Know when to fight, and when to let it go. If you lead a company or are a leader of any kind, you will not be a stranger to lawsuits or courtrooms. In my career thus far, I have witnessed everything from stolen IP, to embezzlement, to board members suing one another, and more. And while each case is different, there is a similarity across all of the cases. The issue that triggers the legal battle was either addressed entirely too late — meaning a person was being conflict adverse and wasn’t willing to recognize their need to take a stand earlier, or a leader is too trigger happy and jumps immediately into a fight when resolution could have easily occurred through some form of mediation. I am not necessarily sure one will ever have all the answers, but when conflict occurs, I always ask myself “Is now the time to fight, or should I let it go?”
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Bowser. As TMI Consulting’s Chief Executive Officer, Laura is responsible for organizational strategy, executive leadership and the management of TMI Consulting, Inc. Laura also oversees the strategic collaboration between TMI Consulting and its sister company, Loom Technologies, where she serves as Senior Advisor. Laura’s tactical guidance has helped shape the development of Loom Technologies’ flagship product Loom The Culture Map™. Under Laura’s unwavering leadership and tenacity TMI Consulting has become recognized as a global and award-winning diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) solutions provider. Laura has a passion for creating social impact through business. Her career began in international relations, at a large multinational corporation in Beijing, China, where she worked in operations and procurement. Over the course of the next 14 years, Laura’s project management skills and political savvy were honed through her positions in the Virginia House of Delegates, with a regional non-profit, and at management consulting firms. She has worked to support communities and organizations at all levels from local organizations to national Fortune 500 companies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was a child I never once thought “You know, when I grow-up I want to be the CEO of a diversity and inclusion consulting firm.” In fact, most everyone I have met has come into this field as a result of a deeply personal connection to the work of making the world a more equitable place. I have experienced firsthand what happens when a toxic workplace is not appropriately handled. That experience sparked my interest in HR and shifted my career trajectory.
However, diversity was not unknown to me prior to my experience. It was my norm. I grew up traveling and moving a lot. I naturally was drawn to international work and new cultures. In college I majored in International Relations. I spent one summer teaching English in Slovakia, and another at an orphanage in Northern Thailand. I was a research assistant to a Russian politician on behalf of the World Health Organization, and out of school I took an internship in Beijing, China. I thought I would stay overseas. Then 2008’s recession hit, and I found myself working in state politics and within grassroots advocacy. Overtime, my passion for helping others outside the US shifted to serving more within my local community.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The journey itself is probably the most interesting story. When I accepted the role of CEO I knew the company inside and out as I had previously been the COO. Yes, there were a few things that were bound to change with new leadership. For example, my personality type is very different from the previous CEO and I knew that this would require redefining aspects of the company’s culture. What I didn’t anticipate when I accepted the role was that within a few weeks I would be working with the Founder to recalibrate the entire company’s business model — moving away from analog consulting towards a heavily tech supported model. Being at the helm during an unprecedented industry scaling was a curve ball, but also an amazing opportunity. The restructure allows us to scale the brand, while also creating products that are different and unique from what’s already in the market. I am very excited about our company’s growth trajectory.
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 moved into my role I had a brief check-in meeting with the Founder. The Founder is rarely in one place or office for very long. In the meeting I gave them an update on a few of the new service lines we were developing. Some of the products and ideas were still in the ideation phase, but the conversation ended early due to an interruption. Excited by what they heard, the Founder pitched one of the ideas to a global firm who called me a week later asking for a full proposal and cost estimate. Of course, it had to be for the one product that we hadn’t packaged or developed a cost structure for. I quickly pulled our Chief Product Officer, design team, and legal teams together for a strategy meeting. Fortunately, I have a brilliant team and we were able to research and finalize our pilot product in time to have a MSA/SOW on the clients desk within 10 days. I learned then just how agile my team was. They respond well under pressure.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
TMI Consulting Inc. is a heavily mission driven brand and one that I am very proud of and honored to lead. We were the first Certified B Corporation in the Diversity and Inclusion industry in the entire world. Our social and environmental impact is annually measured and ranked against our peers. Twice we have been ranked Best in the World by B Lab (the most recent is in 2016). Part of what has led to these successes is the high level of accountability that we hold ourselves too. Even in our work we are metric driven. While our competitors offer professional development and/or Diversity, Equity and inclusion trainings, coaching, etc., few are measuring the very impact of their work on the organizations that they serve. Our assessments are designed to lead with data which minimizes reliance on guesswork and grounds any Diversity and Inclusion program in objectivity. We redeploy our assessments year-over-year (or every two years) and expect to see changes and improvements in the scores. Rarely will you find a consulting firm that will measure their own impact. That is a risky venture, but we believe in our work and aspire to hold our own industry to a higher standard.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
TMI Consulting is currently incubating a sister company called Loom Technologies. Loom’s flagship product, Loom the Culture Map is revolutionizing how companies understand and improve diversity and inclusion. Our digital platform measures, maps, and improves workplace culture. Loom’s reports allow CEOs, HR Directors, and Talent Managers to understand their workplace culture, identifying strengths and opportunities. The platform currently measures over 80 interpersonal and organizational competencies and identifies gaps in the employee experience by demographics. Our modules include Culture Climate, HR Policy Audit, Interpersonal Skills, Workplace Bias, Equity and Inclusion, Teamwork and Leadership 180, Employee Experience, and Group Dynamics. We currently are offering a beta partnership deal and we have successfully rolled out over 2000 surveys. The development of Loom is groundbreaking as it will offer organizations the ability to measure culture in real time and mitigate risk through the development of targeted solutions.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
There is a cliché saying that “as long as there is a victim or a villain there is no peace.” And while I think I actually read this in a fortune cookie, it is a very true statement. I personally see the world quite objectively and can get stuck within my own system of binary thinking. My immediate response to a problem is a root-cause analysis. This has gotten me far in consulting but is not necessarily a good practice when it comes to managing employees. Only by understanding and seeing the impact of binary thinking have I been able to further develop my own coaching and leadership skills. When something happens –whether an HR incident, a blown deadline, etc, — not immediately jumping to judgement has served me well. My team and I are fallible. When given a chance to grow from a mistake, or at least attempt to solve the problem, an employee hits a milestone in their personal development.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Invest heavily in communication. It’s management 101. The total number of potential communication channels is n (n — 1) /2, where n represents the number of stakeholders. For a team with 100 people, that is 4950 communication channels, and 4950 ways the message can get lost and or misunderstood. For every project, initiative, strategic goal or regulatory imperative, there should be a communication plan that is being effectively implemented, measured and recalibrated. If you are leader within a large department or division, hold your direct reports accountable for communication and work to make yourself as accessible as possible to middle management. Middle management is usually where communications breakdown and is always the first to be blamed by individual contributors for organizational issues.
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 have been fortunate enough to have many mentors so I cannot say that it is just one individual. In recent years I would attribute some of my success to the Founder of my firm. They have allowed me to grow — often times by throwing me into unchartered waters and simply believing I would succeed. They also accept the fact that I am a nerd. I find solace in studying. When I started my career at the company, they allowed me to undertake 4 certifications. Some that I didn’t even need for my role. They recognized that with knowledge I gained confidence.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I volunteer hours and donate money. While I am a bit all over the map when it comes to what nonprofits or social causes I want to promote, it is not uncommon for me to be involved in 3–6 non-profits or commissions at a time. I spent 6 years on the Executive Committee for an international family literacy non-profit and I currently remain on their board. I am also on the Leadership Board for the local Alzheimer’s Association, and I was appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe to serve as the Vice Chair to The Virginia Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Commission. I am currently Chair of the development of our State’s 4-year plan. I also have a rotational seat on our City’s Living Wage Commission and am volunteering/advising the national non-profit The Burke-Paine Society.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Know when to fight, and when to let it go. If you lead a company or are a leader of any kind, you will not be a stranger to lawsuits or courtrooms. In my career thus far, I have witnessed everything from stolen IP, to embezzlement, to board members suing one another, and more. And while each case is different, there is a similarity across all of the cases. The issue that triggers the legal battle was either addressed entirely too late — meaning a person was being conflict adverse and wasn’t willing to recognize their need to take a stand earlier, or a leader is too trigger happy and jumps immediately into a fight when resolution could have easily occurred through some form of mediation. I am not necessarily sure one will ever have all the answers, but when conflict occurs, I always ask myself “Is now the time to fight, or should I let it go?”
- Hire for growth not to solve a problem. In small to medium sized firms there are often bottlenecks that occur within the workflows of the employees. It is not uncommon for one employee to feel overwhelmed and immediately demand support. When I first was in management, I would oftentimes look for another hire or 1099 to bring in relief during high demand times. But this rarely solved the problem. I began recognizing that I had to be more proactive in reviewing my employees time management practices. It is rare that hiring to solve a problem is going to work. You hire because you are growing.
- A toxic high-performer must always go. I have dealt with a few, and I have coached clients on this. It is never easy but I have yet to regret any of their departures. The employees are always ready for the person to leave. Your role as a leader is communicating the why in a dignified and confidential manner to your clients. Yes, you might lose a few clients, but if the individual was truly toxic, you will not lose your staff. Instead, your staff will all rally behind you.
- Get comfortable with risk but learn to recognize a vision without a plan. Emotional intelligence is key. If you are risk adverse, learn how to become more receptive to risk. Get yourself a mentor. If you are risk tolerant, surround yourself with others who can keep you grounded.
- Don’t fear walking away. “If it doesn’t bring you joy, get rid of it” or so the expression goes. I believe the same thing applies for your volunteer work and even your career. Everyone has to work. Work isn’t always fun. But don’t be miserable just because it pays well.
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. :-)
Reconciliation. Our country is more politically and racially divided than I have ever witnessed in my lifetime. We must work to encourage political discourse. Institutions must address bias and fear. Healing, forgiveness, and some version of restitution must be discussed and acted on or I fear divisions will continue to grow.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Tell the story of the mountains you climbed. Your words could become a page in someone else’s survival guide.”
In life we all experience tragic loss, pain, and betrayal. I spent many years not really talking about my own, only to realize that once I started opening up that friends wanted to listen. Even weirder, a floodgate of those who heard of my experiences began to reach out. Through talking I found healing, and I like to believe they did too.
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 would love to have a conversation about what I do and learn more from someone who is in both the civil justice and entrepreneurial space. Names like Paul Graham from Y Combinator, or if I am dreaming big, Oprah!