Lisa Zoellner: Why you should be intentional

I would advise them to be brave and intentional about the roles they take on as they progress in their careers.It can be scary raising your hand for a stretch assignment or throwing your hat in the ring for a promotion. It might mean taking a calculated risk and making a lateral move into a […]

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I would advise them to be brave and intentional about the roles they take on as they progress in their careers.

It can be scary raising your hand for a stretch assignment or throwing your hat in the ring for a promotion. It might mean taking a calculated risk and making a lateral move into a new discipline or industry. It can also be something seemingly small like introducing yourself to someone you admire at a conference or sharing your idea in a meeting.

Small acts of courage add up over the course of a career and lead to more opportunities to learn and make a positive impact, which in turn often reward you with new opportunities.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Zoellner. She is an accomplished executive business leader and has served in a variety of marketing and merchandising roles spanning 28 years with four highly recognized brands. As of 2016, Zoellner serves as the chief marketing officer for Neighborly — the world’s largest home service franchisor with 24 service brands and 4,000 franchise owners. Prior to joining Neighborly, she served as executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Golfsmith International, the world’s largest golf retailer, and was senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Gold’s Gym International. Zoellner began her career at Blockbuster Entertainment where she held roles in marketing, merchandising and operations including senior vice president, retail film and vice president of partnership marketing.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Lisa! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

From an early age, I learned the value of work… that if you wanted something you had to work for it. My dad was a technical specialist with the phone company and my mom held a full-time job throughout my childhood. I went to college on an academic scholarship supplemented by student loans and jobs ranging from waitress to retail sales and even selling newspaper subscriptions over the phone!

My professional career began at Blockbuster Entertainment when it was a category-killer brand with 50 million members and 7,000 stores in the U.S. and 20+ countries. Over 16 years there, I had the opportunity to serve in a variety of roles beginning as an administrative assistant, then on to operations support roles, and finally serving as SVP in marketing and merchandising. After Blockbuster, I served as CMO for Gold’s Gym for about five years which was a great experience working to expand the appeal of an iconic brand while staying true to its heritage. Then on to Golfsmith International as CMO and finally Neighborly.

The common thread throughout my professional career has been franchising and building marketing capabilities to fuel growth.

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

Wow, where to start! It’s been an incredible four years working at Neighborly with such a talented executive team and a truly special CEO in Mike Bidwell. I’ve learned so much (sometimes the hard way) in my four and a half years.

Since joining the company I’ve had the privilege of building an amazing marketing team that is now 100 professionals strong, creating a new overarching “umbrella” brand linking our 24 service brands and re-branding a nearly 40-year-old company from Dwyer Group to Neighborly.

This story often comes to mind. It was one of my first Board meetings in May of 2016 shortly after joining the company. We were discussing when and how to go about creating an “umbrella” brand. I had recommended that we take on the project the following year. The board challenged us to go faster — much faster…how about by the end of this year they asked?

That’s one of the things I love about Neighborly. We’re highly entrepreneurial and move quickly when we see an opportunity. Four months later, Neighborly was born.

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?

Oh no! I’m embarrassed just thinking about this story. It involves a seemingly small mistake, but a big lesson that has served me well throughout my career.

I had recently been promoted to my first manager level position — Communications Manager of a newly created department. We were excited to launch a publication that centralized operational direction for thousands of store managers and field management. We put so much work into the communications strategy and carefully planned how to best leverage field communications to drive store-level performance.

We were so proud of this first publication but failed in one important area — proofreading! There was a typo not just on the first page but in the headline of the lead article. I even remember the word. It was “contratulations” instead of “congratulations.” Talk about embarrassing!

This mistake taught me the importance of excellence in execution. As leaders, we value strategic thinking and creative ideation, but we should not do so at the expense of focusing on execution. The best concept, strategy or idea is worthless without it.

I often recommend this book on the topic — Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan.

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?

From a fairly young age, I always wanted to be a business executive. I may be dating myself here, but I think part of the reason why came from watching all those Mary Tyler Moore episodes as a young girl!

In the beginning, I wanted to be a successful businessperson so that I could be independent and self-sufficient. Over the years though, what has been most fulfilling has been helping people and businesses grow. It gives me joy to see folks who’ve been on my teams achieve great things. The relationships, in some cases decades-long friendships, are what I cherish the most.

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 best executives are the best leaders. The difference between an executive-level leader and any other leader is just scale and scope. The behaviors are the same.

My primary role as the leader of a large organization is to set up my team for success. By success I mean growing leaders at the individual level while having a positive impact on our business. What that looks like every day includes things like creating and socializing the vision, equipping teams with the tools and skills they need, removing barriers to progress, developing strategy and process and measuring progress against key milestones — all while inspiring and influencing others to achieve the mission.

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

I’ve had the privilege of working on some great brands throughout my career. Working with my team, our leadership, and partners to develop the Neighborly brand and develop our digital platform to “own the home” has been the most challenging and rewarding experience for me.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

I don’t really see any downsides. It is an honor and a privilege to lead people to achieve things they didn’t know were possible. That doesn’t mean that being an executive is not challenging. It is and some days are better than others just like in any position. There are many priorities, expectations and outcomes to manage — often with significant uncertainty. In the end though, I would say that anyone serving as an executive is privileged to have that opportunity.

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

I think the biggest myth is that it’s all about being a “boss.” A leader’s purpose is to serve and support the team. As a senior leader, your actions impact people’s careers and potentially the trajectory of their lives. It is a big responsibility that should be approached with humility.

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

According to Korn Ferry, only 25% of c-level executives are women. There are many reasons for this and the struggle for equality is real.

Having said that, I believe that women must take accountability for their own destiny and one of the things that I coach women on is being brave and building their confidence. We tend to underestimate ourselves. Too often we don’t raise our hands for the promotion, don’t ask for the raise or don’t go for the big job because we think we may not be a perfect fit or 100% ready. This reminds me of a quote by Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead: “There is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do. You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around.”

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

I’ve not experienced any striking differences in my role versus my expectations.

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?

  1. Communication — everything communicates — our words and more importantly our actions. Being able to articulate a vision and influence people to want to bring it to life is a critical quality.
  2. Relationship building — no one can do it alone. We succeed or fail together.
  3. Resilience — Brene Brown calls this “Rising skills.” To me it’s the resilience to get back up when we fail. Put another way, it’s the grit to grind it out when things get tough.
  4. Openness — be willing to listen to differing points of view and new ideas. Recognizing that you do not have all the answers and being willing to learn from others.
  5. Adaptability — the world is changing fast and successful executives are continuously looking to the future and adapting themselves and their organizations to thrive on that change.
  6. I believe all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds can make strong executives. In my experience, the best leaders focus on supporting their people and making a positive difference in the business. I would say that anyone who is interested in an executive position just to achieve personal status or feed their own ego would not make a good executive.

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

I would advise them to be brave and intentional about the roles they take on as they progress in their careers.

It can be scary raising your hand for a stretch assignment or throwing your hat in the ring for a promotion. It might mean taking a calculated risk and making a lateral move into a new discipline or industry. It can also be something seemingly small like introducing yourself to someone you admire at a conference or sharing your idea in a meeting.

Small acts of courage add up over the course of a career and lead to more opportunities to learn and make a positive impact, which in turn often reward you with new opportunities.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My parents always instilled in me the belief that I could be anything I wanted to be. I vividly remember this from an early age and am so grateful to have had that kind of supportive upbringing. Without their encouragement and faith in me, I may not have had the confidence to aim high and take the calculated risks to grow in my career.

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

I believe that everyday acts of kindness and generosity can make a big difference. These acts can be as simple as helping those in need directly or through charities, inspiring others to help themselves through coaching and mentoring, or just being the change you wish to see in the world.

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

These are important lessons learned that no one specifically taught me in school or formal training.

  1. The importance of relationships. Early in my career, I was more focused on the “what” not so much the “who.” I’ve learned that literally everything is about people and your ability to build relationships up, down and across organizations.
  2. Keep learning. The seismic shifts in technology and consumer expectations requires that we remain perpetual students. In my role, digital marketing has become critically important. Not being a “digital native,” I recently invested a year earning a Post Graduate Diploma from the Digital Marketing Institute to hone my knowledge in this area. It was a humbling experience to become a student again but worth the investment.
  3. Be open. Open to new ideas and different perspectives. Open to sharing your successes and failures.
  4. Create a roadmap. Develop the vision and the road map to achieve the mission. Create milestones along the way. Measure and socialize your progress (and setbacks) with your stakeholders. This quote from Ken Blanchard resonates, “Knowing where you are going is the first step to getting there.”
  5. It’s all about the team. Surround yourself with the best people you can find. Be strategic about the structure you build. I love how Courtney Kolar, our Vice President of People Services, puts it: “Organization follows strategy.”

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.

Striving for equality is my passion. I support organizations and seek opportunities that work to make the world more just for all people.

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

That’s a tough one. There are so many. This one from Colin Powell is particularly relevant to my life… “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.”

Another favorite quote that is funny and speaks to my strong bias to action is: “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” — Will Rodgers

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.

Brene Brown is someone that I admire. Her authenticity, vulnerability and intelligence inspire me. Plus, she went to my high school!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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