After joining SaaS company Moz in 2007, Sarah Bird quickly climbed the ladder, helping the SEO company snag a spot on the Inc. 5000 list (No. 1,083) in 2014 -- the same year she became CEO. She attributes much of her success to the discipline she learned from her ballet teacher as an adolescent. She recently sat down with Inc. to talk about her mentor, and to share the surprising parallels between dance class and business. --As told to Joely Simon
I was raised in a conservative culture where being a successful woman meant making other people happy. Miss Erin, my ballet teacher, was a completely different kind of woman. She was very direct. She was not there for our comfort. She was simply there to make us better.
One summer, when I was 13 or 14, Miss Erin created a "splits challenge," in which we'd sit with our left legs forward in a split for five minutes, then switch and do the right leg for five minutes, and then switch into the center split for five.
I've gotta tell you, it was so painful. I mean, I bawled. We all cried. Miss Erin wasn't cruel, but she knew that for her dance company to be successful, she had to confidently lead us into challenges that would stretch us mentally just as much as physically. She acknowledged that it hurt: She was like, "Yeah, you're crying. So what? Do it anyway. Look, you're better than you were last week. It's OK to have pain and push yourself."
That idea has never left me. As a leader, I can't avoid situations that seem difficult and I can't let my team back away from moments that are new and scary. If CEOs want to sidestep obstacles or throw their hands up and say, "This is too hard," they're in the wrong job. Leaders must push people to the edge of their abilities and comfort level; without hitting those walls, we can't grow.
These days, I may not be asking Mozzers to practice their splits during a morning meeting, but I am asking them to lean in and push themselves to do hard things -- like transitioning our annual SEO conference, MozCon, from in-person to virtual in a very short time. Mozzers showed their resilience this year. Because that's what "being the best" means.