Susan and Kristin have an open and honest discussion about professional relationships, progress in women’s leadership, and how women can respond when their boundaries are crossed in the workplace.

Both share personal experiences of harassment and how they dealt with those issues. Susan challenges Kristin’s initial inclination to ignore and move past those experiences, and they discuss the power of having your voice heard. “You never have to put up with that,” says Susan. “It’s better, but it’s not gone.” 

An excerpt from the interview: 

Kristin Messerli: So, I think, I’m sure along the way, you’ve had many moments where you thought, okay, I’ve tried this out and it’s not working, or you thought I need to pivot in my strategy here. I know for me definitely, every step of my career, I’ve thought, oh, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I got to figure this out. I can imagine going from three to 700, you’re taking a lot of those pivots. Can you describe any moment in your life or in your career where you have needed to pivot or some kind of pivotal moment?

Susan Stewart: Well, you’re right to say that, that along the way, you’re sort of constantly pivoting, but when I think back about … One of the things about when you start a company basically is you feel such a sense of ownership and responsibility to do everything right that can make you be too invested in every decision and every process. About 12 years ago, I had a extremely difficult employee situation I was dealing with. I literally was so stressed out about it, I made myself sick. Within a few months of that, I got kidney cancer, and I’ve always attributed my weak immune system to my mismanagement of my stress. It taught me this lesson that I needed to learn for a long time, that it’s really important to remember that the failure of a professional relationship is not personal, and nothing is worth sacrificing your health and happiness for.

I usually get along with pretty much everyone, but since I’ve worked here, there’ve been three times in 32 years that I’ve had just … It wasn’t ever going to be good, but the next two times fortunately were after that time, and I just had a different attitude about it. It was like not meant to be, best not to work together. We got to come from the same place, and I didn’t turn it into this personal failing that then kind of undid my wellbeing. It made a real important impression on me, and I watched other people do that sometimes. It’s like it’s really important to remember big picture here that it’s never worth your health. 

You’re so stressed out. You’re so anxious, or you’re so worried, if you don’t sleep or whatever, change it. Just change it, which really paid of.

Kristin Messerli: Gosh!

Susan Stewart: It’ll be better. The change will be better.

Kristin Messerli: Yeah. I need to hear that. I constantly … Anytime I’ve realized that I’m going against my values or I’m stressing really, really hard, I get super sick, and it’s just … Yeah, my body holds onto those emotions and so … but I would imagine that I would be in the same boat with … Any kind of interpersonal relationships, I invest so much of myself into that. I think a lot of times, probably a lot of times, it’s women, but I’m sure everyone does this where you just, you feel very invested in the people that you are hiring and managing. So, in general, I mean it’s been an extremely stressful year for you and everyone, but how do you manage that kind of stress now? Are you like, “Okay, I’ve got these boundaries, or I’ve got routines”? What do you do to manage the stress now?

Susan Stewart: No. It has been a really stressful year in many ways. One of the things about being at this stage in your career that I am, in the age that I am, when you take on something new, you’re really at the point where you don’t have to take a chance anymore. You don’t have to put yourself out there anymore. Frankly, you don’t. You can stay in your own little cooking. Everybody works for me. Generally, they’re going to be nice to me, right? So, I don’t have to really put myself out there and feel vulnerable like you do again, and I make a point in making myself do that, right?

So, the MBA role is a perfect example of that that is not something I really had on my list of things to do. It’s a great honor, but I wasn’t really going down that track. So, there’ve been periods in the last year or so with everything that’s going on that it’s been incredibly stressful, and I have really had to step back and put it in perspective. I just got through telling my grown daughter this, one of them, the other day. It’s like it’s not as big as you’re making it, right? It’s not as big. That is very true for me.

As I was telling you, my husband went through an illness. I just had some personal things on top of all the work stuff. I thought, okay, what should you do? Maybe you should try to feel a little healthier, right? Maybe exercise a little more. Maybe be a little more careful with yourself because you sort of feel that fragility. When you absorb it, it becomes physical like you said. So, that’s what I’m trying to do. It’s like step back a minute, and just try to stay in the routine. That routine helps you, I think, sometimes.

So, I took a few days off after I lost my mom, and then I thought it’s better for me to come back to work and get back in my routine, and it was better for me, and just do what I could do. So, I have to remind myself, and I probably will the rest of my life, don’t make it bigger than it is. Step back a little bit. At the end of the day, enjoy things a little bit more, right? Have a little bit more fun with things that are hard. Don’t make it all work. I’m a worker, so if I’m not careful, I make everything work. It’s like, it’s not work. This is a joyous thing. This is a great thing I’m getting today, right? I should be happy about it and enjoy it more.

Kristin Messerli: Yeah, that’s so good. I keep trying to remind myself that. I love this. The stress is fun for me. Sometimes, you lose perspective. I was just thinking that earlier today actually. I have two employees here working from home with me, and I was like, okay, back-to-back meeting’s so stressful. Then, I was like, wait a second. This is super fun. I get it.

Susan Stewart: Yeah. Got it.

Kristin Messerli: This is a fun job, and there’s a lot to do, and there’s always going to be a lot to do, so that’s really great advice.

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