“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a CEO” with Elizabeth Gerbel of EAG Services

Written by Phil La Duke – As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I reached out to women CEO’s and had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth currently serves as the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of EAG Services, a leading oil and gas IT consulting firm, and EAG 1Source, a full-service IT and business process outsourcing firm. She is responsible not only for both companies’ strategic leadership and vision, but also for providing guidance, direction and expertise to clients and team members.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Elizabeth! What is it about the position of CEO that most attracted you to it?

It was during my first jobs, right after college, working for Andersen Consulting and PricewaterhouseCoopers, where I implemented accounting, financial, and cost-accounting systems for clients of those firms, that led me to my current career path. I’m grateful for that experience because it laid the foundation for what we’re doing today at EAG Services.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does, but in just a few words can you explain what a CEO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other executives?

As the leader at the helm, it’s my job to develop and support successful teams. That means building the right team. From there, create an environment where your team feels safe but push their boundaries. My goal is not for everyone at EAG to stay forever, but when they leave, they should be significantly more knowledgeable and accomplished than when they arrived.

What were your biggest struggles throughout your professional life and how did you overcome them?

Learning to identify individuals within the organization who were not a cultural fit or healthy for morale proved difficult for me. I always tried to see the best in everyone and thought that it was part of my role to encourage employees to become their best selves, but many times, retaining those individuals was detrimental to the organization, as a whole. I had to learn that not everyone is a cultural fit or happy within EAG and that’s ok. As a result, we have spent significant time defining what is the EAG Culture and encouraged those who were not a fit to find new opportunities. This turned out to be best for everyone but mostly for the EAG team. Now, everyone knows that they can rely on everyone else and feel that they are working towards a consistent vision for the company. Since I changed my paradigm on what my role is, our culture has blossomed, and our team seems much happier and engaged.

What are the biggest challenges faced by women CEOs that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Especially being in an oil & gas industry where men are mostly holding the jobs and in our work environment, a big challenge is creating a warm, comfortable environment. It’s crucial to develop a peer-based organization or environment where your team can feel it’s safe to make those mistakes and learn. Mistakes are a great learning tool and more companies embrace employees — women — in order to develop them and help them grow. Men can face this too, but in our particular industry, it’s more often than not, a male-dominated environment.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being a CEO?

When our entire team is in the office together, typically on Friday’s, I get to hear them laugh and collaborate with one another. It’s amazing to watch, and then, to later hear from clients the ideas and problems that they have been able to solve makes me so very proud of their accomplishments. I consider myself a collector of brilliant and team-driven people, and when I see them come together, it takes my breath away.

What are the downsides of being a CEO?

Work/life balance.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

As any entrepreneur can relate, my entire path was a learning process, but I’d say the most interesting story relates back to my early days of finances in my business. When we went through our first venture, a few years after founding EAG Services, we reached a point where the funds weren’t adding up. It was at this point that we realized our controller wasn’t paying our bills, and we had to figure out how to not only correct the mistake but also learn how to manage with low cash flow. It took about a year to come out of this mistake.

All in all, I wouldn’t change our path because it was something we had to go through and experience. It’s essential to learn about cash flow and how critical it is to manage cash flow when building capital. The next time we had a downturn in cash flow, I was prepared, and we had learned from that first time what we had to do.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

As an entrepreneur always on-the-go, with a very determined mindset, something amusing happened to me when I did everything in my power to attend a meeting in a different city.

I was already traveling from a meeting when I realized I had to re-route my travel itinerary if I wanted to make the upcoming meeting in a different city. The only way for me to get there in the appropriate time frame was to fly straight to that city, Denver. I re-routed my flights, changed my schedule, but my luggage, however, was a different story. My luggage somehow found its way to Mexico City instead of Denver.

I learned that sometimes it’s ok to slow down and reschedule a meeting because it’s probably not best for you to push yourself. In the end, I had to push the meeting by a few hours because I had to purchase a whole new wardrobe.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be a CEO, what specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful CEO and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be a CEO?

Successful leaders develop and support successful teams. First of all, build the right team. Hiring a great resume may get you skills, but is that person going to fit into your team? Eliminate those individuals who erode rather than enhance team spirit. My daily goal is to help my team thrive. Create an environment where your team feels safe but push their boundaries. If you have a talented team, push them to do things that are new with the caveat that they will make mistakes. The right team members will HATE making mistakes, but the outcome should be a constructive learning experience. That’s not to say that you won’t get angry periodically, but that is what the gym is for… to work off your emotions which are usually irrelevant. Your team will never grow if they cannot make those mistakes and learn. Remind them that it’s ok to make mistakes, but to be successful, they have to get back up again the next day and strive to learn. And, of course to make new mistakes in the future. That’s part of growth. It’s essential for members of your team to feel as if they’re a part of an experience, not just an employee. My goal is not for everyone at EAG to stay forever, but when they leave, they should be significantly more knowledgeable and accomplished than when they arrived. Lastly, really listen to people when they’re bringing ideas to the table and let people do the job they were designed to do. Explore people’s ‘zones of genius’ and leverage that in the decisions you make. You can’t know everything or do everything better than everyone else, nor should you. You are their fearless leader (or pretend to be). Give them the strength and encouragement to become the best in their field.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

My top advice for other female leaders to help their team thrive is first to create an environment where your team feels safe. In other words, we all make mistakes, but it’s crucial to develop a peer-based organization or environment where your team can feel it’s safe to make those mistakes and learn. Tell them it’s ok to make mistakes but you must get back up again the next day and strive to learn and do better.

Who inspired/inspires you and why?

My dad was is my biggest inspiration because he’s been through my journey — every step of the way.

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 about that?

Throughout my journey of success, the person that was always there for me was my dad. He’s always been incredibly supportive, especially in teaching me never give up when things got down. He’d always tell me to buck up and get back on the saddle.

When push came to shove, he would pitch in money or help me with personal expenses or provide me a short-term loan to keep going. It was through this trial and error that I learned how to be better at predicting and how to handle the ups and downs of the energy cycle.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As a Houstonian, it was important for me and only natural to come back and start my company there. It meant a lot for me to add more jobs to my hometown. My impact, as well as EAG Services, is evident by Houstonians, particularly startup oil & gas companies turning to us for advice in streamlining processes & providing support to their businesses. The work myself and the EAG Services team provide to our Houston clients is everything, and it shows at every level in the organization. People are empowered at EAG, not only to mold their career path and accelerate it as such but also in their ability to do right by the client.

It’s also important for us to give back to our community when we can. We have a community service committee that comes up with activities for the company to participate in throughout the year where most of our employees are coming out and giving back.

What are the “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. For any new business cash on-hand is critical, and I wish someone had told me to always understand the cash impact of every decision that you make before taking action. I know from talking to other friends in start-up situations that this is a hard lesson to learn on your own. In my case, during our 2nd year of operations, I decided to switch the team from contractor status to employee status. I made offers to everyone who I thought would be a good fit long term and expected a few of those folks to accept. It didn’t occur to me that they would ALL accept. And, I did not think through how much it would cost to pay out the remaining amounts owed for their prior month’s work as contractors as well as their first month of salary and benefits. That overlap unexpectedly tapped me out. From that experience, I learned to always calculate the cost up front, plan accordingly and try to avoid an unnecessary cash crunch.
  2. Work with a bank where you actually have access to a banker who can answer questions and provide advice. When I first started, I used a large bank simply because I had maintained my personal accounts there. However, you need someone to talk to about getting a line of credit established, the difference between the types of accounts available, how to maintain your credit worthiness, etc. With the big bank, I had a basic business account. By moving to Amegy Bank and getting to know my local banker, I was able to get a line of credit in place, different accounts to generate interest off cash reserves, positive pay to protect us if someone tried to deposit a fraudulent check, etc. Those are really important services to have in place.
  3. For every upturn there is a downturn, and you have to take advantage of economic ups and market changes that give you an edge because a downturn is eventually coming your way. I work in the Energy Industry which is very cyclical. I knew that from the day we started, but it was so easy to focus on growth without planning for a rainy day. Because of that, we were low on cash and too dependent on specific customers when we were faced with our first big downturn in 2009. There were days when we only had $4,000 of cash on-hand. The line of credit kept us alive, but we had to cut everything and everywhere to make it through that year. The next big downturn hit in 2014. We were better prepared, and while it was still a struggle, we weren’t wondering if we would have to shut down the business. We learned new lessons on how to survive and feel much more prepared for the next downturn.
  4. Everybody has advice on how to run your business. You will be offered a lot of really terrible advice and a few great nuggets. It’s important to sift through the talk and utilize the advice that is really relevant. When I first started the company, I tried to talk to everyone and listen to everyone which was exhausting and confusing. During the third year, I joined Vistage, a CEO networking group, and that was a game changer. I had folks who were going through the same types of issues to talk to. Others were past my issues and could speak to what they learned and the mistakes they made. I was able to run ideas by a team of folks who actually cared about my success. We also had a facilitator for the group who brought in speakers to discuss different topics such as managing your Key Performance Indicators, Sales, Marketing, HR. It was all extremely helpful.
  5. Pick your advisors carefully and use them consistently. Your lawyers, CPA’s, Payroll Service Providers and Accountants are there to help you and keep you out of trouble. Always research their advice and get 2nd opinions if you are uncertain, but do not strike out on your own creating contracts, figuring out payroll and filing taxes if you don’t know what you are doing. This is something that I figured out on my own very quickly, and it paid off. We have great contracts in place. We started off with the right legal entity setup which saved me significantly in taxes (talk to your tax advisor, not your lawyer about legal entity options). Working with a payroll service ensured that we were in compliance with rules that I never new existed. Where I failed was with accounting. I thought that a CPA would make a great Controller, but there is a big difference between audit and small business accounting. You, the owner, need to understand how accounting works and review your books carefully every single month. When the downturn of 2009 hit, not only was I in a cash crisis, but I couldn’t figure out what I really owed because the books were a complete mess. A friend of mine who owned a bookkeeping firm came into the office with me on a Saturday, and we pulled invoices out of drawers and files all weekend. It took us over a week to figure out what was due and what was paid. We had to call vendors and try to discern the status of our accounts. In the end, she took over the accounting so that I could focus on getting us cash flow positive again. Then, she helped me train a very trusted employee to take over the accounting. Now, we walk through the books every month and discuss where we can improve and how to manage cash.

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