“Be comfortable in your own skin.” With Tyler Gallagher & Brandy Amidon

Be comfortable in your own skin. It’s cliche, but so true. I didn’t feel truly comfortable in my own skin until I hit my thirties. How I wish I would have gotten there sooner. I’m very much made to be unique and special. I can’t be like everyone else. Knowing myself, what I love, what […]

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Be comfortable in your own skin. It’s cliche, but so true. I didn’t feel truly comfortable in my own skin until I hit my thirties. How I wish I would have gotten there sooner. I’m very much made to be unique and special. I can’t be like everyone else. Knowing myself, what I love, what makes me happy and what I’m good at (and not) is such a comfort to leading this team of amazing people. It allows me to trust my team at a higher level and hopefully instills the same confidence in them to be their best at Brains on Fire.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brandy Amidon. Brandy is Co-President and CFO of Brains on Fire, a creative agency and certified B Corporation located in Greenville, South Carolina and Los Angeles, California. After thirteen years as the Company’s CFO, Brandy recently took the helm of the organization as Co-President. Brandy, also the Mayor of Travelers Rest, South Carolina, is known as the CFO who minds the numbers and loves the people. She has led many of the Company’s people-first policies, such as Babies in the Office and The Game, which gives every employee a stake in the financial decisions of the Company.

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

Isigned up for high school accounting 101 because my best friend was taking the class and I loved every second of it. I’m not a math genius (where is my calculator?), but I love the analytic side of making decisions based on legit financial data. I didn’t realize until later in my career that money was a driver, but not the force. People are the force, purpose and “why” behind everything we do. It started with numbers, but it’s all about people.

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

I recently took over as Co-President and it has been a wild ride! I learned when I became a Mayor, no matter how much responsibility you have as a Leader, once you are officially in the “Middle Seat,” things change. People see you differently, both inside and outside the company. The responsibility is bigger, and more personal. Ben and I went on an internal “listening tour” during our first few weeks as Co-Presidents. We wanted to make sure every member of our team felt heard and had a safe place to ask any questions about the transition. One of the conversations stemmed around how the team should address us, and what our new titles would be. We died laughing at the “Mr. and Mrs. Brains” suggestion, but ultimately “The B’s” and “Bendy” are still team favorites.

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

We just launched our latest project, Hello Bello, with Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard. Hello Bello is a line of premium, plant-based baby products at non-premium prices. The line is sold exclusively at WalMart and is the first ever non-WalMart brand product to launch in every Walmart store in the United States. Our partnership with Hello Bello allowed us to work on everything from naming to final execution of the product launch. It was incredible to see our teams go through the process, challenge the typical perceptions of organic and premium, and end with a brand and product line that is fun, approachable, mission-driven and full of heart. We’re only a few days into the launch and already seeing success. For us, success means fostering a true connection between the brand and consumers, and that is exactly what is happening. The social conversation has been so exciting and energizing, and we even have people who don’t have kids wanting to use the products. We know Hello Bello helps people because it allows parents to provide the best for their babies without having to break the bank. All parents want the best, and Hello Bello provides the best while also making it accessible for everyone.

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?

I think our society has changed, but especially in the United States, our workplace policies have not changed and evolved with that cultural shift. Women are in the workforce at higher rates than ever. Many of us are balancing taking care of our families, our aging parents, trying to pursue the career we desire and also somehow finding time for our health and happiness. Most workplaces still see their employees as numbers rather than humans. As leaders, we have to ensure our employees feel valued, loved, cared for and secure. We have to ensure their human needs are met and acknowledge that our jobs shouldn’t be the most important part of our lives. The wellbeing of our families, friends and teammates should always trump work. Unfortunately, many companies forget this in the pursuit of profit.

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?

Employee unhappiness affects every aspect of a company. We’re a creative agency. It is of utmost importance that each member of our team feels valued, supported and trusted as part of our tribe. If they don’t, it shows in their work. They aren’t able to be curious, explore and create because they don’t feel cared for. Profitability takes a hit because clients don’t renew with us or ask for additional work. Health and wellbeing suffer under stress, which we all know is one of the number one causes of sickness. I’m certain this is true for all companies, not just Brains on Fire. The work we produce is all about people. You can’t create amazing work for people if your people are unhappy!

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?

1 — Paternity care is worth the cost. Moms and dads play a huge part in the development of their children, and babies are only babies for a blink of an eye. Babies are good for the soul of our team, as well. We have a “Babies in the Office” policy that allows employees to bring their babies to work until they’re mobile. This builds a sense of community, and our employees feel free to return to work and care for their families. It removes the pressure of a parent needing to decide what is more important…work or a baby. We make that choice for our team. Your baby is way more important than Brains on Fire, and we want snuggles, too! As soon as we put this policy in place we had four new BOF babies within the year! We have to acknowledge that most families need these policies, and every employee should be able to take advantage of them. We rewrote our employee family policies a few years ago when we realized over a third of our staff was of child-bearing age. Becoming a parent is likely one of the biggest transitions any of us will face in our life. We have to support this transition as employers. If not, our employees will find a company that does or leave the workforce entirely.

2 — Create space where employees work best. That might mean out of the office. We have “Jam Days” which are meeting-free except in the event of an emergency. So often, in our culture of email and follow ups and deadlines, we can spend an entire day in the office and never accomplish a single thing. We saw this happening and empowered our team by giving them dedicated, uninterrupted space and time to create. It sounds so simple, but in 2019, it’s a luxury too few agencies embrace.

3 — Give your employees time to give back. Most of us have a desire to do good and give back to our communities and the world, yet few of us feel like we have the time to do it. We give our employees four hours of paid volunteer time on the clock each month. They choose how, where and when to use those hours, and the impact on our internal culture is immeasurable. When you give your time to an organization or someone in your community that needs it, you’re often the one that receives the biggest gift. The resulting loyalty and community created internally by this policy is powerful. Our employees are able to give back because we give them those hours, and it creates a ripple effect of good, both inside and outside the company. The best part? They’re out bettering the communities in which we live, work and play.

4 — Create a way for every employee to have “skin” in the success of the company. We opened up the financial books of our agency to every employee, and made them a part of the decision making process for any expenditure over $500 not previously agreed to in our budget. Why? As CFO, I wanted my entire team to value the financial health of Brains on Fire and recognize their part in it. By instituting a process that allows every member of the team to see how their work and decisions contribute to the financial health of the company (and their potential to make bonuses), we created a culture where everyone is personally invested. When employees feel like they are a valuable part of the success of the company, they’ll give your their best.

5 — Let employees work where they work best. We live in a mobile, connected society. Companies that require their employees to be chained to an office from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, are missing the mark. Technology has made it possible (and seamless) for us to stay connected, no matter where we are. It’s time companies acknowledged that not everyone has to be in an office all day to produce their best work. Yes, you have to have reins on this policy, but a well-crafted, flexible work environment policy will allow employees to adapt their work location as their life or productivity demands. We often have projects that require significant head-down time with minimal interruptions. That can be hard to accomplish in a busy office. We have to acknowledge and support flexible work environments so employees can be their best for us. It’s not just about where employees work, it’s also about where they work best.

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?

We can’t make every company in the country change their culture. However, we can be the change and lead by example. Everyone knows it’s a very tight labor market right now. If you are hiring, you’re fighting for the candidates everyone else is. If you have current employees, you’re watching your back to make sure they aren’t being recruited away from you. I think workplace culture is like an insurance policy for employee retention and the best marketing tool for recruiting. Create a place where people can’t wait to show up and be their best. Eventually, every company will have to do this, or they’ll suffer the consequences in workforce quality.

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

I like to think of myself as the “un-CFO” (or maybe the unique CFO). I am the person ultimately focused on the financial health of the business. As Co-President, now, more than ever, it’s my responsibility to take Brains on Fire to the next level. I’ve been referred to as a “fire-brand,” and while that may sound frightening, I think it just means I’m straightforward. Numbers don’t lie, so why should leaders? If there’s a problem, I’ll address it. If someone is a rockstar, I tell them. If I sense drama, I’m going to find a way to dissolve it for the good of the team. I was never able to dance around the issues when the numbers were my primary responsibility, so I carry that style into my role as Co-President. I lead by example. I work hard, and love hard, too. I really do believe we are only successful as a team. This thing called work is about people discovering their gifts and passions, and finding the right seat to develop and enjoy those gifts and passions. Part of that is making sure our team feels heard. Our listening tour as new owners was a great example. We had conversation starter questions, but it was really a space for an employee to be seen as an equal, valued and understand they are vitally important to our future. We are also the ultimate model for the behaviors we want to see in our team. I’m conscious of how my speech and response to issues and problems is perceived by our team. I use language like “grace over guilt” give them the freedom to make mistakes and never be afraid to tell me. Lastly, I need buy-in before a decision is made. I’m perfectly capable of making decisions. (I’ve never had an issue deciding where to eat for dinner) However, I’m not a company of one. I will make a call only after I’ve gathered input from our team and have their buy-in, even if we disagree. They trust me and I trust them.

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’ve had so many! In particular, I had one professor in college who gave me so much freedom and self confidence. He believed in my ability beyond numbers. He saw my potential to think, ponder and make decisions. When someone sees something in you that you might not have seen on your own, it makes all the difference.

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

I have been very fortunate to be able to give back as a leader in my hometown of Travelers Rest, South Carolina. After being frustrated that not many people ran for City Council, I decided to run, and now have earned the designation of the youngest and first female mayor of my hometown. During my time on city council and now as Mayor, I have led our town in sustainable growth by focusing on zoning and policy-driven initiatives that allow Travelers Rest to retain its small-town charm while growing and evolving. I co-founded “Let’s Keep TR Beautiful,” a group dedicated to beautification projects such as town-wide cleanups, local “Before I Die” public art walls and initiatives that encourage recycling and limits on the use of disposal products. We’re currently working to earn Travelers Rest both an Age-Friendly Community Certification and Bike-Friendly Community Certification. I recently secured Travelers Rest a spot with the Riley Mayors’ Design Fellowship, which focuses on the future of affordable housing design opportunities within the community. My passion for caring for people extends beyond the walls of my company and into the streets of my hometown. I want everyone to be proud of our town and feel pride in the work we are doing as city leaders.

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

Be comfortable in your own skin. It’s cliche, but so true. I didn’t feel truly comfortable in my own skin until I hit my thirties. How I wish I would have gotten there sooner. I’m very much made to be unique and special. I can’t be like everyone else. Knowing myself, what I love, what makes me happy and what I’m good at (and not) is such a comfort to leading this team of amazing people. It allows me to trust my team at a higher level and hopefully instills the same confidence in them to be their best at Brains on Fire.

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. 🙂

It sounds so simple, but don’t allow meanness in your organization. It’s toxic and does nothing for your culture or growth — as a company or as humans. As leaders and decision makers, what we allow sets the standard. Meanness has no place in your company, government or culture. We want and need goodness, grace, love and compassion at all levels in order to inspire a movement of growth and change for the better.

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