Friction and Happiness in Business with Kelly Campbell

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Today you're in for a treat -- in this post you'll find 2 very juicy (and kind of deep) conversations between me and Kelly Campbell, a Conscious Leadership Coach who works with agency owners. 

In the first, when I appeared on her podcast, Thrive, we talked about the importance of friction with clients and prospects, why you shouldn't avoid it and how it can result in a stronger relationship in the long run. That often involves getting comfortable talking money -- one of my favorite topics!

Watch or listen to that here.

Then, I invited Kelly to appear on my podcast to talk about her evolution from agency owner to coach (which a lot of people seem to be doing lately). There was a lot to cover and we barely scratched the surface, so this is Part 1 and there will be more.

Listen here (and read the transcript below). 


Ep #431 Kelly Campbell - Part One 

ilise benun  

Hi there, this is ilise benun, your Marketing Mentor. And this is the podcast for you if, and only if, you are ready to leave the feast or famine syndrome behind, and I mean for good.

Is your business making you happy? What does it even mean to “be happy” in your business? And another question, does your business have the ability to make you happy? Is that its job? And if it's not making you happy, what should you do? 

That's where my conversation with Kelly Campbell began. From there, it went to other totally connected ideas including how Kelly evolved from agency owner to now coach for agency owners. There will definitely be more parts to this conversation, but here is Part One. So, listen and learn. 

Hello, Kelly, welcome to the podcast. 

Kelly Campbell 

Ilise, thank you so much. I am so excited for this conversation, today.

ilise benun  

Excellent. Me too. Please begin by introducing yourself.

Kelly Campbell 

Sure. My name is Kelly Campbell. My pronouns are she/her, for the time being. I am a conscious leadership and agency growth coach, which I'm sure we will get into it during today's show. But essentially, I work with creative, media and technology agency owners and leadership teams to help them really move through some of the things that are holding them back. We uncover what those things are. Sometimes they're surprising. Sometimes they're not so surprising. But ultimately, we're wanting to get to a place where we are creating leaders who are more self aware; running more sustainable, equitable and profitable businesses. And I focus in that agency realm because that's my background. I owned a digital marketing agency for 14 years in the cause marketing space. And I sold that in 2016. We'll talk, today, about how I transitioned from that to what I'm doing now.

ilise benun

That's exactly what I want to focus on. I really just love evolution, in general. When you just gave what I would consider to be your “elevator pitch”—it's rooted in helping people evolve, obviously. So I want to talk a little bit about that. But first, I want to talk about your own evolution from being this agency owner to now a coach, partially because, lately, I don't know if you're finding this too but, a lot of creative professionals, designers, copywriters, agency owners are coming to me, wanting me to coach them on becoming a coach, also—which I just find fascinating, and I'm happy to do that. That's why I was very curious, when you mentioned that that had been your evolution, to hear about that process. So just tell us whatever you think is interesting and relevant about the process.

Kelly Campbell 

It's a really good and big question. I owned my agency for just a touch under 14 years. What I noticed is that, from talking about evolution—from the beginning to the end, I started out extremely passionate, extremely driven. Happy. Excited. And that happiness, and that excitement, and that enthusiasm and fulfillment, sort of waned for me over the course of those 14 years. As it got closer to the end, I was actually in the process of going through like a quasi-MBA program. What I realized, as I was putting together my growth plan for the next 5 or 10 years of the company, I realized that I was really unhappy. Personally unhappy. 

The business was great. My team was great. We had an incredible clients. We were helping them make an incredible impact in the world. But for some reason, I, as an individual, as a human, as Kelly, was not happy. And it manifested itself into tacking on about 40 pounds, over the course of those 14 years. Little by little it creeps up on you.

I was the first one into work; the last one to leave; it was affecting my marriage. I didn't know how to answer the question, “Who are you?” without talking about being an agency owner. 

I was so tied to that CEO title that I never actually took the time to sit back and ask myself those deeper questions. “Who am I? What do I want to be doing? What am I passionate about? Is this actually making me happy?”

I was in that mode of: “I've got to push through. I've got to be successful. What do other people think? What are they gonna think if I fail? What does my team think of me? Am I doing a good job as a leader?” I mean, it was exhausting. Mentally exhausting. 

Meanwhile, those were all, I came to find out later, those were all just part of a story that I had subscribed to. And that story was rooted in what people in this realm call the “I'm not enough” story. And that goes back to childhood. 

So, once I started really diving into: “Why do I feel this way? What is actually at the root? If I peel back all these layers, what is going on?” it was the fact that I felt constantly anxious and overwhelmed at the idea that I wasn't providing enough value or that people would perceive me a certain way. 

It was a lot. So, I started doing a lot of work. Meanwhile, I had been in therapy for some of these kind of core wounding issues—you might call “mother wound” issues. 

My biological mother had undiagnosed borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. So, that comorbidity condition led me to constantly question and second guess myself, because things that would come out of her mouth were not true, but she was one of my primary parents, right? So, it led me to constantly question myself. And it also set up a situation in which I had to constantly earn her love—meaning that I wasn't inherently valuable or worthy or lovable as I was. Therefore, I had to work and strive really hard to be perfect, so that she might pay some attention to me or be kind to me or love me. 

And so, we're getting really deep here, but that ultimately is what led to realizing that I did not find happiness in owning the agency. Ultimately, I don't actually know how it happened, but I had two different offers to buy the business in August; I think it was like August, July or August of 2016. And by the end of September, I was signing paperwork to be acquired. So, it happened very quickly. That's the one thing that I do regret, is that I wish I had done it slower and with more intention. But ultimately, it was a gift because it now enabled me to do what I'm doing now.

ilise benun 

A couple of things that are interesting to me in that story, and I'll just call out a couple and you can respond to whichever ones make the most sense. But first, the idea of being really happy at the beginning, and then the happiness waning, is interesting to me, because I always wonder: “How are we defining happiness?” And I think, actually, happiness is overrated and that often people are trying to get something out of a business that a business doesn't have to give. So that's one thought. 

And then in terms of your own process and your own story, I'm curious about why would not owning an agency anymore, and becoming a coach instead, why wouldn't you drag the baggage into that process, also, and just apply it accordingly?

Kelly Campbell 

Oh, you're so good. These are such good question. Okay, so let's tackle the happiness one. And the trying to get something out of the business. 

I think that's really, really insightful. So, the way that I talk about that and think about that—and I’m in the process of writing a book on that—is we, as entrepreneurs, a lot of us, I will not say ‘all of us’ because that would be a blanket statement, but many of us, have this sort of need to prove. We think, we talk about ourselves, as “driven” and “taking initiative and independent” and all these things. But really what's underneath that is, you're trying to prove something to yourself, the world, and whoever created the “you're not enough” story. 

So in my case, first of all, in a very short amount of time in corporate America, literally in a year and a half to two years out of college, I had encountered the gamut of homophobia, misogyny, ageism, sexism, you name it. I had it all in a very short amount of time, and I'm super grateful for that, now, although it sucked at the time. I'm really grateful for it now, because it was the catalyst. It was what I needed to go do my own thing. 

But really what I was doing when I created my own company was saying—again, this is not conscious, this is all subconscious stuff—"I need to prove myself in the world because I inherently don't feel that I am valuable or worthy. So, I'm going to create a situation in which I am relied upon. 

And, whether that be clients, employees, all of these things, I am valuable or providing valuable services in the world. I'm helping to create impact greater than myself.” 

I created a world in which I had to be valued. I think a lot of us go into business with the idea that, yes, we're going to be successful and we're going to make money and we're going to help people and all these things, and we're going to find happiness. But, if the driver of why you're ultimately creating that business is to meet an unmet need, without actually diving into what's going on under the surface, it's never going to work. I think that's actually what happened for me. It just took me 14 years to figure that out.

ilise benun 

Interesting. I just want to put a pin in the idea about having to prove something, because I have a lot of thoughts about that. But, go ahead and answer the other part if you want, first. Why wouldn't you drag the baggage into the next thing?

Kelly Campbell 

This is where I focus predominantly in my coaching practice, now.  My experience was that, selling an agency, you would imagine, is a really hard thing to do. Most people don't. It's sort of like that moment that all agency owners or most agency owners are like, “Oh, I wish I could get to that point where I could build a thing, scale it, run it really profitably and really successfully, to the point where someone else would want to come in and buy it or acquire or merge or whatever.” And it's a really difficult thing. When I was able to do it, you would think that I would be off to Disney. And the exact opposite happened. 

For me, because I didn't have that foundation of understanding who I really was, I felt like the literal ground was just crumbled from underneath me. I don't know if I actually went into some kind of depression. I don't even think I was aware enough to understand what was happening. But it got a lot worse before it got better. So that unhappiness now turned into, “Oh, I'm still unhappy. And now, I'm alone. Now, I actually am contractually obligated to not start another agency, to not join one in a partnership capacity. I can't talk to my clients for three years. What the hell am I going to do? Do I just go try to find a job?” 

In my mind, a 36 year old CEO, who had only been a CEO pretty much her entire career, was totally unemployable. I told myself that story. That was not a true story, but I told myself that story. And it just got worse. So, I went into the one realm that I had railed against and sort of rolled my eyes at for my entire life, which was spirituality. 

And it was in the process of going into these new realms, at the time, where these more esoteric, larger purpose centric questions were being asked of me. And for a Type A personality to not have the answer to a question—Whoo— I was like, “Oh, this is interesting. These are questions about myself and I cannot answer them. What's that all about?”

And so it just started me on this path of really exploring: “Who am I? What do I actually know? What unresolved trauma do I have to left to heal? Why do I do, and speak, and think, the way that I do?” It just it led to so much curiosity that I developed a sense of self awareness through that process. 

To answer your question, the reason why the baggage didn't follow me for very long, because it followed for a little while, is because I unraveled it, and I unpacked it, and I did the work. 

I don't know if you're familiar with the book that came out earlier this year. Nicole LePera, the holistic psychologist wrote, How to do the Work. So, that's a great book. I actually recommend it to all my clients. The reason why I love it is because there's a big question mark around how to do the work—whether you are in therapy or you're working with a coach: a business coach, a life coach, executive coach. Whether you have a spiritual practice or not. Whether you meditate or not. Whatever your life and world look like. There's work to be done. 

None of us grew up with a perfect childhood, right? And this is not about blaming mom and dad, or whoever your caregivers were. This is about realizing that the people who cared for us when we were younger didn't have all the tools, so it couldn't be perfect. And so all that means is that from a Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs situation or perspective, there were some things that we didn't get that we needed.  We didn't get those, and that created a situation where we, again, bring that into adulthood. And if we don't work on healing it and resolving some of the trauma and some of the things that we encountered, then we just bring it into our leadership styles. We bring it into our agencies. And this is the nexus of the work that I do now, which is the greatest thing in the world to me.

ilise benun 

You know, you would probably appreciate one of the ideas I've been developing and which I learned from my teacher, which is this idea that: one of the ways you can use a business is as a laboratory for your own personal growth.  

Kelly Campbell 

I absolutely love that. 

ilise benun 

And if you do that, and if you use curiosity and the goal of learning, that's all that matters is learning. As long as I learn this next lesson.  As long as I get a little bit better at this talking about money or putting my boundaries up, or whatever the thing is that you need to learn, then I really do think the business will take care of you, if that is your focus. That's what I've been thinking a lot about, lately. So, I'm curious how you would respond to that.

Kelly Campbell 

I wish I wasn't tethered to my computer with some headphones, because I would like to jump up and down, right now. It lands for me so much, because I think that, isn't life one big experiment? Isn't that why we're actually here? We're here to learn, and grow, and expand, and serve, and see how we can improve, constantly. Every single day, there's something that we can learn. I think this is the difference between, if we go into the realm of conscious leadership, this is the difference between a conscious leader and an unconscious leader. 

So, to kind of be binary about it, conscious leaders lean into that curiosity. They lead with self awareness, empathy. They're not afraid to be vulnerable. They're really comfortable asking for help. And they do see their businesses as one great experiment in improving, and bettering, and creating a more conscious culture, a more inclusive culture. Leading with authenticity. You know, all of these buzzwords that we've been hearing, little by little, all over the place, right? But when you wrap them all together in a nice bow, ultimately, that's what conscious leadership is.  

An unconscious leader, by comparison, is someone who thinks that they have all the answers; who has no problem leading with a more command and control lean through their style. Something that's a little bit more rigid; something that's much more egocentric. They're more interested in their own legacy than helping the people under their stewardship to grow, to expand, even if that means leaving for another company. 

If you have a very linear mindset, meaning, “I'm going to create this company and I'm going to have these goals in place where I'm going to make a million dollars after the first two years, and then we're going to get to 1.5, and then it's three …” And if you have such a rigid mindset, you will do anything in your power to get there, because that's what you believe you have to do; as opposed to the curious sort of “surrender mindset,” I might even call it, or “abundance mindset,” where it's like, “the business will take care of itself, if I lead from this place, this centric place.”

ilise benun 

I'm connecting the dots back to this idea of having something to prove, also. So maybe, because we're almost running out of time, this can be the last question or comment.

I have noticed that, if my goal is to learn, then what gets in the way of learning is having to prove something; because sometimes I notice that people just keep making the same mistake over and over, even if, as a coach, I say: “Well, you could do it this way. You could think about it that way. Or, maybe next time try it that way.” But then they just can't bring themselves to make the shift. It often feels to me like there's something underneath they're trying to prove, and that's what's getting in the way of this learning. Do you notice anything like that also?

Kelly Campbell 

Yes, I have a select few clients who come to me that maybe are not as self aware as some of the other clients. Those are the ones where we do have to unpack those core strategies. 

When I say “core strategies,” they are the things that we developed early on, during our formative years, that got us through, that helped us to survive. Now, in adulthood, those are actually the things that are holding us back. What you're talking about is this idea that: “Yes, I have something to prove. I'm going to keep forcing this. I'm going to keep powering through,” as opposed to pausing, reflecting, dialing up that curiosity, surrendering to the idea that: “I may not know all the answers and that's not only okay, that's actually a strength.” And I think that's the mindset shift that needs to happen. But yeah, absolutely. I have some clients like that. 

And those clients tend to stay longer in the coaching practice, not because I want them to but because we have more to unpack together. So, for me, the hallmark of success from my coaching practice is not: how quickly can I get someone to the point where they don't need me anymore?—because it's not about a race to a particular destination or timeframe—but it's, how deep can we get in the early coaching relationship so that we can actually start to change these things? 

I don't know if that answers your question, but …

ilise benun 

Yes, definitely. Well, obviously there's a lot more we need to talk about, Kelly. And, even the questions we didn't get to, as we knew we wouldn't, and you have had me on your podcast which I will link to, also, in the blog post that goes along with this.

Kelly Campbell 

Such a good conversation about getting more comfortable talking about money. I loved it.

ilise benun 

Exactly. And I have a feeling there's going be a Part Two and Part Three and on and on, as we just continue to get to know each other and share these ideas, which I'm just really thrilled about.

Kelly Campbell 

I'm thrilled as well. It's really been my pleasure. Thanks, ilise. 

ilise benun  

Of course, tell the people where they can find you online.

Kelly Campbell 

My website is and I literally have my email and phone number right at the top of that. Lots of information about conscious leadership and agency growth coaching there, as well.

ilise benun 

Perfect. Thank you so much, Kelly. And we will talk again soon. 

I do hope you learned a little something. Little by little, I promise it will get easier, and before you know it, you'll have more and more confidence. Speaking of confidence, if you cringe when a prospect asks for a proposal, or if you can never come up with the right thing to say in the moment, I think you'll like my latest ebook: “Worth It. How Getting Good at the Money Talk Pays Off.” It's packed with case studies, resources, and plenty of “what to say when” scripts for tricky, in real time conversations and email messages. So, you never again say the wrong thing. You can find it at I'll be back soon with more conversations with creative professionals who are practicing what I preach to overcome, once and for all, the feast or famine syndrome. Until next time.


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