10 Lessons Learned on My Innovation Journey – Joni Carswell

By Joni Carswell, Texan by Nature’s CEO & President

Recently I had the opportunity to speak about how women are innovating and leading at the Women of Innovation event at Dallas Startup Week 2020. Below you’ll find the audio version of my presentation along with the 10 lessons I’ve learned on my innovation journey, which I shared in this session.

1. Embrace Your Background

Little did I know that my journey would come full circle when I started my career in consulting and bounced from Georgia to Mexico to Florida to Canada to California and to Illinois before coming back to Texas. I’ve ended up drawing on my roots as a farmer’s daughter, a principal’s daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, an entrepreneur, a workforce grunt, a CEO – each experience has informed my knowledge base and shaped how I see problems, generate solutions, develop teams, and view my role in innovation. Recently, there’s been a movement for people to bring their whole selves to work. I have to agree – embracing all parts of your journey opens doors and ways of thinking that you might not even imagine.

2. Be Flexible and Adapt (Be Open to What the World Brings)

I moved around a lot at the beginning of my career. Sometimes I owned that choice. Sometimes I did not. My first day of work out of Texas A&M was an icy January day in Atlanta. The office was closed, but I went in not knowing what else to do. It turns out one of the partners was present. I did my HR paperwork, slid it under the appropriate door, and was on a plane for Central Mexico to help out on a project by 9 PM that evening. I was there for six weeks. It turned out to be an incredible experience, learning about communication systems, sewing floor operations, and enjoying the local culture. I look at that experience and laugh because it was the perfect beginning push to jumping into the unknown. As you iterate or look to improve any process, product, or organization, you’re always taking in new data and information. Be flexible in thinking and adapt to new situations and information. I subscribe to the ‘fail fast and move on’ philosophy – flexibility and adaptation are key in doing this well.

3. Be Present, Observe, and Think – Ask “What if?”

I shared my experience in this blog about shamefully failing at answering what I had observed while time cycling for a project. I’ve never forgotten the lesson. No matter how monotonous, no matter how small the task, be present – there are always ways to improve, to innovate. You just have to look for them. Be present. Observe. Think. How can this be better? What if this constraint weren’t in place? What if I brought a different partner to the table? What if these assumptions are wrong? This is something I think is vital in every. single. role. The value and innovation that one thinking team member can bring is immeasurable. It’s exponential if the entire team is present, thinking, and asking what if.

No matter how monotonous, no matter how small the task, be present – there are always ways to improve, to innovate.

4. Identify Your Weakness

Oh, the weaknesses. Sometimes I think age is a blessing because you become so much more comfortable with identifying and sharing your failings. I see many innovators and entrepreneurs feel that they have to be good at everything. I’ve found that a more powerful place for me is to understand my weakness. Identifying my weakness has helped me develop where I can and evolve as a leader. It has helped me build balanced teams. Whether in the case of going to business school to learn marketing and finance or more recently in building the team at Texan by Nature, identifying areas of need and putting a plan together to address these have resulted in efficient, effective leaders for Texan by Nature and for our partners.

5. Build Your Network – Collaborate

As an introvert, network building is not easy or first nature for me. It takes time and purpose. However, it’s critically important in expanding perspective and keeping abreast of trends, opportunities, and important information. A mentor of mine recently pointed out that new entrepreneurs claim ‘stealth mode’ while seasoned ones are out talking to as many people as they can so that they can fail fast and adapt (thank you, network!). I approach network building through the lens of collaboration and learning. Studies show that collaborative efforts are more successful and fulfilling. We certainly see that in our work at Texan by Nature daily. I did not do a great job of network building until I went to business school. Even then, it was something that took work for me. Focusing on shared areas of interest like the outdoors, triathlon, travel, entrepreneurship, and leadership helped me start conversations and build deeper relationships that have resulted in collaboration years later. My network is 100% responsible for opening the doors to the CEO roles I’ve held.

6. Know Your Metrics – Stand By Them

Knowing my data has helped me at every point in my career. Whether in negotiating salary, creating deal terms for a funding round, developing market outlook, analyzing team workload – knowing the metrics and being comfortable with how they were developed has changed conversations and outcomes. Knowing my metrics, sources, and frameworks have given me something objective to stand in subjective spaces. I’ve been heckled and questioned to the point of discomfort, but being steadfast in the data changed the course of dialogue. Being able to succinctly walk through the business case for a project or organization has made the difference in closing the deal for me. Every single role I’ve held has required me to know the metrics and be confident enough in them to put my reputation and success on them.

7. Step Up – Ready or Not

At some point, if not many points on your innovation journey, you’ll be tapped to do something different or bigger than what you may have imagined for yourself. If it pulls at your soul and your passion, say yes. Do not doubt yourself out of the opportunity. You will learn. You will grow. You will identify your weaknesses and rise to the occasion. Some people call this fake it ‘til you make it. I say that if you’ve been tapped to do something, someone sees that you can do it and you can. Don’t think of all the reasons you can’t. Step up and embrace the challenge. Your journey has prepared you in a way that is 100% unique to you. If passion and soul are calling, you’re entering the sweet spot for innovation. Was I ready to run a technology company – maybe. Boy did I learn a lot! Was I ready to run a conservation nonprofit with limited conservation and zero nonprofit experience? Some would say no. Our success over the last three years says yes. Step up!

I say that if you’ve been tapped to do something, someone sees that you can do it and you can. Don’t think of all the reasons you can’t. Step up and embrace the challenge.

8. Be Vulnerable and Optimistic

For me, vulnerability is another one that came with age….and failure. A year into my tech CEO role, I was given six months to raise a round of funding. For the first three months, I kept the situation mainly to myself. I was having dozens of conversations and getting ZERO bites. As a leader who cares deeply for her team, I decided I needed to let the team know the full extent of the situation so that they could line up jobs if we went under. It was a lesson in vulnerability that has shaped me forevermore. As my deadline approached, I kept having potential funder conversations but it became clear that I would not close a deal in time. I worked with my investor and wrote the client letter to shut down the company. It was the single, most humbling experience of my career. When I shared it with the investor, he asked what the current prospects were and said he was comfortable with bridging for one more month. During this time, I kept talking to interested funders and was deeply touched by my team and partners sticking with me. I ended up bringing on the perfect investor for where we were and we never looked back (or sent that letter). During this time, something a sales leader said to me stuck deeply, “the fun doesn’t start until they’ve said no at least three times.” Talk about relentless optimism. Vulnerability and optimism kept the company afloat and team in place during our darkest, most uncertain days.

9. Self Reflect and Let. It. Go.

Two points here. Always self reflect. How are things going? What could be better? Are you still the best person for the role? Is the feedback you’ve received accurate? Do you need to change? When I decided to take the Texan by Nature role, my investor and I had a conversation about self-reflection and the need for leaders to self check whether they are still the right leader for the role. Honestly, I was expecting him to be annoyed with my reflection – he’s an incredibly successful serial entrepreneur, always powering forward. Instead, he shared that he had the same thoughts regularly and would be worried if I wasn’t asking myself these questions because it could indicate that I was immature and out of touch in my leadership. Self reflect. Second point – let it go. Once you’ve reflected and made your decision. Once you’ve truly heard feedback. Take what is useful for your journey and organization, make necessary changes, and let the rest go. This is for all leaders, but particularly those who take things personally and vacillate endlessly. It’s not good for you and it’s not good for your team. I’ve been told I’m too intense. That I work too hard and have misguided beliefs around that. I have found that softening some of those tendencies helps me succeed, however, these characteristics are also a reason for where I am today. Ten years ago I would have had the feedback stuck on repeat and thought of every reason it was wrong. Today, I self reflect and acknowledge it, change what I can and need, and let the rest go. The time and emotion freed with this action have been game-changing.

Today, I self reflect and acknowledge it, change what I can and need, and let the rest go. The time and emotion freed with this action have been game-changing.

10. Own Your Journey, Own Your Voice, Own Your Contribution

My journey is perhaps interesting in some ways, boring in others. It is, however, mine. I am truly the only person in the world with my accumulation of experiences, good and bad. I find this freeing. When I looked at my path from this perspective and began sharing more of myself and ideas, doors began opening and new opportunities for innovation appeared. You have an equally unique and freeing path. Owning your journey is just the first step. Giving the journey air time and recognizing its contribution to your perspective and creativity is a gift that grows as it is nurtured. Own and enjoy it.

These are a few of my lessons learned (so far). I encourage each of you to think through your journey and assess what you have learned that can be applied moving forward. Something you may not have shared or embraced. This is your niche. This is where you will see the world differently. This is what will keep you on your own personal path to innovation. So embrace it. Bring your journey. Bring your soul. Bring your passion. Bring your grit. Be your own brand of badass. I can’t wait to see the results for you, for Texas, for the world!

To learn more about Joni’s journey, read her personal story.