12/30/2013 07:14 am ET Updated Mar 01, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Barbara Timm-Brock, Chief Growth Officer, Sylvan Learning

Chief Growth Officer for Sylvan Learning, Barbara Timm-Brock is responsible for operations and growth initiatives. Barbara oversees franchise system operations and franchise support functions, franchise development, sales, training, quality assurance, communications, SylvanSync, Ace it! Tutoring, and contract services.

Prior to joining Sylvan, Mrs. Timm-Brock spent 25 years leading retail businesses with a focus on driving strategic growth and customer service in franchise systems and contract services. She earned her BS in Chemical Engineering and MS in Management of Technology from the University of Minnesota.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I've never taken the obvious path and I've taken risks throughout my life and career to gain new experience. Getting an engineering degree and later a master's in technology management surprised everyone I knew (they expected a music career), but these gave me a foundation of problem-solving and analytic skills. I also got used to working with men - my engineering program was 80% male; they elected me as president of our student professional organization. Ten years as a board member and chair of the Women's Foodservice Forum provided an opportunity to lead and take risks in a safe environment, and was the source of many friends and mentors. My staff members have taught me at every step. And I have made plenty of mistakes. Thanks to great colleagues, I have learned and changed.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as Chief Growth Officer of Sylvan Learning?
All of my previous experience has contributed to my current role that combines chief operating officer with chief development officer. My Pillsbury R&D career taught me innovation management. My experiences running operations at three world-class franchise restaurant companies were remarkably relevant - franchise systems have similar issues and opportunities. At ARAMARK, I found that I loved sales, general management and the education business; I learned to take a strategic approach to growth. I am the product of all of those great companies.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
There is no such thing as work/life balance. There is only life and choices, which means trade-offs. When our sons were five and two, my husband Paul Timm-Brock and I decided to be a one-career family, so he became a stay-at-home dad. We sacrificed income, but that enabled me to pursue career and volunteer opportunities. My approach always is about trade-offs: you can "have it all," just not all at once. At some stages, parenting took priority over outside activities. Now, as an empty-nester, I have a bit more time for these; I've recently joined the Advisory Board of New Leaders, which develops transformational leaders for public schools. It is incredibly rewarding.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Sylvan Learning?
Every single day offers success stories of children who have regained their confidence and found success in school; that's what makes this work so meaningful. The most recent business highlight was the successful system-wide transformation to a new digital learning platform; we now are a world-class education technology company. This will bring new possibilities to children, and already has opened up new business opportunities to our franchisees. Our primary challenges are how to reach more families with our services and how to recruit the best candidates to expand our franchise system in the business of helping children.

What advice can you offer young individuals hoping to enter the franchising sector?
A franchise is a great option for someone who feels constrained by a 9-to-5 office job and wants to run a business with proven systems and structure. It's hard work, but you reap the rewards for yourself. Younger entrepreneurs often need capital. I encourage them to find an investor or business partner who brings complementary skills.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
In my opinion, there is no "biggest issue." If there were, a bunch of smart people would fix it. I'd like to see more male and female role models and sponsors. Of course we need more women in the executive suite, but we particularly need them in high-growth areas like technology. This must start in elementary school with making math and science more relevant for girls and crushing exclusion and stereotyping.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
Sheryl Sandberg advanced the dialogue about increasing the presence of women on executive teams - that is a good thing. For more than a decade we have known that gender-diverse executive teams and boards create higher ROI and ROE than non-diverse groups - why is it so hard to achieve? Sheryl's book contains a lot of insights and truths.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has been one of the biggest contributors to my success. My first business mentor was a man who pushed me to take a big management assignment that I didn't realize I was ready for. Another was instrumental in my first COO role, and most recently, my mentor Edna Morris supported me in my decision to make the leap from foodservice to education technology.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
My grandmother, who lived to 105, was a dynamo who didn't see barriers and who taught me to value all people. She was my first role model. I admire women who take risks for the greater good, from Rosa Parks to Sandra Day O'Connor to Madeleine Albright and more. As in the broader technology industry, there are few senior women in the education technology business. Dreambox Learning CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson is one visible role model.

What are your hopes for the future of Sylvan Learning?
I hope to reach millions of families and children to help them succeed in school and make college an option. To do that, we need hundreds of new franchisees around the world. I hope that women and men from diverse backgrounds consider Sylvan as a business and life choice so they can experience the incredible fulfillment that our business offers. I would like to see the number of our locations double over the next five years so more children can benefit from the SylvanSync digital learning platform.