Reaching an impressive level of success doesn’t come without failures, setbacks and learning opportunities. In fact, if you ask anyone who has made it to the executive board or is leading their own company, they’ll give many mentors along the way credit for their ability to rise. As the time of year when we pause and reflect on the many blessings that enrich our daily lives, it’s important to give a nod of respect to those who have paved the way of our achievements.
From those laser-smart leaders who are at the helm of Fortune 500 companies to the brave entrepreneurs who took a chance and bet on an idea, here, 14 executives share the words of wisdom they’re thankful they took. And maybe more importantly, how it’s shaped every leg of their career ever since.
Make sure the problem you’re solving is something you care about
A handful of years ago, Akash Shah started his first company, Spur. After many attempts to pivot and shape his mode, the business was eventually shuttered after only 18 months. When discussing what went wrong and how he could improve moving forward, he kept getting the same advice from every direction: “No matter what you’re trying to build — for yourself or the world — make sure the problem you’re solving is one you really care about.”
Perhaps the keyword for Sha was ‘care’, considering he took mantra to heart and became the head of product and co-founder of Care/Of. Though in hindsight, he says the advice was rather obvious, understanding why it’s important to relate to the core of your customer has proved instrumental in his success.
“It’s a business that’s so directly linked to me emotionally. We’re serving millennials who want to take care of their health, and my own health is something that I care a lot about,” he explains. “ … It’s not always easy, and there are definitely hurdles to clear with any business. It’s going to be tough. But we’ll figure it out.”
Don’t just be customer-centric, but customer-obsessed
If you ask Steven Gutentag, it isn’t enough to be customer-centric. Instead, he learned from his first manager that it’s vital to be customer-obsessed. He says this often means that leadership isn’t always glamorous, and sometimes it means rolling up your sleeves to ensure everyone is satisfied. And by that, he means it quite literally: while he was leading GetMaid right before Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, there was one more cleaning on their calendar. With no maids available, Gutentag went a did the job himself.
“I made it on the last train home to Brooklyn before the MTA shut down service, running through the streets of Manhattan with all of my cleaning supplies,” he continued. While GetMaid eventually was sold to HomeJoy, it’s a lesson he carries with him at his new company, Thirty Madison.
“We prioritize patient service and do our best to bring empathy to the healthcare experience. Every employee is trained to answer CX tickets when they start, and Demetri and I continue to respond to dozens of inquiries each week ourselves,” he shared.
Be an advocate for yourself
Early in her career, Carly Leahy had what she called a severe case of ‘I’m just happy to be here!’ syndrome. Her helper-by-nature spirit meant that she was always giving to other people, that she had to work harder to do the same for herself. Her first boss was not only an exceptional leader, but a mom of three, but she taught Leahy the value of lifting others up, sure, but also, of advocating for herself. This means being supportive of others, while also standing firm in what matters to you, and defining your worth. It’s this balance of teamwork and strength that has helped her lead as the co-founder and CCO of Modern Fertility.
“She put me in big meetings with important people––she was my gold standard for a woman who lifts other women up,” she continued. “When you are in the trenches solving big problems with someone, in intense environments, supporting one another and helping one another get better, you build a professional bond for life.”
Never get too comfortable
From the time she started her very first gig working at Baskin Robbins, Brooke Cundiff’s mother has given her the same advice: don’t get too comfortable. It was these short and sweet words of wisdom that really came into play right after college when she worked for a company she loved. However, a few years later when another business vied for her employment, Cundiff was hesitant to leave, since she felt loyalty to her first job.
“I think I would have stayed where I was, were it not for my mother pulling me aside and teaching me not to get comfortable: to keep pushing myself to stay challenged and grow — especially in the early years of my professional life,” she shared. She took the — very uncomfortable — leap and started CoEdition, of which she serves as the chief merchandising officer. “She kept reminding me that when you have a great idea, you have to believe in yourself,” she continued. “And when you have the opportunity to start something yourself — grab it.”
Always seek the boss you can learn the most from
Choosing between two equally-exciting job offers is a fantastic position for any professional to be in. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to commit to one over another. Ryan Gerhardy found himself in this position when he finished studies at a graduate program in Australia, and decided to turn to a common source for advice: the internet. With three opportunities to pick from, he wasn’t sure which one would be the best for his career goals. Ultimately, he decided what was most important wasn’t a title or a department, but rather, the boss you can learn the most from.
“It’s not about selecting ‘the best’ boss, or most friendly or generous, or even the most powerful, but the manager that inspired and challenged you to perform to your potential,” he explained. He followed this wisdom, and it helped pave the way for him to found his own company, Pitchly. By learning from someone who taught him the ropes, fostered his development and made him a pro, he had the goods needed to be a leader himself.
“I believe whether you are starting a company or want to rise up the corporate ladder, having one skill that you are known as the expert at put me at a huge advantage over my peers and led to my quick progression,” he added.
Refrain from comparing yourself to others
It’s the curse everyone must overcome, since hey, as the saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy. That’s easier said than done, but it is the advice the Director of Marketing at Keepsafe, Jessica Taylor, shares that had the most impact on her professional life. When she was a freshly-minted MBA working at a competitive tech company, an early boss recommended she refrain from comparing herself to others, and instead, focus on her own contributions.
“Everyone talked a lot about meritocracy, but luck and circumstance can also be big predictors of success. My boss’ advice allowed me to take pressure off of myself, focus on projects in my control, and get really clear about my own values,” she shared. Now, as a mentor herself, she returns this advice to others.
“No two careers are alike. Everyone is on her own career journey – the one that is best suited to her, because it aligns with her values. When you compare yourself to someone else, you conflate someone else’s values with your own. When you do that, it’s difficult to become who you want to be,” she continued.
Stop complaining and get to work
For CEO and founder of Farmgirl Flowers, Christina Stembel, her mother’s voice has always rung loud and clear in her head. What’s she saying most of the time? To stop complaining … and get to work! Considering she grew up on a corn and soybean farm in Indiana, she knows the value of relentless hard work, since chores were often mowing the back four acres of their land.
“The long days and nights that are required to scale this business seem — relatively — less strenuous because of my upbringing. Coffee also helps,” she continued. “All my professional life I’ve been grateful to both my parents for my work ethic. I’ve met people who may be smarter or more talented than me, but I’ve never met someone who can outwork me.”
Pay attention to what you pay attention to
It was his best friend’s uncle (who happened to be an early Amazon employee) who shed the wisdom that would carry the founder and CEO of Recess, Benjamin Witte, through his career progression. When he was at a crossroads in his career and life living in San Francisco as a technology employee, he didn’t know what to do next. His pal’s relative said it simply: pay attention what you pay attention to. For White, that was design, creating experiences, and food and wellness, which ultimately led him to starting his own company.
“I really believe people need to focus on playing to their strengths in life, not only trying to improve their weaknesses. I had an early successful career in technology, but also knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” he continued. “I also knew that I wasn’t the best person on the planet to build software. I knew I always had good ‘taste’, was good at art and design, loved hosting and creating experiences, etc. So I focused my efforts on looking at spaces that played to my strengths and passions.”
The best person you can be is yourself
Following a near-death accident in 2008, Jennifer Lynn Robinson suffered a traumatic brain injury and was forced to give up her career as a litigator. At the time, someone suggests shifting gears and becoming a public speaker, but it wasn’t something that felt comfortable right away. She felt as if she needed to fit into a corporate mode to be successful at corporate speaking engagements, but her husband reminded her what’s most important was being herself and showcasing her personality.
“He said corporations look for people like me to bring in that will resonate with their employees. He said I have a story to tell and I shouldn’t worry about trying to be something I’m not,” she shared. “His advice helped me to be more confident understanding my value proposition as I go into firms and corporations. I began to pursue much higher level speaking and charge what I am worth. Even now, sometimes I will call him and tell him I’m submitting a proposal and when he hears the number I am charging he will tell me to double it.”
It’s proven to be helpful advice, considering she’s the founder and owner of Purposeful Networking.
Don’t be the bottleneck of your own company
Though Nick Kenner is the CEO and founder of Just Salad, it was a fellow founder and CEO who helped him improve as a leader. His advice? To not bottleneck his own company. “He said that if you want things to move fast, don’t be one of those executives where ideas come to your desk to sit and die. It will kill movement and discourage new ideas within the company,” he explained. Not only has this shaped his approach to management, but he says it’s been valuable to Just Salad as a whole.
“The solution is to not necessarily make snap decisions to keep up with company pace but to hire enough people around you so that you have the capacity to spend time making smart decisions quickly,” he added.
Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you
Consider the friends who make the greatest impact on your life, or what you ultimately seek in a partner: someone who challenges you? Makes you a better person? But in business, do we always seek those people who are supremely skilled at what they do? Yes and no, but for the founder of Studio Three, David Blitz, surrounding himself with people who are smarter than him has proven instrumental in his career. His former business partner was the giver of this advice, though he admits it took him years to really apply it.
“You don’t have all of the answers, and you need to continually move forward and learn from others as well as have a strong team around you that all supports each other,” he explains. “A strong team that can grow and adapt together helps fine tune your skills as a leader and also arms the company with the necessary resources in situations where you have the right ‘Tom Brady’ treaty to get behind the center and throw a touchdown in the end zone. Or, the right Sheryl Sandberg ready and able to make that crucial, pivotal decision.”
Success isn’t dependent on a good idea, but on execution
Think on this one: “The best piece of advice I received is that the best idea can go terribly wrong depending on how you implement it just as the worst idea can be successful depending on execution.” Candice Crane’s father explained this to her as she started thinking up her company, Petal. Her pops learned this through running his own business, and it’s what she credits as the reason she was able to grow her own.
“I was conscious of every hire, every partner and every step of the process because my dad’s words were echoing in my head every step of the way,” she shared. “Now, as we expand nationally in 2019, I focus on element that goes with growing our brand with a focused eye just as I did with initial launch.”
Keep at it
Three little words — no matter what they are — can be impactful. And sure, ‘I love you’ says a lot in a single phrase, but so does ‘Keep at it.’ Early in Jim Ayres’s career, he found himself figuring out his next moves, and struggling to determine what was best. As the managing director at Amway North America, his president said ‘keep at it.’ Seems simple enough, but he says it had a profound impact on his ability to succeed.
“To this day, I am cognizant when myself or others use the word ‘can’t.’ I don’t say it often, but when I do, I always catch myself and immediately seek how a problem can be solved or something can be done,” he continued. “I am committed to finding the potential in people and through my weekly breakfasts with different folks at our company, I frequently help others unlock that potential within.”
Make the most of the opportunity in front of you
When Julie Vessel was right out of college, she was offered a gig at a small advertising agency in a small town. Not only was it not where she wanted to live, but it wasn’t what she imagined for herself. She wanted to turn it down because she felt it was beneath her, even though she was looking at a stack of rejection letters. Her father thought otherwise and encouraged her to make the most of the opportunity she had in front of her.
“I was focused on all the things this job wasn’t, but he encouraged me to think about what the upside could be. I felt like I was giving up on my big dream, but he grounded me in the fact that this job was just one step, a step that would lead to another opportunity. And he humbly reminded me that this was the best opportunity I had — because it was the only opportunity I had,” she continued.
She took the job, gave it all she had, raised her hand for every opportunity, and was able to lead people and projects earlier than her peers. Not only was she promoted in less than a year, but in two years, she landed a job at one of the top advertising agencies in the country. Today, she’s the chief talent officer at MONO.
“It’s easy to complain about an opportunity that doesn’t seem perfect or good. But I’ve learned through the years that sometimes opportunities are what you make of them,” she explains. “If you can keep an open mind, chances are you can do something great. But when we limit our view of things, we also limit our possibilities.”