Shana Katz Ross owns her own strategy consulting business, which takes a new approach to leadership. She shares the insight she's learned, free of charge, with PolicyMic readers.
Hanna Johnson (HJ): Tell me about yourself.
Shana Katz Ross (SKR): I started out as a playwright. That’s still something that I do. After taking some unpaid jobs in the theater world, I realized that I really like my day job in nonprofit management. I’ve found a way to integrate both. I now have an independent consulting business, Vili and Ve, where I use acting techniques to train people to better succeed in professional life. I also do strategy consulting.
I’m also a mother of a 2-year-old and wife to a wonderful psychiatrist who works with veterans.
HJ: You mentioned that you did unpaid theater work before opening your business. How strike a balance between following your passion and making a living?
SKR: It’s a personal question. Everyone has to figure it out for themselves. The thing you think you want to do at 18 will not remain the same throughout your life. At 25, 35, I assume at 55 (I’ll tell you when I get there) … some portion of these goals and dreams will change as you live more life.
One of things I assumed as a naive college student and young professional is that at some point you figure out what life is supposed to be and you run with it. And that’s just not the case. The important thing is to remember that figuring that out will always be part of what you do.
HJ: A lady brag is an opportunity for a woman to share something she’s excited or proud of herself about. Research has shown that women tend to not to share this information unless specifically prompted. So, today, what’s your lady brag?
SKR: I’ve been running a business doing exactly what I’m passionate about for three years now. I went out on my own because at the time I was ready to have kids. The options for meaningful work and flexibility didn’t exist in a way that satisfied me, so I decided to create one. The fact that I’m still at it and going strong is something I’m really proud of.
HJ: You don’t always hear of poet/playwrights getting their MBAs. What drew you to this degree?
SKR: Having an MBA shortcuts 15 years of experience in the nonprofit world. It was a good investment. I carefully selected a program that had diversity. I had to find a program that would take my desire make the nonprofit industry run more efficiently seriously.
I ended up in a program that heavily emphasized the liberal arts approach. It was a degree that taught me a different way to think — to approach any problem you’ll ever have from a business perspective.
It also gave me access to a really nice network of peers — classmates and other alumni. It’s great to be able to pick up the phone and get perspective from senior folks across the world who have experience doing the very thing you’re looking to try.
HJ: It sounds like a key piece of the benefit was your willingness to pick up the phone and seek out advice.
SKR: Being willing to pick up the phone, and doing it in the right way, is crucial. You’re asking people for a really big favor every time you do that. You need to respect that by asking direct questions, not just expressing a general sentiment of being lost or frustrated. The best questions are pointed and specific: “I know you worked at this company which underwent a large merger. Can you give me advice on how you integrated the management teams effectively?”
People are often willing to talk about their own experiences, lives, and backgrounds. That doesn’t make it less of a favor. If you’re tapping that network for job leads, advice, or mentorship, being truly appreciative and figuring out a way to communicate that in your own style is essential if you want to keep doing it.
HJ: What have you learned running your own business?
SKR: It comes back to knowing your own weaknesses and not allowing them to be your downfalls. I’m not actually the kind of person you would think would run her own business. I hate marketing myself. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it makes me. But it’s something that I have to do. There’s no other way I get business.
I have a whole toolkit that helps me figure out how to do that. I spoke a little bit about the role of acting in leadership development. I’m a method actor. There’s a guy who was in my business school class. He’s a successful entrepreneur, running a company that’s growing by leaps and bounds and loving it. He’s also kind of a jerk. He thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. He’s usually not.
I always think of him as the ideal entrepreneur because among his character traits is this unholy self-confidence. He’s utterly convinced that he will succeed. Any setback is only an interesting development in his life story that is clearly destined for phenomenal success. That makes him great at giving presentations and pitching for capital.
When I put on my entrepreneur hat, I ask myself what he would do in my shoes. I am an amazing woman with great gifts, but being able to market myself is not one that comes naturally. So I borrow his. He has unwittingly done right by me by inspiring me to close several deals.
HJ: What advice do you wish someone had given you before you started running your business?
SKR: The best advice I got was, “you’re never going to be completely ready. Just jump.” That’s not to say I didn’t have a plan, but I figured things out as I went. A lot of the challenges were so tiny and technical that they were the kinds of things you have to learn for yourself.
Some more advice I’m glad I got was that it’s OK to say no. I’m not particularly good at it. You could say it’s a gender thing. I’ve been socialized to be a people-pleaser. I’m in the nonprofit world because I really like making small differences in multiple ways. It’s not just a paycheck for me.
There were a couple engagements that made me realize the importance of sometimes saying no. One was a gig I did for far less than I should have. It took a year full of turning down inquiries asking me to do projects for the same ridiculously low rate before that died down.
The other was just a bad fit. The Board of Directors was hoping to hire a consultant for a magic fix, like the simple act of hiring consultant would fix their problem. There’s a lot of work that needs to go into a strategic fix for an organization, and they weren’t interested in doing it. I was so excited that anyone would hire me in those situations that I said yes. I should have said no.
HJ: I noticed you’ve worked promoting gender justice in the media. How do the media help or perpetuate race and gender stereotypes?
SKR: I’m involved in an organization called Women Action in the Media. Our perspective is that power and privilege are all about who gets to speak, because that’s who we’re listening to. It’s shocking how much media are created by/produced/owned by the same old white boys network.
It’s easy for us to fall into the notion that we’re well educated, we can cut through the BS in the media, but it makes an impact. Across all media, we're perpetuating a lot of stereotypes simply by repeating the same narrow, stock, two-dimensional characters again and again.
One of the workshops I do is for college students looking to nail down internships. It’s a primer on how to behave professionally. The biggest piece of these workshops is inevitably wardrobe. It’s the thing we spend the most time on, and one of the things people most remember and mention in feedback forms.
College students don’t know how to dress for a job. These students’ ideas about professional attire have been shaped by the law offices and doctors’ offices they see on TV. It really speaks to the power of media.
These are not kids who don’t have access to all sorts of role models who should be showing them something different. But they’re not embodying and incorporating real life messages as much as they’re consuming and embodying what they’re getting in TV and movies. We find ourselves having to help folks take charge of their own presentation and communicate the image they want to project in an appropriate way.
HJ: What advice would you give to millennials who are working to develop their own leadership skills?
SKR: There’s no one great leadership book or approach. You have to put together your own quilt of good advice and techniques that feel good to you. Something that works for a man 25 years older than you may not work for you. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t package it up and put it in your toolbox for later, but really have to take into account your own style.
I hate conflict, but I’ve learned to be really good at getting through it. Whatever your weakness is, you’ve got to figure out a way to address it, or you continue to have more and deeper problems. We all have different strengths and things we’re not so strong in. It’s about doing honest self-assessment, much like a therapist would do. Figure out a toolbox of ways to get around the obstacles you know you’ll face as bigger barriers than other people.
Emotional intelligence is all about interpreting the emotional state of whomever you’re interacting with. There are three important pieces: How you interpret the emotions of person or room, what you decide to do about it, and the way you communicate the strategy you’ve decided on.
With reflection and practice, you can improve on all three. Ask yourself: “Did I interpret that correctly? Did I have the effect I intended?” These interpretations often have race, gender, age bound up in it. Taking an acting class will help you develop skills to better communicate what you intend.
HJ: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share with PolicyMic readers?
SKR: At the moment I’m in the throes of what it means to be a woman who is thinking about balancing career and child-rearing. It’s something I wish I’d been more attuned to earlier on. It’s real, folks. I don’t care what your decision is. You’ll have to figure out something. I desperately hope that’s advice that applies to men and women. The more people thinking about that piece of work life balance the better. That’s how we insist on change. When the paradigm doesn’t work, it’s time to create a new one.