Nicole Salla of Kiddie Academy: “Why authentic empathy is at the core of being a leader, colleague, partner, and parent”

Authentic empathy is at the core of being a leader, colleague, partner, and parent. I’m an English Lit major and a self-proclaimed psychology nerd. I love putting myself in the mindset of others to see how different situations make them “feel.” It’s like placing myself in a story to better understand and empathize with others. It’s an interesting exercise that helps me better connect with others and understand why they are who they are. This mindset and practice made me a better marketer.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Salla, CMO at Kiddie Academy.

Nicole has 24 years of experience in marketing and sales with a focus on mission-focused brands that make a difference in the lives of people in their local communities. Her career has allowed her to develop strategies for brands looking to serve the spectrum of marketing infant and child educational services, to all phases of senior living, both agency and client-side. Her love of brand and storytelling comes from her love of literature, with an original intent of teaching English when she received her undergraduate degree in English Literature. After a mentor gave her that chance to get a taste of marketing while working for a retailer in college, she became addicted to marketing and switched courses. She later earned her Masters in Business Management with Marketing focus while working full time and starting her family. Nicole is a perpetual “student of the game” when it comes to marketing, but really geeks out over building/coaching teams, social psychology and organizational development.

While free time is a luxury, Nicole spends most of her time outside of the office with her large family and four children. She unplugs traveling around the country and camping in her spare time for enjoyment, and also tries to fit in 5 am workouts (really, the only time you can with four kids and a busy work life). When not wrangling four kids from here to there, working or working out, she enjoys studying psychology for fun, and on any given day, can be found singing a Hamilton tune (or at least singing in her head).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I sort of fell into marketing while I was in college. My love of literature lured me into pursuing an English Lit degree, hoping to become a professor or a high school teacher. At the time, I worked full-time for retailer at their corporate office and simultaneously was a full-time college student. Our company made some shifts — and while I showed interest in the marketing (what was not to love — shooting commercials, cutting radio spots, building their first website, helping launch an early customer loyalty program), I never imagined the company would have restructured so that no one was left in marketing…except for me. Since I had shown some interest in continuing to support that part of the business, they put me in the driver’s seat to lead the marketing efforts alongside their agency.

I’ve always wondered what drew me to marketing, since I was firmly set on teaching. But if you think about it, marketing is like crafting a story…it’s a complex, multi-faceted, psychologically-driven profession. You help craft the story of your brand, make the customer the hero for using your brand, put them into an environment and experience that has been carefully woven for them. Branding and marketing are a lot like storytelling.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Since joining Kiddie Academy nearly three years ago, it has been a thrill from the start to take advantage of the opportunities that existed to continue to model and drive forward an incredible brand. You never quite know what’s behind the curtain until you pull it back, and I was excited to find an incredible team of marketers who were excited to take the brand to the next level. We were given the opportunity and full runway to really drive the next brand evolution and explore new ways to take our craft to the next level. We had the incredible experience of evolving the brand story and make our marketing stand apart from what our competition. It really hit me when, for the first time in company history, we produced a live-streamed campaign launch to our 700+ franchisees that shared with them creative work that told our story in a way none of the child care industry was doing, and show how we truly blended art and science, from creation to execution, in how we planned to move forward as a brand.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I move fast (I walk fast, type fast, work fast) and try to get too much done with the little time we have a in a day (and I always think there is never enough time to get it all done). I often get accused of trying to fit too much in. It’s just my nature.

Early in my career, I was rushing to get an ad to the publisher and thought the proof reader had checked the phone number on the ad. They had signed off; but, I did not realize the number somehow was inadvertently changed between final proofing and finalizing the file. It went out with the wrong number, and let’s just say the ad was a success, because the individual whose house that phone number belonged gave me an earful about all of the people calling to “learn more” about the community.

I always think of that instance, and it reminds me to be very intentional to slow down on critical, high-stakes projects. And to always, always, always test a phone number before publishing anything.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Progress is never done, so I believe true leaders are always looking for ways to learn and grow. Not only did I have great leaders to help me in the early years of my career, I have been blessed to have been surrounded with incredibly passionate and talented people who constantly helped me grow.

From a professional standpoint, I would not be where I am without the incredible mentors I encountered in my career that invited me to join the “conversation.” Having someone who gives you the opportunity to be at the table, gives you the gift of feedback (especially the stuff that is not easy to hear), and believes in you enough to put you in uncomfortable situations is absolutely priceless.

I have so many people I could list, because I always seek out leaders (regardless of their “title”) in every respect in an organization to learn from, whether they know or not that I am observing or learning from them…even to this day. My first marketing leader at Erickson, Tom Mann, gave me all of this, and instilled this culture in his directors as well, so that each of them also became my coaches, cheerleaders, and critics in a way that truly helped shape my career and approach to leadership. That company always had incredible leadership team members, and really invested in all of their current and aspiring leaders, understanding that even the best athletes and professionals continuously benefit from ongoing coaching. I also had the chance to learn from him again at the agency after I left Erickson, and he probably doesn’t realize just how much he did for me from a professional development standpoint.

At home, I have the best coach and cheerleader in my husband. We spend dinners talking over strategy and business for fun. I’ve always told him he challenges and encourages me in ways that truly make me a better leader. When I made the move to Kiddie Academy, I credit him for the nudging me to pursue the opportunity and continuing to challenge me to pursue my dreams, no matter how lofty they may seem.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

First and foremost, this is a marathon not a sprint. You need to think about how you prepare your self in totality, not just that one time “talk” or “meeting.” To do that, I focus on my physical health, which allows me to focus on my mental health. And mental health is such a critical need right now, but one that is the hardest for folks to understand how to care for and support others in.

A few years ago, I made a very concerted effort to prioritize my health; I committed to fitness, and I go to the gym just about every day. I set goals. Last year, it was to finish a mud run. A few months back, I decided I wanted to run my first 5K (as in, truly run 5K without stopping a few times along the way). I chose Mother’s Day, and I did it.

You truly need to set yourself up for every moment of every day — you never know when you won’t have time to prepare for that important decision or talk, it may need to happen right then and there. But if there is something stressful or high stakes I know is coming up that I must prepare for, I try to think through who I am speaking to and how a decision may impact a particular person. I put myself in their shoes, and try to image how they may react, what is important to them, and how it best serves them and the business. I work hard to anticipate how they will react and think through how I may respond.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The outcome of people with similar backgrounds working towards one goal puts your company at risk because it may result in only having ideas focused on one way to accomplish the goal. That is not only dangerous, but does not allow for a breadth of ways to approach a solution. You need to surround yourself with people who have different upbringings, cultures, points of view and experiences, or you may end up surrounding yourself with people who all think the same.

I am so proud that Kiddie Academy franchised locations are owned by an extremely ethnically diverse group of individuals. We have hundreds of owners of all different backgrounds, and we serve communities that are very ethnically diverse. It is critical that our brand and our marketing is reflective of the diversity of the families we serve, and I am very intentional in setting up a group of franchisees (our franchisee Brand Building Committee) that truly represents diversity in gender, ethnicity, geography and race. We want every family to look at our marketing materials and see images they can relate to in every way, so we take great care to ensure we are truly representative of the communities we seek to serve.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

At all costs, make sure everyone on your team has a voice.

Not everyone is comfortable speaking up, whether it be in a meeting or publicly for something they strongly believe in. As a leader, you have a duty to be intentional in fostering inclusivity, especially for those not comfortable jumping to the conversation or don’t have the confidence to step into the discussion. The most powerful question you can ask someone, before you give your opinion, is, “Tell me what you think about that. How do you think we should do this? Is there another option you can think of?”

All too many times, I see team members who I can tell or know has an opinion, but I know they are too timid to speak up, for fear it will go against popular beliefs. Constantly scan the room, look at body language, and feel free to ask individuals directly to give their opinion or stance during a discussion. If people are not directly asked, sometimes they are not comfortable jumping in. Giving them public permission to speak up not only builds confidence but allows for different perspectives to be shared that others may not have thought of.

One time, I was watching a designer share her creative concepts. I noticed that she was agreeing to every revision the committee was making on her artwork, without asking questions or trying to learn why they were giving the feedback. I met with her afterwards, and asked why she agreed to all the changes they wanted — did she truly agree with what they recommended? She said she did not but did not want to question them as they were superiors in the organization, even though they did not have a marketing background. I told her next time, if someone gives their opinion, feel comfortable asking, “tell me more about that,” and create dialog to truly understand what they are trying to accomplish, which then she could give her expertise on why she did not do that initially, or better understand their intent so she can make a different recommendation on how to accomplish that. When she started doing that, I noticed that those giving her feedback started to respect her skill and craft more and appreciated the dialogue even more so that than just having someone do exactly what they asked for.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Executives are there to help the overall team build and understand roadmap to success for the business. A successful executive seeks to serve everyone they can influence or impact, including their team, their customers, and their colleagues to deliver on the company strategy.

It’s a tall order to please and serve everyone. So, I try not to put so much pressure on myself to be and do everything for everyone. I find ways to help others solve their own problems or be successful. That brings success to everyone.

This idea can be used on all levels:

  • Your customers: If you truly believe you can help them solve a problem (or provide ways they can solve their problem), be relentless in how you help craft your product and help them discover it through marketing.
  • Your team: Provide your team high level strategy and let them create their own solutions and really own their work. Find ways to empower them, support them, and knock down their barriers along the way — constantly be thinking of how you can do this.
  • Your colleagues: For those not directly on your team, think about how you or your team can help them with their challenges. Listen to what they are struggling with and determine how you and your team can help. My favorite projects are those that so many people worked on, it is truly hard to list everyone who was involved.

If you can do these things, you will be rewarded with cumulatively doing what is best for the company. The outcome of your passion for serving others, and doing what is right, leads to success.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

People think that executives call all the shots when it comes to steering the ship and build the strategy top to bottom — but what SUCCESSFUL executives do is listen to their team, empower them, and coach them along the way to make it happen. I never walk into our long-term planning/strategy sessions without spending quality time with my team learning about what they think needs to happen for the business to be successful. Most of our major initiatives did not come from leadership alone — it came from a collective group of professionals who brought great ideas and thoughts to the table. It is then my job to guide and support them, knocking down barriers or helping through challenges along the way. If you do not involve your team in being part of building the vision, they will not be as successful.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

There has always been talk of the difference in challenges women face in the workplace compared to their male counterparts — pay equality, unconscious bias, inclusivity in leadership opportunities, balancing the needs of family and work, and more. But now more than ever, there is a growing crisis that is statistically hitting women harder and putting them even further behind due to COVID’s impact on access to childcare and the shift to school age virtual learning. The reports are heartbreaking and discouraging for women. According to the Center for American Progress, Millennial moms are three times more likely than Millennial fathers to be unable to work due to school or child care closures. Everywhere I turn, countless studies and articles outline how the pandemic is negatively impacting women’s careers, and how more women are leaving the workforce in higher numbers to care for children.

Now more than ever, women are being pushed and challenged in ways that were already stressors. Women in leadership have a seat at the table to encourage employers to be empathic and supportive of women in the workforce, or we stand to lose a generation of change makers and diverse thinkers that we need as part of the conversation. The major effects may not be felt now, but I can assure you they will make an impact down the road.

Women leaders can help be the voice in their company for supporting the unique needs for women and families, not just during this challenging time. Not everyone in your organization may be able to understand the challenges facing working mothers, but it is up to women leaders to help others understand and put a plan into place to support each other.

Find ways to get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, about this or anything else. You have a seat at the table — if something will impact your business (good or bad), find the right way to have a healthy, productive and respectful discussion.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Expectations can be a dangerous thing. My advice would be don’t come in with too many firm expectations of what you think a job may entail. I always find it best to be flexible, be observant, and be ready to serve in ways you may not have imagined.

Be ready to evolve your job description — if you are there to be a change maker, you likely need to assess the situation and evolve your role to ensure you deliver on what your company needs.

The only thing I expect in any role is to focus on ensuring my team, and ultimately my company, is successful. That may mean rolling up my sleeves one day to help with editing and the next day pitching a multi-million-dollar investment to a group of owners and executives. Do what you need to do to get the job done and show your team you are there to support them in a way that they hope you will.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

A successful executive knows that the only reason they are successful is because they have a great team they serve — they find ways to empower and coach them and help them break down barriers.

Successful executives know they can only take on the enormous task of leading a company to success by serving those around them.

Individual greatness may work short-term, but one person can only do so much alone, not matter how scrappy and driven they are. Surround yourself with passionate people who share your vision. Inspire and encourage as many people as you can, so that can create a ripple effect of the culture you embody and desire to see across your company.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Above all else, listen…with your ears, your eyes, and your heart. You can hear what people are directly saying to you, but it takes more work to use your intuition and radar to truly hear all that is going on around you. One tool that I swear by is DiSC, an incredible approach to learn about relationships and how to communicate effectively with different audiences, based on their style.

Also, be comfortable in the fact that you do not need to have all the answers. But, ensure you surround yourself with talented people who are the experts, and give them the confidence to be brutally honesty with you and the permission to do amazing work.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

My personal mission has always been to pour my passion and time into companies that are purpose-based and truly make the lives of others better. In senior living, nothing made me happier than talking to people who were reluctant to make the move from their home of 40+ years into what they felt was an “retirement” or “old folks” home, only to find that they always said, “I wish I had done this sooner!” They and their families always marveled about what parts of life they missed out on while isolated in their homes, or opportunities for friendships and time to pursue new passions they did not know existed. In child care, the satisfaction of seeing children thrive with enhanced educational and emotional opportunities is priceless. Their parents are over the moon about seeing their children thrive and knowing they would not have gotten that kind of experience anywhere else is heartwarming. And since we are a franchisor, seeing hundreds of budding entrepreneurs finally getting to realize their dream of owning their business is exciting. Many left the corporate world to achieve financial freedom and work-life harmony by pursuing a business for themselves and being a part of helping them discover that is exciting. Each time a franchisee opens a new Academy, I know the reach they have in making the difference in their local community. And since I’ve been with Kiddie Academy, I’ve seen the differences hundreds of franchisees have made in their communities across the country by the services they provide to our children and their families.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Anyone can have influence in an organization, regardless of their position. The concept of “influence” is multi-faceted — there are so many ways someone can be influential. It starts with putting yourself in a state of permanent influence. It’s an ongoing, never-ending cycle to be aware of and think about being influential. Next, start to think about others. What do they need, how can you make their lives easier? What’s their communication style and how do they prefer to be communicated with? When you start to think about how you can be of service to those above you in your organization and how to communicate with them, you’ll start to “lead up” naturally and, as a result, become influential in a way no one else can.
  2. Your childhood shaped your leadership style more than you might think (for better or worse). Think back to your earliest memories and ask how that made you who you are today. Not just the surface stuff — dig deep into what really made you change (“I’ll never be like that or do that”) or thrive (“Because I went through this, that pushed me further”). I learned to thrive on change. Very few things were constant. By middle school, I had lived in 8 places. I also spent a lot of time with my grandparents as my parents worked multiple jobs at a time to make our lives better, and that stuck with me. It put a fire under me to work hard and find security for my own family.
  3. Good leaders create a sense of community and belonging. In addition to the marketing department’s mission and our Kiddie Academy mission, we also have a team mission — basically, our collective “why.” It’s unique to the group of people who make up the team — kind of like a team “personality.” We work continuously to find and cultivate it. It starts with me demonstrating that I want us to genuinely connect with each other. I want people to feel free to show their true selves at work. Only when we truly open up and feel free to share ideas will we be able to support each other through successes and non-successes (I hate the word “failure” — it’s never a failure if you were intentional about it — it’s a way of learning). I see it as part of my job to allow my team (and myself) to “fail forward.” The only path to more successes than non-successes is to provide my team autonomy, resources and the space to do what they are good at and passionate about. Our team came up with our own credo and we remind ourselves of it often. Part of our set of beliefs is constant communication, telling stories, sharing experiences together, including everyone and giving everyone a chance to be heard (even when it’s not easy). For critical projects, involving others doesn’t always have to be death by committee. Find ways to involve key influencers throughout the lifecycle of the project so by the time it comes to fruition, it is more than just “your” project…it is “our” project that everyone had a hand in influencing.
  4. Your educational background doesn’t matter — your uniqueness and perseverance does. I really don’t want team who all majored in the same thing, had the same education or had the same experiences. Our backgrounds — personal, work experience, education — all make for a unique combination of talent. No one should care about your test scores or GPA (although I used to have a boss that asked that in interviews… and it was awkward). Very few of my marketing team members majored in marketing, and I LOVE THAT. We are a group that brings diverse ways of thinking and backgrounds to the table. Art majors think differently than biology majors. Mixing art and science is critical — what better way to do that than to bring different ways of thinking together and find the harmony and balance in that. As long as you are a lifetime learner, that is what is important.
  5. Authentic empathy is at the core of being a leader, colleague, partner, and parent. I’m an English Lit major and a self-proclaimed psychology nerd. I love putting myself in the mindset of others to see how different situations make them “feel.” It’s like placing myself in a story to better understand and empathize with others. It’s an interesting exercise that helps me better connect with others and understand why they are who they are. This mindset and practice made me a better marketer.

To be authentic and empathetic, take a 360-degree approach.

  • From a consumer perspective: At Kiddie Academy Educational Child Care, we market to families looking for child care. As a parent myself, I find it easy to empathize with our consumers. Every day, my team and I seek to understand caregivers’ mindsets when they are searching for child care, why they are searching and what their concerns are.
  • From a team perspective: Early on in my career, I learned that you have no idea what is happening to people at home or other areas of their life. Never assume. Always ensure you are in touch and understand what they are dealing with at home and outside of the walls of work.
  • Other departments: Even though our main mission is the same as other departments at Kiddie Academy, we all have goals unique to our areas of expertise. What do other departments want to accomplish and how can we help them succeed?

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I don’t believe a title, experience, or position necessarily gives anyone a stronger voice or influence to make a difference in the world. I am lucky enough to work in the early childhood education field and to be a mom. To me, advocating for wider access to childhood mental health is very dear to me.

Having emotionally healthy children will ultimately improve the world we live in. Healthy children will help shape our culture moving forward. Therapists who truly focus on and specialize in mental health for children can be hard to find, leaving many parents without the help they need to care for their child’s mental well-being. I’ve met so many families who spend years trying to find the right specialist for their child, work their way through a system of specialists who are not connected, and grasp for diagnoses for children (especially for those on the spectrum).

When someone has a physical illness, it is easier to understand because you can typically see a physical change. With mental health, a person can look “healthy” on the outside, so it is harder for people to accept and understand what is happening. You cannot see the mental wounds of child who is hurting inside, so it makes it truly difficult to identify and understand.

Right now especially, children are faced with even more pressure and uncertainty in the world we live in. COVID-19 has completely upended their routines and separated them from friends and families. They may be worried about getting ill or going back to school. If they are older, they may be asking questions about or be anxious or confused about what is happening with the push for justice and equality for people of color, and not fully understand what is happening. This is a lot to navigate for an adult — imagine how a child must feel. It is up to us to help children identify and understand their feelings, navigate through these emotions, and find their way to an emotionally healthy and safe space.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Maya Angelou)

Isn’t this true in life and in marketing? In life, I always try to be conscientious of how my interactions with my family speak to how much I care for them. I think of how my kids might feel if I started checking my phone while we are having dinner or if they were trying to excitedly tell me a story. How do we think that makes them feel? I know how that feels when someone does it to me. They may not recall I was on the phone, but they will collectively remember that they felt they were not important enough to get our attention.

The best marketing evokes an emotion — people may forget the headline or what the ad said, but they will remember how a commercial they saw touched them in an emotional way, or how a campaign just tickled them. They remember how they feel when they go into a certain coffee shop or a store. They likely don’t recall the name of the person who helped them, but they do have an emotional connection to how a place makes them feel that drives them back there each and every time.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

It has to be Dave Grohl. This is a man who seems to have found this balance between his passion for music, passion to explore other interests, and his family. He has consistently thrived and reinvented himself over the years, and started out early as a musician with an entrepreneurial mindset. When he put out his first Foo Fighters album, he played all the instruments himself. As a musician, he seeks to play with those who strive for perfection. He has branched out to writing, BBQ, and more. He is a philanthropist and activist. And how can you not love his tenacity — the man broke his leg during a concert and came back out to finish the show.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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