Scott Zenker (Edition # 4)
Scott Zenker (Chief of Staff at Harry's, Inc.)
(Scott Zenker, Chief of Staff at Harry’s, Inc.)
We are excited about today’s Edition of The Takeoff. Today’s interview is with Scott Zenker, Chief of Staff at Harry’s, Inc. The interview took place via a phone call between Scott and Michael Spiro (Founder at The Takeoff) in late March.
Scott is the Chief of Staff to the Chief Commercial Officer at Harry’s, Inc., a multi-billion dollar consumer products company. To date, Harry’s, Inc. has raised over $375M from investors including Temasek Holdings, Alliance Consumer Growth, Wellington Management, and Tiger Global Management. Scott is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis.
We hope you enjoy today’s Edition.
Michael: To start, what exactly is Harry's, Inc., and what is your role at the company?
Scott: Harry's, Inc. is a multi brand consumer products company. We started with Harry's, which is a men's care company in the US and Europe. We've expanded to continue launching brands that solve unique customer pain points, in areas that we have a particular set of expertise. We started by launching our second brand, Flamingo, two years ago and actually just this week announced the launch of a brand called Cat Person, which is sort of a sibling company to Harry's. We're also in the process of thinking up and incubating a bunch more. We also think about potentially purchasing other brands or licensing technology to build brands.
My role at Harry's, Inc. is Chief of Staff to the Chief Commercial Officer. My manager oversees the Harry's brand globally, so she has US and EU General Managers reporting up to her, as well as our VP of Design and VP of Research and Development.
My role is split pretty evenly between business operations and larger company initiatives. The business operations side of things involves a lot of process work, thinking about how we can operate efficiently between the teams that sit under my manager, and with our partner teams. Examples of this are running our new product introduction process, helping teams think through business cases from idea through product launch, our annual budgeting process, and our design process.
The other part of the role is focused on bigger company initiatives. For example, a project that we've started to think about is sustainability. So, how do we actually think about sustainability as a company? What do we stand for? And, what stake do we put in the ground around goals, and then how we actually action around that?
That's an initiative that I would own as well. I also work pretty closely with commercial teams to think about our commercial roadmaps; so, what new products, retailers and regions do we want to launch with and partner with, and drive pieces of that work.
Michael: It definitely seems like you're always busy doing a variety of things. I'm wondering, how exactly did you come to be Chief of Staff at Harry's, Inc.?
Scott: Well, WashU connections are pretty helpful. Actually, one of my best friends at WashU, Eric Osman, who was a marketing major at WashU, worked at Harry's on the Performance Marketing Team (Eric is now Founder & CEO at Mockingbird).
I was at Capital One before Harry's and wasn't really loving the corporate finance world. It was interesting, but I really wanted to get closer to the customer and candidly, didn't understand that there were roles that existed in the world besides finance.
So, one thing led to another after doing a lot of networking, talking to probably 50 people across a bunch of industries to figure out where my skill set fit best, it actually was actually Eric, who referred me for my first role at Harry's, which was on the Research and Development Team as a program manager. That's how I ended up at Harry’s, Inc.
Michael: Awesome! I know you mentioned you were in a corporate finance role at Capital One before going over to Harry's, Inc. Were you a Finance major during your time at WashU?
Scott: I actually was not. I was in Arts & Sciences. I was an International and Area Studies major and an Accounting minor. My personal philosophy was always that I would work in finance after college. I always thought I would work somewhere on Wall Street, in the banking world, but I believed and still do that college was about learning about a broad range of topics and taking classes that were intellectually interesting.
I felt that the world of finance could be learned on the job and even though it would make my life a little bit harder getting my first job, I thought that in the long run, I would be happier by having more of a liberal arts education. I still would stand behind that and recommend that for a lot of people. I would then strongly recommend that if you want to be in the business world, double major in some sort of business discipline.
Michael: Now, just back onto Harry's. What exactly has the growth been like during your time at Harry’s, Inc. since 2015?
Scott: Crazy. What I always say is that every three months, it feels like I work at a different company. All in good ways, just the priorities change as the company grows. When I joined our company, we were direct to consumer only and only in shave. Then a year later, we launched in Target and started to launch in a bunch more categories such as body wash and hair products. And, we continue to think about more and more categories and geographies to launch in – plus new brands.
While growth for us has been pretty consistent from a revenue perspective, I've had to put on a lot of different hats to think about all that growth. When you're trying to think about launching in retail and how we could go in and scale a retail launch, it's completely different than thinking about how we would go and launch in a new geography and completely different than thinking about how we would go and launch new products. Things are also very different based on your team size and you need to adjust your personal style and company leadership.
It has been a lot of growth in the right direction, and I really value our leadership who has helped set a really strong strategic vision for our company. But, it's always been crazy and every three months really does feel fundamentally different.
Michael: How exactly has that growth changed your day to day operations, and how have you best prepared for that growth in all of those different areas?
Scott: That's a really good question. I think one very important piece is just having a really strong vision and mission as a company and setting a north star that people can get behind. Number two is just constantly updating and evaluating priorities as a company and ensuring that people are actually working on the most important thing at any one moment.
When things change, that becomes very important. You never know when that conversation with a retailer is going to happen – when you weren’t set on launching in retail – where they're going to give you a ton of support at launch and your brand will show up in a way that no shave brand has ever showed up before. When something like that happens, you have to effectively communicate to everyone that works at the company that they need to go change their priorities to make this happen.
I think a lot of it is setting those priorities and then being opportunistic and nimble enough to go and pivot when something that's worth running after comes in your direction.
Michael: I really love the idea of knowing when to pivot and actually being able to have the courage to do so as a business. In your opinion, what are one or two of the most important things that a successful consumer brand needs to have in today's day and age.
Scott: I think number one for me is customer-centricity, which is huge in the DNA of Harry's. You need to solve customer pain points. If you're not thinking about the customer first, then you're just existing for some other reason -- maybe just to make money?
How can you build really loyal relationships with people who are going to buy your product if you're not thinking about them when you're developing the product? I've seen a lot of brands, if you're on Instagram or Facebook any day you can see 1000 new direct to consumer brands, and I actually shake my head at a lot of them because I think a lot of folks just miss the point with launching these new companies.
There's an opportunity and a product they think is interesting, but they miss the consumer element. I think that's number one in being successful. That's probably my number one and two, if I'm being honest with you.
Michael: In the early stages of a company, you know, sometimes the founder or the founding team has a vision for where they want their product to be, but sometimes the early customers may not completely see that vision. What exactly do you think is the balance between the founding team's vision and what early customers are saying they want the product to look like?
Scott: Steve Jobs obviously was obviously revolutionary in telling consumers they needed a product before they needed the product, right? So, I think there are obviously, in certain respects, visionaries who understand features that customers need and they know what the future should hold, so they put a product in front of people that they know the people will want in the future.
I don't know though, I work in consumer products, and I think that in the world that I live in, you need to give people a product that solves a pain point that they have today or a pain point that they will have tomorrow. You can obviously put your own spin on that, but I don't necessarily think that you have the luxury of creating a completely new solution and convincing people to use it. In the end, a customer has to believe in your product to purchase it.
Michael: I really love your perspective there. The next few questions are focused on advice for students, as well as on your background. What advice would you give a student who is interested in working at a startup post-graduation?
Scott: Network. I can say from a recruiting standpoint, I've hired a lot of people at Harry's and I interview a lot of people, networking is super important. At startups, roles are not necessarily as methodically or thoughtfully planned in terms of timing as they are at bigger companies. There is not an incoming analyst class, and you don't interview in the fall for your role the following summer.
Ultimately, for you to land one of those jobs, you want someone to think of you when they're opening up that role, and the only way for someone to think of you is for you to have built relationships so you can be thought of.
I think what that actually entails, with a really strong alumni network like WashU's, is using LinkedIn to look up companies and industries that you think are interesting and reaching out to people. You'll be surprised at how many people actually respond to you. It's a pay it forward mentality.
I will always respond to people from WashU that reach out to me. I think building that network is really important. And, having some sort of a direction or view of, not necessarily exactly what you want in the job because I think that's hard when you're going to be a new graduate, but some of your skills that you think you bring to the table and some of the things that you would be interested in in the role.
Maybe it's you really love data and you're interested in something analytical, versus you really love working with people and you want something that's highly cross-functional. Those can really help guide someone and you can get a lot of great advice, versus I think going into a conversation and saying, "I just want something that's in business." It's actually really hard for someone like me to help give you advice if you come in saying, “I just want something that’s in business.”
Michael: It's really great to have alumni like you who are so willing to help current students. What do you think are the most important skills and traits of a successful Chief of Staff? How can someone who is currently a student best prepare themselves to later on be a Chief of Staff?
Scott: There is a bit of a service mindset. Ultimately, your leader's success is your success. If you are setting your leader up for success and helping them define their priorities and execute against them, then you are successful. Having a service mindset and understanding that it's actually not about you, it's about somebody else and you're enabling that, is really important.
I think with that then, one of the skills that allows you to be really good as a Chief of Staff is the power of influence and being comfortable to push back and clearly state why you believe something should be done in another way or why you think it's maybe not the right time at all. This is helpful and ultimately makes me more valuable in my role than just being a yes man.
I think that takes a lot of time and practice, and I think that's just part of being an employee at a company and being put into situations where you have to learn that skill.
The second thing I would say is to be a project manager. Not necessarily in your role as your core function, but everyone is a project manager. You're a project manager of your own life, your personal life, and your work life. Even if you're doing something that's so fundamentally different than project management, you need to actually figure out how to manage your workload, you need to have firm commitments and due dates, and you need to be able to prioritize there. Focus on project management. That's a skill set that gets you so far and just being reliable is paramount.
I think the last thing is being empathetic, being a good listener, and wanting to build relationships with people. This is natural for a lot of people, but if you're introverted, the Chief of Staff role has a pretty big people component to it, and you may need to practice this. You need to understand the pulse of the company from the most junior to the most senior employees. You need to be able to recognize patterns in what people are saying and action against that.
You need to be able to retain some really confidential information and act like you've never heard it and sort of carry on as normal. And so, I think just really pushing yourself to practice empathy in the workplace and just preparing yourself for some of those things that I laid out will set you up for success.
One thing I should add is that I don’t think you can prepare to be a Chief of Staff, in full. I think it's about being opportunistic.
Ultimately, the role is so defined by the leader you're working for and so wanting to be a Chief of Staff is important, but for anyone considering it or if you're actually looking at an offer letter, think less about what the title is and think more about who you're working for. Because I think, ultimately, that will actually define your experience.
Michael: Got it. So as a Chief of Staff, do you kind of pick up on a lot of the skills and habits of your manager so that you can later emulate them?
Scott: Exactly. It's a person that you want to emulate, and it's a person who actually wants to develop you. If you think about it, this is either a CEO or one of the top few executives in a company. They are so busy with their work.
They could not care about you at all, and they could view their Chief of Staff as someone who is there as another leg on their stool. Or, you can have someone who really wants to develop you and with whom you can talk openly about your career aspirations and work together for you to take the step from where you are as Chief of Staff to get you X, Y, or Z next opportunity.
I think it's just finding the right person who can help be the catalyst there and be your champion, while you're also obviously giving a lot of value while you're in the role.
Michael: I would assume that most Chief of Staff either come from within a company or are people who previously had a strong relationship with the person that they're working with. Do you know of any Chief of Staff who kind of just applied blindly to a role and were then able to land that role and be successful?
Scott: Yes. There are a lot of external Chief of Staff hires. The role is getting more and more popular, and a lot of folks do interview from the outside. It's a popular role now for folks who are getting their MBA, coming out of Business School.
I think for me, I'm not sure if I would be comfortable jumping in, knowing what I know now, and working for someone that I didn't know that intimately, or at a company that I didn't know that intimately. But, people do it.
I think the onus is just on you during the interview process to interview that person as much as they're interviewing you. One piece of advice that I give people is that you actually need to be very upfront about what you want to get out of the role. Make sure you say, like, “Hey, I want to be in this role for 18 months or two years, are we aligned on that? And this is what I want to do after this role; what this role is setting me up for.”
I mean, for me, my goal is to ultimately be in the GM role or a CEO role. I have product experience, but I wanted commercial experience. I wanted to understand how to manage a P&L, to make major commercial decisions and to learn the brand side of the house. I was aligned going into my role on that and hopefully on the other side, there are opportunities that can come my way.
If you don't have that conversation, you and your manager are left sort of guessing. You could bring up what you want to do six months in and that could be completely not aligned with how the person that you're working for is thinking about your career progression.
Michael: Love the advice and insights there. I'm wondering, how much do you actually interact with Chief of Staff at other companies, sharing best practices and learnings?
Scott: It's funny, there's a company called Voray. I’ll give them a shoutout. Voray is actually an events and networking company that was founded for executives. They're focusing a lot on Chief of Staff right now because, in their words, the Chief of Staff role is underserved.
And so, they've been instrumental in putting together a bunch of events on various topics where Chief of Staff can get together and start to build community. It's been extremely helpful for me. I've reached out to a bunch of folks who I've met there to answer one question or another.
But, yeah, within a company itself, it's pretty lonely, and so I think it is important for somebody who is in this role to engage with other Chief of Staff because chances are, you're not the only one facing a problem or a situation. Someone else has faced that or is currently facing that right now.
Michael: Awesome. Do you have any favorite books, movies, podcasts, or anything like that that have been a big influence either in your life as a whole or in your work?
The book is about his career, but the part that stands out to me was about Zappos's culture. There's not necessarily one way to build a company, or to build a successful company, but the book sort of valued customer-centricity and that if you can be any company in the world, it's better to be known for your customer service than to be known for the thing that you actually do.
I think just reading about that and how important that was to the culture he built at Zappos and some of the struggles he went through, was really interesting. I also think How I Built This is an interesting podcast for people who are curious and looking to get into the space. I personally am not a great reader these days because I live within walking distance from work, so I also need to get back into it. I'm always looking for good recommendations as well.
Michael: I'll definitely have to give Delivering Happiness a look, as I'm pretty much just on my couch for the next few weeks with online classes here and there. Outside of work, what hobbies occupy most of your time?
Scott: Exercise is a big one for me. In the last 18 or so months, basically since I've been in my Chief of Staff role, I've really picked up how much I’ve been exercising. I try to work out before work every morning, and it provides very good mental clarity and a complete break from everything.
You can shake off everything going on in life. For instance, right now, obviously, you shake off coronavirus. That annoying email that you got overnight that is on your mind and that agitated you when you woke up, you can get rid of that too. I think that exercising has delivered so many benefits, both mentally and emotionally for me.
I also like exploring. For me, living in Manhattan, going on long walks and actually just like meandering around and exploring new neighborhoods and popping in is amazing. I always say I'm like a bar tourist. I like to go and see new places and find a bar and pop in and have a drink and walk around and talk to people. So, that's how I spend a lot of my afternoon days, whether that's with my girlfriend or with my friends.
Those are really like my two hobbies. And, I work a lot.
Michael: I would imagine. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation and learned a ton!
Scott: I appreciate this. Your newsletter is cool. I took a look at it.
** Please note that our interviews may be edited for length, content, and clarity **