An interview with Phil La Duke
Always be the last to speak in a room. Connect, empathize, and listen for the sole purpose of understanding, not responding. Listening is an intransitive verb and one of its meanings is to “hear something with thoughtful understanding: give consideration”. This is a great tactic for building trust and mutual respect.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephynie Malik. In Stephynie’s 25+ year career, she has gone from one of the youngest Directors in the Silicon Valley, to an award-winning CEO of her own software consulting firm, to Executive and Transformational Coach. In her years of experience she has developed proven methodologies and success strategies, been involved in 11 startups worldwide and spearhead multi-million dollar acquisitions. Her results-driven approach has helped executives and entrepreneurs alike achieve new levels of growth and connection in not only their business, but also their lives. Stephynie is also a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and focuses on sharing her expertise with others looking to gain insight into the world of business.
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?
Thank you so much for asking me! The move from consultant to coach was simply a natural step in my professional evolution. I left the corporate world to start MalikCo in 2003 because I was confident I had the business skills to excel and knew that a true customer centric approach in the consulting industry was sorely needed at that time. I am also passionate about helping people to excel, to help them see and become the most amazing version of themselves. This attitude is in response to the turbulence I encountered in my childhood and validated by the actions of those who helped, coached, encouraged, or mentored me along the way. My 16 years of experience as Founder and CEO of MalikCo give me the leadership and operational experience that my clients demand, and people skills needed to help them change their personal and professional behaviors to achieve better results. It’s what they expect and what I deliver. SMALIK Enterprises gives me the opportunity to leverage my expertise and experience in the business consulting, executive coaching and crisis management fields while allowing me to fulfill my passion to serve others.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My initial plan when I founded SMALIK Enterprises was a simple one. My intent was to leverage the built-in engagements and a ready-and-willing clientele base I had established to launch my new company. Then one day I got a non-compete that changed everything. They say disruption can be a marvelous thing and I can say from experience it makes you think more, hustle more, and learn more in a real short period of time. The jury is still out on it being a marvelous thing but it’s undoubtedly a challenging call to action that tests your knowledge, stamina, and skills.
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?
Moral of the story, online businesses are HARD. It is even harder when you don’t know what you don’t know.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?
I started both of my companies with the same intention. I saw the need and was driven to challenge and change the business model in each of the industries I entered. The CEO role enables me to translate my vision into actions, to communicate and sell my approach to our team and clients, and to focus on building and retaining an engaged team of people committed to achieving excellence and having fun along the way. Not a bad way to spend your days.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
What an interesting question. If your title, however, includes the words “Officer” or “Executive”, chances are your role and responsibilities are more focused on the macro leadership of the organization. These positions leverage the specialized knowledge and operational experience that each Officer has acquired through the course of their career in critical areas like business planning, strategy development, business development, and employee engagement/development. These functions are essential to sustain and grow the business. All other team members, including front-line employees, are focused on leading at the micro level to provide exceptional service and support to our clients. Their contributions are equally essential to sustaining and growing the business. Each business is unique. In the early stages of starting a company the “management” structure or job descriptions really don’t define how the work gets done. The work just gets done. Teamwork is a marvelous thing.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
The personal interactions I have with people every day. Individual interactions. Team interactions. Client interactions. Two of my passions are service to others and continuous learning. Each day enables me to fulfill my passion.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
The turbulence and chaos that short notice work commitments or extended travel wreaks on my family time. I must say, however, that they are an infinitely sympathetic, understanding, and supportive crew. I am so grateful to have their love and encouragement. They enable me to pursue my passion.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Employee disengagement has been a huge challenge in business for decades and it negatively impacts your company’s profitability, productivity, customer satisfaction, and your brand’s reputation. Your behaviors drive your outcomes and many executives I have worked for, coached, or consulted with often believe their title has much more impact that it really carries in the eyes of the rest of the organization. For example, the control and authority that come with your job description do not make you a leader. Your actions and behaviors do. You are a leader because you have earned enough trust and respect that convince others follow you and commit to making your business goals their own. Engagement, like trust and respect, is earned. Credibility is any leader’s greatest capital and a myth many executives believe is that their title alone gives them an unlimited balance in their account. Doesn’t work that way. If your words and actions don’t match, you lose credibility. When the words and actions of managers below you on the organization chart don’t align with yours you lose massive quantities of credibility. Do executives know this? Do executives hold managers below them accountable for the levels of engagement on their teams? Are bonus or compensation packages for executives linked to metrics on employee churn or engagement? Unfortunately, many are not yet we wonder why employee disengagement is such a problem.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Well, as an entrepreneur you define your job description and responsibilities so there really were no striking differences between the two. When I launched SMALIK Enterprises, however, I was surprised at how many individuals, teams, and organizations needed crisis management services. I was also surprised by how my knowledge, experience, and approach to solving business problems exceeded their expectations to resolve their crisis situations. We have since built a team of individuals who have the skills and expertise to solve and resolve a wide variety of personal, professional, or corporate crisis situations.
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?
I think that virtually everyone in the workplace has the capacity to be a successful leader. I must also admit, and I don’t say this disrespectfully, that I have met many executives who weren’t cut out to be executives but got the job any way. Do good behaviors drive great outcomes? Can good behaviors be learned and developed? The answer to both questions is yes. The ability to listen and respond with empathy is a great behavior and one that can be learned. One’s ability to show gratitude and a sense of humility are great behaviors. Being honest and respectful are great behaviors. Arrogance and ego, however, really don’t win a lot of hearts or engage a lot of minds. I heard it said and wish I could remember by who that the only personal behavior that couldn’t be overcome was a lack of humility. People who lack humility usually lack the capacity to listen, learn or change since they don’t recognize they need to.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
My advice is always to build and sustain a team culture based on trust, mutual respect, and continuous improvement. Build personal partnerships with each team member. Listen fiercely and emphatically. Seek feedback aggressively and don’t limit it to gathering information on your own performance. I have heard it said that the four most important words in any organization are “What Do You Think” and your team members can be an invaluable resource in developing strategy and solutions as those four word can be the most impactful question you can ask. It’s the littlest things that make the biggest difference when it comes to engaging the minds and winning the hearts of your team. One on one time with each team member is invaluable. Always be prepared and always have a set agenda for these sessions to maximize their effectiveness. Focusing on the purpose and clearly communicating why it’s the focus is how you get on the same page with your team, individually and collectively. Arrogance, ego, and reliance on positional authority is incredibly destructive when it comes building your brand as a team leader. Create an assessment about YOU and make it anonymous as building your team’s culture with a goal to getting team members feeling comfortable and confident enough to respond face to face. Instilling the shared values of trust, mutual respect, and continuous improvement will truly make your team indestructible.
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?
My daughter. I was a baby, who had a baby. I was 22 when I had her and I was divorced at 23. I had no idea what this person held for me in my future. She tells me now that she is 24 that I shaped her and gave her so many gifts. She has no idea that SHE was my teacher. She taught me unconditional love, preparation, kindness, giving without expectations of receiving. She taught me to prioritize, how and when to pivot, to not sweat the small stuff, to slow down and smell the roses and she taught me how to laugh…like really belly laugh. She also taught me as she got older that not all bad days were solved with compassion, understanding and ice cream, and that I should add more a few more tools to my parenting toolbox. My success isn’t a “me” thing. It was and is a “WE” thing.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Quotes are a marvelous tool that can be used to illustrate a point, inspire personal change, or to understand and validate past experiences. “Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart, one who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.” Marvin Ashton’s words capture perfectly my personal mission and passion for helping people learn, grow, achieve, and excel. My success has increased my capacity and given me more resources to deploy that passion and make a difference in the lives of children, in education, and helping those struggle with mental health issues. Service to others, to use the words of Marie Kondo, “sparks joy” in me and gives me purpose. I am sure that you are familiar with the concept of servant leadership and I often take the service part of that approach literally. If there are dishes in the office that need done, I do them. If I have team members working on a huge project or deal and haven’t had a chance to wash their car, I’ll do it for them. It’s the littlest things that make the biggest difference. It only takes a few seconds and a few words to make a person feel better about themselves and their world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Great question! Here are five things I learned along the way that nobody told me about:
- Always be the last to speak in a room. Connect, empathize, and listen for the sole purpose of understanding, not responding. Listening is an intransitive verb and one of its meanings is to “hear something with thoughtful understanding: give consideration”. This is a great tactic for building trust and mutual respect.
- Always use the same dictionary, especially with absolute statements. “Never, always, more than”. This creates safety and you can always count on the comfort of understanding your client or team.
- I recently read Daniel Coyle’s exceptional book “The Culture Code”. One of the key elements of building a great team culture is creating a safe environment that eliminates fear and where people are comfortable, feel free to be creative and express their ideas and feel valued. Culture is leader driven and communication is key. It’s the little things that matter most.
- Start every single day with gratitude. In its simplest terms, gratitude is about being thankful and acknowledging the good we experience. It’s also about recognizing the good we experience is often derived from sources outside of ourselves. Any person can be the good that others are grateful for. It’s not about what can you do for me? It’s more about what can we do for each other.
- Relationships are not just key, they are EVERYTHING. Treat them well. ALWAYS add more then you take.
Pretty simple conceptually, however, execution is everything. Each one is unique and must be grown and nurtured accordingly.
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.
Children were being left behind decades before the “No Child Left Behind” Act was implemented in 2001. Education in general and schools in particular as a means to deliver it need to be completely “re-imagined” to meet the socio-economic realities of today’s workplace. I would encourage everyone to visit a school and spend 15 minutes talking to a teacher or school level administrator and you will learn about the real challenges educators face. Billions get spent on education and virtually zero dollars make to each school’s instructional budget. The fact that most schools are used as daycare or feeding centers in each communities’ social services network speaks volumes about impact that single or two working parents can have on their children’s education. Parents want to be partners in their children’s education but lack the basic resources of knowledge and time to do so. The list continues. The good news, however, is that new approaches and strategies are being developed and deployed to improve the education system. Organizations like the Kahn Academy and Acton Academy are pioneering new ways to identify and close skill gaps, tailor customized learning solutions for their students, or change curricula and delivery methods to focus on critical thinking and analytical skills. I would love to be a leader in this much needed revolution.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The source of these words is often debated so it is more concept than quote. It is found in the belief that “we are all broken, that is how the light shines through”. My childhood broke me on so many levels. My mother was mentally ill. My father died tragically while serving his country. I was homeless as a teenager, had issues in high school, had to drop out of college, lost friends to cancer and dealt with many other things. I always knew, however, that as difficult as those days were that many others were dealing with situations much worse than mine. Our cracks don’t define us. They teach us. In Japan, there is a saying that our cracks are filled with gold so that we remember where we came from and we are worth saving. This belief has shaped my perspective on life and drives my behaviors daily. It is a blessing and lesson I am very grateful to have 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? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Wait, what? Tony Robbins. 10,000 percent! To me, he epitomizes Marvin Ashton’s words ““Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart one who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.” We have commonality in our childhood challenges and our passion to help and serve others. His perspective on truth and ability to deliver powerful unpopular messages is a divine talent. I don’t have a bucket list but if I did, having the opportunity to meet and learn from THE Tony Robbins would be the one and only item on it. #dreamcometrue #oneonthebucketlist
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
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