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THE WAY I WORK

The Way I Work: Kim Kleeman of ShakespeareSquared
 

Her business wants more (and more) of her time. Is the CEO of ShakespeareSquared going to give in? Let's just say that her BlackBerry sleeps in the car.
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Kim Kleeman is founder and president of ShakespeareSquared, a Glenview, Illinois, company that creates educational materials--lesson plans, teacher guides, activity workbooks, discussion guides--for large publishers. The company did $2.3 million in business last year, capping a three-year growth spurt of 815 percent. Here Kleeman describes the challenge of running an (almost) all-women company and her carefully tended system for sustaining work and family life.

Up until six years ago the last thing I wanted was to be an entrepreneur. I like sane hours. I like routine. I like knowing where my next paycheck is coming from. My father's been an entrepreneur for 40 years: He's owned delis, restaurants, and retail businesses. My mother always helped him. It was a hard life, hard on us kids, and not what I wanted for me and my family. So I married my college sweetheart and we both became teachers. It was wonderful.

But when my eldest daughter, Casey, was just a few years old she was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. When it flares up she has trouble walking, and it makes her vulnerable to other diseases. Casey's not a "sick" child; she gets straight A's and she's super-friendly. But she has chronic pain, and I have to help her live with it. She has five or six different doctors that she sees regularly, and every three months she goes for blood tests. When this started I thought: How am I going to take time off for all those appointments? Plus, our health insurance sucked. As teachers, my husband, Jay, and I were in an HMO and just managing the referrals was a full-time job.

I decided to start the business so I could make my own hours and create a benefits package that was good for me and working mothers like me. I thought I could do it without sacrificing family life. I promised Jay that I would. We've always been a close family, but to make this work I've drawn my parents and siblings even closer around me, and I lean on them when I have to. And I've shrunk the physical world I move around in to a few square blocks.

So here I am with three kids under age 10. For the first hour of my day I'm like any mom: cooking breakfast, checking backpacks, signing permission slips. Jay leaves for his high school teaching job at 5:30 a.m., so it's all me. The nanny arrives at 7:30 to watch my youngest, and I walk my daughters to school, just a block from my house. Then I head for my parents' house--the house I grew up in--which is just two blocks away.

Every morning I sit with my parents by the pond in their backyard, or in the family room if it's cold. My mom makes tea and for one glorious hour it's someone taking care of me instead of me taking care of everyone. But it's practical time too. My mom and dad have become my personal advisory board. They have this incredible reservoir of business knowledge, and we hash over my business problems. Like recently I've had a couple of personnel issues--an employee I fired who keeps pestering me with e-mails, and an employee with legal problems that could have repercussions for the business. Pretty hairy stuff for a 19-person company. My older brother, Tom, often drops by too. He has a law degree and is a partner in a real estate firm, so he brings a different perspective. Tom's the one who used to say I could do something bigger than teaching--he imagined me as the mayor of a small town. He's still the one who makes me focus on the big picture.

After my parents' house I drive to the gym. That's my longest commute of the day and it's less than a mile. The company's growth has taken its toll on me physically, so now I make myself work out at least four days a week. About half the time my mom comes too. She works for me as managing editor, and as we walk around the inside track we talk about family and company matters. My mom's an introvert, and when she's around my dad he dominates the conversation. So this is when I get her real take on things. I recently launched a foundation that offers scholarships for student teachers--an idea Mom and I hatched while exercising.

It's maybe a three-minute drive from the gym to my company. Before entering the building I check e-mail for the first time that day to see if there's something I have to deal with immediately. Waiting to check e-mail is part of the same strategy as tea with my parents and daily workouts. I'm trying to create a mental air bag between me and the craziness of the day. Before I started doing it I would come in totally stressed out from getting the kids off--maybe they'd be crying because they didn't want mom to leave. I'd walk in the door and I'd be all frazzled, going a hundred miles an hour. Now when I walk in I feel calm and focused.

My administrative assistant leaves a printout of the day's calendar on my desk. I check to see what everyone is up to and where I have to be when. My scheduled meetings are in red; if someone requests a meeting during the day, my assistant will add it in purple. I started using purple ink when I taught high school because psychologists say students find red ink threatening. Now I use it because it's the color of our logo. I always write with Uniball Vision pens because I'm left-handed and they don't smear.

I make myself a cup of tea to soothe my throat. I do a lot of talking during the day and I'm pretty loud. Then I open the mail for the whole company. There's not a lot of it, since people mostly get e-mail, but I like to see what's coming through. Things pop out at me that my staff might not notice. A bill for shipping looks too high. A local business is offering office spa treatments, and I've been thinking we should do something for National Relaxation Day. We work with more than 400 freelance editors and writers, so new resumés arrive all the time. I have a photographic memory, and I can tell you better than any database who fits what projects if I read all the resumés as they come in.

We hold weekly staff meetings. Also managers' meetings, departmental meetings, and project team meetings. I try not to meet with individuals except about very sensitive issues. One-on-one meetings always seem inefficient to me, and I can't afford inefficiency. The only way I can work reasonable hours is to keep moving bam-bam-bam through the day. Frequently I'll get together with three or four people in my office, where I've set up two clusters of chairs. I hate talking to people from across a desk. I think it makes you look self-important and officious.

Virtually all my employees are former teachers, so I bring the business perspective to most conversations. They know content and editing and project management. I know how to price and sell and when projects make sense and when they don't. We're an all-women company except for one man I hired a few months ago, and that presents some management challenges. At other companies people try to pass the buck. Here, everyone blames herself: It was my fault. No, it was my fault. I have to make them see that fault doesn't matter. It's about learning from mistakes and moving on. Also, they're too eager to smooth things over. We lost money on one project, and when we were considering accepting a similar project I asked them if it would mean additional staffing. They said, no, everything is fine. I sometimes have to be hard on them because I need them to realize that everything can't be fine all the time.

Stress is a huge issue. We handle five or six projects at a time--up to 10,000 pages of material--and some have to be completed in a month. We're also launching a new company that will publish educational materials under our own brand and sell proprietary educational editing tools. There's a lot of pressure. The question I always ask people at interviews is, do you know how you handle stress? Do you lock yourself in the bathroom and cry? Do you take a day off? I don't care how you cope. But I want to know that you've thought about it because I don't want to find the answer when we're on a tight deadline and you freeze up and I'm screwed. I do spend time talking people off the ledge. I'm very good at it. I also put in an antistress room with music and candles and books where people can go when they're overwhelmed. I don't use it much because I figure the boss's presence defeats the purpose. When I'm personally on the ledge, I call my director of human resources, who is also my best friend since high school. I say, "Katie, I need to go for a drive." She comes down and we drive around for a while and I vent.

I usually take working lunches at my desk. On Wednesdays I eat with my sister Terese, who works for me remotely as a project coordinator but comes in for staff meetings. We're both doing Weight Watchers, so we close the door, weigh ourselves, and enter the data into the Weight Watchers website. I'm very open with employees about most things, but we're kind of private about this.

I don't have time for a lot of chitchat, but I want to keep up with people. So I purposely chose to have my office right at the entrance. It has three windows: I can see people coming in and out the front door, people coming in and out of the bathroom, people coming in and out of the break room. And if I have a minute, I will pop out and have a quick, pleasant, personal exchange before the employee returns to her desk. The trick is to catch someone in transit. It keeps the conversation short. That's something I learned as a teacher when I had to grab students and convey information in the five minutes between classes.

Right before I leave, at 5:30, I sit down at the PC, pay all my bills, and take care of personal business. I don't want anything to distract me when I'm home. The kids have missed me all day; it would be lousy to keep working around them. Even if it's family business, not business-business, all they know is that mom isn't paying attention. I leave my BlackBerry in the car overnight; no one from work knows my home number except my mother, Terese, and Katie. I grew up with my father running a 24-7 business. I can't tell you the number of times the phone rang in the middle of the night, waking everyone up, and my dad had to go in to work. I never want to live that life. My managers deal with emergencies.

Three or four times a week we eat dinners cooked by my younger brother, Jim, who runs a meal-preparation business out of my parents' house. (Filling out the family circle is my sister Joy, who works in a staffing company and supplies me with employees.) I hardly ever cook myself. Business books always tell you to do the things you're passionate about and delegate the rest. I don't see why you can't do that at home as well as in the office.

On Wednesday nights I take piano lessons, but most evenings I scrapbook before going to bed. It provides the mental downtime most people get while driving but I miss because everything in my world is just a block or two away. While my hands are busy my mind floats freely: It's my most creative period of the day. I work on a couch next to a PC, and when I come up with an idea or solve a problem I'll jump up and shoot myself an e-mail to read in the office. My husband comes and talks to me too. He doesn't work for ShakespeareSquared, but we started the company together and he's in education. So he has the perfect balance of inside and outside perspective.

We've grown more than 800 percent in the past three years, and we can grow bigger and faster. But I have to keep these boundaries in my life. I have to preserve the relationships--with my family, with my staff, and with my friends. Success doesn't mean anything if you lose people along the way.

Last updated: Oct 1, 2007

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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