People Process Interviews: Sue Salvemini

Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the People Processes podcast. I’m Rhamy Alejeal and today I am so excited to bring you Sue Salvemini.

She is an author, speaker, and executive leadership coach. She helps leaders and teams align their work with their core values for maximum impact and fulfillment. She is also the founder and president of Focal Point Consulting Group. She founded it in 2016 and she is passionate about helping individuals connect with their authentic leadership style and love the work they do. She wrote a book, it came out in May, 2018. It’s called “Leadership by Choice,” seven keys for maximizing your impact and influence in the workplace right where you are and it draws on her over 25 years of experience in the corporate world and in the military to give those great lessons. Sue, thank you so much for coming on.

Thanks Rhamy. It’s great to be here today.

Well, Sue, I always start with this. Not many people dress up as eight year olds, as business consultants or advisors. It’s just not something they think they’re going to be when they grow up. So how on earth did you go from your start in this career up to where you are now? What’s your journey like?

Oh, it’s a great question. It’s been such a great journey and it’s still very much a journey. But you know, I was in the military. So right out of college, I was in the army as an officer and in leadership roles at a very early age from the military. I then had the great privilege to work in medical device sales, working in operating rooms. And over the years was through Johnson and Johnson. Gradually moved from sales representative to manager, to leader and led teams and whatnot. And fast forward, a few iterations and companies moving from the big corporate company right down to the ground level startup company. I came to a crossroad when my startup company was being acquired and I had to pause and say, “okay, so what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Now that you’re about 20 plus, we go 20 plus, we never say anything over plus 20 plus years in. And I could very easily have stayed in this amazing world of medical device technology and startup companies, which I loved. But I just sat down and got real with myself and I did. What I did was I became very prayerful. I gave myself a real month to just really dig deep and get real with what my strengths were, what my passions were, what my vision for myself, my family, and a greater vision for the world was. And it all bubbled down to, I’ve always loved people leading and working with people and leading and working with leaders. And I love speaking, training and coaching. And it was really literally one morning at like 6:00 AM after days of lots of thought and reflection that it came to me. Follow your dream, follow your heart and go work to help people be exceptional at what they do.

And the vision for focal point was formed. And I got goosebumps that morning. I get goosebumps as I’m telling you right now. And it was just crystal clear that my passion and my heart and my God given talents were around working with individuals and teams. Helping them realize how great they are and how great they can be and go out and help make that happen. And so I wanted to do that. That’s really where it started. You know, someone’s in the right job when they talk about it, you feel like they have the coolest job like that. How lucky you are to have that job. Of course it was a heck of a journey to get there. But like when you talk about what you do, it’s like, man, I want to be like that when I grow up too. That’s exactly the best job in the world for me. I have to tell you.

So now you’re in this position, you’ve got a focal point, you’re advising clients, you’re well-established. But I know along the way there had to be some pretty low lows. And a lot of our clients, a lot of our listeners are starting off their companies and they’re just getting into this world of scaling and growing teams. Some of them are in the position you were in, executives in larger companies and they’re thinking about jumping ship. Right. I asked my interviewees to tell us about the worst experience they’ve had with entrepreneurship and tell us that story. Really take us there so that we can relive it with you. Then we can talk a little bit about some of the lessons.

Well, it’s a great question and wow, there’s so many. I do have a motto, “you sort of fail forward to success and the sooner you stumble, the greater you’ll be”. So I think every good entrepreneur I talked to is just like, “Oh, there was that one time I made a mistake.” You know, it’s going to happen. So you just got to run close. The faster you run towards it happening, the faster you can say, okay, now that one’s done. So it’s funny, when you start your own business, there’s obviously the passion and the fire in your belly and you have this vision and then there’s the reality of the economics of it. And in some cases, for me this was going to be my income.

I wasn’t doing a bridge thing. It was it. So yeah, failure is not an option, which is actually a good motto because you don’t then look for that safety net. However, in a different way you do find safety nets. And this contributes to my biggest challenge and failure. And I’ll say failure lightly because it all contributes to where I am today.

Of course, failures are only failures. Exactly right. But I haven’t figured out a better way.

I know. No, it’s great. I love it. And it makes me think so, thanks to only one cup of coffee, but it’s good. So what happens is naturally, I’m building the business and I’m to get clients and my natural work was in medical devices, sales and technology and startup. So I had a lot of contacts that knew me for that. Naturally people were reaching out to me to help them with different ideas and whatnot.

So I took on some clients to do that, but that was not still truly following what I was desiring, which was building a very strong coaching and leadership development, leadership training business. But I took these clients on and I rationalize that this was the finances that was going to fund my ability to do and to follow my greater passion that I don’t think was a mistake. That was a very intentional, thoughtful view I had of it. Yes, I had to be. I talk a lot about core values and not just the surface values, really understanding why you’re doing something and how it’s serving your greater vision and purpose. So I knew unequivocally in selecting this work that it was filling one of my swimlanes in my company, which was consulting and it was also some income.

So I embraced it and I loved these clients. I love working with them and I loved the work and the work was easy for me. This is what I’ve done for 20 plus years. So here’s the obstacle though. What happened is not too long into it. I was doing a lot of this work that I did so well and I cared deeply about these clients. You became friends, you work so closely and then I would do my work. That was bridging more of the direction I wanted the company to go, which was coaching and leadership programs. And on a purely economic comparison, the ROI on the work I was doing was completely disproportionate to the work that I was wanted to be doing more of. Okay. I mean to like 10 X less. So I was putting in 20 and 30 hours for a consulting role with a medical device startup that was essentially paying me for about five, but it just required that much more work even though it was easy, but it was easy for me.

So I didn’t really calibrate that it was work. The gist of it is, I was a little fearful to leave that, but I didn’t know how to say no. And when it got real for me and so I consider it not so much a fit. It was a failure. It was a great learning moment because I got a new client for coaching and it became crystal clear. The more I worked with my coaching clients and the work I was doing, I saw the impact and I would lead a workshop, see the impact and I looked at the time it took me to invest in that and both the return from mostly what my clients were experiencing and my personal satisfaction doing it and the economic return was completely disproportionate to the other work that was now unfortunately was taking me away from my ability to do more of this coaching leadership training.

So I had to make a decision and I had to slowly migrate away from this type of work. And I think what happened was in hindsight, had I done that or been able to make that, see that so clearly sooner and make that jump sooner. My work and my ability to have an impact and influence and both and also grow my business, I would have been even further along than the businesses now. You know, I mean it was a necessary part on one level, but I held on too long. It was real and you know, I have a coach, I believe in coaching, so my coach would gently coach me around. “So what is it you’re holding onto?” You know, and it was a safety net. So the very thing I said that I tried to like run from, which is that there’s a safety net, but run from your safety net because you need to elevate your business and move forward towards your dream.

You’ve thought of it, you know, there’s a plan. There was a business plan. This isn’t just a vision for myself. I had a very strict business plan. I deviated from it because it was comfortable. And because I didn’t want to let a client down, I mean one of my core values deeply is the interaction relationship I have with my clients. It was the very thing that was an area of conflict. But from a business perspective. I held on to something that was not yielding both financially the right return and even on a deeper level, it wasn’t fueling the direction of the company appropriately. And I lingered in making that observation and then making a decision.

There are a few lessons I kind of take from that. The first one is kind of the one you already had, which I get this question a lot from people in jobs that they hate, right? Like, “Hey Rhamy, I really want to leave and start my own company. I want to go out and do my thing, but I’ve got a wife and two kids and a mortgage and like you know, I’ve got enough money saved up that we could go like two months without a paycheck.” And then I tell him, “you can’t, you do have a responsibility. The things you know that you’ve committed to, you still have to do. And so you can’t just roll, go to the casino and roll it all and gamble at all.”

So first of all, of course, have a plan, all those kinds of things. But don’t be afraid to, you have to pray. You have to think pragmatically to a degree, you can’t go out of business because you refuse to do some work that doesn’t pay quarters well, isn’t exactly what you want. On the other hand, this is the bigger lesson. I see a lot of it comes across in a lot of ways, in your case, it was getting rid of, kind of align a business or a product effectively that was relatively under-performing and not fulfilling. But it happens in a lot of different ways. You may have a client that you like that you’re doing the thing you’re supposed to do, but they’re not a good fit. They cost significant film sums. But you have to, you have real trouble making that hard decision to let that client go. Maybe it’s about an employee, maybe it’s about a product line.

Like you said, as a business evolves over time, you’re going to wind up adding and subtracting product lines. I will say, probably one of the biggest killers of those businesses that make it past that first year or two that I see is, they just add lines and they never drop any. Right. They’re just like, I’m going to do this too, and this too, and this too. And then they know that the things they did three years ago, not what they should be doing now, but they can’t just tell the client. They can’t let the employee go, who’s responsible for it or they can’t let the client know, look, you’re gonna have to find someone else to do this. 

We talked with a lot of CPAs who are in the tax world and maybe they’ve been doing tax returns for 20 years, but in the last three years they’ve gotten much more into like CFO financial work. And they have a slew of old clients who just send them their tax forms in February and are like, go get it done. And they know it’s not that profitable. They know it’s not what they want to do. It kills their soul. But they just are afraid to let that part die. And I think they’ve given a great example.

It’s the constant quest. It’s funny, I find this with a lot of entrepreneurs and the financial, the energy around finances can be so, so funky, because some people view if it’s not financially smart, does that make me a bad person? That I want to get rid of something because it’s a good thing to do, but it’s not serving the business and I help people come back to. But if you don’t have an economically sound model, then you can’t fulfill what you’re supposed to be doing and serving the people in the greater goodness. So there’s actually a financial fiduciary responsibility to yourself and your company to say no to some of these product lines so that you can do and fulfill the greater cause. You know, it’s actually very smart.

Absolutely. And as you scale your company and you have employees relying on you or contractors whose livelihood depends on you. You have to be profitable and you have to be pretty dang profitable because things will hit you. Like we had a big hit in February and I had to cut a check. I mean I had to cut a check for $40,000 that month and since then we’ve spent another 80 just fighting it. And it wasn’t in the budget. If you cannot put yourself in the position as an entrepreneurial or even as a department executive where your budget is so tight, your margin is so slim that if the client asks you to go that extra step, you can’t do it.

No, no, no. We lose, we go out of business. If we did that, you would have the flexibility to answer the client needs, to help your employees to take a hit, a hard hit and going. Otherwise you’re never gonna make it right and you won’t be any good to the people that you want to serve. You know? Right. In my business as a payroll company or an HR company or a benefits company, we have to be there, right? To be there 10 years from now. Right? I cannot allow myself to discount something across the board to the degree that like, “Guys, if I get hit hard or you got, or there’s a screw up, we won’t be in business.” I can’t allow that. We get audited and we’re rated on like how we gotta make sure we have a lot of money.

It’s an advantage. You should go with us because I promise we will charge you. Right? So you gotta switch to that mentality. And it’s a really hard one for people who move from that technician role that I do a job for an hourly wage. I’m building a long lasting business that has that sustainability. 

Well, I think those are some really cool lessons from your story. I’d love to kind of move forward now. Now here you are. You’ve got a successful company growing, you’ve got a great book. What’s got you excited and jumping out of bed in the next six months? What have you got coming?

Oh, I’m super excited. So I have in the next month, I’m heading to Louisville. I’m going to be a keynote speaker for an event for a bunch of younger or not younger, necessarily newer CEOs and executives in different nursing groups. So I was asked to come out and speak to them about sort of different leadership, rallying their team, motivating their team, running effective meetings, which sounds so parochial, but it really isn’t. When you get to the executive level, it’s really critical. And there’s no one size fits all. So I’m super excited about this program. I just finished recording my audio book so it is in public, it’s in the process of publication. So we’ll be releasing it in the fall. I’m excited about that because when I wrote my book, just under a year ago and it came out and I’ve used it with a lot of my work, but the audio book is going to be so much more fun and readily available for people because if they’re like me, they multitask and listen to things all the time. So I’m excited for that.

Making me feel guilty when my book came out. No, my book came out in October of last year. It did very well. Number one Amazon bestseller in HR. We were really excited since it was launched, I’ve been emailed like, “when’s the audio book?”

That’s so funny, Rhamy. You have to do it because it’s funny. I was at an event with a gentleman that was, you know, he had a publisher and I went with a professional publishing group but I self published and I wanted to do that intentionally. And he looked at me and he said, “I can’t do my audio book. My publisher won’t allow it. So if you have control, you need to go do it.” Honest to goodness, that was the impetus. I was with one of my clients at an offsite and this was one of the speakers. And I literally came and that was it. I said, “I’ve got to do this”, and it’s super fun. The experience was awesome. That’s another podcast series we’ll talk about. But yeah, so I’m going to launch it and I’m excited about that launch because I didn’t really launch my book.

I published it to use with my clients. So I didn’t do a big social media launch, so to speak. It’s not necessarily, but I’m excited. Lastly, I’ve got some workshops coming up and I have a client. I think one of the things I’m most excited about is one of my newer clients in the past six months. They’ve been going through some pretty incredible changes at the executive level. And I’m super excited to watch their journey over the next few months because there’s dramatic changes coming. They’re a publicly traded company and I love being a part of their journey. But mostly, what I love is watching the leadership just come into their own even stronger and more directionally focused. So I’m super excited to watch their journey over the next few months.

Busy, busy couple months. Yeah. That’s awesome to hear. Now, when are your conferences going? What date is that recording? The last weekend in August. So that’ll be in the past by the time this comes out. But, we’ll talk at the end how they can look you up and see what else is going on in your calendar. I’ve got a couple of rapid fire questions. These are just questions that I think, let us distill some of the great knowledge and stuff we picked up. If you could recommend one book to go on your bookshelf or to read, preferably to go alongside People Processes, my book, and write “Leadership by Choice.” What book would you recommend to an executive or a CEO?

Okay. So I’m going to cheat cause I have to have two. So I can only have one. Okay. The one that is most highlighted and dogeared from years past. It has always been an awesome book. It Is the “Power of Focus” by Jack Canfield, Marketer Hanson, unless you had loved, loved, loved, loved, loved that book. It’s an oldie, but it’s so good. So good. It’s got more yellow in it in dog years. Then many of the leadership books or books on the team, and I’ve read so many. Then the second book is the book that I go to daily and it’s now and hear me before it’s the “Life Application Study Bible.” And regardless of your faith, I love studying Christ as a leader. And the reason I say this study Bible is because there’s a lot of texts beneath the physical biblical text that would take a lay person and just sort of guide them through the time and the decisions and the things that were going on. But I love, I just love, I learned so much about how to communicate, be with people and I just love the historical element of it being someone that was never a history person. I have now in these years really appreciated history regardless of what one’s faith is. It’s a study Bible. It’s very key. It’s gotta be a study Bible that gives you sort of that lecture series at the bottom of the text, so to speak.

Well, there will be links in the description below to both of those on Amazon. I did have to verify there’s actually a couple of books that are the “Power of Focus.” So I wanted to verify. You said that was the one by Jack Canfield and the rest, right?

Jack Canfield. Yeah. Mark Victor Hansen and Les Hewitt.

Evil Brian Tracy has put up as a “Power of Focus” book right at the top. I liked some of his stuff too. I’m just kidding. But I know. It’s all good, but I love it. Always. We’ll put the links to those to below. Alright. So going back, if you could whisper in your ear, there it was the day you decided to form your own company and you could give yourself one piece of advice, what would you tell yourself back on that first day of starting your company?

I would say, “remember, you are perfectly imperfect. Just plow through the obstacles, get them behind you, keep learning. They’ll keep coming and just move forward. If you’re moving forward, you’re moving. If you’re standing still, you’re not moving. And if you’re pausing, you’re moving backwards. Blaze through it.”

Awesome. Okay. Outside of that, what is the best business advice you’ve ever heard? That someone’s told you? Some really cool business advice.

I think one that I always go back to and it sort of fuels a lot of what I do and what I talked to CEOs about and leaders is, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That resonated with me years and years ago leading a team. It made me pause and stop talking, and listen more and really invest in my people. That the people are everything in a business regardless of how large or small it is. Even in startup companies with one marketing associate. We had an agreement together that I would invest in her and her development and she knew I cared. As a result of that, and this is consistent in all of the companies I’ve worked with. You know, when people know how much you really care about them, their development, growth and their direction, they dig in. They roll up their sleeves and they’re so loyal. And it’s just been profoundly impactful for me.

Well, on that art, our podcast is called People Processes. Of course we think a lot about the systems and processes around business. Specifically around the people element of businesses. What would you say would be maybe a policy procedure system or training that’s had the largest effect that you’ve seen either on your company or on your clients? And is it something related to making employees or trying to extend that trust that you do care about them? And what’s that look like?

Yeah. So it’s funny, the training that probably has impacted me the most, both in my own business and I work with a lot of 1099s and so I have a team of independence. And then I work with obviously larger executives and teams of different organizations, both big companies, nonprofits and small. But really, my coaching training that I received from IPEC and what that training did for me and it’s actually communicated a lot in my book. Which also contributed to sort of how the business is running. It really taught me a better, a deeper appreciation for what it meant to be genuinely curious around people and to allow yourself to be present in the moment and listen and dispelled judgment. 

And with that, through that training and the coaching training and obviously I’m a coach but I work with my leaders. I actually tried to teach them and model how to get a coaching style of leadership so that they can be people-centric and then the value of that and therefore the value of investing in systems and other non people dependent, like face to face that can free them up to do that. Because the challenge that I find with these, with CEOs and leaders is they’re caught up in details that they don’t need to be caught up in, that’s taking away from their time of being present and curious for their people in the moment.

So a less focused on the minutia and more on the holistic person or the ability to at least focus on it.

Yeah. And it seems it can be. I was in the military, I’m sort of a get it done person. That can sound fluffy to some people and I always, I use it. But the truth is your greatest asset is your people. And that’s the one asset to that. There’s no cookie cutter approach. Right? You can get a system for payroll, you can get systems for communication, but when it comes down to people management, that presence and connection, that requires a person. And you’ve got to free yourself up from the other things that are pulling you away from your ability to be there. So it was in my coach training when I went through the IPEC certification as part of forming my business, I became incredibly, profoundly aware of the value that that could have to a much greater degree than I’d had through all of my years. Leading and working with teams.

Of course, our listeners know our Poplar Financial, we focus on designing and implementing those HR systems. Like you mentioned, payroll benefits, timekeeping, retirement, absence management, scheduling, all these kinds of pieces and you have to systematize them to free you up to actually work with your people. It blows me away, the number of 10-man companies or a hundred-man companies who are or thousand-man companies don’t matter who are investing so much time in routine monkey work that can be automated so that if they can get that off their desk, they can do so much more. I do have one add on though, which is that when it comes to those ways of interacting with people, I believe you do need a process.

It may not be a technological constraint. I don’t think it should be a lot of times, but if you don’t have a way of repeating it and doing it consistently, then you don’t have a way of doing it. And that’s one thing I often come up against with HR trainers and coaches. They have great ideas, they have awesome ways of doing things. But unless you systematize it, even though it’s a personal matter, it’s not a computer unless you make a process for it to happen every time. I feel like you can’t improve it over time and you have trouble maintaining it consistently. So we try to push it.

I think you’re absolutely right. No, you’re right in the process. It’s interesting. The process liberates you to be present. When you have a process and you have a system in place of accountability and data in place, it just allows you to be more present with your people and it also keeps you on track. So I couldn’t agree more.

Well, our listeners I’m sure, want to know where to find you, Sue. If they were looking, I have two questions for you. One is, if someone’s listening to this podcast right now, what situation are they in? Or what does that person look like that they should contact you? We have people from all walks of life. From HR managers to payroll tax, to business owners, to CEOs, non-profit leaders. What position are they in, what are they facing as a challenge, that means they should reach out to you and how should they do that?

Great question. That’s a loaded question. I like to explode with all the answers. No.

I know, I try to put a bunch of preface on there because guys have so many interviewees who are like, “well, if you have a pulse, go to.”

I know, I know, I know. It’s terrible. And you know, it’s like focus, focus, right? What was the book? I said the “Power of Focus” and now I’m going to totally contradict myself but love me for who I am and forgive me for what I’m not, no, I’ll study like that. So you’re a leader of a higher level team, and I say this because first of all, I love every team, but what I find is these higher level, these executive teams, these senior leadership teams typically are the teams that need equally as much support, but they have fewer people to talk to because the higher in the organization you go, the fewer people you can talk to about challenges.

So if you’re an HR leader and the core leadership team seems to be struggling with, they’re all great people, highly, highly successful, but not necessarily jelling the way they could to maximize the opportunity for the organization. That’s my passion because it’s real and you’re not alone in this and the people are great. It’s just sometimes the nuances of putting a bunch of great people together at the Thanksgiving table. Everybody doesn’t always play nice or figure it all out. The second person that I work pretty closely with, you might be at a place in your career or in your own business. You’ve got great ideas, you’re super motivated and you can’t get there fast enough or there’s something that is in your way and you just can’t quite either figure out what’s stalling you or what’s blocking you.

I want to talk to you because first of all, we know ourselves better than anyone. You know yourself better than anyone. You don’t need me to tell you who you are, but what I can help you with sometimes is figuring out what that thing is that’s getting in your way. Figure out a way to get over it so that you can get where you want to go. That’s awesome. All right, so how should people find you? So the best way is LinkedIn, Sue Salvo meaning or an easy way to remember is go to That’s my book. That actually routes you to my website, but if you type in that’ll bring you to a page on my website, which is

That’s great. Okay, We’ll have links below., we’ll have that link below. And of course, Sue’s LinkedIn page. Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you so much for tuning in. Sue, thank you for coming on the show.

Thanks so much, Rhamy. It was such a pleasure.

All right, that’s it. Ladies and Gentlemen, Sue has dropped some great lessons. I think some of the focus is, especially on the early part of a business where you’re having to make things work, but you need to let parts that aren’t working go. It was a great lesson. We’ve got links to the book. She recommended, of course, her site below. Her leadership training. It sounds like an excellent investment for many organizations out there. They’re listening. In the meantime, check us out at LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, send us any questions you have. If there’s anything you want us to follow up with, Sue about, we’d love to do it. We’ll post it on social media. I appreciate you listening and now it’s time for you to go out there, have a great day, and get your work done.

Learn more about Sue here:


About the author, Rhamy

Rhamy grew up watching and working with his mother and grandmother in the senior insurance market. This familiarity with the struggles faced by people trying to navigate the incredibly complicated and heavily regulated healthcare market led him to start Poplar Financial while working on his degree at the University of Memphis. After completing his MBA and Bachelors in Finance and Economics, Rhamy guided Poplar Financial through the disruptive opportunity that is the Affordable Care Act. Since then Poplar Financial has received numerous awards from major insurance carriers and has completed its fourth year in a row of doubling in size. Now his team focuses on the processes around human resources and specializes in providing companies with between 20 and 1000 employees with the payroll, benefits, and HR needs.

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