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“Go With Your Gut” 5 Leadership Lessons with Kylie Carlson, CEO, The International Academy of Wedding & Event Planning

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kylie Carlson, CEO of the International Academy of Wedding and Event Planning. With six locations globally, the Academy boasts an internationally recognized accreditation program that brings professional training to wedding planners, designers and stylists. Kylie is also the founder of the International Wedding Trend Report and Wedding Business Magazine.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I started life as a classical musician playing piano and violin studying at the Royal College of Music Junior Department in London. Although it is not what I ended up doing for a living, it without a doubt was the main thing that helped me develop some of the key skills needed by an entrepreneur.

From as young as 6, I spent up to 4 hours a day practicing my instruments, and that was on top of my school work. I happily missed out on social occasions if it gave me the opportunity to play or be part of my local orchestra. It taught me how to be disciplined and focused, amongst many other things. It also taught me that it really is 10% talent and 90% hard work that makes you successful.

By the time I was eighteen, I realized I hadn’t experienced anything other than music and decided I wanted to take a year out before going to the Senior Department and getting my degree. It was at this point that I discovered the wonderful world of special events.

I jumped in feet first and started work at a leading London events company. I knew absolutely nothing and was like a sponge soaking up as much as I could and absorbing it all. What happened next was partly luck and partly stupidity. The company I worked for went bust, so at the tender age of 20, I decided to purchase the assets, rebrand and become a director for the first time. It was the biggest and scariest thing I had ever done and to say I learnt as I went along would be an understatement, but I loved it. I had found what I was born to do.

My little event company went from strength to strength and I was soon planning events at venues like the Dorchester, the Ritz and the Savoy.

The next thing that happened changed my life once again. I got married. That’s only half the story though. I actually married an Australian and the decision that lay ahead of me was to either continue life in London with my events company or to seek out a new adventure in Australia with my new husband. So I sold my company, which was like cutting off my arm, jumped on a plane and set off for pastures new. I spent the first year working on a five-star resort in tropical North Queensland as an Event Operations Director and experienced life of a different type. Working on an island, as lovely as it was, is something you can only do for a short period, so after a year I left the island to take some time off and enjoy some peace and quiet.

After a month, I was bored so I set about putting together a new business, one that would keep me in the wedding and events industry, but would also allow me to try my hand at education. I created the first online school for wedding and event planners, the Australian Academy of Wedding and Event Planning. After two years I launched a New Zealand version and this was quickly followed up with an office in the UK. Two years after that we launched in the States and then next up was the UAE. At the start of 2018 we set up an office in Singapore and in June we launch our Spanish speaking virtual campus. My dream of becoming a global brand had been realized and as we go into our eleventh year I honestly can’t imagine doing anything else.

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

One story that always stays with me is from right at the beginning of the Academy days. I hadn’t realized until I started writing my first course just how difficult it is to take all those ideas and all that information you have in your head and put it down on paper in a way that not only makes sense, but is also engaging for the reader. I had planned out the course and I knew there were going to be twenty units, but I had got to unit five and felt like I was losing the will to live. It was all taking so long and I just couldn’t find the motivation to keep going.

So I did the only thing I felt that I could and that was to pile on the pressure and launch before I was ready. Within a week of getting the name out there, I had students enrolled on the course, a course that wasn’t finished. As quickly as I was finishing a unit the students were coming up behind me nipping at my heels. It was just the motivation I needed. All of a sudden, the inspiration started to flow and the words were being written.

Looking back now I wonder how on earth I dared launch an unfinished course and allow students to start when I was only a couple of units ahead. It is something I will never forget and it was a rollercoaster ride, but I think if I hadn’t have done this I never would have finished the course and the Academy would never have got off the ground. Sometimes you just have to go for it and deal with the consequences later.

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

We are not the only online education company in our industry, and every year new educators seem to pop up out of nowhere. Now obviously, none of them have been doing this for as long as we have, and it is very easy to become complacent and reliant on the fact you are well established, so we like to find ways to set ourselves apart from the competition and make us stand out.

For us, it is always about finding ways to position ourselves as the experts. Four years ago, I sat down at the start of the year, as I always do, to brainstorm new marketing activities and find ways to do the same things in different ways. It was as this point that the International Wedding Trend Report was born. This was going to be our new marketing tactic that would see some of the big names in the industry wanting to collaborate with us on the report and by default put our name out there next to theirs. This truly showcased us as leaders and experts.

This has now evolved into a 150+ page report with a video that garners over 25,000 views as well as a collaboration with none other than David Tutera of My Fair Wedding TV show. To say it had exceeded my dreams would be an understatement. It has led to numerous press features and a new partnership with the aforementioned David Tutera where he is now sitting on our Advisory Board.

It is these initiatives that set us apart from our competitors and make us stand out head and shoulders above the rest. I can’t wait to see what the 2019 report has in store for the Academy.

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

The biggest piece of advice I would give to other CEOs or entrepreneurs would be to always treat your employees as your equals. At the Academy, nobody works for me they work with me. Without them, the Academy wouldn’t be where or what it is. Empower them to take ownership of their part of the business. Allow them to see it through your eyes and think of it as their empire. Help them to love it as you do and watch their level of dedication rise to unbelievable levels. Step in when needed but always be willing to listen to ideas and encourage them to be a bigger part of the business.

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?

Everyone needs help in business and success doesn’t come without support of some kind. For me there is one person who has without a doubt been fundamental to the success I have had, and that is my Mum. It might be a cliché but it’s true. She has provided me with the ability to have absolute belief in myself. I grew up being told that I should never discount anything and to give everything a go because at the end of the day, what was the worst that could happen. This meant that every time I told my Mum about my next mad idea, and there were many, she would say to me ‘darling if anyone can make it work you can and I have absolutely no doubt that you will.’ With that sort of unwavering belief behind you how can you fail?

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

One of the best things about what I do is I get to see others fulfil their dreams. Most of the students who come to study at the Academy want to launch their own business and be in control of their working lives, but lack the confidence to do so. It is wonderful to lead by example and empower others to do what I have done and give them the steps to do this. I get to make a difference in their lives and help them to achieve their goals and actually make things happen. It is the best part of what I do and really gives me so much satisfaction to see them flourish and grow.

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

Go with your gut. Now this isn’t something that has a particular science behind it, but I always get a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I’m about to do something new, something big, change something, or basically make a decision, business or otherwise. That feeling is either a good one or a bad one, no in between. Whenever I have ignored this and gone against my gut instinct there have been consequences, and what I knew would happen deep down, invariably did.

Focus on one task at a time. We grow up believing that women are brilliant at multi-tasking, and possibly for some that is true. For me, it can lead to disaster. I am much better off allowing myself to focus fully on one task than trying to do five tasks badly. If I don’t do this then I end up sending the wrong messages to the wrong people or worse still, hitting ‘reply all’ instead of ‘reply’ and saying something rather rude that I regret instantly.

Don’t be afraid to blow your own trumpet. Putting yourself out there as an expert in your own field or industry is crucial to real success. Nobody can showcase your expertise as well as you can, so don’t be afraid to get out there and toot your own horn. If you tell people you are brilliant and can back it up with some great examples then as long as you tell the story well, and package it properly your audience will come along for the ride.

Create the illusion. When I first started I had no team, it was me and only me. I answered the phones, planned the marketing, paid the bills, created the website, tutored the students, wrote the course material and anything else that came along. Trying to convince people to take my Academy seriously when it was just me wasn’t easy. So what did I do? I invented one. Oh yes, I had Elizabeth on reception, Samantha in accounts, Miranda on sales and a few others as well. Each one had an accent and a personality all of their own, and all of a sudden, the Academy started looking bigger than it was.

Make friends with your competition. The old adage of keep your friends close but your enemies closer is so true. Now, I don’t actually think of my competition as enemies, but they are people I can learn from. So rather than seeing them as the devil incarnate I am friends with them. We have coffee, we meet up at industry events and we exchange ideas. There is plenty of business to go around and the way I do things is different to the way someone else will.

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

“Risk more than others think is safe. Dream more than others think is practical.” — Howard Schultz

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)

My biggest business inspiration has always been Richard Branson. His expression ‘Screw it Just do It’ has always been a motto I live by. I love the fact he is prepared to try everything and commits himself to everything he tries. I’ve read all his books as well as listening to him read one of them. He started with nothing and worked his way up. Nothing was easy for him and he wasn’t handed it on a plate he worked for everything he has.