I would never say that my elementary school bullies made me who I am today. Yet those early experiences shaped my career and my leadership style in ways that I’m still discovering.
I went to a very small elementary school—think 40 students total—and always tried to help the new girls who came from other countries and had to join this tight-knit group. As is so often the case, my early efforts to include outsiders turned me into one myself. The popular girls in my class bullied me, chasing me around the schoolyard each day at lunch chanting, “You have no life! You have no friends!”
To avoid my bullies, I started eating lunch in the girls’ bathroom, alone. I was lonely, but I also learned to be resilient. And I learned the value of sharing a meal as a way to connect with others. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, you could say that founding Chewse was my way of trying to create a more authentically connected world: a world where no one has to eat lunch alone.
My lonely lunches inspired more than my company’s mission. Knowing what it feels like to be an outsider has directly impacted how I lead my team and the transparent, inclusive company culture we’ve built together.
For one thing, we have structured our company to ensure that no one is left out in the cold. We hire our delivery drivers and meal hosts as employees, not as contractors. That way, every single member of our team is included and invested in the company’s success. While hiring gig workers is fine in many situations, a gig-based business wouldn’t create the strong, inclusive culture that empowers our team members.
Once employees are on board, we strive to provide an atmosphere of support that takes the whole person into account. Work and life just aren’t separate these days, and trying to leave our personal lives at the office door is just not possible—or healthy. Because feeling alone is all too common, both inside and outside of work, my team makes a point to greet everyone we meet with warmth and affection. Hugs are commonplace at the Chewse offices! As a former outsider, I know how much it matters to reach out, make eye contact and create an immediate connection.
5 Steps to Inclusive Leadership
Having been bullied as a child doesn’t define me, but it has shaped the way I respond to the world. Here are five things I’ve learned about empowering myself and the people around me:
1. Be transparent.
One of the best—and earliest—decisions I made for our company culture was to keep salaries transparent. We decide salaries on the basis of performance, not negotiation ability, and then we share what everyone in the organization makes, including me. This kind of transparency empowers everyone to make fully informed decisions, and, as studies show, makes for a more productive, more creative, more collaborative and more motivated group of people.
We started doing this because I saw that women weren’t negotiating as hard for their salaries as men did, and, as a result, we were paying women less for the same level of work. I wanted our company to be part of the solution, not the problem, so we made transparency a central element of our culture.
When you’re in a position of authority, you don’t always get the feedback you need to grow and develop as a human and as a leader. That’s why it’s important to build a network of people who will give you honest input, point out your blind spots and offer tools to help you continue to grow.
I’ve forged my network with a combination of therapy, executive coaching and CEO peer groups. This means carving out at least three hours each week for personal development. I’ve found this kind of self-care to be critical for understanding my impact on others, which enables me to make inclusive decisions.
3. Practice self-compassion.
We all have endured situations in our past where we felt unsafe, scared and alone. So many of us try to ignore them or minimize their impact, but that kind of repression is bad for both physical and mental health. Numerous studies have shown that practicing self-compassion—being supportive and understanding of yourself—increases emotional intelligence, happiness and overall well-being, while lessening anxiety, depression and fear of failure.
For me, self-compassion means building a relationship with my past. To do that, I use a visualization technique: I imagine my younger self in the school bathroom during lunch. I walk in as my adult self, gently take that lonely young girl’s hand and walk her out to a café. I buy her a treat, tell her how our life is unfolding and assure her that everything will be OK. Feeling this kind of compassion for myself creates a space for me to help and empower other people in turn.
As a leader, it’s my responsibility to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. It’s good for business—the more ideas that are shared, the better it is for the organization—but it’s equally important for each individual’s growth. To develop in their own careers, they need to learn assertiveness skills, skills that boost self-esteem and correlate to confident problem-solving and open communication.
Encouraging my team to speak up is not enough; I also create opportunities for everyone to be heard. In our organization, for example, we have a culture committee with members nominated to share feedback and create culture initiatives. It empowers the team to help cultivate an inclusive culture that grows with the company.
5. Break the silence.
For leaders, managing employees who are living through a stressful time is a test of balancing compassion with the needs of the business. At Chewse, we use a color-coded check-in system that gives us a way to share how we’re feeling on any given day. It helps us signal when it might not be the best moment to receive tough feedback or take on a big project. I often wished, as a bullied child, that someone would check in on me, letting me know I wasn’t all alone.
We also go out of our way to recognize and appreciate hard work. Every Friday, we set aside 20 minutes for what we call Attitudes of Gratitude, in which we share our gratitude for what others did throughout the week. For example, the support team might acknowledge the engineering team for fixing a system’s bug and saving them hours of work. This beautiful practice bridges gaps between teams and between leaders and team members, and it helps us all be healthier and more productive.
What kind of leader would I be if I worked toward only my own personal development and didn’t facilitate my team’s growth? Not only would I be suppressing individual potential, but I would be putting the whole company at a disadvantage by shutting down the contributions each person could make.
My leadership style may indirectly stem from being bullied as a child, but it has become much more than that. It was a hunger to create welcoming spaces where no one has to eat alone that inspired my company, and it’s a passion for developing an inclusive, empowered team that has made it thrive.
Tracy Lawrence is the founder and CEO of Chewse, a service that delivers family-style meals to offices from the best local restaurants. Her vision is to transform transactional drop-off delivery into an inclusive meal experience that also gives back through meal donations. Chewse operates in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Silicon Valley, California; and Austin, Texas. She has raised $30 million for her company and feeds thousands daily. Tracy also mentors female founders in technology, working to fulfill her personal mission of building a more authentically connected world based on vulnerability as a leadership philosophy.