The unstereotypical CEO
Self-described in three words: Conscientious | Honest | Resourceful
How did Jeff Zehnder feel on his first day on the job as CEO?
“Scared #%!?!-less,” he says.“I opened the doors to the office on the first day and my immediate thought was ‘Holy moly. I can’t believe I just did this.’”
Twenty years later, Jeff’s fears have subsided. In fact, they fizzled out after only an hour or two on that first day — not because Jeff had all of the answers, but because his drive and determination left little room for feeling scared. Within a year of starting Zehnder, Jeff had already brought on a handful of clients and was well on his way to creating one of the largest full-service advertising agencies in the Southeast, one step at a time.
Today, Jeff still doesn’t have time to worry. His typical workday starts promptly at 5 a.m. and ends when he’s finished his to-do list — which is extremely detailed and ever growing.
“If I’m not organized, I’m not sane,” he explains. “I map out my to-do list on my notebook every morning so that I know exactly what I need to accomplish for the day,” he says. “For me, organization means calm.”
Jeff’s calm, collected approach to business is one of his strengths as our CEO. Ask anyone at Zehnder and they’ll tell you that Jeff is the opposite of overbearing or unreasonable — in fact, he’s probably one of our most humble staff members.
“I hate being in the spotlight, which is actually why I’ve been avoiding this interview,” Jeff jokes. “I’d much rather recognize others. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than shining light on our teams’ work.”
Recognizing others isn’t just something Jeff enjoys talking about; it’s something that he’s built into the core of our agency. From the start, Jeff has focused on creating clear paths for growth within the agency and has allowed for employee ownership.
“Before I founded Zehnder, I was very frustrated with the leadership I saw at other agencies, in part because they hadn’t created any sort of ownership options for employees. As a result, employees lacked pride in their work,” he says. “I wanted my agency to be different. I wanted to bring people in, let them work hard, and allow them to take ownership.”
Today, Zehnder has 15 owners. And in Jeff’s opinion, the more owners the better — because contrary to CEO stereotypes, he truly believes that two heads are better than one.
“I like to think that I’m a good listener,” he says. “I don’t always have the answer, but if I can ask the right questions and take the time to listen to others, then I can usually figure out a solution.”
This approach works as well externally as it does internally. For the past two decades, Jeff and the rest of our agency have been able to provide marketing solutions for clients by listening to their business challenges and working together to form solutions. From the start, Jeff has considered our agency’s clients as partners and has meaningfully invested in their business goals. As a result, Zehnder has been able to produce work that’s both strategically sound and creatively striking.
“Before I started Zehnder, I saw a void in the market,” he explains. “Most agencies could do great creative or great strategy, but not both.”
Twenty years later, it seems like Jeff has finally — and fearlessly — filled that void.