2013 Enterprising Women: Rhoda Olsen
CEO, Great Clips
With more than 20 years of executive leadership experience in various positions throughout Great Clips, Rhoda Olsen has developed a deep understanding of what makes successful organizations work. While providing leadership at the corporate level as CEO, Olsen also works closely with franchisees, helping them take advantage of a powerful network of people, tools and resources. When she joined the company’s executive team in 1987, Great Clips was a regional chain of 180 salons owned by three partners—today the company’s 3,300 salons throughout North America employ approximately 30,000 stylists. Olsen has prior experience in human resources, business leadership and consulting with various leading companies, including food and agricultural giant Land O’Lakes.
From where does your entrepreneurial drive originate?
My mother struggled for many years trying to build her own business, but she always seemed energized and committed to making it work. Watching her learn every day made it clear to me that being in a changing and growing environment creates energy and motivation. My entrepreneurial drive comes from loving to work and having an impact.
As you grew your company/brand, what “ah-ha” moments of clarity helped you shape its future course?
There were many “ah-ha” moments, but one that stands out was when Great Clips was early in the process of launching a new salon design. We knew we needed to update our salons and we knew it would have impact on our franchisees. There was a lot of energy around this needed change, but there was actually more energy inside of Great Clips, than with the Great Clips franchisees. We stumbled pretty significantly because the design was not as consistent with our brand image as it should have been. The costs were higher than expected and we had not gained enough broad franchisee feedback on something that would have such a significant financial impact to them. As we struggled with shifting our course and stepping back, we all felt a little defensive. We thought we had done the right thing and were focused on improving the franchisees’ business but clearly we needed to start over.
It was during this situation it became clear that in those times when things just aren’t right, you don’t need to blame someone, you don’t need to become defensive, you don’t need to go backwards, you can simply say, “we just aren’t where we want to be, so let’s back up and start over.” It worked incredibly well in this situation and it continues to work when we hit roadblocks with our franchisees and want them clearly engaged and focused on the change that we believe is important for the brand.
As you shaped your company, what have been some of the biggest stumbling blocks?
Trying to stay clearly focused on the customer and knowing that the stylists are the clear link to delivering our brand. It seems like we often stumble when we forget about or lose sight of the most important thing in our business, and that is what happens in the salon between the stylist and customer every day. We’ve often stumbled when we don’t clearly look at the impact something will have on salon operations and the stylists’ ability to really serve the customer well.
How would you describe your management style? What do you think makes you a good leader, and in what areas would you want to improve?
Fluid and intense. Oftentimes I believe I am calm, but even when I am calm I’m perceived as intense. I do think intensity and emotion contributes to me being a good leader though because people know I am truly committed and passionate about the business and my role. I feel I am very collaborative and believe that the best decisions and direction comes from gaining input, listening closely, and engaging all of the right folks. I would like to improve my reaction when things are missed or I perceive that a mistake has been made. I try to react appropriately, but oftentimes that is not the perception. I can be fairly emotional so that appears both on the positive and constructive side and sometimes I need to take more time to react and react calmly.
How do you set goals for yourself? For example, do you prefer more small accomplishable goals or fewer large goals? How do you hold yourself accountable?
A lot of the goals I set for myself are beyond the company. The company goals are clearly established and they drive my business performance every day. But I also have very clear personal goals that include business, social, spiritual and family. I try and write down key goals and direction for myself and keep those with me all the time. My belief is that you might as well set 10 goals and get two or three done rather than set three and get one done. I hold myself accountable through commitments to my Vistage peer group, commitments to my family, and commitments to the employees or franchisees in our organization.
Throughout your professional history, what’s the best lesson you’ve learned after making a mistake?
I think the best lesson I’ve learned after making a mistake is to not get defensive. I worked incredibly hard and continue to work hard at not being defensive and feel like disagreements or differences of opinion are not personal. I clearly have learned that getting defensive doesn’t accomplish anything and it often creates a setback. If you can be non-defensive it’s a lot more likely you will achieve your goals and gain support and momentum.
From whom or what do you draw your strength, courage, vision?
My strength and courage comes primarily from my family. We grew up in a struggling family and through many ups and downs I gained the strength and courage to believe that things could get better. I developed a great amount of resilience and really value the struggles that my family had because I believe there is no way to learn those lessons as effectively as learning them through difficult times. My brother, Ray, has been critical to me in developing and creating a vision. My husband and boys have also contributed to my ability to see a clear, long-term vision. My husband, Greg, has always had the ability to look beyond the issues and problems in front of me to looking longer term at a vision and what can be accomplished. As my boys played hockey, I learned more about the benefit of visualizing, and I believe this also helps with vision. My son, Andy, was a goalie and we would often visualize in the car on the way to games and talk about exactly what would happen when he was in the net. The power of those conversations helped me understand that both visualizing and developing a clear vision could be very powerful.
As you grew your company what, if anything, has held you back?
I think the only thing that has ever held me back is my own lack of confidence and insecurities. There were times when I would second-guess myself and hold back when my gut really told me I was on the right path and needed to persevere. I still have those moments, but try and work through them more quickly in order to move forward.
What is the number-one quality you look for when hiring employees and how do you evaluate if they possess that trait?
Whether or not they have good emotional strength and can care deeply about what they are doing. As a franchise organization, there are a lot of relationships that need to be built and one’s capacity for building and maintaining relationships is critical. Employees need to care, listen, support, and challenge both the franchisees and one another in order to be successful. We evaluate that trait through multiple interviews and comparing that employee’s style to the styles of our most successful employees.
What’s the best thing an employee/colleague ever said about you?
One of the things that I have always worked on is trying to let go and develop staff by allowing them to determine a path to accomplish a goal. I went into a senior executive meeting that was very focused on planning and one of the senior executives, Dean Wieber, knew that I had a very specific plan in mind for accomplishing one of our goals. He knew I had a vendor identified and clear ideas on what franchisees should be involved. In the meeting, I simply defined the goal and allowed the group to determine the best way to get there. It was nothing like the plan I had envisioned. After the meeting, Dean said, “I don’t know how you did that, but it was really impressive and I appreciated your willingness to let us tackle that on our own.” This was impactful because it helped me understand the power of letting go and simply defining the goals and trusting the executives and all of the employees to accomplish it.
If you were training another woman to take over your job, what’s the most important advice you would offer her?
The most important advice I would offer to a woman moving into my position would be simple—be yourself, share your emotions, don’t hesitate to be passionate, share your experiences, and work hard on establishing a vision that will drive you forward. I would also encourage her to work hard at generously listening and not feeling like she has to have the answers or react to all of the things in front of her. I would encourage her to ask more questions than provide answers. But more than anything, I would help her understand that her strength, emotion and truly caring are a great advantage she should use to create energy and connections in the organization.
If you were to look at a scrapbook of your professional career, what would be your favorite page? Which page would you like to remove?
The favorite page in my scrapbook of my career is the day I joined Great Clips full-time on March 23, 1987. In addition to that being my wedding anniversary (which means I can celebrate both at the same time) this is just an incredible milestone for me in being given the opportunity to join a company in its very early stage and use all of my energy, entrepreneurial spirit and drive to build an organization where everyone involved benefits. I also loved working with women and I loved the fact that there was just tons of work to do. The page I would like to remove would be related to a position I had in 1981 as a qualified rehabilitation consultant for an insurance consulting company. This was an interesting job where I worked between the insurance companies and injured workers to get them back to work and off of worker’s compensation. It was difficult because so many times there were employees who were taking advantage of the company, but on the other hand there were so many times where employees were seriously injured and their lives were changed forever and it was very difficult when things did not go well for them.
If someone were to write a book about your life, what would be an appropriate title?
The Strength of Emotion or Emotion and Courage.
If you weren’t in the beauty industry, what would you be doing?
If I weren’t in the beauty industry, I believe I would be in franchising in some other industry. I really love helping people start businesses and leveraging the strength of a system and a brand.
What are you working on now? What’s your next professional step?
Right now I’m working on our strategic plan and really looking at how we can create a legacy that perpetuates the values and the successes we’ve had. Another core strategy I am working on is developing the right approach to technology and how we use it as a tool to create trust and connections rather than just to be doing things that are “cool” or “unique” in the technology area. We need to make sure we’re using technology in the right places to connect with our customers, create trust with our franchisees, support our stylists and leverage our strengths.
The next professional step for me is to keep pushing myself to work on the things I know are opportunities. Professionally, I need to continue to work at listening, more effective delegation and communication, developing our executives, and pushing myself to continue to learn and grow.
How would you like to spend your retirement?
I think retirement is the wrong word and I don’t really see myself “retiring.” I do see myself moving to a less active role in the business, serving on the Board of Directors, and providing assistance both to Great Clips, Inc. and to the franchisees. And then if I had more time, I would spend it with my family and really enjoy my two beautiful grandchildren, Emily and Ethan. I would also increase my support of non-profit organizations and focus on those organizations that support entrepreneurial women.