Make Mistakes: Progress, not perfection. While I understand that female executives generally have “shorter” ropes than their male counterparts, I think attempts at perfection will lead you further astray than admitting mistakes. Learn from your mistakes and move on.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Hu.
Stephanie Hu is the CEO of Amazing Lash Studio and Fitness Together Franchise, LLC. Stephanie brings over 20 years of consumer products and health and fitness experience to the WellBiz Brands, Inc.-backed franchise concepts, most recently serving as the President of Life Time Sport (a division of Life Time, Inc.). Stephanie holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BBA from the University of Michigan.
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?
From the very beginning I’ve been passionate about bringing teams together. I get so much energy from working with great teams. My first memories are the garage sales I used to organize with my neighborhood friends in West Des Moines, Iowa. I was really passionate about it and asked my friend Allison to create the posters, my friend Julie to run the cash register, and my friends Matt and Brian to ride their bikes around the neighborhood to help drum up business. It was that early venture that really helped to shape my understanding of what it takes to lead and motivate a team.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Two words — COVID-19. I was six months in as CEO for Fitness Together when COVID-19 struck. Fitness Together is a 1:1 personal training business made up of small business owners across the country. When we learned that our fitness studios would need to close, we knew we needed to pivot quickly. Thankfully, our small but agile team went to work right away to launch online virtual training. This meant that operations, marketing, training, business systems all needed to focus on their areas of expertise. We also needed to get buy-in and commitment from our owners, helping them understand that virtual training could be just as effective for their clients as in person training. I’m so proud of what we accomplished. In just two weeks we were able to launch a new business line for the brand. Without this crisis, it could have taken months, instead with focus and commitment it only took two weeks.
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?
This one might still get told as a cautionary tale around the dangers of being “overly” prepared! I was getting ready to go out on maternity leave with our first, and typical of my planning tendencies, I had my birth announcement email ready to go. This email was literally ready to send; all I had unfilled was her weight because clearly, she was not yet born! I had noted she weighed “X lbs, Y oz.” Well, I’m sure you can see where this is going, but I accidentally sent the email and within seconds, I was getting congratulation emails. The immediate lesson of course is to be careful when it comes to email (reply all, forwarding things you shouldn’t, etc.); however, the greater life lesson for me was the ability to laugh at yourself. Of course, my immediate reaction was sheer embarrassment, but I decided it was better to simply embrace my true overly Type A, neurotic planning self! I’ve learned to use self-deprecating humor to defuse many tense situations/meetings because people appreciate the vulnerability and the humor!
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?
Scott B. was one of my first managers at General Mills. Scott got an idealistic, fiercely independent, resilient but head strong associate. He was not only incredibly intelligent, but also very humble and he did everything he could to let me shine. The term “Servant Leadership” has recently gained popularity and that is Scott to the tee. I loved working for Scott because he let me run with my ideas while removing barriers. As a leader, it’s important to be able to delegate and let your team shine. Furthermore, he taught me to truly listen, to see the world from other people’s viewpoints and to find the unique skill set in everyone. It is my responsibility as a leader at Amazing Lash Studio and Fitness Together to harness the incredible talent across the franchisee system to help change the lives of more people to live happier, healthier lives.
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?
I wish I could say that I drink hot tea, meditate for 10 minutes and do light yoga arriving at my high stakes meeting in total Zen. However, the truth is that I do get nervous before high stakes meetings or presentations. So instead of lighting a candle, I’ve been known to ignite a small tornado in my household when I’m feeling nervous. But here’s the thing with that small tornado, it creates an opportunity for me to talk with my two daughters about it being okay to be nervous and being okay to be afraid. The most important thing is that you continue to move forward. You don’t let fear be a deterrent. I also use these opportunities to talk about the importance of being kind to yourself. We do it for others, but it’s so important to remember to do it for yourself! I think it’s important for my family to celebrate our wins together but also know that it’s okay to reach out for help when we need it.
Outside of creating a small tornado, I also repeat to myself — ‘I’ve got this.’ This mantra helps me reset my brain, my breathing and my nerves. It’s simple and it works. And my girls have also picked this up and it’s fun to watch them use it too!
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? 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.
The Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) conversation that is happening now is so important. My advice to anyone who wants to start this conversation at their organization is to start with the heart in mind, not the marketing message. Another piece of advice is to make DE&I part of your strategic plan, not something separate from it. Fitness Together is a 1:1 personal training business, it’s one of the few businesses that you can start at an entry level and within five years if you want, you could be owning your own business. Yet, when we started this conversation, we took a look at the diversity of our owners and trainers and we knew we could do more. So, our DE&I work has focused on us first. Over the last six months we’ve broken into small working groups and we’re looking inside the organization to determine what we could do to be a more inclusive organization. Our philosophy at Fitness Together is that statements don’t make changes, actions do.
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?
As an executive I’m responsible for setting the vision, ensuring the right people are in the right seats and then doing all I can to break down barriers and empower them to do their job.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the myths that I’ve experienced is that you can’t bring your full self to work. I’ve been told in the past that I was too informal in one setting, too motherly in another, that I shared too much in another. Showing emotion and heart at work is not a weakness. Treating those around you with kindness does not mean that you can’t make tough decisions. You can still be very successful as a CEO or a person of influence in your organization and care for those around you at work. The rules of the game have changed.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be brave, not perfect. Brave is the person who is afraid and does it anyway.
Here are a few questions to consider:
- What is the worst that can happen?
- Better yet, what happens if you don’t act?
- Progress not perfection.
- Break it down into smaller pieces.
- Don’t over think it. Make a decision. Give yourself a time limit, like 30 seconds and then go!
- Reset expectations along the way. What happens if it didn’t turn out like you expected? Be resilient, focus on the progress and then keep going.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m focused on my everyday actions, so I stay focused on investing in the people with whom I work. I don’t necessarily spend time on the speaker circuit as I think the most powerful way to make a difference is with the women and men that I work with directly.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Here are five things that I wish I would have been shared with me before I started in my career:
- Prioritize: Saying yes to everything and working around the clock not only exhausts you, but is also not the sign of a true leader.
- Be Authentic: Earlier in my career as a female in the finance world, I felt I had to represent something that wasn’t truly me.
- Find the Right People: I know it’s a cliché but it’s so true — making the transition from an individual contributor to a leader of people can be hard and the sooner you understand that it’s your team that makes you successful, the easier growth becomes.
- Make Mistakes: Progress, not perfection. While I understand that female executives generally have “shorter” ropes than their male counterparts, I think attempts at perfection will lead you further astray than admitting mistakes. Learn from your mistakes and move on.
- Have Fun: I always tell my daughters to have fun before they go to a lesson or an event. It’s so easy to forget. Jobs get stressful, but if you aren’t having fun while you are doing it then you probably should consider finding something that does bring you joy!
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.
My movement, let’s call it a revolution, is already underway and my focus is on disrupting the status quo by focusing on building and instilling more confidence in girls and women. I’ve been talking about the confidence gap in presentations, 1:1’s, executive leadership meetings and family gatherings for as long as I can remember. Confidence is a game changer. With more confidence, comes the ability to take more risks and the resiliency to manage failure. With confidence you focus less on perfection and more on the understanding that when you fail, you pick yourself up and keep on going. If you only remember one thing, please remember this — being brave doesn’t mean that you aren’t afraid, being brave and confident, means you might be terrified but you move forward regardless.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you try to be everything to everyone, you accomplish being nothing to anyone.”
— Bonnie Gillespie
Early in my career, I said yes to everything at work and yes to everything with family and friends. It was exhausting and frankly, I wasn’t doing anything well. It wasn’t until I had my first child that I finally realized that physically, I couldn’t do everything. It forced me to prioritize. I try to apply the above quote not only to my personal life, but also to running 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.
Melinda Gates. I was watching a Netflix documentary on Bill and Melinda Gates, and as you might expect, it focused on the brilliance and single-minded nature of Bill Gates re: his desire to bring clean potable water to developing countries. However, it also showed how Melinda helps modify, tweak and challenge his ideas to ensure that it wasn’t just about the “product,” but also about the human experience. Bill approaches projects primarily from the mindset of an engineer while Melinda approaches them as a consumer. To improve the health of America, we can’t continue to focus on reactive care; we have to approach it more proactively and understand consumer behaviors while encouraging small positive changes. Further, it was just announced that she’s committing significant resources to drive gender equality in the workplace, which is another cause near and dear to my heart as I consider the corporate world that my two daughters will eventually enter. I think she sets a great example for all leaders, women and men alike, in her philanthropic endeavors.