Christina Geist (center in pink) and members of Team Boombox
Christina Geist (center in pink) and members of Team Boombox, photo by Miller Hawkins — Photo by Miller Hawkins

If you could create your own fantasy board of directors, who would be on it? CO— connects you with thought leaders from across the business spectrum and asks them to help solve your biggest business challenges. In this edition, we ask an entrepreneur currently running two companies how to be a good boss in the middle of a global pandemic.

In 2014, Christina Geist, who had taken time off from her corporate career to be home with her two kids (and write two children’s books), and some of her close friends were about to turn 40. She started creating memory boxes for her friends by collecting memories and pictures from their families and friends, printing the personalized messages and photos and packaging them in a keepsake box.

As the idea for turning this pastime into a business “percolated” in her head, Geist got a call from a former colleague, Todd True, who wanted to partner with her. And so in 2015, Geist launched two small businesses: True Geist, a boutique branding firm, and Boombox Gifts.

When COVID-19 hit, Geist was concerned how it would affect her businesses. So, like so many entrepreneurs, she pivoted and added a Digital Boom to her offerings.

While Geist was worried about how the pandemic would affect her production partners and customers, she was especially concerned “for my team [of 10], for their livelihood and for my ability to keep them employed.”

In times of tremendous pressure, leadership is often tested. Is it possible to be a “good boss” and get the most from your team during a global pandemic?

Christina Geist, principal/strategy director and storyteller at True Geist and founder of Boombox answers…

You pivoted to digital for several reasons. But you were particularly worried about your ability to keep your employees?

There was just this moment of collective despair in mid-March that everyone felt. [I was worried about our production partners and our customers], and the COVID moment pushed us to add the Digital Boom.

I knew I would be able to make it right with my customers, so my primary concern was for my team. I think many business leaders found themselves in similar circumstances: [Wondering] what can I do right now as a leader to keep my team employed?

Luckily, we did not experience any hiccups. And we got a new product out of it at the same time. So it ended up being a win-win.

We had a [really busy] April. And I kept saying to my team, “busy is a blessing.” We saw the headlines about small businesses shutting their doors and felt blessed to be overwhelmed with work. So every time we felt overwhelmed or realized we needed to hire, we kept repeating, “Busy is a blessing.”

Trust seems to be a big part of who you are. You previously worked in big corporations where trust is not built into a lot of relationships. Did you cultivate trust, or is it just who you are?

The [Boombox] business grew up around my life. Most of my team is connected in a beautiful kind of honeycomb back to me personally. These are the people who leaned in and said, “How are you going to do it? Can I help?” And all of a sudden, you say, yeah, come on board.

I don’t know that you can cultivate trust. When we work with new team members I don’t know personally, I try to cultivate context. I want everyone who touches this brand to understand how directly their work affects our customers. And once they understand that, they feel ownership.

You can’t work [here] and not feel that level of responsibility. And so I hire for people who care. Because I can’t teach you how to care, but I can teach you everything else.

So the trust is born from context and care.

You also have to be comfortable and thrive working in an environment where the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet because that’s what it’s like to work in a very, very small company.

How would you describe your management style?

I lead by example. And I am very focused on making everyone as efficient and productive as [possible] and making sure my team has the tools they need to put our customers first.

We’re very direct and make decisions and act on them in real time. I value problem-solving. So I ask my team, if something needs my attention, to come to me with the proposed solution instead of the problem. Because if they come to me with the problem, they’re going to sit there and watch me figure it out.

There is no magical force we can call on to figure it out. [So I tell them] try to get to the answer, trust your gut and go with it. And they are empowered to do that.

...I let [employees] see me sweat. I let them see my level of commitment to them and the business.

Christina Geist, principal/strategy director and storyteller at True Geist and founder of Boombox

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In this challenging year, have you changed any part of your management style?

There wasn’t a change for us. One thing that struck me early on with quarantining was this is how we already work. The difference was we no longer had the option to be together in the office. I never wanted the team to waste time sitting for hours on the subway or commuting when they could use their time more efficiently at home. [Working remotely] has always been an option.

We’ve always had a weekly huddle on Tuesdays, and we kept that. But now we video conference, instead of a phone call. And we turn our cameras on so we can see one another. That’s important.

How do you maintain your positivity in times like this?

I’m not all sunshine and rainbows, but we’re in the unique position where our product really is sunshine and love. When I feel overwhelmed—and I do, I’m a human being—I don’t hide that from my team.

You believe in transparency?

I’m very honest and realistic. I give my team visibility into the business and into the decisions we make at a management level because I want them to feel ownership of our success. And I also want them to understand why sometimes that success is not translating directly into other things.

I don’t take them through the P&L every month, but I also don’t hide what’s going on from them. This is business school in real life, and we’re all learning. I don’t claim to have all the answers.

I try to let them see my wheels turning so they know I have their back and that I’m making decisions for them and our customers more than for myself. I think transparency is a big part of that.

Do emotional connections mean a lot to you?

Whenever I’m feeling down, I turn to our Boombox Instagram and read the stories from the people we’ve touched. It’s a beautiful validation of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

If you sell widgets, you might not feel that emotional feedback, or you may have to search a little deeper for it. But the emotional connection is so palpable for us. [In a recent] team huddle, I asked [everyone] to share happy moments or interactions they’d had over the past week, to ground ourselves in the power of what we’re doing, before we launch into the agenda of the day.

We get together to solve challenges and to attack problems, but I also want to use that time to remind everybody why we’re here. And I often cry in those meetings because it’s deeply emotional when you read these stories.

Do you have any advice for business owners managing employees through this pandemic who may not be as open as you?

For me, I let them see me sweat. I let them see my level of commitment to them and the business. And as long as they can see that, they feel connected to the greater good.

They know, even if I don’t have all the answers, I’m waking up every day to find them. I don’t shield them from the journey I’m on because we’re all on it together.

And this is important in a small business where there are so many perks you can’t offer your team. But maybe at the end of this, we will all have some sort of honorary degree in business, and we’ll all be smarter for it.

That’s what I can offer them—this behind-the-scenes look at how we built this together. That’s not something you get at a regular job.

We’re in such an upside-down year right now, and we’re just trying to stay okay. Everyone’s just trying to survive and do their best. If you can keep your team employed and safe, you are winning. Maybe this is the year for everyone to relax their standards a bit and just feel that “busy is a blessing.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published November 10, 2020