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As CEO, You Don’t Have to — and You Shouldn’t — Be the Expert At Everything: With Tanya Hall

By Yitzi Weiner and Casmin Wisner

“Play to your strengths and hire an awesome team to fill in your gaps.”
We had the pleasure of interviewing Tanya Hall. She has been empowering authors to tell their stories since she joined Greenleaf Book Group in 2004. As the company’s Chief Executive, Tanya fosters a culture of innovation centered on creating new opportunities to better serve authors.

Thanks for doing this with us. What is your backstory?

As the first hybrid publisher, Greenleaf Book Group has been at the forefront of innovative publishing for 20 years and continues to grow in response to author needs, morphing from a book distributor to a full-service publishing house that now includes an author branding department.

Tanya knows first-hand how the power of a book can be amplified through a strong author brand — and, in turn, how a brand can be amplified by a book. She writes regularly on personal branding, leadership, and the publishing industry for and hosts the podcast Published, which guides authors through all areas of publishing. She regularly speaks and writes on the publishing business so that potential authors will have a clear understanding of the industry and how to succeed within it.

Before joining the publishing industry, Tanya worked in digital media and as a television producer for Extra! and E! Entertainment Television. She lives in Austin with her two daughters and a house full of animals.

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

The most interesting thing since becoming CEO has been the journey to accept my own leadership style, and not always berate myself for not being some other “type” of CEO. I worked my way up through the ranks, so I was blessed to have the buy-in of the team from the outset, but I felt like a bit of an imposter at first. That feeling went away once I established record numbers for our company year-after-year.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Greenleaf Book Group was the first hybrid publisher, and we are the only hybrid publisher I know of with in-house distribution. We fit in between self-publishing and traditional publishing, bringing a much-needed option for authors who want the ownership, control, and royalty benefits of self-publishing along with the quality and distribution muscle found in traditional New York publishing houses.

Savvy authors who understand that their book is a part of a bigger brand sign with us so that they have maximum flexibility in terms of monetizing their intellectual property. For instance, Joe Cross did the breakout documentary Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, and then (smartly) wanted to quickly capitalize on the film’s success through books, speaking opportunities and product partnerships. He walked away from a traditional publishing deal to sign with us because our model shifts the ownership of rights back to the author and makes it easier to serve an audience through multiple formats without jumping through loopholes or contractual roadblocks. His book The Reboot With Joe Juice Diet became one of our New York Times bestsellers.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees thrive?

Align your vision with operations. Too often, employees hear a CEO on a soapbox talking about a vision, but they have no idea how their work contributes to the realization of that vision. One of the first things I did as CEO was to work with each department to align them with my priorities for the business, dividing those into four primary areas of focus and leaving it to the departments to develop quarterly plans for how they would contribute to each area. This helped to create accountability and a sense of purpose at all levels in the company.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

My parents. They brought me up with an emphasis on strong work ethic and always giving 100 percent while also knowing when to cut your losses and get out.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One of the best aspects of my job is that every day, our company works to develop and bring our authors’ messages and stories to the world. It’s extremely rewarding work, especially when you can champion underserved voices who have dedicated their life’s work to supporting passionate causes.

What are your “7 things I wish someone told me before I became CEO,” and why?

  1. The minute you become CEO, your jokes are suddenly 100% funnier. That is to say that you run the risk of living in an ivory tower because regardless of how accessible you are, some people respond a certain way to those in positions of power.
  2. Give employees a voice. Adopting practices that give all employees a voice in suggesting innovations, frustrations, and challenges is critical to ensuring a strong, open connection at all levels in your company.
  3. You don’t have to—and shouldn’t—be the expert at everything. Play to your strengths and hire an awesome team to fill in your gaps.
  4. Know the basics. Having no formal financial training in my background, I thought I might need to pursue an additional degree to shore up my credentials in this space. Seriously, I was a film major. Then I realized that I just needed a few classes to become comfortable with the basic financial reports in order to keep up with those conversations. The real value I bring to the company is in building growth, and that should be my major focus.
  5. It’s true that it’s lonely at the top. Surround yourself with peers who can support you. Once you become CEO, the days of commiserating with your peers about the company’s inept management are over. There are plenty of things that you simply can’t discuss with your team. And it can also be a burden in your personal relationships to always be ranting about work. YPO (Young Professionals Organization) has been a huge help in that regard as it gives me access to a group of peers who can relate and advise on my challenges with a common understanding of confidentiality.
  6. As CEO, you really must have a relentless dedication to your company and its work….or you will burn out. I realize I am blessed to run a publishing company — it’s easy to find purpose and meaning in working to support authors bringing fresh ideas to the world. Even so, as CEO, there’s generally nobody above you to cheer you on, pat you on the back, encourage your next big innovation, etcetera. It has to come from somewhere deep within. You’re responsible for everything as CEO…the good, the bad, the stuff that results from decisions made before your tenure, the stuff your vendors do that impacts you but is outside of your control — all of it. If you don’t truly care about your work, stepping up to own your role in its entirety will suck the life out of you.
  7. Make time for yourself. You need to stay focused and energized, whatever shape that takes. When I started as CEO, I thought I had to immediately stuff my lunch hours full of meetings and networking events. I did that for a while and quickly became resentful and down about missing my usual lunch hour workout, which is how I stay focused and energized. I reversed course pretty quickly, choosing to permanently block off my lunch hour on my calendar to keep it free for my noon workout. Now, I will take afternoon coffee meetings or early breakfast meetings — but I make my midday workout a personal priority. The payoff in terms of my well-being and productivity is well worth it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“Assume best intent.” This simply means that you opt to give people the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming that they are out to get you. If someone sends a seemingly rude email, we can assume that they want to embarrass us in front of the people copied or we can assume that they were in a hurry to send the email and didn’t realize the negative tone. The choice in how to perceive other people’s actions is yours alone. Choose to take it personally, and you will live in a hellish life of paranoia and distrust. Choose to assume best intent, and you will focus on what you can control (your own reactions and behaviors) versus dwelling on what others do. That said, thinking this way takes practice and there’s certainly a balance to strike between assuming best intent and the axiom of “trust but verify.”

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Serena Williams. She doesn’t fit into any mold and embraces her own individuality. She is mentally and physically strong (for which she is sometimes attacked) without apology. She is savvy, passionate and relentlessly driven. The odds were against her and she bucked them all. She is a real inspiration.

Thanks for doing this with us. It was very inspiring.