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Transcript #60: Conscious Leadership and Work-Life Coordination with CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, Shelli Taylor

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Episode #60: Conscious Leadership and Work-Life Coordination with CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, Shelli Taylor

Caneel Joyce:

Tomorrow is going to be the first time that anyone learns about a new thing that I’m launching. So a lot of people have been reaching out and they want to connect with me, with this work, with others, and it’s really, really important to me for my own mission that that can be something that’s very, very accessible to the broadest possible population, and that we’re creating a space that is diverse and cutting edge and future-oriented.

 

So I have a membership site that is launching tomorrow. I’m so excited. So if you’re interested in learning more about that, listeners, you can go to caneel.com/yes. And part of the membership experience is going to be when I have interviews like this in the future, one of those per month is going to actually be recorded live. And after the recording piece of it is done, the guest is going to stay on and we’ll close the doors and it will be an intimate members-only conversation with the guests. So you can just imagine if you’re inside the membership, then this could be a conversation that you get to stick around for after we say goodbye here, and you’d get to actually ask Shelli your own questions in your own words and see her face in real life. So please do check that out at caneel.com/yes.

 

Today, I am looking at a leader whom I met years ago, I think 2013, when I was actually on the job market, my company had been acquired. Somehow, the remarkable COO of then an education company reached out to me and we just bonded. It was a very hot summer day, I believe. We were walking through some back road in Palo Alto to get to a Starbucks or Menlo park, and just ended up really clicking. My sense is that Shelli clicks with everybody that she’s ever met, but I knew for sure I wanted to stay in touch with her. So Shelli Taylor, I welcome you to Allowed.

Shelli Taylor:

Well, thank you, Caneel. And it was a long time ago, but it feels like yesterday. When your podcast started, it was almost like a handmade card from a friend arrived. All of a sudden something super personal shows up, and I’m telling my friends, “Oh my gosh, I know that woman. She’s my friend. And she’s created this podcast,” and I fell in love. But you know what’s interesting is just even going back to the time we met, the impact that you had, but then how important your podcasts have been for me in my own leadership journey, particularly starting at Alamo. And so it’s funny how we come and go, but there’s definitely connection, and I think it’s probably true of you too. You connect with most people. It’s neat.

Caneel Joyce:

I try. I try. Thank you, Shelli. Wow, that’s really, really touching to hear. For those who have not had the benefit of knowing Shelli personally as I have, I’ll share a little bit about you, Shelli, if you don’t mind, and then we’re going to dive into the conversation. Shelli Taylor is the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Her career as an executive, highlights her passion for people. I feel that so deeply from you, Shelli. And also her passion for leading all stakeholders to deliver results. This has been a through-line in your career is really mobilizing people across departments and across companies and across the world, forming partnerships even all the way back to your work running Starbucks Asia.

 

So since being named the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in May, 2020, and think about that two months after a global pandemic, which made it impossible to go to the cinema. So this is how daring this woman is. Since then she’s been focused on leading through COVID and what an exciting, innovative opportunity, in the reopening of this company’s 41 theaters. Wow. And how do you ensure the safest possible experience for your guests and also your teammates? I know if I were in that industry and maybe had some, on top of the business concerns, also those personal concerns of safety and myself and my family and the sometimes awkward moments around how are we going to navigate this in our company and going back to work, there’s nobody that I’d rather have taking care of me really than you, Shelli. So I’m really grateful that you’re in that role at this time.

Shelli Taylor:

Thank you.

Caneel Joyce:

I’d love to hear a little bit about you as a mom. Can we start there?

Shelli Taylor:

Yeah. That’s my favorite subject. I have an almost 17 year old, and he actually had his first sort of date this morning.

Caneel Joyce:

Oh gosh.

Shelli Taylor:

Yeah. He went rowing with another girl, had just a great morning. So I’m just beaming. I got little snippets, not much, but what an almost 17 year old will share. It’s funny, being a parent’s the best thing. When you become a mom or dad, I think you truly learn what it means to love someone else unconditionally, and then how to be of service. And then you learn how to lose yourself because you lose all your boundaries and give everything to that being. And then hopefully along the way, you learn how to get some of those boundaries back and maybe have balance, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you, when they become teenagers, it’s a lot easier. He’s a joy, absolute joy. He keeps my life real.

Caneel Joyce:

Well. I was a very new mom when I first met you, I guess. My first child at that point was two years old, which to think that what I was doing in my career with a kid of that age, it feels so crazy to me now in retrospect, but you made such a huge impression on me that one day we got coffee and in Menlo Park, because of the way that you were talking about the choices that you chose to make and how you adapted and evolved your own career, it was almost like you gave me really permission to really drop into that identity, that new and sometimes uncomfortable identity of being called mom. And at that age, that’s terribly long after you start hearing that word all the time. I was super inspired because you just had such a grounded confidence in how you held your really well-integrated identity as a professional executive mother. I wonder if you could share a little bit about those choices and how you think motherhood has shaped your career.

Shelli Taylor:

One, I waited until it was later in life. I didn’t know that I… Well, actually I thought I didn’t want a child, and then one day woke up and was like, “I need one and I need one now.” You prepare for the pregnancy, but you really don’t prepare for afterwards. You think you do, but there’s no realization of what it means to have the impact of time commitment just thrown upon you. I was super fortunate. Starbucks has always been just such a progressive, people-first type company that as long as you show up and bring your best skills and perform, they give a lot of leeway for how you do it. And so I was surrounded by a lot of fantastic female leaders who had been through this journey and were very supportive, and male leaders, quite frankly.

 

So I had lots of support and I just came into this with, I want to act like I’m a stay at home mom, and that’s my focus. That’s what I want my son to feel like every day. He is my world. And when I’m at work, I want everyone at work to think I’m a professional, and they’re the only people in the world that matter to me. So it doesn’t always come off perfectly, but I think the piece that when it started to sink and groove was when I realized there is no such thing as work-life balance, it’s work-life coordination. And once you break all of the rules of this is how it has to go and I have to be perfect and get all these things in societal’s construct,, and realize that it’s just going to flow and some days are messy and some days art and some days your house is clean and some days it’s not. And some days you order out for pizza because you just need a break, even though that’s not your value. Whatever.

 

And then all of a sudden, something happens. But I do think it’s important. And really as I joke about it, but the critical piece is your work environment. And when you’re surrounded by people who are willing to support and honor it, that makes a huge difference. So because I was so well supported, I have in turn wanted to do the same for as many people as I can.

Caneel Joyce:

And that is a world changing difference that you make, I believe when you do that. Even thinking about the impact of my own personal, actual integration of that identity as a mom, and leaving that… A little bit of a macho personality, I would embody sometimes at work and working in a very, very male dominated industry, dropping that, oh my gosh. What a difference that made to my kids, being able to really feel how very proud I am to have that as my job. I know that you make a big difference when you support other moms like that, especially at work.

Shelli Taylor:

And we need it. One in five moms right now is dropping out of the workforce through COVID. I just think about that. Even if that statistic is exaggerated, if it were one in 10, I believe the statistic. But that is so profound, and I just think about the burden of moms right now at home and the expectations that are put on you to be everything to everyone and finding that balance is going to be critical. I think that work environments become overly focused on productivity metrics in the wrong way, versus letting people do their best work. And by the way, their kids probably could be along the way. And if we all want to be great corporate citizens, everything we’re doing at home right now, or whatever we’re working in being great professionals, we’re teaching our children. My child’s going to be fantastic. Some employer is going to love him. He’s learned so much by especially this last year, being home and listening to a lot of conversations, but even over the years.

Caneel Joyce:

Yeah. Getting to shadow you. We actually had an expert on the show around moms and parents during COVID and the different impacts that there’s been on them and some of their coping mechanisms. So listeners, if that is of interest to you, that was with Professor Dana Sumpter, I’ll post a link to that in the show notes for this episode so you can trace back and find that one. All right. Aside from that busy job. Let’s hear a little bit about what you’re up to day-to-day now, over at Alamo.

Shelli Taylor:

Yeah. It’s been a crazy road because I joined and the venues, our theaters had closed due to COVID and we weren’t working from the office. So my first weeks, months, in fact my entire career now with Alamo has been remote and I was realizing just the other day, just how official my relationships are, because they’re always scheduled, they’re always via a Zoom, and I’m missing desperately the unofficial bump in the hallway chat kind of conversation. But the quality of joining at this time or the force of being intentional is pretty incredible. And that’s where I was talking about the drama triangle. I was listening to that just for my own personal self. I try to not live in drama or I say I don’t like drama, but yet I like to invite it. I was like, “Oh, shoot, a lot to learn.”

 

But also, your conversation with Simon Darcy and how do you build authentic relationships? And so again, I just can’t thank you enough, but your podcasts have been my friend in this journey and support in many ways of integrating. So it’s been pretty incredible, but I don’t know, nine, 10 months in now to the pandemic, we’re still not… We have less than 12 locations open due to either state regulations and mandates and/or just the inability to be profitable because of capacity restraints. And so our focus right now is how does a healthy company avoid bankruptcy that should have never occurred? This is not my cup of tea. I’m a growth junkie. I’ve figured out how to be in good businesses that are going to grow rapidly. And so learning a ton about banking and finance in a way that I never expected. I’ll be well-rounded when this is all done, but look forward to normal days again.

Caneel Joyce:

So I would love to hear it more about how that the episode with Simon, this was episode number 16, I believe you’re talking about, the tools for authentic relating with my friend, Simon Darcy. How did you apply that in your leadership?

Shelli Taylor:

So Alamo is amazing, super creative, 20 of just setting a standard for cinema and how to experience it and creating great films. And I think what you’ve talked about in some of your podcasts is, there’s also our shadow side and of course, every organization has their shadow side. And I came in at a time that’s under crisis. So you’re seeing both the great, but also a little bit of the shadow and some of that insecurities. And so coming in and having some really real, authentic conversations about who we are and where we want to go. So things that you guys talked about was slow down the conversation, that’s huge. And so when you’re afraid, and I tend to get nervous in group conversations or public conversations, so just stop, breathe, slow down the conversation, name it, and then sentence stem, while seems so simple, is an incredible tool for either deepening the conversation, changing it if you need to, lightening it, intensifying. It just is so dynamic.

Caneel Joyce:

So for the listeners who didn’t hear episode number 16 yet, what is a sentence stem and how do you use it?

Shelli Taylor:

A sentence stem is the beginning of a sentence that’s open-ended and it allows everyone in the room to participate by finishing that sentence quickly and concisely, so you’d get a lot of voices and you have a moment then to… You can keep going or you can reflect. But it’s just a moment of, for me, presence, true presence and true learning about everyone in that group.

Caneel Joyce:

Because you don’t know, you have no idea what they’re going to say. And it’s also that you just participated in the same thing, or you’re about to, and it adds this neat level of tension. Can you remember any of the stems that you used to kick off those conversations?

Shelli Taylor:

Yeah. Some of them were as simple as my favorite movie of the week, and how it made me feel. Some of them were, “Today’s been a really tough day and here’s the one reason why,” or another one has been, “In the middle of all of this toughness, there’s still a spark of joy and I might feel guilty about it, but here’s my spark of joy,” because a lot of people have been feeling guilty if they have good days. You’re like, “Do I deserve to have a good day right now? Everything’s so crappy.” And then there’s been others, but it just keeps going. And the best thing is once you start it, everyone starts owning it and takes over the sentence stem, and you no longer have to be the one that starts it.

Caneel Joyce:

Yes. Yes. That’s a big deal for leaders too, to be able… I think that there’s always that tricky balance of everyone wants to hear from the CEO and they need to hear from you. You set the tone. You set the horizon line. You set the vision. You’re inspiring. And so many CEOs that I work with have named that, “I don’t want to be the only one talking, but no one else will pick it up after I talk. But how do I get everyone else in the room to participate?” I love sentence stems too with family. Hard day in the household, maybe we’ve been fighting with each other or really cranky or tired, or people have been wanting more attention, using something as simple as, “If today were a movie, it would be…” And then we can come in through a side door to have a conversation about what each individual person’s experience was without it being again, drama, without it being blamey, without presuming that we all have the same experience. I absolutely love that tool.

 

Another tool I love that Simon taught me is called pacing. I don’t think we talked about it on that episode. So when you put yourself in the position of your audience and it’s easy to say, put yourself in their shoes, but here’s an actual concrete tool where you can do it. Something like this. “I can imagine if I were in your shoes, I might feel blahbity, blahbity, blah. What’s it like for you?” So instead of presuming that you can put yourself in their shoes, “and understand what they’re going through,” it’s more self reveal. “If I were in your shoes, here’s how I’d feel.” And then it opens the door and gives them permission to have either that experience or some different one, but it’s really making that clear distinction that, “This is my perception, and this is my piece of empathy, but I’m curious about you. I can’t presume about you.” I love that one. “If I were in your shoes, I would feel…”

 

And there’s lots of different ways you can do it. Or even just naming what’s going on. “I’m in a dark room. There’s some light coming back here. I see you’re there it’s MLK day. You’ve got braids on. I’m curious what you’re noticing about this day,” because it’s just a little bit of like slowing it down and naming what’s around you is another form of pacing.

 

In the culture of Alamo, when you first came in, I don’t know anything about what the culture was like then, how was that style and just your general approach received? Was it a shift for anyone?

Shelli Taylor:

Yeah, I think I’m well received. First of all, the team is just amazing and so gracious and welcoming and I love everybody. I think that in a crisis, maybe it’s a good time to start because there’s just a desire for things to work, so there’s a willingness for people to connect that might not always be as easy in an organization that’s humming along, because you have to be able to get into groove immediately and hum with them, because you don’t want to be the ones slowing it down. A crisis forces you to pause and think. So I think with the organization, what’s shifting is just really, how do you go from this small, scrappy, cool company that’s grown really rapidly that now needs to retain its soul, but build an infrastructure underneath it that allows it to continue to grow in a profitable way?

 

And so for the organization, it’s just been learning different skills. Part of staying cool is how do you keep your culture? Well, keeping your culture is that you are onboarding people and you’re communicating that culture and educating it. And then when you’re on board, you’re making access to all of the tools, the knowledge, everything you need to be successful, super easy. Well, if you’re really scrappy, somehow everybody knows how to get the information. They know the culture, they know the information, they know the tools, but now all of a sudden you’re bringing in new people. What do you do to scale that? And that really, for me, I think has been the primary shift of what is the onboarding, the ongoing communication, the cadence of communication, the style of meetings that really honor everything that’s been so awesome? Again, just the creativity [crosstalk 00:22:19], and then how do you just make more of it and more room for it?

Caneel Joyce:

This is so fascinating. So you’re talking about you came in and there’s a lot of implicit knowledge about what the culture is, how we treat each other, what we care about here, what’s highly valued. And then there’s also this transactional memory of how you get stuff done around here. Who do you need to know? But you’re talking about codifying it. But then how do you design experiences, especially that onboarding experience that intentionally locks that culture in or inculturerates people as they come in, socializes them? What are some of the things that… maybe some missteps along the way or some learnings and what are some of the things that worked, and do you have any practical advice about that?

Shelli Taylor:

Yeah. I think that’s a good question. I think the learnings along the way is that knowledge is power, and if we want a diverse and equitable workplace, we have to share power and share power with everyone. And that means access to information tools, everything that allows you to be successful in the workplace. I think that what I was great about doing is coming in and listening. Hard to fully listen, cause you’re not physically present, and it’s not a true workplace right now. It’s become true workplace, but it is modified. And so trying to come in and listen and really be part of it and not just insert ideas and direction and find that balance, at times I did it really well and at times I made some missteps. Didn’t know enough of the history or tools maybe that were working and tried to introduce new. And that’s typical leadership skills. Some missteps there, some good things.

 

But I think when I look back what I’m proud about is my own, like again, your name of your podcast, Allowed. I’ve allowed myself not to be perfect. I’ve allowed myself not to be the industry expert because I’m not. I have allowed myself to show up and be the expert where I can be, but more importantly, I have a team that I’ve allowed to continue to be their experts and leaders and really shine. And when you talked about the CEO feeling like they need to talk a lot, it’s stressful. There are times where you’re like, “Just anyone, please step up and talk.” I don’t know the answer all the time. And I don’t want to be the center of attention all the time. It’s intimidating. And a great team is where there’s tons of people talking at different moments and they know when and how, and it’s a symphony, and the conductor’s the quietest person.

Caneel Joyce:

That’s beautiful. What have you learned about yourself along the way?

Shelli Taylor:

I think I’ve learned a couple of things. So as you mentioned, I’ve jumped into challenging roles. I’ve been willing to take some pretty significant risks, move to different countries, but becoming the CEO was actually a role that I had said I never wanted, and a risk I said I would never take. So taking this role and becoming it and accountable and not being able to look to a boss, I have the shareholders and the board of directors, but truly to someone has been really at times, lonely and alienating and scary, and then so egocentric of myself to be like, “Oh, I’m it.” I think over the last few months, I was like, “No, no one’s ever it.” How silly. I have great people. I have the founder of my team. I have my peers and friends and network, the board of directors, the whole community is there for you. I became isolated in this role by self-definition. And when I said, “Oh, stop it. Like, there’s a whole world. You’re not alone, and it’s not just about you.”

Caneel Joyce:

Oh my gosh, it’s beautiful. It’s one of the number one things that I hear CEOs talk about is how lonely that role can be. Can you describe it a little more? You realize that you were doing it to yourself.

Shelli Taylor:

I think I became really quiet and I was not willing to share how I was feeling with those around me because of the fear of, if I tell you I’m nervous or I don’t know what to do, or I don’t know, am I then not qualified for the role and will that engender a lack of confidence? And so when I realized that sometimes just telling people how I was feeling and being, I guess, vulnerable in the moment of, “I really don’t know. I’m learning too, and just starting to put that out there,” all of a sudden, a lot of support came and I realized I had created this mindset. Nobody around me was saying I had to be perfect or have all the answers or that they wouldn’t help. It was me who said I had to show up and be whatever the CEO was versus, the CEO is just a human.

Caneel Joyce:

The CEO. A different person, not me. The CEO.

Shelli Taylor:

Exactly.

Caneel Joyce:

Yeah. So this is some imposter syndrome stuff.

Shelli Taylor:

Oh, totally. And thank you for naming it. That’s helpful.

Caneel Joyce:

We have an episode on imposter syndrome.

Shelli Taylor:

I do remember this.

Caneel Joyce:

Yeah. Great. So we’ll link to that in our show notes too. So the imposter syndrome, this is another one of those, probably one of the top three things that CEOs… I’m lonely, imposter syndrome and I need to fix every… It’s all on me. So the imposter syndrome being when we feel like we’re a fraud, and that somebody is about to figure out that really we don’t deserve to be in that role, and everything will fall apart once they figure that out. But I think one of my theories is that I do think that we do it to ourselves often by thinking that it’s a role that we need to play or fit into, and not realize that we are the one in the role. We are already the role, and of course, we don’t know everything, but one of the best ways to learn something is to recognize that you don’t know it is actually the essential first step.

 

So that people really showed up for you and supported you, it speeds things up. It speeds up the culture around you and really brings out the best in people when they know, “I got to step up here.”

Shelli Taylor:

Oh, absolutely. And then all of a sudden I’m not hiding, because I think about how many conversations that imposter syndrome where I was hiding, what I needed to say, instead of just saying it and trusting that even if it fell flat or was wrong or whatever, which most of the time, it’s not, it’s a riff. You put something in and people add to it and then it morphs into something fantastic, but that definitely was a huge change for me. And then people love it because they… Just like I love doing for people around me, riffing and adding and not having to have everything come in perfect packages.

Caneel Joyce:

Wow. Did you notice any changes in your personal life with that realization as well?

Shelli Taylor:

Yeah. I sleep a lot better, hugely, because at night I was playing back all of the, “What if, did I, should I, could I,” and so I sleep a whole lot more than I was in the beginning.

Caneel Joyce:

I’m so happy to hear that. So to connect that to the drama triangle, it sounds like you stepped out of drama there. And so your whole body, your whole internal ecosystem changed, and now you have much more wellness and vibrance and energy and aliveness, and I can just see there’s an ease. I genuinely feel like we could go anywhere in this conversation and you’d be okay with that. I don’t have any sense that you have your guard up. That’s a big deal. So for those who are just starting out any role or any challenge that is new to them, what advice would you give?

Shelli Taylor:

I think it’s take a few deep breaths as you’ve named your podcast so beautifully. Allow yourself just to be, and then ask for help. And I think asking for help, it doesn’t have to be difficult. It’s just sharing where you’re at in the moment. And then the positive feedback cycle that will start, will just help you get on that flywheel. Because I said to a few friends was like, “All the great karma that’s coming towards Alamo right now, and how many people are willing to help us just because they want us to be successful.” And us as individuals, us as an organization, it’s just become a positive feedback loop, and then we can give more back as a result. So I don’t know. I guess it’s just embrace it. Know it’s scary, everyone’s scared. That’s the good news. And ask, and allow it to happen.

Caneel Joyce:

Overwhelmingly, I’m so grateful that you are taking really good care of yourself as a whole entire human being as you lead, and I know that that has such a positive ripple effect on everyone and everything that you touch and that they touch. I can’t wait to visit an Alamo, which I’ve never been to, once you reopen. Do you have any news you can give us about timelines there?

Shelli Taylor:

Yeah. So California, I hate to say it, we’re waiting. And New York, two places we’d love to reopen, it will happen when it’s safe. We will open the doors as fast as we can and I will let you know and I’ll come join you in LA.

Caneel Joyce:

Oh, so fun. [crosstalk 00:32:28] I can’t wait. Let’s do it. Thank you, Shelli. Thank you so much for being here. If people are interested in following your work and following Alamo, is there any way that you’d like them to reach out to you, or where can we find you?

Shelli Taylor:

Alamodrafthouse.com. I’m also on LinkedIn and I do respond. So if someone wants to reach out, they can reach out either of those ways.

Caneel Joyce:

That’s fantastic. Great.

Shelli Taylor:

But I love connections, love meeting people.

Caneel Joyce:

We’ll link to all of that in the show notes. And yes, you are a definite people lover. I also am really excited. Let’s see. So today is Monday. Tomorrow is going to be the first time that anyone learns about a new thing that I’m launching. So a lot of people have been reaching out and they want to connect with me, with this work, with others. And it’s really, really important to me for my own mission that that can be something that’s very, very accessible to the broadest possible population, and that we’re creating a space that is diverse and cutting edge and future oriented.

 

So I have a membership site that is launching tomorrow. I’m so excited. So if you’re interested in learning more about that, listeners, you can go to caneel.com/yes. And part of the membership experience is going to be when I have interviews like this in the future, one of those per month is going to actually be recorded live. And after the recording piece of it is done, the guest is going to stay on and we’ll close the doors and it will be an intimate members-only conversation with the guests.

 

So just imagine if you’re inside the membership, then this could be a conversation that you get to stick around for after we say goodbye here, and you’d get to actually ask Shelli your own questions in your own words and see her face in real life. So please do check that out at canneel.com/yes. And Shelli, I’d love for you to come back and be a guest again.

Shelli Taylor:

Any time. I’m honored and thanks for having me.

Caneel Joyce:

Thank you for being here. Okay, everyone, thanks for making time for yourself and for investing your energy and your aliveness in your life and your leadership in your work. And you know that no matter what you think, I know that you are a leader and not a fraud. So caneel.com/yes. Sign up. See you soon. Bye.

 

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