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Want to Be a Better Leader? Put Yourself First

Before Carrie Kerpen could excel at the helm of the social media firm she co-founded, she had to change some things about herself. Here she explains.
"My staff did not understand how their once Dunkin Donuts-obsessed leader was now drinking kale smoothies."
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When my husband, Dave Kerpen, told me at the end of 2012 that he was ready to leave the CEO position at the social media company we co-founded my stomach immediately tied into 1,000 knots.

It wasn't because I wasn't capable. When we founded Likeable Media, I was the COO--which meant that I understood how the company operated and what we needed to do to get to the next level. Dave was now asking me to assume the title of CEO, and become the face of the organization. With over 50,000 Twitter followers and a New York Times-bestselling book, my husband and co-founder would be a tough act to follow. I started thinking about what I needed to do to fill his giant and awe-inspiring shoes. 

My Initial Moves as CEO

There was so much to do! I needed to set my own vision for the company and adapt the strategic plan. I needed to make sure the management team was top notch. I needed to create a succession plan--and to start getting out there myself as a speaker and writer, too. But none of that was what I did first. 

The first thing I did was, surprisingly, the most critical step for my success.

I got myself healthy. 

Slowly but surely, the pressures of running a rapidly-growing business, parenting two kids, and caring for a dying father had really taken its toll on me. Like many women, I put myself last. My meals consisted of leftover mac and cheese from my five year old daughter's plate or client lunches that always included a giant dessert.  

And exercise? Well, if walking from your desk to the office fridge counted as a workout, I was a regular Jane Fonda. Let's not even mention taking time to breathe, and be present, and grateful. There simply was no time. By the time I realized that I was totally losing myself, I tipped the scales at 223 pounds.

It's funny, people say that you can't get healthy until you're really ready. Nothing motivated me. Not losing my dad to cancer. Not wearing plus-size clothing. Not feeling less attractive. What motivated me finally was stepping into the CEO role at Likeable Media.

To Be a Great Leader, I Had to Focus on Myself

You see, for me to be a better leader, I think I needed to be fit--both mentally and physically. Heck, I think to be a better anything--mom, wife, friend--I needed to put myself first. 

The first thing I did was set goals. In my first quarter as CEO, the first three months of 2013, I wanted to lose 20 percent of my body weight (roughly 40 pounds). I also wanted to eliminate processed foods, cook dinner three nights a week for my family, and take a class in something--anything, really--that interested me.

I met with a nutritionist weekly--which was tough to do with my crazy calendar, but I made it a priority. I remember the looks from the staff as I would say that I couldn't make a meeting because I was meeting with Nikki. They thought I was nuts.

I started a gratitude journal. Every day, I wrote three things that I was grateful for. When something amazing happened in a meeting, I would stop and write it down. If I didn't have the journal on me, I would hop out of the meeting and grab it.

I gave up coffee and I started making juices. My staff did not understand how their once Dunkin Donuts-obsessed leader was now drinking kale smoothies. They made fun of my "vomit juice"--and I laughed along with them--but it didn't stop me. 

I took up spinning and Zumba, and I even took an online course in business finance--something I've been passionate about and learned along the way but was never formally trained in.

And, most importantly, three days a week, I took the 4:47 train home (yes, even earlier than Sheryl Sandberg), and I cooked dinner for my family.  

My staff was a bit confused, but supportive. And that quarter, I lost 20 percent of my body weight, eliminated most processed foods, took a class or two--and built the life that I wanted. 

I Saw Results at Work

And then, it became easier to meet my goals at work. In fact, I didn't just meet them. I crushed them. I became more focused, more present, and more confident. My employees, inspired by what I was doing, started to focus on their own personal goals. This makes them better at what they do, too. Perhaps, it can work for you and your team.

You don't have to be quite as drastic as I was--and taking care of yourself does not have to be about losing weight, either.

Here are four simple ways to take care of yourself first to become a better leader: 

1. Set Personal Goals

The first step in taking care of yourself is knowing how you want to improve yourself. Set goals for yourself--and prioritize them above all else. 

2. Take Time For Yourself

As a leader, you probably have a lot on your plate, and your worst enemy is time. Despite the challenges, make sure to take at least a half hour of me time each week--even if it's just to get your nails done, read a great article, or take a drive in the car. 

3. Write It Down

Whether you blog, keep a journal, or make lists--it helps to chronicle how you're feeling and what is a priority to you. It also keeps you accountable for your goals. 

4. Keep Moving 

Moving keeps you thinking. You don't have to hit the gym to move. Take a walk around the block sometimes to just clear your head. Some of the best thinking takes place on the go.

It's a new quarter, so you can make new goals--both professionally and personally. Professionally, I'm charged up to keep up with Likeable's rapid growth. Personally, I'm still meeting with my nutritionist, and I'm focused less on weight loss and more on getting the right amount of sleep and exercise. Are you focusing enough on yourself this quarter, or are you caught up in a vicious cycle of go-go-go?

Tell me your story in the comments section below.




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