Robert Reiss: Linda, you were the founder and CEO of WWE but now you have started a really exciting venture to help women elevate their career much quicker. So let’s start talking about WLL, “Women’s Leadership LIVE”.
Women’s Leadership LIVE works to promote business, career and leadership opportunities for women. We are clearly underrepresented in leadership. Women are 51% of the population but only 20% of Congress. Women make 80% of household spending decisions, but only 5% of Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs. Only 16% of public companies’ board members are women. We believe we can change that. It’s not about setting quotas, but about having a diversity of experiences and perspectives in decision-making roles.
I have two co-founders, Debbie Saviano and Stacey Schieffelin. Debbie was for many years a school principal. When she left education and wanted to reinvent herself, she became an expert in social media strategy. Stacey was a former Ford model who started her company, YBF (your best friend) Beauty, and sells millions of dollars of cosmetics on HSN and TV shopping channels worldwide. The two of them came up with the concept for Women’s Leadership LIVE because they had been to a lot of women’s leadership conferences and were not satisfied and knew there was a demand for something better. Throughout my career, I was involved in building World Wrestling Entertainment and really wasn’t aware of glass ceilings or the kinds of other challenges faced by women executives who were climbing the corporate ladder. Stacey and I were friends, so they came to see me just to get my reaction. Did the business plan look good? What did I think about it? They had a 30-minute appointment scheduled with me in my office but ended up staying all day. I said, “Not only do I think this is a good concept, but I want in. I want to be part of what you’re doing.”
What is it that they said that took you from not knowing about it, you are going to review this, to “I want in”?
Part of it was their absolute, unbridled enthusiasm and passion for what they were doing. And their business plan was solid. Because they had attended many of these kinds of conferences and had sought the kind of advice and leadership that we are giving through our conferences, they really knew more than I did about the need.
When I ran for the U.S. Senate in Connecticut, it was the first time I encountered that women really needed this kind of support system and this networking. I met women aspiring to move from middle management up to the C-suite and entrepreneurs who wanted to start their own businesses but needed what I call “wind beneath their wings.” Women’s Leadership LIVE provides that boost, direction and tools for success.
So what exactly is WLL?
Women’s Leadership Live is a company we formed to hold conferences, one-day events, and webinars to give women the skills they need to be successful, however they define success. Our conferences are different from others because they are more interactive.
There are lots of conferences. When you say yours are more interactive, how?
Participants have access to high-level experts who are not just speaking from a stage, they are connecting one-on-one. For instance, at our last conference in Irving, Texas, Bob Circosta, who was one of the founders of the home shopping industry, did a takeoff of “Shark Tank” where we had women who were pitching their products and ideas for their companies. Bob met with them and trained them on perfecting their pitch. We had a contest and the winner got an opportunity to be on HSN under the new program “American Dreams,” which Bob hosts, to market their product to a whole new audience of potential customers. So that is a clear difference. We not only taught women how to pitch their products and their companies, but also to pitch themselves, such as for a promotion or a raise.
How many people are in a meeting like this?
We want to keep it intimate so we can really have good interaction with our audience. We had about 200 at our first conference in Irving and will have about 250 at our next event in Salt Lake City in October. We have Kevin Harrington as one of our keynote speakers. He is known as the father of the infomercial and is going to bring some of that same expertise and knowledge to teach this group of women to pitch. We are going to have some fun, but they will walk away with with good tools and strategies for success.
What's the website if someone wants to learn about this?
There are only 26 Fortune 500 CEOs who are women which is completely ridiculous considering the value they could add. You were already a CEO. What have you learned about the current situation?
I found when talking with many other women that they sometimes are more reluctant to toot their own horn, to talk about their success. They have to be more confident in doing that. That is not always the case, but there is that element that women don’t put forth who they are. Sitting in the CEO’s chair, I have had opportunities for hiring and promoting people for positions within the company. Almost without fail, women wanted to know “tell me exactly what is it that I really need to hone in on,” and “where can I sharpen my skills to do the best job for you.” A man could come in, on the other hand, and would sit down and just say, “I’ve got this. I know exactly what you need. I am ready to take this on starting tomorrow.” He may have clearly no more idea than the woman that I have just interviewed but he comes in with more confidence that he is ready to go.
And you have witnessed that as a CEO?
I have witnessed it. So you realize that women sometimes just need a little bit more coaching. But it is not just on the women. There are too often opportunities that are not given to women but are given to men because it tends to sometimes still be the old boys’ club. And I know this coming from an industry that is very male-dominated. I will give you an example. When I was the CEO of WWE, I went to a marketing meeting with our chief marketing officer who was a man. When I walked into the meeting, someone came up and started asking him questions about the day, and he said, “I could answer that but you might want to ask my boss who is the CEO, Linda McMahon.” The assumption was that he was the CEO!
Who is WLL best for? Who should go to your website?
Women’s Leadership LIVE will help anyone seeking to grow in their careers and communities and within themselves. Women who want an opportunity for networking. Women who are very accomplished but a little bit stuck as to where they want to go next. Perhaps they aspire to the C-suite, perhaps they want to launch their own business, perhaps they have a product they want to take to market. Maybe they already have a business and want to expand to new markets, or use new tools like social media to grow their customer base. Perhaps they want to run for public office or build their communities through charitable work. Women have so few role models they can turn to for direct, real-world advice. We will work to give them the skills, resources, contacts and support they need to succeed.
Did you have a mentor yourself; someone who really helped you along the way?
My husband, Vince McMahon, and I started World Wresting Entertainment, just the two of us, and we really didn’t have mentors. We mentored each other as we were growing and building the business. But we just learned along the way, and made a lot of mistakes. We went bankrupt one time and lost everything. When I tell that story at my Women’s Leadership LIVE conferences, people are shocked. I mean, our house was auctioned off and the car repossessed in the driveway. We had to start over again. So it is important to let women entrepreneurs know by these kinds of stories that it is okay to fail, but you have to take some risks in order to eventually succeed.
How did you have such great success when you started from nothing with your husband, went bankrupt, and then you build one of the great New York Stock Exchange companies?
Well, you have to have a work ethic. It is always 24/7. It is a lot of sweat equity and it is a little bit of Lady Luck. It is having a product that is part of America’s pop culture. Being able to take that product and grow it and distribute it and have the corporate philosophy where every day your job description was to put smiles on people’s faces is how we succeeded.
What is the proudest thing that you did?
If I could pick one thing to be proudest of, it is the WWE, but also the fact that we do want to put smiles on people’s faces. How did we do that? You entertain them, you give them a great product, and you give back to the community, such as through social programs I started with the Special Olympics or the Young Library Association to get kids to read.
Clearly the success of taking a company that Vince and I started, sharing a desk in our basement, to today where it is traded on the New York Stock Exchange and viewed in 180 countries and translated into 25 languages, is something we are very proud of.
Do you have any main philosophy on leadership that you developed in growing the business that connects to what you are doing in Women’s Leadership Live?
My number one philosophy for leadership is leadership by example. If you are not willing to do it yourself, how can you show others how to do it?
So you should learn everything?
Yes, and I did. I learned an awful lot growing a business from the ground up. Leadership by example deals sometimes with small things. Even as CEO, if I stopped and picked up some trash I saw in the hallway, other people saw that. Or, they can also see you standing up in front of hundreds of people when you are pitching your company to investment bankers as part of your role as the CEO presenting a company that is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Or, sometimes I actually even performed in the ring where there were millions watching around the country. So I take these skills to Women’s Leadership LIVE. We tell women they have to know their business and their customers and do whatever it takes to get the job done.
What do you hope to accomplish with it?
We would like to grow our conferences to be all over the country and then the world. Obviously we are just starting out, but that end-result is an objective. We want all women to walk out of our conferences and know they have a support net under them and know, “I now have tools that I didn’t have when I came in here.”
Is there anything that other CEOs can do within their organizations or is it strictly public conferences?
Women’s Leadership LIVE is very willing to come into companies as well and conduct some of the training in a private setting. And we have already done it. We held a meeting at Bell Helicopter in Texas. Bell is WLL’s first national sponsor. Lisa Atherton, EVP of military business at Bell, said her goal is to continue to find more women engineers who want to work for Bell Helicopter. She said they don’t have enough of that C-suite group of female engineers and technical people even though it is proven that women are so good at it. Mitch Snyder, Bell’s president and CEO, is fully supportive.
So you really have a vision for America.
Yes, we do. We want our program to eventually get younger audiences, too. We have had mothers who have said, “I wish you had something like this for our daughters because they have to start younger to develop that confidence level.”
What did you learn from running for the Senate?
I learned that you have to have a great deal of confidence and a thick skin to run for public office. I wish I had been elected because I believe I would have really made a good Senator. I had no career objective other than service to the people of Connecticut.
What did you learn from working with your husband? Few people can successfully pull that off.
He and I really had such different skills. I enjoyed administrative structure, finance, so all of that reported to me at WWE. He was the driving force, the marketing genius, the creator of the products. If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t really have anything for me to do (smile)! I often said to Vince, “People like you are who make the world go round, and people like me are who keep it spinning on its axis.”
Linda, it has been a real pleasure having you on the CEO Show.
Thanks so much for having me.