Pivoting Careers And Nailing Down Your Goals

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Christina Russell President of Camp Bow Wow
Photo courtesy of Christina Russell

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Today on the show I talk to the president of a fast growing company that franchises, wait for it, doggy daycare. You're going to hear how she's pivoted her career several different times, what her favorite book is for establishing a rhythm of communication, and our challenge of the day based on her failure story is: Today remember less I, more we. Listen to yourself. How many times are you using I, and how many times are you using the word we.

Our quote of the day, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Pablo Picasso. Our guest today spent most of her career in franchising, starting as a franchiser at Curves, International. Today, she is president and leader of the pack at Camp Bow-Wow, which has 140 different locations, making it North America's largest provider of doggy daycare, boarding and training. Our guest is Christina Russell. Christina, welcome to the show.

Christina Russell: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Kevin. It's a pleasure.

Kruse: Christina, I always start with the same first question, because I love failure stories. They're always stepping stones to lessons that we learn to make us greater. I'm hoping you will share one of your failure stories, and what did you learn from it.

Russell: Sure, I totally agree with you that sometimes the school of hard knocks is the most powerful school. I will say that one of the biggest fails I ever had was in my real first big leadership role. It was when I was promoted up in Curves to lead operations there, and it was a team of about 35 area directors and another 50 or so contractors that we worked with as mentors.

I had come from being a member of that team to actually getting the opportunity to lead the team. It was one of my really good friends and dear mentors that helped me get the role. She had been my boss, and helped me to become her boss. I was struggling at the beginning to really get my people behind me. I couldn't figure it out. It just felt like, okay, well they're resisting me. I'm not sure why.

This mentor, she came to me and she said, “Christina, do you feel like you're having trouble getting the team to really rally around what you're trying to do?” I said, “Yeah, I do. I'm not sure what it is, but I think it's just because they can't accept me because I was once their peer.” She said, “I'm going to tell you something, and I just want it to sit with you and see what you do with it,” and she just said, “More we, and less I.” I thought, “me?” Is that something that I'm doing? What's the story with that?

I really started thinking about it and I realized that she was right. I think I was just trying to get my confidence under me, and going gung-ho trying to lead this charge. It was me, me, me, I, I, I, here's what I'm going to do to fix it. When I changed that language and really started to think about it as a team effort, and to bring them in earlier in the decisions and make them a part of it, it made all the difference in the world.

I will say that was a huge lesson for me, and something that I still think about now as I'm trying to move forward. You've got to bring them with you, you've got to make the people a part of the solution.

Kruse: I love that story. It is something that I continue to struggle with. Very often, we are promoted into management or into higher levels of leadership because we are very effective. We often do have more experience than the people on our teams, but in that role, it's not so much about us having all the answers and fixing all the problems. It's getting results through that team and growing them along the way that could be hard for us to pause and remember, I think.

Russell: Oh, for sure. You know, I think about that woman, Janie, and how she really put her own pride aside and helped me to step into the role that I did, and what an ally and advocate she was as a leader and just what I learned from her through that process. I've looked at that as I've gotten later in my career of how do I help people to make that jump themselves, and turn the people that work for me, and to people that, who knows, maybe I'll be working for someday, but to help them reach their full potential.

Kruse: Yeah, that's great. Before I dive in to get more advice from you on management, leadership and other topics, I want to set some context. Your failure story from your time at Curve, and I mentioned in when I read your bio in the pre-show, about your career background. This is quite a different change. Let's start … tell us about Camp Bow Wow, and how is it different than the independent dog kennels that I'm used to around my house. How big is the company?

Russell: Camp Bow Wow is actually the largest provider of dog daycare and boarding. We have 147 units open today, another 50 or so in our pipeline that will open within the next 14 to 24 months, just depending on the size, and how they're opening that facility.

What makes this brand different is we've been around for a really long time, and we figured out a formula for growth that really works. It's a little different than a traditional what people might think of as a kennel, because we don't lock the dogs up all day. Instead, the whole idea of camp is just like camp for your kids.

You bring the dogs so they have a great experience while you're traveling, on vacation, or even when you're at work everyday. They get to play all day with other dogs of similar size and similar temperament, and they do get rest breaks throughout the day if they need it, so they've got comfy cots and cabins where they can go lay down.

It really is around that camp theme. The brand has been built on that. So many of the competitors, they talk about a hotel, or a spa, or different types of things, and it just doesn't resonate with pet parents in quite the same way. What we do really embodies that brand. It's a camp, it really is a place where dogs can go to have fun.

Kruse: I love that concept, and from a business standpoint, the positioning. I think there's so many people—my own parents, who are now in their 70's and they have an older dog, a bigger dog, Barrett. A great old dog. They really don't travel anymore. They don't go on vacations, because they feel guilty if a family member can't watch the dog, they don't want to put him into a kennel because it doesn't seem like a very good experience.

I love this idea. It's like while you're going on vacation, Barrett's going on vacation. He's going to have a blast. He's going to love it. I think that's a great idea.

Russell: For sure. The main thing for all of us in the industry, I think, the job want is safety. We've made an environment where it's really safe for dogs to play, and we interview the dogs. We actually make sure they're going to be a great fit for camp. We turn away about 10% of them because they're not a good fit. Those are ones where sometimes in-home pet care may be a better solution, but for dogs that do like to play in a group environment, which is the vast majority of dogs, about 90% of the dogs will qualify in our camps.

They just absolutely love it. You think about where it was 10 years ago, and 10 years ago if you went on vacation, your dog went to prison.

Kruse: Right.

Russell: Now, there's a lot of options out there, but we love what we do with camp, and it's interesting just watching the people that come to this. So many of our franchisees are leaving C-level jobs and getting out of corporate America to start their own business. It's a business that they're really passionate about. It's something they love.

Kruse: That's great. Coming back to sort of your thoughts about leadership advice, management advice… You've had a lot of different success. Initially, running multiple franchises yourself where clearly you can't be doing everything by yourself, day to day. You mentioned the senior leadership at Curves, now leading Camp Bow Wow… When it comes to goal setting objectives, how important is that? Is that sort of in your toolbox as a manager, or how do you think about sharing goals or objectives with the team?

Russell: I was so blessed early in my career to have great mentors. When I was 23 years old, I was actually working as a science writer at the National Laboratory in Los Alamos, and they had a program there where they would put you through Franklin Covey's Time Management program. It was the old school week long program where you got the paper planner. From that early time in my career, I was taught write your goals down.

It is amazing what a difference that makes. It is an exercise that since I was 23 years old I've done. I think it's been absolutely critical to help me navigate my career. Now, as a company, certainly this is something that's just absolutely critically important. We do do an exercise every year, an annual retreat, where we set goals for the coming year. Very specific measurable goals, and bring the entire team down to every member of the team into that process.

The company goals drive the team goals, and the team goals drive the individual goals. Everyone has those written goals, and we re-visit them throughout. From those goals then become our quarterly tasks. Everything fits together. There's a lot of pride around that that you see. Certainly, it resonates with me, but I see it in the team members that we have. It may be their first experience with this, but when they've written some things down that they want to accomplish, and we don't just do it professionally. We have our work goals.

We have them write professional growth goals, and also if they want to share personal goals that we can support them that as well, and that pride they have at the end of the year when they've achieved those things is something that it's really valuable for us as a company. It really builds a great culture, and it builds a lot of commitment to the brand, because they know that we're committed to them as individuals and to their growth as well.

Kruse: That's a great idea. It's not something that I've done myself, is having team members include personal goals along the way because I don't really believe, in these days anymore, a work/life balance. It's just life. It's just a work/life integration, or blend or something. To be able to celebrate with people, or encourage people not just on the work goals, but the personal goals, that's pretty powerful.

Russell: Where this came from was just recognizing that so often team members, and ourselves included, when you move into leadership, typically you move there because you're just passionate about the work you do. It's so common for people to put, like you say, a work/life kind of differentiation there, and the work stuff gets done, but the life stuff always seems to be secondary.

A lot of times, the goals that we're getting from team members on a personal level are really more about setting boundaries on schedule and things that we can support them. They are making the time to go do some of those things, like watching their kids' soccer match, and still able to achieve those professional goals in the context.

I'm a firm believer in that kind of flexibility, and like you say, the integration is absolutely critical. You've got to know as a leader what that person is trying to accomplish holistically, or you're going to end up burning them out professionally and having to train the next one behind them. It's a lot of really just trying to make sure that this is a great experience for them, just like it is for the company.

Kruse: It sounds like you have a great culture there. Again, I believe engagement of culture is really at that frontline manager level, and is a great tool, as you said, to make sure people are managing the whole person.

Russell: Oh, yeah. For sure. There's great tools out there. I discovered a book about … oh gosh, I guess it was a year and a half or so ago called Traction by Gino Wickman, that gives an operating system for how you can get some rhythm with the business, and really get everyone engaged. It's been a great tool, and I think sometimes as leaders, it's finding those things that resonate with you, and then the team can understand, so it gives you a system to work from.

Kruse: I just wrote that down. I am a book junkie. I read about a book a day, and I have not come across Traction, so that's amazing.

Russell: It's one that I've heard a lot about in the franchise circuit, because obviously being a franchise brand, we're very involved there. It's been a great book, just from the perspective of putting an operating system in place to get people engaged.

Kruse: That's fantastic. Another sort of fundamental management principle that really changed my world for the better is when I, as a manager, as a leader, started doing one on one meetings with my direct reports. I do them weekly, usually. Monday is for meetings. I tend to stack them all up on Mondays, which isn't a whole lot of fun, but they're very valuable.

I'm just curious, your own thoughts about the value, or not, and any tips around meeting with your direct reports on a one on one basis.

Russell: Career-wise, I will tell you I, again, have had good mentors along the way who have provided that for me. Knowing that I had the time from some of the people that I worked with to be able to pick their brain, and understand their perspectives, and to really make sure that we're aligned before I move forward was absolutely critical to my success.

I try to provide that same to my own people, minus Meeting Mondays. Mine's Meeting Wednesdays.

Kruse: Meeting Wednesdays.

Russell: Yeah, so usually mid-week I've got a stacked day of providing that time to the folks that are leading the various departments to make sure that we are on the same page, that if they need support … because that's really my role, is to support them and to help them be successful to provide them the resources to make sure that we're in alignment on the vision. They need that time with you, as a leader. If you don't provide it, they're guessing. Guessing isn't comfortable, and it usually ends up creating mistakes along the way. The time is absolutely critical. It's tough.

I think as leaders a lot of time we're people who don't like to have that sitting in a chair all day kind of day, where you are doing meeting after meeting. Those kinds of one on one sessions can be absolutely critical to the success of that individual and the role that they play, and that means it's the success of your company as well.

Kruse: I guess a last sort of advice-type question… You have really an interesting career. We've already sort of touched on it. You were an editor of physics books at Los Alamos National Labs, you opened and ran four Curves franchises, so health and fitness space. Then, you stay in that space, but move up into the corporate level of Curves, and now you're growing and leading Camp Bow Wow.

The question is, what advice would you have to a young professional who wants to have an amazing career, but specifically, you've moved around a little bit. I have three teenagers, one's in college, one's about ready to go off to college, and they talk all time … “Oh, I think I want to be this.” It's like, they think they're going to be “it” for the next 80 years of their life, or whatever it is.

I look at your career and I'm like, “Just worry about job number one, because odds are job number two could be very different.” What advice would you give the young people out there when it comes to career success?

Russell: There's a few things about it. The first and foremost is if you're miserable, move on. If you're going down a path, and you find out it's not quite the path that you wanted, don't be afraid to pivot. Don't be afraid to shift to something different. I think the best advice is you have to be a lifelong learner, and you have to be willing to step through those doors, even if it's completely new and scary, if it's a direction that feels like it has opportunity for you.

If they feel random, then I think the defining theme throughout all the career transitions I made, is the desire to fix it and make it better, and to really have that opportunity to be in front and to lead the way, to take something that maybe isn't working quite as well as it could, and to make it work just a little bit better.

If you're always looking for that way to bring a little bit more insight, and a little bit more innovation, and a little bit more creativity to something, and to put yourself out there to learn and to grow, those doors just keep opening. It's been exciting. I will say for the last, gosh… well, since 2000, so 17 years of my career, it really has been in the franchise space. I think what excited me about that space when I came into it as a franchisee, is just the incredible opportunity that's there for people who had careers working for others, to create businesses of their own with a proven system.

I loved it as a franchisee, but then I found what I loved even more was helping folks to make that leap, because it's a scary leap going from being an employee to being an employer. Franchising is just a really exciting space for that, and certainly the pet industry is an exciting industry, so I've just been very blessed to bring those two things together with where I am today.

Kruse: I really want to make sure that our listeners heard you say “proven system.” While there's no guarantees in life, I think that… I haven't run a franchise myself, so I'm a serial entrepreneur, started several different companies, and it is hard. Even though I start them in the same or similar industry, it is hard. I think there is a lot of people out there that are entrepreneurial that want to be their own boss, but could use a little bit of help or guidance.

That's where I think whatever the franchise is, the franchise space is exciting as I think it reduces the risk when you can be given that playbook, when you don't have to be the marketing expert on day one, and all of those things. I encourage anybody, because I know, I hear it from a lot of our listeners… People who are looking to do career pivots, to really think seriously about owning their business as a franchisee.

Russell: Oh yeah. If you start learning about the franchise space, what you'll find is that most of the folks that end up in franchising are people who've been very successful in careers, and are ready to hold the reigns themselves, but aren't necessarily the ones that have that big idea for a business. What you're basically doing in franchising is looking at all the big ideas that are out there and saying, “Hey, I would love to have the opportunity to be a part of that idea,” and to execute it well because I know that I am expert at execution, and I want that next step into entrepreneurship on that with somebody's idea that really works.

Like you said, there's no guarantees. You can look at the success and failure of franchise brands over time, and franchise businesses struggle like all businesses to stay ahead of trends and to be cutting edge. There's so much that happens in the franchise space where you can see, you can look, you can understand the model before you get into it and know what that risk looks like.

At the end of the day, your hard work can pay off in a much different way than it does when you're working for a company and just waiting for a promotion. You can actually grow your business to the scale that you want it. Obviously, many franchisees become multi-unit owners. Our brand, when I came her in 2014, was only about 5% multi-unit, but many of our owners, due to their success, have bought additional units and are multi-unit owners now. We're about 27% multi-unit today.

Kruse: Wow, that's a big jump.

Russell: Oh yeah, incredible jump. Again, they get that first step into business and get a successful camp behind them. Then, they're ready for camp two, maybe three, four, five. We've got an owner right now who has five and is working on his sixth.

Kruse: Wow, that's great.

Russell: Yeah.

Kruse: What else, when it comes to Camp Bow Wow, what are you most excited about these days?

Russell: It's a great brand, it's fun to be in the leadership position. Looking at where we are with digital marketing, which of course is huge, the brand itself, Camp Bow Wow, is now searched as often as the term “dog boarding.”

Kruse: Wow.

Russell: We're becoming kind of the Kleenex of our industry, if you will, and it's exciting to see that. I think it's the continued innovation, so we made the decision last year to bring our technology in-house, and to make a major investment in re-building our point of sales system into something that's actually a tool for convenience and automation, both for the customer and for the franchisee.

There's a lot that we're doing to really take that to the cutting edge, and take a lot of the technologies that exist in the hotel space today, and bring those to the dog space. It's just not being done, so it's exciting to be on the cutting edge of that, and to have the opportunity to get there and really lead the way in that.

I will say the other thing that continues to excite me, the brand has always had an element of it, that is giving back to the communities that we're in. Our foundation is doing better than ever. We had our biggest year, but the Bow Wow Buddies Foundation is a way that our camps will do work in their local communities to identify families that have necessary medical treatments needed for their dogs, but they can't afford.

Oftentimes, it puts families into a position where they have to make a very difficult decision to give their dog up, and that's horrible. We work to give them grants to be able to afford those medical treatments, and it's just really cool to see how the franchisees and their customers really rally behind that, and the good that we've been able to do.

Of course, we do a lot of adoption events and other types of charity work, as well. It really makes you just feel great about coming to work every day when you know that there is more to the business than just the financials. It really is about something that means something to people in a really deep way. I just love that.

Kruse: I often say, “All else being equal, people would rather work for a purpose than a paycheck,” and clearly that's motivating you and your partners. That's great to hear.

Russell: Yeah.

Kruse: How can our listeners find out more about you, and also of course, Camp Bow Wow?

Russell: We are very active on LinkedIn. If you're looking for anything professional about Camp Bow Wow, myself included, you can find us on LinkedIn. Camp Bow Wow itself, visit campbowwow.com. We have all of the information there, both for our pet parent and for people that might be interested in franchising. You can go to campbowwow.com, and link to our information on franchising and learn all about what it means to be a franchisee, see some testimonials from existing franchisees and why they got into the business, and what it's meant to them. It just gives you a chance to kind of explore that potential, if it's something that's interesting.