Anna Clark of Heirloom Digital: “Treat everyone like a VIP”

Treat everyone like a VIP. This is one of the core values I created for my new company. Being in business for myself is a chance to put some of the lessons I’ve learned into action. As previously stated, valuing people for who they are means not belittling or ignoring them because they are not […]

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Treat everyone like a VIP. This is one of the core values I created for my new company. Being in business for myself is a chance to put some of the lessons I’ve learned into action. As previously stated, valuing people for who they are means not belittling or ignoring them because they are not senior enough or skilled enough. Anyone who has been hired to work in an organization deserves to be taken into the fold and treated like they belong there. What if everyone who walked through your door and dedicated time to your company felt like they truly mattered? That attitude could foster an outstanding culture. That’s what I’m working on now at Heirloom Digital.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Clark, president of Heirloom Digital, a multimedia company dedicated to storytelling and history preservation for families and organizations. She is an author, advisor and strategist with 20 years of experience in communication, storytelling and sustainability for organizations of all sizes. She is also a fellow at the Hunt Institute of Engineering & Humanity at Southern Methodist University and the co-founder of the Inclusive Economy Consortium. Her insights into culture, sustainable business and social impact have appeared in HuffPost,, The Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera English, ThriveGlobal and the Dallas Morning News.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The short answer is synchronicity. My current role came to me unexpectedly at a time when I was open to taking my career in a new direction. I had worked in the emerging field of environmental sustainability since 2005. While I loved it, projects in the local market were limited. Without a marketing budget sizable enough to develop my business globally, I eventually chose to pivot and join a larger company to access new opportunities. In 2017, I joined a global PR firm. Plunging into projects for a wide range of clients exposed me to some exciting possibilities for using corporate communication to strengthen internal culture and express social responsibility to stakeholders. At the same time, seeing structural and behavioral barriers to achieving these goals opened my eyes to the influence that a company’s culture has on its ability to create satisfaction in the lives of employees and positive social impact in the community.

Considering the topic of this interview — how business leaders can create a fantastic work environment — my personal experience in different workplaces over the years has taught me a lot. At this stage, I’ve come to accept that, as a values-driven person, I need a sense of purpose in my work to be happy. I believe many others yearn for the same. At a minimum, today’s workers, especially millennials, want to work in companies that create a sense of belonging. As we know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need to belong isn’t a frivolous desire but a fundamental one. Unfortunately, many companies do not prioritize investing in corporate culture, leaving many employees feeling isolated, expendable or without a sense of purpose. This conundrum was at the forefront of my mind when an investor I met on a client project approached me to lead a new startup business focused on storytelling and history preservation. The prospect of creating a new company with a social mission — and along with it, a fantastic work environment — was energizing, so I took a leap of faith and became president of Heirloom Digital.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Launching a new company gave me a chance to think about the future and what sort of society I want to help create. Having access to a clientele of several high net-worth families and businesses gave me assurance that we would have a clear runway for developing a system for history preservation that we could potentially scale to accommodate more clients who can benefit from our service, including non-profit organizations. Heirloom Digital officially formed in September 2019 and we launched our website in January 2020. Two months later, the pandemic hit.

Initially, our team was focused on the “heirloom” side of our business — that is, the products and services that would enable our clients to preserve their memories, history and heritage. By April 2020, the digital side took priority, as it did for most businesses. We scrambled to get technology in place to support our services online. Fortunately, we found a software provider whose digital asset management system was a perfect fit. They were willing to license it to us at a steep discount. We have since made more decisions to leverage technology in ways we might not have considered prior to the pandemic. I believe we are better for the steps we have taken to adapt our business to an online environment. We still have challenges to overcome in terms of virtually building the relationships needed to generate more sales, but we’re working through them to find the optimal mix of face-to-face interaction and technology.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The idea for this business actually came from an angel investor who was also our first client. He’s a prominent lawyer and history buff who inherited several hundred boxes of memorabilia when his father passed away suddenly. It took him several years to sort through thousands of pictures, documents, and correspondence, including letters from several presidents, and to produce his father’s memoirs. Ultimately he had to hire help to get the job done. Realizing that many others face the same concerns over how to preserve a loved one’s legacy, he sought to create a company dedicated to preserving personal and organizational history. As a professional writer and communication strategist, I jumped at the opportunity to use my skills to help create more meaning in people’s lives.

Our company helps clients by serving as a supportive partner in preserving the past and celebrating life’s milestones. Specifically, our personalized, end-to-end service begins with digitizing important memories, and continues with professional storytelling, timeless design and artful production. Thus far, we’ve digitized thousands of documents, photos and VHS tapes, and are presently setting up cloud-based solutions to enable extended families and groups to access and share pictures and documents from anywhere in the world. Clients also come to us to create heirloom-quality memory books to celebrate big birthdays, anniversaries or retirements. We’re also filming oral histories and giving clients the option of having their history preserved in perpetuity in institutional archives. In general, whether we’re producing books, content, videos or websites, we help our clients commemorate the moments, milestones and missions that add up to their legacies.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Mega forces such as globalization and automation are disrupting our global economy, which creates uncertainty in the business environment. As more companies experience budget constraints, managers are forced to accomplish more with less. The pressure employees face to be productive at all costs combined with layoffs that companies are making to cut costs contributes to a fear-based work culture. These forces have been gathering steam since the Great Recession, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the consequences.

While the societal explanation pretty well covers it, I believe there are also existential reasons for why half the workforce is unhappy. The workplace is where we spend the bulk of our waking hours in pursuit of economic survival, which makes it the ultimate stage for the human condition to play out its potential for ego-driven behavior. This isn’t just the stuff of comedies like Horrible Bosses. Funny as the “mean boss” trope is in film, anyone who has worked in a difficult corporate culture can attest to the pain that ego-driven management can inflict. Shakespeare had it right in As You Like It when he wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” The roles that managers play in our economic system come with intense pressure. In a stressful environment, it takes a good leader who is dedicated to creating a positive culture to enable one to flourish. Leaving that task to the HR department isn’t good enough.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

An unhappy workforce impacts productivity because of the inevitable turnover it creates, which also erodes reputation. I’ve been in environments where the workforce is unhappy and you can feel the toxicity in the air. Clients can feel it, too. Replacing dissatisfied workers and clients takes up resources, which affects profitability. On the flip side, tending to employees’ health and well-being may seem unnecessary in a market where companies have their pick of cheap labor, but the loyalty and esprit de corps that a healthy culture engenders pays off in the long term. As hard-pressed as companies are to show bottom-line results, managers can mitigate pressure on employees by demonstrating empathy and allowing themselves to care for their people on a personal level.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Working for myself for more than 15 years, I was relatively insulated from the effects of workplace culture. Joining a large agency gave me a newfound respect for the tremendous impact that a manager can have on one’s career path and on company culture in general. Here are five ways I see that managers and executives can improve their company work culture:

  1. Give your people outlets for their passion and get positive returns. The manager who understands and appreciates the particular interests of their team members is going to get a higher quality of work out of their people than one who regards them strictly as fungible units of productivity. By “quality” I mean a higher degree of creativity and commitment, which drives workers to go to extra lengths to do a job well. I learned this from a former manager who actively sought opportunities for me to contribute my expertise and sharpen my skill set. While my background in corporate sustainability wasn’t central to the job I was in at the time, I am forever grateful for the opportunities he identified and created that allowed me to bring these interests into projects. The positive feedback he received from a top client who was pleased with the results was proof that managers win when they help their people win.
  2. Value your people for who they are, not merely for what they can do for you. The saying that respect must be earned does not tell the whole story. Earning the respect of people who perceive value solely in superficial terms — such as in who you know, where you came from, what your title is, etc. — may not be possible. Such a person’s preconceived notions about what matters may blind them to your potential. Being undervalued by such people is a fact of life, but it can be a serious hindrance when it happens in the workplace. I’ve personally experienced the negative effects of an egoic management style marked by favoritism and scapegoating, and I’ve seen other professionals suffer the consequences as well. It’s a terrible blow to morale and can undermine a worker’s ability to fit in and advance in the company.
    By contrast, I’ve been fortunate to have earned the respect of some brilliant leaders in business and academia, whose respect has remained steadfast throughout the ups and downs of my career. Reflecting on the difference, the individuals in this category are not managers, but true leaders. They see people at a deeper level, and appreciate them for traits they deem inherently valuable, not merely exploitable. As a worker, feeling genuinely appreciated for who you are creates a sense of buoyancy that inspires you to give your best. Feeling devalued does the opposite. Rooting out this behavior would vastly improve workplace culture for all involved.
  3. Regard empathy as the strength that it is and cultivate it. Leadership advice writers increasingly predict a paradigm shift in favor of more empathy in the workplace. While some managers I’ve known have found ways to convey empathy, systemic barriers can still get in the way. As I mentioned earlier, whether empathy can take root in a given culture ultimately depends on the attitude of the one at the top. A promising piece of recent news reported that JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon considers the traits of humility, openness, fairness and authenticity as keys to success — “not [being] the smartest or hardest-working in the room.” This perspective from the man who runs the nation’s largest bank and oversees more than 250,000 employees suggests at least one top leader prioritizes depth of character above all else.
  4. Don’t just talk about values, live them. We’ve all seen the headlines of the disgraced pastor or politician caught having an affair. Those stories infuriate us because we expect our leaders to be paragons of virtue. While the stakes aren’t quite so high for your typical manager, character still matters. The person known for lacking a moral compass may disappoint others in a variety of ways, but nobody really expects much from such an individual. It’s the leader whose behavior contradicts their public standing and stated values that disappoints us the most.
    To use a recent example, when advertising giant Stan Richards was reported for making a racial slur in an employee meeting of The Richards Group, it put the business world on notice that people at all levels expect their business leaders to model racial justice. The loss of multiple big clients and his resignation from the company he founded show the sort of downfall that can happen when the actions of an executive go against societal expectations. On the positive side, being willing to claim a set of core values and consistently act according to those values is a starting point to achieving something great.
  5. Treat everyone like a VIP. This is one of the core values I created for my new company. Being in business for myself is a chance to put some of the lessons I’ve learned into action. As previously stated, valuing people for who they are means not belittling or ignoring them because they are not senior enough or skilled enough. Anyone who has been hired to work in an organization deserves to be taken into the fold and treated like they belong there. What if everyone who walked through your door and dedicated time to your company felt like they truly mattered? That attitude could foster an outstanding culture. That’s what I’m working on now at Heirloom Digital.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Companies can enact any number of policies ranging from virtual work opportunities to diversity & inclusion training, and everything in between. But here’s a bit of wisdom that anyone can follow: If you want to change the culture, begin by working on yourself. Go within and search for ways to make positive changes in your own sphere of influence. Be willing to stand up for what is right in the workplace, whether or not it is the popular thing to do. If it’s the right workplace, change will occur eventually. If it’s the wrong workplace, red flags will appear — and as soon you see them, start speaking up and, if necessary, look for a different job. If we stop participating in bad workplace culture and begin standing up for our values, goodness will emanate from there.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I would characterize my leadership style as collaborative and relational, in that I care about my team on a personal level and consider their creativity and unique perspectives an asset. We’re a small team, so I sometimes seek input on aspects of our work that are not directly related to an individual’s functional expertise, but where I know their talent or insight can add value. For example, I may ask our designer and CFO to weigh in on messaging. Often, they are able to provide a thoughtful point of view and I appreciate the diversity of perspectives this brings. This openness also lets my team know that I value them as people, which motivates them to care more deeply about our company.

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 about that?

I’m grateful to so many people who have helped me in ways big and small along my entrepreneurial journey. One that stands out in particular is Diana Pollard, a business strategist who generously offers coaching to mission-driven women entrepreneurs. A friend told me about Diana in 2014 and I reached out to her for help. Her counsel helped me see both the potential and limitations in different courses of action, and she has helped me think more realistically and critically at every turn. At the same time, her optimism and sense of humor have helped me find more enjoyment in what can sometimes be a lonely road. I have a lot of energy to throw at the goals I set for myself, but I’ll admit there are times when it wanes. The consistent moral support and belief of friends like Diana have helped me build my internal strength to take on greater challenges. I hope to follow Diana’s lead someday and help others find it within themselves to achieve their goals and follow their dreams.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My greatest interest in my work as a strategist and storyteller has been empowering leaders to use the art and science of communication to create social impact. In a corporate capacity I am focused on producing a commercial or reputational benefit. But at the risk of sounding idealistic, I believe that using my skills to create joy and human connection is a higher calling than using them to produce profits alone. That said, I certainly don’t discount the good that comes from producing profits. Ultimately, I aim to create a purpose-driven company that produces both profits and social benefit — thus creating a successful social enterprise. Accomplishing that at whatever scale is possible is how I plan to use my work to bring goodness to the world.

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

One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Speaking as someone who has taken an unusual career path, I’ve experienced the highs of achievement and the lows of hitting dead ends, going back to the drawing board, and starting over multiple times. Entrepreneurship demands resilience. Edison may have found 2,000 ways not to make a light bulb, but he ended up inventing the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and the motion picture camera, as well as improving the telegraph and telephone. His example shows that it takes endurance and optimism to see opportunities within challenges, but the payoff can be a new innovation and new possibilities for humanity.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

My vision is that each person lives as if their legacy matters. If we each behaved as if we have the power to make a positive and enduring impact in our lives — whether in our community, our nation, or the world — we would end up with a kinder, more sustainable and more just society.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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