Liz Reitman

5 min | Leadership & Management Musings

Founders in Focus with Sel Watts

A Conversation between Liz Reitman and Sel (Sue-Ellen) Watts, Founder and Global CEO of  The HR Linc

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For our August Founders in Focus series, Liz gets up close and personal with Sel (Sue-Ellen) Watts, serial entrepreneur — simultaneously operating several businesses including The HR Linc, wattsnext Group, and zzoota — and current Entrepreneurs’ Organization of New York (EONY) President. We literally mean up close because Liz and Sel are together on the west coast for this conversation! Liz and Sel cover several topics under the sun including leadership, entrepreneurship, and lifestyle.

Liz Reitman: Hi everyone, Liz here. Today we have our latest edition of Founders in Focus with my good friend and Aussie mate, Sel (Sue-Ellen) Watts, who is this incredible serial entrepreneur that is going to talk to us about her latest venture, as well as her role as our new president of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization of New York (EONY).

Sel, thanks for being here. Let's start with your latest venture, The HR Linc. Could you tell us about your path here?

Sel Watts: So I started my first business, wattsnext, 16 years ago. In fact, the 16th birthday is next week! And that was a consulting firm that I started in Australia – and it still runs today. We work specifically with small to medium businesses and fast growth startups on management consulting, predominantly around people – so performance, engagement, and culture of people.

I always wanted to come to New York City because I think it’s the center of the universe and an entrepreneur’s playground. And so about four years ago, I came and commuted between Australia and New York to see how I could make that transition, which was an incredible and challenging experience – but we ended up, myself and my three sons, settling in at the beginning of 2020 in New York City.

And since then I have been working on my startup, which just launched called The HR Linc, a membership community specifically for HR departments of one. We provide the community, the support, education, and development for those people because that’s a very lonely role and they need support and development, especially because our workplaces have changed more than anything in the last three years. And the thing is, they’re continuing to change. We’re continually getting questions about how to manage people and how to create great workplaces with this changing environment…plus the generational changes. So it’s a really challenging space – and most companies look to their HR person for the answer, so this is a great community for those people.

Liz: You know, what’s fun is the fact that I’ve launched another business, Other Parents Like Me, which is the same idea, right? It’s just interesting how much community has become this [central] topic — and I think really it’s becoming so clear that talking to other people that understand your experience…the value is tremendous. So it’s cool to see you doing this as well in your space, in your expertise.

The thread of community for both of you seems really apparent in both your businesses and in your personal lives. I would love to know how you created community outside of that professional space especially, Sel, when you were bouncing between New York and Australia? That is one hell of a commute!

Sel: Yeah, it was. Door-to-door I think it was like 36 hours and I did it every six weeks. It was an exhausting two years. When I came to New York, I didn’t know anyone. And so where do you start? It’s incredibly challenging.

I’ve always been part of membership groups because you need to be part of your tribe. So EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) and other membership organizations I’ve been part of have been critical in my development and [in] building community. When I came to New York, I did not know one person and it was EO that made it possible for me to build a network. It’s similar to Other Parents Like Me; you’ve got to be around people that are going through the same thing.

So to be able to be part of a global organization, I immediately had people that spoke the same language. And so all of my close friends are…I think, nearly 99% of my close friends are entrepreneurs because that also is a really lonely journey and it’s filled with highs and lows and risks and opportunities. I do believe that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. And so I want to be around people that are where I want to be or who I want to grow into being like them in some capacity. And so that’s how I like to surround myself — with people like you, Liz.

Liz: Oh yes [laughs], that’s me.

I believe it. Speaking of, where are you two right now? What are you up to?

Liz: So I do a house swap using a website called HomeExchange, which is a community of people that are looking to swap homes. Again community, a thread here…and it’s amazing. Last year I decided to try it out because I had heard EO people did this as well, that they would swap homes with people that they knew. I was really lucky eto connect with this woman that owns this LA home, who loves New York. And, you know, I wasn’t necessarily picking LA or seeking that location out, but her home was so lovely. And I’ve gotten to meet the EO community out here.

Sel, is there anything about LA or the states in general that remind you of Australia? Or is it very different?

Sel: Oh, my gosh. I mean what was so challenging was the everyday things that you grow up learning that are so different from home. And then the business world…it’s very different; definitely the language, but also one of the biggest things that I’ve had to adapt to is that Australian culture is a very chilled, sort of laid back culture. But we also have this terrible trait called the Tall Poppy Syndrome, when you cut down people that are doing well, so we have this tendency to never brag, never boast. We’re not very good self-promoters. And Americans are amazing at self-promotion. I noticed it and I’ve had good friends and mentors say that I need to work on that – and so that’s my commitment.

Now you're the President of Entrepreneurs’ Organization of New York (EONY). As a leader of an American-based chapter, how do you balance your Australian values with the business values of America?

Sel: It is a very large, challenging leadership role. I mean, I don’t think there’s any harder people to lead than other entrepreneurs, you know? I’ve spoken to Liz and my other key mentor and best friend, Chris Wilkerson, about the benefits of my leadership style, but how I need to adapt to be able to manage this chapter. And so I’m trying to bring my Australian culture into New York and use that together, which I think can be done. But it’s challenging; every day I’m really having to intentionally think about my leadership: how did I handle that meeting? Or how do I deal with this? And course correct.

But the thing is, I am so passionate about New York City and entrepreneurship. So to me, New York should be the best EO chapter in the world. And I think it’s the right time for me to be in this role because my goal is to get people remembering how incredible it is to be an entrepreneur in New York City and to be part of this organization and have each other — I get goosebumps when I talk about it because I really believe that. So that’s what I’m hoping to ignite in the chapter.

I mean, personally, it’s a huge challenge because a lot of people say, “You can’t sit on the board or be the president of any voluntary organization because your business needs you or your family needs you”. What about, Well, if I do this, how can it help my business grow? How can it help me be better at home or for my family? That’s my personal experiment.

Liz: Yeah. Looking at you Sel, you just are constantly one-upping your challenges. So to me, there’s no doubt. I mean, it’s pretty audacious to come into a chapter from another country and be like, “Yeah, I’m going to join this, I’m going to run this, I’m going to launch a startup, and oh, I have three boys that require a lot”. It’s impressive how much you push yourself.

Sel: Thank you.

I also really appreciate your perspective on: how can the things that I'm adding to my plate benefit me instead of taking away? I think that's a really expansive perspective.

Sel: I’ve always looked at what my role is in relation to the boys? And if I could only teach them one thing their whole life, what would it be? I spent a lot of time thinking about this and I thought I would say to them, “No matter how unlikely it is your dream, your goal that you want, no matter how unlikely it is, you should go for it no matter what”. So my view is, if you want something, you’ve got to commit 100% and go for it and back yourself and know that if it doesn’t work out, you’re going to end up on some interesting journey. And also at the end of the day, you’ll be fine. You can just pull yourself up and you do whatever comes next.

And I think too many people are too safe and they don’t back themselves. Ultimately I have no right to tell the boys, “Go and chase your dreams, do all those things that I can’t. Can you do it? Because I was too scared to do it”. No, I’m going to give them a front row seat in dream chasing and they will see the ride. So rather than trying to be the best at everything, I’ll hone in on what I’m really good at and we all just laugh a bit about how weak mum is at those other things. [laughs]

Liz: And we do laugh at her cooking. [laughs]

And they're already getting that through your move to New York.

Sel: Yeah, I mean, it’s great for them to see that it’s more hard and bad than good. [laughs] In the first five years of building wattsnext, I had many times that I would lie on the bathroom floor in the fetal position going, “I can’t do this”. And the thing that always got me up was, what if I did? And what would that look like? That’s where the grit comes in. And honestly, [the key to] successful entrepreneurs is the ability to keep getting up when it looks like this is just not going to happen. I’m a big believer that the biggest asset that I have is me. So anything can be taken, but you can’t give up.

Amazing. I would love to end on a more personal note and hear what fills each of your cups? What do you do in your downtime when you're not in a fetal position? [laughs]

Liz: This is the opposite of Sel, but I love to cook. For me, that has filled my cup so much because, first of all, I really didn’t know how to cook. My husband at the time did all the cooking for the family, so for me, it involves learning and it gives me time to think. I also know that it’s really helped my relationship with my son. Cooking in the kitchen was the change in our relationship; it was an opportunity for us to have conversation. And then we were making something [together] and it hits all the senses.

Sel: And that’s only happened in the last couple of years. That’s amazing.

Liz: And I’m not going to say I’m great, but I’m getting better! And to circle it all back, I feel like cooking encompasses community at its core.

Sel: For me, I love the exploration of people and deep conversations; I love to have those intense conversations and get people’s philosophical ideas on things. That time for me really does fill my cup. I finding the boys really fun and interesting. As frustrating and annoying they can be, there’s so much joy in watching them go through those teenage years and the challenge it gives me on how to parent them. And put me by the pool with a friend, and I’m happy.

Liz: That is a perfect segue to end on. [laughs]

Sel: Yes, to the pool!

Well Sel it's been a joy to talk to you and Liz, always a dream.

Sel: [laughs] Thank you.

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