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“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Paige Arnof-Fenn, CEO of Mavens & Moguls

It takes effort and a commitment to excellence to continually improve as you move up the ladder and especially when you get to lead. I do not think there is one silver bullet, I use a combination of reading and learning online and off, attending conferences and talks, networking, finding mentors and listening to all […]


It takes effort and a commitment to excellence to continually improve as you move up the ladder and especially when you get to lead. I do not think there is one silver bullet, I use a combination of reading and learning online and off, attending conferences and talks, networking, finding mentors and listening to all feedback good and bad. I have found that I learn more from the bad and tough situations in my career than when things go smoothly.


As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paige Arnof-Fenn. Paige is the founder & CEO of global marketing and branding firm Mavens & Moguls based in Cambridge, MA. Her clients include Microsoft, Virgin, venture-backed startups as well as non profit organizations. She graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Business School. She is a popular speaker and columnist who has written for Entrepreneur and Forbes.


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?

I did not plan on starting a company. I always wanted to go to work for a large multinational business and be a Fortune 500 CEO. When I was a student I looked at leaders like Meg Whitman & Ursula Burns as my role models. I started my career on Wall Street in the 80s and had a successful career in Corporate America at companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola and worked at three different startups as the head of marketing. I took the leap right after 9/11 when the company I worked for cut their marketing. I had nothing to lose. Being an entrepreneur provides me a platform to do work I truly enjoy with and for people I respect. I get to set my priorities, I have time to travel and hang out with my inner circle, and work out every day. It has been a journey to get here but I am lucky to have found it. I love the autonomy, flexibility and the fact that I know every day the impact that I have on my business. When I worked at big companies I always felt the ball would roll with or without me, that if I got hit by a bus someone new would be in my office right away. Now my DNA is in everything we do and I can trace every decision and sale to something I did or a decision I made and that is incredibly gratifying and fulfilling. Like most entrepreneurs, I am working harder and longer than ever and I have never been happier. Working for yourself and building a business you started in incredibly rewarding and gratifying. It has been a lot of fun, I joke that I am the accidental entrepreneur. I knew I had made it as an entrepreneur when Harvard wrote 2 case studies on my business a few years after I started it, we were very early to pioneer sharing resources on the marketing front (before my company it was really only done with HR, legal and accounting/finance).

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

In the first few years of my business I had pitched a CEO about a month before I ran into her at a networking event where she was the keynote speaker and her topic was about being a woman leader in a traditionally male-dominated business. I had followed up after sending my proposal several times via e-mail and voice mail but the CEO never returned any of my messages or even acknowledged receipt of the proposal requested. You can imagine my shock when she announced at this event as part of her speech that she believes it is important to put your money where your mouth is and for women CEOs to support other respected & well-run women’s businesses and that is why she has hired my firm to handle all her company’s marketing & PR! Everyone congratulated me after, it was a better endorsement than the New York Times because she was very well known and had the reputation of being very tough with high standards so I got a LOT of business from people in the room that night because they thought if I was able to impress her I must be very good 😉

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?

It can be hard to laugh at mistakes but looking back I remember one week early on when I had three or four talks lined up over a couple of days so I went from one evening event to breakfast the next morning to a lunch and evening talk the following day. I enjoy public speaking and get a lot of referrals and business that way. The morning after my final speech I showed up at a meeting with a prospective client along with a few of my colleagues and I realized I was completely out of business cards. I was so embarrassed and my team laughed at me since I always remind them it is important to be professional and prepared all the time. I ended up sending a handwritten thank you note to the prospect with my card enclosed and we won the business ; so I turned my mistake into a positive outcome, plus I have never run out of business cards again!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?

I came up with the idea of my company and had a very clear vision for growth from the start so I knew I was the best person to lead it. It was a great concept at the right time and I was passionate to make the idea become reality. I had clients from the beginning so I started recruiting talent and building the website to make it official.

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?

The CEO inspires and motivates the team by communicating a vision that is bigger than anyone could accomplish alone. Middle management focuses on tactics and milestones along the way but the overall leader insures the roads converge at the desired destination.

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

I love discovering talent that people never realized they possessed. When you can clear obstacles and tap into your team’s “special sauce” and connect the dots in fresh ways they are set up for success and can rise to the occasion and find creative solutions to the problems ahead. The energy multiplies when people work in the zone.

What are the downsides of being an CEO?

It can be lonely at the top so it is important to find advisers or other C-level professionals you trust as thinking partners for the tough decisions you have to make.

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

You will never work harder or more than you do as an entrepreneur! But, because it is for your vision and dream, you will never love it more, too. People who start businesses thinking it is less work will be disappointed. There is always more you can be doing to build your business and your brand, so it is hard to turn it off, trust me. And you do not need to be on every social media site — just be strong on the ones that you are on; it is the toughest job you will ever love.

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

CEOs are the best salespeople the company has. Optics matter — you better walk the talk because all eyes are on you so your team and your customers are not just listening to what you say but also watching what you do and how you respond/react. I knew I would lead and inspire but I did not realize how important my every move impacted our ability to keep the pipeline full and close deals.

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

In my experience the most important traits for effective leaders are:

  • Strong moral compass — you cannot compromise on ethics and values
  • Good communicator — able to rally the troops and keep them on the critical path
  • Smarts — technically competent and they work hard to earn the respect of their team
  • Bonus — great sense humor and fun to work with

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

My biggest mistake was not realizing sooner that the people you start with are not always the ones who grow with you. The hardest lesson I learned when I started my company is not getting rid of weak people earlier than I did in the first few years of my business. I spent more time managing them than finding new customers. I knew in my gut they were not up to snuff but out of loyalty to them I let them hang around much longer than they should have. It would have been better for everyone to let them go as soon as the signs were there. They became more insecure and threatened as we grew which was not productive for the team. As soon as I let them go the culture got stronger and the bar higher. “A” team people like to be surrounded by other stars. It is true that you should hire slowly and fire quickly. I did not make that mistake again later on so learned it well the first time. I wish I had known it even earlier though but lesson learned for sure!

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 have had great mentors and champions throughout my career. In my corporate life I had bosses, senior women or alums from my alma mater who took me under their wings to help me advance and show me the ropes As a small business owner mentors can also be invaluable sources of inspiration, advice, encouragement and can help you avoid rookie mistakes (with hiring, fundraising, etc.) when you are starting out. They can also make key introductions so that you avoid getting burned by service providers or potential investors who have mixed reputations. I have seen several situations where a lot of time and money could have been wasted but was not. Expectations have to be managed, for me I had mentors who I counted on for tough love and others to help me expand my footprint and elevate my profile in the community. Mentors have different strengths and connections that can help. I think everyone even established entrepreneurs can benefit from strong mentoring. The world is always changing and we can all learn new things along the way.

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

I sit on a number of non profit boards and one I used to chair started an anti bullying program that has been rolled out to >85k school aged kids. I love getting involved in local organizations to help strengthen the community and feel it is a great use of my professional skills and network.

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

  1. Focus, and prioritize. I think that respecting my time on the calendar and taking myself as seriously as I take my most important clients is the least I can do because if I am not at my peak performance I am not going to be useful to anyone else either. You cannot do everything so pick no more than 2–3 things that you can accomplish and delegate the rest.
  2. Give yourself permission to say no. Whether it means sleeping in (no to an alarm clock), getting a massage, taking a walk, or just turning off my phone and computer (no I will respond later on my own schedule), simple acts of letting myself relax and enjoy the moment are the very best gifts I can give myself that help me stay balanced and productive.
  3. It takes effort and a commitment to excellence to continually improve as you move up the ladder and especially when you get to lead. I do not think there is one silver bullet, I use a combination of reading and learning online and off, attending conferences and talks, networking, finding mentors and listening to all feedback good and bad. I have found that I learn more from the bad and tough situations in my career than when things go smoothly.
  4. Great leaders are confident and humble enough to bring onboard people who are smarter, more experienced, and capable of executing the vision. Empowered people to take more initiative and they overwhelmingly rise to the occasion.
  5. Providing the team with autonomy and the opportunity to collaborate on tactics generates creative solutions so hire well and get out of the way.

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.

I’d try to start a kindness movement to counterbalance what we see in Washington and all over the media today. I grew up in the South and people were generally nice, respectful, kind, and friendly. I do not believe life or business is a zero sum game. We do not have to divide up the pie we can work together to bake more pies so there is enough to go around. I think the people around the world in the center want peace and we need to find ways to bring the extremists back into the fold but it is going to take people from all walks of life to band together to make it happen. There really is more in common across cultures when you realize everyone wants the best for their family and community so we should all be putting our energy into building stronger foundations and ecosystems that will help us all.

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

This quote really resonates with me:

“I am strong because I have been weak

I am fearless because I have been scared

I am wise because I have been foolish”

It is an important reminder that stumbling is part of the journey to success. As an entrepreneur you just have to keep going and pick yourself up and be smarter every time you get up and try again. It was true for Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Sara Blakely and it is true for me too!

Another one I really like is “you have to make mistakes to find out who you aren’t.” Again, making mistakes is just part of the process. Brilliant.

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

There are so many people I could pick for this — Richard Branson, Sarah Blakely, Tina Fey, Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, Donna Karan, Arianna Huffington, Reese Witherspoon but I would choose Ellen DeGeneres right now. She is killing it. Like Ellen I grew up in New Orleans. Ellen has become more of a force in Hollywood now as a host, producer, spokesperson, activist, etc. than she ever was when she started her career as a comedienne. She is authentic and has already tried to start a kindness revolution with her show and is a force to be reckoned with. She has stayed relevant for decades in a tough industry and I am sure she could teach me a few things and has some great stories to share!

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

Thank you!

— — — — — —

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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