For many years, Great Clips CEO Rhoda Olsen followed the business advice of her big sister, a successful, trail blazing, whip-smart lawyer in New York City: Don’t wear pants, don’t have coffee with secretaries, and don’t learn how to type.

But last week, at the National Association of Women Business Owners (MN Chapter) Annual Awards Luncheon in Minneapolis, Olsen acknowledged this advice was somewhat limiting. Despite this, Olsen claims she has become the fastest two-fingered typist she knows.

Olsen’s address was impactful because of both what she said and how she said it: she didn’t offer soft, feel-good, clichéd advice nor did she sugar coat. Honest, forthright and even swearing at times, Olsen opened up, and was authentic on all things personal and business. In doing so, she proved to a packed-to-the-gills ballroom at Graves 601 that unleashing the rough, hardened and gritty parts of ourselves can be immensely powerful, stirring and motivating.

Olsen shared personal glimpses into her life as a child with an alcoholic parent.  She called motherhood “humbling, horrifying and gratifying,” and delved into the challenge of raising her three boys (only “one was good”). She told of how she once winced at a colleague’s proclamation that he worked out 2 hours a day (Olsen: “TWO hours?! Imagine what you could get done in TWO hours – 4 loads of laundry” among a list of 15 other things). Yet today, Olsen acknowledges that taking care of our bodies is the ultimate confidence builder. A cancer survivor, her body is strong again – she does 200 pushups a day (and even beat a man in a pushup contest, topping him at 211).   

Weaving together personal anecdotes and candid observations on business, Olsen’s advice was applicable to not just women business owners, but to men, hopeful entrepreneurs, college students, and everyone in between.

Put aside notions of balance. Work/life “balance” is a hot topic these days, and Olsen boiled it down to this: “Things are going to be unbalanced.”

She shared the story of how she helped one of her sons with algebra from the office. She would receive a fax from her son with the algebra problem, write out the problem showing how to solve it, and fax it back home. Though she wasn’t home helping, she was helping.

Olsen’s advice is liberating. It lessens the pressure that things should be balanced (for women and men alike), and replaces it with permission to pursue a life that is often imbalanced.

Expect of range of feelings. Olsen admitted: “Some days I wake up and I say ‘Move over Obama, I’m ready to talk on the world.’ Other days, I feel like I don’t have the foggiest idea what I’m doing.” 

The range of emotions adds drama to the workplace, especially in hair salons, says Olsen, where salon owners and stylists are dramatic and emotional by nature – they are dealing with the highly emotional topic of hair, after all. Olsen said with so many women in the workplace now, she believes the day has come where it’s really okay to talk about emotions.

The ups and downs of business are as real as the sky is blue. There are no constants, and so too with how people feel about their work and who they are as professionals.  Strong sales growth this quarter, not looking so good for next. Gave a great presentation this week, next month’s presentation has you paralyzed. Nailed the job interview, someone else got the job. The full spectrum is part of the territory. Woman or man, everyone has emotions, and those emotions change.

Don’t get defensive. For Olsen, her ability to get things done is determined by whether she gets defensive. She warns not to take things personally: “Stay calm and keep your mouth shut. Ask for and accept feedback. Learn and grow.”

Olsen admitted to the occasional inclination to get defensive. To manage this during a particular meeting in which she suspected she’d become defensive, she solicited the help of colleague who was to lift his hand discretely every time Olsen went on the defense. Sure enough, he waved at her twice. This kept her moving forward using non-defensive tactics in an otherwise challenging meeting. 

Defensiveness is instinctual and critical to self-preservation. In the professional world, however, it is usually counterproductive. It looks bad, sounds bad and limits the ability to overcome the challenge at hand. Not getting defensive, though, is easier said than done. In that case, follow Olsen’s lead -- find a way to accept the criticism (constructive or otherwise), learn from it, and keep moving forward to accomplish your objectives.

Olsen closed with this final piece of advice: “Learn to listen.  Listening is the most underrated skill in the world.”  

And isn't that the truth? Listening is something they begin teaching in preschool, and something most every successful business person must re-learn every day. 


Follow Stacy: @stacybettison

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