12: The Line Up Owner Deb Erickson on building a culture of success — and successors

A life of Climb podcast episode 12 Deb Erickson

Owner of The Line Up and Vistage 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Deb Erickson joins the podcast to share her journey from working in social services to making apparel for some of the biggest sports teams in the country. Deb also talks with Vistage CEO Sam Reese about how learning to ask for help unlocked new potential for herself and her company, and the lessons she’s learned while putting in place a concrete succession plan. 


Sam Reese: Welcome everyone to another episode of A Life of Climb podcast. I’m your host, Sam Reese. Joining me today is Deb Erickson, owner and creative director of The Line Up. Deb, thanks so much for joining us.

Deb Erickson: Thank you so much for having me, Sam.

Sam Reese: Well, let’s start off by just helping the audience understand a little bit more about The Line Up. You make custom-performance apparel, which looks just incredible. I love the … the description in your LinkedIn says something like our niche — the way you describe your niche — is “your imagination, our creation.” Tell us more about what you all do. Tell us about the business.

Journey to accidental entrepreneur

Deb Erickson: Well, we started as a very small business doing fitness apparel, but as time has evolved, our niche has been making sure we’re inspiring, offering creative options, joy and connection with not only our customers, but also our employees who are building custom costumes for artistic performers.

Sam Reese: I’ve looked at some of your videos, et cetera, but if our listeners wanted to see your stuff, where would they be able to see it and your amazing work and what are some of the organizations that might be wearing these costumes?

Deb Erickson: Probably the pro teams are the places that you’re going to be able to actually see the costumes in action. We’ve been doing the Minnesota Vikings since the early ’90s. They have been the longest NFL team that we’ve done work for, but a few people that we’ve done include the Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, and, of course, they’re Super Bowl winners. We’ve done Washington Wizards and they have a hip-hop team. Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, Detroit Lions, Denver Nuggets. They won last year.

Sam Reese: Well, that’s just terrific. Now, I know your first job was somewhat related to this business, but really you had a whole different career and on a whole different career path, and you actually started in social services. What did you learn from that chapter in your life and how did that lead to you starting your own business because it’s such a different story from where you started to where you are today. Give us how that all happened.

Deb Erickson: I ended up working in social service for many, many years. It was not until my, probably mid-to-late thirties, I started to become a fitness fanatic and I would make leotards. I started making clothes for people I worked with. I made fitness apparel back then. As time evolved, my fitness instructor was also [a member of] the Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders, and my jazzercise instructor was the coach of the Waconia High school dance team. And so they said, “Hey, can you make my costumes?” That’s how it all started. Went down to part-time, did consulting, and then, lo and behold, I started a business, which was really not planned at all.

Sam Reese: What were people saying? I just imagine being an accidental entrepreneur. When you told family and friends, “Hey, I’m leaving that life behind and I got this great idea, I’m going to go build this business.” How did people respond to that? What did people say to you?

Deb Erickson: My dad, after he passed away, I found out when I gave a speech after winning an award that when I told my dad I was going to quit my job, he told my mom, “Why would she ever do that? She works for the state of Minnesota with good benefits and pay,” but they were still supportive. I got to give them credit. They were still supportive. I think they saw it as a hobby, not necessarily a business, and so they kept asking me questions like, “Well, when are you going to quit?” My mom doesn’t ask me that anymore.

Leadership lessons

Sam Reese: Well, I’m not surprised that you figured it out because your Chair, Brian Davis, he uses some great words to describe you, but one of them is grit, but he says, “humility, selflessness, vision and grit.” When you look back and you think the biggest lessons you learned as a brand new business owner, I’m so fascinated by this stability, safe state job. Now you’re doing this. What were some of those early lessons that have helped form you as a leader now?

Deb Erickson: My greatest lesson in being a good business owner started when I worked for the state of Minnesota. I went through a very long process of getting this job. It took months and months and months to get it. I worked as a rehabilitation counselor for the deaf and hard of hearing. My signing skills were so-so, but I didn’t really realize that until I got into that job. When I got to that job, I was like, “Geez, I’m really incompetent here. I don’t know what I’m doing. I need some help.” So I had to go to my boss and say to my boss, “I don’t think I know as much as I thought I knew, could I get some help? I need to go to Galludet for some sign language classes. I need a tutor. I need interpreters.” The list was long.

The one lesson I learned from that was don’t be afraid to admit when you need help. I think that’s where Vistage has always been incredibly valuable for me is by asking or telling someone that you have a problem, they are more than happy to help you. That’s really been a lifelong lesson for me, and I tell people that all the time. If you don’t know an answer and you’re struggling, just admit you don’t. People are going to respect you more for your honesty, and then they’re going to be more willing to help you and be more understanding.

Power of vulnerability

Sam Reese: Why do you think we, as leaders, we have such a tough time with that? Especially so many people have such a tough time with just admitting they don’t know something or admitting their business is in a bad situation. Why do you think that is?

Deb Erickson: I think our egos can get in the way. Many years ago when I first started, I had a consultant who said to me, “You run your business like a military regime.” It’s hard to hear the truth, or hard to accept the truth when you need help or you might not be what you thought you were.

Business owners have this very tough ego and they want to plow through everything and they want to prove that they’re going to be successful when really, when we just admit that we need help is the most beneficial and advantageous way of getting help.

Sam Reese: It’s tough. It can be though, can it? Because as you say, you got to be vulnerable, but it is amazing how many people struggle with that because people do want to help. There’s so many great people that want to help, but you got to tell them first that you have an issue. Was there some big turning point early on in your career when you went either big lesson or a big decision where you went, “Wait a sec. I think this is going to be a great business”?

Deb Erickson: There have been journeys along the way where there’s been an obstacle, but the obstacle has created an opportunity. We moved into a new facility. We built it out. It was so exciting. We were like, “Oh, this is the best place we’ve ever had.” My daughter came aboard. It costs a lot more money than we thought, and we started having financial problems. We were not in compliance with our SBA loan. We went from being an ideal customer to a not-so-ideal customer.

Having financial hardship and admitting it to the rest of the people at Vistage was a door opener for me because I found good financial people who were better than me. We got to turn that around, but we didn’t turn it around without the help. With every challenge I really do believe there are great opportunities. We just have to look for them.

Sam Reese: And be open to, as you said, be open to people that can help and not thinking you have to have all the answers. That seems like one of the skills that you have. When you hear anything you read about your business, you just get this feeling of team spirit. I see it in all the language you have. Tell me a little bit about your internal culture and how this “team spirit” comes alive. When I ask that question, I’m thinking so much about this dance video that people can look up on YouTube, but tell me more about this team spirit and how that really drives your culture.

Deb Erickson: The one thing I always tell people when they first get hired, and this was a mentor of mine, George Theodore who told me this, “A team of people is a group of people that need each other.” And it’s just like dance. You need people in the front. You need people in the back. You need people who are going to be able to do more skilled steps. It’s the same thing in running a business. We need financial people. We need people who know how to sew. We need people who can problem solve. We need people who can make patterns. It’s really all about, “How do we have a respect for one another? How do we align ourselves with each other? How do we become more effective so that we can do an outstanding job together?”

I’ve always believed that people come over profits. If you have a bunch of people and profits are the outcome of them working together, you’re going to have a much stronger team than focusing on profits first and then people.

Sam Reese: Where did that come from? Because that is such a skill to have as a leader.

Creating a culture of success

Deb Erickson: I always tell people the fun part of owning your own business is that you get to create your own culture. The reason I really love social services, I felt like I was helping people move into success. My job in social service was to help disabled adults move from not having a career plan to having a career plan and getting a job. It’s not that much different in the world of business ownership because what you have to do is you’ve got to help people find their sweet spot. That’s your job. You have to do that each and every day. It means getting to know them.
I had to do a lot of that. Well, I was in my previous occupation, and so a lot of things like job assessments and personality tests and all those kinds of things that we use in business were often used in my previous occupation. I really believe in all of those kinds of things, and I think I brought that into the business world, my business world I should say.

Sam Reese: For what you’ve built from scratch here, this is a part of you, so you want to leave it behind in incredible hands. I know that’s big on your mind, even though it’s several years away. I think you’re planned exit, it’s still few years down the road, but you’re starting to think about that already.

Deb Erickson: Yeah. We’ve been spending a lot of time realizing, “Hey, the leadership team is not quite ready. Are we going to hire someone from outside?” We have made some progress through the succession planning, meaning finding someone who can run the business so I can be in the business and help support them, because that’s not really my skill set to take it from where we are today to a higher level. I really want to see us have someone else who has the skills and confidence to be able to do those things. That’s going to create success for the employees too.

Sam Reese: What do you think when I… I just looked at the success you’ve just had. Coming off a record revenue year, you’ve tripled the size of the business. What have been the keys in these last few years?

Deb Erickson: Just build a team of people who are dedicated and passionate about what you do, and they will do outstanding work. I just got done meeting with someone who’s been here for so many years. There’s so many things that she can still be doing to lead us towards more success. As long as I draw that out from her, the other leaders on our team draw that out from her, and it’s going to make her feel more valued too. We just have a lot of employees who have been here for quite some time, and I’m very proud of that.

Sam Reese: You said you had this… Somebody from the outside described you way back when and said you run it like a military regime. You had to take that in, and what happened to you when you said, “I want to change that”? How did you internalize that and what’d you do about it?

Deb Erickson: You have to be self-reflective, and you have to admit when you have an issue, because I had a list of things like, “Oh, we’re inclusive. We do all these kinds of things,” and it was really aspirational. It wasn’t really what I was doing. If you are aspirational about doing something, you better look at yourself first. The most important thing is to be authentic and real with your people and admit, “Hey, I’m sorry I made a mistake. I was trying to tell you what to do instead of guiding you through the process or influencing you.” I still fault to going back and trying to tell people what to do. I got that from my mother.

Sam Reese: It’s her fault. It’s her fault.

Deb Erickson: Yeah.

Sam Reese: I think a lot of good leaders have that same problem though. It’s easy to fall back into that, but the way you’ve talked about being self-reflective, I think that was really good insight. I loved the point you just made though about aspirational versus what’s true. I think there’s a lot of us as leaders that that hit a note because we can write things on the wall, say all the things we want to do, and just because we did that doesn’t mean it happened.

Succession Planning

Deb Erickson: Well, we have over 65 people. For me, culture is one of the most important things is when I’m exiting and succession planning, who takes over for me is more important than how much money I walk away in my retirement. I do want money. That’s a good thing.

Sam Reese: Of course, yes.

Deb Erickson: But does that make us happy? I would say that hiring people that are going to put people ahead of profits is one of the most important things to sustain that culture and make sure that people do feel special. They feel rewarded, they feel acknowledged, they feel valued.

Sam Reese: I think one of the things that you’ve learned in your career as leaders is early on when you get advice, like you just said about people over profits. When you first start in your career, you go, “Yeah, whatever.” But it’s true. The companies that have success are the ones that really do put people over profits, and then guess what happens? They’re also profitable. That’s what’s amazing about it.

What are the other things that have been going on in your mind as you think about exiting? You want to leave the right culture behind. You want to make sure this is a great place for employees. What are the other things you’ve been considering, including what you’ll be doing next? Tell us a little bit about that journey. Everybody will be there eventually, we hope.

Knowing your strengths

Deb Erickson: That’s one of my biggest questions right now, because now I’ve hired two people, an integrator and a visionary to take over the company. I’m going to step down, and I’m going to work for them instead of them working for me, even though I’m still the owner. It’s going to be a very strange transition, so I have to start thinking about, “Well, how do I support them and support the rest of the organization and still add value to what they do?” Because I do have a lot of technical knowledge that I can offer that they don’t have. That’s still yet to be determined, but I do believe that if I really help structure that and scale it, it’s going to be more sustainable going down the road, especially as they try to grow the company.

Core Values

Sam Reese: What are some of the things that you’re telling your new partners, and, of course, your employees, the things that have to stay grounded in the company even after you’re gone, hopefully on some beach sipping Mai Tais. What has to stay part of The Line Up that is just something non-negotiable because it’s so key to your success?

Deb Erickson: Well, we have a value of caring service. That doesn’t mean just caring about your customers, but it’s caring about each other within the organization. That is a big deal to me. If you care about your customer, you care about providing solutions to them, but if your goal is to prove that they are wrong and you are right, it puts everyone on the defensive and it totally changes the way people feel when you want to do the right thing. You want to make sure they’re successful and you are successful. It’s kind of simple.

Sam Reese: I think maybe, maybe, but I think there’s a lot of nuances to that. That was really helpful. You can just see when you start to speak about that, that’s what you think about all day in the business here, and that’s why you’ve had so much success. What are some of the … When I think about along the lines of this career journey, were there other things along the lines that just pop up and you go “Whoa, that was another good piece of advice” that really helped you pivot and make some big changes or decisions?

Strength of diverse perspectives

Deb Erickson: Don’t try to find someone that is like you, find someone opposite of you because those are the people that are going to be able to give you those morsels of information. I can’t say there’s one particular instance, but there are particular people that are so influential in having you see things from a different perspective.

I’m really more that visionary kind of person. That’s kind of who I am. It’s great to have a conversation with a visionary person, but it’s always really good to have a conversation with someone who’s very pragmatic, logical, thoughtful, finance-driven, because they open your eyes to see things differently and describe things differently so that you can walk away and think about it and go, I like this part that I had, and I lend it to some perspective in the situation, but I like this part that they had. Now, how can I purpose that message to the rest of my team, or that particular individual?

I guess it’s really more like, “Oh, geez, I’ve tried hiring people that are more like me and I get along with them great, but I’ve found that those are not the best people for me to have those moments of a-ha and knowledge and inspiration.”

Sam Reese: If you were to talk to some new leaders and give them another piece of advice, what might you add to what you’ve already given us so far so generously?

Deb Erickson: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. That is the best way to build a community of support. Vistage is very much a part of that. I told Brian, my Vistage coach, I’m a big advocate for Vistage. I love education, but I love the ability to have a network of different skill sets and different perspectives because that’s what’s going to make me stronger as a leader.

Sam Reese: Terrific advice here. I was also a long-term Vistage member before I was a CEO for over a decade. As I listened to you, there’s just some great pieces of advice, and I was reflecting on some of the things that took me a long time to learn. I don’t know why it took me probably three or four years of being a Vistage member before I could really admit where things weren’t good. It took a while to trust everybody. You could have accelerated my leadership journey with that advice, for sure.

Deb Erickson: Well, I think I was at a point where I really needed a lot of help, so Vistage came to me. I’m a firm believer that things happened for a reason sometimes. Vistage has brought me so many connections and so many opportunities, but I have to look for them. It’s my job to find them and nurture them.

Sam Reese: Thank you, Deb, for your time today. It was just such a pleasure to hear your story and hear about your journey. Thanks so much for all your comments today and just great advice to so many leaders. Thank you.

Deb Erickson: Thank you for the opportunity to share.

Sam Reese: Thanks for joining us for this edition of A Life of Climb podcast. Friendly reminder to please subscribe or follow the podcast to get all the latest episodes, and please visit vistage.com/podcast for more resources to support you on your leadership journey.

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Sam Reese

Sam Reese is CEO of Vistage, the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and midsize businesses. Over his 35 year career as a business leader, Sam has led large and midsize organizatio

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