As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eileen Jaffe Markstein. She co-founded Markstein, a marketing communications agency in 2003. Today, with offices in Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Ala., Markstein is one of the largest woman-owned agencies in the southeast and has been named a Birmingham Best Place to Work. She oversees all aspects of the firm, which has experienced double-digit growth each of the last seven years. Eileen leads a team of almost 40 marketing, public relations and creative professionals for Markstein’s clients, which have included Encompass Health, Walmart, Verizon, Tenet Healthcare, Clayton Homes, Colonial Pipeline, The World Games 2021 Birmingham, the Air Line Pilots Association, Royal Cup Coffee and Tea, and Thompson Tractor Company. Eileen received her BA from James Madison University and her MBA from The George Washington University.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was drawn to the marketing industry while taking an international marketing class in high school. I loved learning about different cultures and the importance of nuance in crafting effective messages to successfully communicate with diverse audiences. I also always wanted to start a business — put the two together, and here we are.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The agency started in the basement of a rowhouse. Over the years as the company began expanding, we realized that it had grown to be bigger than any one team member. It was a transformative and meaningful moment to realize this young start-up had evolved into a thriving team. It wasn’t myself or anyone person driving our success — it was our team, working together to make a difference and impact for our clients.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the most exciting things happening at our agency is the recent opening of our Washington, D.C. office. The company started in D.C. but moved to Birmingham, Ala. in 2006, and it’s exciting to return to our roots and continue building on the great work we’ve done from our Birmingham office. A major focus right now is ensuring that culture and collaboration are seamless between the two offices. We want everyone to feel like they’re on the same team because they are. It’s not a simple task to culturally and operationally integrate almost 40 people in two different locations, but it’s important to continue to scale our company. Once you start growing, if you stop, you die.
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?
Cultivating a strong culture and positive work environment is never an easy path. In fact, many companies won’t — and don’t — take the extra time and effort to prioritize their team by listening to their needs, cultivating a supportive culture and rewarding them for hard work. It’s common to forget that employees are humans and can feel where their happiness falls on the totem pole of priority vs. revenue, and if this is out of balance, it’s natural for them to react accordingly. The onus is on companies and their leadership to find balance in their workplace, embrace the needs of team members and bring corporate values to life each and every day.
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?
According to a Dale Carnegie study, companies with engaged employees outperform those with lower engagement levels by up to 202 percent. Management must understand how much they have the potential to lose if their team isn’t engaged with their work. That includes productivity, profitability, and employee health and wellbeing. A study by Queen’s University Centre for Business Venturing “found the following for organizations that possessed an engaged culture:” 26% less employee turnover, 20% less absenteeism, and 15% percent greater employee productivity. All of these results are directly related to employee health and wellbeing and impact the bottom line, proving the positive results that a happy workforce can generate.
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. Slow down, listen to, and pay attention to your team. At Markstein, we are constantly evolving our benefits and internal processes based on team member feedback, gathered both face to face and through anonymous surveys. This ensures that the team has multiple avenues to share honest feedback. Everyone wants to be heard — letting them feel heard, and making changes as appropriate, is one of the top responsibilities of a leader.
2. Find ways to bring your corporate values to life. If you don’t have a set of defined corporate values, engage your team in developing them. Once in place, embrace them and bring them to life through your actions. At our agency, we recognize and reward team members for living the company’s values in their daily work life.
3. Give your team opportunities to socialize. Infusing social activities into your company’s typical schedule gives team members the opportunity to build relationships with each other. This allows them to work better together when they find themselves in high-stress client situations because they’ve already built trust and rapport with each other. We regularly hold team happy hours, “lunch and learn” sessions and celebrate team member birthdays/anniversaries.
4. Practice empathetic leadership. Empathy is one of Markstein’s most important corporate values. Empathetic leadership can be the difference between harmony and discord on teams. It requires continual commitment — and leading through action.
5. Lead by example. You must act the way you want your team to act. I hold myself to — and am held to — the same standards and rules as everyone on the team. This reduces the power distance between team members, places emphasis on abiding by our company values and culture, and demonstrates that actions in the workplace matter.
What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?
Personally, I don’t believe that taking a broad brushstroke to the US workforce’s culture is possible, nor the right approach. Because of the nuances and distinctions between different generations, managers quickly find that values and motivators among team members can differ drastically. Instead, leaders must take time to understand each generation’s needs and desires and work to accommodate those as best they can. Not only does this help recruit and retain diverse, multi-generational talent, but it helps foster happy, productive and collaborative relationships among team members. To achieve this balance, consider a blend of outside research and personal interviews to understand what truly matters to members of your team and the differences among them.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I strive to lead instead of manage. Each day, my goal is to lead people and manage tasks. My actions and decisions are meant to motivate desired behaviors and I hold myself to the same standards as the rest of the team. As a leader, I believe my role is to mentor, inspire and advance each member of the team. This means being open to and considering ideas from anyone, in any job within the agency; telegraphing where we are going as a company; and driving bigger, better and more impactful work each day.
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?
My father started his own pediatric practice that he ran and grew for over 40 years. The compassion he had for his patients and team was unwavering. I spent time working in his office as a teenager and was deeply impacted by the way he ran his business. He had employees that stayed with him for 20+ years, some of whom I am still friends with today. That experience working for him continually influences and guides my actions as a leader.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Outside of the office, I am actively involved in my community through nonprofit boards and civic involvement. My focus areas include education, mental health, and the arts, which all have personal meanings to me. I would encourage everyone, regardless of career phase or where they are on the corporate ladder, to become involved in a cause they care about — it makes life much more meaningful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Coco Chanel once said: “In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” To me, this quote underscores the importance of embracing your own unique qualities, both personally and professionally. It also inspired me to create a different agency culture and business model. At Markstein, we focus on innovating and raising the bar for our clients and team. Often, companies spend too much of their time focusing on the competition and neglect the development of their own competitive advantages. Without growing and accentuating these differences, companies fall behind — and become replaceable.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I believe focusing on sustainability does the most good. Now more than ever, it is crucial for people to act responsibly in the way that they interact with our planet and their environment. At Markstein, our sustainability team ensures that the company is doing its part to protect our resources by using them efficiently and responsibly.
I would advise anyone in a leadership position to support and foster cause-based groups in the workplace — it’s never a waste of time to work together for a common goal.