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How to create a fantastic work culture: “Give employees room to grow and breathe” with Darnell Smith and Chaya Weiner

I think it is important to give employees room to grow and breathe. I’m a firm believer in the fact that hiring smart and passionate people and giving them the space to do their thing will always produce better results. Especially at an integrated agency and consultancy firm like MOJO, where each function is led […]


I think it is important to give employees room to grow and breathe. I’m a firm believer in the fact that hiring smart and passionate people and giving them the space to do their thing will always produce better results. Especially at an integrated agency and consultancy firm like MOJO, where each function is led by the top talent in their respective fields — creative, design, communications, strategy, social media — I want to make sure they always feel empowered to lead and bring their unique expertise to the table. At the same time, I try to be as clear and communicative as possible about the overall vision of the company so that everyone on our team see where we’re heading and feel supported.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Darnell Smith, the Co-Founder & CEO of MOJO, a customer experience consultancy and creative firm. MOJO specializes in bringing creative, marketing, marketing technology/operations, product development and strategic communication solutions to clients such as Bacardi, Prudential, Procter & Gamble and Infosys. A seasoned professional with over two decades of experience in marketing and strategic brand development, Darnell founded MOJO in an effort to rethink the traditional agency model by giving clients a single point of contact to deliver cross-functional solutions to their business challenges through MOJO’s in-house network of experts. Throughout his career, Darnell has established himself as a creative thinker with the ability to analyze and synthesize data to deliver results-based solutions. Darnell’s core focus areas include digital marketing strategy, mobile strategy and implementation, multi-channel commerce and product and brand innovation. He attended the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and was a member of the football team under Head Coach Lou Holtz.


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

Concepting and eventually founding MOJO was a culmination of all the marketing experience and insights I’ve gained throughout my career. I’ve been on all sides of the industry, from agency to management consulting to the C-suite and even a short stint on the brand side. These experiences, along with the way I’ve seen marketing evolve, have informed my perspective on the industry and on starting this business. Cutting out the spin and politics of multi-agency partners fighting for one solution was a must-do, so I’ve spent the last few years working with the MOJO team to assemble rock stars across the suite of marketing disciplines. This has given our client partners one agency contact that can help them solve their business challenges from a 360-degree, holistic perspective.

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

The explosion of growth that MOJO has seen over the last year has definitely been the most interesting experience so far. Since the start of 2018, we’ve grown from only a few employees to more than 30, and we’re expecting to see continued growth through 2020. The interesting part is not so much the size of the company — it’s the pace of the expansion. It’s a completely different beast when you grow this rapidly, and that realization has been incredibly eye-opening. All of a sudden, you’re not just a collective of professionals and subject-experts, you’re a true multi-office company with culture, voice and a point of view. It’s also amazing to see how that growth — especially when you’re recruiting the right kind of folks for your organization — brings more depth to all of the work that you do for your clients.

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

MOJO has diversified services across the marketing discipline, and we’re working on some really exciting projects across the firm. We’re seeing great growth in the consulting side of our business and have new projects coming down the pipeline that our team is really passionate about. Our client partners include companies across the spirits, technology, consumer and retail spaces, and with every new project, we aim to help create brands that are relatable, fit into people’s lifestyles and provide better user experiences for their audiences and customers.

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?

From a broad level, I think it stems from the fact that companies are now under immense pressure to maximize efficiency. Customers and clients are expecting more content and quicker turnarounds for the same cost, and that increased demand affects all areas of an organization. Because of this, it’s becoming harder for employees to take the time to enjoy the creation process or truly perfect a craft or project. This shift also can affect executives’ viewpoints on the valuation of vacation time, work-life balance or how much a company is willing to spend on perks, benefits and other means to improve corporate culture. When efficiency is always prioritized over employee well-being, it can be felt across the organization and leave a lasting impact.

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?

When employees are unhappy, they lose that passion that energizes them to achieve success for themselves, the company and their clients. They can become drained and as a result, are less productive. Their work becomes unreflective of their talent and loses the spark that made it really stand out in the first place. The employee feels it, the client sees it, and the company’s profitability can, and will, take the hit.

When this burnout happens, you often see an increase in health issues related to stress as well, which doesn’t just mean more sick days taken, but less engagement with other colleagues and contribution to the company culture. This can lead to an even deeper feeling of unhappiness and disconnect with the company and the work. Overall, when employees are not happy or morale is low, you can feel that downward pull, and it negatively impacts the organization across the board.

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) Regular communication between employees and their managers is key. It not only increases transparency, but it helps both parties track employee progress toward goals and address any underlying issues or concerns — on both sides of the conversation — before they become unmanageable. At MOJO, we make a conscious effort to have these employee-manager check-ins every other week. We also have full-team meetings each month where the leadership team, including myself, gives company updates and highlights outstanding work. This helps ensure that the entire team, including remote employees or those who don’t always work together on projects, are seeing what’s happening across the firm.

2) Rewarding and acknowledging employee growth when it’s deserved keeps employees feeling motivated and appreciated. At MOJO, we recognize our talent on a rolling basis instead of being tied to an annual, predefined review and promotion cycle. When great work is happening, we want to recognize and celebrate those employees who are achieving outstanding results. Rather than feeling tied to an arbitrary timeline, we want our employees to feel that as long as they’re continuing to grow and do the work, we will continue to elevate and support them.

3) Employees spending time with each other outside of meetings or a traditional work setting truly sets a foundation for a whole different level of collaboration and community/culture building. Every third Friday of the month, our teams participate in activities outside of the office. We’ve had our teams go axe throwing, do Segway tours and check out museums together. Additionally, because our firm is spread across three physical offices and we have remote workers in cities across the country, we fly the whole collective to one location one a year. This gives the team the chance to enjoy each other’s company, have fun and get to know those they don’t work with as often.

4) Celebrating employees, both in terms of work accomplishments and personal milestones, helps build a sense of community. We encourage employees to share shout-outs or kudos for their colleagues on Slack, and we send out company-wide communications about special events like birthdays, weddings and children. We also try to go for lunches or happy hours to celebrate these milestones, which helps everyone connect in a more personal way and know that their life outside of work is important and valued by colleagues.

5) When employees can maintain a healthy balance between their work and personal lives, it ultimately results in a more productive, happy team. We encourage our employees to take their allotted vacation days, and we give employees two weeks off around the holidays each year to spend time with their families and loved ones. While there will always be some urgent client needs that must be addressed, we try to give each employee this time to recharge so they can come back energized and refreshed to tackle the new year.

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?

To achieve success and employee happiness, employers need to make work fit into people’s lives, not the other way around. Especially today, in a competitive, job-hunters’ market, organizations need to evolve and adapt to ensure that the environments they are providing appeal to the types of employees they want on their team. Generally, this means being flexible, both in terms of work schedule and physical work environment. Adjustable hours, work from home days and a general sense of overall flexibility go a long way in making employees feel that their work, well-being and personal life can coexist. This often increases productivity and employee attitude towards the day-to-day work.

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

I think it is important to give employees room to grow and breathe. I’m a firm believer in the fact that hiring smart and passionate people and giving them the space to do their thing will always produce better results. Especially at an integrated agency and consultancy firm like MOJO, where each function is led by the top talent in their respective fields — creative, design, communications, strategy, social media — I want to make sure they always feel empowered to lead and bring their unique expertise to the table. At the same time, I try to be as clear and communicative as possible about the overall vision of the company so that everyone on our team see where we’re heading and feel supported.

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?

The Co-Founder and President of MOJO, Stephanie Smith, has been absolutely instrumental in transforming this company from a few people flying around the country for various client meetings to a multi-office organization in a matter of years — and she also happens to be my wife. The ability to do something of this magnitude with your significant other is not to be understated. I’ve gotten to work with someone I trust implicitly, which is critical in the early stages of building a business, and by starting this company together, our work and personal lives have been able to coexist. MOJO would absolutely not exist without her partnership.

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

Now that we’ve seen success and growth within MOJO, we’re really diving in on how we can help our local and national communities. Many of the employees we’ve brought into the fold over the last year have causes and organizations that they are extremely passionate about, and we enable and encourage them to support those causes. For example, we’ve coordinated a sabbatical with one of our employees so she can participate in a charity program this summer. We also grant each employee a paid time off day each quarter specifically to volunteer. Not only does this help bring some goodness to the world, but it lets employees stay passionate and energized about their community efforts by eliminating the stress of how it may affect their jobs or work.

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

“Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.” — Lou Holtz

From the moment I heard this quote, it has been impacted how I approach everyday life. In today’s society, we hear so much about striving to “live your best life,” and I believe the key to doing that is understanding where ability, motivation and attitude converge for you.

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. 🙂

Overall, it’s important to me to foster understanding and engagement with others and just genuinely look for ways that we, as people, can be better to one another. For us, that starts with the MOJO family and it’s something that we hope comes through in all the work we do and the way we interact with others, both inside and outside our organization.

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

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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