Who You Are in Tough Times Reveals Your Strengths as Leader
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In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
In her role as CEO of Kidbox, a growing clothing subscription service, Miki Berardelli is on a mission to provide new clothes to to families who need them most. For every kept Kidbox, the company outfits a child in need, and since its launch in 2016, through a partnership with with Delivering Good, the company has donated roughly $1.6 million in clothing.
CEO of a startup is a brand new challenge for Berardelli, who has worked for major brands over the course of her career. Prior to joining Kidbox in 2016, she served as president and chief marketing officer at Chico’s FAS, chief marketing officer at Tory Burch and senior vice president of marketing at Ralph Lauren. She also serves as chairman of the National Retail Federation CMO Council and was a member of the first Google Retail Advisory council.
So why would Berardelli leave behind a career at such storied brands to join an startup? The ability to craft a company culture from the ground up was a thrilling opportunity, she says.
“Culture has to withstand the test of time. Self-awareness is paramount to effective leadership,” Berardelli tells Entrepreneur. “I feel like culture, at its most valuable, is something that creates accountability, self-awareness and glue that binds people together in pursuit of what they are trying to build.”
Can you talk about a moment in your career that you had to advocate for yourself? How did you approach it?
At a certain point after becoming an executive, I felt like I hit a point where I needed to become an advocate for myself. I really just approached [negotiating for myself] like it was a business case, as if I was going to a CFO asking for more marketing dollars to fund a marketing initiative. I spelled out the contributions that I made. Then because I laid out the business case on how I was functioning in the organization and the decisions I was a part of, then I was able to negotiate the title and therefore the salary. It didn't have to become a conversation about money -- it became a conversation about contribution, being with that particular organization for a number of years and establishing a solid track record.
But to say that it was easy for me to switch into that gear of self-advocacy was not easy. I was more uncomfortable probably than I've ever been in any other business meeting. But once that was accomplished, you have more bravery to do it more often. And after a while it's expected. Not necessarily self-advocating a new title or a salary but just advocating in general and making sure that your point of view and your voice is heard. And then after a while it becomes muscle memory. And it's much more comfortable. And you also start noticing how many other people are doing it around you. That's been my experience.
What was a mistake you made and how did you move forward from it?
I would say almost all of the mistakes that I've made in my business career certainly were when there was a lack of speaking up when I felt very strongly that a decision was being made in the wrong direction or a decision was being made that was not in the best interest of our customers. My whole career has been in retail and digital so I've always had a very customer-centric perspective. And that lack of speaking up has been a pretty consistent theme. I don't do it anymore but when I think back to mistakes it was usually what I didn't do vs. what I did.
How have you grown and changed as a leader throughout your career?
Certainly owning gravitas at the table has become much more comfortable, but it's been an evolution for sure. Making the switch from a C-level executive -- in my case I was chief marketing officer -- to a president and CEO. It made it clear that I had to show up a little differently than I had in the past. Being a member of the executive team that supports the CEO is very different than being the CEO. That team that reports into you expects a certain level of confidence and stride in your step. Because that allows them to feel where you're leading them, they can feel confident in that destination.
It's a really important skill to learn to shut down conflict in a productive way quickly in the spirit of problem-solving. And I think that's the gravitas that you have to bring. You have to have a way of explaining why you're making decisions so that people get on board and they walk out of the room even if they weren't in agreement. But they walk out of the room and it's now their decision too.
Over time, how has your view of success and failure changed?
I'm much more open to failure because I think you learn faster. It's almost like talent development or leadership development. When people come to me and they talk about how they're not inspired by their manager or their boss, I always say the important thing is to know that you're going to learn as much if not more from someone you don't want to emulate than from someone you do. Sometimes that's an example of failure. I think failure is super important because it's really hard to celebrate success when you haven't been on the other side of it.
Is there a piece of advice a mentor gave you that you still take to heart today?
I had an amazing mentor during my years at Ralph Lauren -- she still remains a mentor to this day. And when I was leaving to join Tory Burch as chief marketing officer she said there are builders and there are maintainers. She said: "You are a builder. The minute you stop building you're bored. Know that about yourself and make sure every position that you pursue has a long road of building tied to it, because that's also where you are in your zone." And it was really profound advice to me. I like evolution. If things are moving incrementally I’m not excited about my work. I embraced [the advice] right away, but in terms of truly understanding it, that’s been a longer journey.
What do you say to yourself to keep going during tough moments?
I exercise more and I meditate a little more and I try to get more sleep. You have to do things for your health to keep you in that positive state of mind. I'm a big believer in, especially as a CEO, that who you during difficult times resonates much more loudly than who you are during times that are easy. I try to stay very in tune with how I'm showing up and be consistent, whether it's at a time of great success or a more difficult time. I try not to let my persona change when I'm facing difficult times.
You’ve gone from working in legacy companies to leading a startup. What would you say to people who are about to make a career shift?
I always look at my career as a mosaic that's not done yet. And so I've tried really hard to make sure that every role I take builds upon the last in terms of responsibility and in terms of experience but that also adds a new dimension. If my career is a geometric shape, there's a new surface created by that experience. Joining a startup has been totally different because the pace is totally different, but I love that pace. Your agility is forced to be different because you don't have the resources of a larger organization. The opportunity to join a startup at its inception and be a CEO who's passionate about culture who will build the team from the ground up and define the culture from the very beginning is a really unique opportunity. So I guess the advice would be identify the opportunity in your next pursuit -- that's where the magic is.