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3 leadership lessons from award-winning entrepreneurs

Last year, I met with Jane Cay of online retail success story Birdsnest to discuss her journey of entrepreneurship and people leadership. Jane was modest in her achievement of Birdsnest being included on the BRW Great Workplaces list. Birdsnest was also awarded the Online Retailing Industry Award Best Online Customer Service Winner in 2015 and 2016. Jane is a clever woman who identified an opportunity and put her heart and soul into making it happen. Jane morphed a bricks and mortar saddlery store based in Cooma, Snowy Mountains of NSW into an online women’s fashion retailer. Impressive. Plus Jane is mother to four young children.

In researching my book, The CEO Secret Guide to Managing and Motivating Employees, Jane Cay was just one of the award-winning CEOs I had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing. All were leaders of best workplaces and fast growth businesses (because high employee engagement and high financial performance go hand in hand). Most were also the founder of the business and had done the hard yards to build it into something incredible. Each interviewee was extremely impressive and inspiring in sharing their stories of entrepreneurship.

Another female entrepreneur I interviewed was Carly Cohen who founded Maple Event Group in Melbourne with her husband Eric Cohen. Maple Event Group has also been on the BRW Best Workplaces list, as well as being the recipient of numerous hospitality, event management, catering, and bridal services awards. Carly came from a marketing background and Eric from IT. Carly and Eric wanted to use their energy and passion together to build an awesome events business with a family atmosphere, while also balancing their own young family. They have exceeded this goal with their two Melbourne venues, Leonda by the Yarra and Fenix Events.

There are a few common traits that Carly, Jane and the other entrepreneurs have demonstrated, which I would like to share with you.

1. Inspiring Purpose

People (employees, customers and suppliers) are attracted to companies who are delivering meaning to other people’s lives, a higher sense of purpose. The best entrepreneurs communicate this vision in an amazingly convincing and inspiring way to their employees, clients and everyone who they have an opportunity to engage. An exceptional aptitude for story telling is an extremely beneficial trait of any entrepreneur.

Examples of inspiring visions:

  • Jane Cay explains the Birdsnest philosophy as “We are passionate about women feeling good about themselves.”
  • HerBusiness says on its About Page: “Do What You LOVE Every Day”.

2. Values Drive Results

All of the best workplace CEOs I interviewed espoused the criticalness of a values-based business. Not all called them values, some called them philosophies or behaviours but they were all extremely clear that these attitudes driving culture had led to their highly engaged workforce and fast business growth. They embedded these values in everything they did, from leadership team decision making to recruitment to performance management to reward and recognition. They all reiterated time and again that values cannot be something that only hang on the wall – they need to be lived. Values make decision making and performance management significantly easier as they provide a solid foundation of organisational priorities.


  • Jane Cay at Birdsnest tells a beautiful story about the creative process used to develop their BIRDSONG at an off-site team gathering where employees actively contributed to the development of the values, which you can find on the Birdsnest website.
  • Carly Cohen explained to me the development of the MAPLE values that were inspired by the beliefs of Carly and Eric and then had life breathed into them by the Maple Event Group team.

3. Family-like Culture

Most of the business leaders I interviewed were in medium-sized businesses, anything from about 25 to 100 employees. It was frequently remarked to me that “we like to encourage a family-like culture”. What does this mean? These are some of the traits to describe a family-like culture:

  • Flexible work arrangements to allow for family and other commitments. Maple Event Group run a holiday program for employee’s children.
  • Not scared of employing women with children or who may soon be planning a family but instead taking advantage of the opportunity to offer them the flexibility they want in return for amazingly talented professionals, unlimited loyalty, and hard work.
  • Philosophy of professional development and personal growth through a strong commitment to learning and wellbeing. Jane Cay is a strong advocate of mindfulness in life and work; all the Birdsnest team have been trained and use mindfulness practices daily.
  • Break bread together – share meals and socialise. Carolyn Creswell, Founder of Carman’s Muesli does this every day with her team.
  • Have fun at work, and like and care about the people you work with (see Jane Cay’s quote at end).
  • Celebrate the wins because everyone has a part to play in the success of the business.

If you’d like to read more about these three common leadership traits of entrepreneurs, then listen to my podcast interviews with Carly Cohen or the other award-winning CEOs, or read my book, The CEO Secret Guide to Managing and Motivating Employees.

Let me leave you with this quote from Jane Cay (taken from the HerBusiness website) on how successful entrepreneurs approach their role as the ultimate people leader of their organisation:

“If the birds in the nest are happy, then every touch point with our customers becomes a happy one. This philosophy is shared amongst our team on a daily basis, it is the small things we do each day to help each other feel good that make a difference: saying ‘thank you’, telling someone they look gorgeous when they do, throwing spontaneous celebrations for small milestones and turning the music up to have a team boogie.”

First published on the HerBusiness website.


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