Leadership, like a great meal, requires the right blend of ingredients and a smart recipe. Add seasoning. Set the cooking temperature. Prep the ingredients. Follow the plan. Recipes are meant to be personalized and adjusted to fit one's taste. But deviate too far from the necessary steps, and your meal won't turn out the right way. My own recipe for leadership involves four essential ingredients: understanding, thoughtfulness, patience and control.
I try my best to be understanding of people, situations and issues. Listening and critical thinking are vital to leadership.
During the early days of Fresh n' Lean, the organic meal delivery company I started in 2010, I performed every job — from washing the dishes and cooking the meals to portioning them out in trays and doing customer service.
I ended up working countless 20-hour days, pouring every ounce of my waking energy into the company.
In the moment, it was a lot to tackle. But looking back on it now, that experience was significant and meaningful. Working every job gave me an understanding of what I want from my employees, and it allowed me to relate to the work that I ask employees to do across all departments.
That background gives me a huge appreciation and deep respect for every person on the team. I know exactly what they contribute. The company is one big puzzle, and everyone is a piece of that puzzle.
I was 18 years old when I started Fresh n' Lean.
Photo credit: Laureen Asseo
My father's health struggles inspired me. After he faced a crisis, eating fresh organic meals helped him regain his health. I want everyone to have access to nutrient-rich meals that are convenient and affordable, just like my father did.
Navigating the corporate world as a young woman has come with its obstacles. During meetings with mostly older men, they'd ask me my age, and I would feel compelled to lie and say I was 27.
I would be in meetings, and instead of asking me questions, men would direct their questions to my male counterparts. I'm right here! Hello!
Other times, people would come into the office and try to tell me what to do, or how I should do things differently, suggesting I must not know anything because I don't have the proper experience.
Those conversations were difficult and intimidating. They caught me off guard and troubled me deeply. But I stuck to my guns, and I'm happy I did.
Too many people discount others because of their preconceived notions, and that mistake can be costly. I consider who I'm dealing with and address them accordingly — my expectations and responses are not one-size-fits-all.
Change takes time.
Society has evolved during the decade I've been running Fresh n' Lean. People are doing more to empower women to be entrepreneurs and leaders and really showcase them, especially young women. That change is reflected on the cover of magazines like Forbes or Inc or Time.
Is everything 100% equal? No. But compared to the way it was 10, 20, 50 years ago, there's been a lot of progression, and I see it continuing.
It's important to remain patient in the process and realize that some things are going to take time. It may take you months or years for you to implement the changes you'd like to make.
I feel very fortunate. There are many countries that don't allow women to run their own business.
I'm grateful to be able to wake up and do what I do each day, even if there are roadblocks along the way.
Being a business leader is never easy, whether you're a man or woman, young or old.
More people are becoming empowered to take that risk.
My advice for women looking to be leaders: don't let the naysayers put you down. We can't change the way people perceive us, and in some cases, even if we are the most competent person in the room, we won't always get the attention we deserve. And that's OK!
A lot of times in a meeting I'll sit quietly and listen and observe, waiting for the right moment to make my voice heard. You don't have to be the loudest person to be the most powerful.
As a leader, it's important not to wear your emotions on your sleeve. The last thing I want to do is show my employees that there's a problem or that I'm stressed, because that sends the wrong message.
I try to always have a smile and remain calm in every situation.
I never yell — all that does is tune people out. Remaining level-headed is vital. No matter how stressed I am, I make sure it's never apparent from the outside.
Empower others, empower yourself
The key to leadership is empowering people to believe in themselves and encouraging them to be the best they can be.
I want my employees to trust their judgment. A lot of people second-guess themselves. Maybe they're worried about failing or afraid of taking risks. But we can surprise ourselves when we follow our instincts and trust our gut.
Take the risk. Don't be afraid to fail. If things don't turn out the right way, you can always double-check your recipe, make any necessary adjustments and try again.
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During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.
When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)
This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.
By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.
But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.
I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.
If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?
At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)
At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.
They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.
- Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
- Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
- Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
- Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
- Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.
It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.
So please don't put yourself on mute.
Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.
But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.