Lisa Roth on having the ability to see the big picture

Lisa Roth is Vice President and Creative Director at CMH Label Group where she founded the award winning and globally successful Rockabye Baby! lullaby CD series. First released in 2006, Roth's wildly successful enterprise has sold more than 1.6 million albums worldwide and 1.3 million single-track downloads. The series now includes 50 albums. Interestingly, Lisa's career started a long way from the music industry. She graduated as a Nutritionist and ran her own practice between Pasadena and New York for 20 years. Then after a 5-year stint as a documentary filmmaker and taking precious time off with her father, she entered the world of music. Lisa displays true qualities of thoughtfulness and resilience and is living proof that you never know where life is going to take you.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
What didn't I want to be? When I was about 6-years old I saw a segment of Swan Lake on the Ed Sullivan Show, and decided I wanted to be a prima ballerina. While I did that I thought it would also be great to own an apartment building that housed two of every animal on earth like Noah's Ark. I also wanted to be an archeologist because I loved digging holes looking for bones. I wanted to go to Africa and meet Jane Goodall and study Chimpanzees. And if there were a career that involved eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I probably would have done that too!

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I’d need a big table, comfy chairs and a very long evening. My guests would include:
Jimi Hendrix: An original, the epitome of cool
Fran Lebowitz: The Bruce Lee of social commentary
Ralph Waldo Emerson: Not enough room to share what touches me
Gordon Parks: True Renaissance man
Howard and Beth Stern: Some people start their mornings with coffee but for decades I’ve started my day with Howard, and Beth brings out the best in him
Cornel West: Opinionated intellect who sounds like a jazz improvisation when he speaks
Abraham Lincoln: The first president I studied as a kid that I was interested in. I want to know the truth about him
Bill and Hillary: Smart and smarter 
Coach John Wooden: Inspirational teacher and mentor
Mark Twain: Wit personified
Chris Rock: one of my Top Five
Barack and Michelle: inspiration as a couple, and who made history
And my dad.    

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
I have two books.

Victor Frankel's Man Search for Meaning. It really moved me, the way he was able to articulate his conclusion that you can't avoid suffering in life, but you always have the freedom to choose how you perceive that suffering.  And that meaning can be found in every moment.  I was never one to subscribe to the idea that things happen for a pre-destined reason but I will always practice finding meaning in what happens. It makes me emotional. 

The other book is Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth (no relation). I discovered it in my parent’s library at the age of 11. The illicit nature of sneak reading an adult book that was filled with such explicit content had an enormous impact on this 11-year old and I realized there was a whole aspect to being an adult that went far beyond getting to drink iced-tea at dinner, instead of milk. I was blown away!

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
Getting enough sleep is an ongoing desire. I am now in bed by 11 or 11:30pm and I wake up naturally between 5 and 5:15am. It's not optimal but I really love the peace and quiet late at night and early, early in the morning. It's like this false sense of safety, nothing bad can happen because everyone's in bed and I just love it.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
I love Wednesday afternoons at 2:30pm PST because we have what's called the Big Picture meeting. It’s where the owner of the company, David Haerle, the management team and myself meet and discuss big picture issues and desires. I am a big picture girl so it’s heaven to me.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I wanted to be a prima ballerina when I was 6-years old so I studied dance for a very long time until it became apparent that I was not built to be the best. It didn't stop me from continuing to study but I went to college and discovered the life sciences, which I had a passion for. It made my father very happy because he was an eye surgeon and there was nothing he would have loved more than for one of his kids to become a medical doctor. However, you have to really want it to make it through medical school and that's not what I wanted.

What I did become was a Nutritionist and it was my father's mother, my grandmother, who stimulated that interest. She came to this country through Ellis Island as an immigrant from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s.  She was a very bright woman, and if she had been born a few decades later and had the means she would have become a doctor herself. She was interested early on in the importance of how what you eat affects your health.

She understood the concept of preventative medicine before it was fashionable. She had an ongoing correspondence with numerous food companies in the United States. She would write letters to Land O’Lakes Butter and ask them why their butter had changed color. She would write to the cottage cheese company and ask why they’d switched from glass to plastic. She was very suspect of Dr Pepper's ingredients and had numerous conversations with them by hand-written letter. Those stacks of letters still exist. She showed me that how and what one eats can be healing.

When I finished school I started my own practice in Pasadena, California, which I had for 20 years, and I worked part-time in New York for a number of years. For me nutrition was less about teaching people how to eat and more about making fundamental change. If you want to get to someone's most fundamental issues, start talking about their relationship with food. It is a gateway to the most intimate place, which is where I thrive. It was an amazing 20 years. It was gratifying, a huge responsibility that I felt honored to have, and ultimately exhausting. In the end I decided to have a change.

I always loved documentary films and had close friends who worked in documentary-style television like Discovery and National Geographic programming. A very good friend of mine, who had been in the industry and worked as an Executive Producer, hired me to be a segment producer on a new series for the Discovery Network. She assured me that it would be a piece of cake for someone with my skills and I showed up for work only to quickly realize it had been decades since she had done that job and in fact it wasn't a piece of cake. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing but thank god, I was surrounded by very patient industry veterans. 

Not only was this my first job doing something I knew nothing about but she had also assigned me the pilot which was the episode that determined if the whole thing got picked up. Talk about trial by fire. That is not the way I would suggest people learn things but on the other hand it is like immersing yourself in language you’re trying to learn. Thankfully I did come out the other side of it, the pilot did get picked up and I went on to work on a number of Discovery and National Geographic shows for about five years. I learned that I had a skill for telling stories and an artistic bent.

I loved making connections with the people whose stories we were telling, but I often found once everything was in the can and sent off to be edited and approved by the network, the story that came out was very different than the one I intended. I felt a great responsibility to the people whose stories I was telling and that created some stress for me.

Around that time my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness and he asked me to take some time to help him. I took the next year off and became his medical advocate (the closest thing to being the doctor he’d hoped I be!).  I worked on getting his affairs in order and kept his businesses running. It was like going back to graduate school and getting a combined degree in medicine and business at warp speed. It was a difficult time and poignant.  When he passed away I spent the next year continuing to get his affairs in order – running businesses, selling businesses, going through all that happens when someone passes away. Eventually it was time to get another job.

Lisa in her office at CMH Label Group

Lisa in her office at CMH Label Group

A friend of mine, David Haerle, who is the owner of the CMH Label Group offered me the opportunity to do a couple of nutrition lectures at his record label. I loved that a business owner would want to provide that to his employees. So I lectured and eventually David and his business partner at the time offered me a permanent job. The position had absolutely no job description and in fact, I asked him recently why they hired me. He said they liked me, believed in me and that they knew good things would come of it.  Lucky me.

About two weeks into my job I was shopping for a baby shower gift and found nothing in the music department that I considered parent-friendly. I wanted something that an adult would enjoy, that had some humor and a little irony. I thought that maybe I could do something about it. My co-worker at the time, Valerie Aiello, had a similar idea and about a year later Rockabye Baby was born, for which I am now Brand Manager and Creative Director. Today it’s our top brand with international success. I am also the Vice-President and Creative Director of the parent company, CMH Label Group, so I help oversee all aspects of the company and contribute to all our brands. 

This is a dream job for me, because I get to exercise my analytical skills, make executive decisions, be creative and tell stories all at the same time. I’m grateful. I never had any desire to work in the music business, I can’t carry a tune to save my life, but if you show up and do your best, interesting things happen.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
I can only think of one obstacle as it relates to the music industry directly and that is my desire for stasis. It is completely non-existent in the music industry and in life in general. That is something I'm still learning to accept, it’s a work in progress. 

Most of the obstacles relate directly to the workplace. Working in an office environment, I've had to learn patience and respect for others processes. I’ve had to learn to slow down and to savor our accomplishments before moving on to the next task, and to acknowledge other’s successes and contributions.

I had to become comfortable with myself in an office setting where I’m surrounded by others, and to tolerate that my style has an impact on those around me.  I’ve had to learn to balance being supportive of others, while also being comfortable with my own intensity and desire for high standards.

What motivates you?
Getting to the essence of all things, whether it’s the bottom line truth of a problem, a person, a conversation, an obstacle or an issue. It is a compulsion for me, I can hardly help myself. It’s very intuitive and comes naturally. I feel like I'm in the flow when I have the opportunity to do it.  I love the deep human connection it can bring, and the clarity it can provide. In the workplace I use it as a facilitator for getting to the bottom of creative, as well as business issues and finding answers.

I feel like it's the one natural skill I have.  Unfortunately in many work places I don't think it's a skill that's valued as much as say a proficiency for numbers or data analysis or creating beautiful spreadsheets. I wish it were. When it's supported and cultivated it can be a very powerful tool.

What advice would you give to someone at the start of his or her career?
Show up, pay attention to detail and work hard. This is a time to be the apprentice, which is a time-honored tradition that has all but disappeared. You don't have all the answers and you're not supposed to, so listen, learn and ask a lot of questions.

Understand that you are ultimately the architect of your life. You are responsible for your circumstance so consider your choices carefully. Know that every choice you make, affects not only yourself, but everything and everyone around you. Life is not always easy breezy but that doesn't mean there's something wrong. In fact, right in the middle of the muck and discomfort is often where you'll find the best answers if you can stay present, quiet your mind a bit, and hear them. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
When I was 13-years old my mother had a horseback riding accident and sustained a traumatic brain injury. Losing the mother I knew, in that way, at that age, changed my life drastically in a second. It informed who I am today in every way. From that moment forward, I had to rely on my own wit, my own resources and my own skills. It has been a long journey but I’ve come out the other side with great resilience and insight that has served me to no end.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Being dependable. Paying attention to the detail.  Learning to value and listen to my intuition. Having a sense of humor. Having a history, building on what came before. Building on the lessons learned, the skills gained. It's a constant forward motion.  Also, I value clean, authentic interpersonal dialogue, and I use it in everything I do.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Life can change on a dime. Find meaning in the hard parts.  Don’t lose your vulnerability or sense of humor.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough? 
I'm really bad at turning to people and asking for help, but I’m working on it.  However, when I do, it's a combination of family members, a few friends and a really good therapist!

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
The ability to see the big picture
Decisive, yet values the power of empathy and shows some level of vulnerability
Is attuned to the people who they work with
Appreciates and acknowledges the contributions and successes of others
Has a willingness to acknowledge their own mistakes and shortcomings
Surrounds themselves with people who are doing what they’re good at
Creates  a sense of autonomy

 What do you believe to be the secret to rising up to the top?
I don’t know, I’ve followed more of a forward path versus an upward path. Part of that might be because I was never really a company person or a career person. I never operated within that concept. And maybe therein lies my answer. To rise to the top maybe you have to be motivated by something more than wanting to rise to the top. Whether it's a passion, a need, a drive of some sort or a desire.  For me it's a forward thing. Wanting to do better, be better, and know more.

What's next?
I wish someone could tell me that! This is a time of many unknowns and change both in the music industry and here at the company. But it's also a very exciting and exhilarating time. I can compare it to a good sneeze. When you're about to have a really good sneeze, it starts with a little tickle and some discomfort. Then there’s the worry and anticipation - is it going to happen, maybe it isn’t, and then bam, you sneeze, which is followed by relief and a feeling of accomplishment. I feel like we're on the verge of a really good sneeze here. Right now it's a tickle but I know where it's leading.


As told to Caroline Hugall over Skype on Wednesday 22nd April 2015. Lisa is based in Los Angeles.