The articles written over the past year on leading through a crisis could fill several encyclopedias. Within them, the terms trust, transparency, and communication have almost become cliché. They are often made into boxes to check for an incoming CEO or other C-suite executive. Yet to truly embed these traits in an organization is no small feat. And how successful a leader is in these endeavors sets the tone for the whole company. Leaders must check their egos at the door and be open to learning from those around them.
Mark Skroch has worked in the agency world for more than 20 years. In April 2020, Mark joined BCV—a leader in hospitality, social media, and marketing—as general manager, putting him in the hot seat as a new leader who had to balance making tough business decisions quickly with building trust and rapport with colleagues. In this episode of the Leff Exchange, Mark discusses how he stepped into that role and what he’s learned while stabilizing an organization amid a crisis.
Scott: Let’s start from when you became manager of BCV in April 2020. People may forget what it was like in those early stages, so talk about the immediate challenges you faced.
Mark: It was interesting because you have the normal challenges of going into anything new, which is establishing rapport, building trust, learning the business, and then learning about the people. Everything’s new, especially in a leadership role like I was going into. But in any function in a company, you’re going into a new environment where everybody else has a routine and relationships and rhythms established. I personally have never been a believer of coming in and causing upheaval and change on day one. I take more of a listen-and-learn approach and then work from that point.
So, you have all those normal things that are happening when you join a company, and then you have this global pandemic that shuts things down, and you’re now suddenly doing this all through Zoom. You have to overcompensate for the medium. I tend to be a reserved person, but I brought more of my life into introductions, even in meetings, letting a little bit of that stuff bleed through—not for a lack of professionalism or caring but to help show who I am, what I care about, and build those human connections as earnestly as I can through a laptop.
Scott: What ways did you find worked particularly well, beyond sharing more of yourself? Were there certain approaches or certain ways that you reached out to people or even organized meetings so that people felt heard in a larger group—or that they were able to speak up, and you were able to connect with them?
Mark: First of all, turn the camera on because you need face-to-face communication. And when it’s on, make sure you stay focused, which is tough because we’re all at home in our pajamas.
Make sure you’re paying attention to peoples’ faces the same way you would if you were sitting in a room around a table. You can see when someone has that reaction, that quizzical reaction when they look up. In a room, you can ask someone specifically, “Hey, do you have a question?” or “Do you have thoughts on that?” You can do the same thing in Zoom—or whatever platform you’re using—as long as you have the camera on and you’re paying attention. And rather than commenting, just listen and hear peoples’ thoughts and create that venue for people to speak up and share their opinions and know they’re being heard.
Scott: As you were getting acclimated to everyone in the organization, you also had to focus on how to stabilize the organization. How do you make sure that you’re taking the necessary steps to weather this crisis, not knowing how long it’s going to last? What was your approach?
Mark: Because we work with hotels and properties around the world, we were dealing with local rules, regulations, and guidelines that were rolling out right when COVID-19 happened. They detailed what is open, what we’re allowed to do, and what’s suggested.
So we asked, “What are the things we need to keep doing to help our clients?” We’d do social media monitoring, which is key because everyone has questions. Strategy also becomes important. How do you navigate this? How do you respond in this ever-changing environment? Normally we’ll work with our partners and set up a strategy, and the strategy will run for a month, and maybe you tweak something—but really, you set your strategy and you roll. But look at the pace of change: there’s a vaccine and everything’s great; oh, wait a minute—there’s surges; there’s rollbacks; the restaurant’s open; no it’s not. So the pace of change is something we had to adapt to at the very beginning, and that has continued.
We also later learned that we weren’t going to be traveling as much, so that meant maybe we don’t need to prioritize our resources around crews that are going out and shooting and filming properties because everything’s locked down. So, then we said, “Let’s make sure we have resources in other areas, like social media monitoring and strategy and content.”
You know, my role was very small in this, to be honest. It was more about empowering, listening, and making sure that I was relying on people that have done this. I was providing guidance where I could; at that point it’s more higher order than practical or tactical. I have context for social media and digital marketing and strategy and all those fun things—but not for deciding, “What do I post here, now, when this person or this property has this question?”
Scott: I remember talking with a friend who was working at a large healthcare company, and he said that he felt like the attribute he had that had allowed him to succeed and excel was the fact that he always had a calm demeanor, even in crisis. When things seemed to be falling apart, he was very, very even-keeled. What did you feel like people were looking to you for as a leader, knowing that you were new but that you were there for a reason, and what did you feel like you were able to provide to them?
Mark: Whoever your friend is, is spot-on and brilliant because leaders set the tone. It’s one of those things that’s so fascinating to watch; it’s almost intangible how their demeanor permeates the organization. I learned that early on in my career. I grew up on the account side of advertising in different companies, and I realized that a lot of things are going to happen; people are going to react differently. The way I react will set that tone for everybody else because I was always the key point of contact with clients.
I’ll often tell people when I’m managing or mentoring them that we all have our own emotional reactions and responses, but you have a choice in how you act that out. You can make a decision to follow that emotional reaction, or you can make a decision on how you will behave in a certain situation.
Scott: For an agency such as yours, talent is really the lifeblood of it, and it’s part of what distinguishes your organization from others. Describe the process that you went through as you were looking to ensure that you had that core team in place throughout this crisis but then were also able to pursue opportunities as things started to recover.
Mark: It was a couple of things: understanding key functionalities and knowing what the different services are that we need to provide to partners. That helped us make decisions about who we have and who can help with that.
We also had to think about our team; so many tough decisions were made back in March and April so that we could set ourselves up for growth. But these are people’s lives, so I was really trying to navigate the human aspect of that while making sure we were fulfilling the functional side of the business. What we decided as a company—and this was right as I came on, and I don’t want to take credit for the work the team around me did—was to make the tough decision up front. Let’s understand where the business is and try and scale to a point where we can service and survive, but at the bottom level so that we don’t have to make another cut and so that we could set ourselves up for recovery.
And it worked, in the sense that we’ve seen a steady growth of returning clients and partners as recoveries happen in a different fashion and at different paces. It’s allowed us to bring team members back who’ve been so gracious as far as staying connected, staying in touch, and keeping us updated on their situation. We’ve also kept them updated on where we’re at so that they’re ready to jump back in as soon as we can bring them back. There’s nothing I’d love more than to have everybody back and have the full team here, but we need to do it in a responsible way. This is really a measure of making a tough choice at the beginning so that we can experience steady growth throughout—or pace ourselves with the business and with the industry.
Scott: When something as unforeseen as the pandemic hits and you have to cut back or reposition the organization, you assume that people understand that dynamic. How did you approach communications, and how did you strike the balance between being transparent and not sharing too much?
Mark: Throughout my career and definitely when I started here, I err more toward transparency. I’m a big believer in—the more transparency and the more understanding I can provide to the team, the better-informed decisions everyone makes. It’s context that matters.
I was talking with a member of the team this morning, and she was saying that it’s less the “what” and it’s more the “why” that matters. The “what” is very real, and it’s very tangible, but it’s the “why” that changes our view of what happened. So, the more I could help people understand and keep them informed, the better. Because what happens is—without that information, people start filling in the blanks. And we’ve all done it. When you don’t have information, you start piecing what information you do have together, and that might lead down the same path or maybe a completely different one.
I would much rather give as much information as I can so that we’re at least all starting with the same data. We tried to often share the state of the business with our core team as far as where we thought things were and the pacing.
We also did that with our furloughed team members so that they had transparency. We would meet with them once a month on Zoom meetings, which was great to connect. Again, we were more than happy to share the state of the business with them so that as they were sitting at home, waiting to come back or were trying to figure out their path, they at least had better context for what was going on here.
Scott: It’s an interesting challenge, and I empathize with wanting to avoid the situation of having people fill in the blanks. It happens even with emails and things like that. As soon as you start ascribing motives that maybe aren’t there but haven’t been addressed, then quickly things can go in a bad direction.
Mark: And the other thing we would do is share the numbers or the state of the health of the business. We had KPIs that we would share with everyone. But what we really talked about is what they meant to us and what we were doing with those indicators so that they understood, again, our thinking and our plans. And we were very transparent in saying, “Look—this is our plan based on our view of the world today.”
Scott: Did you find that, in sharing that information, particularly with the furloughed workers, you are in a position to retain or bring them back because you’d maintained that dialogue and that they knew that there’s a real possibility that they could come back as things recovered?
Mark: Yeah, absolutely. Our HR department did a great job of staying connected. The team members did a great job of staying connected. And we had conversations where we could understand people’s priorities and kept them very much engaged.
I’d like to think that people appreciated the transparency and the openness and the way we were communicating. Often it wasn’t the message they wanted to hear, like, “Hey, everyone’s coming back tomorrow,” but we just weren’t in a position as a business to do that responsibly. But they knew that we wanted to, and we were doing it at a measured pace. And again, it allowed people to make their own decisions. In no way am I naïve that people weren’t sitting at home and looking for jobs because it’s a very stressful and uncertain time.
Scott: As the economy started to come back, particularly in Q4 of 2020, and then heading into 2021, what kinds of trends or indications did you see that gave you some confidence in what lay ahead and then how to take advantage of those opportunities?
Mark: To say it’s an interesting year is an understatement. Because of the industry we work in, we’ve experienced the direct impact of surges. The hospitality industry has been hit so hard by COVID-19, and there are so many people directly affected by it. We’ve been very close with our partners, trying to understand their needs and seeing how each of them adjusts not only on the business side but, again, observing what kind of local regulations are in place as things happen.
So, for example, in June of last year, things in Florida were really opening up. And then they had an early surge, so things had to roll back, and we were trying to be as flexible as we could with our partners. That caused us to adjust our forecast, just like our partners and everyone else. As much as we can try and plan and lay the groundwork, the spirit of flexibility across the organization around expectations and obligations is key.
When I first came in, the focus was on establishing our baseline: what is our foundation, what is the new normal, and how are we going to work together? That was the first part of it. Then, we shifted to—how does the organization need to change for the future, not just in a COVID-19 environment, but beyond? So we went through a restructuring over the summer and early fall that we rolled out in October that I think sets the company up better to be flexible. It allows us to kind of pulse where we need to, and it also allows us to have disciplines focused on things that are more important than ever, such as strategy and data and reporting and insights.
We’ve been thinking more recently as we think about the future—what are the new services we need to put in place to help our partners? Because, again, we’re a service company. We’re here to help them, so what can we do to adjust our approach, to consolidate, to build—whatever it is—to better help them as they come out of this?
Scott: What kinds of new approaches or processes do you think are going to outlive the pandemic and that are actually going to, in some ways, make the organization better, more productive, maybe closer knit?
Mark: We were a very nimble organization. We had three main departments between our creative, monitoring, and account teams, and even within them, everyone took such a “roll up your sleeves and jump in and tackle that problem” kind of approach. And over the past couple of months, we’ve tried to create a bit more organizational structure and discipline so that we can get not only expertise but also efficiencies along those different disciplines.
So, a strategy group, for example, that’s completely dedicated to coming up with our insights to inform our account teams’ relationships and programs every month. We are beefing up our data and insights because of the ingestion of all the content we see every day. If you look at social activity in August of 2020 versus August of 2019 when we were traveling, during COVID-19, social activity was up 40 percent year over year. When people are at home and we’re done watching the box, we need some kind of distraction. So we’re thinking about either the trip we took or the trip we’re going to take once we can get out again.
There’s so much information in there about what’s important to people and how they’re viewing different properties or partners or landscapes. If we can better synthesize that and understand that, then we can better help our partners connect with the right people so that we can all find our way through this.
We also created a project management discipline. And we’ve expanded our media offering because one of the themes throughout this is consolidation. We’re creating different things to help make that easier for our partner to just find a single solution. And they have reduced staff, so they may not have as many people that can focus on as many different things.
We’re expanding our services so that they can come to us and not have to worry about talking to four different partners—they can just talk to one. We’re also looking at alternative business models where we can help align our success with the partners’ success—so incentive-type structures. It’s not just a payment up front in the traditional arrangement, but it’s much more of a “we win when you win” type of arrangement; anything we can do to help our partners helps us in the long run, too.
Scott: For your own organization, when you think about bringing employees back to the office when it’s safe to do so, how will your approach change? How has this pandemic maybe reshaped what the office means and when people should be there?
Mark: There were a couple of days in October last year where the numbers were down and a few people felt safe to come in. We had six people, seven people in the office for one of our quarterly meetings, spread out, with masks. And the energy was amazing, and it was refreshing to be around people again.
But it also highlighted the value of coming in. One gentleman I work with—it took him an hour to come in and an hour to get back home. And that’s even in the reduced-traffic world we live in now. It really got me thinking about—what’s the value of coming in every day, spending those two hours of his time commuting versus being at home, with his family, or whatever? So is it worth him coming in every day to sit in his desk chair versus sitting at his desk at home?
The way I’m thinking about the office when it’s safe to come in is that you’re coming in to meet and talk with people, to have those hallway conversations that are so important. But it’s OK to have the other days; we’ve proven you can work from home. My approach today is about making a much more flexible environment. We can have days where you come in to collaborate or you come in for meetings. And then you have days where you stay home. And it’s not that you don’t have meetings those days, but it’s much more of a focused, get-work-done kind of day. You saved the commute time.
From an office-space perspective, this means I need fewer desks, but I need more collaboration areas. And I use the phrase “collaboration area” instead of meeting room because maybe it’s a couch and bean bag where our team can sit down and have a brainstorm for two hours or just talk about whatever they need to. But that, to me, I think, is much more the role or will be the role of the office, moving forward—coming together, collaborating, sharing ideas rather than sitting at your desk and working. There’ll be people that still like that, and we’ll support that, but when I think about the office space, it’s going to lean much more around that collaboration function in our jobs.
Scott: One last question before I let you go. What I admire about your career is that you started in consulting, and then you spent a lot of time in marketing. You’re also an entrepreneur, and you’re an adjunct professor. What’s the through line in your career, and what are the three or four lessons you might point to that you can draw from on a regular basis to help you succeed?
Mark: You know, I think my through line exists in a retrospective versus prospective view. Early in my career, I worked at Arthur Andersen, when Andersen and Accenture were all one company, and I entered that consulting world. And they had so many great trainings and career development.
You always get that question of—what’s your five-year goal, what’s your long-term goal, all those things. And for me, the answer to that question was to not be bored and to continue to challenge myself. It’s not that I didn’t want to one day run a company, as lucky as I am to run BCV. It’s that my goal wasn’t the title or the role. It was the challenge; it was the exploration. Especially when you’re in consulting, you’re working 60 hours a week—you know that life, Scott. If you’re not having fun, if you’re not being challenged, it’s not worth it. If you’re passionate and excited, the money, the title, and the roles will come. So, I always sought things that challenged me.
The entrepreneur side of things is about taking on new challenges, trying something different, working with something new, and bringing it into the world and actually helping create or make something. It’s so exciting. My career has been about constantly seeking that next challenge, and it’s why I’ve been on the services side versus the client side throughout my career. One of the through lines is that I like problem solving. So, when you’re a service provider and you’re going into some company that needs help with something, you have to figure out the best course—and you come up with a strategy, you test and learn, and then you get smarter from it, and you hopefully keep doing that. The adjunct professor and the managing part of my job comes from really just a joy of working with people and seeing them kind of develop into their best selves.
I’m a big believer in David Ogilvy. When I worked at Ogilvy Mather, he was a big believer in hiring people smarter than you and letting them grow. I love empowering people. I love creating, I always call it, “safe ways to fail.” You know—put people out there, let them get the experience, and do it in a safe place so they’re not hurting themselves or the company or anything like that. But you learn by doing. So find those tasks, find what motivates people, put them out there, and let them experience.
I always tell people—my way is absolutely not the way to do it. I’m just here to help you find your way and get you enough experiences so that you can shape and craft your own way of managing, leading, and finding your own path.