Lift Your Legacy: How Busy Leaders Find Balance in Their Lives, with Denise Stern and Jacob Rupp
No matter what business you’re in, that example should include acting with honor, being highly organized, and being open to criticism. Living this authentic life in and out of the office is the only way to expect genuinely helpful feedback from your team with the ultimate result being progress and the elevation of the company.
When Denise Stern’s twins were born in 2009, she was ordered on bedrest due to serious medical complications. With 2 newborns, a 17 month old, and a husband without paternity leave, Denise personally saw the need for qualified overnight newborn care and started Let Mommy Sleep. Denise’s background in small business has made Let Mommy Sleep the country’s largest team of Night Nurses and Postpartum Caregivers with locations in 7 cities and franchising nationwide.
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 my girls were born, I had a dangerous condition called pre-eclampsia, the same issue Beyonce spoke out about with the birth of her twins, and when I was finally released from the hospital, I was ordered on bedrest because I was at such a high risk of having a stroke. Even for me, with an involved husband and family to help, caring for two premature newborns and a young toddler was a ridiculous and honestly, an unsafe situation.
When I was able to process what happened months later, I knew I had to start a business that helped families like mine who were struggling in a time when they should be joyful. At that time (2010), no one was really talking about postpartum issues so the success of the company was a great surprise to me. It turns out there are so many moms and families quietly struggling when they bring baby home and this business is their lifeline.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I had the honor of attending the White House Summit for Working Families hosted by President Obama, Mrs. Obama, VP Biden and Dr. Biden. The Summit discussed actionable ways to help expecting parents, families with small children, and mothers transitioning back into the workplace after childbirth. It was an interesting experience to say the least, but also very moving to see the issues that so many work for behind the scenes finally getting a national platform.
It’s rare that the President and so many national leaders are unified under one issue so the fact that our leaders were finally taking the postpartum phase seriously -and for me to be a small part of that- demonstrated that I could never turn back from advocacy. Business is in a very interesting point in history right now where your company values better match your product and being part of the Summit changed me from being a small business owner to being a small business owner using that platform for greater good.
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?
It seems like every year is “the worst flu season on record” and while I thought we had good back-up contingencies in place for nurses who call out sick, I clearly did not. In the early days of Let Mommy Sleep we had so many caregivers unable to work one time that I went out into the field myself. There was one family I couldn’t bear to leave without help because they were overwhelmed and I knew one night of sleep would make a difference in their health. So, I told them the truth which was that I had no staff but I would be happy to get a big coffee and go to them myself. They accepted!
Two things were learned that night: first the obvious, that I had to have a much deeper support staff and second, I learned exactly what the caregivers feel when they’re working; the nervous excitement of meeting a family for the first time, going through the nightly care routine, the jolt of worry when baby cries…all of these are specific things that happen in postpartum care. Small things like wearing non-skid socks to work or checking to see that a breastfeeding mom has water for when she wakes up have become protocol because of what we experienced on the job in the early days.
I’m so thankful to have made this mistake because in addition to building a better business, knowing what’s happening at the surface level of my business has made me, my team and our clients all better off.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re a niche service by nature but what makes Let Mommy Sleep stand out additionally is that every agency director, every nurse and even me, the CEO are accessible to our families and team pretty much all the time. I think in our current world where customer service is automated and small businesses can’t compete financially with large, faceless companies, we’re all craving business interactions with a personal touch. This goes back to being “seen.” Customers, like all of us, want to be valued especially when we’re making a conscious choice to spend money with a company.
There have certainly been times when a Nurse is scheduled to be with a family and then has to cancel at the last minute, leaving a client without the service they were expecting. In those nightmare moments, my team will get on the phone, offer a solution or at the very least an apology and ask for a chance to do better. This usually happens around 9:50 at night and while the personal response during this odd hour doesn’t make up for not having service, clients at least see that we’re truly trying our best to help. Transparency and customer service are words used an awful lot but in actuality are pretty rare in business these days. When we fall short with a customer, we can at least quickly connect with them, resolve and exceed their expectations next time.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re focused on franchising our business and aggregating the emerging industry of newborn care and postpartum education. While there are pockets of professionals across the country helping postpartum families, there’s currently no set model or agreed upon set of standards in postpartum care outside the hospital.
Through franchising, we’re going to normalize postpartum care in our country and change the way American’s bring home baby. We all make the joke about “being kicked out of the hospital” after a couple days but the truth is we really are kind of kicked out! Postpartum visits will not only help lower hospital readmissions of mothers and babies due to infection, feeding problems and other issues that are solved by early intervention, but they will also assess and identify mental health. Educating and empowering new families helps all of us.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
You have to lead by example.
No matter what business you’re in, that example should include acting with honor, being highly organized, and being open to criticism. Living this authentic life in and out of the office is the only way to expect genuinely helpful feedback from your team with the ultimate result being progress and the elevation of the company. As a woman, it can be tempting to follow what we think of as the traditional male mold of communication style where the boss is always right or untouchable in order to garner respect, but my experience has been that being open to feedback is never a bad thing.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I don’t believe in micromanaging team members large or small. What’s more important is to set a high expectation of success on the outset so people can rise to those expectations, and to give them the tools to succeed. On a concrete day to day basis, the only way to manage a large team is to maintain clear and consistent communication. Clear communication is the main tool of success and accountability and routine communication done by team leaders keeps the chain of accountability unbroken.
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 particularly grateful to my husband not only for the personal support but because he was a small business owner for many years and is also currently self-employed. There’s a lot of business advice out there but someone who understands what it’s really like to work without a safety net is the most valuable kind of mentor. Running your own business boils down to creative problem solving and only another hustler knows the pressure of that and how your confidence is hopelessly tied to success.
When I started out, I had an opportunity to meet a well-known CEO who was interested in investing. I’d never had a meeting like this and was incredibly nervous that I wouldn’t be able to be on his level. And yes, I can admit that I wasn’t confident because he was what a CEO was supposed to look like (male!) and I wasn’t (female!).
I was pacing around the house like a nut and my husband finally took me by the shoulders and said, “Listen, you have the same title as him. He’s not more important than you.” The CEO never ended up investing and truth be told I was really green, but my husband’s words were one of those lightbulb moments that still give me confidence as a female and I’ll forever be grateful for his continued counsel.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Very shortly after opening and seeing the great need for newborn care support, I knew I had to find a way to make the service accessible to those who might not be able to afford it. Postpartum care is not covered by insurance and cost is definitely a factor for many families so I launched the 501c3 non-profit, Mission Sleep.
Mission Sleep provides free, overnight newborn care to military and first responder families whose babies are born when a parent is deployed, wounded or deceased. I don’t think people realize how many service personnel are still being deployed and unable to come home for the birth of their child and how many first responders work unforgiving night shifts. I wish we could help everyone who reaches out for postpartum help, but we are really proud to help those who are serving our communities and our country.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
My role is to make other leaders, not workers. With this philosophy, the lessons I have learned over the years as a leader are that:
Being a good leader means providing the security and framework for success.
Allowing others to shine within this framework means that the whole team is stronger. For example, if a news station contacts us for an opinion on the latest baby gear it’s tempting for me to go but it’s better to have one of our Nurses comment or appear on the news. Not only does it reflect well on the company as an authority on the newborn care, but it allows my team to shine on their own as leaders.
Delegation is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Surrounding yourself with the best in their field elevates the entire brand. The boss doesn’t have to be a decision maker in every department and in fact, handing off specifics to an expert allows the leader to be free to work on development and growth. I pass on questions at least once a week to workers who know the answers much better than me…this makes all of us stronger!
Being part of the team helps you lead the team.
This sounds like common sense, right? But it can be tempting as a c-level executive to project an air of being “above” your team because you want to show that you’re a strong leader. In my experience, the opposite is true and frankly this is a dated way for an organization to function. It all goes back to your team being able to feel seen and appreciated to be effective and that’s something you can’t fake or phone-in as a leader.
I’ve been out to family homes to experience exactly what it’s like for our Nurses and caregivers working night shift. If I had never worked an overnight, I wouldn’t have felt what it’s like to meet a family just home from the hospital for the very first time and never really known what it’s like to work a flipped schedule. This experience led directly to the conception of our Uber program where caregivers can take Uber home in the morning if they’re feeling too tired to drive, and the company will pay for their ride.
There’s no substitute for personal communication.
As time goes by, it’s easier and more accepted to text, or communicate in soundbites through social media. And yes, it’s a million times easier to text, but having a personal conversation and hearing the other person’s voice and inflections creates trust -one of the most important ingredient to being an effective leader.
A team member and I will often be texting, and then I’ll immediately call them afterwards to say thanks. I feel compelled to let them know that I am truly thankful for their help in a way that an emoji or 3 exclamation points can’t relay. Phone calls are almost becoming the modern day hand written thank you note.
There is always time to see the other person.
We have an epidemic of busy-ness in the US. Some of this is unavoidable (just ask any parent with kids in outside of school activities) but others like to fetishize being busy because in America busy = important. It’s normal for every conversation at work to begin with the other person saying apologetically, “I know you’re really busy but…” or “I’m so sorry to bother you but…” The fact is, I’m not too busy to talk to you and you’re never bothering me. A good leader should know that there’s always time to hear from and see team members. We’re not too busy to do the job of communicating; that is the job.
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. :-)
I would like to inspire a movement of in-home postpartum visits becoming a norm in the United States. Having just one in-home visit by a maternity nurse after coming home with baby for the first time means parents would receive mental health screenings, evidence based education and feeding and safety instruction. Early intervention has a direct, measurable positive impact on brand new families and lifts all of us up 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?
“Just about every mistake we make can be attributed to moving too fast.”
I try to remember this many times a day not only as a business owner, but as a parent, wife and community member. I can almost always trace a mistake back to it’s root and see that if I’d just taken a few more minutes the mistake would have been avoided. Dropped cup of coffee? This happens because I’m trying to get out the door with too many things in my hands. Missed email? Typo? Snappy response to a family member? These happen when I’m trying to do everything at once.
Whether it’s at work or at home, not rushing through the day means less mistakes and more personal connection. Moving slower sounds like an easy fix but one I find I have to work on every day.
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