How an English Major Finds Her Path to the CEO’s Office

Leadership
BY SHANNON ADKINS

CEO Shannon Adkins on Onward Nation Podcast

After graduating with a degree in English from UC Santa Barbara, Shannon Adkins figured she’d start with a technical writer job in the San Francisco Bay area. She was introduced to Meryl Natchez, CEO of a small consulting company called TechProse, who hired Adkins and soon became her mentor. 

“Meryl met me and said, ‘Wow, you must be the world’s worst technical writer. You should definitely not have that career. You’re a salesperson. There’s something happening called the Internet, and I don’t really know what that is, but you should find out and maybe figure out if there’s something that we could be selling that would help us be successful.’”

Even though Adkins had never used a computer—these were the early ’90s days of word processors, remember?—she jumped into the TechProse world of building and selling websites.  

“The real takeaway lesson for me there early in my career was, ‘Oh, if you have a really cool leader, they’ll let you take on things that you’re completely unqualified for, and they’ll let you succeed in areas that you would never even have envisioned for yourself,’” she says. 

She credits Natchez with many influential lessons, including one of the most memorable that came after a sales pitch early in Adkins’ career that she thought had gone well—and proceeded to say just that. Natchez stopped her and shared a thought-provoking message. 

Natchez told her: “You need to start every single conversation with me with, ‘What did I do right, what did I do wrong and how can I improve?’ And, if you can start to ask for and receive feedback through every interaction that you have—with your boss, of course, with me, as a CEO, but also with your clients, also with your team members, also with your subordinates—you will grow faster than anybody else that’s a peer to you, because people are afraid of feedback and they don’t ask for it. If you can get feedback and incorporate it and not take it personally, you will grow faster than anybody else in the organization.” 

That lesson has stuck with Adkins, who still acts on that advice. 

“We have been taught … that there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, and the brightest and the best will succeed, and the people who have the answer are going to get promoted,” she says. “Shifting that on its head early on and really recognizing that it isn’t about what you know, it’s about what you’re willing to learn and who you’re willing to learn it from, that is the lesson that stuck with me.” 

‘The Company Needs You’ 

Eventually, Adkins left TechProse and held other jobs, some with startups and others with established companies.  

“But I always longed for a work environment like I’d had at TechProse, an environment where I was first and foremost seen and recognized for the contributions that I could make, even if it didn’t show up on my resume, even if it didn’t show up in my educational background,” she says. 

Her return to Future State involved a bit of thought, a bit of opportunity and a bit of, well, magic. 

“I’d made the decision that I was not happy where I was. I said to my husband, ‘I’m going to go back to TechProse.’ And he was like, ‘What? We haven’t… what? You haven’t worked there in 15 years. What are you talking about?’ I woke up the next morning and there was an email in my inbox from Meryl, who I hadn’t spoken to in 10 years. 

“And it said: ‘The company needs you…I sold the company to the employees. The company needs vision and leadership. I think you need the company, too.” 

Since seizing that opportunity and returning to the company that’s now known as Future State, Adkins has emphasized creating a work environment that attracts and retains top talent, which she sees as crucial in a tight labor market. 

“What we do need is more businesses that recognize that people are their most important and most strategic asset,” Adkins says. “People have choices, especially the best top talent have choices. We’ve started to really think our clients include our paying customers and our talent. It’s a process of getting to know extraordinary human beings in our community over time.” 

Future State is employee-owned, which means all employees earn a part of the company after working 1,000 hours. 

“So I work for my team. That’s who I get up every morning to work for, and it’s very literal,” Adkins says. “They are my shareholders. Any CEO works for their shareholders. I’m just lucky enough that mine are my employees. 

“In exchange, I get to ask things like, ‘Can you love your job? Can you love this place like I love it? Can you commit to developing yourself and developing the people around you? Can you commit to helping us build a company that you’ll be proud to work at every single day?’” 

Productive and Meaningful Work and Lives 

Once they join the Future State team, employees are entrusted with work schedule flexibility—and the responsibility to get things done. 

“Take care of what you need to do, and I trust that you’ll be accountable for the outcomes,” Adkins says. “What we recognize today is 21st century workplaces that are going to thrive and succeed are going to recognize that human beings have commitments, parents have commitments, and so do people who are not parents. They may be caregivers for an aging relative or they may simply have a passion that requires them to be not working between the hours of 4 and 6 on Tuesday and Thursday so they can participate in the local softball league. 

“And we want to support our team members in having full and productive and meaningful lives, because we know they’re better at their jobs when they’re engaged and satisfied and fulfilled in their lives.” 

By empowering its employees, Future State exudes a work culture that attracts clients with shared values. 

“Our clients say working with Future State’s just so much more fun than working with other consulting companies, and I think that has a lot to do with our authenticity and our self-awareness,” Adkins says. “We even have some clients who we’ve had to fire because they think of the human beings inside of their organization as widgets, as an asset to be managed.”  

Adkins says she was “utterly unqualified” for almost every job she took on, including CEO of Future State. But she has embraced those challenges while committing to learn, evolve and make mistakes—and she expects the same from her team members. 

“I do that mostly by sharing with them vulnerably, almost on a daily basis, where I am stuck, what I don’t know, and where I need their help,” she says.