Posted on Feb 1 , 2016

Maxine Clark: The Heart of the Teddy Bear


I was privileged to interview Maxine Clark, the founder of Build-a-Bear Workshop, recently. She is someone I hold in high esteem because she built a fabulous, multi-national company in just a few short years, and because her dynasty is so good for the soul. After all, the world truly needs more cuddly teddy bears.

However, after meeting Maxine, my view of her change dramatically. Let me back up a minute: it actually began to change when I read her book, “The Bear Necessities of Business: Building  a Company with Heart.” Unlike so many business books, hers was like having a chat with an old friend and mentor. I began to see that Maxine is a true example of a servant leader. How many books do you know of where the author invites you to send a personal email if you have any questions? Not only does she make that offer, she answers all those emails herself.

My opinion of her changed further upon meeting her in person. She is everything you would hope that the mastermind behind Build-a-Bear would be: kind, brilliant, generous, forthright, funny and creative.

So, while I previously held her in high esteem, I now can say, not only do I admire her accomplishments, I truly like and appreciate her.

I wondered what could our readers learn from her in just a few paragraphs, and there are three areas of our conversation I would like to share with you. They are: believing in your brand, play, and giving of yourself.

Maxine says, “The difference of making an idea go from A to B is passion. Do you really believe in the brand?” She helps start-up companies, and says the ones that stand the best opportunity for success are those with a passion for the product. All of us in business and creative endeavors know it takes passion to keep going when the road is bumpy, and it’s full of bumps, potholes, and other hazards. So, even though it’s common wisdom, it bears repeating: passion is critical. If what you want to do (for example starting a business, going back to school, or writing a book) isn’t worth missing a bunch of sleep over, don’t try it.

Developing an idea for a business is often organic to women, because, as Maxine explains, “Most women start real businesses, meaning they had an idea for a new pacifier or a new baby blanket or a new childproof something or other because their ideas come from their life. And they find a way to get them to market, like in the movie Joy.”

Yet, a lot of great ideas never see the light of day. “I think we talk ourselves out of it: Oh, I can’t do it…The kids come first…I have to be home to make dinner for my husband…yada, yada, yada. You are what you think you are and you can be what you want to be if you are willing to take all the necessary steps to get there,” says Maxine. Thus, having a game plan of how you are going to handle these emotions is critical.

The second area of Maxine’s wisdom I wanted to share with you is play. Yep, play. Being playful is a very important element of Maxine’s leadership style. What else would you expect from the Queen of Teddy Bears?

“Who wants to be serious all the time? The best work is done when people can enjoy their work. And enjoyment means rigor, but also, ‘Let’s brainstorm; let’s play a game, asking how did you get at that; how can we take that to the next level?’ I think that’s playful to people. It’s not always about throwing a ball – it’s about playing with an idea in your mind…noodling it around and talking about how we can make it bigger and better or should we change the color.”

Note: Susan and I obviously agree that play is a great way to learn and make improvements. That is why we wrote Leadership in Wonderland and not 100 Leadership Bullet Points Guaranteed to Put You to Sleep.

So, let me ask you: how can you introduce more play into your work and home life? What difference could it make?

The third area I wanted to share is generosity. While this is not something she specifically mentioned during our interview, it’s an integral part of who Maxine is. For example, she invites questions from her readers; she coaches entrepreneurs; she has a charitable foundation; and she started a program to recognize young people who started non-profits. She is clearly willing and excited to share the bounty with which she has been blessed.

Some might say, “Sure, it’s easy for her to do. She’s successful. I’m not.” But it isn’t about having money to donate. It is about sharing time, knowledge and kindness. Those are gifts we can all share. How hard would that be? And think of the difference it could make in the world.

Looking at Build-a-Bear, I clearly see each of these three pieces of Maxine. Those little bears are adorable symbols of her passion, playfulness and generosity.

To read more about my interview with Maxine, please see my column in Women’s Voices Magazine. To learn more about her book, click here.