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Elevate Your leadership Game Through Authenticity with Kathleen Steffey

Authenticity… it’s a word we hear a lot.

And leading with authenticity is the key puzzle piece to creating a successful team.

In this episode, Kathleen Steffey, CEO and Founder of Naviga Recruiting & Executive Search, joins me to discuss the evolution of her leadership style, the impact of authentic communication on her team and clients, and the importance of maintaining one’s spirit amidst leadership challenges.

Join Craig P. Anderson as Kathleen shares her guide to leading a successful, passion-filled team.


After You Listen:

Get your copy of Geno: In Pursuit of Perfection by Geno Auriemma

Connect with Kathleen on LinkedIn

Check out Naviga Recruiting & Executive Search

Connect with Craig on LinkedIn

Check out Craig’s monthly free training on holding difficult conversations

Key Takeaways:

  • Connect with and understand your team for better performance
  • Lead with love and directness to inspire results in people
  • Maintain your spirit through ups and downs

Things to listen for:

[01:47] Lightning round with Kathleen

[06:33] The hiring process is crucial

[9:49] Exerting influence

[15:27] How Kathleen brought better performance out of her team

[21:38] What Kathleen would tell her younger self

[23:22] Craig’s takeaways

Kathleen’s Transcript

[00:00:00] Craig P. Anderson: And one morning I looked in the mirror and I said, this isn’t even who you are.

Welcome to Executive Evolution. I’m Craig Anderson. After spending 25 plus years in corporate America, I learned a lot of leadership lessons the hard way. I created this podcast so you don’t have to

There was a time when I made my debut as a leader in a fortune 500 financial services firm, where I read a lot of books about people who’d been successful books like, this biography of Jack Welch.

And Sandy while, and my takeaway from those books was that I had to be tougher, that I had to be numbers focused, that I need to be relentlessly paying attention to numbers. And I did, although my finance colleagues may have disagreed, but I did focus on that and I focused less on the people and I found that that actually undermined the strength that was core [00:01:00] to my leadership, which was connecting with my people and the relationships I developed with my people doesn’t mean there wasn’t a place for those numbers, but it means that becoming cold, hard and calculated was not part of my natural leadership style.

My guest today. Is Kathleen Steffey. She is the founder and CEO of Naviga recruiting and executive search. She has a great story of her executive evolution Let’s jump right into it. Now,

Kathleen. Welcome to executive evolution.

[00:01:33] Kathleen Steffey: excited to be here. Craig

[00:01:35] Craig P. Anderson: I am so happy to have you on. We’ve known each other for several years. You’ve been a successful business in the recruiting space for a long time.

I think since 2002, right?

[00:01:45] Kathleen Steffey: Yeah. I’ve owned Ngan now for 22 years.

[00:01:48] Craig P. Anderson: No kidding. Well, I guess you made it past the five year risk

mark. Well, hey, we always like to kick off and get started on executive evolution with the lightning around. Are you ready to dive into our top three

[00:02:00] questions?

[00:02:00] Kathleen Steffey: yes. Pressure, pressure.

[00:02:02] Craig P. Anderson: That’s right. What is the best leadership book you have ever read?

[00:02:08] Kathleen Steffey: I thought about this and it’s by Gino Ormo. And do you know who he is?

[00:02:15] Craig P. Anderson: I do not.

[00:02:17] Kathleen Steffey: He is a very well known college girls basketball coach and his leadership style is insane and I’m drawn to him. He’s retired now, but he’s no joke. He’s very, very well known. He’s won 15 different championships. And he’s just known for his style, if you will

[00:02:40] Craig P. Anderson: Wow. So what’s the most distinctive thing that calls out to you about his style?

[00:02:45] Kathleen Steffey: directness, but with a lot of love,

he coaches on the spot. Another thing that I love is he looks at body language, if he’s in a really demanding game and. Even [00:03:00] their top player that’s, let’s say, won five prior games is giving bad body language on the bench because she’s not being put in.

He won’t play her. He’s a huge advocate for body language and what that means for other team members when they’re watching that


[00:03:21] Craig P. Anderson: Oh, I love that. I love both those things of that kind of directness with love because that’s so true because it’s good to be direct. It’s not good to be abusively direct, right? Being direct for the right reasons. And then looking at that body language, because we can always see when there’s that kind of person who’s down in our organization or the person who is maybe a bad hire attitude or whatever, you can see how they bring the whole organization down.

And it feels like he’s really tapped into that.

[00:03:49] Kathleen Steffey: Exactly. Yep. Brings the whole organization down. It can bring the whole game down. Bring the whole team down. So it’s very important to him to lead by example. [00:04:00] So others will follow that.

[00:04:02] Craig P. Anderson: Love it. All right. And maybe this is the same answer, but who is your leadership crush then?

[00:04:07] Kathleen Steffey: It’s Sarah Blakely with Spanx.

she’s now a billionaire and she’s my crush because she’s scrappy. She started out kind of the same time I did and she’s a hustler. She stays in front of the customer even to this day with billion dollar status, And she’s just a grinder. I love her philosophy around. Getting it done herself in leading by example, by doing and she’s also innovative. She’s never stayed comfortable. You know, she started out with just a garment to make women look thinner, if you will, and pants or dresses, but she’s, Basically taken that product line and built out other clothing.

Like this, for an example, is a dress. This is hers

and I don’t know her from Adam. I’m not promoting her. She doesn’t [00:05:00] need a single promotion, but he’s just a dynamo. Even to this day, she took all of her girlfriends every year. She takes them on a surprise trip for her birthday and she was promoting her new swimwear on all the socials with all of her girlfriends.

She’s constantly in it where she could literally be sitting on her hands by now, but she’s


[00:05:21] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah. Just never let go. And the other piece on that that I heard is, and I’ve heard this from a few interviews recently is. You still can go in and put your hands on the business. You’re not rising up above, but not in a way that you’re kind of in the business every day, getting in everybody’s way, but you never lose touch with the customer.

What’s going on in the front line.

[00:05:39] Kathleen Steffey: Exactly. Yeah. I relate with it.

[00:05:42] Craig P. Anderson: Cool. All right. Last question. how would you define leadership in 10 words or less?

[00:05:48] Kathleen Steffey: Influencing the results in people while maintaining their spirit. So influencing execution while maintaining their spirit.

[00:05:59] Craig P. Anderson: [00:06:00] And how does that maintaining the spirit show up for you? Cause that’s, so important.

[00:06:05] Kathleen Steffey: really influencing them to be just as jazzed about it as I am the owner and the founder and having that spirit, the spirit that I have about this business come through in my people and ultimately to our customers while executing. So it’s, a everyday challenge.

It’s so intentional, but to me, that is the ultimate leadership goal that I’m trying to live every day.

[00:06:34] Craig P. Anderson: You know, I love it. And, when you think about that, how important is that in the hiring process to find people who will be able to resonate with you in that way for the business?

[00:06:45] Kathleen Steffey: It’s critical. they have to be vulnerable in some fashion to allow themselves. To succumb, if you will, to a passion bigger than them and [00:07:00] think holistically about our customer at every given moment, literally, our mission is accelerating business growth for our clients 1 hire at a time.

we kick off our meetings talking about that. how have you done that today? How have you done that last week? How have we impacted our client one hire at a time? So it’s truly something I need the team to live in order for me to feel still excited about this business

[00:07:29] Craig P. Anderson: yeah, no. And that’s so true. And that’s getting the culture down through the team. And that repetition is so important to keep everybody aligned. Otherwise you can’t hire people be able to let go from some of it.

[00:07:41] Kathleen Steffey: Exactly.

Everybody’s got to be showing good body language, Craig,

[00:07:45] Craig P. Anderson: I know. I feel like I need to be much more engaged in my posture now, Kathleen. so let’s go in a lot of what we’re trying to do here with the executive evolution podcast is to help new leaders understand that it’s a marathon, not a [00:08:00] sprint, it’s a journey we’ve all gone through to get to the point, you know, you talked about the founder of Spanx, talked about yourself 22 years, this just doesn’t happen. But it started somewhere. So let’s go back. What was your first real leadership role?

[00:08:14] Kathleen Steffey:

I would say when I was in high school and all through college, I worked at an animal hospital and I worked my way up into kind of a senior receptionist and doctor assistant, if you will. And it gave me that spark, which is really confident to say. This wasn’t that difficult, but I think I’m being viewed as different. And there was something about that experience that gave me a confidence level to then move into something else from a leadership standpoint and influence people, just very interesting. It became like a tumbleweed for me.

[00:08:52] Craig P. Anderson: Nice. Yeah. And, What of it was sparking you in that? Was it making a difference? Kind of what you talked about with your [00:09:00] team? What kind of drove that attraction for you?

[00:09:03] Kathleen Steffey: I think more responsibility. It was the more I would do well, and. Hear that feedback. I was given more responsibility and I loved it. I connected with it. I wanted more and more of


[00:09:18] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah. and what was that like kind of taking on that weight, because the more you get, the more important it becomes what times were there where you’re like, Whoa, now people are really looking to me.

[00:09:29] Kathleen Steffey: There were times, but I loved the challenge more than those times that made me worry, I just loved the feeling of executing and being seen and getting it done and making. Changes and being creative and voicing my opinion and how that made me feel versus Oh, wow. Everyone’s watching me.

[00:09:50] Craig P. Anderson: what did you find early on were ways to drive that influence? Was it by example, was it by clarity and, direction, how did you start to exert that influence that you [00:10:00] were gaining?

[00:10:00] Kathleen Steffey: well, let’s jump to my corporate recruiting experience, because, back at the animal hospital days, that was a long time. So I started as a talent acquisition recruiter and worked my way up in talent acquisition leadership before starting Naviga for 22 years. So when I first became a leader in corporate America, I was.

Granted the position, if you will, because of the success I was having in the individual contributor role. And once I got into a leadership role, it was kind of scary. I was really worried about. The people I was leading and still viewed them as peers, And that I wasn’t necessarily leading them.

I didn’t know how, but the business was taking a chance on me because of things that they noticed in me that maybe I didn’t even notice yet in myself. So doing and executing, that’s what made me grow into [00:11:00] leadership, even inside corporate America.

[00:11:02] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah. And what did you find? Because this happens a lot, right? I was a peer. And then I wasn’t now I’m over my former peers. What were the challenges of making that pivot to realize, Oh, you know, I want to be their friend still, but I’m also in charge. What were the challenges in the pivot?

[00:11:21] Kathleen Steffey: Being too friendly and not understanding there’s a line to be drawn in leadership, not understanding the strategy behind leading people. Sitting back and not solving all their problems for them and instead listening and then inserting myself at the very end and giving them a recommendation, things like that.

you’re leading by trial and error because you have the gumption. It’s kind of fascinating that. Companies allow this to occur, you really think about it, because you’re learning on the spot while you’re leading, but you’ve got so much potential to do it that you can’t stop this person from growing inside your [00:12:00] organization because you know, they’ll leave, it was just a bit of a dance.

I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I was faking it until I made it,

but I never stopped trying. So

[00:12:09] Craig P. Anderson: and I don’t ever think there’s that much thought in it, but it’d be nice if there was of that kind of sink or swim thing, , companies will throw you into those roles, but they typically don’t have a whole program to help you grow. As you said, you were just trying things and learning by example, and probably you were tapped, right?

You were the one tapped on the shoulder. So they clearly thought you could do it. So you can’t ask. Because they think I can do it and I don’t want to look weak. I’ve heard that I struggled with that myself. who did you tap on the shoulder for help during that time?

[00:12:40] Kathleen Steffey: I was blessed to have very direct leaders back then. Maybe that’s why I love this Gino.

I had male leaders that were coaching me on the spot, had some of the toughest Feedback sessions that gave me in my whole career on the spot and it was tough, but I think [00:13:00] it impacted who I am today.

And that’s why I just appreciate these types of interactions and to be honest, but like, Gino love pretty


[00:13:10] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah. And wow. So, and that’s really an outlier, at least from people I’ve talked to so far on the podcast, odd interviews in to have that direct influence. I mean, what a blessing to have people who cared enough to say we wanted to succeed and by the way, we’re going to mentor her to get her there.

[00:13:26] Kathleen Steffey: I know. Coaching on the spot.

[00:13:29] Craig P. Anderson: From successful leaders to wow. Well, so when you think about that role, what were some of the mistakes that you made? I mean, you had a lot of, maybe not a safety net, but you had a lot of guidance. But if there was something you say, man, a big takeaway that I know I would do differently now is what?

[00:13:46] Kathleen Steffey: first ever leadership role,

[00:13:50] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah,

[00:13:51] Kathleen Steffey: can I tell you what I’d keep?

[00:13:53] Craig P. Anderson: sure. Absolutely. Mm

[00:13:55] Kathleen Steffey: I would keep my naive sense of leadership [00:14:00] that was more free spirited. Focusing on loving hard, . I would keep that because as I started Naviga. I thought that once I was this profound business owner, I had to change everything about me. all of a sudden I became so metrics oriented.

So KPI driven, so PNL driven where I lost. That spirit that I mentioned to you until most recently, I’d say in the last five years, the spirit of Kathleen’s authentic leadership has come through and circled back as it relates to maybe a maturity in my whole journey. So it’s been interesting. That’s a part I would have kept.

[00:14:48] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah. No, that’s so fascinating because a lot of times what I hear, and maybe it’s my own bias in the way I interview is what mistakes did you make? But there is something maybe you lose when I’m [00:15:00] experienced and I know the answers already. and this is who I’m supposed to be.

[00:15:04] Kathleen Steffey: right. I’m supposed to make a lot of mistakes. I’m supposed to solve a lot of problems with a spirit that. Is okay with failing because I don’t know any better, and I think that passion alone, takes you from one revenue bogey to another in a big way, , and if all of a sudden that goes away, it’s just you damper the whole culture.

I feel,

[00:15:28] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah. I mean, it’s kind of like what you lost was the love. You had the directness, you had the metrics, but just leading towards the vision and the goal piece, that’s what’s got lost away because I’m supposed to be a CEO now.

you said it’s been about five years of that part of your journey where you kind of reignited that piece.

What did you see in the differences in your people as you made that turn?

[00:15:51] Kathleen Steffey: A lot

[00:15:52] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah.

[00:15:53] Kathleen Steffey: authentic communication, better performance. interaction that was more open [00:16:00] where I was able to identify gaps and solve problems with people and then also address and help them maybe with what’s going on personally, just through conversation and understanding a little bit more about what’s behind the hood, And it’s not just all about navigate and if. Their spirit and their positive nature and life is intact. They’re going to impact my bottom line in a pretty big way. And Oh, by the way, they’re going to do it happily, without cracking the whip. So that’s my goal. And that’s where we’re at


[00:16:35] Craig P. Anderson: you haven’t lost the respect for the numbers in all this. Those are still things that matter, correct? Right? We have to have that.

[00:16:42] Kathleen Steffey: than ever, the bigger we’ve gotten the more than ever,


[00:16:46] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah, but it sounds like just by adding that mix back in of the relational leadership part, that’s really helped you accelerate. I mean, just as observer outside, following you on LinkedIn, seeing the things you have going on, it seems like you all [00:17:00] have really grown over the last five years.

[00:17:02] Kathleen Steffey: We have grown in revenue and in the spirit I’m talking about,

[00:17:08] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah.

[00:17:09] Kathleen Steffey: you’re gonna get off this podcast and you’re gonna be like, I’ve never talked about spirit so

much, but we’ve got about 12 people strong. So we’re still considered a boutique size business that, truly. Spoils the world with what we offer them and how we take care of them, in terms of our employers and clients.


[00:17:28] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah. and within that kind of spirit and probably, as you said, you know, you have a very direct market that you’re working with. How does that kind of roll off into your client relationships? Because you kind of have the companies for whom you’re searching and then you have the people you’re talking to for the roles.

How does that change in culture and spirit turn into how you treat your customers and serve them?

[00:17:49] Kathleen Steffey: you want to know something very interesting about this is that they’re learning from us about this

and ask a million questions about our culture. [00:18:00] So they see what we’re doing. I’ve been on a lot of podcasts and I talk about our. Weekly meetings are monthly meetings, different things related to them structurally on how we can really get to the heart of.

People’s lives and the business, and I get asked about it all the time. So my employers, who we do business with, the conversations have changed a bit since they’re able to see what’s inside of Naviga and how we truly operate day after day around leadership and just how we do business. So the conversation has changed the way we treat our clients hasn’t changed.

At all, we love them just the same after all these years, but the conversation has changed, which I kind of find fascinating.

[00:18:48] Craig P. Anderson: Yeah, yeah. Well, everybody wants to learn. Everybody’s trying to, you know, we kind of talked before we started recording, right? The world’s evolving. You’ve got four or five generations in the workplace right now, all with different [00:19:00] priorities, all with different skills. And probably people are trying to figure out how do I navigate.

To take off your name through this kind of new area. Cause I’m trying to promote people. I’m trying to bring younger people into my organization and leadership roles, but I’m a little disconnected from them. So it does make for an interesting stew of things that you have to work through for your clients.

So, yeah. And, and do you even find within your own business? Do you have those kinds of generational differences within your own businesses you’ve grown to?

[00:19:27] Kathleen Steffey: Yeah, we definitely have generational differences and we acknowledge them from I’d say a day to day leadership standpoint, but we don’t. Make any major decisions based on them, if you will, everyone is essentially, the same accountabilities and things that nature. So, but we try to get to the heart of what’s going on in our meetings.

I will disclose we do some special things to pull out what’s happening in each other’s [00:20:00] lives. let’s say I have somebody who’s in their twenties and single. And it comes out in a monthly meeting that. They just broke up with their boyfriend they’ve been dating since college and that’s why they’ve been emotional and they’re going through a lot.

you wouldn’t think we’d be discussing this, but it matters to that person you know, and then I might have a very senior recruiter. That is 1 of my greatest executors who is managing an elderly parent, and they are talking about what they’re going through and. it’s a balance on those calls.

[00:20:38] Craig P. Anderson: We’re not all talking about personal issues, but we do bring up what was your greatest challenge, both personally in the last month and what was your greatest challenge professionally? We also then talk about what was your greatest win No, I love that. I think there’s something about showing up like that because regardless, whatever’s going on outside our lives is going to show up in the workplace [00:21:00] because we’re either tired or emotional or whatever it is. And people don’t understand that they’re like, I don’t understand why so and so is so angry today.

It has nothing to do with what happened at the office, It’s what’s going on outside. So you let everybody show up in that authentic way that you’ve brought back to your leadership role.

[00:21:17] Kathleen Steffey: yes, it’s a very intentional way to. Find out what’s going on without giving them a private call and making them feel uncomfortable. They end up talking because they see that I come with my challenges, both personally and professionally, and so do other leaders in the business and it just creates a very authentic interaction

[00:21:38] Craig P. Anderson: Love it. excellent. So it’s really been a journey for you. so I know you said the one thing you would keep or you wish you had kept from that early time, but if you could go back in time, jump into any kind of time machine, you’ll like go back to either Kathleen when you started Naviga or Kathleen in that very early role in HR and talent.

And [00:22:00] what advice would you give her? That would make things a little bit easier on the way forward.

[00:22:05] Kathleen Steffey: never lose that zest.

Of who you are and that spirit, no matter what you’re going to have a lot of ups and you’re going to have so many downs. But know that if your spirit, little Kathleen stays intact, you’re going to be just fine. Because I think what most people are seeking is. That spirit and somebody who feels comfortable enough to just show the world, their energy and their brightness about things.

And truly, if it’s authentic, it’ll never go away. So don’t push that down.

[00:22:45] Craig P. Anderson: it. And I’m not even going to comment on it because that’s perfect. Kathleen, thanks for sharing the story of your executive evolution today. If people want to follow you, learn more about you, where are the best ways for them to find and follow Naviga and [00:23:00] you.

[00:23:00] Kathleen Steffey: Just Google me, just Google my name. I’m everywhere. I’m everywhere. I’ll pop up. I’m all over the place. So Google Kathleen Steffey.

[00:23:10] Craig P. Anderson: Perfect. We’ll do that. We’ll drop the links. We’ll drop the links for Naviga as well. Kathleen, thanks again. Thanks for being here and appreciate all your insights today.

[00:23:18] Kathleen Steffey: Thank you, Craig. It’s a pleasure.

[00:23:21] Craig P. Anderson: thanks Kathleen’s for sharing the story of your executive evolution. There’s so much to pull from that interview that I think will help all of you who are listening, develop and grow as leaders. What I like to do is outline my takeaways from the interview, focusing on the crucial leadership areas of confidence, competence, and calm in the area of confidence.

What I really took away is that piece that. Was what Kathleen brought back into her leadership style of being who you are, being what made you successful. That personal touch, that engagement with her team is what made her successful. And when she strayed from that, it actually [00:24:00] hurt her business. So be who you are in the area of competence.

What she also said though, was that the numbers still do matter. It doesn’t mean just because it’s not part of your natural leadership style that you can just ignore numbers and data focus there.

That’s important to your business, but going back to the first point, be who you are, let that be a compliment to your leadership style, not a change in your leadership style. And then finally, in the area of calm, I really appreciated how Kathleen brought that humanity into her office and into her team the realization that what happens to you and your team outside of work can also impact you inside of work and giving her teammates the opportunity to talk about those things in their regular leadership team meetings is something that allows them to get those things out there.

So people understand where they’re coming from on a given day, a given week, given month, and that humanity fuels the strength of our business rather than detracts from it. So thank you, [00:25:00] Kathleen. I really appreciate it your story today and everything you shared with us. You can find all the links to learn more about Kathleen and Naviga in the show notes. remember you can go from being an accidental leader to the greatest leader of all time. All it takes is focusing on your confidence, competence, and calm. We’ll see you next time on executive evolution.