Olympian to CEO: Carrie Englert Zimmerman
From the balance beam to the board room, U.S. Olympic gymnast, Carrie Englert Zimmerman, has used her athletic excellence to achieve success as a global entrepreneur. She is Co-Founder and CEO of The Zimmerman Agency, the second largest marketing firm in America specializing in hospitality.
Carrie began her gymnastics career in Tallahassee, Florida. As her talent quickly outgrew her hometown, she moved 3,000 miles to Oregon at the age of 15 leaving behind her friends and family. Her determination was evident, training intensely for three years, eight to ten hours every day to pursue her Olympic dream. She qualified for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Team and later went on to be the first U.S. woman to receive a ‘perfect 10’ on floor exercise.
With all the drive and ambition that led to her successful gymnastics career, Carrie shifted her focus to a different competitive arena, graduated from college and gained work experience in Atlanta. In 1987, she and her husband, Curtis, created The Zimmerman Agency. To her, the entrepreneurial journey allowed her to pursue business on her own terms. This also enabled Carrie to make the decision to put her family first, which meant moving back to her roots in Tallahassee, to raise their three sons—even if that meant potentially sacrificing business.
Moving to Tallahassee didn’t hinder their growth. Within the first year of having “Z,” The Zimmerman Agency handled the public relations for iconic hospitality brands such as Marriott International and Diners Club. Since then, they have expanded their hospitality portfolio to include a variety of globally recognized companies such as: Hertz, American Airlines, Ritz-Carlton Destination Club, PGA Tour, Hard Rock Worldwide, and entire countries/destinations from Aruba, Belize and Cayman Islands to Park City, Palm Beaches and the Crystal Coast. The Zimmerman Agency has had clients in 32 countries with Z teams conducting global initiatives in cities such as Dubai, Ibiza, Tenerife, Cartagena, Macau, Bali, Penang, Moscow, Beijing and London just to name a few.
Carrie’s spirit and enthusiasm proves that she is a force to be reckoned with, not only as an Olympian, but also as a businesswoman. hertelier spoke with her about how her athletics training has guided her in business.
Some athletes have certain rituals before a big event. Did you have any and do you still do them before high-pressure situations now?
Gymnastics is an intricate sport with four very different events. People think of gymnasts as being flexible and we are equally nimble—physically and mentally—to be able to shift from apparatus to apparatus. Intense training creates an unwavering confidence. That same ritual translates from athletics to business. For any presentation or event, our Z team is so focused and prepared we’re able to relax beforehand as we know our strategies are strong, our creativity is dynamic and our ideas are powerful. All that’s left is delivering, and our confidence carries us through.
Has your background in athletics played a role in your leadership style? What has been challenging?
As an athlete, not only do you have to be able to take criticism, you must thrive on it. It is the input and criticism that allows you to improve every single day. It's never about a coach telling you the fantastic things you do right, you need the feedback highlighting your weaknesses. What’s been challenging is that few people in business want that kind of environment. Early on, after having an important presentation or meeting, our team would hold a ‘post-mortem.' We would spend four minutes on the “good job” elements and about an hour and a half on the things that we could have done better. And, then three hours on how to take the list of “do it better” and create an immediate game plan to correct and improve upon those. It took me a while to understand that people need more of a balance, because at the end of the day it's their job, they aren't trying to make an Olympic team. Personally, I had to re-calibrate how I inspire and motivate employees because it's very different from athletics. I have to remember to add more sugar and “bravos” into my motivation mix.
What are your thoughts on the quote: “There is no I in Team”?
A few years ago, many companies adopted the mantra “There is No I in Team.” However, I’m not a fan of the mantra. “I” must come before team. Many companies encountered a dilemma where nobody then felt like they were individually responsible. Each person must understand their role in the overall effort. Teams can achieve more together, but you need to be cautious with those who are not the hardest workers, as you don’t want the lack of personal responsibility to allow them to not work as hard.
How has sports affected your decision when hiring people?
If I could legally hire all athletes, I would. Athletes have drive, conviction, determination and are extraordinarily coachable. Being coachable is everything about success. Most athletes know how to be nimble and calm in a variety of situations. Every client is different and we have to react and respond to them differently. Athletes are trained to have that mentality and that is why they make great, over-achieving employees.
Running a marketing firm is competitive and has long hours, how did you and your husband juggle raising your sons?
The Zimmerman Agency handles some of the most glorious and exotic places in the world, but when our boys were young, our rule was to never, or rarely, travel together. Long, wonderful weekends at our client's hotels were declined for soccer, baseball and other activities with our sons. It was always the right choice.
Working with your romantic partner is a topic we cover regularly, how did you work with your husband Curtis so successfully? What were your roles at work versus at home?
Honestly, trying not to kill each other is a great first step. They say great partners have to disagree to get to the best solutions. Let’s just say, we definitely “worked” our way to great ideas by battling it out. But of equal truth, respecting each other and admiring each other’s own brilliance is key. In 2021, we’re celebrating our 35th company anniversary and our 42 wedding anniversary…so we’ve survived on all battlefields ☺