Empathy: Much clichéd and a difficult emotion to recognize and build into the leadership repertoire, primarily because empathy is learned through one’s own life experiences. The richer one’s experiences, the more empathetic a leader’s emotional palette is. Just as consummate actors recognize and file away emotions from real life, only to muster up them at will on screen, leaders should be able to take their own life events and map them to the teams they lead.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jay Kulkarni.
Jay Kulkarni founded Theorem, Inc., in 2002. Over the last 12 years, Kulkarni has been the driving force behind the company’s extraordinary expansion. Prior to founding Theorem, Jay was one of the earliest employees at DoubleClick, where he headed up product management for advertiser solutions and email platforms. As a veteran in the online advertising space, Jay is published by several leading trade publications and is a participant in the digital marketing conference circuit.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Thank you! I’m happy to share more about my background and Theorem. I founded Theorem in 2002 and since then, we’re accelerating and moving forward to expand into the marketing services industries. Our solutions evolved to be end-to-end flexible marketing and service-oriented to meet the demands of the ever-evolving market. As a company, we strive to continually optimize today, build for tomorrow and pioneer the future of flexible marketing services. These two ideologies of optimizing today and building for tomorrow are the underpinning of our company’s culture and business growth. The Theorem team continues to push the boundaries of marketing services capabilities and provide superior work for our clients.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I started the company in my spare bedroom when my daughter was 3 months old. Right on cue, during any client or sales call, she would start to cry loudly. This was before WFH was in Vogue, so most sales prospects would question if the startup I was leading had proper infrastructure — meaning, would a crying baby be in the background of every call and could I confidently help run their businesses? After a few months, I moved out to flex office space so I could focus and also make the right impression on first-time clients. Learnings were; sometimes perception is reality, and managing initial perceptions as you launch a start-up business is critically important. Business leaders should never lie or be misleading when it comes to personal capabilities, but it’s critical to manage the market’s perception of your company. You want to ensure potential clients fully understand your business and your solutions offerings so there is no room for assumptions based on misconceptions.
None 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?
Of course, my family’s support was critical to my success. Even when my family wasn’t too sure of my plans to generate revenue, they always supported me. I’m also grateful to my former DoubleClick colleagues for helping pave the way on my initial projects and queueing my initial breaks into the marketing services industry. Each one of these instances lent a hand to help me build a track record, which permitted me the ability to pitch to new brands and build the Theorem you see today.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Theorem’s vision is purpose-driven and focused on our mission of “optimizing today, building for tomorrow,” for both our clients and team members. Our client-first business model is deeply rooted in our company culture and ethos, which are both driven by our mission. We strive to optimize today and build for tomorrow by operating as a true extension to our client’s in-house teams, through understanding and supporting overall business goals and marketing strategies. We’re aware that achieving results in the current market environment is increasingly challenging. Our team at Theorem is dedicated to supporting a thriving media marketing industry — an industry that is vital to ensuring the free flow of information — which in turn helps brands thrive in an ecosystem dominated by large tech behemoths, and creates a work culture where individuals thrive. Our mission is deeply ingrained in our solutions and methodologies, by creating a purpose-driven business model that benefits both internal teams and clients, in terms of results and growth.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
A year before the pandemic, Theorem went through cost restructuring. For the first time, we had to conduct layoffs to right-size the business. Cutting down my team was very difficult, but ironically allowed the company to be better prepared for what was to come when the pandemic struck. We, as an organization, moved quickly as the pandemic lockdowns began and created a full scope strategy to manage teams across 4 different countries, and implemented a business continuity plan. As a result, Theorem experienced minimal downsizing, maintained operations without any real impact on operations and delivery, and created an emphatic work-from-home policy that continues to this day. We heavily focused on supporting the teams by contributing to organizations leading the way in inclusiveness and equality in workplaces.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I would never consider giving up because giving up means not only giving up on myself but giving up on my team, and that’s just not who I am as a person or a leader. My team’s hard work, determination, and agility motivates me every single day. Here at Theorem, we challenge traditional working models by creating a flexible and full-service approach to digital marketing services for our clients. Our motivation comes directly from the results that we consistently bring in and our mission to optimize today and build for tomorrow.
Theorem is an innovator in the industry, pioneering flexible, full service digital marketing solutions to meet the end-to-end current and future marketing needs of our clients. We leverage a blending of new ideas and new ways of applying technologies with the power of our people to fuel the digital marketing and advertising initiatives of our clients. My motivation stems from our core mission and our ability to execute great work for our clients. Theorem’s mission sustains my drive to push forward and find new, innovative ways to showcase my teams, partnerships and clients, while also giving back to our communities. Because of our mission to optimize today and build tomorrow, not just for clients but for our employees, Theorem has been a launch pad for many of our team members to start and grow their careers. Even after leaving Theorem, the majority of former team members give their early years at Theorem credit for where they are in their lives and careers. As a leader, I can’t tell you how gratifying and humbling that recognition is for me.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
A leader holds many roles, during high and especially during low or challenging times. The three most critical aspects of a leader’s role are staying transparent, ensuring compliance and remaining agile. Leaders must stay transparent to their clients, audiences and their employees on how decisions are made. Ensuring compliance as a leader means that all strategies implemented are fully compliant with new and evolving regulations both internally and externally. The last critical role of a leader is to remain agile in all situations. The pandemic seismically upended everyone’s world in all aspects. Now is the time for leaders to stay agile, create clear and consistent paths of communication with our employees and our clients, and continue to lead teams into a better, more optimized tomorrow.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I fully believe that the best way to boost morale when times are uncertain is to listen and communicate. A leader can only inspire, motivate and engage their team when their team feels respected and appreciated as an essential part of the company. According to Forbes, one of the key elements of a strong company culture is communication. Email, video and other company communication portals are integral mechanisms in facilitating connectivity. Although desk-less workers make up over 80% of the total workforce, they typically don’t have access to these tools, which often creates a disconnect in a hybrid environment.
I like to compare our team to a sports team, where we all play very key and specialized roles. In the same way a coach leads a team, a business leader’s role is to give their employees the time and space to listen and communicate situations, offer training, give constant feedback and invest in their skills.
It’s no secret that today’s work model is structured so that businesses are at the mercy of their employees. Trusting employees to work from home efficiently and in a productive manner is crucial and comes naturally when a well-rounded company culture is upheld. If a business leader is able to successfully implement a positive and impactful company culture for their organization, employees are more inclined to stay, which ultimately leads to a more successful business. This employee-first approach at Theorem has proved to empower our teams to execute excellent work for and rally around our clients.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Establishing a clear line of communication with all teams and employees makes difficult news digestible and addressable. Transparency and timeliness of all communications is key, especially regarding difficult types of communications. It is also critical to follow up on these initial open communications with regular and transparent updates as the situation progresses. Where possible, a strong leader should communicate directly with teams and individuals instead of through many layers and managers. Effective, direct communication not only earns a leader respect but also credibility. With the communication technologies available today, clear communication is easier now than ever before.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Marketing is constantly evolving, and the innovations and evolution seen over the past 18 months are occurring at a rapid pace -unlike anything ever seen before. It’s critical that marketing leaders and teams across the board stay ahead of trends and pivot strategies accordingly. The marketing leaders who look to the future and heed the call of consumers’ want for more personalization and transparency, will find success. In other words, no one can really predict the future when it comes to marketing but agile leaders can ensure that their teams are properly prepared.
There are a few best practices to follow when looking to create a foundation for an undefined yet successful future in marketing: Implement strategies in small steps, constantly evaluate how the strategies are working, put guard rails in place to make quick pivots and changes, constantly invest in training your teams, while working towards the company’s future goals. Given the unpredictable nature of marketing, it’s vital to constantly match the “macros with your internal micros,” to confirm your organization is headed in the direction of the puck.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle to help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times is to accept reality and embrace it. Very often companies fall into the trap of wishful thinking, and wish things were different. Acceptance of reality and what that reality means for both a leader’s organization and employees, should be followed by quickly discarding methods that worked in the past but no longer work in the current environment. Our principle of optimizing today while building tomorrow helps us continue to leverage accepting reality, embracing it and evolve accordingly — even during the most turbulent of times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I cannot speak for other businesses, but at Theorem we: a) accept the difficult reality quickly and early — eschew wishful thinking, b) craft processes that constantly evaluate how Theorem fits in this reality and add value to clients needs where they need it most, c) invest in teams and communicate transparently with internal and external stakeholders about our plans to get through difficult times
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
As an end-to-end marketing solutions provider, we’ve seen the impacts of the past 18 months across the marketing industry. The trends constantly evolve, but there are a handful of trends that stand out in this new endemic world that are critical for marketing teams to latch onto and fully optimize. Among these trends is the evolution of consumer needs and the call for more transparent marketing practices. Marketing teams must work towards a first party, data-driven future that puts consumers in the driver seat when it comes to digital property. In addition, customer engagement and loyalty evolved over the past year in ways marketers haven’t seen before. The methodologies for success in customer acquisition, engagement and retention pivoted heavily towards omnichannel and micro-moment marketing. Omnichannel and micro-moment marketing means marketing teams need to diversify their strategies to include a multitude of mediums, channels and platforms while ensuring relevant and personalized messaging to their consumers. The name of the game is offering tailored content when and where consumers need it most.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Empathy: Much clichéd and a difficult emotion to recognize and build into the leadership repertoire, primarily because empathy is learned through one’s own life experiences. The richer one’s experiences, the more empathetic a leader’s emotional palette is. Just as consummate actors recognize and file away emotions from real life, only to muster up them at will on screen, leaders should be able to take their own life events and map them to the teams they lead.
- Health: All three elements of an individual’s health are key; physical, mental and spiritual, because high-performing teams need all three to work. A leader should make space at work for all three elements. Heath is projected at our workplaces with increased emphasis placed on societal well being, increased diversity, and planet sustainability.
- Balance: It’s increasingly hard to separate the personal and professional work spaces. A leader should recognize and empower their teams about balancing both personal and professional spaces. Work from home has advantages that needs a new kind of discipline at a personal and professional level to ensure efficiency and maintainability for both employees and the organization as a whole.
- Change: As the pace of change accelerates, leadership must also keep pace, while recognizing and accepting reality. Sometimes molding leadership principles in response to ever-changing reality is how to effectively lead
- Values: While reality may change, a North Star or purpose needs to be constant. Our purpose is rooted in our human values. Since humanity is ever constant, leaders must ensure that they are leading with values, especially in turbulent times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Good things come to people who wait, better things come to people who chase them! In business, my Life Lesson quote translates to being proactive, taking chances in entrepreneurship and the “fierce urgency of now.” I found that actively pursuing your dreams and passions is always a better approach than expecting results to fall into your lap.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you for having me! The same to you and your audience.