Alisa Williams of VMG Partners: Why you should not avoid those hard conversations
You can’t avoid hard conversations. It is my natural inclination to be appeasing, but even when you try to create a win-win, it’s not always possible; sometimes you have to confront things head on. I have found that in moments where I have to have a hard conversation, writing my notes ahead of time helps me get through the discussion.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alisa Williams.
Alisa Williams is a Partner at VMG Partners, a private equity firm that specializes in helping build iconic consumer brands. She has worked with a number of brands in the VMG portfolio, including Drunk Elephant, Nature’s Bakery and Briogeo. Prior to joining VMG, Alisa worked in investment banking at Wells Fargo. Alisa graduated from Yale University.
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 would have never guessed I would end up where I am today. As a child, my parents always told me to “get things that can’t be taken away from me.” This philosophy pushed me to get my college degree, but also pushed me to enter investment banking after college, in an effort to develop a financial modeling skillset. After a brutal few years, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I loved business and people. Working in private equity at VMG Partners offered the perfect balance of finance, business and teaming up with entrepreneurs who are trying to achieve their dreams.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
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?
When I first started my career, I was self-conscious and fearful of making a mistake or saying the wrong thing. I would practice what I was going to say five times in my head before saying it, and by the time I got the courage to speak up, someone else would say the point, or the moment would pass. It’s funny to look back on now, because most people recognize me as someone who isn’t afraid to speak their mind! Over time I learned that no one has all the answers, and we all will have times where we say the wrong thing. I found that my perspective wasn’t as silly as I perceived it to be, and others on our team found what I had to say valuable. It taught me not to get in my head too much, as speaking up is more important than holding things in.
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?
I am grateful for my mentor and one of the Founders of VMG Partners, Kara Cissell-Roell. Kara has absolutely paved the way for women in private equity, and she’s done so with grace, confidence and an approachability that is rarely seen in leaders. Kara has always been someone I can be completely vulnerable with, and I go to her regularly when I feel uncertain or those feelings of self-doubt creep in. She believed in me in moments when I was unsure of myself and would challenge me to take risks even when I didn’t feel ready to.
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 love a good pep talk! I have a core group of friends and family who I rely on to keep me grounded. Right before a big meeting, you can be sure that I am calling one of them to give me that bit of encouragement that I need. For me it offers a simple reminder that despite how the meeting goes, I have people who are in my corner and people who believe in me. For me, this creates a sense of calm. Sure, I exercise and try and get rest, which are so important for my mental and physical strength. But in those moments right before a big talk or decision, where I feel amped up with energy and nerves, I rely on my family and friends to help me remain centered.
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?
A business’ customers or clients do not all come from the same background, so to be able to connect to all members of our society and understand them more deeply, we too, need to have a diverse team that can speak on behalf of those who have buying power in today’s economy. Women and POC are utilizing their buying power more today than ever. It is hard to understand what a specific consumer needs if you’ve never even had a conversation with that consumer! Diversity is so critical, because it expands our conversations. It brings additional layers and perspective to the table and helps us as leaders make decisions that ultimately impact a broad community.
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.
I believe it starts with building understanding. In order to value inclusivity, representation and an equitable society, you must start with educating yourself on the disparities that exist today. I feel that through education, you can understand the historical context that has impacted our communities and ultimately why this has been a long-standing issue. As a business leader, you must truly be the leader on this matter. Without conviction from leadership that these matters are important, they often get pushed to the back burner.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Early on in my career, I held the misconception that the leaders of organizations are “all-knowing.” I felt that the partners or executives always knew the answer and always had the right approach. As I have grown in my career, I have realized that this could not be further from the truth. I would like to dispel the belief that you will reach a point in your career where you will “know it all.” In fact, I often find that it is some of the most junior team members who have the perspectives that are most impactful. I always attempt to get the perspectives of many people, because the truth is we often are all just “trying to figure it out.”
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Being in a male-dominated space can be really tough. At times you feel misunderstood, or you are dealing with challenges that men don’t have to face. In the past, I have felt like my perspectives were not respected, and I was not viewed as being on par with my male counterparts. I often felt that this was not based on my performance, but based on me being a woman. I think this is a very common challenge that women are forced to face. On top of this, women are forced to constantly consider when they are being “forceful” and when they are being “passive.” I find that as a woman, this is a delicate dance that I think about all the time! I think this challenge is often unique to women.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The “mental gymnastics” that I am forced to face every day is absolutely more than I expected. At VMG, we may jump from helping develop our internal team, to building a forecasting model, to discussing a brand’s retail distribution strategy — all in a few hours. It requires a level of patience and “self-talk” that I never anticipated. There are many times where I have to sit quietly in my office and say to myself, “You can handle this. You are capable. You’ve got this.”
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?
I believe empathy is absolutely critical to being a strong leader. People within an organization often want to feel heard. I believe you can only hear someone when you attempt to understand where they are coming from. I do not believe anyone should avoid aspiring to be an executive. Even if empathy is not your strong suit, we as humans have an incredible ability to grow, practice, and learn new characteristics.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be confident. I believe people want to follow leaders who have a level of self-assuredness.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In my opinion, success does not dictate your ability to make the world a better place. It is important that we all find ways to make our world better, whether that is through our work or a personal passion. My true passion is working with children. So many children are brought into environments where they will face challenges they did not create. I want to use every resource I have to help underprivileged children succeed. I work with the foster care system in San Francisco, and it has contributed to some of my most rewarding moments in the past few years.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- If you find something you’re passionate about, it may not feel like work. I love working with founders. I can find myself talking to some of my favorite brand founders, and I look up and realize it’s been over an hour without me noticing. I often leave those conversations feeling invigorated and my “job” feels less like a job.
- Achieving balance can be hard, but it is critical. I have had moments where I have felt burnt out, and its largely when I haven’t taken time for myself. My family and friends say I am a workaholic, because I have struggled with prioritizing work in the past. I try my best to be present in the moments that matter, and sometimes that requires me turning off my phone in moments that aren’t the most convenient from a work perspective.
- You can’t avoid hard conversations. It is my natural inclination to be appeasing, but even when you try to create a win-win, it’s not always possible; sometimes you have to confront things head on. I have found that in moments where I have to have a hard conversation, writing my notes ahead of time helps me get through the discussion.
- Admit your mistakes. From a work perspective, I have often felt the most connected to others when we share moments when have done something wrong. It creates a level of vulnerability that reminds us that we are all human and competing against one another is not always key to driving success.
- Don’t’ conform. I struggled with this often in the past. I felt that as a black woman I had to fit in to societies view of a “finance woman.” However, over time I have realized that I am better at my job when I can be myself. As an example, a few years ago, I shaved off my very long and very curly hair that was a defining piece of image. Today you may see me with a platinum blonde buzz cut one month and braids the next. I love wearing colorful jewelry and a bright lip. I feel more confident walking into the room as “me” rather than someone I am not. I ultimately feel that this makes me better at my job because I feel confident even in spaces where I don’t necessarily “fit in.”
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 would inspire a movement centered around understanding. I believe we live in a world of conflict because people have an inability to see where someone else is coming from and cannot understand the perspective or actions of others. If we could inspire people to attempt to see someone else’s side, I think we would reach resolution much quicker as a society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is a journey, not a destination.” My best friend and I were having a conversation a few years ago around the concept of “success.” She was trying to convince me that I was successful, and I had a hard time accepting her view. My response continued to be, “I am human, trying to navigate life just like the rest of us.” For me, it was a reminder that I don’t view success as a destination, because what happens when you get there? I view success as a constant journey and something that can never truly be reached. There is always more to be done and a new challenge to tackle. You can be successful in one part of your life, and absolutely fail in all others. Therefore, I view the journey to success as ever evolving and a road that I will forever be on. This helps me maintain a level of intellectual curiosity, and forces me to challenge myself in all aspects of life.
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
I would love to have a private breakfast with Michelle Obama. She is such a dynamic leader and understands when to whisper and when to roar. She leads with empathy and does not shy away from intellect. I find her to be such a balanced force and ultimately strive to have similar characteristics in my role.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.