As part of our series about the “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Renie Cavallari (Ree-nee Ca-vah-lar-ee).
Renie Cavallari is founder, CEO and Chief Instigator of Aspire (poweredbyaspire.com), a global customized training, leadership development and cultural alignment company.
A dynamo who colors outside the lines, Renie is a cutting-edge leadership expert and international strategist who has worked with thousands of organizations and their greatest asset, their people. to improve performance and quality of life.
She is the author 6 books with her latest, HeadTrash, the Leading Killer of Human Potential available now.
Renie is a member of the prestigious National Speakers Association and was named an “Outstanding Woman in Business” by Phoenix Business Journal. Her company Aspire has won 14 consecutive Stevie Awards as a “Most Innovative Company” and recently she was recognized for a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Put your seat belt on… welcome Renie.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was lucky. As college was ending, I got a sales internship with Sheraton Hotels & Resorts. At the time, ITT Sheraton was a gold standard hotel company, and the 150 nationwide finalists were flown to Boston to compete to fill the 12 open spots. I was excited. I had a new blue suit and needed a 2nd suit, so I tailored an old suit of my mother’s. I loved its big red and cream plaid pattern with touches of thin green lines and beautiful oversized mother of pearl flat buttons.
Promptly at 8:00 am, I entered the auditorium to begin the intense interview process. As I looked around, there was a sea of black and blue suits. It was bad enough that there were only a few women in the room, so there was no “female tribe” for me to go hang with, and there I was standing out like a sore thumb with this ridiculous, non-traditional suit. As I walked through the crowd, I could feel the stares of judgment.
Fast forward two days… as we reconvened in the auditorium for the event’s closing comments, Elaine Nigra approached me. She had a commanding presence enhanced by her extraordinary style and the essence of her sophistication hug in the air. I remember thinking, I hope I can be like her one day. She was a top marketing leader for Sheraton, and during our interview, I had hoped she hadn’t noticed my knees shaking.
I took a deep breath and said hello. She stopped and turned and said, “Renie, I want you to know that your fabulous suit allowed you to stand out from the clutter and people noticed your bold style.” I was stunned. My embarrassment over my suit instantly turned to pride.
- You were born to stand out
PS: I got the internship! I am sure Elaine had plenty to do with it.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I had been offered a seat at “the grown-ups table.” It was an opportunity to become a partner with the firm I was working for at the time. It was very exciting as not only would I be the only female partner on the Board, but I would also be moving into the C suite at 31 years old. As a woman, it was rare at the time, and I felt deeply grateful. Yet something didn’t feel right. I asked for the weekend to think about the offer.
As I sat still and reflected on this opportunity and my future, I gained clarity that the ailing feeling in the pit of my stomach was speaking to me, and I needed to listen. In a nutshell, I came to understand that I didn’t aspire to do the work I would be responsible for in this new role, and I also didn’t love the partnership’s dynamics. This clarity forced me to really look at my career journey and write down my desired “next chapter.”
I came in that Monday, gave my notice, and started my firm, Aspire, a few months later. To this day, I do work I love with people I love.
- Listen to yourself. Sometimes you get too many opinions in your head, and that noise gets in the way of gaining clarity around what you want. Others don’t know you like you know yourself.
- With clarity comes courage.
- If you do work you love… you will love your work, and odds are you will get good at it.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I faced many challenges throughout my 26 years, and starting out, the big hurdles were yet to come. And there were many. From learning how to juggle life as a Mama, leader, business owner, sister, daughter, and committed friend to the market crashes, growth stumbles, team member departures and mis-hires, and the endless entrepreneur learning curve. I had been a business leader when I started Aspire, and that is not the same as being an entrepreneur. Ownership has its privileges and its heavy responsibilities as well as setbacks.
I know the story of a struggle is much more interesting, and the truth is the start of my business was blessed. As word got out that I was going off on my own, I got a call from someone I had worked with years before who said: “Renie, what is your financial nut? How much do you need to survive?” I shared my nut, and this fellow entrepreneur graciously said, “Send me a proposal on what you will do for me for that amount.” In addition, the firm I was leaving hired me.
Together, this allowed me to create the company I had dreamed of from the beginning. Aspire’s first year still required long days and nights, and I had the gift of financial security. I wouldn’t become a “bag lady!” Any entrepreneur will tell you the position I was in as a start-up luxury, and I am forever grateful to the people who helped me start my entrepreneurial journey in this way. I am still close with these believers.
- Everything you do and how you do it leaves an imprint about who you are. You may not see its impact in that moment, and it is there.
- How you leave a position is your lasting impression. What do you want that lasting impression to be?
- Everyone you work with today can be a light for you in your future.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
2020 was the hardest year for Aspire. There were a lot of firsts:
- The first time we lost money… a lot of money, and it was our 25th year!
- The first time I had to lay people off who didn’t deserve to lose their job
- The first time we ever had clients who postponed or canceled their work due to their dire situations. There is nothing worse than seeing good humans in extraordinarily difficult situations
- The first time I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing. I had to do what had to be done. I didn’t like that much, but boy did I learn a lot about myself and my teammates!
The list goes on from there. Let’s just say it was a rough 25th anniversary. There is something about losing $1.4 million in 5 days that gets you focused on a resilience plan and fast. We took the bold move of investing in the company in 2020, which helped us retain the business we had and plan for what our clients would need as things started to come back.
We dug in. Improved our communication as a team. Improved our processes and clarity of focus. We stopped the waste and redundancy that being successful can quietly steal. We planned. We gave back in huge ways. We made it, and we are better for it.
- If you want to be an entrepreneur, lesson one is CASH IS KING. Never forget this lesson
- Difficult times always help you grow, and growth is the foundation to all success in life
- Did I mention, CASH is king?
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe three things make Aspire stand out:
- Our Culture. We play “all in” all the time. We have a fanatical commitment to collaboration and the outcomes our clients strive to achieve. Our team members make great things happen, and our “all in” culture is our soul. Our clients feel this and play “all in” with us. Together we make great things happen and have fun doing it.
- People R&D & IP Impact. We have proven processes and intellectual property that improve our client’s performance. We call this People Technology™. Our sister company, RCI Institute, is an active human behavior lab and fanatically studies and models how to shift human behavior and awaken individual potential. These resources allow Aspire (www.poweredbyaspire.com) to execute our award-winning leadership development programming, workplace service cultures, and customized training more effectively, and this impacts results.
- Innovation. We think differently and disrupt the status quo and traditional thinking. This helps us strive for constant and never-ending improvement. Being innovative keeps us humble as we are never satisfied, and this allows us to be open to better, smarter, and faster ways of impacting results for our clients and ourselves. Innovation opens the door to growth for everyone and everything.Honestly, I think our clients tell the story through their choice to continue to work with us (we have a 90% plus retention of our clients year over year for 26 years.) They tell us that they know they can count on us and that our work changes people’s lives, not just their business’ profitability. It really isn’t our story to tell. We know that our success reflects their success.
- You don’t stand out by standing still
- Never-ending progress is a state of mind
- If you want to be great, you must be open to evolution, tenacious, and play “all in.” Doing great things requires effort. If you don’t put in the effort, you will be part of the mediocre crowd. No thank you!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
So many to choose from! When I was starting out, I think my biggest mistake was not listening to myself when I was working on a project. We had inherited the strategic brand growth direction, and my gut said, “The strategy was flawed.” Instead of finding the courage to say so, I tried to keep the peace and just “make it work.” That never works!
After a few weeks, we were sitting in a meeting walking through the strategies’ impact potential and our client says, “This strategy sucks. It’s bullsh*t.” I said, “Yes Paul, this is just more of the status quo. There is no long game here.” He looked at me with curiosity and annoyance, “Why didn’t you say something?” That part wasn’t as funny.
- Your gut is your experience talking to you. Listen, and you win. Don’t listen, and you get to learn the lesson again and again. I hate that reality!
- A bad strategy is like a bad foundation of a building… it won’t stand the test of time
- When people hire you for your opinion, get your facts in order, and state it. Don’t be a chicken sh*t. If they don’t like it, you have at least flagged the concern. It sounds ridiculously simple, and it can be hard to do.
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?
I think even the worst advice received still provided me a great lesson, and I still get the question.
I remember when I was still in corporate America, one of my mentors talked me into taking a job I knew I wouldn’t enjoy. He pushed, and I agreed in the spirit of, ”It’s how you get to the C-suite and it’s a prestigious resume builder job.”
I took the job, and of course, I hated it. Every day was exasperating and annoying. I went from loving my work to hating it. I don’t know you, and when I am unhappy, little things and people around me start to annoy me, which was not my norm. When you aren’t happy, everything, including people, annoys you!
I lasted 18 months and quit.
- Other people’s dreams are not your dreams. Have your own dreams and never give up on them.
- Life is too short not to be doing things you love with people you like or better yet…love. That’s the secret to happiness and, ultimately, joy, is to do sh*t you love with people you love.
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?
- Tenacity, with Grace. Nothing happens without a fanatical commitment to making it happen in my experience. When you focus on it, things evolve towards it. Sometimes I laugh when someone on my team says, “How did you get that deal so quickly?” and I must share with them that I met this person 10 years ago, and we built a relationship of respect. There was no business until it was time to do business.
The Story: I had decided to diversify our business model and go into the Sr. Living Communities niche. I knew nothing about it. One day I was in St. Louis, a stop on a speaking tour I was on for my 5th book aspire to… shine. I called up an old colleague. We had worked together 25 years before and had not spoken since! He asked me to stop by his office.
I came off the stage, signed books, and went to my room. It was raining hard outside, and I was tired. I didn’t want to go as I just wanted to chill. The weather was miserable, and I was flying out in a few hours, but I had committed, so I went.
I got to his global office with my suitcase in hand, and we sat and caught up. He was retiring and was now hugely successful. I was still a road warrior. It was a nice visit. I was glad I did it as he was always interesting.
Five days later, he calls me and says, “Didn’t you say you wanted to get into Sr. Living?” I said, “Yes, I did.” ” Well, my niece is looking for someone who does what Aspire does for a Sr. Living client of hers. May I introduce you?” “Absolutely,” I said with surprise and appreciation.
A month later, we had our first Sr. Living deal.
- Great relationships always yield something fantastic, whether it be long-term friendship, insightful learning, or opportunities. You just never know
- Networking is the best marketing is the 2nd best marketing strategy. Retention is by far the best!
2. Compassion. When you are in the business of changing human behavior, you are moving people in new, sometimes uncomfortable directions, and learning something new can be uncomfortable. Everyone likes change if it doesn’t affect them. Learning new things means you are making mistakes. When you can do it in a safe environment, it changes everything. Compassion provides that safety net.
The Story: I remember I was working with a team on their strategic growth plan. They were very frustrated with each other because they didn’t have alignment. Two people were at power odds, and to help the group move forward and align, we completed individual 360 reviews.
The feedback was a tough pill for most and especially tough for two of the senior leaders. 360 reviews are challenging as they force the participant out of their self-deception while also helping us understand our greatest gifts. But hearing that you are core to the issues around progress takes courage to accept for even the most evolved human.
We took a compassionate, highly interactive, and safe approach to the feedback that allowed each person to feel empowered and comfortable. It would have been faster to just have people read the feedback and not position it with compassion and opportunities for quantum growth. In the end, the two leaders who were not aligned became an extraordinary team.
As I write in my book HEADTRASH™, the Leading Killer of Human Potential, how we present ideas can either engage people or disengage participants. As a leader, you must be careful not to inadvertently throw a person into their fear and limiting beliefs, their disconnected side of their emotional brain, as the results will not be pretty. Leading with compassion and love changes how people show up and participate.
- In my experience, it isn’t what is said that hurts people. It is how it is said.
- We are always making imprints on each other and ourselves. Your leadership is defined by how people feel when you walk into a room and how they feel when you walk out of a room.
- Compassion is more than just empathy and caring. It is having a mindset where you are not judging another person. Compassion is kindness, and kindness is strength.
3. Clarity. Clarity of purpose. Clarity of action. When you have clarity of the problem, you can find a solution. Whether strategic, employee-oriented, revenue issues, or profitability clarity gives you and everyone around you a path for success.
The Story: During the COVID-19 pandemic, Aspire went into resilience planning with our own team as well as with our clients. Those who stayed in a frugal innovation mindset, compassion, and clarity outperformed all others in key scorecard/metric areas. Those who did not have a plan and spent months in the reactive mode had a very rough year financially, emotionally, and mentally.
- Fail to plan, plan to fail.
- Clarity allows for productive action. Productive action creates momentum. Momentum makes progress, and that feels good for everyone. How we feel is how we think and act.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- Protect your time. It is all you have.
- Create a dynamic life. Working all the time makes for a very limited life experience… in my experience.
- If you don’t like how you are experiencing life, your self is talking to you. Listen and look at your habits. Keep the good habits and get rid of the bad habits!
My firm, the RCI Institute, did a study on burnout.
Check out our white paper on signs and solutions to managing burnout. https://resources.poweredbyaspire.com/hubfs/DEPARTMENTS/Marketing/RCI%20White%20Papers/burn-out-white-paper.docx.pdf
RCI, www.rciinstitute.com, is a research and development institute focused on awakening human potential and igniting the human spirit to play all in. It creates research-based proprietary systems and tools around People Technology™ and provides executive leadership coaching certifications that maximize organizational potential.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
- Cash is King. Without cash you are at constant risk, and that is very stressful. Over leveraging never works out well.
- Understand the responsibility and the privilege. No one understands the responsibilities of owning a company until they do, so it is wise not to expect them to. No one has the pressure of payroll except for the people who must fund it. You must be ready for the responsibility since you have people depending on you to make the right decisions daily as what you do, and don’t do, affects their lives… their partner’s lives… their children’s lives… their futures. It is a responsibility that is best taken seriously.
- Understand that your culture reflects your leadership. If you don’t like what you see in terms of your team’s dynamics, commitment to your brand’s promise, and your leader’s alignment, it’s time to take a look in the mirror. Nothing tanks a business like a crappy culture, and your leaders and team members are the voice of your culture. An unhealthy culture is like an unhealthy heart. It will kill you.
- Be humble or get humbled.
- Create an environment that people communicate cleanly. Where real communication is valued, people are not afraid to deliver bad news. When your people are talking openly about challenges and problems, solutions come quickly.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Many entrepreneurs don’t understand that cash is king. Save your money as you will need it someday for something more important than a bigger house.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Shit Happens: no matter what you plan for, you must stay agile
- Balance is bullsh*t. Joy is your goal.
- What matters most is what you do first. Prioritize or plan to feel like you are constantly swimming upstream, and that gets exhausting.
- What you value is demonstrated in how you act, not by what you say.
- People come, and people go. It is about them, not you… even when they think it is about 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. :-)
Be Kind. Kindness is strength. Kindness allows for unity. Kindness moves from compassion, not the judgment of others. It decreases emotional stress. Kindness is free. Kindness changes how others feel. Kindness never hurts, it only engages. Kindness matters. Kindness is an important leadership skill, and, unfortunately, it is highly undervalued.
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