When having to deliver a tough message to an employee or client, say the hard part first. Get the hard sentence over and done with, and then you can explain or elaborate if needed.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Terra Hull Campbell. As Co-CEO of Cella, Terra Campbell guides the overall strategy, vision, and growth for the company. She is a 17-year veteran of the staffing industry and lives by the truth that successful growth occurs only with the best people. She has seen the company through numerous changes and is hyper-focused on enhancing and maintaining the culture of Cella’s company’s portfolio. Cella is in the business of helping people — not only to find meaningful work but to develop meaningful work and push their organizations forward in a meaningful way. Terra and her husband live in suburban Maryland, where she stays busy raising three children under the age of 10. Dedicated to philanthropic efforts, Terra also devotes time to advancing childhood cancer awareness and supporting the pediatric cancer community through outreach and raising funds for research.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Fate. I worked for Enterprise Rent-A-Car right out of college in their management training program and loved it. Loved the pace, loved the exposure to sales, people management, P&L management, etc. but after four years, 60+ hours a week and washing cars in my suit and heels (yes — this was true back then) got a little old. I knew I would need to find a career within an industry that could hold up to the fast pace and camaraderie at Enterprise. if you liked to work hard, you could play hard. I rented a car one day to an exec at Corestaff Services (staffing firm) who tried to recruit me. A few phone calls and several meetings later, I took the leap into the staffing industry and never looked back. It had the pace and opportunity that rivaled the rental car business but instead of renting cars, I was changing people’s lives by helping them secure jobs and helping companies thrive by getting them the right people. Fast forward several years and several promotions later — I was headhunted and ended up in a niche staffing firm — the company I lead today. Twenty years ago, the company was called BOSS Temps and had two branches on the east coast. Now we’re Cella, Inc.. We have a national reach, a consulting and staffing arm but remain hyperfocused on optimizing teams in the creative, marketing, and digital space. I love helping people by getting them jobs or by getting companies the right people as much today as I did back in 1996 when I first entered the staffing industry.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I took my leadership team on an executive retreat many years ago, and we ended up at a karaoke bar. I learned that “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard should not be my go-to karaoke song any longer…I’ll leave it at that.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I don’t know that I ever purposefully set out to be a CEO. It was just a natural progression, and I was blessed that the founders of my company saw something special in me and kept giving me more and more responsibility and trusted in me. But now that I’m here, at the highest level within my organization, I can tell you that it’s both inspiring every day and hard every day. I have and will always be the leader that leads by example, willing to do everything, roll up my sleeves, willing to come in and help paint when we opened new branches, things like that…But you have to evolve as a leader and be willing to give up more and more control in favor of more and more influence. Sitting here today, what I love most about being a CEO is having influence over how to grow a company that ultimately gives the opportunity to the people I care about most. Employee Centricity has and always will be a value of Cella, Inc.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I alluded to it above, but getting to the highest levels of leadership requires a shift in focus from doing to leading, from control to influence, from motivation to inspiration. For me, it took letting go of any ego and realizing both my company and I would be better off the more I continued to hire people that were smarter and greater than me. It sounds weird, but it’s so true. Being the best example I can to the people I SERVE by putting them first always, always raising the level of expectation, leading through being transparent and true, etc. One of the biggest differences at this level is to be confident enough in the people you hire to let them fail. Knowing when to step in but also letting go of control and letting people find their way. I had to stop jumping in and DOING and saving the day. The people that report to me are perfectly capable of saving the day themselves. I just had to get out of their way.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
Providing opportunities to our employees and seeing people rise to the challenge, get promoted, and find out who they truly are. There are true friendships that exist within our organization and the fact that I am also friends with my executive team, and many of our leaders make coming to work never feel like work. It’s just like we’re creating something awesome together.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
Here’s a very transparent and honest answer — the buck stops with you. The pressure is immense. People’s futures depend on the risks you take, the failures, the response to those failures, your decisions, your gut about what direction to take the company in, and more. It’s heavy when people’s livelihoods, including my friends and people I truly care about, are on the line because of decisions I make or don’t make every day.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t know if I necessarily have any myths that I believed about being a CEO that I can now dispel. I was always fortunate to have the most amazing leaders who guided me by being transparent and honest. I saw the struggles, I saw what was both inspiring but was also hard about leading companies because of the people I attached myself to and learned from. I can tell you this: for a “do-er,” which I have always been…always been the gal that gets stuff done, that can lead a team to get stuff done, that HUSTLES each and every day…the further and further you get away from the actual doing to leading and influencing the do-ers — it gets harder and harder. Filling your calendar with the appropriate tasks at the CEO level is a constant struggle and dance because you can’t be guided any more by the “stuff” of getting things done. You have to be guided by spending your time on the activities that are going to transform your business and continually elevate your leaders.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
That’s easy. As a mom to three girls all 10 and under, I have mom guilt each and every day. I do have one piece of advice, and it’s helped me immensely. Actually, it’s not just for moms or women. Somehow early on in my journey of motherhood, I mastered the art of “being where my feet were.” If I was at work or traveling for work, that’s where I exerted 100% of my energy and focus. If I was at home, all of my energy was directed towards my family. I have never swayed from this, however, I will say that with the new paradigm of living in this pandemic/COVID world, I’m having to figure things out again because being where my feet are isn’t as obvious and clear cut anymore with mainly working from home surrounded by my kids all day, every day. It’s so funny — my husband has his office downstairs, and when Covid hit, I set up a home office in my bedroom. In the past, I always worked in our offices face to face with our employees or traveling for work before. My kids will walk right past his office door, go up the stairs and come into my room to get “mom” for anything they need or need help with. In the moment it’s frustrating as hell, but I’m going to miss it someday so I’m really just trying to appreciate the extra time spent with them right now, even if some days I say my goal is to just “keep the kids alive…LOL”.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I never quite knew how important emotional intelligence and trusting your gut would be in leading a successful company. I always hung my hat on my work ethic and being a great communicator. Nailing the emotional intelligence thing, knowing how to read people, trusting your instincts — those traits quickly become front of mind as a CEO.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
I’ll start with the easy answer of what type of person should avoid being an executive: you have to be confident but you can’t be an ego-maniac. If you can’t get out of your own way enough to see that you aren’t the smartest person in the room and that the best ideas come from those on the team you’ve created, then you’ll never be a true leader in my opinion. Arrogance can be the root of all evil. Traits that increase your likelihood to be successful as an executive include emotional intelligence, personal accountability, work ethic, ability to communicate, conflict resolution, collaboration, having new ideas, not being afraid to fail, setting goals, and being able to lead a team that gets stuff done and hustles.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Your influence will be measured by the…
1. Example you establish
2. Expectations you maintain
3. Environment you create
4. Experience you cultivate
5. Enthusiasm you generate
6. Effectiveness you produce
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It would have to be Rossi Bonugli, our founder at Cella, Inc., and the man who hired me 20 years ago to lead a company that had two branches and 2M dollars in revenue. I, of course, proved myself but the difference maker was that he trusted me to fail. He got out of the way and let me lead. He was side by side with me my first several years back in the early days of BOSS Temps, then we were BOSS Staffing, but within 5 years, he and his wife pulled back. They trusted me and my partner in crime (my Co-CEO that I hired 18 years ago) to lead the company. I was probably only about 30+ years old and I was given the autonomy and trust to lead and build a company that was based on employee centricity. That remains one of our four core values to this day.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t be afraid to fail. They are your best lessons.
- Be HUMBLE. Surround yourself with people smarter than you and let them shine.
- Lead with transparency.
- This is controversial — but I believe it’s not just okay, but that it’s awesome to be friends with those you work with.
- When having to deliver a tough message to an employee or client, say the hard part first. Get the hard sentence over and done with, and then you can explain or elaborate if needed. For example, when having to let someone go, the first thing out of your mouth should be ”unfortunately, we need to make today your last day.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
That’s a hard question, but I would say that we need to assume good intent and quit judging one another. I think if we could all adopt that as a guiding light there would be a lot more love and unity in the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s so many I can share, but I’ll share a funny one that my Dad beat into my head when I was just a teenager. He said, ”always back into your parking spot, you never know when you may have to leave in a hurry.” Ha!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Hands down — Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx. She’s real, she’s authentic, she’s a mom entrepreneur, she’s fearless and she’s a hustler.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.