Utah’s top bosses share what they have learned about hard work, passion and trusting their employees

The three discuss winning formulas for building winning businesses.

Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society, with Finnegan.

It’s not always easy being the big boss, but as all CEOs worth their salt know, a good team can make all the difference.

So it’s little wonder that each of Utah’s 2021 “top bosses” have a lot to say about the talent, passion and drive their employees bring to their companies.

The Salt Lake Tribune, in conjunction with Philadelphia-based research and consulting firm Energage, recently released its annual Top Workplaces report. It includes picks for the state’s top leaders, one each from a large, midsize and small company.

This year, they’re Julie Castle of Best Friends Animal Society, an animal welfare nonprofit; Vivien Böhme of clothing brand Böhme; and Joshua Christopherson of Achieve Today, an education technology company.

Here are their answers to a Q&A (edited for length and clarity):

(Best Friends Animal Society) Julie Castle, Best Friends Animal Society CEO.

Julie Castle, Best Friends Animal Society CEO

Describe your leadership style and why it works for your company.

I strive to lead with the heart. I work with human beings who are spending much of their waking life at a job, so it better be something that’s both fulfilling and enjoyable. I believe most employees want to know they are cared for at the very top as an individual and not as part of a big machine. My most important role is to help staff figure out their grand passion in life. This makes for a better organization and better world. Nothing compares with knowing that I’ve helped someone find their grand passion and that they get out of bed every day excited to fulfill that.

I am constantly questioning the status quo and the “why,” both within our industry and within our organization, including programs or strategies I started. It helps create permission for the rest of the organization to question our work, which in turn drives innovation within Best Friends and societal change throughout our movement.

Placing human beings first, questioning the status quo, and driving innovation have always been core to our DNA since our founders broke ground at the sanctuary, which is why both will always work for Best Friends.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about being a leader?

Two things that go hand in hand:

First, trust your gut. There’s science behind this, but we humans don’t understand enough about it. There’s a lot of information coming at me every day that can distort my gut instinct. Listening to my gut is about remaining centered and tuning into my intuitive sense, because usually it’s right.

Second, hire the best, but hire through the emotional intelligence lens and not a resume. I always say that I’m looking to put together the New York Yankees (talent plus culture). Admittedly, I made two big mistakes in the past while building our team: One, I hired for pure skill and thought those employees would come around to our culture and it never, ever, worked. Two, there was a time when I wasn’t secure enough to surround myself with people who were clearly more intelligent, creative, talented or dynamic than me. I lost some key people and learned some difficult lessons. Today, I seek out people who are far more talented than myself, give them the guardrails to work within and let them fly.

Is there a leadership skill you’re still trying to master?

Listening. I’m still tempted to jump in because I think I see what the problems and solutions are, and I want to start making a bunch of changes to help. However, my constant work-in-progress is learning to listen first, ask a lot of questions, and help guide our leaders through solutions. People help support that which they create and always take extreme ownership of an organization if they are identifying the problems and coming up with the solutions. The bottom line is that listening engenders respect and, most importantly, trust.

(Vivien Böhme) Vivien Böhme, CEO of Böhme.

Vivien Böhme, Böhme CEO

Describe your leadership style and why it works for your company.

I’m a hands-on leader who straddles the worlds of leadership and management by modeling the required behaviors for success, but never completely detaching from day-to-day operations. As a founder first and CEO second, my personal passion for success comes through in every interaction with anyone on my team. As an immigrant who has worked in multiple fields, from cleaning offices to making and delivering pizzas, I always remember that every position matters and the impact of the individual in that position is great. I am not successful unless that part-time employee is successful and feels that his or her contribution matters. No one is a number at Böhme.

I also take my role as a female CEO in a company made up of predominantly young females very seriously. Too often I hear from young employees that retail is a place holder until they get a “real job” or that they need to get a job “their parents would be proud of.” I try every day to be an example to those around me that anything is possible with grit, determination and pride for what you do. Societal norms, especially here in Utah, are not the only way to success.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about being a leader?

While it’s my job as a leader to “stoke the fire” that my employees already have burning inside of them, I cannot “make” someone successful. If employees do not already have at least a spark within them to be the best at whatever challenge is in front of them, nothing I do matters. I have a natural ability to see people’s potential, and I strive to put people in positions that challenge them and open their eyes to all the various possibilities that their natural talents will bring them. I’ve hired people at very entry-level positions only to end up promoting them to critical positions within the company that they had no formal training for, but they were inherently hungry for growth, development and success. They are now successful and happy in an area they did not consider for their future. Those characteristics I can work with and develop, but when the individual just wants to “settle,” then there is nothing I can do to change that. It is always tough to see employees with potential turn down opportunities because they don’t possess that internal drive to be the best.

Is there a leadership skill you’re still trying to master?

As I suspect almost any entrepreneur will say, the toughest skill to master is time management. We all know there are only so many hours in a day and so many days in a week. I am surrounded with talent, and I love to be an active participant in the success of my team. I am always thinking, “What does that employee need from me today to be successful?” or “Where will my input today make the biggest impact?” I struggle sometimes to remember that my battery needs to be recharged, too. I need to take time for myself and my hobbies. I have to remind myself that I can step away from time to time and let those whom I have taught soar to new heights.

(Joshua Christopherson) Joshua Christopherson, Achieve Today CEO.

Joshua Christopherson, Achieve Today CEO

Describe your leadership style and why it works for your company.

As an education technology company, Achieve Today sees its mission as helping people achieve higher levels of success and ultimate happiness, and that starts with our employees. Throughout my career in sales and marketing, I have learned that anything is possible when you combine passionate people, a common goal, intense focus and hard work. For me, it starts with our people. Focus on recruiting the best talent, then inspire people to reach their full potential. It’s important to me to inspire those at our company to a higher level of thinking and of action — to help them realize that greatness already exists inside of them.

My goal is to establish a clear vision and then empower the team to lead the company’s future growth. It’s important to embrace change. It takes courage to take on a big challenge, to do what no one else will, to question the status quo, confront a difficult situation and to not give up. We are a company built on excellence. We have a culture that values growth, achievement and diversity, and a workplace where your voice can be heard. We owe our success to what drives our vision and decisions: our core values.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about being a leader?

Passion matters. It’s so important to get the right people on the team who are passionate about driving the company vision forward. In the past 20 years of my career, there is one thing that I’ve found is certain: Everything changes. You have to be able to adjust your approach to different situations and to the market. If you are able to approach everything with a positive mindset and lead others toward an optimistic goal, then you will always find a way through changes and obstacles. The team members will feel the passion you have as a leader, and they will feed off it. Then they will approach their daily tasks and responsibilities with passion and drive as well. And then the sky is the limit. Your culture will shift, thrive and grow, creating a place where people want to be and where great things happen that change the world.

Is there a leadership skill you’re still trying to master?

For me, there are two: patience and trust. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s important to drive my team members at a fast pace, but then step back and let them do what they need to do. On occasion, a little prod is needed when there seems to be a project that’s hitting a delay. But, for the most part, as long as you have great team members who care about the outcome, they will always pull through. The more I have learned to master patience and trust that my team will succeed, the more success we have seen.