Professional Development

Vulnerability is Her Strength

Rhoda Olsen, Great Clips CEO, on the verge of “prefer-ment”

By Sue Hawkes

Rhoda Olsen is a leader who actively seeks feedback, allowing continuous improvement in herself and her company. Modeling this behavior from the top of the organization has permeated the Great Clips culture, while benefiting its bottom line. Under Rhoda’s leadership over the past 20 years, Great Clips has grown significantly every year while living its vision: working together to build the most profitable salons by delivering the most powerful and enduring brand.

Rhoda has grown a billion-dollar, privately held business, won numerous awards, and survived cancer. Rhoda has small-town Minnesota roots and finds her joy at home, saying, “Vacation just isn’t for me.” She exercises every day and often does pushups and wall squats while waiting at the airport. Her leadership style stems from her authenticity, vulnerability and deep appreciation of feedback.

Beyond the Facebook facade

Rhoda is such an accessible leader that she is willing to share challenges, both personal and professional. She admits that her sons’ mistakes while they were growing up kept her humble. She describes her upbringing in the same matter-of-fact way. Rhoda’s father was an abusive alcoholic who struggled with PTSD. Her mother was depressed, suicidal and spent time in a psych ward. Still, Rhoda insists, “they did the best they could.”

At the urging of a Great Clips franchisee, Rhoda shared her family story at the brand’s 30th Annual Convention. “All of a sudden everybody in the audience had permission to say, ‘my life is kind of messed up too, but it’s not going to hold me back.’” Rhoda recalls. This kind of vulnerability is inspiring to others and helps infuse a dose of reality into the phenomenon that Rhoda describes as the “Facebook facade.” “Nobody has a perfect life,” she says. “Everybody’s life is full of pain and difficulty.”

Q&A with Rhoda

Best habit or practice? 
Working out every day. I believe 20 minutes to two hours of exercise a day is necessary for stress management.
What do you want others to know about you?
That I take care of myself. I think when people look at the pace I run they believe I don’t take care of myself. But I do; I am fanatical about my sleep, my fitness and what I eat. It is important.
Is there such a thing as balance? 
No. It’s not realistic, but I think a lot of people still talk about it. If I hear ‘work-life balance’ one more time, I am going to scream. If people have balance for a time, it’s usually accidental.
Advice to your 20-year-old self?
Don’t take yourself so seriously. It’s not that big of a deal if the dishes aren’t done.
Who inspires you?
The nearly 40,000 stylists who deliver the Great Clips brand inspire me every time I visit a salon to watch and interact with them. And of course, my husband inspires me. My sons inspire me. My grandchildren and wanting to be the best I can be for them, wanting them to see me at my best.
How do you recharge?
My recliner and HGTV.
What are big changes coming for you and your business?
I am going to change my role next year and step away from the day-to-day operations and get more involved with government relations related to the cosmetology licensing. I am going to work a lot more with Phakamani Foundation and go to South Africa at least once a year. I’m not moving into retirement; it’s ‘prefer-ment’; I’m only doing the things I prefer to do.

Rhoda models vulnerability consistently with her employees and franchisees; the result is that they are more open and authentic about their shortcomings as well.

Rhoda shared a story of her first meeting with a new regional director: “After saying hello, the next thing I said was ‘Okay Norm, I have a tendency to get defensive, and you’re going to need to help me. I always ask someone to help me in these tough meetings because I get defensive, and then end up not being able to get done what I need to get done. This is the signal I want you to give me when I start getting defensive.’” Norm signaled her twice in the meeting and saw her humble request as one of the most valuable examples of leadership he’s experienced.

Failure, feedback, responsibility

Rhoda says, “I love failure,” because she believes that failure is where creative thinking happens. Conversely, success can allow a company to get too comfortable and stop innovating. People don’t learn from success; they learn from failure.

Rhoda introduces challenge into Great Clips by focusing relentlessly on the metrics and numbers that aren’t getting hit, even if the overall numbers are quite positive. She introduces brainstorming opportunities to the executive team on topics such as “let’s assume we’re down 20% in sales.” Rhoda believes a leader’s job “is to find the gaps, so people don’t get complacent.” Striving to always be better keeps Rhoda at the top of her leadership game.

Personal responsibility is a foundation of Rhoda’s leadership, and she often cites the quote, “The role of a great leader is not to manage and change others, it’s to manage and change yourself.”

She adds, “My greatest lesson is realizing I can take responsibility for everything coupled with believing I can change.”

Rhoda learned this while parenting her sons, but it has transferred into her business world as well. “Even if the other person is at fault,” she says, “I’m the one who is going to take the lead on changing my reaction, addressing the situation and going at it differently.” This willingness to change pairs well with someone so open to failure and feedback, and Rhoda relies on it during times of stress. She shares, “Whenever I feel out of control or a little bit helpless, I always go back to that core. I can only be the best person I can be. I can’t change anybody else.”

Rhoda Olsen is an authentic leader opening the door for others to be human while also excelling. She offers a powerful example of grace, humility and true leadership while sharing the bumps, bruises and scars acquired along with her outward success.



Sue hawkes, CEO of YESS!, is a Certified EOS Implementer, Certified Business Coach, WPO Chapter Chair, bestselling author and award-winning entrepreneur. She has been helping entrepreneurs and leadership teams succeed for the past 20+ years.