Entrepreneur cleaned up mistakes, became better educator and leader


Meghan Krein

Earlier this month, Kristen Hadeed, founder of Student Maid and author of “Permission to Screw Up,” visited ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College to give a talk and workshop on leadership.

As evident from the title of her book, Hadeed wasn’t a born leader. She had to learn the hard way — starting in college, back in 2006. “I was lost,” she says, “I changed my major nine times because, at the time, I viewed success as the salary you’ll make when you graduate.” Hadeed settled on finance. “I knew I’d make a lot of money being an investment banker,” she says.

An intrapreneurial spirit takes off

But life doesn’t always work out as planned. Hadeed’s career trajectory took a turn — at the mall. She was 19 years old and madly in love with a pair of jeans she couldn’t afford. “They were $99 and I didn’t have any money,” Hadeed says. Hadeed wanted the jeans badly, so she took out an ad on Craigslist, offering to clean homes. Hadeed got the gig and the jeans, along with more requests to clean homes.

Right before she graduated, Hadeed signed a contract to clean hundreds of empty apartments, which is the point when she became a legit business — Student Maid — hiring 60 people, who were also students at the University of Florida. By this time, Hadeed was 21, “and I didn’t have any leadership or business experience.”

Seventy-five percent of employees walk out

Hadeed says the apartments were abhorrent and she wasn’t able to pay her employees much. “I was sitting in an air-conditioned clubhouse while they were cleaning. I didn’t know their names. I didn’t know to give them a water break. I never checked on them.” Ultimately, 45 of her 60 employees quit.

“This was my first leadership lesson,” says Hadeed. By promising pizza and early paychecks, Hadeed was able to get her former and remaining employees to come to her house. “I admitted that I didn’t know what I was doing and I think that made them want to help me,” she says. All of her employees returned to work the next day.

Education at the foundation

Today, Student Maid employs roughly 100 employees — primarily high school and college students. Hadeed says this is the first job for many of her employees. “In my company, we are really educators. We have to ask ourselves what is it that we need our employees to do in their jobs?” There is no assuming says Hadeed, “A lot of what we do is teaching, even things like how to leave a voicemail.” 

Listen in as Hadeed shares her method of giving feedback:

Below, Hadeed answers questions about education and leadership, along with offering tools to incorporate into the classroom and other learning environments.

Q: What are the traits of a good leader?

A: Four things. First, leaders empower people. What that means to me is believing in someone’s potential and their capabilities before they’ve earned it. Second, the best leaders build meaningful relationships with the people they lead. It’s about understanding who’s in front of you, where they come from, what experiences they’ve had and what has shaped them in their life. To meet people where they are you have to understand how they got there. Third, giving honest feedback. There are two parts to that: what is the person doing well and what are they not. I’m here to make my employees better and help them grow, but I’m also here to help identify where they’re really good and not give praise for everything. Last, great leaders are resilient. They see failure and roadblocks as lessons and opportunities to grow.

Q: How do you get to know your employees while keeping boundaries?

A: When a student first starts working with us, they take a workshop about vulnerability and empathy. We ask them questions that require them to get vulnerable just so they can experience what that is. Many of our students grew up building relationships behind a screen and didn’t talk to people face-to-face and have that connection. We also start every meeting with a personal check-in, before we talk about business and work, to find out how everyone is doing personally. It sends a message that we care about them and our relationship first and then we talk about the work stuff.

Q: What is the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?

A: It’s hard for me sometimes to walk away from people because to me giving up on someone is the ultimate failure. It’s something I’ve had to work really hard on. I’ve learned that sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is to say, “You can’t be here anymore.” They learn so much from that and I’m not enabling the negative behavior.

Q: What’s your advice for dealing with an inauthentic leader?

A: My perspective comes from the fact that I was a terrible leader, and I think about the people who had the courage to tell me I was. My intent was not to be a terrible leader; I just truly didn’t know. I think that oftentimes when we see someone who isn’t good at leadership we assume that they’re doing it intentionally when in reality they just might not know. They need someone to have the courage to tell them and give feedback. You can’t walk away from your leader until you’ve tried to talk to them about how you feel and the impact of their actions. And if you’ve done that and the leader still doesn’t care, then that’s a bad leader.

Q: How do you empower people? What type of questions do you ask?

A: Instead of telling people what to do, ask. Asking instead of telling. Like, what do you think? What are two ideas, etc. It’s something I still struggle with a lot, especially in education. Your role is to support and help with growth. So when they’re facing something hard you want to swoop in and save the day. But sometimes the best thing you can do for someone’s growth is to step back and ask, what do you think? And sometimes let them walk into a mistake because they’ll learn more that way.

Q: What is the best way to build relationships?

A: I think you have to put some restrictions on technology. It’s so easy to text and to email, but that’s not really how we build relationships. At Student Maid, we have rules around texting. We don’t text or email about things that are significant and important. That has to be done face-to-face or video.

Q: What is the best way to learn from one’s mistakes, especially for those who beat themselves up?  

A. First, give yourself permission to be disappointed and feel whatever you’re feeling. But then you have to look at it and ask yourself, what did I do that caused this and what would I do next time if this ever happened again? As long as you’re doing something differently because of the mistake or learning something from it, you’re growing.

Watch Hadeed talk about the four traits of a great leader:

Find more Kristen Hadeed videos on our YouTube channel.