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Our Voices

Who Runs The Show?

A few weeks ago, Leila Sarkarian, a “force-of-nature” entrepreneur and exceptionally talented jewellery designer, came to talk to me about a problem that was keeping her up at night. Why? Because Sarkarian runs a fast-growing, successful enterprise, and the stakes are suddenly changing as she jumps into year five of the company’s growth.

Before launching her own firm in 2011, Sarkarian spent five years in the executive ranks at a well-known and very traditional clothing company. The experience did not make her a fan of top-down hierarchical structures. She believed they choked creativity. So she and two other founders created a workplace culture that promoted “inclusion,” where everyone felt at home, were respected for their opinions, and participated in all management decisions.

Quickly, their company garnered attention in the press, receiving high marks for their designs and also for being a great place to work. In just four years, the company morphed from three to 14 employees. And everyone still had a seat at the management table.

Now, Sarkarian has the opportunity to significantly grow the company and bring in more investors. But that requires setting up an executive team that will focus on driving the expansion. That changes the expectation that everyone in the company will steer the ship together. Sarkarian will have to establish (dare she even say it?) a tiered leadership platform. Uh oh! Now she’s torn. And sleepless. To grow, she needs to accept VC money. But she doesn’t want to quash the culture of inclusion the founders worked so hard to create. So what’s her next move?

Here’s what I told Sarkarian:

Congratulations! You’re about to grow a business you built from the ground up! You also have a chance to be an inspiration to those around you that depend on your business judgment. Here’s a guiding principle on growth: Once a company expands beyond 10 people, it’s no longer pragmatic or strategic to invite everyone to weigh in on major decisions, even if the team is accustomed to that intense participation. How you lead through this transition will matter more now than ever.

Consider the original goal. You chose to launch a business that promotes a culture of inclusion. That’s smart and contemporary. It invites employees to join your entrepreneurial mission and attracts talent tired of old-school structures, tiered-priority, and privilege. People love to feel heard and included in the building process. They’ll invest more time. They’ll show up with passion.

But keep in mind that you hired people with specialized expertise. You did not hire a multitude of CEOs. They’ve helped the company get to its present size and complexity, but they are not founders. They don’t have the same grit and vision you have to launch and lead. You’re the CEO, the entrepreneur whose name is on the door. And in this case, on the jewellery!

I encourage you to take your rightful seat at the head of the table, without trepidation, and define the terms for inclusion as the company evolves. You’re the one who must decide who sits at the executive table. Is it founders only? Does it include a CFO?

You can still continue as a creative, inclusive, and willing-to-break-boundaries entrepreneur. It’s time to create a new decision-making framework. Outline what decisions will be made by the executive team. Establish what you want from your marketing gurus, your design group, your business or product development group. Create a “collective break” time when (and you determine how often) all voices will come together for a report-in and brainstorm session. Set up an advisory board with representation from each department. Your “AB” can feed you. And, in turn, you feed them. Rather than violating the inclusive culture your business was founded on, this new decision-making structure will strengthen it. Everyone will continue to feel valued.

But the change is huge. Manage this so it gets off the ground in a good way. Stay involved during the shift. Set up a system to publicly acknowledge the strength of each person’s ideas. Solicit opinions on how the process is developing. Reward breakthrough thinking. Test-run each new design line so no one feels left out. In a broad sense, having an executive team shouldn’t make other people feel disqualified, but instead encourage the qualified to dig into what they do best. And then during the collective break, cheer each other on!

As founder and CEO, you remain chief collaborator, channelling the talents of your staff to steer the company to new heights.


Our Voices

Amy Brings LiisBeth Inside The Tent

For savvy corporate intrapreneur and author Amy Dorn Kopelan, entrepreneurship wasn’t a choice. Amy’s conference planning and executive coaching enterprise, Bedlam Productions Inc., is the producer and creator of The Corporate State Summits (US and Canada) and The Executive Studio. Amy is working to ignite a “Davos for Women Only” environment where the conversation is about leadership, business trends, and ensuring that women seat at any table and their voices are heard.

As one of our new contributors, we wanted you to get to know Amy a little better. Here is an excerpt of our interview.

LiisBeth: Amy, tell us your entrepreneurial story. Why did you leave a successful career in corporate television for the uncertain world of entrepreneurship?

Amy: Why does somebody jump the fence from corporate to entrepreneur? In my case, it wasn’t so much a choice. More like an unplanned push out the door!

LiisBeth: After 20 years of moving up the corporate ladder, what happened?

Amy: I was essentially what we now call an intrapreneur in a company that ultimately didn’t know how to support that. I saw market opportunities others didn’t. I recognized the need to work fast to respond. But corporations tend to make decisions about new things s-l-o-w-l-y. Management became uncomfortable with my pace, even though they applauded the vision, energy, and creativity. Ultimately they created an elite sort of “skunk works” team of five people to look at some new ideas and invited me to join.

LiisBeth: That sounds like it should have been an ideal outcome.

Amy: Well, there was good and bad. The good? I was in a fish bowl and people were very aware of what I was saying, thinking, and doing. The bad? You get a lot more scrutiny. At a certain point the COO of the company called me to say: “You have a way of thinking, a way of moving people, a way of seeing the landscape, and a way of making things happen that don’t necessarily work in a corporate environment. So young lady, it is time for you to leave this organization. It’s time for you to go out and change the world.” I’ve got to tell you, the jolt of that is huge.

LiisBeth: No kidding! What did you do next?

Amy: [Laughs] I first tried to get another job. And soon found a job opening that seemed like a perfect fit. But in my heart, for a lot of reasons, I knew I wouldn’t get the job. They gave me a lot of feedback and affirmed some things I felt I knew about myself, but was not so sure about. That third-party, objective feedback opened up my eyes and many other doors.

LiisBeth: So from job to no job, how did you come to start your now very successful, 14-year-old business, Bedlam Productions?

Amy: It wasn’t really planned. It came about as a series of steps and opportunities. The year before I left my corporate position, I had been loaned out by ABC to Fairchild Publications to launch a conference series. I would truck daily down town in New York to their facilities to help them develop a conference division. They needed my producing skills because they were publishers and they didn’t have producers on site. So after having a year of that experience, I suddenly realized that that was probably an opportunity I could build on.

LiisBeth: Did you ever attend any incubators or startup weekends?

Amy: No! I think there was less scripting around that than what exists now. I primarily got to where I needed to go by leveraging and building networks. One person introduced me to another. I also invested in research and started to go to conferences where I thought that I could see more and learn more of what mirrored what I had in mind. I recognized as I went along that one of my special skills was that I really knew how to initiate and manage partnerships well.

My networking efforts took me to Deloitte, coincidentally at the very time they were looking to launch a women’s conference. I sat next to a woman at a symposium who asked about my business plans. I explained what I did, and she suggested that the timing was uncanny. Deloitte wanted to launch a summit for women leaders, but did not have any idea how to produce it. They did have the money, though. I knew how to produce and of course needed a sponsor. The gal, who was with Deloitte in California, suggested she make an intro for me. It was her idea that Deloitte should fund me and that I’d have a corporate partner. That’s exactly what happened.

LiisBeth: Why did Deloitte want to create a women’s conference?

Amy: They wanted to create something different for women in leadership positions and not just another report. They wanted a conference designed to explore critical global trends. There wasn’t anything out there like this. We all felt strongly that this new conference couldn’t be just one more “women’s conference.” It had to be about global issues, and to get in the door you had to be a woman leader.

We had a very deep belief there was room in the market for a “Davos” for women only. Many times, I must be candid, people would say: “Oh, I don’t want to come to that. That’s a women’s conference.” The stress on the word “women’s” was distasteful, as if we were going to discuss “how do you colour your hair?” We had to show that this was a summit, not just another women’s issues event. And that’s what we’ve been producing for the past 16 years.

LiisBeth: Wow. Sixteen years! Has anything changed?

Amy: There have been many changes. But I’ll mention this as distinct. In 1998, there was an acceptance of the idea that women were global leaders, but somehow many women still saw themselves as being a good “guide on the side.” They would never admit to having husbands at home who took care of the children. And they would duck the idea that they made more money than their mates. Now, those walls are gone! Now, there’s a tremendous shift in women’s roles in society. Now, more and more women want to lead loud and proud, not just quietly guide.

LiisBeth: Are there too many women’s conferences these days?

Amy: No. I think women, globally, really are tapping into the idea that being in a room full of women leaders, discussing world issues, educates you differently.

LiisBeth: What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs?

Amy: I think to start any business you need a very strong board of advisers. I can’t stress that enough. Nobody on that board should be a significant other in your life, but instead people who have very specific skills to advise, guide, and help you make critical decisions about your company. Secondly, be in a business you love. And thirdly, be in a business where there’s a need for the service or product.

LiisBeth: Are you coming back to Toronto next year?

Amy: Our last Corporate State 2016 Summit sold out! So yes, we’re back on May 17, 2017, in Toronto.

Bedlam Productions Inc.
Corporate State 2016 – Toronto
Corporate State 2015 – Montreal
Corporate State 2013 – Vancouver

Publisher’s Note: For more information about the Toronto Corporate 2020 Summit 2017, or how to get involved, please check out Bedlam Productions.