Welcome to PartnerCentric: Interview with Stephanie Harris, Owner & CEO
Brook and Forrest founded Schaaf Consulting, Inc. in 2006 and hired Stephanie Harris as their first employee. Over a decade later, Stephanie has acquired the company (now PartnerCentric. Inc.) and is ready to take the organization to the next level as Owner & CEO.
Q: Stephanie, there is a good story about how your employment at Schaaf Consulting, Inc. began. Can we have more details?
A: Yes! I hadn’t heard of Brook and Forrest and met them for an impromptu interview at a bar in New Jersey. It was 2006 and they had just started a company called Schaaf Consulting, Inc., an outsourced program management agency (lots of those were starting to pop up around then). I was literally moving the next morning out of the country for a year (I was later told this is one of the things that most impressed them – that I had my act together enough to meet them, unplanned, the night before relocating internationally!). A bar fight broke out while we were there (!) but the interview apparently went well and we all decided to take a chance on each other. I think the takeaway here is that I’ve had luck on my side despite some precarious beginnings!
This set-up actually planted the seed for the remote company culture we have today. Brook, Forrest and I were able to do our jobs well from any location and this was something we wanted to be able to offer to employees: a flexible and professional career path for talented people located anywhere, without geographic restriction.
Q: You have four kids under the age of 7 and are able to balance being a mom and a full-time business owner. How do you do it and what are the challenges you have overcome?
A: Honestly, I sometimes don’t know how I do it either. I am fortunate that my husband is very supportive of my taking this on, and has taught me “you should always bet on yourself.” And also, having my kids has made me more driven, not less. I strive to provide a good example and show a strong work ethic. I want them to know that they can achieve their dreams too. You can’t have it all at once, but you can have it all. Three of my four little ones are girls, and it’s important for me to show them that you can be a mom, wife, sister and daughter while also having this career ambition that fulfills you in a different, but no less important, way. I want them to be able to always support themselves and stand on their own two feet as women, especially in the business world. I’m very proud to add PartnerCentric to the list of woman-owned businesses out there.
We have such a strong family-centered work culture in large part because I’m a working mom and I understand that for me the job is not worth doing if it can’t accommodate the most important thing in my life: my kids. They know that I take the time to be with them, and that my life has to revolve around them, because they only have one mom. Regarding challenges that I have overcome, what a list that is! I definitely have to schedule my day around work meetings and obligations as well as the needs of my kids. I’ve also had to be more selective with where I travel and for how long, especially as they get older. It’s always about finding a balance – but as many of us can relate to, usually it’s skewed to work or family. Here, I feel there’s no better job than this one for having the best of both worlds.
Q: What does this re-launch mean to you? Why is it important for us to be PartnerCentric?
A: This is a company with a long history and solid reputation and we want to move into the future with all of those positive things while at the same time, re-emerging with our own voice and our own look and feel. Not many companies have the chance to be both well-established, as well as fresh, and this is a great opportunity for us to have a re-introduction into the world as this new version of ourselves. We hope that this re-launch showcases the approachable, professional and thoughtful folks that we are at PartnerCentric, more so than our previous iterations have shown. PartnerCentric is a very appropo name for us because when we think about who we really are and why we exist as a company, we know that what’s most important to us is to build meaningful relationships. We are partner-centric both at home and with our clients. There is no better word to describe the importance of what we do and the strong relationships we have.
Q: What do you feel has changed most in the 11 years you have worked for this company?
A: What’s changed most is that we’ve grown up but in the best way possible. We still have that inherent sense of ownership that comes from being a bootstrapped, young and scrappy startup. There’s still a lot of hustle, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking. Everyone rolls their sleeves up and gets their hands dirty when it’s necessary. However, we are grown up in the sense that we take more of a thoughtful approach. We utilize the Rockefeller Habits to help us be more methodical and strategic about our own growth and direction. We have re-invested in ourselves and have matured as it relates to our investment in proprietary technologies and building internal support for our team. We’ve also learned to get our voice out there in a professional and cohesive way so we can really tell our story, and put more toward the continued learning and development of our people. We’ve always specialized in the affiliate space, and have evolved our way of thinking, our set of tools and our skillset to best service a more complex and dynamic industry. That is our grown-up self.
Q: Why do you feel it was important for you to experience so many roles at the organization before you became CEO & owner?
A: I believe that it’s really important that you know how to do any job that you direct others to do. You need to understand the challenges of the position in order to lead and guide people in those roles. I need to know if I have realistic expectations and a realistic vision based on what I have done in the past. It’s especially important in our space that I, and the senior team here, “grew up” as affiliate managers and did that job for many years. Even when I became more managerial, I still kept some clients in my portfolio so I wouldn’t lose touch with the latest trends and strategies. Having that background is part of why we’re obsessed with providing great service at PartnerCentric. So many of us here started as affiliate managers, so excellence in this space (tactical, strategic, and otherwise) is very much a part of our DNA.
Q: This rebrand really honed in on our core values of Professional Intimacy, Improvement, Expertise and Responsibility. Why do think that’s so important and what do these values mean to you?
A: You hear often that a company’s most valuable asset is its people. And while that’s true, I also think that what really sets you apart is your culture. At PartnerCentric, we are a fully remote organization and yet, we are an incredibly close-knit team. We have gone through challenges before, and will go through them in the future but these are the people we want to be in the trenches with, face obstacles with, and celebrate wins with, and that has to do with all of us having a set of beliefs and values that we hold ourselves to. We hire people for exemplifying these values and we have terminated people who don’t uphold these values. Because we are so serious about Professional Intimacy, Improvement, Expertise and Responsibility, you can feel it when you’re here. They’re what get us through the good and bad times. We have an extremely high retention rate and aren’t afraid to show employees that we will hold clients to the same standards. If clients don’t respect our values, we won’t work with them because it’s more important to keep our culture whole.
Q: Some of our clients, such as InTheSwim, have been with us for over a decade. Why do you think they have stayed with us for so long?
A: The most important thing we can do is make sure we understand our clients and that they feel understood by us. We can’t control the technical elements in our space but we have a higher purpose in our role as trusted advisors to truly understand what our client is going through, what their goals are, and to do everything in our power to make it happen for them. The clients who have been with us from day one are with us because there is a trust there. We strive to prove to them every day that we are the right people to be in the foxhole with, and that has been the biggest common characteristic of our longest standing relationships. This goes back to our first value of professional intimacy.
Q: We say that we’re in the business of building meaningful relationships. What does that mean to you?
A: Everything starts at home. When I thought about acquiring the business, I immediately thought of the team here. These are the people I want to work with and laugh with. Meaningful relationships for me are about this team, first and foremost. Then I think about the meaningful relationships I have with our clients and the same excitement I have to ask them how they’re doing in their lives and their work. Asking how can we be better for them and continue to tap into our services to accelerate their growth. That’s exciting to me and that’s a meaningful relationship. That also translates into our hustle and grind for these clients with the affiliate relationships that we have. We have spent over a decade building meaningful relationships with these partners to accelerate growth for our clients.
Q: What is your favorite part of working at PartnerCentric? What does this company mean to you?
A: This company has given as much to me as I have given to it and it has afforded me a great job, a great lifestyle and career growth. I have been able to move all over the country in the last decade in support of my family’s needs and I have had all four of my children while working here. It means a lot that I have been able to take care of them the way I want to and I’ve never had a break in my resume or a break in my development to do so. My personal growth is mirrored in the growth that I’ve had at this company and it’s so much a part of who I am. I’m really excited for this next phase because I’m sure my answer will be different, but equally enthusiastic,10 years from now.
Q: Over the years, what is one really memorable moment that stands out?
A: The first family Disney World retreat that we did where we paid for all employees and their families to come out to Orlando, for several days at the happiest place on earth. At our welcome party the first night, we had all the kids, staff, and their spouses, a DJ, the works (we even had Mickey and Minnie make an appearance). We did a family photo with everyone, and it was so nice to see it all come together. Organizing this retreat took so much work but it was a labor of love. I wanted it to be a love letter to the team to show appreciation for everything we’ve been through together and to thank the families for loaning us their loved ones for 40+ hours per week. We included the photo in our holiday card that year and on the inside it said, “From our family to yours.” It was truly a visual representation of how my heart has felt over the last 11 years. That card is still on my refrigerator and it is a constant reminder of the magical times we’ve had, and the untapped magic to capture in the future.
Q: We are a fully remote organization with over 35 employees. How do you ensure that we have such a strong culture?
A: There’s so much that we do to make sure that we are always connected and supported. In addition to company and family retreats we also utilize fantastic internal communication tools such as Slack. All of our team members have their own bitmojis so those are definitely used often in our weekly all-hands-on-deck team slack chats. We have quarterly company goals, themes, contests, individual goals, and celebrations. You’d be surprised at the amount of watercooler talk a fully remote organization can support. In order to increase development and productivity we have a policy of deep work, where every Friday from the hours of 10 am to 12 pm, in the respective time zone, all employees can unplug from email and slack and focus on client work, long-term projects, strategic implementation, etc. This prevents distraction and effectively increases focus and productivity. There are tons of tips and tricks for keeping us moving in lockstep. I could write a book on this, and I still have so much I want to experiment with.
Q: What is one fun fact about you?
A: My guilty pleasure is that I’m obsessed with anything that’s on Bravo. I’ll watch any trashy Real Housewives show or “Below Deck”. I also have an equally trashy obsession with celebrity magazines like People and UsWeekly. If I’m flying somewhere, it’s typical for me to spend $20 on magazines that feature Brangelina or Teen Mom on the cover for my reading pleasure. I feel like if my husband is looking at this, he’s groaning right about now. That’s why they call it “guilty” hon… gotta own it.
Q: Finally, where do you see PartnerCentric in five years?
A: Taking over the world.