Charlena Smith: “If you want to be great…. become a great servant”

I truly believe that nothing amazing happens in this world without accountability. When I started working I would keep my goals to myself. I was embarrassed to dream too big — or too small. There was a lot of shame around things. But then I realized accountability is a choice, and there is NO SHAME in wanting […]

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I truly believe that nothing amazing happens in this world without accountability. When I started working I would keep my goals to myself. I was embarrassed to dream too big — or too small. There was a lot of shame around things. But then I realized accountability is a choice, and there is NO SHAME in wanting the best version of yourself for your future. And we have to continue choosing it — even when things get tough. Accountability is the willingness to account for your actions, accept responsibility for them, and disclose the truth with transparency. It isn’t always easy. But it’s always right. When I got an accountability partner I started manifesting my visions left and right. I traveled Europe, bought my dream car and my dream house within a year. So, yeah: Get an accountability partner!

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charlena Smith, Founder of Optio. Charlena is an in-demand, international keynote speaker, best-selling author, and the founder of Optio, a matched and guided accountability platform that empowers individuals to live their best, most inspired lives. But life hasn’t always been so clear for Charlena. Before she knew how it felt to define and live out her own purpose, she tried to live out everyone else’s expectations of her. Trying to live every purpose but her own nearly killed her. She spent months in the hospital, several of them on full life support with a 0% chance of survival, and then a year in rehab: learning to walk and talk again, against all odds. While healing, Charlena was determined to create a solution to protect others from experiencing this kind of misdirection and burnout; while still holding space to create and pursue big dreams with an even greater probability of success. And Guided Accountability was born. Charlena grew up and lives in a multi-generational home in Baltimore, MD with her brilliant husband and their two incredibly mischievous, yet simultaneously adorable children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Charlena! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born into a typical working-class family, in a pretty poor neighborhood, although I didn’t know we were a poor community until I left. Perspective is a funny thing. I truly wish every child had the opportunity to grow up like I did. We were very family centered. Family came first, second and third. I always felt supported. I always felt loved. My parents worked hard, and they loved harder. We shared a property with both sets of my grandparents at various stages of my youth. I’ve always lived on a multi-generational property. People always ask me how we do that. Honestly, I don’t know how (or why) people in the U.S. try to do all of this alone. It’s pretty common to live near or with family in so many other parts of the world. And for us — it just works. I’ve always known the love, not only of my parents and siblings, but of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everyone always did what they could, when they could. My mom worked two jobs to support my dad, who was also working full-time and attending night school. Then my dad buckled down to take care of my mom when she got sick. And yet, with all those responsibilities, they never missed a game. They never missed a performance. They were always there cheering me on. They all were. I had everything I needed and more. And there was never a shortage of love.

I recently heard that you need to determine 3 types of champions in your life if you want to be successful. First, you need an ‘encourager’ — someone who thinks all your ideas are the best thing since sliced bread. Your encourager is your eternal cheerleader, your very own pom-pom squad of one. Next, you need a ‘speed bump’. That’s someone who says, “That seems like a mighty fine idea, but why don’t we just pump the breaks and go over this new territory nice and slow, like?” Finally, you need the ‘rock’. The rock is the most important and the most difficult to find. Your rock loves you no matter what. If you shoot up to the sky, achieve your wildest dreams, and then somehow end up crashing and burning in a blaze of glory, your rock usually doesn’t even know it happened. They just love you for who you are. My parents are my rock. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without their unwavering love and support. I’m also pretty sure they don’t have a clue what I ‘do for a living.’ And you know what? They don’t care. Not in a bad way. They just love me if it’s Tuesday and I’m the kindergarten cafeteria volunteer or it’s Thursday and I just passed a law before Congress for equal rights. To them it’s just another day that begins in T and ends in Y that they get to love and support their daughter. How lucky am I?

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

This is actually a story that travelled along my healing journey. After my health scare that almost lead to my death, I had taken some time to fully commit to being home with my family, because I did not want to lose any more moments with them due to living out of alignment with what I valued most. Eventually though, I started to feel ready to take on another facet to my life purpose and so I started a non-profit marketing company, appropriately named ‘The Girl who Lived’. It didn’t take long before we were reforming the way local non-profits approached marketing. It was wonderful, but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped. I worked on strategy, implementation, media and other back-end functions within The Girl Who Lived. I was never on the front lines.

One day, I was having a typical, busy afternoon in my entrepreneur/mom life, and I stopped at Aldi to grab a few essentials. I was in a hurry because the window of time when both of my boys are in school was very short and I was already running behind. A checklist a mile long was running through my brain when a woman approached me. She spoke little to no English, was modestly dressed (though not nearly warm enough for the cold temperatures), and her demeanor was fraught with despair, but laced with hope. I recognized the energy. I could tell that asking for help was uncomfortable territory for her. But she was desperate. Her name was Maria.

I told her, truthfully, that I didn’t have any cash on me, but offered her a blessing bag from our car. My boys and I make bags filled with essentials — nonperishable food, toiletries, water, etc. and I keep them in the car. That was not enough. There was a great sense of urgency about her. I did not know it then, but she had many other mouths to feed. I trusted my instincts and walked with her into the store. We grabbed a cart and went shopping together. She bought gallons of milk, her weight in chicken, pork, potatoes, diapers, formula, onions, toilet paper, and laundry detergent. I paid for her items at the checkout and bought some bags for her to carry everything in. After we bagged it up, I then asked her how she planned to get home. She planned to ride the bus. She was loaded down with about 30 pounds of raw chicken plus three gallons of milk, she probably weighs less than 90 pounds, and — I discovered later that day — she’d given birth two weeks prior. And she was going to get on Baltimore’s less-than-desirable public bus transit system? I don’t think so! I took a HUGE leap outside of my comfort zone, and I drove her home. This is where I met one of her children, who spoke a tiny bit more English. I discovered they were from Romania and were living with a family from Syria, whom I also had the pleasure of meeting. All refugees that had been through more than I’ll ever be able to imagine. The formula was for her 2-week old daughter. She was breastfeeding, but her daughter continued to lose weight and she was scared she wasn’t producing enough milk, and didn’t have the guidance of a steady pediatrician. Her husband, previously their strong provider, had become very sick during the trip and was now bed-bound. The chicken and potatoes were to feed them all. Her eldest son, 14, was looking for work to provide for his entire family, but was having a very hard time because he spoke little to no English. He continued to ask me what his ‘skill set’ was — because that’s what interviewers had been asking him. But he didn’t know what ‘skill set’ meant. Because he was FOURTEEN. He told me about his plans to be a doctor when he grew up. Be he had to shelve those dreams for tomorrow in order to figure out how to feed his family today.

They were also terrified to travel. Being separated was their number one fear. The three year old little girl wouldn’t even walk near the doors of their empty row home for fear someone would reach in and grab her to take her away. She stood firmly planted in the center of the room.

I spent as much time as I could with them that day. They were so beautiful in so many ways. And they invited me, my husband and our boys back for dinner. We went. We became friends. Our children became friends. That three year old little girl? She learned English — and she still helps my son speak to strangers. (English may be her second language but she runs circles around his speech delay.) In that ONE event,that single step outside my comfort zone, I gained a deeper understanding of so many things.

Our friendship continued and through Maria, I found the International Rescue Commission (IRC) where I began the framework for Guided Accountability. The foundation of Optio.

Initially my work with the IRC was through The Girl who Lived. I was tasked with setting up a system to acclimate Syrians into the U.S. culture as smoothly as possible. They needed to learn to navigate not only a new landscape and different language, but also different medical, transportation and school systems, just to name a few. We paired them with established women in the community nearby and created a communication framework to help them navigate the language and cultural barriers. This framework was like wizardry. Not only were the Syrians acclimating faster than ever, but their American counterparts flooded us with comments, testifying to their changed hearts and the ability to access empathy in a way they’d never dreamed possible. It was life-changing in the best way for both parties. We thought: “Wait. Is this a thing? If we pair other women and use this kind of framework: give them space, time and permission to be vulnerable along with the tools to discover their purpose and live it out — will we get the same results?” We decided to find out, so we started our beta test with other women around the world. That’s how Optio, and the Guided Accountability movement was born.

We compiled loads of research and catalogued an intense amount of data from our pairings. A top NASA engineer (who just so happens to be my amazing partner… Lucky me, right?! ) created a complex algorithm to pair people to their best Guided Accountability partners. Now, a Guided Accountability partner is not a best friend, but rather the person that is going to bring OUT the best in you. We’ve created deep, thoughtful trainings on how to be a Guided Accountability partner, plus a specific framework for women to discover their true purpose, develop goals in alignment with that purpose, and see it through in a 12-week program that results in a 97% increase in success rates.

I never could have imagined how ONE act outside my comfort zone could take me so far.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

After witnessing the profound impact Guided Accountability in action with the women who were implementing it in the community, my “why” was so strong, I knew it was worth the challenges of following through and continuing to research and grow the awareness of this framework. It was an idea bigger than myself. I believe that when we teach people this framework, it gives them a sense of ownership of their lives, and their communities, and this could lead to a kinder, more loving and empathetic world. With that kind of mission, along with following the framework myself, to make sure I continued to live in alignment with my own values, I had no choice but to follow through and bring this idea to the world.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

I would encourage them to start to explore the framework of Guided Accountability and find a fitting accountability partner. If they are feeling reluctant to pursue something that deep down feels like something they may want to do, it’s important for them to strip away the beliefs and thoughts that may be limiting them, and uncover what they actually want, what their life purpose is. Perhaps pursuing this hobby isn’t what would be most fulfilling for them, and they kind of know that somewhere inside, or maybe they have fears that going for what they want most will be unrealistic. Through getting clear on their values, and what they actually want, and having someone there to help them stay on the path to focusing on what they want to work towards, they can gain clarity in what will make them happiest.

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

This is such a great question. I used to love my work. And I loved my family. And somehow I suffered serious burnout with both. Now I weave them both together. There’s no such thing as balance. I simply do what I love and continue to take the next right step.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I enjoy watching the magic that happens when people come together with the intention to fulfill their purpose and a similar goal. I enjoy innovating ideas that have the potential to change lives, but in any endeavor, particularly when we are the ones in charge, it can be easy to allow our own blindspots to limit the potential of the goal we are working. In guided accountability, each partner is their to get in alignment with what matters most to them, and to support their partner in doing the same. This is how I’ve built my team. Through strategically bringing together these amazing people who all have different strengths and weaknesses, I get to witness collaboration that is truly awe inspiring. Nothing is impossible when people come together in this way.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

It took me a while to realize that balance really is bogus. I’m always mom’ing. I’m always wife’ing. I’m always CEO’ing. And that’s OK! Because they’re all in alignment. I never dreamed that would be possible.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

I think every entrepreneur thinks to themselves that they’re just going to go get a ‘real job’ every day. Or at least every week. And I’m no exception. The exception, however, is that I never think “I’m going to abandon Guided Accountability” or “I’m going to abandon women” or “I’m going to abandon my family”. My “WHY” for all of these is so strong that nothing can compete with it.

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?

One that comes to mind is back when we were first starting out with Optio, and Guided Accountability was a completely new concept. We were chatting with angel investors who may be interested in joining us on this journey. I was the CEO of a major company but had decided that it was really important for me to be able to work from home occasionally.

So I decided to meet with a Fortune 10 CEO seed investor over Skype from my home office.

My son was in preschool at the time and should have been out of the house. But we’re in Baltimore and occasionally there are weather related changes to the school’s schedule. On this particular day, Baltimore schools opened two hours later due to weather. Rather than reschedule, I attempted to ‘do it all.’ I fed the boys breakfast, let them burn off some morning energy in the newly fallen snow, and then pulled up an educational but fun video for them to watch while I jumped on my video conference call. I was momming SO HARD I could hardly stand myself.

I locked myself in my office and began my presentation. Suddenly I heard the scratching sound at the door, but I didn’t panic. Not only was the door locked, I had a kid proof door knob and a safety latch in place. The boys weren’t getting through that door… Until they did.

Suddenly, there he was. My 5-year-old had figured out how to enter what I thought was a secure room with the aid of his ridiculously crafty 7-year-old brother. And what was he doing? He was in the corner of the video screen MOONING the CEO. MOONING HER! I nearly died. To make matters worse, I jumped out of my seat to usher him back out the door, revealing that, although I was neatly dressed in a sports coat and scarf on top, I was wearing blue and pink polka dot pajama pants on the bottom!

Oh my heavens! AAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

This spectacle was followed by complete silence. But then… she laughed! She laughed so hard I thought she was going to hurt herself. But she said she was sold. She wasn’t entirely sure what I was pitching — but she wanted in on what I had. She also wanted to know how she could help and if there was space at our holiday dinner table.

I decided in that moment that that was what it was all about. I was still a CEO. I still had a family. Some people get it. Some people don’t. And that’s okay. This is my season. I’m a CEO and Mom. And if you can’t work with me with a 5-year-old mooning you from the corner, well… maybe we just shouldn’t be partners. Because that’s my life right now. And I couldn’t possibly love it any more.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

Brene Brown is an academic like myself. She has used her research and the discoveries she’s made about humanity to propel us forward into a more loving, empathetic state. I hope to have that kind of affect with Guided Accountability.

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

Kindness. My family spreads kindness without reservation. My business spreads kindness without reservation. Kindness and connection make 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.)

  1. Always remain accountable. This one might seem obvious since my entire business is based on ‘Guided Accountability,’ but I truly believe that nothing amazing happens in this world without accountability. When I started working I would keep my goals to myself. I was embarrassed to dream too big — or too small. There was a lot of shame around things. But then I realized accountability is a choice, and there is NO SHAME in wanting the best version of yourself for your future. And we have to continue choosing it — even when things get tough. Accountability is the willingness to account for your actions, accept responsibility for them, and disclose the truth with transparency. It isn’t always easy. But it’s always right. When I got an accountability partner I started manifesting my visions left and right. I traveled Europe, bought my dream car and my dream house within a year. So, yeah: Get an accountability partner!
  2. Accept that you will fail. This was so, so hard for me. I came from a blue collar family in a poor town. The dreams I set for myself were huge compared to what I knew to be possible. And I accomplished them. Time and time again I accomplished them. I got so comfortable in my successes that when I failed it felt like a blow to the gut. I doubled down, worked harder, and knocked it out of the ballpark. Even if that’s not what I really should have been doing. I began to succeed just for the high of it. Winning became a drug. Failing? Inconceivable. And it almost killed me. The Universe brought me to my knees. Not only had I failed, but I had lost the very basic privilege of freedom and independence. I couldn’t speak or breathe. My organs were literally failing, one after another. I had worked SO HARD to win, refusing to give in and rest, or as I deemed it: fail. And yet there I was, lying in an ICU bed with a list of failing organs. The irony was not lost on me. Once I had that great big failure under my belt, and was blessed to have survived, I could embrace failure with a kind of rogue brashness. One of our core principles at Optio is “Fail Frequently. Fail Fast. Fail Forward.” How much time and pain could I have saved myself if I had led by this principle from the very beginning?
  3. Forgive freely. When you forgive others it frees you from the disabling chains of “unforgiveness”. Forgiveness is liberating. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about living a life of freedom. A life you deserve. When I was very sick, there were some core people in my life who couldn’t handle it. One, in particular, literally sent me a ‘break-up’ letter that I received the day before I went into the ICU. We had been best friends since the second grade. The pain I felt when reading that letter is difficult to explain. He literally sent the letter and then boarded an international flight. He didn’t take my calls. He unfriended me on all social media platforms. I was in the hospital, being read my last rights, and my family called him to say goodbye. He declined. THAT was hard to forgive. But do you know what’s also hard? Being a friend to someone who’s that sick for that long and somewhat in denial of the whole situation. When I got back to my regular life, I reached out to tell this friend that I did not bear any ill will. I loved him deeply. Still. He meant so much to me. And I forgave him with every ounce of my being. But I also could not have him in my life again. Forgive freely… but that doesn’t always mean forget.
  4. If you want to be great…. become a great servant. At every point in my career I have risen when I come from a place of serving with a grateful heart. When I was rising in the ranks of corporate, I gladly served those above me, happy to run errands or just exist in their presence, while learning more trade secrets in one coffee run than I had in an entire year of college. Ultimately I ended up creating an entire business model, Guided Accountability, based on the principles of serving. Truly genuine acts of service are what makes the world go round.
  5. Faith and Persistence are the most powerful formula. Nothing is impossible if you have faith and persistence. Faith is powerful. Faith is trusting in something greater than yourself, trusting in the abilities that have been placed within you, and trusting that with every step forward you will find your way towards your dreams and your goals. Just keep persistently taking the next right step out on faith. It will work out in the end. I’m living this testament now. I’ve been working relentlessly at building a framework that moves the needle for world peace. It’s a huge goal. And I’m confident I can achieve it. Not just because I’ve done countless ‘impossible’ things before — but because I know and am proof that faith and persistence win every time.

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. 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.

Guided Accountability. The process of discovering your purpose and designing your own blueprint in response to guidance and a safe space provided by an accountability partner.

It seems so simple. And it IS. Yet, it isn’t. It’s like going to the gym. Yes — you know it’s good for you and it’s the right thing to do. But sometimes showing up again and again is hard! Simple in concept — more challenging in the execution. That’s where the framework behind the movement comes in.

Let’s go back to some grade school math and science. Are you with me?

Like the mathematical term vector, Guided Accountability can be represented by an arrow, composed of both direction and magnitude (And yes, Despicable Me Fans — I totally stole that. The accountable party holds the magnitude, the guide provides direction, or space for an intentional direction to be explored.

Now think back to science lab. Develop a hypothesis for the trajectory of your life. A hypothesis is used to define the relationship between two variables. Remember, a variable is any item, factor, or condition that can be controlled or changed. Can you change the passing of time? Einstein’s Relativity aside, no. (If you are reading this interview, you are probably not on a spaceship traveling near the speed of light.) For our purposes, time is constant. But how you choose to spend that time is up to you. Our quality of life is the variable. When are you going to decide that your life is a variable worth investing in?

The crazy thing is this: Guiding isn’t difficult, but we’ve been trained for years to avoid it. So you may be a little rusty, and frankly you’re probably a little uncomfortable having a conversation that looks like those that occur in the Guided Accountability space. They sometimes require space for silence (deeper thought), uncomfortable questions, and mirroring what you see — not just what you think the other person wants to hear.

Guided Accountability partners carve out time and space to intentionally define the blueprints of our lives.

If you’re starting to wonder why you can’t just carve this space out for yourself, I’d encourage you to consider that the true value of a guide is to serve as a mirror to the guided, pointing out blind spots you may not be aware of and strengths that may have gone under appreciated.

The Guided Accountability framework walks you through every step of the way. We have, literally, outlined the exact conversations you need to have for all 12 weeks of your Guided Accountability commitment. And 12 weeks is not an arbitrary or random time commitment. It’s based on a significant amount of science, data and research. As humans, when we truly push ourselves, we can get the MOST return on our investments within a 12-week cycle. Optio has structured the time and space to allow you and your partner to get the absolute most out of your time together. This pairing is about CONNECTION. And you have what it takes — inside you right now, in this very moment — to be an amazing Guided Accountability partner.

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

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”

This quote by Marianne Williamson has served as a lighthouse for my life. Every time I dream big, and then start to back down out of fear, I remind myself that by letting my own light shine, I unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. The ‘light’ shines in different ways for me in different seasons. Sometimes my light looks like what others might call success and sometimes my light looks like hanging on to life by a thread, but refusing to be extinguished. No matter what the season, my light is always bright, transparent, courageous and vulnerable. Because I want to allow others to feel liberated enough to be who they were born to be, too.

We are very blessed that 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.

Brene Brown and Dax Shepard. They both live in this space of true, fearless vulnerability that I absolutely love. Call me, you guys!

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

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