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CEO at Moz, sets the company strategy and drives execution through alignment, authentic company culture, and transparency.
As a teenager, ballet was just one of my extracurriculars, a hobby alongside piano and watercoloring. But as it turns out, ballet demanded more from me than tickling the ivory. Six days a week, we met for strenuous practice under the guidance of our instructor.
Miss Erin was tough, an entrepreneur who cared less about us smiling and more about whether we were performing at the highest level. For her, success was technical precision and transcendent art. She didn’t see a motley crew of suburban daughters; she saw raw materials capable of greatness. The kind of “fun” we had was derived from overcoming bloody feet, exhaustion, learning increasingly complex maneuvers and telling stories with our hands and eyes.
Business leaders often wax poetic about how they learned their skill or their drive to win from sports. For me, it was ballet. Less about domination and more about self-improvement and teamwork, I’m grateful for what Miss Erin taught me: how to push myself to the limit without the fear of losing or needing to crush a competitor. I carry these lessons with me in my leadership roles, both as a CEO and mentor.
Warm-Ups Are Worth the Work
Each ballet practice began with seven minutes of stretching during which we would often zone out and go through the familiar rhythm on autopilot. One day, Miss Erin stopped us and gathered us around a picture hung up in our studio of arguably the greatest ballet dancer of all time, Rudolph Nureyev.
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He had his legs braced up over a bar, leaning in for a deeper stretch. Miss Erin looked at us and said, “Do you see what’s pouring down his face?” Silence from all of us. He was stretching — as we had just been. We’d all seen the picture before. “He’s sweating during warmup,” Miss Erin said emphatically, “and here you ladies are looking half-dead and going through the motions. This is what it takes. If you aren’t working hard enough to sweat during warmup, how do you expect to achieve greatness?”
My biggest takeaway from this day was you can’t coast. How would I ever become a great dancer if I didn’t put in the work? By just going through the motions, I was cheating myself and wasting my own time. It’s stuck with me as I’ve worked to reach where I am today. Nothing just comes to you, and no one is born great; you have to sweat for it.
Miss Erin’s philosophy still inspires me, even in the seven minutes of “warm-up” for an early morning meeting, call, project or just the day in general. Physical and mental stretching goes hand-in-hand with success. If you’re willing to push yourself and encourage those lagging behind, your mentee could be the next Rudolph Nureyev of their industry.
Embrace the Hard Things
When I was 12, I could barely touch my toes, let alone do the splits. I told myself I just wasn’t born flexible, but Miss Erin was having none of that. Ballet requires a great deal of flexibility. Your legs need to stretch up to touch your ears. You must be able to jump, scissor your legs into a long line and land again with feather-light grace. Flexibility is a quality inseparable from ballet.
There were no self-limiting statements allowed in Miss Erin’s class — no “I can’t do it” or “I wasn’t born to be flexible.” Seeing many of us struggle with flexibility, she challenged us. “If you sit in your splits for five minutes each day for a month, you will have your splits.” This sounded impossible, but I persevered. I sat in as close an approximation to a split as my legs would allow and wept with pain for five minutes on each leg, each day. I pounded the floor. I took deep breaths. I moaned. But inch by very painful inch, I got there through dedication, perseverance and pain. She encouraged us in our pain and held us accountable. Her mentorship pushed me through failures and pain, but I got my splits. Sheer determination can make up for a lot of “natural” talent.
Pushing beyond limitations was invaluable. It’s what started my professional growth. Having someone to demand greatness — even when you don’t know if you want it — can lead you to achieve more.
We Need All Talents to Create Our Artistic Vision
Miss Erin wanted our team to strive for a vision greater than what we could achieve alone.
Like any other sport, we’d review tapes, picking apart a dance troupe’s synergy, timing and attention to detail. We’d watch a group of 25 dancers hit the same poses at the same time, heads tilted and eyes fixed at the exact same angle. We began to see how a finely tuned ensemble was just as evocative and magical as a beautiful solo or pas de deux.
We couldn’t all be principal dancers, but everyone’s hard work and creativity were necessary to create the whole. I learned by watching her guide a team toward a common vision, hitting the notes synchronously, working and celebrating as one.
As leaders, we must inspire diverse people and lead them toward a shared goal. Whether performing on stage or hitting revenue targets, getting everyone on board and working together is the only path to greatness.
Miss Erin showed me what a strong leader could look like: strict, direct, involved, experienced and always passionate. She was focused on the highest good and when she pushed you hard, it was because she believed in you. She pushed me to greater heights (and stretches) than I thought possible, all while I learned the value of teamwork. As a CEO and a mentor, if I have a similar impact on our up-and-coming Mozzers, I’ll know I’ve done well.
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Author: Sarah Bird, Forbes Councils Member