Barbara Stegemann, founder and CEO of 7 Virtues Beauty Inc., pitched her company on one of the most emotional episodes of CBC’s Dragons’ Den. Her idea was to source essential oils distilled from legal crops, providing an alternative to the illegal poppy crop for farmers. She was the first woman from Atlantic Canada to land a deal and later was voted the top game-changer in the history of the show by viewers. Barbara has since travelled to Haiti with Bill Clinton and been nominated for and received multiple awards, including Honorary Colonel for the Royal Canadian Air Force. She recently shared her lessons in leadership with Financial Post contributor Craig Dowden. Barbara talked about how her early poverty and hearing impediment significantly influenced her world view and how she feels respect, slowing down and sharing our gifts are key elements of success.
Q What were your earliest influences in terms of leadership style?
A I always say my two greatest gifts were the hearing impairment I was born with and my poverty. My hearing impairment taught me to read body language and poverty taught me to work hard and really be grateful.
One of the greatest things that helped me on Dragons’ Den was reading their body language. You could see a major difference between Kevin (O’Leary) vs. Brett (Wilson) and Arlene (Dickinson). I didn’t try to pitch Kevin because I could see … he didn’t believe in or understand what I was pitching. Instead I focused my energy and attention on Brett and Arlene. I think that’s why it was such an emotional episode.
Everyone can learn to read body language and I think it is one of the key ingredients to strong leadership.
Q How can leaders learn that?
A One of the most important things is to look people in the eye. A lot of people don’t make eye contact. There’s nothing that bothers me more than when I’m talking to somebody and they look at whoever entered the room because they can’t resist a new red shiny ball. When you stay focused and ignore that distraction, not only are you being respectful to the other person, you’re also letting them know they’re the most important thing to you right now. It sends such a powerful message. They know you’re listening.
One of the worst things I’ve seen people do during meetings is put their hands over their mouth and/or turn their back and talk to other people. Right there, we’re done. I don’t care how much money you make or what you have to say. It’s disrespectful.
Q What else do you think is important for leaders to practice?
A Treat everyone the same. When I was a flight attendant, some CEOs would treat us differently or be rude to us because we poured their coffee. It didn’t matter that I was between degrees and there was a recession.
What was really interesting to me was that the CEOs on the plane who treated the baggage handler with the same respect as a fellow CEO were the most successful. Those who treated us rudely, I’ve watched them go bankrupt, because it’s right down to the DNA of how you treat the people around you.
Q Who is a leader you admire?
A Bill Clinton. When we went to Haiti, even when the media got tired and it was hot and everybody fell away, he was so generous with his time and spirit. I remember him standing with an owner of a rope factory. He asked the man how much he charged per yard. I can’t remember the exact amount, but Clinton said “okay, look, we’re going to get you solar panels and get you off fuel. It’s too expensive. I know a guy who can install them. We can cut your costs down and you can compete with China.”
I was so fascinated by his ability to stand with and care for this man and provide solutions, even when nobody was watching. When I get tired, I recall that story and it inspires me to push a little further.
Q What’s the toughest piece of feedback that you’ve received?
A In the early days, although Brett loved my passion and energy, he would push me to take a breath and not make a decision and hold back. At first, I took it personally and it hurt. But that was my issue, not his or anyone else’s. Now I see it as a gift. His advice made our company stronger and it’s made me a better leader and decision-maker. If you really want to learn and excel, you want honesty from the people that matter to you and your organization.
Q What’s the hardest part about being a CEO?
A Saying when things aren’t working any more or recognizing someone’s not the right fit. You still need to help them find a place where they belong, but it may not be with your company.
I’ve learned you can only bring people on that want to grow with you. We all have different motives. People sometimes think the perfume industry is all glamour and fame. They think they are going to be a celebrity. That attitude doesn’t cut it here.
Brett and I will pack boxes and carry them to an event. Nobody’s above any rule in the company. I’ll stand on the floor and sell in my stores. It’s a tough job. My feet hurt. There are long days, but I want to meet my customers. And I expect everybody in my company to do it too.
Q What advice do you have for aspiring executives?
A I think you achieve more success when you focus on serving others. That’s the question I ask myself every day. How do I serve today? So get really, really passionate in the sharing of your gifts. And then you’re not afraid.
Your gifts were not given to you to keep to yourself. They’re yours to share. Unfortunately, I don’t think a lot of people know what their gifts are. However, once you know that, how do you best share them with others? I think people get sidetracked by external forces, like success or money, which gets in the way.