Whitney Frances Falk: “Give your employees the benefit of the doubt”

Give your employees the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think this is discussed enough in leadership dynamics. It’s so simple and so effective at immediately delivering empathy and compassion in a stressful or triggering situation. I’m a true believer that the vast majority of humans are good, light-filled, positive beings — with every one of us […]

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Give your employees the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think this is discussed enough in leadership dynamics. It’s so simple and so effective at immediately delivering empathy and compassion in a stressful or triggering situation. I’m a true believer that the vast majority of humans are good, light-filled, positive beings — with every one of us offering an aspect of Gardner’s Theories of Multiple Intelligence — and this point really drives that notion home.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Whitney Frances Falk. Whitney Frances Falk is the Founder and CEO of ZZ Driggs, a company reimagining how we furnish our lives for a new economy and a more sustainable future. Prior to making ZZ Driggs what it is today, she worked professionally in experiential design and creating residential and commercial interior spaces. Whitney previously held a position as Vice President in Institutional Equity Research Sales at the global investment bank Jefferies where she analyzed equities, including specialty furniture retailers and manufacturers, which led to her current knowledge of the furniture industry and why she ultimately created ZZ Driggs.

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?

Absolutely. ZZ Driggs really came to be because of my passion in design and furniture, and ‘past life’ in finance studying some of the largest furniture retailers and manufacturers in the world. Basically, in my work understanding the economics of a lot of these companies, I discovered furniture was only made to last a few years on average so that the company could estimate when the customer would repeat this purchase in an effort to ultimately support the balance sheets of the respective companies that made these products. Furniture from my memory was at its core a vastly sustainable practice of use and reuse as I remembered heirloom hand-me-down furniture of relatives and treasured antiques — and what I was witnessing with some of these behemoth companies was a wasteful (and ultimately desecrating) practice for both people and planet.

Taking that into consideration alongside the rise in independent emerging furniture designers in places like New York, Los Angeles, and other U.S. cities, it was apparent to me that we needed to create a platform that bridged the gap between ethical design, innovation, and the customer — and from there, we created to do just that.

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

One of my go-to mottos is Festina Lente — it’s a Roman adage that means “make haste slowly,” or “that which has been done well has been done quickly enough.” Basically, one’s best work is done in a flow state when you are fully in the zone and producing your optimal output with no sense of time. Interestingly, I find that whenever I am rushing something or I feel this anxious push to complete a project in as little time as possible, or I try to force design decisions based on a time crunch (that is most often self-imposed), I find the work is not the best of my ability and may even need to be replicated.

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?

Yes, now it seems a bit comical, but at the time it was dreadful. Our first client was Virgin Hyperloop One, the next generation transportation company based on the work of Elon Musk. ZZ was outfitting their new Downtown LA company campus, and we installed two handmade and gorgeous “campaign” chairs in their lobby, along with some other exceptional works of locally-made furniture. Sure, the chairs were gorgeous and had a wonderful local maker story attributed to them, but campaign chairs in essence are built to deconstruct easily and be readily transported. All in all, this is not a good chair for accommodating all sorts of visitors to a company headquarters. The big takeaway was to know your audience, which is your customer, and to provide to them in an efficient and easy way exactly what is required to fill their needs.

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?

Since day one, I’ve always been at the helm of ZZ Driggs, so the position isn’t entirely new to me, or one that I stepped into. That being said, I couldn’t imagine not being in this position as the marriage of creativity with practicality, along with resonating with an audience or customer, is one of the most fascinating dynamics one can explore in this world. Taking this observation and coalescing it into a product that you, your team, investors, and customers can all evangelize is an adrenaline- and joy-filled exercise that continues day in, day out.

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?

An executive, at their core, is a thermostat. They set the temperature and mindset for their entire workforce to balance and calibrate to. The CEO is optimizing their company’s ‘thermostat’ for a setting that is optimistic, visionary, supportive, creative, compassionate, and so forth. Or they’re not. But it all starts from the top and is felt in every facet of the business.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

For years, it was just me building ZZ and extrapolating our company’s culture, vision, enthusiasm, and general “je ne sais quoi,” so when I experience a teammate doing exactly that, it’s really as if we have all created a living thing or an entity that is greater than anyone of us or all of us. In my mind, that is the greatest joy of building a company, and while I don’t have children yet, I would imagine it is a paralleled feeling to raising a child or creating a family. In my opinion, there is simply nothing better than creating something that’s bigger than you.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as a downside, yet it is certainly a new modus operandi to recognize that being an executive is day-in, day-out one big Rubik’s Cube. It’s all about problem-solving and truly understanding the problem and potential solutions at hand — as we say at ZZ Driggs, “solutions, not problems.” Once you get into understanding that rhythm and being aligned with its cadence, it can actually be quite enjoyable to witness all the ways, as an executive, you have risen to the occasion to find a polished solution to the many challenges that have crossed your path.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

As one of my idols, Jacqueline Novogratz, has shared after 20 years of investing, one of the greatest predictors of success is not the business idea or the tangible market, but the kind of character that holds a moral compass aligned in the direction of supporting people and planet. Also, to continue in Jacqueline’s words, some of the greatest leaders making the most impact aren’t cowed by the idea that if they’re not making a ton of money, they aren’t as successful as other entrepreneurs, or they are not as real, in part because some of them are making enormous change.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

The biggest challenge is being a part of the conversation — it’s as simple as that. Being a part of the conversation means an invitation to join the conversation at hand, the respect to listen to what someone says in its totality, and to not interrupt, and to have enough confidence to look someone in the eyes when they’re speaking to you. These are all pretty baseline communication strategies, but I can’t tell you how each facet described herein I still deal with, six years into being a female CEO.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I’m constantly surprised by how ‘human’ the opportunity of leading is and should be. Before I began hiring at ZZ Driggs, I was extremely intimidated by the prospect of being fully responsible for people’s livelihood and being a revered leader and manager for the people I hired, especially since I was hiring people that were so much better than me at the job they do! Yet I’m constantly surprised by the very human truth that if you give someone the tools they need to get the job done, and you clearly communicate on what the shared goals are and what success looks like, then everything and everyone naturally falls into line and everyone is producing incredible results. It’s an astounding and extremely gratifying thing to witness and applies to so many facets of creation — not just tech.

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?

A multi-tasking sponge is basically my idea of a perfect executive. Someone who can have their eyes on a lot of situations at once and still manages to soak up information, and dispel that information at the correct time and with the most appropriate audience.

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

I would suggest taking a pause. Sometimes as executives or leaders, we feel this anxious push to move things forward and get things done in as little time as possible. However, some of my best leadership has come from when I purposefully avoided making a quick decision (even though it would’ve sped things along), as brashness oftentimes led to more ‘clean up duty’ down the line. Sleeping on a big decision, or not immediately and at the moment having a ‘conversation of significance’ as we call them at the ZZ (remote) HQ with a team member, allows for more breath and thus greater mental clarity to make a decision that has a lasting, positive impact for everyone involved.

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 get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My partner, Matthew Brimer, who is a serial entrepreneur and general creative instigator. Matthew is co-founder of General Assembly, a 21st-century vocational school, and Daybreaker, the healthy events and fitness company that throws sober morning dance parties around the world. Matthew was truly my living mantra that “everything you want is on the other side of fear,” and he moves through life really living this to the fullest. We are our own worst enemy, and once you experience and truly realize it’s your own insecurity, internal judgment, self-criticism, self-doubt, etc. that is holding you back, there really is no limit to what you might creatively accomplish and propel forward.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Our whole platform was built to connect more people to long-lasting, heirloom-quality furniture through rentals and to harness the altruistic benefits of the sharing economy. In other words, furniture — when made well — is the most sustainable and long-lasting product on our planet, so I’m really proud that our team at ZZ Driggs has created the first and only platform in the world that offers high-quality furniture for rent or purchase.

Beyond that, we’re also very proud to have taken part in Aurora James’ #15percentpledge, which is an actionable and accountability-driven way to have a real impact on the equity of African Americans. The pledge states that, as a company, you commit 15% of your shelf space to products sourced from Black makers, as 15% of the American population is Black. For us at ZZ, it was a real way to make change versus just an ephemeral social media post or the like.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Postpartum depression is real in startup life. Simply said, when you release your ‘baby,’ or the company you’ve built and have now launched to the world, you very well may experience what’s described as startup postpartum depression. Basically, not everyone is going to be as in love with your baby as you. Not everyone is going to follow and watch your baby as closely as you. No one is going to know enough about your baby as you — not your family, not your friends, not your investors, not the press.
  2. Give your employees the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think this is discussed enough in leadership dynamics. It’s so simple and so effective at immediately delivering empathy and compassion in a stressful or triggering situation. I’m a true believer that the vast majority of humans are good, light-filled, positive beings — with every one of us offering an aspect of Gardner’s Theories of Multiple Intelligence — and this point really drives that notion home.
  3. Your “internal product” is just as important as your external product. Your employees’ satisfaction and happiness are just as important as the satisfaction and happiness your customers have with your product. When one employee becomes dissatisfied with their day to day at your workplace, you run the risk of spending literally months or years having to remedy their issues or the ambivalence created in their wake. It just takes one drop to poison the well, and to clean the well could take a massive lift from your whole team.
  4. It’s 1,000 times the better move to focus on internal human operations concurrently and with the same reverence as it is to focus on product operations. Case in point: I admire our employee manual, handbook, and onboarding procedures and we hear from every new team member how much they appreciate its robustness and heart. I give all thanks to ZZ’s COO, Britt Gage, who led the charge with creating this handbook and exercise as one of her first projects when she joined ZZ Driggs. If we didn’t have the handbook from the start, I am confident this would be the biggest task to create and activate, and having the handbook from the onset allows for its continued perfection and increased eloquence. This really separates ZZ as a human-centric, deeply thoughtful employer that attracts top tier talent.
  5. Test, test, test! Even if it’s as scrappy as humanly possible, make sure to test out your idea, product, and target customer’s perception and reaction as much as possible before you jump in. It saves a ton of time, money, and headache, and it preserves your happiness (and limited time on this planet) if you can distinguish whether or not you have a viable product or opportunity from the onset.

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.

I would love to inspire individuals to become better acquainted with the natural environment that surrounds them locally. I’m not talking about hiking trails and bodies of water (although these are of course incredible earthly attributes), but more so questions like what are the trees native to your environment, how long does it take this arboreal population to reach biological and financial maturation, what can be made out of these trees, what does it take to repopulate a forest if it were harvested, etc.?

Once we understand what ingredients our local habitats supply us — by experiencing and truly living with these materials we so often take for granted — we gain a better understanding of what our local economy (and environment) can produce and what the rest of our planet can afford to provide. As we know, the arboreal population is what sustains our human population, so it’s of crucial importance to understand the dynamic at play in our own natural habitats, as each one of us is a stakeholder.

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

As described above, it’s all about “everything you want is on the other side of fear.” This mantra I often repeat to myself on the regular as I find fear is my biggest inhibitor and detractor. And it’s the mantra that allowed me to leap from a cushy finance job where I was making a very decent income, but laden with a veneer of personal happiness, to the life of leading a startup and the adventure — bolstered with true joy and meaning — that makes my life purposeful and worth it.

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.

Definitely would have to tag two people. First, my venture capital and impact investing idol, Jacqueline Novogratz. Her work — in threading leaders and entrepreneurs into a new framework of morally calibrated industry and capitalism — is the conversation we should all be having starting right now.

Secondly, I would love to have a conversation with none other than Elon Musk, to both thank him for his work with Virgin Hyperloop One, our very first client at ZZ Driggs, as well as to ask him if he still believes his prior quote regarding our existential environmental crisis: “I’d rather be optimistic and wrong, than pessimistic and right.” While I used to feel more akin to this statement, I’m witnessing first hand so many people and businesses rise to the occasion of climate stewardship, and a real shift is well underway.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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