December 20

Episode 153: Mastering Risk: Lessons from a COO’s Journey


In today’s episode, Mike talks with Rebecca Illsley, the Chief Operating Officer of Thermacell Repellents.

Rebecca shares her journey and experiences in leadership, strategic growth, and mastering the art of risk-taking. With a rich background in Consumer-Packaged Goods, Supply Chain, and Operations, she provides valuable insights into effective decision-making and the importance of embracing risks in leadership.

Listeners will learn from Rebecca’s experiences at Thermacell and her previous roles at The Clorox Company, gaining insights into how to navigate leadership challenges with confidence and determination. This episode is packed with wisdom for anyone aspiring to enhance their leadership skills and make impactful strides in their career.

Rebecca Illsley’s Bio

Rebecca is the Chief Operating Officer of Thermacell Repellents.

Prior, to joining Thermacell, Rebecca held senior leadership roles with The Clorox Company.

Over the last 20+ years, Rebecca has developed expertise in Consumer-Packaged Goods, Supply Chain, Operations, Strategy Development, Manufacturing, Food Science, Quality, Product Development, and People Development.

In This Episode…

  • Discover the importance of risk-taking and decision-making in leadership.
  • Learn how Rebecca navigated her career journey through various senior roles, leading to her current position at Thermacell.
  • Insights into the challenges and successes in the Consumer-Packaged Goods industry.
  • The significance of people development and building a strong, cohesive team.
  • Rebecca’s unique approach to product development, quality, and operational strategies.

Links & Resources Mentioned…

Read The Transcript

Mike O'Neill: Welcome back to get unstuck and on target I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders whether we're working with supervisors to improve their people skills or it's me coaching a CEO one on one getting leaders and companies unstuck is at the heart of everything we do and that's exactly what this podcast is all about

each week we invite great guests who share their hard one experiences of getting themselves or others unstuck back on target and moving forward and I hope it gets you unstuck and on target as well joining me is Rebecca Illsley Rebecca is the chief operating officer of Thermacell Repellents prior to joining Thermocell Rebecca held senior leadership roles with the Clorox company

over the last 20 plus years Rebecca has developed expertise in consumer packaged goods supply chain operations strategy development manufacturing food science quality product development and People development and it's her passion for people development that will spend most of our time on today

welcome Rebecca

Rebecca Illsley: well thank you so much for having me Mike it's great to see you again appreciate the time appreciate the opportunity

Mike O'Neill: well it's actually my pleasure and those watching though it's slightly out of camera Thermacell Repellent is actually a product I'm familiar with the O'Neill household has bought your products

but for those who don't know what that is can you describe what Thermacell Repellents do

Rebecca Illsley: I'm happy to do that so we make a product To unmosquito your life and so our products safely create a 20 foot zone of mosquito free area for you to enjoy the outdoors and so our mission really is to enable people to get outside and enjoy the outdoors and be free of insects free free of those mosquito bites

so we're really proud of the product that we make it's been very popular with people that love the outdoors and and it's becoming even more popular with people that just like to hang out on their back patio and enjoy their family time and so we're we have our operation right here near you Mike in Beaufort Georgia where we produce and manufacture products and we're based out of the Boston areas where our headquarters are

Mike O'Neill: yeah I appreciate that you spent nearly 14 years with the Clorox company and just to kind of fill in some gaps I think when people hear the term the Clorox company they think of a bottle of bleach and that's about where it stops I know we're not here to talk about the Clorox company but just to give our listeners a little bit of feel for how you have kind of come to the role you're in right now

can you describe some of the products that you had some involvement with in your tenure at the Clorox company

Rebecca Illsley: sure so I joined Clorox actually from the food industry and I had a couple of roles in research and development with Pepsi and Coca Cola prior to joining Clorox and Clorox has a food business and so I joined primarily because of my quality and microbiology and food science background

they have a Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing brand KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce brand and they also have a lot of personal they have a lot of personal care products like Burt's Be's they have a family of different brands including Kingsford and Glad you know 4 0 9 a lot of the cleaning products you'd see on the shelf including Clorox disinfecting wipes

but there's a family of products that people don't realize are actually part of the Clorox company so when I joined the organization I joined in the quality function primarily because they were looking for somebody to have that food science and microbiology and quality experience but from there I went to a lot of different areas within the Clorox company international roles manufacturing roles as well as research and development roles


Mike O'Neill: I appreciate you sharing that because kind of knowing a little bit about your story and how you came to your role as C o o I think it is helpful to kind of set that backdrop because when you and I first met we connected on linked in and we had a conversation we talked about a variety of things

but when we begin talking about your role as C o o c o o and how that has led to you working with others from a career coaching standpoint the importance of building a personal brand to even leaving a leadership legacy you just lit up when we began that conversation and that's why I would love to just kind of continue that conversation on those topics

why is developing others so important to you

Rebecca Illsley: I think for me one of the things that you know lights me up as you said one of the things I'm most proud of is being able to help people realize their potential I want everyone on my team to go home to their families and be proud and feel good about the day they spend at work

and you know my I have a leadership legacy statement I was I had the opportunity to really think be thoughtful about that and create a leadership legacy statement which for me has been my true north and it's all about unlocking the potential of the people on my team being a talent magnet I want people to want to come to work on my team

right to be part of our organization so I want to attract the best talent within the company and beyond real you know enabling people to be business leaders I wanted to lead with authentic leadership and for that is essentially just that I love seeing people reach their potential and you know excel in something that they're that they love to do

I love having folks on my team that I know are doing what they love to do and are being stretched being challenged and you know overcoming those challenges and meeting those challenges and really knocking it out of the park I mean that for me is really what you know brings me to work in the morning is the team that I get to lead

Mike O'Neill: I love the term talent magnet and and that is you're trying to attract the right people and in attracting the right people the people look around I'm assuming they say you know what I'm working side by side other like minded people who want to be here you're a COO you therefore understand kind of the bottom line

why is being a talent magnet as a manager why is that important to your company's bottom line

Rebecca Illsley: it's about strategy deployment and you know we we need to make sure that everything we're doing in operations and in my area of responsibility is lined up with the company's business goals and strategy and one of the biggest strategies we have is people

people development we're not going to be we're not going to accomplish anything without the right team the right skills and capabilities on the team and we I want to make sure that I'm developing my folks on my team to to be the best they can be I personally think we have the best team and supply chain and operations in the company in the world

right and and so for me that's that that drives me and making sure that we're aligned in everything that we're doing within our our strategy is aligned with the business means we're all successful we want to make sure that we're delivering against our commitments to our functional partners in demand creation especially in finance right

and so we are responsible on our team for the cost on for delivering margin and delivering supply and making sure we're delivering it at the quality that that the consumers expect right we want to make sure we're delivering the consumer promise and we want to make sure that everyone's having fun doing that and realizing their potential at the same time and doing it safely and that everyone's going home the way they came in in that day

so that's really you know essentially why it's so important I think for developing the right team having the right folks on your team being that talent magnet because you can't accomplish any of that without the right skills and capabilities of people

Mike O'Neill: when you mentioned taking care of your customers I purposely asked you to list some of the brands that you have been involved with over your career

and when people think of customers I may think of those people who who buy the products you describe your team as you're supporting those who may be supporting the end customer you're describing more internal customers if I heard that correctly , u as CEO convey the criticality of meeting the needs of your internal customers

and what ways do you make that real because you said authentic leadership is important how do you make that relatable

Rebecca Illsley: so I the one thing is important is that we make sure we collaborate with our internal customers that I think is most real so my team is making sure we're collaborating with our partners in marketing sales finance we're working together to solve business problems

and that way you know you know what's I think if you can put yourself in their shoes that's so important why is this important to them you know what is their goal what is our goal sometimes those goals are different and there's tension in the organization intentionally sometimes though those goals are the same

so and that's I think when you can find what that common purpose is and the common goal or if the goals are slightly different understanding why something's important to your internal customer I think is so so critical I think that's probably the key is just let's get together and talk about it in a room and let's collaborate to solve the business problem together

Mike O'Neill: you know before we get into career coaching and building a personal brand I'd love to go back and have you elaborate a little bit on building a leadership legacy and you said that you actually have that kind of written out well could you share and it may be what you have written out but can you share why having such a legacy is important to key leaders the folks listening to this episode right now

Rebecca Illsley: one of the things that I coach other people on is how will people know you were there how will people know that Rebecca Elsley was in this role what is the legacy I want to leave behind how do I want to make people feel about how they interacted with me right people remember how they how you made them feel

always not what you said and I think it's it's really developing that true north make sure that you are driving and aligning to what you personally want to leave behind in your career or in that role or with that that organization I'll read my my personal legacy statement I'd be happy to it's a little bit lengthy but I'll I'll read it

I want to be I have it written down over here on the side so I can read it for you I want to be known as an inspiring leader I want to be inspiring I want people to be inspired to come to work for me every day who is authentic and motivates team members to unlock their potential we talked about unlocking potential a minute ago

I want to accomplish this through coaching and developing engaged business leaders and engaged business leaders are those leaders that know the strategy they're aligned to the strategy we spent time deploying that strategy so they are very in the know on what they do every day and how that enables us to move forward and accomplish our goals I will clearly communicate expectations to create strategic alignment enabling growth and business results right

that's all very key you cannot have a strategy or a leadership legacy that's going off on a different direction than the rest of the company and my goal is to be a talent magnet attracting and retaining top talent from across the organization and beyond so that's I think really key for me is I can reflect on that

and am I am I still working in service of my leadership legacy is this is this work that I'm doing this week accomplishing what I want to leave behind in the organization it's just sort of a way for me to circle back and stay centered and stay authentic into what I intended to do I want my actions and my intent

to be completely locked in in in step and I think this really helps to make sure that my true North I know where I'm going and I know what where I want to lead the organization and help the team

Mike O'Neill: you know I love about your description here you referred to this as establishing your true North and at least what goes through my mind is knowing your true North gives you direction but when you write a leadership legacy you're

writing it from the perspective of a future point looking back that's right and you said something that also caught my attention and that is I'm I'm an analytical so sometimes I look at situations from more that perspective but you said not what the people think about working for Rebecca what did they feel

about working for Rebecca and that's a powerful distinction at least that I am drawing is there a difference between those 2 perspectives how people think about working for you or how they feel about working for you and if there is a distinction which of those do you find yourself most powerful

Rebecca Illsley: well I think you can lead with the head and the heart you know I think there's a bit of both certainly people have to logically understand and align theoretically and analytically with the direction like absolutely however they've got to they've got to come in with their heart and that's really where they're going to give their best

you want everyone to be their best selves and that you want them to want to be their best selves and I think that's the feeling part right that's the emotional leadership piece you can think and lead intellectually but people aren't going to follow you so I think this this theme around followership is such a strong thing

how do you get people to follow you and I think that's the emotional connection people will follow you with their hearts I think more than they will with their their you know head I mean they have to obviously things have to make sense but at the same time they have to be want to be emotionally involved invested in the strategy

in where you're going they want to believe in what you're what you know you're leading them towards I think that's the part that's so important and I think you know having that emotional connection as a leader is so critically important

Mike O'Neill: yeah I bring that up in large part in my coaching work what I find is that sometimes people have the impression that they're supposed to mask Emotion particularly the higher you go up the organization and what I'm hearing you described is very different than that

and that is 1 of the 1st words you use in your your leadership legacy statement is you want to be an inspiring leader and when I think of those who inspire me it draws a feeling out of me not necessarily a thought and you also mentioned as part of fulfillment of that legacy that you want to coach others

and I'd like to shift a little bit to to that and that is how you have helped others from a career Coaching standpoint and what are the things you find keep coming up that you want to make sure that we talk about today sure

Rebecca Illsley: I think you know your theme of your podcast is unstuck right and so one of the things that I've helped that really unstuck me is understanding my own personal brand

and part of understanding your own personal brand is knowing yourself and how you're perceived by others and this is something I coach people on a lot so to answer your question on what what I find that people repeatedly come you know come to me with this I don't know how to get to my next step I don't know how to navigate my career

how did you get to where you are a lot of people are very curious about that and one of the biggest things that was an aha for me earlier in my career was this idea of a personal brand and knowing yourself and doing a lot of work around 360 feedback diving in and finding the themes and figuring out my own perception of myself

how does that match to how people are perceiving me and that 360 feedback is so incredibly powerful for that are there things that are aligned fantastic let's keep doing that are there things that are not aligned oh where's the miss and where's the gap and do I want to do work to make sure that how I'm being perceived is how I want to be perceived or the things that I'm not going to do that work on or you know that type of thing

so I think knowing the value that you that you provide knowing yourself first of all knowing the organization and then you can know how to manage your career and move through the organization and make the impact leading with results is always so critical how do you make sure that what branding that you have for yourself your own personal brand is delivering the results that the company needs

and I think that was a very big unlock for me and really helped me to get unstuck that's how I help and coach others to to get unstuck is Hey have you asked for feedback if when you're asking for feedback don't say Hey can you give me some feedback it's very specific you know ask for it ahead of time

hey I'm going to do a presentation and I'm working on having executive presence could you please come back to me after this presentation and let me know how I did on executive presence be very specific on those things that you're working on with people or for yourself so that they can give you very specific feedback rather than oh yeah you did great

and so I think that that can help to develop that personal brand how do you want to show up how do you want to be perceived and then you can get to that place where Oh yes I am now matching my personal brand is matching how I want to be perceived and so that was some work that I've I've done

I think that was really important and I I've used that a lot and leveraged that a lot to coach

Mike O'Neill: the beauty of what you just said is you already answered the question that I would typically ask and that is you know people come to you oftentimes feeling a sense of stuck and perhaps they're career progression

you describe the criticality of self awareness and making sure that how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you are aligned to the best of ability but then you made this reference to personal brand and some people might just assume well you're building a personal brand because you're marketing yourself as a candidate

outside the organization and I know that's partly the case but in what ways does having a personal brand serve a person within their existing organization

Rebecca Illsley: well I think it's doing a self reflection exercise and knowing what your strengths are and you want to leverage those strengths so for me you know I'm a technical business leader

I will always be a technical leader in a way because I've got a technical background and a technical education that's part of who I am and how I show up I'm also I have a passion for leading people and that's part of my brand also I've got a background in consumer packaged goods that becomes part of my brand and how I show up

and so it's not about I'm marketing myself necessarily it's about I want to know what value am I adding why am I there why am I at Thermacell and why am I here and my brand is to be a an executive leader of people in operations and supply chain and technical aspects of the company that's that's kind of why I'm why I'm here and that's my that's my brand and my role and the work I'm doing is very much in line

and it's synced with that personal brand so it's about you know you knowing yourself and knowing the organization and then you know how you can contribute to the organization and it's a lot of personal reflection about where where what are your strengths and how do you how can you add value in that way that helps then if there's another career opportunity that comes up is this aligned with my brand

do I think based on how would I know about myself that I can be successful in that opportunity and for me it enabled me to take a lot of leaps and a lot of adjacent moves into areas and spaces that I guess I didn't necessarily have expertise in so you know I was in quality and there was a role and I was I was comfortable there

I had a I have an education in food I have a research development background and a role came up at Clorox in research and development in cleaning products well I didn't have experience in cleaning products but I definitely knew research and development and so I know about myself that I have those background and that strength

so I was able to make that leap to that next role and that's how I that's how I navigated my career was knowing like does this opportunity align with Who I am and what I know about myself and can I be successful based on what my what I know about myself so I think that's more nuanced about what a personal brand can

Mike O'Neill: do for you Rebecca

this is going to be a broad characterization but let me make a stab at it as you know I spent quite a few years in a corporate HR role leading HR teams and I liked it I was good at it but something was missing and that led to me starting my own business that led to forming BenchBuilders but what I would say is that took a risk to walk away from a corporate role to become a business owner

when you mentioned that you were in a quality role it played to your academic background to your strengths you probably were very comfortable but this opportunity in R& D came up that would have taken you out of that comfort zone you made a decision to make that step it might even have been a leap for you

was it at the time did it feel risky

Rebecca Illsley: it did feel risky I think for me what I've done though is I've I've always taken a leap or taken a step outside of my comfort zone and kept my toe dipped in something I was comfortable in and so there's something I was familiar with and there was something that I wasn't familiar with so I leaned into that knowing that this isn't entirely different

it's something I I have something to lean on if if you know from a from a knowledge base standpoint and that's so I went from from R d into leading contract manufacturing organization for Clorox which was very different but I had spent a lot of time in a lot of our contract manufacturers so I knew who they were

I knew the technology I didn't necessarily know as much about contract manufacturing operations but I learned it and then from there went back to the quality organization but this time as the director of the global quality organization so you know that that is sort of how that came full circle for me

and then from there it was okay you've done operations and you've led an organization now you can lead a manufacturing organization so director of manufacturing for the Kingsford brand at Clorox and from there it was okay now you know research and development you know quality you know supply and manufacturing and operations

you can lean in and become the the chief operating officer of Thermocell and that was a big departure right in a in a bigger scale and scope but all the rules I had had leading up to that I had stretched in and out of comfort zones had you know gave it given me the opportunity and the experience to come in

and be able to lead a large organization like a thermos cell so so I think that that's certainly all of those were risks Mike all of those are risks and I think if you don't lean in and take a risk you don't grow right I think that that's the way we don't we only grow when we stretch there's that roomy quote that I love the wound is where the light enters you

so you know you have to be willing to get get a little bit bruised and wounded and take a risk and take some take some shots if you want to grow and keep growing with the light so I think that that's that's I think what has really driven me with my career

Mike O'Neill: yeah as you're describing this Rebecca it seems to me yes you were taking a risk but you're striving to stay true to you but you keep layered on new experiences such that in layering you've continued to kind of round out your capabilities you know I've never done an episode on risk taking per se but that's something that kind of is emerging from this conversation it seems to me if I'm working with key decision makers

more often than not they have to make decisions sometimes risky decisions and I guess what I would say how would you describe your comfort level with taking risk how has that progressed over your career

Rebecca Illsley: I'd say I've become much more comfortable with it and that might be partly where I am in the organization

knowing and the experience I think the more risk you take the more you learn how to manage and mitigate risk the more you're willing to take so part of the risk taking risk is understanding what your contingency plans are and if you've gone through I think risks that haven't turned out the way you want it you know you survived them

so you you know you you've survived it if it didn't go to turn out the way you want if you've gone through risks and it turned out better than you expected then you know it was worth taking the risk and I think complacency is death in an organization and in a business you cannot you cannot operate that way

and the only way that you're going to grow is if you continue to take risk and lean in smartly right you with responsibility and part of that responsibility is communicating what the risk is gaining alignment to everyone who's impacted by that risk going through the contingency plans having those in place

should something go not the way you want it and learning from it right I think one thing of leaders if you want your teams to take risks the way you show up when things don't go the way that you want it is critical for them to take another risk so if you show up as a leader after you're something didn't didn't go well and you are in your attitude and the way you handle that situation is poor your organization will never take another risk

you have to have a learning mindset and that I think is key for being able to take risk risk and career and business risk also the career risk obviously it's it's it's for you and your family that's the risk you're taking together but with the business risk it's a different it's a different process but it's still this a similar approach

Mike O'Neill: I think your record we have covered a lot of different things in this conversation but as you reflect on it what do you want to be the takeaways for our listeners

Rebecca Illsley: I think he is know yourself do the work figure out your own personal brand how you add value what you're leaving behind in an organization what are those footsteps how do people know you were there and what is that leadership legacy you want to you know accomplish in your career let that be your true note north as you navigate those risks that you can take in your career

Mike O'Neill: rebecca you've offered a lot of great guidance today if folks want to learn more about you what's the best way for them to connect with you

Rebecca Illsley: I'd say through LinkedIn is probably the best way so get on to LinkedIn and you can search search my name I think I might be the only Rebecca Elsley on LinkedIn

I'm not it's not a very common name so you could find me easily and and just send me an email I'm happy to connect and I do really really appreciate the time Mike it was a lot of fun

Mike O'Neill: well I do appreciate that and just for the folks who are listening Rebecca let me spell R E B E C C A illsley

I L L S L E Y yes and I think you're right , , thank you so much for sharing your perspectives and clearly your passion today

Rebecca Illsley: thank you it's been my pleasure appreciate it

Mike O'Neill: also want to thank our listeners for joining us today

for even more insights about getting unstuck and moving your business forward I invite you to subscribe to the Bottom Line newsletter and you can do that by going to bench-builderscom you know I have found that the clients we work with they usually had one of two problems either they were frustrated because they were losing the employees that they wanted to keep or their leaders they found themselves stuck in the weeds of the day to day and they're failing to execute on their long term strategy

so if you're listening and high turnover or poor execution if it's slowing your growth Let's talk head over to bench builders com to schedule a call so I want to thank you again for joining us and I hope you have picked up on some quick wins from Rebecca they'll help you get unstuck and on target

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