Part 2: A Conversation between Liz Reitman (reitdesign Founder, EONY Vice President & Mentorship Chair) and Lisa Malat (former President and Chief Operating Officer Barnes & Noble College)
Reit founder and EONY VP & Mentorship Chair, Liz Reitman, and Lisa Malat, former President and Chief Operating Officer of Barnes & Noble College return for Part 2 of our Women Supporting Women conversation. We wrap up the discussion by diving into family – what that term means to a company culture, what it means as working mothers, and what support systems they leaned on to build their personal and professional lives.
Lisa: I think it was actually a pretty equal mix. When I think about the other vendors we worked with, you know, I would say it was a balance of men and women.
Liz: Yeah, I would say on your side it was slanted to the female side – your team in general? You had more females. But there was more of a balance when you look at the other outside parties you brought in. And a balance in age, too. It was a good range.
Lisa: If you step back and look at the company as a whole with the Barnes & Noble College managers – our 800 store managers – around 70% are women. But even if you look at the corporate structure, you’re going to see great representation of women at senior levels.
Lisa: It was empowering and it was humbling at the same time. I felt an enormous sense of responsibility as a role model for the organization; for all the women in our company, our store leaders and home office leaders who are driving our business, leading their teams, juggling their personal and family lives. I considered it an honor, a privilege really, to be able to represent, support, and model as a woman in leadership.
Lisa: That’s interesting. I would say that overall the company was very family-friendly. I think Liz would agree with that.
Liz: Yes, totally.
Lisa: You never had to hide the fact that you needed to take care of a sick child. It was very much family-first. Now, just because a company “has” that culture or says that, doesn’t mean it’s so easy to accept that kind of help, right? I think a lot of women still feel, ‘I can’t. I shouldn’t.’ Well, you know, maybe it’s okay if you’re not at work today! Because if you can’t [or] you’re not showing up for your family and doing what you need to do at home, you can’t show up in a good way in the office. So I think that we were lucky; we were blessed that our company was family-first. But that doesn’t mean it still isn’t a struggle or a challenge [to have both]. Right, Liz? For working parents?
Liz: This is where I feel you were such a model for me. You were the first senior level executive where we would be in a meeting and you’d say, ‘Oh, hold on a minute, this is my daughter’s school and I’ve got to take this!’ And we [the people in the meeting] would pause the meeting…meetings would actually stop. And what was amazing was that you’d come back to the meeting ready and get right back to where we left off. For me, this was fascinating to experience. And the second surprise for me was when you would bring your daughter to the office. I remember she didn’t have school so you’d bring her in! I had never seen this either. It was so clear you were a mom and amazing at your job.
Lisa: And listen, you’re not always going to be able to pick up the call from your kids. In this case, you know, there are cases when you know it’s a school call and you have to navigate that.
Liz: I was at the stage of daycare and kids getting sick, not necessarily talking to the school or having their kid come [to work]. So that’s why it was cool to see forward a couple years to where I could be. Because you were balancing – or at least it looked like that to me.
Lisa: They were. There wasn’t a lot of physical family help, if that’s what you’re asking, because my husband’s parents were in Florida. The way I was able to balance so well was that I had a live-in au pair. I worked long hours. When I had my first child I was at Macy’s in the city, so I wouldn’t get home until late. Glenn [my husband] was in the middle of a career change, so he was working or in school constantly, you know. So we needed that kind of presence. I mean, it makes a big difference. You know, not to jump around, but there are sacrifices with all of this. Like we never had family dinner, ever, during the week.
Liz: And we had dinner every night together. I think we made our life more challenging because we decided we were going to do this ourselves. Which was so naïve! To help with this decision, I moved my office walking distance from my house and from their public school. And Jim [my husband at the time] took on sort of the parent role – he worked in the back office with me, but he would leave work early, go pick them up, make dinner. And then maybe one day a week I was home with the kids. It was a lot. It was hard. It was not a smart move in hindsight. It made our life much more difficult.
Lisa: I think I felt like I was balancing…it really takes a community. And I think about how I balanced…it’s because of all of the people around me, whether it’s friends, peers, my bosses, the schools, you build that network because I can’t tell you how many times I got a call from my friend Sue who said, ‘Lisa, remember tomorrow Jaclyn has to wear a blue t-shirt for Spirit Day.’ Or, ‘Lisa, remember: you’re supposed to sign that note.’ Or whatever it is. You know, I didn’t know!
Liz: Same. I missed my daughter’s first day of school because her school was on a different schedule than my son’s! After that my friends all learned her school schedule so we wouldn’t forget.
Lisa: There were not a lot of working women…you had the same thing Liz, right? I found more connection at work, from working mothers. Or through my business partners like Liz.
Liz: I do remember having three very good friends down here in Tribeca – so there were four of us – and we all had jobs, kids the same age, and that became my core group. But it took me a while to figure that out.
Lisa: We had some good friends!
Liz: Yeah, thank god, right?! So hard.
Lisa: Yeah, I mean, I just feel like the company and myself as a leader, we lead with kindness. Putting other people first and asking what their needs are, what their challenges are…and just making people feel heard and understood and safe. I mean it was the family environment that really encouraged us to have that feeling that everyone in the company – even the store manager sitting out in Idaho thousands of miles away – was part of the family. And cared for, really.
And I think that is what trickled down in terms of being a parent at the company, it’s just…do whatever you’ve got to do. Take care of your family, take care of your kid, and don’t stress out about it. And because the relationships were so strong within the company, other people stepped up to help. Right, Liz? If you were on the team the other people would say, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll cover for you. I’ll take the conference call. I’ll meet with the client’. That was very prevalent in our company. And Liz, if you think about it, a little tangent here, not a lot of the female leaders at Barnes & Noble had children.
Liz: You know what is also interesting? I remember this one instance when I traveled for the Show and I forgot all of my makeup…my whole bag! I had mentioned it to somebody because I was freaking out and talking about how I needed to get to the store and what I was going to do. And next thing I know someone is knocking at my hotel door and it’s this little cute bag of makeup from Kim, a senior manager at the company, who overheard me talking about my situation. I didn’t even tell her! And she put together all the extra makeup she had.
Lisa: I never knew this story!
Liz: It was a perfect example of a person jumping in. And it really made you feel taken care of on a whole other level. Which means you want to work harder and do better because it was such a level of love and respect in a weird way for a business environment.
Lisa: In a weird, dysfunctional way! [Laughing]
Liz: [Laughing] We were like family!
Liz: It was definitely special at Barnes & Noble, and I think that’s why I loved and gravitated towards work with the company.
Lisa: People were very, very passionate about the company. I mean they just were. People loved Barnes & Noble. Our 10 year celebration was unbelievable.
Liz: And when you’d go to the Annual Meeting, one of the nights they’d acknowledge how many years people had worked with the company. I remember my first Show and I literally had chills. They would announce five years and you’d see people walking across the stage to get their pin…and all the regional managers would be on the stage literally hugging each person. And then they’d go through the 10 year and the 20 year and the 30 years…
Lisa: And then the 40 years! We had 40 year employees…
Liz: It was jaw dropping. It was such a special night. And then what we would do, per Lisa’s vision, was blow up these jumbo posters with people’s names featured throughout the halls of the hotel. You would see managers run up and take pictures pointing to their name or having a group of friends cheer for them. If you think about it, it was so special.
Lisa: Yeah, it was a labor of love for sure.
Lisa: Yes, be hopeful!
Liz: There’s got to be other places like that.
Lisa: And you could create it too. Create it in your own space, in your own world, and then it can branch out.
Liz: I think you have enough to make it interesting!
Lisa: Yeah, right?! The kids are alright!