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Terri Maxwell: “Assume positive intent.”

…They “assume positive intent.” — To assume positive intent means that no matter what another person does, the authentic leader does not judge their behavior but rather “assumes” that the person meant well (or at least did not mean to cause harm). These leaders enter every exchange with an assumption that the person isn’t being […]

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…They “assume positive intent.” — To assume positive intent means that no matter what another person does, the authentic leader does not judge their behavior but rather “assumes” that the person meant well (or at least did not mean to cause harm). These leaders enter every exchange with an assumption that the person isn’t being deceptive or trying to cause harm. This “trust first” belief dynamically changes their communication with employees and instills an open and transparent culture.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Terri Maxwell, a business growth expert, social impact investor, and serial entrepreneur whose purpose is to inspire potential. Terri built a portfolio of purposeful companies, Share On Purpose, Inc., and now invests in and creates mission-driven start-ups.

In a career that spans more than 25 years, Terri has launched, owned, sold, re-branded or turned around more than 40 brands.

Terri’s latest venture is Shift/Co™, a Business Growth Community for conscious entrepreneurs who want to elevate business success and make the world better. Shift/Co equips members with the skills, resources and connections to make a difference while building a thriving 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?

My career migrated from classroom teacher to software consultant, to C-suite executive where I helped take an Internet company public. From there it was on to entrepreneurship and now most of my time is spent investing and growing purposeful, conscious brands.

What drove me early in my career, truthfully, was trying to prove I was good enough. I grew up in an impoverished environment which created a ton of self-worth issues. Succeed On Purpose was born out of my own quest to reach my potential.

Today, I simply want my work to make the world better while leading purposeful companies and helping others launch and grow their purposeful companies.

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

I built my first company to just under $10M in annual sales between 2002 and 2008. In the spring of 2008, I decided to sell that company (great timing), not because of the pending recession, but because I hated working in my own. company.

That was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. You see, I built the company on what I was good at, not what I enjoyed doing. As a result of that, although we were successful, I was miserable.

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?

As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve made too many mistakes to count, honestly. And, I’ve learned to find humor and not take myself so seriously.

So, rather than a funny mistake, I’d like to share an insight. I now try to not just learn from mistakes and laugh at mistakes…but EARN from my mistakes. My goal is to turn mistakes into products, businesses, programs and services. That’s the best way to make the world better.

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?

What attracted me to the role of CEO, at first, was control. I was tired of a board or another CEO making decisions that caused us to fail. I think a lot of female executives who become CEO’s are driven by control and creativity.

What I learned about control, however, is that it isn’t all that’s its cracked up to be. What most of us want is FREEDOM, not control.

The freedom to work on what I want, where I want, and when I want.

So I would encourage readers to be driven more by freedom, rather than control.

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?

CEO’s have 3 key functions:

  1. Setting a vision, culture, and strategy for the company to ensure it serves ALL stakeholders: customers, employees and shareholders.
  2. Inspiring the growth of authentic leaders across the organization. This is where most CEO’s fail. They focus too much on the business, and not on the people. As Simon Sinek said, “business is an infinite game.” You don’t get there. For the business to continue to grow, it must be fueled by authentic leaders at all levels in the organization.
  3. Removing obstacles that stand in the way of the company and team’s success.

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

The thing I love the most about being an executive is the difference I make with our customers and team members.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The biggest downside is stress. There are always a million things to do, and a thousand people who need your attention. To manage stress, I now start every day with a gratitude practice and meditation.

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

The BIGGEST myth is that we’re completely in charge. The truth is, everyone, reports to someone. CEOs have to answer to a board, and or to customers. That’s why it’s so important to focus on freedom rather than control.

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

Women executives struggle to be taken seriously in all aspects of business, from the boardroom to the employee lounge. There are many reasons for this, but I’ve learned the best way to be taken seriously is to just be authentic and focus on vision and results. In time, success is contagious and the people who need to take me seriously, will.

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

The biggest surprise about being an executive, especially as a small business CEO, is how hard it is. Executives have to make difficult decisions with imperfect data, all the time, meanwhile seamlessly moving from tactical work to complex strategy in any given day.

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?

The most important element for success as an executive is perseverance.

When I started my first company, I failed miserably. I felt like a total failure. Once I decided to face my fears and raging self-doubt, the next step I took was to interview dozens of successful executives. That was a powerful experience because I quickly realized there was not a single predeterminant of success. Not education, age, experience, gender, nothing.

The ONLY common denominator of success was raw perseverance and the guts it takes to not quit, no matter how hard it is.

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

I believe the best leaders are authentic leaders. Authentic leaders do 3 things consistently:

  1. They “assume positive intent.” — To assume positive intent means that no matter what another person does, the authentic leader does not judge their behavior but rather “assumes” that the person meant well (or at least did not mean to cause harm). These leaders enter every exchange with an assumption that the person isn’t being deceptive or trying to cause harm. This “trust first” belief dynamically changes their communication with employees and instills an open and transparent culture.
  2. They see manager-employee relationships as a two-way “value exchange.” — Rather than seeing employee relationships from a “get” mindset, Authentic Leaders see manager-employee relationships as a mutual “value exchange.” If I, as the manager, want you to give me your best, then I must first give you my best. These types of leaders naturally mentor and coach employees. They do so NOT to “get” more from employees, but rather to invest in them. It is this investment that ignites performance and balances the value exchange.
  3. They embody a commitment to self-improvement — Rather than simply expecting staff to improve, Authentic Leaders role model improvement through their OWN commitment to self-improvement. They read, study, and research topics and skills related to their areas of improvement. They ask for feedback from employees as to where they can be more effective as a leader. They openly discuss their own developmental areas, rather than pretend these areas don’t exist. They openly admit mistakes and surround themselves with others who do the same.

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 had a really difficult childhood, yet I was fortunate to have many “angels” in my life that have guided my life and career. As a young teen, my grandfather was my first mentor. The love, guidance, and timeless wisdom he bestowed on me changed the course of my life. He taught me two lessons that I am frequently asked to recount. The first is, “you get what you focus on,” which is about always looking for the good in difficulty. And the second was, “value wins; just give more than you receive.” Both of those lessons framed my life and business philosophy.

As an adult, I had two impactful mentors early in my career: Burl Hogins and Alison Indrisano Wagner. They believed in me, gave me a chance, and guided me as a very young executive.

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

Making the world better is the only thing that motivates me today. I started Succeed On Purpose, and the Share On Purpose portfolio of businesses to make a difference. My purpose is to inspire potential.

Simply put, I can’t not do it. Whether it is the employees in our portfolio or the businesses we serve, I see the potential in them and I work to inspire the person or business to be all that he, she, or it can be. Each business we create is designed to do something impactful, and not just create a better way, but also a more purposeful way to do business.

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

  1. “Your business evolves, as you evolve into a more impactful leader.” When I am coaching with founders who are stuck in the “no-grow zone,” we always seem to find our way to the part of them that is stuck as a leader. One of my gifts is helping entrepreneurs get “unstuck” and to dive into the part of themselves that is holding them back, or not evolving.
  2. “Business is simple; it’s about supply and demand.” Although building a business is one of the most difficult things you can do, it’s really quite simple. First, focus on creating demand, authentically, through building a product that serves your target market. This will create demand and keep advertising costs down. Second, differentiate that business, by finding ways to communicate effectively with the target market. When you solve the demand equation first, it forces you to then solve the supply side. This focus creates a see-saw effect as your business grows, and you alternate your focus between supply and demand. Too often, entrepreneurs try to get the supply side right, building the perfect product or service, without understanding demand.
  3. “Assume positive intent.” Most people don’t set out to make mistakes or hurt you. I wasted a lot of time early in my career worrying about people stealing my ideas and trying to control every aspect of the business, which caused me to be distrusting. When we assume positive intent, we trust that every person is doing the best they can in each moment, and we are less likely to react emotionally to their issues, barriers and mistakes.
  4. “Trust the process.” Had I not failed miserably when I first started what is now a really cool portfolio of companies, I would not be the person I am today, and I would not have an incredible life that I have.
  5. “Patience makes everything easier.” Most of my biggest mistakes came from me not trusting the process, from not being in the flow, and from seriously being impatient to a fault. Slow down, let things unfold, look for the answer rather than trying to force your way.

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 am focused on one thing right now — bringing a lot of our business concepts, strategies and methodologies to other conscious entrepreneurs through a new concept call ShiftCo.org.

Growing a business is hard. Growing a business that also tries to make the world better, is even harder.

Through a lot of failures, painful lessons, and trial and error, I’ve developed a business process called the Conscious Business Growth Platform™ — which is a roadmap to growing a purposeful business from start-up to financial freedom, and even on to a larger multi-million dollar brand.

To me, helping purposeful businesses grow is the best way to make the world better.

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

I share most of my lessons through quotes that I share on social channels. The one that is my favorite is: “If you want something better, you have to be willing to do something different.”

This is special to me because being an executive is a “fear grinder.” What I’ve learned is how to look at fear differently and to not let it stop me from doing what I know I have been called to do.

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 Winfrey. She is my all-time favorite example of grace, persistence, perseverance, success, and humanitarianism. I look forward to working with her to bring one of our concepts to television: Succeed On Purpose.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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