Posted on Jan 12 , 2017
Susan's Interview with BlueSteps
First of all, thank you for taking the time to speak with BlueSteps about leadership and your new book, Leadership in Wonderland. Can you tell us a little about your background?
Thank you, Bluesteps and the AESC for giving me this opportunity to talk about my book.
To answer your question, I’ve always loved to read, particularly fiction. I find that readers of fiction tend to be curious and enjoy examining and observing human behavior.
I studied French Literature in college with a minor in Marketing. Being an arts and sciences student, I had a broad spectrum of requirements to fulfill for my degree therefore my class subjects were diverse. I earned my MBA in International Business and Marketing. Before I started placing executives and attending graduate school, I was in charge of marketing for a European luxury women’s clothing line, and a direct marketing company. During and after my graduate degree, I temped in a number of industries while also consulting in marketing to retail and apparel, industrial services, business services, and beauty aids businesses. Then, I fell into executive search.
I had fantastic training in executive search from name generation to candidate evaluations (or “write-ups”) in my first firm, but I also had an unusual trajectory: I spent a lot of my first year putting together a competitive analysis for one of our clients, which included a huge number of hours spent interviewing all the client’s competition to gather information on how they viewed the market and what they were doing. This was a coming together of my prior career of marketing analysis with my current role of understanding the population of people in a given industry who were working in a specific area. I don’t think anyone else in the firm could have done this.
After that, I worked my way through three mergers in executive search going from associate to principal, was President of the Executive Search Roundtable, became the first female director (partner) in a nation-wide search firm, and then started my own firm when the internet bubble burst and an imminent merger was again on the horizon. Since then, other than a two year partnership, I’ve had my own firm, with the majority of time spent on media, entertainment and technology clients.
The past few years, I’ve found myself unintentionally and informally coaching new leaders who are clients and/or placements in the area of personal interaction, communication, and alliance building. It probably arose because I am a good listener and they needed advice and didn’t know who to ask at their company. Since I only work with a handful of clients each year, I am able to invest time in this way within reason. It has meant stronger client relationships, and the additional benefit of seeing these young leaders grow.
I am a big advocate of ongoing learning and discovering. I think without continually learning, your zest for life wanes. I’m in a number of groups: Networking, mastermind and public speaking. I also have a designated mentor, as well as many people I go to for specific subject advice. I learn from those I mentor too. I don’t think it’s possible for a mentoring relationship to be one-sided. Bringing it all back to the book, I’m Alice, Caterpillar, Beaver and Penguin.
Why did you decide to write Leadership in Wonderland?
I’ve always wanted to read a captivating business book, one that captures from the first page until the last. I haven’t found many that meet that bar. Like many people, I have had the frustrating experience of trying to discover in these books WIIFM (what’s in it for me). My co-author, Rebecca Lacy, had that same experience. Rebecca and I wanted to offer a response to what we felt was missing: A fun story that weaves and changes like real life wonderland, has characters who are motivated by different things, and which made the learning and discovering about the reader; putting the emphasis on the reader’s self, not the authors. We also made it easy for those who don’t have a lot of time or who prefer gathering their information through “sound bites” by making the chapters short like the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and providing short summaries at the end of each chapter so that readers can get on to the workbook questions about them.
This book seems to lend itself well to group reading and analysis. Do believe leadership teams could benefit from reading this and discussing together?
Yes and yes! We did think of that. We encourage leadership teams at a company, organization, class to read the book and discuss it.
I actually had two young leadership teams read the book, fill in the workbook, and discuss it every few chapters before we published it and then recently. There were so many different perspectives and everyone had a lot to share. It kept us all engaged. I learned a lot from them and I WROTE the book, therefore, I am sure that leadership teams could get a lot out of reading Leadership in Wonderland and discussing it.
And, in fact, we offer three examples of workshops on our site, leadershipinwonderland.com which are designed for organizations. The three we list are geared toward creating a tighter community within an organization or team, assessing a team and deciding when and who to hire to strengthen the success of the group, and solving complex problems. The complex problem solving option, entitled, “Solving Wonderland” is also a game and competition with other organizations.
I envision at some point, having a virtual collaboration of readers who are not reading it for their organization but individually, therefore are experiencing the book on their own, yet wanting to exchange thoughts and ideas with others who are reading the same chapters.
This book stresses the importance of embracing change and new perspectives. How do you recommend executives do this in their daily lives?
These days most organizations do not have the resources for a leadership or training program for their hires. Therefore in order to develop or grow, individuals have to take it upon themselves to learn. There are so many options: Meetups, online classes, schools besides universities, like General Assembly or Codecademy, hire a coach, look for a mentor – these are all proactive steps. Also, purposely seeking out information from alternative media outlets that do not embody your opinions – stretch yourself. Be curious. Do things that are outside your comfort zone. And reward yourself for doing it.
I love the story that Sara Blakely’s father (Sarah is the creator of Spanx) celebrated his children’s failures each week because it guaranteed that they would try new things and minimized their fear of failure. The only shame came in not trying.
The caterpillar seems to play an important role in advising Alice along her journey. Why do you think it’s important for leaders to find a mentor?
Caterpillar is the logical mentor because he is a consultant to the business; Beaver and Penguin play the mentor role to Alice in the book as well.
A good mentor tells you the things you don’t want to hear or admit to; they force you to confront your weaknesses or challenges and stretch so that you can get unstuck and learn. They also celebrate your successes. If you don’t grow, particularly in today’s incredibly fast world or what I would call “Wonderland”, you will be left behind and perhaps even decrease your future chances of being gainfully employed. Without an outside unbiased voice to point out skills or areas that you need to work on, you may not discover obstacles that could be holding you back.
What would you say is the biggest challenge millennial leaders face today?
The biggest obstacles I see are that they are so smart, so technically savvy and their minds take in so much information so quickly but their personal interaction or communication skills are lagging behind. I’ve learned from a few of my younger clients that they were never held responsible for class participation in business school, so they are reluctant to speak up or voice their opinions and don’t know how to do so diplomatically. They don’t realize they have a voice and are expected to use it wisely.
Do you have any advice for new leaders as they climb the ranks?
In order to be able to lead others, you have to understand yourself first. Self-knowledge comes from asking others difficult questions, asking for feedback, listening, investing in learning and challenging yourself, and learning to trust yourself. I hope that in reading and filling out the Leadership in Wonderland workbook, you will come away understanding yourself, others, and how you form opinions and judgments better.
No one is perfect at everything. Find out what you are great at and what you are good at. Do the things you are great at, as you get promoted in your career, hire or depend upon others who are great at doing the things you are good but not great at.