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 Nancy Bigley.
Nancy Bigley is Group President of The Little Gym International and Snapology, two brands that are part of youth enrichment parent company Unleashed Brands. As President, Nancy is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the 350+ The Little Gym locations and 120+ Snapology locations both domestically and internationally.
Prior to The Little Gym, Nancy was the CEO of Twist Brands (Painting with a Twist, Color Me Mine & Chesapeake Ceramics). She is also the Co-Founder and CEO of Bottle & Bottega, Inc., which she sold to Painting with a Twist when she joined them originally as their Chief Operating Officer. Nancy has been involved in franchising since the early 90’s working in franchise operations and executive leadership for brands such as Dunkin’ Brands, American Leak Detection and The Dwyer Group (now Neighborly).
Nancy is involved in the International Franchise Association (IFA). She volunteers her time as a mentor to Emerging franchisors through the organization’s Franship program, is the past Chair of the Woman’s Franchise Committee and has served on the Emerging Franchise Conference Committee, IFA Conference Committee and the Membership and Technology Committees. She was also the recipient of the 2022 IFA’s Woman’s Franchise Committee Crystal Compass Award, given to an individual who has made significant contributions through leadership within their franchise organization, the franchise community, or the community in which they live.
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?
Itruly stumbled into franchising in the early 90’s taking a position running company operations for American Leak Detection. At the time, the company had 46 franchise locations and was growing. As I gained wins growing our company-owned locations and finding ways to streamline processes and increase sales, I began sharing those wins with our franchisees and thus my long career in franchising began. I was there for 12 years and worked my way to Vice President, having worked in every department along the way. It was an amazing experience learning how to scale a brand, build infrastructure and work collaboratively with franchisees to improve the overall business. I am still in touch with many of the franchisees from that brand as it was an amazing experience and we formed deep relationships.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m a firm believer that we learn the most not from our successes but from the mistakes we make along the way to get to those successes. One of my funniest was a travel snafu. I was working on being better at my delegation skills, so I decided to have my assistant book my travel for a trip to Pittsburgh. What I failed to do was look close enough at the details of the itinerary. I had never been to this airport before so I landed, picked up my rental car started to drive to my destination only to find out she booked me into the wrong airport and it would have taken me 8 hours to drive to my destination. I had to return the rental car and have her rebook everything for me. I was so embarrassed to have to tell the franchisee what happened and that I didn’t catch the mistake. Ever since then, I decided travel was probably not a task I should delegate in the future, or when I do, I now know to give better instructions that are clear and easier to follow.
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?
Being in this industry for 30 years there have been so many who have helped me, it’s tough to single just one out. I’ve worked for some amazing bosses in those years and every one saw my deep passion to learn and my drive to push myself in areas of the business I was not familiar with. That support gave me the safety net to take risks, which sometimes meant I had to fail and not worry about getting fired. Probably my most out-of-the-box responsibility was taking over warehouse operations for my first brand American Leak Detection. We manufactured much of our own equipment and housed many plumbing supplies for our franchisees to purchase. I had no idea what I was doing! So, I bought a book on Warehouse Operations, sat with the team, and some of my trusted franchisees and learned everything I could from them. I ended up decreasing out-of-stock products, improving order turnaround times, increasing profitability and building a great team. Oddly, that experience came in handy 20 years later when Twist Brands acquired a ceramics company.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When our Founder Robin Wes started The Little Gym more than 46 years ago, his vision and purpose was to create a safe and fun place for kids to explore, learn, grow and have fun. He wanted them to have a safe place to make mistakes, learn and do better the next time. One of our mottos is you don’t have to be the best in a particular skill but just try your best. This philosophy has stayed paramount in every one of our programs and is still at the core of everything that we do.
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?
I’ve been very proud of my team at The Little Gym in particular this last year. We are going through a lot of transitions of our systems and processes to build a stronger foundation to really expand into the future. Implementing large changes with a 46-year-old brand can be uncomfortable for franchisees not used to a lot of change. My team has shown strong leadership and professionalism in the face of adversity. They continued to listen and make changes where we could — but always have kept the larger vision in focus. This is not easy but doing so while being able to experience double digit growth and record-breaking increases makes me so proud.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Never. I have a quote on my desk that I live by and it’s about perseverance. It says, “The greater the obstacle the more glory in overcoming it.” I truly believe in my heart I can get through any challenge. I know that because I’ve had many big challenges in my life and I’ve made it through all of them and learned something new with each one. So battle scars help and having an amazing network of leaders to pull from is also how I stay focused and motivated. I know I don’t have to solve problems on my own. I have many people smarter than me that I can lean on and I do. My drive also comes from the deep-rooted level of responsibility I have always had for my roles. I’m honored when I’m chosen to lead a department or an organization and I don’t take that faith in me lightly. I join and stay at organizations because I’m passionate about the companies and the people. With that, I will move heaven and earth to keep them out of harm’s way and until I’m successful in that endeavor I don’t stop searching for answers.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
I’ve had so many but a recent one that comes to mind is The Wisdom of Oz. It’s about ways to utilize personal accountability to succeed in everything that you do. One of the key concepts in the book is about how to work above the line instead of below the line. Below the line thinking relates to behaviors like finger pointing, wait and see approach, ignore and deny. Above the line thinking is an attitude of See it, Own it, Solve it, Do it. I’ve tried to be an above the line leader my whole career so I was fascinated to dig into this book. It spoke so much to me I sent a copy to 4 of my franchisees on my new Culture Committee as we are working through ways to help navigate change occurring in our brand. They liked it as well so we are utilizing some of the tools discussed.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
For me, it’s always been about staying calm and believing with my whole heart that a solution is out there and we will find it. I’ve always felt my #1 job as a leader in crisis is to be honest with the team and franchisees about the situation, we are in. Don’t sugarcoat it. Yet, bring calm and confidence that we will get through it, ask for help, and leverage all the resources you can to find the right solution.
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?
First and foremost, try to keep communications high and keep everyone informed. Even if you don’t know the answers, being honest about that and discussing how you’re going to get clarity helps. Uncertainty breeds fear and fear breeds emotional behavior. Both are not helpful as you are trying to move through solution-oriented thinking. In addition, I’ve tried to find ways to keep things light and fun. During COVID we would do a happy hour and share positive stories both with the business and personally. Just to show everyone not everything was doom and gloom. With my team now, we use the last weekly meeting of the month to do virtual teambuilding. We call it Wildcard Wednesday because you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, teammates recognize each other for assists given and we do a fun virtual game that helps us get to know each other and just have some fun. We have remote workers, in-office workers and teammates from cross-functional teams so it’s really helped gel us as a team and keep things light and fun.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
My philosophy is always to deliver it as soon as possible after you get it, be honest and upfront and don’t sugarcoat the message. There is nothing more frustrating than to feel you’re having a positive conversation then to have an “oh by the way” dropped on you. I’m also a big believer that if you’re going to bring a problem to me I expect you to have some thoughts on a solution. That is a productive conversation, and we can work together to get the best answer. With customers, if the news isn’t great just tell them and try and give the “why” behind the news so they can at least understand the reason. Most people can get behind that and move on.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I’ve always had the mindset of not getting caught up in the drama of things I cannot control. I seek to get informed then I build the best plan I can and keep moving forward. Setting measurements in place for everything we do will help us see if we are getting off-track so we can quickly make course corrections. But, we can’t wait around to see what’s going to happen we have to use the information we have to make the best decisions we can and just keep moving forward.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
For me it’s having confidence in yourself, your plan and your team and not letting the noise pull you off course or stop progress. Certainly, keep listening and collaborating but don’t let the noise get into your head and cause doubt and stop forward movement.
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?
A big one I see often is trying to please everyone who may be upset, which typically causes companies to spin in circles and cause even more confusion. We can please everyone and sometimes the answer just needs to be no, we are not going to do that. That’s a tough conversation to have with franchisees but it’s our job as leaders to lead.
Another one is NOT listening to the team or franchisees and making the proper course corrections fast enough. Again, it’s our job to ask for feedback, truly listen and ask clarifying questions in order to head off real mistakes. We can’t let our pride get in the way and be afraid to admit maybe our path maybe wasn’t the best way. My philosophy is I don’t care who comes up with the right answer let’s just identify it.
Finally, doing nothing. The let’s wait and see what happens or let’s wait to see what our competitors are going to do is not a great approach in a crisis. To get through difficult times stopping for too long isn’t going to help and it’s not what the team or franchisees want to see. Our job as leaders is to lead and inspire confidence that we have a plan and we are going to execute it.
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?
- Be honest: Don’t try to bluff your way through a problem or sugarcoat a difficult conversation. If you don’t have the answer or you made a mistake, say so. If something difficult happens don’t brush it under the rug talk it out and clear the air. We are in aggressive expansion mode at The Little Gym and Snapology. We have a lot of candidates coming through each month wanting to buy a franchise. Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable awarding to all candidates. Recently, I had to reject one candidate from each brand as the team just didn’t feel they were the right fit and ultimately wouldn’t be successful. In one case, I had to talk to the development team about it and the candidate. These were not fun conversations, but I felt I owed it to all parties to articulate the why even though the message was not pleasant.
- Stay calm: In a crisis, the team looks to the leader to gain strength and courage to move forward. I remember a specific moment when COVID hit. We were a business that gathered people together so we had to shut down 100% of our locations. I remember gathering my team, and in a calm voice saying “we are entering into unchartered waters. I don’t know where this ends but I know our franchisees are watching us, they need us and this is going to be the most important test of our leadership in our careers. We are going to learn a lot from this experience so let’s do whatever we need to do to help people and each other.” Creating that safe and calm space for our teams to take risks, step outside their comfort zone, do things outside of their job description was critical. I had to be that calm rudder for them to keep going even though inside I was fearful and uncertain. Never let them see you sweat!
- Seek other perspectives: I am very confident in my decision making and a big part of that is seeking perspectives from a variety of resources. I link in my senior leadership team on most big decisions, our executive team at Unleashed Brands when needed, my fellow brand presidents at times to ensure alignment across brands and my franchisees. I also will go outside my organization to my trusted (tribe) of business leaders many whom are franchisees in other brands. I remember when I sold my business I sent the letter I was planning to send to my franchisees about the sale to a couple of my franchisee friends. I wanted to understand how they were reading the message and if I was hitting the mark. My girlfriend said very simply. It’s a good letter but it’s not about YOU it’s about them. Stop trying to justify the sale and talk about why you did it for THEM. It takes a special and honest relationship to get that kind of feedback but she was right and I appreciated her perspective.
- Communicate often: There is an old saying that by the time you think you’ve said something too much is the first time your audience is hearing it. As we move through big changes we have to keep saying what we are doing over and over again. We forget that franchisees are running a business, not reading our updates every day. Thus, we need to find ways to get information out there in the easiest way possible. I have several examples of this for myself where I’m asking my team about some details of a program launch. I’m like if I don’t even remember the answer as brand president how we can expect our franchisees to remember it. We need to do better.
- Take risks: Taking measured risks are necessary to move a business forward. What I often find with franchisees and even customers is if you are upfront about the risk people are often times more forgiving. Again, during COVID our company had to launch paint at home parties and kits within 3 weeks. In normal times this would have taken over a year. We were able to do it as quickly as we were upfront with franchisees, customers and vendors. We said, “We need to get these out now. We don’t have everything we need, it’s not going to be pretty, but we’ll keep improving it as we go with your feedback”. Everyone was so appreciative that we were giving them something they forgave so many mistakes and inefficiencies and we worked hard to fix problems and improve processes it got better very quickly. I’ve tried to carry those lessons forward even now as it was a liberating process.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have so many that I love. One I had hanging in my office in my early career was “Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm”. I really loved this as it helped give me perspective when I was dealing with problem-solving and rough days that made me question what I was doing. Thinking about that phrase helped me build the mindset that with each challenge I survived I would learn more skills, gain more wisdom and earn more respect when I got to the other side. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I looked forward to a big problem, but they became less stressful over time which helped me evolve into a much calmer and more effective leader.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Readers can find me on LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/in/nancybigley/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!