"The biggest barrier we have is overcoming our own impostor syndrome" | Global Franchise
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Tuesday 26th September, 2023

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“The biggest barrier we have is overcoming our own impostor syndrome”

Insight

“The biggest barrier we have is overcoming our own impostor syndrome”

Meet Christina Russell, the CEO of Radiance Holdings, who is paving the way for women in business by instilling confidence in her team

For much of my career, I’ve been in franchising and I had the good fortune to start out working in women’s fitness.

I worked with Curves for about 15 years and learned franchising as a franchisee and then grew up through that company. Making my journey through other brands, I really just fell in love with brands where females are the consumers. And when I had the opportunity to step into the beauty industry, it just felt like a natural fit.

Beauty and self-care are sectors that are just growing organically year over year, and all the research shows that there’s no end in sight for this. I think people have started to invest in it more deeply after COVID, particularly on the beauty side. With Sola, we’re well over 650 locations now, continuing to grow, and will likely open more than 60 again this year across the U.S. and Canada. And then, with Woodhouse, there really is no one else of scale doing what we do in our space with luxury spas. We’re so different from the mass massage brands, which hold their place in the market, but I think a lot of consumers are looking for something more experiential.

Coming out of COVID, the biggest lesson was trying to figure out how to get people’s optimism back. Another really important part of the role is to be the chief cheerleader and the chief optimist that gets everybody really focused on the future. A lot of businesses decided to pull back, and we took a gigantic risk by moving forward with an acquisition that we had started in 2019, the launch of an e-commerce platform that we had visualized in 2019, and the standing up of the platform. And a lot of people thought we were nuts. If anything, it made me more bullish – you can’t just sit back on your laurels. You have to always have faith that the market is going to come back.

The American Dream

The minute I discovered franchising was life-changing; it was the only opportunity that would have ever gotten me into business ownership. And so by growing a career in it, you see all the opportunities it creates for people who would otherwise never have had the courage to invest in something like that. Sola certainly does this for hair stylists. Typically, it depends on the stylist, but you’re somewhere in the ballpark of making 15 to 30 per cent more income than you would make in a salon by being independent and doing it for yourself.

Sola is the embodiment of inclusivity and it happens organically. We joked one time that we look like America – you go into any Sola and it’s very reflective of the diversity of that market. We look for all the different life stories, young and old, men and women, all aspects of experience, from every kind of background, every ethnicity. And I’ll just say our number now is over 20,000 [independent beauty professionals].

Breaking bias

I’m in a business group where as a CEO, you still find yourself largely surrounded by men, despite everyone’s efforts to bring more women into it. Probably the biggest barrier we actually have is overcoming our own impostor syndrome and ‘I should’ or ‘I shouldn’t’. I have a seven-year-old daughter, so I became a parent when I was relatively old. And I was deep into my career when I did it, and it wasn’t planned, so I had to figure all that out.

Now, when I meet young women who are thinking about starting families and feel as if they have to choose between becoming a mother or becoming an executive, I tell them it really isn’t the case. For the lack of a better word, think like a dude. You got to think as anybody would about how you balance work and family, not how you choose between the two. What women really need are other mentors, primarily women who’ve been through it to give them that confidence. And in fact, it sets an example for the next generation about breaking down the definitions of what women are supposed to do.

After I became a mother, I understood it not just through the lens of what women go through, but also what men go through. I often think women make the decision to give up their careers, but men make the decision to withdraw from their families. So, when we put in our maternity leave policy for Radiance, we made it a very inclusive policy that wasn’t just about maternity leave. It was about paternity leave and partner leave because we wanted to really overcome the bias that somehow women are supposed to give up their careers and men are supposed to give up their kids.

Facing discrimination

I would say that in my career I’ve been fortunate because it’s been subtle, and some of that is down to my personality. I just don’t tolerate it very much – if I detect it, I’m going in a different direction and finding people who welcome me. I remember the most difficult part of my career when I was dealing with a board room full of men and they really all had their club. They would sit on the balcony and smoke cigars. That was how they decompressed – they would take motorcycle trips, and that was their way of doing the executive team retreat. And you’re invited, but you’re clearly not included.

At the same time, I was marathon training and I remember when I would do my runs and I would get to the hard part, there was the saying you hear from other runners that you just stay in it. And as I did this at work, I felt them starting to break down barriers and think: ‘We are going to do this, but we’ve got to do something that’s inclusive of Christina too’. And I felt like it was my way of saying: ‘Respect them, they’re not doing this out of malice. They’re doing this out of habit’.

There are a lot of leadership teams still trying to figure this out. I still have relationships with folks from that team which I really value. It was as much about me giving them the grace to make the change as it was about them being willing to make the change that actually got us to the other side. That’s what the world needs, less conflict and more effort to lean in.

Encouraging female leadership

One of the things I did that made my executive team a little nervous, was talk about impostor syndrome. I talked to them about how important it is to advocate for yourself even on things like salary. And so here I am as a leader, knowing that they’re going to push me on salary. But I’ve seen it again and again. I’ll hire high-level roles, and the men will negotiate hard on their salary; they’ll ask for equity, talk about bonuses, they will ask for an extra week of vacation, and the women will not do that. By and large, they don’t negotiate at all, and so I think that leaders have to be cognizant of that. It’s nice as a leader when somebody doesn’t negotiate hard, but it’s not good when you start to see differences showing up long-term in people’s salaries and career outcomes.

You have to say to the young women in the company: ‘You didn’t advocate, so I’m advocating for you, but next time you do this, whether it’s here or somewhere else, you need to stand up and ask for what you’re worth’. And I think the more we do that, the more we level out the playing field by sponsoring people who don’t feel comfortable. We as leaders have to sponsor everyone to ask for what they’re worth.

Follow your bliss is an old-school saying. I had a good friend from franchising who told me you need to understand your non-negotiables. When she first told me that, I didn’t really know what she meant, but as she talked me through, she said: ‘Decide where you want to live before you even take the interview. Decide what sectors you want to work in before you even take the interview. Decide what work-life balance is going to look like for you before you even take the interview, and then you know to say no to the job that’s up in Minneapolis because you don’t want to live in the snow, or say no to the job in food service, even if the salary is really attractive because you don’t want to work in food.’ I love working in service, but I think each of us individually has to know ourselves and where our own bliss lies. If there’s any hard journey in life, it’s the hard journey of setting yourself to figure that out because we chase the money to our own detriment, but if we chase the bliss, oftentimes the money will follow.

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