5 Takeaways from my Most Fulfilling Year Yet

Today is International Women’s day. And tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of my company, Notch Above Consulting. Coincidence? Well, yes. It didn’t occur to me when I filed for the company the significance of the date, maybe I would have filed a day earlier! But regardless, this year the significance of both dates is not lost on me. The theme for International Women’s Day 2019 is #balanceforbetter; a call to action for driving gender balance across the world. Balance in the boardroom. Balance in media coverage. Balance in employee populations. And balance in business entrepreneurs! Today women-owned businesses make up 40% of the total population, a number that has grown by 58% in the last 12 years. However, of businesses that generate more than $1 million in revenue, women owned businesses only account for 1.7%. I’m proud to say that last year Notch Above Consulting helped improve this stat, but we’ve still got a long way to go. So today, as I reflect on the one-year anniversary of my small business, I promised a few colleagues over a glass of wine that I would jot down some of my biggest takeaways from these last 12 months. And what better day to share them than today…

1. Network.  I would be nowhere without my network. This has been the single biggest contributor to bringing on new business, finding great talent, and helping overcome the challenges of running a business. Your network comes in all shapes and sizes and presents itself in many forms. For me, it’s the mentors from prior companies who have so graciously offered time for a cup of coffee, sushi lunches or phone calls to help with questions and advice. The amazing local female board members and leaders who have included me in their drive for more women on corporate boards here in Massachusetts. My soccer mom friend, an incredibly talented marketing expert in high tech, who helped me overhaul my previously pathetic company overview deck. My brilliant college roommate who has offered countless free legal advice, and even some MSA reviews.  The new connections made with people starting new businesses of their own, or who run small businesses. Texts with former colleagues to stay in touch or to schedule drinks for some laughs. Family and friends with words of encouragement. 

Whether you are thinking of changing roles or quite happy in what you are doing, keep your network alive. Spend the time staying connected. Read some posts on LinkedIn. Reach out to an old colleague for coffee or lunch. Join a new committee or forum. Sign up for a new class you’ve been wanting to take. Cherish and grow your network, you won’t regret it.

2. Values.  You are what you do. Stay true to your values and do what you say. Be authentic. Treat others how you want to be treated. I like to think this is how I’ve led my life. Look, no one is perfect. People often tell me I’m too honest. Perhaps sometimes I should learn when to just do, and not to say! But I’ve realized in this past year that by being authentic, you attract people around you who respect you for your values. It’s integrity in everything you do, even when no one is watching. It’s treating everyone with respect. It’s giving credit where credit is due. 

I remember one of my bosses early in my career telling me I should spend less time managing down and get better at managing up. “It’s important to get visibility” he told me. That never felt right, which is probably why I still remember it. Don’t get me wrong, you need to have a presence and an impact, but I’m a firm believer that hard work pays off. It’s not about finding ways for self-promotion or for managing up. Let your work speak for itself. Let visibility come in a way that feels authentic. And don’t advance yourself at the expense of others. 

Before I launched Notch Above Consulting, I interviewed for a few CIO jobs. I remember one of the recruiters telling me that I say “we” too much when talking about my accomplishments. He said it made me sound like I couldn’t do things alone. Well I didn’t! The great work accomplished was through teamwork. I loved it when a few weeks ago I saw a post on LinkedIn about the differences between a boss and a leader. There were about 10 characteristics distinguishing them, but the one that resonated most was the one that said bosses say “I” and leaders say “we”. I resisted the urge to send it to the recruiter. Let your actions speak louder than your words. This has served me well as I have been humbled and motivated by all the great colleagues who have reached about potentially working together again. 

3. Overcoming Fear. Yes, you can. Quick story. My 10-year-old son recently witnessed me take a huge fall while skiing. I went over a jump only to realize there was another one right behind it, so I hit it going too fast and was launched 6 feet in the air, panicked, and caused a landing that would make any bloopers reel. I did incur a few injuries and was rolling in pain (all fine now)! My son saw the whole thing and told me that night that he was mad at himself because in his words “he was the first one there and the last one to do anything to help.” He said it was “like he was frozen”. He learned the power of fear! But I told him he can learn from it and next time (which hopefully is not after another epic ski failure by his mother) he can think about how he wants to act. Same thing for all of us. I can’t tell you how many times this year I’ve heard from folks: I don’t know that industry, my skills might not be transferable, I’ve never done consulting, I’m staying where I am because it’s a good commute. How about instead of thinking about the challenge, we think about the possibilities. Challenges span industries, skills are transferable, your ability to consult is based on your value and contributions not whether you have the frequent miles to prove it. And maybe the commute isn’t so bad, or you can work part time remote. Hurdles are often smaller than we make them in our mind. 

A few folks have commented to me over the last year that starting a new business takes courage and have asked me how I knew where to start. Well, I guess I never stopped long enough to ponder where I might trip, I just started running. Insurance? Hmm… I’ll find a small firm to help. Payroll? Hmm… there’s a great service to outsource that, I’ll let them do it. Benefits? Hmm… there’s a great small business provider who will offer my employees what they need. Taxes? Hmm… yes, that is much uglier than I thought so I better plan accordingly. The point is, we can often become paralyzed in fear over what might happen. But if you don’t take some risks, you will never know. Its possible things could have been very bumpy this past year. Or that they might be bumpy in years ahead. Regardless, I still get to take all these learnings with me and bring them to the next opportunity or chapter; and be a whole lot smarter for it.

4. Balance.  How fitting, as it’s in keeping with the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day. Although balance is a powerful word and takes on many meanings. And here I mean balance in your life, which I think also helps achieve balance for better! No one can define for you what that balance might be. I think it’s finding the place that makes you content. Maybe it’s time to work out each day (like my obsession with my Peloton). Maybe it’s time to volunteer in your child’s classroom or the 4:00 soccer game. Maybe it’s that promotion or new role. Or maybe it’s working part time, or going back to school, or making a career change. Regardless of what it is, don’t think it is impossible to achieve. When I started this company and was offered my first engagement, I was thrilled but knew I couldn’t do it full time and still grow my business and save some time for being present with my husband and 2 sons. The role was running a massive program, a role similar to one I had done before, and I knew would take way more than 40 hours a week. But the work was exciting, so instead of saying no I talked about how I could make it work. For example, I can’t do 40 hours, but I can be onsite 3 days, even if long days, and I’m available remote one day, etc., etc. The client agreed to make it work – hey, they had a need – and it was a win /win. 

I think you’d be surprised by what you can make work, and you don’t know if you don’t ask. What’s the worst that can happen, status quo? But best case is, you’re in a better place, with better balance, and a much happier employee!

5. Live for Today.  Who knows what tomorrow brings, so do what makes you happy. This lesson has been acute for me this year as I’ve watched my 36-year-old sister in law battle cancer. It’s been a long year, with multiple surgeries and endless chemo sessions. But despite that, she has handled each and every day with a grace and strength I can only envy. Her two young children and my brother are her priority. Even when she’s recovering from a surgery or rebounding from chemo, she is the caregiver. And on the good weeks she is still out there getting her runs in! She is an inspiration to everyone around her. The tattoo on her wrist, one beautifully scripted small word – live – has defined this year. Do what matters and do it now.

Over the past year, this has shaped how and where I spend my time. I no longer do things because I feel obligated. I might skip a company dinner or pass on the community board meeting; but prioritize the mentoring sessions I love, and schedule a few more trips with family and friends! Time is a precious gift, spend it wisely.

In summary, as I reflect back on the last 12 months it’s these takeaways that are the most profound.  And there have been so many smaller, less profound takeaways over the past year as well. I’ve perfected my Starbucks order (lots of time spent talking business in coffee shops). I think I’ve finally conquered QuickBooks (those business classes really did pay off). I don’t miss my frequent flier miles (that one didn’t really shock me). Waze is my new best friend to overcome the metro-west traffic commute. 

Without a doubt, this has been the most professionally rewarding year of my life. I have had the privilege of recruiting an amazing team of rock stars. I am working with fantastic clients on a variety of exciting initiatives. So today, on International Women’s Day, I wanted to share this in the hopes that perhaps it reaches just one person who may now feel motivated to push some boundaries, to overcome a hurdle, or find a way for better balance in your own life! 

Sources: 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report by American Express

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