotion and you celebrate somebody, somebody is not going to be happy. How do you balance that? I think the world of transparency requires better and better communications. You mentioned the 21 year old. I wasn’t brought up this way but folks under the age of 30 share salary. Everybody knows what everybody makes. Whether you want to tell them it is private or not you are giving out a bonus everybody knows. You can either try to duck your head and hide it or you can be a little bit clearer about how people are being measured. The more you are open the more it is about, “Look we care about what you are doing for the client, what you are running internally. I can guide you.” Have that conversation. You are not going to please everybody.
I think having been at a place long ago where leaders try to placate everybody it was a bit of a least common denominator you know Vanilla and you have to pick. You can’t please everybody. You can’t do everything. What are the three things that are going to be most important? How do you make sure you are clear and transparent and open? I have had many mistakes over the years where I look back and go, “Should I have handled that differently?” At times we are like, “Yep, I nailed that”. I think that is life in the business is to pick the spots, go forward and just try to be open, have really good people, hire great people, enable them, let them go work where it make sense, let them go, guide them where it doesn’t make sense and you know hopefully you will succeed.
FW: Recently I learnt that the word with the phrase ‘rescue yourself’ is something that I learnt is to not to be looking back even especially in the current moment. I criticize myself constantly depending on the guests I am interviewing. Actually there is one time where the chemistry wasn’t working and I was just insanely like, “Ah, how do I turn this around? This guest is really intelligent.” He is amazing and I just couldn’t put two words together and I realized what I learnt through podcasting is to rescue myself and not give myself up because that is so easy to do. I love that example.
GE: It is a great phrase. You know I think I have always felt the way when I have been on panels with folks, when I have moderated a panel I try to understand the panel and interestingly exactly what you did. Last I checked people are humans and there is a business topic subject but if you think about the panels that you have loved you probably loved them because the people are interesting and they have had fun together and I think you feel it. The audience feels it. So I try to do it if I am giving a presentation or moderating a panel or interviewing someone - You learn about them. You figure out what makes them tick. This is where the web and social media is fantastic. I remember when I took over this one client the client was deemed just she was evil, she was brutal, she was hard and I remember walking into her office and seeing a big poster of cats and you have met my wife and she runs a cat shelter and guess what we started talking about cats and all of a sudden ‘Boom’.
It is human and it is connections. I think a lot of times people focus and I think I tried to bring it in the Digital Influence Group but we have it at Digitas. We are looking at business wins and when we win and when we lose and it came down that we are really good at the rational part, the answer, we were not as good on the emotional part with the clients and the political part – What makes them tick? How are they being judged? What is their key matrix?
So I think that in business, in team oriented thinking about not just the right answer but all the other aspects it is a people business and it is really important.
FW: This triggered a thought from way back got to be 2008 that we were, a team of us were working for a very difficult client and this gentleman in particular had no connection probably he said two words to us altogether and he was kind of grim and then somehow some way we found out that his youngest son was extremely sick and he was going through surgeries and very difficult times.
All of a sudden we just felt, “Forget about business for a second. We just want to do something.” So I picked an answer and said, “I had a cousin who is 3 years old.” My cousin was probably 10 by that time. “You know what, what does a little boy want for Christmas?” It was Christmas time. I just saw his whole face got relaxed. Then he said, “My son, the younger one 3 years old and he wants to be a firefighter. That is his dream.” So all of a sudden the entire team went out to Toys R Us and bought like the biggest fire truck. It was amazing and ever since then the conversation turned around. Not that the truck cost more than like $19 but all of a sudden we were human again. So we started to not only rescue ourselves but also each other.
Speaking of rescue and just helping other people. I was surprised to find out that you are board for Horizons for Homeless Children. What is your role there? What have you done like for this amazing organization?
GE: Yeah thanks for asking. It is an amazing organization. So this started shortly after I was named President of Digitas and got a cross section of folks together and really trying to understand again what people cared about and one of the things that became very apparent and is more pressing now than ever before was the employees especially, I hate to use the word ‘Younger Talent’ but the younger talent pushing hard for what are we doing for the community and what are we doing as a brand?
One of the, so we got a group of folks together to talk about what could we do. One of the people on the team, Jen Putnam who is now the Executive Creative Director at Allen & Gerritsen was involved volunteering and helping out this organization Horizons for Homeless Children and thought that there was an opportunity for folks, few folks at Digitas to help.
I was very interested and we actually painted, her team designed it and we painted a mural. It was about 8 feet high and 60 feet wide on a playground. Actually my two kids and wife went and we did a bunch of volunteering and painted it and it was just so fantastic.
I got introduced to the some of the staff and couple of the board members and realized that the board was made up of a lot of people who had finance background and were wonderfully supportive donors and or had some law background which happens a lot in non-profit boards. But they didn’t really have people enough that had more of a marketing background and they asked, “Would you be interested you know using your brains a little bit?”
The timing was great and so I ended up being interviewed. I had to go through the interviewing process and got elected to the board and was one of the several, it is an amazing board. It is about I don’t know 30 people on the board and it continues to be incredibly well run. Then over the years I have worked my way up now. So I now Co-lead the marketing and development sub-committee of the board and I am part of the executive committee.
Horizons for Homeless Children are quite shut out. It is focused on Massachusetts. It is maniacally focused on trying to break the cycle of childhood homelessness that has statistics which are pretty hard to pin down exactly. [Inaudible 00:39:36] estimates 1.3 million homeless children in the United States. It is about 110,000 in Massachusetts. The average age of a homeless person in Massachusetts is 8. Homeless children are like somewhere between 3 to 4 times more likely to be held back a year. Childhood homelessness has increased about 67% in last 5 years. So it is a real problem if you think about.
And again homelessness for kids is not on the streets necessarily. It is couch surfing, it is in hotels, in shelters, and it is staying in a friend’s house. Horizon for Homeless Children has a two prong model. There are three community centers that touch somewhere between 150 and 200 children at a time. Think of it as kindergarten, 6 months old to 6 years old to allow what is usually a single parent more often than not a single mom or could be a guardian to go and either get a degree or look for a job because there is this that they don’t have the time or place to put up with the kids, they can’t afford child care therefore they are not doing it and you have this brutal homelessness. Then they also have volunteers that are in about 90% of all the shelters in Massachusetts that accept children.
It is phenomenal. It has been around for 25 years. The board is great. The organization is amazing. When you sort of step back and think about kids, homelessness, Massachusetts it is one of those causes where you go, “It is just not right. It is now okay that we have that problem.” So I am fortunate to be able to you know try to help with some marketing and business skills and fund raising skills. It has been one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done in my life. It has been amazing. I couldn’t push people more to get involved with a non-profit board. It is fantastic.
FW: Can I just mention briefly that as of last week I was nominated to be working as a young board member at the Friends of Boston Homeless.
GE: Oh good for you. Fantastic.
FW: I was so excited. I was aplomb showing up at the board meeting.
GE: Great. You know the other thing that you will find because I found not only is it rewarding intellectually and emotionally but selfishly from a pure business point the people involved, I mean Boston is a pretty small city and the board members that are involved are movers and shakers in the city and so for me I have got connections to people that you know I may or may not have had ever been able to meet. We are not in the same business circles for example but unbelievably generous people connected in a variety of places and that part of the, I mean that part has been a lucky strike extra reward for growth but to be around these people, watch how they work and think and then feel like you are actually contributing to a cause is great. There are tons of great causes and people should donate whatever they can. I always push for people to, “Pick something you are passionate about.”
FW: I never thought about that. Just last week when we had the meeting I realized. I was at the table with just 10 people and other than the gentleman, Matt Lindley who referred me everybody else had a different profession, drastically different - A family business, two doctors, one an at-home writer whose husband is in medicine and it just it is almost there is a pair who are doing with me marital art Taekwondo for the past 15 years. Everybody is different.
I think it is in a way that it really helps me kind of break away from purely advertising and marketing. Think along that terms and think differently but still use those skills to actually benefit these non-profit organizations, very powerful. I have to ask about parenthood. I have been absolutely fascinated and you have a great relationship with your kids and I see them on your Facebook all the time and they are very successful both of them. What are some of the lessons learnt as a parent being in your position? Just all the things we talked about volunteering opportunities and what is it like for you?
GE: So I shout out to my wife who was a hugely successful headhunter recruiter and gave up if that is the right phrase and decided that the best thing for the kids would be to stay home with the kids. So for me traveling and doing everything that I did Kim was just unbelievable in what she did and it was such a luxury. She thrived. She was phenomenal. You know kids go through all sorts of things – physical, mental, a variety of things and Kim was the rock. So I was incredibly fortunate. That means that I had you know she clearly was the main provider of the kids and I was fortunate in some respects.
Kim and I have a fantastic relationship and great communication. There is that word again. Because I needed to be reinforcing as opposed to, “Hey let me come flying in and give my opinion that has completely undermined a week of things what Kim had done with the kids while I am travelling.” But we have been fortunate. The kids were great. We keep them safe, healthy, thriving and be themselves.
Actually I understand I have mentioned this earlier but I was very involved in music and theater when I was growing up and both of my kids they have gotten involved in music and theater. One of the best things for me was when they got to middle school and high school I would volunteer every Saturday to help with theater. We would build sets and I was handy enough to be dangerous but it was something that bonded with the kids. So with Alex as he went through high school and then Kate when she followed four years later into high school so for 8 years I was there on Saturdays with them and being able to volunteer around the theater company. It was great. I got to meet their friends that way and it was something that was near and dear to me and I loved it.
So we have been fortunately in great relationship and stayed close even as they were growing up and into their own lives right now. Knock on wood but things are great and I start that again back to my parents and the tone that they set and passed down and that is something that Kim and I believe in. I feel very strongly about that.
FW: What are the things or lessons that you will leave with your children that is not, you know I ask executives this question something that is not money, not wealth? What would be important for them to know and remember?
GE: Oh boy you probably should ask them what is left. I would like to think that they feel strongly about trustworthiness and you know being human, compassionate and certainly being organized. They are both ridiculously organized which is I think it has served them well.
I think the other thing that is important and I have certainly tried to carry that through everything is just putting stuff in perspective and having a sense of humor. Again back to my two older brothers and being 3 Stooges humor is really important to me I think. Hopefully you felt that at Digital Influence Group we would have fun and whether it was silly events or whether it was the clammy awards or ping pong table or getting together and getting some food I think that is really important to put things in perspective especially now with everything going on in the world there is great stuff and you can get you know when you are really down with all of the craziness and scary stuff going on and I think a little sense of humor is important all the way through and I am a big fan of that.
FW: I can assure you when I was working at Digital Influence group I would just wake up in the morning seriously and thinking like, “I am so thrilled I am going to work.” I honestly can’t say that of the other jobs but I felt that way. I felt like I am going to work with my friends, with my family. You know people thought I was pretty cool. When the kids look at, I was in my late 20s but
GE: You were very cool. Are you kidding? [Inaudible 00:47:55]
FW: That was so funny that it always came up and even one of the clients said, “You better get your next steps done or else Fei is going to.” It was so funny. Wow is there anything that I haven't touched upon that is at the tip of your tongue?
GE: The only thing I would say and it is actually top of mind to me because I went to Tufts University and have gone back and guest lectured in just in December I think or end of November. There was a senior career day and I was fortunate they asked me to come and give the keynote and it was really fun because I do love the and people are so smart and so curious, and so creative at so much a younger age than I was.
Actually the theme of the talk was ‘Why you are better now? Why it is a better time to join the working population than it was for me?’ I do think that you know social media is fantastic. It obviously can be evil and with kids I am glad I don’t have teenagers going through social media because it is really hard and there is some awful stuff that is out there but the access to information, the power of a mobile device or ability to.
You know who would have thought you and I joined the workforce of course you did your time, you worked at a place 3 to 5 years, you get promoted with heads down and it would be fine and if you wanted to find another job but it was a little bit tricky. Now there are ratings about the company, you can share your points of view, you have more information at your fingertips than ever before and the amount of data that is out there for you to be a marketer or a business person. There is more power in your Samsung phone right now than there was in the first space shuttle by the way. That was a fun little fact that is out there.
It is an amazing, amazing time to join the workforce. I think people need to appreciate that. My guidance to the people coming out was that there are a lot of smart people and you have to do well in school and that is critically important but I think in our profession, business again I can’t say doctor or lawyer type of grad school but we care about how we think.
I always try to find out about how people think and then what makes you tick and you know coming full circle about people I think people can pigeon hole folks know that you are going to be a, you are a producer. Well guess what when I know that Fei is an expert in martial arts and loves travel a lot and loves cuisine, you become a person and I think that is something hugely important.
Again in our world which is to not just pigeon hole people look based on the title and what they and what they do but realize that their different experiences are what brings again the best ideas and the other thing you want people to wake up and love the concept of coming to work and I think that is our role as leaders is to create that type of environment.
FW: Wow I am so glad that you brought that up because I incorporate Fei’s World and one of the things in addition to working with businesses and people and the third category is students because I also personally felt really I just feel energized whenever I go to commonwealth schools and just teach them about project management, production. The students I recently helped are now freshmen sophomore in college. When they were in high school I helped them with the project I guess as an advisor and I didn’t think that they were going to win but they went all the way through to MIT and they sent me a picture three months ago of them standing next to President Obama. I was like, “Oh my God.”
GE: It was all because of you. That is very rewarding. It is very energizing.
FW: Yeah and they were such smart. I mean they were really smart to begin with but to just be a part of that journey and I interviewed them on my podcast as well. It is so wonderful. Can I steal that presentation that you have at the top so that I can provide a little [Inaudible 00:51:59]?
GE: I will absolutely share that with you.
FW: Thank you so much. I love this. It is like my own emotions. It is so interesting how like the difference between female and male podcasters. Most ones are like, “Okay, next question. That is great, okay. Thanks for joining.” They just tend to be like, “Can you just be like act fake, like how cool you are and just tone it down” but deep down I just feel.
GE: Yeah it is human.
FW: Yeah that is going to be so cool. Well thank you so much for your time.
GE: Thanks for doing this. It was fun.
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