Women Of The C-Suite: Lindsay Jones Of CAST On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive

An Interview With Sara Connell

Sara Connell
Authority Magazine

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You have the unique opportunity to make everyone around you better by building their confidence. Enjoy it — it will actually be one of the best parts of the job.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Lindsay Jones, Chief Executive Officer of CAST.

Lindsay Jones is the Chief Executive Officer of CAST, where she works with innovative educators and researchers across the globe to design education systems that are learner-centered, flexible, accessible, and rooted in Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Lindsay leads strategy and implementation at CAST to ensure all of CAST’s work removes barriers, fosters belonging, and creates equitable education opportunities for every learner.

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 came from a family of educators who specialized in disabilities. I grew up around their classrooms and listened to discussions about the science of learning and human variability at the dinner table. Only today, do I really look back and appreciate that they were constantly trying to change the system from within to make it more flexible. They were like many other educators who see the untapped potential of so many students and understand that they are being pushed out by the rigid, factory-like design of our education system. I’ve always had a deep sense of commitment to changing the system, designing it to be more flexible and empowering for all. That’s why I’m excited to lead the amazing team at CAST.

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

I had the opportunity to meet with all of CAST’s founders. Our founders were a small band of rebels who believed that environments were disabled, not people. That notion remains the core of CAST today, and it’s just amazing to see how what was once a small idea has grown and taken off in incredible ways. The framework CAST invented to help people actualize this in learning environments — Universal Design for Learning (UDL) — is used today around the globe.

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?

I don’t know if it’s funny, but I’ve made mistakes by not really knowing how to make social media or other communications accessible. The CAST team of accessibility experts are the best in the business and I’m learning so much from them every day. I’ve fought for funding and legislation to support accessible technology, but I never actually incorporated accessibility into my own life. Better late than never!

I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

I love books about how athletes learn to train their minds like their bodies. For me, the first book I read in that area — Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence by Gary Mack — had a big impact on me. It was such a simple explanation of several techniques that athletes use during heightened times of stress to realize their strengths and feel more confident and calm. What’s interesting is that it really aligns with what researchers at CAST and other leaders in the learning sciences have discovered: people learn better and their minds work better when they are calm and feel safe. The weirdest thing about my interest in this area is that I’m not and have never been an athlete! (Unless you count my high school stint on the badminton team.)

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?

For me, that’s my mom. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how lucky I was to have someone in my life that had such high expectations for me and always believed in me. We all question whether we can accomplish big things and we all need someone to cheer us on and believe in us. Even though she passed away 15 years ago, I still feel her belief in me in my bones, and I can hear her voice in my head. It’s just a part of me and a great gift.

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?

Diversity of thought and experience is power and the only way to generate the best new ideas, and to reach the broadest audience. Too often, organizations have the best of intentions to embrace diversity, but become trapped in sameness because leaders don’t invest in changing systems and structures that keep people out. Without systemic changes, it’s too easy for people to do things like, say they value diversity, but hire “people they feel comfortable with” (which is, most often, someone who is just like them.) I’ve done this myself in the past, and I’ve worked hard to learn how to create environments and structures that embrace and embody diversity. We have a lot of work to do at CAST, but I’m excited to be leading with a Board and a Team that is committed to and investing in change.

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.

The first one is ensuring your structures. Your internal systems and processes are designed to enhance diversity and inclusion.

The second one — which is completely underutilized — is accessibility, so including accessible documents, accessible social media, even buildings! Technology does amazing things and everyone, not just people with disabilities, benefits from accessibility. We’re all fighting in a tough talent market — we need to get the very best people. I hope this accelerates our focus on creating work environments that are flexible and open to all.

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?

A CEO leads the co-designing of a mission and vision with a team, and once that is in place, the CEO pushes people, inside and outside the organization, to focus on accomplishing it. It can seem like there are a million different priorities, but for organizations to succeed, the CEO must keep reminding everyone why we do this work and how we are going to create the change we want to see in the world.

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

I think some people assume that women should be nicer and should be friends with everyone. The problem with that is that when a woman makes a decision that someone doesn’t agree with, that person tends to personalize the decision, and feels disappointed she didn’t side with them. They feel like their friend let them down, but really, it’s just that leaders make tough decisions. When a man is the leader, that “friend/nice” dynamic doesn’t exist as often and while people may be upset with the decision, they tend to accept it more readily and move on.

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

How often I must make decisions based on incomplete or imperfect information. I think that is part of the skill needed for this job. You must have enough background information, gut instinct, and confidence to make good decisions when you can’t know everything.

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?

I think everyone can be an executive if they really want to be one. However, I think people need to be honest about themselves and what they really enjoy doing and what they are best at. Being an executive is a specific job, with specific duties and responsibilities. If you don’t carefully consider what you really want to spend your time doing, and you just want some status that is associated with being an executive, you could end up in the position and be miserable. Life is too short for that.

What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?

Try to understand what people’s strengths are and then try to align those to what your business needs. Variability is the norm, and we need to be flexible. At the same time, don’t underestimate the power of an angry or disgruntled employee on all the people around them. If someone isn’t a good fit, helping an employee, who is unhappy, move on often makes others on your team happier and better at their own jobs.

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

  1. Get more sleep. It makes everything easier, but you have to make it a priority.
  2. You’re paid to think, make sure your calendar has time for you to do that. If you don’t guard that time, others will take it.
  3. Rely on others in your organization. Even though others rely on you to make hard decisions, you don’t have to do everything by yourself.
  4. Be vigilant about ensuring that internal systems are equitable and encouraging diversity. Constantly update them — they can go out of date quick.
  5. You have the unique opportunity to make everyone around you better by building their confidence. Enjoy it — it will actually be one of the best parts of the job.

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.

Easy! It would be convincing people that we can create a world where everyone can be an expert learner. Meaning, we can create a world where every learner, young or old, understands how they learn and what they need to learn. And where learning environments (schools, workplaces) don’t just assume an invented “norm” of ability and skill, and make accommodations for everyone else, but instead, are designed with variability in mind.

At CAST, we work to leverage the power of the learning sciences and a research-based framework we developed, called Universal Design for Learning (UDL), to create environments, tools and technologies that are flexible, accessible, and empowering for all.

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

Serena Williams. Back to my love of sports psychology, I’d love to hear from her how she handles stress and pressure, especially in a sport like tennis where you are backed by a team, but in the moment, you truly stand alone. I am certain she’d have a lot to teach me.

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

About the interviewer: Sara Connell is a bestselling author and the founder of Thought Leader Academy where she helps coaches, writers and entrepreneurs become best selling authors, TEDx and paid speakers. She has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, The View, FOX Chicago, NPR, Katie Couric and TEDx. Her writing has appeared in: The New York Times, Forbes, and many publications. Access her free masterclass: How to Write A Bestselling Book That Changes Lives (in less than 3 months) HERE

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Sara Connell
Authority Magazine

Empowering Leaders To Become Bestselling Authors And In-Demand Speakers In Less Than A Year