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Applying ballroom dance to leadership Mimi Feliciano tells conference a secret of her success

Mimi Feliciano, founder and CEO of FEM Real Estate, kicked off the Women Entrepreneurship Week conference.-(FEM REAL ESTATE)

The Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship at Montclair State University hosted its third annual Women Entrepreneurship Week conference on Wednesday.Since the event was organized in 2014, Women Entrepreneurship Week has grown to see events hosted in 12 countries, five states in the U.S. and 20 New Jersey locations this year in recognition and support of women entrepreneurs worldwide.

Mimi Feliciano, founder and CEO of FEM Real Estate, kicked off the signature conference by discussing what she learned about leadership in business from competitive ballroom dancing. 

“I was a bit of an overachiever and a workaholic, and the problem that I had was that I felt really uncomfortable ever asking for support. I didn’t think that I needed it,” she said. “It became an overwhelming amount of work and I just found myself depressed.

“So I decided to get help. I hired two coaches — one personal, one business — and said, ‘I don’t know how I got myself into this mess, but I need someone to help save me from my own thinking.’ ”

As a result, Feliciano said, she hired five C-suite executives to help lead her team.

“It was very easy to fall into the role of leading and them executing my plans,” she said. “I was able to grow the business even more.”

She even found the time to begin taking ballroom dancing lessons with her husband, Eddie Feliciano.

“The thing that you have to learn and know about ballroom dancing is that you, the woman, are not in charge,” Feliciano said. “He decides where you’re going to go, when and how.”

Feliciano said she would talk to her peers at the Women Presidents’ Organization about a particularly challenging dance teacher she was working with.

“I didn’t realize that I wasn’t letting him lead,” she said. “He would get upset and say, ‘You’re doing it again!’ It was just in my DNA.”

Her peers, she said, were appalled.

“They would say, ‘He really said that to you? Why do you put up with that? That is wrong! You should not put up with that,’ ” Feliciano said.

But another of her peers had a different perspective.

“She said, ‘All the guy really wants to do is make you look good. It is their job to spin you out, dip you, lift you and bring you back. When they win, you win.’ ”

Feliciano realized that in all of her years in leadership, she had never trusted anyone to handle what she had delegated to them.

“Even when I had my senior team and I thought I was leading, honestly, I was still in charge,” she said. “I decided what we were going to do, and they executed. That worked for the company and I — but what I learned about leadership from dancing is that sometimes you simply need to let go. You have to trust in a framework where you both have the same goals.

“Co-creating is at a higher level of leadership than just delegating and executing. In many ways, they want to make a difference; they want to be significant; and by giving up control, you have freed yourself and have allowed yourself true support.”

Here are some additional highlights from speakers at the conference:

  • “Sometimes, you don’t always want to become the expert on something. My plan was to tackle the problem, figure out exactly what had gone wrong and put in place a process that was then transferable so that someone else could do it next time. … I said, I’ll take these lemons and make lemonade in a way that I can call the shots.” — Michele Ansbacher, retired vice president of Prudential Financial
  • “You don’t really think of a big and bold idea as being risky until you start to socialize it and other people question it. … That is when you start to doubt. … At our company, we simply say, ‘Fail fast, recover quickly.’ We allow people to take risks, but we want them to be able to pick up and course correct if their ideas don’t work.” — Debbie Dyson, corporate vice president of client experience at ADP
  • “I am a classic Type A perfectionist, but I do think that can be paralyzing. So I really like the Mark Twain quote: ‘Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.’ It’s when you’re not fearful anymore that maybe it’s time to try something new.” — Jessica Gaffney, creator and founder of Wavework
  • “I keep in touch with a select group of people — my own personal board of directors, if you will — who specialize in a variety of different things. I don’t have just one mentor, but a collective mentorship for both my business and for my personal life.” — Sunita Holzer, executive vice president and chief human resources officer of Realogy
  • “Do not start a daily blog unless you are sure that you want to do that every day for years. … Every time I write one, I take a risk — someone will accuse me of stoking childhood obesity or offending animal lovers, even. … This was just a fun little thing that I had just wanted to do while my kids were at school. Now, we run an after-school math club all over the country and I’ve written three books. It really just built because people are so hungry for math to be playful and fun.” — Laura Overdeck, founder and president, Bedtime Math Foundation
  • “If ever there was a time that women had a chance to move ahead, it is now. We are at a tipping point — at a place where we have never been before.” — Marsha Firestone, founder and president of the Women Presidents’ Organization
  • “Early on, I was so dependent on some of my employees that when we outgrew them I still remained loyal. But when you know that letting them go is the right decision because that team member is no longer the right fit or is no longer effective, move quickly. It will begin to affect your culture and productivity otherwise. The minute I made that decision, a weight was lifted.” — Susan Frech, CEO of Social Media Link
  • “If you are going to start out with a partner, make sure you get proper legal advice to make sure that, if there is any kind of dispute, you have a way to mediate that. I see that happen in businesses that are quite large and it is very problematic.” — Celeste Gudas, president of 24 Seven Inc.
  • “You never know what a person’s thought filter is like — it is a common communication problem, but sometimes it can cause big problems within a company. I’ve learned to focus in on the conversation I am having with all of my employees, asking, why are we here, what are we trying to accomplish and what are our core values as team members?  Sometimes I have made assumptions that what I am saying is actually being heard — but when you start making assumptions about the people who are part of your team and invest in them authority, sometimes people are not ready for that responsibility.” — Jayne Millard, CEO of Turtle & Hughes

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno also spoke at the event despite the fact that she said she — like so many women — does not like to talk about herself.

“But if we do not share our stories, then we will not learn from each other’s mistakes,” she said.

Guadagno used the popularity of her more political Tweets and comments over the past two weeks to be more candid with the audience than ever.

“Could I get in any more trouble than I’ve gotten in over the last couple of weeks? No. So let’s just keep going,” she said.

Despite the fact that women-owned businesses have increased nearly 50 percent over the last 10 years, Guadagno said, women-centric conferences and events like Women Entrepreneurship Week are still necessary.

“You’d think with a conference like this we’d be making progress,” she said. “But I’m a lawyer. And I just read the New Jersey Law Journal this week.

“Inside — because they wouldn’t dare put this on the front page — it said ‘Male Partners at New Jersey Law Firms Make 44 percent More Than Women Partners.’

“This frightens me in the 21st century that this could be happening right under my nose, as an attorney for 30 years admitted to the practice of law in New Jersey, knowing all the women that I know in New Jersey who practice law. It is offensive to me that we have so much further to go.”

Guadagno said she will continue to work with the state of New Jersey to not only provide more accessible career and child care opportunities for working New Jersey women, but to narrow the gender gap.

“I am the 33rd secretary of state. I am the lieutenant governor. And when the governor leaves the state of New Jersey, I am the acting governor,” Guadagno said. “Three jobs — one salary.

“In this room, you better get that joke.”

Jen Slaw, professional juggler and former structural engineer, ended the informative program with an interactive and fun session on how to build the most fulfilling, balanced life while working as a woman entrepreneur. 

Meg Fry

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