“Stick to brand or company values”, With Jonathan Hanson of Unconquered

I think transparency, empathy, sticking to brand/personal values, commitment and honesty are really important for leadership during turbulent times. These help ensure that a leader is looking at a problem or guidance from a multitude of perspectives while maintaining a foundation to work from. I think that brand values are what form that foundation and […]

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I think transparency, empathy, sticking to brand/personal values, commitment and honesty are really important for leadership during turbulent times. These help ensure that a leader is looking at a problem or guidance from a multitude of perspectives while maintaining a foundation to work from. I think that brand values are what form that foundation and the others are there to self check and make sure there’s perspective.

As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jonathan Hanson.

Jonathan Hanson is the Chief Creative Officer and co-founder of Unconquered, an independent creative agency in New York City and Washington D.C. After spending his career as a photographer, director and creative director, he co-founded the agency to create environmental and social change through commerce. He is the host of Conquer The Noise, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of outstanding people and ideas.

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?

My senior year of college I fell in love with photography and it quickly became an obsession that led to a career shooting for ad agencies and magazines. This started me on the path that has given me the opportunity to indulge my interests outside of photography by using it as a means to explores diverse topics. I have traveled the world and lived in some of the greatest cities in America. Photography was a great avenue to explore culture which ultimately allowed me to find my love and fascination for it and explore how it influences our daily lives. All of this came full circle when I saw there was an opportunity to do more with the work that I was doing by creating an agency that bucked the traditional way of doing things. I could use the commerce and cultural influence advertising can have, for a greater good. In 2017, nine years after starting my career, I co-founded Unconquered.

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?

It can be really hard to see the humor when you are in the middle of navigating a mistake so keeping an open mind and not taking things too seriously has been a great lesson for me.

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?

I’m going to give you two since I’ve been fortunate to have some great mentors earlier in my career. One of those mentors that has effected me greatly was my college mentor, Vice Provost, Wanda Everage (Drake University). She saw and nurtured something that I did not see in myself by encouraging to me to think big and to not shy away from exploring difficult topics and ideas. She emphasized critical thinking and pushed me to think through things from multiple angles and apply a cross disciplinary approach to problem solving. My sophomore or junior year, she offered me the opportunity to be her TA and assist in her first year classes. I learned so much about teaching, as well as the importance of preparation and challenging myself.

The other person who has been a great role model is my father. He has a tremendous work ethic and seeing him work as hard as he has established a high level of expectation that still pushes me today. He also is big on thinking independently and challenging the status quo which I think it is very important with the the type of work that I do. Growing up, he never cut corners or took the easy way out, which he taught me through the carpentry work he did as a hobby. We would spend weekends tackling a project, making sure it was done right.

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?

When we were starting Unconquered, my founding partner and I wanted to drive positive environmental impact and use the commerce we generated to support non-profits in addition to supporting brands who are inline with that idea. As the agency has grown, we have expanded our initial vision of environmental impact to social equity. We believe that by rooting a cause into the work we are doing, we are able to amplify efforts and create change. We subscribe to the idea of being 1% better, aiming to improve our world and ourselves. Over time, this will add up to something big.

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?

Recently, during the first couple months of COVID, our leadership team was spinning our wheels trying to figure out how we can best serve our clients while also keeping the agency in business. Client work slowed tremendously because of their immediate focus on cutting spending. We spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas to help us weather everything. Nothing felt like it was the right solution.

So we paused, and I asked the rest of the leadership team, “Why did we open the agency? Why are we in business?” And I pulled up our 10 point manifesto to help us refocus our efforts. Our brand values served as a north star to help navigate the crisis with purpose and confidence. Even though we are not in the clear just yet, it has made our business and team stronger while empowering us to keep our sights set on what is important.

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

Giving up never crossed my mind. I’ve been self employed my entire career and giving up has never been an option no matter how hard it’s been. I chose this path because it works best for my skill set and my personality — I don’t see myself doing anything else. The motivation to work through this hardship was reinforced by the commitment we made to our team and clients, knowing that they depend on us for their livelihood, as well as the lessons I learned from my mentors.

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

I think there are several things that are critical for leaders to having during challenging times: empathy, compassion and keeping a level head.

Empathy is something that I have learned is necessary over the course of my career because it allows me to help take my ego out of the equation and see it from someone else’s perspective. Making important decisions that are a result of ego are really dangerous and short sided. Empathy also gives me the space to help nurture the development of our team while also making space for failure which is key to growth and innovation.

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?

Transparency is crucial to morale, as well as celebrating the small things. Not every win has to be a big life-changing action. Acknowledging success, no matter how big, can help moral significantly.

Small wins can keep people engaged and motivated. We try to celebrate those as much as possible. We do our best to keep our team up to date with what is happening and how we are responding so that they feel like they are apart of the process. When leadership cuts off communication during crisis, it allows the tiny voices that we all have to creep in and make up the narrative for you. That narrative is often a lot worse than the reality.

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

Difficult news is ever fun or easy to communicate so going back to the age old idea of, “treat people how you want to be treated” is something we embrace. This is tied to having empathy and transparency when communicating and going back to our brand values.

Before COVID, we had these conversations in person. However, ever since the pandemic, we have been sure to do them over video calls so that we can keep a deep level of communication through body language. You can read a lot about what someone is thinking by their body language.

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

I think it’s really important to make plans and have a vision for what you want as a leader and to be able to quickly pivot as necessary. This way, when unpredictable things happen, that vision doesn’t cause more problems. For example if part of the plan is to expand into new geographic areas but unpredictable circumstances arise that may jeopardize the plan, pivoting to expanding and growing the customer relationships in the current regions may be a better play until circumstance changes and allows for geographic expansion.

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

The number one principle when going through ups and downs during turbulent times is to stick to brand or company values. When times are difficult, these values become the foundation for decision making especially when the decisions are difficult. They work as a compass to keep priorities in focus and to remind you of why you are doing the work in the first place.

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?

There are several mistakes I see companies making during crisis. They tend to be a result of not being genuine, showing a lack of empathy for their customers or employees, and very much reactive instead of being proactive. Going back to my favorite business topic, brand values, keeping these in perspective will likely mitigate these mistakes.

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?

It’s important to be aware of the current cultural happenings in regards to the sales cycle. People don’t want to be sold something when there is uneasiness both socially and economically, so being supportive and a resource for your customers and prospects is very important. This gives you an opportunity to build brand and relationships so when they are ready to make a purchase, you will be top of mind.

Financial stability is another important element when thinking about how to navigate volatility or a depressed economy. Transparency with team members and what needs to happen while cutting cash burn is very important. We were able to get through first six months of COVID without laying off or furloughing employees because we decreased spending and cut salaries across leadership. We had a very honest conversation with our team and emphasized that we value them and we are all taking measures to secure a future for all of us.

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? Please share a story or an example for each.

I think transparency, empathy, sticking to brand/personal values, commitment and honesty are really important for leadership during turbulent times. These help ensure that a leader is looking at a problem or guidance from a multitude of perspectives while maintaining a foundation to work from. I think that brand values are what form that foundation and the others are there to self check and make sure there’s perspective.

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

“If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.” Failure is something that I have embraced in my career because it has often lead to an “a ha moment” which is a catalyst for growth and innovation. Starting my career in the visual arts helped me realize this because there is a literal connection to seeing the result of what that experiment or failure is. This has helped give me the courage to make mistakes, own them, and continue on with that knowledge.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Readers can follow my work via our agency website. I also host a podcast Conquer The Noise which focuses in on a lot of the topics I have discussed today through conversations with business leaders and marketers.

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

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