“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Erin Hatzikostas CEO of b Authentic

An Interview with Phil La Duke

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So here is my little secret I haven’t told many people. My dream is to create a movement, an army of people ready to change how we operate in Corporate America. People ready to rush into the work “battlefield” in a more authentic, fun and inspiring way. One of my biggest steps to igniting that is to reinvent the “women’s conferences” of today. My podcast co-host and I are starting with our podcast where we rewrite the boring stuff and instead get super-duper real about all the sh*t we face. We know that most women are sick of the same ol’, same ‘ol — boring, segregated women’s conferences. Instead, we envision a room filled with real talk, no-BS coaching, music, inspiration and a whole lot of wine to fuel the rocket ship that is waiting to take off.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Hatzikostas. Erin is a Career Coach, Podcast Host and the Badass CEO of b Authentic inc. Prior to launching her own company earlier this year, Erin spent 22 years in the corporate world. She eventually took on the CEO position for PayFlex, a financial healthcare company with approx. 1,000 employees and $2B in assets under management. In her 2 ½ years leading the company, she led a significant financial and cultural turnaround. Erin breaks the executive mold. She is most regarded for her Midwestern-inspired, unpretentious, witty, authentic style of leadership. She is a thought leader, MBA, math-junkie, runner, wife, mom of two, and does a mean Running Man dance. Just when things were going great, she decided that there was more work to do. Frustrated by the largely homogenous, inauthentic, and frankly, uninspiring culture of Corporate America, she launched b Authentic inc. The company is an offbeat career and leadership company on a serious mission to foster and support inspiring leaders, without taking itself too seriously. Best way to join the mission? Take their free, fun and insightful “What Dog Are You at Work?” quiz here.

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?

Like many others, I spent my “first-half” career in the corporate world. I actually loved it; I loved the excitement of it all, the challenge of taking on big assignments, and the constant interaction with all kinds of people.

While I never had a plan, I found myself doing all the right things to put myself in a position to be tapped for a big, executive job. At first, I said “No thank you.” Like many other women, I feared rising so far in my career would mean I’d have to compromise my family, my health, or even my soul.

But then I changed my mind and decided to take the big job. While I had reservations, I decided that I didn’t need to change for the job, I could change the job.

I didn’t act like a typical executive. I remained (fairly — none of us are perfect) true to who I was — humble, approachablem and a bit quirky. And the results of my leadership were mind-blowing. We were able to turn around a company that was really struggling and make both a financial and cultural impact that I am so incredibly proud of.

When we got through all that, the same thing happened to me that always seems to happen. That is, just when things are good, I get stir-crazy. While my head says “Just enjoy it!”, all the rest of me says, “What now?” And none of the next corporate jobs were doing it for me. Not that they weren’t challenging, but the challenge was too similar to the ones I had tackled in the past.

So for that reason, and a few others, I decided to leave my big, sexy job to pursue entrepreneurship. But it wasn’t until I announced I was leaving that I actually realized what I needed to do. The consistent outpouring from people that said they would miss my authentic leadership, made me pause. It made me reflect on my career as well as the problems that haven’t been solved. The fact that we still have a massive gender diversity issue as well as just a general employee engagement issue, tells me that the current solutions aren’t enough.

So like with anything I do, I set out to make an impact but to do it in a “not normal” way. b Authentic inc sets aside the long, boring BS that we often get with leadership books, women’s conferences and HR manuals. Instead we take a Goldfish cracker approach — bite-sized, addictive, and a little bit cheesy. We think this approach will meet people where they are. We want to make them laugh and inspire them in one fell swoop!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Well, the story is unfolding but it certainly is “interesting” to me.

This spring, someone saw and sent me a casting call for a national TV and film producer. They were looking for “outrageous women that work together”.

As part of my business, I co-host a completely offbeat podcast called b CAUSE with Erin & Nicole. It’s part career coaching, part reality podcast, full-on authenticity. We truly believe that people, especially women, are sick and tired of the same ol’, same ol’ politically correct BS. They want to listen, learn and participate in real conversations with real people that have found a way to have success in a unique way. And that are, quite frankly, still figuring a lot of sh** out as well.

Anyway, we submitted an application to this mysterious casting call a few months ago. A few weeks ago a major film and TV producer started following the business. Hmmm. It could be a dead end, but it could be something.

Either way, these are the kinds of little moments that keep you energized and trudging through the mess to do what you believe in!

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?

If there is one thing I took from my corporate experience, it was that when you personally make a big mistake, or the company you run makes a big mistake, each time it gets easier. You will forever benchmark your next mistake on the worst one you faced in your career. So after running a complex, financial healthcare company, I have plenty of foundation to sit on.

My biggest mistake in my new business was when I decided to set up a process where I sent out a free PDF guide on the Top 10 Podcasts That Can Change Your Life. This was one of my first foray into reaching out to consumers directly. That night, I received a text from a friend, “Hey, you might want to check your process ASAP.”

I dug a bit and realized that when they downloaded the guide, they received an email. Check. The problem was that it was a standard template email that I never completed. So it said things like “This is where you write a note, blah blah”.

If this was 10 years ago, I would have freaked. But this issue pales in comparison to others I’ve faced. And I’ve also learned that authentic responses to problems work best. So, I used it as an opportunity to write people again and tell them that I clearly was new at this sort of thing!

It’s important to know that mistakes are often your biggest opportunity. Many times you earn a greater reputation if you fail and then nail the response than if you never made a mistake at all.

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?

You know, with my new business this just came with the package. But speaking a bit about my former corporate CEO position, the thing that attracted me most was that I knew I would hold the golden key to the culture of the organization. The environment around me has always been the thing that motivates, or demotivates me the most. I saw this as my opportunity to leave a fingerprint on the organization and the people within it.

What I didn’t realize was just how hard that would be. The first year, I thought I had nailed it. My leadership team was happy; they were thriving, loyal and getting sh*t done. Boom.

And then I got the employee survey. Clearly my reach and our positive culture hadn’t made it to most. I decided then that it was like having children and grandchildren. Like my husband’s YiaYia always said, “Having children is wonderful. But having grandchildren is deeeferent.” I started to think about how I wanted “grandchildren” in the organization. I wanted to feel like our amazing culture had made its way all the way down the line.

Over the next 2+ years, I learned so much. We worked with an incredible leadership company, The Alchemy Group, and I realized that being a good leader is easy. Being the kind of leader that has grandchildren is hard. In the end, as CEO, I believe it’s not enough to inspire people. You have to create an inspiration platform; an environment and set of simple but unique practices that enable everyone to inspire everyone. That’s how true, systemic culture change happens.

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?

You know, I could give you a bunch of crud here. But I think my daughter put it best when she filled out her first application for Student Council in 4th grade a few years ago.

As Ella put it, the responsibilities of a leader (and CEO) are: “To be kind to others, to help others, and to be ready for everything.”

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?

It provides you a tremendous opportunity to be a voice of change. Too often, people talk about “Executive Presence”. Instead, I think the focus should be on “Executive Purpose”.

Once you’ve been given the opportunity to be an executive, I implore people not to simply try not to get fired. That’s unfortunately what happens too many times. Everyone knows that executive positions come with a lot of pressure and risk. But if you instead focus on what your Purpose is, and use your voice and influence for change, things will always work out.

Now that I’ve left the traditional executive role and world, I feel blessed that my executive background has provided me with the first few boards to build the platform of my life’s true purpose.

What are the downsides of being a CEO?

The buck stops with you. When the biggest things go wrong, you don’t ever get to hide under your table and cry. You have to put on your big girl pants and lead the way out of it. It can be stressful. But it also can be a great breeding ground for future happy hour laughs.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO. Can you explain what you mean?

One of my favorite topics! I actually wrote a blog on this because I am so passionate about dispelling these myths and ultimately, these limiting factors to great talent saying “yes” to the job.

The 3 biggest myths from my perspective are:

  1. Each step in your career is more work. So many women I know pull back on going for the next level because they’re already burnt out. Often the next job isn’t necessarily more work because people start doing stuff for you! Sure, the issues you face from time to time may be more stressful. But the hours and commitment doesn’t have to keep rising if you don’t let them. In fact, if they do, you’re probably not truly leading.
  2. Your boss will be scary. I totally subscribed to this one at one point! We probably all have. You run into your boss’ boss here and there and they just seem like this mystical beast. Here’s the reality — they’re human. And once you work for them, it’s likely they’ll be even more human to you.
  3. You have to sell your soul. If there is one thing I would love to scream from the mountain tops, it’s this. You do NOT have to sell out to take the big job and be successful. In fact, I would argue that the more you can remain authentic, humble, and real, the better results you’ll get. Why? Because the best talent wants to work for you!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

We have a cultural and personal bias to pull back. Unfortunately we have a story that’s been told for many years that will take many more years to re-write. And that is that we first have to be a wife and/or mother…and then if there’s room, we can have a career.

To me, the biggest cause of our gender diversity issue is that the best talent is opting out. They are opting out (or down) out of fear that they’ll have to compromise their family, their health, and/or themselves.

Abby Wambach has a great quote, “Imperfect men have been empowered and permitted to run the world since the beginning of time. It’s time for imperfect women to grant themselves permission to join them.”


What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Honestly, that it’s not as scary as it seems. “CEO” can have such a heavy, mystical connotation. If you’re someone that isn’t afraid to learn, fail and get back up — you can be a CEO.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a CEO. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful CEO and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I think the most important traits are compassion, humility and charisma. Colin Powell says, “You know you’re a good leader when people follow you out of curiosity.” Sometimes that’s all people want.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

You CAN have a big career without compromise. Realize that no human is perfect. If you take a big job, there will be things you’ll do worse than the last “dude”. And there will be things you can do better. Realize that you don’t have to change for the job, you can change the job.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve had several mentors, sponsors and other influencers along my journey. Many women took chances on me when they saw some evidence of potential.

But I would have to say that my biggest influence came from my father. He was a teacher, and every night he would come home from work, sit at the counter while my mom cooked dinner, and he’d tell stories from work. 95% of the stories were about some way that he handled something in a humorous way or a unique and quirky way he engaged his class.

I didn’t know it then, but he showed me that you can do things differently, you can be funny and unusual and different…and have amazing results. It took me a while to realize what an impact all his stories had on me. But I am certain that this is the reason I really stood out in my previous career, and even connect with others effectively now in my new venture. He gave me permission to dance to my own beat. And I’m certain that’s fueled most of my success.

Talk to your kids about work. Tell them stories they may think they don’t want to hear. The impact will be greater than you can imagine.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

It’s a work in progress! When I was CEO at PayFlex, I was astonished by the number of people that wrote me or told me about the impact I had on their life — not just their work life, but their whole life. Most notably, I had one employee who attended a leadership training I put in place. It was in that training session that she finally got the courage to leave a very violent marriage.

Still, I knew there were only so many people I could affect one-on-one. I started my company so that I could find ways to impact one-to-many. I know there are so many burnt out, frustrated, stuck individuals out there. And I know I can help many of them learn the steps and strategies that will help them get noticed, promoted and just be happier…without working themselves to the bone or selling their souls.

That’s why I’m so thankful for every opportunity — including this interview — to be able to spread a message of hope, solutions and inspiration.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Ask more questions. I, like many of you, started out of the gate guns blazing in my career. Having ideas, knowing answers, and solving things quickly seemed like the best way to get things done…and get noticed. It wasn’t until I finally went through The Alchemy Group training that I realized how much more power comes in slowing down and in asking questions.
  2. Always feeling like you’re running late, missing something or have to do 3 things at once is called…”anxiety”. Now that I’m running my own business and can set my own rules, I realize that I was living a life with anxiety way more than I realized. I thought it was normal. Even healthy. It is not. Take time to slow down, breathe, not over commit, walk away, take care of your mental health. Even if you think you’re mentally healthy, you probably have lots to improve.
  3. What you demonstrate for your children is way more important than how much time you spend with them. Too often, we base our parental grade on the number of games we attend or hours we spent with them. The reality is that you can have a much more profound impact on your children if you live your life — career and everything in between — in a way that you want them to live theirs someday. Now that I took a risk and am leading my own company, my kids are doing and saying things that would blow your mind.
  4. There isn’t just one path. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” should be considered a dirty phrase. We have to teach kids, and adults too, that life is a constant evolution. Just because you went to school to be a lawyer, it doesn’t mean you have to practice law your entire life. If you can find your ikigai, that is the ultimate place to be when you “grow up”!
  5. There are so many ways to invest in yourself and your growth beyond traditional books, degrees and classes. There is a whole world out there now — through podcasts, online courses and workshops — you do not have to go back to school to reinvent yourself.

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.

So here is my little secret I haven’t told many people. My dream is to create a movement, an army of people ready to change how we operate in Corporate America. People ready to rush into the work “battlefield” in a more authentic, fun and inspiring way. One of my biggest steps to igniting that is to reinvent the “women’s conferences” of today. My podcast co-host and I are starting with our podcast — b CAUSE with Erin & Nicole — where we rewrite the boring stuff and instead get super-duper real about all the sh*t we face. We know that most women are sick of the same ol’, same ‘ol — boring, segregated women’s conferences. Instead, we envision a room filled with real talk, no-BS coaching, music, inspiration and a whole lot of wine to fuel the rocket ship that is waiting to take off.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Oh I have so many! But my father just gave me a new one last week, so I must share that! It’s by Raylan Givens Justified.

“If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.”

This rings so true to how I’m coaching so many people these days. I see too many people that feel they are victims of their circumstances. And yes, we’re all a bit of a victim from time to time. But if you keep having crappy jobs and crappy bosses and crappy workouts, etc. Then you need to take the bull by the horns and do something about it.

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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Last fall, I listened to her interview on The goop Podcast, and it changed my life…it fueled my cause (The Talent Whisperer, Sept 18, 2018).

Specifically, she said a few things that had me pumping my fist in the air. “Everybody hates phonies, but I really f**king hate phonies.” and “I only represent people who are the same in every room.”

These words are my “everything”. They epitomize my cause. They fuel me to tick off many people I used to work with to say the things that nobody else is saying; the corporate world has way too much phony schtuff going on.

I am resolved to making the corporate working world a more authentic place. My dreams are big. I would love to have the opportunity to meet Jennifer and align in our vision. She did also say, “I don’t look for talent, it just finds me.” So here I am Jennifer!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

— — — — — —

About the author:

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 350 works in print. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke

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