Invest in your mental and physical health. Confident, effective executive leaders are balanced, healthy, and strong. Addressing your mental and physical vulnerabilities will pay you spades during times of extreme success or failure.
As part of our series called “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive” we had the pleasure of interviewing Odessa “OJ” Jenkins.
Odessa L. Jenkins is a former American world-class athlete turned coach/entrepreneur/executive leader. Jenkins is a successful tech/SAAS business executive, CEO of Bonfire Women, and founder of the Women’s National Football Conference (WNFC). An in-demand global speaker/coach, Jenkins is also the founder of multiple nonprofits (Got Her Back). She is a recognized market leader in B2B SAAS tech, DE&I, and Team Dynamics with multiple years of executive leadership experience in privately funded start-ups, and Fortune 1,000 public companies.
Jenkins previously served as President of the e-learning company Emtrain and served for several years as an executive leader at YourCause. This start-up helped to revolutionize the Corporate Social Responsibility industry (exited to Blackbaud). As a disrupter in sports, Jenkins has built one of the premier sports leagues in the country, creating opportunities, inclusion, and equity in football for women and girls.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Having grown up playing ball in and around South Central LA, I have always been a disruptor, competitive, and keenly aware of societal injustices. Through football, I saw the correlation between sports and growth. Early in my career I was an inaugural participant in the NFL’s first Women’s Career in Football Forum and one of the first women to obtain the Bill Walsh Diversity Internship in an on-field position (Running Backs Coach — Atlanta Falcons). With a background in tech and as a staunch advocate for women, the queer community, and people of color, my career path was non-linear, but every experience has shaped my perspective and leadership style.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My most interesting stories revolve around the amazing people and teams I have been a part of throughout my career. The story of Missy Peck sticks out the most to me. She worked for me in customer service and is now a VP of Sales. Missy is a perfect example of what happens when brilliant, hard-working people are given a chance to excel and room to develop. She came to us as a store manager from Starbucks without a college degree, and as we gave her more opportunities to learn and make mistakes within the safety of a healthy workplace, she flourished. Missy is my constant reminder to value ambition and have the courage as a leader to create intentional room for growth and development.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
My favorite life lesson quote definitely comes from my mother. She used to sing a song by a gospel music legend named Walter Hawkins. She would always go around saying, “Don’t wait ’til the battle is over! Shout now because, in the end, you’re gonna win!” For my mom, this was a chant of hope and perseverance. It was a constant reminder to see victory in existence, in the effort.
Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I’ve come to value perseverance and a positive mindset as critical aspects of success, especially as an executive leader and entrepreneur. To succeed at the highest level, you must have innate confidence. Confidence is the belief that everything will eventually work out. To me, that translates to, “…in the end, you’re gonna win!”
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your leadership style?
People sometimes chuckle when I share this, but I was super impacted by “The Power of Who.” Some might see it as a “cheesy” networking book. As someone not afforded the advantages of nepotism, wealth, or systematic power, I leaned heavily on maximizing opportunities and nurturing relationships. The book makes the point that reaching your dreams is less about what you don’t have or who you don’t know and more about your ability to maximize what you do have and who you DO know.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
At Bonfire, we offer Leadership training for women on the rise. Our offering is unique in that we work with our corporate partners to hone in and equip mid-level women with greater agency and authority in promoting themselves and their ideas more effectively. We teach tools and techniques on influence and decision-making and help women in the workplace increase the value of their contributions to their organizations. A focus on developing women will continue to be a catalyst for driving equity, inclusion, engagement, and retention in the workplace.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The three traits most instrumental to my success are consistency, the ability to inspire a team, and compassionately direct communication. Leaders set the tone for the day, and I take that very literally. I approach every day the same way, with the same vigor. You can’t always control the outcome, you can’t always control happiness or sadness, but you can always control your reaction. Positivity is a choice that I make, even on the hard days.
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?
I shared earlier that I am most proud of the people I impact. Some of the most difficult business decisions I have made have been concerning how the outcome could affect people (mostly employees and customers). Talent decisions are always the hardest, especially in an environment where you have to consider the overall health and profitability of the company. Getting hiring, promotion, and professional development right is core to effective leadership. In today’s environment, my hardest decisions remain those that could negatively affect people. They cannot be avoided at points in your career, so you handle them with clear communication, compassion, and care.
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 C-Suite executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a C-Level executive does that is different from the responsibilities of other leaders?
There are massive differences at the C-Suite compared to the earlier and immediately preceding roles related to the impact of your decision-making and your ability to delegate and communicate a plan. The accountability ladders up to you no matter who was responsible. Furthermore, as I’ve experienced it, most people don’t realize that C-level executives are operating, planning, and executing, knowing exactly where the extreme success and extreme failure points are at all times. One of the most important roles the senior-most executive plays is the ability to orchestrate during a company’s highs and lows. Most importantly, the C-Suite must hire well. The traits of the “cabinet” that the C-Suite leader hires will directly reflect in the company’s culture.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a C-Suite executive?
That men naturally do it better. Can you explain what you mean? I mean, some people assume that because more men have leadership titles, they must be naturally better and more effective leaders. I’d like to dispel that myth and share that women’s natural and nurtured traits equip us extremely well for the challenges of executive leadership. As women work towards, are afforded, and make more opportunities for themselves, we find that once they are in the seats, they do extremely well in comparison. Research by the Harvard Business Review and Workday has shown that companies with more women in senior and executive positions are more profitable, more socially responsible, have more engaged employees, and provide safer, higher-quality customer experiences.
What are the most common leadership mistakes you have seen C-Suite leaders make when they start leading a new team?
One of the most common mistakes is a lack of communication. It’s easy to get into the seat and start working on your vision for the company. Things move fast, and executives are expected to produce, but not explicitly sharing that vision as it takes shape will leave those who will help execute it in the dark.
What can be done to avoid those errors?
Listen and share. As C-Suite leaders, we must be willing to share our thoughts and be transparent with our plans. Quickly get people around you that you trust, listen to who was there already, and by being open to input, you ensure that you always make a safe space for people to tell you the truth.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Talent and Culture.
Can you explain or give an example?
Unsurprisingly, companies with high employee satisfaction and retention rates also show high revenues and business success. While the correlation is easy to see, it is not an easy thing to do. And it should not be. Developing people and culture is complex and paradoxical. Programming should be flexible and do its best to equitably meet the needs of employees.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective C-Suite Executive”?
- Hire well. Spare no expense to get the best people around you.
- There is what you think you know, what you want to know, and the truth. Always make room for the truth.
- Be more student than teacher. If you’ve hired well, your people will be diverse, will pour into you, and will always help you see several paths toward plan success.
- Be consistent. There is strength in letting people around you know what to expect.
- Invest in your mental and physical health. Confident, effective executive leaders are balanced, healthy, and strong. Addressing your mental and physical vulnerabilities will pay you spades during times of extreme success or failure.
In your opinion, what are a few ways that executives can help to create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Executives must invest in their people outside of their paychecks. Seek out and create pathways to success for those who are marginalized or negatively impacted by societal structures. Companies are a part of society and the broader community. To create a healthy company, the executive in the business must leverage people, programs, tools, and systems intended to drive positive interactions. Don’t go it alone. Company culture belongs to everyone.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
The advancement of equity for women is my purpose. The lack of gender equity is the root cause of so many issues in our world. I’m living my movement every day. It has and will continue to bring good to the world. A more equitable workplace, workforce, and society for women is a win for us all.
How can our readers further follow you online?
LinkedIn is the best place to follow me: https://www.linkedin.com/in/odessajenkins/
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.