Vaulting Into The C-Suite, Interview with Patricia Koopersmith, COO of The Clearing
Patricia Koopersmith is the very definition of a doer and a go-getter, but to her surprise this career strength turned out to be one of her biggest hurdles as she transitioned into the executive ranks as Chief Operating Officer at The Clearing, Inc., a strategic management consultancy in Washington D.C.
Even before she was promoted to COO in 2011, Patricia circulated in rarified air. Her clients include senior leaders at the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of State, the Intelligence Community, the Department of Homeland Security and other big agencies. I have seen Patricia hug some of these people, because quite often her clients become her friends. She is a powerful personality, focused, extremely competent and at the same time refreshing and very quick to laugh. Her most recent career journey, from Practice Area Director in a much larger firm to COO in a small, fast-growing consultancy is a perfect career coaching case study for anyone – especially women – seeking to bypass the glass ceiling, move from management to leadership and achieve work-life balance.
How Aligning Your Title, Your Aspirations And Your Work Creates Power
Patricia was employee number two at The Clearing, Inc. in 2009. “When I came to The Clearing, I didn’t care about my title; I cared about creating a different kind of company. I cared about creating a place where I loved to go each and every morning. I cared about creating value in the market, making a difference and making it profitable. I cared about transforming the way people in Washington – and the world – think and solve problems.”
The Clearing is indeed a different kind of consulting firm, dedicated to solving the most complex problems for some of the largest and most important organizations in the world. The startup team had a daunting task, which was to build a best-in-class company from the ground up to compete with household names like Accenture and Booz Allen Hamilton. They’d all done it before and knew the game, but it still took a lot of work to close deals, get their contracting schedule approved, hire top-notch people and get them functioning in precision client delivery teams. As Patricia and her colleagues dug in, the CEO asked her what she wanted her title to be and she said, “Whatever makes sense for the company, it doesn’t matter to me,” and then she dove into building the business. In retrospect, she realizes now, this was a mistake.
“In a start up environment hierarchy wasn’t something I wanted to make a big deal about; it was all hands on deck in those early months,” Patricia recalls. “But what I learned later is that title has an impact on credibility as I explore opportunities with business partners, interview candidates, and interact with clients.”
Lessons In Shifting Your Perspective From Management To Leadership
Patricia credited one other ah-ha with helping her land the COO promotion, and authority to accomplish what she came to The Clearing to achieve. To succeed as an executive, she realized that she had to change how she values and prioritizes many of the capabilities that made her such a successful Manager, Director and Principal. “You can’t get here from there,” she said, echoing others who are helping groom promising talent to move beyond the glass ceiling. “Being a good COO isn’t just about getting things done, it means looking at the business from a different point of view, creating processes and policies to scale it. It’s about creating a culture.”
Here are some of Patricia’s realizations that she attributes to helping her step from management into leadership.
- Move From Doer to Force Multiplier. As a manager and consultant, Patricia prided herself on getting things done; her colleagues recall her relentless focus on product quality on time and on budget. As an executive, she had to learn to provide outcomes and parameters and inspire her staff to come up with their own path to achieve the outcomes. “You need to quickly make that mindset shift from doer to force multiplier. Everything needs to scale.”
- Turn Every Problem Into a Possibility. By being open to new information, assuming there’s an answer even if you can’t see it yet, and looking beyond the facts at hand and in between the words that people are saying, Patricia now develops more creative approaches to the challenges of building a business. “I used to be pretty black and white,” she said. “Now I appreciate the grey areas more. I’ve learned to ask ‘why not’ instead of always asking ‘why’.”
- See The Big Picture. Don’t be shy. Network internally and externally and ask others what they would do in your situation. Patricia has noticed that her executive responsibilities require her to spend more of her time thinking and gathering the information she needs to make good decisions instead of pressing her nose to the grindstone to chase down every detail. “Our leadership team routinely draws from others at all levels in our organization. We recently re-scoped our client facing roles and the information we gathered from internal discussions, interviews and partner lunches drove the lion’s share of our thinking. Getting perspective from contacts outside your walls is essential too. Reinventing the wheel isn’t a luxury fast-growth companies can afford.” She also invests more energy learning about the strategic trends that affect her government clients and she networks more to gain a broader perspective. “Give yourself a gift and learn something new from every conversation,” she advises. “At the end of a full week of meetings, just imagine how much more you’ll know.”
You Can Have It All
Patricia has two young boys and a husband with a demanding job of his own. Her life is very full and yet she’s achieved work-life balance. “I used to feel guilty when I was traveling, working late, or not with my family,” she said. “And when I was at home I felt anxious that I wasn’t working.”
Patricia decided that doing a good job and being a good parent and wife and happy person all mattered so she switched up how she thinks about success. She works hard all day (and some nights) – but she and her husband reserve their evenings and weekends for family - playing games with her sons, putting Legos together, and reading bedtime stories to the boys. “I turn my phone off now until the kids go to bed. I play full-out at work and full-out at home.”
“I’ve learned that the key to ‘having it all’ is being present where you are. I don’t need to feel guilty now because now everybody gets the best of me.”
To learn more about the InPower principles of alignment and redefining success Patricia describes, check out our InPower Coffee Break video series.
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