How to Create Your Own C-suite

Figuring out your “why” in life can help you launch the next stage of your career

By Tanisha A. Sykes

In 2010, Shai Littlejohn, then an attorney at a law practice in Washington, DC, was working 50-plus hours a week. She eventually started her own law practice and wove in some bucket list items, but came to a realization. “I couldn’t have the peace I sought when my clients had 24/7 problems,” says Littlejohn, a 40ish lawyer now based in Nashville, Tennessee, whose clients include Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurs.

“I had to accept my truth: being a lawyer was not enough,” she says. Realizing her career could be anything she wanted, she scaled down her practice to part-time. Then, she set out on a year of adventure, traveling abroad, volunteering with 
Habitat for Humanity, studying and recording music, and creating the site 
The Storied Desk, a site dedicated to helping ambitious, goal-setting women gain work-life balance. She says creating The Storied Desk was a manifestation of her “why.” “By creating time and space for the things that were important to me, such as family, travel, writing, and fitness, I could no longer allow my career to define my entire life,” says Littlejohn. “I wanted to share that experience with other working women and men so they could mindfully select their paths instead of sailing off course.”

First, she had to figure out her “why”—the purpose, cause, or belief that inspired her. In order to start living a fulfilled life, it’s time to journey to your “why.”

This is a process that some experts say is complex, especially for powerful women in leadership. “Many executive women struggle with the fear and doubt of the unknown and the potential of this new experience,” says Sheri Riley, an empowerment speaker in Atlanta, Georgia. “Many are also worried about keeping up appearances since the career transition may look to some like moving backward.”

Littlejohn felt some of the strain Riley describes. “I was afraid of what would happen if I stopped [being a lawyer],” she says. “I also hadn’t fully accepted that it was okay for me not to choose the same path as everyone else.”
Many senior-level professionals have difficulty figuring out their “why” because they are too busy working to think about life any other way. But it’s never too late to create your own C-suite. To help you discover your “why,” follow these tips from experts and corporate women who have leapt from the corner office into their own C-suite to start their own business.

Tip #1 Stop saying “I don’t know.”
Many of us may not think we know our “why” in life. Sheri Riley, author of Exponential Living: Stop Spending 100% of Your Time on 10% of Who You Are, says we always know, but we must do the necessary inner work. “We may not be ready to make the necessary changes, or we may be afraid of the realities associated with the answer, but we know,” she explains. Saying “I don’t know” removes us from the responsibility that comes with accepting the truth.

Tip #2 Start exploring.

Everyone is not going to figure it out immediately. “I had to accept who I was and acknowledge that I didn’t want a life out of balance,” says Littlejohn. Next, she had to decide what she wanted—and, just as importantly, what she didn’t want to do with her time. She began by attending conferences and workshops, reading books, and listening to podcasts to start the elimination process. “By engaging with nonlawyers at these events, I was able to talk to people who were doing things I wanted to try,” she says. The attorney also took personality tests and developed a personal mission statement to get to the core of who she was and her accompanying personality traits. As a result, she stopped applying for contracts or positions that were institutional or slow moving because the data revealed she enjoyed fast-paced settings, juggling multiple tasks, and interacting in social environments.

Tip #3 Dream big.
At one point in her life, Darrah Brustein, 34, felt lost. She was working as a wholesale fashion rep for a high-end denim brand. Everything was fine until she got laid off three times in three years, between 2006 and 2009. She always wanted to own a company and realized that working for someone else felt riskier than working for herself. When her twin brother, Garrett, approached her with the idea of running a payment-processing company, the stars aligned. “I mapped out my life without reservation,” says Brustein, cofounder of Equitable Payments, which helps businesses find the best fit for their credit card–processing needs. 
“I envisioned what I wanted my life to look like in 10 years, writing about health, relationships, travel, business, and finances.”

Next to each goal, she assigned a dollar value, asking herself, how much would it cost to live this dream? That exercise allowed her to determine what she wanted, why she wanted it, and how much it would cost to get there. It helped her to uncover her “why”: connecting others to the people, resources, and ideas that get them closer to their goals. Consequently, she later launched another business, Network Under 40, where young professionals meet up in social spaces to develop lasting relationships.

Tip #4 Let go of chasing the company carrot.

It took Crystal Y. Davis two years to leave her role as a director at a biotech development company. “I was on the promotional track and allowed the possibilities of leadership roles to overshadow my dream of teaching women to become ‘disruptHERs’ in the STEM industry by collaborating and promoting one another,” says Davis, 47, founder of the Lean Coach, a leadership development company in Atlanta. Once her calling became clear, she focused on basics such as selling, business development, and networking effectively. She also hired a coach. One useful exercise? “From the 40th floor, we would vision cast on the windows with dry-erase markers,” says Davis. “Imagine the image of casting your vision in the sky! I believed my dreams of teaching women how to lead others courageously and with authenticity would come true.” Her goal is to shift the negative paradigm of disruptive leadership because, as she says, “the world needs our brilliance.”

Tip #5 Craft your vision.
“As you start to formulate what business and services you will offer, get clear on the mission, values, and vision of the company,” advises Donna Miller, president of C3Workplace in Montclair, New Jersey, which provides space, support, and education to help companies start and grow. To craft your vision, Miller recommends asking yourself the following.

• What do I like about what I do?
• What don’t I like about what I do?
• What do I want to do more of?
• What do I want to do less of?
• What do I want to do differently?Having this conversation with yourself allows you to get comfortable in your own quiet space, trust your intuition, and execute your “why” over time.

Tip #6 Ask your network.

For guidance, consider sending questions to family, friends, and colleagues. Brustein saw value in asking for their unfiltered responses. Here’s a sampling of what
she asked.

• What do you see as my key strengths?
• What is most distinguishing or unique about me?
• What, if anything, is bothersome to you about me?
• What do you, or others, rely on me for when the chips are down?
• Could you tell me something about myself that I don’t already know?From time to time, she still reflects on the replies. While some were inspiring, and others were painful, all were useful.

Tip #7 Write your business plan.

Miller of C3Workplace adds that you should never leave your company until you have a business plan. “Look at the company, the operations, and the marketing,and seek outside counsel from organizations such as the Small Business Administration and the National Association of Women Business Owners,” she advises.

Tip #8 Give yourself permission.

Many high achievers need to accept it’s okay to evolve. That, says Riley, will lead you on a path to your purpose. DW

Tanisha A. Sykes is a money, career, and small-business writer in New York City.Follow her @tanishastips.

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