As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Sharron Walsh, CEO of Isagenix.
Sharron Walsh has more than 20 years of experience in the direct selling industry. Before she was named Chief Executive Officer at Isagenix International, her roles at the company included leading its operations in Australia and New Zealand as GM for five years; VP International; and President, Global Sales and Marketing. Prior to joining Isagenix in 2009, she built one of the fastest-growing direct sales and marketing companies in her native country of Australia, where she excelled at assembling strong teams in the field and driving overall business growth and profitability.
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’m originally from Australia, and that is where my story began many years ago. My first major role in the corporate world was a General Manager position in the tech space at the age of 23. As GM, I was responsible for all the operations, plus running a large sales and marketing team. The role was performance driven, which meant that results mattered, and it was exciting to build a business from the ground up.
During my time as General Manager, I was introduced to the world of direct selling. I loved the profession and I loved helping people, so after seven years, I took a new role in the direct selling and direct marketing space. Thirteen years ago, I was headhunted to lead the operations for Isagenix International in Australia and New Zealand. It was one of the most fun and challenging roles I had ever taken on.
After five years where Isagenix became very successful in Australia, the next chapter in my journey was one of the toughest decisions that we would ever make as a family: to move to the U.S. to help Isagenix become a truly global company, as the VP of International. I continued to take on additional responsibility as the President of Global Sales and Marketing and eventually, in 2020, CEO.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the things that I didn’t fully expect when I took this role was the outpouring of support I received being the first female CEO for Isagenix. Network marketing attracts a lot of women, both in the field and in our corporate offices around the world, and I was truly overwhelmed with the congratulatory messages and comments from those celebrating this achievement. As a mom of three children, two of whom are females, I am extremely proud and moved to take this very important place in our company’s history. Supporting women in business and in leadership is something I am extremely passionate about.
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 have been a number of people who have played a huge role in my development over the years.
It was Kathy Coover, Co-Founder of Isagenix, who truly sought to give me more opportunity at Isagenix. After starting her career as a dental hygienist, she taught herself all about network marketing, overcame challenges in the industry, and made her own way, setting an incredible example for others. She has since created an opportunity for me and all of our 550,000 customers and hundreds of employees around the world. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her. I wouldn’t have been seen if it wasn’t for her.
When I was getting started, it was a gentleman from the U.S. who gave me the opportunity at 23 to lead the business operations in a region of a tech company in Australia. It was one of those situations where you get the job and think, “Oh wow, what am I going to do now?” He was the first person who really encouraged me to have a voice and reinforced that I was on the right track, making the right decisions. He taught me a valuable skill back then: that when I was looking to do something, I should look at who is the best in that area and make connections with those people. I would learn from each of those people, building my skillset so that I could become a more well-rounded manager. He continued to encourage me to keep learning and growing.
Another great mentor in my early days in Australia taught me a very valuable lesson. And that is that you must know your numbers. He would tell me, “Sharron, don’t show up to a meeting asking me for anything or give any opinion unless you know your numbers.” That has been fundamentally important in my career. It is a critical piece of advice I continue to pass on to anyone in business. You have to know the drivers behind any decision.
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?
The ability of a business to connect with the broader population and its customers will be influenced by the level of diversity in its very makeup. Diversity brings so much to the table, as it allows different experiences, backgrounds, perspectives, and cultures to powerfully and positively shape the decisions, policies, and values of an organization.
A diverse workforce also brings so much more to the innovation and creative process inside a business. Most importantly, an environment that promotes diversity and inclusion is definitely going to contribute to a healthy and happy culture.
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 it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know and then establish programs where the voices of the employee body and customers can be heard. For example, at Isagenix, we established a Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion Collective made up of nine employees representing different ethnicities, races, genders, backgrounds, and other diverse attributes as well as an external consultant with experience in this area. This group meets monthly with the primary intent to listen to and learn from one another on how we can become better together so that everyone in Isagenix feels safe, included, and equal.
Over time, our collaborative learning and related actions, in partnership with the Executive Leadership Team and Human Resources, will set a higher standard of accountability and commitment to diversity, equality, and inclusion at Isagenix.
It’s also important to keep in mind that there will be times when your brand position on certain issues like equality may upset some of your customers or community. You have to be prepared to have meaningful conversations about complex issues and stand by your values. As a company that highly values integrity, Isagenix is firmly committed to doing that.
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?
An executive is responsible for developing the policies and strategy to meet the company’s goals. Once these are defined along with the metrics to measure them and clearly communicated throughout the organization, the other leaders in the organization oversee the successful execution of the strategy.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the myths is that CEOs have all of the answers. While they certainly have a wealth of experience to draw on, CEOs have to seek input, advice, and ideas from the leadership team around them as well as research and source expertise from outside the organization.
Another myth is that a CEO works 20 hours a day. Some might. However, being effective and productive comes with an appropriate amount of balance and trust in the team you have gathered around you.
One final myth is that CEOs don’t want to hear from employees or that they are unapproachable. This is unfortunate, as it can lead to people being afraid to directly approach their CEO. Personally, I love to hear the feedback and thoughts of our employees and customers. They offer some of the most valuable perspective on things happening in the business.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Aside from facing a couple of very big challenges a month into my new role as CEO, I have actually had more opportunity to interact and work with employees across all levels of the business than I had thought I might, especially early on. I appreciate that, as it is something I was concerned might be more difficult to continue to do.
Presumably 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?
Nothing happens because of me, or any one executive. Success is about the collective group coming together as a team. Collaboration is therefore the key trait we look for in our executives. That, combined with a focus on driving communication and transparency through the organization, are critical traits we want our executives to have.
Being open to healthy debate, having the ability to admit when you are wrong, and being prepared to take real ownership of your team’s results are also key. These qualities garner respect and trust between executives and employees. Things will always go wrong, and even the best-laid plans can at times see you fall short in delivering a result. Executives cannot be successful in the long term if they look to blame others or seek excuses for themselves.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Knowing that what they do is important helps employees feel good about the time they invest in their work. Giving your employees a clear understanding of the company’s goals, why what they are doing matters, and how it impacts the community and world that they are a part of is a great start. That, along with encouraging them to ask questions about projects and clarifying expectations, goes a long way toward creating buy-in and engagement. Ensuring that employees are kept abreast of progress, are allowed to participate in conversations about what is working and what hasn’t, and can gain learnings from mistakes is also key, as transparency is appreciated and valued by employees. It creates trust. That means you have to be prepared to share news and results openly when they aren’t what you had hoped they would be.
At Isagenix, one way we support this kind of environment is by holding a regular meeting we call “What Drives Us” for all employees. This is the time where we review our progress toward annual goals, share success stories, and give recognition to employees as well as reflect on any changes to priorities or projects and things that didn’t go according to plan. The meeting also includes a Q&A with the executive team where questions from employees are addressed in an open environment.
We also connect with employees by inviting them to share any ideas they may have for the business such as product ideas, the customer experience, technology, etc. Our innovation team gathers them and shares which ideas may be similar to something in the process, which ones we will do more research on, and those that may not fit with priorities at the time. This has proven to be a popular program, as all staff feel that they have the ability to contribute and actually be heard.
Another way to create a great work culture is to give back to others. Since 2002, Isagenix has contributed $40 million in product and monetary donations to charities and underserved populations worldwide. We also have teambuilding volunteer outings and our annual Global Give Back Day, which inspires our employees, customers, and independent distributors to volunteer. Our staff loves being part of a company that is making a real difference in our communities.
In summary, transparency, inclusion, and contribution.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m honored to be part of a company that gives back in multiple ways, most notably through our ISA Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that focuses on healthy nutrition and support for underserved children, wellness education for all, aid for those affected by natural disasters, and the pursuit of equality. Since it started in 2018, the foundation has awarded grants totaling over $4.4 million. Those grants, along with product donations from Isagenix, have provided over 30 million meals, funded over 79,000 educational events, and served over 9.5 million children and adults around the world. We continue to look for opportunities to offer new grants and support new programs.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Teach people how to treat you. If someone speaks or acts in a way that doesn’t make you feel heard or respected in any way, it’s important that you let them know. Do it professionally and directly, and you’ll be surprised to find that often it was completely unintentional, and even if it was intentional, you can immediately let them know that you will not accept that, and it has to change. It doesn’t have to be confrontational, just upfront. If someone is asking something of you that is beyond what you believe is reasonable or in the best interests of the business, again, be direct, professional, and polite, and let them know. Too often we get upset or find ourselves with our backs against the wall trying to meet impossible deadlines or achieve unrealistic results because we haven’t spoken up and advocated for ourselves or our teams in the moment. Even when negotiating, being direct and clear on your position in a polite and professional manner can save everyone time.
- People will not always like you. Don’t take things personally. At any point in time there will be criticism, and others will disagree with you or the decisions you make. You will hear things said about you, and it’s important not to take them personally and let them cloud your ability to continue to make the best decisions for the business. You cannot make everyone happy all of the time. Knowing and accepting that upfront is important, as some of the most important and biggest decisions you may have to make for the sake of the company might not always be the most popular ones. Even when a large group is pleased or satisfied with the direction, there will always be someone who is not. Keeping focus on the main thing and making decisions aligned with the goals and objectives of the company is key.
- Stress is a constant. Master managing it in a positive way. Let’s face it: Stress is something we all live with, and as a CEO you do feel the weight of responsibility for your employees, shareholders, and customers. Managing stress in a way that can drive you and not negatively affect your health and mindset is critical to your success at work and at home.
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Being innovative and driving the success of a company is going to mean at times you will have to take risks, and it’s inevitable that you will make mistakes. Being afraid to do that will only stifle the creative process for you and your team. What is important is that you have a process to break down, without blame, what went wrong and capture the learnings, as they could be the key to your next big win.
- Be sure your vision is clear. Clarity is everything. Knowing where you want to go and the strategy to get there is of course fundamental. Having real clarity as to what it is you want to achieve and what your priorities and non-negotiables are, then communicating them in a fashion that allows others to both understand and connect with them, will create alignment throughout your organization and allow you to deal with unforeseen issues or challenges without losing sight of the main thing: the end game.
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.
At Isagenix, our ISA Foundation offers us an incredible opportunity to make a difference. Whether it be by providing grants for college scholarships or healthy meals to children in need or by supporting programs to help level the playing field and support equality, our foundation is active in these areas. We are committed to expanding its impact, and I would love to see more and more people come alongside us as we move forward, whether it’s by donating to the foundation or volunteering with the nonprofits we fund. Together, we can make an enormous impact on people around the world.
Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
With conflicting and competing priorities and views, your goals and ideas are not always going to be met with agreement. At different times in our lives and careers, we will have to compete and fight for funding, resources, etc. Find a way to engage, include, educate, and enroll others in your vision. That will bring less division and debate and greater alignment and understanding in life and in your career.
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.
Brunch with Sara Blakely would be a blast. Her story is wonderful and the epitome of self-driven success. Building Spanx into the incredible company it is today with no industry experience or connections at all is truly fantastic, and she continues to contribute and give back.