Leading with Heart: Jaci Russo of brandRUSSO On The Power of Authentic Women’s Leadership

An Interview With Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

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Recognizing the value of family and personal priorities, I’ve implemented a hybrid flex schedule in the company. Originating from my desire to be present for my own family, this approach ensures equal opportunities for all team members to balance personal and professional commitments, fostering a supportive and inclusive work culture.

In today’s dynamic world, the concept of leadership is continuously evolving. While traditional leadership models have often been male-dominated, there is a growing recognition of the unique strengths and perspectives that women bring to these roles. This series aims to explore how women can become more effective leaders by authentically embracing their femininity and innate strengths, rather than conforming to traditional male leadership styles. In this series, we are talking to successful women leaders, coaches, authors, and experts who can provide insights and personal stories on how embracing their inherent feminine qualities has enhanced their leadership abilities. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jaci Russo.

Jaci Russo is a dedicated leader with a history of driving growth and surpassing expectations, serves as the co-founder and CEO of brandRUSSO, a strategic branding agency based in Lafayette, LA. Instrumental in establishing the company’s reputation for delivering reliable and high-quality results, Russo’s career soared after her tenure at the Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, CA, and her pivotal role in shaping the brands of major entities alongside Barry Diller.

Beyond the boardroom, Russo, a published author and esteemed speaker on branding and marketing, brings over two decades of Brand Strategist experience to various platforms, including Brand State U, an online learning platform. Holding a Professional Certified Marketer designation, she is a graduate of Leadership LA, completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business Program, and serves as a Brand Consultant for the Edward Lowe Foundation. Known for fostering a collaborative culture at brandRUSSO and her commitment to education and economic empowerment, Russo’s exceptional leadership style extends to her induction into the Acadiana Business Hall of Fame, solidifying her role as a community leader who inspires others through active involvement in civic organizations and nonprofits.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about authentic, feminine leadership, 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?

Certainly, I stumbled into entrepreneurship unexpectedly. Following my college years in Louisiana, I relocated to Los Angeles, where I spent most of the nineties working in the entertainment industry, specifically at Creative Artists Agency, now known as HSNI, a merger of Home Shopping Network and Ticketmaster. Returning to Louisiana, I assumed the role of a regional marketing director. However, after getting married and becoming pregnant on our honeymoon, I found myself let go from my job, and that became the catalyst for establishing my own agency in 2001. Since then, I’ve been a fervent advocate for women, with our workforce comprising around 80–85 percent women. Additionally, I prioritize cultivating leadership within my team and emphasize the importance of community engagement and giving back.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In the early stages of my career at a billion-dollar company, I faced a formidable challenge as an assistant to a talent agent handling renowned actors. Despite initially feeling overwhelmed, I recognized the imperative to advocate for myself. To bridge the knowledge gap, I committed to working more diligently, intelligently, actively listening, and dedicating my off hours to continuous learning through reading. This experience ingrained in me a habit of lifelong learning, fostering rapid knowledge growth. Beyond merely avoiding the risk of daily dismissal, this proactive approach significantly influenced my career trajectory. It underscored the enduring importance

of ongoing learning, emphasizing that continuous improvement in one’s craft remains crucial even after the completion of formal education.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story? We distinguish ourselves in the industry through unique practices that set us apart. Our approach is intentionally industry-agnostic, avoiding specialization in specific sectors to maintain the engagement of our creative team and resist conformity. Instead of traditional hourly rates, we structure compensation through projects and retainers, offering clients fixed expenses and a sense of security. Since our establishment in 2001, we have embraced a hybrid/flex schedule, granting employees the freedom to work from anywhere. This flexibility, which includes unlimited paid time off and a family-centric philosophy, demonstrates our commitment to work/life integration. In 2023, we transitioned to a four-day work week, aligning with our goal of fostering a work environment that prioritizes professional development, collaboration, and a sense of accomplishment. Upholding a strict code of conduct, we ensure a respectful and collaborative atmosphere, emphasizing that work should be driven by passion and purpose, not just a paycheck. As a leader, maintaining our company’s appeal and fulfillment for top talent is of utmost importance to me.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

It all begins with respect. I hold deep respect for every member of my team, and I believe my behavior fosters a culture of mutual respect. This emphasis on respect serves as a foundation for kindness, integrity, and various other positive qualities. Lifelong learning is a key value for me, evident not only in these responses but also in my daily life. As an avid reader, continual learner, and enthusiastic teacher who enjoys conducting workshops and seminars, I believe in the profound exchange of knowledge among us. Emphasizing lifelong learning and professional development, the third crucial aspect is not taking ourselves too seriously. Ensuring that we enjoy what we do is paramount to me. Given the significant time spent together each day, I strive to create a work environment where people not only work well together but also genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

My most challenging decision as a leader came in March 2020 amid the looming Covid-induced national shutdown. Faced with uncertainties about our small business’s survival, I prioritized ensuring our clients thrived. In a decisive meeting, I assured the team that payroll would be met, even if it meant tapping into personal funds. By redirecting our focus entirely to our clients’ success and weathering the storm together, we not only retained all clients but gained new ones in 2020 and continued growing every year since. Despite initial fears, the decision, now seemingly straightforward, required courage and a willingness to dip into personal accounts if necessary. I take pride in the consistent growth achieved each year, a testament to the team’s resilience and our client-centric approach during challenging times.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you share a personal experience where embracing your unique leadership style, which might not align with traditional expectations, led to a significant positive impact in your organization or team?

When we initiated the company, I was expecting our second child. Back in the early 2000s, the conventional work culture involved everyone being in the office extensively, including overtime on nights and weekends. However, this lifestyle wasn’t aligned with my values, and I didn’t want my team to experience the same. In 2001, we established a hybrid work arrangement, blending work-from-home and office hours. This flexible schedule, promoting “work life integration,” prioritized family needs over work commitments. While unconventional at the time, this approach granted me the flexibility to be with my kids and offered the same freedom to our team. It may not have been the norm then, but I believe this move has been instrumental in attracting and retaining top talent for our agency.

In your journey as a leader, how have you balanced demonstrating resilience, often seen as a masculine trait, with showing vulnerability, which is equally powerful, but typically feminine? Can you give an example where this balance created a meaningful difference?

That’s a thought-provoking question. Resilience seems to be a strong suit for me, whether it’s in my DNA or cultivated through childhood challenges and diverse experiences working in different parts of the country. It’s a quality I cherish about myself. However, I find vulnerability less comfortable, a trait I actively work on. In the early stages of my career, I felt compelled to always have the right answers in a fast-paced industry. As a wife, mother, and leader of my company, my focus shifted from being right to finding solutions that benefit everyone. I aim to avoid blaming and dwelling on the past, adopting a resilient approach of looking forward without a rearview mirror. While vulnerability doesn’t come naturally, I recognize it as a growth area, unrelated to any specific gender trait but possibly rooted in childhood experiences. Working on embracing vulnerability is an ongoing effort for me, as I navigate a path distinct from shame but equally important..

As a woman in leadership, how have you navigated and challenged gender stereotypes, especially in situations where traditional male-dominated approaches are the norm? What strategies have you employed to remain authentic to your style?

Ignorance played a surprising role when I started my agency in February 2001 in Lafayette, Louisiana. With 10 successful ad agencies in the area, six of them run by women, I considered it the norm. Growing up in this environment, I assumed the entire industry mirrored this gender balance. It wasn’t until later in my career, during unrelated research, that I discovered only 1% of

ad agencies are led by women, with half a percent founded by women. The realization struck me — the industry was predominantly male-dominated. Ignorance shielded me from this reality initially, allowing me to follow in the footsteps of groundbreaking women without fully understanding their pioneering roles. Sometimes, ignorance can offer unexpected advantages.

How do you utilize emotional intelligence and active listening to create an inclusive environment in your team or organization? Could you share a specific instance where these qualities particularly enhanced team dynamics or performance?”

Every month, we enlist the expertise of Melissa Bowen from The Authenticity Center for professional coaching sessions. These sessions focus on essential skills such as effective communication, navigating conversations, establishing boundaries, building trust, and honing active listening abilities. In my view, emotional intelligence surpasses other forms of intelligence in importance. I prioritize being emotionally intelligent, resilient, and adaptable over having a high IQ. These skills are particularly crucial in today’s era, and I fully embrace their significance. By consistently incorporating training to enhance these qualities, we not only improve as an agency but also become more effective partners for our clients. Beyond the professional realm, it positively impacts our interpersonal relationships both inside and outside the workplace, contributing to our overall growth as individuals.

What role has mentorship played in developing your authentic leadership style, and how do you communicate authentically to inspire and empower both your mentors and mentees?

I actively serve as a mentor through various organizations, ranging from local leadership groups to regional startups focusing on assisting individuals in launching businesses, and even The National American Academy of Entrepreneurs. For me, mentorship is a means of paying it forward, helping others overcome obstacles I once faced. I firmly believe in the power of collaboration over competition. If I can offer support and help others progress, I’m all in. Reflecting on my own journey, I sought mentors when formalized mentorship programs were scarce. Those informal mentor relationships, often established over coffee or lunch, played a significant role in shaping my career and enabling me to build a company and culture I’m proud of. While formal mentorship programs are valuable, I encourage everyone to seek mentorship actively. If you can’t find one, feel free to reach out, and I’ll be more than happy to mentor you or help you find suitable mentors. Whether through direct outreach or a social media deep dive, seize the opportunity to learn from those who’ve navigated the path before you.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Leading Authentically As A Woman Will Affect Your Leadership”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

Leading authentically as a woman profoundly influences leadership in five key ways:

1. Nurturing Leadership Style: Embracing femininity, I prioritize nurturing as a leadership quality. I work diligently to cultivate a nurturing environment for my team, ensuring they feel supported and valued.

2. Effective Multitasking: Juggling responsibilities as a wife, mother, and CEO has honed my multitasking abilities. Understanding and managing diverse tasks concurrently is a crucial aspect of my leadership approach, reflecting in my day-to-day work.

3. Strategic Insight from Past Experience: Drawing from my background as a bartender and server, I’ve developed a skill for getting to the root of issues. This experience enables me to listen actively, anticipate needs, and stay one step ahead, adopting a strategic approach akin to playing chess while others play checkers.

4. Gender-Neutral Compensation Policies: In response to gender-based pay disparities elsewhere, I’ve established a fair and balanced compensation structure in our organization. Job responsibilities, tenure, and value brought to the role determine pay, ensuring a gender-neutral approach where women often earn more than men based on merit.

5. Commitment to Work-Life Integration: Recognizing the value of family and personal priorities, I’ve implemented a hybrid flex schedule in the company. Originating from my desire to be present for my own family, this approach ensures equal opportunities for all team members to balance personal and professional commitments, fostering a supportive and inclusive work culture.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

I may not naturally lean towards empathy, but I actively strive to be understanding. My personality is more headline-driven — focused on getting tasks done efficiently. Recognizing the importance of personal connections, I make a conscious effort to greet coworkers and ensure they have access to me. Empathy isn’t a trait that people might immediately associate with me; terms like hard-hitting, assertive, and aggressive may be more common descriptors. However, I’m dedicated to working on this aspect intentionally and hope to further develop my empathetic qualities.

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. :-)

Our focus is entirely on education, especially in the context of large-scale movements that can truly impact the world. I believe a key aspect of transformative change lies in ensuring that children, from birth to five years old, are optimally prepared for school. Drawing inspiration from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, I find the concept of providing a new book to kids every month, regardless of their location or their parents’ income, to be brilliant. This initiative aims to instill a love for reading, as being a reader lays the foundation for becoming a lifelong learner — an invaluable aspect of personal development. Any movement centered around education, facilitating growth, continuous learning, and enhanced intelligence, is, in my view, a movement that holds significant promise.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Website:

www.brandrusso.com

www.jacirusso.com

Socials:

Twitter: @brandrusso @jacirusso

Facebook: @brandrusso @jacirusso

LinkedIn: @brandrusso.com @jacirusso

Instagram: @brandrusso @jacirusso

He Said, She Said: Branding Book Link:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1642251933/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o00_s 00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About The Interviewer: Pirie is a TedX speaker, author and a Life Empowerment Coach. She is a co-host of Own your Throne podcast, inspiring women in the 2nd chapter of their lives. With over 20 years in front of the camera, Pirie Grossman understands the power of storytelling. After success in commercials and acting. She spent 10 years reporting for E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, also hosted ABC’s “Every Woman”. Her work off-camera capitalizes on her strength, producing, bringing people together for unique experiences. She produced a Children’s Day of Compassion during the Dalai Lama’s visit here in 2005. 10,000 children attended, sharing ideas about compassion with His Holiness. From 2006–2009, Pirie Co-chaired the Special Olympics World Winter Games, in Idaho, welcoming 3,000 athletes from over 150 countries. She founded Destiny Productions to create Wellness Festivals and is an Advisory Board member of the Sun Valley Wellness Board.In February 2017, Pirie produced, “Love is Louder”, a Brain Health Summit, bringing in Kevin Hines, noted suicide survivor to Sun Valley who spoke to school kids about suicide. Sun Valley is in the top 5% highest suicide rate per capita in the Northwest, prompting a community initiative with St. Luke’s and other stake holders, to begin healing. She lives in Sun Valley with her two children, serves on the Board of Community School. She has her Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica and is an Executive Life Empowerment Coach, where she helps people meet their dreams and goals! The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is a dream with a date on it!

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Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

TedX Speaker, Influencer, Bestselling Author and former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC.