How Did I Get Here: 6 Leadership Lessons That Have Shaped My Journey to CEO
Recently, I spoke with Girlboss about what leadership looks like and a topic we don’t hear a lot about – what is it really like to be the boss. How do you manage all of your business and personal priorities? Your family and a team and clients? All the things?
I told Girlboss: “There are often times when, as the CEO of a small business, you feel like you are on an island. It might be a decision you have to make or a question you have and it’s just you determining the next step. Who do you turn to? What if you make the wrong decision and it impacts your company negatively? How do you decide what to do: go with your gut? At Choice, I have surrounded myself with people who are better and smarter than me. I have a CFO who I spend a great deal of time with making financial decisions. I have an HR consultant who, because of her background and expertise, confirms or negates and generally advises me on all employee-related matters. Even the significant investment of an executive coach has saved me on so many levels. She’s my counselor, my challenger, my cheerleader, my voice of reason. While all of these are not full-time employees for Choice, they are people with whom I have surrounded myself because I value their expertise and opinions. I consult with them often so that it doesn’t feel like I’m operating Choice all alone.”
As I reflect on the leadership questions from Girlboss, I am reminded of some of the best lessons I’ve learned along my career path. Today, I am sharing my thoughts on the subject and a few tips from my experience as Founder and CEO of Choice.
- Your People Should Be Your Number One Priority. I must be a servant to my team if I’m going to lead them well. So while I have daily responsibilities that fall outside of managing the Choice team, I do my absolute best to be available to them when they have questions, want help with a project, need me to leverage a personal relationship or desire my opinion. Oftentimes as the one running the business, you can feel like you are in constant demand for your time and attention. I take that as a real privilege. It took a great deal of hard work to get me to this position of leading my own company. As a female business owner, I take seriously the responsibility that I’m developing the women that come behind me. It continues a legacy of women pouring into women. Managing my time so that I can pour into my team first and still execute well on other tasks, well, I can figure that out.
- To Build a World-Class Team, Care for Them Outside of the Office. Take them to lunch. Give them a random day off. Treat them to a day at the spa. Pay them as much as possible. Monitor their bandwidth. Ask their opinions on major business decisions. Provide professional development training. Dream with them about the future. Incentivize them. Ask about their weekend. Celebrate their birthday. Show them that they matter to you. If you care for them, they will care for your business. And I’ve never found that leading with kindness and caring for employees personally creates a negative result for the business – just the opposite, in fact.
- Hire Better and Smarter Than You. My mentor, Pamela Clements, shared this with me when I first began managing people. Don’t be threatened by having someone brighter than you as a direct report. Embrace that as a gift to your overall team. If you hire a shining star, allow them to operate in their strengths. When they perform well, that is a direct reflection on your ability to acquire talent and develop leaders. So often managers believe they have to be the most successful person in the room, but that competitive spirit is so short-sighted and ultimately an indication of an immature leader. I’ve always counted myself a strong writer. When I began to lead Choice, I realized that much of my time spent writing directly for clients was cut down because I needed to run the business and lead the team. Instead I hired a publicist who is a gifted communicator and frankly a much better writer than me. She’s gone on to craft incredible pitches and materials that have secured major press for our clients. Had I been threatened by her ability, I would have been doing a disservice to our clients. Her pitches, her releases, her talking points were so much stronger than I could have created. And ultimately it allows me to operate in my unique gifting as well.
- Be Gracious and Kind. I grew up in the South. Manners and social graces were instilled in me from a very early age. But here I’m talking about extending empathy, giving the benefit of the doubt and showing compassion to others. It has always served me well to lead with kindness, even in the most difficult situations and circumstances. My advice is always to take the high road. You never want to look back and regret the way you treated someone. If you lead with kindness then that will never be the case. Last year we signed a client who, after only working with her mere days, really treated my team horribly. Her words were unkind and cutting. She was accusatory and judgmental. There was no indication of this during the acquisitions stage, so it took all of us by surprise. But, allowing her to continue treating my team in this manner was not an option. I had to address the situation with her and end the partnership. I was modeling for my team the behavior that I expect. So, I entered the conversation with kindness and knew that there must be a bigger issue from which all of this venom stemmed. She didn’t know how to respond. I don’t think anyone had every treated her with such grace when she behaved in this manner. The partnership ended, but the impression remained.
- Dress Confidently. 99% of being successful in the business world is walking into the room confidently. For me that includes red lipstick and a great pair of heels. I enter conversations, negotiations and presentations with a leg up because I believe in myself first. Take your own personal style and understand what it is that makes you feel strong. Put that on any time you are entering into a situation where you want to succeed.
- Take It Out of Email. People can never judge tone in an email. When you have a challenging situation or you need to address something difficult with the recipient, have enough compassion for them that you speak by phone or in person instead. They will be able to hear your tone, which is an important indicator to how you really feel. Being in person, in particular, helps to diffuse the situation rather than typing boldly and hiding behind a screen.
I’m still learning every single day. Just because I’m the CEO doesn’t mean I have it all figured out. And I wouldn’t be a very good leader if I acted like I did. I’m constantly reading books, listening to podcasts, attending conferences, working with my executive coach and generally soaking up every bit of goodness I can that will continue my own professional development. As a work in progress, my hope is that the insight I’ve gained will be a benefit to where you stand along your own career path. I’ll leave you with my favorite life lesson quote from Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, in order to have the life that is waiting for us.” At numerous times in my life, this quote has applied to the circumstance. As a professional, I thought I would climb the corporate ladder within an organization. I spent the better part of 10 years dedicating myself to a company. After sacrificing my family to advance my career, at the end of the day, they laid me off.
That led me here – to this career that I love and surrounded by an incredible team of women who I adore leading, clients who are a privilege to serve. I had it all planned in my head – what my ultimate career should look like, how I should get there and what I would be doing – but God thought differently and, ultimately, His plans were greater than I had even dreamed for myself.