Sharon Birkman | Crain's Austin

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Sharon Birkman

Background:  

Birkman International is an occupational assessment company in Houston whose questionnaires are used by companies to determine employees’ interests, needs and behaviors. Its clients have included Wal-Mart, Boeing, Chevron, Tyson Foods, Proctor & Gamble and MailChimp. Since taking over the business five years ago from her father Roger Birkman, a psychologist who founded it in 1952, Sharon Birkman has modernized the company and doubled its revenue.

The Mistake:

Not trusting my gut. I happen to be a baby boomer. I grew up in an era when women weren’t expected to do high-level corporate work. When I was in my late 40s, I saw my parents struggle with their succession plan. I had been teaching college music and singing on the side but mainly raising three children.

But having seen my parents build the company from a startup in the ‘50s through some rough times, it was in my genes to see it continue. I also had a huge passion for the mission. So I came into the company in 2000 to see how I could help.

It’s not easy when you have a founder who is in his 80s. There was a tap dance: Respect the founder but find my own voice. It was difficult having come from a different field and being a female. But we needed to thin down. We had committed to office space that we ended up not needing and made hires that were questionable, including one who was toxic. Three CEOs came and went in a short period of time.

What helped me learn was joining every executive support group I could.

Lesson:

I had to trust my own common sense and exercise more authority in certain areas.

In 2002, my parents were about to appoint an internal VP into role of president. He was a Ph.D. in psychology but I didn’t see him running the company. I went to my parents and said this was a huge mistake and asked them, “How about me?”

They trusted that I was bright enough and had the capability. But what pleased them the most was that I was willing to make the company my priority and that Birkman would remain a family-owned business. That was a big turning point.

Male or female, even if you’d been in another field, you’ve learned skills and competencies that will serve you well as you move into a certain role. You have to trust your core instincts and realize the most important thing is getting along with other people. Once you’ve been in the saddle a while, you feel much more comfortable. Listening and learning are important to that every single day. I’m still learning.

What helped me learn was joining every executive support group I could. I became a charter member of Women Presidents’ Organization in Houston, where I felt I could communicate at a deeper level and be myself. It became a huge learning source for me, as before I could only see the dynamics within my own company.

Follow Birkman International on Twitter at @Birkman.

Photo courtesy of Sharon Birkman

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