Rhoda Olsen didn’t grow up thinking she’d one day run a $1.5 billion company. She didn’t have any female role models in business. But she found the way to lead with heart, and data, and in the process, she helped Great Clips become the world's largest salon brand.
Olsen is vice chair of the board of Great Clips, a Minneapolis-based franchise salon chain with 4,400 locations and more than 40,000 stylists nationwide. She stepped down as CEO in 2018. But she continues to work closely with leadership, and franchisees. She’s considered the heart and soul of the company, and a major factor in its epic growth over the past 30 years.
Olsen went to college at a time when women were discouraged from pursuing careers in math, so despite her natural talent with numbers, she focused on social work and started her business career in human relations. It took her brother Ray Barton’s encouragement for her to not only come to work with him at Great Clips in the 1980s, but to buy stock in the company at a time when she and her husband barely had enough money to pay for their three sons' hockey gear. It paid off.
“Four to 5 percent growth a year may seem boring to people, but when it goes on for 15 years, it’s not so boring anymore,” she says.
Olsen, who still goes to the office almost every day, talks about leading with heart, and data. “Data is a powerful way to drive success,” she says. “There’s nothing more caring than being honest with someone. If you care deeply, how can you not provide someone with honest feedback?”
That honesty extends to Olsen's personal story, too, from growing up poor to having an alcoholic father. Olsen says she's realized that sharing her own vulnerabilities and struggles helps to motivate her team. “I stopped trying to speak, and started telling stories. People keep pretending that their lives are perfect. And life isn’t perfect. If you share, you give everyone the opportunity to feel like they aren’t alone.”
After our conversation with Olsen, we go Back to the Classroom with University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business Distinguished Service Faculty Mike Porter, who talks about the art and strategy of building a franchise business. “You’ve got to try to build a community among franchisees.”
Editor-in-Chief of TCB
Vice Chair of the Board and former CEO