Christina Russell of Radiance Holdings: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader…

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Christina Russell of Radiance Holdings: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times

Take care of your people — they are your business. For us, that’s our team, our franchisees, and our stylists. The work we did during the closures demonstrated that we truly live our values. I think that’s a huge contributor to the growth we’ve seen in 2021 and 2022.

As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Christina Russell.

As a serial franchising executive, Christina has held top-level leadership roles at industry-leading brands for over 20 years. She is currently the CEO of Radiance Holdings, a company representing a collection of premier brands including Sola Salon Studios, the leader in the salon studios sector with over 600 locations across the U.S. and Canada; Woodhouse Day Spa, a high-end day spa franchise that brings a resort experience to a neighborhood setting; and BeautyHive™, an online distributor built on the belief that independent beauty professionals are the driving force behind the salon industry. Christina serves as the CEO of each of the Radiance brands, leading the dedicated teams who drive unit-level and system performance.

Prior to Radiance, Christina was the CEO of Pure Barre, President of Camp Bow Wow, and VP of Operations at Curves International. Christina started her franchising career 22 years ago as a multi-unit franchisee, which informs her passion for helping others achieve their dreams of business ownership.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I love these stories of people who had a vision from the time they were young and knew exactly where they were going, but that wasn’t me. I was driven, but I had no idea where I wanted to go, so I took a lot of classes in English, Physics, Art, Philosophy, French, and more. I graduated with a BA in English and started a Ph.D. program, but I hated it. I quit the program and stumbled into an amazing career as a science editor for the Physics Division at LANL… It was exciting! I got to work on projects like the Human Genome Project, the Atlas Detector (used in the CERN Particle Accelerator), robotic technologies) used for things like the Mars Rover), and the early stages of quantum physics research.

Then my husband had this wild idea that we should start a business and I told him he was nuts, but I caught the entrepreneurial bug. We had no idea what we were doing, so franchising was our path to the American Dream. I fell in love with the model, went back to get my MBA, and ended up as the VP of Operations for Curves when it had over 6,000 units across the US and Canada. I went on to run Camp Bow Wow, which is the largest dog boarding and daycare franchise, Pure Barre, then Sola Salons. We founded Radiance Holdings as a platform to acquire additional premier brands in beauty and wellness and added Woodhouse Spas in 2020.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Well, I never think of them as “mistakes” but rather think of them as “experiences.” They are painful, but actually very helpful if you learn from them. I think one of my biggest mistakes was thinking that I had “earned” the role of President for Curves. I had started with the company as a franchisee, then spent several years moving up the ranks to earn the role of VP of Operations, working closely with the Founder to try to stabilize that company at a time when it was experiencing a lot of turmoil and closures coming through the last recession. It wasn’t an easy job, but I loved the challenge, and I was proud of the contributions I had made. I was in that role for about four years when a private equity group bought the company. They were hiring a new President, and I thought I was perfect for the role, but they didn’t agree. I asked for some perspective on why they had given the opportunity to an outsider, and one of the elder principles of the private equity firm referenced my “executive immaturity” as the issue. I was crushed. It wasn’t funny at all but it was the catalyst I needed to step outside that brand and prove him wrong. I stepped in as President of Camp Bow Wow, and that opened the door to Pure Barre, which brought me to Sola Salons and ultimately Radiance. Without that push, my career might have stalled.

In hindsight, I know that harsh description was probably correct given the complexity of the problems Curves was facing, and he probably knew he was doing me a favor by pushing me out. My takeaway from this is to waste a little less time taking things personally and to seize opportunities when they come.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Janie Little — She was my first boss at Curves when I started moving up the ladder. She gave me my first push toward executive leadership. She taught me to put my ego aside to become a better leader, aka Less “I”, More “We.” She gave me the leg up to pass her in the career track. I went from being an Area Director under her leadership to being her boss as the VP of Operations. She encouraged me to do it. She paved the way. That’s rare. She wasn’t afraid to let others shine, and I wouldn’t be where I am without her help and encouragement.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Sola’s Mission is so genuine: To inspire and support beauty professionals to chase their dreams, elevate their careers and experience the freedom of salon ownership. That freedom is at our essence — it’s what franchising gives our owners, and what our owners give to our beauty and spa professionals. When Radiance acquired Woodhouse Spas, we found an equally genuine mission: To provide true renewal that leads to a more joyful life.

We also focus on joy with Radiance: We nurture and empower our people and our companies to cultivate and realize the boundless joy and opportunity of the beauty and wellness sector, Joy Through Beauty. We want to acquire businesses that fit with that motto, and that truly aspire to bring joy to their teams and their customers. Isn’t that what beauty and wellness, and life, really, are all about?

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

There was never a more difficult time than 2020. We started off so strong — Sola was a stand-alone business with about 20 employees, and we were working behind the scenes to acquire Woodhouse, launch our e-commerce platform BeautyHive, and launch the Radiance Holdings platform. Then, on March 9, we shut down the office, moved everyone to Slack, and prepared to “flatten the curve” for 14 days. By the end of the month, a lot of brands were furloughing their teams and shutting down operations… but not us.

We were strong, and we knew we could weather the storm. We made the decision alongside our franchisees not to charge our stylists rent during COVID. This was unprecedented. Our franchisees still had to pay their landlords, but they understood that the economics of many of our stylists were much more fragile, and they agreed that we needed to put the stylists first. Also, we didn’t lay off a single person on our home team. Instead, we shifted to supporting our franchisees in their negotiations with landlords and their navigation of PPP, EIDL, new cleaning requirements, ever-changing masking requirements, and closures.

I think the secret is knowing who you are going into a crisis. We focused on constant communication, transparency, patience, and doing the right thing for our teams and our customers. The result was that we came out of 2020 stronger than ever.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

We never considered giving up, but we did consider slowing down. Should we slow down on the Woodhouse deal? Put BeautyHive off until the closures were over? We decided to have faith that there would be an end to this… That the world would come back online. And when it did, we wanted to be in a strong position.

We opened over 60 locations across both brands, and we launched BeautyHive despite the challenges. It turned out to be the right thing to do. We are similarly bullish heading into what everyone predicts is a coming recession. It will no doubt have its challenges, but it could also create some opportunities for us to secure leases, attract talent, and make some important acquisitions as other businesses pull back.

I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?

The Art of War. I read this book on a plane years ago. It’s short, but it’s profound. I found it to be the opposite of its title. It’s a book about navigating through conflict toward peace by knowing your purpose and striving to be your best self. One of the lessons is that if you bring weapons, others are likely to bring weapons. Sometimes putting down your weapons — your ego, your assumptions, your authority — lets you win the high ground without the battle. The goal isn’t to defeat others, it’s to inspire them to want to join your cause. I love that such a modern message was crafted back in 6 BC.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Be the calm in the storm. Your people — team, franchisees, even customers — need to see that you are confident and focused on their survival. And that you fully believe — despite all the evidence to the contrary — that everything is going to be okay. And when it’s not okay, they need to see that you are sharing the hard truth and helping them find the path forward.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

A little levity never hurts. If you’re not a light person, lean on someone from your team. We had a Zoom call during COVID where one of our more junior staffers showed up in a hotdog costume for no apparent reason. It brought so much levity to the endless slog of mid-2020 meetings that we did a full team costume party. I came as a Viking and put a raging sea behind me on the screen. But nothing could top the hotdog.

It’s okay to laugh, even when the world is falling apart. Even if your mission statement isn’t about joy like ours is. I’m not saying dressing as a hotdog is a career-winning strategy, but that hotdog has since been promoted and continues to impress!

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Early, openly, and succinctly. Don’t give them the “s — — sandwich”. Just tell them like it is. We had to tell a lot of franchisees “no” when they asked for financial support during COVID. We helped them negotiate with landlords and banks, and secure PPP and EIDL. Our franchisees weren’t eligible for PPP and EIDL due to some arcane nuances with our business model and the SBA registry, so this was a really big deal. They desperately needed financial support, but we, as the franchisor, were also having a zero revenue event, and there wasn’t money to give. They were scared and frustrated, but ultimately they saw us fight hard with SBA on their behalf. With help from the International Franchise Association, I personally spoke with over 35 members of Congress to advocate on behalf of Sola and other brands like it, and it was week after week of bad news. We were open with the franchise system about the continued efforts and our waning optimism. They appreciated our consistency, and our willingness to keep fighting on their behalf. We ultimately won EIDL support, which was a huge victory, but it really could have gone either way.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Don’t get paralyzed. Surround yourself with people who think differently than you and listen to their perspectives. Get as much information as you can. And then make a decision. The worst decision is failing to make a decision. You have to trust yourself and move forward.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

There’s a quote from Ted Lasso that I think sums it up: “The right thing is never the wrong thing.” Get clear on your values now, before the next turbulence occurs. Know what the “right thing” is for you, your brand, and your people. Our values led us through this, and it made it a lot easier to bring our team on the journey and to sleep with our decisions.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Letting fear dominate you to the point that you fail to make decisions.

Ignoring the data or input from advisors who see things through a different lens.

Not putting people first.

Ultimately, it boils down to being clear on your vision and values and building a strong culture before the challenge ever comes up. You can’t make it up on the fly.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Focus over the horizon. When you’re training for a distance run with a long uphill climb, the advice is to always look 20% past the top. When we went into the challenges of 2020, we didn’t focus on the three months of closure, we focused on how we would recover by year-end and get back on track for our 5-year plan. That’s why furlough was not an option for us. We were playing the long game.

Take care of your people — they are your business. For us, that’s our team, our franchisees, and our stylists. The work we did during the closures demonstrated that we truly live our values. I think that’s a huge contributor to the growth we’ve seen in 2021 and 2022.

Pay attention to the numbers — it’s like the dashboard of your car, and you don’t want to run out of gas. Focus on leading indicators that help you make tactical decisions that drive future results. During the closures, our focus was on conserving cash, so we were laser-focused on that. Now, with rising inflation, our focus is on pricing strategy — coaching both our stylists and our franchisees on how to thoughtfully raise their prices to navigate their increasing costs. Having robust data generally gives you the tools you need to shift focus without losing sight of the bigger picture.

Live by your values — get them in place before the crisis.

Don’t try to always be the smartest person in the room. You may be great at numbers but need a little help with culture. It’s okay to let the hotdog take the lead.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The discomfort you feel is just the ego niggling.”

I have a good friend and mentor, Sheryl Carini, who wrote that on a post-it note for me back in 2010 and I still keep that post-it in my journal. It’s a good reminder that the frustrations we often feel as we navigate our careers are really not external. It’s the internal battle with our own egos. If we can keep our egos in check, we open ourselves to learning and growth, and the more genuine relationships that are key to a joyful life.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Christina Russell’s LinkedIn:

Radiance Holdings:

Radiance Holdings LinkedIn:

This was truly meaningful! Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise!

Christina Russell of Radiance Holdings: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.