Gavin Marks, DM Merchandising

Gift Shop Plus Winter 2023
Retail chat: The mindset of a successful leader

We chatted with 40 Under 40 Class of 2021 honoree Gavin Marks to get his perspective on what it takes to make it as a great boss and all-around successful leader. Whether you are running a small business, a large organization, or leading a team of any size, read on for insight, tips and a wealth of experience gained as the owner and CEO of DM Merchandising (and a busy father of three).

WHAT IS THE KEY TO BEING A SUCCESSFUL LEADER?

Growth Mindset

Being a successful leader — in business and in everyday life — starts with mindset. There are two types of mindsets. A fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

Those who have fixed mindsets stick to what they know. They feel that their potential is predetermined. They take feedback and criticism personally. They default to the comfortable, yet dangerous phrase, “we’ve always done it this way”. They believe that they have all the answers. With this mindset, their future — and the future of their organization — becomes a degraded replication of its past.

With a growth mindset, one welcomes change, is receptive to new ideas and sees failure as an opportunity to grow. They are eager to learn, believe their intelligence and talents can develop over time, and understand that their effort and attitude dictate their ability. They pivot as needed and they are willing to pay the price of temporary discomfort to become a better person and/or organization.

To be a successful leader, one must have a growth mindset and encourage those around them to adopt and embrace this mindset as well.

Positive Attitude

We live in a complicated world, and our day-to-day lives are riddled with challenges and disappointment. Some feel unjust and others are just flat out inconvenient. Our media sources are a deluge (or perhaps an IV drip on a good day) of fear and negativity. It’s been raining all week and your kids have their third cold for the season. I get it. It’s not easy.

Successful leaders check this emotional clutter at the door and start their day with a positive attitude. They understand that attitude is contagious and both a negative or positive attitude will quickly permeate throughout the organization. Here’s the rub…you can temporarily fake it on a tough day, but you can’t fake it for long. Leading with positivity needs to be your default or you will be exposed as disingenuous. For some, this will come naturally. However, I do believe this is a skill that can be learned with effort and consistency.

For me personally, there are three factors that help cultivate a positive default attitude. The first is gratitude. It’s a cliche for a reason. This means giving thanks for what I have and what’s working in my life, rather than fixating on the alternatives. Reflect on your blessings rather than your burdens. Taking simple inventory of “the good stuff” (family, health, security, unique abilities, etc.) goes a long way, and with repetition, conditions the brain to think positively by default.

The second factor has to do with lifestyle. Sleep (easier said than done), plenty of exercise, a healthy diet, connection with family and friends, and adequate alone time to think and learn. This is my magic formula for a positive mindset. However, I’ll admit that it’s challenging to consistently achieve the perfect formula while running a business and raising three kids. Three out of five at any given time seems to be my average. As all things are, it’s work in progress!

The third has to do with emotional bandwidth, which is a limited resource. As a business leader, I work with a lot of people and there are many moving parts. Not everyone and everything will flow to perfection. Problems and annoyances are unavoidable and are often out of my control. What is in my control is how I handle these annoyances and whether or not I decide to internalize them. To be an effective leader, you must develop discipline in this area and protect your bandwidth, so you have adequate space to serve others and your organization with clarity.

WHAT ARE YOUR TOP TWO PIECES OF ADVICE FOR BUSINESS LEADERS TO STAY ON COURSE?

1. Beware of “Shiny Objects”

Focus is key. This may sound simple, but it takes a tremendous amount of discipline. As leaders we are presented with ideas and opportunities daily. Sometimes these ideas are in line with our business mission and model, but more often they are not. Chasing the next exciting, shiny thing is a dangerous approach that will quickly throw your company off course. Having the discipline to say “no” is far more difficult than “yes”. Business is a marathon, not a sprint. Stay focused and don’t allow yourself to be seduced into distractions disguised as opportunities.

2. Progress, Not Perfection

“Progress, not perfection” is a term that I often say to the team. It’s a concept that has been adopted by the entire company and has become part of our overall culture. Now, keep in mind this is coming from somewhat of a perfectionist. However, I’ve learned the hard way that the endless pursuit for perfection only leads to disappointment. “Progress, not perfection” encourages us to focus on and celebrate smaller achievements rather than a meticulously perfected end goal. Every project, every new process, and every new product should be better than the one before it. That’s all we can ask for. Sometimes small steps may feel insignificant, but all it takes is a glance back to the beginning to see the progress is undeniable.

WHAT TIPS CAN YOU SHARE FOR COMPANIES INTERESTED IN GROWING THEIR BUSINESS AND TEAM?

Know Yourself, Know Your Team

We are human and therefore imperfect. We all have a unique set of traits that make us who we are. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Great leaders know their strengths and their weaknesses. They build on their strengths and seek others to compensate for their weaknesses. This personal awareness requires an elevated level of emotional intelligence. Most people are not willing to accept their shortcomings, so if you can do that, you’re already a step ahead.

Great leaders are also aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals in their organization. This is essential when deciding roles and delegating tasks effectively. Successful leaders know how to position their team members to be successful by focusing on their strengths rather than fixating on their weaknesses.

Know When to Get Out of The Way

A common challenge for leaders is knowing when to get out of the way. This is crucial for businesses to grow and evolve efficiently and organically. A leader must get the right people in the right roles and know when to let them do their job (as much as you may want to step in). I identify with this challenge daily. However, I’m better this year than I was last year, and I’ll be better next year than I am now. Remember “progress, not perfection”.

Embrace Challenge

Every great challenge presents opportunity. It’s often difficult to see this when we’re in it, but this has been the case since the beginning of time. Success is born from distress. Use challenges to your advantage. They are the best catalysts for knowledge and growth. It’s the time to innovate. Let others hide under a rock.


Gavin Marks is the second-generation owner and CEO of DM Merchandising, an award-winning retail manufacturer and gift industry leader. DM built its success around a customer-first philosophy. With unmatched variety and creative merchandising, its primary focus is creating a top-tier customer experience retailers can count on. Gavin lives and breathes DM and work doesn’t stop when he gets home. He loves brainstorming with his three young daughters who inspire him every day with unlimited creativity.





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