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A Conversation with Jill Kohler of the Kohler Academy


Recently I interviewed Jill Kohler who is the Founder and President of the Kohler Academy, an innovative and cutting edge beauty school in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jill Kohler is dedicated to the schools mission to be “a different kind of Cosmetology and Skin Therapy school.”
Jill is setting herself apart by offering a more comprehensive education to her students. In addition to being the only bumble & bumble University partner in the world, Kohler Academy offers a Life Skills class, Kohler Academy Industry days and the chance to study abroad every winter and spring.
Recently the academy was awarded “Best School Culture” a national award given by Modern Salon.
Jill offered some insight around leadership, and what it’s like leading a beauty school that is always staying ahead of the curve.


Leadership is a broad term, it’s a generalized word, and at first I had to find what leadership meant to me. I clearly saw a lot of examples of leadership that really turned me off, either through working with people who were poor leaders or manipulative leaders. I felt I needed to help people realize their own leadership skills, so they could find their voice, because either the words didn't mean anything to them, or they didn't feel they could show themselves around other leaders.

I’ve empowered my people even if they have no one underneath them, no direct subordinates. They still have to find their voice and become a leader. So do the students. If their salon owner someday says “I’m going to pay you half under the table and half on your paycheck” they have to find the leader in them that says, “That doesn't feel good to me. It feels wrong and I can’t sleep at night with that decision. I’m going to take the risk of saying you can’t do that or I’m going to have to leave.” That gives them the ability to lead their own lives! You don't have to have a team of six people, be responsible for payroll, and know the HR laws to be the leader.

Consistency in leadership is huge! They want to believe in something. It’s sort of like me and a political leader. I really want to believe that there is someone out there, who is a really good and honest person. So when I find someone, I’m really watching them. Are they going to make the right decisions? Are they going to say or do the right thing? I do think if leaders consistently make the wrong choice the team will pick up their toys and play somewhere else. However, they might not quit. I’ll never forget a seminar I was in one time, where the person said the only thing worse than an employee who quits and leaves is an employee who quits and stays. They erode culture and diminish everything you work so hard for.


What I found as I was developing people and the company was there was a little bit of “yes-sing” going on. With my leadership team, and I have five on my team, I felt like there was side stepping or not wanting to disagree with me. So I started going into the mineral rights mode from Fierce. I started asking questions - tell me why I’m wrong?

This really helped invite people to say, “Well you’re not thinking about the curriculum or you’re not thinking about the flow of the day or those grades will never be posted in time”. Whatever the thing is! I think before I would ask that question they would just figure it out, but there was a lot of inefficiencies and loss of productivity in trying to figure out the way “Jill wants it”. I’m not even a hair dresser for god’s sake! But I own a beauty school, so I have to ask the question “Why doesn't that work?” My Director of Education is constantly saying to me, “Because you’re not a hair dresser and that won’t work at all!” It’s so great because I then say “Oh tell me more! What else, what else, what else?”

You can get really isolated as a leader if you’re not willing to have people disagree with you. They would have gotten it solved the other way, now we just get there quicker and with a few more laughs.


We have a cultural expectation of feedback. You want to know the truth? I have a leadership team that can do it. We can sit in a meeting and say, “What happened?” and they can say “Oh that’s me, that’s all me! I’m sorry. Let me tell you what happened.” They just own it and apologize. The tier below the leadership team, are still not completely comfortable with showing vulnerability. It’s really hard for people to say, “Yeah you’re totally right, I’m not handling that well”. Certainly the cultural norm here is to praise publicly and coach privately. Even if it is happening right there,  I would pull the person off the floor and give myself that space to give the feedback.

The culture of Kohler, I don't know if you want to talk about energy, because I feel like I always have to do a disclaimer: we don't sing Kumbaya! We just have to be careful with culture, because I don't want Shannon to be like Nikki and Nikki to be like Jen. I really value that they’re not a bunch of robots walking around. They might quote something they’ve learned or I’ve said, and they follow the core values of Kohler, but I really like their individuality. It’s important to me that they stay true to that. Some people are funnier, some people cleverer, some quick witted, and so there is energy to it all. In our admissions office they talk a lot about it, how it just feels different here. A prospective student will say “It feels so different in your school” and they expect that.

We do a lot of training. The staff is usually in training for two hours on Thursdays and the students are in the weekly Life Skills assembly, either with me or a guest speaker. There I will share stories or my team will share stories about what is going on in the real world. We do a daily forecast where the staff stands around the refrigerator and talks about what’s happening today. Every morning we have a huddle with the students, every week the Life Skills assembly, and every month we have a staff meeting. So we gather a lot!

My team is a big reason our students rise to the cultural bar we set. I think our team is likable and intriguing. We do contests and we always go to the Broadway shows that come into town. We karaoke, potluck, we like each other and people can tell. All this doesn't really matter if the people on the inside aren't taking care of each other on a real and genuine level. That’s why I think it’s so important to mine for problems, to ask the question “Tell me why that’s not going to work?” to be really consistent for my staff and students. People show up when they think they’re going to be embraced and pushed.


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