In this episode
Leading with authenticity and transparency is key to ensuring that your people come first. At least, that has always been true for Erin Blaskie, director of marketing at Fellow and a wholehearted marketing aficionado who has been passionate about storytelling from an early age. From launching her own company at the age of 21 to working with some biggest players in the digital marketing field, Erin has always been drawn to passionate people with a strong 'why'. At the end of the day, a meaningful 'why' is what drives companies and people forward. And leaders that embody this 'why' are often at the very core of a strong culture.
Tune into this episode to find out why:
- Storytelling matters when leading with empathy
- Community building should be more than just a tactic
- Management is stylistic rather than universal
- Leading with feeling and with logic both have a place in companies
. . .
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In this episode
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Transcript of episode
Cassy Aite: I'm super excited to have you on the show. Thanks, Erin, for joining us on The Culture Builders podcast.
Erin: Yes. Thanks so much for having me.
Cassy: Why don't you start by telling our listeners a little about yourself?
Erin: Oh gosh. How long do I have to do that part? I'm just joking. Usually, when I do this, it's funny, I always joke and say, I'm going to start back in 1986, and people usually are like, "Whoa, whoa, okay. That's too much." Long story short, my dad had given me a computer when I was a kid and that just got me super fascinated with tech and it got me super fascinated with even business.
I remember playing CEO with my sister. She was always my secretary, so it was just this recurring theme from the time I was young, fast-forward to when I was obviously older, I launched a company at 21, launched it as virtual assistants from the start, morphed into more of a digital marketing agency and did that for 14 years before taking a full-time job again, which was something that I'm sure we can chat about it during the show, but took a full-time job again, worked in a start-up accelerator for two and a half years, and then just recently joined Fellow as their director of marketing. It's been quite the journey, but it's exciting.
Cassy: Cool. You started your career in digital marketing in 2004, which was the same year as the iPhone, and it was even pre-Facebook, which is crazy. I don't even know if people were calling it digital marketing at the time.
Erin: I was going to say they definitely were not. It's interesting because in back in 2004 it was- we called it "internet marketing" and then it morphed into online marketing and then landed on digital. It's actually stuck with digital for a while, which has been great, but funny story about Facebook. I had a client in Silicon Valley that I went to visit, and we were walking in the area, Palo Alto, University Avenue area.
I remember walking by a building that had a piece of paper print out on the window that said "Facebook." I remember asking my client, I was like, "What's this Facebook thing?" Then I went and signed up for an account and then subsequently convinced all my friends to get on the platform, whether that turned out to be a good idea or not as team with [unintelligible 00:02:59].
Cassy: You've had the chance to work with so many different organizations. You worked in tech in San Francisco, you've worked with fast-growing consumer companies in New York, Fortune 500 companies. What has that experience been? You've worked with so many great companies. Have you found that there's a commonality between these companies?
Erin: Yes. That's a great question. A lot of my experience is really broad, as you just mentioned. When I was running my company, it was really interesting, I did get a lot of adoption for my services in the US, it just so happened that some of my early clients were there and then I got a lot of referrals after that, which worked out really great. Working with companies of all sizes, whether they're small, whether they're really large, whether it's like somewhere in between, the commonality is that they're all human beings that you work with.
In a lot of ways, they're very different. You'll see things like bureaucracy pop-up, you'll have more red tape, you'll have more approval processes. You'll have different things like that, but for the most part, you're working with humans. I've always put that experience and that human connection first and everything I do. For me, it's like, it's always-- Even though I've had these experiences of working with these really big brands and even, for example, Elon Musk's ex-wife, which I didn't even know that was who it was, literally, for a year.
I was working with her because she was a person. You know what I mean? A normal person who needed help with her marketing. For me, it's always just been about people. It boils down to-- It's very much a people business.
Cassy: I think at any point in your career, you always have the option to pick and choose the people that you work with. Is there something that you typically look for in people that you like to work with? Especially now.
Erin: That's a great question. I've always, always, always been drawn to people who are really passionate. The minute that I see other people be super passionate and excited about what they're doing, and they have to have a really strong why. At the core of it, it's not always about building this piece of software, or providing services, or whatever, but what is the why? Why did they start the company? Why do they do what they do? Why do they wake up every single day? That's always what I'm most attracted to and drawn to when it comes to a role.
I really need to resonate with the why. I need to understand it deeply. I also want to see a leadership team that really embodies the why and isn't just paying lip service to it. I would never work, for example, for a company where they were like, "Our sole purpose is profits." Obviously every company wants profits. That is the basis of business, but that's not what motivates me. What motivates me is hearing someone say they want to make people better. They want to make their ideal demographic just better people and they want to empower them or enable them. The why has to be really strong and the passion has to be there.
Cassy: I know you are an expert storyteller, probably one of the best storytellers I know.
Erin: Wow. Thank you.
Cassy: Do you think that why is obviously a big part of storytelling. What do you think makes a great storyteller?
Erin: Yes. I think there's a lot of components to it, but I think first and foremost, you have to be able to separate yourself from in your own needs and your own desires and your own lens and everything else. You have to be able to separate that from the experiences of other people. I think you have to be able to put yourself in other people's shoes a lot to be able to really understand what's going to resonate with this person that I'm trying to connect with, because even in business and in marketing, yes, a lot of it is, did I go out with a message?
Did that message bring in, whether it's users, customers, whatever the case might be, readers, whatever your metric is, did I have that result?
Sure, that is a part of it, but at the end of the day, I actually like to go well beyond that. I want to know, did something we do make somebody feel something? Did they feel more empowered? Did they feel more enabled? Did they feel more supported?
Whatever word you want to insert there, whatever the intentionality is of the emotion, I want to know that, and that is hard as a marketer sometimes because sometimes that's the stuff that's really hard to measure at times. Then, other times, it's really easy because you'll see it in your customer emails, you'll see it in their social posts to your company. You'll see it in a lot of other ways, but it's not always- especially when you talk about SaaS metrics, it's not super sexy to be like, but it's the feeling, but I do think storytelling does that.
Storytelling allows us to have empathy and compassion for others. It allows us to understand people better, and I do a lot of that. I'm always trying to think about putting myself in other people's shoes, and that's not easy. I don't have a lot of shared lived experiences, if you look across the spectrum there's a lot of people who have very different lived experiences than I, but I spend a lot of time talking to people and getting to know them and listening and reading, what they've said, or things they wrote. I think you have to pay attention, empathy, compassion, and then just try to connect, really human to human, not business to human.
Cassy: I think what you said is super interesting. It makes me think of like psychology and how the psychologists will often talk about, they're trying to label the emotion that you have. It's helping you to get to feeling and understanding that emotion. It's powerful.
Erin: Yes. I love that, honestly, on one of these shelves, somewhere in the blue section, I have a textbook, like a psychology textbook, I signed up. Unfortunately, I signed up at a time when I didn't actually finish the course, so I will go back and do that. I signed up a few years ago for a psychology course for that reason. I'm actually very-- I always say if I wasn't doing marketing, I would 100% want to be in psychology, acting as a therapist or just some form of that. The reason is, because I'm so fascinated with the human connection. I love this idea of, everything that we do in business also being about a very human-to-human interaction. I try to think about that with everything, whether it's a social post or an email we're sending out, or a blog post, is this going to resonate? Is it useful? I try not to say stuff on my own personal accounts, unless I really have a reason to say it. I don't just do things for the sake of doing it.
Cassy: Yes. That intention is powerful. It amplifies your voice when you do end up saying something.
Erin: It's not just like, "Oh, I must do two posts per day on Twitter." Then it's like people drain you out because they don't care, and they don't think you care. I think intentionality, that's a great word. I think that's really the core of it, for sure.
Cassy: What do you think about internally? I know a lot of our listeners are also thinking about, "How can I storytell internally to build culture? How can I story tell internally to build that lore that brings the company together, that motivates the team, that structures the culture of those- the company lore that so many companies have?"
Erin: No, I love that. I'll talk about it generically, and then I can also share some things that we do at Fellow that we find really helpful, or at least I can only speak to how I find it useful. Generically, I think that it boils down to a common human issue, which is communication. I think, unless you're communicating a lot of these things, whether it's celebrations, whether it's being transparent on issues, whether it's being really authentic and open about the status of a company, there's things you need to do that are just embroiled in the basis of communication. I think all of those are important.
At Fellow, what we do that I find really helpful, is every single Sunday, our CEO, Aydin, he does a weekly email to us. He does it to the team. Sometimes it's a video, sometimes it's an actual text email, but it's always inspiring. It's always focused on what we've done great, where we're headed. It's very visionary. It gets the entire team super excited. If anyone's listening to this that knows him, I know you know him, but he's an incredible human being. He is someone who can take the future and describe it in such a way that you're just like, "Yes, I'm on board. This is exciting. I'm in. What do you need me to do?"
I think that is really helpful for us, as a team, especially working remote, as we've been obviously, through the pandemic. It really keeps us together, but we also do other daily things. We've got a Slack channel, where we’re posting in there, all the time, the moments of celebration. We're also not just focused on that, but we're also very transparent about any challenges that might be coming up, or things that are hard.
Again, I'll go back to that word of intentionality, it takes creating routine, these things, like Aydin does every Sunday, setting these things in place, so that you have those moments that people can look forward to. Because, even in a really hard week, I think ahead to every Sunday. I know I'm going to get this email. If I'm feeling at all ever slightly uninspired, or maybe a little de-motivated, especially with just the anxiety and stress of the world, everything that's going on right now, I know I have that to look forward to.
I think, internally, you have to be just thinking about how can we communicate the values, how can we communicate what's going on, and then be transparent and authentic as a leadership team, especially, and then in management with your individual teams.
Cassy: I'm curious, that video is just like a one-minute, or five minute-- I'm trying to imagine Aydin right now going on video and giving his-- Is it purely motivational, or is it for the companies out there that might want to implement something like this?
Erin: Yes. What's great about Aydin is, he's so comfortable doing all of these things for him. He'll literally sometimes just throw the video up in his backyard. He'll be talking to us all, again, very human-to-human. What he often focuses on, and this is where I think it might be useful for others is, we do have a set of core values that we have as a company. This was developed pre-me, so I can't speak to the process of how they came to the core values, because it happened before me.
Essentially, they have this core values document, or a guide, I should call it. It sets the tone for everyone, especially as we're onboarding new people and that kind of thing. It sets the tone for what we believe in, fundamentally, as a company. That is often what he will go back to in his video every week. He'll usually take one of the core values and he'll talk about examples of where we really showed up to that core value that week and how he just enjoys what we're embodying, and then it's always a look-forward to what's to come. He ends, I would say, on an inspiring note. It's always going back to those core values though.
Cassy: Interesting. It's such a great way for not just the CEO, but any leader, or team lead to share with their team, right [unintelligible 00:15:52]
Cassy: I love that example.
Erin: Even David Cancel, the CEO of Drift, he's another great person to look at, if you're looking for examples of people that do this in a very transparent way. David's great. In fact, he just posted on LinkedIn this morning about the message that he actually wrote to his team about Black Lives Matter and about standing up with the black community. He published the email that he had sent to his entire company. He actually published it so everyone could read it.
I think those are the leaders that we want to look at as being inspiring. Joel, I can never say his last name, the CEO at Buffer, is another example. They were doing this pivot during the pandemic to afford four-day work week just to alleviate some of the anxiety and stress off the team. He blogged about that publicly, about the experiment. He shared it on social. I think there's a lot of leaders that you could look to, to get examples of what it means to really lead with transparency and authenticity.
I think it's incredibly valuable. I think, when people are looking to join companies, they're looking to join companies with strong leadership, especially, I find the younger generations, and I can say that because I'm on the bubble of being a millennial. I think I'm the last year. I was the class of the millennium when I graduated from high school, which makes me- definitely getting older. I'm the last age. I think, as I look to younger generations, they want to join companies where there's a mission and a movement. They want to join companies where it's not people aren't hiding away in leadership and doing things in secret. I think that transparency and authenticity really impacts culture in a really big way.
Cassy: It sounds like they also lead those values that you talked about of transparency and authenticity. These people that are sharing their experiences, they're also building a community. You've done a lot of community building in your career. What does community building actually mean for people that are listening?
Erin: It's weird. Yes, I've done a lot of community building work and, at the same time, I've never put it through the lens of like, "This is a strategy." Like, "Here are this five steps to do to build community." It's weird. I've done this numerous times. I worked with a company called Curvy Yoga for a long time, and we built up her community from literally nothing to- I haven't looked recently, but she's got tens of thousands of followers, for example, on her Facebook page and in a Facebook group. She's got an incredible community now built up around that.
Yes, I've done all of those things, but I've never looked at it through the lens of doing it because it's a tactic, or because it's a strategy. Typically, building community, to me, means finding the people that are the best suited for whatever it is that you're building or you've created, because I've spent most of my career working for companies and people who have built really purpose-driven things, not just things, again, to generate revenue, but because they actually are valuable to the communities they're serving.
It's been really easy to then look for those individuals that could benefit, and then it's about inviting them in. It's not about selling to them right out of the gate. Although, a lot of SaaS marketers would probably disagree with me on that. [unintelligible 00:19:41] Anyway, all the metrics are designed for just fast acquisition. However, it's really about finding them, inviting them in to a container of some sort, whether that's a forum, whether it's your email list, like a funnel, whether it's something where it's not just about the sale, but it's actually about that value. Once you invite them in, you have to let them participate in some way. It's about giving them a voice, making them feel seen and heard. There're easy ways you can do that in terms of including your audience in things like- let's say, you're doing a podcast series, you're doing a video series, you're doing Twitter chats, maybe you're featuring your customers, or your user base on your blog, whatever the case might be, giving them the platform and the space and making them the hero of the story and the hero of the journey is that next step.
Then you just do that enough times that people are like, "Oh, there's something happening over here." There's a group, in our case, that Fellow, and I'll use our Twitter chats as an example. We launched them three months ago, and this last one had over 7 million impressions on the one-hour chat. That's incredible. We didn't start there, that happened fast. The reason is that we say, "This is a place for managers and leaders to learn, come on in, participate in the conversation. This isn't like a one-way broadcast."
I think identifying who your audience is, then inviting them in, and then giving them a lot of value and not going straight for the sale, I think are some of the elements of community building.
The last thing I'll add is spending a lot of time understanding deeply who they are and what they care about and what matters to them and what problems they experience, because that goes back to that empathy and compassion piece. I think, without any of that, you're never going to give them what they actually need, you're going to give them what you think they need, which is more often than not completely wrong.
Cassy: You touched on leadership and being a good manager. Part of that, as you mentioned, is listening. Your team has done so much research and has so much data on what it means to be a good manager, and I've seen the term "super manager" being used. What is a super manager, and what does it actually mean to be a great manager?
Erin: Yes, honestly, that's a great question. I will caveat this with the saying that I do believe that management is stylistic to a degree. I think there are definitely common practices and principles, but I also think that the way that I manage people will be very different than the way that, let's say, Aydin manages people, or Joel on our design team manages people, we're all going to have our own unique style. I do want to just caveat with that.
That said, I think there are some basic tenants that make people a great manager. I think it does start with at least-- Again, I'll speak to it from my own lens, because it's going to be really hard for me to put myself entirely in, let's say, like Aydin's or Joel's shoes. I'll speak to my own. For me, empathy, 100%, that is where I start, empathy, and understanding.
When I move into managing a new team, I want to deeply understand who they are, what their motivations are, where they want to go in the future, what their career aspirations are, even if those career aspirations go beyond Fellow. Let's say, eventually, they want to go do something crazy, like start a business or whatever, I want to know that, so I can support that. I think it really starts with that, empathy and understanding for your people.
Then I think it's enablement. I think, for us, every single week, we have meetings where we're meeting with the team. As a manager at Follow, for me, it's about removing roadblocks. I want to remove any roadblocks for the team, enable them to do their best work, set them up for success in whatever way that looks like. I can only achieve that though if I, A, start with empathy and understanding, but then, B, I need to have those regular conversations with the team. We do that through one-on-ones. We do skip-level meetings, obviously, being a meetings tool, we're very obsessed with meetings, but also having better meetings.
I'm having these conversations, often where I'm seeking feedback, I'm giving feedback. I'm also making sure that we're headed in that right trajectory, or right direction, for each individual team member. There's a lot in there, obviously, again, I don't know that it's necessarily just like you want to be a better manager. Here's step one, two, three, four, five.
I think it is about really leaning in. It's about enablement. It's about removing roadblocks and helping your team succeed, because management isn't really about you, at the end of the day, it's really about doing whatever you can to make your people even better in whatever way that means for them and you and the company, but like not, you're last on the list as a manager.
Cassy: I get the idea of styles. Can you give an example of a total polar opposite style that you've seen work in the past?
Erin: Yes, I'll think about an old manager that I've had and compare it to myself, because that's probably the easiest way to do it. I've had managers in the past who don't adopt any of the management theory, management ideas, management practices that we have at Fellow.
In the past, I've had managers who- we didn't do one-on-ones, we didn't talk about career progression, we didn't talk about happiness levels at the company, and in some ways that management did work because there was a lot of autonomy that came with that, meaning they were very hands-off, for better and worse, they were very hands-off, I under their management could do what I wanted to do, and needed to do without much friction, which is again, good. Let's be in pace quickly and move fast. At the same time, it left me feeling a little more out on an island. It left me feeling like I didn't have that support that I needed.
In that scene management position, the approach even to things like, let's say, performance reviews or any sort of review was the same, it was just like, "Here's your piece of paper, this is what we're bumping you up to, you're doing a great job. Okay, bye." They wanted to step out really fast. If I contrast that, to me, that would feel a little like I'm doing management because it's a task, versus doing management as a practice, and management thinking of myself like a coach almost to the people that are on my team.
I think the difference is sometimes- it can be viewed as a task versus an actual responsibility that you have and you should embody and want to take very seriously, but at the same time, like I said, you ask of like, "When has it been effective?" Even if it's a completely different style. I think there were aspects of that that were effective, but I think it also was effective for me because I was a driver, and I was able to work very autonomously. Put someone else in that same position, and they may have failed, versus I actually found ways to succeed.
I'll give you one more, not a specific example, but something more anecdotal. I think there's a lot of managers who are much more-- I lead with a lot of heart and emotion and empathy. I think a lot of other managers- the style would be much more logical and less emotional. I think those two styles can still be equally as effective, and that's, I think, where the biggest difference has come from, is likely on the more emotional side and very personal, like connection side versus maybe being a bit more logical.
I see that in my fiance a lot, to be honest. He's an engineer. He's very logical, he thinks like this, and I think like this. I'm emotional, I'm his exact opposite. I think, if I view him as a manager, he and I manage very differently, but equally effective.
Cassy: Yes, I suppose picking a place for dinner, you're probably thinking, "What do I actually feel?" Then he's probably thinking, "What's close? What has good ratings?"
Erin: He can eat at the same place every single time for dinner, and I, it really depends on how my stomach feels that day. Maybe you feel like having Asian tonight. I don't feel having Indian, whatever it might be. For me, it's a feeling, for sure.
Cassy: Yes, that's a great example of managers and leaders that feel versus leading with that logical approach, because it's true. I've experienced that before, and I've seen leaders be effective in both styles.
Erin: There are definite styles that don't work too, completely that are super ineffective. I'm sure we've all had management, or managers, in the past that just didn't inspire us didn't motivate us. In fact, they just got in our way and then that results in a breakdown. I think, ideally, if people can aim for doing something and improving themselves as a manager, I think that's all you can really ask for, there's that constant self-improvement.
Cassy: You recently completed, I saw on Twitter, a Leadership Principles course at Harvard.
Erin: Yes, I did. Yes, that one I actually finished. The psychology one I did not, this one I did. I just got my certificate last week, I think, or the week before. Time feels fluid right now. Yes, it was a great course. Super excited.
Cassy: Speaking of time feeling fluid, you're a contributor to the Huffington Post, contributing author, and I know you wrote a piece on work-life balance in 2015. Super relevant today with the lines being blurred. You wrote this quote, "The fibre of my being is carefully constructed with the blood, sweat, and tears that I've poured into making my business, my dream a reality." Super interesting. I think you talked about the version of work-life balance that is going to work for you and that honors the part of you that can't be turned off. Do you think this still holds true today?
Erin: Oh, my gosh, 100%. [laughs] It's crazy, I always thought when I was self-employed, that maybe this idea of work-life balance not being real had something to do with that, but no, I became employed in a nine-to-five job, and still the same things, the same feelings were still inside in terms of just feeling very drawn to and dedicated to my work and being very excited about work.
What I will say though that I've learned a lot since the pandemic especially, life changed for everyone, and I would say pre-pandemic, I had a lot on the go. I had my job, I was volunteering a lot, doing a lot of mentoring, coaching, judging pitch competitions, as you know, because we sat at the same table doing that. I was doing a lot, and it's all very stretched thin. Then, I would do that in the working hours, sometimes obviously after hours too.
I also have a daughter whose nine, and I was rushing her to rock climbing and different things that she was involved in, and then I was still trying to have meaningful time with her and with my fiancé and have a social life, which didn't happen very often. I felt, pre-pandemic, there was just so much, I had a commute in there. These aren't things that are new or unique to me, this is life.
Then, pandemic hit, and then everything changed, and I had to just move indoors, basically, and a lot of things that were in my life went away. Now what I've stumbled upon is this idea of work-life integration. What I'm finding is, I work more now, post-pandemic, because I'm at home and I can wake up, and instead of a commute and all those other things, and taking my daughter to school, and making lunches, and all that stuff, I can literally come to my office, sit down, and I'm here. I can pick up my laptop more easily, it doesn't feel as jarring.
What I'm finding is that this is telling me a lot about how work-life integration feels way better, for me personally, than trying to find a work-life balance. It also tells me I was probably way too busy before with a variety of things, whereas now I'm busy with two or three things, maybe, and I love having the time to spend with my family. I think my stance on work-life balance is that it's never going to be balanced, I think that is just an idea we need to throw out the window.
I love the idea, or the word, integration because I think at times your life is going to need more from you outside of work, I think at times your work's going to need more, I think sometimes you'll feel like working more, you'll feel more inspired, and sometimes you won't. I think it's this fluid sea, and I think the sooner we get to a place where we just feel a little bit more comfortable with every day being a bit different and not striving for this 50/50 idea, I think we'll all be better off.
Cassy: You worked remotely for 15 years, actually, right?
Cassy: You mentioned this before, there's this divide of people that like it and dislike it. How do you maintain a culture and how do you support a team when there is that divide and that shift?
Erin: I'll be the first to say, I'm not going to be the expert on this at all. We're going to be planning something, I won't ruin it yet because I want it to be scheduled. Anyway, we're planning something where we do have someone who is very well-versed and experienced on this subject to be able to speak to it.
That said, given the experience I've had in the past, I built a company, I built a team, I had, at one point, 25 people on my team who were fully remote, distributed across the world. I think it goes back to some of the early things I was mentioning even about what we do at Fellow now. I think having intentionality around your communication, setting up times, especially with your team, where you're not just focused on work things, because it's really easy for every interaction to just be a status check, the minute you get into that where it's like, "The only time I'm going to pretend you exist is when I need something from you or I'm checking on something," if you get into that rhythm, that can feel a bit weird.
Some of the things that we've been doing to maintain that culture, even remotely, is we do all-hands meetings where the entire team comes together, and we do a lot of celebrations at that meeting, but we also tack on some sort of activity that's fun. Whether that's playing video games together, or we did a Trivia one time, that was super fun, we try to look for ways that we can actually just hang out without feeling like we need to chat work.
I think that's important, and then I think that just being really intentional about little things like messaging each other, just to be like, "Hey, good morning. How was your weekend?" My team does daily standup meetings. It's not long, it's like 15, 20 minutes maybe, but that daily touchpoint is really great to continue to build that comradely and that rapport with each other.
I do think it's the non-work stuff that's really important. I think, as you're moving through your day, just think about, "Is my only interaction with some of the people on my team specifically to ask them where we're at with X?" If that's the only time you're reaching out to them, I would say that's a very easy place to evoke change. Instead of that, just message them and say, "Hey, how's it going? How was your weekend? How's your week going?" Anything, just spark conversation that isn't that. I think communication and intentionality, definitely themes throughout this.
Cassy: All right. Thanks, Erin, so much for joining us on the Culture Builders podcast. Is there a way that our listeners can follow you and learn more about you?
Erin: Yes, the easiest way is just to google my name, Erin Blaskie, that's my handle on every social platform under the sun. Don't be shy to reach out and connect. I connect with everyone until you give me a reason not to connect with you, I lead with trust. Then, I'd love to just encourage people to check Fellow out too if you haven't. That's just at fellow.app.
Cassy: Great. Thanks so much.