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What It Takes to Be a Top Female CEO, From the First Female CEO in National Roofing

If you had told 10-year-old Kelly Wade stacking Levi’s jeans in her family’s clothing store that she’d someday be a top female executive — and the first female national roofing CEO — she would have replied, “Of course I will.”

From a young age, Wade understood what it takes to be a leader. “We (the family) didn’t call it entrepreneurship then,” says Wade. “It was a part of life. I learned firsthand how to read people, how to help them find what they needed, how to suggest they buy one more thing. I can’t tell you how many times I was ready to go home as we were closing, and someone would walk up and knock on the door. Today, if someone is closed, they’re closed. But the way I grew up, you opened the door.”

This lesson in customer service stuck with her even as she rose through sales, marketing, and eventually executive leadership positions as COO and CEO at North American Roofing Company, successfully completing the sale of the company following a nine-figure competitive bidding process. Now, she’s one of CEO Coaching International’s top-tier executive coaches.

But her career trajectory and her own accomplishments aren’t what she defines as success. “My excitement being a CEO, and why I’m so excited to coach CEOs, is when I can help other people be successful. It’s just a dream to be able to work with entrepreneurs and C-suite executives around the world and help them grow,” she says.

After nearly 30 years of experience, here are Wade’s top five pieces of advice for female entrepreneurs and leaders, especially if they’re navigating male-dominated industries as she did:

1. Do it your way

To be a successful leader, you must know yourself first.

The first time Wade stepped up to run a national sales organization as a lone female leader after the VP of Sales had left unexpectedly, she totally panicked. “I had never run a national sales organization before. My management style was completely different from the rest of the management team, which was very fear-based and old school,” she says. “I called my Dad, who is my biggest mentor, and he gave me this advice, which I always try to pass on to other women: Don’t do it their way. Do it your way.”

Build a management style that best reflects the best you as a person, and how you interact with others. If the kind of prevailing wisdom in a company’s culture doesn’t resonate with you, do it your way instead.

“I think senior management had a, ‘What did we just do?’ moment after saying yes to my taking over sales, but it was the start of changing the culture, one meeting at a time. I wanted to succeed and gain respect whether or not I had the Sales title,” says Wade. “I followed my gut and we ended up having the largest sales year in history. And I got the title, officially. I wasn’t going to wait for someone to tell me what to do or to tap me in.”

No matter what you’re facing, remember who you are, and stay true to that.

2. Focus on the right team first

Depending on who you ask, the most critical part of our job as an executive is to put the right team in place that can execute your vision. For Wade, that meant her first call every morning wasn’t to the CFO for the numbers, but to her Chief People Officer for a daily temperature check.

“It’s rarer to start with people, but to me, your people are everything,” says Wade. “At the time, it cost $30,000 per employee to onboard them. I didn’t want to lose people, so I changed the whole culture to focus on hiring great people, and then figuring out where in the company would bring out their best skill set.”

What that meant was building a culture where it was okay to try new things — and if they didn’t work out, making sure the team knew they’d be given a chance somewhere else. “We wanted people to know, as long as they weren’t truly a bad apple, we would do our best to find a place for them assuming they had a skill set we needed,” she says. “I remember talking a business development rep into trying a sales position, and she was scared to death because there were few women in roofing sales. I knew she could do it, and it was about getting her to trust that if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be thought of as a weakness or a failure. And of course, she killed it, and she’s successful to this day.”

CEOs need to look at their chessboard of talent and move people around with great training and support to ensure the goals for the company are met. The most cost-effective way to manage talent is to do it right from the start: hire great people who had success in their prior lives no matter the industry, train them on your products/services, and compensate them above the industry average in creative ways that include comp as well as benefits and a happy culture.

3. Take the temperature of your team regularly

A good leader thinks more about their people than themselves. But as a female leader — and maybe the only female leader in the building — it’s important to stay visible and approachable to your team.

For Wade, that meant a regular “walkabout” around the office, something she recommends trying to replicate as much as possible, even remotely.

“I wanted to make sure people felt like they were more than a number,” she says. “I’m more friendly and open. I had 1,000 employees and extended subcontractors and I always made it a point to get to know them and their families. I would designate time each week to just talk to people at their desks, not about the business, but about them, what was going on in their lives.”

Getting to know your team on a personal level might not be “how it’s always been done,” but that’s exactly how you can stay in touch with how your employees are feeling, even if you’re not talking about work. “Happy people sell more!” exclaims Wade. “Is it important for the health of the company? Sure it is. But more importantly, it’s just a better way of life for all of us to feel connected.”

4. Seek out ideas in unexpected places

As a leader, you have to be open to new ideas, even if it’s a risk.

“I found that some of the best ideas come from unexpected places,” says Wade. “If you’re going to innovate and solve a problem, you can’t just bring people in that are on the front lines of that situation. Bring people from all different areas and different experiences.”

It can be challenging to know how far to take breaking the mold if your very presence in the room is outside of the norm in a company culture. But doubling down on doing the unexpected is exactly what can fan the flames of a new, innovative company culture.

And it can pay off for the business, too. “One of the best marketing strategies we ever had actually came from an idea from someone out in the field. People thought I was crazy to include field crews on my ’roundtables’ and ‘listening sessions.’ But in this example the idea this roof installer had was simple and genius at the same time, and it completely changed how we went to market.”

You never know where the next idea will come from, so don’t be afraid to solicit ideas from across your team.

5. Invest in executive coaching for women

Today women are expected to juggle so much in their daily lives. They might be raising children, balancing caretaking of older relatives, supporting a significant other, and running a company — and of course, feeling the pressure of staying fit while doing it.

But you don’t have to do it alone. No one can truly do it all or have it all without something falling through the cracks. That’s where a coach can be your greatest secret weapon.

“I never had a coach, didn’t know about coaching, and I wish I had,” says Wade. “There’s this common phrase, ‘It’s lonely at the top,’ and that’s even more true for female leaders. There aren’t a lot of us, and we’re expected to do it all. A coach can help you through the areas you’re not as strong on, whether that’s financials, strategic partnerships, or an exit strategy, and build your confidence and skill set so you can be the strong leader you need to be.”

Learn more about Kelly Wade here:https://ceocoachinginternational.com/coach/kelly-wade/

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