Perfecting the art of starting over – How joining and leaving corporate America three times contributed to the creation of one of Fortune’s Best 100 Websites for Women.V
ariety is the spice of life and Dana Theus’s career is peppered with diversity; making the lessons she’s learned and rewards reaped far more substantial than any gained from a singular profession. Having held senior roles across 7 different American corporations, including Verizon, CareerBuilder Inc., Bantu and B2B Marketing Excellence, Theus’s venture into entrepreneurship has laid the foundations for her new business and simultaneously carved out a psychological work strategy that anyone can benefit from.
InPower Coaching is Theus’s current and perhaps most crafted programme. Based on a combination of psychological research alongside her 25 years in corporations and start-up businesses, InPower Coaching focuses on unveiling the mystery of ‘personal power’ and how individuals and organisations can use it to excel within the workplace. Founded in 2011, Theus’s company has produced a reputable blog, InPowerWomen.com. Her mission to ‘re-write the narrative’ on women and power is fuelled by what she calls The Woman Effect – the research-validated positive impact that mixed gender teams have on overall group performance at work.
Theus highlights that although emotional intelligence is critical to success, emotional triggers often hold women back; so much so that she has trained herself to de-trigger her emotions for hostile work scenarios. By releasing negative feelings from certain people, words or circumstances, she retains an advantage in being able to identify a lesson out of every situation. De-triggering is so powerful in her own life that she’s made it the core of her coaching services.
When it comes to leadership, she believes that women have the upper hand because of their broad definition of success. In caring about the people who contribute to the end-game, women are more interested in the win-win outcome, and thus more cautious and strategic in meeting objectives. Men, Theus argues, are acculturated to be more competitive and although success often requires competition, Theus endorses the cautious and more thorough approach women take when moving towards a target. A “never give up” attitude is also important. The women who she identifies as successful apparently didn’t ever entertain failure as an option. By following these truths in her career, her own results speak for themselves.
On Empowering Women
My mother, a child of WWII, was not very empowered and I wanted more. When I was 6, she ran for public office in our little city in Kansas. This was in 1968 so there weren’t many feminists in Kansas. But she won! It surprised everybody. I would watch her in city council meetings and make public addresses, she even went to the Soviet Union for an exchange I the middle of the Cold War, she was a very important person in our community.
But when I was 10, she ran again for a different office and she lost and never tried to do anything else in politics. She had got to this powerful position but when she lost the election, she went back to being a housewife, and later an entrepreneur. She’d never thought in terms of a career and I learned from her experience that I wanted a career; I wanted to build something.
For women, there are no excuses. You’re in charge of your destiny, you’re in charge of what is drawn to you and your choices from here on out are what will build your reality. Don’t blame others, even when you’ve been victimised. Take ownership and responsibility for your own life and what it becomes.
"The CEO was my mentor. His idea of having a good discussion was to get all of his vice presidents fighting because he wanted everyone to fight for a position...it was all this wasted energy that went into game playing as opposed to running the business."
Sometimes when I was 20-something, I would ask my bosses “can’t you fix it for me?” Of course they wouldn’t so I learned the hard way. For women to be empowered, they need to ask for feedback. Don’t assume it’s your fault but take ownership for the process of what you can do to move yourself forward. Use their insight to improve yourself. Be specific with questions and be open to the answers.
On Career Choices and Starting Over
When I stepped out of corporate America the first time, I was a senior director, right below the vice president. The CEO was my mentor. His idea of having a good discussion was to get all of his vice presidents fighting because he wanted everyone to fight for a position, yet he prided himself on having the right answer at the end of the day. It was all this wasted energy that went into game playing as opposed to running the business. Quitting was a statement of who I was and what I wanted to become. It was an assertion that playing the fighting game wasn’t interesting to me.
"You’re in charge of your destiny, you’re in charge of what is drawn to you and your choices from here on out are what will build your reality."
When I left my corporate role the second time, I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I was doing a lot of self-development and I thought to myself, ‘I need to get some confidence and feel good about what I’m accomplishing.’
I got a lot of that out of books. The approach I took was a combination of self-help books, meditation and a lot of spiritual work. I had created a lot of books and worksheets in the process so when I began formally helping others, I realised I should sell my material online as part of a service, rather than just one-on-one coaching. It leverages my experience and helps me reach more people. Now I pitch to corporations, giving them a more cost-effective coaching service for their mid-level employees than they can get by bringing me in to work with people one-on-one. I developed all my tools by productising what works best for me but now it’s helping a lot of other people, which is the best of both worlds.
On Identifying Key Skills and Abilities
The first one is intention. Every day, I have a single intention for that day and if I go to bed having fulfilled that intention, I consider the day a success. I usually accomplish way more than that as I choose how I spend my time, where I go and who I talk to. I don’t waste energy wishing I wasn’t doing something. Having and maintaining a focus on your intention can navigate all your choices.
"I don’t believe there are any wrong choices, I believe there are wrong reasons for the choices we make. When we own our own choice...so much more can be learned because any potential failures—and successes—are exclusively your own."
The other day, the intention of my day was to have a certain aspect of my website set up. I ended up working late but I wasn’t tired or stressed as I was psychologically fulfilling my intention for the day.
Choice is another. Not only making choices but recognising that when you make a choice, that is an act of power. The moment you make a choice and you pay attention to your own energy, you’ll feel it go up in a pro-active way. Standing by my choice to step out of corporate America was hugely empowering. I don’t believe there are any wrong choices, I believe there are wrong reasons for the choices we make. When we own our own choice, rather than a decision based on the approval of others, so much more can be learned because any potential failures—and successes—are exclusively your own.
The final thing I’ve worked on is de-triggering my emotions. Whenever I get triggered, I take the time to take that negative emotion and learn what the situation is teaching me. Then I release it. Over time that has really helped me as I don’t feel like my emotions are dragging at me all the time.
On Corporate America vs Start-up Businesses
The difference to me between a huge organisation and a small organisation is resources. In a small business, you don’t have the resources to invest in doing everything perfectly. It tends to be a place that offers the people who want it, a lot of growth but not everyone is comfortable with moving that fast and making mistakes and potentially it can be very frightening.
A lot of those people end up in big companies as the latter has the resources to take their time and be strategic. But those two different cultures set up different rules for success and therefore have different rules for what they reward.
"Making a bazillion dollars is not worth compromising the time you have with your friends and family and who you are – it’s just not."
In the corporate world, I learned how to create a sense of presence. How do you deal with an executive team for a multi-billion-dollar company? How do you sit in on their meetings and be a participant? It’s a different world.
In the start-up world, I learned how to move fast and go with my instinct, recover from any set-backs and move on, until something sticks. I also learned that making a bazillion dollars is not worth compromising the time you have with your friends and family and who you are – it’s just not. It’s also important to remember that if you’re going to do something and going to start-up something that hasn’t been done before, you really have to have belief in your vision. It doesn’t always feel good but the highs are high.
On Business and Transparency
One of the key strategies to combating bias against women (or anyone) in the workplace is transparency. I certainly understand why people don’t want transparency as it can lead to the opening of a can of worms across the company. But there are ways to address it. If we just admit “yes, there’s bias but we don’t know what it looks like” someone can point to numbers and trace a pattern. You can have a conversation when you address it, that’s how you tackle the issue.
"Good leaders are the same in all environments because they are curious. They’re trying to understand their environment, the people in it and what makes it work well. That means achieving results but also taking care of the people and the resources that help your teams achieve what you want."
For organisations, recognise that bias is a real thing. Even if you can’t see it, it’s real and assume it’s there and take steps from the top down and have policies that allow you and others when they see bias, to investigate it and try to make changes that mitigate it. Unless we admit that it’s real, it will continue to be dismissed. It’ll look different in different organisations.
In my career, all my mentors were men. They took a dysfunctional approach to mentoring me, making it harder “so she’ll figure it out the hard way”. I did in the end but when I look back on it now, I realise no one was trying to help me figure out where my authentic power was coming from and how I could use it to be more successful. There are many ways to be successful in life, not just the ones we read about in business books. No one ever told me about that. Maybe they had faith “I’d figure it out,” but I feel like I wasted a lot of energy figuring it out on my own. But I’m lucky as I discovered it myself.
On Women and Leadership
Women lead well in both corporate environments and start-up companies. I don’t think the importance of women in leadership is as much about the women themselves as it is about the mix of leadership. Women have a lot of strength because we look at things holistically, we do consider risk a little more. What women bring to leadership is that we define success more broadly. We care about the people. If there is high turnover and there’s low morale, women are more inclined to say “I’m glad we’re making money, can we make 1% less and make an effort to work on having good employee relationships?” That’s not always true but I think more women are more bothered by those areas and making a better impact on the world. Men can be tempted into the pure competition, at the cost of all else.
Good leaders are the same in all environments because they are curious. They’re trying to understand their environment, the people in it and what makes it work well. That means achieving results but also taking care of the people and the resources that help your teams achieve what you want.
My idea of a happy retirement is writing a fantasy novel. Every time I go down that road, I think “God this is so great, I just want to jump my job and do this” but then I realise I have to wait until I retire. Building a business and writing a novel takes the same creative parts of my brain and you have to keep the one vision to bring all the pieces together. I don’t think my brain is big enough to hold two things that big at the same time.
I do not read a lot but I watch a lot of films. I recently saw Spotlight, a film about the newspaper that uncovered the Catholic priest molestation scandal in Boston 15 years ago. It was very powerful; I highly recommend it. My favourite book of all time is called “Illusions” by Richard Bach, it’ll only take you an hour to read but it changed my life and world perspective.
My uniform is black trousers and something that makes me happy on top. A jacket or a sweater or a scarf that makes a visual statement and my earrings, I choose all of them really intentionally. Don’t wear clothes that are supposed to be good but make you feel crappy. You should be tasteful and sensitive to your environment.
If I were Queen for a day, I would pass an equal pay act in every country on earth. But If I were a goddess for a day, I would make everyone aware of their own power and the huge capacity for love in their hearts.
Dana Theus is the President & CEO of InPower Coaching, a personal and career coaching programme that cracks the code on personal power to help women and men forge their leadership identity & mindset. Discover her award-winning blog, InPower Women.