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Not all people see the power of women in business. That’s just one reason 70 percent of senior management roles are held by men. But Sara Giles knew her boss was different.
In 2013, when Giles started working at Anita Goodesign, an embroidery design company based in Charlotte, she got a “different vibe” from the company’s owner, Steve Wilson.
“Steve respects women,” says Giles. “He says that we are better leaders than men — that we can multitask and handle more projects. Because of that, we’re essentially a woman-based company.”
Wilson’s progressive attitude created the perfect environment for Giles to climb the ranks. After five months as an event planning assistant, she was promoted to marketing coordinator and then organizational development director. Today, she serves as CEO, managing almost 50 employees and a worldwide enterprise.
We chatted with Giles to learn more about how hard work, long hours, and a fresh perspective catalyzed her career.
How did you land a job as CEO of the top embroidery design company in the world?
When I started at Anita Goodesign in 2013, I left a job that I had been at for five years. I just wanted a change. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my career, so I just started exploring and applying to jobs. I didn’t know anything about this company or embroidery, but I applied for the event planning assistant position. I was the very first person to apply out of like 100 people and they hired me.
They were looking for someone to organize the whole system itself. Because of my background experience in Excel and just being a super organized person, I was able to listen to what they were looking for and implement it. Whenever Steve Wilson, the owner, asked for something, I was very quick to get it done.
I just wanted to do a good job, and Steve consistently rewarded me for doing so. That was something I had never experienced. At most jobs, you work really hard and you get a very small pay increase, if any, in return. You have to leave if you want a bigger pay increase or a promotion. But at Anita Goodesign, I learned that if I worked really hard, never said no, and just kept learning, I would be presented with opportunities. Because of that, I was able to become CEO of the company.
Many young professionals hop from company to company in search of higher pay and bigger promotions. From your perspective, what are the benefits of climbing the ranks at one business?
I’ve been able to do so many different jobs at Anita Goodesign — from sending emails to planning events. Now as the CEO, when my team is presenting problems to me, I’m able to quickly help them come to a conclusion because I have the experience. I’ve been there before.
Because of my experience, I’m more confident in the decisions I make. I know the customer. I know what to expect. I can guide an employee who is newer to the organization and give them information regarding what did or didn’t work well over the years. When you come from a lower position and move up, you carry all of that great company history. You can guide your team.
After you took the job as CEO, was there anything about the role that surprised you?
I wasn’t expecting to be so involved in the “people” part of business. Since we’re a small business — we have 47 employees — a lot of the HR responsibilities fall under my to-do list.
People aren’t afraid to come to me, whether they just need a new chair or they’re experiencing something bigger like an issue with a coworker. I hear everything and get a lot of direct interfacing with the employees. But the conversations aren’t just about their jobs. You learn a lot about their families and you also learn to be compassionate.
On a related note, how would you describe your leadership style?
Hands-on. I would never ask somebody to do something that I haven’t done or wouldn’t do myself. I think that people respect me a lot more because of it. I’m the type of person who, if I see something that needs to be done and there’s no one around to do it, I’ll do it. That’s helped me build a better working relationship with the people I manage because when I delegate a task, they don’t push back. They know I’ll get in there and do it too.
Being hands-on is 100 percent the best way to be a leader. If you know how to pack a box, you appreciate the employee doing it each day even more. Being hands-on helps you realize that every role is important at the company.
What are some specific challenges you have faced as a woman in business?
At my first job at a fashion company in Charlotte, there was one person who was pretty high up and he would make these very inappropriate comments about what I was wearing during meetings. I was in planning for children’s clothes and he would hold up a little girls’ dress and be like, “Oh, would Sara fit in this?” It was so ridiculous.
Because I was so young and I was early in my career, I didn’t feel empowered enough to say something even though I totally should have. Older women who worked for that company would even come up to me and say, “He shouldn’t be talking to you like that.” But again, I was young and didn’t want to cause waves.
From that experience, I learned that men are looked at differently in the business world. It has changed some over the years but women are still underrepresented in company leadership.
Is there any advice you’d give to your younger self, besides maybe to learn to love accounting?
I wish that I had connected with a career coach, even before starting college. I wish I had a better grasp on the jobs that were available because I felt very lost going into school. I had just turned 18. I was still young and yet I was supposed to know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I felt very lost with that.
I did enjoy fashion, so I went to school for fashion merchandising and marketing. I intended to be a buyer and I didn’t end up there. I think some additional career planning or coaching would have helped me understand what I’m good at and what I ultimately wanted to do.
So how did you eventually discover your unique strengths and talents?
Honestly, by working at this company and doing everything through trial and error. At Anita Goodesign, I was given the opportunity to learn everything from how to order boxes to inventory. I got to figure out that I’m good at the planning and organization piece — knowing a little about each department, reeling it in, and getting it done.
Sometimes when you have so many departments working on a project, you need one person who can be the glue to stick it all together and finish it. That’s what I’m good at. I can anticipate what’s coming and get it done.
What’s one way you are continually growing and evolving as CEO?
We recently had a shift in our billing admin roles. I started looking for someone to fill this position, but our business has changed so much because of the pandemic that I decided we don’t need this position anymore. We can instead rely on our accountant and some internal people to complete the job.
We’re all learning the ins and outs of finances, accounting, and taxes — which sounds very exciting. Honestly, in all of my business classes in college, I hated accounting the most. Now, here I am, and I have to do it. It’s part of my job. So that’s a new skill that I’m learning, even if I don’t necessarily want to be.