EP7: Susan Lindner: Tell your Company’s Story using the Power of PR

Who is Susan Lindner and what are the key takeaways in this episode?

If you’re struggling with or challenged by your PR strategies, or want to really make the most out of them, then this episode is for you. Today we’re going to have a chat with Emerging Media co-founder, Susan Lindner.

In this interview you’ll get to know:

  • How Susan started Emerging Media
  • What she thinks about culture
  • Why she things entrepreneurs are born out of adversity
  • How she transitioned from public health and anthropology to becoming an entrepreneur
  • Why she loves working with the underdogs

The Questions

[3:58] What was the culture like as you had to navigate from the emerging world, from your philanthropic background, to corporate America?
Answer: Yeah, it’s been a very interesting transition working in non-profit organizations, big organizations like Memorial Sloan Kettering or Mount Sinai Hospital, and then going to work in non-international non-profit organizations. Just looking at the organizational structure of those types of places, they begin with very solid tracks of how work gets done, how information gets processed and how creativity bubbles up to the surface. For me, I enjoy working in those places because you need those structures in order to advance forwards in healthcare and medicine. Going off the rails like a creative entrepreneur is not always the best way to deliver healthcare certainly.

[7:25] When you look at the culture of a company, and you walk in the door, can you share with our listeners some of the things that you see that are really positive, and some of the things where you say, “I don’t think so,” and some of the things where you say, “We can make that better by just a couple of tweaks”?
Answer: Yeah. In many cases, it’s recognizing that diamond in the rough, I think, and there’s glimmers of it from the physical manifestation. Oftentimes when you walk in the room, you ask yourself whether or not this is a culture that allows creativity to shine through. You can walk by someone’s desk and see whether or not they’ve decorated it. Maybe whether a birthday was celebrated or a particular event in an employee’s life, like their recent wedding and maybe there’s little pictures around or maybe co-workers have given gifts, or maybe there’s a giant mirror on the wall that someone decided to paint or even just spray paint on the wall.”

[13:32] What tips do you have for the entrepreneurs who are listening that say: “If there are a couple things you need to do, here’s what they are”? What would they be, Susan?
Answer: So a couple of things they need to do in order to be successful is, first and foremost, they need to understand that while they’re busy disrupting, they need – slowly, they need a couple of things. One, they need oxygen. They need brand awareness. They need for people to know that they exist while they’re toiling away in obscurity. We help put them on the map using the media as the foil for that. So we feel like it’s really important that they’re recognized by the world for how they seek to change it. So that’s step one.

Culture According to Susan:

I think it’s the promise that you make to your people every day. It is the promise that you live and breathe as a leader. It’s the promise that each employee makes to one another and then it becomes an extension of the promise that you make to your clients and customers every day. That culture is an expression of the promise that you wish to keep every day.

Go To Quote for Inspiration

[Tweet @khunsusan “Envision, create and believe in your own universe, and the universe will form around you.” #quote #BECulture”]

Book Recommendations:

  • Good to Great
  • E-Myth
  • Jitterbug Perfume

What Susan Wants Emerging Media to BE:

  • BE incredibly connected
  • BE always learning and growing

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Interview:

Where to Find Susan:

Connect with John on

FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

John: Welcome to the show. We’re here at Be Culture Radio and Susan Lindner is our guest. Susan, good afternoon. How are you?

Susan: I am fantastic, John. Thank you for having me.

John: Oh, it’s our pleasure. We’re quite excited. You bring a wealth of knowledge, and we’re so excited that you’re with us. Before we start, why don’t you tell us a story, a little about yourself, a little background, so that our listeners can understand where you come from and the great heights you’ve reached, and any other things you want to talk about for a little while?

Susan: Sure. I started my business, Emerging Media, back in 2002. I thought it was a fantastic time to start a business because the internet boom had just gone bust; marketing dollars were nowhere to be found. And I thought this was the ideal time to start servicing the technology market. So, I think that great entrepreneurs are born in adversity and they see opportunities where other people do not, and so, I hope to follow a long line of folks who started their businesses during tough times and then really looked for opportunities and new ways of expanding and branching out when the market got better.

But my past in entrepreneurship didn’t start with PR. My background is actually in public health and anthropology, spending good time working in developing countries, doing education and AIDS education, specifically everywhere in the world.

John: Wow. That’s quite a jump: from where you were to where you are. When you went through that process, is it that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

Susan: Sure.

John: Maybe we could talk a little bit about that, Susan, about the things that chiseled your character, that made you who you are. My background, as you and I talked about a little bit, is that I’m one of eight. I have six older sisters and I have a healthy respect for strong professionals and specifically for women because, if I didn’t, I would take a beating that would be second to none. That being said, tell me a little bit about your path being a strong female. You’re clearly based upon what you have accomplished. You are a strong female, you are a strong executive, you are a CEO and as you’ve gone through this path and come to the heights you’ve now reached, how did that feel? What was the culture like as you had to navigate from the emerging world, from your philanthropic background, to corporate America?

Susan: Yeah, it’s been a very interesting transition from working in non-profit organizations, big organizations like Memorial Sloan Kettering or Mount Sinai Hospital, and then going to work in non-international non-profit organizations. Just looking at the organizational structure of those types of places, they begin with very solid tracks of how work gets done, how information gets processed and how creativity bubbles up to the surface. For me, I enjoy working in those places because you need those structures in order to advance forward in healthcare and medicine. Going off the rails like a creative entrepreneur is not always the best way to deliver healthcare, certainly.

Working within very explicit boundaries is helpful in getting from point A to point B. After ten years in that space, though, I found that I wanted to expand my own creative freedoms and start my own business. A little bit about my background: I think I always have to take a position of working with the underdog, and it’s the part that I enjoy most about running a branding and marketing PR and social media agencies specifically built for disruptive companies, and that’s because we like taking on the Davids rather than the Goliaths. My background is that I come from two World War II survivors who immigrated to the United States, who had a very strong work ethic and always felt themselves as underdogs trying to make it in the United States. I think that’s why I have such an affection for building a culture in my company around supporting the underdog and watching them become superstars.

John: It’s funny. In our firm, we talked about having ordinary people do extraordinary things, and we actually talk a great deal about the culture that drives organizations and how you have to have buy-in from everybody at all levels, and we’re all in this together to create a very linear organization.

In our experience, it has been when you find those Davids and not the Goliaths because, quite candidly, the Goliaths have a huge hierarchy and there’s not a lot of skin at some levels – When you have a David, it’s very linear and everybody’s got skin in the game, so to speak, and they’re all willing to pull in the same direction. Have you seen some of that?

Susan: Absolutely. I think working from a communication standpoint, you know pretty quickly whether or not people are all pulling in the same direction because, in order to be successful as a company with our marketing message, you have to be unified. Your message has to be in line with all the things that are going on internally in the company in order for you to really make a mark and in order for that message to land. So, we can find almost right out the gate that if we can’t get a coherent marketing message out of the company that we’re working with then there’s a lot more alignment that needs to take place internally with that culture.

John: Now your firm, Emerging Media, focuses on developing small businesses into wildly successful small businesses, and growing and expanding from there. When you look at the culture of a company and you walk in the door, can you share with our listeners some of the things that you see that are really positive, some of the things where you say, “I don’t think so,” and some of the things where you say, “We can make that better by just a couple of tweaks”?

Susan: Yeah. In many cases, it’s recognizing that diamond in the rough, I think, and there’s glimmers of that from the physical manifestation. Oftentimes when you walk in the room, you ask yourself whether or not this is a culture that allows creativity to shine through. You can walk by someone’s desk and see whether or not they’ve decorated it. Maybe whether a birthday was celebrated or a particular event in an employee’s life, like their recent wedding, and maybe there are little pictures around or maybe co-workers have given gifts, or maybe there’s a giant mirror on the wall that someone decided to paint or even just spray paint on the wall.

Sometimes it’s a choice of great furniture that almost exists like an art piece in a clients room, and it may just be one to get started, but it means something in that place. So those are little triggers for me to know whether or not there’s a glimmer of disruption, a glimmer of culture, wanting to make itself manifest in an office.

John: Susan, we’ve all seen the companies where you can’t tell the emperor that he doesn’t have clothes on, or she doesn’t have clothes on. Those are really unique and challenging times, I like to say. I was brought up in an environment where we were never allowed to have problems; we were just allowed to have situations and opportunities. I look at it and tell people: “We cleared that out in our firm today. We have a situation or an opportunity.”

So you walk into this firm and you see that passionate entrepreneur who owns a company and here she is, leading it, and having a tough time with feedback, accepting it and taking it. How do you then get your message across that things have to be done differently?

Susan: We start off with the discussion that you wouldn’t be hiring if you wanted to do things in the old-fashioned way. Our agency, and much like your business too, John, is designed to help people see themselves in a different light, and to bring the very best in them out to the forefront. The reason that you bring on consultants and experts in a particular field is to allow them to shine a new – you know, to hold up a new lens on a problem that you’ve been looking at and to see it in a new light. I think that’s probably a place where both your business and my business are very similar in that way.

John: It’s funny. I would agree that we have a tremendous amount of similarities in that respect. I also find it very heartwarming that the philanthropic work you do and we do: in our firm for the last 12 years, we’ve been involved with an inner city AAU basketball program and these young men would never have the opportunity go to college and see a different way of life, and we actually from from time to time, to mentor them, we bring them into our office. Our clients are here and they’re like, “Who’s the kid? Who’s the 6’7″ kid in the corner?” So we bring them in and we have them speak to them. It’s amazing to watch how if you change the environment and the culture for people, how they blossom and grow.

I think that it’s one of the gifts that we can give to the world and make the world a better place. As our CEO (and my wife) likes to say, “Be the change you wish to see.” Live it and be it, and be authentic because for so many times, we hear these humongous companies say “This is who we are,” and you go and you look and you’re like “That’s not who you are. That’s not what your people think because if you stand by the front door at five o’clock, you will get trampled to death.”

I worked for huge Fortune 100 companies and the greatest moment of my life was when I left. I was afraid. Thank God, I’m out. I’m just a round peg in a square hole. I just have to accept that for what it is. Susan, what is your definition of company culture?

Susan: I think it’s the promise that you make to your people every day. It is the promise that you live and breathe as a leader. It’s the promise that each employee makes to one another and then it becomes an extension of the promise that you make to your clients and customers every day. That culture is an expression of the promise that you wish to keep every day.

So for us, we’re very clear about our culture, which is a culture of connection. Most of the clients that we work with are disruptive companies. They are technologists for the most part, or companies that are really looking to shake up the status quo, who are changing the way that business gets done every day, and they are the kind of people who need connections back into the market to validate what they do.

Whether that’s through a reporter, through a really great message, or whether that’s through social media or marketing, the companies that we work with look for connection to validate how they are changing the world and we offer that sense of connection. So everybody who comes through the door here promises to be a connector. Really, inherently they are connectors. That’s just who they are in their day to day life, and we look for those kinds of people who love making and cherishing credible connections.

John: So you have these incredible tech companies; they brought you in to help. Now, you’re helping them with their culture. Now you’re going to take the PR and the leverage to help them attract better talent and retain the talent they have. What tips do you have for the entrepreneurs who are listening that say: “If there are a couple things you need to do, here’s what they are”? What would they be, Susan?

Susan: So a couple of things they need to do in order to be successful is, first and foremost, they need to understand that while they’re busy disrupting, they need – slowly, they need a couple of things. One, they need oxygen. They need brand awareness. They need for people to know that they exist while they’re toiling away in obscurity. We help put them on the map using the media as the foil for that. So we feel it’s really important that they’re recognized by the world for how they seek to change it. So that’s step one.

Step two is that we look for third party validation. We look for other people who will stand by these brave, courageous innovators and say, “I don’t know if this guy is going to get it done, but I believe in the idea and I believe that this is the future.” Even that much validation is a positive for the kinds of companies that we work with, and the last thing I need is to prove it.

We look for mechanisms where they can get in front of audiences, where they can stand up on social media and show why their vision of the future is the way. So we give them the platforms to do that. So I say that any great, innovating CEO needs those three things. They need brand awareness, they need an “influencer” who can validate their approach and they need a stage where they can shout from the mountaintops about why what they’re doing is going to make a difference to everyone’s lives.

John: Okay. I just received my Series A funding. How do I go about looking to hire and leverage a PR firm to help me accelerate my success and build my culture. How do I do it?

Susan: So the first thing you want to do is seek out firm that really understands your business and where you want to go. Not many companies come to us and say, “Can you put out a launch press release for us? We just got our Series A funding.” Usually I’d tell them, “No.” What I want to talk to them about is not just stepping into this disruptor’s journey with a big load of cash but rather getting to the finish line that they want to get to, and maybe this is 3-5 years from now, maybe it’s even farther.

Is their goal to be an exit to be acquired? Do they want to go public on the big boards or do they want to change the world and own their business forever? I need to understand the goals of that company from day one and I want to have that conversation about what it’s like to embark on this disruptor’s journey because it’s a many-fold path and you have to be prepared for the long haul.

So I tell them, first and foremost, this is not a sprint. This is a marathon and we need to go down that path together. So we talk about the different stages of disruption and we try to figure it out with them. Where exactly do they want to go? So now, they’ve got the idea, now that they’re building their business and they’ve gotten to funding, now that they have to prepare themselves for competition. Is that going to be from other young start-ups? Who are they going to partner with to help them get to that next level? Is it going to be advisers? Will there be other technology companies who can help them get there? How will they scale up and grow? Stepping into that conversation with the PR firm – for an agency like ours it is perhaps a little bit different, but it involves a real heart-to-heart about what the future of the business is.

John: It sounds like you drill down pretty deep with these folks and make them answer as to their dreams and make them be accountable for what they want to accomplish. In doing that, Susan, for 30 years I’ve been looking at interiors, people’s interiors and their offices. People will say to me, “Hey John, we’re a cutting edge firm and we’re growing and I walk and there’s a chair that’s purple, a chair that’s black, a chair that’s orange. Orange crates… They’re just starting to grow and people come and visit their sites, and I say to them, “What is your brand? What message would you like to send?” And they look at me and go, “I’m not sure I understand. We need to spend a dollar and twenty-five cents on the chair and I’m like, “Time out.”

“What do you say to the people who work for you?” And as we move forward and we look at the workforce coming at us, the millenials are not going to put it up for an environment that is not going to be what they grew up in.

Now, I’m 55 years old. I grew up in a different environment with my kids. I got a kid who comes out of college next year and he’s like, “Dad, I won’t work in this company.” I’m like, “Why not?” “Look how crappy their office looks.” When I was 23, I was like, “I just want a job.”

When you look at people and they bring you in, how do you help them make that correlation between the design of their office and their brand, and is there a way to do that?

Susan: Yeah. First and foremost, I think, is the conversation about what message that you want to send and who’s going to be coming through these doors. Is it all about recruiting? That this place needs to unfold and doesn’t have to be this incredible home to great employees? Does it need to entertain? Do you need to wow investors and customers alike when they walk through the door? Is it about being edgy or is it about being more traditional? But it all begins with the message and the culture that you want to create, without a doubt.

When we talk to start ups, it’s one thing to look a little bit grungy. Certainly investors want to know that there’s money to be spent, first on the product and perhaps on the furniture second, but as soon as that Series A funding rolls in, it’s time to get sharp. It’s time to get impressive and I imagine that’s where a great conversation with Be Furniture comes in.

John: Well, we tend to have some very interesting times. I had a client one day who said, “You know, not many people come through the door. We don’t have really people visit us.” I looked at him and said, “I couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to come here?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “The furniture’s dirty. I don’t think I would sit in it, and do you think that people who work here are going to stay here?” We try to bring the value proposition. saying that it’s not spending a lot of money. It’s about showing respect for the people who you work with and the brand that you’ve created.

A lot of what I take from managing our organization and being with our people, I relate to raising children. If your children tend to be well-behaved and well-dressed and well-groomed, it doesn’t mean you have spent a lot of money, you just took a lot of care of them. I think that organizations are very similar to that, Susan. Do you?

Susan: Absolutely. And there’s also – bringing in the sense of children is making sure that there’s an organizational flow. It’s incredible to me how you can have beautiful things but if it doesn’t support the work that needs to get done, then that’s a waste of money as well, right? And so making sure that work flow is part of the conversation is so critical.

John: Let me ask you a question. At what point do you, or maybe you don’t, but let me ask it. When you get to that point where you saying, “This is not for me, there isn’t a fit here…” I had a client which was a really big client of ours, a big retailer. We did business with them all over the country and I refer these as “grinders”. He just ground up my people until the point where I was actually the account rep on it, because no one else would take care of the client.
So after about a year of it, I said “You know what? You’re horrible. You’re a horrible human being and all the money in the world isn’t worth you.” So I went home one night and I said to my partner, I said “I think I have to fire this client”. And she’s like, “You’re going to do what?” “I’m going to fire this client.” It represented ten percent of our revenues and this was in the early stages of our business, going back ten years ago.

She looked at me she said, “Do what is right, not what is easy.” And I just – it was such a watershed moment for me, because being in sales and running a company, you would never fire a client representing ten percent of your revenue. But it was the right thing to do. I sit back today. It was the single best thing I ever did. Have you ever had an experience like that?

Susan: In the 13 year history of my business, we fired two clients. And I can tell you both times the only regret I had was not doing it sooner. Because when you see how your own people are being treated or mistreated, as your greatest asset, it’s painful. And although it’s challenging to watch the revenue walk out the door, it’s harder to come to work each day, and go. And you see the faces of your employees cringe when you know it’s time for that conference call.

And so, it’s frankly better for both parties to part ways and my suggestion to both of those firms was “Your culture is so unique and the demands that you have are so different from what we typically provide to our clients, that we strongly recommend that you go in-house and you find an individual who can service you in-house, who really jives with your culture.” Ultimately, you need to find people who believe what you believe, and when you don’t and that’s not in alignment, it doesn’t work on either side.

John: It’s so painful. So painful that it doesn’t. . .

Susan: And in both cases you know, they hired internal staff and that worked out much better for them. And I wish them all the best; it just wasn’t the right fit.

John: And you’re right. It is better for everybody who was – for me, it’s the one client in the eleven years with whom we’ve had to part ways because – to the degree that they’d come back six months later, and he said “Please, please, please”. And I was like “Please, please, please go away.” He was like, “Oh, God”. So I finally put Kyra on the phone with him and as she’s so the soft touch. I call her the Velvet Hammer. It’s just not a match, it’s just not a – it’s never going to work. We go left; you go right. And so we can put this back together, but it’s going to fall back apart. And so why don’t we save all of ourselves a lot of grief, and you will find somebody who wants to be a commodity-based and driven organization. We do not.

So, to your point, I think it’s, “Should I have done it earlier? Shame on me. Bad boss.” And I take it, and I own that. As they say around here, “My front door is always open to everybody.” And I am told on a regular basis that I’m wrong and I’m okay with that, because if you don’t have the ability to say “I’m sorry”, if you don’t have the ability to say “You’re right, I’m wrong”, I don’t know that that’s real leadership, do you?

Susan: I don’t think so. I think sometimes you have to make those tough decisions. That’s what being a leader is.

John: Let me jump to the end because I’ve used quite a bit of your time and I just have a couple more questions for you if that’s okay.

Susan: Sure.

John: What book changed your life?

Susan: Wow, gosh, there’s so many. There’s some on the non-fiction side and there are some on the fiction side. So, from the business side, I would say “Good to Great” really changed my perspective on what it takes to be a great company. And Jim Collins is just a master of providing great case studies. I think one of my favorite works of fiction is “Jitterbug Perfume” which was just wonderful and is all about being a world traveler, just letting the knowledge of the planet soak into you. And then I think as an entrepreneur probably one of the biggest changes for me was “The E-Myth”, which is the myth of the entrepreneur who is a crazy, cavalier, risk taker, when in fact it’s usually a struggling overburdened small business owner who is trying to find the way to live their passion rather than living with accounts payable and accounts receivable. And all the horrible back-end stuff, the operations stuff that we don’t love so much as entrepreneurs but that’s part of the data they have when running a business. So, probably those three.

John: You don’t love that? I wake up every morning looking; I can’t wait to get into accounts receive.

Susan: And start making those phone calls.

John: Please, please, please pay me. Susan, what is your go-to quote for inspiration?

Susan: It’s interesting that you mention that. The “Be the change that you want to see in the world”. And I think that, that’s probably a guiding promise for so many entrepreneurs who feel like they’re bringing something very unique to the planet. That’s probably one of them for me, and if I had to think of another that’s a guiding principle, it’s from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, who said, “Envision, create and believe in your own universe, and the universe will form around you.” And so, it’s our job to create that universe every day.

John: Now, what company do you admire the most as it relates to their culture?

Susan: As it relates to their culture – so it’s a smaller company that you might not know of, called Elite SEM. A friend of mine Ben Kirshner is the CEO of that business. They are a search engine marketing firm that started a few years after I started my business but they have longed since surpassed us in growth, and offices, and revenue and I admire him for it. And it’s because he put culture first. And for him, it’s all about really appreciating what you have and making contributions to employees lives that pay off in the long run. So it’s a great office setting, a great space, and, to your point, great furniture. But it’s also other kudos and incentives that make people feel very much a part of the company from day one. And so I admire him; he’s far younger than me, but he’s someone nice to look up to.

John: Great. Now, here’s the $64,000 question. It’s not really. If you had to describe a culture of your company using the word “be” and then an adjective, can you give me three words?

Susan: Incredibly connected.

John: Okay.

Susan: Is that two? Do I need three?

John: That’s two; you’ve got to give me three.

Susan: Let’s see, I would say, “Be always learning and growing”. This is hard with three. I might get back to you with this one.

John: And I certainly hope you do. I’m going to let you off the hook here. You have been a great guest. I have enjoyed talking to you. You’re a super individual. You’re very accomplished. Our show notes will have them on our link. Susan, if our listeners want to reach out to you, can you share with an email that they can reach out to you?

Susan: Absolutely. It’s susan@emergingmediapr.com.

John: Susan, I’d just like to thank you, and to our listeners: if you want to talk to someone who gets it, Susan Lindner gets it. And I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much, and we’d love to have you back if you’ll spare more time for us in the near future.

Susan: Thanks so much, John. It’s been a great pleasure and all the best to you and everyone at Be Furniture. You guys are great.

John: Thanks so much. Be well.

Susan: You too.

John: Bye.

 

[END OF PODCAST]

Who is Susan Lindner and what are the key takeaways in this episode?

If you’re struggling with or challenged by your PR strategies, or want to really make the most out of them, then this episode is for you. Today we’re going to have a chat with Emerging Media co-founder, Susan Lindner.

In this interview you’ll get to know:

  • How Susan started Emerging Media
  • What she thinks about culture
  • Why she things entrepreneurs are born out of adversity
  • How she transitioned from public health and anthropology to becoming an entrepreneur
  • Why she loves working with the underdogs

The Questions

[3:58] What was the culture like as you had to navigate from the emerging world, from your philanthropic background, to corporate America?
Answer: Yeah, it’s been a very interesting transition working in non-profit organizations, big organizations like Memorial Sloan Kettering or Mount Sinai Hospital, and then going to work in non-international non-profit organizations. Just looking at the organizational structure of those types of places, they begin with very solid tracks of how work gets done, how information gets processed and how creativity bubbles up to the surface. For me, I enjoy working in those places because you need those structures in order to advance forwards in healthcare and medicine. Going off the rails like a creative entrepreneur is not always the best way to deliver healthcare certainly.

[7:25] When you look at the culture of a company, and you walk in the door, can you share with our listeners some of the things that you see that are really positive, and some of the things where you say, “I don’t think so,” and some of the things where you say, “We can make that better by just a couple of tweaks”?
Answer: Yeah. In many cases, it’s recognizing that diamond in the rough, I think, and there’s glimmers of it from the physical manifestation. Oftentimes when you walk in the room, you ask yourself whether or not this is a culture that allows creativity to shine through. You can walk by someone’s desk and see whether or not they’ve decorated it. Maybe whether a birthday was celebrated or a particular event in an employee’s life, like their recent wedding and maybe there’s little pictures around or maybe co-workers have given gifts, or maybe there’s a giant mirror on the wall that someone decided to paint or even just spray paint on the wall.”

[13:32] What tips do you have for the entrepreneurs who are listening that say: “If there are a couple things you need to do, here’s what they are”? What would they be, Susan?
Answer: So a couple of things they need to do in order to be successful is, first and foremost, they need to understand that while they’re busy disrupting, they need – slowly, they need a couple of things. One, they need oxygen. They need brand awareness. They need for people to know that they exist while they’re toiling away in obscurity. We help put them on the map using the media as the foil for that. So we feel like it’s really important that they’re recognized by the world for how they seek to change it. So that’s step one.

Culture According to Susan:

I think it’s the promise that you make to your people every day. It is the promise that you live and breathe as a leader. It’s the promise that each employee makes to one another and then it becomes an extension of the promise that you make to your clients and customers every day. That culture is an expression of the promise that you wish to keep every day.

Go To Quote for Inspiration

[Tweet @khunsusan “Envision, create and believe in your own universe, and the universe will form around you.” #quote #BECulture”]

Book Recommendations:

  • Good to Great
  • E-Myth
  • Jitterbug Perfume

What Susan Wants Emerging Media to BE:

  • BE incredibly connected
  • BE always learning and growing

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FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

John: Welcome to the show. We’re here at Be Culture Radio and Susan Lindner is our guest. Susan, good afternoon. How are you?

Susan: I am fantastic, John. Thank you for having me.

John: Oh, it’s our pleasure. We’re quite excited. You bring a wealth of knowledge, and we’re so excited that you’re with us. Before we start, why don’t you tell us a story, a little about yourself, a little background, so that our listeners can understand where you come from and the great heights you’ve reached, and any other things you want to talk about for a little while?

Susan: Sure. I started my business, Emerging Media, back in 2002. I thought it was a fantastic time to start a business because the internet boom had just gone bust; marketing dollars were nowhere to be found. And I thought this was the ideal time to start servicing the technology market. So, I think that great entrepreneurs are born in adversity and they see opportunities where other people do not, and so, I hope to follow a long line of folks who started their businesses during tough times and then really looked for opportunities and new ways of expanding and branching out when the market got better.

But my past in entrepreneurship didn’t start with PR. My background is actually in public health and anthropology, spending good time working in developing countries, doing education and AIDS education, specifically everywhere in the world.

John: Wow. That’s quite a jump: from where you were to where you are. When you went through that process, is it that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

Susan: Sure.

John: Maybe we could talk a little bit about that, Susan, about the things that chiseled your character, that made you who you are. My background, as you and I talked about a little bit, is that I’m one of eight. I have six older sisters and I have a healthy respect for strong professionals and specifically for women because, if I didn’t, I would take a beating that would be second to none. That being said, tell me a little bit about your path being a strong female. You’re clearly based upon what you have accomplished. You are a strong female, you are a strong executive, you are a CEO and as you’ve gone through this path and come to the heights you’ve now reached, how did that feel? What was the culture like as you had to navigate from the emerging world, from your philanthropic background, to corporate America?

Susan: Yeah, it’s been a very interesting transition from working in non-profit organizations, big organizations like Memorial Sloan Kettering or Mount Sinai Hospital, and then going to work in non-international non-profit organizations. Just looking at the organizational structure of those types of places, they begin with very solid tracks of how work gets done, how information gets processed and how creativity bubbles up to the surface. For me, I enjoy working in those places because you need those structures in order to advance forward in healthcare and medicine. Going off the rails like a creative entrepreneur is not always the best way to deliver healthcare, certainly.

Working within very explicit boundaries is helpful in getting from point A to point B. After ten years in that space, though, I found that I wanted to expand my own creative freedoms and start my own business. A little bit about my background: I think I always have to take a position of working with the underdog, and it’s the part that I enjoy most about running a branding and marketing PR and social media agencies specifically built for disruptive companies, and that’s because we like taking on the Davids rather than the Goliaths. My background is that I come from two World War II survivors who immigrated to the United States, who had a very strong work ethic and always felt themselves as underdogs trying to make it in the United States. I think that’s why I have such an affection for building a culture in my company around supporting the underdog and watching them become superstars.

John: It’s funny. In our firm, we talked about having ordinary people do extraordinary things, and we actually talk a great deal about the culture that drives organizations and how you have to have buy-in from everybody at all levels, and we’re all in this together to create a very linear organization.

In our experience, it has been when you find those Davids and not the Goliaths because, quite candidly, the Goliaths have a huge hierarchy and there’s not a lot of skin at some levels – When you have a David, it’s very linear and everybody’s got skin in the game, so to speak, and they’re all willing to pull in the same direction. Have you seen some of that?

Susan: Absolutely. I think working from a communication standpoint, you know pretty quickly whether or not people are all pulling in the same direction because, in order to be successful as a company with our marketing message, you have to be unified. Your message has to be in line with all the things that are going on internally in the company in order for you to really make a mark and in order for that message to land. So, we can find almost right out the gate that if we can’t get a coherent marketing message out of the company that we’re working with then there’s a lot more alignment that needs to take place internally with that culture.

John: Now your firm, Emerging Media, focuses on developing small businesses into wildly successful small businesses, and growing and expanding from there. When you look at the culture of a company and you walk in the door, can you share with our listeners some of the things that you see that are really positive, some of the things where you say, “I don’t think so,” and some of the things where you say, “We can make that better by just a couple of tweaks”?

Susan: Yeah. In many cases, it’s recognizing that diamond in the rough, I think, and there’s glimmers of that from the physical manifestation. Oftentimes when you walk in the room, you ask yourself whether or not this is a culture that allows creativity to shine through. You can walk by someone’s desk and see whether or not they’ve decorated it. Maybe whether a birthday was celebrated or a particular event in an employee’s life, like their recent wedding, and maybe there are little pictures around or maybe co-workers have given gifts, or maybe there’s a giant mirror on the wall that someone decided to paint or even just spray paint on the wall.

Sometimes it’s a choice of great furniture that almost exists like an art piece in a clients room, and it may just be one to get started, but it means something in that place. So those are little triggers for me to know whether or not there’s a glimmer of disruption, a glimmer of culture, wanting to make itself manifest in an office.

John: Susan, we’ve all seen the companies where you can’t tell the emperor that he doesn’t have clothes on, or she doesn’t have clothes on. Those are really unique and challenging times, I like to say. I was brought up in an environment where we were never allowed to have problems; we were just allowed to have situations and opportunities. I look at it and tell people: “We cleared that out in our firm today. We have a situation or an opportunity.”

So you walk into this firm and you see that passionate entrepreneur who owns a company and here she is, leading it, and having a tough time with feedback, accepting it and taking it. How do you then get your message across that things have to be done differently?

Susan: We start off with the discussion that you wouldn’t be hiring if you wanted to do things in the old-fashioned way. Our agency, and much like your business too, John, is designed to help people see themselves in a different light, and to bring the very best in them out to the forefront. The reason that you bring on consultants and experts in a particular field is to allow them to shine a new – you know, to hold up a new lens on a problem that you’ve been looking at and to see it in a new light. I think that’s probably a place where both your business and my business are very similar in that way.

John: It’s funny. I would agree that we have a tremendous amount of similarities in that respect. I also find it very heartwarming that the philanthropic work you do and we do: in our firm for the last 12 years, we’ve been involved with an inner city AAU basketball program and these young men would never have the opportunity go to college and see a different way of life, and we actually from from time to time, to mentor them, we bring them into our office. Our clients are here and they’re like, “Who’s the kid? Who’s the 6’7″ kid in the corner?” So we bring them in and we have them speak to them. It’s amazing to watch how if you change the environment and the culture for people, how they blossom and grow.

I think that it’s one of the gifts that we can give to the world and make the world a better place. As our CEO (and my wife) likes to say, “Be the change you wish to see.” Live it and be it, and be authentic because for so many times, we hear these humongous companies say “This is who we are,” and you go and you look and you’re like “That’s not who you are. That’s not what your people think because if you stand by the front door at five o’clock, you will get trampled to death.”

I worked for huge Fortune 100 companies and the greatest moment of my life was when I left. I was afraid. Thank God, I’m out. I’m just a round peg in a square hole. I just have to accept that for what it is. Susan, what is your definition of company culture?

Susan: I think it’s the promise that you make to your people every day. It is the promise that you live and breathe as a leader. It’s the promise that each employee makes to one another and then it becomes an extension of the promise that you make to your clients and customers every day. That culture is an expression of the promise that you wish to keep every day.

So for us, we’re very clear about our culture, which is a culture of connection. Most of the clients that we work with are disruptive companies. They are technologists for the most part, or companies that are really looking to shake up the status quo, who are changing the way that business gets done every day, and they are the kind of people who need connections back into the market to validate what they do.

Whether that’s through a reporter, through a really great message, or whether that’s through social media or marketing, the companies that we work with look for connection to validate how they are changing the world and we offer that sense of connection. So everybody who comes through the door here promises to be a connector. Really, inherently they are connectors. That’s just who they are in their day to day life, and we look for those kinds of people who love making and cherishing credible connections.

John: So you have these incredible tech companies; they brought you in to help. Now, you’re helping them with their culture. Now you’re going to take the PR and the leverage to help them attract better talent and retain the talent they have. What tips do you have for the entrepreneurs who are listening that say: “If there are a couple things you need to do, here’s what they are”? What would they be, Susan?

Susan: So a couple of things they need to do in order to be successful is, first and foremost, they need to understand that while they’re busy disrupting, they need – slowly, they need a couple of things. One, they need oxygen. They need brand awareness. They need for people to know that they exist while they’re toiling away in obscurity. We help put them on the map using the media as the foil for that. So we feel it’s really important that they’re recognized by the world for how they seek to change it. So that’s step one.

Step two is that we look for third party validation. We look for other people who will stand by these brave, courageous innovators and say, “I don’t know if this guy is going to get it done, but I believe in the idea and I believe that this is the future.” Even that much validation is a positive for the kinds of companies that we work with, and the last thing I need is to prove it.

We look for mechanisms where they can get in front of audiences, where they can stand up on social media and show why their vision of the future is the way. So we give them the platforms to do that. So I say that any great, innovating CEO needs those three things. They need brand awareness, they need an “influencer” who can validate their approach and they need a stage where they can shout from the mountaintops about why what they’re doing is going to make a difference to everyone’s lives.

John: Okay. I just received my Series A funding. How do I go about looking to hire and leverage a PR firm to help me accelerate my success and build my culture. How do I do it?

Susan: So the first thing you want to do is seek out firm that really understands your business and where you want to go. Not many companies come to us and say, “Can you put out a launch press release for us? We just got our Series A funding.” Usually I’d tell them, “No.” What I want to talk to them about is not just stepping into this disruptor’s journey with a big load of cash but rather getting to the finish line that they want to get to, and maybe this is 3-5 years from now, maybe it’s even farther.

Is their goal to be an exit to be acquired? Do they want to go public on the big boards or do they want to change the world and own their business forever? I need to understand the goals of that company from day one and I want to have that conversation about what it’s like to embark on this disruptor’s journey because it’s a many-fold path and you have to be prepared for the long haul.

So I tell them, first and foremost, this is not a sprint. This is a marathon and we need to go down that path together. So we talk about the different stages of disruption and we try to figure it out with them. Where exactly do they want to go? So now, they’ve got the idea, now that they’re building their business and they’ve gotten to funding, now that they have to prepare themselves for competition. Is that going to be from other young start-ups? Who are they going to partner with to help them get to that next level? Is it going to be advisers? Will there be other technology companies who can help them get there? How will they scale up and grow? Stepping into that conversation with the PR firm – for an agency like ours it is perhaps a little bit different, but it involves a real heart-to-heart about what the future of the business is.

John: It sounds like you drill down pretty deep with these folks and make them answer as to their dreams and make them be accountable for what they want to accomplish. In doing that, Susan, for 30 years I’ve been looking at interiors, people’s interiors and their offices. People will say to me, “Hey John, we’re a cutting edge firm and we’re growing and I walk and there’s a chair that’s purple, a chair that’s black, a chair that’s orange. Orange crates… They’re just starting to grow and people come and visit their sites, and I say to them, “What is your brand? What message would you like to send?” And they look at me and go, “I’m not sure I understand. We need to spend a dollar and twenty-five cents on the chair and I’m like, “Time out.”

“What do you say to the people who work for you?” And as we move forward and we look at the workforce coming at us, the millenials are not going to put it up for an environment that is not going to be what they grew up in.

Now, I’m 55 years old. I grew up in a different environment with my kids. I got a kid who comes out of college next year and he’s like, “Dad, I won’t work in this company.” I’m like, “Why not?” “Look how crappy their office looks.” When I was 23, I was like, “I just want a job.”

When you look at people and they bring you in, how do you help them make that correlation between the design of their office and their brand, and is there a way to do that?

Susan: Yeah. First and foremost, I think, is the conversation about what message that you want to send and who’s going to be coming through these doors. Is it all about recruiting? That this place needs to unfold and doesn’t have to be this incredible home to great employees? Does it need to entertain? Do you need to wow investors and customers alike when they walk through the door? Is it about being edgy or is it about being more traditional? But it all begins with the message and the culture that you want to create, without a doubt.

When we talk to start ups, it’s one thing to look a little bit grungy. Certainly investors want to know that there’s money to be spent, first on the product and perhaps on the furniture second, but as soon as that Series A funding rolls in, it’s time to get sharp. It’s time to get impressive and I imagine that’s where a great conversation with Be Furniture comes in.

John: Well, we tend to have some very interesting times. I had a client one day who said, “You know, not many people come through the door. We don’t have really people visit us.” I looked at him and said, “I couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to come here?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “The furniture’s dirty. I don’t think I would sit in it, and do you think that people who work here are going to stay here?” We try to bring the value proposition. saying that it’s not spending a lot of money. It’s about showing respect for the people who you work with and the brand that you’ve created.

A lot of what I take from managing our organization and being with our people, I relate to raising children. If your children tend to be well-behaved and well-dressed and well-groomed, it doesn’t mean you have spent a lot of money, you just took a lot of care of them. I think that organizations are very similar to that, Susan. Do you?

Susan: Absolutely. And there’s also – bringing in the sense of children is making sure that there’s an organizational flow. It’s incredible to me how you can have beautiful things but if it doesn’t support the work that needs to get done, then that’s a waste of money as well, right? And so making sure that work flow is part of the conversation is so critical.

John: Let me ask you a question. At what point do you, or maybe you don’t, but let me ask it. When you get to that point where you saying, “This is not for me, there isn’t a fit here…” I had a client which was a really big client of ours, a big retailer. We did business with them all over the country and I refer these as “grinders”. He just ground up my people until the point where I was actually the account rep on it, because no one else would take care of the client.
So after about a year of it, I said “You know what? You’re horrible. You’re a horrible human being and all the money in the world isn’t worth you.” So I went home one night and I said to my partner, I said “I think I have to fire this client”. And she’s like, “You’re going to do what?” “I’m going to fire this client.” It represented ten percent of our revenues and this was in the early stages of our business, going back ten years ago.

She looked at me she said, “Do what is right, not what is easy.” And I just – it was such a watershed moment for me, because being in sales and running a company, you would never fire a client representing ten percent of your revenue. But it was the right thing to do. I sit back today. It was the single best thing I ever did. Have you ever had an experience like that?

Susan: In the 13 year history of my business, we fired two clients. And I can tell you both times the only regret I had was not doing it sooner. Because when you see how your own people are being treated or mistreated, as your greatest asset, it’s painful. And although it’s challenging to watch the revenue walk out the door, it’s harder to come to work each day, and go. And you see the faces of your employees cringe when you know it’s time for that conference call.

And so, it’s frankly better for both parties to part ways and my suggestion to both of those firms was “Your culture is so unique and the demands that you have are so different from what we typically provide to our clients, that we strongly recommend that you go in-house and you find an individual who can service you in-house, who really jives with your culture.” Ultimately, you need to find people who believe what you believe, and when you don’t and that’s not in alignment, it doesn’t work on either side.

John: It’s so painful. So painful that it doesn’t. . .

Susan: And in both cases you know, they hired internal staff and that worked out much better for them. And I wish them all the best; it just wasn’t the right fit.

John: And you’re right. It is better for everybody who was – for me, it’s the one client in the eleven years with whom we’ve had to part ways because – to the degree that they’d come back six months later, and he said “Please, please, please”. And I was like “Please, please, please go away.” He was like, “Oh, God”. So I finally put Kyra on the phone with him and as she’s so the soft touch. I call her the Velvet Hammer. It’s just not a match, it’s just not a – it’s never going to work. We go left; you go right. And so we can put this back together, but it’s going to fall back apart. And so why don’t we save all of ourselves a lot of grief, and you will find somebody who wants to be a commodity-based and driven organization. We do not.

So, to your point, I think it’s, “Should I have done it earlier? Shame on me. Bad boss.” And I take it, and I own that. As they say around here, “My front door is always open to everybody.” And I am told on a regular basis that I’m wrong and I’m okay with that, because if you don’t have the ability to say “I’m sorry”, if you don’t have the ability to say “You’re right, I’m wrong”, I don’t know that that’s real leadership, do you?

Susan: I don’t think so. I think sometimes you have to make those tough decisions. That’s what being a leader is.

John: Let me jump to the end because I’ve used quite a bit of your time and I just have a couple more questions for you if that’s okay.

Susan: Sure.

John: What book changed your life?

Susan: Wow, gosh, there’s so many. There’s some on the non-fiction side and there are some on the fiction side. So, from the business side, I would say “Good to Great” really changed my perspective on what it takes to be a great company. And Jim Collins is just a master of providing great case studies. I think one of my favorite works of fiction is “Jitterbug Perfume” which was just wonderful and is all about being a world traveler, just letting the knowledge of the planet soak into you. And then I think as an entrepreneur probably one of the biggest changes for me was “The E-Myth”, which is the myth of the entrepreneur who is a crazy, cavalier, risk taker, when in fact it’s usually a struggling overburdened small business owner who is trying to find the way to live their passion rather than living with accounts payable and accounts receivable. And all the horrible back-end stuff, the operations stuff that we don’t love so much as entrepreneurs but that’s part of the data they have when running a business. So, probably those three.

John: You don’t love that? I wake up every morning looking; I can’t wait to get into accounts receive.

Susan: And start making those phone calls.

John: Please, please, please pay me. Susan, what is your go-to quote for inspiration?

Susan: It’s interesting that you mention that. The “Be the change that you want to see in the world”. And I think that, that’s probably a guiding promise for so many entrepreneurs who feel like they’re bringing something very unique to the planet. That’s probably one of them for me, and if I had to think of another that’s a guiding principle, it’s from Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, who said, “Envision, create and believe in your own universe, and the universe will form around you.” And so, it’s our job to create that universe every day.

John: Now, what company do you admire the most as it relates to their culture?

Susan: As it relates to their culture – so it’s a smaller company that you might not know of, called Elite SEM. A friend of mine Ben Kirshner is the CEO of that business. They are a search engine marketing firm that started a few years after I started my business but they have longed since surpassed us in growth, and offices, and revenue and I admire him for it. And it’s because he put culture first. And for him, it’s all about really appreciating what you have and making contributions to employees lives that pay off in the long run. So it’s a great office setting, a great space, and, to your point, great furniture. But it’s also other kudos and incentives that make people feel very much a part of the company from day one. And so I admire him; he’s far younger than me, but he’s someone nice to look up to.

John: Great. Now, here’s the $64,000 question. It’s not really. If you had to describe a culture of your company using the word “be” and then an adjective, can you give me three words?

Susan: Incredibly connected.

John: Okay.

Susan: Is that two? Do I need three?

John: That’s two; you’ve got to give me three.

Susan: Let’s see, I would say, “Be always learning and growing”. This is hard with three. I might get back to you with this one.

John: And I certainly hope you do. I’m going to let you off the hook here. You have been a great guest. I have enjoyed talking to you. You’re a super individual. You’re very accomplished. Our show notes will have them on our link. Susan, if our listeners want to reach out to you, can you share with an email that they can reach out to you?

Susan: Absolutely. It’s susan@emergingmediapr.com.

John: Susan, I’d just like to thank you, and to our listeners: if you want to talk to someone who gets it, Susan Lindner gets it. And I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much, and we’d love to have you back if you’ll spare more time for us in the near future.

Susan: Thanks so much, John. It’s been a great pleasure and all the best to you and everyone at Be Furniture. You guys are great.

John: Thanks so much. Be well.

Susan: You too.

John: Bye.

 

[END OF PODCAST]