It was May 10, 2004, and I was standing on the steps outside Mower (then Eric Mower & Associates) as a fresh-faced senior account manager. It was my first day on the job, and I was convinced I knew everything.
I was wrong.
Nineteen years later, I’m President and CEO of the firm. I traded the agency-hopping and opportunity-hunting that’s typical of the advertising industry to work my way up Mower’s account management chain. As my mentor became our Chief Administrative Officer, I stepped into her managing director role—and then, in January of this year, accepted the position of CEO. The past nine months have been an intensive course in joining management’s upper echelon: I’ve stood onstage as a national conference’s keynote speaker and crouched in the back aisles of a Denver Party City the night before an agency event. These are the six biggest lessons I’ve learned (besides the unexpected difficulty of finding Mardi Gras beads in September.)
- You’ve still got some growing up to do. The executive team that surrounds me now are mostly the people who raised me, and who helped me build my skills and manage my attitude. I’m still the same person (with many of the same flaws) but I’m now in the position of serving them. Feeling humbled may be a cliché, but it’s a very real experience. The trust people put in you can feel overwhelming at times. You have to send that same trust back, and know that they put you there for a reason.
- No one’s going to bitch about the boss in front of you. You’re not the only one adjusting to your new role. The people you worked with aren’t necessarily going to view you as a peer anymore—and you’re not going to be invited to all their happy hours. I’m determined to build a culture where people feel comfortable to call me out on my bullshit when they need to, but there are aspects of the shift from colleague to leader that will change how you’re regarded despite your best efforts otherwise. And there’s a flip side: The outsiders who have dismissed you in the past will now give you the time of day. I ignore most of those people. The ones who don’t care at all? Probably your family. They do not care about your job title, no matter what it is. You still have to pull the weeds and clean the tortoise tank, and your mother can still level you with one comment about the “interesting” way you do your eyebrows.
- You have to use your PTO. No, seriously, don’t even check your email. It’s critical to manage the pace of the job to feel right mentally. I schedule my day with a rigor that I haven’t before—and that includes scheduling time for myself. Between balancing travel, special projects, employee needs, and new business, it’s easy to get lost in the little things. I met with some girlfriends for a happy hour recently and left after only an hour. My husband wasn’t home, so I ordered Chinese takeout for one, sat on the couch, and thought to myself, This is the happiest place I’ve been in weeks. You can’t show up in all the ways you need to—personally and professionally—if you’re burned out.
- Put people at the center of your decisions. Nothing is more important than a love for the people you work with. Culture isn’t having a scooter we ride around the office and a keg in the kitchen. Those things are fun, sure—but a strong focus on employees is what will draw and retain talent. Maybe the work hasn’t gotten harder, but the world has. I’ll turn down opportunities that may be lucrative because they just don’t feel right. Having clients who fit our culture and who are just as eager as we are to build a supportive relationship is what I prioritize.
- The “Good for you!” syndrome. As a woman, you get a lot of “Good for you!” comments—and many will come from women themselves. I don’t think it has a negative connotation: It’s still so unusual for women to be CEOs, so I see it as an added layer to the well-wishes and the expectations. I see a woman’s vulnerability as part of what makes her a great CEO. We’re not afraid to ask for help or collaboration, and we don’t need to behave like men to succeed in a male-dominated world.
- WWSD? For a company led by its founder for 55 years—the same man and mentor who entrusted me with leading his company—it’s incredibly tempting to ask myself, What would Eric do? But I’m not Eric. I don’t need to be and, really, I shouldn’t be. The industry is constantly evolving, and the needs and desires of our employee owners are changing in step. I’ve challenged myself to reframe the question to What will Stephanie do? Eric stressed to me the importance of finding my own way, and that’s what I’ve strived to do: Rooted in the core values that have made Mower so strong for decades, but with a fresh perspective on how to leverage those values to move forward as an even stronger, bolder and more dynamic agency.