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Lessons From The Salamander


SalamanderLast week, amid the hustle and bustle of clients and travel plans, I made time to attend the FedEx Executive Women's Day out at TPC Southwind, at the invitation of my friend and financial planner. I have to admit, I was in the weeds last week and I didn’t do my own due diligence to investigate the speakers. Her firm was a sponsor of the event and she assured me the speaker lineup was going to be well worth my time.

As a speaker and panelist at many Women’s Conferences, I’m usually critical of the quality and value delivery offered at events such as these but came away from this particular experience inspired and in awe because of the keynote here, the remarkable Shelia C. Johnson.

What is remarkable and worth sharing about Ms. Johnson is not just what she has built or achieved. I was moved by what she shared in her journey to build the “Empire” of her brand, Salamander Resorts & Hotels – noting how her struggles gave way to opportunities when she pushed through and pushed forward, continuously selling herself, her ideas, her value, and her vision. In her keynote, she offered her Four Keys to Success, but smartly, she painted the picture of where she’d come and what she’d learned to help the audience understand the grit of her wisdom.

Ms. Johnson’s biography is stunning, to say the least. To paraphrase her most notable achievements doesn’t do her justice but amongst them are cofounding Black Entertainment Television (BET), part ownership of 3 major league professional sports teams (The NBA’s Washington Wizards, the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics), purchasing Innisbrook and other renowned golf resorts, building the luxury brand, Salamander Hotels & Resorts, creating the Middleburg film festival, serving on the Governing Board of Parsons The New School of Design, and being on the Executive Committee of the US Golf Association (oh, there's so much more – read her full story here.)

As many are curious about the name of her business, she explained its significance and how it’s woven throughout her story. She named her resort company “Salamander Hotels & Resorts” after the previous owner of the property she purchased in Middleburg, VA, Bruce Sundlun. He was a WWII hero, a pilot whose plane crashed over Nazi occupied Belgium. For months, he evaded capture by crossing into France and Spain. The Maquis, a resistance group that was waging guerilla war against the Germans, recruited Sundlun and gave him the code name “Salamander” after the amphibian that can mythically walk through fire.

Her challenges inspired her to believe that through her many obstacles, she had walked through fire and come out the other side, much like the Salamander. And for many centuries, salamanders have symbolized strength, courage, and fortitude – traits that she has identified throughout both her personal and professional life.

She was inspiring and relatable. Having pioneered many “firsts” and pushed through many barriers, she offered the audience some insights in to her experiences to think upon and act upon for our own success. My takeaways from her message were too powerful to keep to myself and so in a tangent from the exclusive sales focus we write about, today, we offer you Sheila C. Johnson’s Four Keys to Success:

Know yourself. If you lose yourself, go find yourself again. Sheila recounted her own experience of feeling like she had lost herself after a painful divorce. She found herself on the trails of her farm in Virginia, finding comfort in nature and taking the time to heal and renew her spirit – get back to who she knew she was at her core.

Be fearless. The only way to grow is to just get out there. You cannot let fear keep you frozen. Get out of your comfort zone and see what happens. Sheila admits she really knew nothing about golf, didn’t play golf before she purchased Innisbrook Golf Resort, 2 days before its bankruptcy. Now she’s gone on to purchase additional golf resorts and be a voice for women and minorities in golf on the USGA board – an organization who looked to Sheila for her perspective on growth in the industry after seeing 130 golf courses fold.

Don't underestimate yourself. Have faith in your own power. We can't let humility overshadow the opportunities we've earned. (Talking to all the WOMEN out there). Push yourselves and continue to aim high.

Sheila cites the current statistic that male college graduates make $4 more per hour than female graduates – right out of the gate! Women, you've got to know your worth and speak up for your value. Don’t shrink. Take on those stretch assignments. Believe you will learn what you need to know.

Believe in the double bottom line. Giving back is indispensable to being a leader. When we use our leadership to do good as well as business. . . That's when leadership is most fulfilling. However, you must be strategic in where you invest yourself. Be multidimensional and know what’s going on outside of your business to understand how your perspective and experiences have value to others.

Building a business and running a business are incredibly personal journeys and success starts, flourishes, or flounders because of the person you are. Like the salamander, your success depends on your abilities to withstand the heat and walk through fire – persevering, and continually promoting yourself, your value, and your vision.

Until next time, stop hoping, start SELLING BE THE SALAMANDER!

Shawn is the Founder and Chief Revenue Officer of The Selling Agency – a strategy firm that builds Competitive Advantages for Small, Mid-Sized Businesses and hungry Sales Teams that need to increase revenue and profitability. Her firm helps clients in mature, highly competitive, highly commoditized industries – deeply differentiate their offers and go-to-market strategy to profoundly connect with their customers.

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