This interview is part of an on-going series of articles I am doing about how people make the journey from leader to thought leader. See my previous interviews with Priya Huskins of Woodruff and Sawyer and Holly Hamann of Tap Influence.  This time, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jo Miller, CEO of Be Leaderly, one of my favorite thought leaders and speakers in the world of women’s leadership. Over the last few years, Jo has built a significant following in her niche and I wanted to understand how she went about this. Below are some excerpts from the first part of our interview. The second part of the interview is coming soon. 

 Find Your Niche, Stay In Your Lane

Denise: Great to talk with you today, Jo. Thank you for agreeing to discuss your path from leader to thought leader. Let’s start by talking about your niche. You created a pretty specific niche working with up-and-coming women leaders. How did that come about? And how difficult is it to ‘stay in your lane’?

Jo: You know what? Staying in your lane is absolutely critical, and I think it is the number one thing that I see other speakers and coaches and all different thought leaders really struggle with. But right from the get-go, I had this intuitive sense that that was really critical.

So many, many years ago, I was working with my own coach, and I was doing life coaching and business coaching and all of the above coaching, and I knew I needed to narrow my focus. So I said to my coach, “We need to find my niche.” She took me through a process of brainstorming 100 different things. We narrowed it down to 10, then the top three, and I still didn’t know.

She finally just said, “Jo, when you talk about women in leadership as a focus for coaching, you sound 10 times more excited than anything else.” That was like ‘BAM’. That just hit me. I thought, “Oh, my gosh. She’s right.”

There was a lot of fear there because I had never really progressed beyond the high-performing, high-potential individual contributor in my own career. I got really, really stuck with breaking into senior management. But I had this instinct.

At the time, this was 15 years ago, no one else seemed to be focused there. There was no book. There was no road map. I just figured, I’m willing to stay the course, to stay committed for as many years as it takes to educate myself. I’m committing to this.

From that moment, I just called myself a “women’s leadership coach,” and it’s been a great fit ever since.

Denise: So once you decided, you didn’t have trouble staying in the lane then?

Jo: I had no trouble. I always had an instinct that I need to narrow my focus. You see so many people trying to be all things to all people, and it just doesn’t work. So I had this focus on women in leadership, but instinctively, I could kind of see that there was a lot of executive coaching, a lot of resources for once you already are in leadership, but very little if you’re on the way up. That was my struggle in my career. So that really became my passion, the emerging women leaders, early career, and mid-level leaders who aspire to advance. That’s where my heart and my passion really lie.

Denise: I find that our niche often comes from a place where we’ve personally struggled.

Jo: Yes! It’s like being a dog with a bone that won’t let go. I am determined to figure this out. It was just something I could not let go of. I knew the pain that it caused me, the angst, the stress that it caused me in my career. I just figured there must be other women out there dealing with that, too.

We Understand the Problems…We Don’t Yet Understand the Solutions

Denise: That’s how I came to find my niche as well. So what’s the future? I always talk about the “What If” Future. What if the world looked like this…. What is the future you envision for women leaders?

Jo: I think there is a huge challenge right now . . . (and I think it has always been a challenge but there’s been greater awareness brought to the issue in the last five years). That’s dealing with unconscious bias and these double-binds that women find themselves in.

For example, there was so much said a few years ago about “Women don’t ask”, and “Women don’t negotiate.” Well, of course, it turns out that that’s a learned behavior because when women DO negotiate, they get penalized for it.

So I think we’re just starting to scratch the surface to really understand the impact of all of those biases and how they undermine women’s best intentions, best efforts, their ambition.

Sadly, we’re at a point in time where we really understand that it’s a problem, but it’s a bit depressing because we don’t yet understand a lot of the solutions. There’s been so few articles or really validated resources that have come across that show you how to get beyond that bias and how to stick through it. I think that’s a huge opportunity right now, and it’s an absolutely critical next step for women to really break through that current no-win situation.

Denise: It’s very funny you say this. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about for the last couple weeks is . . . Wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a study of 5000+ men in leadership, asking them what was it that women in their companies or organizations did to get past their biases? We need to look at this women’s leadership issue from the other side. Everyone keeps looking at it by studying women, trying to “fix the women” or help the women. I believe we should also be interviewing the men and enrolling the men in helping us to understand what it takes to survive and thrive in corporate roles.

Jo: Yeah. I agree! Fixing women is not the answer. It’s capitalism that’s broken.

Denise: Yes. The corporate structure is what’s broken. It’s not women. I wrote about that a while back, that women are the ‘canary in the corporate coal mine.’

Jo: Yeah, exactly. And yet, try telling that to an individual woman who’s ambitious, who has potential that goes beyond her role. Try telling her that she’s got to wait for the organization to fix itself. Hell no! She needs results now.

Develop Your Frameworks By Truly Understanding Your Audience

Denise: Yes, truly frustrating for those ascending the corporate ladder right now.

Getting back to the earlier questions, you have created a framework and a process that you teach and speak about widely. How did you develop your framework? This is such a critical step for thought leaders.

Jo: Well, the official headline that I share with people is that I interviewed over 1000 women and asked them about their career goals and leadership goals and the roadblocks they faced and the skills that they wanted to build, and from there I was able to come up with this road map, this program that I teach.

Now, in reality, when I was doing individual coaching, I just did over 1000 introductory coaching sessions with people — walking them through a goal-setting process, understanding their goals, their challenges. So through that, I developed a very deep understanding of what women want in their careers, what they were dealing with, and also the roadblocks they needed to overcome.

I haven’t done one-on-one coaching for many years now, but back then, when one of my coaching clients would break through one of these roadblocks and be able to move ahead and move beyond it, I said to her, “What you just did was awesome. Can I go tell 10 other people how you approached this? Because I think they would really benefit.”

From there, it just sort of came together into this list of best practices or learnings and I came up with my own workshop curriculum. Then, I just got together a bunch of friends and tested it out and then booked a hotel room and invited my email list and I got their feedback and it just grew from there.

Denise: So seeing these individual’s successes and breakthrough moments is what you based it on.

Jo: Yes, exactly. One of my strengths is I do have a nose for content — seeing a problem and then seeing how a nugget of content or training could address it and pulling all those together into a broader curriculum.

Denise: So this is what you still teach in your workshops?

Jo: Yeah, pretty much. It’s been the same program since about 2006 or 2007. It’s evolved. It’s polished, and it’s got better jokes now.

Scaling is Hard…Ask Yourself, Is It Your Highest & Best Use?

Denise: Do you train others to offer your program?

Jo: No. You know? For a while, I was training a few individual coaches to do it, but it just seemed like that was not my highest, best value. So right now, it’s just me. I deliver these sessions in companies and at conferences around the country.

Denise: So why did you decide that? Because to me, that is one of the ways we scale, by certifying others . . . But a lot of people I’ve talked to have said they’ve tried it and walked away from it. So I wanted to hear why you walked away from it.

Jo: It’s just such a pain in the butt! I thought that because [learning other people’s content] came easily to me, it would be easy to get others to memorize my content. But it’s just not an easy thing to do, to really embody someone else’s curriculum and life’s work and be able to deliver it in a heartfelt, meaningful way. Maybe I’m a bit lazy. Honestly, to me, I couldn’t be bothered doing it. I just wanted to get out and work with these women myself. It seemed too precious to me. That time spent with them is just so, so precious to me.

Denise: I understand. I had dinner with a guy a couple of months ago, and he was telling me that he spent three years and millions of dollars trying to certify other trainers to offer the curriculum he developed. He eventually gave up. I have also tried it with three different trainers without any success. Fortunately, I didn’t spend three years and millions of dollars!

Having a Credo Can Help You Serve Your Community

Denise: So then you have this credo. Talk to me about how your credo came about.

Jo: It just came to me one day. I was creating this blog, and I was thinking, “Well, what are the categories?” It was just like divine intervention…. These three words, Lead – Climb – Thrive, just kind of landed in my brain. I’m not sure how else to put it.

Denise: Divine inspiration?

Jo: Yeah. And that’s how the curriculum showed up as well. The curriculum just kind of downloaded into my head — a full two-day program appeared one day, and I’m so glad it did, but I’m not sure why it happened.

Denise: Well, prepared luck, I think. I heard this a lot, actually, when I interviewed people for my book. There were so many people who said words to that effect. That it just downloaded into their brain. I really think that happened for me as well when I was writing the book and sometimes when I’m working on other writing projects. We do get these divine inspirations. But it’s prepared. The brain is prepared to hear it. I believe it’s really because that was all you were thinking about, and it kind of just falls into place. But it is a real gift when that happens, isn’t it?

Jo: Yeah, it’s just awesome and also a bit scary. What if that didn’t happen? Let’s try not to think about that.

Denise: Hmm. Yes.. That’s where the whole brain freeze comes from, we all try to avoid that. But how does having this credo…how does that guide your behavior or guide the work that you do?

Jo: That is really interesting. These are the three categories (Lead – Climb – Thrive) that are important to my audience . . . But also, they resonate strongly with me. I try to make sure that I’m balancing between the three. So when I’m blogging or looking for articles by guest authors . . . I think, have we been all about leading recently? Maybe it’s time to talk about thriving. What challenges are people dealing with? What can I write about or share on those topics?

I make sure I’m kind of hitting on all three topics fairly evenly.

I tend to focus on the climb most often . . .  I have a very dominant focus on the climb and have to remind myself that the other two are of equal importance. So it’s just kind of a gut check for me to make sure I’m really being of service to my audience.

Denise: Did you do some sort of a check, “Does this resonate with my community?”

Jo: I probably should have. I should have done a survey or something like that, but I feel like I know the community so well. I just kind of made an executive decision.

Denise: Well, it’s your job to do that. In some ways, your role is to distill that knowledge for your community.

Listen for the Questions & Ask For Input Constantly

Jo: I think this is the value of staying in your lane and going deeply into a niche, is you can then really, really get to know your audience because you start to segment it in a really narrow way.

Denise: What are other ways in which you get to know and tap into your community’s needs?

Jo: Whenever I do a workshop, I have people fill in a pre-workshop questionnaire, and I gain a lot of insight from that. When I’m doing a speaking engagement, I always listen for what are the questions that people ask. At the end of the session, who’s lining up to ask questions? And what are those questions? So I’m always sort of trying to immerse myself in who I’m being of service to and what are their greatest needs.

Then the other way I do it is when people sign up for my newsletter, they get a welcome email that says, “Hey. Just take a minute to hit reply and introduce yourself and tell me what are your biggest goals and challenges are right now.” I gain a lot of insight from reading those as well.

Denise: Cool. I like it.

Jo: That’s vitally important. Whenever I see people kind of not hitting that spot with their content or their offerings, I think what’s at the heart of it is they haven’t sort of put their own agenda and mindset aside and tried to deeply understand the audience that they’re being of service to.

Part II of this interview is coming soon. Learn more about Jo Miller here and read her blog, Be Leaderly, here.


My comments on the interview:

One thing a lot of my clients struggle with is this challenge of picking a lane or niche, being sure they are in the right lane — serving a community that they are truly committed to serving — and then staying with that commitment long enough to make a real difference. When you’re in a big company, your role might change and your company may go in a new direction. When you’re self-employed, this can be all the more challenging, as the economy changes and the community you have built your reputation serving may no longer have the same needs. Yet, it’s interesting to see that when you pick a niche that you are truly passionate about and that is broad enough – emerging women leaders, in Jo’s case – you can stay in service to that niche for many, many years and perhaps an entire career.

About the author

Denise Brosseau is the CEO of Thought Leadership Lab. She is a thought leadership strategist, speaker and author who helps entrepreneurs and executives become well-respected thought leaders in their niche so they can make a meaningful impact in their industry and leave a legacy that matters. Read her book, Ready to Be a Thought Leader? (Wiley) to learn the 7 steps from leader to thought leader. Find her on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook. Learn more and join her mailing list at