Dad’s guinea pig’ now helms Learning Rx in The Boss
“It’s not about are you ready, it’s are you willing.” — Kim Hanson is CEO of Learning Rx, with 80 centers in the U.S. and in 47 countries
Tell about your upbringing.
I grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin, a little college town. I’m the oldest of five kids. I was my dad’s guinea pig. He taught me how to read with flashcards when I was 2. I was kind of an experiment.
So did you become a big reader?
No. It’s the wrong way to teach someone to read. I knew over 800 words, so it was a good party trick. When I was 4 my dad called me his business partner. I would go with him to buy real estate. All the bankers knew me by name. I would watch a lot, learn how to negotiate. My dad loved to put out offers and see who would bite on it.
When I was 9, I’m a doodler, so I drew a set of three cards. I took them to a printer. My dad said I have to go sell them. I went door to door. I found out older ladies liked note cards and liked a deal, so I’d give them a package. I sold them all the way through college.
My dad liked to push me to do things maybe most people thought would be too difficult for my age. It’s not about are you ready, it’s are you willing.
That’s a really unusual background!
I didn’t realize until college that this was unusual. I made study notes and I sold them in college for $5 with a promise you wouldn’t share it with anyone else. I’m a good note-taker. I studied my professors, not just what they were teaching me but what they were emphasizing.
When did you start working officially for your father?
When I was in my teens, he had developed his program and was selling it to doctors’ offices. I trained others in the program. Once in a while there would be a complaint about how young I was. Then I went away and did other things. I came back about 17 years ago.
What did you learn from other leadership experiences?
That’s always been my leadership style, to grow the people around you. It probably developed over time and it was the contrast of working with other leaders that all success would depend on them. So when they left they wanted it to fall apart. I want to build something that will last.
What else did you learn from your father?
It’s noticing in someone what is glaring or what needs to be improved. My oldest son, when he was young we called him Captain Safety. He was shy. I would challenge him to talk to someone new. We’d role-play a conversation and I’d pay him a quarter if he did it. We would put those quarters in his fund to start a business. I don’t fall far from the tree.
What values are important to you?
The big things for the culture, integrity is important, being productive/adding value is important. Being helpful, having fun, they’ve been pretty consistent values.
Working smart, focusing on the right things.
Beth Ewen, editor-in-chief, learns if it’s lonely at the top and other lessons from franchise leaders, and presents their edited answers here in each issue. To suggest a candid C-level subject, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
You became CEO 18 months ago. How did that come about?
My dad had a brain injury three or four years ago. He lost a lot of short-term memory but we were able to train it back. He had salmonella poisoning, it produced a high fever. He had a short-term memory of 20 seconds. We’re from Wisconsin and the Packers had just won the Super Bowl. And he couldn’t remember. It’s the saddest thing to watch your father who’s a genius struggle like that. He was also thinking of succession. We went through a counselor and a process and I came out as CEO!
What are priorities for you now?
One of the biggest things is when you run support you’re training people to work on our business not in our business. That’s what I do now. That to me is really fun and a new challenge. It’s kind of like when you’re 7 and your dad gives you an algebra problem and you have to figure it out before you can eat lunch.
One thing I’m instituting is how to efficiently run a meeting, how to be proactive and not reactive. Instead of talking about problems, solving them. Because I’m a visual person, I made a card that says “tan-gent.” You hold it up when someone is going on and on. I thought the quirkiness of making a card would make it not intimidating. I also limit people’s time in the early discussion. I give everyone three minutes. We try to drill down to what is the real issue.
That’s my favorite thing to do is solve problems.