Leah Hacker of Rebel & Co: “A belief that innovation is a process”

A belief that innovation is a process. Most companies approach innovation as a destination — a mindset that “once we create X product, we’ll be innovative.” But innovation isn’t an end point. Innovation is the process you go through when you create a new way to do something. Disney is a brand that is founded on innovation. […]

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A belief that innovation is a process. Most companies approach innovation as a destination — a mindset that “once we create X product, we’ll be innovative.” But innovation isn’t an end point. Innovation is the process you go through when you create a new way to do something. Disney is a brand that is founded on innovation. They’ve been able to take the process of innovation and apply it to a wide array of brand expressions, interactions, and touchpoints.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leah Hacker.

Leah followed a nontraditional path to where she is now, beginning with a degree in nursing, a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of South Florida and master’s coursework in predictive analytics from Northwestern University. She got her professional start in clinical research, building a research initiative in collaboration with Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Leah made the move from academia to business. Consulting with businesses on their growth strategies and outcomes, Leah combined her knowledge of human behavior — how we make decisions — with traditional academic research and applied it to the principles of business and innovation. She is a published author, guest speaker, and advisor on the topic of behavior and strategy. After building an agency from the ground up in Austin, Texas, she used her expertise to found Rebel & Co, a next-gen research and strategy firm in 2019.

Rebel & Co partners with a diverse collection of organizations, from start-ups to Fortune 50 companies, to perform market research, identify strategy, and implement a proven process for innovation.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?

My backstory is a bit nontraditional in the agency world as I didn’t start out in advertising. I actually started in medicine. I studied psychology in school, specializing in ADHD. Out of college, I ran a research clinic focused on ADHD and specialized in understanding behavior fundamentals and creating successful systems that inspired desired behavior. I later made a career switch and started working with businesses consulting on their strategies. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with scrappy start-ups and Fortune 50 companies as they redefine their industries. I spent years building teams and innovating alongside my clients in various roles before starting Rebel.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Building something from the ground up is hard. Early on, I had days when I questioned whether I’d made a huge mistake and wondered whether I should just close up shop and apply for jobs. I think it’s part of the process.

The drive was instilled in me by my dad. Growing up, a good work ethic was non-negotiable and showing up for the people in our lives was a requirement. We were a poor family and didn’t have a lot of means at our disposal. As a teenager, my family pulled together to do life, pay bills, buy groceries, and make it all work. As a young mom and wife, I put myself through college, pursuing my degrees and building my career with my toddlers in tow. Every step forward was a decision. The lessons learned over those years have served me well in building Rebel & Co.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Actually, this happened not too long ago. I was on-site for a client meeting to deliver their go-to-market and growth strategies. The client was a fairly conservative group and the entire executive team and board members were in attendance. I’d gotten up early to go to the hotel gym. Once I got down there, I realized I’d left my AirPods upstairs in my room. Being the only person in the gym, I figured it was fine. Those things are typically empty.

I put my music on loud on my phone and went about my workout. About halfway through, this gentleman walks into the gym and gets on a treadmill. I stop to ask him if the music is bothering him. He says no, not at all. I had about 15 minutes left, so I kept going. It’s important to know that I work out to (to put it mildly) the most explicit rap music you can find. Really, it’s stuff you instinctively turn down when you’re driving through a neighborhood or when you’re in the car pickup line at the school to get your kids. The guy never said anything. I finished my workout and went back upstairs to prep for the meeting.

When I walked into the meeting, the CEO introduced me to his executive board member. As I went to shake his hand, I immediately recognized my friend from the gym. I know I turned three shades of red. He was gracious and respectful and never made any remarks about it. But, for a minute, I thought I was going to die of embarrassment. Lesson #1 — always go back to your room to get your AirPods. Lesson #2 — really, you never know who your audience is.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The work we produce moves the needle on our clients’ business goals in an actionable way. We work hard to make sure that the work we do leaves our clients in a better place than we found them.

We had a client call us to share a conversation they’d overheard in a meeting with other executives:

“Did you see the work Accenture did?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“It’s okay. But, it couldn’t match what Rebel did; did you see that?”

I’ll take feedback like that every day of the week. It’s huge, and exactly the kind of experience we want for our clients. Every single one of our clients has hired us again so that 100% retention rate is something we’re incredibly proud and quite protective of.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Protect the blank space on your calendar. That space is important; it’s when inspiration and creative ideas happen. It’s almost impossible to find the flow when you’re back-to-back and running a Mach 2 with your hair on fire all the time. I love that mode more than anything, but it’s not sustainable without a regular cadence of space.

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’m so grateful to have a number of people in my life who have helped me along the way. From the friends who encouraged me to take the leap, to the clients who called my phone when Rebel started, and our team members who produce incredible results day in, day out. Really, I’d be nowhere without these people.

But one person who’s been here since the beginning is my husband, who is an incredible partner. Over the years he’s jumped in and juggled kids’ schedules, household chores — and his career — right alongside me. I’m super grateful to have him running next to me.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

This is one of my favorite topics. I’d define a good company as one that may have a decent product or service where they’ve found success, but they remain at the mercy of market forces, competing on price point and product features. The faster the market evolves, the more at risk these companies may become.

A great company is a company that not only moves beyond the status quo but is able to sustain the move over time, seemingly with little effort. This is an organization that has redefined their company and category through employee, product, and customer experiences. And because they clearly understand how it all fits together, they can pivot and move without disrupting their infrastructure. These companies don’t chase their competitors or the market. They lead them.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

Leading a company from good to great can be a paradigm shift but there are guiding principles that business leaders can lean into and use to create a roadmap forward:

1. Cultivate the employee experience. A positive employee experience influences every part of your organization and, ultimately, finds its way into the end-customer experience. The employee experience is cultivated — intentionally built by the business leaders. Southwest Airlines is a company that has a vocal history about the emphasis they’ve put on employee experience and how it’s positively impacted their business outcomes.

2. Design a customer experience. The customer experience includes all touchpoints — digital, in-person, customer service, marketing, brand, and content. The experience should be designed with the target audience in mind, with each touchpoint connected and delivering value. Peloton is an organization that does this well. From in-store, to on-bike, to interacting with their instructors on social media, you know exactly what you’re going to get when you engage with Peloton. That level of intentionality is by design.

3. Establish a feedback loop with the marketplace. The loop is a constant stream of feedback across touchpoints that should work together to tell you how a user is interacting with that touchpoint, what they’re looking for, what resonates with them, how they use your product or service, and when they use your product or service. Netflix is an excellent example of how to do this well. Deep analytics built into the experience itself. However, you don’t have to be Netflix to do this well. There are ways to create a feedback loop that is valuable.

4. A belief that innovation is a process. Most companies approach innovation as a destination — a mindset that “once we create X product, we’ll be innovative.” But innovation isn’t an end point. Innovation is the process you go through when you create a new way to do something. Disney is a brand that is founded on innovation. They’ve been able to take the process of innovation and apply it to a wide array of brand expressions, interactions, and touchpoints.

5. The perspective that change is inevitable. We know nothing is forever, but the companies who take this perspective are built to evolve. They leverage their strengths to build new ways to interact with their markets, opening new possibilities and adjacencies that scale. Lego is an amazing example of this ingenuity and perspective in action. The organization has scaled so far beyond building blocks for kids.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose-driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

As consumers, we’re inundated with choices on a daily basis. We no longer need to search for competitors, a selection of competing brands with similar products and services are served up instantaneously in our personalized social media feed. This deluge of choices, combined with ubiquitous access and diminishing attention spans, has increased noise in the market.

It makes sense that, in response to the saturated marketplace, consumers want authenticity and connection from the businesses they patron. When brands use their platform to contribute something good and meaningful to the world around them, over and beyond making a profit, they differentiate themselves from the rest of the market and move from perpetually convincing a consumer to purchase to attracting their target audience through a shared sense of purpose. The former is a lot more expensive in the long run.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

Conventional business strategy will tell you to lower prices or increase marketing spend to attract buyers. If you’re a larger organization, you may consider making a series of acquisitions in an attempt to secure a place in the future marketplace. But these moves, without a clear picture of how the market is evolving, can introduce unnecessary and expensive risks in the long term.

Instead, take advantage of the standstill. It’s the perfect opportunity to reevaluate the market, dig into the client experience and find ways to improve it, build an entirely new business line, or push into a brand new market. The “under the radar” timeframe, when done well, provides the brand with air cover to explore new opportunities that strategically positions them ahead of the market.

For example, a brand may use this time to invest in research on new market opportunities or business lines that are not only viable but fuel to their next stage of growth. Or, they may evaluate their customer experience for opportunities to innovate or scale their brand to have a new type of conversations with the market. The point is, DON’T make strategic decisions out of fear — they probably aren’t that strategic. DO use this time to make moves, internally and externally, that set your organization up for long-term success.

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?

Ha, this is a question that every business leader everywhere thinks about, me included! In reality, the decisions you can make during seasons of stability are directly related to the decisions you must make during difficult times. Here are a few strategies that have kept us moving forward in difficult times:

We grow slow. We’ve taken an intentional approach to hiring. We’re looking for exceptional talent and want the opportunity to create an exceptional employee experience. Because of this, our growth is dictated by market demand, minimizing our risk across the board.

We take time to align. As a leadership team, we take time to outline company goals, metrics, and an overarching strategy that aligns with our roadmap forward. These goals keep us on track and make taking risks, less risky.

We grow forward. We make decisions proactively, instead of reactively. Guided by our goals and our natural constraints, we emphasize investments and moves that grow toward the goals.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Culture is probably the most underestimated aspect of running a company. Oftentimes, culture feels almost fluid, hard to define and difficult to articulate. But, the crazy thing about culture is that it is the one aspect of a company that will not wait to be built. Either business leaders make the effort to intentionally build the culture or the culture will take on a definition all on its own. Culture is critically important to business outcomes, from customer experience to competitiveness. In fact, culture can be directly correlated with the success or failure of the brand.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

The best strategy to increase conversion rates is to deliver an exceptional experience over and over again. The experience — whether digital or in person — should be focused on your customer. Streamlined experiences, minimizing the points of friction, creating transparency and clarity, answering their questions before they are asked, and delivering value.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Brands often make the mistake of believing that building brand trust is somewhat elusive. In reality, trust in brands is built in the most old-fashioned of ways: showing up consistently, being authentic, and doing what you say you’re going to do.

Bumble is a brand that does this really well. They are clear about their vision and what they do in the market. They are authentic about what they stand for, everything from what their organization supports as a whole to the rules of engagement when users visit their platform. It’s these small, consistent interactions that engender trust.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

The most important thing in order to create an exceptional customer experience is to know your customer. Know who they are, what they want, what influences their purchasing decisions, what they find valuable from your product, and what they want to see fixed.

Talk to your customers and to your target audience in the marketplace. What you learn in these conversations will help you build an exceptional experience, both today and tomorrow.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Reputational risks on social media cross the mind of every business leader at

some point or another. But one of the ways to minimize the risk is to get really clear on

who your brand is, what your brand values are, what types of stories your brand tells, who your audience is, and the space you fill in the market. When these aspects are crystal clear and your teams are aligned on the different characteristics of your brand, these risky moments on social media become fewer and farther between. Marketers have a clear matrix to guide decision-making and business leaders have a clear roadmap that articulates what level of risk is acceptable. There’s no guesswork involved.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One of the most common mistakes business leaders make is the use of market research to validate their ideas. If you are looking for someone to agree with you, you’ll find them. This will inevitably result in missed opportunities and blind spots, and an idea that fails to move the needle on your business goals.

Instead, research should be conducted to gut check assumptions, identify gaps in delivery and expectations, and mitigate risk on any big leaps. Instead of talking to only people who know and love your brand, spend some time in conversation with people who stopped using your brand, or made the decision not to purchase. Use a mixed-method approach, layering both quantitative and qualitative methodology. And most importantly, the data you get back is only as good as the questions you ask — so be sure questions aren’t looking only for praise, but really work to understand how the brand can improve.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. 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. 🙂

A collective conviction for civil discourse. Really, the ability to agree to disagree and have difficult conversations with one another. Seems like this gets more difficult with time and yet, it is so critically important in creating anything valuable.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Rebel & Co Website

Rebel & Co Linkedin

Leah’s Linkedin

Rebel & Co Instagram

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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