How I Thrive: “Routine can breed boredom so get those synapses firing”, with Paige Arnof-Fenn
An Interview With Ming Zhao
Switch gears — listen to music, read for an hour, do a crossword puzzle or video game anything to shake up your focus and energy that helps get out of the rut you are in, routine can breed boredom so get those synapses firing
At times it feels like wellness or elevating one’s wellbeing, is diametrically opposed to high achievement and high performance in one’s career. The stress, mental energy, long hours, lack of restful sleep, preoccupation that result from a high-achievement life seem to directly inhibit wellness. And yet, in order to sustain the creativity, flexibility, mental acuity and resilience that are necessary for high performance, wellness and wellbeing of the mind, body and soul are also mandatory. So how do we achieve both? This is the question I’m hoping to answer through conversations with high-achieving women who have gleaned and are practicing their own philosophies on maintaining their wellbeing.
As a part of this series about what successful women leaders do to thrive, both personally and professionally, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paige Arnof-Fenn. Paige is the founder & CEO of global marketing and branding firm Mavens & Moguls based in Cambridge, MA. Her clients include Microsoft, Virgin, venture-backed startups as well as non profit organizations. She graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Business School. She is a popular speaker and columnist who has written for Entrepreneur and Forbes.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path and to where you are today?
I did not plan on starting a company. I always wanted to go work for a large multi-national business and be a Fortune 500 CEO. When I was a student I looked at leaders like Meg Whitman & Ursula Burns as my role models. I started my career on Wall Street in the 80s and had a successful career in Corporate America at companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola and worked at 3 different startups as the head of marketing. I took the leap right after 9/11 when the company I worked for cut their marketing. I had nothing to lose. Being an entrepreneur provides me a platform to do work I truly enjoy with and for people I respect. I get to set my priorities, I have time to travel and hang out with my inner circle, and work out every day. It has been a journey to get here but I am lucky to have found it. I love the autonomy, flexibility and the fact that I know every day the impact that I have on my business. When I worked at big companies I always felt the ball would roll with or without me, that if I got hit by a bus someone new would be in my office right away. Now my DNA is in everything we do and I can trace every decision and sale to something I did or a decision I made and that is incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. Like most entrepreneurs, I am working harder and longer than ever and I have never been happier. Working for yourself and building a business you started in incredibly rewarding and gratifying. It has been a lot of fun, I joke that I am the accidental entrepreneur. I knew I had made it as an entrepreneur when Harvard wrote 2 case studies on my business a few years after I started it, we were very early to pioneer sharing resources on the marketing front (before my company it was really only done with HR, legal and accounting/finance).
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I arrived on Wall Street in the 80s, I realized early on I wanted to switch career tracks. Being a Financial Analyst in investment banking paid well but the hours and lifestyle did not leave time for anything else so after 2 years I decided to go back to school for my MBA which allowed me to rebrand myself, try a new area as a summer intern in marketing, gain new skills and build my network and my confidence. For me getting an MBA was critical for finding work I enjoyed and making the transition smoothly. I took marketing classes and got experience on and off campus to help me build a resume in the new field which gave me credibility as a marketer. I positioned myself as being strong analytically which would help me be a better marketer using data to make decisions. I think it is possible to rebrand yourself if you are strategic about the process. It is important to have a story to explain your transition and show confidence in your decision not to be defensive about it. I realized the skills and activities I liked best in my finance career were the ones that would make me a better marketer. Once I shared that perspective the recruiters understood my interest and offered me jobs. I have loved the work and have been in marketing ever since. I know having an MBA helped my resume stand out to get interviews and gave me credibility as an entrepreneur. I am so much happier in a career that allows me to use both sides of my brain, explore a more creative path and use my business acumen in all sizes and types of businesses from the very largest public companies to venture-backed startups and now running my own firm. If you are not excited by your job, I am a big fan of finding ways to bridge to another track to find something you truly enjoy spending time doing that shares your talents and gifts.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
It can be hard to laugh at mistakes but looking back I remember one week early on when I had 3 or 4 talks lined up over a couple of day period so I went from one evening event to a breakfast the next morning to a lunch and evening talk the following day. I enjoy public speaking and get a lot of referrals and business that way. The morning after my final speech I showed up at a meeting with a prospective client along with a ew of my colleagues and I realized I was completely out of business cards. I was so embarrassed and my team laughed at me since I always remind them it is important to be professional and prepared all the time. I ended up sending a hand written thank you note to the prospect with my card enclosed and we won the business so I turned my mistake into a good outcome plus I have never run out of business cards again! It is a great lesson in the power of humility, resilience, persistence, manners and having a sense of humor.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture and work life?
In my experience happy employees become champions and advocates for the business and the brand. When they are happy customers will follow. If companies take good care of their people then the employees take better care of the customers. I believe the organizations that realize that their employees are internal customers have happier & healthier staff and more loyal & profitable businesses. By having less turnover and more repeat customers the company can focus all their energy on making great products and services which gives them a huge competitive advantage in the market for talent and sales. Creating a great culture when you are leading and managing a team requires a clear vision, a commitment to hire the best people, some patience to make sure you put your money where your mouth is and a confidence that comes with experience. The optics matter — you better walk the talk because all eyes are on you so your team is not just listening to what you say but also watching what you do and how you respond/react. My biggest challenge when I started my company was that the people you start with are not always the ones who grow with you. The hardest lesson I learned early on is not getting rid of weak people earlier than I did in the first few years of my business. I spent more time managing them than finding new customers. I knew in my gut they were not up to snuff but out of loyalty to them I let them hang around much longer than they should have. It would have been better for everyone to let them go as soon as the signs were there. They became more insecure and threatened as we grew which was not productive for the team. As soon as I let them go the culture got stronger and the bar higher. “A” team people like to be surrounded by other stars. It is true that you should hire slowly and fire quickly. I did not make that mistake again later on so learned it well the first time. I wish I had known it even earlier though but lesson learned for sure!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview. In my work, I focus on how one can thrive in three areas, body, mind, and heart. I’d like to flesh this out with you. You are a very busy leader with a demanding schedule. Can you share with our readers two self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.
Like most small business owners and entrepreneurs there are never enough hours in the day to fit everything in so when something has to give it is usually time I have allocated for myself to exercise or just relax. What I have come to appreciate and realize in my 50s is that “me time” is not a luxury or pampering like it was in my youth, now it is maintenance! I have learned to respect my time on the calendar and take myself as seriously as I take my most important clients because if I am not at my peak performance I am not going to be useful to anyone else either. I set aside regular time to recharge my batteries and take better care of myself so that mentally and physically I will be sharp and in the best health possible to set myself up for success. I make an effort to attend fewer networking events and make better choices of how to spend my time, a “less is more” approach. I prefer to participate in more high impact activities so that I have more energy to spend with decision makers and key influencers. In the past I spread myself too thin and let myself get run down unnecessarily with little to show for my efforts. I am happy to have more time to spend with the people I care about and the activities and causes that matter most to me.
If I do not manage my time well and feel good I am not going to be at my peak performance level for my team or my clients. With technology and social media we are always on today 24/7. All work and no play is just not a sustainable option. To be more productive I try to find creative ways to multi task that incorporates work and exercise . When I worked at large companies they had gyms at the office or groups who walked at lunch but when you are an entrepreneur you have to get creative to find balance . Instead of meeting up with your local colleagues at a coffee shop, over a meal or chatting with them on the phone, meet them for a walk so you can catch up while you are getting some exercise too. You’ll feel great after, the time will fly & it will be a fun activity to share. It works with customers too, I have clients who play golf so sometimes we meet at a driving range instead of the office to discuss things especially when you are trying to think outside the box. A change in venue is always nice and you feel so much better when you are moving and not trapped behind your desk. The other tips I like to incorporate are taking public transportation when possible, parking at the far end of the lot and walking as well as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, it adds up to a lot of extra steps and movement if you do it every day.
Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your mind thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)
I think it is a mistake to hide behind technology and CRM systems when prospecting. My advice is to disconnect from technology and focus on cultivating human, face to face relationships. Meeting for coffee or lunch can accomplish so much more than e-mail exchanges, social media posts, etc. and it is a great way to get to know people better, their interests, hobbies, and dreams. I have found that building relationships is what drives my business and technology supports them once they are solidified. Technology helps advance the conversation but it will never replace the human interaction that builds trust over time.
It takes effort and a commitment to excellence to continually improve especially as an entrepreneur and CEO. I do not think there is one silver bullet, I use a combination of reading and learning online and off, attending conferences and talks, networking, newsletters from influencers, TED talks, podcasts, finding mentors and listening to all feedback good and bad. I have found that I learn more from the bad and tough situations in my career than when things go smoothly. I carve out a few hours each week on my calendar for professional development activities to make it a priority.
Finally, can you share with us two routines that use to help your heart, your emotional or spiritual life to thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)
I am a big fan of Tai Chi, and I also do Qi Gong, massage, acupuncture, knitting, reading, hanging out with friends, and watching TV to de-stress. I started learning Tai Chi ~14 years ago and have gotten progressively addicted over the years. I now know the choreography of 2 different forms and I absolutely love it. It is a way to both relax and focus. I even guest teach when the regular backup cannot be there. I have met great people, it has helped my balance, improved my bone density and helped calm my mind. I just love it. I even wrote an article on it for Entrepreneur magazine a few years ago. Even if I do not always have balance I am able to integrate my work and my life in a good way.
When life is very busy, and you cannot stick with your ideal routine, are there any wellness practices, rituals, products or services for your mind, body, or soul that you absolutely cannot live without?
To avoid burnout here are a few things I recommend adding to your to do list or calendar:
* Exercise — go to the gym, take a walk around the block, find an empty conference room to stretch out, I do something active every day to stay healthy and break up my day
* Plan a vacation — buy tickets to lock in a future date so you can start preparing, the mental escape knowing it is coming up will help you get through the tough times
* Switch gears — listen to music, read for an hour, do a crossword puzzle or video game anything to shake up your focus and energy that helps get out of the rut you are in, routine can breed boredom so get those synapses firing
* Lunch meetings — I get out of the office 3–5 days a week which is a great way to stay connected personally and professionally, shake up my routine and get going
As an entrepreneur it is easy to get overwhelmed. Staying healthy for me is about finding ways to unwind and relax as part of my day. It is about balance. I am a big fan of Tai Chi, but I also do Chi Gong, massage, acupuncture, knitting, reading, hanging out with friends, and watching TV to de-stress. I started learning Tai Chi ~15 years ago and have gotten progressively addicted over the years. I now know the choreography of 2 different forms and I absolutely love it. It is a way to both relax and focus. I even guest teach when the regular backup cannot be there. I have met great people, it has helped my balance, improved my bone density and helped calm my mind. I just love it. I even wrote an article on it for Entrepreneur magazine a few years ago.
All of us have great days and days that are not as great. On days when you feel like a rockstar what do you do? What does that day look like, and what did you do to get there?
When I started my business I set a goal of working with people I respect and admire for people I want to help succeed. For me, relationships matter. Quality encounters matter. Honesty, consistency, authenticity and integrity matter. The experience and the journey matter a lot too. Focus on what matters to you and get rid of things that don’t. Taking the clutter out of your mind and your life frees up space for more of what you value. Success is very personal so your definition will be — and should be — different than mine. To me, growth for growth’s sake is meaningless, but profitable growth with interesting clients solving important problems is what keeps me engaged and excited. The ability to spend time with people I love and care about is critical. My reputation really matters, and the positive word-of-mouth means a lot to me since almost all of our business comes by referral. So on my rockstar days I have time to be creative and do work my clients value, spend time with people I care about, take time for myself to exercise or be reflective and make time to glve back in my community.
There are a lot of successful businesses out there that stay true to their core values and offer great products and services to their customers that they value. When you can create an environment where your employees and customers feel valued and appreciated you can feel proud and know you have a successful business. Look at Spanx, Virgin, Apple, etc. for examples.
In contrast, on days when you feel down, what do you do?
As an entrepreneur there are many ups and downs but most would agree that the excitement and joy of bringing your idea to life is incredibly fulfilling and dealing with the bumps in the road is just part of the adventure. To stay motivated during the rough times I try to maintain perspective by taking good care of myself, getting exercise, seeing friends and family and reminding myself that I can always go back to work for others but when I open the file with all the notes and kudos I have gotten from customers and colleagues with praise and encouragement along with sincere thanks for helping them or making a difference through my business it is just the kick in the pants I need to keep going. Start a file with cards, notes, e-mails, etc. and dust it off when you are down so that you can be reminded of not just who you are and what you do but why you do it. That always works for me!
Do you have a story about the weirdest, most bizarre or most humorous wellness experience, treatment, practice, or practitioner that you’ve ever partaken in? If you do, we’d love to hear it.
I have gone to spas and wellness retreats with friends and professional colleagues many times over the years and 4 years ago when a bunch of us were turning 50 we went to one where I took a class and learned to knit. I am still not very good but I do enjoy knitting so for fun I joined a knitting group that meets every week in a local coffee shop. Since I have only been knitting a few years, I am by far the worst knitter in the group so everyone helps me when I make mistakes. We really do not talk about work at all in the group but people have seen my signature in e-mails that I am the founder & CEO of a company. A few weeks ago a new person showed up for our knitting group and as soon as she sat down she recognized me from a talk I gave years ago. She is also an entrepreneur and belongs to a very high profile organization that had brought me in for a keynote speech at one of their big events. She is an excellent knitter too. She immediately tells the group all about me, my company, how great my talk was, etc. She still remembered things I had said in the talk and how great my advice was, etc. I think the group was amazed she was such a fan and I was so well respected in my field given they have only known me for a few years as a terrible knitter ;-) The woman is now a regular in our group and I think they all see me in new light now more as a beginner knitter with potential who has other strengths and who is a respected leader in other parts of her life. They are also asking to send me referrals now which is great! Plus my knitting is slowly but surely getting better now too! It paid off to go relax with my girlfriends, get out of my comfort zone and pick up a new hobby where I was brave enough to start at the bottom of the totem pole again and now it is benefitting me professionally too!
You’re a high achieving business leader, and you also have family and loved ones that may require a different side of you at home. How do you leave the executive at the door, and be the most loving caretaker at home?
I think life circumstances change and your priorities change then your definition of success changes. For the first 5 years after I started my company I was scared to go on vacation for fear all my hard work would unravel. Then my in-laws, father, mom and stepdad all started to get sick and I wanted to be there for them. They all lived thousands of miles away so I started to work less. After years of decline they each died about 6 months apart (7 people in less than 6 years) and I became executrix, which is like having another job at times. So I had to take very good care of myself or I would not have been helpful to anyone else. I started working out every day. I started planning me time on my calendar. I became more comfortable with white space in my day and stopped over scheduling myself. And guess what? My business did not suffer, in fact it has become stronger. We moved up the food chain and have better clients. I do not think I could ever go back. I am so much happier and more productive as an entrepreneur than I ever was working for others. It is all about controlling your calendar. I no longer try to squeeze in more meetings or hit multiple events at night. As an entrepreneur, I can be selective. Less really is more. I’ve chosen quality over quantity. It sounds trivial but it is true. I created a platform to do work I enjoy and feel energized by. I feel I have found my purpose because I used to work all the time and life was passing me by. I got raises and promotions but I was all work and no play and I did not feel fulfilled. Since starting my business I have joined boards and volunteered at several organizations. I am a mentor to the next generation of leaders and have helped build a very successful anti-bullying program that >100,000 middle school aged kids have gone through. As a marketing consultant I am able to write articles, contribute to books and speak at events to share my experience and lessons learned. As my success has grown I think it has made my life easier actually. I have more and better opportunities to choose from now. It is great to see the hard work pay off.
Is there a particular practitioner, expert, book, podcast or resource that made a significant impact on you and helped you to thrive? Can you share a story about that with us?
Networking may sound old fashioned in these high tech days but it still works. Whether your business is B2B or B2C everything is really P2P person to person. Most of my business comes from networking. My rule is that you should network in person during the business day and do it online after hours. People do business with people they know, like and trust so you have to get out there to build your reputation online and off. Prospective customers and jobs can come from anyone anywhere anytime so you should always be on your best behavior & make a great lasting impression. Be nice to everyone & make friends before you need them, you never know who is in or will be in a position to help! Learn to love it or find a buddy to go to events with and tag team, you have to get out there! I think what makes someone effective at networking happens to coincide with things that just come more naturally to them. I have been told I am good at networking. I grew up in the South so maybe it is both nature and nurture in my case. The traits that work in my favor include: being naturally curious so you ask a lot of question, people love talking about themselves; being a good listener so you can ask them more as follow up; being warm and friendly, smile, be the first to introduce yourself; sending a hand written thank you note or e-mail referencing something you discussed or including an article you think they might enjoy right after you first meet; and making an introduction for them to meet someone in your network who they would find interesting. When you stop trying to sell and just share what you know and love networking is fun! People put too much emphasis on trying to be interesting instead of being interested in the other person.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Wow that is a tall order. I grew up in the Deep South where manners matter and people are raised to show respect. I would love to start a movement of kindness where everyone takes the high road, is a giver not a taker, gives people the benefit of the doubt, and realizes that life is not a zero sum game. If we all focused on figuring out ways to bake new pies and not just divide the ones we have we’d all be a lot better off. Just be kind. It would be a nice counterbalance to what we see in Washington and all over the media today.. I think the people around the world in the center want peace and we need find ways to bring the extremists back into the fold but it is going to take people from all walks of life to band together to make it happen. There really is more in common across cultures when you realize everyone wants the best for their family and community so we should all be putting our energy into building stronger foundations and ecosystems that will help us all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
My favorite quote is “people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It has been attributed to many people including Teddy Roosevelt. I like it and find it inspiring because it is a simple reminder to listen more than talk, show empathy and try to look at the situation from another perspective. The goal is not to wear them down or impress them with your smarts. The goal is to connect, communicate clearly, solve the problem and move on.
What are the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About the Author:
Ming Zhao is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host. She is co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare, a technology-powered personalized skincare company that won MIT’s AI Technology of the Year award and is backed by Y-Combinator and Stanford StartX. She is an immigrant, a third-generation entrepreneur, and a mother whose daughter is the same age as her startup. Prior to founding PROVEN, Ming was a private equity investor where she frequently worked 80-hour weeks, wreaking havoc on her skin and soul, leading her to pursue personalized skincare. She has an MBA from Harvard University and lives with her family in San Francisco, CA. Checkout PROVEN’s Skin Genome Quiz at www.ProvenSkincare.com.