“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Paige Velasquez, CEO of Zilker Media
An Interview with Phil La Duke
Culture is key. Culture is at the top of my priority list as CEO — it is what makes you or breaks you long term. Culture is the motivator to show up every day and put your best foot forward. I work hard every day to create a culture of trust, integrity, shared vision and good vibes. Culture is what makes it all fun and rewarding.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paige Veleasquez. Paige is the CEO of Zilker Media, one of the fastest growing agencies in Texas. Paige is a leader in digital marketing and maximizes a brand’s online presence with innovative strategies. She has led digital marketing campaigns and strategies for some of the world’s most recognized authorities, including The New York Times bestseller and Fortune Magazine Senior editor-at-large Geoff Colvin, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller and Hall of Fame speaker Sally Hogshead and many others. Paige has been a featured speaker on digital marketing strategy and has led workshops at national venues such as Harvard Medical School, Austin’s own Alamo Drafthouse, Zilker Park and the Hilton Hotel. She has also counseled leading international brands such as Russell Stover and a2 Milk. Her unique approach to brand strategy and digital marketing has been featured in Business News Daily, CEO Nation and Business.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Paige! What is it about the position of CEO the most attracted you to it?
I wouldn’t necessarily say it was the position of CEO that attracted me. The opportunity presented itself to lead our talented team into the next chapter of our company, Zilker Media. I was most excited for the growth we had seen and where we were headed as a company. The opportunity to be an integral part of that growth and leading our team towards a shared vision is was what attracted me most.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does, but in just a few words can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other executives?
Most people think once you’ve become CEO you have made it, but in truth you are only starting your journey. Someone once told me, “A manager and director’s job is to do — and a CEO’s job is to think.” The biggest differentiator in responsibilities for a CEO is the need to clearly communicate the company’s vision to all stakeholders and foster a culture throughout the organization. These are two key responsibilities that determine a CEO’s success.
What were your biggest struggles throughout your professional life and how did you overcome them?
The biggest thing I’ve had to overcome throughout my career is keeping negative “self talk” out of my head. I spent so much time early in my professional life worried about everything I thought I couldn’t do and ultimately setting invisible boundaries for myself. Turning this mindset around has allowed me to accelerate my vision, goals and career. It also has made a difference in the way I have approached my leadership style throughout the years. If you make positive self talk a priority, you will also start to practice this with your team members as well.
What are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Although I’ve been through some challenges in certain situations as a female CEO, most of the time my gender doesn’t phase anyone. I’ve seen many embrace and cheer that our company is led by a female.
I do think there are instances where female CEOs still face gender bias when others assume that their male counterpart is the decision maker. In these situations, I’ve found it’s important to address the assumption with humor and move on quickly.
The amount of support I’ve received as a female CEO has been great and I love seeing the shift in perspective from our society in the past couple of years. There are many women executives that have paved the way and are spending time pouring into other female leaders like myself.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?
Working with our team to create something bigger than ourselves. The culture and heart of our team is unmatched — it’s what I believe truly drives our success.
What are the downsides of being a CEO?
As a CEO, at times, I feel like I’m isolated on my own island. This feeling is something I often hear from my peers as well. There are times when you have to make tough decisions that impact several stakeholders and their families. This responsibility can sometimes feel heavy on an individual. I’ve learned to surround myself with a leadership team, coaches and mentors that are stronger than me in specific areas to guide those decisions.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Our company was born by three founding team members after an acquisition of a previous agency many of us had worked at for almost a decade. After I joined the team in the first year and we started to grow, key team members who we had worked with in the past also joined our team at Zilker Media. Now our leadership is comprised of five individuals who have worked together on and off for several years. In addition to also adding new talent to the team, our history has accelerated the rate we were able to build a strong culture we are proud of.
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?
A humorous internal story that comes to mind is when we were celebrating the launch our new website. I was so proud of the team’s work and passion throughout the project, I really wanted to celebrate in style. I ordered treats with our new logo and bought champagne so we could toast to the occasion. I ended up buying the BIG bottle of champagne not thinking about the implications of having to open the bottle. When it came time, the team wanted me to pop the cork…well lets just say I could barely hold up the bottle with one hand. So after a couple of minutes struggling in front of our team to work the cork up, I finally popped it. The motion of the pop was a little much for me and half the champagne ended up on me and all over the floor. The good news…we still had enough for a toast! The lesson learned? Celebrate in style but don’t buy a bottle of champagne that is bigger than you.
Specifically, what is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
My perspective of the business has drastically changed since I have transitioned into the role of CEO. Previously, I had worked in every aspect of our business, so I felt I had a well-rounded view. As CEO, my perspective of the company has completely shifted. I now understand the importance of focusing my time working “on” the business versus “in” the business.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a CEO, what specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful CEO and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be a CEO?
I don’t believe in putting boundaries on yourself and saying only one type of person can be a CEO. I think what is more important is aspiring not to a title but a vision for the company. No leader is going to get far with a selfish agenda.
Everyone will approach leading their team to success differently. Some of the traits I’ve picked up along the way from the best CEOs I know are resiliency, strong communication, confidence, empathy, vulnerability and the ability to listen.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable with your team. Honest conversation opens the door for trust and growth throughout the organization. As a leader, you must take action first before expecting everyone else to do the same. The culture you foster begins with you.
Who inspired/inspires you and why?
My family does every day. I was raised in a West Texas town with a family who all worked hard for every single thing we had, especially to help my brother and I achieve our dreams. Being surrounded by their work ethic and unwavering support to never put limits on what we can accomplish has instilled the drive and passion I have today. They are the reason I’m able to live my dream.
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?
There are many family members, teachers, peers and mentors that have helped me along the way. I owe a lot of gratitude to my professional mentors Shelby Sledge and Rusty Shelton, Founder & Chairman of Zilker Media. Shelby was one of my first bosses and has remained a strong female role model for me in business and in life. Rusty has always lead by action and has shown me what a great leader and entrepreneur looks like. He has trusted me to lead the next chapter of the business and has invested in me as a mentor, helping me grow in all areas as a leader and person.
I’m especially grateful for my fiancé, Jordan. He loves me unconditionally. He is constantly cheering me on, helping me see things from all perspectives and challenging me to be better. I could not do this in life without him.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
At Zilker Media one of our core values is “better the community.” One of our team’s favorite things to do is support a cause, mission or non profit by donating our talent. It’s amazing to see what growth or goals we’ve been able to accomplish for individuals by helping them garner more awareness, donors or advocates.
We also have amazing clients with missions that are changing the world. One of our criteria for determining if a client is a good fit is they must be seeking to leave the world a better place than they found it. A client must be aligned with our values before we move forward with any partnership.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Culture is key. Culture is at the top of my priority list as CEO — it is what makes you or breaks you long term. Culture is the motivator to show up every day and put your best foot forward. I work hard every day to create a culture of trust, integrity, shared vision and good vibes. Culture is what makes it all fun and rewarding.
2. Be yourself. I started my trajectory as a leader very early on in my career. I was promoted to my first management role at the age of 22. Being the youngest on the team of veterans was intimidating in the beginning. I spent a lot of energy on trying to emulate other leadership styles or hide my age. I’ve found throughout my career what people respond to best is when I’m not afraid to be authentic and vulnerable. Being a servant leader is what is in my heart — I’ve learned to not be afraid to let that show.
3. As David Olvigy said, “Surround yourself with others who are smarter than you.” As CEO, you should not be the smartest person in the room. You are not benefiting your company if your leadership team is relying on you to lead each function. Wanting to be the smartest person in the room will limit your growth to what only you can accomplish. If you focus on hiring people smarter than you, your company and team will be stronger as a result.
4. Fail hard and fast. I’ve learned that if you are not having challenging discussions and innovating the way you approach your team, services and business model, your business is going to flat-line. It’s important to foster creativity within your team and empower every level to make decisions and try new things. We see failure as an opportunity to learn then move on quickly.
5. Be resilient. Being the leader of a company sometimes feels like you are on a fast roller coaster where there are highs and lows. Nothing is ever going to go perfectly so you must build resiliency. At the end of the day you must do what is right for your team and your clients no matter how tough a conversation or decision might be.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
There are many causes we advocate for and are involved with at Zilker Media. Personally, I’ve always been a champion of pouring into young women. I think in today’s society it can be harder for young women to grow up and begin their careers when visuals of your documented life now create your first impression. I believe it’s so important to teach young women how to have a healthy relationship with social media, build offline relationships and create a personal brand they are proud of.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young,” — Henry Ford
I’m a huge advocate for life-long learning. Some of the most successful people I admire continue to stay curious in life and are always looking for opportunities to learn. Plus, I want to stay “young” as long as possible!
Some of the biggest 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
I’m a huge fan of Spanx products and I’m fascinated with how that business has grown. I would love to have lunch with Sara Blakely. I’m inspired by her creativity, spunk and resilience. I’ve been following her on Instagram for a couple of years and in some ways, I already feel like we are friends.
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About the author:
Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 350 works in print. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke