Power Women: Lisa Marie Platske of Upside Thinking On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life

An Interview With Ming Zhao

(Lisa Marie’s note: Many thanks to Ming S Zhao, for without whom this interview wouldn’t have been possible.)

How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.

As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Lisa Marie Platske.

An award-winning leadership expert Lisa Marie Platske has received accolades from the White House, the United States Small Business Administration, and was recognized by The International Alliance for Women as one of the top 100 women making a difference in the world.

CEO of the international leadership development company, Upside Thinking, Inc. Lisa Marie delivers presentations worldwide sharing research on how vulnerability and forgiveness are critical to exceptional leadership as well as her proven 7-step leadership model centered on connection, positioning, and executive presence.

An international best-selling author and regular contributor to Forbes.com, she has trained or coached over 100,000 leaders around the globe to make a bigger positive impact on the planet — and when she’s not traveling, she and her husband Jim enjoy walking through their neighborhood looking for their “pet” fox.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I was raised by a single mom. Money was very scarce. My mom was resourceful and strong in many ways, and like many, she struggled to be the parent she wanted to be. My mom has shared how she has felt shame and embarrassment about the holes in her capacity and how her choices affected my sister and me, and I can honestly say that because of her strengths and the “holes” I became more whole — stronger and clearer on the virtues that I live by so fervently.

Other kids in our neighborhood weren’t allowed to play with me because of two reasons. First, my parents were divorced in a time and place where that was not “normal.” And the second reason, which is even harder to write and speak about, is that my house was where the police came. Often. For violence at the hands of my stepfather.

I share this not to be dramatic, rather because the challenges in my childhood benefited me in life and are integral to my success in life.

Because of scarcity, I understand the value of a dollar. Because of living in danger, I appreciate safety, protection, and justice. I have courage that I might not have otherwise developed. I think I love life, family, people and having fun in a way that is intense. And because I so admire smarts, hard work, and commitment, I’ve been able to grow, learn, partner with extraordinary people from every sector, have had interesting careers, and built a great business. And, finally, because of exclusion and understanding what it’s like not to belong, I have a driving passion — a vision — to create a world where everyone wins. I love a happy ending.

My childhood also had plenty of wonderful memories including the relationship I had with my grandparents, specifically my grandfather. A story comes to mind to share that took place when I was about eleven. My grandfather was watching Merv Griffin on television while my sister and I played a game of Connect Four, when I heard my grandfather say, “Someday, that’s going to be you, Lisa!”

Merv was interviewing a renowned speaker and while I don’t remember who she was, my grandfather shared his premonition, saying, “Someday, Lisa, you will be speaking to thousands…”

This comment hid in my heart for years, and it wasn’t until I had my business that I remembered his comment. Realizing the direction my business was growing, I thought, Oh, my gosh! I remember what my grandfather said that night, and here I am, speaking to thousands of people!

… I told you I love a happy ending!

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

While seemingly unrelated, my background in Federal law enforcement was an integral part of how I came to own a leadership development company that specializes in coaching, training, and mentoring leaders. In my agency of law enforcement, post-9/11, I was handpicked to develop a leadership curriculum program for the Department of Homeland Security for its future leaders. I worked with several outside consultants to develop modules I eventually taught and are still being used today.

Just before accepting that assignment, my husband proposed to me. During our engagement we had conversations about what our future as a couple looked like. I found myself at a crossroads. Did I stay in a 24–7 career I actually loved, or did I leave

to pursue something that would give me what I most desired:

  • increased freedom,
  • increased fun, and
  • increased flexibility?

In the end, I chose the latter. And in retrospect, I had no idea when I made that choice of the amount of work required to start and grow my business. While not quite the initial image of freedom, fun, and flexibility I had imagined, I have built an amazing company, I get to work with inspiring, interesting clients committed to their purpose, every day I press myself to learn and pass along that learning, and I have a beautiful life with my husband.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

While it’s difficult to select one that carries the “most interesting” label, the one that comes to mind was an interaction through LinkedIn. Someone reached out to me who was interested in interviewing me about my work and leadership. During our conversation, I shared what I thought to be an embarrassing story…to explain my belief that vulnerability is one of the three elements to being a courageous leader. The story I shared was about how I had gotten something wrong, and I chose to make a public apology to my assistant on stage at my annual Upside Summit (formerly known as Design Your Destiny Live) event.

Several days later, the person who had interviewed me reached out asking, “Would you be interested in a project, and possibly fill a board position in our private equity group?” When I asked why I was being made this offer, he responded by saying that what I shared about vulnerability gave them information to 18 other questions about who I am as a leader and what I could do. I found this to be wildly interesting.

I had often been told vulnerability could be de-positioning, especially as a woman. And yet, years earlier, one of my marketing directors shared that she felt I was “unrelatable” and asked me to be more transparent in my writing. I’ve been committed ever since to taking a deep dive into the element of vulnerability and forgiveness as core to excellence in leadership both in my own self-development as well as in working with other leaders.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I’ve long believed there are three key character traits essential to my success: forgiveness, resilience, and courage.

  • Forgiveness: Mercy is one of my heart virtues, and I am confident you cannot get to mercy without forgiveness. First, I chose to lead with forgiveness because of my experience during 9/11 which is a longer story. Leading with forgiveness helped me address a situation where a speaker who was attending my Upside Summit annual 3-day event, messaged everyone who shared an interest in coaching with me, and offered her services for far less than my standard fees. Yes, I was upset, hurt, and shocked, because these are often people I’ve respected and admired and thought they felt the same of me. Over the years, many similar situations have occurred, and the bottom line is that I always challenge myself to respond with forgiveness. I realize the true benefit of forgiveness. It’s a huge burden to carry anger and resentment. In the end, it pulls you down as you lug it forward into your future. I have no desire to retaliate — no need to unfriend them on social media, no need to share their misdeed with the world, or most times even address the matter with them directly. I no longer entertain doing business with them, and I consciously decide to forgive and move forward.
  • Resilience: The second quality is resilience, and the following story illustrates this characteristic. Several years ago, someone on my team filled out an RFP (Request for Proposals) to an organization that was seeking a speaker to deliver a presentation on leadership at their annual conference. The response we got back was quite the revelation as it read, “We love Lisa Marie. Her credentials and expertise are exactly what our organization needs. The companies she has worked with are all in perfect alignment. However, we just don’t believe the people in our organization are ready to hear a woman speak about leadership.” So, they didn’t hire me. My initial thoughts? It isn’t as though my “stuff” isn’t good. They saw my many accolades, including receiving the National Association of Female Executives Women in Excellence Award, yet because I am a woman, I am not qualified to speak about leadership? Like dis-qualified. Is that true? Are most companies still operating with that belief? How can I do this work and succeed in working with leaders when they aren’t “ready” to hear a woman? My subsequent, more rational thoughts focused on being resilient. Lisa, just continue to submit the next proposal, and the next — trusting that the right organization will claim your services. Everyone experiences challenges, twists, and turns — each of which affects people differently. It’s in remembering our own ability to bounce back, it’s possible to make your way through a unique flood of emotions, thoughts, and uncertainty. I’d say that my strength has grown from my own ability to adapt to life-changing or stress-filled situations. Even as a child and having to fend for myself and my sister in pretty dire circumstances, I lived through them, learned, tried to figure out ways to survive and take a stand for what was right. When “knocked down,” I kept getting up.
  • Courage: The third character trait is courage, and that most assuredly was required to start my business. I had no business background, and I was 3,000 miles away from my closest friend or family member, and knew I was called to start a business. While I took strategic steps: taking classes with my husband on starting a business, had business cards printed, filled out the necessary legal forms, and completed a business plan. I also thought, “How hard could it be?!?” Today this makes me laugh. Aside from all the calculated steps, however, it took courage to pick up the phone, courage to contact organizations and ask for business. What I lacked in credentials, based on a background in law enforcement, not in business, I made up for in courage. When I consider the three character traits, I’m struck with the notion that in reality these qualities are interwoven.

The confluence of forgiveness, resilience, and courage were especially evident as I lived and worked through 9/11. The event rocked me to the core. I found it difficult to eat; I started to see too few people as good and was finding the world to be an ugly place. I had to somehow rediscover that the world was still somehow a good place. During this time, I knew I had to reach deeper for forgiveness; I needed the resilience to go on. I couldn’t just “stuff” things down, I had to have the forgiveness to be able to bounce back, to move forward. And courage? It took courage to keep getting up and seeing ugliness, death, and destruction and keep envisioning working for the beauty, life, and building. The courage to believe — in goodness and in right action. Because it takes courage to do that in the face of evidence that speaks the opposite.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?

My personal experience in law enforcement was that I was expected to be kind and compassionate — because I am a woman — and not necessarily competent. I have seen that same thinking carry over into business projects. People see me as being sweet and kind, and not necessarily able to go for the win. I don’t believe these ideas are even conscious or intentional much of the time. Rather, it has been part of society’s DNA for centuries. It sleeps deep in the collective past, and seeps into collective actions today. It is unconsidered.

Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?

The experience that comes to mind that illustrates that society still feels uncomfortable with strong women was when I was invited to speak at a large event with seven other speakers. All of them were men. Each man was introduced for his business, praised for his acumen, and touted for his awards and accomplishments. When it came time to introduce me, the focus was on my personality traits and that I had been one of the women in a male-dominated organization. There was no deliberate slight, no intention to downgrade my expertise, however, this positioned me differently. Being willing to speak my truth, I addressed it with the leadership team. They were surprised and thought they had done well by shining a bright light on my being a kind and compassionate woman, rather than as a leader of leaders. They had failed to recognize that I’d coached or trained over 100,000 leaders and was someone who was recognized by the International Alliance for Women in 2017 as being one of the top 100 women making a difference in the world.

What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?

My best counsel for powerful women is to speak about it openly. So often, people are unaware of their behavior, and the only way to make the unconscious conscious is to address it! It’s not difficult to say, “If there is something I’ve done or said that makes you uncomfortable, I’d like for us to talk about it.” Sometimes, it is my bridge to cross; sometimes it is theirs — to become more aware.

Years ago, early in law enforcement, I almost looked for men to treat me differently. I held expectations and was so defensive before there was any action to validate my feelings. I had a wonderful learning that came from a speaker at an FBI event. I asked the woman afterwards how she managed to have men see her as an equal. She said, “I act as though I am equal. I don’t consider myself to be a woman in law enforcement — I see myself as a law enforcement officer who happens to be a woman.”

It was a great perspective shift for me, and I stopped looking for anything less for myself. It remains a powerful model for me. I hold my own expectations of being treated as an equal, and if I sense that discomfort or “different treatment” from others, I first check myself to determine if perhaps, just perhaps, they didn’t see me as an equal for some reason that has absolutely nothing to do with me being a woman. It is my responsibility to make that distinction. If it’s a genuine case of my gender being the cause, I consider myself with an opportunity. God may want me to use my voice and my direct yet open style to engage in conversation that could affect the other person and catalyze change.

What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?

To change the unease around powerful women, as a society we need to invite more women to the table and grant them access to resources. As women, we can open doors and create opportunities for other women. For example, when I’m speaking at an event and I’m the only woman — I am intentional to mention other women when I’m on stage — and in doing so, share my influence. When I host my own events, I ensure other women are invited to share the stage with me.

Not all women are comfortable stepping into these opportunities to show their power. As a coach, one of my greatest joys (that I take on as a responsibility) is to reflect back to women what they are capable of, to see possibilities, reassess and see bigger things in themselves than they’d ever imagined. And the more women there are living to their fullest potential, then by necessity, the unease will eventually develop into greater acceptance and ease.

In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?

It is not uncommon for women to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men need not endure. One of my most memorable experiences was in my career in law enforcement. I was sent out on a three-day special assignment with the NYPD where a federal officer was required to work with each unit for a presidential detail in the New York Harbor.

I was assigned to an all-male crew and a few hours in, I had to go to the bathroom and approached one of the male officers, thinking we could dock the boat and I’d slip in and use a bathroom. The response was, “We are not taking you in. There is a bucket downstairs. Just pee in the bucket and dump it overboard.”

In my mind, I was thinking, Okay, I’m the commanding officer and if this was another guy, would they have had him do the same thing?

I took a deep breath, and in that moment my thoughts shifted. I told myself, It’s just not a big deal. I went downstairs, peed in the bucket, and threw it overboard too.

What’s interesting is that after that, for the rest of the detail, they said, “Just let us know when you want to go in to go to the bathroom…” No fuss, no holler, they would take me to shore.

I give myself a little pat on the back occasionally, thinking about that ridiculous situation, and glad that I can share the humor in telling the story. So, yes, I was put “to the test” — and passed.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I am sure every woman has her individual cross to bear when faced by challenges not typically faced my male counterparts; mine has been seeing how often I am asked “why” I am doing something, yet men are not questioned similarly. Sometimes the question is directly made; sometimes covertly. For example, I sponsored a bare-knuckle boxing event because it aligned with my intention to work with leaders who want to be the best version of who they are called to be…what they are destined to do on this planet. A particular fighter, Alan Belcher, is a person who is on his personal journey of doing just that. It was a natural fit for me to sponsor him. Myriad people wanted to know “why.” My male colleagues wouldn’t face the same questioning. On the upside, my friend Steve Schabacker who owns Sheepdog Firearms in Monee, IL also sponsored the fighter, and he got my why without asking. His unsolicited comment, “This is the greatest thing; it is amazing that you’ve chosen to do this,” and it was music to my ears. I could easily share 1,001 stories about the “questioning,” so I am inclined to say it’s probably the biggest challenge powerful women will face.

Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?

It can be difficult to fit your personal and professional family life into your business and career, and it isn’t a yes or no answer; it’s both/and. My personal experience has been that many of my struggles have been self-imposed. I recognized the challenge in the ongoing conversations my husband and I had about what it would take to grow my business. Initially, I was convinced I was Superwoman — that I could do laundry, have dinner on the table, and ensure the house was spotless — all while running my business from home. I was equally convinced I could hold all my meetings, answer all my calls, and do everything while simultaneously running back and forth from room to room, getting all domestic tasks done. That was really the struggle.

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?

My Superwoman persona came to a screeching halt one day, when with the struggle to achieve balance and equilibrium between my work life and personal life found me — at my wit’s end — crying on the kitchen floor. When Jim came home, we talked about how my focus during the day would be on growing the business, period. Together, we set up systems and non-negotiables to ensure that our relationship remained a top priority yet ensure I could get what was most important in the business accomplished.

And the tipping point? Being there on the floor, crying, and wondering, what is wrong with me, why can’t I get it all done? How does everyone else get so much accomplished?

Reaching the equilibrium was found in ongoing conversations with my husband; it was in talking through our vision for our life and how to best achieve it. It was in finding answers to what needed to be accomplished, how it would get done, and what resources we needed. The balance was found by recognizing my missteps early on and deciding to build my business around my life…versus the other way around. It meant I made a courageous choice to put our home life, our family life, our life together — first. I was blessed to find a mate who shared a connection, a relationship to God, and a faith that was our number one. Together, we knew that strengthening our relationship with each other would be foundational to strengthen how we managed the workload; in the simplest terms, it came down to understanding this priority.

Understanding that not all powerful women have spouses who are as amenable as mine — spouses not on the same page — I feel it is important to address the conversations and commitments we make in life. Research shows you cannot have a successful business if you don’t have a supportive partner — it is simply not possible! If your plan, then, is to stay in a personal relationship, accept it for what it is, and then make a conscious decision about where you will get the support necessary to grow your business or define who the person will be who can fill your bucket. You see, the piece about having a business is not when something is going to go wrong, it is about when it is going to work out. There is always something that is in flux, or change, or disarray, or chaos; this is the constant in growing a business. Which makes it crucial to understand that if your spouse cannot be the person to have your backside, you must have someone else:

  • To have difficult business conversations with.
  • To vision with.
  • Who believes in you, who recognizes you are both deserving and responsible for doing what it is on the planet you are here to accomplish.

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

My perspective on the role beauty plays for powerful women is that it’s the reality. And, while a lot of emphasis is placed on “surface” appearance, I believe beauty starts from the inside. Beauty exudes from loving yourself. And yet the external is also what people see first, to create a first impression, which ultimately leads to whether there’ll be a chance for a second or a third. So, when the question is about how much of an emphasis do I place on appearance? The answer is, “It’s a lot, because it is what people see first.”

What I do believe transpires is that once a woman understands the working of beauty as an inside job, and she begins to understand the goodness within, she develops self-confidence, self-awareness, and self-appreciation. Over time, it is those qualities that start to shine outwardly. That type of beauty both attracts and endures.

How is this similar or different for men?

I believe an equal emphasis in beauty is placed on men. There are obviously different norms for men, especially when it comes to how they age.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. The courage to speak your truth, even if that means you are the dissenting voice and it feels as if you will be walking the path alone. An example happened early on in my business. Upon reviewing the agenda for a Chamber of Commerce meeting, I noticed that there was going to be something proposed that that I didn’t believe was beneficial for all people in the community. I also knew because it had always been done this way and I was a newer board member, I was likely to be the lone dissenting voice. Before the meeting, I went to two fellow board members whom I respected, shared what I noticed, and asked them to do something for me at the meeting. I asked them to simply say “that’s a good idea” when I spoke up. My request was for further research so we could be judicious vs. expeditious. The bigger act was to stand up for what I knew was against the tide…the group needed to slow down the process and think a little deeper to see what they had overlooked. No group particularly wants to have an oversight pointed out… let alone by a newer member. I felt the risk to reward was worth it. For as hard as it can be, I understand that it’s easier to sleep remembering that I’ve spoken up for the voiceless and for what I believe is right.

2. The courage to ask for help when needed. One of the greatest fears powerful woman have is feeling she has to be 100% to everyone — and not make a mistake. When I attended a leadership development program, much like the one I now offer, after a battery of assessments and seeing how I created barriers that blocked meaningful connection with colleagues, I increased my vocabulary by learning three new words: I don’t know. And so when I was in working as a newly promoted Federal law enforcement officer, I remember hiding in the closet on my cell phone calling a fellow supervisor I trusted asking for help. At the time, I was still too embarrassed to tell my employees I didn’t have the answer. Today, I openly seek out peers and professionals who have expertise in areas that are different than my zones of genius. Each person on my team has mastery outside my own, including the head coach, Suzanne Dudley-Schon whom I regularly reach out to for business advice — and I publicly speak about their strengths and how they differ from my own.

3. The courage to be honest and ask yourself what you really want and what matters. Write it down. Speak about it. Be willing and courageous enough to stay the course. What I want is to be a bridge builder who creates a world where everyone gets to feel valued, appreciated, and loved for who they are…a world where everyone wins. You. Me. Everyone. Regardless of our differing opinions. Every project, every client, and every situation I say “yes” to undertake is brought through this lens. The concept of being honest and living full out in commitment to that promise is what I seek to do and what I coach my clients to do.

4. The courage to be passionate and stand fervently behind what you believe — while still being willing to remain open. When I believe in something, I’m all in, and fully committed with the humility to listen to someone else’s perspective and change my mind. In my body of work, I researched 7 Pillars of Leadership. The first pillar is to Start with a Written Plan. For years, I was convinced this was the only way. You had a plan and stuck with it. Over time and through life’s experience and my own personal development, I’ve discovered that approach is highly valuable and useful for most, there is something which I call the No Plan Plan is having a commitment to your vision with the willingness to hold on loosely as you adjust to life’s situations and new information that may cause your plan to change as needed. And for me, I listen to Divine wisdom and guidance.

5. And finally, the courage to understand the difference between power and force. Being strong is not the same as being powerful. When I worked in Federal law enforcement there were lots of leaders who were physically strong — and believed that commanding and controlling others contributed to their strength. I’ve seen a similar confusion in business professionals since founding my leadership development company. Power is defined as influencing the behavior of others — and true power requires no force or forcing. This gets misunderstood because historically, power has meant power over others. Power requires you to be someone who people want to follow naturally rather than through persuasion or coercion. And you have to be fully authentic. If people sense you aren’t presenting yourself honestly, then how can they trust you and follow your lead? I’ve attracted opportunities by showing up and being me.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I spent a lot of time considering this question, and no matter how deeply I dove into it, specific answers eluded me. Names like Desmond Tutu and Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama surfaced, and this question keeps coming up, Will I be in the right place mentally, emotionally, professionally, to have that lunch?

As I imagine it, it will not be a frivolous lunch; it must be an enriching shared moment. My confidence, my vulnerability, my willingness, and courage to risk are all tied up in the occasion, and one thing I do understand — when the person and the time is right, I will be open and ready because I understand God would not open a door for which I am not prepared.

I see how some “notables” have abused their wealth and power. How others are self-focused and have harmed the world, even if they are successful — politically, economically, or socially. I am drawn to those with a deep, abiding passion for our country, and those how have a purity of spirit — which brings me full circle back to Desmond Tutu and a Mother Theresa quality person.

This question allowed me to take a deep dive into understanding myself and recognizing the importance of acknowledging there is a lot more that goes into making such a choice other than the allure of some celebrity. Such a decision must be intentional, in direct alignment with what I am called to do in this life, and understanding I am ready for the changes that the conversation will have upon my life.

If I were asked to name someone that I would have lunch with right at this moment, then I would say, Andrea Jung. She’s a courageous leader, powerful woman, and philanthropist who seeks to make a big difference on the planet. Many years ago, she said something that still impacts my life today, “Every day I understand I’m going to disappoint someone.” This speaks to her level of consciousness, humanity, and strength all at once. She seems to be a person who lives my core values of excellence, accountability, and responsibility, and along with her career with Avon (and work for women through her position), she continues to be work for positive impact through advocacy, support of women’s issues, and micro-financing to provide loans to individuals and small businesses globally. That would be a lunch conversation to remember.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Leave a Comment