Andrew Krebs-Smith negotiated his first deal when he was just 12.
His 8-year-old brother wanted to invite a friend over for a sleepover, but their parents nixed that idea. So Krebs-Smith put on a suit jacket, wrote out a contract for them to sign, and went downstairs to negotiate a deal.
The future founder of Social Fulcrum, an agency that “brings more science into the marketing world,” never lost that entrepreneurial edge. By the time the Maryland native was attending Baltimore’s Loyola University, he had co-founded a company called Slacker Hero. “Nothing ever happened with it,” he says. “We never had a client.”
But because it was based on a series of books that were being made into a movie, he did get contacted by Universal Pictures. Good thing he honed his negotiating skills years before in his parents’ living room.
“The whole experience cost me less than a college class,” says Krebs-Smith, “and I learned so much more as a life experience.”
He founded two other companies before he hit pay dirt with Social Fulcrum. His current venture, which was “profitable since day one,” helps companies acquire new customers by rigorously analyzing data about the market.
“We looked very different back then than we do now,” he says. “We used to try to do too many things. We really found our niche, and we dove in headfirst.”
His first office was in a New York coworking space called Green Desk, founded by Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey.
Realizing that he wanted to know more about the nuts and bolts of running his own company, Krebs-Smith enrolled in Babson College’s Graduate School of Business. For those two years, he worked hard to earn his MBA and run Social Fulcrum at the same time.
Boston proved to be a good fit for Krebs-Smith, so he moved his company into Neumann and McKelvey’s next coworking space: WeWork.
“I didn’t even realize that the founders were the same until we had been here for a year or two,” he says.
Social Fulcrum acquired a company where his current co-founder was working. Their partnership turned out to be a good fit, since Krebs-Smith knew marketing and advertising and his partner was well versed in analyzing data.
“That put us in a good place to take advantage of all new tools that were available,” he says.
Social Fulcrum is growing by leaps and bounds. A four-person team moved into WeWork Fort Point in 2014, doubling in size before the end of the year. They’ve continued to expand and now have a staff of 22.
Krebs-Smith looks back in awe at his early startups, acknowledging how important they were in his development as a business leader.
“I learned a lot from those companies,” he says. “Without that experience, I don’t think I’d be where I am now.”
Shortly after she turned 25, Julie Zhuo became a manager for the first time. This was at Facebook, where she started as the social-network’s very first intern 13 years ago,and where she still works, as vice president of design.
Zhuo admits that in her earliest days of leadership, she had no idea what she was doing. “When teams grow rapidly, there’s a lot of opportunities for leadership,” she says. “But it’s not usually the thing that [startups] are focused on because we’re figuring out what we can do to keep things running.”
As Zhuo grew as a manager, uncertainty followed. So she took matters into her own hands, recording her musings on her blog, The Year of the Looking Glass, which she began as an act of self-reflection. It struck a chord—week after week, her most popular articles were on the topic of being a first-time leader.
In her new book, The Making of a Manager, Zhuo crafted the field guide she wished she had had after that first promotion nearly a decade ago.
Initially, one of the managerial responsibilities Zhuo most struggled with was giving feedback—especially critical feedback, given that many of her new reports were once her direct peers. But constructive criticism, while challenging to give and receive, is a gift. Zhuo is so devoted to feedback, in fact, that a whole chapter of her book (Chapter 5: “The Art of Feedback”) is based on it.
At a recent event at WeWork 315 W 36th St in New York, Zhuo spoke about how employers can give more caring and productive feedback that leads to positive action. Below, Zhuo discusses four steps managers can take to maximize their critical feedback—even if it is really, really critical.
Step 1: Establish a baseline of trust with your reports. Well before a situation arises, make it clear to your team that you’re their coach and their ally. In the first three months of your tenure, carve out standing one-on-one meeting time to get to probing questions like, What do you really care about? In three years, assume you had your dream job—what does it look like? What are the things you’re scared of or nervous about? By establishing an honest relationship right off the bat, you can set the tone for potentially more difficult conversations in the future.
“Sometimes it takes a little time to develop the trust,” Zhuo says. “But it starts by asking those questions to truly try to understand someone and have them understand you, too, because you’re not going to get that much honesty and vulnerability if they’re not getting any of that in return. It is a two-way street, and I think the first three months is really about building that relationship.”
In her current role (she leads the team responsible for the design of the Facebook app), Zhuo blocks out one day a week for one-on-one sit-downs. These discussions shouldn’t be viewed as meetings for managers to get status updates, she says, but rather focused on the report (who, by the way, should walk away from the conversation thinking it was a great use of their time).
Step 2: Remind yourself why this matters. “I’ve read thousands of reviews people have written about their managers over the years, and I can assure you that, by far, the No. 1 ask is, ‘I wish my manager would give me more feedback,’” says Zhuo. However, feedback only counts if it makes things better, so the onus is on you as a manager to develop a practice that’s going to benefit both of you.
“People don’t like to be surprised,” she says. “A lot of our doubt might come from that lack of alignment between how other people see us and how we want to be seen. Just knowing the truth is a lot more grounding than having someone wonder all the time.”
Outside of one-on-ones, commit to what Zhuo calls “task-specific feedback,” or objective comments meant to help people do specific activities better. Our behavior changes when someone acknowledges that we’re doing something well; psychologically, encouragement prompts us to stretch ourselves even more. Give task-specific feedback to all your reports, and give it often.
Step 3: Tell it straight. So the moment has come—it’s time for you to confront an issue with one of your reports. No matter the circumstance, avoid “compliment sandwiches,” or starting and ending your feedback with praise with the criticism wedged somewhere in the middle.
“Say the news as plainly as possible so there are no misinterpretations,” says Zhuo. “It’s just harder for someone to understand what the actual message is. If you want to tell someone something you know is going to be disappointing to them, just tell it directly to them. It is a sign of respect.”
Zhuo offers the following template: “When you <XYZ>, I felt <concerned/disappointed/upset> because <ABC>. I wanted to bring this up with you to understand your perspective and see what we can do work through it.” If you’ve done the first two steps, your reports will see you as their partner, not a bully. “It’s important for us to recognize why, sometimes, we should put ourselves in that uncomfortable position: It’s meant to help somebody else,” she says.
Step 4: Remain curious about the other perspective. To prevent your feedback from coming across as an accusation, engage in your report’s response and encourage a discussion. Zhuo says it’s always helpful to end your criticism with a check-in, like, “Does that resonate with you?”If your report says yes, that’s great—they’re acknowledging it, and you’re already on the same page. But if they say no, that’s OK, too, because you’re not delivering a verdict, rendering their points moot.
“Now they have a chance to tell you how they feel—why they have a different perspective or why you might be the one who’s misinterpreting right and wrong,” she says. Start with the phrase, “I want to understand your perspective and I want to see what we can do to work together,” and go from there. “You want them to know you’re doing this because you care about them.”
Illustration by Vladimir Obradovic/iStock; event photos by Lori Gutman
After completing his last treatment for stage-four throat cancer in 2009, Michael Hayes, a serial entrepreneur with a software-engineering background, spent years thinking, How can I use software to solve problems in the real world?
The problems he was most interested in solving were the big ones—cancer prevention, detection, and cure. But it wasn’t until around 2012, when breakthroughs in machine-learning made it possible for computers to read massive amounts of medical-records data, that Hayes began to see the role software could play in cancer care. In 2018, Hayes founded the nonprofit research organization CancerAI, a member at WeWork 625 Massachusetts Ave in Boston that aims to break down the walls between organizations and across sectors to bring theresults seen in experimental research to the real world.
Removing the barriers in communication, says Hayes, is key to developing the artificial intelligence needed to improve cancer prevention, detection, and treatment. “In some ways, everyone who develops cancer has a unique case,” he says. “That makes fighting cancer extremely daunting, which is why collaboration amongst different cancer-fighting groups is so important.”
Hayes and CancerAI had a seat at the table this past fall, when WeWork and the Biden Cancer Initiative (BCI), a nonprofit founded by former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, launched their “collaboration hubs” in cities across the country. The aim: to make sure that every person, no matter where they are in their cancer journey, has a voice in the fight against the disease.
“It was small, it was the first step, but there was a lot of interest in the collaboration in the Boston area,” says Hayes.
These hubs—which have expanded to New York City and San Francisco—broaden what is normally a one-sided conversation to include stakeholders or members of the community who would not normally be involved in decision-making.
“It’s incredibly important to get perspectives beyond CEOs of top pharmaceutical companies,” says Catharine Young, BCI senior director of science policy. “Whether it’s a nurse or a caretaker, they all bring with them a wealth of knowledge.”
Earlier this year, Dr. Rahul Remanan, who has hosted sessions associated with BCI for years, led a collaboration hub at WeWork 750 Lexington Ave on New York’s Upper East Side. At the gathering of about 70 professionals—mostly technologists and health-care practitioners—Remanan, who is trained as a doctor and founder of the full-stack AI firm Moad Computer, focused on the idea of open data systems used in early cancer detection.
“I want to reach out to as many people as possible around [the technology] because I know I can’t do it on my own,” says Remanan, who shared his collected data before discussing the lessons and range of challenges of using artificial intelligence in cancer detection.
The push for shared data in medical research is a departure from tradition with a huge potential payoff: The hope is that if these technologies become successful on a wide scale, the highest-quality cancer care can become available to everyone. The software systems Remanan and Hayes hope to build can help doctors by flagging high- and low-priority images, greatly increasing the likelihood of getting a diagnosis for the people who need it most, no matter where they live or their socioeconomic levels.
“[We would] have an efficiency that’s accessible to anyone from across the world,” he explained. “You don’t have to pay more and more money to get quality care.”
“The future is here—it’s just unevenly distributed,” says Koios Medical CEO Chad McClennan, an AI medical-image-analysis platform approved by the FDA that analyzes the data in images and notifies physicians when something in an image, often naked to the human eye, looks suspicious.
This virtual second opinion can level the playing field for patients everywhere. Accuracy goes up, fewer people are sent home mistakenly, and fewer people are subject to treatment that turns out to be unnecessary. Koios, a member at New York’s WeWork 500 7th Ave, has half a million images linked to pathology results and is currently deployed with about 50 physicians in the New York area. “You have an expert’s second opinion at your disposal instantly and ubiquitously,” says McClennan, who is currently planning a hackathon at a collaboration hub.
The future that McClennan speaks of can be available to everyone—regardless of geographic location or income—only if the fight against cancer extends across silos and disciplines.
“It’s hard and it takes time, but I’m optimistic that it will happen,” Hayes says. “Within a couple of years, some of these [software] tools will be quite prevalent in making a big difference in the fight against cancer.”
I’ve always had this theory that money can “feel” different, depending on where it comes from. That the money you get for grinding out paid work for a company has a different energy than the money you get for your true-blue creative-soul work (if you’re able to get paid for that work at all).
But there are many artists and creatives who make a strong case to the contrary. A group of them came together recently to discuss the intersection between art and commerce at a panel co-hosted by WeWork x BRIC at WeWork 81 Prospect St in Brooklyn, New York. They shared what it means to be a working artist in today’s world, how corporate work can inspire a richer artistic practice, and the trick to maintaining your ethical center when a company is footing the bill.
Every bit of making feeds the beast.
“I’m lucky I get to make art every day,” says Mike Perry, a multidisciplinary artist and illustrator. To Perry, there is no line between “art for them” and “art for me”—rather, all the work he does feeds his daily practice. “I love an assignment because I’m free to explore, learn something, experiment with new materials and ideas,” he says. “I can be influenced by something I’m paid for.” Perry says he can sit down at 7 a.m. and work on a project for T-Mobile for five hours, then turn to his tackle box of oil paints in the afternoon to create something entirely for himself.
This conversation goes way back.
The Baltimore-based street artist-cum-muralist Gaia is quick to point out that art has been dependent on commerce for centuries. Drawing a strict boundary between what is “real” art and what is paid for by someone else doesn’t add much to the conversation, he says—and if taking commissions allows the artist to focus on their work and put food on the table while remaining in touch with the real world and engaging with audiences, why shouldn’t they?
Boundaries spark creativity.
As a creative director at Pandora, Chelsea Campbell works within some of the strictest borders of all: 30-second audio ads. “Constraints make for better creation and better creativity,” she says, noting that the ad can play to the listener’s “theater of the mind”.
Money affords bigger, better projects.
If someone will pay you to go bigger—and let you learn how to do it in the process—could you turn it down? “Scale is hard, and money makes scale happen,” says Perry. Money also allows projects to expand and grow. At Pandora, the algorithm is so good at predicting what music listeners will enjoy because musicologists work behind the scenes categorizing each song by up to 400 traits. This form of creativity is born from technology funded by a corporation … but it trickles down to a pleasurable user experience. When Pandora uncovers your new favorite song, you’re not thinking “What a smart technology company,” but instead, “Wow, they know me so well.”
Ethics drive compatibility.
Finding a brand or company whose mission aligns with yours as an artist is critical to a successful collaboration. When Devin Vermeulen, a senior creative director at WeWork, asks an artist to create a mural for a WeWork location, the project isn’t just in service of the brand. He’s going to them “because we like what they do and want the project to align with their mission,” he says. “We want to see success as a byproduct of having an impact on the world.”
Every project needs to please stakeholders.
Any creative project comes with different voices telling the artist what to do—and that doesn’t change whether it’s a corporate gig or a mural on a street corner. Gaia says it’s important to build consensus among competing agendas and what each person expects to see. “My job is to synthesize and find a balance” between everyone, he says, whether that’s a hotel manager with specific needs for an installation, or a grandmother living on the corner in Baltimore who has expectations for the art that should be on her street.
“Selling out” is different for everyone.
Perry noted a recent uptick in the use of the phrase “selling out,” which he says peaked in the early 2000s and now seems to be coming back around. Perhaps that’s a function of a robust economy—more companies have the ability to commission artists—as more people are ditching the 9-to-5 and identifying as artists and creatives.
But when a brand and an artist want to work together and their missions align, there’s no harm done, says Vermeulen. Campbell put a fine point on it: “Sellout has turned into collaboration.” It’s the artist’s prerogative to decide what “selling out” means for them—if it means anything at all. Getting paid by a corporation may allow them to live their dream in another capacity.
The blur can be good.
Perry recounted creating a giant 80-by-30-foot mural for Jameson whiskey. People on Instagram loved it, and he was confused—It’s an ad, he thought, They all love an ad?! Finally, someone told him, “Mike, we’re just really happy you got a job!”
The public is often less concerned with the distinction between art and commerce than one would think, especially if the merger gives rise to something better. As Vermeulen said: “If I’m going to be bombarded by an ad, I’m glad it’s done by an artist.”
For all the blurring of art and commerce, Perry said something that rang in my ears after the night was over. “Maybe,” he says, “we should think about ourselves as humans and people and not brands at all.”
As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In this column, Work Flow, we’ll delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.
Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard, but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything: email@example.com
Our office has recently moved into a new building with an open-office format, and while I love the collaborative vibe, I’m having trouble with the fact that people assume I’m always available. I’ve tried using headphones, but this does not deter folks from interrupting me—even when I am clearly busy. Any suggestions on how I can better manage this transition?
Headphones are a start. (Are yours noise-canceling? Here are a few options for you, if not.) The trick is, you must sometimes remove your headphones completely—when you’re not in “uninterruptible” time—otherwise they become just another part of the scenery and something people will ignore. Set the expectation that when they are on, you’re working on something urgent and should not be bothered. If someone comes up to ask you a question during that time, tell them politely, “I’m so sorry, I’m on an immediate deadline. Come back at X time and we can talk?” Then get back to work. People should begin to get the point.
You could also ask your boss to send a reminder that headphone-wearing folks should not be interrupted unless the matter is truly urgent, like the copier is on fire. Alternatively, is there a conference room or empty office where people needing extra quiet might work on occasion? Some of the frustration may be from feeling helpless in this situation, and acting in a forward-thinking way can combat that.
How can I exit a job gracefully? People become close (professionally) with their bosses, now more than ever. You follow each other on social media; maybe you even hang out casually outside the office. Can I tell my boss—whom I trust—that I’m looking? Are there new rules?
Every so often, the old rules are the best rules. The long-held standard of two weeks’ notice is there to help you out, as are the general best practices for resigning: Tell your boss in person if possible, write a nice resignation note (even an informal email thanking them for the opportunity and what you learned), don’t steal a bunch of staplers when you leave.
I would not tell even a boss you’re close with that you’re looking for another job before you actually have another job and are officially ready to give notice. When we’re very close with the people we work with, there may be an urge to say, Oh, I’ll stay longer, I’ll help find my replacement, I’ll do whatever it takes to make this transition easier for you, my friend—but don’t do that, either. Quitting a job is like a breakup; setting boundaries, and adhering to them, is important.
And here’s the thing: Your boss is not your friend, really and truly, even if before they were your boss they were your friend and after they are your boss they can again be your friend. Your boss is your boss, just like your company is not just some lovely spot with good coffee where you happen to sit and do work on your laptop now and again. The boss and the company should be treated with respect during your relationship and also as you’re ending it. Think about what you would prefer if you were in their shoes—but don’t undermine your own interests and well-being to achieve that.
Treat the severing knowing that you might want a recommendation from this person down the road. (You don’t have to keep following each other on social media. Kondo that stuff if it doesn’t bring you joy!) The important thing to remember is that this person might be your boss again at some point, but even if they’re not, they can help you figure out other opportunities, connect you to new professional acquaintances or gigs, and even be mentors. Or even better, good friends.
How can you tell someone you love that having their email signature in Comic Sans looks really bad?
Be brave enough to send them this link. In the case that the Comic Sans user is someone you don’t love, let them dig their own grave.