Scott Baradell of Idea Grove: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times
Sometimes people get overwhelmed; that includes business owners. It’s certainly happened to me. You just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and find a way to make it to the next day.
As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Baradell.
Scott is founder and CEO of Idea Grove. For more than 15 years, Scott has been a thought leader on the future of public relations. He created one of the original PR blogs, Media Orchard, which at one time had a larger audience than PRWeek. His focus in recent years has been on growing his agency by helping his technology clients grow. In 2020, Scott began writing Trust Signals: The New PR, outlining a new framework for the practice of public relations, to be published by LionCrest in 2021. Put simply, “trust signals” are evidence points, from media coverage and online reviews to website “trust badges,” that make people believe in your brand. Scott has an Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) from the PRSA and speaks on PR and marketing topics at industry events nationwide.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I had been a journalist and then a corporate PR executive before I started Idea Grove in 2005, when I was 39. It started with a blog. I wrote my first blog post about PR in March 2005; this was early days for blogging and not many marketers were doing it. I didn’t know much about SEO at the time, but suddenly I was getting phones calls and emails from folks who wanted to work with me. It turns out my blog put me at the top of Google results for terms like “Dallas PR firms” — over giant agencies with Dallas offices like Edelman and FleishmanHillard. The business flowed in and the rest is history. I realized then the value of being a step or two ahead of the game. It’s what built Idea Grove, and what fuels us still.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I first transitioned from journalism to corporate PR, the first story I placed was a doozy. I was pitching a profile of my company’s CEO and got a bite from a reporter named Miles at a small community publication. Publications like that were known for puff pieces — innocuous features that would never offend the advertisers. So I arranged for Miles to interview the CEO, and he did, for almost two hours. “This should be a great piece,” I assured my boss after the interview. Of course, I was young and naive at the time. I had never been on the receiving end of a reporter’s disingenuousness. But boy, did I learn my lesson quickly — and in the most embarrassing way possible.
As it turned out, Miles had done lots of reporting on his own before ever contacting me, none of which he revealed. He had talked to numerous employees who had left the company before I even started working there — and had all the ammo he needed for a damning hit piece on my CEO. The worst part of his story was the anecdote he shared, based on interviews with several former employees, of the CEO’s preferred costume in the office on Halloween: He would wear a trench coat that, when opened in front of female employees, would reveal a giant fake penis that would flap down in front of him. My boss insisted that I call Miles and ask for a retraction. “Our CEO is a man of great propriety,” she intoned. “He would never do such a thing.” But I couldn’t force myself to call Miles. I had already done my own checking and had confirmed that the story was true. Less than six months into the tenure of my first PR job, I was persona non grata at the company. Thanks, Miles.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I never had an interest in PR, or business for that matter, growing up. So when I moved into corporate PR, I felt lost. My first job was with a financial services firm. All they talked and seemed to care about was money. The CEO would come into our marketing department meetings and declare, “It’s all bullshit!” He dismissed marketing as an empty, cynical endeavor to get customers to sign on the dotted line. And that was my introduction to the business world. I was so confused and deflated.
Fortunately, before long I found a new job doing PR at a tech company, and my boss there was a wonderful person and leader. I learned so much from her and modeled myself after her in many ways. I’ve been in tech PR ever since, and I wouldn’t be where I am without her.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My vision was to create a PR firm that loved technology enough to truly understand it, and to translate it in exciting ways for the non-technical world. When I worked with agencies as a client, I was always disappointed in their writing ability and in their ability to understand the technology. Most agencies used freelancers at the time and didn’t even have in-house writers. I wanted to be the agency that could tell complex stories in compelling ways, influencing the decision-making of both business and IT buyers. Idea Grove has launched products that have become household names in B2B tech. We’ve helped tiny bootstrapped startups triumph in nine-figure exits. We’ve worked as valued partners with some of the most well-known and trusted names in technology. And our team takes great pride in that.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
This is an unprecedented time of pain and uncertainty for our country. But we’ve all been through pain in our own lives. I try to remind my team of just how strong they are, and how individually, they have all faced and conquered difficult challenges before.
Personally, I am steeled for this crisis because of the losses I have already suffered. My wife Cathy passed away in 2010 after a five-year battle with a brain tumor. In many ways, it was this heartache that fueled the growth of Idea Grove from a one-person agency to what it is today.
I have had the chance to get to know many of those on my team and learn their stories. I know of loved ones lost. I know of cancer diagnoses and treatment. I understand depression and seeking help for it because I have been there, too. I know the uncertainty that comes with being young and unattached at a time when it is especially easy to feel lonely and adrift in the world. What I’ve told my team, and what I will tell anyone reading this, is not to let your pain own you. Don’t let it paralyze you. Use it.
If nothing else, this particular challenge offers a forceful reminder of what we all have in common as humans. None of us are perfect. No one is untouchable. We are all vulnerable. And being truly strong requires us to first acknowledge and then accept our vulnerability. If you need help, that’s OK. Ask for help. Others will help you. But don’t lose heart and don’t give up. We all have a part to play right now if we are to overcome this challenge.
I tell my team this: We have to keep it together — for each other.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
When Cathy died, I had a 2 ½-year-old girl named Juliet and an 11-month-old boy named Benjamin to take care of. As you can imagine, it was terrifying. It was terrifying partly because it was such a big challenge to try to make a living — let alone grow my business — while taking care of two babies. It was also scary because I was grieving and had a complete inability to focus.
My home office was the second floor of the house, but just dragging myself up the stairs in the morning became impossible. I got exhausted just thinking about it. So, I brought my Mac downstairs and put it in the bedroom, on a small table less than five feet from the bed. That got me in front of my computer again. But it still didn’t mean I could actually work. I would just turn it on and stare at it for hours at a time. Morning, afternoon, night — it didn’t matter. I couldn’t get anything done.
Then one night, I very distinctly remember looking up from my little desk to the bedroom door and in the doorway, framed with light from the kitchen behind them, were these two little angels, standing side by side, just staring at me silently. Juliet and Benjamin. And suddenly it hit me. For their sake, I’d better get it together.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I like the old expression “chief cook and bottle washer” to describe a leader’s role. It originated more than 200 years ago to describe a sailor’s life at sea, and it applies well to many small business owners today as they navigate these turbulent times. A leader has to be ready for anything — from acting as the company’s head cheerleader to diving into any gap where help is needed.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I talk to my team a lot — through Zoom and Slack, or course. When COVID first hit and a couple of our big clients put things on hold, I told the team basically this: “Look, I have a business that could be worth millions or, worst case scenario, could be worth nothing. A life’s work vanished, if the worst possibilities became reality.”
And then I told them: “You know what I feel about that? Excitement. Opportunity. A chance to make things better. Zero fear. Fear will steal your joy every time. And it will make those fears become realities. Embrace the challenge — it’s how life is. Wouldn’t it be boring if we were never challenged to show what we’re made of? I know you are tough, smart and resilient. Now we get to show the world.”
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Communicate with clarity and transparency. For example, nobody wants surprises at work, especially when it comes to the company’s financials. That’s why we use open-book management. The company teaches each team member how to read the agency’s financials, allowing them to understand how each employee’s everyday decisions impact those financials. That way everyone understands the realities. They usually can forecast what must happen if customers or revenues are lost, for example. This reduces resentment of management for tough decisions, because these decisions no longer come as a surprise. Everyone pulls together to get through the hardship.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have no choice but to prepare for many scenarios. It’s far more challenging than before COVID hit. Our senior leadership team literally games scenarios out and makes plans for each of them. We’ve been fortunate not to have to resort to layoffs, for example, and I’m hopeful we will be able to avoid them entirely. But it would be poor management not to be ready if it ever came to that. We have to study every plausible scenario, or we will be caught flat-footed.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Every company is different, but for us, it’s living our values. Idea Grove’s values have evolved over time. In 2017, our leadership team introduced the values of creativity, energy and accountability. A year later, it became apparent that while those values were important, they weren’t sufficient. And so, we incorporated three additional values: respect, teamwork and empathy. At our 2020 planning meeting, our senior leadership team reaffirmed these values for our future.
Here are our agency’s six core values:
The first letters of these words form the acronym CREATE. This helps us to remember that in order to be successful, we must CREATE Every Day. We believe that when we adhere to these core values, Idea Grove becomes more than a job for our employees and more than a vendor for our clients. For our employees, we become an adventure. A family. A chance to be part of something larger. For our clients, we become a partner pulling the plow. A spark brightening the day. A confidante. Someone who cares enough to tell you what you need to hear, when you need to hear it. Building our future as an agency starts with the ground beneath us, and the values that bring us together.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Here are three mistakes that have hurt a lot of businesses over the past several months:
- Failing to adapt their business model or expectations;
- Falling into negative thinking;
- Allowing external factors to dictate success or failure.
Sometimes people get overwhelmed; that includes business owners. It’s certainly happened to me. You just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and find a way to make it to the next day. That’s all any of us can do.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We certainly lost growth traction initially. We had the best quarter in the company’s history in Q1 2020, then our worst quarter in a couple of years in Q2 because of COVID. Our quarter-over-quarter revenues dropped by half. But we pivoted our strategy to target different industry sectors, we adjusted our packages and pricing, and we’ve had a great July and August. We just keep forging ahead.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times?
If I were to list a top five, they would be:
- Be honest.
- Be optimistic.
- Be flexible.
- Be resourceful.
- Be present.
Of these, I would rank honesty as the most important characteristic to demonstrate in your actions as a leader.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I was never one for motivational quotations. I always thought they were kind of corny. But then, when Cathy died, one of those inspirational quotations became very important to me — you could even call it the organizing principle of my life. The words were from a Japanese poet named Kenji Miyazawa. He wrote: “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” That quote taught me to take the pain of losing my wife and to channel it to help my children and rebuild my life. It also taught me to do it without fear.
How can our readers further follow your work?
For years I focused exclusively on leading and growing Idea Grove, but I’m fortunate now to have a great team in place that has allowed me to revisit my first love of writing. I’m working on a blog and a book, both called “Trust Signals: The New PR.” You can find my latest work there.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!