Laurie Barkman shares her “origin story” and path to the C-Suite, leadership lessons, and why she’s passionate about advising business owners on successful transitions. She joined Kevin Trout of Vistage Pittsburgh on the Three Rivers Leadership Radio to discuss:
- Her mission of working with owners on succession from a personal and business standpoint.
- Why owners should start transition planning well in advance of even being ready to think about exiting their business.
- How consensus building and data driven leadership drives results.
- Becoming a Vistage Speaker and leading strategic growth workshops for CEOs and key leaders
- Offering Value Builder Assessments to baseline your business across eight value drivers
Stream the interview:
Kevin Trout of Vistage Pittsburgh talks with Laurie Barkman of SmallDotBig LLC. Original air date 9/29/21
Kevin Trout 0:40
Welcome to Three Rivers Leadership. I’m your host, Kevin Trout. This show is sponsored by Vistage Worldwide, the largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization with over 24,000 members in 25 countries. We have 364 Vistage members here in greater Pittsburgh. This is the latest in our series of one on one conversations with these highly successful local business leaders. In other words, this is where you will hear from Pittsburgh’s movers and shakers and our guest today is one of them. She is Laurie Barkman, Founder and President of SmallDotBig LLC, business advisor, Certified Value Builder, podcast host, board member, Vistage speaker, Adjunct Professor with Carnegie Mellon University, and also Mergers & Acquisition Intermediary with Stony Hill Advisors. Welcome, Laurie.
Laurie Barkman 1:28
Thanks, Kevin. I’m really excited to be here.
Kevin Trout 1:34
So quick question about how long has your firm been in business over 10 years? And what’s your company’s mission statement?
Laurie Barkman 1:40
Our mission is to ensure entrepreneurs achieve their dreams. That’s pretty lofty, right? So I know we’ll talk more about that. But ultimately, it’s about their success.
Kevin Trout 1:49
We’ll get ready because we’re gonna dig a little deeper into your background and your leadership style and some of these other things right after these messages.
Kevin Trout 4:01
All right, we’re back with our guest today. Laurie Barkman, founder of SmallDotBig. So Laurie, a little bit about your background. Where are you from originally? Where’d you grow up? And where did you go to school.
Laurie Barkman 4:10
I grew up in upstate New York outside of Albany in a little town called Colonie, a suburb and had a great experience up there. I went to college at Cornell also in New York State. And then after I graduated from Cornell, it’s when I moved to Pennsylvania and I lived all around Pennsylvania. Starting out, I worked in a town called Shippensburg if you’re familiar with South Central PA. I worked for Ingersoll Rand Company and that was the beginning of my career in Human Resource Management. At Cornell, I studied Industrial and Labor Relations. How you work with people was my very first career.
Kevin Trout 4:45
So you’re not from Pittsburgh originally but you’re a Pittsburgh now.
Laurie Barkman 4:49
Absolutely! Moved here to go to Carnegie Mellon for my MBA. Moved here in ’97. The plan was to stay for two years. We were going to be here for two years and then hit the west coast and be part of the tech ecosystem. And I ended up getting involved with a tech ecosystem here in Pittsburgh, and we loved it and bought a house and have raised our family here.
Kevin Trout 5:10
See once you got here, you could never leave. Now you’re a diehard Pittsburgh girl.
Laurie Barkman 5:16
Kevin Trout 5:18
How’d you get into the business that you’re in now and tell us a little bit about exactly what you do?
Laurie Barkman 5:25
My journey is really around the thread of marketing. When you do recruiting, what are you doing, you’re really marketing the business. You’re recruiting people to come to the business, you’re selling the idea of a career. And so that was my first entry into the business, as I mentioned, in human resources. And then after I got my MBA, I focused on marketing, which was marketing products. And I worked for a wonderful company here, headquartered here in Pittsburgh, American Eagle Outfitters. I sold jeans, t-shirts and shorts, then you’re selling the idea of lifestyle. And then I was in education marketing, and then eventually got into a role that was about growth for the for the business. And as a CEO, you take a whole different vantage point. But growth and marketing and business development has always been part of my career DNA. And so the idea behind my business and helping businesses grow, helping entrepreneurs grow and achieve their dreams is really at its core about growth and a growth mindset.
Kevin Trout 6:25
So that’s great. So that’s your core business. Can you tell us in a little bit on some of those other activities that I spewed out there in the introduction?
Laurie Barkman 6:36
Yeah, absolutely. So just a little bit more about the business that I’m in today, which is as an advisor to business owners and entrepreneurs. People who have the idea that one day, they might let their business go, they might sell it, they might transition to family members. This idea of succession. And so when I was a CEO, I was an outside hire for a succession plan for a third generation company. And that’s when I got exposed to this complexity of how do you plan for business transitions. And our situation, we were acquired. And yeah, that was a very exciting time.
So you’ve been through that, you know how that goes. And I think for me in my career, and the things that I’m interested in, ultimately, there’s a lot of factors. There’s deal making, there’s the personal side of business transition. The personal side of it, and how your how you adapt to change, how you are resilient through those changes. So when I work with clients, it’s focused on the business, first and foremost, how do you get the business ready for a an exit, or a sale or transition.
But then I also work with people on the personal side and helping them get personally ready. So it’s a combination of 25 plus years in business to help market a company bring it to market, but from a – call it the emotional side – the emotional quotient, or EQ, side of things. And working as a kind of like a coach, and an advisor to help people through this pretty big transition of their life selling their business is probably the biggest transaction they’ll ever do. And so having somebody on their side, when entrepreneurs start their business, they have help. And so when they’re looking to sell or transition their business, they should have help too.
Kevin Trout 8:15
I agree, and you you touched on the emotional side of that whole experience of exit planning or selling your business succession planning. And that’s not what a lot of people focus on. But that’s such a critical part. Would you agree? As a lot of business owners are not emotionally ready for that. I don’t have any place to go to work tomorrow. Yeah, and the business is gone. Right?
Laurie Barkman 8:37
Absolutely. You’ve got to have some pull factors, you have to have something pulling you towards your next. And you mentioned earlier, you asked me to fill in the blanks and some of these other things that I do. One of them, as you mentioned, is a podcaster. And I have a show called Succession Stories. I’ve interviewed almost 80 different entrepreneurs, business owners, founders, about what they what they do through these times of transition. And we also do get personal, and talk about some of the harder challenges that they faced along the way.
Kevin Trout 9:05
Any surprises in those podcasts that you’ve recorded?
Laurie Barkman 9:08
One thing that’s consistent is start as soon as you can. People think, “Oh, I’m not ready. I’ve got time I’ve got another 10 years.” They’ll say that. And then all of a sudden those 10 years creep up on you. And I’ve talked to people in their 70s. And they still don’t have a succession plan. And also it’s not written down. It’s not formalized. So if you don’t have a formal plan, it’s really not a plan. Right?
Kevin Trout 9:28
It’s a wish.
Laurie Barkman 9:30
It’s a wish and hope is not a strategy. Right?
Kevin Trout 9:33
That right there is a golden nugget. They need to start planning well in advance of even being ready to think about exiting their business, right?
Laurie Barkman 9:47
Yeah, sooner, the better. A big part of that is building economic value in your business. So even if you’re not ready to sell or put it on the market. Come up with a written succession plan. Maybe it’s to management, maybe it’s family, or maybe it’s a third party, but either way you’re working on the value of your company. It just makes business sense. So why would you wait to reduce risk? Why would you wait to build that entrepreneurial value that you’ve worked so hard for, and one day you’re going to reap the rewards. You want to maximize that potential. You’re not going to wait till the end to help. Otherwise, again, you’re not going to really get that benefit.
Kevin Trout 10:23
Right? I hope there’s some business owners out there listening right now. That this should be an aha moment for them. Right?
Laurie Barkman 10:31
I hope so. I hope so.
Kevin Trout 10:33
Oh, so I’m curious about when you were a teenager. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Laurie Barkman 10:37
I wasn’t sure. I kind of thought that advocating and negotiating was a lot of fun. So I had a vision of maybe I’d go to law school. But then I started getting involved in my high school. I ran Student Senate twice— I was president for two years in high school, which in four years, that’s a lot of time. And I learned a lot about managing teams and people. And then when I went to school, I focused on business undergrad. Coming out, as I mentioned, I focused on the business of people. And ultimately getting my MBA was really then what opened my eyes towards, “I think I might want to be a CEO.” And I did set a goal for myself to achieve that.
Kevin Trout 11:18
Very good. I think this leads right into my next question. What are you passionate about? I think I got a hint. If you were to state your passion, what would it be? What does it sound like?
Laurie Barkman 11:30
My passion? I’m passionate about a lot of different things. I think on the business side, I’m passionate about charts that go up to the right. But ultimately, I’m passionate about things that start small and get big, which is one of the main reasons behind the name of my firm. You want to know the real story?
Have you ever played billiards or pool?
Okay. So in America, we say solids or stripes. Well, in Australia, they say small dot or big dot. You can’t unsee that. Once you see it, you cannot unsee it. And what I what I realized playing pool one day with somebody from Australia, and they said, “small dot or big dot” “it just stuck with me. It not only is that you are seeing something new for the first time, but then you also have the appreciation of you’re seeing something from a different perspective. And that’s ultimately what I try to bring to my client engagements is help them see what they’re not seeing.
Unknown Speaker 12:24
Got it yeah, that’s really good. You mentioned Carnegie Mellon, share with us what you do there.
Laurie Barkman 12:32
I’m an Adjunct Professor in the Entrepreneurship department, part of the Swartz Center. I teach a class with a couple of other professors. Sean Ammirati is the executive director of the Corporate Startup Lab. And the class is so much fun. It’s a master’s level capstone. It’s from colleges all across campus. So it’s technical engineering, as well as arts and design. And these are essentially mini Capstone teams. And so we put together these cross functional teams for sponsoring companies. A company like Giant Eagle, for example, has sponsored and PNC Bank. These corporate sponsors have innovation projects that our teams help them work on a particular product or service how to bring that to market. They do market research, they try to understand the market sizing and opportunity, and ultimately, at the end of the semester, even deliver a prototype. It’s fast paced, it’s really cool.
Kevin Trout 15:09
How would you describe your leadership style?
Laurie Barkman 15:14
I would describe my leadership style as consensus building. And fact based decision making.
Kevin Trout 15:23
That’s a good description. Short, succinct, love it. Can you give us an example of when and and how your leadership style led to a particular success in your career?
Laurie Barkman 15:34
Yeah, when I was running this business, it was a bit of a challenge. We had a real inventory problem. And that’s not a good thing, right? We’re dealing with bananas, not fine wine, as my boss used to say. And so what we had to do was figure out the real root issue. You can’t just ask why once, you have to ask why, at least five times. And so in that situation, it was very stressful. It was very time consuming to try to figure out what the problems were. But I essentially helped coalesce a team to support the analytics around it, which ultimately led us to creating a business case, to go back to one of the world’s largest retailers who I won’t mention their name, and negotiate a credit, which was probably unheard of, and might still be today. But we negotiated a very, very sizable credit.
Kevin Trout 16:27
Good, good for you. You’ve been a Vistage Speaker for a little while now. And I had you come and speak to a couple of my Vistage groups and you were awesome. Love the whole Value Builder Assessment that you do. I think that was really eye opening. And if anybody’s out there wants to do a Value Builders Assessment it is well worth it. Absolutely well worth it in my opinion. Let me ask you, what has your Vistage experience as a Speaker meant to you so far?
Laurie Barkman 16:52
It’s been amazing. And I want to thank you for your support, Kevin. The opportunity to speak to different CEO groups, not only in Pittsburgh, but around the country is amazing. To expand my network, but also I learn every time I do a workshop. I learn from them as much as they’re learning from me. And these workshops are pretty significant. It’s about three plus hours and go through a lot of material. As you mentioned, Value Builder, it’s an intellectual property platform that I license. My clients get access to it. But essentially, what we talk about in this session, and also one-on-one in these advisory sessions is we go through an assessment of their business to look at eight different value drivers. And we are assessing their strengths and risks. And ultimately, they get an estimate of value of the business, which is where it starts. If you’ve worked really hard in your business, and you have no idea what it’s worth. Isn’t that worth taking some time – the survey doesn’t take very long, takes about 15 minutes. And then when we meet, we’ll talk one-on-one and we’ll go through the results of it. And it’s well worth the time to get an understanding, a market driven type of assessment.
Kevin Trout 17:55
Yeah, I love the fact that it’s objective, not subjective. It’s not like well, I feel like my company’s worth $100,000 or $10 million, for example. But yet, it’s nowhere near that, because you don’t have everything in alignment, right?
Laurie Barkman 18:10
Yeah, if you’re going to sell your house, you’re going to look at comps, you’re going to look at other things. You’re not going to just talk to your neighbor and your neighbor sold their house for two times what yours might be worth. One, because they redid their basement, maybe they have new water, HVAC systems, they’ve done some things to the plumbing, and that’s where we see the differences.
Kevin Trout 18:29
That’s a great analogy, right there. That’s really good. Because I think you’re spot on with that. Let me go back and ask, are there any books or mentors that you attribute to helping shape you into the leader that you are today?
Laurie Barkman 18:46
One of the first books that was suggested that I read out of college was called Influencing Without Authority. And that has always stuck with me. I’ve recommended it to people that I’ve mentored because not everybody has the authority of budget or management lines of authority. But that book opened my eyes to that you can walk tall and carry a big stick. And in the roles that I had earlier in my career, as I was building my experience, that was how I went about it. I was trying to make a difference, be impactful, be a contributor, but then also be influencing peer groups and people more senior to me through these ideas and actions.
Kevin Trout 19:31
Yeah, that’s great. Any mentors?
Laurie Barkman 19:34
Oh, absolutely. I’ve had mentors all along the way. I can point to a number of them. Do you want me to mention some of them?
Please feel free.
I don’t know if they’ll be listening, but I hope so. One is Bill McClane. I’ve known him a long time. He was my first manager with Ingersoll Rand. And we still keep in touch. And I’ve had other mentors too. Certainly Herb Shear, he’s a wonderful person in Pittsburgh. Some of you listening might know Herb and his family with his work with GENCO, his family business, that ultimately sold to FedEx, and now the Shear Family Foundation. They do wonderful work.
Kevin Trout 20:12
Very good. If you were to deliver a college commencement speech today, what would your message be to the graduating class?
Laurie Barkman 20:23
I think that this is such a wonderful question because it is so multifaceted. There’s only so much time here, that we have together. One aspect I was thinking was to not wait to be tapped on the shoulder. I think for me earlier in my career, I would do really good work. And I would be recognized, and then the promotions didn’t come. And I was really frustrated by that. And I thought, well, they should just recognize me for that, they should say, “Here you go, here it is.” But then ultimately, I realized, you have to advocate for yourself, and you have to do it in a way that’s professional and lines up. You have to let people know what you’re interested in. So that’s a message, I think, for college graduates to say to them is lean in on what you want, try to figure out what you want. But then go after it. Let people know that’s what you want. And then of course, be prepared for when those opportunities come your way to step in and take that risk.
But then on the other hand, that sometimes opportunities do come to you. Yes, and I’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful opportunities come my way. Whether it’s through a search firm saying, “Hey, I think you’d be great for the CEO position.” And that’s a real example. And having the risk taking ability to say, “I might not feel 100% qualified for this or for that, but I’m gonna go for it, and I’ll grow into it.” And so there’s two aspects of this message. One is having a vision of what you think you want, and then lean into it and going for it. And the other side as well. Be flexible if there are opportunities coming to you that maybe weren’t in your plan. But then as you think about it, and you explore them, you realize, I’m going to take that chance, I’m going to go for it. And more often than not, I have found, those are amazing opportunities to pursue.
Kevin Trout 22:14
That’s great. I love the fact you talked about leaning into it, which is different than whining and asking on your why am I getting things, it’s leaning into the opportunities that you want. And showing that you can actually do it. That’s what I got in that message. Very good. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learn that you would like to share with others?
Laurie Barkman 22:36
Dale Carnegie training, have you ever been to any of those?
Kevin Trout 22:41
I’ve read his book.
Laurie Barkman 22:43
Years ago, I was able to take one of the classes, and it was an interpersonal speaking class. And it was with a group of my peers from my company. We didn’t all know each other. But that was probably a good thing because it was about giving feedback. We would stand up in front of the room, and they would give you a question. And you’d have to do an impromptu type of speech. And then everybody around the room gave you feedback, what you could do well, what you can improve on. And there were breaks during the day. This is like a full day class. So I was in the hallway, chit chatting with people. And then through the day, one of the people that I’d spoken with, I had a feeling that I was talking to her, but I wasn’t really connecting with her. And the feedback that I think ultimately she had written down on the card resonated with me. It stayed with me all these years. This has been almost 15 plus years ago. She said, “I feel that when you talk to me, you’re looking through me.” And I think what that meant was, and I think she was right, is my mind is moving so fast. I was on to the next thought. I wasn’t really listening to what she was saying. What that taught me in that moment was, “Wow, I really had to look in the mirror on this,” and take that feedback to heart because I didn’t give her, I wasn’t giving her the respect of her own time in that moment. But then in the bigger picture, I felt like the learning is moving quickly through life and I’m doing so many things and I’m multitasking like a wizard. Amazing multitasker. But at the end of the day, if I’m not focused, what am I achieving?
Kevin Trout 24:26
I think Stephen Covey said it best when he said, “Listen with the intent of understanding.” While most people listen trying to think about what they’re going to say next.
Kevin Trout 26:39
You’re listening to Three Rivers Leadership with your host Kevin trout. All right, we’re back. This has been a great show with our guest, Laurie Barkman, founder of SmallDotBig. Laurie, thank you so much for being with us on the show. I really appreciate spending time with you. Please tell folks how they can connect with you.
Laurie Barkman 26:55
I would love to connect with anyone listening who wants to learn more about how I can work with them, to help them grow value in their business, create value and then profit by letting it go. So they can connect with me at LinkedIn (Laurie Barkman on LinkedIn). They can go to my website SmallDotBig.com or send me an email: email@example.com
Kevin Trout 27:17
Perfect. All right. As we wrap up our show today I’d like to thank our sponsors Jeff McQueen with McQueen Building Company, Brian Plyler, with Family Financial Services, and of course my fellow Vistage mates at Vistage Pittsburgh. You can learn more about Vistage by visiting our website Vistage.com and remember to hit me up on LinkedIn along with Laurie. All of this show’s past episodes appear as podcasts on PodcastPittsburgh.com under the Three Rivers Leadership banner. Get ready for more great leadership stories from some very special people in our business community. Please join us again next week when our guests will be Brian McKeever, business advisor with Insperity, the professional employer organization. See you next time here on Three Rivers Leadership.