Always be polite no matter who you think you are talking to. In time, the ability to be calm and polite can become your most ample protection and the most significant asset. It prevents you from creating and using all this unnecessary adrenaline. The best advice I ever heard was — just say ‘you might be right’ and move on.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Anita Flejter.
Anita Flejter is the Co-Founder of Ultimate Tango School of Dance, where Argentine Tango is taught not as a dance but as a philosophy of life. Originally from Poland, Ms. Flejter holds a master’s in Fine Arts from the Academy of Fine Arts, where she specialized in Mural and Easel Painting Restoration. She also attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Como, Italy, upon receiving a Socrates/Erasmus grant. Additionally, she attended New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies (Appraisal Studies in Fine and Decorative Arts), and the National Academy of Fine Arts in New York.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in a small city east of Warsaw. It was the capital of what would be equivalent to a state in the U.S. The communist era was approaching the end — you still had empty shelves in stores, lines for everything, and food rationed out by food stamps. For a kid, it didn’t matter. When one does not know the other side, one cannot miss it. Somehow though, I always had a drive for improving things, and so among many trains of thoughts that ran through my head, the two most important were: “why is this done so poorly?” and “how can this be done better?” We are talking about a seven year old girl here. I always had a low tolerance for mediocrity and had — still have — a yearning to go places where ‘acceptable’ is an unknown term.
If you believe in such a thing, it is destiny that led me to where I currently am. As a first grader back in communist Poland, through whatever the selection process was, I was picked to be taken to the Ballet School in Warsaw (the capital of Poland), but my Mom refused. She claimed that I would have no chance to have a career in ballet with my ears sticking out so much. So instead of becoming a ballerina, I became a visual artist studying graphic design first. However, since being an artist was also considered risky, just in case, I chose to study art restoration with a specialization in monumental painting. And that was my leading career for years. After moving to the U.S., I spent years working in my original profession. You can see traces of my work in Rockefeller Center Murals or the Museum of Natural History.
The dancing was always on the side, like a parallel universe running at full speed next to ‘normal’ life, and eventually it kind of took over. About ten years ago, I had an opportunity to become the co-owner of Stepping Out Studio, one of the two most prominent dance studios in NYC. And from there, things just took off in this entirely new direction. I became co-founder of Adelante Studio (NYC), and eventually, with my husband and partner, we created our very own school — Ultimate Tango, focused solely on Argentine Tango.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It has been a roller coaster! We were happily admiring the beautiful yellow-brick road leading us straight to the end of the horizon and our happily ever after, and then we slid down screaming, as the pandemic forced us to close Ultimate Tango Studio’s doors. Now we are cutting our way into the virtual world, where teaching partner dancing in a ‘live virtual conference’ setting is an ultimate challenge. We do not want to simply do a demo and let people admire it from their side of the screen. It is not a lecture nor a show. It’s not even a yoga class where you follow the flow. To accomplish that, we came up with quite a few tiny solutions that allow us to translate the typically three-dimensional teaching experience onto a flat screen, and still make it work. Our goal is to teach. This means people need to leave the lesson feeling that they’ve learned and not thinking: “ok, I’ll look at the video later and try to figure it out”. I think for any teacher, that’s the worst possible outcome. If someone has to go and figure it out after attending the seminar, that means you failed. It is different from sparking interest and craving for more.
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?
There were a lot of mistakes when we had started to run virtually. Truth be told, they were not funny at all when they were happening but, in hindsight, they could make a funny story.
We had scheduled a very famous Argentinian author for a two-week intensive seminar series. Since he was not in his youth and we did not know how far he would be willing to travel, we decided that he would lecture on everything he had prepared — 17 workshops and two intensive seminars — each consisting of many hours. It took lots of planning and marketing efforts, and then the pandemic hit. Optimistically, we attempted to take it all into the virtual world, but decided to scale it down to 5 musical lectures, after several attempts. During live events, this guest instructor, Joaquin Amenabar, normally alternates between demonstrating dance steps to pre-recorded music, showing rhythm on the stave, and playing the bandoneon to illustrate his points.And here is where the chain of mistakes began.
He was joining from Germany, where he happened to be when all travel was prohibited due to COVID, and we were hosting the event from Medford, MA. To accommodate his ‘normal ways of being’ during the virtual seminar, we had asked him to join as three panelists — three cameras, instead of one. What was the right solution in theory, turned out to be quite a nerve-racking experience as we could not predict and, therefore, correctly spotlight where he was going to go next. To not block the view of the stave, instead of pointing with the hand, he decided to use a pointing stick that was… transparent and thus utterly invisible to the camera eye. On top of everything else, he thought that he could correctly predict the time delay but, he over compensated which is a common problem with virtual conferencing. He was playing music from an external speaker and talking over a microphone connected directly to the computer. You can imagine how this went. Of course, that was months ago, and now Zoom had already addressed most of those issues, so there are no longer concerns.
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?
My Dad. He would always somehow incorporate a life lesson into his parenting. It was not always pleasant. For example, when my brother and I were kids, he would loan us money and charge interest. And it wasn’t low. So, we very quickly learned how to function in ‘real-life’.
One event that I think changed my life direction was my first trip to the U.S. It was still a few years before graduation, and I had already traveled to the United Kingdom several times. Suddenly, after many political issues, the possibility of traveling to the U.S. opened up. It cost a lot for an Eastern European student to travel to the U.S. The cost of the visa, the cost of the roundtrip flight, accommodation, the English exam, and of course the cost of the program itself — it was called ‘Work and Travel’. You had to fit it into the four months of your student break and raise the money. It was the equivalent of borrowing one year of salary. I got to about 80%, and then the rivers dried out. I just couldn’t think of anybody else to ask and there was nothing else I could do. For the first time in my short life (I was only 25), I was just about to give up the whole idea. My Dad happened to call, and I told him how I was going to have to return what I borrowed because I couldn’t make it work. And then — the miracle happened. He said that there is always a way and essentially covered the missing part.
That’s not the end of the story. I flew to the U.S. at the end of June, after completing my third year at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, for the planned four months. It was 2001.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m an introvert and perfectionist, and so for me, the relief of stress comes with preparedness. When planning, I give myself enough time to consider and analyze all possibilities, do the necessary research, and go through essential discussions. Therefore, the outcome becomes relatively predictable.
Of course, since we started the Argentine Tango School, the activity itself is poised to relieve stress. Walking in your partner’s embrace, freeing the mind to be able to listen to suggestions and understand them, and breathing to the music.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I think the points are simply too interlaced to analyze them separately. Merit is the prime connecting point as our primary goal is working towards the success of the idea that we are devoted to. In my personal opinion, diversity is not a starting point. It’s a consequence of the right decisions. Diversity gives you a broader overview and opens an ocean of possibilities. The US is based on diversity, one cannot alienate and still thrive.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Tango itself embraces all the differences. The inclusivity is embedded in the nature of the dance. We understand the dance more as a philosophy of life — and that’s how we teach it. Since Tango is based on improvisation, it resembles the real-life decision-making process very closely. Nothing is ever simply white, or simply black, as each dance movement presents many doors and possible alternative solutions. Tango also includes a set of codes that encourage the use of cultural intelligence but, at the same time, give you discreet help by telling you how to do it the right way.
The fascinating subject is the role of Leader and Follower. Only by understanding the intricacies of the dance — connection and partnership — can one appreciate how complicated this subject really is. For example, the Leader is required to pre-lead the Follower, which means propose the movement to the Follower. This is like proposing something to the Board of Directors. The Board has to approve it, reject it, or request additional resources. The Follower has to clearly understand what is being requested from her, and what is being proposed, to take action. Only after the Follower starts executing the movement can the Leader himself follow. There is this continued co-dependency. One cannot exist without the other.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?
What the CEO does would vary from company to company. But in general, the CEO is responsible for the main direction in which the company is heading — strategizing, planning, implementing, and often creating. The CEO’s role is to be aware of all components of the business and its opportunities; customer personas, marketing strategies, new resources, and trends. Everything.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth would be that a CEO is some sort of god and therefore has all the right answers. They are just sitting behind their big fancy desks, unapproachable and lonely. One has to understand that the role of the CEO is very firmly embedded into the company’s life. In a smaller company — like ours — the CEO’s decisions can mean success or failure of the company.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
We are just not taken seriously. And it takes some time to ‘prove yourself’. As CMO of a Tango School, I am also sometimes the subject of Fame Fatale or Dominatrix Syndrome. The symptoms are repetitive; they do not look into my eyes, are dismissive or use a very demanding voice, and do not accept, or simply avoid, the handshake. I find it quite funny.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I was hoping for more self-development time but, instead, everyday activities take over. I’m one of the company’s co-founders, and basically, the job is what I signed up for.
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? Can you explain what you mean?
I see in great leaders the ability to see the path. When one considers the purpose and the ultimate goal, the current necessities are like steps, they just appear, and you take them or pick the alternate road. The second trait would be the ability to eliminate the noise and correctly pick what truly matters. Thirdly, the ability to listen and truly hear, take the feedback, and allow yourself to be redirected. Some things do not work, no matter how hard you push. Maybe because one needs to pull but, to discover that, one needs to be able to stop.
The person who cannot see the consequences of their actions, needs constant directions and reassurance, and those who are too easily influenced, shall not attempt to be executives. It’s just too painful for their team.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Trust and communication are probably the two most significant factors. The team needs to have a clear understanding of what needs to be achieved. Once that is in place they shall not be micromanaged. They need to be trusted. Of course, then there are periodic discussions, checkpoints, adjustments, and clarifications. It’s either that, or doing everything yourself while paying your team.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Due to its logical and psychological aspects, Tango magnetizes highly influential minds. Tango is not for the average person wanting to shake their body a bit. It requires tremendous focus, analytical skills, ability to strategize, spatial awareness, and more. Plus the ability to translate all that into movement. Improvised movement.
We are lucky to be teaching and sharing Tango with professors, writers, I.T. professionals, engineers, psychotherapists and life coaches, the people who are very self-aware and in search of constant improvement. And then they spread it. If not through the dance itself, then by the ability to communicate, read the body language, listen to the feedback, adjust and redirect based on the intended outcome.
Building the Tango community defines success for us. And that’s already the equivalent of making the world a better place.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
One — Do not forget that there is the Company and there is you. Both require some ‘me’ time. The ultimate goal would be to be able to separate the two. When one first starts, it is tempting to ‘become’ the company. Try to make a clear distinction from the very beginning.
Two — Never stop learning. If you stop, you are only destined to move backward. Especially nowadays when technology develops so fast. The solution you so badly need might be easily available.
Three — Somewhere is not a destination. Know where you are going and why. Otherwise, you are making all the effort and doing all the work just for the sake of doing it.
Four — Expect the unexpected. You do not necessarily need to be preparing for it but just keep your mind open. Then you can change direction as needed.
Five — Always be polite no matter who you think you are talking to. In time, the ability to be calm and polite can become your most ample protection and the most significant asset. It prevents you from creating and using all this unnecessary adrenaline. The best advice I ever heard was — just say ‘you might be right’ and move on.
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.
Dance Tango. An old-fashioned way of discovering who you are; connecting with others, finding love, making friends, building relationships, communicating, creating communities, sharing, and respecting codes. And meditating through walking in the embrace together and to the music.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?”, the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
If it doesn’t work — try again. There always is a solution. Just the fact that you have thought of it already brought it to life and made it possible.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, V.C. funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. 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.
I would love to have coffee with Barack Obama. I think he is one of the most gifted speakers. I have always wanted to ask him how long it takes him to prepare. Or does it just come naturally and he improvises on the spot?