In this chapter, I have collected the wisdom of successful executives I knew or worked with during my years at Spencer Stuart. They’ll share some of their “lessons learned” and “best career advice” from their own professional journeys. I think you’ll find it quite illuminating. As I have done throughout the book, these executives’ names have been changed so that they can be completely candid.
LINDA – PRIVATE EQUITY PORTFOLIO COMPANY CEO
Linda was raised in a blue-collar environment in Michigan. Both her parents were teachers and the importance of education was instilled in her at an early age. After graduating with a business degree from the University of Michigan, she joined a large accounting firm for several years as an auditor and financial consultant. She then returned to school for her MBA at the University of Chicago. Linda then joined a top-tier general-management consulting firm for four years before her travel schedule began to interfere with raising her young family. Instead of exiting the work force, she accepted a marketing and strategy role with one of her clients—a large printing company. This provided her with a more flexible work schedule.
Over the next eight years, she took on further marketing and several general-management roles within the printing company. Linda was then recruited to a competing company where she became the Division President of a $240 million subsidiary. The position involved managing more than 1,200 employees, including staff at three manufacturing facilities (one unionized) and one distribution center, a national sales force, a marketing group and all administrative functions. She went on to be President or Chief Operating Officer of several later companies through 2014, when Spencer Stuart recruited her to be CEO of a an $80 million private equity portfolio company. Here, she built a new senior management team and almost tripled annual revenue before successfully selling the company to another highly regarded private equity firm. She is continuing with this company as its CEO and taking operations to the next level of success.
What I find especially impressive about Linda’s background is that—while she admits to naturally being an introvert—she has learned to engage openly in the work environment. She overtly pushed for general management opportunities earlier in her career. She has also been very conscious about making good career decisions and building substance in her profile with each move.
Linda had this to say about the lessons she has learned during her professional journey.
“I have really enjoyed working in a private equity environment. You are able to be much more aggressive than in a more traditional environment when building your team and taking action. We are now growing four times faster than the industry we compete in. Having the right team in place makes all the difference.”
“As a young female executive, I had to make choices to be a mother and spend time at home. That is why I left general management consulting. I made the right decision to stay professionally engaged as an executive in a more traditional company setting which provided me more flexibility with my time. This may have limited how fast I progressed at the company, but it worked out well. Professional female friends who made a different decision to leave the work force entirely for a period of time found it difficult to re-engage later on. I’m not sure that many of them ever got their careers back on track. I felt that I personally had to keep a toe in the water.”
“As a female executive, I also had my share of unwanted advances by male colleagues. I learned to manage this by having other people present at meetings with these male colleagues, and to not put myself in isolated situations with these male counterparts. The other thing I’ve learned as a female is that meritocracies are great environments for women. You are judged by your abilities and competence.”
“One of the more important lessons I’ve learned is that despite all of your best efforts on a business or project, it sometimes simply comes down to luck—not anything you did or didn’t do. Sometimes you just don’t get the right cards to play a strong hand. Some situations are just tough to walk into. It’s not about you, your abilities, or your strategy. Running a print business in a digital landscape is not easy. The important thing is to learn from your failures and to not repeat the same mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up; move on. I’ve always been a calculated risk taker. So, I’ve had some failures. However, that is much better than being happy with the status quo. Some calculated risks work and others may not.”
“The best career advice that a boss once provided me was, ‘You can do anything, but not everything.’ In other words, the magic comes when you pick the handful of things that need to be done, or that have the most impact. The other advice that this boss provided me was, ‘You may be the smartest person in the room, but you don’t need to let everyone know it. Let others think it is their idea, get them engaged.’ When others feel that they are contributing and that their contributions are noticed, this creates inspiration. People want to work for and with other good people who are able to make them feel important and valued.”
“One of the best career decisions I made was joining a highly respected general management consulting firm when I was coming out of graduate business school. I was nervous about whether I could cut it in a McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group. I did cut it and gained a lot of confidence in the process. I received great training and learned how to look at a business and understand the key levers, what is important and what is not, and how to communicate to senior executives, boards and managers to convey this information and lay out business cases. Many times you do not need statistical research, but simply to go out and interview customers and employees. The answers for how to get better are often sitting with your employees.”
“The other lesson I learned came after one of our consulting clients hired me into a more staff-oriented strategy role. I made the decision to consistently push for an operating and general management role. Had I not pushed, I would have continued to be in a staff role.”
“Maybe the best career decision I’ve made was to accept my current role as CEO of a private equity portfolio company. I’m so thankful that Spencer Stuart called me about this opportunity. It is my first CEO role. I’ve been able to make bolder decisions in a private equity (P.E.) environment, move more quickly with the business and in building a strong team. The recent sale of this company is one of the most successful investments the P.E. firm has ever had. The new P.E. owner is very highly regarded and I’m looking forward to the next several years. It was a great learning experience to be centrally involved with the sale of the company. Financially, the experience has also been rewarding. If I have any regrets, it’s that I did not have the opportunity to get into private equity earlier in my career. It’s been a very comfortable fit for me.”
“The toughest thing for me to learn over the years has been to improve my ability to engage others. I’m essentially an introvert and can be a bit stand-offish. Having general management responsibilities means being dependent on others to get things done. You need to be approachable, otherwise your team will not come to you with issues. You win people over by looking them in the eye and letting them know why they are important. You do not win employees over through pure intellect.”
“Having a good spouse—one who is supportive—is something I’ve increasingly valued over the years. Being able to bounce your thoughts off of an objective, non-judgmental third party is invaluable. As CEO, you need to have someone to talk to who is not an employee or board member.”
“Other things I’ve learned during my career are that it’s okay to ask for help. You do not have to know it all or do it all yourself. Another learning that I would have kept in mind sooner in my career is that it is a lot easier to succeed in a growing market with a good sized addressable customer base.”
“The most common advice I give my teams is, ‘Know your business metrics and monitor them closely.’ And finally, ‘Make sure that you have great talent on your team year in and year out.’”
The last several years as CEO of a private equity portfolio company have opened up a new world for Linda. She has been a natural fit for this decisive, results-driven, action-oriented environment. She has clearly made a mark with her recent success. This would not have been possible without her early pushing to receive general management responsibilities.
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