In 2007, as a sophomore at the University of Florida, Kristen Hadeed inadvertently became an entrepreneur. She’d been looking for the cash to buy a $99 pair of jeans and decided to earn it by offering to clean a local’s house. She did such a good job that the homeowner referred her to others in the area, and before long, Kristen found herself with a steady stream of business on her hands. Her senior summer she officially founded Student Maid, staffing it with other students to meet the growing demand, and won a contract to clean hundreds of empty college apartments which put the company on the path to growth and Kristen on the path to small business success.
In her own accidental journey as the leader of rapidly growing company, she found herself developing an unique relationship with failure — one that would end up helping her literally write the book on it. Kristen’s ethos of embracing failure instead of fearing it and using trip-ups and mistakes as opportunities to grow provided her with critical perspective that helped her navigate through the hard times.
As part of our Office Hours Q&A series on @AmericanExpressBusiness on Instagram, we asked Kristen to share her leadership insights to help understand how small business owners can approach failures and concerns from the COVID moment to find a way to push through and succeed.
What’s your perspective on the difference between instinct-driven and learned leadership (e.g., through an MBA, or shadowing an executive)? How can small business owners hone and practice a focused leadership instinct?
In many ways, leadership is all instinct-driven. People who went to school for leadership and business may have a leg up in understanding certain terms, structures, or how things are supposed to work, but when you’re actually out there doing the work of building your business, all leaders are on the same playing field. There’s no such thing as going by the book. Every situation is different and every new phase comes with unique challenges, so you have to use and trust your instincts to figure it out.
Part of honing your leadership skills is constantly evaluating and reflecting on the decisions you make and the outcomes of those decisions. When you do, you’re able to see which ones went well and which ones didn’t, and you can learn from those. Find the lesson in every misstep so that you avoid it in the future.
You believe core values are critical because they provide a moral compass and underpin decision-making. In the future, do you think the disruption caused by COVID-19 should influence what values a business commits to? Or should they think of values as ‘bigger’ than COVID-19?
I think that COVID-19 showed us just how many businesses’ core values are simply words on a wall and not actually values that are being lived. For example, how many companies have we heard about that claimed to care about people, and then immediately laid of a huge percentage of their team, even when they had the financial means to take a different route? How many organizations forced their people to work in unsafe conditions? I hope that the fallout from COVID-19 is a wakeup call to businesses who put their people last. It remains to be seen, but I’ll bet these businesses are going to find it very hard to convince both new team members and customers that they live by their values. COVID-19 showed us how important it is to put people first and make sure our values are actually being lived. If companies were reluctant to realize that before, let this moment show them why.
I’ve learned over the years that not everyone has a healthy relationship with failure. As a result, they’re afraid of it, so much so that it prevents them from learning from it and building resilience.
Redefining success is a key lever that business owners can pull to ensure they’re focusing their energy on achievable goals. How would you recommend business owners balance redefined goals with mission-critical elements of a company? In other words, is there any success metric that’s sacred that shouldn’t be redefined?
No matter what challenges your business faces, there are success metrics that you absolutely should not redefine. First: Live your values. They are non-negotiable and serve as your moral compass. Second: Team member engagement. For you to reach your mission-critical goals, you need an engaged, inspired, and motivated team. When it comes to other goals, I think it’s okay to give yourself permission to redefine them. The world today is a different world than when you initially set those goals. It’s okay to walk away from what was and redefine what will be. However, it’s critical to make sure that your decisions aren’t always coming from a financial place. Sometimes I will ask myself “If money wasn’t a factor, what would I do?” That will often lead me to even better decisions and goals because when we take money off the table, it usually will lead us to our values.
You’ve shown your belief in resilience through the “resilience resume” you have your team conduct. Would you describe that process a little more? How formal do you recommend leaders approach exercises like this to ensure that it makes a lasting impression on culture without feeling burdensome or losing its meaning?
I’ve learned over the years that not everyone has a healthy relationship with failure. As a result, they’re afraid of it, so much so that it prevents them from learning from it and building resilience. The Resilience Resume is a step toward building resilience by showing them the lessons in the mistakes they’ve made in life. To create it, they simply ask themselves, “What are the biggest mistakes I’ve made in my life? What did I learn from them?” The result is tangible proof of the challenges they have been through and the ways they have grown because of them.
Creating a Resilience Resume doesn’t need to be a formal, regimented exercise. Cataloging and examining your mistakes to find the lesson should be an ongoing, lifelong progress; I encourage our team members to keep their resumes handy so they can refer and add to them as needed. And Resilience Resumes are just as helpful to individuals as they are for teams. The next time you have a team meeting, create one by having a conversation about past challenges and the things they taught you. Keep the conversation going by updating your resume during end-of-year reviews, quarterly planning sessions, etc. Celebrate all that you’ve learned!
A few days after winning a big contract, 45 of 60 of the workers you had scoped on the project walked out. Were there any mental models you applied to the situation to frame it in such a way where the decisions you needed to make became clear? How did you manage to stave off negativity during the process?
The day that 45 people walked out on me at the same time, I had no idea what I was doing. I was very new to leadership. In the moment, I certainly didn’t say to myself, “I’m going to follow this model so that I can get X outcome.” But thanks to my parents, I had developed a certain comfort level and relationship with failure; we used to talk about mistakes we made and what we learned around the dinner table. Because of that, I had the sense that the situation was fixable, so I followed my gut. I knew that in order to finish out the contract, I had no other option but to win those people back, so I did what I hoped would work: Early paychecks, pizza, and a humble apology. I wouldn’t say I staved off negativity—there were plenty of tears—but I didn’t allow myself to wallow in it. I cried it out and got back to work.
Looking back on it now, I see that what I was really doing was evaluating and learning from my mistakes in the moment. I was also listening to my people. By quitting en masse, they showed me how they felt about my leadership. Instead of arguing about it with them, I owned up to my mistakes, and asked (begged) them to forgive me—which, thankfully, they did. And now I know that that moment, that huge screwup, was one of the most important days of my life: It’s what sparked my obsession with leadership.
Finally, how can small business owners assess themselves as leaders? How do they know they’re doing a good job? How do they know if there’s room for improvement?
Small business leaders can hold themselves accountable to being good leaders in many important ways. Here are a few I suggest: Surround yourself with people you trust who will be honest with you. Find a mentor who will challenge you. Ask your team to speak up when you’re missing the mark and allow yourself to be teachable. Be proactive: Regularly check in with your team to ask how they think you’re doing instead of waiting for them to tell you.
You know you’re doing a good job when your people are coming to you with more ideas than problems; when people feel empowered to make decisions without you; and when others are just as motivated to hit your goals as you are!