Callan Blount Fleming of Spark Collective: “Know who you are and what you have to say”

The second piece of advice is to take rejection less personally and to see it as redirection. Especially when you’re passionate about something, it’s hard to separate the work from yourself or not be dismayed when an opportunity doesn’t pan out. What I’ve noticed, though, is that rejection often opens up a new opportunity or […]

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The second piece of advice is to take rejection less personally and to see it as redirection. Especially when you’re passionate about something, it’s hard to separate the work from yourself or not be dismayed when an opportunity doesn’t pan out. What I’ve noticed, though, is that rejection often opens up a new opportunity or redirects me elsewhere, and if I can take a moment to learn from the feedback, it improves my practice or product.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Callan Blount Fleming.

Callan Blount Fleming is the founder and CEO of Spark Collective, which partners with companies to make work actually work for parents. Callan is an ICF certified coach, speaker, and facilitator with more than a decade of experience in developing leaders and executives, organizational design, equity and inclusion, and leading women-centric communities and initiatives. Spark Collective offers coaching and leadership development experiences, with a particular focus on working with parent employees and managers of parent employees, and Callan has been featured in Working Mother Magazine, Thrive Global, and at SXSW.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

Ever since I was a little kid, I believed that work was a way for us to express ourselves and find a lot of meaning and satisfaction. Most of us will work for a good portion of our lives- how can we spend that time doing something that lights us up and best serves the people around us?

I’ve had a lot of different jobs over the course of my career in all different industries as I’ve sought to find “my work,” which I define as the combination of 1) what I’m particularly great at, 2) what the world needs and 3) what I can get paid to do.

I’ve taught middle school, worked in finance, fundraised for growing non-profits, and more. And through all of this, I pieced together my unique talents and passions to carve a path for the next role I worked in.

Working in a variety of places also showed me that the companies that invest in training and coaching their teams, particularly managers, were much more successful than those that didn’t. We all know it from our own experience- perhaps you’ve had a manager who isn’t sure of what they are doing? It can waste team time, energy, create chaos, all of which exhausts us and leads to less effective work. On the flip side, a great manager is like a light from the inside of the team, glowing up everyone around them.

After having my own experience with an executive coach while a senior leader, I was inspired to start my own leadership development firm called Spark Collective. I’m passionate about supporting people to design amazing careers and companies to do remarkable work.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I think about work a lot more than the average person, but what I’ve noticed is something we all feel deeply- the way we work isn’t actually working. We have inherited a workplace design that was created for a very specific person about 100 years ago- the “ideal worker” who could show up to a certain place for a period of time and dedicate their whole life to work. If they had a family, it was assumed someone else was taking care of that for them. And the idea was that life was secondary to work. This is, of course, is bad for everyone. Work-related stress is now the fifth leading cause of death in the US. Workplace design doesn’t reflect the actual reality of the current workforce and holding onto this outdated design particularly negatively impacts parents, often moms more frequently than dads.

But what if we designed work so that it worked for people we typically perceive as outliers to that “ideal worker?” For example, let’s imagine designing for parents. Flexible hours, asynchronous work, people-centered management practices, adequate leave, and benefits- all of these things create conditions where parents can succeed. And, it allows a 25-year-old single person with no kids to take the yoga class they care about or a 55-year-old to care for his aging parents, all of which leads to great work.

So that’s what we do at Spark Collective. We work with best-in-class companies that are designing the 21st-century workplace to be as inclusive and successful as possible, and we do it with a lens of making work actually work for parents. 2020 has shown a light on how important this is and jumpstarted some innovations- the question now is how will companies continue to innovate and push themselves to forge a new path, especially as millennials become 75% of the workforce and are caring for kids and their aging Boomer parents.

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?

Very early in starting Spark Collective, I didn’t know exactly what our focus would be-all all I knew is I wanted people to love their jobs and companies to max out their potential. There are a lot of ways to do that. And every entrepreneur’s advice was to get as specific and niche-driven as possible. I ignored that advice, trying to convince myself I’d somehow be the exception.

So we build a perfectly vague website that drove no engagement. I told people I was a coach, and basically, nothing happened. But once I became passionate about making work actually work for parents, and we redid the website, branding, and communications, it was so much easier to communicate who we were and get partnerships. So I laugh now because I can clearly see my mistake in not listening to everyone’s advice, and I’ll also echo it for anyone thinking about starting a company- get specific!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’m a firm believer that we are the company we keep. I have advisors, a coach (we all need a coach!), and I think it’s incredibly important to hang out with professionals who are a bit further along than I am. For example, I’m part of an amazing collaborative of companies working in the FamTech space, and the founders there inspire me to punch up and take bolder action because I’m seeing them do the same. They’re also willing to share triumph and failures so I can avoid some of the same mistakes, and they are excited to promote whatever I’m working on. Sometimes it’s tempting when you’re working on something to hold it close and not collaborate, fearing that others are competition. Personally, I see anyone working on parent-focused issues, not as a competitor but a co-conspirer, because we have a big job to do and need a lot of people to do it.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

This is an interesting question. Here’s my take- any system that’s been designed without everyone in mind needs to be disrupted. I hate to sound cynical, but I am having a hard time coming up with any system that is as inclusive as possible. 2020 has shown a bright light on so much of this: systemic racism, a broken healthcare system, and in the world of parents- assuming parents, and moms, in particular, would just shoulder the burden of closed schools in addition to everything else. This assumption alone shoved 2.4 million women out of the workforce and brought women’s labor participation rate to the level it was in 1988. 30 years of progress wiped away in 12 months. That’s bonkers.

I think disruption is seen so positively right now because this generation is clear that so much wasn’t designed to actually work for everyone. But what if we put all people at the center of that design? It would be a gamechanger and better for everyone- more profitable companies, better performing economies, happier and healthier populations. The possibilities are endless.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

The first and most important to me is knowing your “why,” your purpose. Or one way it was put: “What is mine to do?” Truly mine. Because here’s the thing: all of us have many choices in how we spend our time, including our careers. And a lot of us are in jobs or relationships or daily activities that are just “meh.”

Why not get clear on what you care most about, what you’re best at doing, and how you can combine that to do work that meets a need? When you focus on why you design a life that really works for you and the world is better off for you having fully shown up.

The second piece of advice is to take rejection less personally and to see it as redirection. Especially when you’re passionate about something, it’s hard to separate the work from yourself or not be dismayed when an opportunity doesn’t pan out. What I’ve noticed, though, is that rejection often opens up a new opportunity or redirects me elsewhere, and if I can take a moment to learn from the feedback, it improves my practice or product.

Thirdly, know who you are and what you have to say. For business owners, for example, I think it’s tempting to think of marketing as a process of convincing other people to buy your stuff. Instead, it’s about knowing who you are and what you have to offer, clearly representing it, and trusting that your people will come to you. For me, that’s meant needing to lean into our bold mission and using my voice to just say it like I see it and offer solutions.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Our next project is big and going to fill an urgent need. Something like half the workforce is looking for a new job, which is significantly more people than usual. And the parents we work with are saying that the workplace culture and benefits that support them as parents are table stakes- they won’t even look at joining a company that doesn’t fit their parenting.

Unfortunately, this information is very hard to find- you have to scour the internet, hope you know a friend or a friend of a friend to talk to, and even then you can’t be sure that the team you land on and manager you get will be creating the best conditions for parents. It feels like a gamble even after all that effort, but it doesn’t have to be.

In the coming months, we’re going to launch a platform that gives parents the space to share their daily and nuanced workplace experiences at specific companies and find out about workplaces they may want to work in. We want parents to get this information quickly, seamlessly, and early on in the interview process (if not before they even start a process) so they aren’t wasting time on interviews with companies where they won’t build long-term careers.

Ultimately, we want every parent to work in a place that values their parenthood so they are successful in every aspect that matters to them. And we think this platform will give companies much more insight than what they’re currently collecting to make the essential shifts they need to make to be these great companies for parents.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

When I was a new mom, I read Brigid Shulte’s Overwhelmed, which taught me so much, including that the motherhood penalty is the single greatest contributor to women’s wage and leadership gaps. It was such an important book to me at the time because I was struggling as a new parent to understand why it was so unnecessarily challenging, and Brigid helped me realize a lot of it was structural. She showcased countries that have done better for parents from a policy level and how we have all inherited outdated cultural and workplace norms that need to be questioned and redefined. It sparked the current direction of Spark Collective but also as importantly gave me personal courage to forge my own parenting path.

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

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed in each of our power to change the world. I believe we all have the agency to live in our purpose and call for change. In a moment like now where so many of us see opportunities for change and not going back to a normal that wasn’t working to start with, I’m inspired to see communities forming to push for something different.

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. 🙂

Drilling further down into our mission to create workplaces that actually work for everyone, I think about the role of the manager. It is quite possible that your manager is the single most important influence in your happiness and health, satisfaction and success as your loved ones. Just think about it- they are probably one of the first people you think about in the morning and last to think about before you go to bed. They have direct influence over your pay, promotion- essentially, your long-term career.

And yet, something like 90% of managers isn’t getting any training in how to manage, and just like me when I was a newer manager, they’re messing up. Or when we interview, we’re not pressing to find out our future manager’s style or how they’ve led the team.

What if we saw managers as the key influencers they are and trained them? The gap between great management and poor management isn’t that wide and addressing it is significantly cheaper than the attrition costs of talented employees.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow me and Spark Collective on LinkedIn, @_sparkcollective on Instagram, and sign up for our newsletter at sparkcollective.co to stay in the loop on our next big project!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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