As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jeana Harrington.
Jeana Harrington has achieved many accomplishments and worn many hats throughout her hard-working career leading to her well-deserved role as CEO of Mighty Swell spiked seltzer. In fact, under her careful management, sales and revenue for the company have doubled annually. Prior to joining Mighty Swell, Jeana helped found and launch OOLA Distillery in Seattle — one of Washington’s first distilleries post prohibition.
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”? What led you to this particular career path?
I remember watching the Presidential debates (I refuse to name the candidates and date myself) with my parents when I was really young, like Kindergarten-age. Something about that stuck with me and my high school and college internships, and first professional job, were in government. I realized that for me personally, the quick change and big ideas I wanted to be a part of often came from the private sector. I went on to work in operations for a strategy consulting firm that did research projects for institutional investors, and then for a fund of funds that helped raised capital for talented finance professionals to start their own companies. In both positions, I was adjacent to and observing people innovating and making tangible things.
After long hours and years and leaving a job with only a laptop to show for it, I decided to take a break and figure out how I, too, could make innovative tangible things. A man in my neighborhood was starting a distillery. He needed a business and operations brain. I learned the sales portion of my role on the job, leaning in to my ability to comb through and retain info quickly. It turned out I could sell things and I enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that comes from doing so.
And so I went with it — to building a self-distribution network out of a Subaru, to scaling sales, to pitching national chains, to building teams, to raising capital, to building a profitable business — and of course(!!) to creating innovative, tangible things. That’s what I’ve been up to for the past decade. I moved to Mighty Swell after reading an alcohol journal article about the creation of a “better for you” sparkling beverage, and reaching out to the founders on LinkedIn with my resume. I wanted to take a leap and expand my knowledge from the spirits business into the beer and CPG industry. Over five years later, I held all levels of jobs at Mighty Swell before being named CEO in August of this year.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Since I am all of 8 weeks into the job of CEO at Mighty Swell, I’ll pass on this one.
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?
When I transitioned from finance to running a distillery (my first foray into beverage alcohol), I lacked any knowledge of the jargon and acronyms. About a week into my job, I had a meeting with a Chicago wholesaler and kept pronouncing “FOB” like key fob instead of eff-oh-bee. I was quickly corrected and could feel the eyeroll. I drank from the firehose learning anything industry-related from then on.
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?
The executive team at the strategy consulting firm where I worked. They had the highest possible standards, totally unyielding. I remember an early career review development objective of mine was “100% accuracy, 100% of the time.” So, realistic! But they hired the best, and they got the best out of me and everyone who worked there.
While at work they were absolutely unwavering, they were also the people I could call if I ever got in trouble — any tragedy, any young-person problem — they would drop everything and help. They truly cared about me and that’s why I gave them my best.
So much of what I do now is learned behavior from observing them as executives. I am tough, but fair. I have exacting standards, but I truly care about the people that I hire, and I will always be there for them in times of crisis.
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?
While I’m generally available 24/7, I do not check texts, look at email, or take calls in the hour before an important meeting or high stakes pitch. I am focused, present, positive and confident. I also try to book very important meetings in the morning so that I’m mentally fresh and haven’t experienced any of the typical high highs and lows that come from running an emerging brand.
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?
It is so important because of the wealth of knowledge that comes from different perspectives and walks of life. Having a diverse team of people working together creates strong sales and marketing teams, innovative products and novel approaches to problems. A team with the maturity to work through their differences, while standing up for their individual ideas, strengthens the overall results of whatever they are working on.
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.
Hire doers who are not content with status quo — whatever they look like, wherever they are from, whatever their gender. Being a doer isn’t a result of privilege or advantage — it’s self-made. Having ambition is not limited to those with more.
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?
For one, I solve problems using my past experience or with creativity. I also make several quick decisions daily to help my team move quickly. I’d also say that Macro-level future-planning is important. I’m always asking myself questions like:
- Are we on the right track today?
- What do I need to do or be thinking about today that sets us up for 6 months to one year from now?
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
That I have time to do anything else besides be a CEO. This is probably a product of me recently stepping into my role (August 2021), but I do not see a path to the work-life balance that other CEO’s speak of in glossy articles and ‘day in the life” pieces at this juncture. If you want the title, there is sacrifice.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Being able to birth and raise children for starters. Sexual harassment is also still something that greatly affects women.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I’ve excelled at every job I’ve had, which is how I earned the position I am in now. This one presents me with true challenges, some seemingly unsolvable. The wins do not come as easily or instantly as in the past.
Is everyone 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?
Not at all. Stamina, self-discipline, strong sense of self, unshakeable vision and belief in what you are doing, the ability to receive criticism and feedback and do something positive with it or ignore it, dogged determination, extreme focus, different types of intelligence, the ability to listen and think critically — probably need all of these. I think lacking an ego helps me personally — I know and am willing to admit what I don’t know and actively seek people who DO know that I can learn from.
People who like the idea of being a CEO are probably not the people who should be a CEO. Meaning, the best people for the job are doers who have a vision and can execute.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Lead by example. Don’t mother your team.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I wish I could say I have. I don’t have a foundation; I’m not on any boards. So, today it would be on small acts and kindnesses that help others. Being aware of others in the moment. An extra tip for someone who seems exhausted, even if the service isn’t great. Helping someone carry stuff to their car. Paying for incidentals when someone forgets their wallet. I can’t drive by a dog that appears lost — I have to stop and find its home.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1. What’s the worst that can happen?
2. Don’t try to make everyone happy.
4. Finish the job.
5. Give before you ask.
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.
Everyone should be able to own a place to live. Shelter is a primary need and people should be able to control that aspect of their lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was a junior employee participating in my first large client meeting, the President of our company took me aside and said, “Say one smart thing in here and then cut it.” Do this and you’ll focus on listening vs talking. You will indicate to the other party that you understand them. You’ll leave them with a positive impression, wanting more. When I’m in unfamiliar company and feeling things out, I follow this advice.
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 would love to have lunch with Martha Stewart and Ginny Rommety. They achieved so much, and built something that has stood the test of time.