Evaluate and give feedback on outcomes and expectations, not style or personality; it’s in our nature to want to be around people who are like us, but when we focus on someone’s personality differences rather than outcomes, fiefdoms form and that ultimately leads to a lack of belonging and diversity; challenge yourself to be around people who are different from you and get curious. For our female team members, remember that women are already criticized more harshly and especially on non-outcome based areas like emotions, personality, or looks.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Stricker. Katie Stricker is the Co-Founder, President & Chief Coaching Officer at Sayge. Katie has a decade-plus-long career working across entertainment, advertising, and innovation consulting. She’s helped transform a range of businesses and brands by working with senior executives at some of the largest Fortune-500 companies through disruptive start-ups. It’s this background, plus working with a coach since 2007, that led Katie to gain her professional development, ICF coaching certification in 2015. She’s helped hundreds of leaders, new managers, and teams uncover new insights, see opportunities, and discover answers to pressing challenges and leading to impactful outcomes.
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?
I’ve always been the type of person to ask myself, “What’s next?” Since moving to New York City almost 20 years ago, I’ve worked in three career categories, including television, advertising, and consulting. Each time I moved from one to the other, I was very thoughtful and intentional about my plan. I would look at what I was doing in my current role and map out what I liked about it, and at the same time, I’d outline what I was missing and wanted to do more of. That is how I would pursue my next opportunity, and I’d do that about every one to two years. Sometimes that would lead to an entirely new role or industry, and for others it simply meant the next step to bigger projects or a promotion. Either way, this process served me well and gave me a wide range of experiences over the years and the confidence to start a company!
Early in my career, and in the first few years of working in advertising, I was being pulled into projects with high-level executives and suddenly found myself just barely keeping my head above water. It was at this time that I started working with my first professional development coach. It was 2007, so 13 years ago and just before the last economic downturn. My company didn’t provide professional development, so I invested in myself and paid for a coach out of my own pocket.
That experience was life-changing. I suddenly found myself with the confidence I knew was deep inside of me. I started taking bigger risks, asking for what I wanted, and growing myself professionally. I’ve worked with a coach ever since. In 2015, I became a certified professional coach so I could help others have the same experience as me and step into who they wanted to be. I started my full-time coaching practice in 2016 and a few months after that, I got a call from a former colleague who is now my business partner, Jamie Bryan. After Jamie had his own life-changing experience working with a coach, he asked himself why he didn’t know about it sooner in his career (like I had) and why more people don’t work with a coach. That’s how and why we started Sayge.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Well, I can’t say the story is about leading but it’s more about building the product from the ground up. Within the first eight months, we found ourselves growing, and at the same time, we didn’t have an automated system to keep things running smoothly on the coach and coachee tracking system.
I can transparently say that spreadsheets and “systems” are not my thing, but it was driving me crazy that there were processes I knew could be better and would help us grow. So, for one full weekend, I parked myself in front of my computer and essentially built what would become our V1 product platform. It was spreadsheets connected via other tools with email and surveys. I accidentally pulled up some of those spreadsheets last week and I had both a good laugh and cringe. It was a HUGE evolution for us at the time — yet, it was still just the beginning and we’ve come so far since then with a full-fledged tech platform!
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?
I remember this one distinctly. Jamie and I were waiting for a video conference for about 35 new coaches to join for their onboarding. I sat down after Jamie, so I assumed he had us on mute while we waited for the others (which was what we normally did). As we waited, I started telling a personal story from the night before, and blurted something out loud that you wouldn’t want 35 strangers to hear! Jamie suddenly looked pale and then he (finally!) hit mute and said, “We weren’t on mute.” Luckily only about five or so people had joined by that point and to this day, we’re still not sure if anyone was really paying attention and heard what I said. If they were, hopefully, they just found it funny.
Lesson learned: Even if you’re on mute, don’t talk about anything you wouldn’t want anyone else to hear. I knew this before, but it served as a good reminder.
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?
Well, being the founder of a company, you typically fall into an executive role, whether CEO or another C-level role. For me, being the chief coaching officer was a natural fit because of my coaching credentials and my built-in coach network. I’m also the president and oversee product development and marketing. What attracts me to these areas are my background in business and has worked with technical teams. I like being part of the creative process from a branding and marketing standpoint, and ultimately creating a product and seeing that come to life.
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?
The biggest difference is that at the end of the day, you are wholly responsible for what happens at your company. Even if it’s another seasoned or senior executive who may make a mistake, as the executive founder, you take ownership of your team and their outcomes. Other than that, setting the vision and removing barriers so the team can do their best work is what being an executive is all about for me.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I love seeing things grow and evolve, and that’s first and foremost an awesome team at both the individual and team level, and then our product and overall business.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
I’m not sure! I suppose some days it would be nice to run and hide and not have so much responsibility. But otherwise, I love leading a team and being part of something that is bigger than just me.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth is that you have it all figured out. In fact, I feel like I’m learning more each day than I ever had. Don’t get me wrong, as an executive, you can’t just say “I don’t know” all the time because people are ultimately looking for direction. But, there is something about getting comfortable with saying, …“I’m not sure, but we’re working on it.” Especially during this challenging time with so much uncertainty, I’ve found we’re making a lot of decisions based on assumptions and we provide direction to give the team some stability, yet we’re also caveating that with the fact that things will likely change.
We also don’t all get up at 5 a.m. and only sleep for five hours a night as some popular publications might make you think! I hope someone reading this gets relief from me clarifying that.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Unfortunately, I think this still just comes down to having our voice heard and not being judged for things that ultimately don’t impact the bottom line. Our brains prefer to take the easy path, so when we hear from someone who is like us or that we’re accustomed to hearing from, we receive it more easily. This means women are often dismissed or overlooked because men aren’t used to receiving the information as often from us.
I’ve learned over time that I have to be very clear when I don’t feel like I’m being heard and point out when it’s happening. As women, we have to work harder at being heard when we’re in a room full of men, and if you get defeated or tired from having to do it, that is when your voice tends to take a back seat. I aim to not let that happen.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Honestly, I don’t know if I had an idea of what I thought it would be! I knew starting a company would not be easy. I think one thing that has happened over time, that I didn’t think would necessarily happen, is the ability to meet, see, and connect with each of our coaches more often. That becomes much more challenging when you have 50 people who are part of our community. Overall there is a healthy tension for me between being an operator of the business and a coach personally, plus leading and wanting to be more deeply ingrained in our coach community.
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?
Oh, this is an interesting question! Without a doubt, I believe a person will be a successful executive when they realize that their role isn’t about them. That being an executive is all about focusing on and supporting the people who make their business run and be successful. Without your people, you have no business. That could be everyone from the cook in the company lunchroom to a mid-level manager. Both might have three kids at home, still show up for you, and they are the ones that make your company run.
I’ve coached and worked with many individuals who are on the career “ladder” but who don’t naturally aspire to be an executive. I think it’s hard for me to pinpoint who “shouldn’t” aspire to be an executive, but I think you know it within yourself if you do or don’t want to pursue that path. That said, I think anyone who wants to be an executive just for superficial reasons like title, money, etc., should avoid it. At the end of the day, you won’t be successful. You might gain notoriety, but results — and more importantly, your people — will suffer.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Four very pointed pieces of advice:
- Get to know each and every individual on a human level, then listen to them; understand them personally and you can better support them professionally (and you set an example for them to do the same for their wider teams)
- Evaluate and give feedback on outcomes and expectations, not style or personality; it’s in our nature to want to be around people who are like us, but when we focus on someone’s personality differences rather than outcomes, fiefdoms form and that ultimately leads to a lack of belonging and diversity; challenge yourself to be around people who are different from you and get curious. For our female team members, remember that women are already criticized more harshly and especially on non-outcome based areas like emotions, personality, or looks.
- Be kind — and firm: You don’t have to be a jerk, raise your voice, or be a bully to get the best from people. Ultimately, being kind is the easiest thing you can do. This doesn’t mean ignoring tough conversations; in fact, starting those with kindness will create better outcomes and commitments from your people.
- Get yourself and each of your team members a coach!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’d have to say my very first coach, Amy Weinblum since ultimately my passion for this area is about my experience working with her. I talk about working with her still to this day and about how life-changing that experience was. I continue to use the techniques she taught me in my coaching practice! I met Amy during my first few years in NYC and she immediately became someone I looked up to. She became my “go-to” person for advice on work or rate negotiations, and when she became a certified coach I knew I wanted to work with her more formally.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I like to think Sayge is all about making the world a better place for both companies and employees. When employees are doing what they love and are operating at their full potential, they are happier and they are 90% more valuable to a company. With a groundswell of this type of progress, we do believe Sayge is having an impact now and will have a positive, lasting impact in the future.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Pay closer attention to your run rate than you ever thought you needed to: This can literally change week to week depending on customer contracts and expenses. Losing two months of runway quickly is very possible
- You’ll need your network more than ever: In the beginning, I tried joining all kinds of networking groups, looking for women with my level of professional background who were also starting companies. I couldn’t really seem to ever find those people and then I realized, I had an amazing network right in front of me. I lean on them constantly for advice, brainstorming, or even just a good old complaining session
- Even your best ideas, with the best intentions, might not work out the way you want: We’ve launched a few internal operational aspects of our business that we thought would be game-changers but, turned out that even though the ideas and intention were solid, we didn’t have the right structure in place to support them. It’s disappointing but also a learning opportunity.
- Take a break: I came from the crushing, time-sucking worlds of TV, advertising, and consulting. I started a business with my (now) ex-husband, then my coaching practice, and subsequently Sayge. I had succumbed to the idea that I was “always-on” — and it didn’t help that “hard work” was an ingrained sense of being from my family. I sometimes say I’m a natural at “the hustle” but in the end, you can’t truly show up for anyone else unless you are well and rested. It’s important to send the message that it’s OK to take time off and actually encourage it so that everyone can show up to be their best.
- Be prepared for a global pandemic: I’m sort of kidding, but actually not. This is about being prepared for anything thrown your way. Not sure anyone could have ever told me this, but hey, you asked!
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.
Since the first days of starting Sayge, I’ve always said I want us to be coaching the receptionist who will one day be the CEO. I still deeply feel this and truly believe that every single person has dormant potential within themselves. It’s why our mission with Sayge is to make coaching scalable and available for entire organizations, not just executives. Our mission is to unlock that hidden potential for employees and level-up companies. That’s the movement I’m after.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”— Walter Bagehot
This quote is relevant to me because I’ve faced a lot of obstacles and challenges throughout my career. I’ve had people tell me I can’t or shouldn’t do things, or tell me that they think I’m good at “X” based on what they need versus asking me what I want. I’ve been talked down to. I’ve had people tell me to sit in the back and not talk. I’ve been put in boxes and have had to work really hard to get out of them. I’ve always pushed through and believed in myself that I could do whatever I put my mind to. And, I’m also very fortunate to have had a few leaders who saw my potential and worked with me to draw that out. Those are the people I remember and admire most.
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 U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
This is an easy one. Hands down it’s Sara Blakely! I’ve always connected with her story of perseverance and building something from the ground up on her own. I’ve also followed her stories along the way and her openness about the challenges with building and leading a company have always resonated with me. She talks openly about doubting herself at moments, and I think that vulnerability has made me follow her journey quite closely. Sara — let’s have a Zoom coffee!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.