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Running USA CEO's winning formula: guts and honesty

At any leadership level, being straight and upfront with people on your team is a rock-solid way to achieve success.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 6:00 a.m. January 29, 2021
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
St. Petersburg resident Dawna Stone was recently named CEO of Running USA.
St. Petersburg resident Dawna Stone was recently named CEO of Running USA.
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The transparency of a swim meet or a marathon speaks to Dawna Stone. A onetime college swimmer at the University of California-Berkeley who also completed the Hawaii Ironman, Stone embraces the clarity of knowing someone won and someone lost.

Transparency, clarity and honesty is also a vital tool in leadership, I have learned — both in interviewing high-powered CEOs and entrepreneurs, and in my own work life. Stone, a St. Pete resident recently named CEO of Minneapolis-based Running USA, the leading trade association for the running industry, embodies that kind of leader. Prior to her role at Running USA, Stone, 52, had a long and varied business career, from working on Wall Street to running a small business to launching and growing a magazine.

The push for radical transparency hit Stone soon after she was named president of PR Nutrition, a San Diego health and wellness company. Then 29, she was coming off a successful stint working for Morgan Stanley and consulting for Fortune 500 firms. That success, she tells me, didn’t make her any less nervous. “That first day,” Stone says, “I thought to myself ‘I have no idea how to run a company.’”

After assessing the team, Stone realized she had to have a tough conversation with an employee she believed was not in the right role. She explained why to the employee, no sugarcoating. She offered him another position in the company and when he declined it, she had to fire him.

Several years later that same employee was at another organization in the fitness and athletics industry, where Stone was interviewing for a job where she would yet again be his boss. “And he recommended me for the position,” she says, telling company officials how much he appreciated Stone being honest with him when she had to let him go. It was a transparent leadership full-circle moment that validated Stone’s approach. “There’s a right way to do things,” Stone says, “and there’s a wrong way to do things.”

'There will be times when others question you, but if you believe in yourself, work hard and do your due diligence anything is possible.' Dawna Stone 

In a wide-ranging recent Zoom call about her career and leadership, Stone says for her, beyond transparency, there are two other big “right ways” that define her leadership approach. The first one? She’s willing to get her hands dirty — or in one real example, change the toilet paper roll inside a Porta Potty at a running event a company she founded had hosted. “I will never ask someone on my team to do something I’m not willing to do,” she says.

The second one is based on the famous President Harry S Truman quote: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish,” he says, “when you don’t care who gets the credit.” In Stone’s world, “if it’s a good idea, it’s a good idea and we will do it — doesn’t matter who it came from.”

Runner’s high

Mark Gordon
Mark Gordon

Stone has the energy of someone half her age. That fits, considering she’s written 10 books, is raising two children — a pre-teen and a teen — with her husband and runs for exercise nearly every morning with a group of St. Pete women. There’s more: She’s appeared on dozens of TV shows, locally and nationally, to talk about health and wellness and has been a keynote speaker for prominent events nationwide. In the middle of all that, Stone, in 2005, appeared on and won NBC’s “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.” She spent the following year working closely with the style guru developing a variety of projects for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.

With all those accomplishments, and some big goals at Running USA, it’s important to point out another leadership quality Stone has that’s less tangible than transparency, I think, but just as important: guts.

Nothing illustrates that better than in 2004, when Stone launched her own magazine, Women’s Running. Before she did that, Stone used her network to get a meeting in New York City with famed publisher George Hirsh. The founder of the New York City Marathon, Hirsch had started Runner’s World magazine, among other publications. Stone met with Hirsch in his office and received a lot of great advice. “Then,” Stone recalls, “at the very end of the meeting, he told me ‘don’t do it. It will never be successful.’”

Not for competitive reasons, but instead, Stone says, Hirsch told her an independent magazine will never have the wherewithal to consistently get and keep big advertisers. “That made me fired up to do it even more,” she says, “and prove him wrong.”

Stone created a mock magazine. She met with some big advertisers, including L’Oreal, Coca-Cola, Nike and Ford. “All of them said ‘if you do this magazine we will advertise in it,’” Stone says.

She did start the magazine and it was a hit. Five years later she launched the Women’s Half Marathon Series, with five events nationwide, including St. Pete. She sold both entities in 2012 — a major success in the ultra-competitive publishing world and a ‘take that’ moment for Stone.  

The leadership lesson? Ideas matter — but so to does an unyielding confidence. "There will be times when others question you,” Stone says, “but if you believe in yourself, work hard and do your due diligence anything is possible.”




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