Women Of The C-Suite: “Don’t feel like you have to fit the mold of a particular way of leading”

With Emily Lyons of Femme Fatale Media

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Every leader will have her own leadership style. No two leaders will have exactly the same style of leading, and there’s a reason why: leadership is a profoundly personal journal. Great leadership is informed by the experiences of the person doing the leading, and those experiences are extremely unique to the individual. So don’t feel like you have to fit the mold of a particular way of leading. That you have to “try to be more masculine” or “less masculine” or “more domineering” in your approach to leadership. You want to lead from a place of realness — a place that’s authentic to who you are.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Lyons — a Toronto-based serial entrepreneur and relentless business thinker and doer. She founded her first company — Femme Fatale Media, an event staffing and modelling agency — when she was 23. Seven years earlier, she had dropped out of high school. But now, from her C-suite vista, she heads a multi-company empire that reaches across very different industries.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Sometimes the best things in life are unexpected, and that’s certainly true for this specific career path I chose to journey through. I couldn’t have predicted this growing up; for one, I didn’t graduate high school. I dropped out when I was 16. A whirlwind of experiences later — which took me nearly halfway around the world, to Australia, then back to Toronto — I found myself working as a promo model for various agencies. I also found myself wondering what to do with the rest of my life. Then, my late sister — Julia Marlane Lyons — gifted me a book that introduced me to the power I had: the power to pursue what I really wanted from life. So, when I was 23, I made the decision to start a modelling and events agency of my own — and called it Femme Fatale Media. I figured that I’d have to very seriously chase my dreams sometime, and that now was the best time to start — even if it meant starting out of my dingy basement apartment, in the heart of Toronto’s competitive entertainment scene, and without any formal academic credentials to my name. I’ve been traveling this entrepreneurial road ever since.

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

One of the most interesting things for me has been discovering my ability to build a completely new, successful company out of my already-existing business, Femme Fatale Media — an event staffing and modelling agency. For example, True Glue — creator and purveyor of a safe, nourishing line of beauty products — emerged after some of our models had allergic reactions at a fashion show (they were wearing standard, “big brand” eyelash adhesives). Next came Lyons Elite — an upscale matchmaking consultancy that I launched after successfully setting up some of the top-flight executives in my client rolodex and professional network. Then I used the resources of these companies — and the experience of my staff — to forge two other companies: JWLS, a watch company that contributes a portion of its profits to making strides against cystic fibrosis; and FFPR, the PR and marketing communications arm of Femme Fatale Media.

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?

When I was just about to make that entrepreneurial leap for the first time, I asked a successful businessman (who I knew and worked with) for advice on Femme Fatale Media. He told me, “Don’t start this agency. It’ll never go anywhere — there’s just too much competition.” Of course, I launched Femme Fatale Media anyway, but I’ve sometimes wondered how my life would have unfolded if I had followed his advice. The mistake, for me, was — for even a single second — thinking that I should second-guess myself just because of something a single person said. So what I learned from this experience is to take the opinion of others with a grain of salt — to trust my gut. To take seriously the value of all my life experiences. Remember: you might think that someone knows what’s best for you — but that doesn’t mean they actually do. At the end of the day, we’re all very fallible humans, and something is only impossible until it’s not.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My companies stand out because of the strategic intensity behind their specific business structures. There are a lot of tactical ways a business can stand out, but that’s all somewhat pointless unless the very foundational structure of the business allows it to be strategically — not just tactically — in a league of its own. Some businesses are consistently better innovators than others — across all parts of the company — and that’s because a system or framework for innovation has been built in to each of these businesses. That’s what I’ve done with my companies, for instance, and it’s one way my businesses can keep their strategic edge — and a razor-sharp one, at that. So, for example, as part of my innovation system, I’m regularly asking myself — and answering — key questions. Questions like: “What are our clients asking for help with that’s tied to something we’ve been ‘unofficially’ successful at?” A question like that can give birth to an innovation like Femme Fatale Media PR — the creative group within my event staffing agency that plans and executes PR campaigns for personal and corporate brands alike. I noticed that some of our clients had voiced a desire for mixing event marketing with PR approaches. Meanwhile, my event staffing agency — Femme Fatale Media Group — had been (and is) very successful at driving its brand forward with great PR. So, by asking the right questions, I could put two-and-two together to come up with a new part of the agency — one that met our clients’ needs and expanded our service offerings.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

An exciting new project I’m working on is the Julia Lyons Foundation. Individuals with cystic fibrosis often do not have the resources they need — financial and otherwise — to get timely medical treatment. So I recently created the Julia Lyons Foundation with the intention of providing a well of resources for the cystic fibrosis community. For example, right now the organisation is committing energy to launching a mental health program for those with cystic fibrosis — who often confront severe psychological distress in addition to the physical hardships brought by the disease. It is partially through this mental health program that the Julia Lyons Foundation will seek to realize its vision: “To lessen the hardships of people with CF, to lift up the CF community, and to proactively fight back against this disease.”

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

I try to make sure that every person on my team not only feels heard, but actually is heard. This helps my teams thrive because it gives everyone the chance to add their unique experiences and insights to the whole team — which considerably multiplies the team’s power. Teamwork, after all, is very much a game of effective communication — and individuals in a team won’t communicate as openly if they aren’t heard or if their ideas are not valued.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Effective delegation is arguably your most mission-critical responsibility when you’re leading a large team. As a leader, everyone else on the team relies on you to consistently delegate well. That’s particularly the case for larger teams — which are often made up of people with different specialties and unique capabilities. So, by breaking a large team up into smaller subteams, and then appointing leaders for these “subteams,” you have the space to solely focus on the most important, higher-level decisions that the team will face — thus making the most out of your own strengths as a leader.

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’ll always be grateful to Julia for everything she was and did for me. Julia always believed in me — even when no one else would. That belief gave me the mental fortitude and emotional resilience to weather the stormiest challenges as I launched and grew my agency, Femme Fatale Media. Julia also gave me my first laptop — which was of great help to me in the very earliest days of my company. She passed away in 2011 as a result of cystic fibrosis — a very lethal genetic disease that currently has no cure — but her memory will always live on through my life and the work I do.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I look to my personal brand as a platform for sharing my feminist outlook on the world — and presenting that feminist view from the vantage point of my specific experiences as an executive, entrepreneur, and business-builder who has a succeeded in an arena that has traditionally been dominated by men. That’s one way I’m using my success to bring goodness to the world.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

The time I’ve spent in the C-suite has taught me several lifelong leadership lessons.

One is that every leader will have her own leadership style. No two leaders will have exactly the same style of leading, and there’s a reason why: leadership is a profoundly personal journal. Great leadership is informed by the experiences of the person doing the leading, and those experiences are extremely unique to the individual. So don’t feel like you have to fit the mold of a particular way of leading. That you have to “try to be more masculine” or “less masculine” or “more domineering” in your approach to leadership. You want to lead from a place of realness — a place that’s authentic to who you are.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that sometimes you have to just make a snap-decision — even if you have no idea how things will play out. The world — including the business world — is a very, very complex environment today. We’re often bombarded with reams of data and flooded with streams of information. So this makes “analysis paralysis” a very likely possibility — which can seriously hinder your success as a leader unless you get comfortable making rapid-fire decisions.

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. 🙂

A movement I’d like to see given more visibility is the movement to end Sharia law. Millions and millions of women currently live under the spectre of these laws, which deny their equal and complete humanity. In some countries dominated by Sharia law, for instance, women have not been allowed to drive. Others have been killed for violating these laws. No wonder, then, that many Muslim feminists are actively resisting Sharia law — acting as the vanguard of a much-needed movement.

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

There are a lot of quotes I like, so it’s hard to pick just one! But — that being said — a quote that resonates with me comes from the author Charlotte Eriksson, who wrote: “So many people will tell you ‘no,’ and you need to find something you believe in so hard that you just smile and tell them ‘watch me.’” It’s relevant to my life because it was only once I had found something that I believed — in to my very core — that other people’s “No’s” were no obstacle to me.

Some of the biggest 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 🙂

Breakfast or lunch with Sheryl Sandberg would be great. A talk with her would be thought-provoking and encompass a wide variety of topics — from feminism-in-the-boardroom (and beyond) to the art and science of marketing.

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