Louisa Lawless: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t — you’re right”

When you are sorry, apologize. But don’t apologize repeatedly. Apologize, own it, and then move on. Always be on time. Punctuality is next to godliness. It’s a sign of respect that will never go out of style. It’s better to be respected than liked. Learn people’s backgrounds, what motivates them, and what they value so you can align […]

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When you are sorry, apologize. But don’t apologize repeatedly. Apologize, own it, and then move on.

Always be on time. Punctuality is next to godliness. It’s a sign of respect that will never go out of style.

It’s better to be respected than liked.

Learn people’s backgrounds, what motivates them, and what they value so you can align with them more quickly, speak the same language and get faster results.

When traveling for work, never check your luggage, especially if there are samples in it.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Louisa Lawless. Louisa Lawless works at Stratus Group in the capacity of Chief Strategy Officer. She is part of a winning team, building brands such as KÖE Kombucha and Perfect Hydration. Louisa has a rich history of brand building has served as a General Manager for Red Bull North America, and also contributing to the development and sale of CORE to Keurig Dr. Pepper, as their Chief Strategy Officer. She resides with her husband Ever, bun in the oven Edie, and two stinky French Bulldogs in Long Beach, CA.

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

I wouldn’t say I’ve always had a dream of being in the C-Suite — I actually have a degree in theatre and film from TCU. Somewhat surprisingly, I use my theatrical education every day. It helps me react quickly, responds easily to changes in the environment or audience, and to be an active listener. But right after graduation, I was incredibly busy with auditions, yet still needed a job to help pay the bills, and I took a job at Red Bull that allowed the flexibility to do both. I soon realized I loved the culture and energy of beverage and CPG and fell into a full-time role shortly thereafter. I caught a bug for brand building, from early concept to maturation, which led me to several of my subsequent roles, including General Manager at Red Bull and Chief Strategy Officer at Core Water. My current interest in health and wellness-based innovation led me to the Stratus Group, which has thrived as an incubator for better-for-you beverage brands.

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

I took on this big role, leading two different, high-growth brands and a large team. And then about six months later, I learned I was pregnant and due this upcoming September. I’m a type-A+, fastidious planner, but sometimes the universe has something else in the cards! I’m pivoting, adjusting, and preparing a revised plan. Ultimately, I think being a mother will make me a better contributor. Many women are natural-born multi-taskers, after all.

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?

When I first started in the industry, I was applying a lot of personal experiences in my professional career. Of course, we are all shaped by our individual paths and learning, which can be helpful for us to solve problems and evolve as leaders. But sometimes they become hindrances.

I came from a family of craziness. We had a picture on the wall that stated, “We put the fun in dysfunctional.” So chaos, if not celebrated, was the norm in my home. However, I had become so used to fixing and pleasing, that I felt like I needed to solve for everything in my professional environment as well. Early on in my career, this behavior created undue stress and bent boundaries. My customers in my first sales job became so reliant and comfortable with me, they actually had me closing their bars at night and baby-sitting their children. I can say that I’m neither good at the night shift or at third party child care, but I did learn to set boundaries. I learned that saying “no” was one of the most powerful ways to gain respect and that it was okay to provide influence and input instead.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of Chief Strategy Officer that most attracted you to it?

As a CSO, I have the opportunity to see all sides of the business — to be collaborative across multiple functions and to learn from incredibly skilled people. I get to see challenges from a holistic perspective, to identify the most pressing issues, and to solve problems expediently. At Perfect Hydration and KÖE Kombucha, we have an incredibly talented team. I enjoy creating an action plan that maximizes everyone’s skill sets so we solve problems efficiently as a cohesive group.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CSO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

I think an executive’s biggest challenge is to bring out the best in yourself and your team every day. This takes trust, empowerment, and accountability. An executive must also create structure, prioritize projects at a high level, and choose the right caliber of unbelievable specialists that can rally together. Ultimately, an executive should take responsibility for their own work and the output of the entire team. This includes the wins, the losses, and all of the key learnings.

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

People. I enjoy finding out what drives individuals to be their best and learning to respond to people in unique and specific ways that keep them motivated. I want to be the type of leader that inspires people to be their best and rewards them for great work. At this point in my career, seeing my team succeed is just as, or even more important, than my own personal success.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Stress-induced acid reflux. It’s a thing. You’re also under tremendous amounts of pressure and are often left feeling like you haven’t done enough or satisfied everyone. I’m a bit of a people pleaser to this day, but I’ve had to learn that you have to give and take. You’re not going to win every battle, but as long as you win the war, you’ve succeeded.

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

Some people believe that you have to rule with an iron fist to win. But an executive can be kind and empathetic, yet still, lead with discipline and get results. Kindness and empathy go very far. People can sniff through bullshit and bravado — you have to be authentic and be relatable to people around you or they won’t buy-in.

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

There’s a fine line between being authoritative and being mistaken for being too controlling or too demanding. The qualities of being strong and decisive should be celebrated in both male and female executives. Any leader should expect to choose their battles carefully, so when you choose to plant your feet firmly, you’ll be taken seriously.

It’s also up to me to feel 100% confident that I belong in my position. When I walk into a meeting, I can’t think of it as simply me in a room of a bunch of men. It’s me in a room of peers and other professionals. I have to remember that we’re all working together to solve a common goal — thinking business-first. Not showing up to be a token woman, but because I’m the best person to get a job done. Women who are confident can work a room better than any executives I have ever seen. Being tough decision-makers and embracing our empathetic side will continue to help break the glass ceiling in the corporate world. Now let’s ensure we get paid for what we contribute, and never be afraid to ask for our own worth.

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

This is my third rodeo in this particular type of role as a generalist, so I’ve been set up to expect the unexpected. I’m a pretty deliberate person, but although I’m a type A+, I’ve learned to keep an open mind. In a startup environment, and especially in today’s ever-changing world, you have to be both flexible and decisive. The COVID-19 outbreak has changed so much in the CPG world — product review timing, shelf resets, store traffic, demand for specific products, the way consumers are shopping, interactions among our team, and stakeholders — it’s all different this year and no one could have predicted it. But we’re agile, we’re pivoting, and we’re using this time to take the opportunity to step back and make the best decisions for the long-term future of our brands.

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?

Flexibility, humility, and a willingness to continue learning. All of your energy should be focused on building up other people and your brands, not building your own ego. The good leaders I’ve been surrounded by, including Dan Ginsberg, check their egos at the door. Dan’s a great example of a leader who listens, is diligent, has incredible smarts and humility, but is also decisive. And the traits that will send an executive’s team running for the door — intolerance, indecision, a lack of agility, and being too set in your ways.

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

It’s taken me years to find my voice and to be self-assured. Now I am comfortable owning my own voice, but also understand I’m not always going to be right. I have to be willing to take constructive feedback. Dealing with your failures in a healthy way and applying them to your leadership style will ultimately help your team and your business.

Leading can feel tougher as a woman, but characteristics that might be traditionally seen as female qualities — empathy, kindness, being a good listener — are massive advantages in the professional world.

Also, wear comfortable shoes, especially if you’re 7.5 months pregnant and sporting cankles. No one worth working for in the professional world will hire or fire you for your shoe choice.

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

Dan Ginsberg has always had my back. He’s inspiring, has incredible humility, and is a great listener. He pushes me, which ultimately makes me better. He calls me out, typically when I deserve it, but is also willing to concede. And Dan truly cares about his team as people and not just as contributors. He cares about your family, your health. He’s also built some of the most incredible brands on the planet. You know…..the one that gives you wings??

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

Currently, I’m enamored withfood and beverage brands that are creating better-for-you alternatives with cleaner ingredients. The food and beverage industry has an obligation to offer approachable, affordable, healthier options to the masses. Both Perfect Hydration and KÖE Kombucha were created to sit at the intersection of function and value — and I’m throwing all my weight behind them!

We’re also leaning into new, sustainable, packaging options that could change the future of the food industry. We’re taking a hard look at the materials that go into our packaging and what happens to them after consumers discard them — and looking at a two-pronged approach that will reduce waste in an incredible way. I understand that if small brands embrace these technologies and prove that they work, the big guys will start to follow, which would have an amazingly positive environmental impact.

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

  1. When you are sorry, apologize. But don’t apologize repeatedly. Apologize, own it, and then move on.
  2. Always be on time. Punctuality is next to godliness. It’s a sign of respect that will never go out of style.
  3. It’s better to be respected than liked.
  4. Learn people’s backgrounds, what motivates them, and what they value so you can align with them more quickly, speak the same language and get faster results.
  5. When traveling for work, never check your luggage, especially if there are samples in it.

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.

I have always tried to help people find employment — I’ll edit resumes, connect with recruiters, share good opportunities with my network and I love mentoring. Recruiters call me all the time because they know I can help them find great talent and will send them people who will help them succeed.

I also encourage giving people chances, especially if their practical work experience could be just as valuable as a specific level of education or qualification. I also encourage managers and executives to empower others — coach others to win and it inspires a lot of other positive behavior. The biggest compliment to me is when I can help someone else earn a promotion, land a new contract, or get hired. In this economy, people are just looking for a foot in the door. If you can help them it can change the trajectory of their lives. None of us are too busy that we can’t carve out time in our week to help others with their livelihood and ability to provide for themselves and their families. I think economic disparity results when people don’t raise their hand to ask, “how could I have helped an individual navigate an often uncertain path professionally?” We have a responsibility to lift others up and walk a mile with them during their toughest times.

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

Henry Ford — “Whether you think you can or think you can’t — you’re right.” Mind over matter, always. I’m in the business of constant problem solving, but once the seed of doubt is planted, there’s no going back. I’ve learned to approach new challenges with determination and confidence because I know it’s going to work out one way or the other. And no matter what, there’s always something to be learned.

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 have to pick the MVP’s of MVP’s and go with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She is an inspiration to so many of us and has paved a path for change-makers across the world. I believe she has flourished amidst adversity throughout her life and career and has still managed to find balance with her family and good health. She is truly a legend in my book!!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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