“Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader.” with Candice Georgiadis & Tanya Zhang

During challenging times, it’s important to remember that we’re all human with basic needs, but with different experiences and cultural upbringings. The most critical role a leader can play during challenging times is that of a supportive one. When times are tough, it’s a sense of belongingness that keeps people and teams together. Keeping people […]

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During challenging times, it’s important to remember that we’re all human with basic needs, but with different experiences and cultural upbringings. The most critical role a leader can play during challenging times is that of a supportive one. When times are tough, it’s a sense of belongingness that keeps people and teams together. Keeping people unified and supported through a common passion or goal is key during challenging times.

As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tanya Zhang.

Tanya Zhang is co-founder of Nimble Made, a men’s Actually Slim fit dress shirt brand, founded in 2018 in New York City. She created a better slim fit after seeing that her father was unable to find a proper dress shirt as a slimmer immigrant man working in the U.S. Since launch, Nimble Made has been featured by HuffPost, Forbes and Money as a “Slim Fit That Lives up to its Name” and that strives for more size inclusion and Asian representation in the industry. In the years prior, she was an art director in advertising and served as a consultant in visual and UX design for Fortune 500 companies.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’m a first-generation Chinese-American, born and raised in Los Angeles, CA. After graduating from University of California, San Diego with a Computing in the Arts major, I moved to New York City to start a career in advertising as an art director and designer. I navigated the corporate world for a few years, jumping from agencies to financial tech startups to consulting jobs, before realizing that I needed a bigger challenge to test my potential. I wanted to stop being a resource for someone else, and instead start building towards a dream of my own.

Nimble Made is a men’s Actually Slim fit dress shirt brand that launched in 2018 in New York City. I wanted to create a better slim fit after seeing my father not being able to find a dress shirt as a slimmer immigrant man working in the U.S. He always told me, “American dress shirts don’t fit me.” As a female founder of a DTC e-commerce brand that’s been featured by HuffPost, Forbes, and Money, I’m navigating the dynamic clothing landscape in a predominantly male industry. My experience working on advertising campaigns for brands like H&M has given me the edge in creating my own slim dress shirt brand with a mission for more size inclusion and Asian representation in the fashion industry.

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

At the early stages of a self-funded business, I was doing everything from shipping out orders to answering customer emails to being a spokesperson for the brand. We had decided to pop up at a few professional happy hours and networking events around town to generate some brand awareness.

We were keeping things on a tight budget, which meant that it was going to be a very concise presentation. I ironed some of our dress shirts, deconstructed a small clothing rack I brought from home, and grabbed some business cards. That evening, it was raining in New York City and for some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to take public transit to the event with everything I was carrying. When I arrived at the event and started setting up, I realized I was missing a piece of the clothing rack while building it. During the whole event, I had to keep one hand clutched to it to keep it from falling apart. I was completely out of my element while in a room full of lawyers, feeling insecure about my presentation and finding it difficult to pitch my product.

The mistake here was putting myself in a situation that wasn’t a good use of my skill set, resulting in a mediocre performance considering the amount of time and energy it took. I learned this lesson early on in my entrepreneurship journey: maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. I’m not a good public speaker or a salesperson but I have a great eye for branding, design skills, work ethic as well as the mental toughness that a leader needs to lead her team to success. Since then, I’ve always made sure to position myself where my unique skill sets stand out. In addition, I extended that philosophy to the rest of my team so that everyone else can utilize their unique talents like the crucial puzzle pieces they are.

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?

In college, I was a part-time graphic designer who created posters, T-shirts and marketing materials for clubs or organizations that needed design work. Melissa Ewart is the full-time studio manager there who leads a team of student designers. I worked there for 4 years and built an extensive portfolio of design work that enabled me to secure an internship at a big ad firm coming out of college. She also tasked me with branding and designing the university’s largest annual music festival, which had over 20 thousand people in attendance, and featured artists like Snoop Dogg, Diplo and Kendrick Lamar. I was the design lead for this project two years in a row.

My studio manager really prepared me for the real-world relationships I would eventually foster with my clients. I learned to take client feedback as constructive comments rather than evaluations of my competence, and began to realize that in order to work well with others, I had to understand their personal motivations for completing the work we shared. At a certain point, I had to condition myself not to be attached to my designs or ideas. This was a crucial improvement that helped when I transitioned to working in advertising agencies, where I had to pitch an abundance of ideas at a time — most of them getting rejected. I learned to listen to clients, which is even more important now that I run my own business. Asking for feedback and listening to the pain points of customers and employees only makes a better product and overall better business.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Our vision for Nimble Made is to fill a sizing gap in the men’s dress shirt industry. Traditional retailers cater to the mass market, creating sizes based on the average U.S. man, which makes the industry “slim” size still too baggy for naturally slimmer men like my dad and co-founder. Because of their smaller builds, they struggled with finding a good-fitting dress shirt that they could buy off-the-rack without tailoring. As immigrants to the U.S., there were already systemic disadvantages against them. On top of that, wearing ill-fitting clothing affected their confidence at work, where dress shirts are a staple piece of clothing. If you don’t look good, you don’t feel good, and subsequently can’t perform your best at work.

We created our Actually Slim fit — a fit that was even slimmer than the traditional “Slim Fits” that already exist in the market. Sizes run larger in the US then abroad because companies cater to the “average” male build at 5’9″ and 198 lb. Our customers at 5’9″ in height, in contrast, average 140 lb. There was no trifecta of fit, price, and quality when it came to a good slim dress shirt brand — no other shirt company that elevated the fastest-growing minority group in the US: Asian American Pacific Islanders. We are filling a gap in menswear by creating affordable slim dress shirts that actually fit off-the-rack and helping slim guys feel confident in their clothes at work. Simultaneously, we aim to shine a brighter light on our Asian cultural legacy.

While the dress shirt industry still uses “neck & sleeve length” to determine sizes, our unique sizes are a combination of factors such as height and weight, and includes a trimmed shirt length, sleeve length, and reduced fabric around the back/shoulders for a better slim fit. We strive for more size inclusion to create a slim fit that actually conforms to the shape of your body.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

In March 2020 when the stay-at-home order was implemented as a result of the increasing coronavirus cases across the nation, we immediately saw our sales drop. Our customers, the white collar employees who wore dress shirts to work everyday, had changed their environments by working from home. The pandemic promptly raised everyone’s alertness, shifting their attention to their immediate needs such as physical health and wellbeing.

With the shift to working from home and a lower demand in workplace attire, I had to rethink our brand’s position during a time where dress shirts were less relevant. With a fully remote team at this point, I knew it was of the utmost importance to keep my team focused and motivated during the quarantine — a time where the macroeconomic trends are against our odds.

As a result, we saw an all-time high in sales a few months later this past July. This starkly contrasts our big box competitors who were filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy, since COVID-19 severely hurt their retail presence. Uncertain and difficult times like this one calls for a leader who understands what it takes to weather a storm. For me, that meant stepping up to the plate and taking ownership of the business decisions I had to make during this time. Would we have to call off our digital marketing efforts until the market was a bit more stable? Cut expenses and overhead costs? Continue business as usual?

As a leader, I believe people skills are of the utmost importance. Without my team, the business is nothing. We had to reprioritize most of our ongoing projects to laser in on one or two goals for the quarter. This would ensure that we would be efficient with our resources. I’ve always had a hands-off approach in people management because I believe that this is the only way to empower them to do their best work. In that aspect, managing a fully remote team was no problem. My empathy towards the personal needs and challenges in both my team and customers has led us to build a successful human-first business that sells confidence in a great fitting dress shirt.

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

In entrepreneurship, there are always doubts and thoughts about giving up. I do my best to not listen to that voice in my head. My passion for filling this gap in menswear and striving for more Asian representation in fashion is too strong for me to ever just quit.

My motivation to plow through challenges is to look at the bigger picture. If we don’t hit our metrics or have low performance, I see that as an opportunity to learn. It’s an ongoing process and, as life’s student, I’m always eager to learn and grow as an individual and not just a business owner. I found entrepreneurship to be the only avenue that would really challenge me to the max, and let me see where my potential would take me. As a first time founder, it’s almost like a personal MBA. While it’s easy to get discouraged by poor metrics or low numbers, it’s important to change your mindset to really question the “why” behind everything. Why did this not perform as well as we thought it would? What are we missing out on? How can we be even better? At the end of the day, it’s all about product market fit and that meant finding the customers who were looking for our product.

Thinking back on the “why” I started Nimble Made is the driving force behind how I’m able to weather the challenges and obstacles that come my way as a leader. Empathizing with the pain points of my customer, even though I don’t wear men’s dress shirts, allows me to feel the struggles they do. I can’t imagine needing to shop in the junior section, constantly having to get my clothes tailored or searching for better alternatives to something as simple as everyday clothing. That’s a pain that I feel on a daily basis that drives me to keep doing my job. At the same time, I use my business to create opportunities that push for a stronger Asian American narrative with diverse models and creators, and that never ceases to excite me.

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

As someone with a user experience design and consulting background, I’ve listened to focus groups and conducted user research for other companies to find the answers to their biggest problems. The most important skill I’ve learned from these experiences is being an effective listener. What is your audience telling you? How can we dig deeper to understand why they feel a certain way? Understanding the needs of the people who rely on me for guidance is crucial in order to fulfill those needs — both in my team and with my customers.

Through close listening, I can learn about the motivations of the people around me, which teaches me how to support them in times of need. Understanding what they need, why they need it and how best to provide them support — whether through affirmation, acts of service, or giving them my time — is incredibly important as a leader. Along the same line, I must also acknowledge that some people aren’t verbal communicators. In that case, observing and understanding their specific communication style is just as important.

During challenging times, it’s important to remember that we’re all human with basic needs, but with different experiences and cultural upbringings. The most critical role a leader can play during challenging times is that of a supportive one. When times are tough, it’s a sense of belongingness that keeps people and teams together. Keeping people unified and supported through a common passion or goal is key during challenging times.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

It’s hard to fully understand what people are already dealing with in their personal lives. The least I can do is make sure that they enjoy their work. I try to ensure that whatever responsibility they’re tasked with is something that uplifts and fulfills them. When the future seems so uncertain, the best way to boost morale is to show them the conviction that’s expected of a good leader. Be the anchor when your team needs it the most, and inspire them with your boldness. I’m aware of my presence, body language, and the word choice I use when interacting with my team. I make sure to always exude the best qualities of a leader even in times of uncertainty.

Ensuring that your team is continuously inspired, motivated and engaged sets the premise for a positive feedback loop. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, famously emphasizes the importance of having the right people in the right roles. Optimizing peoples’ skill sets and matching them with work they’re passionate about is the first step. Then, it’s understanding what drives them, what they perceive as an incentive or reward that validates their work. At the end of the day, it’s a value exchange. I lead by believing my team is extracting as much value in working with me and the business as much as I’m extracting value from their work.

Having a system in place is one thing but executing it is another. Lead meetings with an open mind and an open floor, a place where everyone at the table feels like their opinion has equal weight to mine. I have to create an atmosphere that values a diversity of opinions with a “reward” mechanism that keeps the team motivated, inspired, and engaged, especially during uncertain times.

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

Difficult news is both hard to give and receive. The best way to communicate such information is to first put yourself in the shoes of the receiver. We’ve all been on the receiving end of bad news. In our experiences, we have to ask ourselves: how could it have been communicated better? What could have improved the delivery?

Most of the time, the situation requires transparency. Being transparent in the what, why, how, where, when of certain difficult news gives the most context and leaves little for interpretation. The responsibility of delivering difficult news also requires that you understand how the situation unfolded, and owning up to personal mistakes without speaking condescendingly, pointing fingers or attributing blame. Hold an open floor for questions, welcome silence, and give time for people to process and heal.

Difficult news may sometimes present you with the opportunity to show appreciation for teammates or customers that have reached milestones or made noteworthy achievements. I always sandwich difficult news with looking back on past accomplishments and looking forward to what exciting things may be coming next.

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

As a leader, my team looks to me for guidance and direction. When the future is so unpredictable, I remember to lay out bigger-picture goals, let data inform me, and take the best educated guess for what the plan of action may be. There’s almost never a clear answer or a correct way to do things. The best way to approach the planning process is to welcome failure and mistakes at the same time. Turning these into learning opportunities will encourage the kind of risk-taking that’s necessary for creating greater change and success.

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

Resilience is the key to a company’s success. Without resilience, it’s easy to succumb to adversity or obstacles that may arise. The quality of being able to recover or withstand the toughest scenarios and difficulties helps guide a company through rough patches in the road. I’m a firm believer that businesses only fail when their people have given up. So, the number one principle is to persevere through hardship and not give up. For example, when our sales dropped at the onset of the pandemic, we pared down our marketing approach and relooked at our goals. Understanding that company morale is just as important, I knew it would have been hard and nearly impossible to reach our original goals. So we focused on another part of the funnel that we could control — the overall website experience — and spent almost an entire quarter on conversion rate optimization.

It’s always about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and holding on to the optimism and philosophy that hard work pays off.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

During difficult times, understandably, many businesses decide to close down. This may be due to a variety of reasons, whether it’s financial or otherwise. I acknowledge that operating a business is a privilege that benefits those who are able to secure working capital. My advice is for those who can afford to keep a business going during difficult times. If there’s even a glimmer of hope or something you haven’t tried yet, try it before closing down shop. The entrepreneur journey is one that is racked with obstacles thrown at you everyday. In the course of my journey, I’ve changed the way I look at these “obstacles” to view them more as puzzles, like a crossword, that have yet to be figured out. This mindset makes overcoming obstacles less daunting and more explorative.

Another mistake I’ve seen is when leaders hide information from teammates or employees, believing that it’ll protect them from unwanted news. Even hiding bad news creates an atmosphere of tension. When you offer no explanation, people end up speculating, or worse, think that you have an ulterior motive for hiding information. Bottling up information can be a burden to leaders as well, draining their energy and performance. Overall, it’s a lose-lose scenario.

Lastly, a business should avoid completely pivoting to something drastically different from their core product. This results in a loss of their competitive advantage — it’s almost like starting a whole new business that you need to dedicate extra time and resources to. While it’s okay to shift the strategy a little bit, I wouldn’t go as far to abandon everything the company has built so far. A little bit of resilience here goes a long way. For Nimble Made, we see workplace wear trending more casual in future years. Large firms like Goldman Sachs announced in 2019 a dress code that would be much more flexible, allowing their bankers to go casual in the office environment. Instead of changing our business completely to selling jeans, we’re expanding our dress shirt collection to include casual dress shirts and everyday collared shirts like flannels.

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?

In difficult and uncertain economic times, I look at the numbers. As an e-commerce brand, we look at certain levers like traffic to the website, return on ad spend, and the cost of goods sold, to name a few. When there are unpredictable macroeconomic trends that have thrown the business for a loop, I look across channels to see how the numbers have changed and where the demand has shifted. Generating new business and increasing profits are extremely hard to accomplish in a difficult economy, so the priority is to set up realistic goals with quantifiable metrics in order to hold everyone accountable. Revenue and profit may not be on top of mind during these times. So if the numbers are low in the funnel, what else can improve, even marginally? During Covid-19, we made the conscious decision to halt paid advertising and focus on our website and improve conversion rate. I knew we needed major improvement on our website conversion rate, but as a business goes, it’s easy to get distracted by other important meetings or initiatives. By momentarily halting business as usual, and by formulating a better strategy for these turbulent times, we were able to improve the “machine” of our business. I knew that once the market recovered, we would have an even more solid foundation for how we were presenting ourselves on the website and selling our products. What I’ve learned from this experience is the value of taking a break, stepping back, and visiting the problem with a fresh perspective to really see the holes in the business that you can patch up while sales are slow. This is also another reason to not work on the weekends, if possible, as a business owner. Take a few days off to reset and not think about work. This will only allow you to come back on Monday refreshed with a new way of looking at problems.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

The five most important things I do as a leader are: remembering the “why,” focusing on my strengths, finding the right team members, being a good listener, and creating a positive feedback loop.

1: Anchoring yourself in the “why” reminds you at all times of the core reason you started your business. My dad had to settle for baggy dress shirts for the majority of his lifetime and was a consumer that felt almost completely excluded by an entire industry. The fit he was looking for was not available in the mass market and that further isolated him from the western society he was trying to adapt to as an immigrant. This human-first approach to understanding the pain points and struggles of your customer is the “why” behind the business. As someone who experienced my dad’s struggles first-hand, I empathize and constantly remember the struggle my customers go through. Some customers will say that they’ve been looking for a better fit for 10 years until they found Nimble Made. When the going gets tough and hope seems to be lost, I always go back to remembering why I started Nimble Made. At the end of the day, if you have created a solution to a problem you know exists for a lot of people, all you need to do is find them and tell them about it.

2: Focus on your strengths and delegate your weaknesses to people who are better-suited for those tasks. During the early stages of my business, I was doing everything myself, from emailing customers, to fulfilling orders, to running our Facebook ads. I quickly learned that I easily excelled at some aspects of the business but failed miserably at others. When I first started, I was popping up at professional happy hours, networking events to spread more awareness about my brand. From there, I was lugging all these shirts, clothing racks, and materials into New York City and then had to pitch my brand to lawyers, bankers, etc. I realized that I was a really bad salesman and even worse, realized that each one of these events took up way too much of my time and energy. I would be exhausted even the next day after, and I quickly realized it was not a sustainable way to operate as a business leader. I knew I had to find someone who really loved pitching and talking to people to do this job so that I could focus on my own.

3: Create a tight-knit team. Throughout my life and career, people have always told me to surround myself with those that push me and help me grow. That’s no different from building your team. The first part of this is finding the right people. For me, this meant scouting for people who were really passionate about what I was building, and who also had the skill I lacked to provide value to the business. Oftentimes, you might find reliable, diligent people, but they’re not necessarily in a role where they feel they can make the biggest difference or maximize their talents. For example, when I brought on an executive assistant to help me in the day-to-day, I realized that, while they were a determined person, they were slow at finishing tasks and lacked a sense of urgency in their work. Upon talking to them, I realized they weren’t as good with sitting at a desk everyday on the computer. We tried a couple of different arrangements to find a better fit. At the end, they worked best in the warehouse working in fulfillment, as they could be on their feet, working with physical items. Finding the right people, then fitting them into the right roles is instrumental to a business’ success. Understanding who your team consists of, what they need, and why they operate that way motivates and empowers them to do their best work. Check to see if you have a diverse team to provide a variety of opinions and perspectives that can then influence your work.

4: Learn how to listen effectively. During difficult times, it’s even more important to listen closely to your customers and teammates. This goes back to having a human-first approach in your business because it’s often your customers and team members who have the answers and inspire some sort of solution. During COVID-19, we sent out a survey to our customers to see how we could still be of service to them outside of providing them workplace shirts. To our surprise, they still wanted to see us expand our dress shirt collection and even provide some casual options to wear while working from home. They were still eager to buy from us because of our unique Actually Slim fit. As it turned out, some people still needed to wear shirts everyday for their Zoom meetings or to feel more productive at home. At the same time, we listened to our team about their concerns, questions, and thoughts during this turbulent time to understand their number one priorities and what we could do to support them. Being a good listener entails an understanding of your team’s communication styles. For example, someone like me might require a bit of prying in order for me to open up about issues I might have. Recognizing these different communication styles and understanding the unique approach to each of them will allow you to be a better listener. I believe that the most effective way to manage people is not to. But my hands-off approach can only work after optimizing my team and having placed the right people in the right roles.

5: Create support in a positive feedback loop. I learned this in my career as a consultant and realized that I’ve been doing it since I was young. I’m always asking others, “How can I help?” While it may seem counterintuitive, since leaders are traditionally seen as placed on a pedestal, you’re only as good as your team. Helping your team helps you too. As a leader, it’s important to stay connected to the day-to-days of your employees or teammates, to be constantly listening and challenging them. Challenge the way they think and push them to be a better version of themselves. No one does their best when they feel complacent. At the same time, it’s easy for anyone to get tunnel vision, overthink problems, get frustrated and burn out. Projecting a clear vision for the business and everyone involved will bring struggling team members out of that abyss, with an improved outlook on things they once viewed as a roadblock. With the right guidelines and support from a leader, they can take that vision and execute on it, which further drives the business. Ironically, it may almost feel like you’re working for them but everyone’s efforts go towards bettering themselves and their work which betters the business.

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

“Maximize your strengths, minimize your weaknesses.” In a perfectionist society, especially as a female founder in a predominantly male industry, there is pressure to always outperform or put in overtime hours every week. The duality of my Asian American identity leaves me at a crossroads between two different societies, cultures, definitions of success. In the end, it can feel overwhelming to always try and discern what society expects from you. In Reshma Saujani’s Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder, she teaches women to be brave in what they do and shed the notion of being perfect the way society has historically tried to teach them. The themes of fearing less, failing more, and living bolder are consistent throughout her book and were relevant to my decision in taking the leap of faith, leaving my corporate job, and thus being the founder of a dress shirt company at a time when everyone is work-at-home. The fear of failure is overwhelming as a first-generation Asian American and first-time founder in a non-conventional career path. Her book really showed that by choosing bravery over perfection, I have agency over my voice and what I wanted to accomplish: more size inclusion and Asian representation in fashion.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Follow our recent news and shirt releases at the Nimble Made website. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Linkedin @nimblemade.

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

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