Do not micromanage, you will lose top talent. I cannot stress this enough; your team needs you to chill. You need to trust their training and let them figure out how to improve your system even further. When people are given the freedom to innovate, they thrive. You want your executive team leading projects and helping support tasks you set out to accomplish.
As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neena R. Speer, Esq.
Neena Speer grew up in Birmingham, AL attending Shades Valley YMCA as a baby; she never knew that the YMCA would become her first incubator for her dreams of shaping and changing the world. Executive and associate directors at the YMCA let Neena set up her first business venture when she was still very young: a bake sale. That little girl never knew she would receive her first focus group so early in life for what she thought was a brilliant business plan “bake sale at a gym.” She thought it would be rewarded after a hard day, but one unhappy gym goer said, “it was insensitive.” Neena has always taken everything she has learned and used it as fuel to create more innovative ideas; so she realized that her “bake sale” may have been counterproductive at the gym. Neena continued to set out to create her own purpose-driven idea. She developed her youth education and mentoring idea when she was just eight years old. When Neena was in high school, she was able to present education and mentorship ideas to her directors at the YMCA. Unfortunately, this idea was never used.
After high school, Neena left Alabama to further her undergraduate education at Howard University in Washington D.C. She then returned to Alabama to attend law school to follow her dream of becoming a criminal defense lawyer. As a purpose-driven and dedicated professional, Neena Speer has been a solo practitioner for the last two years and has become a published writer and inspirational speaker. Neena is also the founder of a non-profit based on youth education and mentoring ideas she developed when she was just eight years old.
In her published book, Dear Future Lawyer, Neena carefully recorded her raw, authentic experiences as a minority law student and provided readers with tools to apply to the law school journey. She started her nonprofit during her third year of law school. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Step 1–2–3 Mentor for Life Initiative, a non-profit organization geared towards developing lifelong mentors for disadvantaged students in grades K-12 and college. Ms. Speer has been respectfully asked to speak on various critical topics ranging from diversity, leadership, and the importance of integrity. One of her diversity-driven papers was published in the Harvard Journal for African American Policy. Most recently, she has been chosen to give a TED talk entitled “Diversity Redefined” at the TEDx Youth Davenport: Outspoken Conference in Davenport, IA, this upcoming March 2021. Ms. Speer earned her B.A. in French and B.S. in Psychology, from Howard University. She earned her J.D. from the University of Alabama School of Law. She is a five-time published author. Her most recent books are Dear Future Lawyer: An Intimate Survival Guide for the Female Minority Law Student and the Lost Sisters Circle Guidebook. She always stressed that she will return to Birmingham to make a difference in her community. That is the main reason she came back home. She relaunched her firm to develop businesses and entrepreneurs who aim to make a difference in their community. She is a Black and Indian minority in the law field. Her journey included failure and struggle, and yet she was truly determined to pursue her dream. At a young age, Neena’s parents would chant to her, “You are going to be a CEO,” and now she is the CEO of three organizations she created. Her one promise to her YMCA campers was that she would return back to her hometown where it all began and be the lawyer she was studying to become. Her impact has reached over three hundred students as she continues to tell others that they are the future leader they have been waiting for.
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 was given immense opportunities by the various program directors in my after-school program. I worked at the front desk as a volunteer greeting the members, and prepared lessons and schedules for the camp counselors, I tutored in the after-school care and served as a childcare worker in the nursery. Finally, I was able to have my own group as a summer camp counselor. Those various jobs at the YMCA uniquely positioned me to run my companies, develop dynamic teams, and handle immense amounts of program participants with ease. I started my own non-profit Step 1–2–3 Mentor in 2016 as a bridge to connect local children with mentorship from people who look like them. I have always been a firm believer that in order to raise a child, it takes a village. YMCA taught us this principle each day we came to camp and realized that we were the village for the parents. I use that lesson all the time in businesses.
I started my law firm to protect people’s rights and assist business owners in protecting their brand and their businesses. I have a special place in my heart for minority-run businesses, because I am currently an entrepreneur trying to achieve my personal goals and build generational wealth. With the firm, I am devoted to focusing on criminal defense and family law for the individual and their needs along with my entrepreneurship law practice including business formation copyrights, trademarks, and contracts.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting story happened recently where I decided to hire law firm interns as volunteers and providing them with mentorship. We focus on their writing skills in two areas, writing for my blog and developing their legal writing sample. They all go through the hiring process of sending in a resume, cover letter, and letter of recommendation. The interesting part is that I created the opportunity to give them a line on their resume to help them with jobs later. One of the interns inspired me to use this opportunity to develop their writing so they could be prepared to publish in the same journal I did: Harvard Journal on African American Policy. I realized that many opportunities I have on my resume, I realized many opportunities I have on my resume were because of an ally who gave me a chance. I realized that having your own business allows you to continuously innovate to fill the need of your ideal market and user. If there was something missing in my journey, I could simply use my business to create an opportunity. That was a great realization and led to an amazing new team of interns for my firm.
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 will never forget. I was filling in for a law firm on a court appearance. I am known for always having my Starbucks cup of water with me everywhere I go. I walked into the federal bankruptcy court for the first time to appear before the judge and had taken the time to cross all my t’s and dot all my I’s. I was heading up to my docket call when the Judge stopped me and told me to approach the bench. She ripped me a new one about how I shouldn’t treat her courtroom with less decorum by bringing my Trenta water cup into her courtroom. She told me to never do that again. Now, I was a new lawyer and very sensitive, but I never violated that rule for her again. I believe she grew to like me after that incident. I was able to develop a sense of humor with myself and not let her criticism cause me to walk in fear around her each time I came back. I learned that you must take criticism on with a sense of humor. Sometimes, all the “things you get away with” will not fly for certain bosses. Thus, I had to learn how to be adaptable to my leadership when it was something simple that would solve the immediate problem.
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?
Overseeing decisions, being responsible when things go wrong, having to build complex systems and teams, leading different people who will not always agree with you, and changing how business culture is reflected globally is what attracted me. This is a talent I always believed I possessed thanks to my parents. It was evidenced by my nickname as the “boss” or “drill sergeant” at my childhood home. I knew I could train leaders who would one day replace me and become even better at being able to have that direct influence. That mission really empowered me.
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?
CEOs or executives remove the red tape between leaders and the people they serve. They make that direct appeal to the customer or client by showing the face and the story of why they started the business to their stakeholders. CEOs make the C-Suite more accessible for new ideas, top talents, diverse voices, and young leaders.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I enjoy the freedom to innovate, implement, and make change without paying lip service. The chair or captain of a ship may sometimes be a figurehead, but a CEO gets to decide each day just how big ideas can be realities with the right connections, sponsors, teams, and strategic planning.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
You have a bit more of the brunt of the organization on your back. If you get overwhelmed or feel upset often when leaders on your team fall short, then you may not want to consider being a CEO. The team may let you down, but you cannot let the organization down.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
- Being a CEO is about the titles. We are not in it for the titles. If you are just about the titles, the teams you command will not make a huge impact. Teams are vision dependent. If you are more about self and less about the inclusion of their ideas, it will show. If it shows clearly enough, good people will leave these teams.
- Being a CEO pays well. Less than 3% of start-up venture capital is given to women CEO’s and only 11% of that 3% are minority-owned businesses; meaning that most minority women get their beginnings as CEO struggling to make ends meet. They are reliant on an industry that does not provide high-level investment in the diverse business owners who would benefit the most from startup investment.
- Black CEOs in the C-Suite are progressing for my company. Having a Black woman CEO in your C-Suite means nothing if her hands are tied by a board of directors that are both non-minority and non-female. There are many black females who make partners in a firm, but they are still not a valued voice when it is time to vote and are often outnumbered.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Being passed up for promotion opportunities. This is primarily due to the misogynistic culture that insists that they stay home, watch the kids, cook dinner, and do laundry. This is by far the most disparaging and frustrating issue within the executive suite. Once in the C-Suite, female counterparts are not given equal respect as their male colleagues. Women who speak their mind, disagree, or hold you accountable are considered “difficult,” but men who follow the same model are seen as “bosses.”
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I envisioned my job working solely in criminal defense and being a voice to the voiceless. I saw myself as the attorney who listened and made people feel at home when they came to me to fight legal issues. While I do some criminal defense work, the majority of my work now is spent building and protecting entrepreneurs. Every day I get blessed to hear a new business idea or a goal and get to be the one who listens intently as a business owner(s) come to life for what seemed like a long time. I love it when they share their dreams and their “babies” with me. I would not trade both experiences for anything in the world.
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?
Tips to Have:
- Listen intently
- Has a passion for the cause
- Take initiative
- Inclusive in the decision-making process
- Receptive to criticism
- Positive mindset
Tips to Avoid:
- Looking for a Title
- Wants to delegate more than get hands dirty
- Believes they are entitled to a leadership position
- Has difficulty making new connections
- Blames others when things go wrong
- Doesn’t effectively communicate with their team
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Do not wait. Take some classes or hire a professional to help you grow your skills. Take control of your teams by encouraging them to take that chance on their BIG ideas too. Now is the time to listen more to the teams you have built because when you do, you may discover that people have been waiting to give you the next million-dollar idea for your business.
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?
My dad. He was such an amazing man. He was the guy who stayed up all night long helping me work on my diorama for science class to make sure I didn’t give up. I would get so frustrated when I did not understand something right away, and he would show me I could do anything if I would just discipline myself. As I developed my law practice, my dad reminded me often the importance of self-discipline in my business. I am so glad he gave us so many years fighting through his many illnesses. He taught me that he fought that long for us to chase our dreams with ferocity. He is the reason I am such a resilient leader even now.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have used my success to provide mentorship to over 300 young ladies in my safe space for minority women in law GroupMe where I lead with the idea that my failures are a gift that connects me to others I need to inspire. It is called the Lost Sister Circle. We do group exercises and many group events and summits that prioritizes the needs of these ladies lost in law, and I wake up every day excited to pour all my positivity and “refreshing realness” into them.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Stop doing business with other people to save money. When I first started my merchandise line, I became reliant on other businesses to save money. However, I failed to invest on the front end of providing the quality of customer service and branding that I do with my law firm. Thus, I believe my retail business did not take off as effectively because I valued saving money as the bottom line as opposed to it being a factor in addition to top-notch packaging and branding.
- Ensure your business values lineup with all partners. When we go into business with people even if only for a limited scope, make sure your values and actions are high calibers. Having a bad business partner can bring negative reviews to your own business in the long run. If I like to cut corners and you are meticulous, we do not need to partner up. One will always let down the other and the other will always take more than they give.
- Trademark everything. When I started my business, I thought business protections were only about securing your business names as an LLC. However, I now know that business protection involves copyrights, trademarks, contracts, and more. You can develop an entire brand around a business name and someone who also uses that name for the same industry as you can beat you to trademark and force you to start all the way over if their registration is approved first. I did not know that at first, so always protect that business name when you can.
- Lead dynamic teams. Your team should be multi-talented of course, but also make sure they are on the same level or higher level of excitement as you, so you can delegate with peace of mind.
- Do not micromanage, you will lose top talent. I cannot stress this enough; your team needs you to chill. You need to trust their training and let them figure out how to improve your system even further. When people are given the freedom to innovate, they thrive. You want your executive team leading projects and helping support tasks you set out to accomplish.
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 would want to inspire others to work on themselves. I am so frustrated often in this arena that we do not see leaders and employees taking the time to work on themselves as people. We give people tasks and ask them to “perform and execute.” Creating company cultures that encourage personal development for its employees reduces the risk of burnout and toxic work environments.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mom always says, “watch the play of life, but don’t get in it.” It took me twenty-seven years to realize that means to be unbothered by the drama and negative obstacles that occur in business. There are people who will steal, kill, and destroy in this business arena if you let them; even if they steal something from you, cut off your access, or deny you inclusion. You are an active actor in your own separate play. You do not have time to sit and concern yourself with how their play will turn out. You have your lead role to play in your own play, and people are excited about what you show them. They have been waiting for you to start. No other person, place, or thing can take your destiny from you. Stop letting the “BS” of the world get to you. YOU ARE BIGGER than that.
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
Oprah, I have so many questions. I want to learn about her path to being Oprah. I want to discuss my ideas on marriage and last names with her. I want to discuss creating vital spaces on the television space for us to watch truly engaging content. I want to be able to give everyone a car like her shows in the past. I want to discuss her battles with weight loss. However, the most important question I have for her is how she finds the courage each day to wake up and be her personal best. I am oftentimes scared to press go but watching her do it with grace and humility is an inspiring feat. Just to be able to discuss my ideas would be an honor because I know she can truly make my dreams happen for me in an instant. Thus, I want to know how she has the courage to hold that power despite the big responsibility it comes with.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.