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Joanne Obenauf: “Be inspiring; people want to be inspired and they will move mountains because they are inspired”

Be inspiring. People want to be inspired and they will move mountains because they are inspired. It takes leadership to keep everyone at their best. Choosing a philanthropic project that all employees can be inspired by is a part of our DNA. Branding the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome was such a project. Learning from […]


Be inspiring. People want to be inspired and they will move mountains because they are inspired. It takes leadership to keep everyone at their best. Choosing a philanthropic project that all employees can be inspired by is a part of our DNA. Branding the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome was such a project. Learning from the people with the illness and drawing on their strengths brought the entire BNO team to wanting to exhibit their creative best. We learned so much about the illness, and we were able to help the organization achieve their goals. In addition to the company efforts, many employees went out of their way using personal time to expand the scope of this project.


As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joanne Obenauf, Founder & CEO of BNO Inc & newly the launched, BNO Labs


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

I wanted to start a family and I wanted to stay out of my husband’s hair. Poor guy hardly has any! My brother finished his medical residency and was about to open his practice. He asked me for help in typing all the forms for his office. Being a perfectionist, I went to my boss and asked if I could use the typesetting equipment in the advertising department. I learned how to use the equipment, thought I could make more money, have flexible hours and stay out of my husband’s hair so I started my advertising business. And today, I still think of us as a 37-year-old start-up!

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

Hurricane Sandy was a big challenge for us as our entire building was without power for 7-days. In order to maintain our reputation of being on-time, and on-budget, in one day we moved the offices to a nearby Regus facility, had employees from Pennsylvania transport gasoline for local employees so they had to-and-from transportation, set up the necessary servers and kept the office running. Many of our out-of-state clients expected service as usual, and we delivered it!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Trying to be all things to all clients, I quickly used the pronoun ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. It worked well for a while, but then one day a client wanted to thank the ‘we’s’ for the amazing solution to their needs. Fessing up that ‘we’ was ‘me’ was so embarrassing on so many levels. Clearly the solution was to start hiring the ‘we’s’. The rest is history.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

No surprises. Our story telling and creative are excellent as they should be, but what continues to provide us new opportunities is our reputation of always being ‘on-time’ and ‘on-budget’. To remain in business beyond 7-years, you have to prove your capability . . . that is providing outstanding creativity. Where we are ahead of the game is that we always do it on budget and on time. That creates the client confidence that we will always meet or exceed their expectations and that brings us more work.

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

Today we are gearing up to launch an innovative branch of our agency called, BNO Labs in St. Petersburg, FL. We spent two years listening. Really listening, to both the needs of brand marketers and to the cultural climate itself. The Tampa/ St. Petersburg area of Florida is primed for advances in technology and innovation and massive growth, and we’ve built strategic workshops and boot camps to address these business needs in a unique and creative way. I’m really proud that my company and my team at BNO will contribute to its footprint and voice.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be confident and knowledgeable about your strengths and develop a plan that as you grow you can hire the talent that fills the gaps of your needs vs. your talent. Avoid cloning at all costs so that in a collaborative environment you can ideate the best solutions to grow your business.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Empower your team, but check-in often so they can relish their success and avoid stumbling. Give feedback, but also hold employees accountable. Don’t micro-manage.

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?

Crazy, but I would have to say that the biggest influence I’ve had in building a business was my father. While I was still an adolescent, family dinners always included discussions about our day. Dad would tell us his latest trial or success and ask my siblings and myself for comment. He’d tell us that a freezer broke and it would cost $50 for repair but it might break again or $250 for a new one. What was our vote. Of course, we all knew that belt buckling consequences of buying new. I don’t know how he did it (he was a very smart man) but he always went with the consensus, even though he had four children giving him advice. He talked about employee issues, money issues, customer issues, you name it. He taught me to be decisive, how to plan for the future, how to manage, and so much more. It’s not a coincidence that all of my siblings own businesses and family gatherings often include discussions about what we are doing, and why. When Dad was with us, his suggestions were always most helpful. I’ve tried to play this forward by running a transparent company, by applauding and helping employees that leave to start their own businesses, and by hiring people that had the courage to start a business but found they were better suited to be an employee.

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

I stand behind and believe in every product that we’ve helped to market, or every company we’ve helped to grow. We don’t do work for companies that aren’t making a good impact on the lives of everyone. Philanthropically we try to give back to our community, both by financial donations, and by work-in-kind to promote the good deeds of various organizations both locally and within the state.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Be authentic, and transparent to the best of your ability about your vision for the business, your growth plans, your vision so that the right people can join your culture and opt-in to help you grow your business. Having the right team on board is the secret sauce for success, but that takes authenticity and transparency. One aspect of being authentic is exposing your vulnerabilities. While that can be intimidating it is incredibly rewarding for me. Friends, employees, clients, and neighbors have all participated in supporting my personal endeavors to try new sports whether it’s skiing, wake boarding, kayaking, or parasailing. My fearfulness, yet persistence has all lead to wonderful collaborative experiences. And my sportsmanship greatly improved!

2. Be inspiring. People want to be inspired and they will move mountains because they are inspired. It takes leadership to keep everyone at their best. Choosing a philanthropic project that all employees can be inspired by is a part of our DNA. Branding the NJ Center for Tourette Syndrome was such a project. Learning from the people with the illness and drawing on their strengths brought the entire BNO team to wanting to exhibit their creative best. We learned so much about the illness, and we were able to help the organization achieve their goals. In addition to the company efforts, many employees went out of their way using personal time to expand the scope of this project.

3. Be empathetic. We all need nurturing, a sense of belonging, of being heard, especially during certain critical times in our lives. Showing this empathy builds loyalty, community and trust. Working with employees over many years, there are always times when employees have life experiences that can impact their work. We try to recognize those challenges whether they are happy occasions such as getting married, having a child, or moving to a new home, or difficult challenges such as illness, family issues, or personal challenges. This support is always appreciated and paid back in so many ways, it builds the BNO community. One employee always talks about the private bedroom we created for her so she could rest during the day, another appreciated the opportunity to work from home while she cared for a family member.

4. Be generous. Always give back. It comes back to you 10-fold, and you always feel good about yourself when you operate in a generous spirit. Whether supporting employee or client fundraisers, or supporting community events the comradery of the company is a huge outcome. Employees love it, often going to a run to support the runner with swag for the team, socializing after the event, or just sharing the joy of the experience. There’s no better way to create a spirit of generosity within the company.

5. Be sincere. Don’t say what you don’t mean. It goes back to being authentic. Sincerity is appreciated by all. It’s like a magnet in attracting people to your cause. Even sharing bad news is appreciated because it confirms that employees can count on the real story, and they can build off of it. I once had to layoff an employee whose skills were not a good fit for our organization. Gently explaining the misfit led to developing a friendship with this person. Today she owns her own business. We often talk about those frank discussions we shared when I gave her the bad news and how it helped guide her future.

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.

I would create a healthy choices movement. I would tax companies that made unhealthy products and use the funds for treating people that needed healthcare because they used unhealthy products. I would reward those that lived a healthy lifestyle by discounting their expenses for healthcare, and I would use marketing to promote the advantages of living a healthy life.

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

Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. Whatever choice you make makes you. Choose wisely.

Roy T. Bennett

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Meghan Markel Duchess of Sussex

She’s a very young woman who has had so many life experiences to share and learn from, yet she exudes all the things that make her someone to admire, to learn from, to support.

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