After selling her successful scrap metal company, Linda founded Optimal Level, where she helps small business owners grow their companies to meet their potential.
Tell us a little about your background…
I live in Wheeling, Illinois, with my wonderful husband, Michael. We are parents to two kids, both now grown. I grew up on the north side of Chicago with my mom, my dad, and an older sister. No one in my family ever went to college so it wasn’t expected of me, especially as a girl. Although I often did hairstyles for friends and family, and many said I was so good at it, I decided to attend the University of Illinois, where I chose to major in Physical Education (I loved volleyball). After several mishaps, including getting hit by a straight shot at my gut from the pitcher in a baseball game, I knew I had to change majors. However, it was too late and I flunked out due to my poor grades in Phys. Ed.
Because I realized how important education was for me, I reapplied. I wrote from my heart to the Dean about how much I wanted to learn, that I was changing my major to English, and he gave me a second chance. Luckily, learning and getting high grades came easily to me. After graduating, I became an elementary school teacher in the Chicago’s inner city and got my teaching certificate while working through a special program sponsored by the Chicago Public Schools at the time. I met my husband, Michael, when we both taught in the same school. I continued to teach while having our two kids, eventually becoming a Master Teacher.
While I loved the children, I also knew teaching was not where my heart was. I had just fallen into teaching; it was never what I set out to do. I’d known for a while that I wanted to start my own business, but I wasn’t sure what that would be, so I thought I should try getting a job in business first. At age 40, I took a career test to determine where I would fit best: The word “sales” practically jumped off the page from the test results. Sales? I knew nothing about sales!
In speaking to my mom about it, she suggested I go work for my father, who owned a Scrap Iron & Metal Co. I asked my Dad and he said, “What the hell do you know about the scrap business?” Still, he hired me to work in the office and to drive business development. I took an entire summer to prepare, reading absolutely every book at the library (this was before computers) on sales and, from the very few available, on women in sales. From that point on, I asked a lot of questions. I had wonderful mentors in my father, my husband, as well as our employees, vendors, and customers. I, of course, came up against some old-timers who were somewhat difficult in terms of getting used to having women in “their” industry.
At the time my father was working out of his condo. I started on the floor of my dad’s home office, borrowing the phone whenever he wasn’t using it. He gave me practically no training yet I went forth like a speeding train. I loved everything about sales—I couldn’t get enough! That was the beginning of my love for business. Flash forward six years and I became the President and Owner of H. Diamond Scrap Iron and Metal; we had five employees, and worked out of a dirty, old building.
When did you start to think about making a change?
By 1993, the company had grown to 34 employees and owned a beautiful building located on the south side of Chicago. We had over 350 customers and over six million dollars in revenues. In 1999, we sold our flourishing company. While I knew I loved business, I did not necessarily love the scrap metal industry. I decided I wanted to help other women learn to grow their businesses.
What is your next act? Tell us about what you are doing and what you love about it.
I am the founder of Optimal Level, where I work with clients one-on-one as their business, success, and leadership coach, either in person in the Chicago area, or remotely as needed. I work with business owners who need help with everything: how to establish their businesses and company values; branding, sales and marketing; operations, processes and systems; hiring and firing employees; building a culture, and more. It is very exciting to me.
My clients are business owners who fall within a range between start-ups through companies with up to fifty employees. They usually come to me when they feel frustrated with aspects of their business; they may not be at the financial level they expected to have reached at this point, and things are not working—they feel as if they are grasping at straws and they have no idea how to start fixing things.
On the other hand, I have many clients who have done a superb job at growing their companies but are feeling overwhelmed. They lack the necessary processes and systems that will allow them to get to the next level; they need me to get them organized for that next stage of business growth.
I also work with business owners who want to become better leaders, whether that is with employees or with members of groups and associations. And, as a Success Coach, I work with clients who are looking for improvements in various areas of their lives, such as changing careers, finding balance, finding one’s path, gaining confidence, etc.
I usually offer three, six, or 12-month programs during which my client and I meet every other week for 1-1/2 to 2 hours. However, there may be times when someone just needs something specific for a shorter duration. For instance, I am working with the owner of an organizational coaching company. Obviously, we do a lot of the same things. She has grown her company to a wonderful size; however, she felt she wasn’t doing as well as she could at closing larger clients. So I am working with her for a limited time specifically on improving her sales closing rate.
For the clients who work with me in one of my longer programs, we start with understanding who they are at a deep level, what their core values are, what their company means to them and others. Once we know that, we can move on to understanding what their brand is and how to deliver that message, who they are delivering that message to (target market) and what exactly they are offering. Then, we move into sales and marketing. Of course, my greatest expertise is in sales and business development. A very strong component of my program is on networking. Many business owners are so frustrated with networking. They do it, meet people, try to refer and get referrals, but don’t succeed enough to sustain their efforts.
Depending on what is needed, we move on to Operations. My clients often express to me how amazed they are at how many systems and processes we use. They are excited when we develop written plans for every aspect of their business. I have created many processes and systems, which quickly lead my clients to being highly functional at many levels. They feel less stressed and have a much clearer understanding of what they need to do to run their businesses successfully.
My clients tell me they love my style. I am very direct. I am also sensitive to their challenges, and express that sensitivity willingly. However, if I know a solution that will serve them well, I will tell them and not skirt around an issue hoping that they discover the solution on their own. I will tell my clients what to do and they are thrilled with the dynamic, quick, and helpful results.
I love my work because I see my clients either hurting and confused or excited to move on to a higher level, and then experience their joy and accomplishment after working with me. I love it because when I do this work, it flows, it is easy, and it is fun. I know I am in the pocket and feel that this is where I am meant to be.
Can you give us examples of clients you’ve helped?
One of my clients was a divorce attorney, at that time with three small children under five. Her challenges were many. Our goal together was to take her from $500,000 in revenue to $1M and we did that in eleven months, while helping to keep her balanced in her family life.
Another successful client of mine had clients coming out of her ears; she was so good at what she did. However, she was bleeding money. She kept herself too busy to monitor how much work she was doing beyond her proposed time commitments and she didn’t know herself well enough to see that she would give too much to her clients, thereby challenging her profitability. We found the problem, helped her get organized, hired more help, and created a new system of checks and balances in her proposals and delivery. I am still working with her to help with other issues. We’ve been working together for about one year, and she has been able to capture over $80,000 in money owed to her.
How did you get your business off the ground?
I began by doing a lot of networking, and formed an Advisory Board from the people I met. They were so hard on me, and it was difficult to accept criticism well, but I did. I loved my original name for this company, Feminine Forum, but decided to change it after my Board told me it sounded like feminine products!
After a while, I decided to go it alone and worked things out as I went along. It is important to join groups and organizations that are either in your industry, support your industry, or have people who would be mutually supportive.
Optimal Level began as a forum for women, eventually growing to five groups of 12 women each. We worked on both personal and business issues. Sometimes personal issues get in the way of solving some business challenges. We have to coach the whole person at times to move toward solving business problems. Members signed on for a one-year term and some stayed on as long as seven years. I created the format. The meetings were 3 hours long with discussion about an article that I chose and sent to members of the group to read previous to the meeting, usually an excerpt from a book or an article and I would facilitate the discussion. Next, each member focused on a particular issue she or he wanted solved. The group benefited from hearing that others had similar problems and with my facilitation we solved those problems. They were given individual homework assignments to complete for the next meeting.
I loved it. I loved the format I had created, the women I was able to help, the fun of finding clients, networking, and being successful. Along the way, I had written my first book, Optimal Level: A Woman’s Guide to Meeting Life’s Challenges. I worked with busy businesswomen with families. They have a lot of challenges so I decided to write a book to help them and self-published it. After seven years with just women, I opened the groups to men. That was fun and rewarding too. I was also sought after as a speaker because of my expertise. I spoke about Women’s Issues, Business Issues, Networking, How to be Successful, Business Plans, Marketing, etc. The audiences were members of chambers, professional associations, and business groups.
Then, in 2014, I changed my company to focus on one-on-one business, success, and leadership coaching. At this point, I had been ill for a while (I am well now), and decided the group coaching was too rambunctious and required too much preparation and physical work.
At each change, I never wavered. I always jumped in and had the confidence that I would succeed. Were there questions, confusions, and doubts? Of course. I knew that I may have lacked the how-to at times, however, I was always comfortable with asking for help and knowing how to find the resources I needed. I just knew I’d find my way. I loved the journey as much as the results.
How do you promote your business?
I promote my business mainly through networking, referral marketing, speaking, and social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter).
One strategy that has been successful for me is taking voluntary leadership positions in organizations. For one thing, it is easier for more people to get to know you and secondly, others automatically think of you as a leader and expert. I served on the Board of the Chicago Chapter of NAWBO (National Association of Women Business Owners) on and off for four years. I also served as Committee Chair for NAWBO Chicago on the Corporate Development and Networking committees. I sponsored a local organization, Engaging Speakers for ten years. I was a Chapter Leader for a local organization, KLTR (Know, Like, Trust) for one year and have served and continue to serve as a Board Director for the American Club of Chicago. For two local chambers, I have served as the Committee Chair and Facilitator of the Women’s Business Luncheon for several years.
Also, simply offering to sit down and listen to someone often results in someone wanting to hire me. If I meet someone, or someone is referred to me, who seems in pain about either being overwhelmed with business issues or confused about how to grow or monetize his or her business, I will ask that person if he or she would like to meet with me. That meeting is complimentary and we explore whether or not we would be a good fit and if he or she would like my help.
I have also decided to get into group coaching again, this time in a more manageable way, with the help of a new partner, Lisa Kaplin. I had been coaching Lisa, a psychologist and Life Coach and, as we were ending our coaching sessions, we agreed to continue to work together. We are offering a series of seminars, called P.O.W.E.R., Providing Opportunities for Women for Empowered Results, for successful female entrepreneurs and professionals, in a group setting. These seminars focus on issues that affect working women such as Making the Best Professional Image, Mastering the Art of Dealing with Difficult People, Succeeding at Multiple Roles, and the Search for Perfect Time Management-Get Real. We meet in a forum setting once a month, discuss a reading that has been sent in advance, and then work on exercises to promote behavior they seek for success. Check out upcoming seminars in the right column of my home page.
How supportive of your new business were your family and friends?
My family was always supportive. However, sometimes I heard that my mother as well as my larger family circle felt I worked too much.
My daughter helped a great deal. She helped shut down the physical building from H. Diamond and helped handle all the financial and legal paperwork and set-up the office. She now works part-time for Optimal Level, as my Executive Assistant; she does the books, handles the work for the hotels where we hold our meetings, creates promotional materials, manages contracts, etc.
What challenges did you encounter? What kept you going?
With Optimal Level, the challenges had more to do with establishing my distinct target market and where to find those potential clients. This included: Knowing where to find your target market (clients) knowing what offerings will generate the income necessary to sustain the business, knowing how to set-up those offerings, knowing where and how to market, developing relationships and referral partners, figuring out how to distinguish yourself from other coaches, and where and how to market to establish your reputation and bring in clients.
The conversion from group coaching to one-on-one coaching was a bit challenging in terms of announcing or publicizing the change.
In addition to my supportive family, the business relationships I made have helped keep me going – very smart business people willing to exchange ideas and be supportive when needed.
What have you learned about yourself through your startup experience?
Oh, I learned so much! In the beginning, I learned that I was strong and had power, that I may not be as smart as I thought others might be, yet I could always find a solution. I learned that love is so necessary in life with family and friends. I learned to value both the good and the more difficult times, the learning and the process. I learned that if you believe in yourself, have a strong desire and passion, if you can find and use resources, and if you have persistence, anyone can be successful. I learned humility and determination. I learned that besides death and illness, nothing is quite as bad as it may seem at the moment.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Definitely go for it! Never, ever stay in a place where you don’t feel joy, passion, and alignment with who you are. Just be smart about it: Get help, get a coach, find someone who can hold your hand and help lead you to where you want to be.
What advice do you have for those interested in owning some kind of coaching business?
It’s not easy. Make sure you know without a doubt that you want to own a business, are comfortable with business development, can put in hours away from your family, and that you can trust yourself, be undaunted, and are comfortable asking for help. If you are determined, willing to ask for help, and have the energy, do it!
I would advise anyone who wants to start a coaching business to get help from a business coach. At this time, having a coaching certificate is not required to become a business coach. There are some people, however, who feel uncomfortable without certificates, and for them I would recommend getting a coaching certificate. I had many coaches as clients who had certificates and came to me to help them become successful. I never felt getting coaching credentials was necessary. Since I have been coaching for fifteen years and have hundreds of clients, it seems I was right. I’m very good at what I do and that becomes evident to referral partners and potential clients when I sit down and talk with them.
What resources do you recommend?
There’s always the beginning point for business, The E-Myth : Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It and The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber. When I got into sales, I liked Selling For Dummies, by Tom Hopkins. That’s kind of old-school now. However, there are great books available for networking and sales on Amazon. A great book for women is The Confident Woman: Asserting Yourself at Work, Love and Play by Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz.
I recommend joining a woman’s peer-mentoring group such as NAWBO or EPWNG (Exclusive Professional Women’s Networking Group), and I must mention the fabulous networking group, at which I am now a Director, ACA Business Club of Chicago, which Crain’s Business listed as one of the eight most selective groups in Chicago. Whatever you want to do, get a coach; it’s the smart thing to do.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Our P.O.W.E.R seminars are just getting off the ground. I have a new book, soon to be published, that I co-wrote called, Sanity and Success for Working Women, A Quick Guide to Survive and Thrive in the Corporate World. I’m in the process of writing, How to be Powerful: 11 Secrets for Leadership, Speaking, and Sales.
Contact Linda I. McCabe at firstname.lastname@example.org and 847.419.9300