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“When you run the business the buck stops with you and all eyes are on you at all times” With Penny Bauder & Stacey Hawes

When you run the business the buck stops with you and all eyes are on you at all times. I was a senior leader in my business for many years but as President there are a few key things I have to do that are different. First, I defined the values and set the culture […]

When you run the business the buck stops with you and all eyes are on you at all times. I was a senior leader in my business for many years but as President there are a few key things I have to do that are different. First, I defined the values and set the culture for the business. Creating the values and culture of any business is the responsibility of the top executive, as well as the communication plan and ongoing enforcement of these values.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stacey Hawes, President, Data Practice, Epsilon. As President of the Data Practice for Epsilon, Stacey is responsible for Epsilon’s suite of data solutions. She and her teams help clients create omni-channel marketing strategies that drive business growth. Stacey’s leadership has driven the company’s Data division to unprecedented levels of growth and customer satisfaction. Stacey is also a key decision-maker on Epsilon’s executive leadership team. Stacey has kept her pulse on the data industry for almost 20 years helping clients across verticals incorporate data into new and pre-existing marketing solutions. She is passionate about helping brands find new customers and drive loyalty within their existing customer base. Stacey holds an MBA from the University of Louisville.


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?

I think I was born to lead. Since I was a young girl, I always volunteered to organize playdates, led projects, helped others understand in school when they were not grasping the concepts and I often volunteered to speak and present whenever possible. I was often told by teachers and parents that I was a natural born leader, but looking back on that I think they meant I was bossy!

I discovered my love for business during my undergraduate studies prior to having much work experience. I quickly realized that I wanted to earn an MBA and I think that’s really where my story begins. During the first week of my MBA program, we were tasked with forming into self-selected teams that we would work closely with for the first few months on a major project. The problem I ran into was that no one wanted me to be on their team so I ended up on a “team” of the final students left that hadn’t been chosen already. As the months went by and I got to know other students better I asked why I had not been selected by them during this process, only to find out that most of them thought I was too young, too blonde and too attractive to possibly be SMART! I was judged by my looks and people assumed I would not be an asset on their team. I quickly realized that I was going to have to work harder than others to overcome this perception and prove that I was just as capable, if not more capable, than my peers. Fast forward two years and I graduated number 1 in my MBA class.

Post-graduate degree I faced the same challenge in the corporate world. I always found myself having to work harder/longer/faster than others, particularly men. I was recruited into a Leadership Development Program at LG&E Energy, an energy company in Kentucky that was in the Fortune 500 at that time. During this program, I rotated positions every 12–18 months and it was as if the same challenge would start all over. Most of my managers assumed I was not as capable of the work, but ultimately I would surprise them with my contributions. Three years ago when I became President of Epsilon’s data business, I realized that I had finally overcome this challenge!

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

I think the most interesting thing that has happened to me in the last few years since leading the Data Practice, was contributing to putting the company up for sale and ultimately selling it for $4.4 billion to Publicis Groupe. From the time we decided to go on the market it was an interesting process, filled with great learnings. I had been through acquisitions before but never in a leadership position. You learn a lot about yourself and what you’ve done to drive results for your company when you have to put together the positioning on why you’re worth the value you are asking.

We started the process and gained a lot of interest right from the beginning, , but once we narrowed it down to those companies that we would meet in person, that was the most interesting part of the process for me. It was a combination of studying for the most important “test” of my life, without knowing exactly what questions were going to be asked and preparing for the most important “sales call” of my career. I realized how much detail I knew about my business and I also learned new ways of looking at the business (I even started tracking a few new metrics based on this experience). I have always been a cheerleader for my business but during this process I realized I am really the Data Practice’s number one fan and evangelist. I was reminded about my love for the business and how passionate I am about it. As the leader of my business, I knew if I didn’t show my passion that others would notice that. It is critical as a leader to love what you do because your enthusiasm is contagious and if your people don’t see this in you, they won’t care as much about their part in the business.

When we were down to a final few interested parties, we met with their executive teams to share more details about the business. The pressure preparing for and presenting in the meetings was immense. During one of the sessions with Publics Groupe I actually quoted Mark Twain while I was presenting — I have never done anything like that in my life! I wanted to be memorable, I wanted to convey my understanding of what they were seeking in this acquisition and I wanted them to know that I would be a great addition to their management team. About 90 days later when we closed on the deal, I swelled with pride!

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?

One of the funniest mistakes I made when I was starting out happened while I was in the Leadership Development Program at the energy company. I was sitting in a meeting with a number of senior leaders in the business and one of the men in the room made some statements that were completely inaccurate and I knew he was wrong. I was by far the most junior person in the meeting and I decided this was the perfect time to prove my worth and I corrected him in the meeting, out loud, in front of his peers (and everyone else in the room). Factually, I was definitely right. If only I knew at the time that public floggings were frowned upon in Corporate America. After the meeting one of the female senior leaders pulled me aside and told me what I had done was definitely NOT the right thing to do. In the position I was in, I should not have spoken up and made him look bad in front of others. This was a very good lesson to learn at a young age. Even today in my position I don’t correct people in front of others. I may challenge others, but do not correct them or make them look bad in front of others.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of President that most attracted you to it?

I worked in the Data business for over 15 years prior to becoming President and during that time I saw some very senior leaders make some very poor decisions. I wanted to be the person responsible for setting the strategies for the company — the person who could chart the future of the business. I have observed so many bad traits in leaders over the years and made a lot of mental notes of all the things I would not do if I had the opportunity to lead a business. Bottom line, I thought I could do a better job than my predecessors did.

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 run the business the buck stops with you and all eyes are on you at all times. I was a senior leader in my business for many years but as President there are a few key things I have to do that are different. First, I defined the values and set the culture for the business. Creating the values and culture of any business is the responsibility of the top executive, as well as the communication plan and ongoing enforcement of these values.

As President, the hard problems make it to my desk. I ultimately own the toughest decisions, whether it is related to people, strategies, investing in or divesting in products, etc. There is a greater level of responsibility when you are the executive responsible for the business.

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

I love leading teams and people. Of course, I enjoy setting the strategies and implementing them, but it’s the development of my team and watching them evolve that really makes me excited. I have had the opportunity to work with some of my senior leaders for many, many years and I take such great pride when I look at how far they have come in their career development. It fills me with pride when I see the coaching I have provided shape my associates into better leaders themselves.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The pressure and level of responsibility is immense. I don’t want to let anyone down — the Board, our Shareholders, my CEO, my associates and even my family. The pressure to always be growing and evolving the business can take its toll on any work/life balance. I am a mom, a wife, an executive and a friend but often my job takes precedent because I am “always on”. Nights, weekends and holidays…even vacations…always include some level of effort on my business. It can be like walking a tightrope with no net below.

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

Myth: The higher up you go in the organization the less actual work you have to do. Reality: It actually gets harder the higher up you go, not easier. The amount of work that I do on any given day, week or month is significant and has only grown with more responsibility. I can recall many years ago hearing from others that once you get into management or an executive role, the less “real” work you do. That statement could not be farther from the truth. Not only do I do more work than ever, the decisions I make affect a lot more people and are significantly more meaningful.

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

I could write a book on this topic but I will focus on a few key challenges women face that our male counterparts don’t.

Women are more emotional and empathetic beings than men. However, often in the workplace if women show emotion or vulnerability they are seen as weak. I think many women try to hide their emotions in the work place to ensure they aren’t seen as weak or sappy. I don’t think most men give this any thought.

Women struggle more with work/life balance and overcoming the perceptions that come along with this. I work with a lot of women that need to leave early for kids games, appointments and when their kids are sick. They often fear that their male counterparts see this as them not working as hard or putting in the same level of effort they do. But, they are the first online in the evenings and on the weekends catching up and even getting ahead. At the same time, many female executives often feel judged by other stay-at-home moms (I used to be one of these). I would think that they all were judging my parenting (or lack thereof) because I was working and not at home parenting.

Such a small percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women and most women executives are not paid equally to their peers. Closing the gender equity gap is a huge challenge women face.

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

I knew my job would be hard but I didn’t realize that most days I would spend my time putting out fires and solving problems. Most of my days are filled with meetings around solving problems, from administrative issues, to client problems, to facilities issues, to systems issues and beyond. I thought I would spend a lot of time putting together strategies and ensuring my teams were focused on executing on those and paving the way for them to be successful. On a daily basis, the “tyranny of the urgent” takes precedent and often fills the day. Many of my days are filled with meetings, some days I spend my entire work day in meetings on a vast array of topics. By the end of the day I find myself mentally exhausted because I have been in 12 meetings on 12 topics that cross many topics. I didn’t realize how much multi-tasking and how much ability I needed to switch gears so quickly in order to make critical decisions.

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?

Specific traits that I think are critical for an executive are integrity, humility, courage, accountability and empathy. In my opinion, if you lack any of these traits you won’t succeed over the long haul in an executive role.

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

Embrace your uniqueness — only YOU can be YOU. Don’t try to conform, don’t try to think or act like a man. Lead from your heart.

Build a strong network, both in your organization and in your industry. Find “raving fans” and surround yourself with people that support you.

Always be inquisitive, ask a lot of questions and continue learning. Foster a culture of learning.

Surround yourself with people that don’t think exactly like you do — value other perspectives.

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 mother has helped me more than anyone else and I am grateful every day for the encouragement she has given me and the love and kindness she has showered me with throughout my life. I am also grateful when she tells me to suck it up, or suggest I have a different perspective. I tend to bite off more than I can chew…my plate is always full and I usually err on the side of adding more to it. She often reminds me to take time to BREATHE and slow down. Recently we were on family vacation and we were walking from the pool to the hotel and she literally grabbed me and said “SLOW DOWN, why are you walking so fast? Why are you in such a hurry?” And once I stopped to listen to her I realized I wasn’t in a hurry, I was just used to going at a fast pace to keep up with everything in my life. She keeps me grounded and reminds me to slow down and enjoy my life and to be grateful for all of the blessings I have.

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

Other than having my children and the hope of how they may change our world, the thing I am most proud of and the biggest impact I have had is creating and launching Epsilon’s Women in Leadership initiative. I cannot take full credit for this as I spearheaded this with another female president at Epsilon, Cathy Lang. We have impacted over 1800 women across the globe, including the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and India. Our initiative gives women across the world the opportunity to come together with other women and talk about the challenges they are facing, how to find their voice, build their brand and be more empathetic leaders. I was recently in London where I hosted a group of about 18 women and it was an open forum where they could ask me any and everything. It was great to provide them the opportunity to be in a safe environment where they felt confident and supported to discuss issues they are facing.

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

It’s OK to fail. For many years I beat myself up for making mistakes and didn’t realize the great learnings that I gained from each of them. Today, I believe that my best learnings came from my worst failures.

Find your voice — have an opinion. It really doesn’t matter what side of an issue you are on, what matters is you are well-informed and are able to voice your view and WHY you have that view.

Be YOU — don’t conform, embrace your uniqueness. I used to emulate others that I thought were successful — to look like them, talk like them, act like them. What I lost for a while was what I bring to the table that no one else has.

Ask a lot of questions, there aren’t stupid questions. Early in my career I did a lot of observing and kept my questions to myself. I wish someone told me to speak up and learn as much as I could.

Be authentic, don’t be a poser and don’t be a phony.

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.

Closing the gender equity gap. The impact on the world’s economy would be massive.

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

Gloria Steinem — she paved a way for women that I remain grateful for today. She inspired generations.

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

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