I had the pleasure of interviewing Joanna Kulesa, founder and CEO of Offleash: a PR, social and content services agency that helps clients lead the market, set the industry agenda and increase brand recognition through smart, aggressively executed communications programs. Under Joanna’s leadership, Offleash has increased brand awareness for more than 150 B2B technology clients, playing a critical role in over 40 IPOs and or acquisitions ranging from tens of millions to billions of dollars by the biggest names in tech — including IBM, Google, Salesforce, Dell, EMC, Cisco, HP, Splunk, CA, Red Hat and Oracle. Joanna is well known for building ownership in at every level of the agency and promoting a high-quality work environment, which has earned her and Offleash multiple awards from Fortune, Inc., the San Francisco Business Times, the Silicon Valley Business Journal and Business Intelligence Group.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I’m an Italian/Irish working class girl from Boston. Growing up, I was encouraged to learn to “type fast” with the hopes that I would get a good secretarial job. Thankfully, my father also had a saying he often used: “Whatever you do, try and work for yourself.” He may have been talking to the boys, but I was listening.

Why did you found your company?

I craved the freedom to create the life and environment that I wanted to work in. I found an area that I was good at, worked hard to learn the ropes and took the leap to try it on my own. I’m passionate about playing a key role in helping build our clients’ brands as well as providing people with fulfilling careers in an unconventional work environment, complete with healthy salaries, healthcare, retirement funds, you name it.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

At Offleash, we believe in building ownership at every level of the business. To this end, everyone has a role in the business of the agency — from entry level on up. This means that our overhead hires are few. However, sharing the responsibility of the agency’s success isn’t a strategy to save money. It’s a way to 1) give employees insight into how to run a small business and 2) help them understand the decisions we make and the challenges we have from a business perspective.

This has resulted in highly-engaged employees who feel a part of something bigger. They act like owners every day. Where the disruption comes in is in our outstanding employee retention rates that go way beyond what our competitors can claim.

The disruption happens for our clients when they get the best and smartest teams who dive deep to understand their business and stay around for years helping them build that business.

The PR industry’s #1 challenge is talent retention. It not only affects an agency’s business negatively, but it can be a soul crusher for clients who become disillusioned and lose trust in their agency team because of ‘revolving door’ syndrome.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?

In my 20’s, I had an administrative job at Harvard University. One of the people I supported was a scholar named Merilee, who was a mentor and role model to me. There she was was standing 5’ 2”, playing big in a male-dominated world, striving for excellence, staying out of politics and all the while being a wonderful mother to two young girls. Above all, Merilee did this while being kind and respectful to others. This was huge to me.

I popped in years later to see Merilee and let her know how much she meant to me. She quickly pulled me into her office giggling and showed me her business card in amazement. She said, “Look, can you believe this?” Over the years, she had been made full professor at Harvard.

The lesson I learned is that you can be feminine with strong ambitions and realize great success all the while being kind and respectful to others.

How are you going to shake things up next?

Next up is cracking the code on how to deliver big-agency services with the high-touch customer service of a boutique agency. This is a tricky challenge from a staffing and financial perspective and will demand creativity and flexibility in our thinking.

Offleash is hell-bent on becoming the number one boutique agency in the U.S. servicing B2B technology companies. Cracking the code on how to deliver client services second to none as the best ‘small but mighty’ agency is a formidable challenge.

As is the Offleash way, every person in the agency will come together for our half-year offsite where we will dig in, share ideas, stretch and challenge each other and create something disruptive. I promise you that.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey?

  1. Stay close to your values. Integrity First. Be Bold. All In. These are our company values, and they reflect my personal ones too. Integrity is everything — but it’s not black or white. It’s a path and a practice to try and live by, trying to do the right thing even when it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient or even painful. When you stray from your integrity, nothing else feels right and it ripples outward throughout your life. Checking in and circling back with ourselves as a company and as individuals on where we are with our integrity is key.
  2. The hardest worker doesn’t necessarily win. Starting out, I thought that if I worked hard, delivered excellence, and went above and beyond that I would naturally move upward. However, within a traditional corporate structure, this often isn’t true. Some people are politically savvy and can maneuver their way upward through relationships and positioning. They’re good at it and it doesn’t mean they aren’t good at their job too. By my late 20’s, I could see this clearly and realized that I wasn’t a naturally political person and a conventional corporate structure would not be my best path.
  3. Treat everyone at every level with the same respect. A senior colleague shared this advice with me early in my career. He said, “Treat the person in the mail room, the same as you would the person in the boardroom.” This isn’t only great career advice, but life advice.

What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking?

Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech to Stanford University graduates continues to have a deep impact on me. The message: Live your own life, don’t be trapped by others’ dogma of what your life should look like. These are thoughts I always come back to when the world starts squeezing me with pressures to adhere to the “rules” of how to live, or how to run a business. I’m very grateful for his wise words:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” — Steve Jobs

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Without question it would be Sir Richard Branson. He embodies everything we strive for within our business: to think differently, to deliver excellence in innovative ways and above all to be kind and give back.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @joannakulesa

Instagram: @joannakulesa

Facebook: Joanna Kulesa

LinkedIn: Joanna Kulesa

Originally published at medium.com