Stop living your life by someone else’s ideas. It took me a long time to find my own voice in life, in business, and in leadership. I was always reaching for the approval of others. Once I realized that I needed to approve of myself and stop judging my own voice, I’ve been able to clear a path to success.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Heuston.
Andrea is the founder and CEO of Artitudes Design in Issaquah, Washington, a 25-year-old experiential design firm that works with Fortune 500 companies (Microsoft, Starbucks, and Expedia to name a few) as well as startups and nonprofits. She’s had a number of life-altering events that have tested her resiliency and leadership — including being in a coma for 19 days. She’s a passionate advocate for women and recently launched a podcast, Lead Like a Woman, where she interviews top women leaders as they share their stories on life and leadership. Her LinkedIn article, ‘Never Apologize for Being a Strong Woman’ became one of the most viewed articles on LinkedIn, with over 1.3 million interactions.
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 came back from my junior year abroad in Denmark and was in between my junior and senior year of high school. I got a summer internship at an energy systems engineering firm as a technical illustrator and I loved it! At the end of the summer when the engineering firm found out that I only had to go to school for one class early in the morning they offered me a full-time job. For the next year, I went to high school in the morning for an hour for the credit I needed, then to my job at the engineering firm, and in the evenings, I went to a local community college to start getting credits for college. During this time, I was accepted to pre-law at a private college in Washington State. But my family’s circumstances changed — my father lost his job — and they were no longer able to afford the private school fees for the college I’d been accepted to. Despite the scholarship that I’d been offered, I could not make up the difference. So I switched to the University of Washington and put myself through college at night while working at the engineering firm.
From 1988 to 1995 I worked my way up to running the creative services department and had seven designers who reported to me. In mid-1995 the company was purchased by a French company. They brought me in one day and said we need you to lay off your entire team as the new firm has their own team in France. At 24 I was totally unprepared for something like that. The day after I laid my team off, they laid me off. I never saw it coming. Two days later they called me back and said we made a mistake — we need to do some rebranding and we need you and a team member to come back. I jumped in my car, drove 60 minutes to Olympia, the state capitol, and got a business license. Thus Artitudes Layout & Design was born with a 5,000 dollars loan from my Grandma Gerry that I used to buy a Macintosh computer and business cards. The next day I called them back and told them I’d come back and bring my teammate Sandy, but that they would be hiring my company, not me. I decided then that I was going to start my business and not study law. This August, Artitudes Design will have been in business for 25 years!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 2008, I started the year off in the emergency room. In March I had surgery. In April I had more surgery. On May 30th, I became very ill. Three days, one misdiagnosis, three emergency rooms, two ambulance rides, and one very concerned husband later, I was in surgery yet again. I didn’t wake up from that surgery for nearly 3 weeks. I had aspirated on the operating table, contracted pneumonia, which then turned into Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome or ARDS. ARDS is similar to SARS. It turns the lungs to stone. The doctors put me into a medically induced coma until my lungs could recover. At the time, ARDS had an over 70% fatality rate.
I don’t remember anything from that time. Except for some very vivid, medication-induced dreams! My husband and family remember it all. I woke up and met Dr. Stuart — the head of the hospital. (You know you’re really sick when the head of the hospital takes you on personally!)
Dr. Stuart said to me, “I’m so happy to meet you because I didn’t really think I’d ever get a chance to.” I had no idea how ill I’d been until that moment. It was a long road back to health, and I missed over 8 months of work in 2008.
During that time, something amazing happened. The enthusiasm and passion I had breathed into Artitudes Design kept the company alive — without me! My incredible team of talented, creative, and yes, enthusiastic heroes pulled together and saved the day!
Prior to this experience, I was a micromanager, a control freak. I used to touch at least 80% of all projects that came through our doors, but because of my illness, I was forced to step back and see where I could truly add the most value to the company, and where I could let others shine with their skills and enthusiasm. It’s changed the way I lead, and I believe that both Artitudes and I are better for that decision.
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?
That’s a hard one. My mistakes are always huge, but not amusing! For example, my first employee and my best friend embezzled money from me. Another employee interviewed so well that I didn’t check her references before hiring her and she ended up throwing a chair at a contractor working for us at the time and I almost got sued. They’re funny in hindsight but were no laughing matter at the time. However, I learn so much from my mistakes. They’ve taught me resilience and made me a better person and leader.
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 grew up with a father who had traditional values around gender roles. He didn’t believe that women should be in a position of authority. That fact that I had access to it, and that I could create my own path turned me on! The realization that I could run a company and I could do it well was the attraction, motivation, and inspiration.
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 an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
It’s the concept that the buck stops here. When things are going well, I want my team to take credit for it. I want them absolutely to be the ones who are shining on the front of the stage. But when things are going poorly, I’m where the buck stops. If something’s wrong with a client, I’m the one to step in. It doesn’t necessarily mean that somebody’s done their job poorly — things can go wrong for all sorts of reasons — but that’s my time to right the ship. I don’t think anybody but the CEO can do that. I’m the one that needs to step in for clients, for culture, for anything that’s wrong with the company.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
One thing I enjoy most about being a CEO is my ability to solve difficult problems in creative ways. It’s that point where people don’t know what to do, where people have no idea what the next step is, and generally speaking I can come in and go what about this, this or this. That ability to be a creative problem solver is something I really love.
I also love building the team. When I first started, what I was building was for me and I was very protective of it. But what I learned after my coma and a number of other life lessons is that what I’m building is bigger than me. I’m building something for other people and helping them have a life and a lifestyle, helping people have a family and be able to pay their bills. We’re also helping our clients to be visually their best selves. I get a lot of joy from all of that.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
In order to grow, you have to have to be willing to innovate and change. To do that you have to have the right people. Sometimes a CEO or executive will hire people who are just like them. But that’s not what you need to be able to grow. What I’ve learned is that I need people who are givers but can also be disagreeable with it and challenge me. But that’s a difficult mindset to embrace sometimes.
It’s also the fact that you’re the first one in and the last one out if you truly are a good executive.
It’s also the buck stops here concept — that can be good and difficult at the same time. Because there’s no escape.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO? Can you explain what you mean?
I grew up with the myth that to be a CEO or executive you had to be an older white male which is simply not true. However, while women are making progress, it’s still mostly white males in executive positions and people of color aren’t there much at all. Women are underrepresented in leadership roles. According to Harvard Business Review, only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and just over 5% of executives in Fortune 500 companies are women. The Women Presidents’ Organization, or WPO, reports that only 3% of women-owned businesses gross over a million dollars a year, worldwide.
The other myth is that executives sit back and watch everyone else do the job. I believe that’s patently untrue, at least for me. In order to be a good CEO, you need down in the trenches alongside your employees. You don’t have to do everything they do. In fact, I try to hire people who are smarter than me because that’s what the company needs to grow, but I still need to be there and show them that I am doing the work.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
One of the biggest challenges faced by women executives is what I call balance and the mom load or the woman load. Whether or not we have a partner who is incredible and helps out and really carries even 50% of the load at home, women carry it in their heads. I can be doing something, and my husband can be doing the grocery shopping or laundry or any of those items, but in the back of my head I’m thinking, oh I have to get Owen’s driver’s permit, I have to wash Aidan’s uniform, Owen needs a dentist appointment and a million other things. Your brain never shuts down about your family responsibilities. Men don’t think that way. Women do. It’s called the invisible load and there’s so much around that. It’s about the different ways we think and tackle things.
The other challenge is the imposter syndrome. I think it’s a really big, big deal still for women. Sure, men have it too, but they address it differently. There was a study done at HP a few years ago that showed that men would apply for an internal job if they had 60% of the skillset but women would only apply if they had 100% off the skillset. The women weren’t applying for the internal jobs and weren’t getting them either. So, while we can say it’s not fair and there’s an imbalance there, it also has a lot to do with ourselves.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Unlike those who work their way up to the executive level, as founder, the job for me is what I make it. It’s both good and stressful. When I incorporated the company and started hiring employees, I thought it would be easier on me — I’d be able to relax a bit, take a vacation without checking email, completely shut off my work brain in the evening. But that didn’t happen. Growing a company and leading the company is always a work in progress. It’s not relaxing, but it is rewarding.
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?
To be a good executive you need to be open to people who challenge you and to put yourself out there in a way that is uncomfortable. If you’re in your comfort zone you’re not growing or learning. You need to be open to new ideas and different perspectives and willing to take input from other people.
You also need to be ok with failure. Success is a series of failures and it’s okay to fail. I have found, over many years, that my willingness to take risks is in direct relation to my ability to succeed. The more risks I take, the more I fail forward, the more successful I’ve become.
If you like to color inside the lines, if you like routine and certainty and clear direction, you should avoid leadership roles.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Listen more than you talk. I can answer most of the questions that come up. I can give my thoughts on strategy and how to solve big issues. But if I’m always talking, my team isn’t growing. As a female leader, it is important to serve my team. When I’m of service to them, letting them grow and solve issues, I am helping them to thrive.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to who you are grateful for helping you to get to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My Grandma Gerry was a powerful woman for her time. She raised two boys on her own after her husband left her. She needed a job so marched down to Boeing and got a job operating a huge computer back in the day when computers were the size of a room. She worked full time and worked her butt off to raise her children in the 40s and 50s.
When I spoke to my grandmother about starting my own business, she was hugely supportive. She loaned me 5,000 dollars to start the business which was a huge amount of money to her. I paid her back, with interest. She insisted on interest. Smart lady.
She was a very powerful force in my life for a very long time. She was never a victim. I really respect that about her. A lot of people are victims in this world, and they look at life as being bad to them. That wasn’t my grandmother. She owned her own experience and pulled her own bootstraps up. She was also very opinionated back when women weren’t allowed to have opinions. Whether or not she and I agreed on everything, and we didn’t, I looked up to her and valued everything she said. I had the honor and privilege of living with her as a young adult when she was recovering from rotator cuff surgery. It was such an incredible six months. It was at the time when I was becoming who I am and looking at life differently than my parents had shown me. And my grandma believed I could do anything, literally anything. She was my biggest supporter.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe that I’ve been given so much that it’s my obligation to give back to those in the margins or those in need who can’t help themselves or who don’t know how to help themselves. It’s my duty to do that. I truly believe in that.
As a company, we regularly plan, cook, and serve meals for the Matt Talbot Center — a recovery center for homeless addicts in Seattle — and have been doing so for ten years.
We also created Artitudes In Action over eight years ago. It’s now it’s own non-profit and is dedicated to bringing art back into schools. We partner with elementary schools and work with them to select classes with the greatest need for art instruction. Employees then volunteer their time as art docents. They create sample art projects, write lesson plans, purchase supplies or use recycled materials, coordinate with an elementary school, and then teach the lesson to the class. The program has reached 5 local districts, 25 classrooms, and over 1000 students
All employees receive 40 hours of paid PTO per year to use any way they want for volunteer work. My passion is helping children, but I realized not everyone has the same passion and the employees should be free to choose how and where to contribute. We have one employee who reads to the elderly once a week, another employee used all 40 hours to go to Costa Rica and work in an orphanage.
I was on the Board of Olive Crest, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping abused and neglected children for 12 years and currently sit on the Board of Encompass, a nonprofit that partners with families to build healthy foundations for children, providing early learning, pediatric therapy, and family enrichment for children
As a company, we donate 10% of our billable hours in-kind annually to community events and organizations.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Not everyone is trustworthy. My first employee — the office manager — had been recommended to me by two different sources, neither of whom knew each other so I thought that was a good sign and she was a solid hire. She didn’t work out. It was only after I fired her that I discovered she’d been embezzling from me, and the bookkeeper — who had been my maid of honor at my wedding — was party to it, knowingly signing false expense reports. I signed a lot of checks not knowing what I was signing for. It was a lesson to learn, that I needed to be on top of finances and I couldn’t even trust somebody who I believed was my best friend. I now review all payments and sign all checks.
- Hiring is a skill and your instincts aren’t always right. There’s a reason for background checks. I made a lot of big mistakes in hiring early on. My first hire stole from me, my bookkeeper/best friend helped, and my third hire was a disaster. She was an incredible interview. She did such a great job. We were all so impressed with her that we offered her a job without checking references or doing a background check. It turns out she had been in jail. And she had anger management issues and threw a chair at a contractor working with us at the time which almost resulted in a costly lawsuit. Even though most of our people come to us through employee referrals, we now have a hiring process and always do background checks.
- Every day won’t be your favorite day. When I founded the company, I thought, I now control my own destiny, and this is going to be amazing. There have been a lot of fires I’ve had to put out that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. I also wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll of dealing with employees and being the buck-stops-here person. There’s more to it than you’ll ever think there’s going to be. I’m a people person and yet systems are easier than people.
- Stop living your life by someone else’s ideas. It took me a long time to find my own voice in life, in business, and in leadership. I was always reaching for the approval of others. Once I realized that I needed to approve of myself and stop judging my own voice, I’ve been able to clear a path to success.
- Success is a series of failures and it’s okay to fail. I have found, over many years, that my willingness to take risks is in direct relation to my ability to succeed. The more risks I take, the more I fail forward, the more successful I’ve become. Success, in my eyes, isn’t always about money. Rather, it’s becoming more comfortable in my own skin, being able to forcefully stand behind my ideas, and being able to listen without judgment, and rally around an idea in a tangible way. The economic success seems to follow as I grow through my willingness to fail forward.
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.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be around the idea that feminism is stronger when all people support it — all genders, all colors, all political parties. When women rise, society benefits. Closing the gender gap in pay and societal roles can raise the GDP by 35%, according to the World Economic Forum. There is a rising tide for equality and even equity in gender roles. I believe that it needs to be bigger, louder, and bolder in order to see some sort of parity within the next 100 years.
I’m passionate about empowering women to empower othersand that’s really what I’m trying to do with my podcast. I believe fully that when we listen to women, we get a fuller story than when we listen to men. And that’s not to say that men’s ideas and voices are wrong or bad. That’s not at all what I’m trying to say. Rather, women have a different insight and different approach to things, and if we can inspire women to empower other people, the world will be a better place. Mainly because will be listened to on a different level. Women see things that men don’t see because they’re deeper into the trenches generally of their lives, their families’ lives., of anywhere where the fringes are in society. Women when they get together can do incredible things. Men can, but there’s a little more jockeying.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two favorites:
“You will do foolish things BUT do them with enthusiasm.”
This has long been one of my favorite quotes. It’s by Colette, a French writer from the early 1900s, and it has helped to guide me in business and in life. I often find myself in the midst of foolishness, but I always remember to have enthusiasm. Half the battle is looking like you know what you’re doing, even when you don’t. Deep, fervent enthusiasm has helped me many times with that illusion.
“I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy, to be to be instead that she has leadership skills.” Cheryl Sandberg.
Strong women are often called assertive. They are straightforward about their wants and needs. They often rub people the wrong way. However, women who are strong are complex. They may have a background that has created the need to be gritty, tenacious, and passionate in a way that other people take offense to.
Many of us have been interpreted as demanding or even bossy. But the truth is that strong women can also be very sensitive and thoughtful.
A strong woman can walk into the room and hold her own with class, grace, and style. It’s never about being rude or demanding. Rather, it’s more about maintaining a personal commitment to guide herself through difficult situations. I’m proud to be “too much.” I’m proud to be strong.
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
Melinda Gates. I’m so impressed with what she’s doing to elevate women in this world. Everyone can learn from her. She continuously steps out of her comfort zone and listens and learns from the people she’s helping. She’s very humble and open to feedback and I don’t know many people in a position like hers that are so open to critical feedback. I’d LOVE to have her as a guest on my podcast.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.