Katy Thorbahn, President/CEO at Shiny
What's your industry?
For people who don't know you, can you tell us how you ended up sitting where you are today?
I knew from high school that I wanted to go into advertising, inspired by family members who were in the business in different ways. After a couple of internships during college, I landed a job as an Assistant Account Manager at The Weightman Group (RIP) and have worked at agencies ever since. In 2015 I took those years of experience to help found Shiny, a strategic creative services agency with a focus on financial services.
What does your daily routine look like?
During the week my alarm goes off at 6am followed by a couple of hits of the snooze button. Once I’m up I try to do some form of exercise, followed by meditation, before getting ready for work. I try to get online to do a quick email review around 8:45 or so. We have a short-standing meeting at 9am for Shiny team members to get aligned on what is happening that day and then we get to work in earnest. Like most people in this business, I’d say my schedule changes from day to day but typically consists of team coaching discussions, meetings with clients, weighing in on creative deliverables, networking, creating thought leadership and the like. After work, my husband and I have dinner together (either in or out) followed by some TV or reading to relax. My day ends when I update my habit tracker (calendar hanging on my wall) and write in my One Line a Day Journal, something I’ve been doing for over ten years.
What excites you most about what you do?
I am so lucky to be a co-founder of an independent agency, and how that enables me to make an impact on our clients and our team. Being in a position to be able to listen to both what our clients need and what our team needs and wants, and creating a business that delivers for both is very gratifying. In short, every day I’m excited to be a small business owner and the opportunity that gives me to have a positive impact on people’s lives.
What's the best advice anyone ever gave you on your journey in business?
The first came early in my career when my manager's manager told me to "keep taking things on until someone tells you to stop.” It was just what I needed to hear to stop being concerned about whether it was my place to do something and instead just jump in where I thought I could contribute. That attitude spurred my career growth and ultimately got me here today.
The second came much later in my career when I was leading the Philadelphia office of Razorfish, a global digitally-centric agency. At that point, my manager told me “There is a difference between what’s urgent and what’s important. You’re paid to focus on what’s important.” It was a great way to cull my to-do list and direct my energy to make sure I wasn’t losing my time to things that ultimately were not critical to move the business forward, and which could also be accomplished just as well by other team members.
What's been the hardest part about the path you've taken and how would you advise someone facing a similar situation to overcome it?
The hardest thing for me was when I lost my job at Razorfish after being there for almost 15 years. It was an enormous punch to my gut, bruised my ego more than I care to admit, and for a period of time threw me into a really fearful place, amplified by the fact that I was the single-income earner in our house at the time and my older child had just been accepted to a university from which no financial aid was going to be coming. Now, many years later, I see being pushed out of Razorfish as a gift. It put me on the path to having my own agency, to help build a team of people who are both great at their job and great colleagues, and enabled me to reinvent my life in a myriad of ways. But, man, it was a rough couple of years before I could see that with any clarity.
Are there any well-known Books, Podcasts, or Courses that you credit your current success to?
I’ve read books and taken a variety of courses over the years, but the learning experience that has had the most impact on my life and career was from my college years. I went to the University of Richmond and was part of what was called WILL (Women Involved in Living & Learning) when I was there (it’s now just called will.) It was a four-year leadership course for women and it gave me a tremendous leg up on how to successfully navigate so many aspects of male-dominated work environments.
Have you ever used a business or executive coach?
I have. While I was at Razorfish the agency invested in people in senior leadership roles by pairing us with Executive Coaches. My coach, Nancy Yahanda, was incredibly helpful to me.
It seems like there are a lot of people offering business coaching these days. In your opinion, is that a good thing?
I think it could be a mixed bag. On the positive side, I believe it helps more people hear about coaching and spark an exploration of how it might be helpful to them, and whether it’s an investment they want to make in themselves. But with the proliferation of people calling themselves coaches, I suspect that it has become harder to find true professionals who know the craft and aren’t just trying to cash in on the increasing interest and focus around personal development.
People can sometimes confuse a coach with a mentor. Can you help us clarify the difference?
Mentorship can come in many shapes, but in my experience, a mentor is someone who can add value to you based on their personal experience, which is likely pretty closely aligned with your industry or role. That alignment can be really helpful as they’ve probably lived through many of the same challenges and opportunities that you face and can draw on their well of experience to provide some very helpful and practical input. Those relationships are also less structured so the conversations happen when you think you might need them or when it’s suddenly occurred to you that you haven’t spoken with them in a while.
A coach, on the other hand, may have never worked in your industry or in the position that you’ve had. They can’t say to you “here’s how I tackled xyz.” Instead, they have purposefully studied ways to improve performance and have an entire set of tools they can leverage to help you get there. I also personally found that my coach was really helpful at holding my feet to the fire…there was a commitment that I had to work on certain things because Nancy would keep them front and center for me every time we spoke. We had a specific schedule and clear expectations that I would be taking concrete steps in between our discussions, so it was much less ad hoc than my past mentoring relationships.
For any entrepreneurs or executives looking to work with a coach, where are the best places to find a great one?
I would start by asking for personal recommendations from your network. There is probably someone you know who has leveraged a coach and may have an individual or practice that is a good fit for you (or not…that’s helpful to know too.) If your network doesn’t turn up anyone I’d then look toward organizations that certify coaches and speak to a few to see if they feel like good partners. That’s a critical step; you may find a coach with all the right credentials but if they don’t feel like someone with whom you can have a very vulnerable and effective relationship, keep looking.
What 3 qualities would you say separate a great business coach from a bad one?
Beyond the obvious things like experience and knowledge I’d say the three qualities are:
Ability to move you to action on the areas which matter most in your development.
Someone with whom you can have honest, open dialogue and will tell you what you need to hear in order to keep moving forward.
Really great and empathetic listening skills. I sometimes found myself talking about things thinking that my issue was a and in listening closely to me my coach was able to suss out that it was really b, which was both enlightening and helped make sure I didn’t focus on the wrong areas.
Do you think someone can be a great business coach without having many years of experience?
I do. Experience is certainly helpful, but dedication to the craft coupled with empathy and listening skills can certainly get people to be successful earlier on in their own careers.
What do you think the world of business coaching will look like in 20 years' time?
I think AI might be a big disrupter here. By that I mean I can see a world where either your coach isn’t a person at all but a set of tools that can evaluate what you’re doing and offer helpful prompts in a more ongoing way based on observing what you are actually doing throughout your workday. Or maybe you still have a live coach, but they are leveraging all of that and the inputs and outputs to help you get to your highest performance faster.