Breakfast of Champions: Ellen Walthour
Advice for finding your way as a young leader
Nov 2, 2015

Photos by Marie Ketring

Ellen Walthour has been the fearless leader of The BrandLab for four years, but it was only recently that she felt confident speaking about her practice of leadership. She could talk about work, sure, but “leading” was a different story—and when you have the word “brand” in your title, your story is everything. She found inspiration in the words of  her daughter:

“You know what you want. You know how to get it. So you do.”



Here are five of Ellen’s nuggets of wisdom to shape your own story:


Be authentic.


I work with kids a lot. They can smell you when you’re not authentic. Think about adults the same way. Don’t think too much about leadership, just do. Follow through, have passion, have courage and be humble.

When I became the executive director [of The BrandLab] I knew I didn’t know everything. I reached out to people. They helped me. And I still ask for help today.

It’s really quite simple. Be humble. Be passionate. Be super curious. Don’t be afraid. Your passion has to be part of your soul to make that happen. You can’t teach it.

Authenticity is what will get people to follow you.


Be aware of how your skills might be transferable to something unexpected.transfeskills

When I was teaching, I started looking at everything I did in the classroom. I talked to principals and teachers and young people and my colleagues. I had to convince all those people that what I was doing in my classroom was working. Then I was able to convince someone that I might be right for something else.

I interviewed at Olson, a Minneapolis-based advertising agency. I thought maybe I’d work in marketing or HR. But when they looked at my resume, and my two degrees in education, they said, “You might be right for this organization that we’re starting, The BrandLab.”


Show up in the way that you see yourself.thewayyousee

If you’re thinking about your next step, start living it. They always say dress for the job you want. I don’t know if dressing is as important as acting the part. Do it respectfully and do it with courage. Believe in what you’re doing. That’s the bottom-line. No one is going to believe in you if you’re faking it.


Inspire passion at work through passion for life.inspire

I lead by example. I take time off. It’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I’m taking that time off. I’m going home to get my kids. I send a little note—I’m offline now. I’ve stopped thinking about work all night long, no more “What am I going to do? What am I going to wear?” You have to just be. It feels good to live that deeply doesn’t it?

Do stuff that makes you tick. For me, I won’t miss some things with my students. Sometimes I don’t get to all the emails. It’s hard. There’s so much coming at you all the time, and so what motivates me and keeps me passionate is seeing little glimmers of stuff that’s done right.


Set clear boundaries.setboundries

I have to switch off some responsibilities that I have. I set boundaries so I know when I need to switch back and forth. When my kids went back to school, I told my team I’d start coming in really early. Then I’d have to jump back online late at night. I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy. It really isn’t. I’ve also been pretty clear with the board. I still want to have that flexibility and they keep trusting that I’m doing my work. I feel guilty sometimes when I leave, but I also see the big picture of why those boundaries will lead to our organization’s longterm success. 



This piece is a summary of a conversation with Ellen Walthour, which took place at The BrandLab on September 11, 2015, as part of Pollen and YNPN-TC’s joint Breakfast of Champions series. For more information, or to register for an upcoming event, check

Posted by Pollen on Nov 2, 2015
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