Grow in the open. You can’t grow unless you’re willing to be uncomfortable (if it’s easy, you’re not learning!), and one of the greatest things leaders can do is be willing to model that openly for others, so that they can see that it’s OK not to have it all figured out, and that it’s safe for them to let their guard down and grow, too.
I had the pleasure of interviewing independent publishing CEO Katel LeDû and tech consultant and author Sara Wachter-Boettcher, hosts of the Strong Feelings podcast.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
SWB: Yes! Both of us have created professional lives that are somewhat nontraditional and independent and then — sort of magically — we found each other and built this interwoven career path with our podcast, Strong Feelings. We first met in 2013, when I was working as a content strategy and user experience consultant and editing a magazine for people in tech and design as a community project on the side. I’d also just published my first book, Content Everywhere. Katel had recently taken over running A Book Apart, which publishes books for people who design, write, and code. So she emailed me one day asking if we could chat about the author acquisition process — because ABA didn’t have a formal process, and she knew they needed one as they grew. I was actually surprised she wanted to chat with me: I’d written one little book and run one little editorial site. What did I know about a book acquisition process? But, I just learned a few weeks ago, she was actually nervous to talk to me! She thought I had it all together, and she felt anxious and underprepared. I wish I had known that, because we spent the next three years sort of circling each other professionally, but never really working together or getting to know each other — until 2016, when I was about to publish my second book, Design for Real Life, this time with Katel’s press! Simultaneously, Katel was moving to Philadelphia, where I live. So I suggested we meet up for a drink, and within minutes I knew this was someone I wanted not just as a publisher or colleague, but as a friend. I literally canceled on a pottery class I was supposed to attend that night so I could keep hanging out with her! So in 2017, we started scheming ways we could work together more extensively, and that led to us launching our podcast (originally with a third cohost) as a springboard to building a larger business empire together.
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?
KL: From the very first episodes we launched, we knew we wanted to make transcripts available — and in the beginning, Sara and I took on the actual transcribing task. There is nothing quite like listening to your own voice over and over…and over again. Before we started, it definitely felt like a mistake — a cringe-worthy one! — to listen to myself so closely and critically. But it was extremely helpful! It made me pay attention to the things I wanted to improve (like, saying “like” a little less often), and after a few rounds, it actually made me like my voice. Once we did it a few times, too, we also realized that it was a mistake to do our own transcriptions. It’s a lot of work — so we decided to trust a professional with it, which I think allowed us to listen to ourselves with compassion and appreciation more often.
What do you think makes your podcast stand out? Can you share a story?
SWB: It’s all in the name: Strong Feelings. Most of the content we see about women and work focuses on a very narrow definition of success: climbing a corporate ladder, getting rich. That might be really important to some women, but that’s not the way we think of success — and we think that narrow focus encourages us to keep striving for the next rung, without really pausing to think, “will I be any happier when I get there?” So what we do is we get really honest and vulnerable — about our ambitions, about our fears, about all the conflicting emotions we have. For example, we want to be powerful and successful women, but we’re also painfully aware of how often focusing on our own success comes at the expense of underpaid and exploited workers somewhere else. That’s not a model of success that we can get behind, so we want to dig into that and be open about it. On Strong Feelings, we also make a point to not just ask our guests about what they do or how they built their careers, but also about what was hard about it, and what gives them joy in a world that often makes it really hard for ambitious women to thrive.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
SWB: Yes! We’re actively working on expanding our partnership beyond Strong Feelings and into also creating educational tools to help people build professional visibility. We talk to so many women who are underrepresented in their fields and want to gain more visibility and credibility for themselves and their ideas — but they don’t know where to start. They ask questions like, how do I start speaking at conferences? What does it take to write a professional book? How do I present myself as a person with ideas worth sharing? And how do I build expertise around a particular topic that I want to be known for? With our combined experience — me as a keynote speaker and an author of three books, Katel as a publishing CEO, and now both of us as podcasters, too — we think we’ve got the right mix of expertise to really bring the mentorship and guidance we often offer one-on-one to a larger audience. So that’s what we’re going to launch in 2019!
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
KL: I think one of the most important things I’ve learned as a leader is to be someone my team can easily approach. I know I don’t have to be (and won’t be) everyone’s friend — that’s not the focus. But if the folks I manage feel like they can come to me and talk openly about challenges or concerns they have, and if they feel encouraged to voice ideas and opinions — that makes our team and our whole company more successful. Somewhat related, I really believe in leading by example, especially when it comes to setting expectations and boundaries. Running a small company, it can be really easy for me to work a lot (nights, weekends, you name it), and feel like I need to be available all the time. When I’m unable to find and maintain my own work-life balance, I see it affect my team — they’re looking to me for cues about how we should operate. They’re also relying on me to, you know, lead! So if I’m doing everything I can to bring my best self to work, it’s beneficial for all of us.
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?
SWB: There are so many, but one person I think about a lot is my friend Karen McGrane of Bond Art & Science. She’s well-known as an author, speaker, and consultant in my field, and I definitely looked up to her (and was a little intimidated by her!) when I was first starting out. But it’s not just that she’s great at what she does, or that she taught me a lot about consulting and speaking. It’s that she’s so comfortable defining success on her own terms. She’s built a business that she cares about, but she’s also great at having boundaries with her work and her clients. She’s also not one of those people who stuffs their personality into a buttoned-up, “professional” profile all the time. She’s always herself, and doesn’t pretend she’s not a human. I’ve had the pleasure of working with her now several times, and I’ve really appreciated her modeling that for me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
KL: One of the most important things I’ve learned about having any kind of success is to be open and honest about what goes into it. Even when I’ve achieved a goal, like becoming CEO — or had success with something, like launching a podcast people like and listen to! — I’ve looked back on the process and realized there were so many moments I felt unsure or scared or like maybe I wasn’t even the right person for the job. I realized that the more I talk about that side of it, the richer those successes feel — and the more normal all those worries and insecurities feel. When Sara and I talk about our challenges and failures on Strong Feelings, we’re doing it both because we want to work through them, and because we hope doing it out in the open helps our listeners. For example, last year, we invited my therapist onto the show, because it was so important to both me and Sara to share a very real conversation about therapy — what it can look like, how to start it, and why it’s something we should be talking about a lot more. I hope it made folks realize that you can be successful, you can be a leader, and that it’s still ok to need help — and ask for it.
What are your “3 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
SWB: We have learned so much about leadership by running the podcast this past year — both from our guests, and from the responsibility we feel projecting our voices into the world. Here are a few lessons I think about a lot:
1) Grow in the open. You can’t grow unless you’re willing to be uncomfortable (if it’s easy, you’re not learning!), and one of the greatest things leaders can do is be willing to model that openly for others, so that they can see that it’s OK not to have it all figured out, and that it’s safe for them to let their guard down and grow, too.
2) It’s not just about you. As a leader, you get put into the spotlight a lot. It’s great to share your perspective and have people listen to what you say — I do get a rush when I go onstage — but being a leader also means using that power to elevate other voices and share that spotlight. Because just because I am a leader doesn’t mean I have all the answers (far from it!). What I do have with my audience is trust: they trust that I can help them grow. And the best way I can do that is often to bring them voices they wouldn’t know about otherwise, but who they can learn from.
3) Screw up, own up. Too many people in power are scared to admit when they’ve make a mistake. They hide behind PR statements, or they get defensive, or they give a non-apology. And then they want to move on as soon as possible. But a great leader can not only say, “I made a mistake,” but also take responsibility for the impact of that mistake. That doesn’t mean sit in a bubble of shame forever, but it does mean accepting that an apology might not have fixed it, and you might need to invest time in righting the wrong, or reckoning with the harm caused.
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 🙂
KL: Someone who comes immediately to my mind is Lizzo! She is a beacon of true body positivity, she knocks me out when she plays the flute, she has reached into my soul with her music, and she is extremely real and honest about when she’s struggling. I would love to take her out for brunch and say thank you.