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7 life lessons on leadership during COVID and beyond
Jeremy Bloom, the founder and CEO of Integrate, shares key takeaways from conversations with extraordinary individuals.
Whether we’re getting glimpses into co-workers’ and clients’ homes on video calls or home-schooling our kids between meetings, the COVID pandemic has brought home one important fact: We’re all humans who face similar challenges, whatever the image we present in the office environment.
This insight, as well as the desire to bring together a far-flung team suddenly thrust into working from home, led Integrate founder and CEO Jeremy Bloom to initiate weekly virtual town-hall meetings featuring special guests with a wide range of experiences. Beginning in March, Integrate staffers heard from the likes of high-tech CEOs, highly-competitive athletes, a professional rock climber, a Minneapolis-based police officer, a neurosurgeon and even Bloom’s sister, whose life was captured in the movie, Molly’s Game.
In this interview, we’ll hear from Bloom about the surprising insights gleaned from these town hall meetings, and how they can be applied to better cope with the “new normal,” both personally and in our roles as businesspeople.
Q: What is it that you would like our readers, in particular, to know about you?
A: My name is Jeremy Bloom and I’m the founder and CEO of Integrate. We are a B2B enterprise marketing SaaS company and we’ve been around for nearly 10 years. We’re helping B2B marketers advance their thinking and ability to generate new business, new prospects and new customers at scale, on a global level.
We have almost 300 employees around the globe and an amazing roster of customers, world-class businesses, world-class marketers like Adobe, Microsoft, Salesforce, Verizon and the like. We’re really excited about what we’re doing and we focus on delivering happiness to our marketers, which is really one of our biggest goals.
Q. I know you have quite a storied history as well, as an entrepreneur and leader in this space. So, outside of your immediate role as CEO, how has your perspective been shaped?
A: I think we’re all shaped by our experiences. That’s really how we grow, through our successes, but also the inevitable adversities of our past. I spent most of my teenage years, and my early and late 20s, as a professional athlete. I knew at the age of 10 that I wanted to ski in the Olympics and play in the NFL, so I was on a path to pursue these two athletic goals and dreams from a pretty young age.
And I was able to accomplish both of those goals — I skied in the Olympics twice for the United States and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles and spent some time with the Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So through my teenage years and my 20s, my perspective was shaped by playing on a football field or skiing on a ski slope. I think that prepared me for entrepreneurship in several ways. First and foremost, one of the hardest parts of being a CEO and of being a founder is managing your own psychology.
When you’re a founder or CEO, especially in the early days of a startup, but really any day, you’ll go through a period of 24 hours where you’ll wake up in the morning, and you’ll just be certain that your company is going to be a huge success and you couldn’t be more excited about what you’re doing and where you are.
And then right around lunchtime, you’ll get several emails and a phone call that will make you think that your company is not going to last through the month. These huge emotional swings can happen daily. And our ability to manage through the ups and downs, to keep a level head about ourselves, and separate the signal from the noise often defines our ability to be successful or not.
I learned in football and skiing that some days you win, the next day you lose. Some days, you’re the best in the world and another day, you can’t make it to the top job. Some days you win by 40 points. Other days, you get beat by 60. So you’re always on this emotional roller coaster. You’re always experiencing really high highs and really low lows, and developing the mental muscle to be able to handle those emotional ups and downs is critical. It really applies for all of us, because life throws curveballs and ups and downs, especially if you’re a founder or CEO, because the spotlight can often be quite, quite big and bright.
Q: From a professional standpoint, how do you quiet those voices and make decisions, especially at a time like this where the challenges are so immense? How do you keep a level head and move through these things with a sound mind and be confident in your decisions when there’s so much noise around you?
A: We have to be able to see the forest through the trees. We have to zoom up to a higher elevation and look out of the telescope of life rather than focusing on what’s under the microscope.
Oftentimes when these experiences happen in our lives, we are analyzing every single inch of a problem and we don’t have a long-term perspective, because we lose that in the emotional state of chaos. So when chaos hits, I like to remind myself to ask questions, to gather all the information first. We very rarely, in that state of chaos, have all the information. So we need to keep our composure and ask questions and seek to understand the key factors that are contributing to us being in this situation. That’s the first step.
Then once we’ve gathered all the data, then it’s time to plot the plan. We need to talk to other people about that plan, we need to seek information from others. And then we need to build the plan, and then we need to execute.
There’s this gravitational pull in moments of chaos that compels you to go fix it — to go do the game plan before you have the game plan. This is a huge mistake because oftentimes, we’re running in the wrong direction to fix the problem, because we don’t even understand it.
Q: We’re in a time where business goals, strategies, and even on a personal level – everything has shifted so drastically this year. So from your perspective as a leader, how do you ensure that you’re still able to meet those goals and pivot so quickly?
A: I think back to a guest speaker that we had at one of our town halls by the name of Carrie Garten. Carrie was a synchronized swimmer in the Sydney Olympics. She described jumping into the pool for the Olympic finals and, in the first 10 seconds, making a devastating mistake. She had to figure out a way to keep her composure, because she still had five minutes left in the routine.
She was able to do that, and not make any more mistakes, but ultimately it hurt the team. She got pretty emotional talking about it, even 20 years later. But she said it taught her to be dynamic; it taught her to be able to think quickly on the fly and react to different situations. She talked about how she uses that in her life now as a senior executive.
Another guest speaker we had was Brandon Marshall, an all-pro football player, one of the most physical receivers ever. He suffered from bipolar disorder and had to be open with his coaches and, later in his career, with the fans, about the fact that he really struggled with this.
When you’re a professional athlete, showing any kind of weakness is really scary because you’re taught to show no vulnerability and you’re taught that the best athletes are the strongest. So, Brandon had to be brave to do that. I often think about those two people and their journeys and how they had to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Q: Could you share your perspective on broaching those types of conversations about mental illness and other things that aren’t discussed very openly? How do you embrace that level of empathy with your workforce, the people who look up to you and trust in you?
A: Empathy and compassion are critical to any successful team and so is trusting one another. I think trust is built on two things — authenticity and vulnerability. In the absence of both of those, human beings have a difficult time trusting one another.
What Brandon did, or what Carrie did, putting themselves out there by speaking about a time that was very disappointing and sad for them, builds both authenticity and vulnerability. It creates this experience where people trust them more, and want to help, and want to be part of their lives and part of their journey. These are powerful ways that everybody can use to build great and powerful relationships with one another — to speak with authenticity and to never be afraid to be open about our fears and areas of vulnerability.
Q: How do we humanize the workplace to foster better collaboration as well as trust and authenticity?
A: The world has gone through such a difficult year. And it probably would have been a lot easier if we all went through it together and weren’t separated by our political beliefs or racial differences or gender differences, those types of things.
The approach we’ve taken is to lean into things that would normally be off the table to talk about or uncomfortable. One of the things that we leaned into was the Black Lives Matter movement. We talked about the importance of racial equality, the importance of Black lives, specifically, things that I think we would have previously avoided — not because we didn’t think that the topic was important, but because it wasn’t the politically correct thing to do in an environment with lots of different people. We even brought a police sergeant onto the town hall, Justin Pletcher, who lives five minutes from where George Floyd was murdered.
His perspective on what it’s like to be a police officer in today’s world was incredibly enlightening. He brought forth so many profound ideas to advance policing in a way that makes it more equitable. We just need to have these uncomfortable conversations and make it okay to be around people that disagree with you.
We’re all living in a kind of echo chamber where we only follow people on social media that share our own beliefs and any time somebody contradicts our beliefs, we just unfollow them or block them. That’s not the way the world should work. We should be open-minded to new ideas. This doesn’t mean that we have to believe them, but we should be okay with accepting the fact that people see things differently.
Q: As a marketer, I’m curious about your perspective on the key traits that are most important for marketing leaders right now.
A: Being a marketing leader is all about getting to know people, getting to know your audience, getting to know your customers, being part of the conversation. We’re starting to see it more and more on social media, where brands are having real conversations with people. They’re playing a role in the content. I don’t know if you’ve seen the Ocean Spray story, where a TikTok video inspired a response by the drummer from Fleetwood Mac, then Ocean Spray surprised the lip-synching skateboarder by giving him a truck full of Ocean Spray.
This is not just humanizing marketing, but humanizing everything. You look at a company — for example, at integrate, we have 300 people — and oftentimes you look at the job title and reduce that person to playing that role. But at the end of the day, we all have one job — to be human. I think humanizing leadership, humanizing the conversation, humanizing all aspects of business, is a trend that will continue to accelerate. We should all spend more time thinking about how we can bring more human-first leadership to our organizations.
Q: Could you talk about brand values and a company vision and what role they play in a company’s success. How important are they?
A: I think it’s important today, and it will be more important tomorrow. And more important the next day and the next day after that. When you look at the Millennial generation, when you look at Gen Zs as a generation, they orient towards life experiences over money. They focus on culture over opportunity. They focus on philanthropy. Gen Zs are showing signs of being one of the most philanthropic generations that we’ve seen in many, many decades.
So if you’re a business and you want to attract the best people, then you have to be a company with a mission that’s bigger than profits, that’s bigger than just revenue. We were inspired by Davis Smith from Cotapaxi — an outdoor adventure brand. He’s built a very successful company as a B Corp. That means that you give a percentage of your profits to a cause that’s important to you. He inspired us so much that we’re now doing the discovery and due diligence for Integrate to become a B Corp. You have to have a bigger social mission than just, hey, we’ve got to grow revenue, we’ve got to grow margin. Those things are important, absolutely, but they’re not the only thing that’s important. Having a bigger purpose is paramount.