As CEO, you work for your team, not the other way around. My experience has been that the motivation, satisfaction, and fulfillment of your employees directly correlates to the success of the organization. You should be asking yourself if you are meeting the expectations of your team members, before asking if they are meeting yours. Evaluating your business through that lens brings a lot of clarity, and helps to place like-minded individuals into leadership roles.
As a part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Johanna Zlenko.
Growing up in San Francisco, The Closet Trading Co. founder, Johanna Zlenko often founder herself shopping at vintage and resale stores throughout the city for the perfect bell bottoms and blazers. After moving to Santa Barbara for college in 2003, Johanna noticed there were very few resale shopping options and when provided with the opportunity to work in a vintage boutique, she jumped at it. Sixteen years later, Johanna transformed her part time job to help pay for college into a franchise of upscale resale shops with a focus on growing a sustainable business that extends the life cycle of garments and accessories.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you so much for including me! I sort of stumbled into this particular career path. My first week of college, I was looking for a part-time job. I saw a “hiring” sign in a boarded-up store window in an alley off the main drag in downtown Santa Barbara, and called the number listed. The person who answered the phone explained that she was looking to open a vintage shop in that little space in the alley. I had worked in a non-profit thrift shop in high school, so I had a bit of relevant experience. I was hired on the spot, and helped to remodel the space and open the doors. A few months after opening, the owner had to relocate out of state, and I just felt like there was so much potential in the fledgling shop. With some encouragement from my grandmother, I acquired the business by taking over the lease and some debt from the opening expenses. Just like that, at 18-years-old, I was a business owner, and that was the beginning of this wholly unexpected career path!
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
I had a hard time understanding the many requirements of operating a business in this country. There are so many regulations on the local, state, and federal levels, as well as labor laws and taxes to keep track of. Initially, it was tremendously overwhelming to try to figure out what I needed, where to apply, what to pay, and who to turn to for advice. I made a lot of mistakes at the beginning, and ended up paying all kinds of penalties. From that experience, I learned the value of researching and planning before taking on a new project, rather than hoping to figure it out on the fly.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I believe that a combination of naiveté and endurance were the driving factors in keeping me going. I really had no idea what I was getting into when I started my business, and that ignorance was useful in keeping me from getting overwhelmed by the long road ahead. I just refused to give up, kept educating myself as new challenges arose, and eventually sought guidance from an advisory board.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
- As CEO, you work for your team, not the other way around. My experience has been that the motivation, satisfaction, and fulfillment of your employees directly correlates to the success of the organization. You should be asking yourself if you are meeting the expectations of your team members, before asking if they are meeting yours. Evaluating your business through that lens brings a lot of clarity, and helps to place like-minded individuals into leadership roles.
- Delegate tasks carefully, making sure that you have the “right person in the right seat” before turning over important responsibilities. We all know that we need to delegate in order to grow our businesses, but delegating successfully requires careful consideration, training, and follow-up. Find someone who will do the task better than you can do it yourself, communicate frequently to ensure that you are on the same page, then let them run with it. If you are needing to micromanage, you have either delegated to the wrong person or your training was inadequate.
- You don’t have to know how to do everything, but you have to trust yourself to learn what you don’t know. Like all entrepreneurs, I often find myself facing new issues and unfamiliar challenges. At first, it can be intimidating when everyone is looking to you to make a decision and you have no reference point. However, I constantly remind myself that everything I do, was once new and scary, and now its routine. Like learning to drive a car!
- The worst times in the business are the ones that you will look back on as the most formative moments. There is no better catalyst for change than failure. When I look back on the last 16+ years in this business and identify where we grew the most and made the most impactful decisions, there is no doubt that I wouldn’t have been able to make the hardest calls without feeling like my back was against a wall.
- Your interests and passions will evolve and shift with time. Sometimes you will need to proactively look for ways to stay engaged and challenge yourself. As the years passed and I became more comfortable in certain aspects of my role, it was important to the growth of the business and to my personal growth to get out of my comfort zone and expand into new and uncharted territory. Launching the franchise arm of the business has helped me to feel like I’m a part of something “new” again.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
My experience has been that the feeling of “burn-out” comes and goes in waves. Those waves are an indicator of some deeper issue and we have to reflect on the root cause. I ask myself, am I needing more work-life balance? Am I needing to change my routine? Do I want to try something new? Or do I just need a few days away? The solutions will vary depending on the underlying issues, but I definitely encourage my colleagues to pay attention to these feelings when they come up, and act by making some kind of change, even if it’s relatively small.
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?
There have been so many incredible people, who have played instrumental roles in the success of The Closet Trading Co, at different points in our history. Both personally and professionally, there is absolutely no way I would have reached some of the highest highs or survived some of the lowest lows without the support, encouragement, motivation, skill, leadership, and dedication of our key team members. Specifically, Taylor Lambert, currently our COO, began her TCTC career as a Sales Associate in the Santa Barbara store 12 years ago, and her leadership and myriad contributions have been invaluable in growing the company regionally, and now nationally.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
My goal is to guide others to find success in entrepreneurship. At the heart of franchising is the idea of entrepreneurs supporting one another, and that is what draws me to the industry. I dream of seeing The Closet Trading Co stores nationwide, run by owners who have used our systems to build thriving small businesses. That vision drives me every day.
On the personal side, I would like to help rescue pugs and find them new homes. I had a pug for 14 years, and I just absolutely love them. We recently held an adoption event in our Santa Monica store with Pug Nation Rescue of Los Angeles, and nothing would make me happier than finding a home for every single one of their dogs!
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope to help as many entrepreneurs as I can to build businesses that give them confidence, joy, and financial independence. I would love for these store owners to be able to build their nest eggs and contribute to their respective communities, while being able to say “I love my job”!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
This is wildly out of my wheelhouse, but I would love to see all junk mail eliminated. We all get so much junk every day and it’s just a massive waste of paper. There are so many ways to advertise — can’t we all agree on a more environmentally friendly alternative?
How can our readers follow you on social media?