Sara Blakely's Human-Centered Leadership That Balances Masculine and Feminine Traits
This is the 7th post of the Leadership Series, where we talk about how Sara Blakely led her business and team to create SPANX and became the world's youngest female self-made billionaire in 2012.
Take a moment to imagine yourself as a woman from the 1990s. Determined to build a company of your own without any background in business. And the only words of advice you get from the men you know in business are – "Business is war. You have to be ready to go to war." What would be going through your mind considering your strengths are authenticity, intuition, and vulnerability…a few feminine traits.
Would you have adopted the suggested approach or gone with the business instincts and leadership style that suits you? Hard to tell, right?
These were the barriers broken by one of the brightest minds in the entrepreneurial world – Sara Blakely, who built her SPANX empire, that makes comfortable shape wear for women. SPANX was a billion-dollar idea and with Sara's marketing prowess and innovative thinking, the company grew to be valued at $1.2Billion in 2021.
But it takes a unique leadership style to bring good ideas to life that are worth billions of dollars! Instead of squeezing every ounce of freedom from employees, discouraging failure, or taking herself too seriously like autocratic leaders that always seem like they are battling a war, she chose to lead with authenticity.
Let's look at some results that this leadership style brought to SPANX and Sara.
Growth and Success of SPANX Brand
- The company was profitable from day one, generating $4 million in its first year and $10 million in its second year.
- In 2012, Sara Blakely was featured in Forbes. as the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world.
- After Sara sent some of her products to The Oprah Winfrey Show, the media mogul featured SPANX in one of her famous "Favorite Things" campaigns.
- The company was totally bootstrapped for 21 years until it was valued at 1.2 Billion dollars, and Blackstone bought the majority stake.
5 Leadership Traits We Can Learn From Sara
Lesson 1: Hire your weaknesses as soon as you can
SPANX was started by Sara with her own investment of $5000, and it was bootstrapped. That meant she could not have built a team right from the start. So she had to wear multiple hats — sales, marketing, inventory, customer success and whatnot.
But like most founders/leaders/managers, she wasn't skilled at every aspect of a business. Sara focused on her strengths and hired a team to fill roles that were difficult or unenjoyable for her. It's crucial for long-term stability and growth in your business.
When Blakely started, the first person she hired was an operator (inventory, delivery, accounting, accounts receivables) because that was her weakness. And her second hire was a PR. The PR person had actually never done PR before. Her third hire was an assistant whom she asked to work in product development within 2-3 weeks of hiring.
Sara understood that when you're building your business, hiring the right people, timing the right hires, and building the right culture is super important to building a company.
She advises hiring two kinds of people — one is to support your bench strength and your lanes, and the other is to fill the voids completely. She suggests starting with the people who can fill the voids when you are starting out.
The third insight we can draw from her first three key hires is that you don't always have to go the traditional route of hiring people who've had experience in a field. You can look for a deep experience where required, but if you can find people with the right attitude, and give them freedom and allow them to grow, you might be surprised by the results and lateral thinking they can bring to a business. Make use of your resources where you need help on priority.
Ask yourself and answer honestly — Are you delegating enough or trying to control the process?
It's common for leaders and founders to take the lead on projects even if it involves their weaker skills because things need to be done "their way."
To find out where you need help, ask yourself —
- What responsibilities do I enjoy most?
- What comes naturally to me that doesn't feel like work?
- What tasks do I dread? What areas cause me the most anxiety or frustration?
And then you build a team accordingly. Delegate tasks and check-in whenever needed.
Lesson 2: Advocate risk-taking and failure
"What did you guys fail at this week?"
This question used to get asked by Sara's father to her and her siblings when there were kids. This helped her overcome a fear of failure and taught her to define failure as not trying something I want to do instead of not achieving the right outcome.
The same mindset was brought to SPANX, where she would encourage everyone to try everything and feel free to push the envelope.
Instead of just preaching the "fail fast" philosophy, she did tangible things to inculcate a sense of confidence about failure in her employees.
At SPANX, Sara regularly schedules what she calls "oops meeting", where employees come up and show how they messed up or made a mistake.
Sara believes that if you can create a culture where your employees are not terrified to fail or make a mistake, they will be highly productive and more innovative.
It's not a new nugget of wisdom that failure should be embraced and re-phrased as a stepping stone to creative ideas and success. But companies hardly make any effort to bring this idea to life truly.
How about you suggest holding an "oops" meeting for your team? Before that, you can share a list of mistakes that you've made in the past.
Lesson 3: Fill your cup before pouring from it
Falling into the trap of "too busy to think creatively" is the fastest way to burn out, make work less enjoyable, and cripple innovation.
As a leader, your calendar must be chock-a-block with meetings; there is a looming deadline to hit and at some point in the day, you need to meet stakeholders, team, etc.
Sara had the same and more things to do as the sole founder of SPANX. And she had to be creative to find time for creativity. She had a unique morning routine that didn't involve a lot of coffee but a long commute even though she lived very close to the SPANX office.
Sara identified that her best thinking happens in the car, so she devised what her friends called "a fake commute."
She would wake up an hour early before her scheduled time to reach SPANX and would drive around aimlessly in Atlanta with my commute so that she could have time to think. In fact, she thought of the name for SPANX in her car.
It's not a surprise that leaders think deeply and creatively when they are on the move. We've all heard stories of Steve Jobs brainstorming meetings while walking. Meta's Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey of Twitter have also been known to take walking meetings.
Leadership is about helping others bloom or business grow. But it would help if you have your cup filled before you can pour from it. So make sure your mind isn't foggy; it is creative and clear. There's nothing worse than an exhausted leader.
Lesson 4: Value your team and Celebrate Wins
In her conversation with the President of Blackstone, the PE firm that bought a majority stake in Spanx in 2021, Sara acknowledged the contribution of her team to building Spanx.
To show appreciation for her team, she gifted everyone at SPANX 2 first-class airline tickets to go anywhere in the world and $10,000 to spend.
Blakely said, "SPANX got here not by me, but by the team, by all of us. Everybody's thumbprint is on what we've done in some way," (source)
When people know their work is appreciated and recognised, it creates a positive work environment and boosts productivity. It improves workplace morale.
You don't need a hundred thousand dollars to show appreciation. There are non-monetary ways to do that. You can create a slack channel where people can post appreciation for others and show gratitude. You can highlight the efforts of your employees in meetings. Try sending handwritten notes to your team to recognise their efforts.
Lesson 5: Bring your authentic self to work
Admitting mistakes, encouraging humour at the workplace, sharing intimate details about her life as a wife and mother of four on Instagram — all these things show that she is not afraid of being vulnerable. This is her authentic self and her superpower. There's no reason CEOs have to put a strict face to be taken seriously or be perfect in all their decisions.
New employees go through a training boot camp to encourage openness and humour at Spanx, and one of the mandatory activities is doing standup comedy. Blakely does this because it helps employees let go of their fears, loosen up, and use humour when selling Spanx products.
Encouraging humour might not be a conventional leadership strategy, but if it helps you stay authentic so you can be fully present at work, be confident to pursue it. So, are you brave enough to tell a joke at the next meeting?
The biggest takeaway is that there are many paths to success in business, but the best journeys are authentic.
Sara's Leadership Style: Laissez-faire
What is laissez-faire leadership?
Laissez-faire in French means "allow to do." In this style of leadership, leaders trust and rely on employees to make decisions. They don't micromanage or discourage failure and instead let employees use their creativity, resources, and experience to help them meet their goals.
In theory, this style of leadership means no involvement of the leader in decision making, but you can always adjust the level of involvement according to your needs.
To make laissez-faire leadership more effective, you can incorporate:
- Regular meetings to check the performance
- Consistent feedback to set the team's expectations
- Incentives to help increase motivation
- Clear roles for team members
It seems like an ideal kind of leadership style where both the leader and employees would enjoy work, but it has its pros and cons. We've covered them in detail at the bottom of this article.
Stick Them in Your Journal
The key lessons from Sara Blakely's leadership style would be:
- Hire your weakness as soon as you can
- Advocate risk-taking and encourage failure
- Make time for creative and strategic thinking
- Value your team and celebrate wins
- Bring your authentic self to work
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