Cal Poly

Orfalea College of Business

Lessons in Leadership

Lisa Hufford graduated Cal Poly with a degree in international business in 1993. Photo by Elliott Johnson.

Lisa Hufford graduated Cal Poly with a degree in international business in 1993. Photo by Elliott Johnson.

Lessons in Leadership

When Lisa Hufford found herself grappling with the challenge of work-life balance, she did more than pave a new road for herself — she took a new generation of business professionals along with her. After success at RR Donnelley and Microsoft, she founded Simplicity Consulting to provide a league of marketing experts with the opportunity to consult on everything from business strategy to communications while balancing family commitments. Learn how Hufford moves her business forward.

How did you decide what you wanted to pursue professionally? 

I knew when I was at Cal Poly that I wanted to work for a large corporation and travel the world, which is why I chose international management as my concentration. I wasn’t quite sure what my role would be, but it seemed natural to pursue a sales career for large companies. I feel very fortunate that I was able to secure a great internship through Career Services with RR Donnelley in San Francisco. From that experience I knew that working in a big business was perfect for me, and I landed a sales coordinator job with the same company after graduation. That launched me into the technology sector, which lead me to working at Microsoft and starting my own business.

“The hard part is building the right team to overcome the obstacles as we strive for the vision.”

Who do you do look up to as a leader? 

I am attracted to leaders who inspire others, those who are authentic, service-oriented, and committed to making the world a better place. Some leaders I admire include Seth Godin, Tony Hsieh and Oprah Winfrey.

What characteristics do you look for when building your team? 

The most important thing I’ve learned about building a team is that everyone has to bring a great attitude and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It only takes one negative person to throw off the balance and detract others from building a great company. SMILE is our acronym that exemplifies our values of the people who thrive on our team. It stands for Service mindset, Meaningful relationships, Inspire others, Lifelong learner, Embrace change.

What’s been the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn? 

Patience. What comes easy for me is seeing the vision of what I want to create. The hard part is building the right team to overcome the obstacles as we strive for the vision. Patience to me means understanding that it’s not about achieving the vision, but about the journey in pursuit of the vision.

What’s the most important question you ask in an interview? 

“Why do you want to work for our company?” I need to know what someone’s real motivation is.

Have you had to reinvent yourself in your career? 

Yes! I had to reinvent myself when I transitioned from being an executive at Microsoft to an independent consultant and then again to CEO when I decided to grow my business. Becoming the CEO of Simplicity has represented that a need in the marketplace for our services. I am highly motivated by adding value to our clients and consultants and our growth is directly proportional to the level of value that we deliver. I’ve always said that Simplicity grows one conversation at a time and by helping people realize their definition of success.

Has there been a time you’ve just had to go with your gut?

Absolutely. As the business was growing very quickly, I would hire people based on my gut. I have learned that especially in hiring that first gut instinct when you meet someone is usually right and to trust it. When I would hire someone who wasn’t a good fit, I observed that I would have talked myself into it and overthought it. If it’s seems too hard then it’s not right.

How do you measure your own success? 

By how many people’s lives I positively impact. I live by a quote from Zig Ziglar who said, “You can have everything you want if you help enough other people get what they want.” I love helping people get what they want. In my business, it’s about building meaningful, high-impact jobs for professionals; for my clients, it’s about helping them build the right team to grow their business.

What advice can you give to the graduates of the Orfalea College of Business? What I know now that I didn’t know when I graduated was that everyone is watching you to see how you handle yourself and your actions really matter. Be open to possibilities that you can’t even imagine because every industry is moving fast. What I do today didn’t exist when I graduated so it’s hard to plan a long-term career path. I advise people to think about their career in two-year chunks. That way you can harness your existing skills and focus on doing great work with the tasks that are in front of you, which will lead to future work. Because you never know who will notice you!

Would you say you still Learn by Doing?

Learn by Doing has been a cornerstone of every job I’ve had. I appreciate Cal Poly teaching me to jump in and be active. I use this skill every day as an entrepreneur and owner of my own business. I’m constantly learning and experimenting with ideas that drive growth, awareness, employee engagement, business efficiency and so much more. I lead my business by doing.

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