The First 17 Years: The power of a first follower with Karen Seketa

Karen Seketa, VP of Talent at Element Three, is a leader who develops leaders, and she taught Tiffany the importance of serving people first. In this episode of The First 17 Years, Tiffany shares the moment she asked Karen to take the risk without a clear job description, way to pay her, or true vision of what she’d be doing. It was Karen’s leap of faith that made all the difference.

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From firing Element Three to then joining as a key executive, Karen Seketa is the leader Tiffany needed to take the company to the next level.

Chapter 4: Dedicated to Karen Seketa

Karen Seketa, VP of Talent at Element Three, is a leader who develops leaders, and she taught Tiffany the importance of serving people first. In this episode of The First 17 Years, Tiffany shares the moment she asked Karen to take the risk without a clear job description, way to pay her, or true vision of what she’d be doing. It was Karen’s leap of faith that made all the difference.

For more exclusive content and a deeper look into Tiffany and Karen’s dynamic, follow @ScaredConfident on Instagram.

Tiffany: When you decide to do something big or feel called to do something big, there's an expense that you don't understand that other people have to pay to.

Intro: She didn't know what it was yet, but she was really trying to build something meaningful.

She just always had these big ideas.

There was no fear, no hesitation at all.

It was like, this is my moment. And I'm gonna take it. I don't know how long it can stay this bad, but it can't really get worse.

Tiffany: These people, these voices, these experiences, they were my mentors. They are the people who help build and refine and grow me into the leader that I have the opportunity to sort of be today.

This is the first 17 years. Karen TTA is steady. She is a completer and she taught me the importance of serving your people first. I

Karen: started in December of 2011, 2011. I was actually a client of Tiffany's. And if you really were there and saw the story, you would probably be asking yourself, why the hell

Tiffany: did she hire you?

So she's been here with over a decade and her job was like something, I think operational ish when she started, but she had a background in recruiting and talent and HR. So I knew at some point that's what she would lead, but it was like a bag of stuff Tiffany didn't want to do was basically Karen's initial job description.

I first met Karen because she was a client of. So the companies she had worked for before element three, they were a client. We were helping them. And through a series of things, she ended up becoming the primary point of contact with element three. And so that was how I met. Alongside that was when I got introduced to inbound marketing and really began to like lean into that as the predominant strategy, that element three was executing for clients.

So I was making my round understanding that understanding how relevant it was to the marketplace. And in that period of time, in 2011, 2012, element three was really beginning to get some traction in our growth. I mean, we weren't 70 people or anything crazy, but we were starting to go from like five to eight from eight to 12, from 12 to 20.

And I began to see, like, if this connects with the marketplace at the speed, I can feel it coming to life. I think I'm gonna have a new problem on my hands, which. How do I retain, how do I recruit? How do I onboard? How do I make sure I'm like compliant with HR things? And I began to realize like, I'm gonna need somebody really capable in that role.

And I was really actually too young and naive to understand how important experience was there, but I. Got very lucky because I met Karen.

Karen: I was a client who during 2009 and 2010, when the economy was not doing well, came in and actually took money away from her. When I came into the job that I was in at the company where I was working, when I was a client of hers, one of the things they gave me in operations was market.

And so that was my first view into marketing. Really. So the first thing I did was go through the marketing budget to see what we were doing. And it turned out we were paying this pretty big retainer, two element three at the time for work that they were doing. And I couldn't figure out what they were doing with that money.

And so I called Tiffany and she was very gracious. And let me come in and sit down with her and talk through it. And as we were talking through it, I had no idea how much stress she was under at that time. Her business was not doing great. They were barely hanging on. She just had a lot going on and you never would've known it cuz that's Tiffany.

And I basically just asked her the question, like, can you just explain to me what we're paying for? So I know what to plan and she sort of went through it and. Yeah, I don't, I don't know what you're paying for. And I said, well, well then can we not pay it? And she was like, yeah, you cannot pay it. And so technically it was just another nail in this coffin that was being built for her.

And I didn't really realize it at the time. She was incredibly gracious about it. I ended up still doing quite a bit of business with them, for other things. We just didn't have that retainer. So that's kind of how our relationship started. And later on, she told me that that was the whole reason why she wanted to hire me was because I really looked at things closely and I was, you know, very professional in the way that I sort of executed things, even though I, I really was just another nail in her gin at the time.

Tiffany: and I had no. I was 25 when I started this journey. And so when you're at the top of the organization for your entire career, if you don't either have people who are willing to step into that mentorship role, because they see you need it, or you don't have the self-awareness to know that you need to ask for it, it can be a place where you hate your ceiling really fast, because you don't have these stories like.

This manager that I worked for, or this leader that I saw, or the CEO that I was underneath, I didn't have these things that I had watched over a long period of time to sort of figure out, like pick up what are the things I wanna emulate. One of the things I don't want to. And so as Karen joined the team and really joined me in this crazy journey, I feel like there were times when we were just literally in a jungle with a mache.

And we called it a business but it was mostly two people in a jungle with a machete. That was what it looked like, that she decided to step into that chaos with me looking back, I don't even know that I can say I was aware enough to say that I felt it as it was happening, but she knew how to prompt me simple things like the organization needs to hear from you.

or this is what needs to happen next. Or I think the change management cycle needs to happen like this. And she just started to lead me. And also she was a very safe place because of her maturity, where I, as an external processor could just like dump buckets of stuff that was going on in my head at her and she would not even actually say anything.

She'd just say like, okay. And then walk away for half a day, three days. And organize the things that I had said and bring back to me, here's kind of what I think we should do next, or here was the most salient piece of what I think is really the through line of what you're feeling or what you're seeing or strategically where we need to go next.

And so in that way, she was so in the jungle with me that she had context for everything. And so it was helpful, but she was mature enough to be able to stand outside of it and under or overreact to things. She sort of knew the difference between a big deal and not a big. Before I did. I also think that she saw early in me, the leader I could become.

In a way that I don't even know, like I had the audacity for it, but I don't know that I understood the skill it took and I didn't have enough world experience to even know I should look for leadership development or that I needed coaching on the way things were said, or like I just didn't even know to ask about it.

And she stepped into the vacuum early.

Karen: Tiffany, I think popped out of the womb as a little leader. But honestly did not have the consciousness of it until it was required of her. And I feel so fortunate to be able to have coached an actual executive of a company like that was the only time I've ever done that I've coached tons of people on leadership, but that was a whole new journey for me.

And the fact that Tiffany was so open to it, she never felt like I was trying to teach her. She never got defensive about any of the feedback I would give. And so I felt like I had full permission to sort of insert my ideas along the way and not feel weird about it. I will never forget the conversation.

That really was the catalyst for me to come here. She and I had actually become friends and I felt like there was a lot I could learn from her because I was trying to learn marketing. So we would have lunch and stuff. Every once in a while, one of the times when we had lunch, she was pregnant at the time.

She asked me to do some work while she was on maternity leave and just sort of consult on some things because I was looking for another job. So she knew I was actively trying to get out of a not good situation that I was. And so we were having lunch and all of a sudden she started to talk really fast.

And you know, when Tiffany as a visionary, she's an external processor of information and I'm not. And so she's talking very fast to me and she's saying, you know, I got up in the middle of the night she's I just woke up and I turned to Jr. And I said, I know what I need to do with this business. I need to hire Karen Insta.

And I was not expecting this at all. And so I kind of was like, what the hell are you talking. And she said, just listen to what I have to say. And she just spouted off one of her visionary, like, I'm gonna do these things. I'm gonna grow. I've got this great idea. And I need somebody by my side to shore up our operations and get people hired and put some systems in place.

Cuz they were only six or seven people at the time. And so when she was done. I sort of looked at her and I was like, just two questions that I have. I said, how are you gonna pay me? And what am I gonna do? And she very quickly said to me, I don't want you to worry about that. I have it all figured out.

We're just gonna roll with it. I'll figure out how to get you paid. And I actually think she paid me more than she paid herself when she first hired me. I didn't know it at the time, but she put it all on the table just to get this thing going.

Tiffany: I remember one time I was working like stupid late. It was like 11 or 12 o'clock.

I drove home late from work that night. And my husband was like in bed and I like come flying in the house and I like jump on the bed. I'm like, I know what I need to do. Oh, my word, I know what I need to do. I need to hire Karen TTA. And he's like, what are you talking about? Who is this person? What do you even mean?

And I was like, I just know it. I just know. I just know it, this is what I'm supposed to do. I'm supposed to hire Karen and S I mean, I had probably spent a grand total of a hundred minutes with this person in my life. It was not like I had discerned for years watching from a distance. What a mature professional she is.

I just had like a feeling. I was like, I'm supposed to hire her. And so within a couple of days we had lunch together. I think we could both point to like the exact booth that we were in. And I don't know that I tasted my food or even ate a bite, but I was like, So I have a plan for you. I said like all these words and I was like, and it's gonna grow and it's gonna be amazing.

And you know what? You need to come work for me. I think she was probably a combination of like, This girl clearly has to be on something to like, are you even kidding me too? Well, she seems confident maybe it'll actually happen. She was in like a part-time situation at the time, and I said, money come work for me.

You can be full-time. And she was at a stage in her life where. Maybe I'm also like somewhat predatory on these people who have financial like flexibility, but she was at a stage in her life where she could take a risk financially and come and give it a shot with this. I was 31 at the time I'd been in the journey for a minute, but there was still so much, I didn't know about scaling.

And Karen has become one of the most important partners to me in this journey of element three. You know, you hear people say these. That you have a first follower. And in many ways, Karen was my first follower. She was so experienced, so mature so wise, and that she chose to stay with me, to be with me, to help me bring this thing to fruition, to help birth it.

She was such an instrumental piece of the journey.

Karen: When I came to work for element three, the first thing that I discovered is that Tiffany and I were not alike at all. We are as opposite as two people can be. And two things can happen with that. You can fight about it and then part ways, or you can figure out how to create a synergy that can be.

So powerful between two people. That's the harder decision it took Tiffany and I probably two years, one and a half to two years to figure out how to work together. And we actually at one point and she said, she doesn't remember this. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting across the table from her and I was actually actively looking for another job.

And I think we both walked into that room. She probably walked into the room thinking this is over. And I walked into that room, thinking this is over. We just had some very strong differences of opinion. The business. And I didn't feel like we could overcome, we were so different and for some reason, and I have no idea why that is not how the conversation ended.

It came very close, very close, like within 30 seconds of that being the thing to be said out loud, and it didn't end that way. And so I thought a lot about like, what just happened there? Like why did I not make the decision that I decided I was gonna make? And why did she. Just fire me. And from that point forward, some things started to change.

I could see that she started to listen to me really closely confide in me, in things that I knew I could help her with. Cuz that was part of my frustration. She removed some people that I didn't think should be there. And none of that was because I told her to do it. It wasn't a threat. It wasn't anything like that.

I just felt like we were finally listening to each other and I started to listen and accept that we were not alike. And that I had to look for a way to sort of take advantage of the fact that she was so good at the things I was bad at. And I was so good at the things she hated doing. And so how do we make this, this union where we're balancing each other?

And we figured out how to do that. That conversation was a tipping. It was a point of inflection where we decided, is it worth it or is it not? And without even saying it or talking about it, I think we both kind of went, we're not willing to give up yet. And so all the rest of it just kind of started to happen as we started to trust each other.

Tiffany: In the years where element three was just revenue first. That was our strategy. I mean, it kind of growed all expense. All growth is good. Growth was how I would say I saw the world and I knew that we needed to grow for a couple of reasons. One is I knew if we wanted to compete for talent. Really that we had to be at a certain size so that we seemed like we were competent.

I knew that we needed to grow to a certain size to be able to compete for clients that were worth coming to work on. And I knew that the marketplace rewarded velocity. I just believed that to be true. And so we were on a growth. And there were a couple things that were happening. One is these were the years where like companies were really beginning to see that they needed to have a digital presence.

It was no longer the in B2B sales that people had product catalogs. It was no longer that people looking for jobs. We're just looking at a job description and then having to get into the HR department to understand the culture like the internet was beginning to color people's perspectives, their opinions, their buying habits, what they believed, how they were getting educated and control was really moving from the brand to the consumer.

And in that season of marketing and just how marketing technology was coming to bear and how the internet was starting to mature, all that stuff was happen. And the agencies who were there to help companies pick software, implement software and change their strategies from what used to be very trade show, brochure, salesperson, heavy sales process to this more digital led consumer led buying process.

We were right in the thick of it. And that was really propelling our growth and propelling us to kind of the front of the room. And then we also really rode the wave of like the ink five thousands, all the award cycles, what that does while most of them are vanity metrics and they don't matter at all.

It gives people who are looking at you from afar, some confidence that you know, what you're doing. It gives you reasons to be in the newspaper. It gives you reasons to be on stage. It gives you reasons to. Interact with other leaders in your community and connect on something that's has a common interest and expands your network and that starts to feed it.

So that was the playbook we were running and it was working. And so in those years where it was just like mad it was like busy. It was crazy. It was a lot of adrenaline. There was a lot of focus on closing the next deal on growing clients on growing the agency, we'd hire 10, 15, 20 people in a year. And we did that right up until it broke.

You had like, I don't know, 8, 9, 10 straight years of growth. And that can be amazing if you don't have the ability to fund the operational growth, that's required to have the discipline to put the training and the onboarding and like the productization and the process. All of the things that come with fast growth, if you don't have the discipline or the ability or the wisdom to know how to do that, then what happens is you basically build this great big, tall building that everybody can see and thinks is beautiful, but there's like no foundation.

And so at some point it just collapses in on itself. And that was what happened to us. And the Canary in the coal mine is when you start losing clients and you. Having top talent that doesn't feel like they can be successful in the environment anymore because it's so chaotic. It's just so crazy. And there's never a time to catch your breath.

And so at some point you sort of like tap out and that was what started to happen. And there were seasons when you sort of looked at it and it was like, man, we have this big monster, but I'm not sure that like, this is actually who I am or who we are as leaders or as a company, if it's not. You woke up one day and decided I'm gonna lead in a way that's incongruent with myself.

It's like it happened slowly, all of a sudden, and this growth, first mindset just created this tumbleweed that just kept getting bigger and bigger and rolling faster and faster and faster down the hill. I remember there was a time in that season when I went over to Karen's desk and she looked at me and she was like, we just have to blow the whole thing up and start.

I was like, well, that's terrifying. I was like, what does that mean? She's like, we just have to blow it up. I don't know how, but we've gotta blow it up. And like, I think we all knew it was like, it was unsustainable. We had to figure out how to start over without starting over. And you know, I've said this a couple of times.

It's like, I feel like I got to redo my marriage with the same man. And I got to rebuild the company and it's the same brand. And it's the same people. Changing behavior changing habits when you're in the same place, I think is even harder. Karen was such a mentor to me in that season. There were some really, really, really impossible decisions that we needed to make.

And. I think we leaned on each other so hard that it made us strong. Like any one of us was gonna fall over, but because we were there for one another, it created this almost fake strength for each of us to make these really tough decisions and to live these really hard days. To get back to a place where we were like, I'm so proud of us.

I'm so proud of the thing that we're making. I'm so proud of the leaders that we're creating. I'm so proud of the work we're making. I'm so proud of the impact we're making. And there were seasons where we couldn't have said that. Every day, our friendship got

Karen: stronger because of the fact that she's so tenacious.

I've never met anybody in my life who no matter how bad things are, doesn't matter. She refuses to not be optimistic about the outcome and realistic, but optimistic. And so I love that I will always have her as somebody that even if things got really, really bad, like even when I went through that thing, I went through last year.

I didn't tell her about it. She found out about it through some conversations that I had had with Kyle. and she came to me and took me to lunch and said, I owe you an apology and was so like authentic and so caring about like, why I had gone through, and I couldn't blame her. Like I said, she was going through her own stuff.

It was just a thing. So I think that to have a relationship with somebody who, you know, is always gonna be on your side and. You can screw things up very badly and they're still there. And that no matter how bad things get, they're gonna say to you, we'll get through this. It'll be fine. We'll figure it out.

And we always do. We have, we've been through some really hard stuff. I'm the dooms there. Who's like, here's the top 10 reasons why that's not gonna work.

Tiffany: Karen is also one of those people where I found true friendship in the workplace. When you work beside each other for 10 years, you get to know each other's like DNA in a way that is just very close and special. And for her to have seen me grow for her to like, be as supportive in who I was 10 years ago as she is and who I am today.

And for her to like step in and also be open to growth and listening to me and feedback, and like all of that, it's been such a sweet and rich relationship where we have done some things we're both really, really proud of in our business together, but also have a really special friendship where, or just like rooting for each other in life.

And it has brought a shade of richness to this whole experience of element three. That was really unexpected, but maybe ultimately what the whole thing is really about. Now, what you'll hear is a reflection between Karen and me. It takes nerve at different times. To pull off sometimes the big ideas, sometimes the hard decisions, sometimes these big inflection points of change that come with growth and navigating a culture and having to disappoint people in really big ways.

Like those things, it's like, you know, you plan for it. And then it's like, and now is when you do it and you kind of wanna vomit. Those are the times where I feel like we squeezed through the gauntlet together. As we stage gated this journey of learning and growing element three, those were just like really seasoning times for me as a leader.

Karen: I think Tiffany's superpower is her ability to have a lot of confidence in the hard stuff. That's really big and messy. My personality has a hard time with that. Like it has to be close to me and it has to have logical progression and it has to make sense. And so she balances me in like the big stuff that I can't.

Put my arms around and I balance her in the details and the small stuff. And I think that's probably why we both say that about each other because yeah, if we have to execute something very hard in the company, I will have it mapped out to the very last word of what happens when and in what sequence.

But she has the ability to say the words and make everybody feel okay about something that's very.

Tiffany: When COVID came, it was a test for all of us as leaders. And I think what I, in a weird way loved the most is none of us knew it was coming. And so you were either prepared or you weren't because you had been practicing naturally.

You know what I mean? Versus. Knowing, Hey, you got six months to prepare for this big ugly thing that's happening. Like we didn't have that advantage. And I feel like COVID was an accelerant to the direction your business was already going. At least it was for us. We had done some really tough work the 24 months leading up to COVID and I felt like we were ready for a test.

Now as a leader and as a team, you never really wanna actually be tested. You don't want the storm to come, but it felt like we were ready and. Personally, I felt like it was my redemption round when oh 8 0 9 happened. I wasn't ready the business. Wasn't ready. My relationship with my leaders. Weren't ready.

Our client relationships weren't ready. Nothing was ready for a test in oh 8 0 9. And when this one happened, In a sick way. I was like exhilarated by the fact that like, we're ready for a test. We're ready. And in oh 8 0 9, our clients went silent. And this time our clients leaned into our relationship because they saw us as a strategic advantage.

This time I didn't freeze. I knew what to do. I had a game plan. And we executed that with our employees. We communicated frequently, even though we didn't always know the answers. Like I learned so much about how to lead through crisis and battle testedness I think created a depth of conviction for us as a team that the habits we have, the behaviors you have, the systems we have, the communication cadence.

We have, it works in good times and bad. It was real. It was triage in the way that businesses don't often have to actually show up. And I think we were seen in our character, in our core, by our people as leaders in a way that the normal course of business doesn't always allow.

Karen: My experience with COVID was much harder on me than I had realized from an element three perspective of just trying to keep people okay.

And so I had to be good at development and I had to do it. COVID was fine for me from that perspective because I had done before. And so I think I just brought that as like, that's all I knew. That's how it should be. And I can tell you, the leadership aspect has turned our culture into a place of accountability, to a level that you won't find anywhere else.

Because instead of me being the complaint department in my role, which would be the worst job in the world. I'm the person who teaches people, how to solve their own problems. If they can learn how to do that, then you're not just elevating every problem that you have because you know

Tiffany: how to solve it.

It's interesting to me right now at this stage in my life, because Karen's kids, her oldest, her boys are the same age that my kids are 10 years into this journey together. And so to be walking kind of a stretch of road, I've seen her walk is a really special, full circle moment for me. I have been honest about the fact that part of my journey has been understanding.

What's it like to be a professional mom? And how do you do both of those things at a really high level? And Karen is in. The inside circle for me and watching women voraciously choose both these roles of being a professional that has the highest trust and integrity in their role. And also this awesome close relational.

Experiential relationship with their kids and to see Karen be successful in both of those things, her boys are outta the house now and to see how they love her. And she loves them. And to see how at element three, we love her and she loves us is a moment where I see, like, you can do both at an enormously high level and do it your way.

I mean, Karen is authentic and true to her core every single day. And I feel so blessed to have been on this journey with her and am so grateful that for some reason, she took a risk on. A 30 something year old kid that was like, flapping her arms, like a bird. saying you gotta come work for me. And knowing that her unwavering support for me when I got it right.

And what I got it wrong, it was like a gift in this journey because there were times I didn't get it. Right. And she was there even on those days. So thank you, Karen. Next time on the first 17 years. So I told her you don't scale, Tiffany, your company can't scale, you don't scale. So what are you gonna do? I wanted to be able to be okay.

That I was failing because I could blame the economy or I could blame about higher, no victims. Right. But you would be like, shake it off buttercup, like you better rock and roll cuz you're winning or you're losing. And right now it sounds like you're not.

I hope each of these conversations are a reminder to stop and thank the mentors in your own life.

The people who have helped us each unpack life and just live the journey much more fully. If you want more of this content, please subscribe to scared, confident, and share it with a friend. And if you want more sort of inside track follow along on Instagram, we share a lot there. Thanks for listening.

This is the first 17 years a production in partnership with she geo.

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