Rachel Litner of lotus823: Why you need to work ‘on’ the business not ‘in’ the business

Work on the business not in the business — This is much easier said than done, especially in the early years of running a business. However, the most successful CEOs delegate what can be delegated, surround themselves with the right people, and stay laser-focused on “what’s next” for the business and growing the revenue stream.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Litner.

Rachel Litner is a seasoned professional with more than 30 years of public relations, marketing and expertise. As Chief Strategy Officer, she spearheads global business plans to expand lotus823’s presence and growth in the consumer lifestyle space. Her diverse background as an in-house PR executive, magazine editor, and an agency principal plays an instrumental role in creating new growth strategies for clients and the company as a whole.

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’ve always had a passion for writing, dating back to my early career as a trade editor for various toy, hobby and home publications. While I was at Home Furnishings Daily (now HFN), Conair Corporation asked me to create the first in-house PR department for the company. While I didn’t have any formal training in PR, I knew that I loved Conair, understood what editors needed, and that I was ready for a change. It turned out to be one of my best career decisions, and laid the foundation for lifelong industry relationships and a great passion for the housewares business.

After Conair, I held various in-house marketing positions at The CIT Group, and eventually started my own PR agency, Rachel Litner Associates (RLA) in 1996 that specialized in the home and lifestyle space. As the media industry increasingly expanded to digital, I sold RLA to lotus823 in 2017 to expand my scope with lotus’ deep integrated marketing expertise and consumer tech experience. Our collective synergies continue to energize me to this day, as I am fortunate enough to work with a super passionate team led by two visionary co-founders David and Allison Hernandez.

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

There are so many to choose from, but the most interesting and unusual story was getting a call from the CEO of a major regional restaurant client on a Saturday night/Halloween Eve, to write a company statement addressing the fact that a customer was allegedly poisoned by his wife at the restaurant. My colleague and I were each out of town at parties, so we drafted the copy in costume and worked with the local newspapers throughout the night.

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?

In my first year at RLA, I pitched UPS on a big PR proposal and the meeting went very well. I was super excited about the opportunity. Then I sent a copy of the proposal to the prospect in a FedEx envelope. Needless to say, they didn’t sign on as a client.

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?

My husband, Steve, is a huge source of support and inspiration throughout my professional (and personal) life. I can’t imagine starting RLA without him — he was the one who encouraged me to start the business and has lived through all the highs and lows of being a sole business owner at RLA with me and throughout my journey.

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?

I’m a real geek when it comes to research and due diligence for prep on business calls or meetings. At the same time, taking a few minutes before the actual meeting to step back, listen to a quick meditation or music, or get outside is super beneficial and helps keep me centered and grounded for the conversation. The most engaging and productive conversations start with active listening, and ultimately lead to an informative dialogue and meaningful connection.

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?

We are at a point in time where cultivating a diverse company culture is the responsibility of every business in the U.S. Taking a brutally honest look at our approach to everything from internal team dynamics to clients, media and other external constituencies is an integral part of company values, HR practices and business strategies- as an agency and as a strategic integrated marketing partner for our clients.

It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s an ongoing process that starts with assessing the company culture, fostering conversations with leaders/communities outside the traditional sectors, and ultimately putting concrete steps in place to move toward the goal of an inclusive work environment. This brings a global perspective to the business, which is ultimately representative of the world we live in and the clients (or constituencies) we serve. Equally important, it brings a human dimension to the company, which is a core element for any trusted organization

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.

Encourage dialogues with business partners and colleagues who don’t share your worldview to educate yourself and your team, and exchange information on best practices. For example, create an advisory board with industry leaders from multiple backgrounds and industries and share takeaways with your own organization.

Explore concrete ways to help foster education and community within your own industry niche. For example, reach out to your own network/industry association to see where your talents and connections can best be served within an industry association committee.

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?

Clearly communicating the company’s core mission and values and leading the company with these principles are key CEO responsibilities. The CEO is also responsible for setting the bar for a culture that embraces employee engagement and involvement surrounding core company values.

Another responsibility that sets the CEO apart from other leaders is being a visionary and focusing on the future growth and innovation goals for the business. Where does the company want to be in one year and three years? What could she do today to make that happen? Having conversations with other leaders about growth opportunities, revenue channels and partnerships, and playing an active role in the organizations that focus on these opportunities help reinforce the company’s leadership role in the industry.

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

The biggest myth is that a CEO isn’t working that hard if she’s out of the office or travelling. The CEO is dealing with multiple business challenges and issues behind the scenes on a daily basis- whether it’s company revenues, the three-year business plan, or internal people issues that aren’t obvious to anyone else at the organization.

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

I never imagined how much joy I would get from working with a younger millennial team like the one we have at lotus823. I am learning something new all the time from them about different marketing/PR strategies for the housewares industry (my sweet spot). Their passion for each other and their work, and their generous collaborative spirit are truly inspiring and energizing.

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

The biggest challenge is to shatter the perception or internal belief that women can’t be CEOs. It starts with the mindset and conviction that becoming a CEO is part of the career track. If a woman possesses the primary traits of a CEO, why not cultivate these traits for leading a company versus being an executive leader?

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?

One of the most essential ingredients about a successful CEO is having relentless drive, faith in the people behind the business and in yourself. Passion is another core ingredient — passion for the industry you’re in and the people in that industry, and passion for your team. Other key traits are honesty and clarity, which are critical to instilling trust inside and outside your organization.

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

Spend more time listening and less time talking. I have discovered so much about the strengths, talents, and goals of the people I work with by simply asking questions and paying closer attention to what they say and how they work. Everyone wants to be heard and know that their voice and ideas count and more importantly, contribute to the growth of the company.

Create an environment where your team feels safe, nurtured and open to sharing their ideas, and where people are inspired to keep sharing.

Strive to consistently inspire your team with your business vision, while sharing updates on industry trends, potential partnerships and other developments that could spark excitement and ideas for their own work.

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

This is something near and dear to my heart, since I have only begun to achieve this goal. It has been incredibly rewarding to have mentored people over the years and watched them evolve into talented and active PR/communication professionals and agency owners. Most important, they are applying their talents and resources to local and global communities in need.

My mission is to channel my passion for writing, communications and mentoring to an organization/community that is dedicated to civil rights and creative expression. I’m in the process of exploring the best ways to execute this with a few different organizations.

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

First, I confess that people did tell me some of these things (below), but that doesn’t mean I listened to them!

  1. Work on the business not in the business — This is much easier said than done, especially in the early years of running a business. However, the most successful CEOs delegate what can be delegated, surround themselves with the right people, and stay laser-focused on “what’s next” for the business and growing the revenue stream.
  2. Create a strategic business plan and treat your company with as much TLC as you treat clients. Ask yourself, “If you were a client, what would you advise your company to do?”
  3. Create a business that stands for something. Whether it’s a local cause or a global issue, use your business platform to inspire, empower and educate people. It will also give your team and clients a greater sense of pride for being part of your organization.
  4. Create a business that embraces training and continuous learning. A company’s success is fueled by the people behind it, and their motivation to learn new things — on both a personal and professional level. Provide the tools and resources for employees to stay on top of emerging industry practices, as well as best practices outside the industry. This applies to other areas as well, like creative outlets and personal passions. Creativity triggers collaboration and innovation.
  5. Establish an advisory board of other entrepreneurs and business leaders to share ideas, war stories, industry nuances, or to just vent! Having a sounding board of amazing women with different perspectives has been a great source of sanity and validation for me over the years.
  6. Create a business infrastructure that allows you to practice balance and self-care. Again, this is much easier said than done and most of us preach this, but don’t always practice it. Working around the clock and living for employees and clients does not guarantee success. It impairs your perspective and most important, drains you of the mental and physical energy you desperately need as a business owner.

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.

My personal vision is to empower people through writing, music and other art forms, as part of a community dedicated to civil rights and creative expression. This is what gets my blood pumping. There are some incredible organizations out there, so it is involving a lot of curation and connecting the dots on my end to make this happen.

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

The best advice I ever received was in my early days when I was working as a trade editor. I was dissatisfied that there was a typo in my editorial, and my boss said to me, “You know how to avoid mistakes? Don’t do anything.” That quote has stuck with me in both my everyday life and business.

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.

Glennon Doyle, author and co-founder of Together Rising. Her memoir, Untamed, was riveting and important, and the concrete strides her organization are making to empower, educate and improve the lives of people globally is amazing.

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

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