In today’s fast moving, technology-crazed world, longevity can reign supreme. No one knows this better than Michelle Kohanzo, who has played a critical role at high-end children’s furnishing company The Land of Nod since 1999. She feverishly worked her way up the corporate ladder, after unintentionally shifting her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher to working in retail.
Michelle started out in the field as a sales clerk at The Limited, learning every granular aspect of the retail industry. She couldn’t resist the customer service interactions, which led her to become a jack-of-all-trades at Crate & Barrel. Today, Michelle is Managing Director of The Land of Nod. It’s easy to understand her ascent to the top of the company; she doesn’t shirk away from menial, yet necessary daily tasks and has an eye for fine-tuning the details. While we admire Michelle’s dynamic ability to easily cross from marketing to merchandising, we’re even more in awe of how she cooks a homemade dinner for her family every single night of the workweek!
Luckily for Everygirls, this busy exec took some time away from Nod to connect with us on everything from leadership cultivation to her Pinterest habit. Michelle offers up some brilliant guidance in the ways of carving a career niche from scratch, managing a team’s growth, owning a process from conception to fulfillment, and maintaining a rich work/personal life balance.
Share with us: what did you grow up thinking you’d do and is it different than where you’re at now?
Name: Michelle Kohanzo
Current position/company: Managing Director at The Land of Nod
Educational background: University of Illinois at Chicago
Give us a brief roadmap of your career in marketing and merchandising. What was your first job out of college? Where are you now? Where have you been in-between?
I started my career in retail at The Limited. I was a sales clerk and became an assistant manager. It was a tough job…long hours, very physical. In retrospect it was great training for me. From there I went to Crate and Barrel’s catalog division and did a little bit of everything: customer service, a little financial reconciliation, fraud management, and most importantly I met my husband there.
I left Crate and Barrel to join The Land of Nod in 1999. My daughter was 8 months old and I was ready for a new challenge. I loved the idea of working for a start-up and I was also insane about the brand, so it was a perfect fit. I was the 10th employee and started answering customer calls. In the old days we all did a bit of everything. We packed boxes, checked in merchandise, wrapped gifts, whatever needed to be done. It was fun and very casual. It took about 3 months for me to get promoted to Customer Service Manager and from there I have played nearly every role in the company. I launched and managed our website, opened all of our stores, managed logistics, managed Marketing, managed IT, and most recently ran our Merchandising department. With each move I learned more and more about the business and as my career grew, so did the company. The Land of Nod is truly my passion and I have been so lucky to be a part of the company’s growth and success over the years. It’s really an honor and a dream come true to lead the company.
Let’s talk logistics. You have worked for The Land of Nod for much of your career. How were you able to successfully ‘climb the corporate ladder?’
My mentor gave me some great advice early in my career and it really sums up my approach. He said, “Don’t strategize your career. Go where the company needs you and you’ll be successful.” I was lucky enough to have someone guiding me who I trusted utterly, but it was honestly that simple. Another nugget of wisdom of his that I always follow: as a manager you should always be grooming your team to replace you. In essence, always working with an eye toward the next generation of leadership. This is a very powerful approach that’s been successful for me and the people who work for me.
What advice would you give Everygirls about creating opportunities to advance their careers?
Seize the moment. No one is going to hand you an opportunity. I have always been very aggressive about taking on responsibility. Always believe in yourself; there is nothing I can’t do. Plenty I haven’t done yet, but that’s different.
Many Everygirls struggle with pinpointing their passions and how to translate this into a career. How were you able to find a career path that you are truly passionate about?
I stumbled into my career, quite honestly. I had every intention of becoming a middle school teacher and was working retail to make ends meet. It really just drew me in; I loved it from the beginning. In retrospect it’s the most natural place for me to be. I have always been an utter shop-a-holic. I love fashion and decorating. It’s really natural. Having found my passion I would say, don’t settle—keep looking. There is nothing more rewarding than loving what you do every day.
You have said before that you have your dream job. How did you make this dream come true?
I think about how it happened a lot and I think there are a couple of key factors. First and most importantly, I had a brilliant mentor: Jamie Cohen, our co-founder. Jamie believed in me, supported me, and demanded excellence from me every day. The second thing that got me here was my passion and determination. I like nothing more than an insurmountable task and I thrive on chaos. Third is luck; right place right time.
What is one of the most important lessons you have learned over the course of your career?
I’ve learned that it’s not all about your salary and your title. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you love the people you work with and you’re passionate about what you do. Nothing else matters.
Not only do you have an amazing career, but you are also a mom of four! And we hear quite the gourmet cook. How do you balance it all?
I fancy myself a gourmet cook, but that’s probably not accurate! I have a ton of support. My husband is amazing—he tolerates my travel schedule, late nights, etc. I have a live-in Au Pair, the best neighbors, and am very close with my family. Everyone pitches in to make it work. In all honesty, there isn’t balance it’s a constant give and take. Sometimes home demands more of me and sometimes it’s Nod. My one secret is a ton of sleep—I get at least 8 hours and even more on the weekends.
Give us a peek into a day-in-the-life of Michelle.
I always sleep as long as is humanly possible in the morning—I hate waking up! I give myself ½ hour to get showered and dressed, slug back a cup of coffee, drop my husband at the train, and drive 1 hour to work. I have a green MINI Cooper Clubman (the green hornet) which I love and makes my commute tolerable.
I arrive at work and consume 3 more cups of coffee during the course of my morning. My days are very meeting intensive, but I try to make my way through the entire office to say hello to everyone in the morning. I also try to always get over into our sample area, where our product development takes place to see if any new product samples have arrived. I love seeing the product evolve and I am always walking away with a stuffed animal or a pillow and getting scolded by our merchants.
I usually work until about 6. Once home I make dinner. I love to cook; it’s like meditation for me. So I come in the house and head straight to the kitchen. Dinner isn’t normally elaborate during the week, but always homemade and always delicious. We eat a little late, but we always eat together, which is the highlight of my day. After dinner we wind down, relax on the sofa, read the mail, talk, and then we head up to bed.
My room is the hangout room, so the whole family climbs in my bed for the last hour of the day and we watch TV and talk and sometimes doze off. Then my two oldest go to their own rooms and the two youngest snuggle in between my husband and I and we go to sleep, often with my four-year-old sleeping on my head, twirling my hair while he sucks his thumb.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I would be content to be right where I am now. It’s hard for me to imagine what’s next; everything is so new right now. I am just content to see what tomorrow might bring.
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
I wouldn’t change anything, but I was married and had my daughter at 22. I didn’t get much time to figure out what I wanted out of life. I was in a very big hurry to grow up and I would tell myself to slow down. Maybe I should take that advice now?
What words of wisdom do you swear by?
For this particular question I had to go to my Pinterest board of quotes. It was tough to choose just one, but I think this sums it up:
look like a girl
act like a lady
think like a man
work like a boss
Any other secrets to success that you can share with our Everygirls?
Be curious, try everything once, travel as much as is humanly possible, and don’t take yourself too seriously.