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Sonia Jackson Myles Of The Sister Accord Foundation On The 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Scale Your Business

An Interview With Ken Babcock

Startups usually start with a small cohort of close colleagues. But what happens when you add a bunch of new people into this close cohort? How do you maintain the company culture? In addition, what is needed to successfully scale a business to increase market share or to increase offerings? How can a small startup grow successfully to a midsize and then large company? To address these questions, we are talking to successful business leaders who can share stories and insights from their experiences about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Scale Your Business”. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Sonia Jackson Myles.

Thank you for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

My professional backstory started at Ford Motor Company. I graduated from Florida A&M University with both my undergraduate and my MBA. I had studied marketing, but my first job was at Ford Motor Company in the purchasing department and I worked in that field for most of my time in corporate America. After 13 years at Ford Motor Company, I went to work for The Gillette Company in Boston, Massachusetts. When Procter & Gamble acquired Gillette a couple of years later, they asked me to help with the integration and created a new role for me as Head of Global Media Sourcing. At the time, P&G was one of the largest advertisers in the world, so this was a huge opportunity. My last role at P&G was leading the global packaging purchasing organization. In my two decades in corporate America, I managed over $20 billion in spending.

I also noticed a lot about women in the workplace. They didn’t trust each other. They didn’t want to work for each other. They treated each other like competitors not collaborators. This was true across the globe; I was working with people in different countries, of different socio-economic backgrounds, different religions, different races, but the way women interacted was very similar.

As I started looking into this, I realized that even as little girls we’re taught not to trust ourselves or each other. It shows up as early as the age of four, and continues all the way through high school and even college, and then we take those behaviors into the workplace. I knew that if women, in particular, stayed in these patterns, they’d never get ahead.

I loved my job at P&G and I could have stayed in the corporate world for the rest of my career, but I really wanted to work on solving this problem. I established The Sister Accord®️ Foundation to work on these issues and then went on to establish my consultancy, The Accord Group, LLC, which takes a similar message to corporate America.

You’ve had a remarkable career journey. Can you highlight a key decision in your career that helped you get to where you are today?

There’s one decision that I remember that might sound mundane, but actually was very impactful for my career because it taught me the power of perseverance. It’s about sun visors in your car, the things that you pull down or turn to the side to block the glare while you’re driving — not something most of us give too much thought to.

When I was in purchasing at Ford Motor Company, I made sure that I understood the engineering aspects of, and all of the standards and regulations related to, whatever I was buying. I also tried to take into account the experience of the end user, the person who would buy and drive the car. At the time, there was a label on the inside of the sun visor — the part you could only see when you pulled it down — that explained the warnings associated with the airbags. On the outside of the visor — the part you could see when it was up — there was a sticker that said “see other side.”

It occurred to me that if we put the sticker with the warnings on the outside, we could eliminate the “see other side” sticker and ultimately save millions of dollars. It would also make life easier for our suppliers because they would only have to put on one sticker. It seemed like a win-win, but my supervisors and senior leaders weren’t sure that this was a good decision. They were worried that making the warning label too prominent would scare drivers. That didn’t sit right with me either: if airbags can potentially do harm, why wouldn’t we want to tell people that? So, I kept pushing.

I looked into what the National Highway and Traffic Safety Agency required and did a market analysis to see what our competitors were doing. One company, in particular, had already made this move and it was allowed by NHTSA. So, I kept pushing. Eventually my supervisors agreed to take the idea to the senior leadership and we got the go ahead.

To this day, when I get into a car and see the sticker about the airbags right away, it warms my heart. It may seem like a small change, but we saved millions and millions of dollars and were more transparent with important safety information at the same time.

From a career perspective, it taught me never to give up. I think that’s why I am the way that I am now. When someone says no to me, I try to pivot and figure out what I need to do or say to get to yes.

What’s the most impactful initiative you’ve led that you’re particularly proud of?

The most impactful initiative is establishing The Sister Accord®️ Foundation. As I said earlier, I wanted to address what I saw as a universal insight about how we are socialized as little girls to not like ourselves or each other. The Sister Accord®️ Foundation is designed to be the solution to this problem.

An object in motion stays in motion until something disrupts it. The Sister Accord®️ Foundation is disrupting the belief that girls can’t get along. That we can’t love each other and value each other. That we must always compete. We are teaching girls and women how to love themselves and each other. Hearing the stories from our participants and seeing how we have literally transformed lives makes me so proud.

Sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a mistake you’ve made and the lesson you took away from it?

I think a mistake I constantly have to be on the lookout for in my own work is overthinking. I’m a type A person. I like things a certain way and sometimes I think too much about perfection. Like so many of us, I was seized by overthinking during the pandemic. One of our signature programs at The Sister Accord®️ is our Leadership Development Tea Parties. These had always been in-person events and I couldn’t wrap my mind around doing them any other way. I paused and didn’t plan any events for a long time. This was a big mistake because people really needed the love and inspiration that are cornerstones for these events, especially during the height of the pandemic.

When I finally convinced myself to host a virtual event, I was surprised and delighted by how well it worked. All of the emotions — the love, the laughter, the tears, the dancing — it was all still there even if we weren’t physically together. And virtual events mean we can engage with people in other parts of the world more easily.

I kick myself a little bit looking back because it really came down to a lack of trust in myself, and I learned years ago how important it is to trust my instincts.

How has mentorship played a role in your career, whether receiving mentorship or offering it to others?

Mentorship is everything. I tell everyone to please seek out mentors (and tell my peers and colleagues to mentor as many people as possible). It literally can change the trajectory of someone’s life. Look for mentors who have done the jobs that you want to do and those who you feel will be open and transparent. I actually have a mentee from every continent with the exception of Antarctica. My administrative assistant used to chastise me for saying yes to so many mentees. She’d say: “You know, your calendar is crazy; you don’t even have time for lunch.” But I kept saying yes anyhow because I think nurturing the next generation is one of the most important parts of anyone’s career. And, I’ll say this, what I love about my mentoring relationships is that they’ve poured into me as much as I’ve poured into them.

Developing your leadership style takes time and practice. Who do you model your leadership style after? What are some key character traits you try to emulate?

The automotive industry is very challenging and fast-paced. When I started, I really didn’t see any leadership styles that resonated with me. There was a lot of pounding on tables and raising voices. You didn’t see a lot of kindness or empathy. It was a good place for me to gain experience and build my business acumen, but in terms of leadership style, I’d have to say that I created my own style.

I call my leadership style servant leadership. What’s most important for me is that I listen, that I have patience, that I am kind, and that I show compassion. Although things have changed to a certain extent, there are still people that think that if you’re not pounding on the table and screaming, you’re not a strong leader, but I believe there are much better and more effective ways to engage.

I ask my team: What do you need? How can I support you? What’s going on? In corporate America, especially a number of years ago, it was unheard of to get the details of employee’s personal lives. I don’t understand that philosophy: If you don’t get to know the people on your team, how can you truly serve them? I get results by treating people with respect, seeing their humanity and valuing it.

Thank you for sharing that with us. Let’s talk about scaling a business from a small startup to a midsize and then large company. Based on your experience, can you share with our readers the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Scale Your Business”? Please give a story or example for each.

#1. Have a firm foundation. What is the thing that you have so much passion for that you are willing to establish a business around it? What is the problem you are solving for? For me, it was the challenging relationships of women in the workplace. I observed it during my entire career and I wanted to do something about that. My firm foundation was the insight that girls are being socialized to dislike themselves and other girls and that we, as a society, are failing to address it.

#2. Get clear on your target market. Think about this as a bullseye. You know who is going right in the center, the people who need your solution the most. Then start building out into the ancillary circles around those people. These are the people you need to come along with you as you start the journey of scaling up your business. These are also the people that founders often forget, but you need to reach them if you’re going to grow.

#3. Serve in excellence. Once you have a firm foundation for the problem you are solving and the people you are reaching, you can begin to think about serving with excellence. I use this phrase to mean focusing on serving your customers, employees, suppliers, and anyone you are working with, with a level of service that far surpasses what your competition is doing. Sure, the product or service has to be exceptional, but I think people overlook how important customer service is as well. What happens after the sale?

#4. Find a mentor. It’s incredibly important to hear the stories of how other people established their businesses. Listen for their successes, but also press them about some mistakes they made early on. There’s so much rich learning that you can get from them.

#5. Surround yourself with people who operate in excellence. I cannot overemphasize how important it is to work with people who operate in excellence. As I started The Sister Accord®️ Foundation, I wanted all of my touch points to be steeped in excellence and not look like a startup. People would ask me questions like: your book looks like it was produced by a publishing house, how did you do that; how are your videos so high quality; or, how are your events so well-produced? It’s because I decided to make sure that I partnered with amazing people.

Can you share a few of the mistakes that companies make when they try to scale a business? What would you suggest to address those errors?

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen, both in my corporate experience as well as now during my entrepreneurial journey, is that people move too quickly in taking on large clients. There are a lot of systems, people, and processes associated with large contracts and companies. Sometimes, the business just isn’t ready to take it on but the founder jumps at the chance anyhow because it’s hard to pass up big clients (and big money) early on. I get it, but I have seen it actually cause the demise of the business.

Another mistake that I have observed is that companies introduce too many SKUs, too much variety in what they are selling. It’s important to have some time to examine what customers want and what’s really moving so that you can optimize your offerings.

Finally, I would say that as companies scale, they can lose the essence and core of their culture and evolve into something so different from how they started that they lose the magic that initially ignited their success.

I think all of this can be avoided by taking it slow and being intentional about your growth.

Scaling includes bringing new people into the organization. How can a company preserve its company culture and ethos when new people are brought in?

This is exactly what I was talking about in the previous question. I spend a lot of time consulting with companies on culture. As the leader, you have to get clear on what kind of culture you are trying to grow. You have to set the stage — these are the things that are important to us, these are our values as a business, this is how we operate. So much of a business’ culture is about the unwritten, unarticulated rules, which makes it even more important to be able to clearly explain what you are trying to build. Hire toward that goal as you expand. Explain the culture you want and give people the opportunity to see if it’s a fit for them.

In my work, I focus on helping companies to simplify the process of creating documentation of their workflow, so I am particularly passionate about this question. Many times, a key aspect of scaling your business is scaling your team’s knowledge and internal procedures. What tools or techniques have helped your teams be successful at scaling internally?

I tell clients in my consultancy to simplify their processes and procedures as much as possible.

When you have a lot of bureaucracy, people can’t breathe. They can’t operate linearly because complicated processes get in the way. And, then what happens? They establish workarounds that are outside of your processes. Of course, this means they are also outside of your standards.

I’m a Six Sigma Green Belt. From a Kaizen perspective, I’m always looking to eliminate wastes of time and energy. I ask the business leaders I’m working with to get clear about what processes are necessary to produce quality goods or services and what can we eliminate. Often as a business grows it just layers process upon process upon process. When bureaucracy grows, innovation and creativity suffer. It’s very important for companies to start thinking about the most efficient and effective way to get the job done from the beginning to avoid getting bogged down in unnecessary processes.

Because of your role, you are a person of significant influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be? You never know what your ideas can trigger.

I’m really proud of the fact that The Sister Accord®️ Foundation is a global movement. Our Tea Party Programs help young women understand the importance of strong, healthy, positive relationships with other women as part of their personal development and their development as exceptional leaders. Our goal is to have participants learn how to love themselves and each other through a combination of self-awareness exercises and leadership development training.

Much of the work that we do is focused on self and on helping women understand what they need to do for themselves in order to bring their dreams to life. In many ways it’s a movement designed to help young people understand that “You are enough. You are valuable. You deserve to be respected.” This is important because you have to love yourself in order to be able to extend that love to others.

We’ve had people who come to the Tea Parties say that it helped them overcome anxiety disorders and past trauma, we’ve had some come together and start businesses with each other, and we’ve forged so many ongoing mentor-mentee relationships. These events really do change women’s lives.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

This was truly meaningful! Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise!

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