Shannon Miles of BELAY: “You can empower others without giving away your power”

You can empower others without giving away your power. Empowering others actually illustrates how much power you DO have. And when you use that power to develop, invest in and lead others, it grows exponentially. Also, be true to who you are. If you are not a really assertive person, don’t pretend to be. Find […]

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You can empower others without giving away your power. Empowering others actually illustrates how much power you DO have. And when you use that power to develop, invest in and lead others, it grows exponentially. Also, be true to who you are. If you are not a really assertive person, don’t pretend to be. Find ways to lead from a position of power without being falsely aggressive.

The world does not need female entrepreneurs who are pretending to be like men. The world needs female entrepreneurs who are secure in who they are and want to grow their organizations beyond themselves.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon Miles.

Shannon Miles is the Co-Founder of BELAY, a premium virtual staffing company which has brought in 100M+ since 2010, and in spite of the pandemic saw exceptional growth in 2020.

Without an office, BELAY has graced the Inc 5000 list five times, was awarded the #1 on Entrepreneur Magazine’s Best Company Culture and has 1000+ team members who work from home.

A mother of two, she has two other businesses: a craft brewery in Atlanta and Own Not Run, which advises business owners about the freedom of owning companies, instead of running them. She’s also the author of, Third Option which outlines the opportunity between the traditional 40+ hour workweek and unemployment; for those who can’t find work/life success within the corporate environment but don’t have the financial means to leave the workforce.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I married my husband Bryan in 1997 and in 2010, at the height of the economic recession when our children were two and five years old, we left our jobs in corporate America, to create something that would eventually give us the opportunity to lead the lives we wanted to live — balanced and family focused.

While most wouldn’t advise this, Bryan and I believed in each other and what we could build, so we cashed in our 401Ks to start to bootstrap our business. It would grow and evolve into BELAY — a premium virtual staffing company that has more than 1,000 virtual team members, supports business owners, leaders, non-profits and CEOs, and has generated 100 million dollars in revenue since we started it.

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

In 2014, we contracted with a PR agency to start spreading the word about BELAY. During the intake interview, the PR agent asked Bryan what a ‘wild ask’ would be: something that seemed impossible but would be awesome if it happened.

Bryan answered, “I’ve always admired Richard Branson and what he’s accomplished with his Virgin Brands. I’d love to meet him one day and shake his hand.”

A few weeks later, the PR agent called. “One of our clients organizes trips each year to Necker Island, Richard Branson’s private island in the BVI’s. They have some spots open for their December trip. Do you want me to put you in touch?”

Ummmm, yes, please.

At that point in our business, we were making profit, but not a lot. And we certainly were not making enough money to justify the cost of this expensive trip.

Yet, we felt like it would be a life-changing opportunity; one that does not present itself very often.

So we said, “YES!! We’d love to go to Necker.”

We scraped up the money to spend 5 glorious days with other entrepreneurs who shared like-minded visions. During our time on Necker, Richard hung out with the group a lot, allowing us to share about our businesses and how we are changing the world.

During a Q&A session with Richard, he shared the famous quote “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.” That was all the inspiration I needed so stop limiting myself and our business and start DREAMING BIG.

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?

My funniest mistake early on in the business was definitely not funny at the time, but I’m sure other business owners can relate. I took our first customer termination personal. Really personal.

I felt like I’d not only not done enough to oversee the success of the engagement, but also that I’d actually done something wrong. Like if I had made that extra coaching call, I would have saved the deal.

The truth is, sometimes your product just doesn’t work for everyone. And in those early days of the business (10 years ago), we were still proving work could be done virtually, refining our hiring process and honing-in on our delivery model.

Bryan said, “Did you think none of our customers would ever terminate?”

“No, obviously.” I said.

This was just our first one. It had to happen at some point, and the truth is, no clients last FOREVER, so I find that funny that I took it so personal when it is all part of the learning process.

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

I’ve been blessed to work with my husband for the past 10 years and I am confident our business would not be where it is today without both of us involved.

Beyond his help, I’m also really grateful for my team and how they’ve helped me along the way. The BELAY leadership team is remarkable and has taken on challenges and opportunities that have provided the opportunity for me, personally, and the company to grow.

As the business grew, we adopted the mantra: Replace Yourself.

And as I replaced myself with capable leaders, it challenged me to grow as a leader, too. It is so inspiring to work with leaders who are as passionate about your business as you are. This passion allows me to dream bigger and continually lift the lid off my leadership.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Public speaking can be really stressful for me. Sometimes, like when I’m speaking to my BELAY team, it’s not stressful at all. Other times, like when I’m speaking to a crowd of 1,000, I’m really nervous. I might ‘forget my outline and make an awkward joke to cover it up,’ kind of nervous.

I’ve learned over the years that there are 3 things that help get me mentally and physically ready for stressful situations:

Pause — I evaluate my calendar and determine what I’ve already said ‘yes’ to that I need to change to a ‘no’. If my calendar is crammed full leading into a stressful situation, that situation is amplified x 100. So, I determine what I need to press pause on and push until after the stressful situation is over.

Prepare — The more I prepare for something, the less stressful it is for me. I feel like preparedness not only helps me think through the situation, but also it gives me the comfort of knowing: even if the event isn’t perfect, at least I know I prepared and tried my hardest.

Pray — You can fill this in with meditation, but who doesn’t love a good alliteration? Praying, for me, allows me to calm my mind and body. It reminds me that my world, the world, is much bigger than this stressful situation. It also reminds me that my worth is not wrapped up in the outcome of the situation.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

It’s been a point of pride for me to be able to say that our executive team is a female stronghold. Our CEO, COO, VPs, Directors and the majority of our leadership are all women. I know that’s rare for a company of our size and one with our revenue. And I can say with certainty that these women, with their own unique strengths and experiences, have been incredibly instrumental in every part of our success.

Beyond leadership, the virtual nature of our offerings means we aren’t limited by geography and have endless hiring potential that can be inclusive of people with various backgrounds, cultures, and life experiences. We know that this is as important to our team, as it is to our clients as it offers unique perspective, life experiences and skill sets.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Over the past few years we actually have adopted the idea of introducing “conflict norms” to everyone in the company, which ensures everyone, no matter their role, has a seat at the table. We encourage folks to speak up, feel like they have a voice and know that their input is not only respected but encouraged.

For us it’s:

Hunt the Elephant: Address the actual problem. Instead of dancing around the issue, don’t be afraid to state what the “big white elephant” in the room is.

Welcome the Contrarian: Play devil’s advocate on ideas, process changes, etc. Help us look at things from all angles. Don’t be a “yes-man.”

TSA Rule: See something, Say something: If something just doesn’t seem right, say something. It could be nothing, but it could be something!

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?

A CEO or executive needs to see the business from all angles, all aspects. This includes looking into the future, looking around corners for possible threats and looking deep into the business to make sure the organization is functioning healthily. CEOs have a vision of what the organization could be, not just for what it already is. They can balance the tension of achieving organizational results while growing organizational health.

Other leaders within the business need to have a sense of the global functions of the business, but really need to be experts in their particular domains. They need to advocate for their disciplines, while having an overall understanding of how they impact other disciplines.

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

CEOs are not relegated to a certain personality type or temperament. They do not look, act or dress a certain way. They can be any Enneagram type and wear yoga pants and still be professional.

Also, CEOs don’t need to be experts in everything. If you want to grow a business, any one person cannot be an expert in everything. Great CEOs do not have it all figured out, but they know how to lead with humility.

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

The challenges for female executives are vast.

Disparities in pay; need to prove themselves beyond what men need to prove; reentering the workforce after a season of paring back for family; Imposter syndrome; Ability to show up to work as their ‘whole selves.’

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

Before evolving as the CEO of BELAY, I had the misconception that CEOs called all the shots. In reality, I’ve empowered my leaders to make the call on 90% of the business: the person closest to the problem should make the call.

The 10% that I still call the shots on are those areas of the business where I’ve chosen to ‘die on the hill’ over. Mostly, these relate to vision and growth.

I’m shocked to see that I could get to the place in the business where, under incredible leadership, it is running primarily without me. That evolution took a lot of work, but when I first got started on this entrepreneurial journey, I would have never thought that was possible. This is why we are teaching other entrepreneurs how to adopt this mindset through Own Not Run.

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? Can you explain what you mean?

For a leader that is reluctant to hand over leadership, like I actually was in the beginning, it’s important not to be shortsighted. If you can look ahead and seek out support before you know you need it, you’ll set yourself up for success.

To find the right people, you’ll need to recognize that they want to be a part of the journey. And a piece of that is on you. You have to make them feel a part and give them a “why.”

Beyond that you need to have someone who has passion, drive and confidence. Someone able to have a vision larger than themselves. What we have really uncovered too is that a great leader has great soft skills: character, compassion, drive.

It’s important to remember though, that just because someone is the best salesperson doesn’t mean they can lead the sales team. In order to succeed, he or she will need to have leadership capabilities.

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

You can empower others without giving away your power. Empowering others actually illustrates how much power you DO have. And when you use that power to develop, invest in and lead others, it grows exponentially. Also, be true to who you are. If you are not a really assertive person, don’t pretend to be. Find ways to lead from a position of power without being falsely aggressive.

The world does not need female entrepreneurs who are pretending to be like men. The world needs female entrepreneurs who are secure in who they are and want to grow their organizations beyond themselves.

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

The most rewarding part of what I do is being able to provide a career and income for people who might have otherwise had the opportunity. I’ve been humbled over the years to receive emails and hand-written letters from BELAY team members who have thanked us for starting the company and providing them steady income in a down economy. Many of these stories are captured in my book “The Third Option — Why a Woman Doesn’t Have to Choose Between a Career and Family, but Can Actually Have Both and Succeed”.

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

You Don’t Own Your Business Until It Doesn’t Need You Anymore: Business owners get stuck in the day-to-day of their businesses, and the businesses end up owning them. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can approach your business in such a way that you build a team around you who run the day-to-day so you can truly be the owner.

You Must Say No To Opportunities: In the early stages of every business we’ve started, we have been approached by people to add services, expand our offerings, franchise, target new vertices, you name it. But here’s the thing — not all opportunities are equal. A lot of these opportunities distract business owners from what they should truly be focusing on. Once you’ve figured out The Hedgehog Concept by Jim Collins, you can confidently say no to those opportunities that would distract you from it.

Be A Fire Chief Not A Firefighter: In the early days of business, owners are often responsible for putting out all the fires that arise on a daily basis. Yet, this approach is not sustainable if you want to grow your business. You have to intentionally stop putting out fires and start training up other firefighters so you can become the fire chief. Would it be easier to just put out the fire and take care of it yourself? Maybe. But this is short sighted and will keep you running the day to day of the business instead of owning it.

Hire Ahead of The Curve: One of the most common questions I get asked is “How do I know when to hire?” My answer is always the same “Hire sooner than you think.” Hiring does not need to be a full-time executive with years of experience. It can be a 10 hr/week virtual assistant or bookkeeper. These are the first 2 hires we made at BELAY. It felt like a financial stretch to make these hires, but the amount of time it gave us back in our days to focus on higher-payoff activities was tremendous.

You are not your business: You can be passionate about your business without completely wrapping your identity into it. You will try things that don’t work in your business. It doesn’t mean you failed. It means your idea failed. Big difference. Conversely, you will create products and services that the market LOVES. But it’s still important to remain humble. The faster you can disentangle your identity from your business, the faster you can start to trust others with running key aspects of 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.

As you have probably heard from any number of studies and news sources, women are being forced to alter the way they can “show up” to work. Whether needing to step in and help with their kids’ virtual school or dealing with boundaryless remote-work, coupled with the “mental load,” there’s no denying that COVID will set back women in the workplace in a major way.

And while there are so many ways I could answer this question, I think given the state of the world and specifically how COVID is impacting women in the workforce, I need to start there.

Instead of taking the off-ramp from career to meet needs of family, or whatever you might be facing, I want to empower women to recognize their strengths and create work for themselves that honors their skill-set, is fulfilling and allows them to focus on the things that contribute to a meaningful life. That’s actually the whole crux of my book, The Third Option. If I can help women see their strengths, re-tool their mindset on what “work” needs to be, it could open up a lot of incredible possibilities, perhaps even, in the face of a pandemic.

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

Bryan was actually on a mountain climbing trip with a friend and business mentor some years back. At some point between casual chatter and connecting about life in general, Bryan started talking about how we own our business — which at the time was in a very rapid growth phase for us. In his typical direct fashion, his friend then offered some feedback: “You don’t own anything. Until your business does not require you for it to operate on a daily basis, you don’t own a business, you run a business. The day the business doesn’t need you day-to-day — that’s when you own your business.”

When Bryan got back and shared that story with me, it was like a light bulb went off. We took that advice and worked to find the right people to replace us in day to day operations of BELAY. We delegated more than we ever had, trusted the team we had in place and now here we are…in a place where we can own and not run our business.

After we enjoyed that, for a brief moment, we decided to start Own Not Run. Through that business we are able to share our personal experience with other business owners, inspiring them to experience freedom in owning their businesses.

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

I’m sure 1 out of 2 times this question is asked, the answer is Oprah. But yes, Oprah. And why? Because she’s Oprah and I would watch The Oprah Winfrey Show every day after school. She inspired me from a very young age to rise above my circumstances. She’s an incredible reminder that no matter where you start, if you work hard and lead with an open heart, you channel abundance for not only yourself, but those around you. Also, she’s bound to have some incredible stories, and if I’m lucky, she might ask me to join her book club.

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