Corner Office: Elisa Steele on Trusting Your Instincts

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How have your parents influenced you?

My dad has been a huge influence. He’s very focused on what’s important, and prioritizes incredibly well. You have to know what’s important to you, and make decisions against those things. You have to stay focused on your vision.

My mom is the most caring person I’ve ever met. She really cares about other points of view, what it means to have a relationship, and how you commit to each other.

When you went to college, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for a career?

I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to run a hotel. I grew out of that really quickly and decided I wanted to go into sales.

My first job was as an associate account executive. I was assigned to a more senior person, and got bored quickly because my job was really just to follow her around.

About a month into a job, I realized that all of the account executives had their key accounts and their dog accounts. And they didn’t spend any time with their dog accounts, because they focused on the ones that were growing.

So I went to the sales manager and said: “Why don’t you give everybody’s dog accounts to me, and I’ll go see if I can do something with them. They don’t want to spend time with them, and I’m bored.” He agreed to the idea, and suddenly I was sitting there at my little cube, and I had 20 dog accounts.

I met with each one of them, and most of them said: “We haven’t heard from you guys in a long time. Good to see you.” I turned some of those accounts into revenue-producing accounts.

What about early management lessons?

A big moment came when I was promoted to a general manager role. I was in my late 20s, and I had responsibility for everything in the unit — sales, technical support, customer service, H.R., marketing.

It was a high-pressure situation, because the unit was really underperforming. I walked into my first management staff meeting, and there were nine white men over the age of 40, and they were all looking at me like, “Really?”

What did you do?

I walked in, and literally did not know what I was going to say. I sat down, looked at the team and said, “We’re going to get to work.”

Whatever they thought of me, they had been there, and the results weren’t good, so they were going to have to give me a chance. We figured out who was good at what and started making progress.

Other lessons?

Early on, I questioned my instincts. I wanted to follow the book. I was the student. I assumed everyone knew more. There were times when I didn’t follow my instincts and made mistakes. I realized in hindsight that if I had followed my instincts, there would have been a different outcome.

So my biggest lesson is to follow your instincts. You know better than anybody else.

Pet peeves?

My biggest is people who show up not prepared — you didn’t do your homework, you don’t know what the competition is doing, you don’t have a point of view. Don’t do that. Please come prepared. The other one is that it’s “we,” not “I.”

How do you hire?

I tend to hire for team dynamics, energy and hunger — how much do you want to win? If you want to win together as a team, then it’s less about you and more about us, and more about the bigger picture.

I ask a lot of situational questions, like: “Tell me about a situation when things felt really dire, like it wasn’t going to work out the way you planned. What did you do? How did you do it? Who did you do it with? What was your thinking at the time? Would you do it again?”

I ask about their experiences because I think it’s really hard to talk about experiences and not tell the truth. How did that experience make you feel? How did the team feel? How did people react to that? People tend to be very honest, because it’s their own experience, as opposed to responding to some abstract question.

What are you listening for?

I’m listening for empathy and desire. I’m listening for decision-making skills — how quickly were you able to decide to do X versus Y? How long did the situation go on?

Decision-making skills are super-important. In any industry, you move so fast. We have to make decisions every day. I also listen for how you make decisions, not just that you can make them. Are you autocratic? Or are you team-oriented about those decisions? That’s very important.

I also end most of my interviews with, “So what did I not ask you that you need to answer to tell me the best about yourself?”

What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

Don’t let anyone else tell you who you are or what you can do. Follow your instincts.

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