Shontra Powell is no pushover. But she is kind. And her uber-successful leadership career is proof-positive nice people can win in business.
The first thing that stands out when you talk to Shontra Powell is something not always associated with a super-successful 30-year Wall Street and Corporate America executive: genuine kindness.
Through some technical glitches I was a few minutes late for a Zoom call with Powell in late July. We were going to talk about her high-reaching business and leadership career, and the lessons she’s learned along the way. It’s a diverse list, including Lloyds of London, GE, Johnson Controls and Lee County-based rental car giant Hertz. She’s run billion-dollar business units, and she’s started her own companies. Her mentors and colleagues have been some big-time global business icons — in addition to her parents. But on this day, after I apologized for being late, Powell said no worries and then this: “Thanks for your time. Your time is a gift.”
'People telling you you’re a fancy pants? That’s a pretty big piece of cheese to have to eat.’ Shontra Powell
That disarming warmth is one secret to how Powell, 51, has succeeded in her varied career, where, she says, she was often the only black woman in the boardroom. That lonely challenge was particularly acute in risk management/insurance, manufacturing and batteries, the traditionally male dominated fields where she spent most of her corporate career. Powell won over many of her peers in those roles, not just with her kindness but also with her abilities. “I’ve had the opportunity to be sponsored and mentored by some incredible people,” she says, “and most of them didn’t look anything like me.”
I discovered Powell and her career in early July, when she was named to the board of the Gulfshore Playhouse, the Naples-based professional theatre organization amid a $60 million transformative renovation project. Powell moved to Southwest Florida in early 2018, recruited to guide a transformation of the sales and commercial operations at Hertz. She left shortly before the company’s May 2020 bankruptcy.
Staying in Southwest Florida, she and her husband, Andre Powell, an entrepreneur and former college and NFL linebacker, launched a new company: Red Zone Fleet Services. Based in Naples, it offers mobile repair services for operations that require fleets, from delivery to air conditioning companies. (No one wants their air conditioning repair van to break down on the way to an appointment.)
Powell’s sincere kindness disproves the myth that nice people finish last. It also belies her focused, data-driven approach to leadership, where, based on our conversation and a 2018 book she wrote, three key elements rise to the top: determination, optimism and courage.
A lot of the fortitude Powell has used in her career can be traced to her parents and grandparents. Her grandfather, Clyde Hutson, was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter in rural Mississippi in the 1950s — the front lines of the front lines for what would be the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
A key lesson Powell learned from her dad, Sam Morris, was despite any anger that could lead you astray, always treat everyone equally. Sam Morris served two tours in the Vietnam War and later worked his way up in Federal Express; Powell’s mom was a teacher. “We tend to really idolize the people above us and servitude the people below us,” says Powell, who grew up in New Orleans and acted in high school and was a jazz, ballet and tap dancer. “And that’s just the wrong way of thinking about it.”
Powell’s right way to overcome fears and doubts, her innate determination, was to take on tasks others thought she couldn’t do, or wasn’t ready for, and then outperform expectations.
An example comes from early in her career, when Powell was at insurance giant Cigna. She heard from one of her bosses that the company had long struggled to win the business to handle risk management for Eckerd, then a large drug store chain. Powell asked if she could have a chance at it. She studied up on the company, and how Cigna could get an edge. “I was like ‘if we can win this business I’m going to figure out how to do it,’” says Powell.
She was successful. While Cigna didn’t win the entire contract, it picked up a lot of it — all from a presentation Powell made. “That really got my name on the map,” she says.
Powell dedicates a portion of one chapter of her book, “Proven Not Perfect: Seven Truths of a Corporate Executive, Mommy and Christian,” to the power of optimism and positivity in leadership. Part of that stems, she says, from the craftsman’s mindset — the concept that you can improve your skillset in a new area, even in disciplines you don’t love at first. “Set out to do everything well and then leverage what you know,” she writes.
A craftsman’s mindset has helped Powell get through some tough assignments in her career with a smile — mixed with a little bit of kill-them-with-kindness. She cites three important points in her craftsman’s mindset thought process:
• Persistence: “Learn to dig in and grind it out,” she writes. “I focus on what I can learn and how I will use it to be better.”
• Nimbleness: “Learn to check yourself and adjust,” she says. “There is always something I’m doing to get in my way. I call it out, own it, adjust and excel.”
• Joyfulness: “It’s really never that bad. Recognize there are peaks and valleys. When in the valley, it’s easy to get stuck in complacency or contempt for a less-than-perfect situation. So, what I do is pretend until I believe it myself — the truth for me is it’s not too long before I realize that I do, in fact, believe.”
Powell’s definition of courage isn’t just a willingness to take on tough tasks, but a strong sense of humility when those tasks don’t go as planned.
That was particularly true in her early 30s, when she took on a role running a call center for GE’s health care division. She was overseeing more than 200 employees and had five direct reports. Soon after she arrived, the top employee quit and the No. 2 employee was close to bolting. “The only people I had left were on cruise control,” she says, “and they weren’t the ones who were going to help me move the needle.”
That was a pivotal moment for Powell and her career. “I knew my motivations to succeed, and I assumed — naively — that everyone on my team would share these,” she adds. “After only three months, I was the leader, but few were willingly following me.”
Powell says she had to “humble” herself. She recalled advice from her dad, that relationships with everyone at their level is what matters — not what stage you are at in your life of career. She closed the door to her office, had a few moments of self-pity and then quickly regained her composure. She decided to meet with people one-on-one in the department, to find out what the issues were. The answers? She was the issue.
“I was told I had a vision, and it sounds great but it wasn’t “‘great for us,’” Powell recalls. “I was told ‘your articulation is too big for us to be able to do our jobs.’”
“People telling you you’re a fancy pants?” she adds. “That’s a pretty big piece of cheese to have to eat.”
Powell then had the courage to follow through on getting better. She discovered the team had a family-like environment, where congeniality bested a cutthroat corporate approach. She set up bowling events and beer and brats nights for the team.
The experience taught Powell what she now considers key principles of her leadership style:
• Be a servant leader: stay in the trenches, she says, and don’t “leave them to stand alone.”
• Have purpose bigger than yourself. “It’s a bit cliché,” she writes, “but it’s not about you.”
• Make honesty, humility and candor the norm.
That last one comes with a warning — good for any leader, but even more so, I think, for leaders who put a premium on being authentic and empathetic. “Be humble,” Powell writes, “but don’t misunderstand that humility should not compromise your presence, position and impact. Acknowledge your unique impacts.”