Episode 187: Finding Your Leadership Voice with Ebony Wyatt

August 10 , 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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This week Matt speaks with Ebony Wyatt, Customer Vice President - Target and Meijer at General Mills and founder of Ebony Wyatt Speaks LLC. The pair talk about Wyatt’s extensive experience at General Mills and how she built her leadership voice, her brand and confidence in the workplace. She also shares how she instills that confidence in her team and in the workshops she hosts. 

Episode Transcript

Ebony Wyatt  0:00  
Sometimes it's just a matter of saying yes, when you don't have all the details, and then figuring out how to make it work for you.

Matt Waller  0:10  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College, and welcome to the Be Epic podcast. I have with me today, Ebony Wyatt, who is an alum of the Walton College from 2003. She majored in Finance. She went to work for General Mills, and is on her 20th year at General Mills, and has been very successful there. She also is an entrepreneur, she has a side hustle that we're going to talk about as well. Ebony, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me today, I really appreciate it.

Ebony Wyatt  0:58  
Thanks, Dean Waller, I appreciate you having me. 

Matt Waller  1:00  
Well Ebony, of course, we're really proud of you and all you've accomplished. And one thing I want to point out, you're not just very accomplished, but you're also engaged still in the Walton College. Your chair of my Dean's Alumni Advisory Council, thank you for serving in that regard. Appreciate that. But you do you stay engaged, you speak to students, and that kind of volunteerism, giving back seems like it's been something you've been doing for a long time, and is very important. If you wouldn't mind, let's start with General Mills. And I want to talk about your transition from school, to the work environment and advice you might have for students to make that transition more effective. But I want to point one thing out early on in this is that you were the first black woman Sales Director at General Mills. And that is an amazing accomplishment. Congratulations.

Ebony Wyatt  2:02  
Thank you. So I'll tell you a little bit about my journey from the Walton College to General Mills. So I was an intern, a summer intern for General Mills, my junior year going into my senior year that summer in between. And so I will say that was a great kind of starting point to allow me to see what a career would look like in corporate America. What actually we did at General Mills. As a student at the Walton College I majored in finance, I had a minor in Political Science. In my mind, I was on the path to being an attorney. And when I did the internship with General Mills, it just opened my eyes to a career in business in a real tangible way. And the brands were cool, you know, working with products like Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Cheerios, and Nature Valley and Yoplait, it was a cool kind of gig for someone starting out in the corporate space. So I started with General Mills, actually in the Atlanta office. And so you think of, you know, I was born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas, went to school with the U of A in Fayetteville. And now I'm moving to Atlanta for my first job. And so the one thing I would tell any students that may be listening, is don't be afraid to make a move, and to move away from your family, away from your comfort zone. I'm so glad that I did that. It allowed me to stretch. It allowed me to really navigate socially and figure out how to find my tribe and how to find folks quickly how to navigate a new city, how to navigate a new working environment. I would say from a professional standpoint, finding a mentor was key in just helping me to understand the corporate context that I was operating in. Helping me understand the unwritten rules, or things that I wasn't aware of. So for example, in my mind, once I got the job, the work was over. Like I worked hard in college to make these great grades, I wanted to get a great job. But what I didn't realize is how competitive the corporate landscape was. And I think I went through my first year just kind of cruising, and not knowing that it was a competition. And I want to be real about that. Because I think I could have gotten off to a stronger start had I known that it was a competitive environment that I was working in. But thankfully, I got a few mentors along the way who helped show me the ropes. And to me if I could tell any of the students listening one thing, find you a mentor, even while you're in undergrad or while you may be in grad school, find you a few mentors that can help be a sounding board for you. I always think of a mentor someone who can help me cut corners. You don't have to do everything the hard way. You don't have to learn everything the hard way. And so a lot of those mentors are willing to share with you to help you get there faster. So that was a key piece of my journey into General Mills that was critical in helping me be successful. And to become that first black woman sales director in our company's history.

Matt Waller  5:14  
I totally agree, mentors are helpful no matter what industry you're in, and mentoring, you know, being the mentor is also something that helps you grow as well. Not only did you become the first director of sales, but you also, I mean, now you're actually Customer Vice President for Target and Meijer. So you've risen all the way to a vice president level. In a company as big as General Mills, that's a significant level position.

Ebony Wyatt  5:45  
Yeah, it is. And it's hard to even imagine kind of where I started versus where I am today, it's been a lot of hard work, you know, it has taken some time. But I've been able to accomplish all my goals just by staying focused and delivering results. And the other piece is really leading kind of outside of my job. So finding ways that the organization needed me to support the culture and the people. And Dean, I know, you mentioned mentoring, that's one of the things I take very seriously in mentoring those who are coming behind me to help them to show them the ropes, to make sure that they have somebody that they can use as a sounding board. So that's been really important to me. And then the other piece is really being a role model for working women, and working moms and showing them that you can have success in your corporate job or in your career, you can have success as a mother, as a wife, in the community. And so that's one of the things I take very seriously. I want to make sure that I'm role modeling the right behaviors, that I'm continuing to provide opportunities for people who may not see a pathway because they feel like they have to choose one or the other. And I'm here to tell you that you can have it all. You have to be thoughtful, you have to prioritize, I think you also have to have the right partner. If motherhood, if being a wife is important to you, I'm just grateful that I have a spouse in my husband, William, who is truly committed to the partnership into the family, and to supporting my goals and my dreams. I think that's really been a value add for me to unlock all the capacity to really go after what I want corporately, what I want as an entrepreneur, how I want to be a successful mom, and a parent is really having a partner that is in it with you and is willing to support you no matter what.

Matt Waller  7:46  
I've known you a long time. And I've noticed that you always have lots of positive energy, you're optimistic people need that. But I remember one time, I don't know if you remember this, our families ran into one another at a restaurant. And you were trying to manage all your kids and they were littler at the time. It's hard for me to believe how much time has passed since that encounter. But I remember thinking, Wow, and so you stopped and you and I talked and I introduced you to my wife, you introduced me, your husband and I got to meet your kids. But I just remember, you seemed unflappable. You know, you handled the interaction so well. That's not easy to do. And I know it isn't always what's going on in your heart and mind. How have you learned to do that?

Ebony Wyatt  8:36  
I do remember that day vividly. Because we had left church and we were headed out, I guess we were headed out for lunch. And my kids were on 10 that day. But you learn, like one, you've always been open as not only as a leader of the organization, but a leader in your family. And you talk about your family. So I felt very comfortable, one, just that it was you. And we're all human, right? I'm like, "Yep, they're running amok." And you were like, "Ebony, I've been there." And so I just I just remember that moment, like he's been there, kids are going to be kids. And they were trying to get some of that energy out. But really, it's just, you know, we'll do our best to teach them right and wrong. They still will have their moments. We had a whole moment this morning as I was working to get all three to the camp and one to daycare. And I've just had to take a minute. And I remember on the way to daycare, we took the little one first. And I just asked each of the boys I was like, "What did you learn today? Like what are we going to do a better job at tomorrow morning?" Because everybody fell apart, including mom, I was like, "Well, mom's gonna stay calmer tomorrow." Like I was kind of screamin' like a lunatic. And I'm going to try to be more patient. And then one was like, "I gotta remember that my water bottle tips over and this is second day in a row. I've gotten everything wet." I'm like, "Good call." So just kind of meeting my kiddos where they're at, knowing that we're all human, and just trying to have fun. So even when the stress passed, I tried to talk to them like little adults. I was like, "Guys, this morning was stressful." And the 10-year-old was like, "Not for me, mom. I'm angry." And I was like, "Well, anger is, is also stress." And so I was like, "So what are we going to do differently?" So it was just, they are watching everything we do. And even when we fall short, like this morning was not a perfect mom moment for me. But just even admitting to them, like "Mommy was a little crazy this morning, guys and I'm sorry and I'll do better." And you know, we're all committed to getting better every day, right? And they're like, "Yep!" But that's just part of it. But I think a lot of it is just being confident in what you're trying to do. And the little humans that I'm trying to raise, and knowing that every day won't be perfect, but we're all just trying to do our best.

Matt Waller  10:57  
I think that's so true. I think it's good for kids to see parents say, "Okay, I didn't do great at this, I can do better." The reality is, the more we do that, as human beings, the more we improve. But you know, one of the things that I would like you to speak on just briefly, if you wouldn't mind, is this concept of finding your leadership voice. What does that mean? And how do you do it?

Ebony Wyatt  11:21  
Yeah, that's a great question. And it's something I've really been pushing. So in my side business, I teach a couple of workshops. One is called Building Your Badass Brand. And the other one is Building Your Badass Network. And I found that brand is the one where we really talk about kind of finding your leadership voice. And for me, it's always pivoting back to what have you always been good at? So even kind of think in high school and college, I always found a way to be the leader, and I enjoyed that space. I enjoyed influencing groups. But I struggled a bit when I got into a corporate context, like what does leadership look like in this space? And I'm grateful that I was a part of a couple of affinity groups. So one, in particular, the Black Champions Network within General Mills, that gave me opportunities to lead in a smaller way with a smaller group. So for example, I remember when I was leading the recruiting efforts for the Sale of Black Champions Network. And so my job was to work back with the recruiting team at General Mills to say this is what I think we should be doing to find diverse talent at the schools we recruit at and just a partner to them. And so once I found that confidence in that, I started to take on bigger roles. And so for me, I just remind people, think about what you've always been good at. Some people are just natural connectors. Some people are naturally analytical, whatever, if you think back to even as a child, the things that were innate to you, and then figure out how do you apply that in your new context. And so I always like to use this example, Dean, when I was asked by a previous Dean to be a part of the Dean's Alumni Advisory Council. Now, I probably been a part of the council 13-14 years, it's been a long time. And I wasn't sure what I was committing to. But I knew I had capacity. And I knew it was something special. And so I just said yes. Okay, I didn't know what it would entail. I didn't know how many meetings, how many hours. But I just said yes. And sometimes you have to be open to the possibilities. And now if I look 13-14 years later leading that group, under your leadership, and being able to contribute to the university in a positive way, both from helping the faculty and staff, but also the students. It's been breakthrough for me, but it took one yes. And so for those of you who may be struggling with how do I find my leadership voice, I'm not sure what to do, how do I get more involved? Sometimes it's just a matter of saying yes, when you don't have all the details, and then figuring out how to make it work for you. And what I found over time, is the Dean's Alumni Advisory Board gave me an opportunity for a diverse audience that I did not have. My audience was mostly General Mills people prior to that. And so now I'm sitting in an audience, where there's a lot of bankers, there's a lot of attorneys, there's people from all different industries, and understanding how I impact them and how I can influence them, and what resonates with them and what doesn't. And so even building my own leadership skill set, as a leader of the group, by seeing what worked and what didn't, what appeals and what does not, how do I influence and how do I get people on board in this new context? And so for me, it was saying yes, it was once you have the opportunity, using it to further your own development and learning and growth as a leader and then just stepping into new things, because now I built the trust with the faculty and staff, I built the trust with you Dean Waller with other alumni. And so that opens up other leadership opportunities. But first, it was about saying, yes, really understanding that I knew there was a leadership capacity in me that I wanted to unlock, even as I grow in my career. And then I think the third thing is having the confidence just to lean into it. Once I knew that it was something there, then okay, if people had picked me for these types of roles, there must be something that I'm good at, and lean into that confidence and take on bigger opportunities and bigger responsibilities.

Matt Waller  15:42  
I mean, you've had so much breadth and depth of experience, you know, at selling to Walmart, selling to Target, selling to Albertsons, Safeway, et cetera, et cetera. But just broadly within General Mills, you've been involved in category management, business planning, in different kinds of categories, like baking and dry meals, and you've been involved in customer management, zone operations management, you've just had a wide variety of experiences. So clearly, you've said yes, a lot. 

Ebony Wyatt  16:20  

Matt Waller  16:20  
And a lot of times people are afraid to try new things like that.

Ebony Wyatt  16:25  
Yes. And it's something I talk about often in my workshops, one is really kind of building confidence in yourself and others, you've had proven success over and over. So why do you think you're going to fail this one time? So thinking about all the times you've been successful, that's what I lean into, whether it's a new job, whether it's a new opportunity, knowing that we're all capable of learning new things, and that you've done it successfully over and over again, it's helped me to really think about kind of the next opportunity and what is next for me, what do I want to do, and it's helping me to even be more broad than maybe where I started. So I have had a career in sales. I've done all these things in sales. But I know there's other things that I probably can be tapping into. But it's because of the confidence I have in my own abilities. Because that proven track record of success. So is I think about all these new things. It's really just you've got to believe in you, especially when other people say, "Hey, I think you can do it." They see something special in you. Why don't you see it? Why don't you seize it and take on that opportunity. And it's really been something that has been guiding me for the last couple of years, just stepping into new things, and knowing that I can be successful and proven to myself that I can do it.

Matt Waller  17:49  
I've heard it said, I can't remember who right now. But typically, when you think of a C level position, you think of Chief Finance Officer, or Chief Marketing Officer, Chief Executive, whatever it may be, but I heard someone say, "The key to the C is confidence."

Ebony Wyatt  18:08  
100%. 100%.

Matt Waller  18:11  
You think about a company like General Mills, the Chief Executive Officer, General Mills is running an organization that is so huge. Think of how much confidence that asked to take? 

Ebony Wyatt  18:23  

Matt Waller  18:24  
There's a really good HBR article that I've always liked, it's called "In Praise of the Incomplete Leader." And so the C, the confidence starts with you. But it's got to extend to your team because all leaders are incomplete. So you got to have confidence in yourself and confidence in your team. And that's not always easy to do, either.

Ebony Wyatt  18:45  
Yeah, that's 100%, you cannot be great at everything. And you've got to surround yourself with people who are great at that thing that you put them in the seat to do. Yeah, and I think having confidence in them is critical. I think we've all probably been in a spot where our leader did not show confidence in us and how that impacted our performance, how it impacted the way we showed up. And I don't want to be that kind of leader. And even if I see that there's some deficiencies we're going to work to build versus making you feel less than.

Matt Waller  19:19  
Speaking of confidence, I think one of the things that keeps people from entrepreneurship is confidence. And so your confidence that's helped you rise through the ranks to Vice President and a leadership position has also helped you be an entrepreneur, would you speak a little bit to that and what you're doing from an entrepreneurial perspective?

Ebony Wyatt  19:41  
I will. So while COVID and the pandemic has been bad in a lot of ways. It's really helped us be more innovative than ever, and I'll say it has been for me personally. So, a year and a half ago, that would be let's see, December of 2020, I started my own business, which is called Ebony Wyatt Speaks LLC. I teach badass workshops to badass women who want to elevate in their career. And I always knew that I had a gift of connecting and storytelling and inspiring. And I knew I wanted to leverage that for good. And I wanted to leverage that outside of the walls of my company, because I've probably touched every group that I can touch at General Mills, but I knew there was more people outside of my corporate context that needed what I had to offer. And so I did not know how it would be. I thought it would be Ebony doing a lot of keynote speeches. But as I got into it, I was like, I like keynotes. I don't love keynotes. Keynotes, because I put my heart and soul into everything I do. It is draining. So if you did a lot of those, it's hard to recharge. And so I was talking to a girlfriend, I'm like, "Okay, you know, got my LLC set up. I've got all the business aspects set up, I got my website, but I ain't making any money." Like, "Uh, they're just not going to call you up and say, come do a keynote." She said "Well Ebony, you should think about doing a virtual workshop. Everything you've done at General Mills has been great. And actually, I've sat at home and paid for two workshops from home during COVID. You would be great at that." And I was like, "Actually I have some content already created!" So I don't know if you remember Dean, but my Sam Talk that I did for Walton College students. 

Matt Waller  19:41  
I remember it like yesterday.

Ebony Wyatt  20:58  
Yes, Building Your Badass Brand. And I knew that I could easily take that format from a talk to a workshop. And that's what I did. And so I created the Building Your Badass Brand workshop. My first event I had 22 women sign up at $150 a piece, we did, what was it, 6:30 to 8:00 at night, we went to 8:30 and I couldn't sleep that night. I was buzzing. My husband's like, "I think you're onto something. I've never seen you this excited." And I'm probably, if I had to guess, I probably taught at least 40 workshops in the last year and a half, both to corporate audiences so for example, last week, I had a workshop for Stanley Securities, their African American leadership network. And then earlier, I think a couple weeks ago, I did a workshop for a nonprofit, the African American Leadership Forum here in the Twin Cities. And then later today, I'm doing entrepreneurs cohort for the Fayetteville Public Library in Arkansas. So again, talking about leveraging kind of the Zoom format, and all the different platforms, we've learned to really extract value. It's been great for me and my business. So I did that. And I was like, "Okay, what's the next thing?" So branding was really important to me, because one really show people a pathway to what is creating that brand look like? What is reflecting on your brand and putting it down on paper look like? And then two having the confidence to talk about that brand. And then so I was like what's next, networking. And so I was thinking of areas where women tended to struggle or underperform. And networking is one of those spaces where it just is not as comfortable for some of us, it can be very overwhelming. And so that's where I went to next. So I have two pieces of content. I just got a note from my attorney last week that I'm moving. So I've moved into trademarking both of those. And I'm about 30 days out from completion, we are moving to publish. So feeling great about that. And just really feeling good about the impact that I can have more broadly through my workshops, and just feel very supported from General Mills, because they know I like to kind of keep my hands in a lot of things. And I really feel like it's been value added to me as an employee, value added to me as a working mom, as a mentor, just kind of seeing some different things outside of my own corporate context and really applying those and helping support others. So it has been fantastic. I call it my heart work H-E-A-R-T, where I'm really connecting to the hearts and minds of individuals and helping to pull out the things that are already there. And so it's been fantastic. And I'm looking forward to what's next. My next kind of order of business is to think about, what is that third piece of content? That's what I'll be working on here in the month of August. Just working to really think that through and create that next workshop. 

Matt Waller  24:49  
Ebony, I'll tell you, I'm so proud to just see what you've accomplished and I know many of us here in the Walton College that know you, are proud of you. Just so thankful too that you do all this and you handle all this success and you're still very humble and approachable. And you really helped the students a lot and faculty by speaking to their classes. So thank you for all you're doing. Thank you for taking time to visit with me today. Really appreciate it.

Ebony Wyatt  25:18  
Awesome. Thank you so much, Dean. And to those of you who are listening, who may or may not have had a personal experience with Dean Waller. I just appreciate the way you've been very, a very inclusive leader, that you leverage your alumni to really gather insight and to understand where you need to make pivots and changes at the university and just being very open. I appreciate that so much. And I appreciate you having me on the podcast today.

Matt Waller  25:49  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching Be Epic. B-E-E-P-I-C.

Matt Waller

Matthew A. Waller is dean emeritus of the Sam M. Walton College of Business and professor of supply chain management. His work as a professor, researcher, and consultant is synergistic, blending academic research with practical insights from industry experience. This continuous cycle of learning and application makes his work more effective, relevant, and impactful.

His goals include contributing to academia through high-quality research and publications, cultivating the next generation of professionals through excellent teaching, and creating value for the organizations he consults by optimizing their strategy and investments.