As part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gina Bleedorn. Gina is chief experience officer (CXO) of Adrenaline, an experience design company that provides holistic end-to-end solutions in the financial, retail and healthcare industries. Through retail experience design and implementation, branding and creative services, and market analytics consulting, the company crafts multi-sensory consumer experiences. In her leadership role, Gina develops brand experience strategy for the company and key client accounts. She believes in a consumer-centric, strategic approach for brands, creating meaningful experiences across all touchpoints. An artist’s heart with a strategist’s soul, Gina’s vision integrates innovative ways of solving longstanding challenges. An internationally published author on brand strategy, Gina shares her insights at dozens of conferences each year. Adept in strategy and design, she has delivered outstanding brand and environmental experiences for organizations across the country, including brands like Capital One, Charles Schwab, E*Trade, Wells Fargo, and Whole Foods.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Gina! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Mystory is a little unusual in that I’ve been at the same company throughout my entire career. Not a lot of people stay at the same place anymore, but I’ve been fortunate that I’ve gotten to work on so many different client challenges throughout my time with Adrenaline. I’ve really grown into each role as the company has expanded, and I feel fortunate to have had a hand in where we are today as a company being one of the pioneers for a dynamic newer field called experience design.
While it might seem like an unusual combination, I graduated from Furman University with a degree in music along with an intensive year of study in graphic design. Having been in vocal performance for most of my undergraduate work, I had an “aha” moment right before my senior year that I wanted to go down the path of creative design. Ironically, I now find the performance part of my degree comes in quite handy now as I present in front of audiences on stage all the time. It feels natural for me.
You know, I have to say that one thing I really love about Adrenaline is the freedom to define my career. As I’ve moved through different positions, I’ve found that my evolving role has grown along with the field of experience design. Ever since I began working here, I’ve felt really committed earning my job every day. I love solving client problems and finding new ways to think about all the ways people interact with brands and creating meaningful experiences along every touchpoint.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Naming THE most interesting thing that happened since I started leading my company? No pressure, right? One thing that comes to mind is when a CEO client found out I had been a vocal major and made me stand up to sing at a board meeting with all of the board of directors and their spouses. This is after several glasses of wine and the harpist who would be accompanying me informed me that he didn’t know the music to ”Ave Maria“ that I had chosen (on the fly) to perform. So, I had to perform it a cappella. Despite all that, I did get a standing ovation and even some tears.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made in your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This is the NSFW (Not Safe for Work) portion of the interview and this one goes out to all the working moms out there! This story involves an exhausted new mom rushing to get on a client conference call. So, after my first child, I’m a breast feeding mother, running into a pumping room late to get on a conference call. So, I whipped off my shirt and dialed in on the phone, then got on the WebEx on my laptop.
We’d just landed a new client and this was the introductory call that I was supposed to lead. I see the little light by the computer camera is green and the preview window pops up, and there I am projecting topless on screen. So, in horrific slow motion, I was like, “Noooooooooooooooo.” I didn’t want to hang up the conference call, so I pushed back my screen so that the camera would just go up to the ceiling while I frantically get my shirt back on.
Meanwhile, I had a whole team in another room in the building also on the call, and I’m texting one of them (another mom) to ask, “Was I projecting or what?” I think I was only projecting myself to the host, and I think (hope) I had to click something to project to the entire group. I am fairly certain the project manager overseeing the call did see my nakedness. But the funny thing is that I wasn’t even pumping yet, I was just topless.
So, for the first 30 minutes of that call until I got confirmation from my team, that no, in fact I had not projected my topless self across the country, I was hyperventilating. All I could think is the people on the client side wondering, “What kind of conference call IS this?” It was something that would perfectly fit on that Netflix show “Workin’ Moms.” Such are the perils of working momhood. Thank goodness, this only happened ONCE. I’m sure if you surveyed working moms, there are more than a few stories like this…
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One of the things that continues to be more and more evident is how our reputation precedes us. In some of the industries we specialize in, like financial, our recognition has become so widespread that we are kind of sought after. People reach out to us to get our opinion on some of the biggest things happening in the country. That sets us up for credibility at the highest level of stakeholders on the client side, because they see us featured in the industry publications they’re reading for industry insights.
We have an intentional focus on sharing our thought leadership in numerous ways — on our own channels, in speaking engagements and through media channels. We really want like-minded people to be attracted to us through our expertise. So, our reputation within particular segments makes us stand out among others, and any client who works with us by proxy gets that thought leadership infused into whatever type of project work we’re doing with them.
Companywide, we’re committed to nurturing that passion for continual learning. We have really become prognosticators and get ahead of where the industries we work in — financial, retail and healthcare — are going. There is a lot of pressure when people look at you as an expert, but it really does keep you on top of your game. Sure, there’s always risk in being in front, but we’d still rather be here than in the back of the pack.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the areas that we’ve been working on a great deal is brand strategies following mergers and acquisitions. We’re finding that many clients end up with a bunch of different brands or sub-brands under one owner and they haven’t developed a brand strategy or brand story for themselves at all. In the financial industry in particular, there are a lot of mergers and acquisitions and that’s a survival strategy for them. But over time, mergers and acquisitions can result in a brand portfolio that is a mess.
What we’re helping them do is make sense of what they have through identifying and understanding their brand strategy and architecture. Whether it’s the sub-brand an endorsed brand, a house of brands or a single brand, this is a problem that’s becoming more and more prevalent as organizations scale. We’re also seeing that in healthcare where brand relationships are sorely lacking. With some healthcare brands there’s no market strategy, no focus on the consumer’s brand experience. All this right at a time when consumers really are demanding more from their healthcare providers.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think everybody has the same 24 hours in a day, and your success is all depending upon how you use it. I find that so many working moms in particular run themselves to death trying to do everything. I try to have a healthy perspective on time management. I don’t think you can really control all of your time. You’re always going to have meetings that bump into each other and things that take longer than you expected. You can either let that really bug you up or you can find a way to roll with it.
So many things in life and in business life are not controllable. I’ve found that even as much as I try, often times I have to let my time unfold organically to truly determine what is most important and where my biggest area of need is right now. I think if you try to have too tight of a reign on managing your time in advance, you might lose sight of the opportunities that are unfolding in front of you in real time. Not that we need to chase the shiny object, but we can’t be blind to shifting landscapes, real-time circumstances and factors of change all around us all the time.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
For me, the way I lead and manage a large team is to encourage people to be happy in work and in life. I find when people have peace in life, they do better work. The other thing I think is very important to keep in mind is modeling the kind of behavior you want to see on your team. If you want people to leave their egos at the door, you have to do the same. If you want people to support others at work and celebrate successes, you have to do the same thing. It sounds simple, but with the everyday pressures and deadlines at work, it’s not always easy to keep that top-of-mind.
One 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?
My biggest mentor has been Eduardo Alvarez, Adrenaline’s Managing Director of Strategy. He has done two things that ended up being really influential through the course of my career. Our company helps brands develop and deploy meaningful brand strategies. Instead of thinking about strategy as something lofty, Eduardo helped me see that the ability to truly understand something is to simplify it to its core essence. Sometimes that can be difficult to do, but when you can do it, it’s powerful.
The second thing was helping me develop a deeper emotional intelligence for business. Since I hadn’t had much work experience prior to Adrenaline, I would see some things in business I didn’t quite understand or know how to handle. He helped me understand that while there may be things I hadn’t seen before, that doesn’t mean I am somehow less than. He said it doesn’t make you less capable just because you haven’t experienced something before. That helped me to work above conflict with more confidence.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We spend so much time at work, I think everyone should have work that matters to them and that they get satisfaction from. As the mom of two small kids at home, I’m intimately aware that “work-life balance” is a myth, because your work is part of your life — it can’t be separated. What I try to do at work is show that I care about my team members as people, provide them with opportunities and celebrate them when they succeed — both at work and in life. I think anyone who has ever worked with me on my team — at work or as a client — sees that I care about their happiness. That’s how I’d like to bring good into the workplace. People who are happy are contagious and that makes for more happiness at work and beyond.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Hyper-personalize your management style. In managing teams, I’ve found that calibrating my management based on who people are is key. Adjusting how you communicate based on where people are coming from makes for more meaningful interactions. I’ll give you an example. Being in Atlanta, I’ve had more than my fair share of meetings with southern executives. I find myself just naturally speaking slower with a mild Southern accent. It’s funny, because a lot of the time I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I’m just trying to connect and relate to them. We’re always talking about consumer customization from the brand perspective, and I think some of those lessons can be applied to the work management environment. That leads me to my next insight.
- No person should have more than a handful of direct reports. Because the best managers adjust heavily based on the person, that means you cannot successfully, directly manage dozens of employees at once. From a company standpoint, the way you achieve corporate objectives with individual people is to be incredibly customized to the person, to know how they think, how they approach their work, and how they meet their goals. Really, I think a lot of lessons we learned about corporate life came from a time of huge companies with really strict hierarchies of corporate control. I think we need to unlearn that. In my own company we never really wanted to have that kind of model informing our culture. We want to treat people as individuals who bring their best selves to work.
- Cultivate a culture of empathy. I don’t mean to sound overly touchy-feely, but empathy is actually a really valuable management skill. This hyper-personalized management style I am talking about creating is something that is more often associated with female leadership and is showing up more and more in business books as a best practice and something that leadership experts support. This is something that as a woman, I can say I think women tend to naturally be a little more empathetic and compassionate in their interactions, and I am especially that way. I think in management that can be a very good thing. I mean look at Glassdoor. That entire platform is based on the idea that workplaces that are human-centric are better places to work.
- Gender matters at work. We often hear about gender in terms of the glass ceiling and ways that gender may disadvantage women. I look at it a little differently. Who is being disadvantaged by not cultivating female leadership is really the company. It’s a gender balance, especially in upper management, that sets a company up for success. I’ve had a lot of experience interacting with clients and coming into male-dominated industries, presenting to boards and executives that are mostly men. From what I’ve witnessed, I believe gender imbalance in management results in more pervasive problems that I believe are a result of being male-dominated. Not to say if it was female-dominated, we wouldn’t have different problems, for what it’s worth. So, it’s really about a balance of perspectives that companies should strive for.
- Get out of your own way. The thing that I’ve found that’s most empowering is how to not let insecurity or ego or any of those petty things get in the way of your success. I believe in coming into work ready to earn my job every day. So that means if I don’t know something, I learn about it. If someone else is an expert, I ask them. I don’t believe in competing with other people for glory. I just want to do my best work alongside other people who are doing the same thing. That said, I do want to recognize when people do great work, and I take time to praise them. Even if you don’t bring a lot of ego into the office, hearing how other people appreciate your efforts matters and gives you the fuel in your tank to keep going.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is a little bit of a newer one, but I love the Lady Gaga quote: “If you have no shadows you’re not standing in the light.” That was one of the quotes on Adrenaline’s office wall for a while. It resonates with me because, I think that a lot of leaders are afraid of failure and can actually be haunted by their failures. As a woman, one of the things I’ve had to reconcile as I’ve grown in my career is the fact that those shadows are there and there are going to be people that you’ll leave behind, people that aren’t happy with you. There will always be things that maybe you didn’t handle perfectly, but you did the best that you could.
The more light that is cast on you, the more shadows are created. If you become obsessed with those shadows, they will consume you. My reflection on that quote is that you cannot make everyone happy all the time, and on the way to achieving success and greatness and more visibility comes with some not so perfect moments. For me as a sensitive person, it can be hard to reconcile people that I haven’t made happy or that I don’t make happy every day, because with every decision comes those shadows. I try not to obsess on the shadows. Instead, I try to revel in the light.
We are blessed that some of the biggest 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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
As a working mom, I really love Sheryl Sandberg. Before I had my first child, I read her book twice, because I was so scared about what having a kid would mean for my career and how to balance it all, like more scared than almost anything else. In fact, I was so afraid that I waited a decade after getting married to have my first child. I literally was nine months pregnant on our 10 year wedding anniversary. Her perspective was so illuminating about how you have to recalibrate prioritization of your own time, and it doesn’t make you less effective. It’s also interesting how blind you are to so many of the things working mothers face. It just all comes to light when you’re pregnant and then have your first child.
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