Jessica Latham: “Make plans but don’t be afraid to change them”

Make plans but don’t be afraid to change them. It just comes with the job and territory so don’t let it discourage or frustrate you. You learn, assess and then you make new plans. As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had […]

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Make plans but don’t be afraid to change them. It just comes with the job and territory so don’t let it discourage or frustrate you. You learn, assess and then you make new plans.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Latham.

Jessica Latham has amassed over 15 years of event & entrepreneurial experience. She launched her career in public relations at PMK-HBH before moving into the world of event production. From 2004–2011, Jessica oversaw special events at Vanity Fair, including the brand’s legendary Oscar campaign. During her tenure at the magazine, Jess created the VF Summer Guide, which garnered a massive following, including coverage from the New York Times. In 2011, Jess launched Social Studies Productions, a physical event production company with a distinguished client portfolio. In fall 2019, she co-founded Social Studies with venture capitalist Amy Griffin. Social Studies is the go-to destination for all things entertaining with rentable party kits and more. She is also an Academy Award-winning film producer. Jess currently serves on The Aspen Film Board of Trustees.

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 grew up in Amarillo, Texas, and attended college at The University of Texas at Austin. I began my career in public relations before moving into the world of event production, where I produced numerous celebrity charity events, brand launches, and premieres for clients in entertainment, philanthropy, and fashion. From 2004–2011, I oversaw special events at Vanity Fair, including the brand’s legendary Oscar campaign. During my tenure there, I created the VF Summer Guide. My time at Vanity Fair was the ultimate training ground, not only from an events perspective but also as it relates to style, fashion, and culture. Being immersed in the zeitgeist was part of the job and I really developed a love and passion for it. In 2019, I co-founded Social Studies with fellow Amarillo native Amy Griffin.

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 my very first job working in celebrity PR, I was tasked with escorting my client down the red carpet. I was told by my boss to announce the client to the photographers on the red carpet before he walked down so they were aware of who was coming. As I saw his car pull up, I announced in a grand fashion “excuse me, excuse me, I have so and so arriving!” All the photographers looked at me like I was crazy. When the next celebrity arrived and the publicist simply walked up and quietly mentioned who was coming, I realized that it didn’t need to be a State of the Union Address. I was very embarrassed as it was clear I was young and green. But the real lesson learned was “just jump” — you don’t have to know it all and it’s okay to figure it out as you go to some extent.

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?

My husband Ryan. He’s like the secret weapon of Social Studies. While he’s busy with his own career and doesn’t have an official position at the company, he is my rock and constant advisor and confidant. The past year has been a ride and he’s been right by my side strategizing, pitching in wherever there is a hole or need, and heavy lifting — quite literally with our marketing road tour — for nothing in return…just because he believes in me and the company.

Also, my cofounder Amy Griffin and her husband John. So many wonderful opportunities have come into my life because of them, and we wouldn’t be here without them.

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?

Social Studies is about so much more than what’s on the table. We’re here to help people facilitate community and create lifelong memories. Special occasions make up the timeline of our lives. And we are here to help people celebrate them, without the stress. As a longtime event planner, I was frustrated by the lack of easy, affordable, and high-quality party rentals, particularly for small to medium-sized events. I thought, why isn’t there a company out there where I can order everything needed, pre-curated…A one-stop shop if you will. Social Studies was founded to empower anyone regardless of experience to seamlessly plan the perfect event, without guesswork.

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?

It’s important to remain positive and be strong for sure, but it’s equally important to be truthful and direct. While we are very focused at Social Studies on an upbeat and optimistic culture, it’s important not to sugarcoat — we’re a small but mighty team and I always say, “no one is going to do this for us.” Tough times often call for difficult decisions and I think it’s important to be decisive and confident in those decisions. It is also so important to focus on and celebrate wins, both big and small.

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

No. Giving up just isn’t an option. Too many people who I care about have invested in and believe in me. And I genuinely believe in the concept, the team, and myself. Times can get tough for sure. Building a company is harder than I ever could have imagined. But when the going gets tough, I think of my team and those who are behind me and pick myself up.

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

Being resilient. You must get up and show up every day…and show your team the way. Put your own oxygen mask on first so you can remain calm, steady, and confident. Find out how you can support your team so they stay motivated.

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?

Figure out how to connect as human beings, not just colleagues. Do fun things after work and drum up some friendly competition.

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

Truthfully and directly with empathy for the other person’s situation.

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

Make plans but don’t be afraid to change them. It just comes with the job and territory so don’t let it discourage or frustrate you. You learn, assess and then you make new plans.

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

Be flexible. You must be willing to learn and adjust along the way.

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?

  1. Not accepting reality. You have to make adjustments decisively and swiftly.
  2. Spending too much time with excuses and blame. You must be solution oriented.
  3. Lack of connectivity. You must communicate and stay connected to your employees.
  4. Burnout. It’s a marathon, not a race. Take care of yourself and your employees, especially during difficult times to avoid burnout.

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?

Innovation has been number 1 for us. How can we serve the CURRENT need, not the need that existed previously? How do we message and speak to our customers differently based on current circumstances? Where can we find opportunities and perhaps even new use cases for our product that we wouldn’t have dreamed of before? And equally as important, where can we cut and be lean at the same time?

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?

  1. Be Resilient and Show the Way
  2. Be Honest and Transparent
  3. Be Decisive but Remain Flexible
  4. Stay Connected
  5. Practice Empathy

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

”Your playing small does not serve the world.” — Marianne Williamson. I constantly remind my colleagues to dream big.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can follow me on LinkedIn or Instagram, and Social Studies on Instagram.

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

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