Women Of The C-Suite: Dr Lauren Starnes of Goddard Systems On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

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Embrace the journey. I have had an atypical journey through my dual doctorates and varied experiences in education. Along the way, there were times where I would worry that I was being led off course to the next achievement I desired. I wish I could go back in time, tell myself to trust the path I was on, and celebrate the milestones along the way. This is easy for me to do as a parent, as I have watched my teen boys through every phase of childhood. I think I could have better carried that same moment-to-moment appreciation in my career earlier.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lauren Starnes

Dr. Lauren Starnes is senior vice president and chief academic officer at Goddard Systems, Inc., the franchisor of The Goddard School. She is responsible for leading the development of The Goddard School’s nationally acclaimed proprietary education program, driving research-based innovation and implementing new accreditation standards across the franchise system.

Lauren has more than 20 years of experience in education, including curriculum development, evaluation and implementation, as well as teaching and consulting in the fields of preschool, special needs and elementary education.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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 was always drawn to work with children. While I initially planned to go into pediatric medicine, it was my intense work with children on the autism spectrum during college that led me to shift gears towards studying child development. I completed my first doctorate in child development but had the unique opportunity to teach in the elementary education department of North Carolina State University supporting men and women who desired to teach. Along the way, there was a senior leader who told me if I ever encountered an elementary education student struggling, I should encourage them to enter early childhood education. I was perplexed to say the least at the ridiculousness of thinking that someone struggling to teach a class of 10-year-olds would somehow then be able to teach a classroom of 3-year-olds. After hearing this comment repeatedly, I ultimately left the university to open and run my own preschool. It was this bold move and a deep sense of curiosity that propelled me into what I do now. I went on to lead that preschool, be recruited to join a very large corporately owned education company, author and develop that company’s early childhood curriculum, oversaw hundreds of preschools and K-12 schools, complete a second doctorate in educational leadership, join a very large franchised preschool company leading their professional development and education departments, to now leading The Goddard School’s nationally acclaimed proprietary education program as the chief academic officer of Goddard Systems Inc. (GSI).

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

It continues to amaze me how we, as working professionals, impact lives sometimes unknowingly. I published my first book at the same time that I joined GSI, which lead to countless people from my past reaching out to reestablish connections. In my initial weeks at GSI, I reconnected with teachers whom I had lead in the past who now work for a Goddard School, preschool and elementary directors and principals whom I had supported in prior years who now lead a Goddard School or hold a corporate office role, and even found that some of my Goddard colleagues were men and women I had worked with in the past. It is interesting how interconnected our lives are and how, so often, our paths converge. The early childhood community is more connected than we often pause to consider.

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?

My greatest lesson learned has been to always ask more questions and not make any assumptions. This is a good rule of thumb for life in general, but it is especially critical when one assumes a senior leadership role. In one of my initial meetings with my full department, I made a statement about a process I assumed to be established. I noticed smiles and some heads shaking ‘no.’ I quickly learned just how wrong my assumption was, which then spiraled into a battery of questions. It wasn’t funny, necessarily, but it was a good giggle and lesson learned. Seeking to understand is one of the most critical elements of shifting into new leadership roles. It is imperative that we suspend assumption, ask questions, ask a barrage of follow-up questions, and document what we learn and hear. There is a history and a tradition to any company and any role. Taking the time to look backward, learn what lead to the company’s position today, and then explore the current state of the business is a critical step toward successful transitions in leadership.

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 blessed to have people in my life who have supported me, challenged me, and allowed me to learn from their successes. These mentors have impacted me in the immediacy, in the time beyond my interactions with them, and in their lasting influence. One of my greatest mentors and someone who I am also happy to call a friend is my esteemed colleague, Evan Goldman, founding partner of Early Education Ventures. Evan is a master connector of people and ideas. Throughout my career, he has been a sounding board for my experiences and one who is not afraid to challenge me to see a different perspective. I approached Evan years ago and mentioned my decison to write a book as he had a wealth of information about editors with whom I should connect, as well as how to approach the book proposal. He was also a strong advocate and encouraged me to see this through to completion. It is rare that we encounter people who are selflessly driven and who drive us to see and embrace more of our potential. Evan has been one of those people for me.

I would also be remiss to not address another mentor from my past, and this individual is unique because she does not even know how profound her effect was on me. I will forever remember a woman who worked at a preschool I led, whom I will refer to as Ms. Jennifer. One morning I was scheduled to observe Ms. Jennifer while she taught her class of 3-year-old children. As I entered the classroom during the day’s morning drop-off, I overheard a parent talk with Ms. Jennifer about an upcoming divorce and ask her for support during the transition. I listened as Ms. Jennifer spoke with her co-teacher about a concern a mother had about her child’s language development. I watched as Ms. Jennifer walked over to a little boy, placed her hand gently upon his shoulder, spoke to him in soft tones, and de-escalated what was quickly becoming rough play. With tear-filled eyes, the little boy looked up at her and embraced her in a big hug. She then initiated a song to help the 16 3-year-olds transition to cleaning up their toys and joining her in circle time to begin the instructional portion of the day. When I spoke with her later, I asked her about that morning. She smiled and shared that marriage counseling, easing parents’ concerns about their children’s development, behavioral intervention, and hugs were as much a part of her teaching as the circle time I had come to observe.

This experience forever shaped my approach to early childhood education. While I had all the depth of learning one would need to understand how children grow and develop, this interaction reminded me that early childhood education is more than teaching and learning. Early childhood education involves nurturing families, serving as a partner between home and school, supporting children’s social and emotional growth as much as their academic growth, and sometimes giving a hug when the world feels too big for a young child. It is both the most difficult and the most rewarding job in education.

As you know, the United States is 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?

This is an important focus in our nation, rightfully so. We are blessed to live in a country of such diverse persons from unique backgrounds. Any organization that wants to be on the forefront of their industry and remain innovative needs to attract the best talent and think critically about ensuring equity of voice. This means ensuring that the organizational leadership has representation of its constituency and exemplary talent.

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.

Quite simply, we need to zoom out and seek commonality over divisiveness. When we take the time to pull ourselves out of our own experiences, worldview, and ideations and attempt to take the perspective of another, we often see a greater view of the problem or opportunity at hand.

Take a disparate thought partner. Find someone with different experiences and perspective from your own, someone outside of your area of expertise, and regularly talk with this person about your thoughts, ideas, and projects related to work. Be open to hearing the questions asked of you and the challenges made to your approach. This will amplify and broaden your scope.

Create open forums for discussion. When decisions are being made within organizations, it is important to solicit voice and opinion from all relevant stakeholder groups. Ask open-ended questions, share thoughts and ideas, and request feedback. Listen with the intent to hear and consider the perspective of others.

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 CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Executives have to be visionaries and strategists, looking at not only what is in the best interest of their respective department’s focus areas but what is in the best interest of the company interdepartmentally. It is helping shape the direction of a company and the type of impact the company is seeking to have by advocating for one’s department but also linking arms collectively and collaboratively to drive the mission and vision, which often requires healthy debate and challenging one another.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

Often, executives can be seen as out-of-touch or too far removed from the day-to-day of a company. This could not be further from the truth. Executives are seeking all of the intricacies but are doing so at a vantage level that also includes the intermingling and interwoven nature of the company more broadly.

Executives’ role is to give credit to others for successes and to take the full fall for failures. The more senior the executive, the more he or she becomes accountable for certain departmental areas. The necessity for trust, transparency of junior leadership, communication, and follow-through is amplified.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I am glad you asked this, but this is a major question of vulnerability. Female executives have a bit of a double-standard when it comes to leadership. There is the shared expectation of male executives to be smart, insightful, and assertive. Female executives, however, often face the expectation to be attractive but not attention-attracting, bold but not pushy, vocal but not too aggressive — essentially the balance of gender roles. I feel thoroughly blessed to work for a Dennis Maple, a male executive who does not treat or regard his team differently by gender. GSI’s executive team is gender-balanced and the bar is set equally high for all of us.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I knew my job was going to be multifaceted, challenging, and fulfilling, but I was pleasantly surprised by the degree of collaboration and creativity afforded to me. I knew my team was smart, but I didn’t realize how fun they all are, too.

Is everyone 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?

Like any job, it takes a specific skillset to excel. There are four specific traits that I feel people need to succeed as an executive:

  1. Assertiveness. Successful executives need to be able to advocate for their teams, their areas of expertise, and the goals and objectives of their team. This means formulating strong business cases, articulating how the goals of the team are in the best interest of the company, and advocating for the needs of the team to drive business results.
  2. Confidence. Successful executives need to have a strong command of their areas of perview and be able to seamlessly speak to these areas from a past, present, and future lens. This means maintaining currency in the relevant areas and consistently thinking about how ongoing research and trends shape future work.
  3. Strategic thought. Successful executives need to be able to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate current business patterns and research, and then creatively use this data to drive goals which will yield results. Executives have to be able to zoom out of their own area, weave in current research, and formulate an integrated foresight for their respective department with full buy-in and support from their executive colleagues.
  4. Integrity. Executives have access to a lot of information, much of which is private and secure. Integrity must be at the forefront of all that is decided and implemented to protect the company, company members, and the broader stakeholders. Confidentiality and protection of thr company and its people can never be compromised.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Embrace the journey. I have had an atypical journey through my dual doctorates and varied experiences in education. Along the way, there were times where I would worry that I was being led off course to the next achievement I desired. I wish I could go back in time, tell myself to trust the path I was on, and celebrate the milestones along the way. This is easy for me to do as a parent, as I have watched my teen boys through every phase of childhood. I think I could have better carried that same moment-to-moment appreciation in my career earlier.
  2. Learn and celebrate your failures. Life is celebrated for the successes we have, but our strongest learning comes from the times we misstep and make mistakes. The story of Ms. Jennifer I shared earlier is an example of a major misguided approach I took to teacher observation very early in my career. I learned from my mistake that day to zoom out, take a broader perspective, and embrace the complexity of early childhood education. I’m happy to say this is a lesson I have never lost.
  3. Take a thought partner. Lev Vygotsky established years ago the importance of learning from a “more competent other” when it comes to education, and this principle holds true for adult learning. It is important to take another mind and perspective to share ideas, balance perspectives, and ponder happenings. I wish I had done this more readily early in my career, as it has made a world of difference in my later career. When I joined the executive team of GSI, the first thing I did was establish opportunities for open dialogue, discourse, and inquiry with my peers. I especially enjoy partnering with those from more distant disciplines from my own, as this gives a diversity of viewpoint. Not only does this allow teams to form deeper shared vision, but this truly amplifies outcomes.
  4. Connect passion to purpose. This has become something of a mission statement for myself and my career, and I bring this into how I coach and develop my department. While it is important to understand what people are doing and what they know, it is far more central to connect to what it is that people are passionate about and driven towards. I had a junior member of my team in my former role who excelled in any task or responsibility she was given. She was a quick learner and received regular accolades, so it would have been quite easy to assume that she was therefore content in her role. However, after taking the time to converse with her and ask reflective questions, I learned that her passions were not aligned to her role. While I and my predecessor had continued to give her affirmations and challenges, she had goals to do something quite different within the organization. Once I knew of her passions, I realigned her work to allow her to refine her area of interest and focus, and this elevated her work performance to an even higher level. Although I ulitimately lost her to another department, I was joyful to see this staff member flourish in her connection of passion to purpose.
  5. Take time to prioritize self-care. Being an executive means numerous strategic and collaborative meetings. It also frequently entails driving complex projects and initiatives. As one who truly loves what I do, I know I can easily get inundated in the work. That being said, it is of no use to my team for me to work myself to a level of exhaustion. Creating boundaries of time with my family and even calendarizing time in my week to catch-up on email, exercise, and return calls ensures that I keep my work-home balance. As a working mother of two, this is even more important to ensure that I never feel like I am sacrificing my role as executive or mother.

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

This is a great question. Personal appearance does matter, particularly for those who serve as the face of a company. We are all made uniquely in our body types, personal style, and self-expression, but it is critically important to always project ourselves as professionals and representatives of ourselves, our families, and our brand. This means mindfulness to dress for our day and dress for our role. If I am going to be visiting a school, I will dress differently than if I am making a formal presentation. Nonetheless, in all situations, I do take a moment to check that my style, clothing, and appearance reflect self-pride and pride in presenting Goddard as professionally as possible.

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.

The movement I wish to inspire is the vision I live everyday — we must continue to elevate our regard for early childhood education and provide the most supportive, nurturing, and richest learning experiences possible for young children. The first five years of a child’s life matter immensely to the amount of growth and development that occurs. Moreover, we know that children who attend high-quality preschool have higher achievement in K-12 schooling, are more likely to attend college, and have stronger positive health outcomes. Children need opportunities to engage their natural curiosity and creativity with highly engaged teachers who amplify learning through play. This requires innovative environments, inquiry-based curricula, and embedded observational assessments to further customize learning to meet the child, not trying to force the child into prescribed learning.

Equally important, we must continue to elevate, support, and professionalize the role of early childhood educators. Teachers are the critical keystone to education. While curriculum, classroom design, and professional development are major contributory elements to a school and child’s success, it is the teacher who builds the relationship with the child and brings teaching and learning to life. Teaching degree programs should include success stories and opportunities for students to see the impacts teachers make. To attract top talent, colleges and universities should consider programs to pay for teaching degrees in exchange for years of teaching service commitment. Teachers who seek higher level degrees should be eligible for grants, scholarships, and stipends to encourage higher academic degree attainment. Within schools, leadership should create advancement incentives, so teachers see opportunities for career growth. This could be lateral and vertical.

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

As a passionate and influential female executive, I am naturally drawn to and would love to have a private meal with Susan Arnold, the first female chairwoman of Disney. This would be an invaluable opportunity for thought partnership and my own leadership development. I would love to hear from this fellow lady in leadership.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

Co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare. Ming is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host.