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The Rungs of Learning with Shelli Taylor, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

I know very few senior executives who are as curious about past context and culture as Shelli Taylor. Her incredible career as a global executive at well respected brands such as Disney, Starbucks, Education Elements and Planet Fitness has taken her all over the world.

In this month's Rungs of Learning, Shelli shares how those experiences prepared her for her first CEO role and offers advice to others seeking an expat assignment.

Taking a step back in time, where did you grow up and what did you learn early in your life that shaped who you are today?

I grew up in a small town in Southern California, and, the short story is, my mom gave birth to me her senior year of high school. She had her life dreams and I’m pretty sure having a child at that age was not in it. She did the best she could to provide us a great childhood and we lived with her through the fourth grade at which point I ended up living with my grandparents for a number of years.

My grandparents taught us a lot of lessons, the first of which is the joy of working. We worked a lot whether it was making the meals in the house or cleaning the kitchen. They also had a small farm, so we were constantly working by feeding animals, caring for them or gardening. Life was never a chore; it was always a joy no matter what we were doing and I love work because of them.

One memorable moment that shaped me when I was growing up was when my grandparents received the deed for their house because they just paid it off. I was twelve and we had a big celebration and I’ll never forget what my grandfather said when he held it up: “This is true wealth. When you have no debt in life, you can make whatever decision you want, and this is the best.” It taught me to live on my own means and always have a choice because of that – it was super impactful.

You’ve lived all over the world (China twice, Taiwan and several cities in the U.S.). How did living and working in these environments contribute to your growth and development as a leader?

The most important learning I took away from living in all those places is an appreciation for the past and how it influences the present and the future. The past includes a society’s history, their culture, and their core values.

It’s very easy for us as westerners to have a black and white/right and wrong vision of the world. When we sit in another culture, though, we start to realize it’s not that clear cut and other’s people’s cultures have led them to places that are great for them even if it doesn’t necessarily align with how we live our values. You develop deep respect for someone else’s core values and beliefs and why they lead the way they do by way of living in another place.

In the workplace, it becomes incredibly invaluable because it allows you to hold the polar opposites in your heart and your mind and really see them with love and curiosity and then figure out how to move forward. You can be more creative holistic with your solutions.

I can translate this to the recent unionization efforts in our company [Alamo Drafthouse Cinema]. It’s easy to come in with your lens as management and say “wait a second – we’re a good company, we’re providing all these things, I don’t understand why you’d want to unionize”. It feels offensive and hurtful and out of alignment with our core values and can be easy to personalize it but, if you take a deep breath and are willing to stand on the other side and listen and understand the history you can find out if our culture is really shared. Is there something to be learned? Can I hold an open space and respect the other person’s up to now and find a path forward? I’m sure because of my experience living in other cultures, it helped me open up and see things differently in my current role as CEO.

Speaking of working and living in other cultures, what advice would you give to people desiring an international work experience?

I highly recommend it. First, though make sure it’s what you really want to do. Just because you enjoy traveling to exotic places doesn’t mean you will like working in a foreign environment. It’s not uncommon for people to go home quickly because it’s not what they expected or hoped for. If what you want is to live and learn and be part of another culture and grow as a human, it’s going to be an incredible assignment.

The best way to prepare is to be excellent in your job because the learning the curve of living and working in that environment is big enough. I also believe learning some of the language, culture, and the history beforehand and having a respect and appreciation for the culture will go a long way. That’s something most people do not do before they go on an expat assignment but it will help you have real impact quickly and build meaningful relationships.

Which role in your career that best prepared you for your current role as CEO at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema? Being the President/COO United PF (the largest Planet Fitness franchisee) was by far the experience that translated the most to my current role. One reason is that I’ve always been on the brand side and at Planet I was on the franchisee side and there I learned that it’s really helpful to understand both perspectives. Most franchisees have more experience delivering the product than the franchisor, yet the franchisor has all of the voice and vision for the brand. Having sat now on both sides, it’s helping me find ways to partner with our Alamo franchisees and bring their talent and voices to augment the company in a way I don’t think I would have done as I have not done without the Planet Fitness experience.

I also learned a lot through all our Planet Fitness acquisitions (we had eight while I was there). Those experiences reinforced the need for really good change management and bringing groups together toward a mission and the need for a culture that is really solid and with well articulated values.

Can you describe a role in your career that really tested you and what did you take away from that experience?

I took a job about ten years ago as the COO of a company called Education Elements which was an ed tech start up. There was perfect alignment from a core value and mission perspective, but I learned that technology (software development) was not a match for me. It took too long for me to identify it wasn’t a match and then, when I realized it wasn’t match, it took a little too long to take the action to move out. It wasn’t a failure, but I felt I made the commitment and I needed to stay which I really didn’t. If I were to replay that time over, I would have stepped out immediately.

I think part of our western culture says we need to give something a real try. In our careers we need to identify what a real try and maybe five minutes is enough of a real try.

How have mentors and advisors contributed to your growth as a leader?

I think mentorship can manifest itself in accidental learning all day, every day. If we’re just present in the moment, there’s learning to be had. Having said that, there are three mentors I’ve had that come to mind when I get asked this question.

The first is Mark Lindstrom who I can hear in my head all the time. He always said “see the person as the potential that you know that they can be, and they will grow into it. If you only see them where they are at right now, you will limit them.” He’s probably one of the most influential people in my career.

The other person is Anthony Kim from Education Elements. He was about breaking every rule. For example, he told me not to show up in a suit when visiting schools to demo our product and to instead dress like a teacher. Another example is when we interviewed candidates for our company, he didn’t care what the job description said if someone had great overall qualifications but maybe weren’t a perfect fit for the role we were hiring for. Instead, he’d encourage us to try and find a place somewhere in the organization for them versus trying to find the perfect person for the role. As a result, he’s built an incredible company with talented passionate people and it taught me to be fluid with the organizational structure.

The last person that I’ve learned a lot from is Trey Owen at Planet Fitness. He had a saying that “the pig gets fat, the hog gets slaughtered.” By that he meant, it was about not getting too greedy with all the little things like the pursuit of the tightest labor, the lowest rent, or the highest revenue at the expense of leaving people behind. I believed that there’s another line on the P&L that is about humanity and happiness which are equally important as the financials.

Shifting gears, I’ve been following you on Instagram and notice you’re a rower. How did you get into it and what have you learned from it?

I had seen all these signs near Lady Bird Lake in the middle of Austin (where I live) advertising rowing lessons. I’d see people out there rowing early in the morning and thought I’d try it to have community.

I fell in love with the sport immediately. It’s so physical and so demanding but so intellectual. You have to be so present in the boat and mindful of every moment to row well. I love the whole challenge.

Rowing in a single person shell (which I do about 50% of the time) is the hardest to row and forces you to learn the most because you feel every single thing.

The team boats are phenomenal because everybody in the boat is equally important, and no boat will win without everyone in the boat. I’ve really grown through the team boat experience and love the challenge of being a follower. I ask to be put in the middle of the boat because I want to be the one that has to be great at taking instruction and delivering what’s being asked of me. It’s a really good and humbling place to be. When you get into certain roles, you need that - giving other people the stage and letting them be the leader. There’s great joy in leading from behind.

What’s something you’ve learned from your teenage son Rory in recent years?

I’m too serious and Rory is always telling me not to be so serious. He can make a joke or anything fun and has helped me learn that sometimes being a goofball and laughing is more productive than being accurate and serious. He’s an entertainer and has been since he was a little kid.

Last question! What are you focusing your learning on these days?

The entertainment industry was already disrupted before COVID with the rise of streaming and the “Me Too” movement and then COVID accelerated it and added another dimension. Right now, I’ve been taking on projects in the industry that are very uncomfortable for me and include a board role and a committee role in an industry organization with the intent to really understand the history and people of the industry. This will help as we change the face of what cinema will be over the next fifty years and really reshape the business model and culture.

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