Women in Business: Tracy Benson, Founder and CEO, On the Same Page

Tracy Benson is the founder and CEO of On the Same Page, a business consultancy that works to develop and implement customized communications strategies and change management strategy and execution to support companies' business plans. Founded in 2002, On the Same Page is named for what it takes pride in -- being on the same page with its clients. The company works in collaborative relationships with small firms to Fortune 500's across all business sectors. As an industry leader, Tracy's comments have appeared in Inc., Fast Company, MarketWatch Radio and other outlets on a variety of business topics.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I grew up as the youngest child in a very entrepreneurial family. In our world, there were few hard and fast roles -- everyone pitched in to get the job done. I learned early on that a mere title was not enough to command respect. Rather, respect must be earned. Throughout my career, I was constantly looking for signs that a manager or leader should be trusted and respected. I didn't have many bosses that fit that bill. But one in particular, Frank Marrs (then a partner and senior executive with KPMG), changed all that. He showed me what it was like to have a boss that believed in my skills and expertise, engaged my team in an ultra-ambitious vision, and then let us alone to make magic -- and we did.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at On the Same Page?

Having worked in several corporate environments (KPMG, American Express, Towers Perrin), I have an acute understanding of what our clients are trying to achieve -- and the obstacles they face, particularly when facilitating a transformation or supporting a major change effort. Second, having spent a lot of time around prominent CEOs as an editor at Industry Week Magazine, I am very comfortable working with senior executives and understand their perspective and priorities. Third, as an employee in many large companies myself, I experienced first-hand what it was like to have major organizational changes come down from "on high" without any ability to provide input or even influence the outcome. All of these perspectives are firmly ingrained in my thinking, and combine to guide every bit of counsel I provide.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at On the Same Page?

My most personal highlight happens every time a team member transitions from what might be characterized as a "now and then" relationship with our firm to engage with us fully and completely. Each of our team members has traveled their own unique journey to become what I call "all in," and each time one of them makes that transition feels to me like a validation of who we are and what we're capable of accomplishing as a team.

Professionally, the highlights come from stretching our creative thinking and learning new ways to facilitate this same process of engagement with employees of our clients' companies. The challenges are diverse -- from bringing associates of a global Fortune 250 company's Human Resources function along on a complete transformation of the function to shifting the way employees throughout a dozen countries think about the future of their business. And the rewards are always the same: measured in personal stories and victories, and importantly, in successful business outcomes. Did we help our client and her company achieve results that make the business stronger and that support its strategy? That's how we judge our own success.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?

Take all those tapes playing in your head of people telling you what you can and cannot do -- and burn them, along with the subtle fears and insecurities you didn't even know you had absorbed over the years. There's only one person who gets to write the rules of your life: that's you.

Spend some time exploring the kinds of work and activities that give you joy and make you soar, as well as those that make you feel like a lead balloon. (Incidentally, we have developed a tool to facilitate this process called JoyFinder.) Build your business -- and your role in that business -- around what makes you sing. And find other, extremely skilled and gifted people, to take on the rest. Then get out of their way, so they can achieve their full potential, just as you will.

Finally, on a practical level: Spend time with customers to understand how to define and build on your unique value proposition (what makes you distinctly different -- and better -- than your competition), build a solid business plan, and invest in developing relationships with key advisors and professionals (business banker, accountant, attorney).

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
There are two.

First: In building a company and culture, be absolutely clear about what is critical and let the rest develop organically. In our case the attributes that are non-negotiable are: A shared focus on and commitment to helping our clients achieve positive business outcomes; a belief in and practice of the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; the giving and receiving of feedback in a candid, constructive and respectful way; and a shared desire to keep learning -- individually and together as a team.

Second: a CEO we have worked with for many years taught me the difference between rubber balls and glass balls. The rubber ball bounces back if someone drops it. The glass ball... does not. The leadership lesson for me was to recognize what the rubber balls are so that I can appropriately delegate them away, and to understand -- and deliberately select -- who besides me should handle the glass ball. As our company has become more mature, more and more of our team members are handling glass balls -- with grace and positive outcomes that are inspiring even to me.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

As a single mom of two teenage sons, my life and work are inextricably linked. My sons, Adam and Ryan, have grown up alongside On the Same Page, and as such, know and appreciate my team members. Because my team members are like extended members of my family, they also know when I need to draw that line and are wholly supportive, backing me up in every way. For now, my down time is pretty well centered on my boys -- but as one prepares to head off to college in September and the other to high school, I am on the lookout for some new hobbies!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

This is always a tough question for me. As the only girl in a family of boys, I did not detect any difference between what my parents expected for me versus what they expected for my brothers. As far as I could tell, we were all supposed to take our education seriously, rack up lots of real-world work experience (which we all did during and between school years) and create a career based on our strengths and that would support our desired lifestyle.

It is widely acknowledged that women are socialized to avoid confrontation and play down their accomplishments. That may play well in non-professional environments, but it does not work in business. Women must be able to adapt their approach to their circumstances. We would not go for a hike in a nature preserve in a suit and heels. Likewise, we must become comfortable valuing our strengths, contributions and accomplishments in our workplace -- and own them.

On a concrete level, if you don't get the development opportunity, promotion or raise that you believe you deserve -- fight it like any of your male colleagues would, without emotion, and with a business case that puts the company's goals and outcomes front and center.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

I have been blessed to be surrounded by people far smarter than I for as long as I can remember. And most of these folks, from my own family to formal advisors, have been extremely generous in their support and mentoring. One thing I've learned is that for mentorship to have any lasting impact, the mentee must be truly open to the coaching. While I may not always integrate the counsel I receive immediately, I am like a sponge when it comes to hearing how others I respect think I can do and be better. It's a lifelong journey, and it keeps me on my toes.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I am inspired by women who, simply through their sheer determination to be themselves and commit to their own gifts and passions, rewrite the rules. There have been hundreds, probably thousands, throughout history and in fields as diverse as medicine, politics and entertainment. Just a few who come to mind: Benazir Bhutto, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helena Rubinstein, Julia Child, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and most recently, Malala Yousafzai. All of these women exemplify the kind of courage and wisdom that I admire.

What do you want On the Same Page to accomplish in the next year?

This is a question that our team addresses together every year. We meet annually to check in on where we are, take stock of our progress against our goals, celebrate our victories, learn from our challenges, and of course, have fun. Here's what we're committed to accomplishing this year: continue to build on our track record for delivering for and with our clients; coalesce what we're learning that's new about engagement and transformation, and bring that to bear with our existing clients as well as our community at large; and continue to build out our incredible team so that we can expand our contributions more broadly.

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