As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel LaFollette.
Since 2013, Rachel LaFollette has served as the Chief Customer Officer for Madwire, one of the fastest-growing technology and marketing companies in the country. She came to Madwire from Hewlett-Packard. Her background is in customer service, marketing and leadership.
Rachel holds three Stevie Awards, selected among international nominees, received Business Intelligence Group’s 2021 Excellence in Customer Service Executive of the Year Award, and the 2018 BizWest 40 Under Forty Award.
Rachel is passionate about servant leadership, living with gratitude, purpose, and a sense of humor. She has three young children and lives with her husband in Fort Collins, Colorado where she grew up and got her business degree from Colorado State University.
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 was drawn to a career in Marketing because it is creative and collaborative. It’s also an industry that will never become obsolete. As long as there are people who want to sell products, services, or ideas, marketers will always have a job. Plus, as a marketer, you can also choose any industry to specialize in, which is unique and exciting. Passionate about the animation industry? Go work for DreamWorks’ or Disney’s marketing team. Passionate about construction? Go work for the marketing department of a construction firm. The possibilities are literally endless.
From there, I just naturally gravitated towards leadership roles because I really wanted to help other people succeed.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I’m not sure there’s one thing, but the thing people seem most interested in is, “How do you do it?!?”, referring to the fact that I have a career, a six year old and twin two year olds, and a husband who also has a demanding job that requires him to travel most weeks (which means single parenting for me). And despite a general lack of sleep, I still manage to show up in a positive way each day with a sense of humor and enjoy where I am in life.
To answer that question requires a little context. My husband and I struggled with infertility for several years, due to my PCOS. I always knew I wanted to be a mom. I wanted a big family. And I find an immense amount of joy in now having children. But, being a mom is hard and can be overwhelming. I dealt with pretty intense morning sickness throughout both my pregnancies and delivered my twins early when I developed HELLP syndrome without any warning. Parenting kids in any age group is not for the faint of heart. However, the struggle we experienced to simply have children brought me a lot of gratitude and perspective that I wouldn’t otherwise have. So the normal frustrations and struggles that I think all parents have are offset for me from an emotional perspective, because the alternate reality of not having kids was a very real possibility for us. It’s easier to get up for the fourth time in the night with newborn twins when you’re just happy to have two healthy little babies that you fought so hard for. Please note — I said “easier”. Not “easy”. It’s easier to sit down at night after all the kids have been put to bed and sort through the 12 emails from my daughter’s school when I’ve just spent all day in front of the computer for work and want nothing more than to veg in front of the TV.
So to the people who say, “I don’t know how you do it. You’re a Super Woman.”, I say, “Not really. I just live with daily gratitude, many blessings from God (like my extended family and health), and a considerable amount of support from our village. Oh, and coffee. All the coffee.”
Dealing with infertility has also gifted me with an increased ability to relate to friends, employees, and customers who are dealing with infertility or loss. I’ve learned that it’s much, much more common than many people realize, and it can be incredibly difficult, especially for women who want nothing more than to build a family.
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?
I was driving several coworkers back from Denver one afternoon, which is usually an hour drive. We had been looking at venues for an event. It was Friday afternoon and the traffic was insane because there was a huge event starting that afternoon up north. We had been in the car for a long time, we’re essentially parked on the interstate, and came to a spot close to our exit where cars were jumping the grass median to get onto the frontage road. My coworkers were all egging me on to jump the median, but I was worried I’d either damage my (brand new) car or get pulled over.
Now, before I tell you what happened next, I’d like to say that I was in my early twenties at the time and my coworkers were all in their 40’s or 50’s. So, I felt inclined to trust their judgement. I also feel obligated to tell you that I may or may not have had multiple tickets on my record already and was on somewhat thin ice with the Department of Transportation (I got my grandmother’s lead foot, apparently). So, I was hesitant to take risks that may result in hefty fines, increases in insurance, me losing my driver’s license, etc.
After a few moments of debate with my coworkers, and against my better judgement, I decided to engage my off-roading skills, based on the fact that so many other drivers were following suit with no negative consequences. Well, I make it past the median and what do we hear? Police sirens… where he came from and why he picked my car out of the dozens jumping the median, I’ll never know. The look on everyone’s faces in the car when the sirens went off behind us was absolutely priceless. I pulled over, rolled my window down, and before I could say anything to the officer, all my coworkers started bombarding him with explanations and telling him I didn’t want to do it, it was their fault, etc. He saw the humor in it all and had mercy on me. Thankfully, he let me go without a ticket.
After that, whenever one of my coworkers would try and give me advice I disagreed with I’d say, “Jump the median, they said. It’ll be FINE, they said!”.
The lesson here: don’t give into peer pressure, especially when it involves breaking the law.
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 two individuals who have had the greatest impact on who I am and where I am today are my parents. Because of them and who they are, I have a strong faith and solid foundation. They both have a very strong work ethic. I saw how they handled struggle and learned how to overcome challenges and build strong relationships. I saw their integrity and kindness, which they expected of me, as well.
I have two younger brothers, one of whom has many mental and physical disabilities. For years, the doctors thought his disabilities were a result of an accident my mom was in when she was pregnant with him (she was hit by a drunk driver one morning driving to work). But since my dad has battled Lymphoma and Prostate Cancer as a result of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, we now know it’s possible that my brothers’ medical conditions are linked to that. My parents didn’t know until my brother was born that anything was wrong, and there is no one specific diagnosis, so my brother’s life has been fraught with uncertainty on top of many struggles. My mom quit her job to take care of my brother. He did multiple stints of time down at Children’s Hospital where my mom would live down in Denver and my dad would take care of my other brother and I. Astronomical medical bills brought financial hardship. I saw how my parents overcame each season of adversity (and still do) and learned how to tackle circumstances outside of my own control.
From a practical standpoint, they have also both supported me in whatever way they could throughout my life, and still do. I’m incredibly blessed and grateful. I know many people cannot say the same.
For example, since my eldest was born, my mom has taken care of our kids three to five days a week, which was especially helpful during COVID shutdowns and quarantines when many people lost childcare resources all together. I can say with full confidence that I wouldn’t be able to show up like I do for my team or customers if it weren’t for their support. Mom Guilt is a real thing, especially pre-COVID when working remote was less common. I constantly questioned if I was doing the right thing pursuing a career that meant losing out on time, memories, and experiences with my kids that I would never have the opportunity to get back. Knowing that they were receiving the best care and investing time in a relationship that mattered made it easier to turn mom-mode off and fully engage in work each day.
Having my mom and dad’s example of parenting motivates me to be the best possible parent I can be and pay it forward to my kids.
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?
- First, Prepare. Preparation is often the key to confidence, which is critical in high stake situations. By preparation, I mean doing my research, organizing my thoughts, knowing what I will say, running through different scenarios and reactions, getting input from others, etc. Then physical preparation. Getting enough sleep (if possible… can someone say “kids”?!?), eating well, taking care of your body, etc.
- Second, remind myself to hang my hat on the input, not the output. What I mean by that is that my satisfaction with any given situation should come primarily from the effort and attitude I put forth, not the outcome of the situation. None of us can control everything. We can’t control other people (although we can influence them). We can’t control the context of many situations or circumstances. But we can control ourselves. Did I do absolutely everything I could to give myself the best chance at a favorable outcome? If not, what could I have done better? And then you better believe I’m never making that same mistake twice.
- Then as a leader, you can extend that same concept to your team. Did you do everything possible to set your team up for success? Did you give them enough coaching? Did they have the information and resources they needed to be successful? Do they understand the mission or objective? Did they put forth sufficient effort? Do they have a positive attitude?
- Focusing internally instead of on the outcome also allows you to distance yourself from some of the emotional turmoil that comes with failure and leadership of any kind. Burnout is a very real thing. Sometimes it comes from stressing too much over things that we literally have no control over, which is a waste of energy.
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?
A diverse leadership team helps bring a diverse perspective, which every business needs. You’re never going to expose your blind spots if you don’t have diverse perspectives. Then you need to be open to others’ perspectives in order for that diversity to be impactful.
It’s also hard to relate to a diverse team or customer demographic unless leaders surround themselves with diversity.
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.
The first step is looking in the mirror and really exploring whether or not we, ourselves, are open to different perspectives. Do we have an open mind? Are we operating with care and curiosity? Are we modeling that for our organizations in tangible ways? If not, fix that first and be intentional about it.
Then, we must be ok with operating outside our comfort zone.
Having a sibling with disabilities taught me to be comfortable with people who are different from me. I think many times a lack of inclusion comes not from ill intent, but a fear of insulting someone or not knowing how to approach people who are different from us. This is a skill we should be teaching our children from a very young age, teaching in school, teaching our employees, etc. How do we initiate relationships, make connections and value people who are different from us?
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?
Executives are responsible for the bigger picture, whereas mid-level management is typically responsible for ensuring that individual teams or departments are executing on the company’s mission or goals. Executives create the mission, vision, direction of a company and set the culture.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The primary myth I hear about executives is that they have it easy. In reality, the pressure and responsibility is not less. It’s just different in some ways than what mid-level management or individual contributors have. Executives may have more control over almost all aspects of their job, but there’s also very real consequences associated with failure. If an executive fails to do their job, it’s not just their own job or financial well-being on the line. Executives’ failure could result in their employees losing their jobs, customers losing money, etc. There’s a greater impact leaders have, for better or worse.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There is still a lot of prejudice against women in high power positions, especially from some cultures. Working with clients from all over the world, I’ve personally encountered people who verbatim told me they wouldn’t work with me or negotiate with me because I’m a woman. Those are the extreme cases, but it paints the current global environment we operate in. More commonly in the US, I see subtle undercurrents of sexism, like a woman’s opinion being dismissed where a man’s is valued. Or women not being included in major decisions because they’re not part of the male social circle.
From what I see, moms also still carry more parenting responsibilities than dads in many dual-income households. So, working moms have personal responsibilities and emotional burdens that many working men don’t have.
In reality, I believe women and men are made differently. Not better or worse, but differently. Each individual, regardless of gender, should be celebrated and appreciated for their own strengths, talents, and supported based on their unique needs. I think we need to be careful that, as a society, we’re not swinging too far one way or the other. I’ve heard female leaders and entrepreneurs say they only hire women or that their business is successful because they have an all-female team or that women are better/stronger/smarter than men. Well, that’s swinging the pendulum too far. It’s an over-correction and generalization that doesn’t belong in business.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
We serve tens of thousands of customers. That volume of customers exposes our team to all sorts of people and situations. It’s relatively rare, but we’ve had customers sign up with us who have ill intent. Dealing with customers who have no interest in conducting themselves professionally or are actual con men or women is an element of leadership that I never thought about having to navigate as a young professional or young executive.
Do you think 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 most people have the potential to be an executive if they are determined and passionate about leadership. To be an effective leader, it takes someone who is willing to put the hard work into acquiring expertise in a specific field, effort into developing leadership skills, a mission they’re passionate about and a genuine desire to impact others.
Career advancement doesn’t always mean “climbing the ladder”, though. Many people think that in order to be “successful” you have to be in people management or leadership. But just like any other career path or skill set, people management is not for everyone. It can be very emotionally demanding. The individuals who should pursue careers in people management should be genuinely interested in helping others succeed. That’s not everyone, and that’s ok. Equally as important and impressive are individuals who become experts within a certain industry or advance a specific skill set or subject matter. I think we fail as a culture at celebrating technical career paths.
I cannot tell you how many leadership interviews I’ve conducted where I’ve asked the applicant, “Why do you want to be in leadership?” and the answer is something like, “Because I want to make more money” or “This is the next logical step in my career”. Neither of those things are going to maintain motivation or job satisfaction during periods of adversity. For example, if you’re an introvert and prefer to work independently, you may not enjoy being in an executive role where a large portion of your success is dependent on relationship building and your ability to motivate others. That being said, there are very successful entrepreneurs and executives out there who are part of a well-balanced executive team or have partners who meet the more social needs of the organization.
I recommend anyone evaluating career options take an assessment like the Birkman Assessment and then choose a career path according to their natural interests and aspirations.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
The same advice I’d give to any leader. Lean into your own strengths and lead in the most genuine and confident way possible. Advocate for yourself. Care about your team, both personally and professionally. Cast the vision and mission, then provide specific and quantifiable goals. Hold yourself to the highest standards first, then your team.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
By helping small businesses grow and my team members succeed. By always looking for ways to share the lessons I’ve learned and knowledge I’ve gained with others, for their benefit.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Being comfortable with conflict and confrontation will have a huge impact on your ability to lead. Confrontation is an element of everyone’s life, but more so for leaders who need to be comfortable initiating tough conversations. Always with honesty and kindness, but also with confidence and clarity. The opposite of love is not hate. It is indifference. If you’re uncomfortable having tough conversations and, therefore, afraid to provide constructive criticism or address concerns directly with people, you’re inadvertently communicating a lack of care for that person or that relationship. Whenever I have someone react defensively to feedback, I remind them that if I didn’t care about them or their personal growth, I wouldn’t take the time to help level them up. How you communicate during a confrontation is just as important as simply having the conversation. It’s important to set and control your own tone. Being calm, patient and level headed is just as important as what you actually say. Do your best not to react defensively or emotionally. I always tell our team that complaints from customers, and even team members, are actually compliments (even when they’re not delivered in the most positive manner). If that person didn’t think we had the ability or desire to address their concern, they wouldn’t take the time to communicate it. We need to take their show of faith in us for what it is and exceed their expectations. Conflict is a good thing. No relationship, personal or professional, will prosper or grow without it.
- Self-confidence is mission-critical in leadership. Real, genuine self-confidence. The professionals that I see who often struggle with an inability to step outside of their comfort zone or have tough conversations, coach others, take feedback, or manage their stress are individuals who don’t feel confident. Self-doubt is the most manipulative and crippling emotion. It puts us in self-preservation mode. Uncertainty will convince you to behave in ways that you would never imagine, advise, or intend.
These are signs of low self-confidence that I’ve seen or experienced during periods of self-doubt:
- Inability to hold others accountable/people-pleasing,
- Hesitation to advocate for yourself,
- Difficulty making decisions,
- Worry, anxiety, depression,
- Inability to accept constructive criticism/being defensive,
- Hesitation to take risks or make mistakes,
- Dismissive of positive feedback,
- Tendency to become emotional or volatile,
- Negative outlook of others’/over-critical of others,
- Displays of arrogance,
There are lots of things that we can do for ourselves that will improve our own self-confidence. There are also lots of ways we can help others’ self-confidence. Sometimes we see one or several of the above things in someone on our team and try to address that one behavior when, in reality, what they need is encouragement and a confidence boost.
3. Consistently operating outside of your comfort zone and taking risks is necessary for growth and something you will have to choose to do. I can show you a very specific trail of situations, where I stepped outside my comfort zone as a young professional, that played a critical role in my career development. For example, I was part of a class in college that was funded by Honda. We were tasked with forming a marketing agency that had an actual budget from Honda to market for the new Honda Accord Coupe. We developed and then executed our marketing campaign. Towards the end of the semester, a local news agency wanted to do a story on the course. My professor called me and said, “Can you be on campus in 20 minutes? There’s a camera crew coming to interview someone, and you’re it!” I had a leadership role amongst the group, but was uncomfortable with the thought of being interviewed on camera for a news segment. I pushed back a little, but my professor encouraged me to do it. I decided to trust him and did the interview. The news segment was seen by an executive at HP who hired me as a marketing intern shortly thereafter. My internship led to an incredible full time position at HP that gave me experience that still benefits me today in my CCO role. I have a training session that I do with our teams where I talk about “hugging your lion.” Embracing danger and discomfort. A great quote on this topic from Eleanor Roosevelt is “Do something every day that scares you.”
4. Being self-motivated or a self-starter is VERY important if you want to be in leadership, meaning you don’t need someone else to motivate you or push you to add value to the organization. As you move up through the ranks of leadership, roles shift. You go from being given tasks to complete to managing others’ execution of tasks to being responsible for identifying direction and being the visionary that delegates tasks. If you constantly need someone else to motivate you and give you reasons to keep moving forward, you will be stuck in a task-oriented role. The key to being self-motivated is having and understanding your “why.” If you’re dedicating your time and talents to something you’re passionate about, and you value the outcome, you will inherently be self-motivated. So, maybe the more important skill here is being intentional and strategic with regard to what career path you pursue, what roles you seek, what company you work for (or create), etc. For me personally, my “why” is twofold. One, I see the impact and importance of helping small businesses grow and helping others succeed. It’s something I wholeheartedly feel is a worthwhile use of my time. I also find value in providing financial security for myself and my family.
5. Stress management is the only way to avoid burnout. Every job has its challenges. Every industry has its downfalls. No role is perfect. No company is perfect. No boss or partner or team is perfect. So, stress is inevitable. For me, when I can feel myself becoming overwhelmed, it means I need to take a step back and do some self-reflection. What is bothering me? Why does it bother me? What is it that I’m afraid of or worried about? Then, how can I address my concerns or minimize the negative? What am I in control of? My attitude? One of my relationships? My perspective? What conversations do I need to have with those around me that could impact my situation? Sometimes, there isn’t even anything I need to DO. Simply thinking through what’s bothering me or making me feel a certain way, putting a name to it, and bringing myself back around to reality is all that’s needed.
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.
Education, safety, and love for every child.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If you follow me or know me, you’ve heard this before. So, sorry for the redundancy.
“Do what you feel in your heart to be right — for you’ll be criticized anyway.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
As a leader, you cannot be a people pleaser. Having a large circle of influence means that you will never be able to please everyone 100% of the time. Nor should you want to. So, you must be intentional in your decisions, do what you feel is right, and expect the criticism that follows.
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
Jane Goodall. I follow a lot of animal activists and animal rights organizations online. This year I’ve been thinking about a stark contrast in leadership styles that seems to exist in the animal rights world. Jane is a great example of someone who is not only passionate, but also effective and respectable. She is not seemingly driven by ego, but by love and passion for her cause. She operates with a certain level of rationality. Here’s an example of what I mean.
There’s an animal activist I follow who has had a very successful career and is relatively well known. I think this person’s mission is important and worth supporting. Earlier this year, however, this individual posted something on their organization’s social profile making fun of Christians (this person is an atheist). The post completely alienated the organizations’ Christians followers. There was a very passionate response to the post, both from Christians who were offended, atheists who criticized the Christians for their faith or for being offended, and others who spoke up and said it was unnecessary to post such things on a profile that was supposed to be dedicated to animal rights. This leader’s response to the outrage was severely lacking in leadership, rationality and perspective, in my opinion. The general tone was that if people didn’t like the “joke”, they could unfollow the profile. All religion and politics aside, alienating one of the largest religious populations in the world is not conducive to achieving the organization’s mission. Behavior such as this, in my opinion, is a liability to the organization and counterproductive to their mission. Which is unfortunate.
In contrast, Jane has been known to reach across the symbolic “aisle” for the betterment of her mission. There’s a story about her accepting financial help from a large oil company to build a chimp sanctuary. She received criticism from fellow animal activists who thought that money should not be accepted from the “enemy”. But not accepting those funds would have meant that many chimps would not have had sanctuary. Working together with the “bad guys” for the benefit of the chimps also established a relationship and inroads with the oil company, which I can imagine worked to the benefit of the chimps long-term, even if the original intent by the oil company was to benefit from whatever PR boost they got from stepping in and providing assistance. In the end, my guess is that the chimps were the real winners, which is what should matter.
How much more effective would that first leader be if they operated with respect for people of all faiths? Which of these two is operating with true leadership ability?