CEO Interview – Kelly Scanlon

Thinking Bigger magazine, 25 Under 25, NAWBO
Interview with Kelly Scanlon, Owner and Publisher of Thinking Bigger magazine, Founder of 25 Under 25, National Chair of NAWBO, the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Kelly Scanlon, owner of Thinking Bigger magazine, founder of the 25 Under 25 honorary entrepreneurial group and National Chair of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) has an interesting responsibility day to day because she has three very diverse organizations that she works with, all of which require a different leadership style. Kelly shares with us her leadership style relative to each of these three organizations and how it changes.

When did you first realized that you were developing a leadership style and who most influenced that leadership style?
I never thought much about leadership style. I’ve always been very much a doer, very oriented on tasks and getting things done. But as my company grew I realized I had to rely on other people in order for it to grow. At times I didn’t allow that to happen. Interestingly, it was my growing involvement with NAWBO that caused me to move to a leadership style with my own company that is allowing it to grow. I was always very hands on and had to be involved in every decision and have my fingerprint on everything.

As I got more and more involved with NAWBO, which takes an enormous amount of time away from the company, I realized that I could not fulfill that role and at the same time work daily in my business the way that I had been. When I was approached about becoming chair, my first thought was I’m not going to be able to put my name in the running for that position because my own company needs my hands on attention. As I thought more about it and really wanted to move into the role of chair, I decided to hire an operations person. It was my first attempt as a business owner to trust another person to that extent with my business. I hired an operations person with tremendous experience. I’m sure I probably nearly ran her off in the first year because I continued to try to control everything.

Then as my responsibilities with NAWBO’s board of directors grew and I was elected chair, I could not continue to run the business that way and fulfill my responsibilities to NAWBO as well. Eventually I learned that my operations person was very capable and while she did not necessarily do things the exact way I would, she had successful results. Now, when she comes into my office and she has a stack of things for me to look at, I will say to her, we can discuss this, but you’re walking right back out the door with every one of those things, and it’s a very liberating feeling. I don’t have to have all the answers.

Was there anything beyond just necessity that determined what role you wanted to take? Was there any kind of counsel that you received from a mentor or a book you read that inspired you?
It’s interesting because in the type of business that I have where we are providing resource information to business owners to help them grow intellectually, rationally, I knew I couldn’t keep controlling everything. We tell our audience that all the time. We run articles, I interview radio guests who tell our listeners that you have to let go, you have to depend on other people. I knew that, but until circumstances presented themselves to the point where I simply could not keep up and continue that way, I really had not taken the step to develop that kind of trust.

I am actually very collaborative in my decision making approach. I like lots of information when I need to make a decision. I also like to hear what everybody else has to think about it. In the end, I will make a decision, but I do like to have as much information as possible. I also know that if you can get to 60 or 70 percent of the information, you just make the decision. By the time you wait for 100 percent, things change.

The other organization you lead is a loose collection of celebrated entrepreneurs that run highly effective businesses and have been honored through your 25 Under 25 program. How does your leadership style change in that setting?
With 25 Under 25, we are working with a group of Type A entrepreneurs and you can’t manage them. In addition, the relationship is different. They are business owners in their own right, many of them my peers, and we “manage” them in the sense they come together throughout the year for various events we produce on their behalf. They have an energy of their own, and I always say to our staff that we can plan and we can work out as many details beforehand as possible, but when the 25 Under 25 come together as a group, there is going to be an energy that takes over and you just have to go with it. They always make every event so much better than we ever planned for.

As chair of NAWBO, a national organization focused on issues that face women in business you have a pivotal role in influencing the political arena for women’s business, as well as influencing women themselves. How do you function as a leader in that role?
Within NAWBO, as you do with most associations, we really have two leaders. I am the chair of the Board of Directors, so I fill the head elected role. We also have the CEO and President of the organization who is the highest ranking staff person. As the elected leader and the staff leader, the CEO and I collaborate to move the organization forward. As far as leading the Board of Directors, that collaborative style that I mentioned earlier helps me because I like to hear the opinions and input of everyone on the board. Then I work with our CEO to move things forward. It also means that when we bring something to a vote, we move forward with the action that was voted on, whether the vote went my way or not. It’s the board decision and I rally around that decision.

The NAWBO board of directors, much like 25 Under 25, is made up of very successful business owners whom you cannot direct. They all are used to running their own businesses. It’s a different kind of leadership role than in your own business. You have to pull everybody together and allow them the space to ask questions and fine-tune so they feel like they came to the decision on their own. Even if you begin the meeting wanting to arrive at a certain place, you can’t just come in and say this is the way it’s going to be. You have to lead the rest of the board there.

In terms of influencing public policy for women business owners, that is something that can be very challenging because all of us have our own political leanings. But we are a bipartisan organization and so we conduct annual membership surveys to read the pulse of our members politically, economically and in a number of different areas. As the elected leader who often must go to Washington, DC, or speak to the media to represent the organization, I must be able to suppress my own personal view and present the view of the organization. That can be a challenge at times.

What is the current agenda of NAWBO right now? What are some of the key issues that you are working on?
There are several. Let’s start with a new program that we’ve rolled out called The Accelerated Growth Series. What we’re finding is that women business owners need nuts and bolts training in financials, management structure and other aspects of business operation. We know that from what our members tell us in our own surveys, as well as from other research, that women business owners get stuck in this place called “the missing middle.” There’s a large area between half a million and a million where many women business owners plateau. So NAWBO has started an educational curriculum to address the gaps. It’s being piloted right now on the West coast and will eventually roll out across the rest of the country.

The other place where we want to be able to make a difference is in the 2012 elections. NAWBO has a long, rich history of impacting public policy. It was NAWBO who played a leading role 23 years ago in advocating for the passage of HR 5050. HR5050 was the legislation that finally enabled women to be able to obtain credit in their own name without the assistance of a husband, a father, a brother. My oldest daughter is almost 25. She thinks she can do anything, but she was born into a world where women could not get credit in their own name but NAWBO helped to change that. We plan to continue to be very active at the policy table

What kind of advice would give new owners and entrepreneurs with regard to leadership and its ability to drive high performance? How would you coach them in order to avoid some of the school of hard knocks that you went through?
The sooner you can develop the trust to let go and be confident in the people that you hire to do what you hired them to do, the faster you’re going to grow. That is difficult because a lot of times business owners may be hiring who they can afford, not the best people that they can. Now with that said, a business expert I admire very much once gave me this analogy. A very wealthy friend of hers had a big estate and she had several gardeners who tended that estate. Yet, if the woman who owned the estate walked across the lawn and she saw a dandelion, she would still stop to pick it. So even though you delegate, even though you trust in others to do what you hired them to do, you are still the person who has to oversee and make sure that those dandelions are getting picked on a regular basis. If they are not, you may still have to step in to pick the occasional dandelion on your own. It doesn’t mean that you’re constantly interfering with what your staff does. You can make it a good teaching opportunity. But at the end of the day, you still have to make sure that you have a nice lawn with no dandelions, or a smoothly running business. I thought that was good advice, pointing out that you can delegate, but it’s still your business and you’re still responsible for it, so you may still occasionally need to step in and take care of something.

Kelly Scanlon is the owner of a variety of media products dedicated to advocating small business and helping business owners take their companies to the next level of growth. She is the owner and publisher of Thinking Bigger, a magazine that profiles successful small business owners and advocates their accomplishments. It also features strategy articles that serve the needs and interests of small business owners. Although the monthly magazine is the company’s flagship for providing practical, “how-to” information that helps businesses grow, the company also has three Web sites, a weekly electronic newsletter, an annual Entrepreneur’s Guide, an annual 25 Under 25® awards event and a weekday radio show called “The Business Hour.” Kelly hosts the show every Friday. The 25 Under 25® awards, now in its eighth year, has become one of the pre-eminent business awards program in the Kansas City area.

Ms. Scanlon serves on a variety of boards designed to advocate and assist small businesses. Ms. Scanlon is the past president of NAWBO Kansas City and has served on the local board since 2002. She has served as the Midwest Membership Services Council Chair and on NAWBO’s national governance learning committee. In addition she has served as judge for NAWBO’s annual Healthy Chapter Awards. Ms. Scanlon served a term on the Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and has served on the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, Small Business Council since 2004.

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