Rebecca Rogers Tijerino: “You can’t have it all”

As a leader, you have to give your team room to make mistakes. People are people. Everyone is going to fail and make mistakes. The best thing you can do is set clear expectations and, of course, hold people accountable — but to truly grow a company — you’ve got to give them the leeway to make mistakes and […]

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As a leader, you have to give your team room to make mistakes. People are people. Everyone is going to fail and make mistakes. The best thing you can do is set clear expectations and, of course, hold people accountable — but to truly grow a company — you’ve got to give them the leeway to make mistakes and the confidence that you are in their corner. If they fall, you have to be there to have their back and help them pick themselves up again. Let them experiment, learn, and take risks. That’s the best thing to help them grow!

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Rogers Tijerino.

Rebecca leads a network of franchise owners, operating more than 200 staffing offices, with teams dedicated to making a positive impact on the job candidates they place, the businesses they support and the communities they serve. Rebecca’s experience in staffing and as a CEO make her an excellent leader for Spherion, but her leadership style is what sets her apart. She’s direct, authentic, and supportive. She comes from an entrepreneurial family that includes founders and business leaders. She’s feisty, spirited, and articulate. With broad-based experience in the staffing industry and a keen understanding of the U.S. workforce and the issues that drive performance, she is focused on expanding the Spherion network and amplifying its impact on the local communities Spherion serves.

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?

The real deal is that I was bossy from a young age. Is it bad to admit it? Well, I own it. Today, those qualities are identified with leaders, but back then, girls were called bossy. When I was younger, my cousins and I would all get together for Sunday dinner. We would play in our grandmother’s basement. I took charge and would run the show — literally — we would put on plays. My cousins and I would write plays, and I’d cast everybody, hold rehearsals, and coordinate the performance. Bottom line — I was bossy. I was interested in doing things well, which at that age included “How do we keep us all entertained and playing together with no toys?”, “How do we make it the best play possible?” and “Who will remember their lines and play each part best?” You know, all the essential questions when you’re seven years old.

If there was a problem to solve, I was there. I was always looking at how to approach any complications and figure out tough issues. Yet, I never planned to be an executive. In college, I’d always thought that if I could just earn 40,000 dollars a year, I’d be all set. My life would be grand. But over the years, I would find myself in a role and naturally assume more responsibility than was required. I was always curious about how things worked and wanted to try new things. However, once I took on more responsibility, things snowballed and I found myself in higher-level positions.

Once I had children, I found myself declining opportunities for promotion. I was a senior VP, but I didn’t want to jump to the next level. One day, I sat down with my husband and discussed it for real. He encouraged me; I believe his exact words were “It’s time.” His encouragement and support — alongside my hard work — brought me to where I am today.

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

In my first year at my company, I spent most of it traveling to each of our locations across the U.S. (yes, Ann Miller, I know that I still haven’t been to Duluth!). In order to really understand what we do and how we do it and the opportunities that exist, I know there’s no better way than to get out there and find out. And, it can be easier to point out all the differences — be it geographically, the way each franchisee approaches their business, etc. — and of course, you must take part in the regional culture and way of life to get the full experience. But what continues to surprise me is how much we are all the same.

Overall, there are some consistencies: people want to do a great job, and they’ve invested in their role, regardless of where on the hierarchy of the business they land. As a staffing and recruiting business, it’s affirming of our business and what we do. We find people jobs, and we love what we do! When I’m in each market, I soak it all in the place, the people and their culture. And, of course, our teams do a great job of feeding me. I’ve had lobster soaked in “budder” in Massachusetts; ribs in Texas; crawfish in Louisiana; and a wee bit of wine in California. I enjoyed enough all-around American food to gain 15 pounds in my first year! I’m down five pounds, but I’ve got 10 to go.

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?

After graduating from college and working in my first corporate job, I hung it all up to become a restaurant owner. It was a great restaurant, and I was a co-owner. At the time, Friday nights were always crazy busy, with a waiting list a mile long. Surprisingly, people always want to see the owner and have long chats on these nights, so I’d run around to make sure I talked to everyone — and as anyone who has had a 10-hour shift on their feet can tell you — you take your bathroom breaks when you can.

I ran in, used the bathroom, washed my hands and ran out to get back to work. Walking back out into the waiting area, I had no idea of the wardrobe malfunction that had ensued because I was in such a rush to get back out to the front of the restaurant. Needless to say, I bought everyone a round of drinks. But I learned that when you make a mistake, you have to own it. Don’t try to hide it. When you own up to your mistakes, it showcases your integrity and builds trust with your team.

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?

Even though I am responsible for strategy and charting the course for the organization, I have the most collaborative role. While you do rely on your team, you get to be a part of everything. I love the full-cycle nature of the job. As a jack-of-all-trades, I enjoy engaging in each aspect of our work: finance, marketing, sales, etc.

In this role, I get to build up my team and create momentum when there are challenges, especially when there is something new to create or there’s a big problem to solve. I get this feeling in my gut when the team begins to move forward and bring a resolution or solution to something that will accelerate the company. It’s like that feeling you probably get when you write something great. I love that feeling — it sends me a rush of endorphins.

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?

When you are in this seat, it’s different. Other leaders get to be worried about the near-term, the taking care of a specific business or functional component. But the CEO or president has to think of all that and beyond today and tomorrow. We have to look at what’s coming next. You don’t always get it right, but you have to have the foresight to anticipate what’s around the corner.

The most important responsibility is figuring out how to pull together a team that will drive the strategies and the initiatives to outpace your competition. And, of course, there’s the pressure of delivering quarter after quarter to the standard of results expected by your board and investors.

People may think “oh, you win some, you lose some,” but that’s not a reality that I accept. I’m constantly pushing to get everyone to win in some way. But that’s not always possible — that’s the hardest part of the job.

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

I mentioned this before, but I love the rush. Figuring it out and solving problems is when I thrive. I love thinking “How can we respond to ‘X’ and what if we do it another way?” When I’m not moving toward something, I feel like I’m moving backward. Also, I guess that I’ve just always liked being responsible — even as a kid when it was just my aunts asking what we were doing down in that basement.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

When you think about the whole of who you are, there are little identities that add up to your image of yourself. You have to make compromises in your life. I’ve made choices to have a demanding career. That has led me to compromise on some personal aspects of my life.

Many people are like “You can be it all!” or “You can do it all!” I’m going to tell you the hard truth. You can’t have it all. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. This is the biggest lie that is fed to young professionals, especially young women.

In your life, you are going to have to make choices, and if you choose something, you don’t get to go back and choose the other option. Sometimes, if you made the wrong choice, you just have to deal with it.

One of my best friends has been in the same role at the same company for over 20 years. She’s smart, caring, and amazing. She has had time to do all these awesome things — like join a dart league, attend every one of her daughter’s dance practices, be home at the same time each night by 4:30 p.m., cook a homemade family dinner by 5:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, etc. I’ve chosen a different path which means I prep four dinners on Sundays and during non-COVID-19 times, I’m at the airport by 5:30 a.m., and I can’t commit to a Tuesday night in-person book club. I respect the hell out of my friend and love her dearly — we’ve just made different choices.

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

A myth . . . that being the CEO means you don’t have a boss, you ARE the boss. At the end of the day, you’re measured in this role by business metrics. You can score in a lot of ways, but if you aren’t growing faster than the market in terms of top-line revenue and profit, you’re expendable. No matter how much you’ve given, tomorrow the board can say to you “We’re sorry, but we’re going to make a change.” It happens. Believe me; everyone has a boss, even the CEO. In fact, most people have only one boss, but as a CEO you’ve got a whole board — often composed of people with contrasting objectives. It’s your job to reconcile those objectives into an actionable plan for the company.

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

I’ve never been a male, so I can’t compare or contrast. I only know what it was like from my perspective. Competing for air time in meetings can be difficult. You can share an idea and no one says anything, and then four minutes later someone parrots it and it’s suddenly a great idea. But I’ve never been one to compare or contrast the genders. We all come to the table with a unique perspective and skills.

I think it’s important for women to realize early when the environment isn’t conducive to their career growth and either work to address and change it or move on. You get one career and time flies — fast.

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

Actually, it’s a lot like what I thought it would be. Yes, it’s a little lonelier at the top than you’d think, but the work wasn’t surprising. I guess the big shift is how people react to you when you are an executive. I’m aware that my sense of humor isn’t for everyone, but at times I do think I’m hilarious — my husband disagrees. He always says that people are laughing because I’m the boss. It’s like a little switch goes off in my head, oh right, they’re just nice to me because of my job title. I don’t really think about my job title in my day-to-day life.

Another aspect that surprised me is that sometimes, mediocre wins. That was a difficult shift for me — I always want to aim for the future and invest company resources, but that’s not always the right decision. You have to manage expectations from the board, stockholders, and key stakeholders. As much as you have to have the foresight to plan ahead, you can’t lose sight of the short-term view that people want you to have in this role. Striking a balance between providing predictable, satisfactory results and improving the long-term sustainability of a company usually wins over chasing perfection. I’m generally a ‘go for it’ kinda gal, but striking a balance is critical in my role.

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?

Selfishness does not play well in this role. You have to give 110% in every meeting. People are always paying attention to you and the impact of what you say is far-reaching, sometimes with way more magnitude than you’d ever expect or intend. You can’t just phone it in; you have to be focused. People who are present succeed in this role.

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

As a leader, you have to give your team room to make mistakes. People are people. Everyone is going to fail and make mistakes. The best thing you can do is set clear expectations and, of course, hold people accountable — but to truly grow a company — you’ve got to give them the leeway to make mistakes and the confidence that you are in their corner. If they fall, you have to be there to have their back and help them pick themselves up again. Let them experiment, learn, and take risks. That’s the best thing to help them grow!

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 where you are?

There are so many people that I’m thankful for on this journey. Too many to quickly mention.

Let’s see . . . in fourth grade I went to Catholic school, and I wanted to be a priest. I saw the impact that they have in their own parish: helping others, making decisions and everyone listened to them. Who wouldn’t want to be one? Well, Father Donald Wilger explained to me that I couldn’t be a priest — only a nun. And while I appreciated the role of a nun, I knew that nuns were not the leaders of the church. Honestly, if I could have been a priest, I probably never would have entered the business world. So, I thank Father Wilger.

I’m fortunate to have many amazing people that have been great mentors — my parents, Susan Marks, Michael Miles — all had a great impact. All of these mentors integrated their work and personal life.

Growing up with a dad and mom who owned their own businesses, I was raised to believe that there’s no better thing than to provide somebody with a job and a future where they can build a life. And, we needed to make good business decisions because there were families with either rent or mortgage that depended on it. I learned from my parents that work is fun; it brings great joy and satisfaction.

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

Wow! That’s a heavy question. I don’t think I’m done yet, and I have some future plans that may be a bit impactful, but the WORLD is a big place. Well, my success has allowed me to contribute in leadership roles for charitable and community organizations. It has allowed me the resources to help my family and those around me in ways that I prefer to keep private.

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

  1. Executives need to have courage. There are times in this job when it can get lonely, you have a ton of responsibility, and you are ultimately accountable to those that you employ.
  2. The decisions that you make have a huge impact on your employees’ lives. You can’t just take care of the few; you have to keep in mind the whole organization. Decisions you make to save one or two employees could adversely affect the rest. We’re responsible for the whole organization, and we have to keep everything balanced.
  3. It’s okay to take care of yourself. Take time to work out, rest and be with the people you love.
  4. You need emotional intelligence and maturity. Business acumen alone doesn’t cut it these days. You have to understand, relate to and coach people. Your ability to lead is more important than your ability to read a prospectus — plus — you’ve got people for that :).
  5. When you hold people accountable for every tiny mistake, they learn never to take risks. My advice is to take risks and be a leader in your own right by supporting your team when they take risks — you get to celebrate their successes and can coach them if the risk falls through.

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’d inspire school leaders to bring vocational education and training back into the high schools. We’ve got a plethora of jobs — important jobs — that go unfilled because our young people haven’t had the opportunity to learn them. And, we’ve got young people who believe that if they don’t go to a four-year college, they won’t be successful in life and that’s just ridiculous.

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

“Learn to merge.”If my family buries me, it’s going on my tombstone. Change happens, ALL THE TIME. Learning to adapt, move forward and get into the flow relates to so many aspects of life. The first and most obvious is when you’re driving. It drives me crazy when a driver in front of me slows way down or comes to a complete stop and impedes the progress of the other cars. It’s up to you to adjust your pace and fit into the flow; sometimes it requires you to slowly progress and sometimes it requires you to speed the hell up. It also relates to other aspects of life. It’s important to be ready to change and adapt to all that life throws at you.

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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

This is the toughest of all your questions! How do you pick just one? There are so many…

As a Packer fan, I’d have to pick Brett Favre. He and his teams have brought me many, many happy days. And I’d like to go back in time to be the negotiator in that deal. I believe that I could have saved us all some heartache.

Currently, I think it would be interesting to have breakfast with Angela Merkel. She’s had such a long run, from a distance she seems to be strong and collaborative, and she’s getting ready for her next chapter in her life. It would be interesting to learn what she’s going to do next.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.

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