Female Leaders Raising Up the Next Generation

Female Leaders Raising Up the Next Generation - Ericka Garza

Name: Ericka Garza

Brand: Au Bon Pain Café & Bakery 

Title: President/CEO 

Age: 46

Years in franchising: 16 

No. of units system-wide: 175 worldwide

What do you wish you had known before taking your first management role? The primary things are to be even more assertive, set boundaries, and remain firm. I was so concerned about disagreeing with a person and not to be seen as problematic or unlikeable. I felt this need to be over-accommodating and be seen as a people pleaser. I was always saying yes to extra work versus delegating and providing the opportunity to train and mentor my subordinates.

Which leadership skills were most difficult to develop? The most challenging one was coping with the fear of failure, learning to work through the moments of self-doubt, and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. Another one was finding the balance between thick skin and thin skin. Today I lead with a soft heart when needed, but have thick skin to guard it as well.

Who helped you on the way to the top? I have a couple of special people in my life who I can attribute my rise and success to. It’s hard for me to name one individual. I have been blessed to have had strong role models, advocates, mentors, and sponsors in my personal life, business, and education. I am grateful they believed in me enough to fuel my growth and lift me along the way; particularly, franchisees have opened many doors for my thought and have been the cornerstone of my success.

What was the best advice you ever got? Don’t be afraid to ask. At times, I didn’t want to impose on people or seem that I didn’t belong at the table. Throughout my career, I have been very fortunate to surround myself, work with, and be mentored by some of the most talented, successful, and competent leaders in the industry. Each has common skills (e.g., asking many questions, seeking advice, and asking for help). One of the most memorable and best pieces of advice I received was, “Do not have a knower mindset; instead, have a learner mindset. The learner mindset is more vulnerable and accepts the fact that you may not know all the answers.” Additionally, it demonstrates a willingness to learn from others and build relationships.

Is that different than the advice you give? No.

How do you mentor, and what advice do you give those you mentor? One of my most significant pieces of advice is to surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed. Of course, it’s essential to have mentors, but it’s also vital to have sponsors willing to cash their personal, social, and political capital to open the door for you or help you move up. They are people who believe in you, people you’ve built credibility with.

What skill sets do you think are imperative for young women leaders? Young women leaders must be true to their authentic selves and find their voice as women in business. It has been proven that women leaders bring higher collaboration to companies, often bring better problem-solving skills because they are more inclusive in the process, have superior softer skills, can be more effective communicating or managing the nuances of a complex situation, and are often greater advocates for diversity and creating opportunities for other marginalized groups.

What are your leadership do’s and don’ts? There are many, but here are a few.

Do’s: Keep my word and follow through on my commitments (integrity). Demonstrate a willingness to get close to the business and understand the roles. I want my team to know they can depend on me to do a fair share of work and follow through, supporting them through tough times. Be accessible. I always want to be a leader who hears feedback, is an active listener, and builds meaningful working relationships up, down, and across the organization. Stay committed to my personal development and the development of others. I want to keep growing and learning, and I also want to help team members find ways to develop new skills. Don’ts: Compromise my values and ethics, always think I am right, or lose being open to others’ ideas and creativity. There is more than one right way to do things, and some of the people closest to the work will always have better ideas or see a clearer solution.

How did you learn to embrace risk-taking? I would say that most of my career and personal life have been based on a series of risk-taking opportunities and taking many leaps of faith. I would also add that the risk decisions I’ve made and the steps I took to get to where I am today have become some of the proudest moments that contributed to my success, as well as to my biggest failures. As a woman of color, and at the time a single mom, and not having a business degree from an Ivy League university, I felt the odds and obstacles were greater for me. Therefore, it was too risky for me not to take chances when given to me. Notably, in a world that’s constantly changing quickly, the only strategy guaranteed to fail is not taking risks. Therefore, I have always been driven to do something different without testing the waters, persevere through it, and have a willingness to gamble, take risks, and the willingness to risk rejection or failure. Throughout my experiences, I can personally share that when you are genuinely passionate about something, taking risks to achieve it becomes second nature.

How should aspiring female leaders build allies? By building relationships with peers and critical stakeholders. Seek input early in the process to hear points of view, collaborate, and build alliances. Sharing in creating a strategy, idea, or solving a problem creates a partnership that can be lasting. Also, demonstrate a willingness to add value and help colleagues when needed. It is gratifying to help a colleague in need. You build equity and trust along the way, while helping someone else be successful.

How do aspiring female leaders balance patience and perseverance? Today’s business world is filled with uncertainty, and uncertainty creates distractions, stress, exhaustion, and obstacles. Leaders must have the grace to listen to their people and understand the risk/reward in rushing ahead or having the patience to let circumstances play out. Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of leaders who stubbornly forged ahead on a business strategy that no longer made sense.

What roles do education and experience play in leadership development? I never stop learning and have a strong combination of both education and experience. Earlier I talked about continuous improvement and achievements. I commit to constant learning by reading, participating in various educational conferences and webinars, and last year I finished an executive education program at Cornell University. I understand that you can never be too educated, especially if you’re in a leadership position. I want to be an example to employees and young women. Continuing education can enable anyone to make smarter decisions, be a better leader, and become valuable within the industry. It’s imperative to continue sharpening our skills and developing new ones. I bring those types of learning each day to my job. But I am also a big believer in rolling up my sleeves and doing the work. I have had a range of responsibilities working for companies like 7-Eleven and Yum Brands, which prepared me for what I am doing today.

What about attitude and mindset? I am an eternal optimist. I see opportunity in everything. My father was an entrepreneur and owned small businesses. My mother, to this day, is self-employed and works six days a week. Together, they taught me life lessons I’ve used to get to where I am today. My mother taught me the value of hard work, preparedness, rebounding and rebuilding, failures, setbacks, courage, having a voice, and standing up for others. My father talked to me about “stereotypes and breakthroughs,” and from a very young age made me aware that I looked different and spoke differently from everybody else; therefore, I would most likely always be walking into a world that makes prejudgments about my gender and race. Those lessons instilled in me a need to work harder and prove myself. It was important to find a way to stand apart from the crowd. These are the things that make me who I am. In life, how you react to what happens defines you as a person. And that if I did the right things, I could accomplish anything. I have carried that mindset with me today.

Was there a time when things didn’t turn out as planned? How did you bounce back? I have experienced multiple situations that didn’t turn out as planned. I have been rejected from a promotion, I have lost business accounts, recessions, Covid, etc. However, as I said, I am an eternal optimist. Even when things go wrong, I see it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and get better. We often learn more from failure than we do from success. I don’t believe failure is fatal unless you give in to it and stop. One of my favorite quotes comes from Matty Mullens: “The only person you should try to do better than is the person you were yesterday.”

What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned, and how has it proven invaluable? One of the things I feel I’ve been wise enough to learn throughout the years is that you never know everything. No matter how many experiences, lessons, or how much education you go through, you still have many to learn. I’m currently, and will always be, a student within my industry, in my surroundings. Loving to learn different things and taking from those experiences has been invaluable to me.

Why is it so important to give back to the next generation of leaders? Paying success forward to a new generation of entrepreneurs, leaders, and innovators, particularly women of color, is vital to me. True success is opening doors for others and expanding opportunities for all women and minorities. I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to invest in people. What motivates me is helping the next generation reach even greater heights than we ever dreamed. Although we all have different ways of advocating, I advocate by sharing my personal experiences, failures, and triumphs, particularly for people who look like me.

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