Fabi Preslar: “The CEO makes or breaks the company”

It is a myth that academic credentials are critical to be an entrepreneurial CEO. In the world of entrepreneurship, experience and life skills outweigh book knowledge any day. I’ve had the privilege of outlasting and outwitting those with a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees when it comes to running a profitable, long-term, sustainable business. However, […]

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It is a myth that academic credentials are critical to be an entrepreneurial CEO. In the world of entrepreneurship, experience and life skills outweigh book knowledge any day. I’ve had the privilege of outlasting and outwitting those with a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees when it comes to running a profitable, long-term, sustainable business. However, I do hire those with credentials when I have a specific situation that requires that type of knowledge.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fabi Preslar. Fabi is CEO and founder of SPARK Publications. She immigrated to the United States with her French parents to begin a life of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship. Even as a young girl, Fabi could see the story in everything, and every story could get creatively packaged into a visual presentation. Her creativity and successes were fueled by a journey riddled with setbacks and failures. Her personal efforts toward self-awareness have helped her to rewrite the story of her life and business. It is through her swirls that Fabi can now share insights with a sense of humor and deep reflection, providing a valuable and authentic insight into being an entrepreneurial CEO. She was recently honored as one of the 2020 Folio: Top Women in Media.

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?

After my parents left France, they moved around a little before finally settling in the U.S. I was born in Canada, and then we moved to the Bahamas for a little while and then finally moved to the States. We settled in a tiny, one-stoplight town in South Carolina.

I was a creative kid, a good student as far as attendance, although I daydreamed a great deal about life beyond the woods surrounding our self-sufficient farm. Everything I came across, I’d imagine a story of how it got there. Life was a bit challenging there for me. We lacked none of the main basics of life. But imagine that one latch-key kid in junior high who was 5 feet 11 inches, had one pair of high-water bellbottom jeans, one pair of shoes, and spoke two languages. I was awkward, introverted, and had low confidence, but always had moments of bold courage.

Entrepreneurship ran in my family, but not as a positive thing. My great-grandfather was very wealthy and owned a bank in Paris. In the mid-1930s, that bank crashed as many around the world did at that time. That threw my family tree into poverty. My father was always trying entrepreneurial schemes, although unsuccessfully, to bring in big money. He was a good chef but had no business skills. He opened a restaurant that he had to shut down a year later. We lost the farm, our home, and the life we knew. A family friend near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, opened up her home to our beat-down family of four.

I wanted to be a graphic designer to be creative and share a visual story about anything I came across. At age 17, two weeks after I graduated high school, I left home and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, by myself with no money, no car, I knew no one. (There’s that courage I was born with.) I worked three jobs to put myself through school full time and became a graphic designer. I launched my first business at 22 years old and lost it six years later over a really poorly executed contract and crooked partner. I went back to work for other companies for a few years. Then in 1998, I started SPARK Publications, which helps professionals tell their stories through independently published nonfiction books and magazines. And I still daydream and make up stories in my head about many things. And many of them come true!

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

As the business grew, I felt a duty to help people. I set out on a mission to change the world, one employee at a time. My objective was to provide a workplace where folks could heal and grow. My intention was to find employees with potential and give them space to blossom.

Warning: be careful what you ask for. The Universe responded by bringing a stream of personally burdened folks to my doorstep. Lots of dysfunctional people with untapped potential are out there, and that’s exactly who I attracted and hired. It was difficult to get high-level work done in between the drama and tears, situation after situation. I had quite a bit of turnover as I worked to build a healthy, heart-centered, and productive team. Each and every one of them had talent, but it was overshadowed by their personal problems. As a business owner, I had difficulty getting them to be profitable. I grew physically and emotionally exhausted.

I went to one of my advisors and described the broken lives and painful situations within my team. I was tired of running an emotional day care, and shouldering that burden was more than I could bear. Then my guide asked me this direction-changing question: “Why did you choose such a team, and why did you choose to run an emotional daycare if that’s not what you want to do?”

I no longer hire for potential. I hire and build teams that are deeply talented with a heart and mind for service and creativity. Fascinatingly, that is how I began to change the world a bit, one great client publication at a time. Early on, my vision was there; however, I needed to learn and mature into how to get there. In the early stages as a leader, I didn’t realize the power of my vision, goals, and actions actually had.

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?

This is one of those compounded situations that was funny after the hurt went away. Although deeply introverted, I realized I would need to speak to groups to grow my publishing firm. An opportunity came much sooner than expected when I became a finalist in the Make Mine a Million dollar Business competition. The event was a cross between American Idol® and Shark-Tank®.

We had to cover a multitude of information with no notes in three minutes on stage in front of a large, live audience. When I presented my pitch to the judges the night before, they shredded it. The judge’s points were great, and I felt that everything I had presented was wrong. So instead of adjusting my presentation, I completely changed it. I stayed up all night rewriting it, fretting, and memorizing it to try to do it the way the judges said it had to be. That night, I worked hard with no sleep (at all) to try and be something I wasn’t. (The competition didn’t ask for that; that was just how I interpreted it at the time.)

The next morning at the live event, the comedy of errors continued. I was one of the last presenters — not good for a sleep-deprived introvert. I lost my nerve, lost my focus, forgot the presentation order and all the words, and almost forgot the name of my firm. I tanked the presentation in front of supporters, friends, colleagues, the media, and 400 guests. I did so poorly that one of my friends jumped up and shouted, “Nailed it!” because she felt so bad for me. It did get a few confused laughs. I was one of two who were excused from the competition and forever a “finalist.”

Lessons learned: drop the perfection-ruled, insecure ego. I wanted to be better than I thought I was. I learned to just talk about what I know when I present, making sure to include a bigger vision and to be authentically me. My firm and I were publishing great books and magazines; I simply needed to present the vision with the engaging client success stories I initially had in my presentation. Instead, I made it boring and awkward.

Shortly after the competition, I hired a great speaking coach. In hindsight, I can see I was like a comedy show making all the rookie mistakes, publicly, one after the other. It was a classic example of how not to pitch your business. I now stick to talking about what I know and passionately feel without trying to be something or someone I’m not.

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?

I was attracted to entrepreneurship because I wasn’t able to find a position that could use all my skills that also allowed me to focus on my family as a first priority. For six years, I built my own position as a solopreneur and turned down a fair amount of work. When my daughter entered her senior year in high school, she let me know “she’s got this,” and it was time to see how I could build the business. I rented my first office and hired my first full-time employee within weeks and then grew and transformed the firm from there. I truly enjoy the creative freedom of being able to take on and continue providing services to a client or to not take on a client that just wasn’t a good fit. Often, it isn’t about a financial fit. It’s about the work and even more about the way they communicate or treat my team. Respect and kindness in how a client treats my team is very important. I’ve shed private tears saying goodbye to good money from a client who had become toxic to my team. What’s the point in not looking forward to coming into work either due to the work, the client, or an employee?

A great side note to this is that I focused on my family as a priority while building my firm early on. Then 10 years later, my husband joined the firm, and a few years after that, our daughter followed. Their talent along with the other members of our team (aka, the SPARKlers) helped take my firm to a much higher level of talent, creativity, production, and profitability. Our family-first focus is still in place for all of the team. Being founder and CEO has allowed me to create the work environment and type of firm I want to work for.

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?

As an entrepreneurial CEO, all the mistakes are mine. All the wins belong to the clients and are made possible by the team.

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

Having the courage and position to guide talented people to be even more talented in several aspects of their positions.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The pressure of responsibility to the team, the firm, and the clients, all while needing to create opportunities and to forecast months ahead when tomorrow is never certain. This was all further put to the test during the COVID-19 shutdown.

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

  1. The CEO makes or breaks the company. Although I’ve taken on that responsibility, the truth is that the team we have in place and the clients we take on create success.
  2. A CEO needs to be extroverted. I entered as a deep introvert and have developed skills to be more of an ambivert when my role requires it. I could (and have) gone months at a time without seeing folks or being public. I have no issue having my team shine or take the lead.
  3. Prior executive experience is required to be a successful CEO. Being an entrepreneurial CEO requires many, many skills and experiences in all areas of the business and its industry. I think applicable in-the-trenches training is more valuable for CEO success than having prior executive experience.
  4. A CEO must excel in any situation. Nope, not at all. A great CEO needs to know how to build a team that is much more talented than the CEO is. Deep self-awareness is critical to having an aligned ego to be able to make room for the team to excel.
  5. Academic credentials are critical to be an entrepreneurial CEO. In the world of entrepreneurship, experience and life skills outweigh book knowledge any day. I’ve had the privilege of outlasting and outwitting those with a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees when it comes to running a profitable, long-term, sustainable business. However, I do hire those with credentials when I have a specific situation that requires that type of knowledge.

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

I think the biggest challenge women face in business is the perception of our capabilities. I was ready to expand my business and went to my bank with my business plan and loan application in hand. I was two years into my business and had generated more money than I had in five years working for others. My husband’s only non-negotiable was he didn’t want our home used as collateral. I had the equipment and a really good client list and receivables.

Less than five minutes into the banker’s interrogation, he (the loan officer) slammed the business plan and application down on his desk, leaned toward me, and said, “Mrs. Preslar, if your husband doesn’t think your business will succeed, why do you think we as a bank should?” I’m quite certain that if I were a man applying for that loan, I wouldn’t have been dealt that condescending smack. I pulled all my business and opened accounts with Bank of America, who saw my vision and gave me 100 percent of the expansion loan I asked for. And they’ve had my business ever since.

I’ve also done handshake deals with men who had no resistance to breaking their word. That’s never happened with other women. And of course, I got wiser and formalized my processes. I’ve found the more secure and confident I am in my processes, services, and position, the less resistance I encounter from my male counterparts.

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

When I launched my business 23 years ago, I thought I’d have an abundance of free time to paint. I didn’t really paint much prior, and I haven’t painted in 23 years. Now when I make free time for myself, I create opportunities, events, or new processes. I didn’t realize how much I would love having my own firm and the creativity it provides me. I no longer paint, but I have found these other creative projects so much more fulfilling.

Early on, I thought that much of what I’d do would be graphic production. I haven’t physically produced or designed covers or pages in years. My role now is sharing what we do for our clients, consulting, and attracting new clients that have powerful and purposeful messages. Along with being CEO, I’m still in the roles of president and COO. I never thought the work I’d do would require so much daily strategic thinking and financials. Our creative director and communications director, with their teams, handle all of the design and editorial production. I still look forward to further growth to release my roles as president and COO in the near future, which will give me more time for more creative and visionary activities.

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?

Resilience, persistence, and passion for what you are doing are key. Persistence is needed to keep moving forward, resilience to keep bouncing back up after the falls and gut-punches, and passion for your great “why” to make the resilience and persistence worth the effort. Then wrap all of that up with deep self-awareness and great vision.

I think the type of person who may not succeed as an executive lacks compassion, self-awareness, and is too self-focused. If they don’t want to address these traits, then being a leader may not be a path for them.

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

The deeper and better you know yourself, the less baggage and ego you bring to the position, team, and company. I’ve learned the hard way how detrimental it was to bring my unhealthy ego into company leadership. Knowing who you are, what you stand for, and what your nonnegotiables are helping you show up more authentically. Just know that not every position, company, or client is going to be a fit. Sometimes saying no to an opportunity can be the most successful thing you do for your career or life.

None of us are able to 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?

On a job interview at McClatchy many years ago, I met an amazing person who became my rock in life and gave me wings in my career. I was 22 at the time. He helped me to grow up as a person and as a creative. Then many years later when it was time to take my firm to an entirely new level, he left his 24-year corporate career to come on board as the creative director of my independent firm. This move allowed me to step out of creative production and step into the leadership role my growing firm needed. He has had a great impact on my career and my firm. We’ve now worked together in my firm full time for 11 years. Most importantly, he’s the love of my life, my husband, Larry. We’ve just celebrated 33 years of marriage.

When my new boss at McClatchy walked me into various departments I’d be collaborating with, that was the moment Larry and I met. He looked up from his drafting board, and those bright blue eyes shot lightning bolts from the top of my head to the tip of my toes and back again. I knew this man was going to change my life somehow, and I wasn’t ready for it. The same thing happened to him. As my new boss and I walked out of his department, he turned to his boss and said, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.” Although I turned him down the first three times he asked me out, but we worked together and became really good friends, so we’ve been together since the day we met. It was love at first sight and the best working relationship and life partnership one could ever ask for or dream of.

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

Watching clients positively impacting their audiences with powerful stories is one of those truly fueling joys that lets me know the projects we create are of great value. It means a great deal to know our work empowers little bubbles of the world, and then those bubbles positively spread. Having successfully built a small business where the team handles day-to-day production affords me the opportunity to share my personal story of resilience. I get to share that message through interviews in various media and also through private group conversations and on stage at conferences. I never thought that my struggles, failures, and perseverance would be eye-opening conversations for those whom I attract. When I get letters and emails sharing that my journey of everyday resilience empowered or motivated people to grow their businesses, it’s a powerfully affirming exclamation mark on my efforts to make the circle I’m responsible for a little better.

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

I wish someone would have told me:

  1. “Failure is not the end; it’s the beginning of every great new thing.” I used to think a big mistake or failure was the end of whatever I was aiming for or doing. I interpreted failures as deeply personal defeats until I took the time to review all the amazing successes that came on the heels of each failure. Now, if I’m not failing or getting rejected, I know I’m not trying enough new things. Yes, it still hurts, just not as hard or as long.
  2. “You are going to learn more about yourself than you thought possible.” We all have so many layers. Each time I come close to knowing a part of myself, I encounter a deeper layer and then another and another. I’ve come to realize that our traumas, egos, and personalities take over every thought and decision until we learn to be aware of what makes us tick.
  3. “To be successful in business, have a rich personal life.” Business will consume you if you let it. I’ve found that the more I prioritize and schedule time for my health, relationships, and personal time, the more success flows easily into my life. I’ve forgotten this fact at times and become all consumed with the business, forgetting that everything else is a necessary part of a successful life. Exhaustion, business complexity, damaged relationships, and serious illnesses showed up as harsh reminders that I was neglecting my personal life.
  4. “To be a good leader, know how to be a good team player.” I was never very good at playing in others’ sandboxes. It was more comfortable building a new one. That made me work mentally and physically a great deal harder than I needed to. Working smarter through collaboration and learning how others have done similar things while being part of a team have taught me how to be a better leader. If I had always been leading, I would have missed out on seeing how my team can function without me.
  5. “What you’ve done the first 10 years won’t get you through the next 10.” Leadership constantly requires learning new technologies and processes to pivot and innovate. There is no coasting or relying on what has worked for years before. The day I heard one of my team say, “That’s how we’ve always done it,” I knew it was time to implement some serious changes.

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 think everyone should take the time to write their own memoir. I’m not saying you have to publish your memoir or even let anyone else read it. The biggest gifts I’ve given myself were when I took the time to reflect on my own timeline and life events. I did this when I began writing my first book about the life of my mentor after she died. Through the pain and frustration of trying to make sense of things, I learned so much about myself. The biggest lesson I learned was that every hardship prepared me for the next situation I’d encounter. Jotting it all down helped bring clarity to a life I thought had no purpose or direction, where I felt as if someone was always pulling a rug out from under me. Reviewing my life also helped me start to see how I had created some of the situations I was in, whether through fear, old beliefs, or lack of confidence. After documenting my journey with my mentor, I strongly began focusing on my personal accountability, the power of my thoughts, and how brilliant our life paths and patterns can be. My second book, a business journey memoir, helped me mature through the stories I told myself. I further dealt with my own anger and ego. I think the more we learn about how we operate in life, leadership, and business, the more compassionate we can become toward others. I came to realize that, similar to my journey, most people are doing the best they can with what they are aware of. Therefore, I’d love to start a movement where all emerging and current executives write their memoirs in such a way as to become aware of what internal things are guiding them. I believe that will, in turn, help us become better communicators and humans as we find our greater purpose as leaders.

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

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” — Madeleine Albright

It is tough out there. This quote inspires me to help and lift up as many women as I can along my business journey. I’ve had some tricky and mean ones cross my path. This quote just helped me to remember that they were missing support and just needed someone to help lift them up with kindness or a supportive hand. That worked most of the time. I got burned a few times — not everyone wants to accept support or kindness. I previously didn’t know that was a thing. As a woman, if you can’t help another woman, then at the very least don’t tear her down or make the path harder for her in any way. That in itself is helping.

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

I’ve thought about this way too long and in too much detail. My list of entrepreneurial CEOs I’d like to meet got quite long. Then I felt selfish because I would want to ask them so many questions, and it just wouldn’t be right to “take” from their wisdom. So I flipped it to someone I couldn’t take from. I’d love to have tea with Robin Roberts, a fellow breast cancer thriver, and thank her for turning her mess into a message of joy that she shares every chance she gets.

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

I’m grateful for this opportunity and your great questions. Some of these required digging deeply into my mental vault. I appreciated the challenge.

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