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“True leadership comes from soliciting feedback and listening.” With Steve Agganis

Work hard at directly and indirectly taking pulse of the people within your organization and identify what you feel they need the most — whether it’s more personal connection, more time off, etc. It could be as simple as noticing someone who is working later-than-normal and reaching out to encourage some time off. Or something […]

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Work hard at directly and indirectly taking pulse of the people within your organization and identify what you feel they need the most — whether it’s more personal connection, more time off, etc. It could be as simple as noticing someone who is working later-than-normal and reaching out to encourage some time off. Or something bigger like a change in an existing flexible work policy due to COVID-19 impacts on working parents.

As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Agganis.

As the President of Mindstream Interactive, Steve Agganis leads a diverse group of digital natives from user experience architects, developers, designers, copywriters, analysts, search and social experts. He brings more than 25 years of digital marketing experience to the agency’s clients and have worked with some of the largest brands in retail, consumer goods and travel/tourism. A few notable names include Victoria’s Secret, The Procter & Gamble Company, Best Buy and Visit California. As a seasoned business-minded leader, Steve successfully mobilizes teams around business challenges to arrive at smart solutions that drive business impact.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

While earning my undergrad degree at The Ohio State University, I worked for the first major online service provider in the United States — CompuServe. Making $7/hour and benefiting from the company’s tuition reimbursement program, I paid my way through college working in Tech Support and then landed a full-time marketing job after graduation in what was the original online eCommerce marketplace. This set me on the path to where I am today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I was on the ground floor of a giant industry and didn’t even realize it at the time — online advertising. In the mid-1990s, I managed the advertising operations group at CompuServe (later acquired by AOL) and we introduced the first 468×60 banner ad and created the first CPM impression model for the company. Banner ads may feel outdated (or annoying to some), but 20+ years ago they were considered cutting edge. At the time, there was no playbook and established models — everyone was trying new things. We spent months working around-the-clock to roll out new programs, with online ads being one of them. It was fun!

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Burnout in digital marketing agencies is REAL — late nights, quick-turn projects and high expectations from clients is the norm. I’ve found that finding people at work with whom you can truly collaborate and be “in the trenches” with makes it feel less intimidating and that you’re not in it alone. It’s very enjoyable work, especially when strong working relationships are built — that’s what keeps me going.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Be transparent. Be honest. Be vulnerable. True leadership comes from soliciting feedback and listening.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“When people show you who they are, believe them.” — Maya Angelou.

I pay attention to people’s actions and words, which shape who they really are — both good and bad. This has always been relevant in my life, in my career and in my personal relationships. Oftentimes, we tend to ignore what is right in front of us and what is being shown to us out of fear or denial. I’ve found it is important, both professionally and personally, to not hold on to a preconceived notion of who somebody is but rather be open-minded and allow their behaviors to shape my view.

I’ve found this especially helpful when recruiting new talent to our agency. While a resume and scripted interview answers can be impressive and shape a view, allowing a candidate to show me who they are in our conversation is as, if not more, important in understanding who they are and how they may fit within the organization.

Okay thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years, many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives you have taken to help improve or optimize your employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

As someone who has personally experienced and managed anxiety and depression most of my adult life, I have a very keen interest in making this a safe topic to discuss at work and in personal circles. On top of that, we’re a service-based company and our product is our people, so we take a proactive approach on this topic.

To that end, we look at employee’s mental wellness benefits through four lenses:

  1. What services can we provide? We offer a lot of different services, but the most notable are three free visits to a mental health counselor and access to a free service called iPrevail. iPrevail is 24/7 online mental health support to help overcome anxiety, grief, panic, and other mental health concerns. We also offer free message therapy and weekly meditation classes during busy times of the year.
  2. What free or low-cost resources can we offer? One example of this in action is free access to Happify, an online, science-based website that provides activities and games designed to help people overcome negative thoughts, stress and life’s challenges.
  3. Are there social activities we can facilitate? We have a lot of fun with social activities, especially during Mental Health Awareness month in May. This past year, we held a Gratitude Challenge encouraging employees to find things (or people) they are fortunate to have in their lives. We also host breakfast club meetings year-round to give people a forum to openly discuss and problem solve life challenges (like balancing work and teaching our kids virtually).
  4. Are there changes to our benefits/policies that should be considered due to social or economic factors?
    COVID-19 has thrown all of us a few curveballs this year, really forcing us to take a step back and re-evaluate some of our company’s policies, two of which are our Work from Home and Flexible Work Arrangement Policies. Working parents (in particular) have been hit hard with juggling work and virtual school (or no daycare coverage). We’ve been a lot more flexible with employee work schedules. As long as deadlines are being met and folks are finding time to collaborate, we aren’t concerned with “clock-in” and “clock-out” times.

What you are doing is wonderful, but sadly it is not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

Work hard at directly and indirectly taking pulse of the people within your organization and identify what you feel they need the most — whether it’s more personal connection, more time off, etc. It could be as simple as noticing someone who is working later-than-normal and reaching out to encourage some time off. Or something bigger like a change in an existing flexible work policy due to COVID-19 impacts on working parents.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

One of the hardest parts of dealing with mental health is that people are not candid and open about the topic — they feel like it’s something to hide. The reality is that millions of people in the United States alone suffer from mental illness and the coronavirus has made it even more challenging.

I think we all should be more honest and vulnerable regardless of our title or rank within an organization. By doing so, it would provide more of a forum for people to talk openly. I’ve heard so many stories from friends, family members and co-workers that I never would have even known about if I hadn’t open up about my personal challenges. It’s allowed me to offer support in ways that have helped others get through very stressful times in their lives.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

Physical exercise is very important, especially in our industry where we are sitting at a computer all day. Equally important is having someone — a close friend at work, spouse, etc. — that you feel comfortable talking to.

With anxiety in particular, the stories you build in your head may not always be accurate or true and can be very damaging to relationships. Having an accountability partner objectively say “this is not something you should be concerned about” goes a long way.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental well-being? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I’ve practiced breathing techniques, but I don’t think I can sincerely answer this question because it’s not something I do regularly.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

In the seventh grade, I bought Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy which had a significant impact on me in my career. The book shared secrets behind advertising and copy that works and how to land a job in the field, among other things. After reading it, I decided I was going to be an “advertising guy”. From that point on, any time an aunt or uncle would ask me what I wanted to do when I got older, I would say advertising. I never considered anything else.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 start the “Anti-Cancel Culture Movement” especially now given the political climate. If you’re not familiar with the “cancel culture,” it’s a pattern we’re seeing that if a celebrity or public figure says something offensive, a public backlash (oftentimes on social media) happens. If somebody says something wrong, we’re quick to judge, quick to defriend, quick to block … and it’s not just happening with celebrities. I see this happening in my own town’s Facebook community group regularly. Simply ‘canceling’ one another and not taking the time to understand and forgive is not constructive or allowing for a conversation.

We all need to be kinder and more empathetic, especially now. Take a step back and put yourselves in other people’s shoes.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

To learn more about customer experience, advertising and marketing trends, please check out Mindstream Interactive’s blog at mindstreaminteractive.com/insights or follow me on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/steve-agganis-9037571/).

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