Welcome to Powerful Leaders, No Apologies.
Beth interviews Debbie and discovers her leadership superpower and how she decided early on to switch her career focus to law firms and never wavered.
Links from the episode:
[08:13] Where did you find female role models?
[16:23] Podcast recommendations
[27:23] What is your leadership superpower?
Debbie Foster (00:03):
Welcome to the Powerful Leaders, no apologies podcast, the show about women who are ready to own their power and change the world. My name is Debbie Foster.
Beth Thompson (00:12):
And I’m Beth Thompson. Our guests are fierce and fabulous women who are making a difference in their personal and professional communities. Are you ready to be inspired? If so, stay tuned and also check out our website at affinityconsulting.com/powerful leaders. Here’s the show, Debbie Foster. Here we are again. Can you believe it?
Debbie Foster (00:38):
I can’t believe it. And I will say that we are closer to having hats than we were when we recorded our last episode. We don’t actually have them yet, but we’re closer.
Beth Thompson (00:47):
This is good because it is crazy how many people are asking about the hats. Even an event I was at recently, they were asking about the hats. This is a special episode. I am really excited about this one. We talked about this when we were kind of dreaming up the podcast and you know, are our guest today and we’re going to hear and learn more about who is Debbie Foster, how did you become the Debbie Foster that we all know and love? And so I just want to dive right in. There’s no way we can cover everything in 30 minutes, but we’re going to certainly do our best to really dive in and get to know you much better. So let’s kind of start at the beginning. Tell us your origin story of how this wonderful career of yours actually got started.
Debbie Foster (01:36):
Yeah, people ask me that question all the time, and I always say that it was sort of by accident. I don’t think that I really like, I know for sure when I was younger, I’m not even really sure what I wanted to be, but I do remember being very young, maybe, I don’t know, in first or second grade. And I remember I went to a Catholic grammar school and it was Advent, I think, where you light the candles. And I remember I got to be the one who went and light lit the candles and I was down there and I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to figure out how to do a match because back then that’s how you lit the candles was with a match. And I remember so distinctly that my mom came to watch and I went to light the candle and Sister Arlene was our grammar school principal, and her and my mom were talking about something and I said something about being worried about lighting the match.
And she said, oh, I’m pretty sure that if I wasn’t going to come to school one day, I could just trust you to be in charge of running the school. I’m sure you can light the match. And I remember thinking that, so maybe what did I want to be when I grew up? I don’t know, in charge of something probably because even from a young age I was ready to be in charge of something, but I did struggle with what my career path was going to look like. I ended up officially choosing being a firefighter E M T. And I did that for all the wrong reasons. And while it was cool and it was, some parts of it were really inspiring and some parts of it were really heartbreaking, some parts of it were just not a good fit for me. And I stopped doing that and I just did some random things, but I always had this knack for technology.
I loved figuring it out. Even back then, like 19 93, 4, 5, when technology was really kind of new to the scene and very, very early on I worked at a restaurant, a fine dining Italian restaurant, and we were the first restaurant in the county. I had orchestrated this whole system where we bought, they were almost like palm pilots, but they weren’t palm pilots where the waiters would take it tableside and place the order, and they would plug it into a little charger thing and then the order would print out in the kitchen. That was my first, I computerized something, right? Then I worked for a dry cleaner and I did something similar. And then I went to work for a close friend who had married a guy who owned a computer company and I sold computers. I mean, I was just telling someone the story that I used to walk around with a bag that had a motherboard and a video card and a sticker ram and a hard drive and a video card.
And I would lay it all out on a conference room table and explain to people how a computer worked. Of course, I started selling computers and every person that I sold a computer to was like, can you teach me how to use it? Because people didn’t know how to use computers. And I remember this is telling my age pretty much, but I remember every time we would set up someone’s computer and we would sit them down in front of it. I don’t even think they had passwords back in the day. You just turned it on, it came right on. And I would open up solitaire and I would show them how to play solitaire because it was the best way to teach them how to use a mouse.
Beth Thompson (04:58):
Yeah, I was a trainer and that’s what exactly what I did as well. It was a great opportunity for them to learn how to navigate the mouse for sure.
Debbie Foster (05:07):
It was like you could single click, you could double click, you could drag and drop. It was the greatest way to learn how to use a mouse. But then it got to things like we have this program, it was an Excel competitor called Symphony 1 23, I think teach me how to use that. And before you know it, I was much more focused and much better at the software side of things. And I had an opportunity to leave where I was. Sidebar story, my dad had died when I was 24, and my stepmother actually came over to my house one day and said, your dad would want you to own your own business. And she gave me a check and said, go start your own business. And I started, this was in 1998, I started InTouch Business Consultants, which became the company that is now Affinity Consulting Group.
And she really enabled me to do that seven years after my dad died. And we were focused on software and I would go from a accounting firm to a real estate firm, to a dentist’s office, to a doctor’s office, to a financial advisor. And I would help them learn how to use their software. And it was exhausting because I was having to learn all these different programs. And I remember being in the office one day and this woman who was helping with billing and just kind of helping us with the office. We just had a handful of people back then, her name was Cheryl. And I said, what do you think we have the most of? She said, well, I think we have the most law firms. And I said, let’s just only work with law firms. And she was like, seriously? How will we do that?
I’m like, well, we don’t have to fire all the rest of the people, but from now on, let’s figure out how to target law firms. And that’s what we did. And if she would’ve said dentists, I would be working with dentists right now. If she would’ve said architects, I would be working with architects right now. And I remember one of my first law firm clients, her name is Mary Lou Wagstaff, she is still a client of Affinity Today. She was the sixth female lawyer in Pinellas County, and she bought Amicus and PC Law, which were the first law firm products that I found out about from the Florida Bar Magazine. And I remember she was almost like a mentor to me, someone who she knew that I didn’t really know a lot about how a law firm operated. So she was almost like my Guinea pig.
But she was also someone like I went to a law firm in Tampa one time and back when we used to visit onsite for the first time, we’d have our first initial meeting, and the world was so teeny tiny, you only worked in your own little area. And I said, what kind of law do you practice? And the lawyer said, eminent domain. And I was like, what? I don’t even know what that is. And I remember I left there and I called her and I was like, I need some help. What is eminent domain? And she was like, that’s when, and she explained the whole thing to me and I was like, oh, thank goodness I have someone like this to help me figure it out. Well,
Beth Thompson (08:13):
And we should point out there was no Google back in those days, so you had to Yeah, c phone a friend. So that’s a good segue to obviously our podcast is about powerful leadership and we focus on females and you know, started your own business pretty early in your career, some years in, but so you probably didn’t have necessarily female bosses that you looked up to or for that matter had struggles with. Where did you find female mentorship or female role models that you could look up to? Sounds like you found pretty early on with your client, but where did that come from for you? How did you seek them out or,
Debbie Foster (09:01):
That’s such a great question because it was so hard. I mean, a female in legal and a female in technology in the late nineties, there weren’t a lot of them, but I do remember going to a software conference. It was in the late nineties. It might have been 1997, it might have even been the year before I started my business. And I remember meeting a woman named Dale, Wayne Wright, and she was the product manager for Amicus. And I remember her bad Assery from the minute I met her. She was, I’m pretty sure the only female executive in that company, and she just owned it. And I remember looking up to her, there’s some other female Lawyerist that I worked with early on, but I sometimes had a little imposter syndrome about that just because we’ve talked about APO imposter syndrome a little bit, I think on the podcast.
But another woman, her name is Nora Bergman, that was a great mentor to me. She was the executive director of the St. Pete Bar Association, and that was our local bar association, like 800 members, something like that. And I’m pretty sure she’s the one who gave me my first shot at speaking in front of a group of Lawyerist. And she’s still a friend today. She is amazing. I mean, still inspirational. And she’s changed the lives of, she’s a coach now, but she’s changed the lives of so many Lawyerist. And for sure she inspired me and I always looked up to her too. So that’s a few that I can think of off the top of my head.
Beth Thompson (10:43):
That’s great. We’ve known each other for probably about 15 years now. And so I know you, and the next question, I have no idea what your response is going to be. I can’t even imagine a scenario where anyone ever counted you out or that you had challenges that you know faced always present in a way that’s powerful and positive. And I can’t even imagine you walking into a room and anyone thinking, oh, well, that Debbie Foster, there’s no way she’s going to do X, Y, or Z. But has there ever been, talk about some of the obstacles that you may have faced, especially as a female business owner, or have there been times where people counted you out and that gave you kind of the gumption to go out and forge ahead? Maybe that’s part of the origin is making sure you’re proving people wrong. But let’s talk about that for a few minutes.
Debbie Foster (11:44):
Yeah, I mean, I can think of a couple examples that, I mean, one of them is a little more general, buy a dollar for every time an IT person, someone who was Microsoft certified, pick a thing, any certification who I would be talking to about a technology challenge at a law firm. And they would say, why don’t you have one of your technical people call me? Yes. Or I would explain it, but it’s actually pretty technical or some comment like that. And I would just be, sometimes I would joke and I would say the blonde hair, I actually pay for that. It’s not really my, it’s blonde hair. That’s a great answer. Make some kind of a joke. Yeah, like that. Oh, I’m sorry that the blonde hair fooled you. Like, no, actually, maybe why don’t you just go ahead and give me a shot.
Go ahead and explain it and let’s see if I can figure it out. That’s funny. And listen, my early in my career, I unboxed servers and sometimes people’s most challenging Microsoft Exchange problems landed on my desk because I didn’t necessarily know everything there was to know. But when Google did arrive on the scene, I’m an amazing Googler, I can figure things out and I can follow instructions. I think I have maybe not the right kind of fear, but I know that’s probably not something I should just try and see if it works. But another time that I will give you that’s more specific is because I’m not a lawyer and because I’m not an IT professional, I always felt like I was behind the eight ball with a education path. I chose the lack of technology certification. So I was like, where can I be impactful and where can I have a title after my name?
And I got involved with the American Bar Association early on in my career, and Sharon Nelson, who, I don’t know if you know Sharon, but she is another badass woman leader that’s been around for a long time. She was the first one, I’m pretty sure who reached out to me and talked to me about being on the A tech show board. And one thing you do know about me is that I can be a little bit of a disruptor, and I don’t always say what everyone else wants to hear. And during my first stint on the tech show board, I was chair of tech show in 2010. So during my first stint on the board, there were some men in the A B A that counted me out, that actually challenged whether I would be able, I was younger, I don’t know how old I was, but I was younger and I wasn’t a practice management advisor, which was historically, there were a lot of reasons they counted me out.
And I remember so distinctly I’d hurt my back by picking up a towel in my closet. You know, always do something like the, yeah, yeah. I literally leaned over to pick up a towel and I hurt my back and I was out for a week and I had to miss an ABA meeting. And I remember the group of people at the ABA that was literally counting me out, use that as a reason to try to remove me from being a tech show chair. And honestly, I know it had nothing to do with my back. It was all about, I was a female young disruptor who did not take shit from people and it didn’t work. And I was chair of a tech show in 2010, and I was chair again in 2018. And today I’m pretty sure I am the only non-lawyer budget officer in the A B A for the law practice division. And I’m really proud of that. But there were many people during my tenure there that counted me out.
Beth Thompson (15:29):
Well, that’s a great story, and I think that you are one of the few people that can say hard things and is willing to be direct with folks, and people aren’t used to that. It’s refreshing, and it may be startling at first, but then you sit back and you’re like, I’m so glad somebody had the guts to say that thing or to bring up that difficult subject because all of us oftentimes hide behind things that are uncomfortable. So I think that it certainly has served you well over the years. Let’s shift gears a little bit. And I know that
Debbie Foster (16:10):
I would just say it served me well most of the time. There’s sometimes that it didn’t. Yeah, there are times that it doesn’t quite serve. I was like, how do I get that back into my mouth?
Beth Thompson (16:20):
Yeah, well, we’ve all,
Debbie Foster (16:22):
But most of the time it has.
Beth Thompson (16:23):
Yeah, we’ve all been there. And I think the older we get, I think we’re more direct the older we get, but we also recognize, okay, I probably shouldn’t say this thing and we filter a little bit better. There was a time where you would maybe say, Beth, that’s still true, but I don’t have much of a filter, but I, I’m trying, I know that you are a huge podcast listener and you read a lot, although I think you’re more of an audible, a listener than a actual pick up a book reader, but you’re always giving me some great recommendations. So I would love for you to give some recommendations to those that are listening to the episode today. What are you listening to? What would you recommend for other people?
Debbie Foster (17:08):
So this is all really new and fresh information, but I will say, because a lot of the people who listen to our podcast are running a business and selling services and selling products that change people’s lives. One of the most impactful business podcasts that I have listened to is called the Accepted Authority. And I know Beth were both, yes, big fans of that, Andy Marma and Greg Rower. They’re from Australia, New Zealand. They have great accents, but they share, and their podcasts are short like ours. We love that they share some really great information about marketing and professional services, and I love it. And then I also listen to a podcast called The Diary of a C E O. It’s like D O A C is the graphic. And just last night, and I just shared this with our leadership team, I listened to an episode that had Simon Sinek on it, and it was so incredibly powerful.
And at first I almost didn’t listen to it because I think the title, I think it’s called Simon Sinek, opens up about his struggle with loneliness, love, and dating. And I’m just going to take 30 seconds to say this. It was two hours long. And I normally am like Uhuh. I don’t listen to two hour podcast, but I listened to every minute of this one, and I will probably listen to it again on my drive to West Palm today. But one of the things that he said, he talked about, instead of us talking about mental health, we should be talking about mental fitness. What are we doing to be fit mentally? And he also talked about how bookstores have a self-help section, but they really should have how to help others. So many of us want to live that life of serving other people, making other people’s lives better.
And it was so impactful for me that episode, it’s episode number 230, and it just came out last week. And if you’re, find yourself two hours and sit in a quiet place and really let it make an impact on you because Simon Sinek, first of all, I’m a super fan. So there’s that. He has always been someone who I’ve looked at as I guys got it together, but you listen to this podcast and you’re like, he does. He’s also a human and he struggles just the rest of us. So it was really cool. And then the last thing I’ll say is one of my favorite books in the last five years, six years of my professional career is the one thing. And I’ve just started listening to it on Audible again yesterday in the airport. I just had it on while I was doing some work, and I got to the part in the book where he said, working more than 40 hours a week is cheating. And I was like, I got to stop. I can’t listen to this anymore because I think that’s such a powerful statement. If you can’t do your job in 40 hours, what are we doing? So I’m on a whole new,
Beth Thompson (20:00):
Well, I would never call you a cheater, but I’m going to call you a cheater now because I know for a fact that you work more than 40 hours a week.
Debbie Foster (20:09):
Beth Thompson (20:09):
Oh, wow. Yes. So when we were brainstorming ideas for this podcast, we of course wanted it to be about female empowerment and leadership and how can we give back and help support and build up female leaders, but we got hung up in this apologies idea. And I would love for you to share with our listeners your take on how this became the No apologies podcast, because episode we talk about particularly women and our apologizing all the time. It’s crazy. And I would love for you to share what your views on this are and why it has become such an important focus of our podcast.
Debbie Foster (21:05):
Yeah, I think it’s been really interesting as we’ve talked to our guests about this too, because I don’t think either one of us ever meant that women should simply never apologize. Why are we apologizing for things that we have no business apologizing for? So I’m going to rewind this back, and I want to be sensitive to not making this a long podcast episode, so I’m going to do this quickly, but I’m going to rewind all the way back to something that happened last week that took me back to 2013 or 2014 when I read Cheryl Sandberg’s book called Lean In. I don’t know if you read that, but that was like, I haven’t an empowerment of women book, c e o of Facebook now Meta Rose through the ranks, woman in a man’s world. And her message was like, you can have it all. You can have it all.
Well, I read that, and I was, at the time, I had kids that were younger and they were in high school, and I actually couldn’t have it all. And soon after I read that book, I did a presentation with my very dear friend, Roy Diaz. It was the first diversity and inclusion presentation I had ever done, and I was most nervous about my slide that said, you can’t have it all, because I was going to stand up there and say it’s, and it wasn’t even about Cheryl Sandberg, really, it was just my realization that if I wanted to be a female entrepreneur that had a family, kids that were in high school involved in every single sport travel speak, there was no way I could have all of that. At the same time. There were sacrifices that I made. There were hard choices that I had to make.
I was grateful. I’d joke and say there would be times that I’d be in Chicago and I’d leave a little early to fly home to go to one of Cassie’s volleyball games, and the next morning I would get up and get back on a plane to Chicago, or I’d come home for a football game and have to leave again. I did that, and I’m so lucky that I had the means to do that because not everyone has the means to do that. And I think this message around female empowerment and that all women have to do is put their fists down and say, I am going to claim my seat at the table. I can have it all, my actions can result in me being treated fairly. And I didn’t buy that. I was like, it’s not true. In fact, on multiple occasions since that time with Roy, even with, when Roy, Roy and I were doing this, he’s a Hispanic lawyer from South Florida, we said, look around the roof guys.
Who could you have brought instead of you to this event to make it not look the way that it looks right now? I facilitated a panel on diversity and inclusion in Milan, and I said the same thing. I’m like, look to your left. Look to your right. This room is not representative of a diverse community. So those of us who are in positions of power and men and specifically white men, they have to help us. It’s not just about leaning in. If it was about leaning in, the problem would be solved. It’s about awareness and it’s about us as women helping other people who could not possibly understand what it would be like to have an IT person say to you, I’d explain it to you, but it’s probably too technical. I can’t explain that experience to someone who’s literally never had that said to them.
Beth Thompson (24:47):
And I mean, when we get to, obviously a future episode will be the reverse of this, and you’re interviewing me and I will tell the story about the time I was actually asked to leave the room because I was a female. Yes, we’ll get to that in my episode. But it is exactly insane.
Debbie Foster (25:03):
And I remember I work with a, I’m in a lot of executive committee meetings and board meetings at law firms, and I’m telling you, women are underrepresented almost all of the time, not a hundred percent of the time. But I remember being at one firm and we took a restroom break and me and the only other female partner went into the restroom together, and I just turned around when the door shut, and I looked at her and I said, I just walked past the offices of at least six other women. They’re counting on you. When we go back in that room, I’m going to ask you what you think about all of this, because you’ve been really quiet. They’re counting on you. It’s not just about the seat at the table, it’s about the voice. It’s about, so bringing it back to today, and then I’ll shut up about this.
I have recently met the new CEO of Kara, Carrie Goman Beth, I think I’ve told you about her because she also put her in the bad Assery category. She’s a superstar. She commented on my LinkedIn post about the podcast last week, and she said, no more leaning in. And I was like, oh my gosh. And it just brought it back full circle for me to, when I read Lean In and how I struggled with this. No, it’s not just about my actions that are going to make this happen. How do we solve this as a community? So finally, my last comment will be why did we want to talk about apologies? And no apologies. My experience, and I feel like you and I are on the same page here, is that we watch women empower women who climbing the ladder of power, apologize for being there way too often. And I think that there are situations that we’ve all been in where someone has spoken up to us in a way that would’ve never happened if we were men and opportunities that we’ve had where we didn’t feel comfortable raising our voices or speaking up. And so we start what we’re going to say with a, this might be a crazy idea, or I’m sorry for jumping in here, but there’s something that I need to say. And I just feel really strongly that those apologies need to be eliminated from our vocabulary.
Beth Thompson (27:23):
Well said. So as we wrap up, I’m going to ask you the same question that we ask all of our guests. What is your leadership superpower?
Debbie Foster (27:35):
I think that my leadership superpower is influence. I feel like connecting people, making sure that I do a good job of sharing a message or talking about a new idea in a way that is not from my ivory tower. I’m going to send the edict down to the people. That’s just not my style. I want to socialize and influence and get people buying in along the journey to get better results. And I think that that influence actually travels to when I lead our clients in strategic projects. And my experience in the room is that I show up with some credibility and being approachable and almost always having had an opportunity to build a relationship with someone before we get in the room. So when I do start talking and making suggestions and trying to lead people through the discovery process and idea generation, that the influence that they have, the influence that they get from me is one that comes with this trust and confidence that I’m not going to lead them astray.
And I don’t know, I always feel like I don’t ever want to be in a position where that kind of influence could be perceived as manipulative because sometimes I joke with my husband that I want to just try to figure out how to make everything his idea, and then it all just works out. But there is a necessary level of trust and confidence that you have to have as a leader of a company or of a room or of a relationship or a partnership that has to include some amount of inclusive talk that is influential. If you want to get where you’re going. We can’t all just get in our own rowboats and row hope that we get to the same place.
Beth Thompson (29:43):
No, you’re absolutely right. Well, that was great advice. We of course, will include the podcast and the books that you mentioned in our show notes. Debbie, thank you for letting me flip the script today and actually interview you. You’ve been a great guest and we will do this again very soon. Thank you for participating. This
Debbie Foster (30:04):
Was really fun. I can’t wait to change seats.
Beth Thompson (30:08):
Debbie Foster (30:08):
We’ll do this. We’ll hear all about your story,
Beth Thompson (30:13):
And that’s a wrap. Thanks for listening to Powerful Leaders. No apologies. Be sure and subscribe to our show and help us spread the word by sharing our show with your network,
Debbie Foster (30:23):
And check out our show firstname.lastname@example.org slash powerful leaders for resources and ways to connect with us. See you next time.