“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Stephanie Wijkstrom

Master the skill of providing effective feedback. My tendency has always been very direct, if there is a problem, I elect to talk about it. I have learned to use some of the Gottman Method marriage counseling techniques in discussing learning points. “Soft start’ is when you talk about your feelings and needs and it […]

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Master the skill of providing effective feedback. My tendency has always been very direct, if there is a problem, I elect to talk about it. I have learned to use some of the Gottman Method marriage counseling techniques in discussing learning points. “Soft start’ is when you talk about your feelings and needs and it is the antidote to criticism. When a problem arises, the person you are addressing it likely already knows and it doesn’t take too much to illuminate the scenario. When you focus on what you need moving forward, everything becomes a learning point and the feedback is far less threatening than focusing too much on the problem. In this way, I have learned to tone it down, it would have been helpful to know this one starting out in business.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC CEO is a certified counselor and founder of Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh. Stephanie specializes in providing counseling for marriage and family relationships, she has been featured on local television and countless articles. Stephanie is a loving wife, an ardent yogi, and a dog mom of two. Stephanie enjoys her daily meditation practice, trying new wellness tips, prancing through the world with belly laughs on her breath and preparing gourmet meals.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is it about the position of CEO the most attracted you to it?

Well, I didn’t choose the CEO life but the CEO life chose me, that’s a sort of play on a Tupac quote. The truth is, I started my company as a solo therapist 10 years ago. A couple of years into it, I was introduced to my business partner. We began our collaboration and have kept moving forward, until one day when looking around at the company, we realized that we are four centers and we house 40 counselors and wellness providers! I wake up excited every day about the things we are doing. The best part about my job is knowing that our organization achieves its mission of providing quality care to individuals, couples, and families who trust us for support.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does, but in just a few words can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other executives?

It is different in every company, for us, we are a small/mid-sized start up. In a company of our size we have more diffusion of roles. If there is a problem and it has been escalated, I get to manage that, any CEO in any company must be an excellent problem solver. Also, a big part of my job is preventative, how can we improve things and prevent problems from happening. I am involved in many different components of managing the company from advertising, accounting, finance, public relations, human resources, and direct client care. As the CEO I tend to view the company very globally, meaning how each role relates to the other and use that awareness to create opportunities for policies that enhance the organization.

What were your biggest struggles throughout your professional life and how did you overcome them?

It is hard for me to step away from work, I sometimes tend to micromanage and obsess over the smallest details. This is stressful for the team and creates an atmosphere of anxiety if left unchecked. I regularly work to move away from micromanaging every detail and purposefully make space to talk about how other people in our company want to develop their role so that we can come up with viable solutions together.

What are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

There are two I can think of and they are both stereotypes. I can be very direct and I am extremely analytic. That surprises people. When I see men who lead in the same way that I do, nobody questions that, there is this shrug it off mentality that seems to say, ‘you know, he is just being an assertive man.’ Yet, as a woman who stands up and states, I think we need to move in a different direction or phase out this contract, sometimes I am judged for that but in my own mind, I know that I simply doing my job of advocating for the businesses interests first. This really comes down to others assumptions of how people of my gender should behave with ever present tenderness and passivity. Second, the other difficulty is in my personal life, I make decisions all day and lead a company but when I walk into a car dealership or a restaurant with my husband, people always assume that he is paying, that burns quite a bit.

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

Business development, I find this portion of my responsibilities very enjoyable and I am most happy when testing new ideas and implementing new directions, in this way I am able to give life to my creativity! The larger that our company becomes, the more exciting are the opportunities. We are able to bring an expanded menu of resources to our community, I really love the creation of it.

What are the downsides of being a CEO?

Ultimately responsibility, there are a lot of people who rely on our company and I take that responsibility very seriously. Responsibility also brings stress! There is the strong desire to maintain the businesses needs so that we can continue to expand our reach in supporting the needs of the community. There are lives on the line in my business. Of course the worst part of my job is managing the fall out when things do not go as we would have wanted. It is wonderful when we get to ‘high five’ the team because they are supporting emotional and behavioral change and enhancing people’s lives. On other days we must terminate a person’s employment or contract. Firing people is terrible, that is the thing I dislike most about my job, I stress about that a lot in the days leading up to it.

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

There was the day that I was gracing about our Pittsburgh Counseling Center, jumbo-sized smudge stick in hand, ceremoniously billowing tufts of sage scented smoke in the air in preparation for a meditation that we were hosting. The stick too large, the smoke overwhelmed our fire alarm, the police and fire trucks came quickly. They had a lot of questions about the origin of the ‘strange smelling smoke.’ I gave them an impromptu lesson on shamanism and the history of burning sage for cleansing. They were most interested in how modern science supports that smudging does have cleansing effects. The firemen left intrigued and educated, the meditation went smoothly, and I sat back and thought, ‘this moment very well sums up who I am as a woman, a leader, and an educator’!

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?

Wow, where to start. Initially we didn’t even have contracts for our counselors. We would hire therapists and have them start out and end up completely frustrated, as I am sure they were, with us when we failed to even define our expectations for each other. There was sort of this ‘kumbaya’ mentality of good faith, naiveté, and hopefulness that is probably unique to those who practice as counselors but would never have happened if we had been formally trained in business. We have learned so much in the last 10 years, and now we define everything and create very exact protocols of the process, we are even working on protocols for managing our protocols!

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

I didn’t set out to become a CEO. My initial intention was to provide counseling and wellness services to our community. In my heart, I will always be a therapist first. Yet, as our company has continued to grow, the majority of my daily responsibilities are related to leadership and executive decision making. My day is aimed at providing opportunities for our counselors to be successful. Helping psychotherapists carve out a pathway to develop their own professional success and be able to provide quality care is now what fuels me.

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

Of course any successful CEO will be energetic, driven, dynamic, those are simply givens. To really excel, I think obsessiveness is actually helpful. If you find it hard to think about anything other than the work that you are doing, you might be great as a CEO. For example, even in my downtime I am still reading about mental health or leadership because I love it. I think being too much of a people pleaser or too agreeable isn’t helpful as a CEO. Sometimes you will need to put the businesses interests, if you are too agreeable, you will fail to act when there are problems. Steve Jobs is quoted as saying, “If you want to be liked, don’t be a leader, sell ice cream.’ I don’t think I realized that in the beginning of my career but now I know it is true. People will not always like you for the hard decisions you make.

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

Focus on group cohesion, the psychology of business manifests itself in this approach. Social psychology would state that the more cohesive your team the more satisfied and productive they will be. Cohesion can be elevated by creating opportunities for collaboration, celebration, and continually defining the greater meaning of the work that the team is doing.

Who inspired/inspires you and why?

For me it goes in waves, inspiration is everywhere and the more we open our eyes and minds to experiencing it, the more that we see it in new places. Sometimes I feel inspired by a little blade of grass that grows up in a crack in the sidewalk. In the moment, I am also very inspired by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I was recently on a retreat at The Art of Living Center, created by his teachings on mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality. He is known as an international humanitarian and peacekeeper who has created countless programs for adults and children to learn the skills of the specific form of meditation. I appreciate that, this is my path too. I am inspired by any person who is called to help people use skills like mindfulness and meditation to be well.

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 been helped tremendously. I feel grateful for everyone I have ever known. I think there isn’t a single person who I have met along the way that hasn’t impacted me and helped me in some way. Some have helped me by teaching me the lessons of suffering, hurt, and carelessness. Others inspiring me to think “Wow, I want to be a little more kind, gentle, forgiving, compassionate like that person!” Has someone ever called you a name? Well thank them, they have taught you the lesson of encountering hostility gracefully. Has someone caused you harm? Told you that you could never do what you are doing? Thank them! They brought the kindle to your internal fire that will fuel your success! In that way, I believe that we are all children of the universe, when we see, I mean really see from a spiritually aware space, we are all teaching each other every day. It takes practice to live from this perspective, but it is what is meant by being spiritually awake.

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

As mental health providers, we are very lucky. On some days people come into our office and say, “Thank you, we are no longer thinking of getting a divorce,” or “I am no longer considering suicide because of the counseling we are doing!” It is incredible to see the direct impact of our work in the happiness that our clients and couples are able to achieve. I am also very involved in philanthropy, a little bit of everything from aiding the mentally ill with free therapy in Jamaica to things in our own community. I volunteer my time every Saturday to coordinate free yoga in Pittsburgh, it is a rather amazing initiative that has taken off and that we will be spreading even further next year. It is a wonderful experience to be in a position to give my time and resources to the incredible people in our beautiful city.

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

  1. The potent rejuvenating benefit of mastering the art of breathing. Every person should really learn how to use their breath to lower their heart rate and enter a state of total relaxation. The more leadership and responsibilities that your role provides you, the more important it will be for you to reset your mental clock each day by regaining peace and calm. I think I would have been much less reactive and stressed in the earlier days of building the company if I had used this tool.
  2. Pause before responding. When disappointed in something that has happened at work or even in your personal life, wait to address it until you are no longer hyper-aroused. Sleep on it. 20 minutes to 24 hours max will do the trick. Be sure to first use breathing to gain clarity and better perspective and then offer a response. Just like a placid lake when our internal state is calm, the most beautiful solutions emerge but when we are muddy with turbulence it is impossible to see to the bottom of the matter clearly.
  3. Master the skill of providing effective feedback. My tendency has always been very direct, if there is a problem, I elect to talk about it. I have learned to use some of the Gottman Method marriage counseling techniques in discussing learning points. “Soft start’ is when you talk about your feelings and needs and it is the antidote to criticism. When a problem arises, the person you are addressing it likely already knows and it doesn’t take too much to illuminate the scenario. When you focus on what you need moving forward, everything becomes a learning point and the feedback is far less threatening than focusing too much on the problem. In this way, I have learned to tone it down, it would have been helpful to know this one starting out in business.
  4. Incentivize everyone’s role. Incentives are very motivating and they should be built into the contract of all key players. People respond well when they directly experience growth along with the company. A great leader is effective at getting others excited about what they are doing, for some recognition and praise work well and mostly everyone will be pleased with bonuses or raises timed to the achievement of a goal. It is up to leadership to create these opportunities for success to the team.
  5. Find the lesson in each loss. When you are in an executive role you will have failures, losses, and very challenging times that pave the way for each success. When you encounter road blocks, coach yourself on finding the lesson or opportunity in it. A wise person never loses when they find a lesson in their challenges, if you are to be resilient in your role, you must think this way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would implement a curriculum for junior high or high school kids that would help them to understand human emotion, empathy, and self-care. If we aimed to help children and teens gain skills like how to break up constructively, how to grieve a loss, how to be disappointed, how to identify depression, coping skills for rough times, what to do when you are emotionally overwhelmed, think of the preventative impact of that! These are some of the experiences that bring people into counseling and I know that just like speaking another language, we are especially receptive in youth to learning these skills. With a curriculum on emotional intelligence and emotional hygiene I am certain that we would have a measurable effect on preventing suicide, addiction, bullying, hurt, and tragedy and instead improve wellness. We become more powerful when we can anticipate the emotional effects of our experiences and are armored with a plan for how to manage them.

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

If you obsess over whether you are making the right decision, you are basically assuming that the universe will reward you for one thing and punish you for another. The universe has no fixed agenda. Once you make any decision, it works around that decision. There is no right or wrong, only a series of possibilities that shift with each thought, feeling, and action that you experience. If this sounds too mystical, refer again to the body. Every significant vital sign- body temperature, heart rate, oxygen consumption, hormone level, brain activity, and so on- alters the moment you decide to do anything… decisions are signals telling your body, mind, and environment to move in a certain direction.” ― Deepak Chopra

As someone who tends to overthink, this quote helps me to be safe to make bold decisions creatively. It is reassuring knowing that there is not really one right answer, just limitless possibilities from which to choose.

Some of the biggest 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

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, chief of neurosurgery at Grady Hospital in Atlanta. My husband operated with him once during his training at Emory. I would love to talk with Dr. Gupta about the work that he is doing on the show Chasing Life. Firstly, trotting the globe utilizing ancient wellness techniques is a dream job! Also, allowing the scientific to emerge from natural and homeopathic interventions and traditions is enthralling and adds the buoyancy needed for such approaches to be more largely supported. In that way, I think that the work he is doing on the show is very significant.

About the author:

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 350 works in print. He is the author of two books, I Know My Shoes Are Untied Mind Your Own Business, and Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke

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