This week, I’m happy to welcome Jo Kirchner and Steve Clemente of Primrose Schools. Kirchner has been with Primrose Schools since 1990, and as been the CEO since 1999. Clemente joined the company in 2016 as President. He formerly spent 15 years in an executive position with Target, and 5 years with Nebraska Book Company, the latter half as CEO.
Primrose Schools has grown to 357 franchise locations under Kirchner’s leadership. She is an expert at replicating systems and extending culture throughout a large and geographically dispersed organization. Her strong grounding in culture and core values supports her in making effective decisions for her executive team, and for her own career.
Know When it’s Time for a Change
It has long been Kirchner’s plan to build Primrose Schools to a national brand. She’s remained a student of other businesses as they have moved past that tipping point, and she believes that the time is near for Primrose to cross that same threshold. For her, that meant it was time to bring in a new executive team member, with a diverse skill set.
She realized her abilities could “preserve the core” of the organization, but she was looking for someone who could stimulate the progress of the organization as it sat on the brink of a tipping point. She initially planned to bring in a COO, but wasn’t finding the skill set she was looking for. She decided instead, to look for someone who had already held the role of President or CEO, and bring them in as President at Primrose. This decision led her to Clemente.
As a CEO, maintaining a strong awareness of the developmental position of your company, along with your own strengths, will let you know when it’s time to diversify your executive team, and bring someone in to balance the existing strengths. Conversely, you might find yourself in a company that is no longer a fit for you. If you have honed your skills as an executive at a large company, you might find that stepping into a C-level position at a mid-sized company gives you more room to contribute. Or, you might be incredibly well suited to lead at a certain stage of a company’s growth, and when you have led a company to the next stage, could find that you want to move on. There are many reasons to change, expand, or develop your role as an executive, but at the core is always an honest assessment and awareness of yourself and your company.
Rely on Core Values
We talk a lot about this (check out last week’s article), and for good reason. Having strong core values contributes to your business on a multitude of levels, including your own career trajectory.
The core value of trust played strongly into Kirchner’s decision to bring on a President for the company. She says, “I made the decision that the best people for the position were probably going to be Presidents somewhere else, and bringing on a President was going to be recruiting somebody, and being willing to let go and trust. Trust is in our vision, trust is at the core of our culture.”
Kirchner needed to trust someone to take over the brand she had built. It was also important that the person she brought on felt that she had faith in them. “That became really important to me, that whoever was going to leave a career and come here had to trust that I was going to let go and let them grow. And let them grow the brand, and be willing to take it in some directions that I hadn’t taken it.”
Cultural Fit is Your Guiding Light
Right along with core values, a good cultural fit is vital. Says Kirchner, “Culture comes from the top, and you have to role model it, you have to live it.” If you are looking for a new executive role, find one that speaks to your own values. A cultural fit is just as important as finding a good fit for your abilities.
When Clemente got the call for an interview with Primrose, he wasn’t sure it would be a good fit. On the urging of his recruiter he took the interview. “It was unlike any interview that I’d ever had before, because Jo was more focused on who I was, as opposed to what I knew. What I knew was still important, so I don’t want to take away from that, but her focus was on who I was, and would I be a great fit. I left that day, flew back to Pittsburgh and told my wife, ‘If I don’t get this job, we’re going to own some Primrose Schools and run them.’” His skill set was a great match for growing the company, but what excited him about the job was the company itself.
Be Willing to Grow
In making the decision to seek a president instead of a COO, Kirchner’s decision came from knowing what her company needed, being aware of her own strengths, and seeing what was needed to complete the picture. She says, “I needed certain skills I didn’t have, and I knew it. Then it was a matter of being patient enough to find the right person. That’s hard to do sometimes.”
She found Clemente, and appreciated that he had worked with Target, a company that went through a fast growth trajectory, similar to what she is seeing with Primrose. She states the importance of being willing to bring in people with expertise that differs from yours, and learning from them. “Not being afraid to hire people who have skill sets you don’t is really the key to success.”
For Clemente, being ready to step into a more central leadership role allowed him to grow. He explains, “Leadership positions at large companies are more execution based, so you’re on the plane, and you are executing. You’re still focused on a lot of those leadership skills that are important around team, and strategies, and those types of things, but making that change from actually being in the plane to flying the plane is a big difference. There’s a learning curve there.”
When Clemente first made a move to a leadership role in a midsized company, he had a moment when he thought he’d made a mistake with the change. He called a mentor, who reminded him of his strengths. “That mentor reminded me of why I chose what I have done. So being able to apply that, and being able to take those skill sets that I’ve learned at other companies, and things I’ve done, and being able to blend those with Jo’s leadership and coaching into our focus on our business has just been tremendous. I’m having an absolute blast.” It’s important to know yourself, but it’s also valuable to have people to remind you of who you are if you happen to momentarily forget.
When it comes down to it, mapping out your career path can be challenging, and success comes from knowing who you are and what you offer. Continually look for ways you can build that, both in your current company, and in any new opportunities that you may be considering.