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Veronique James Of The James Agency: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Veronique James.

Veronique founded The James Agency (TJA) in 2005 with the goal of creating an agency focused on open communication and transparency with clients and employees. Today, the award-winning, integrated agency specializes in consumer advertising, public relations and digital and continues to exemplify Veronique’s original vision. Veronique and her team collaborate to produce creatively-fueled, results-driven campaigns that help clients achieve their goals and positively impact their bottom line. Under Veronique’s direction, TJA has been honored with numerous industry and culture awards, including being named to the Inc. 5000 and Entrepreneur Top Company Cultures lists. Actively involved in the community, Veronique is currently a member of Entrepreneur’s Organization, Arizona Chapter. She served as the organization’s third female president in 2017/2018. She has received numerous accolades for her leadership, entrepreneurship and community involvement. Veronique is originally from Southern California and graduated with a BFA in Visual Communication from the University of Arizona.

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 launched TJA from my living room in 2005 because I knew she could offer a more sincere agency model than what was available in the industry. I was working in a large firm and realized the constant struggle between clients and agency staff, which resulted in frustrations and questions like “how could that have taken so long?” or “why does this cost so much?” getting in the way of the quality fo work and employment experience. What began as a one-woman show has become an award-winning integrated agency that starts with insights and follows up with a healthy dose of humanity.

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?

One of the more memorable and humorous mistakes I made was when I was still a one-person shop, and was playing the role of every member of the team, including the receptionist was answering the phone in a different voice to give the appearance that I indeed had a receptionist (instead of working from my home). I enjoyed making up accents each time for my own amusement, but of course the one day I answered the phone in a British accent and one of my client from London was on the other end of the call. It was that moment when I realized trying to “act as if” I was a large agency was pretty silly and I should just be authentic with the scale, size and independence of my little firm at the time.

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 can’t give credit to one person in particular as I have been so blessed to have been influenced by many during my entrepreneurial journey. However, one of the most impactful organizations that I have been privileged to learn from and seek support through is Entrepreneurs’ Organization or more commonly recognized as “EO.” EO is a member-led international organization for founders, co-founders and majority controlling shareholders who’s businesses do a minimum $1M in annual revenue. I have been in the Arizona chapter for 10 years and served on the board for 7 years, with the pinnacle of my board journey as Chapter President. Through experience sharing in small groups called “forum” as well as having access to likeminded individuals who have a thirst for learning and wanting to make a mark, I was able to learn rather than consistently start from scratch or reinvent the wheel when I was faced with a challenge or opportunity.

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?

The intent of the agency has always been the same — to build strong connections with clients and to allow the team to focus on doing really inspiring work, rather than being distracted by the typical clutter and noise that an agency often exhibits. We have been extremely intentional about allowing our clients to be in the driver’s seat with us and ensure there are no surprises along the way, which has enabled our partnerships to be healthy and our work environment to remain non-toxic. The backbone of the agency culture is founded on safety — a safe place to work where team members (junior and senior alike ) can express their opinions and ideas without judgement. The phrase we often celebrate is “many hands make for light work” and we believe this also relates to how we address complex challenges and constructive feedback. We believe in the word “together” more than any other work place I have been exposed to.

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?

Like all businesses, COVID was arguably the most difficult season in the 17 of the agency. Overnight, we lost half of our revenue and a significant amount of our clients. It was a week that I thought couldn’t get worse with all the news throughout the world, but when our world started to cave in I just didn’t know what to do.

Due to the lack of information available, I turned to my forum in EO and scheduled daily 4 p.m. check-ins via Zoom. During these calls we would share whatever we had learned that day either about the virus, our industries, FMLA regulations and financial aid. It felt like every hour something was changing and I wasn’t able to keep up, nor did I know where to even start to keep the business alive and my team employed.

It wasn’t before long where I started hearing the news that my peer leaders of other agencies were furloughing or laying off their teams by the masses. We were fortunate to still have 1/3 of our client base that was unaffected by the pandemic. However, that work wasn’t going to sustain this marathon and certainly was not going to keep my entire team busy 8 hours a day. While I diligently spent hours on end researching ways to sustain the business, I asked my directors to turn that free time of the team’s inward and focus on an outbound marketing strategy for the agency. I felt it was important that not only my team stay busy and keep their minds distracted, but also position the agency in a positive light of thought leadership during this incredibly difficult time.

As the weeks went on and there was no end to the pandemic in sight, the reality of financial distress set in. The agency had gone into the pandemic debt free and in a strong cash position. However, that rope was nearing the end, and without financial assistance I would be having to make some difficult decisions. Sadly, we were not able to get the first PPP loan due to an unfortunate mistake made by our banking partner. I had to ask myself if I was going to let go of 80% of the team to retain what was left or keep everyone employed and figure out a way.

After hours of deep reflection and prayer, I committed to maintaining the team and ensuring they would feel as little impact as possible. Through creative budget management and diverting our portfolio as well as rearranging roles internally, we were able to retain 100% of our staff as well as implement .015% pay cut via one payroll cycle. I believe that everyones commitment and dedication to the greater good played a vital part in our ability to overcome.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I think everyone was exhausted and overwhelmed by the title wave that disrupted mankind, but as an entrepreneur, facing adversity is something that we grow accustomed to in our businesses. Sure, there were days where I probably cried more hours than I was productive and found myself shutting out the inflamed opinions on social media and from my own team. But staying the course was the only thing I knew how to do, because the hell if I was going to give up my life’s work and the respect of my employees who depended on this business to something that was out of my control. In my darkest days of 2020, I found solace in exercise, my children and focusing on small wins when everything else felt too big to grasp. My greatest strength has always been consistency and creative thinking. Even today, I apply those fundamentals to my leadership practice which has served me well.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

In times of uncertainly, employees look to their leaders for clarity of vision and certainty of intent. Even when I was scared or didn’t know what tomorrow was going to bring, I felt it was important for me to show up as a stable and confident leader. Having a plan and clear direction shared amongst my team allowed us all to paddle in the same direction, which inevitably resulted in progress and success.

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?

A business is an ecosystem that needs to be nurtured just like we do. Just like a person, the emotions of a business can have high highs and low lows. During trying times, I found that deep connection enabled reliability and a tribal mentality amongst the team. To boost morale during the pandemic, the team had DAILY all-hands Zoom calls at 8:30 a.m. where we would start with a one-word open to determine how each person was feeling that day. From there, we would discuss the wins from the day prior as well as the opportunities we were posed with in the new business day. Everyone would have an opportunity to do an experience share or express anything that was on their mind. We would close this 30 minute meeting with an interactive ice breaker or game so that the team could kick their day off with a high note. This consistent sharing built camaraderie while allowing a safe place for vulnerably.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

At TJA, we practice a communication style fundamentally based on Brene Brown’s “Dare to Lead,” in which she champions what she calls rumbling. We feel the best form of feedback or news is to come from a place of the heart, to be completely honest, to leave subjectivity out of the conversation and to commit to being a part of the change. I also train our team members to share difficult news or feedback within 24 hours of the instance to ensure that the narrative stays current as more time can downgrade the integrity of the information and also cause more conflict than warranted. Most importantly, we believe difficult news should always be shared in person or via a phone call as much as possible. While technology is convenient and can allow someone to prepare a well thought out message, the inability to have a collaborative discussions can be detrimental.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

One saying that stuck with me last year was “you can only control what is inside your hula hoop”. So many times in my life I found myself trying to make plans or control a scenario that was out of my control. When I stopped caring about the elements out of my reach, my path became clearer than ever.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

I can’t say that there is a one size fits all approach or singular principle to apply. However, I can confidently say that when a business gets their culture in alignment, everything else will fall into place and be easier to navigate. Facing turbulent seasons as a business owner is hard enough, compounded with a toxic organization can be highly taxing and draining for the ownership.

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?

  • In instances of a crisis like the pandemic, cash is king. So many businesses didn’t save or spent carelessly which in turn put them in a difficult position down the road.
  • Don’t be influenced by all the noise and opinions. Trusting your own intuition is what got you to the successful state today. Stay true to your inner power and trust your own voice.
  • Without GPS coordinates for your business, your team won’t know where to go and likely take a left turn without you knowing. Be sure to identify your North Star for the business and share it with your team.

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?

Just prior to COVID, I read a book calledProfit First” by Mike Michalowicz. The basics of the book are to “go to the well for profit rather than wait for it to rain.” I loved this philosophy of maintaining a concise budget, not letting the company get overly bloated with unnecessary software licenses and being very intentional with expenses. I didn’t share much about how I funded the inception of the agency at the top of the interview (and that’s a whole other story to share), but I started the business with $50 in my pocket and a 450 credit score. Incepting a business from humble beginning taught me to be nimble with profits and cash flow.

During COVID, we went through every dues and software subscription and negotiated either 10% off or cut waste where necessary. We managed to reduce our monthly expenditures significantly with very little effort. I also do not believe in being over-extended in debt. Since I started the business with zero access to credit, this taught me to only spend when we had the cash in the bank rather than over extend ourselves with debt. I believe this put us in a competitive and healthy position in March 2020 as we were self-funded and debt free.

Last, I like to be intimately involved in our financials. While I have two team members in our accounting department and trust in their abilities to maintain correct financials, I believe having a finger on the pulse of the business’ financial climate is crucial. This way, when we are faced with challenging times, I can make swift decisions without needing a laborious download on our financial standing.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. 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? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Be transparent:

I believe vulnerability from a leader level sets the energy in an emotionally charged environment during turbulent times. When I shared the ins and outs of what was happening on a daily basis with the team, there was little gray area and did not allow for side conversations to erupt. I also sent a weekly score card every Friday before close of business during the hardest months of COVID outlining the cash position of the agency, attrition of clients, positive outcomes and next steps for the forthcoming week. The team expressed deep appreciation in having the ability to understand what was going on.

  • Stay involved:

Hiding behind the big green curtain during a time of uncertainly can dismantle a business’ core quickly. Over the course of the last 15 years, I have been intentionally working myself out of the business (like every business owner works diligently to do in efforts to scale), however, I believe that when I was looking deep into the eyes of adversity, stepping back in and engaging with each and every aspect of the business as well as connecting deeply with my staff allowed me to be present in that climate as well as make accurate decisions.

  • Don’t settle:

I had just about everyone tell me we were going to fold during COVID. Banking partnerships were turning their backs on us because we were in a vulnerable industry with even more vulnerable clients. I REFUSED to take no for an answer, and when I had just about every door close on me, I looked for another one to open as fast as possible. I went around the higher ups to find even more senior bankers to hear my plea. Instead of negotiating with our property managers about rent deferment, I went straight to the asset manager at the REIT. Roadblocks are a part of business. During challenging times, look for any way around them.

  • Get creative:

There is always a way. Whenever I was in a pinch or faced with a challenging opportunity, I challenged myself (and my team) to zoom out and look beyond the obvious. Getting creative in business is a must as a leader. Thinking linearly can inevitably be the demise to your success. I remember when I was strapped for cash starting the business and we needed furniture for our first 800 square-foot studio office. I sent an email to all of my friends and family offering to take any furniture they had in storage to help reduce their monthly expenses, and willingly offered to return whenever they wanted the items back. In less than 24 hours, we had a fully furnished office generously donated by friends and family for free. I applied the same creative thinking to marketing the agency during our start up years. No cash to advertise, so we donated our time to predominant charities for brand exposure. Getting creative gets businesses through.

  • Celebrate the wins:

Owning a business and leading a team is hard! As a leader, I found that giving myself some grace and honoring the small accomplishments made me feel like I was making some sense of progress when I felt like I was running in quicksand. All of a sudden, I realized I had a warehouse of small successes which surmounted the stress of trying to hit the one big accomplishment.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Fall forward.” Sure, we all fall, especially leaders. It’s how you fall what matters. Life and business serves up all kinds of unsuspected events, but it’s how we navigate those circumstances that defines our path. Living my life by design and owning my mistakes has allowed me to be a better wife, mother and leader.

How can our readers further follow your work?

The agency is active on all social media platforms! Be sure to check us out @thejamesagency on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to get a peek into our crazy antics, amazing culture and award-winning work.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!



In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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