Be decisive: It is very difficult to be a leader if you can’t make decisions. You need to be decisive and be ok with making a decision and taking a risk. It is better to make a decision and fail than either make no decision or lead people into circles. Leading people into circles is emotionally taxing and wastes time and money.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Olga Fleming, CEO of Goodfuse.
Olga was born in Athens, Greece but grew up in the heart of New York City. A 25-year communications industry veteran, Olga thrives on a human to human interaction and enjoys the comfort of catching up with old friends and learning fascinating things about new ones. Whether it is building storylines, campaigns or teams, Olga is passionate about bringing together details to ensure the whole is always larger than the sum of the parts. Olga lives on Long Island, NY with her family and enjoys everything from the beaches and boating to wine tasting on the North Fork.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I got into public relations because of a typo! After getting my degree in International Relations from American University, I wanted to join the foreign service. I spent a year working at the Greek Embassy and realized that a particular career path wasn’t for me. So, I moved back to NY and in looking for a job in the New York Times help wanted ads (because that’s what you did back then) I saw a job that said, “INT Relations”. I was excited as I thought it was an abbreviation for International Relations. When I went on the job interview, I learned about all the communications work they did, but nothing about the international portion. At the end of the interview, I asked what “INT Relations” meant from the ad. Their response was that it was a typo. It turns out it was supposed to say “INV Relations” for Investor Relations.
Regardless, I loved the people and the opportunity, so I ended up taking the job and starting my career in investor relations and corporate communications, all because of a typo!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague at another agency and she mentioned that our agency has an interesting reputation in the industry. And with a bit of hesitation, I asked: why? She responded that, apparently, we were known as the Harvard of PR agencies and that we have a knack for grooming staff to operate at levels far above their years of experience.
It was the first time I heard this about our agency. I just thought we were doing right by our team, training them to be the best they could be. But all the hard work we were putting in to shape the next generation, not only had a positive impact on the team members who have gone on to lead other agencies and brands, but it has also had a positive impact on our reputation in the marketplace.
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?
This story is funny and not so funny. One of the first things you learn in public relations is that when you speak to reporters, don’t disclose anything off the record. During my first year working in communications, I was supporting a company that was in the middle of a financial crisis. As part of the crisis, it became public that the CFO wasn’t managing the books correctly. After a conference call with investors, a journalist called me, and I mentioned a few items that were supposed to be “off the record.” The next day, my exact response word for word was written in the Wall Street Journal. While the information was in the public domain, it was terrifying to see it in print. Now this story is something I tell everyone I media train, so they fully understand that nothing is ever off the record.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
What attracted me to the position of CEO was the desire to create an environment where people felt nurtured and where we all played to each other’s strengths. After experiencing other agency cultures throughout my career, I knew I wanted to create a place where the team believed that we’re always better together and that no one person is smarter or better than anyone else. As a CEO and a leader, I wanted to create a company where everyone felt like they were empowered to do great things.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
As a CEO, the sheer amount of personal responsibility that goes into managing the day to day aspect of the business is different than any other leader.
To be a CEO you must be a jack of all trades. One minute you’re wearing a financial hat and you must understand how to manage a P&L. The next moment you’re a coach and a mentor. The next minute you’re a strategist for a client. And you have to switch those hats instantly and seamlessly, without anyone noticing.
The other difference, at least for me, is the emotional responsibility for everyone’s wellbeing. I Don’t worry about me, I worry about my team — their families. Their livelihood. Their children. That responsibility weighs heavy on my mind as I make decisions for our business.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
The one thing I enjoy most about being an executive is the freedom to think of new ideas and then go and create them. There are no barriers to implementation. And, because of the way our company is structured, we encourage curiosity and entrepreneurship as part of our culture, so my team gets to enjoy that same freedom to ask big questions and seek big answers while always thinking off the beaten path, but always carrying a GPS.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
The biggest downside of being an executive is finding ways to make everyone happy. I hear everything and I think the hardest part of my job is figuring out what to address and how to address it appropriately. Everyone is an individual with unique needs, wants, and desires. So, maintaining everyone’s level of happiness and satisfaction is an exciting challenge I take on every day.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth I’d like to dispel is that CEOs tend to work their way up the corporate ladder because they knew the right person or were at the right place at the right time.
That isn’t the case for me. I came to this country when I was 7-years-old as an immigrant from Greece and I got to be the CEO of our agency through hard work and setbacks. By starting other businesses and failing. At one point in my career, I was thinking about reinventing myself because I wasn’t sure if this was the right path for me. It wasn’t an easy road to get to where I am today, but all the bumps along the way on my journey to becoming CEO was how I learned everything I put into practice every day.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge for women executives is credibility.
When a male exec walks into a room, they have instant credibility. People view it as “you’re the man, you’re the expert.” When I walk in the room, I have to build to a level of credibility. I always start from a place of deficit.
In my mind, I believe this is an advantage because I can surprise people with smart strategy and energy which has resulted in building authentic, long-term relationships.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I always thought that when I became CEO that I wouldn’t have to do the basics anymore. But sometimes I still do monitoring, auditing, and research. I always learn about our new systems. I’m not immune to doing certain simple tasks and I welcome that because I believe when you’re not involved in the basics of the business, and in the trenches with your team, that you become irrelevant.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
I think there are plenty of people who are in executive roles that are not great human beings. They got there because they’re super smart, but they were also cutthroat. However, I don’t think that the current environment supports that type of leader anymore.
To be a modern leader, especially a leader of millennials, there are certain traits you need to have:
- Be vulnerable: You need to convey that you aren’t a be-all and end-all. Modern leaders should display the qualities of a leader that show your vulnerability and prove you are a partner with your people.
- Be flexible and collaborate: Gone are the days when CEOs are looked at as the deus ex machina, the people up top who know everything. I know that I don’t know everything and because of that, I am a better leader. I bring in experts to collaborate with me and I don’t feel insecure about it. So, knowing your limitations and knowing when to bring others in is important.
- Be decisive: It is very difficult to be a leader if you can’t make decisions. You need to be decisive and be ok with making a decision and taking a risk. It is better to make a decision and fail than either make no decision or lead people into circles. Leading people into circles is emotionally taxing and wastes time and money.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
The advice I would give to other female leaders is that there is a major advantage to be a woman in the business right now. Our aptitude to navigate the current environment, which is both highly complex and emotional, taps into the best part of the female psyche: our empathy and ability to connect and form relationships by putting ourselves in other people’s shoes.
And displaying authentic emotions is a leadership skill that I encourage women to add to their toolbox. Early in my career, I worked for a woman that was emotionless. She grew up in a world where she felt like she had to act “like a man” to get further in her career. It was incredibly hard to work for her because I never knew how she really felt and if she was being genuine.
I’ve been talking a lot about having an emotional IQ in today’s world, and it is ok to be emotional. Be who you are. Don’t try to be something else. People will follow you based on your ideals, who you are, and how you treat them. Don’t try to create another version of yourself based on what you think society thinks you should be. Be true to who you are and people will follow.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am grateful for BCW’s Chief Executive Officer, Donna Imperato, and for all the guidance she has shared with me over the course of my career.
I met Donna at a time when I was very content in my career. I had my job. I had a great quality of life. I had my three kids. It was perfect. I didn’t have many aspirations. I was happy to be part of the hive.
I remember meeting Donna for lunch one day and during lunch, she asked me about my goals. I told her I had my car in park. I didn’t need goals. She reached out and said “Olga, why are you holding yourself back? You can accomplish so much more. Why are you putting your life on pause?”
I was so confused and then I realized she was right. I stopped growing in my career because I was content in the moment.
She helped me realize that I needed to take the veil off and that I could have it all as a working mother. I could have goals and aspirations, maybe I wouldn’t meet all of them, but why should I put my life on hold?
I am so grateful for Donna for teaching me not to put limits on myself based on what society thinks I should be doing.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I try to make the world a better place by building a company with a supportive culture that values people from all walks of life and where people feel like they can thrive.
I want to make sure my company focuses on people’s strengths and always finds opportunities for them to shine, regardless of people’s challenges or shortcomings.
For example, every year we hire Account Coordinators. At previous agencies, after 6 months if those hires weren’t working out, they would immediately part ways. However, we’ve found on multiple occasions that just because that Coordinator may not be good at X they’re surprisingly good at Y. So, rather than saying “this isn’t working”, we give that person an opportunity to lean into their strengths.
We pride ourselves on paying attention to the things people are great at and over 90% of the time this strategy works. That is a pretty incredible success rate.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Get out of your comfort zone — great things will happen when you do!
- You don’t need to have all the answers — I encourage you to ask for help!
- Ensure you set short and long-term goals — and then revisit them every year!
- Make time for self-care — alone time is key to being effective at work!
- Have fun with your staff. Work hard AND play hard!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest number of people, I would inspire a movement around teaching brands about mutual respect and how to be good global citizens.
I would use my skill set of creating purposeful communications to spark impactful conversations and unlock the good in humanity. I’ve always been inspired by The Golden Rule: The principle of treating others as you want to be treated. My movement would be to inspire brands to communicate with people, whether it be their employees, audiences, or key stakeholders, the way they want to be heard and understood.
This movement would help brands celebrate people’s differences and promote inclusivity using powerful prose and impactful visuals to rid systemic injustice from the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” — Wayne Gretzky
I’ve always been a risk-taker and this Wayne Gretzky quote has always resonated with me. I’m a firm believer that there is no harm in trying. You may fail but you’ll learn and do better next time. In my experience, the risk is relative and if you don’t take risks then you don’t progress or grow.
Life isn’t fun without taking risks. If you play it safe, you’re not having a good time!
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
If I could have a private breakfast or lunch with anyone in the world, I would choose Andrew McCarthy. I guess you could say that’s an odd choice in today’s times, but Andrew reminds me of my youth and a simpler time. Early in his career, he was in Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Less than Zero; all the brat pack 80s movies which defined my youth. I loved him because I gravitated towards the characters he played — compassionate and introspective. Now he is a travel writer for National Geographic. He evolved his life around his passion for traveling and I admire that. His story speaks to me because I enjoy traveling and journaling around my adventures. It gives me hope that I may get to reinvent myself one day and follow a personal passion.
Andrew is also involved with an organization that my husband and I are dedicate time to called Opening Act, which provides high school students in New York City’s most under-served public schools with high-quality, free, after-school theatre programming. I have secretly hoped to connect with him at an Opening Act function!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.