As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Patti Schmeda.
As Chief Information Officer at Elkay, Patti Schmeda is responsible for leading all strategies and efforts related to the enterprise-wide Information Technology platforms as well as the Project Management Office, on a global basis. Elkay is a family owned, privately held manufacturing company that has been in operation for more than 100 years and produces innovative plumbing products, world class sinks, faucets, water coolers, drinking fountains and award-winning bottle filling stations as well as state-of-the-art interior systems for the nation’s most notable businesses. Patti’s leadership, experience and expertise have been instrumental in helping Elkay plan and implement the technology platforms, processes and tools that have helped Elkay continue to evolve for the future. Patti has over 30 years of Information Technology and Customer Service experience; 25 of which were in spent in IT Management and other Leadership roles.
A committed business leader outside of work as well as in the office, Patti serves as a mentor and active leader in Women Unlimited, i.c. Stars and ThinkIT organizations. Patti holds an MBA in Operations and Supply Chain from Benedictine University in Lisle, IL and a BA in Economics from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She, her husband Dan and their children, Danny and Stephanie reside in Geneva, IL.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Since my first job out of college in a manufacturing organization, I was intrigued by how things were made. I had always enjoyed being challenged, so once I set my sights on learning about the manufacturing processes and its management, I was all in. The manufacturing industry is continuously driven by the need for improvement and change and being that I also was driven by these factors personally, the industry quickly became a good fit for me. In the heart of my career, I then discovered that improvements to IT practices could enable better manufacturing processes. This is what led me down the path of becoming an IT leader focusing on continuous improvement and enabling a business with technology. This interest ultimately led to my success as a leader in the industry and allowed me to build teams for the companies I worked for that could get the job done efficiently and effectively. Becoming a leader in the industry then made me realize that it was not only my duty to lead my teams to the best of my ability, but to also help other driven women see the opportunities available for them in this industry and encourage them to strive for leadership roles in their careers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Early on in my career, I was faced with an opportunity and a turning point in what direction I was going to take my professional path. I was tapped on the shoulder to take on a CIO role at the company and encouraged by my boss at the time to pursue my MBA. I was a new mom and wasn’t quite sure I was ready to take on this role, go to school and balance my home life. But it’s not every day that you have someone not related to you and working in the same business cheering you on without any judgement. So, with his guidance and coaching, I did decide to pursue my MBA and worked hard to prove his confidence in me and my capabilities were not in vain. This experience made me realize that even though you may question a new journey, it only takes a strong belief in yourself and motivation from your support systems to inspire you to achieve more than you ever thought possible!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Henry Ford’s famous quote on teamwork is one that has stuck with me for a long time. He said, “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” As you rise in an organization to executive roles, your success is your team’s success, and early on in my career as an IT leader I learned that I needed to become comfortable with the idea of hiring people who might know more than me. By eliminating any fear within me about bringing new competent people aboard, I was able to build high functioning, cross-functional, collaborative teams who wanted to get to the end goal — together. When this is the reality of your team structure, day to day operations doesn’t seem much like work because you are all aiming toward the same goal and can create opportunities to have fun.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style? Can you share a story or an example of that?
There have been several books that have made a significant impact on my leadership style! The books that have left the most prominent impact on my style include “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” by Sheryl Sandberg, “The Influence Effect: A New Path to Power for Women Leaders,” by Kathryn Heath, Jill Flynn, Mary Davis Hold, and Diana Faison; “Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts,” by Brené Brown, and “The Soul of Leadership: Unlocking Your Potential for Greatness,” by Deepak Chopra. As you can see, many of the most prominently impactful books relate to advancing women in leadership. I am passionate about giving women the confidence to strive for leadership roles. These books have taught me how self-awareness, courage, and influence are big parts of women’s desire to become a leader. These books have also shown me that there is so much more to leadership than what meets the eye. Because leaders have followership and influence, they also need to have empathy and emotional intelligence. Leadership is truly a journey!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The values Elkay’s embodies is what makes it stand out. It is the first place I have worked where I can see the values embraced within the company every day. At Elkay, business integrity is always top of mind, whether it be in construction of the products that we manufacture, or in the employees we hope to empower. As a C-Suite executive, I can confidently say that there is not a decision that is made at Elkay without our values in mind. The values act as C-Suite executives guiding and grounding force when we are tasked with making difficult decisions and remind us of what Elkay is all about — our strength is truly in our people!
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
The advice I would give to a young person looking to follow in my footsteps would be to work hard, be authentic and curious, and never underestimate the power of building relationships. In the world we live in today, being authentic and curious can become overshadowed by the perceived need to keep up appearances on social media and to never let your guard down. Over the course of my career I have come to learn just how important being true to yourself is, and how it can lead you down paths that turn out to be better than anything you could have imagined. I may not be where I am today if I didn’t nurture my curiosity about how things were made! Building strong relationships is also key to people’s success because you can always achieve so much more when you work with others.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Once a not particularly great boss told me to “Be like him,” one of the top male executives, to grow into an executive myself. The stress that caused on me to work to be something I was not was exhausting. Once I snapped out of it and became authentically me, doors began opening everywhere! Knowing what I know now, I always tell my children and my team members to be confident in what makes you you and to never try to be someone else. When opportunity knocks, answer, but if it doesn’t, you need to build your own door because you might be the kind of leader a company needs in the future!
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
My authenticity and integrity have helped me achieve even more than I thought I was capable of in my career. When I was working in my first role as an IT Director, I had met what would become my mentor for now over 20 years. From the start, he was diligent about preparing me to succeed him years prior to his exit. Eventually, he put my name in the hat to be his replacement when he was ready to move on. At the time, I was still learning how to maintain a work/life balance as a new mom, and I wasn’t sure I was ready, but he was sure enough for the both of us. His confidence in me came from me always being myself and working hard. Having this professional support system in addition to my personal one made my transition into his role possible, and I couldn’t be more grateful that I had both at this point in my career. I am also a collaborator through and through and believe people can accomplish so much more together than they could alone. I feel that the greatest impact I can have as a leader is being supportive of others and surrounded by people are motivated to be successful for themselves.
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 C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
Compared to other leaders, I see C-Suite executives as mission and vision champions of the company. As the ultimate decision makers even when we do not have all the facts, it’s important for C-Suite executives to always have the company’s mission and vision top of mind so that even when decisions are made without all the facts they are made with the company’s goals in mind. Additionally, C-Suite executives are also inherently role models for the company which comes with its own set of responsibilities. As a C-Suite executive, it is important for me to always remember that being this kind of leader means being influential beyond my direct reports.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
That it’s not an “ivory tower.” As a C-Suite executive, I am often making difficult decisions that all have consequences as I can never make everyone happy. This goes for employees, customers, and suppliers just to name a few. I have had many sleepless nights going over the pros and cons of all the difficult decisions I’m asked to make. Knowing that I am expected to work toward motivating and inspiring a whole organization day in and day out can be taxing on the mind at time; However, making difficult decisions that result in the organization’s continued success is incredibly rewarding, and motivates me to keep overcoming these challenges.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistakes I’ve witnessed leaders make when they start leading a new team is that they don’t start by assessing the team, organization, and culture as it is. I often see leaders who have a new team jump right in to make changes. I recommend they pause and take time to learn about each team member. Being authentic when you begin to lead a new team is also crucial. I’d recommend they share their plans with the team as a way of showing their team members that they want to collaborate and are open to their feedback. The more authentic you are with your team, they more confidence they will have in you as their leader.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The aspect of running a company that is often underestimated is how setting clear company or functional goals and prioritizing those initiatives is how you actively support business goals. I have more examples than can write here, however, my experiences show that we get excited about doing ‘everything.’ The problem with this is that your teams must figure out how to ‘do it all’ and their day jobs. You must have clear priorities in place to support cross functional and successful execution. Executive leadership has the duty of setting those priorities to support the organizations growth which in turn aids in accomplishing goals. Along the same lines, celebrating those successes across the board is an underestimated motivator for teams. When you acknowledge what you have already achieved, it inspires you to move forward toward even greater success!
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading From the C-Suite”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Influence and relationships. I believe this is the most important aspect of being a C-suite executive. I wish I would have known sooner. Relationships are the fundamental enabler of effective leadership and greater influence.C-Suite executives have more influence than they may realize when it comes to their team’s growth and development, and having strong, confident teams is essential to success no matter what the project may be. You should also seek opportunities to meet with those in your workplace who are a part of different functions and are at different levels within the organization. Time and time again, I have found this to be incredibly valuable to creating great teams, so I recommend otherC-suite executives make an effort and create the opportunities to seek out and build these relationships. But you never know how these relationships can assist you in the future!
- Be you all day, every day. There’s only one unique you in the world, so there’s no reason to be someone else. Take time to discover your strengths and limitations. By knowing who you are and what you value, you instill trust among your teams, allowing the team to perform at a higher level. In the end, you should look behind you and see a line of followers who feel confident contributing their unique perspective to any initiative they work on!
- Build strong, balanced teams. By being an authentic leader, creating relationships, building trust, setting clear objectives, and having everyone in the right seat on the right bus, you can lead your team to be most effective. As a C-Suite executive, you must build trust among your teams so that they can be confident in each other and know that they have each other’s backs when challenges arise. To do this, you must continuously evaluate your team members and how they work together so that you can work to improve collaboration and engagement.
- Delegate appropriately. There have been times when I have taken on too many competing priorities of the job because I knew I could do it quicker or lighten the load for my team, but ultimately this led to me being overwhelmed and unable to perform to the best of my ability as a leader. These experiences taught me that if tasks are delegated among team members appropriately, myself included, no one will become overwhelmed and everyone can do their best work.
- Never stop learning and experiencing. The quote ‘never stop learning because life never stops teaching,’ comes to mind when I think about this important aspect of being a leader. I am always looking for continuous improvement opportunities, and ways that I can share what I have learned with my teams. One way I do this is by having every member of my teams create one annual goal to develop personally or professionally. Our organization will benefit greatly from our employees being happy, engaged and driven to continually improve themselves.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
The easiest ways executives can help create a wonderful work culture is by simply walking around and meeting employees! This builds a mindset of collaboration among you and your teams. Practicing effective communication is also key to success, and this can be achieved by always being as transparent as possible about the how and why behind decision making. Last, but certainly not least, have fun! A positive mindset is contagious, and as a leader it is important that this mindset starts with you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The movement that I would want to start is one that encourages people to treat all people with respect because I believe what comes around goes around. If everyone could make a conscious effort to treat others with a little more respect, the world we live in could be an even better place. One of my personal mantras is to be kind to everyone because you never know who they will become — the person working on the shop floor today could be your boss tomorrow!
How can our readers further follow you online?
Readers who would like to connect with me can do so via LinkedIn. I love connecting with new people in the industry and encourage those interested in learning more about me to not be hesitant to reach out. I’m human too!