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The one thing every CEO needs to start doing

September 28, 2015, 2:38 PM UTC
Photograph by Jay Beauvais — Build-A-Bear Workshop

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What is the biggest leadership lesson you’ve learned in the past year? is written by Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop.

I have been in the working world for almost 30 years. Through my journey to become CEO of a publicly traded company, I have learned quite a few lessons and am often asked for my thoughts or advice. However, because I don’t consider myself to be some sort of woman in the workforce or change-agent business guru, I haven’t always actively shared my personal stories — I didn’t necessarily believe they were particularly insightful or unique, nor did I see a direct return on investment when it came to the time and effort.

In the past year, an unusual set of events happened. I was asked to make a speech and receive an alumni award in conjunction with both my graduate and undergraduate universities. As fate would have it, the presentations were scheduled on the exact same day, one in the morning and one in the evening. While it sounded great, there was a big problem: I’m located in the Midwest, my graduate school is located in Manhattan and my undergraduate school is located in a smaller southeastern city with limited direct flight access. The logistics were going to be tough, if not impossible, for me to make it to both events.

In a moment of trip-planning frustration, I commented, “Oh, I don’t really need to go — it’s not like being there is going to change my life,” to which my CFO, knowing my passionate presentation style, responded, “Yeah, but you might change someone else’s life.”

We worked it out and I was fortunate enough to speak at both events. After both speeches, there was a line of people waiting with hugs, questions, congratulations, thanks, well wishes and even a few tears based on what I had shared.

On the flight home I thought, “How many times do I have to learn the same lesson over and over, just at a higher level?” It is not about me. I learned it as a child, I learned it as a daughter, I learned it as a wife, I learned it as a mom, I learned it as a boss, and now, I am learning it as a seasoned executive who must embrace the responsibility to generously share the insights of my journey.

See also: Lockheed Martin’s Marillyn Hewson: One of the biggest lessons she learned this year

To successfully do this, I first needed to get over doubts that my story might not be interesting enough or worth the effort of sharing. So, as I stared out the airplane window at the passing clouds, I thought about how the last 30 years had flown by. I still remember my first job like it was yesterday. What if I could have conversed with myself back then? Wouldn’t I have thought that what I shared was helpful or insightful or maybe even amazing? Separately, I recalled some specific game-changing moments when I heard someone speak or read a helpful tip that propelled me forward in my career. What if they, too, had been stingy with their stories or hadn’t seen enough value in them to share?

So, my leadership lesson is that I need to pay it forward. Take the time. Provide the insights. Share the story. Answer the questions. Speak the truth.

For almost a year now, I have been more accepting of speaking engagements, panel participation and writing opportunities. The feedback has been wonderful. Receiving notes and thanks from people both inside and outside my company who were moved by a phrase or an insight regularly reinforces my commitment.

I don’t think much anymore about the time I spend preparing for a speech or writing an essay as needing to have a traditional return on investment. Now, I look forward to a different kind of payout: a return on inspiration.


Read all responses to the MPW Insider question: What is the biggest leadership lesson you’ve learned in the past year?

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