Embracing change and competition: Q&A with John Andrews

In this series, I chat with various industry experts on the intricacies of business and discover what advice they can offer to both seasoned and emerging leaders. 

I sat with John Andrews, the CEO at Photofy. As a career marketing professional, with a focus on shopper marketing, John is passionate about the ever-changing ways in which to communicate with consumers. He has also been at the forefront of many company shifts, including Walmart’s. As a Senior Manager in Arkansas, Andrews was pivotal to Walmart’s move into the social media space. He created the company’s first influencer platform (Walmart Elevenmoms) and overall improved its rating and review community. However, before becoming an expert in retail and marketing, he got his start at Domino’s as a store manager. He credits this experience for opening his mind up to marketing and entrepreneurship. 

Today, he uses all his life lessons to guide Photofy in the midst of an unprecedented time in history. During our interview, Andrews highlighted the importance of embracing shifts in business and the benefits of ‘dogfooding.’ 

How do you define leadership? 

I’ll define leadership through one of my leader heroes, Sam Walton. In the early 2000s, I got the opportunity to move to Arkansas and work for Walmart’s headquarters. I always admired Sam Walton. His book, Made in America, was one of the first business books I ever read and I really liked his leadership style. He often described leadership by walking around the floor, not only in his stores but also in his competitor’s stores. He would study what they did, but more importantly, he would ask people about their day or challenges and empower them to make decisions. 

There are stories after stories of those early Walmart managers and how they made decisions supported by Mr. Sam. He may have given them some feedback, but ultimately he would say “this is your story, you go and run it.” And they did. Another of his leadership practices was having a weekly 6 a.m. Saturday meeting with his management team to check-in and get ready for the next week. It was an opportunity for stores to share and exchange ideas. 

So in conclusion, I really believe a good leader promotes interaction and collaboration between people. They work to connect the dots across an organization whether big or small. Applying that to Photofy, with only 10 people is still important. We may not be Walmart with two million people, but we still have to communicate. And it’s a leader’s job to foster team cohesiveness and take away any barriers. One thing I constantly ask my team members is what is in their way and how can I help them. We have very smart people on our team, a lot smarter than I am, and I just want them to be able to do their job without any problems. 

What do you think about inclusion in the workplace? 

An engaged employee is somebody who feels like they matter to the business. I’m sure you’ve seen these employee surveys and how often they show employees’ disengagement with the business. And I just think that’s tragic. 

I like to set a clear vision, especially as our team works remotely. In fact, we started this year with Ely Musk’s vision for Tesla. By the way, his vision is just four bullet points: make an expensive sports car to fund the business, make a more affordable car to expand the business, make a really affordable car to grow the business and the last one, which I personally really like, redefine the entirety of the fossil fuel car. It just goes to show that it’s so much bigger than a car company. That kind of vision setting creates a clear picture for everyone at Tesla. From the manufacturing floor to those in legal and finance, everybody knows the mission and their role. 

Jeff Bezos also did this with Amazon. The idea is that every day is day zero and it’s their job to make shopping easier for customers. That creates inclusivity by giving people a reason to be there. In a good organization, that floats down into every piece. In a bad organization, people are showing up to do a job and are unsure of how they fit. 

If you want an inclusive organization, everybody on your team has to understand how they are contributing to the overall vision of the company.

 

 

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced while leading a diverse organization? 

I really believe that you can’t lead a diverse organization without empathy. That can be very challenging because personally, I may have broad life experiences but I don’t know what it’s like to go through maternity, practice different religions, etc. I graduated from business school in 1997 with a different view of the world. And since then the world has changed and continues to change. Cities are becoming more culturally diverse and because of technology, we have the ability to connect with others around the world. People half my age are growing up in a world that I didn’t experience so I always ask myself how do I get involved? And I think one way is to actively seek out the experiences of others that are not like you, and really try to understand them. I try to have a diverse friend group, even if it’s virtually. I’m now connected with people in different countries and try to learn a little about a life that I would have never known. We could have never done that in the mid-90s.

What are some of the steps that Photofy has had to take to stay afloat during the pandemic? 

This pandemic has been full of challenges and tribulations, but there have also been some positives. We probably advanced by two to 10 years. One of the big changes is that we’ve debunked the idea that people can’t be efficient remotely. We don’t have to debate that anymore. 

Last year, Photofy doubled the number of users year over year. And we did it all while working from home. The beauty of the pandemic in this day in age is that we had Slack, Zoom and all of these tool kits that weren’t available in the past. If the pandemic had happened 20 years ago, it might not have been the same. I feel like I’m communicating with my team all day regardless of where I am and we’re learning new ways of working. 

The world was going here anyway, but the pandemic just moved us forward faster. For example, it’s shown us that email might be outdated. I’ve seen some companies who have banned email internally altogether and only use their own direct messaging system because things could get lost in an email. We work similarly. I tell people if they want to talk to me, Slack me, call me or text me because email is the worst way to communicate with me. It made us get out of our comfort zone and I think we’re going to take a lot of those things with us post-pandemic. 

What do you think lies ahead for businesses in a post-pandemic world? 

There will not be a return to last February, it’s just not going to happen. So it’s about embracing change and how people are doing things now. I’m a big fan and follower of the retail space so I always look at them when change is brewing.  My former employer, Walmart, for several years fought the e-commerce war with Amazon and other evolving brands and a couple of years ago, it really made a push to focus on pick-up and delivery. 

When we think about e-commerce, it’s not as sexy and cool as some of the other things, but if you’re a Walmart shopper or about half the people in the United States, you’re probably going through a Walmart door about once a week. And with that push for pick-up and delivery, Walmart was able to keep that customer base because they could still get what they needed despite COVID. I think the first month of the big lockdown in March or April 2020, their store pick-up went to 30% of their total body. Think about that. They happen to be ready for that because at some point they said adding full e-commerce doesn’t make sense for our customer, but what does make sense is making shopping easier. 

People’s behavior has changed and so have their interactions with products. Time Warner caused controversy when it released Wonder Woman on HBO, but that’s another company that decided to follow their customers’ lead. People are consuming content differently and companies need to respect that. The world has changed and companies need to shift in order to make customers’ lives easier. That’s what wins my business and that’s what wins a lot of other people. 

What advice would you give a younger you?

We live in a really interesting time where learning is more accessible, not only from the experts. I have become a big fan of Reddit and what I like about their communities is that if you ask a question, you will get thoughtful and interactive answers. So I think the advice is since learning is so accessible, focus on learning something new and improving your skills every day. 

I think about my career as a marketer. If you think about what a marketer does today versus what a marketer did in the late 90s, your skillset is massively different. There’s no substitute for understanding the needs and the wants of a customer. That hasn’t changed. But how you talk to them, how you interact with them, and how you engage with them completely changed as well as how you measure that and how you understand that. Yet you and I still get about 300 promotional emails a day. At this point, it’s just spamming to get increasingly diminishing returns. That’s the wrong approach. 

So the advice is to learn new things and as we like to say “eat your own dog food.” In other words, go to your own store, call your company’s customer service line and understand what the shopper experience is like. I think that that’s something that I did but would have benefited from doing a lot more of that. 

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

For my full interview with John Andrews, head over to my Youtube channel. There you’ll find other leadership interviews as well as countless bite-size videos on all things related to business, negotiation, and learning to thrive both during and after the pandemic.

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