See the best in others, and coach them to achieve their full potential, which means communicating feedback and expectations with compassion, but also with rigor, velocity, and in the moment.
As part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon Adkins.
Shannon is a thought leader and CEO at Future State, a woman-owned, employee-owned consulting company with a triple bottom line where people get to be themselves. They bring value to their clients in Life Sciences, Technology, Healthcare and Consumer Goods by understanding the journey they are on throughout their transformation. After years of working for startups, tech companies, and in corporate America, getting her MBA, and starting a family, Shannon decided she wanted to work somewhere where she could be fully expressed as a mom, a volunteer, and a badass business woman. So, she went back to Future State. The changes she initiated led to revenue doubling in 24 months, new offerings, new clients in new industries, new teams and leaders, and a new name, Future State. In 2015, she became the CEO and made sure to continue to grow and evolve, officially making it a B-Corp.
Shannon challenges herself to always ask “why,” and to make sure the answers contribute to creating a world that works for everyone. An eternal optimist, she believes the right team of people can find a radical solution to any problem. Weaving together the opportunity, the business needs and the collected wisdom of its stakeholders, these solutions become clear and executable strategies that lead to continual success.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The biggest part of this answer is privilege. As a white, middle class woman that grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and went to a top 10 public high school, I grew up in idyllic conditions and with all of the resources, tools and role models I needed to succeed. Add some luck to that in that I graduated college just as the dot com boom was heating up in the SF Bay Area, and when being able to walk and talk at the same time meant you were going to be a Director of something, for a dot com something, and you have a big part of the answer to that story.
The other part is a bit about being brave, and purpose-driven, and being committed to living a life of self-expression and authenticity.
I was an English major in college. As I approached graduation, I was pondering Law School, as an opportunity to bring my attention and impact to issues of gender equity in the workplace. Instead, I went to Europe for a year and did some backpacking and teaching and thinking and decided that the greatest way I might make a change for women in the workplace would be to be a strong female leader in business. I even imagined I might one day be a CEO.
As my career unfolded across many twists and turns, one thing remained constant- my commitment to having a career in which I could contribute my full self, be challenged in service of a purpose that I believed in, and yet also live my full life — whether that be as a caregiver for my mom who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at an early age, or as a mother, a volunteer, an activist, an athlete. After just a few years in the business world, with my MBA in hand, I began to doubt that there was a place for me at the top, reaching the conclusion that the sacrifices I would have to make to both my character and my balance were not worth the reward of a CEO role.
After more than 10 years in various leadership and management roles, in starts-ups and in established Fortune 500 firms, I began to doubt my ability to rise in the organization without sacrificing my values and my personal commitments to family and health.
So, I made a radical change.
I took a $100,000 pay cut, returned to a small woman owned and led consultancy in Walnut Creek, CA, called Tech Prose, where I had worked in my 20’s. From there, I began to lead a turnaround of that business as a salesperson, and a change leader. Today, I am the CEO of that business, called Future State.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting thing that has happened since I became CEO in 2015 was the process of becoming a Certified B-Corp, and experiencing the immediate positive impact that had on our ability to attract and retain millennial team members and socially minded business people who were looking to bring a positive impact to the world of work.
The process itself is robust, and the community is so exciting to be a part of. The leaders that have laid the path for purpose-led transformation and business, like Eileen Fisher, we now have in our immediate community of supporters and partners.
It is an honor to be a part of this movement.
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?
The biggest mistake I made as I transitioned into the CEO role was that I underestimated the impact of that transition for the rest of the leaders in the company. I am not a naturally hierarchical person and had seen myself as the leader of our change efforts, so it seemed to me that the change in role was more of a formality than a significant change. I underestimated greatly that people might no longer feel it was appropriate for them to bring their ideas and complaints and concerns directly to me, as they had when I was in the role of #2 in the prior org structure.
I still really flinch when people say things to me like “I shouldn’t be taking your time with this issue” or “ I am sure you have more important things to do,” and it is very disorienting to me when I learn that people have been upset or uncomfortable but do not feel ok bringing it to me. In my mind, I am exactly the same person I was before I became CEO, so the change in the nature of our relationships was not expected.
The lesson that I have learned is that I must be very explicit with my teams about the many roles I play, and how I want them to interact with me. I am a CEO, a coach, a source of subject matter expertise and advice, a salesperson, a solution architect, a thought leader, a delivery person, and a billable resource on client projects, and I need to be able to partner and team effectively across all of these roles.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We stand out as a woman owned, employee owned, Certified B Corp that is committed to supporting our clients in transformation. Our approach to transformation is human centered and purpose driven. Unlike most management consulting companies, we believe that the wisdom that is needed to thrive through complex and uncertain times is resident in hearts and minds of the leaders, teams and individuals of the clients we serve. Our process is one of facilitation, coaching and co-creation, partnering with our clients in service of their extraordinary and meaningful visions.
Recently, we were pitching a large transformation project and the prospect asked us to share about our experience solving this exact issue for a client just like them. I responded with the truth — “never”, after which I said, “I would ask, if you are doing something that no one has ever done, attempting to transform in ways that will change your industry, is it credible when a firm tells you that they have?” In the end, this humility, transparency and commitment to partnering and learning together is what won us this business.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am fortunate to be working on a number of projects with world changing aspirations. Our clients are titans of industry, committed to using their power and resources to be a force for good in the world. The project and the people we work with are committed to equitable health outcomes for people of all races and backgrounds, transforming and uplifting poor communities through education and technology, and reducing the cost of healthcare for all.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Role model! Be committed and demonstrate the commitment to your own wellbeing so that others know they can do that too. Work hard on your own self-awareness in order to grow and evolve as a leader and bring your full self-expression to bear. Publicly and transparently share your journey, your challenges, your sources of pride ad your failures, your commitments and your needs, and allow other to contribute to you.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
See the best in others, and coach them to achieve their full potential, which means communicating feedback and expectations with compassion, but also with rigor, velocity, and in the moment. Normalize feedback, learning and growth so that people seek out opportunities to deepen their self-awareness and grow as individuals and leaders. Mix up teams! Make sure you are fostering inclusivity and diversity of perspective, making sure all members of the team have a choice, and the ability to use it.
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?
Meryl Natchez, the founder of Future State, and my first real boss. First and foremost, she believed in me. She gave me a much bigger accountability than I was qualified for and supported my growth by allowing me to try and fail, giving me real time actionable feedback and coaching, yet never leaving me feeling less empowered, less capable, or less trusted.
I remember leaving a large pitch and being excited and pumped about how well it went. I was floating, and she stopped me to remind me that I needed to ask for feedback every single time I could. Not just from her, as my boss, but from everyone I encountered. What did I do well? What could I improve? She taught me, then and there, that learning and growth are more important than achievement and praise, and that bit of coaching led me on a path of continuous learning that accelerated my performance relative to many of my peers.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I spend a significant portion of my time coaching other women, taking on pro-bono or community work, volunteering and fundraising for causes that matter to me. I recently began to guest lecture for a local Executive MBA Program, and I make sure to talk about how to live and lead from a place of authentic self-expression and continuous learning and growth. I blog, I podcast, and I hope to one day write a book.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- You can and should have boundaries
When my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, at a young age, I was immediately thrust into a role as a part of her caregiving team. Not only did I need to leave work on time/early often, I also realized that there are not guarantees, and that life is for living, fully. My boss at the time, in one of the largest Financial Institutions in the nation, supported me 100%. It was a lesson that I carried forward from that time very early in my career, and whenever I sensed pressure to work late, or on weekend, just for appearances sake, I knew I would either succeed in shifting the culture, or not be on that team for long. I have stood firm all these years, not defaulting to a choice of making sacrifices of my family and community commitments in service of looking like I am working hard. Instead I have been clear about my boundaries, and commitment to producing results, and being effective, and the teams I want to be a part of honor and respect that commitment
2. It is ok to be loving, caring and kind to others, and to expect the same for yourself, at work.
As a human being, my purpose is about love, making a difference, being connected, and having fun. I am committed to this showing up in all areas of my life — work and play both. This is something that I have found to be a common theme in the people that come to Future State, and while some call it care, others call it love, others call it connection, it makes all the difference in the world when things get hard, when life is not going as planned, and when you need the help of others to be your best self. At Future State, this shows up in small and big ways — in our policies, and in our actions. We invest in getting to know one another, as humans, and we trust that the work will be better with that foundation.
3. You are better when you make others better
The thrill of being a rockstar, an expert, or the go-to gal is such a rush, but it is not a ticket to sustainable and scalable success. The only way that you will rise as a leader, and that your organization will rise, is if all people in the organization are rising. Strong leaders help others be better, and act as Servant Leaders. This is hard to do, especially in a start-up or turnaround environment, as sometimes it can seem easier and even kinder to just do it yourself. Instead, consider the opportunity to slow down in order to build capacity and sustainability into your business. I am currently investing a great deal of my personal time into transitioning leadership in our top account to two high potential team members. And while it can be more time consuming, I am already seeing the future emerging in which I am no longer at the heart, and new ideas and possibilities are emerging that were not possible when I was not bringing my team along.
4. Do things that you are not qualified to do
On this journey, I have never held a job I was qualified to do. I had never been on the internet and did not own a computer when I started a web development division for our company. I did not have an MBA and did not know how to read or build a P&L when I became accountable for a multi-million-dollar line of business for Wells Fargo. I did not understand APIs or software development when I took on the Developer Network at Intuit, and I certainly was not qualified to lead Future State as CEO. Instead, I believed in my ability to learn and grow, my ability to work hard, my ability to pivot if I needed to, and most importantly in my ability to ask for guidance, insight, wisdom and help from those around me.
5. When you believe in the purpose, everything is much easier, even the hard stuff
The most important thing is to be inspired by the work that you are doing — way beyond the check. Whether you are set up as a social impact business or not, it must be about more than just doing a good job. You need to have a fire in your belly for the purpose, and when you do, you will move mountains and sacrifice your own ego in service of that purpose. You will dust yourself off when you stumble. You will get creative AGAIN when things don’t go as planned, you will keep at it, until you have the breakthrough in your own leadership, or your offerings, your business model or your methods.
You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂
Every business can be a social impact business. You do not have to have a “buy one, give one” business model, or give your profits to charity. You do not have to write big checks. For every person leading a business or a business unit, there are many small things that you can do that will have a profound impact. Consider employee ownership. If you have physical space, make it available free of charge to local non-profits, short or long term. Encourage your team members to volunteer and serve on boards, on company time. Examine your own purchasing power as a business — do you have policies and practices in place to support WBE or MBE or Local or B-Corp businesses for your own goods and services? Are you recycling, composting, paying attention to waste and environmental impact? Are you investing in having healthy jobs, with a fair living wage, flexibility, resources for team members that might be caring for a loved one or going through a hardship? Are you investing in developing the self-awareness and emotional intelligence of your people managers and leaders? Do you have a focus on and commitment to equity, transparency and inclusion?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Everything will be ok in the end, and if it is not ok, it is not the end. — John Lennon, and my Dad, Rick Smith
Until I looked this up just now, I thought that this was a quote from my Dad. Ha!
- When my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s before the age of 50, I really could not see how that was ok.
- When we were told that the little girl we were set to adopt was in fact going to go live with a biological aunt who had up until that point never even visited her, I really could not see how that was ok.
- When the CEO hired my replacement without ever giving me performance feedback, that did not seem ok.
- When my best friend and co-worker became estranged and we no longer were partners at work or in life, I could not see how that was going to be ok.
But in the end, each of these heartbreaks, each of these moments of loss and pain, provided such profound learning and lessons that have been critical to who I am today as a mother, a leader, a friend. They have made me more bold, more loving, more authentic, more fearless, more purpose driven, and more fulfilled.
We are 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 🙂
Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock. As the leaders of the corporations that he writes to in his ‘Letter to CEOs’ look for partners to support them on their path towards purpose led transformation, we are the right partner. We have been down this path ourselves. We are credible, and we are deeply committed to impact beyond shareholder return, and business as a force for good in this world.