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Leadership Lessons From The Woman Who’s Made A Career Turning Companies Around

A lot of what makes a successful CEO can’t be measured, and when you’re one of the few female CEOs, the path is even less clear.

Leadership Lessons From The Woman Who’s Made A Career Turning Companies Around
[Photo: Flickr user JD Hancock]

Sharon Rowlands may not define herself as fearless, but she’s put herself in the way of challenges that would make other, less courageous leaders nervous.

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“I always sort of felt comfortable acting on instinct,” Rowlands tells Fast Company, “I’ve always been up for wanting to have fun and live by the work-hard-play-hard philosophy. Life is too short to take yourself too seriously.”

It’s an attitude that should serve her well in her current position as CEO of ReachLocal. The software company that provides digital marketing services to more than 24,000 small and mid-sized businesses went public in 2010 and raised $54 million, then saw its stock price decline 42% between 2013 and 2014.

Sharon Rowlands

Rowlands was hired last April to turn the company’s trajectory and burnish the overall image of the digital marketing provider in an industry that’s not held in particularly high regard. Between local businesses from handymen to physicians who don’t know the best way to market themselves online, to the overselling of solutions that aren’t a good fit for certain businesses, and the fallout in which many feel scammed, Rowlands said, “The reputation of this industry currently stinks,” when speaking to attendees of BIA/Kelsey’s Leading in Local conference.

That said, Rowlands tells Fast Company that she really likes the digital marketing space for local business. “It is a huge market and no one’s got it right yet,” she contends. ReachLocal has a great asset base and global footprint, according to Rowlands, but it did stumble somewhat. “It’s a huge opportunity for a CEO of my background of transforming business through an intense period of change and accelerate growth and market value,” she says.

Like many of her female counterparts in the CEO chair, Rowlands has worked at more than one company and didn’t rise through ReachLocal’s ranks.

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Most recently she was CEO of Altegrity, a billion-dollar global risk consulting and information services company and moved it from holding company into three independent business units. Prior to that she was CEO of Penton Media, the largest independent business-to-business media company in the U.S., and before that worked for Thomson Financial, where she rose from executive-level positions to CEO.

Though it’s still quite early in her tenure, Rowlands is balancing the North American sales organization to straddle the need for new business growth and client retention. Internationally, she is working to invest in the right markets to scale. Recently, the company reported that ReachEdge, its lead conversion and marketing-automation software, is growing 92% year-over-year.

Although the business is numbers driven, Rowlands talks about several strategies she’s employed as a leader that have worked on the purely human–and unquantifiable–level with her teams and clients. Here are a few of her methods.

Get Through Tough Times With Charades

When she was at Thomson Financial, Rowlands and her team had been through a long period of tough times that ranged from 9/11, to the beginning of the recession as well as a merger. “Part of the way which we learned to collaborate well and build relationships was playing games together,” says Rowland. And one of her favorites is charades. It’s a simple game that doesn’t require any equipment and can be played anywhere. Rowlands says it was often played after team dinners and the men would team up against the women to compete.

Charades also provided Rowlands a view to observe male/female behaviors in a casual setting that would also play out in the office. “The guys are definitely more competitive,” she asserts, “I think they try and wind up the women because they believe if they can get women acting emotionally they will be more successful.”

Be Twice As Good (And Play Golf)

She’s witnessed that when a woman is passionate and pushing for an idea, she can be regarded as emotional, or worse. “She can be boxed in and almost portrayed as overly aggressive and then makes it harder for her to be effective at get buy-in for her particular idea,” says Rowlands.

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For her part, Rowlands says she didn’t have a problem reigning in her emotions. What she did experience as a newly minted CEO in a predominately maIe company was something else. “I often felt that my ideas and my proposals got more scrutiny than those coming from a man,” she recalls, “And that I had to work harder and I had to prepare more because there would be more pushing, prodding, and poking.”

Rowlands says she dealt with that in a couple of ways. “By making sure I always was prepared, and determined to be better than anyone else,” she explains. The other strategy was to make sure she wasn’t viewed as an outsider to the men she worked with.

A mentor who was coaching Rowlands to be an effective CEO, once told her, “You are so ready to be an incredible CEO but there is one thing you have to tick the box on,” she says. “I was waiting for some big idea,” Rowlands explains laughing, but he told her to learn to play golf.

A lot of business gets done on the course, he reasoned, and if she couldn’t play she couldn’t participate in those conversations. Rowlands picked up the clubs and hasn’t looked back. “I am accepted in a very different way and it changed my whole relationship and dialogue with [men].”

Toot Your Own Horn

Another lesson she learned the hard way was when she was CEO of one company that merged with another. The chief of the other company was appointed overall CEO, even though Rowlands believes she would have been the better choice. The reason she was overlooked?

“I believed that if I kept my head down and worked hard the results speak for themselves and my performance,” she says. Rowlands even told others that they should just do a great job and they’d be recognized and rewarded. “The reality is that’s not strictly true,” she says.

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In hindsight, Rowland confesses she didn’t spend enough time managing her own image to the board and other executives. “I had to learn that whilst you don’t want to be spending all the time managing up and around you, you do have to do some of that.”

Review Yourself

Managing up also means letting multitasking take a backseat–especially during meetings. Women tend to be very comfortable shifting between working and running a household, Rowlands observes, but she’s seen too many women take on “housework” in the office like offering to take notes at meetings or fetch food and coffee.

“I always consciously make sure everyone takes notes in turn,” she says. Rowlands also warns to resist the urge to do a task instead of delegating. “You have to act the way you want to be experienced,” she explains, “Perception is reality. From the way you dress, to the way you act, to get the balance right between confident, proactive, and assertive,” says Rowlands, it’s important to ask for feedback.

For her part she regularly (about every two years) brings in a third-party coach to conduct 360 reviews. She wants to know if she is listening carefully and in appropriate way to her staff, board, and colleagues, and get insights on what is working.

As the eldest of four siblings and the first in her family to attend college, Rowlands says she’s always been driven. “That can come with a tendency to be overpowering,” she admits. “I process things very quickly,” Rowlands explains, and with that comes the ability to finish others’ sentences. That’s not always a good thing, she says. “People need to be given the chance to feel like they are being heard.”

Rowlands looks at leadership development much the way she views her work to transform ReachLocal: an opportunity. “None of us are perfect,” she maintains, “The biggest way people grow is through self-examination.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a business journalist writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, commerce, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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