Talia is the 30-year old CEO of LitLife. an international literacy consulting firm. Not only is she the CEO of a company, but Talia also serves on the school board of Ivy Hill Prep as the Chair of the Academic Committee and is an adjunct professor at Relay Graduate School of Education. In addition to all of these roles, Talia is also a wife, sister, and friend. Needless to say, Talia has a lot to balance!
Before she was Chief Executive of LitLife, Talia was a literacy consultant with LitLife, working with large school districts to promote joyful reading education. In just two years, Talia led schools to raise literacy scores by 60%. Through her social-emotional strength initiatives, students’ assessment of their own strengths increased by 100%.
Talia began her teaching career in DC Public Schools, teaching elementary and middle school. She then moved to New York to become a founding teacher at Achievement First Aspire Elementary School, joining a team of dedicated teachers and administrators in building an excellent school from the ground up. At Achievement First, Talia’s students increased their reading levels far beyond the grade-level expectation. Talia is a lifelong educator and learner, advocating nationally for social-emotional literacy instruction.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Growing up, my parents, first-generation Americans who became citizens during my childhood, valued education as a tool for success. I went to five different schools, and I saw the differences in how my peers and I were treated in different schooling environments. I decided I would make it my life’s mission to ensure that each child has access to a joyful, impactful, and meaningful education, starting with literacy, which opens the doors for all else. After graduating from Columbia, I became an elementary school teacher. After years of teaching in some of the most underfunded schools in the country, I realized that curriculum support and teacher development are the two ways to ensure that all children have access to an amazing education. I started to expand beyond my one school, working as a literacy consultant to support teachers so their students could thrive.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My most interesting work has definitely come from all of the travel I’ve done as a leader at LitLife. In times when our country can feel so divided, getting into schools and working closely with people who all have the same goal in mind — to provide an excellent education for kids across the country and around the world — feels so unifying. For example, I work with teachers in North Carolina and in New York City I use the same curriculum but modify it for their vastly different school communities. Even though teachers are in two completely different environments in the country, they all want to ensure that their students are able to access information and encounter the world in meaningful ways. Our partners in Mexico and on the Ivory Coast are actually beginning to speak to each other over video to collaborate on the same projects, supported by our curriculum. That’s been amazing to witness; teachers and principals from all walks of life are unified across a larger mission of equity for students.
What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?
My background is in childhood education, and I do not have an MBA. Therefore, learning to run a small business after becoming the COO and then CEO of LitLife was a big challenge for me, and it is a learning curve I am still working on. I recognized that I could complete my personal mission to give each child access to an amazing and inspiring education by ensuring LitLife is a sustainable, organized and systematized company, enabling us to work with more districts and reach more children. Since LitLife is a 16-year old company with a deep history of excellence, I wanted to be sure that, as I took the helm, I was honoring all of the work of those inspirational teacher leaders who came before me. I read articles and books, listen to podcasts, and attend conferences. Every day, I learn something new. Turns out you don’t need to have an MBA to be a CEO! You do have to know what you want, stick to your values and go for it; it’s all about taking risks and knowing that the work you’re doing has an impact.
What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?
Leadership means empowering others, seeing their strengths, and all working toward the same goal. The work of LitLife is deeply personal and changes daily depending on the school, teacher, administrator, and situation, so we must be an adaptable and cohesive group. I work hard to ensure that all consultants with LitLife feel supported through clear systems, mentorship and resources to do their job well. It’s one thing to support others in their professional careers, and another to ensure that they have the personal means to show up for others each day. I am so inspired by the exceedingly talented people I work with each day that I want to make sure I can listen deeply to their stories so we can all bring our full selves to work each day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The two people who have had the greatest impact on my success are my husband and my mother. My mom taught me how to work hard and balance family, and my husband shows me every day what it means to have a partner who truly shows up.
When I was preparing for my first board meeting as CEO — remember, no MBA here — it took a ton of time and energy to first put together all of the financials and then understand what they all meant! I was working with a talented finance team who were doing this with me, but it took a ton of my time before and work to truly grasp our projections, our previous profit and loss, and what that all meant for the future of our company. During this time, my husband showed up for me in a deep way. He made me dinner and packed those leftovers for lunch daily. He took away my laptop when it got close to midnight and pushed me to go to bed. He cleaned the house and took care of the laundry so I could focus on my work. This is all while he has his own full-time job and is working to further his own career! He has made my work with LitLife possible by supporting me every step of the way in our home and family life.
Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?
Extremely difficult, especially as I started running the company. My mom died two years ago, which is just as I was gaining more responsibility with LitLife. Navigating the waters of grief was an ongoing challenge, especially while working at a job that took so much of my passion, concentration, and energy. I learned two things from my mom. First, I learned that the only work worth doing was work that makes you light up — work that helps others empower themselves and that makes a difference in the world. I set out to make that happen for myself, and today, I am lucky enough to get to work in a field I am so passionate about. Secondly, my mom worked her butt off to pay for her four daughters to go to school and build up her law practice so she had little time for much else. By watching her work within this complicated space, I learned that I had to have outside hobbies, passions outside of work, and a full family and friend life. I didn’t want to work all the time at the expense of enjoying the quick time we all have on this planet. This meant that I had to get much more efficient at work. I had to learn to empower my team to make decisions and produce amazing results on their own. My mom taught me explicitly to do work that positively impacts people’s lives, and implicitly that this work can’t come at the expense of a rich personal life.
Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?
It requires a much more concerted effort, but I am still able to have dinner with friends, cook at home with my husband (well, really, he does most of the cooking), and drum with my drum troupe, Batala New York. Sometimes I choose to spend my Sunday cooking, drumming, and practicing yoga, and sometimes I choose to spend my Sunday working, writing, and furthering the great work I get to do of promoting joyful reading practices. As I grew in my leadership roles, I learned to focus on other areas of my life beyond work, because if they were going to happen, I was going to have to prioritize them!
Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?
- Don’t separate the two! There’s no such thing as your “work life” and your “personal life.” There’s just your life. Inherent to balance is the fact that two opposing sides are connected. Your life consists of work, personal pursuits, family, friends, hobbies, spirituality, and anything else you want it to. It’s all part of the same whole, and when trying to separate them, it’s easy for work to come out first. Don’t have two separate to-do lists, or, I find, your personal life will always take second chair.
- When you’re off, be off. This is something I’m working on. I turn off email notifications from my phone and I often leave my phone in another room later in the evening and on Saturdays. If someone really needs me from work, for a work emergency, they can always call me and I’ll hear my phone ring or, worst case, call my husband! But truly, there is no balance if you are working all the time. I always work to ensure that everyone working at LitLife is able to turn off, relax and enjoy time with family and friends. The heart of our work is in improving children’s school lives, and we need happy and well-rounded adults do to this.
- Block time on your calendar for the important things. Every day, I exercise, do a ton of work, read informational books to improve my leadership and work style, and read fiction books to help me fall asleep and turn off my brain. Not to mention the TV I watch and the time I spend with friends and family. How do I do this? When I’m working, I’m working. I try not to browse the internet or get distracted during each block. I also am (working to…) not keep my email open all day, but rather carve out specific time for emailing three times per day, so the rest of my day can be spent getting my work done! This advice also applies to your personal life: Blocking out time for personal tasks and projects is essential. Part of this is planning in advance with friends and family so you know when you’re getting together and can block off that time.
- Use a combination of pen and computer. This is the teacher in me talking. Sometimes, you need to physically write things down! I keep a bullet journal in addition to my online calendar, so I can write down my to-dos for the week and take notes. Studies show that writing by hand improves memory and helps solidify information in the brain. When I write my to-dos and take notes by hand, it helps ensure that I know what I need to get done. I can physically look back and find the notes that I need for an upcoming meeting!
- Exercise. If I’m not healthy, and if I don’t get endorphins rolling around in my brain, I’m too tired and distracted to produce amazing results for our school districts and ensure that we as a company are living by our mission. My work takes immense concentration. To do that, I need my brain to be on and ready during working hours so I don’t waste time. Exercise also helps me have energy in the evenings when I’m off work to drum, dance, cook, run, or get together with friends — or just ensure that I don’t crash after the work day is done.
What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride?
I am deeply proud of our achievement in schools and our success in improving not only literacy scores, but student and teacher satisfaction as well. This year, we as a company are studying our impact in schools. We have found that the schools we work in often achieve ten percentage points higher in literacy scores than they did the previous year. This is a dramatic shift that we are working to understand and replicate throughout our schools. When I see schools that we’ve been working in achieve at such high levels, and see the shift in culture that comes with more relaxed and supported teachers, I know that LitLife is accomplishing the work we all wake up wanting to do each day — ensuring that each child can have a supported, joyful, and meaningful day.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The thing we can all do right now to bring about the greatest amount of good is to all focus on children’s daily lives! We as a society don’t concentrate nearly as much as we should on the eight hours a day that children spend away from their parents, learning to become citizens, scholars, friends, and more. If I could inspire a movement, it would be for society to honor the immense, deeply personal and professional work that teachers do each day with kids. We need to provide enough funding and support so that teachers can do this work joyfully, meaningfully, and impactfully for each student they serve. If we focused on ensuring that children know their strengths, have the opportunity to pursue their passions, and can advocate for themselves and their community, many of our society’s ills would be fixed quickly. How we treat our kids shows how we treat our whole society. We can and must do better!
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
I’m not super active on social media, but I do have a Twitter account that I use to connect with other educators! You can find me there @taliakovacs, or on LinkedIn at Linkedin.com/TaliaKovacs