As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Gigi Schweikert.
Gigi Schweikert is CEO of Lightbridge Academy overseeing 58 open centers in seven states. Gigi is an international thought leader in early childhood education and supervision. With 30 years of experience and 18 published books, in three languages, Gigi has appeared on CBS, NBC, Fox, and the Wall Street Journal Lunch Hour News. Ms. Schweikert has been quoted in The New Times, Entrepreneur, and Forbes.
Ms. Schweikert was the former Director of the United Nations Child Care Centre. Gigi developed and managed on-site employer-sponsored child care programs for Fortune 500 companies including, Johnson & Johnson, Bank of America, and SC Johnson Wax. Gigi was the host of the TV show, “Today’s Family,” but her greatest accomplishment is being the mother of her four children.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I’m the CEO of Lightbridge Academy, and a best-selling author of over a dozen books including the popular Winning Ways for Early Childhood Professionals book series and Prime Times: A Handbook for Excellence in Infant and Toddlers Programs. During my twenty-five years of experience, I’ve directed the United Nations Early Childhood Program in New York City and developed the Johnson & Johnson System of Family Centers. I also have consulted Fortune 100 clients, hosted the television show, “Today’s Family” and am a regular speaker for a variety of groups and organizations.
What led you to this particular career path?
What led me to this career path was really my passion. I always say to everyone, find your passion, find your why. What skill sets do you have? If you are passionate about what you do, you will truly make a difference. Making a difference while having a reasonable wage is really the heart of everything. I know that every day, I’m making a difference and the most important thing we’re doing is we’re really serving children and their families, and that’s the advice I give everyone about their career path.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think the most interesting story — at the risk of offending someone — is that I was in a meeting with all males and myself, and the meeting was going a bit long, it was after 6 at night. It was a very intense meeting and one that required a lot of data and debate in order to make a really good decision. One of the participants at the meeting said “We really have to wrap this up, I have to go home and eat dinner.” And I responded, “I have to go home and make dinner.” I think even now, household responsibilities are disproportionally allocated. We need to continue working toward a more equitable share of household work especially in families with children.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
With my third interview with Lightbridge, I brought an iPad to the conversation. I was at the head of the table with many people involved in this meeting. I opened my iPad to find a maxi pad stuck to my keyboard. I had such an astonished look on my face that everyone at the table asked me if I was Ok. I said, “This will either be the first of many conversations or the last conversation we have, but I’m going to share with you what my child did as a prank. They put a new maxi pad on my keyboard and I’m now going to have to take it off so we can continue this meeting.” But they did invite me back, and I’ve been here for six years now. This story is just one of the woes of the working mom.
The funniest mistake I’ve ever made. At the time, I was overseeing a number of employees and would get nervous when forced to have tough conversations — so nervous, in fact, that I would wear a turtleneck to hide how blotchy my skin would get in those moments. I exhausted all options with one employee, so it came time to terminate the individual. I wore my turtleneck, had the conversation — but when I got to work the next day, the employee had come to work. I had been so gentle that the employee didn’t know she was fired. So, I learned the importance of being direct. I had to wear the turtleneck again to fire her a second time. However, that mistake helped fuel my career and I believe one of my strongest skills is my ability now to be direct and professional in my communications. I care enough about my employees that I want to make sure that I’m clear and honest with them. Even if the person cries or is angry, it’s not my responsibility how they respond, it’s my responsibility to say it directly and clearly. That’s led to a very successful career when it comes to managing teams.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are a couple of people that have helped to get me to where I am. First of all, it’s always the team that you work with. I always rely on the people around me for our mutual success. Whether I was first a teacher, or became an assistant director or regional manager. Success doesn’t come from an individual; it comes from a team. There are a few individuals that have helped get me to where I am, and really my father is who I can thank the most. He would be so proud if he could see me. He taught me a couple of things: Always smile and be positive. He taught me to treat everyone with respect, to recognize that you may be teaching a future supervisor, and if that is the case, you’re growing leaders even beyond yourself, which is remarkable. He was just such a cheerleader for me. Everyone needs someone like that. Another person is Harry Loyle, our former and late board member, who really taught me to rely on data to make decisions, but in the very end, to trust your gut.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high-stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I do a lot of breathing exercises and meditations, but my go-to move before any big talk, board meeting or presentation is a mantra, “You’ve got this, you’ve got this, you’ve got this.” Outside my office are more workspaces, and I had my office door open. It was in preparation of a large board meeting, and I say this out loud, I talk to myself. I was walking to the meeting and one of those people said, “I just heard you talking to yourself! Were you saying, you’ve got this?” I said, “Yes!” The day I’m not nervous is the day I’m no longer learning. You need to be in your skill zone and out of your comfort zone.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I grew up in a very homogeneous culture and environment as a child. And my first professional work experience was at the United Nations, and it opened my eyes to the opportunity to work with people from other cultures, other genders, other ethnicities and sexual orientations in a way I had never experienced. It allowed me to see the world from the perspective of other people, to see how much better the world is when woven with this tapestry from everyone who comes from different backgrounds and cultures. I think it’s essential to have an aligned core system in the workplace, but the experiences these individuals have makes them who they are. By having that diversity, we’re able to meet the needs of diverse customers, able to create a work culture that feels fair, equitable and inclusive of all people, and most importantly, to enjoy life and the other people around us. There is nothing more social than you do than have meals with people. We do that very often at work for a celebration or a meeting, and that time that you chat and get to know one another increases your own ability to see the world in the best way possible and make the best decisions that are inclusive.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I think that inclusion is really giving people the empowerment and authority to create the culture. Diversity is just having people of different cultures. That’s a great first start, but the most important thing is that everyone plays an empowered role regardless of what level in the corporation they are. We have to be intentional about making sure that we’re selecting people with the right skill set and with different diverse backgrounds. We also must empower people at all levels to be included in the creation of what that culture looks like and the way to make sure that’s happening is to survey people about how they’re feeling, have conversations, give people permission to speak openly. We may not agree with everything, but we can be open to listening and being accepting to what other people are saying. I heard recently a new definition of empathy I thought was amazing I’m seeking to develop this type of empathy. I’ve always had a great deal but this empathy is empathy you feel what the person feels of their experience but you make no judgement about their feeling from that experience. It is easy to say “it’s not that bad,” but true empathy is really recognizing that how a person feels from that conversation is how they feel and starting the conversation from that point. My story is really referring up to my experiences I already discussed at the UN.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
They paint an inspired picture of where the company is going in a way that everyone wants to go there.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think some myths are about it being easier at the top. I’ve never worked harder as I’ve moved up the ranks so to speak. I’ve never realized as I moved to each level that I know very little. When I was younger and at a certain level, I thought I had a great deal of knowledge and thought people on the top had it made. As I moved up, I realized I know less and less, but I know how to find out info and recognized there is an incredible amount of time and energy spent to get it. It goes back to that passion — you think about it all the time. This is what you love to do, it’s something you constantly think about even not during work hours because you enjoy it and want to make a difference. Some other myths: people at the top get very removed from what’s happening on the front lines. I think that can be true, but leaders can do a lot to serve those on the front lines who serve the customer. Whether we do focus groups or surveys or C-suite road trips to talk to people directly in the field, it’s imperative to never lose that gap between the core business and what’s happening in the home office. Another myth is people on top know everything. As you move up the ranks, you realize you need a group of people and resources around you that do know about the industry or are subject matter experts. It’s about orchestrating people as opposed to knowing it all. The other thing I’d say is I think we’re in a world where we have in most cases respect for those in higher level positions and authority. I believe that mutual respect is important regardless of people’s positions; however, people who are in positions of authority take out the trash and have bad days and brush their teeth. They’re really not much different than everybody else.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think again, it’s balancing that work-life piece. And hopefully moving toward family constructs that are balance home responsibilities. I think that women often try to prove themselves or work harder to prove themselves, and in some cases it’s actually necessary. I think there continues to be a divide for compensation based on gender. I believe that women often don’t have the confidence to go for a job or position if their skills set doesn’t absolutely match what is articulated for that position, yet men do it all the time. I think it’s important for women to go for it. If you have the energy and the drive, you don’t have to have all the knowledge. We can have less hesitancy and more action.
I had been a feminist my entire life, so when I was in sixth grade, I recognized there were no girl safety patrols (help children go to the bus, cross the street, etc.), so I went to the principal and asked why are all the safety patrols boys? He made me a safety patrol. He made me one and I only did it for a couple weeks because I wasn’t really interested in being one, but I thought everyone should have equal access.
The last thing that I’ll say is that I don’t want to be a man. I like being a female. I think that whether you’re a male, female, transgender, or however you identify, the most important way to be successful is to accept yourself for who you are, make other people aware, and just be yourself.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I felt initially there would be a great deal of responsibility on me alone, but I have ultimate accountability and am responsible for the team. The pressure I put on myself to go it alone was really unnecessary. The real responsibility is to work with a team of people to meet objectives together.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think that being a leader is very relational because you’re inspiring people to be the best they can be, overcome challenges and barriers, and obtain results regardless of people’s intentions. I think it takes a great deal of emotional intelligence to understand how people are wired, accepting them, including them for who they are and weaving together a team despite the fact they’re very diverse is most important.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be patient with yourself, be patient with other people, spot barriers, but recognize that the biggest part of your job is how you overcome your barriers. Do you go over, through, under, or around to accomplish something? It’s having a Piglet mentality that “we can do this” opposed to an Eeyore mentality, like, “oh no, that’s not going to work.”
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
First of all, I’m humbled that I began as a toddler teacher and I have helped children and families and help women be the best that they can be. I never intended to see myself where I am and believe that once you have additional responsibility, you have to give back, but I always believe that everyone can make a difference at every single level. It’s important to have leaders give back, for example, through the Lightbridge Foundation, which we have helped families both in our communities and those affected by natural disasters, or giving someone who isn’t 100% qualified for a job a shot if they have the passion. Ultimately, it’s not the leaders of the world making the biggest changes. It’s every day, every single person who smiles and takes time to help a person. It’s collective and intentional kindness for people as a whole who change the world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You will fail, you’ll make mistakes every day. It’s how you recover that matters. And, you can’t make the same mistake over and over.
- You need to be a lifelong learner. You have to be curious and excited, and most days ready to get out of bed and go.
- You have to want something so much that you’re willing to give your complete focus and energy when you feel like you can’t do it and you’re too tired. You must pick yourself back up and push forward anyway.
- While it’s important to have emotional intelligence — it’s also important to take your own emotion out at times, use it constructively if you can, and if you can’t, put it in a box, set it on a shelf so you can come back to it and make decisions based on what’s rational and real and not necessarily visceral.
- You have to be the kind of person intrinsically driven. No one is going to get you up in the morning, push you to your limits. You have to be in control of your own destiny.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
That every child feels loved, capable and provided with the resources to obtain their passion and their goals
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Just do the next thing” sometimes when you’re not inspired and feel tired, run down or just don’t know what to do, I’ve always said, “just do the next thing.” If that’s getting up, going to work, looking over emails, going to the next meeting, or if you’ve had something horrific happen or you’re financially in a difficult situation, it’s “just do the next thing.” Take stock of what the situation is, what are the possibilities and just do the next thing, it’s like just taking the next step.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
He or she might just see this if we tag them, I think the person I’m most enthralled with right now and would love to tap his brain is Seth Godin. His flair for taking business concerns and issues and putting them in very metaphorical, easy to read, thought provoking, philosophical questions helps me to be a better leader every day.