Elise Mitchell is a striking blonde, tall and willowy, and five minutes into a conversation with her, it's obvious that the poised PR executive and founder and CEO of Mitchell Communications would be as adept at designing, organizing and marketing a fashion show as she would be walking the runway.
"Friends have described me as an intensely passionate achiever with a motor that seldom slows down," says Mitchell in the introduction of her motivational leadership how-to, Leading Through the Turn: How a Journey Mindset Can Help Leaders Find Success and Significance, published this month by McGraw Hill. Electric and vivid -- like Mitchell herself -- it's a primer on how to make meaningful connections in both business and personal life.
Full name : Elise Patricia Smith Mitchell
Date and place of birth: October 15, 1961, Evanston, Illinois
Family: Husband: Raye, Children: Mackenzie, Jackson
My greatest fear is losing my self-respect
When no one is looking, I still do the right thing
One word to sum me up: Resilient
I’m at my best when I am surrounded by people I love
I know I’ve helped someone when they have achieved their goals
If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s never give up
I wish I knew more about the rest of my journey
My most humbling experience was learning how to give all the good stuff away (delegating to and empowering those you lead so they can lead without you)
A really good piece of advice I received was be the most enthusiastic person you know
Take anything, but don’t take my laptop
My greatest strength is my faith in God
I’m most comfortable with people who aren’t negative
My pet peeve is wasted talent
"I first met Elise about 15 years ago," says close friend and colleague Cameron Smith. "She was just starting her company, and she asked a mutual friend to introduce us. Elise contacted me, and we arranged to meet for lunch. As I was waiting for her to arrive, I thought about how a mutual friend had described her -- 'She's like a walking cup of Starbucks, with endless energy.' This tall, positive, high-stepping woman entered the restaurant. She actually started talking to me before she reached the table."
Perhaps Mitchell's idyllic-sounding childhood is the source of her relentless positivity and drive: The daughter of an organic chemist father and a microbiologist mother, Mitchell grew up in the college town of Carbondale, Illinois, where her parents both taught. Mitchell, the youngest of three, has two older brothers.
"It influenced me quite a bit, growing up with a working mom in the field of science," she says. "I grew up seeing a very capable professional woman who was pursuing her passion, but who was also a great mom. So, to me, I always felt like that was a big part of living was to have a family and have a great home but also pursue what you're gifted in."
Mitchell discovered public relations while she was still in high school and knew, instinctively, that it was a field in which she would excel. Given the decidedly math-and-science career path of her family, Mitchell says she was somewhat hesitant to float the idea as a career choice to her parents.
"I distinctly remember sitting on the edge of their bed one evening," she says. "I remember thinking, 'I have these very successful, very smart parents, and I want to go and do something that I've never heard of before -- would they support me?'
"So I said, 'Mom, what do you want me to be?' And without missing a beat, she leaned forward and said, 'I want you to be happy.' It meant so much to me, because I thought, there she is again, helping me to spread my wings and fly. So I said, 'Well, I want to do this thing called public relations. I'm not sure I'm going to make a dime doing it, but I think I would love it,' and she said, 'Absolutely, that's what you should do.' And that was such a gift to give to me."
Mitchell says that the career choice seemed a natural fit for her and her personality.
"The opportunity to communicate with people and engage with people was something I loved to do naturally, and it just filled my spirit with joy to be able to do what I was always doing anyway. I was always into organizing activities and taking on big projects and pulling off major activities. I was always mobilizing people to make something happen, and PR is a lot about that, a lot about leading through change, motivating and encouraging people, informing people and creating relationships."
Nearing graduation at the tiny Abilene Christian University -- a post-secondary choice that Mitchell says helped her find herself "socially, academically, spiritually" -- Mitchell began looking for jobs in January of her senior year. Determined to end up in a large, urban area, her first choice was Dallas, but graduating in 1983 had put her right in the middle of a recession, so prospects were slim. She gratefully accepted a position at a small firm in Nashville, Tenn. It was a smaller city than Dallas but a city, nonetheless, and one she was familiar with from visiting her grandparents there growing up.
Given the shaky economic circumstances, it was a fortuitous move. And perhaps the most fortuitous result was that Mitchell met her future husband, Raye. She had become very involved in a church in Nashville, and as part of the church's visitation team, she and her then-boyfriend met once a month with a lovely couple with whom Mitchell became close friends. They had a son, though Mitchell had never met him, as he was away at medical school.
"Over the course of the time, my boyfriend and I broke up," says Mitchell. "But we thought we should finish out our year of obligation on the team. So the very last meeting of the team was at the Mitchells' house, and my now-mother-in-law, Ritta, called me up and said, 'Would you bring a casserole?' and I said 'Absolutely.' She said, 'Can I ask you a personal question?' and I said, 'Yes,' and she said, 'Did you and John break up?' And I said, 'Yes.' And she said, 'OK! See you Sunday night!' and hung up the phone.
"Raye was coming back home after his first year for a few weeks to visit, and ever since Christmas, he had been talking to his mom about how he would never find someone to marry who would put up with the life of a doctor, because it was so demanding, so hard. And Ritta said to him, 'I have the perfect person for you! She's dating someone else, but it won't last.' And that was so funny, because it was two months before we broke up! She had picked me out long ago because her point was, he needed a person that had a career, had passionate interests in life, who wasn't going to live their life through him but would be a partner to him in life."
Ritta's instincts were right on: Elise and Raye were married almost exactly a year after meeting each other. Before she knew it, Mitchell was packing up to return to Memphis, Tenn., with Raye, where he would finish his residency and a fellowship.
Mitchell continued to work in public relations in Memphis, adding two new firms to her resume. When Raye reached the end of his fellowship, the couple started excitedly making plans for where they would move their small family, which now included 11/2-year-old Mackenzie. Mitchell made an elaborate chart, with columns for "quality of life," "livability" and "career opportunities."
"I was starting to rub my hands together, 'We're going someplace fantastic!'" says Mitchell. "And I had my sights set on a big city -- here's my chance to be in Dallas, to be in Atlanta, to be someplace big, because my ultimate dream at that time was to be a director of corporate communications for a big Fortune 500 company.
"Raye got a call from an orthopedic practice in a city called Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I said, 'If you're interested, you go, take that visit on your own, because that's not even on my list.' Because Fayetteville was under the radar at that time. No one had heard of it. This was the '90s. It was not at all what it is today. He said, 'Yeah, but this is an impressive group, let's go see it.'"
Not one to turn down a travel opportunity, Mitchell took a quick trip with her husband to check out Fayetteville. On the flight home, Raye told her that Fayetteville had moved to the top of his list. Mitchell was horrified.
"He said, 'I think this is it,' and I said, 'Quit kidding. Stop. Do not tease me like that. This is not at all what we're looking for.' And he said, 'What about the quality of life? What about the people?' and the only thing that it wasn't was a big city."
Mitchell estimates she was angry for around three days.
"And then I had a moment, which is sort of one of those crossroads moments," she says. "I thought, 'You're going to go with him, because you love the guy, and he's been training for so long ... but you can go and be bitter, or you can go and let this change make you better.' And it didn't take me long to say, 'OK, you know what? This is going to be the greatest place ever. So I threw that mentality into my life as much as I could, and I said, 'This is going to be the greatest thing that has ever happened to us.'"
MAKING THE BEST OF IT
In a move that probably surprised no one who knew her well, Mitchell decided that if she was not moving to a city that had a multi-national agency in it, she would start her own.
"The three different agencies I had worked for, the mentors I had there, had all said the same thing: You have what it takes," says Mitchell. "'You could do this. You could build an agency.' I think what they meant was that I had the hunger, the passion, the drive for the business."
It's a credit to her reputation in the P.R. field that her first client was her last employer.
"I went into my boss, and I said, 'The bad news is, I'm leaving. The good news is, I'm starting an agency, and I want you to be my first client.' It only took him a day to come back and say yes. I was shocked, because then I thought, 'Oh, boy. What do I do now? I guess I really have to start an agency!'
"So I hung out my shingle and started Mitchell Communications."
Though the first few years were stressful and busy, Mitchell says she appreciated the flexibility that owning her own business afforded her, especially while Mackenzie -- and, later, Jackson -- were very young.
"I had a wonderful childhood, and that's always something that I aspired to as a parent," she says. "I want my children to say that they had a happy childhood. That's a big, hairy goal for parents to have, because it requires at least 18 years of real commitment to your children."
Mitchell was able to make visits to her clients -- the roster got longer and longer as names like Tyson, Wal-Mart and J.B. Hunt were added -- while the kids were at "Mother's Day Out" programs. She would then go home to spend some time with them and finish up work late into the night. She liked being able to be with her children, but the constant stress and pressure caused by her career drive took a toll.
"I think driven people always feel that way, that there's change coming behind me so fast," she says. "That's part of why I wrote the book: I hit a wall at a different point in my career when I was starting to go off the deep end in terms of being so driven and so consumed and so focused on the big dream of building Mitchell that I almost started to lose a hold on everything else in my life that was important.
"I was going so hard and so fast and feeling just so burned out emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually, because I was giving everything I had. Most of it was going to the building of my big dream, building the business, but the other thing that was occurring at that time was a question that was burning at the back of my brain: 'Is this all there is?' I do think that's a question that people wrestle with as they move through their careers or personal lives, when they realize that they have been putting so much effort into something that they're building that they love, they arrive and look around and they say, 'Well, I made it here -- what now?'"
Mitchell decided to try and relax with a vacation overseas, and in order to convince her reluctant husband it was a good idea, she suggested a motorcycle tour through Europe. It turned out to be a transformational trip.
"I just came alive," she says. "Just the sights, the sounds, the smells -- it was intoxicating. I remember thinking to myself, 'I haven't been living life. All I've been doing is building this company, and that's great, I love my business, but that can't be all that there is to life.'
"And I began to think more about this idea of the destination and the journey. I've always been a destination person. But that's not the way life is meant to be lived. Life is meant to be experienced and savored. God leads us on this magnificent journey in life in this amazing world, and for me to be all about getting to the end -- I was missing the point of it all."
When they returned stateside, Mitchell wasn't ready to let go of her new-found lessons -- or her new passion for motorcycle riding. She signed up to for a motorcycle safety course, where an instructor introduced the term that would become the inspiration -- and the title -- for her book.
"He was teaching us about all of the dangers that can happen in turns, for a lot of different reasons -- people misjudge the turn, or end up in a ditch, or end up in the wrong lane, or they slide in the turn. So what you need to do is, you don't actually stare at the turn. Your bike will follow your eyes, so if you're looking at these problems, you'll ride straight into them. Instead, you keep your eyes focused on where you want to end up, and that's called looking through the turn. When you do that, you end up going where you want to go when you make all the adjustments.
"And I thought, 'Oh my goodness, that is the greatest metaphor for business and life -- look through the turn. It just stuck with me and became such a great mantra. I wanted to try and to stop fixating on all of the potential hazards of the turn and instead stay focused on where I wanted to end up."
SHARING THE SECRET
Mitchell found herself unable to shake the concept of "looking through the turn" and the meaning it had taken in her life. Soon, the idea to write a book became a reality.
"I have learned so many lessons and so many things, and I began to realize , if I put them all in the book, anybody could have that information. It's all there. And when I got done, we realized I had 55 different lessons that are taught in the book about building culture, leading through change -- and it's not just my experiences. [Former Wal-Mart CEO] Mike Duke is featured in a chapter, [President, U.S. Specialty Channels, Kellogg North America] Wendy Davidson is featured, lots of amazing leaders and their stories are featured."
The book culminates in a chapter called "The Journey Toward Significance," which, Mitchell says, gives her own personal answer to the question "Well, I made it here -- what now?"
"The higher calling of leadership is when you realize it's not about you, it's about everybody else," she says. "The pinnacle point of leadership, when you reach that level, when everything you do as much as possible is no longer about furthering yourself, it's about what you can do for everybody around you. It's whatever I can do to kick open doors for my team, remove obstacles, give them opportunities to shine, give them responsibility, so they can grow in their careers.
"Real significance comes not from you becoming significant, but from you creating significance for others."
NAN Profiles on 01/01/2017
Print Headline: Elise Smith Mitchell