Be intentional. Don’t wait for someone else to come to the table with an idea. Think about what you want to do, what you envision and some ways you believe might make that a reality. Invite others to join in your vision and to offer solutions — it’s much for productive (and fun!) to work on something big with others contributing alongside you. It’s easy to check out…don’t fall into that trap.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Halkos. Elizabeth is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Purchasing Power. Among her achievements, Halkos received the 2017 “Female Executive of the Year” Silver Award from the Stevie® Awards for Women in Business. She also was named among the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s “Top 40 Business Stars Under 40” and appointed to The Committee of 200, created to advance women’s leadership in business. She also serves on a number of non-profit and professional boards.
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?
Early in my career I had the opportunity to work at Monster.com before it went public, giving me a glimpse into the excitement of an early-stage disruptor. When I graduated from business school a few years later, the norm was to join a large company as the next logical step. But I realized that what excites me most is the ambiguity and potential of those early stages in a company and the opportunity to be a change agent in an emerging industry. Those are the situations where you can really help transform a business, drive innovation and build organizational strategy and structure. During my 13 years at Purchasing Power, we have created a pioneering business model and a B2B and B2C brand in a category that didn’t exist previously — it’s thrilling.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Purchasing Power’s annual revenue has grown quite a bit during my tenure, from $30 million to over $450 million. When I started, we had about 30 employees. It was an “all hands on deck” environment, with every level of the company rolling up our sleeves when necessary to process orders, particularly during our busy holiday season. Fast-forward several years, and we now have over 250 employees with many of those same tasks now fully automated. It’s been a transition in mindset, but that tactical, hands-on experience together in the beginning created a really strong sense of teamwork that has lasted throughout our evolution.
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?
With just a small staff in operation, our original office space was rather unconventional, including a full kitchen and dining area right as you entered the building. Every Friday, we’d make the staff a hearty breakfast that filled the place with the smell of bacon, eggs, coffee and hot biscuits — just a simple way of celebrating another hard week of work. I was in the process of hiring a national sales force and had scheduled a round of final interviews with several seasoned candidates. I didn’t realize at that point that walking into an office that looked and smelled more like a breakfast diner than a promising, tech-savvy start-up would strike these industry professionals as really unexpected, if not downright strange! Their faces told me that if we were to be treated seriously in a traditional, well-entrenched industry, we needed to make a solid, professional first impression. (But absolutely not abandon the team spirit that was propelling us these first years.) There are several stories like this one from our earlier years that have helped define and preserve the entrepreneurial culture of the business.
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?
One of the most important responsibilities as an executive is making difficult decisions. My passion to do what is right for our customers and the business in this role is one of the reasons I love what I do. As an executive, it is also important to build a strong company culture, supported by a clear vision and strong communication. Executives must be focused and resilient when facing obstacles, and I enjoy dealing with those demands.
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?
It is important to have a vision to align the organization.Executives must be able to not only communicate the direction and vision of the company but also convey it to many different audiences, from shareholders and investors to employees and media. It is also our job to absorb anxiety on behalf of our employees whenever the company goes through difficult situations. That goes back to the focus and resiliency I just mentioned — executives must stay outwardly positive and composed, even in turmoil.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
One of the best aspects of being an executive is creating change — partnering withemployees and colleagues to build the organization of the future. Creating change requires leadership and teamwork. Driving change and innovation creates momentum within an organization. At Purchasing Power, I love the momentum we are creating that ultimately improves our value proposition to our customers.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
In reality,there’s no official start or end to the workday, so you have to be diligent in how you manage a work/life balance that fits your particular needs. Personally, I feel an obligation to follow through/respond to communication and customer outreach expeditiously. I put pressure on myself to make my schedule fit that goal, which isn’t always easy with a spouse and two small children.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the myths is thatexecutives have to show strength in all situations, even though often they don’t have all of the answers and are often making decisions based on the best information they have at the time. There is a vulnerability there that doesn’t always show through the tough exterior.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I recently read an article that said female executives need to be confident and direct yet also maternal in the workplace. It reminded me of the famous quote about Ginger Rogers “doing everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels.” Female executives also face a number of biases in the workplace — women often have to work harder to build credibility and alliances — which are obviously critical to how successful they are in their roles as executives.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The reality of being an executive and making decisions for the company is that it takes a lot of collaboration and teamwork. Leaders can sometimes be incredibly capable and self-sufficient but not great at working with others…and vice versa — it takes both types of skills. This is one reason why I think attending business school is beneficial to aspiring leaders; these programs tend to be very team-based and help prepare you for the reality and demands of collaboration.
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?
Successful executives have confidence in their point of view and are comfortable being vocal about it. They provide clarity — a clear vision, clear roles, and accountability. Because of their self-assurance, strong leaders are able to influence others. Additionally, good leaders have self-awareness, know how to build relationships and solve problems quickly. Some people prefer to play the role as a contributor to a broader plan or vision — while they may not be on the path to be an executive, their roles are very important to any organization.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
It is important to build a team where each member has complementary strengths. You don’t want to surround yourself with people who will just say “yes;” you need a team that will challenge each other to help make the best decisions on behalf of the organization. It is also important to understand the skill gaps on your team and build out the team functions as necessary. Part of your role is to encourage and facilitate honest dialogue even if it is not aligned with your point of view. Another part of your role is to bring out the best in people. When you make a habit of giving your team the vision of where you want to go but allowing them to determine how they are going to get there, you empower your team to collaborate, innovate and thrive.
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?
I consider my three brothers to be a part of my personal board of advisors. They have offered me fantastic feedback and advice throughout my career, including helping me find the courage to join an emerging company rather than taking the safer route with a larger, more established one. They asked the right questions and challenged me to trust my instincts that the company had potential and a value proposition worth the risk.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Purchasing Power has nine “superpowers” embedded in our company’s culture, and one of them — “Care” — is defined by “what makes us smile is seeing someone else smile.” That’s what gets me up in the morning — looking for ways to help others have a better life and giving back to the community. Through my executive position, I’m able to support causes and organizations in our community and to encourage employees to contribute their service, volunteer leadership and charitable contributions. I believe that makes better places for everyone to live, work and grow.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Have a point of view and share it. That’s an essential part of being able to influence others, and having influence makes you better in your role.
- Know when to say yes. Support others and their ideas, and bring a positive energy to the collaboration.
- Know when to say no. There are times when it’s OK to disagree and stand your ground.
- Be intentional. Don’t wait for someone else to come to the table with an idea. Think about what you want to do, what you envision and some ways you believe might make that a reality. Invite others to join in your vision and to offer solutions — it’s much for productive (and fun!) to work on something big with others contributing alongside you. It’s easy to check out…don’t fall into that trap.
- Be positive. If you’re neutral, you’re essentially negative. Executives often underestimate their effect on the energy of the company. If you aren’t in a positive frame of mind about something, try to minimize your exposure to everyone else until you can be.
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 love to see a computer program or an app created to positively impact climate change; something that would influence people to take even small steps toward a healthier planet. For instance, people could enter in the measurements of their yard and the app would tell them how many trees they should plant, what types require less water and would benefit the soil, etc. It would be like a Fitbit for the environment. I believe people want to make the right decisions that would benefit their own lives and the lives of their children.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” You’re here. Be bold! Life is short, and you don’t want to look back wishing that you hadn’t played it safe. The world has so much to offer — it is up to you to go after it. When I think about that quote as it relates to my own life, everything from traveling all over the world from Patagonia to the Galapagos Islands, building a family and having kids, building a successful career and continuing to invest in other people and the community come to mind. I have made a number of choices that have been fulfilling and adventurous for me, and I haven’t regretted it. Next on my list is the possibility of getting another advanced degree.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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
Brené Brown would be my ultimate lunch date. I believe leaders set the tone with vulnerable leadership in the workplace, which gives others the courage to serve the business in the same manner. Brené has done so much to elevate the understanding of vulnerability at work. She urges companies to translate their values into specific behaviors that are observable and measurable. I’ve seen this in action when companies value the total well-being of their employees by offering voluntary benefits like financial wellness and employee purchase programs. It’s an important shift that is leading to increased employee engagement.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.