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99U Conference 2018

Tina Roth Eisenberg: Leading with Joy


About this talk

As CEO of CreativeMornings, Tattly, and the newly launched Creative Guild, Tina Roth Eisenberg oversees some highly creative teams. Rather than follow traditional leadership practices, she’s writing her own rules that prioritize joy, generosity, and confetti. In this inspiring talk, Eisenberg explains how she’s building a workplace her employees are excited to go to every day, including:

  • The non-traditional interview questions she asks job candidates
  • How to show up to work as your authentic self, and help your team can do the same
  • How she infuses her workplace with surprise and delight

Full Transcript

Good morning 99U. I’m really happy to be back. As Will said, my name is Tina Roth Eisenberg, but most people know me as Swiss Miss which is the name of my blog and my Twitter handle. And I really earned that title. I grew up in Switzerland. I want to address the young woman that struck up a conversation with me when I arrived this morning. She’s one of the volunteers. She’s very charming and she asked me “What do you do?” There’s no other question that frazzles me more than that. So I want to apologize to this young woman because I really…yeah I don’t think I was all that polite the way I answered. But maybe in the next few minutes, you’ll understand why I have a really hard time answering that question concisely.

Actually in fact, I’ve been struggling with this question, what do you do, for so long that about two or three years ago, I asked my daughter Ella if she could break it down of me. If she could answer it in a simple way. Without hesitation, she looked at me and she goes “Yeah mom. You sit at your computer and you laugh!” So I waited a second and I was like “Wait. As in, I like what I do? I’m having fun at work?” She gave me a mini eye roll and said “Mom, isn’t that the point?” So I guess that parenting part is done.

But I want to tell you about Ella. Ella has played a significant part in my career path in that I started my first business, my design studio, the day she was born. I, in fact, gave birth to a daughter and a company all in one swoop. And I have since given birth to another little human, my son Telo, since. And four more companies. I know that’s a lot.

But I want to tell you why. Because I have this personal rule that when I find myself complaining about something, I have two options. Either do something about it or let it go. So I want to tell you what these things were that I’ve been complaining about over the last 12 years. When I started my design studio, I felt really, really isolated working alone, working from home first and I rented desks in really soulless office spaces. This was before coworking spaces were a thing. I had this vision of a happy place, a place I love going to and have equally entrepreneurial people around me.

I started Friends Work Here, a coworking space 10 years ago. And it has completely changed how I think about work and how I think about running businesses and starting businesses. This was my first exposure to a real, intentional community. In 2008, inspired by Friends Work Here, I remembered how incredibly lonely I was in 1999 when I moved to New York from Switzerland and I didn’t know a soul. And how incredibly hard it was for me to find my people. And I decided then and there that I’m gonna start the community that I wish existed here in New York when I first moved here. And I called it Creative Mornings. The concept was simple. Open the door of my studio one Friday morning a month for breakfast and coffee and have an inspiring lecture. Quite astoundingly, over the last 10 years, Creative Mornings has caught on all over the world where in 184 cities, in 65 countries, bringing 20,000 people together every month. And it’s entirely volunteer run. What I call Creative Mornings is an engine of generosity and a global labor of love.

In 2010, over a lunch conversation at my coworking space, I was lamenting and complaining about how bloated and completely overdone most to-do apps are and that I want an app that is like a simple list on paper, but on my screen. I created it together with my studio mate Cameron Kozcon. We launched it in December of 2010 and within a day, Fast Company called us the best to-do app of 2010, which then for some reason made the church world pick us up. And we had a lot of really silly alert settings in TeuxDeux because it was just never meant to be a business and it was just for us. But the church world picked us up and then we got a lot of support emails from nuns because they didn’t get our puns.

In 2011, my daughter came home from a birthday party and she brought one of those hideous goody bags. They’re just filled with crap. But what really insulted me was the temporary tattoos she brought home. They were an insult to my Swiss aesthetic. And I decided then and there that I had to fix this. And more as a joke than anything else, by reaching out to my illustrator and artist friends, in summer of 2011, I started Tattly, a temporary tattoo company. And now, seven years later, we ship around the world. We collaborate with incredible brands. We just got into Starbucks this week, which is so exciting. And we make custom Tattly for really big, cool brands. And I have, quite unexpectedly, created a retail brand.

And just last month we launched something new, Creative Mornings and my team. I’ve been lamenting recently about the state of the internet and I can’t really find my people. Just like I couldn’t find my people when I first moved to New York. I’m really wondering these days, where are the kindhearted, big-hearted people on the internet? It used to be Twitter. It’s not anymore. I’m definitely not a Facebook person. So, I decided I’m going to build that corner of the internet myself. And we launched the first iteration of this last month. It’s called the Creative Guild. And it’s the biggest rolodex of creative companies and individuals. Just think of it as a more soulful version of LinkedIn.

So, to the young woman that asked me what I do, I hope you understand now that it’s not that easy to answer in one short, concise sentence. So, I might have a knack for putting things into the world, but trust me, just like so many of you, I feel like this most of the time. I’m a trained graphic designer. What in the world am I doing talking about margins, acquisition funnels, and growth strategies?

So the question I get most of the time is how do you do it all? I never really know what to answer other than I have an incredibly, incredibly resourceful, hardworking, fun team. I also get up at 4:30 every morning. But most of all, what I’ve learned is I’m learning every day to allow the space between where I want to be and where I am to inspire and not terrify me.

So, in 2006 when I started my design studio and I started making my first hires, I remember sprinting to the bookstore and hoping to find that leadership book that will explain it all for me. I believe there was a blueprint for success on how to be a manager, how to run a company. I wanted to become a super pro boss lady. So I read all these leadership books. I read them. They make me so uncomfortable. I took notes. I was writing down the systems I should be implementing. But more and more, I had this really sinking feeling that the things that I personally cared about the most were considered not professional. One of the things that I care about the most is having fun at work. I try to keep it silly and playful and that is definitely not in those leadership books. So, it took me a really long time to understand “You know what? There is actually not a right way to do things.”

But the big breakthrough came last year when I went, spontaneously booked a trip and attended Jason Fried’s This is How We Work at Basecamp workshop. I remember sitting there. I have so much respect for Jason and what he has built and how he’s building it and how thoughtful he is about how he runs his companies. So, I’m sitting there and Jason talks about how his office has to be library quiet. And if you go up to someone and interrupt them, you better think long and hard about it. Because that’s considered a bother. I nearly snorted the coffee out my nose.

In that very moment, it hit me. As a founder or as a manager of a team, you set the tone of a company. And you have to be really aware of what that is. And then you have to do everything under the sun to hire accordingly. To hire people that will thrive in that very environment. Mine is outgoing, loud, colorful. I am not your typical CEO. I bring personal Tina to work. I lead from the heart with a love for people. I work from the gut and often ignore numbers. Joy and generosity are actually part of my business strategy. I lead with a whole lot of trust. Sometimes probably a bit too much. I put people over growth. I put purpose over profits. And I truly, truly believe that leadership is not something you read in a book, but it basically comes down to bringing your personal experiences and beliefs to the table at all times. I truly believe that companies can transform society and that we as founders and managers have the possibility to transform lives.

I look at my employees as an army of good. And as I’m trying to find these heart-forward, purpose driven, fun people, I have gotten quite obsessed with finding the right interview questions. And I have an ever-secret, evolving list of them. And I want to share a few of them with you here today and explain to you the context in which I ask them in.

So the first one is why are you here? I love nothing more than when somebody sits across from me in an interview, completely self-aware where they are going in life and what they care about. As someone who puts purpose over profits, I want to make things that I love for people who love them. That means I need to find people who identify with me and what I do on a deeply personal level. People that are willing to be vulnerable and open and authentic.

Which brings me to a story. A Twitter thread I read last year by this Australian chap called Boon Cotter. I don’t know him, but it moved me. He was explaining how he scored an interview at the gaming company Naughty Dog. They flew him out to California and he tells the story of how he’s sitting there and being interviewed and then this really high up guy that he admired walked in, sat down, and said “Boon, why do you want this job?” And he started saying “Well, you guys are the best in the industry, blah, blah, blah.” And then he stopped himself and said “No. It’s actually because of Bill in The Last of Us game. The character.” For the first time ever, he saw a gay man portrayed as a tragically heroic type. A burly, hairy, daddy-type character like himself. And he completely fell in love with the company and everyone there. And that’s the moment where he started crying. As I’m reading this Twitter thread, I’m screaming in my head “Please tell me you got the job.” And he did, which made me really happy.

Because the thing is, if you would show up like this, and I’m sure he was also talented. If you show up like this, fully authentic, chances are really high that I’m probably going to hire you. I really don’t believe in having a personal façade, that there is a personal or professional façade. It is totally okay to feel things. Because in my values-driven, idealistic world, I want that work lights a fire in your soul. And when you work on something that means something to you, you will have feelings. I want my employees to show up, really show up, fully human. And there shouldn’t be a difference who you are at work or who you are at home.

That’s why every week, when we have our weekly check-in at Creative Mornings, we go around the table. And granted, we’re a small company. And do a thing we call cherries and pits. Everyone shares something that makes them happy, that’s happened since last week, and something that’s bumming them out. Cherry and a pit. Our newest member Katherine—she just recently started—told me that for the first few weeks she kept it semi-professional, work-related in order to make the right impression. But she very quickly realized that’s not flying with these guys. She realized that the more human, the more personal, the better. Katherine was a lawyer in her former life. And it took her a while to break down those walls that she was trained to keep up.

And I personally love when I get glimpses into the lives of my employees outside of work. That’s why I always ask in interviews, “What do you do when you’re not working?” I love to hear about quirky hobbies and weird side projects and obsessions. They totally enrich my life. Let me give you some examples. Hans makes perfume. Our COO at Creative Mornings, Kyle, started a weekly write shop. Our content manager, if you subscribe to our newsletter at Creative Mornings, that’s Paul. He picked up photography and he’s incredibly talented. And then our design director, Christina at Tattly, she makes these really badass cosplay costumes.

I’m really lucky. I get to work with super well-rounded, interesting humans. But I’m going give away now my favorite interview trick. The best filtering tool when you interview. It’s asking for a joke. When you apply for a job with us, we always ask to include a joke. Because I can tell you one thing. It tells you a whole lot. Because there’s the people that don’t include it, and that’s an instant out. Because that means you’re not diligent and you didn’t read what we asked you to do. There’s people who send highly inappropriate jokes. Also doesn’t work, right? But there’s the people that send super appropriate jokes. And you can tell they’ll research jokes for a while that matches sort of the company and whatever. And those people is what we call in German, they have Fingerspitzengefuhl. It’s basically fingertip feeling. It describes great situational awareness and the ability to respond most appropriately and tactfully. English really needs this words by the way. Fingerspitzengefuhl. Just remember that, okay?

So Paul, our content manager, sent the most impressive cover letter I’ve ever received. He also researched me enough that he knows I really, really love a good gif. So he doesn’t send a joke, but he sent a gif. Of course I hired Paul. And then there’s Emerline who, her application was a website. And super thoughtful. But the best part is that there was a section with eight facts about her. Of course I hired her. But then this one took the cake. You’re looking at a cover letter and a resume hidden in a viewfinder.

So what I’ve learned is just asking for a joke opens the door to a more playful application. And I am so impressed. And this is just a few of them that I’ve gotten. But I’m so impressed with these people because they fully show up. They show up as themselves. They show up creatively. As Adam Grant will call them, they’re originals. They have broken the mold of what a regular job application looks like. And these are my people. And I don’t take it lightly. It really takes courage to grow up and become who you really are. And I really believe that work should allow you to show up as you. Work should allow you to grow up into a better you. And work should applaud your weird side projects and hobbies. Work should be the playground and the school for your future best self.

So people always ask me “But then how do you know when it’s a match during your interview?” What I do is I listen to my body. How do I feel during the interview? Do I have goosebumps? Do I feel calm? Do I feel energized? Or do I feel depleted afterwards? What I’m basically looking for is a full-body yes. Our bodies have natural radars, but I don’t think we’ve ever been fully allowed to use them at work.

I want to just ask you, pay attention to how you feel. Next time you have to make an important decision or a hire, or you’re pitching something just really pay attention. How you feel in that very moment. And do you feel resistance? If you do feel resistance, where do you feel it? Pay attention to that and use that as a reference point going forward. I wish I would have known this technique much sooner in my life. So I was determined to teach my kids. I remember when my daughter was about five, I started asking her after a play date how she felt. If she felt energized or depleted. In the beginning, she just shook her head. But now that she’s 12, she often comes to me and says “You know what Mom? I think I’m gonna end that friendship because it just doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t make me feel good.”

What I’ve learned always for a full-body yes, you need to be fully grounded. And it doesn’t work in a moment of crisis. Which brings me to my next interview question. Tell me about a difficult time in your life and what did you learn?

In the fall of 2015, my marriage came to an end. It was falling apart. And I pretty much felt like this lady. The struggle of my marriage crept into my work life. I was completely out of balance and it impacted my businesses. I tried to navigate this alone, but after about a year of struggling, my friend Jocelyn led me to my now business coach Heath. They’re both in the audience. Hey guys. What Heath has taught me over the last year and a half is that when I am not rooted, nor is my business. If I avoid dealing with a problem in my personal life, it will in some way show up in my work life. And the best part, every business has an energy just like we humans do. And this energy is filtered through me, the founder, and everyone that’s involved in the company. Everyone contributes the good and the bad.

So during this separation time, I was completely out of alignment of who I wanted to be and how I wanted to show up in the world. I kind of felt trapped in my mind. I led with a closed heart and I was completely driven by fear. This time was really hard on my team. I couldn’t be the leader I needed to be for them. But you know what? My team was patient. They were kind. They were supportive. And I am so grateful. But most of all, I am really, really proud of them. Because they carried me through this difficult time and allowed me to show up as my whole self, even if that wasn’t the best. And in hindsight now, I really do believe that this is what work communities should feel like. Creating community is in the heart of being human. And we as founders and managers, we have to remind ourselves daily that creating a safe work community is part of our job description. You cannot just focus on the bottom line.

And I tell you, all it takes is a layer of kindness. Kindness is light. It permeates everything. And it raises the energy and the frequency of a workplace, a home, or even just a simple human interaction. And when you add empathy to the mix, you get unwavering loyalty.

And now that brings me to my last question. And this is courtesy of my eight-year-old son, Telo. Would you rather fart confetti or burp glitter? If you can’t handle this question, if this makes you uncomfortable, you cannot work for me. I really do believe in running a joyful work environment. Joy, just like kindness, increases the vibration of your company. It adds light. And I’m convinced that when people are having fun, they are doing better work. After all, life would be really tragic if it weren’t funny. My team tries to sprinkle the possibility of a smile into everything they do. Joy is really a core part of our business strategy. That’s why it’s not unusual to see confetti cannons go off. You are being greeted with a compliment at our door when you enter. You might see someone wearing a bear costume. By the way, this is Katherine, our former lawyer in her first week at work.

That’s why we have a prop box. Because sometimes you need a Viking helmet to respond to certain emails. That’s why it rains hearts when you like a video on Creative Mornings. And that’s why we have my beloved confetti drawer. I really believe every business needs a confetti drawer.

I could go on with these elements of joy. And you might write them off as silly or not important, but I dare you to think otherwise. So what I am personally hoping for is a new definition of success that goes beyond money and power. I define success with the happiness and growth I see around me. And I truly believe no matter if you run a small team or a large company of thousands, we can all make a difference in that we create safe work environments where our people feel appreciated, safe, and heard. Because that way, they go home and they’re a better spouse, a better mom, a better dad. And especially in this political climate, what we really need is more empathy and kindness. We need leaders that lead from the heart. We all need to show up and give a damn and do our part. And if you just take one things away from this talk today, I would hope it is that you maybe start paying attention to your body in a work environment and start looking out for those full-body yes. And think about how you can add a bit of joy and kindness and empathy into your work environments. And if you don’t know how to start, you can always empty your drawer and fill it with confetti. Thank you very much.

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