Being an entrepreneur will affect your entire life, and it’s important to be sure that you have your priorities straight. For me I had to balance between being a mom and the business. I am ever so grateful that my husband and my mom helped us have a loving family and allowed me to set a strong example for my two daughters.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn Schifferle.
Kathryn is the founder and CEO of Work Truck Solutions and Comvoy. Her deep understanding of the commercial truck space stems from her role as executive director at the National Ford Truck Club, which she’s held for nearly 13 years. Kathryn previously served as director at Balestra Automotive Marketing, a marketing consulting business, and founded cable systems company Multi-Image Network, where she served as president and CEO for nearly 20 years. Kathryn earned a Bachelor’s Degree in 1976, and an MBA in 2007, both from California State University, Chico.
Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Before I started Work Truck Solutions, I was doing some consulting and a friend asked me to help out a guy who was starting a professional association in the work truck industry. He needed guidance on how to publish a magazine and, ultimately, build out the organization. The guy was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and working with him unearthed a passion for the work truck industry that I didn’t know I had. I quickly learned that the workers within the space are honorable, hard-working people who do important work. They also didn’t mind striking up a long conversation, which I enjoyed as a chatty person, but also led me to learn about the issues they were facing. I love solving problems, and I slowly began to understand how archaic the industry was — it was being run as if we were still in the 60s. One of the most significant problems was the inability to quickly and efficiently find the right work truck that suited the needs of their profession. I thought I could help address this issue, so I created www.comvoy.com.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’ve run half a dozen companies during my career, and learned a lot of valuable lessons throughout the process. Based on these learnings I established a set of three rules before launching Work Truck Solutions. Firstly, no bad apples. I wanted to build a team of kind, dedicated and value-driven people. Secondly, I had to let go of making ALL the decisions. Instead, I would hire great people and then let them do things their way. Finally, the final rule: build a company whose culture made for a great place to work.
By following these rules, a number of magical things happened. As I let go, I was able to embrace the flow of opportunity. We experienced significant synergies and just amazingly great luck. In fact, it was so amazing, I had to come up with a name for the serendipitous energy — we call it TRUCKMA!
The most interesting thing that came out of the three rules is how we have proven that a strong company culture leads to business success. We were focused on cultivating a welcoming, transparent, safe, enjoyable place to work. We created a space where acknowledging everyone’s contributions was important, and my early team embraced that mindset. We have prioritized this goal ever since and, as a result, our employees work hard and feel appreciated.
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?
Early in my career, I accidentally included the wrong company name in a presentation. I was able to make a quick edit in the presentation of the pitch, but I was very embarrassed. The funny thing was, the company which I was presenting to saw them as a competitor. They were so worried about missing out that they signed right away! Goes to go show that things often work out for the best and you shouldn’t fret over mistakes — if you don’t risk, there is no opportunity for reward!
What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I would consider myself a serial entrepreneur, and I think I am drawn to that sort of work because I am able to have a direct impact on every facet of the company — from major business strategy to hiring and more. I want to be a catalyst for good, and the role of CEO allows me to positively lead a company on a path toward success while ensuring that the internal culture is reflective of our company values.
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?
Being a CEO means you identify primary company goals and continually have your finger on the pulse of the company’s efforts to achieve those goals. The best way to achieve this is to be able to trust and guide your senior leaders. In many ways, it is like steering the boat. It’s a lot of responsibility, but that’s part of what makes it so fun.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I love being an executive because I can set the priorities that I believe will help drive the company forward. For me, a top priority is company culture and creating a supportive environment that not only encourages success, but acknowledges an individual when success is achieved. Whether it’s a small win or big, it deserves to be recognized and celebrated.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
Being an executive is a 24/7 job, your mind never shuts off. Because of this, you have to find things that help create space between your work and the rest of your life. One way I’ve done this is by participating in an intense sport. I used to fence competitively — and I was pretty good, too! At one point, I finished tenth in the world.
Some other ways I do this is by hugging my granddaughters and listening to mockingbird songs. These activities work for me, but ultimately, you have to find what it is outside of work that makes you happy and commit to making time for that.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think that CEOs are often perceived as being unapproachable or non-collaborative. Sometimes that may be because a CEO is SO busy, but a good CEO forms personal bonds and coaches the best out of each unique personality on his or her team.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There’s an old saying that women have to do four times as much as men to get the same accolades — good thing it’s so easy! All jokes aside, there is some truth to the statement: nearly every industry is male-dominated. It just so happens that the industry that I chose — automotive — is especially so. My biggest challenge getting started in this industry was fundraising for our Series A. Only three percent of VC funding goes to women-led companies, and only four percent of companies that do receive VC funding are women-run. Plus, only five percent of companies with VC funding have any women in executive roles.
When I went out to fundraise (sic), I spent a considerable amount of time booking meetings and getting investors to see the value in my company. But, when you’re a woman and the people across from you at the table are older, white men, the challenge becomes so much more difficult. On the other hand, when there’s a woman involved in the investment group, the process becomes easier, as there’s a commonality and a shared trust in your abilities. I was able to connect with two amazing private-equity firms: Golden Seeds and Belle Michigan. Both of these firms invest in only women-run companies.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Having started my own company, I created my job, so I don’t feel like there’s a significant difference between how I thought my job would be and how it is. Luckily, I love what I do and I keep learning every day.
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?
Being a good CEO, you should first aspire to be a good leader. That means prioritizing 1) what’s best for the individuals who work for you, 2) what’s best for the company, and 3) what’s best for yourself (in that order). I met Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford, who was a great example of this mentality. Today, I really like how Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, is leading GM and I’d love to meet her someday, too.
I think one common mistake is assuming that being the founder of a company makes someone a good CEO, but the two roles are very different. Some founders are able to transition into real leadership and become a true CEO. However, if they stop learning and growing, they should pass the reins on and go back to focusing on business development or something else they’re passionate about.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Find good mentors, continue to learn, be committed to being a good leader, and don’t worry about being a woman. Despite the many challenges that I’ve faced, I actually do think that being a female in the automotive industry has been helpful. I’m a strong believer that you should never take something that’s part of you and use it as an excuse to not do something.
I’ve seen that women can be more open to iteration and making changes, where men are typically laser focused and may have a hard time pivoting. In my experience, women are more likely to step back, reevaluate, multitask, and take in external feedback and opinions. These are traits that we can use to our advantage to establish trust and relationships in our careers and networks.
I also project confidence, which is a necessity in my industry. My confidence comes from all the time, hard work, and effort I’ve put into my career. I have gained so much valuable knowledge that I have at my disposal, and I think that having that in my back pocket is one of the greatest contributors to my confidence. I’d encourage all women to remember what they’ve learned as they progress through their careers: you know a lot. Use the knowledge you have, and be confident.
Aside from that, I encourage every leader to remember that learning, being vulnerable, and understanding your weaknesses or growth areas exude a different type of confidence. And lastly, surround yourself with good, smart people.
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?
My mom and my husband have been so supportive in many diverse ways; I am grateful to them both. My husband was my partner in our first company, Work Truck Solutions, and he continues to offer me support and feedback.
In the business world I have had a lot of short term mentors as I continued to learn and evolve. A couple examples include: Bob Bozeman, who I met early on while founding Work Truck Solutions. He was very kind and took his time to guide me throughout my career; I’ve learned a lot from him. Currently, I have two really great industry board members who also have been great mentors: Dave Thawley and Bernie Brenner. I am ever so grateful for their mentorship and friendship. My favorite non-industry mentor is Jo Ann Cokran, who is a Managing Director at Golden Seeds. All of the women at Golden Seeds have been inspirational and supportive.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’d like to think that the whole purpose of our work is to make the world a better place! Specifically, my team and I have created an incredible workplace that positively affects everyone within our company. We have employees who are inspired and dedicated to improving the lives of our dealers and our other industry partners. Now with Comvoy, we are once again doing our part to support the hard working businesses that use work trucks and vans.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Being an entrepreneur will affect your entire life, and it’s important to be sure that you have your priorities straight. For me I had to balance between being a mom and the business. I am ever so grateful that my husband and my mom helped us have a loving family and allowed me to set a strong example for my two daughters.
- Never hire someone just because they are smart or experienced — hire them because they are a good person, who can either do the job or can learn the job. I made the mistake in a previous company of hiring a person who was smart but not a good person and it didn’t work out. It’s important to make sure the person has good character first before you get excited about their qualifications on paper.
- It’s important when you have a good team to let them do things their way, not always your way. Set the goal and direction but let them make the path.
- It costs a lot to run a company, so be strategic with your finances. When you are young, you have a lot of time to make and correct mistakes. Because of that, you should try to build as much of the company as you can on your own dime to keep grasp of control and equity. For example, to build my previous companies, my husband and I refinanced our home three times! Sometimes you have to take risks and make sacrifices. Alternatively, when you are older, it makes more sense to use other people’s money to grow a business. At that point in your career, you likely have more experience managing a board of directors and investors, which helps keep finances on track!
- Love it, Change it, or Leave it.
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 firmly believe that hugs make a difference. If I could, I would establish Hug Day! Going along with that, my new goal is to develop a hug-counter app that keeps tally of the hugs you’ve given/received and reminds users to give hugs throughout the day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you wanna be terrific you gotta be specific.” Clear communication is the key in life, and successful communication needs to be specific. As an example, try and avoid pronouns and focus on being as direct as possible.
In a fast-paced, constantly evolving and dynamic company environment, it is important that everyone has the same goals. Communicating those goals is then the most critical and foundational part of the process.
Take the “telephone game,” for instance. In a business environment, if you do not make sure that what you are communicating is expressed clearly and specifically, you cannot keep the pace. Your goals will get lost in translation, you will hit a huge road bump and end up spending all your time cleaning up the mess.
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?
I would love to meet Warren Buffet, because I believe in his ethics and straightforward approach; Mary Barra, because she is a great leader in the automotive space; Indra Nooyi, because of her hyper focus and targeted point of view; and Marillyn Hewson, because I am fascinated by her career accomplishments.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.