Over takeout food in a conference room, a high-level female company executive speaks casually about her children’s soccer practice, right after sharing the news of a business win. Afterward, the conversation turns to holiday plans before stopping to check on a team member’s happiness with a recent business decision.
Everyone at the Cultural Intelligence Center would recognize this high-level executive as Keyla Waslawski, the Vice President of Sales and Marketing who makes sure that everyone knows they’re allowed to have a life outside of work and they’re encouraged to talk about it. Being human is a fundamental part of the company culture that Keyla is proud to have helped build and foster. But it wasn’t always easy.
Keyla began as a self-described “apprehensive 20-something-year-old” who has grown to be what she hopes is a “confidently humble” leader. Having been with CQ Center since its very beginning, she has helped the business grow while working on her own personal and professional growth. She is currently on track to occupy the company’s most senior role. Although she is passionate about her career, she recognizes her work role is only one part of her overall identity. She is also a young executive, a mother, a wife, a friend, and self-proclaimed a lifelong learner.
We recently sat down with Keyla to learn more about the chapters of her experience at CQ Center, the challenges she faced, and her confidence-building techniques. Keyla also shares with us what it means to be a corporate leader, the concessions she had to make along the way, how she balances her personal and professional lives, and the realities of being a female leader in today’s business world.
I- Mentorship and Growing
“When I joined the business, I always hoped there was an opportunity for me to grow as the business grew. I certainly did not anticipate where I would be almost 10 years later.”
Keyla joined the company in 2013 after graduating with a degree in Mathematics. At this point, the business was flexible, lean, and more or less in the ideation phase of growth. Working with Mike Knox (Chief Operating Officer and Treasurer), Linn Van Dyne, Ph.D. (Chairperson, CEO, and President), and David Livermore (Founding Partner), Keyla helped grow and define the company’s processes.
“Back in those days there were no formal company processes nor systems, the only system we had was payroll.” At that point, Keyla knew that to get the business going, she needed more than her ability to juggle numbers. The support and guidance she received from her mentors early on made a significant impact on her and the business.
Keyla says that her success in her career is primarily due to the mentorship of Mike, Linn, and Dave, who encouraged her to go back to school and get her MBA degree: “It was a tremendous opportunity for me. My entire previous academic career I had focused on the hard sciences and Mathematics, I didn’t focus on accounting or business or economics or the real world at all, and when I was going through my MBA, I was given the opportunity to apply what I was learning to the business. This is how we built our GAAP accounting system and how we approached our technology, and even how we developed some of our early strategic planning templates.”
Keyla also owes her success to the hard work ethics she learned from her parents. “I learned from my parents how to work hard. I figured out how to put myself through college by working multiple jobs…I think most of my success has been a combination of hard work, dedication, and honestly, a little bit of luck.”
II- Confidence, Resiliency, and the Opportunity to Fail Safely
To Keyla, being confident goes together with being resilient and open to learning from failures. “I did not have confidence when I started, in fact I was a bit timid and shy, but I have since grown my confidence by being open to learning from my mistakes. This can be scary because most people, myself included, don’t like the bad feeling of failing”. Keyla points out the “opportunity to fail safely” at work was likely the underpinning for growing confidence. “What allowed me to grow my confidence was having the opportunity to fail safely and knowing that I could pick myself back up and try again and again until I got it right.”
III- Navigating Power with Cultural Intelligence
“Leading by influence” has always been a fundamental part of Keyla’s modus operandi, and everyone who works with her can attest to that. Leading by influence, as she explains, is not about manipulating others into agreement, but rather influencing people- who may be at senior levels or belong to significantly different age groups- to align their different points of view together and make the best decision for the business. Cultural Intelligence has helped her figure out how to do that.
“I think learning to apply my Cultural Intelligence is what helped me influence people to see my point of view. Throughout my career there have been individuals who were easy to engage with because we already shared an affinity; I was motivated automatically because we both had something in common…so I leveraged CQ Drive and Knowledge (of our commonalities) to get on the same page.”
Understanding how to apply Cultural Intelligence in day-to-day situations was not entirely easy, Keyla said. “I had no concept of how to make this real life. I had to pause and intentionally motivate myself and become knowledgeable, and that was awkward at first, just how it is awkward for a child learning to walk”. It was a trial by fire, testing out strategies and checking in with team members later to see if they worked.
“In the last nine years it has become automatic to me. I don’t have to think before I engage, it’s almost an unconscious desire to be curious and motivated to engage with people who aren’t like me”.
IV- Being a Female Leader: On Balance, Barriers
Although she was raised in a traditional family setting where the decision-making was male-dominated, Keyla’s “default to lead” started early on with helping her younger siblings make the best decisions. “I started to learn my style of leadership by mentoring my sisters through their university experiences and by teaching them the lessons that I learned through my own mistakes. I found those experiences really rewarding”.
To Keyla, being a mother has helped her become a more empathetic leader for the people who need her. “Leading people is not much different than leading children. Not in a bad way, of course, but I raise my children by teaching them how to do something, rather than doing it for them. I am also able to slow down and meet people where they’re at, help them feel safe and comfortable”. This continues into her own home today. “I am the leader at my home, which probably won’t surprise many who know me. I do believe in collaborative decision-making and always take input from others. When the time comes for a decision to be made, I often take charge.”
The culture at CQ Center allowed Keyla to thrive, particularly with the male and female mentors who encouraged her to take a strong approach to the “likeability dilemma”, which is entirely different from what she experienced growing up.
Nonetheless, being a working mother with a high-pressure job comes with certain concessions, and Keyla has figured out her own method of knowing when to push and when to pull to keep the balance.
“I learned to set realistic expectations and not to overpromise at work or at home so there is no or little room for disappointments. Some days I need to work until late evenings which means I may miss my children’s after-school activities, or nice quiet quality time with them, but I make sure they know when to expect that, and I make sure to make it up for them whenever I can”.
Keyla considers our external ecosystem as one of the top barriers to female leadership. Our system of society (when the Dentist’s office is open, school pick up and drop off) is not designed for working parents and assumes that one parent is always available to carry the burden, which typically falls on the mother’s shoulders.
“I’ve been given all the opportunity, resources, encouragement, and mentorship, but it doesn’t mean that there weren’t super late nights and ungodly early mornings just to get my children to the before-school care because school wasn’t open early enough. The truth is that to grow my career means I must sacrifice some involvement in my children’s activities”.
V- Remedies to the System’s Shortcomings
Keyla’s presence in the company since its beginnings, alongside other members with different perspectives on what it means to be a “family-friendly” working environment, has allowed her to build a company culture that can alleviate the shortcomings of the outside system, particularly regarding promoting work-life balance.
From family-oriented perks to generous leave policies, remote working, and generally flexible working hours, Keyla has made sure to build balance into the internal system. “The business allowed me to build balance into our systems, it met me where I was as a person who wants to be able to blend my work life with my personal life”, Keyla says, adding “I want every person to be able to make their decision about what comes first, what is the priority in their life, and CQ Center allowed me to help define the flexibility that is offered to all of our employees.”
The culture at CQ Center also stems from the nature of the business, promoting Cultural Intelligence as means to make the world a better place.
“Cultural intelligence cultivates an environment that empowers everyone, including those that don’t have the same opportunities and accessibility. Whether we are talking about minorities, people with disabilities, people without a fancy degree, and the list goes on…we try to genuinely apply our cultural intelligence not only to our interactions but also to the policies that we design and implement to empower women, men, and everyone else through the company to develop and grow”.
We asked Keyla whether she has a development plan for her employees and she responded, “I think that it’s applying our cultural intelligence that allows us to empower women leaders and allows us to empower people throughout the company to develop and grow.”
VI – CQ Center as a Women-Owned Business
Keyla takes immense pride in the WBENC certification the CQ Center has recently received as a business that is majority-owned and operated by women.
“Receiving this certification means a lot to me because it represents a culture that we have always encouraged and intentionally built, and that is a culture of development and growth and encouragement of females and males alike, to be strong to grow in their own professional and personal lives”.
This accreditation means that the CQ Center can be true to its roots. “The idea of our business started with Dr. Linn and her colleague Dr. Soon Ang in Singapore, and countless other females who joined later and influenced our business. It is who we are, and we are proud to be recognized for that”.
VII- What’s Next?
Keyla’s journey at CQ Center has well equipped her with experience, knowledge, and confidence to take on the most senior role at the company in the future. “I have a vision of continuing to grow with the company and to eventually be in a position to lead it”. She chose to conclude this interview with the below message:
“I want to encourage anybody who reads this, especially women and mothers, and tell them that yes, you can have it all. You don’t have to pick and choose one or the other. Find mentors, get support, and grow your confidence. It is ok to make mistakes along the way- that’s the best way to grow into our full potential”.
Connect with Keyla via LinkedIn, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org