…Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes movement. Don’t assume you know why they are saying or doing something. If something doesn’t make sense, ask. Anyone who has ever raised a teenage will know that there are facts and interpretation of facts. The interpretation has everything to do with perspective. We need to be willing to take the time to understand others’ perspectives and starting points.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Braun Scherl, business builder, marketing strategist, public speaker and author. Rachel is the Cofounder and Managing Partner of SPARK Solutions for Growth, a strategic consultancy focused on driving revenue growth for Fortune 500 and venture-backed startups. In addition to SPARK, now in its 20th year of business, Rachel built Semprae Laboratories, a company that developed and marketed sexual health and wellness products for women — creating a new category in the process. Semprae attracted significant media attention and industry interest and was sold to Innovus Pharmaceuticals in 2013. As a nationally-known Vagipreneur®, Rachel’s work includes a wide range of women’s health and wellness companies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Rachel! What is your “backstory”?
In my family, we have what is called a summary rule — which means that the retelling of a story can’t take longer than the actual event. Given that I have been working a long, long time, that gives me about 25 years to tell my backstory, but I will be brief. When I graduated from Stanford Business School, my objective was to run J&J. My first job was in product management on the storied TYLENOL brand. I adored that job. I felt as if I was working on the crown jewel of the company. And I was quite certain that I was working in healthcare. In fact, I have worked for or with Johnson & Johnson and alumni from there for 20 years. The relationships I formed there have been foundational to my entire career in terms of mentorship, business-building and clients,who have hired SPARK over and over as they move to new roles at other companies. I moved from product management to consulting first for a large company and then a boutique — always parlaying the corporate relationships into client work. I learned a few core lessons very early on — I was great at building relationships, I loved to sell, and I was energized by solving complex problems. I founded SPARK 20 years ago and built an international client base that includes multiple divisions of Johnson & Johnson, Allergan, Pfizer, Merck, Bayer and Church & Dwight. And then a decade ago, I had the opportunity to buy a product that improved arousal, desire and satisfaction for women. My partner and I raised venture capital, created a company, and a vagipreneur was born. A NY Times journalist coined that term and since then it stuck to provide a great descriptor for a person in the business of female health.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Wow, that list is sort of endless. Everyday in the business of female health, I find it “interesting” at the lack of knowledge about women’s bodies, their needs, and the products they might use. While we live in a very modern society, I am still amazed by the puritanical attitudes we face especially in women’s desire, arousal and satisfaction. One would think after 20 plus years of being schooled in “4 hour erections” that we would not be so timid about speaking about female sexual health.
How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?
I focus on making sure the team is consistent on the what the business goals of the company are and the objectives of individual projects. I reiterate them at the beginning of meetings and discuss the efforts in the context of how the projects fit into overall objectives.
What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?
Literally, often times the most basic problem is finding mutually convenient times to have discussions. Clearly, much of the work can be done remotely and through e-mail and project management. But often I have the need to speak to teams voice to voice or virtual face to face. It is quite management working with Europe, but much more complicated working with Asia. Once we were trying to close a financing with a partner in China who was involved in events all day everyday. AFter many missed calls and foiled attempts, I finally said, “Tell me any time of the day or night that you can connect with our team. You name it and we will be there.” Nothing like a 3 am call, but we got it done.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Try at outset to be very clear as to the kind of culture you want to create, the work dynamic and expectations. I find that people work much better with fewer surprises. Don’t promise a work life balance if the culture is working 24/7 and weekends. Tell people what to expect and make sure that is in line with what they are able to do. Obviously, it is critical to accommodate the needs of talent, but that is very different than misrepresenting the work environment.
Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?
Talented people are hard to keep unless they are passionately committed to the mission of the company. I don’t like to respond to competitive offers. I do like to be very clear with each valuable employee by asking — what can we do to advance your development? What do you want your next role to be? How can we keep you happy and engaged? These conversations need to happen early and often. Employees cannot only feel valuable when they are leaving.
Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)
- Know what you are good at and where you need people to fill in. Don’t be jack of all trades and master of none. I always try to find the smartest person in the space where I need help whether they are in or outside of the company.
- No surprises. I do have a consistent theme of no surprises. I had an employee who consistently showed up 20 minutes late for a weekly meeting — even when we had all agreed on that time. When confronted, he told me that he had a standing appointment every week at that time. While the issue wasn’t changing the meeting, my concern was that he didn’t speak up for something as simple as scheduling a meeting. It made me wonder if there were big areas where he left out more important information.
- Be fair and support people who need it. I had an office manager who literally kept the company humming. When we did a background check, we discovered something that she hadn’t reported. We gave her a chance to explain, motivated her to get the report changed if it didn’t reflect what actually happened. And we gave her a chance. She was with the company — loyal and dedicated — every day until the company sale was completed.
- No cheating, stealing or lying. This sounds basic enough, but I had a number of interactions with a very senior team member that literally would summarize a conversation that had no relation to what actually happened — we would get outside opinions that firmly said, “Don’t do it” and he would report back, “Great idea.” Fundamental values and character issues cannot be fixed. We kept copious records of the inaccuracies. Ultimately, we let the person go and had significant detail to support our decision.
- There is no crying in baseball or at work. I know this one is controversial. My experience is that when someone cries it changes the entire dynamic of the conversation and becomes more emotional and less professional — despite the best of intentions. I have experienced this in my personal life and my professional life. I had an employee who came to me crying because she wasn’t being challenged. I told her to come back to my office with a thought out list of what she would like to be doing and that we could discuss that. We then got to work on that.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes movement. Don’t assume you know why they are saying or doing something. If something doesn’t make sense, ask. Anyone who has ever raised a teenage will know that there are facts and interpretation of facts. The interpretation has everything to do with perspective. We need to be willing to take the time to understand others’ perspectives and starting points.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
No Time Outs. No Substitutions: Growing up, movie night at my house was not only for Disney princesses or heartwarming, soft-focus, family-friendly, G-rated fare. No; our entertainment coordinator was my dad, and he was a huge fan of come-from-behind, dig-deep, take-all-comers sports-training movies — think Rocky (I-V), Rudy, Breaking Away, and Brian’s Song. His favorite, by far, and the one that most informed our life view was a film that starred James Caan — the brutal 1975 cult action/horror classic, Rollerball. Now, I am quite confident that this film is not appropriate family-bonding viewing for many families. But we were, and are, a competitive bunch.
In the film, the premise of Rollerball (the game) is simple and insane: men on roller skates, wearing spiked gloves, race around an inclined track, sometimes towed by other burly men on speeding motorcycles, engaging in a brutal, gladiatorial, deadly version of roller derby. Anything goes, including maiming or killing other players. Teams score by taking possession of and shooting goals with a solid, injury-inflicting silver ball. In fact, victory is not declared until the other team is entirely maimed or dead. (OK, I said it wasn’t The Sound of Music). And before every match, the rules of engagement are declared: “No time outs; no substitutions.”
Loosely translated by my dad? There is no quitting — period. There is no one on the bench to take your place. People are counting on you. Your success and the success of those around you depends on your efforts. You have to be 100 percent in the game. You have to play hard, and even more importantly, you have to play until you can’t play anymore. So, how does Rollerball apply to business and specifically, my experiences as a person in the business of female sexual health? My dad would say, “Once you’re in the game, you’re in it to win it. You have to be 100 percent in it, you have to play hard, and even more importantly, you have to play fair. You have to go to work every day, work as hard and as smart as you can until you can’t work anymore — and then get up the next day and do the same thing.”