How to Make Your Own Rules in Business

Shelley Zalis breaks the rules

Shelley Zalis is a businesswoman that other businesswomen want to know. Actually, she is someone that businessmen want to know, too. If you spend any time with Shelley, you know she is going to make big things happen. But she is willing to share her ideas on how to do it with the rest of us.

On the day I crossed paths with Shelley, she sat comfortably on the auditorium stage of Celebrity Cruise Line’s Equinox ship docked in Miami. The audience of more than 200 women were hanging on her every word at The Commonwealth Institute South Florida‘s Annual Leadership Luncheon.  Like most of the audience, I tried to absorb every morsel of business wisdom this go-against-the-grain leader had for us.

Shelley is the former chief executive of a Hollywood market research firm and the leader of an effort to advance corporate women.  Most people know her as founder of  the Girls’ Lounge,  a gathering spot for women at major business events. In addition, Zalis also heads, a consulting firm that helps companies advance gender equality in their workplaces.

This dynamo has spent her career breaking the rules to create new ones, and she’s not about to stop. Here is Shelley’s guide to breaking the rules and coming out the winner.

1. Convince yourself it’s okay to  do things differently. Zalis is not one to abide by the rules of business, particularly those that exclude women. It is how she built a company, started a movement and landed a show on Bloomberg television called Walk the Talk.  “I break the rules to create new ones,” she said. “Doing it for the first time is scary, especially when you have no formula for success.”

  • Break the rules of business. As CEO of a market research firm, she ran her business with kindness and encouraged her employees to live with no regrets.
  • Break the rules of appearance. Early in her career, she dressed in conservative clothing like the men, until she met Penelope Queen, a well-known researcher, who greeted her in a purple leather suit. “That’s when I realized you cannot create the new norm if you follow the same patterns.”
  • Break the rules of language. Shelley wanted to call her movement, The Girl’s Lounge. Some people took offense with the word “girl.” Shelley didn’t care.For her, the word “girl” is about a mindset. “Being a risk-taker and adventure-seeker; breaking the rules and—most importantly—supporting others are what make, in my eyes, a girl,” she said.

2. Change the thought process at the top.  Diversity is good for business, Zalis explains.  But you have to convince men and women at the top to believe it — and follow through with action. “It takes a leader saying I want to be better. I will be better, but I need to be conscious about being better.”  The first step toward a mindset shift is not a drastic change, she said.  “It’s a leadership conversation about where we are and what we want to work on first.” Have that conversation at your organization.

3. Be confident.  If you are going to take a risk or make a game-changing play, you need to believe you can pull it off.  Women often have an obnoxious roommate in their heads telling them they aren’t qualified or good enough and they get scared, Zalis says. She warns women not to listen to that voice. “Perfection does not exist and if it does, it’s boring. Blemishes make you interesting,” she said. “Believe in yourself. Be yourself. If you’re not perfect have people around you who complement you.”

4. Take risks. In her first job, Zalis said she took a risk by doing the sales job her way, thinking she had a perfect performance and insisting she deserved a raise. Her boss did not see her performance the same way.  “It was the worst review I have ever gotten. My boss told me I was spending too much time with clients. I told him, ‘You’re so wrong. Relationships are what business is about.’ “ Now, she does a job the way she thinks it should be done, even if it hasn’t been done that way before. “I love getting uncomfortable. I am comfortable being uncomfortable because I know I am trying something new.” If Zalis has a “heartbeat moment” when she gets a great idea, she goes for it and encourages the rest of us to do the same.

5. Change it up. If you want to make your own rules and stay current, you need to continuously think different, act different and live different.  At 53, Zalis is gaining momentum, making connections and moving in a new direction. Zalis recommends trying something new as often as possible. “Invite a new person to dinner. Watch a different kind of movie. Try a different type of food. That’s how you evolve and stay interesting. If you do the same thing every day, you don’t evolve and you get boring.”


Shelley Zalis and Katie Kempner at the TCI South Florida Leadership Lunch. Zalis (right) encourages women in business to break the rules and create their own.
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