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“To create a fantastic work culture, be generous with your employees” with Emily Rowe and Phil Laboon

The second someone hits full-time, they need the best equipment. Nothing helps you do your job like a fast processing computer and a sparkly new iPad Pro. Equipment is a great investment because you’ll always have it as a business asset, a tax write-off, and let’s face it, some fun personal toys. But in effect, […]


The second someone hits full-time, they need the best equipment. Nothing helps you do your job like a fast processing computer and a sparkly new iPad Pro. Equipment is a great investment because you’ll always have it as a business asset, a tax write-off, and let’s face it, some fun personal toys. But in effect, what you tell your staff when you head to their house with a 27” Mac Desktop is that you care about their position at your company and want them to work smarter not harder.


As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Rowe, Chief Executive Sensei of Social Sensei. Emily started as a photographer and transformed her business into a one-stop-shop for all things online and social media. With a little over 3 years invested into the business, Emily now manages a staff of 7 remote members and shared with us some details regarding keeping her team happy, creative, and productive.


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

It’s really tough for me to put my finger on a defining moment that made me start Social Sensei. It honestly arose as a result of listening to client feedback, putting two and two together, and adding the name to it! I started, alone, in January of 2017 and never looked back.

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

I hope other people find this interesting, but I really find it fascinating to build a brand from the ground up. You get to set your own rules, prices, and products. You also, inadvertently, learn to grow from errors and mistakes. While we grow and change Social Sensei every day, the experience helps us serve lots of start-ups with tons of entrepreneurs and we are so grateful for what we do! Social Sensei removed a lot of the traditional ‘fear of failure’ and business is a lot more formulaic than it used to be!

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

We are always working on exciting new projects. I think most of our clients’ products help people feel included, live a little, and have more fun. Fun is a helpful tool to happiness and I think others enjoy the products we market.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. 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?

I believe there are two big reasons! The first has to do with employers. There is immense pressure to make more money and often, at the expense of others. People love to forget that the financial pie, especially here in the United States, is always growing. Teams battle it out for management positions and employers try to protect what is there’s rather than promote, nurture, and grow talent. While greed does travel back to our basic desire to be secure in our home and life, there are ways to break this culture that need to fall on management; where often, management is not held accountable. Second, the staff plays a role here too. We can be too quick to take things personally, to chalk up time invested into an imperfect project as a ‘waste of time.’ Everything revolves around a learning curve and even big employers take hard hits due to lack of experience. I’ve let a lot of staff go who chose to work with minimal effort, contribute little to the team, and refused to except failure when it arose. If you are on a team and feel miserable, it may be time to ask how you can personally change that situation as well.

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?

From experience, it will negatively impact all three. An unhappy staff member will show signs of stress involving negativity, lack of productivity, shortened patience, and more. Stress, in general, is damaging to health and wellness. With our whole team remote, our online chat rooms are where we interact for general questions, creativity boost, and personal venting. When one member is consistently negative, frustrated, and stressed, it effects everyone in the chat room — hurting company productivity. While no one likes to stress an employee to the point of decreased productivity, the negative effects of keeping a member on a team who is quick to a stress related breaking point effects staff, clients, and ultimately, profitability. We’ve experienced clients leaving due to a single, inappropriately stressed, employee.

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. In it for everyone to win it.

As much as we refrain from using the phrase “we are a startup” (often times it’s used by brands as an excuse as to why something cannot be completed), we are, at the end of the day, still considered a startup with some real startup concerns. We focus on spreading the wealth because doing so saves the whole Social Sensei ship. Some departments are bound to make more money than others. Photography brings in more than art and Ecommerce brings in more than either department. Failing to acknowledge this gap would sink us pretty quickly. Without our whole team paying their bills, staff members lose dedication, focus, and the biggest thing of all, their full-time commitment to your company. We’ve learned that when it is affordable, full-time staff members start to feel a connection with your team, bond over funny client shenanigans, ask for personal connection in off-hours, and make more dedicated and enthusiastic members of your team. This connection also helps your photography department understand how valuable your art department is and find ways to involve both departments in projects. This happens across our more than a dozen services day in and day out and help fuel our shared desire to benefit one another and by happy coincidence, our clients, too.

2. Praise for work done.

This one may seem obvious but is essential to team management. When someone goes above and beyond, let them know. Especially with our clientele, projects can pop up extremely last minute and can be stressful and require solid after-work hours to correct. These jobs are completed swiftly and usually with little drama because we all support one another. Unexpected work should be framed as a way to work on new projects and a chance to be creative and work with the team. When everyone is done — praise the team and call out individuals for their explicit roll. In our industry in particular, make sure you share the wealth, share client products and gifts, and let your employees know their dedication is valued by you as the boss and the clients they work hard to serve.

3. Remove talent that is causing issues.

No one enjoys letting staff go. It is an unpleasant task put on the owners of businesses, but it is also one of the most rewarding things that can bring a team closer. If you have a member who, after some time, proves a little too selfish, negative, or disruptive you can bet money that you are not the only one on your team who feels that way. Negativity radiates and can leave our core staff sitting at home with a sour taste in their mouths. A bad egg will effect everything from staff productivity to client satisfaction and will need removal as quickly as possible.

*The next two points are even more true for us because everyone works remote throughout the U.S.A.*

4. Be generous.

Acknowledge where you are saving money because your staff is happy, productive, and for us, at home. If you visit a staff member, take them to a nice dinner. When you go to NYC for a trade show mix in some fun. We just landed back from NY Now and managed to close several new clients and also enjoyed Broadway, lunch in Little Italy, topped the Empire State Building, visited Chinatown for the Chinese New Year, crashed the first of the NYC Fashion Week shows, and more. If you drive your employees to work with no frills, you’ll end up with disloyal, burned-out staff members. If a client sends a product, split it 7 ways and never complain about shipping. If there is a reasonably priced opportunity for everyone to be in one room together — make it happen. Even if you have an office space, a thoughtful boss is a rarity that few employees would give up on easily. One tradition we have is every year on the team, my girls get a single, simple diamond anniversary-band-style ring. We buy them from a wholesale jeweler and pay around $200/ring. $200 helps create a tradition which my girls love. They wear the rings all year long and look forward to collecting more and more.

5. Provide Equipment

The second someone hits full-time, they need the best equipment. Nothing helps you do your job like a fast processing computer and a sparkly new iPad Pro. Equipment is a great investment because you’ll always have it as a business asset, a tax write-off, and let’s face it, some fun personal toys. But in effect, what you tell your staff when you head to their house with a 27” Mac Desktop is that you care about their position at your company and want them to work smarter not harder. From personal experience, I worked on a 6-year old Mac laptop for the first year of Social Sensei and wanted to pull my hair out. Sending an email took me 3x as long as it does now, simply because the computer lacked any real type of processing power. No matter your age, tech issues are one of those things that can really “grind your gears” and avoiding all that frustration is deeply appreciated by your team. Our artist has an Apple Pencil, iPad Pro, and a Desktop to help her sketch as quickly and hassle free as possible. After delivering all the equipment she mentioned to me that she had no idea how quickly she could complete projects with this new equipment and that they were a game changer for her deliverable speed. She also uses her desktop as a TV and loves it for that purpose, personally. When equipment places such a functional and productive roll, it’s essential your team knows you care and you listen by providing what they need to do their job well.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

The biggest word here, is empathy. A tool that has been measured and evaluated as a common denominator for some of the most successful people in the world. So many staff members, superiors or equals, do not think of each other when making decisions. Where someone may not have had these morals at home, it is the responsibility of the work place to instill a sense of familial care and connection. There should always be incentive for those who work above and beyond to be compensated additionally for their efforts, without this compensation your work force loses drive. However, from day to day, there needs to be less finger pointing, less ‘that’s not my job’, and more ‘let’s get that taken care of.’

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Very hands off. I check in with staff during project deadlines and milestones just to ensure we are on schedule but aside from that, I hire staff for their talent. I do not want to tell my artist what I think she should draw for a client, because I know her ideas are light years ahead of mine. I work around the clock and respond quickly to employee questions and concerns but act more as a cheerleader and avid participant on the team than a manager. I am lucky to maintain this management style and it’s definitely worth saying that I vetted my staff very seriously before bringing them on but they are a great, hardworking bunch that don’t need micromanaging to slow them down.

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?

I’ll go ahead and give a shout-out to my dad here. When I was about 9 we started our first business together and by that I mean he let me setup everything and learn a valuable lesson. There were these cheap toys that consisted of a big plastic cone with a handle — one end an open hole and the other, a plastic hair-net with a tab to pull on it. The idea behind the toy involved pulling the tab on the hair-net plastic and releasing to send an air-ball directly at your friend’s (or father’s) face. At the time we were having quite a frog issue and, being the tremendous animal people we are, we could not bring ourselves to buy a pellet gun. So I thought I would buy these toys, rename them to the Critter Ritter, and sell them as a way to nicely annoy frogs into leaving one’s yard. We made a flier together, came up with the name, found pictures of critters we thought would run away from the wrath of our air balls, and voila! The Critter Ritter was born. In retrospect, testing the product before development may have been a good idea. With my Critter Ritter in hand I trudged into our froggy backyard, pointed the open hole at my frog-foe and released an air ball. It hit the utterly unfazed frog right in the face. My dad laughed pretty hard and just said, “we’ll think of something that works better.” A long story short, it didn’t work AT ALL and we never came up with an alternative. But it got my wheels turning. He’s supported me through every endeavor since then and actually helped me name Social Sensei in the kitchen of the house I grew up in.

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

Most tangibly, I help keep a roof over my extremely talented staffs’ heads. Three of my girls are mothers, one travels the country, one has an awesome side hustle, and more. I am so proud to support them and so grateful they oblige their time to do the same for me.

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

It’s short and sweet: “Experience is expensive.” Run a business for 3 months and you’ll find yourself saying this left and right. It’s the only way to not go crazy when everything hits the fan. Pick yourself up, eat your losses, and try again next month with a more airtight contract, a great sense of humor, and a zeal to grow bigger.

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’d love for people to be more compassionate and empathetic. I’d love to see people feel compassion for others without needing a reason to do so. Donate to the Humane Society because you love animals and you want other families to enjoy the love you feel for your cats and dogs, rather than guilt tripped by an unapologetically brutal commercial on TV. Ask coworkers to come in on projects and split commissions because you love having another set of eyes on the project. Really, just give a hoot.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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