Cherie Koester of Earthworks Environmental: “The journey is much longer than you think”

First and foremost, the journey is much longer than you think. The first year feels like five years. Secondly, never bite off more than you can chew. Thirdly, find a mentor you trust and who can be a North Star. Fourth, when hiring staff, do not compromise. Search for the best that you can train. […]

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First and foremost, the journey is much longer than you think. The first year feels like five years. Secondly, never bite off more than you can chew. Thirdly, find a mentor you trust and who can be a North Star. Fourth, when hiring staff, do not compromise. Search for the best that you can train. I hire on ability and potential, not necessarily experience. Lastly, start as soon as possible. Don’t wait. I wish I would have started sooner. I was so hesitant and scared for so long, and now I see that there was no reason to feel that way.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cherie Koester.

Cherie Koester is the CEO at Earthworks Environmental. Cherie founded Earthworks after serving as Director of Environmental Compliance for an extensive landscape maintenance and landscape construction company in Metro Phoenix. Previous to that role, she was a compliance inspector for the Maricopa County Air Quality Department. Cherie received her Master of Science degree in International Environmental Technology Management & Sustainability in December 2011 from Arizona State University. She earned her B.S. in May 2008 from ASU and holds an associate degree from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in business administration.

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?

Out of college, I was running into that strange paradox where I was either over or under-qualified. Finally, I interviewed as a regulatory with Maricopa County, and before I returned home, they had called to offer me the position. I learned that I was good at interpreting regulations and teaching the required certifications for others. During that time, I wrote so many violations that one of the companies I was citing ended up asking me if I would consult for them. I took that as a significant compliment, which led me to think about branching out independently. I did so with the confidence of knowing I could succeed based on a reputation of knowledge and professionalism.

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

I always find it interesting when competitors attempt to intimidate me. I have had countless occasions where a competitor will attack our company by negating our expertise. I’ve received anonymous calls telling me to get out of the business. We’ve had our offices broken into, vehicle window smashed, and countless reports of false statements made to our customers. In one instance, a competitor offered my client a six-month free-of charge-contract to sign with them, but the client took that as a sign of unprofessional desperation and signed with us anyway. I’ve learned through this that as my competitors focus on my company and me, I am focused on our clients and the industry, which is an industry leadership position I enjoy.

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?

When I first felt like I had “made it,” I booked a business trip flying first-class for the first time. I had always had a no-frills approach to travel, and traveling coach was perfectly fine for me. But I was still curious about the people sitting in first class and thought they were somehow more refined or worthy of their travel class. So, when my business was doing well enough to afford it, I booked a first-class seat. As I boarded the plane and took my seat, I felt unique, different. I got comfortable in my seat and nodded off while the rest of the plane boarded. Well, my catnap didn’t last long, and I awoke, making the loudest SNORTING sound I think I’ve ever made. The juxtaposition of what I thought a first-class passenger would be and the decibel of my snort made me laugh at myself, and I realized what I’ve always known to be true. People are people; flying first-class doesn’t make you special (or snort differently), and success isn’t defined by what you can or cannot afford materialistically.

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?

Well, money and power, of course. But seriously, I have never been comfortable with someone telling me how to do things. I am extraordinarily autonomous and one of those people that learn from doing. As the CEO of my own company, I love the fact that I can plan our goals, create teams to accomplish those goals, and offer my staff a working environment with true work/life balance. It is important to me that my staff feel fulfilled in their professional and personal lives. For example, we operate a four-day workweek to allow a greater balance. My staff is also empowered to balance their work and life as they see fit. As long as the needle is moving forward and goals are being met, I do not interfere. That attracts me the most because I know what it is like to live and work on the other side of that philosophy.

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?

I feel that a lot of my time is spent dealing directly with people and less on the day-to-day fieldwork consulting I did when I started. Now, I have experts that do that, likely better than I did, and now I deal with the people that run the show. As I do miss the fieldwork, I love how my role has evolved.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I like being able to control my destiny, and I love taking the risks that I want. I am a risk-taker, and if my gut feels it’s the right thing to do, then I have the freedom to design my approach, calculate the risk, and move forward without fear.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Interestingly enough, it is the same answer as above. The risks that are comfortable for me to take can have a negative repercussion on the entire company. In the beginning, there were fewer people to consider. Now, I have a much larger staff to think about and protect.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

The biggest myths that dissipated in my mind is that a CEO arrives to work when they want, wearing a suit and tie and leaving early for a day at the Spa, or golf course. As a CEO, I work extremely hard and rarely have the time to do all the things I want to do. Family time, holidays, personal time, and a good night’s sleep seem to elude me. My whole world revolves around my company.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I think that women continually have to prove themselves over and over and over and over. I’ve had so many instances where I prove my worth, then only a short time goes by, and I need to do it over again. If I was a middle-aged man, would that happen? Would people question me? I’ve even had people attempt to contact my husband to complain about me or inform him of a business decision I’ve made even though he has absolutely nothing to do with the business. Would people do that to a man?

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

The difference is the lack of time I have. I have so many things I want to do and no time to do it. As I moved up the chain or opened my own business, I figured as I would take lavish vacations and long weekends. That’s another myth.

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?

A successful executive must have thick skin. You need to be able to take a beating and utilize it for your good. Challenges never stop. They never become less, they just morph, and you need to take each lesson from each challenge and make yourself and your company better each time. If you are a lazy person without vision or focus, then you should avoid an executive position. These are character traits that cannot be taught. If this is you, find something else that you enjoy doing.

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

The most important advice I can offer other female leaders is to be strong, communicate effectively, and leave your emotions and maternal instincts at home.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband has allowed me to be me. At times, he will play the role of devil’s advocate, which drives me insane, but in the end, he is supportive of my choices, and he accepts both my triumphs and failures. Although we live very different day-to-day lives, he has always been the number one supporter of Earthworks. I cannot thank him enough for all the times he’s filled in for me while I’ve been working, traveling, or just simply too exhausted to keep up.

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

Our Arizona team participates in the Valley Partnership Community Service Project each November. Each year, we engage in a community service project that helps underserved populations. One of my most memorable projects was revitalizing a facility for teenage mothers to raise their children in a safe environment while getting on their feet. We planted a garden, painted murals on walls, and create a playground. This was special to me because early in my life, I was one of those teenage mothers. I know the challenges and heartaches they face, and I do whatever I can (when possible) to help this population of young girls becoming women through motherhood.

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

First and foremost, the journey is much longer than you think. The first year feels like five years. Secondly, never bite off more than you can chew. Thirdly, find a mentor you trust and who can be a North Star. Fourth, when hiring staff, do not compromise. Search for the best that you can train. I hire on ability and potential, not necessarily experience. Lastly, start as soon as possible. Don’t wait. I wish I would have started sooner. I was so hesitant and scared for so long, and now I see that there was no reason to feel that way.

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.

I would like to inspire more significant attention to teenage mothers. Because I was one, I understand the weight of that situation and the feeling of hopelessness. But what they don’t understand is that it can be a blessing and not a death sentence. Teenage mothers can still do anything they want, and now with reason and purpose to drive them. My advice does not stop reaching for the stars. I was fortunate because I have a strong will. Not all teenage mothers have that. That will would be the movement that could bring the most amount of good.

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

The two quotes I live by are,” Nobody cares, work harder,” and “Winners focus on winning while losers focus on winners.” Both these quotes speak to a mindset of success. Nobody cares if you aren’t feeling well or would rather be doing something else. Sometimes you have to put on your adult pants and work through adversities simply. The second quote speaks for itself.

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 the U.S., 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

Hands down, my private lunch or dinner would be with President Trump. He is the epitome of a winner who keeps winning. He does not concentrate on his competition; he concentrates on his goals and endgame, while his distractors and competitors focus on him. He inspires me daily. I want to have his strength.

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

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