In 2014, I was the 31-year-old CEO and founder of GoldieBlox, heralded for being a woman breaking down gender stereotypes in STEM. We made engineering toys specifically targeted at girls, and they were a hit. We had won a Super Bowl ad and had several videos go viral on top of that. I was flooded with media requests of people wanting to interview me. I even met President Obama. I finally took what I believed to be a well-deserved vacation to go to a wedding in India.
When I came back, my executive team asked me to step down as CEO. At the time, I was completely caught off guard and painfully full of self-doubt. In retrospect, it was the best thing to happen to me as a professional.
Spoiler alert: I didn’t step down as CEO. But I now understand why my team felt they had been pushed to that point. Despite the incredible accomplishments we had achieved that year, there were cracks beneath the surface. As a young company, we were experiencing some of our first major obstacles—a high-profile lawsuit, challenges at retail, and employee burnout, to name a few—and I didn’t know how to tackle them. When things start to go wrong, all fingers usually point in one direction: the top. And that was me. It was how I dealt with the confrontation that made all of the difference in the long run, and made me ultimately more deserving of my title as CEO.
Accept constructive criticism as a gift
When you’re the CEO, you’re frequently giving feedback to your employees, but it’s actually quite rare for them to give you feedback on your own performance. Granted, having your entire executive team schedule an off-site where they ask you to step down as CEO was a completely outrageous and insubordinate way of delivering that feedback. Nevertheless, I needed it.
What surprised me most about myself at that moment was how I behaved while being “under attack.” I would have assumed that in a situation like that, I’d become really defensive and angry, and try to point the blame elsewhere. But instead, I just sat there, listened to their concerns humbly, asked a lot of questions, and took full accountability. I don’t think any of them were expecting that reaction. As a result, they all felt heard and validated. If I hadn’t acted this way, I think I very well may have had my entire company walk out on me that day.
Ask yourself why you want to keep going
The confrontation required me to ask myself why I wanted to keep going after being so boldly confronted with my own shortcomings. I’ve always been my own biggest critic, and even before this encounter, I was suffering from major impostor syndrome. I was a first-time CEO and prior to founding GoldieBlox, I had never managed more than one person. All of my prior bosses were male, and I didn’t have a model of how a young woman might lead a company differently. I was constantly second-guessing whether or not I really was the right person to be at the helm, and I knew the learning curve to become the kind of CEO I wanted to be was huge.
I told my team that I understood where they were coming from, but I felt it was my calling to lead this company. GoldieBlox’s mission is to inspire girls to take risks and embrace failure as a means of learning and improving. I told my team I wanted girls to have the confidence and grit to ultimately become CEOs, and if I’m going to be true to that mission, then I need to give myself a shot. I made a commitment to my team that I would invest in an executive coach, solicit feedback from them regularly, travel less, and commit my time to work with them to solve our issues, together.
I then looked each team member in the eye and asked if they believed in me and were willing to give me the chance to be a better leader. Fortunately, I was able to earn enough support from the room to be able to hold my head up high and, more importantly, believe in myself to continue in my role as CEO.
What ultimately gave me strength was feeling like I owed it to the future generations of girls to carry my mission forward.
Executive coaching is worth every penny
Any leader, no matter how long they’ve been an executive, should get executive coaching. Period. There’s always something more to learn that will help you lead a team. Right after that fateful day, I began receiving coaching, and it’s been the best investment of my career.
Not only did the coaching help strengthen my communication skills with my team, but it gave me faith in myself. Before coaching, I noticed that I could give keynote speeches in front of thousands of people and not be nervous, but as soon as I had to lead a meeting in front of my small company, I’d be terrified. It was that pesky impostor syndrome filling me with self-doubt and making me feel like I didn’t really deserve to be there.
Executive coaching enabled me to role-play out difficult conversations and major company decisions with a completely unbiased yet knowledgeable sounding board. This allowed me to communicate with my team members far more skillfully, with a level of preparedness I had never before imagined was needed to properly motivate and align a team.
Always be communicating with the executive team
If the people at the top of your company can’t agree, that confusion and animosity will trickle down to the rest of the employees, which will create a lack of trust and generally poor culture.
That’s what was happening at GoldieBlox before my team talked to me. No one was ever clear what was going on at any even given time, which resulted in fighting among the executives. I had not made it clear that we needed to be united if anything was going to be accomplished. It’s fine, and even preferable, to have disagreement and debate while hashing out a plan, but once that plan is in place, it’s your job as CEO to solidify it, communicate it, enforce it, and address any team members who aren’t supporting it.
This extends into being comfortable having tough conversations. I used to be scared to deliver bad news to my team, but I later learned that challenges were generally well-received. If you don’t communicate openly about challenges, the gossip mill will do it for you, making things seem even worse than they actually are. When you properly lead your team through challenges, everyone rolls up their sleeves, works together, and gains a lot of satisfaction from being a part of solving the problem.
I don’t want the lesson here to be that taking a vacation will lead to a mutiny. I actually think my vacation is what saved me from lashing out at my team when they confronted me because I’d had the chance to de-stress and recharge. When my team was voicing their concerns, my post-vacation-mode self was calm and genuinely interested in fixing our problems, rather than my own ego.
Though I’m not a perfect leader by any means, I’m still learning more every day. And I’m happy I opted for perseverance rather than resignation. Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin as a leader, and I no longer suffer from impostor syndrome. I’ve given up trying to play-act the role of the uberconfident, aggressive, male CEO archetype because that’s not who I am or ever will be. I try to listen, learn, be vulnerable and stay true to myself, and I’ve noticed that my team respects me for it. That’s what has brought me the confidence I now have as CEO.
You can always improve if you’re willing to put in the work, listen to others, and be self-reflective, but try not to be too hard on yourself either.
Debbie Sterling is the CEO and founder of GoldieBlox.