02/24/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Apr 26, 2014

Women in Business Q&A With Theresa Zagnoli, Founding Partner and CEO of Zagnoli McEvoy Foley LLC

Theresa Zagnoli, founding partner and CEO of Zagnoli McEvoy Foley LLC, is a leader in the field of communication consulting and has been providing practical trial consulting and communication solutions to attorneys and business leaders for over 20 years. Her knowledge of the American juror has made her one of the most sought-after trial consultants in the nation.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was an introvert by birth, but my Italian father drilled that out of me. His favorite saying, "show up big," is the mantra I follow today. Also, as an only child you feel like you are on your own with no backup. While scary, it forces you to be the one to get it done. Being competitive helps. You need to have the drive to win.

How did your previous employment experience aid with your role at ZMF?
I like to work. I love a deadline, having to stay up all night, the urgency of a project. And I have fun. I liked waiting tables, detasslining corn, bartending... doesn't matter, if you like to work, you will succeed. I have mostly worked jobs where there was a great deal of commotion. Commotion suits me. While I am not a great team-builder, I am an A+ problem-solver. So give me chaos, and I will bring order.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
There is no such thing. Just co-mingle the two. If each half is familiar with the other, both will be forgiving. And forgiveness is what I need, because I am never where I feel l should be. I know people whose children have never been to their workplace or whose spouse cannot explain what they do. It is more rewarding to not have those barriers.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ZMF?
Men, egos, fear, and personal insecurity are the challenges. Also, I was not groomed to be a businesswoman. I came from a blue-collar family who prided themselves in doing good for the underdog for little or no pay. When I first began at ZMF, I paid the entire premium for everyone's insurance, could barely bring myself to send out an invoice, (still have) never fired anyone myself, and wanted everyone to be happy every day. I made many, many mistakes because I just didn't know what it meant to run a business. I was great at my profession but really bad at business.

Highlights come daily, if I stop to enjoy them, which I don't. The most memorable times are personal, such as walking in my office on a Sunday morning when all is quiet and seeing my name on the wall. Or, when my older son chose to write about me, out of all the women on earth, as the woman he most admired who was working to change the world (and Mother Teresa was still alive!). Likewise, my younger son wanting to come to ZMF after school because "that is where the action is." And finally, the look on my dad's face the day we opened our current office.

What advice can you offer women looking for a career in your industry?
Our industry is a female-friendly industry at the entry level. Find a good firm and a mentor. Get an education in communication, persuasion, and psychology, with a bit of stats thrown in. Then, be patient. Remember that you will be giving advice and coaching lawyers and business people who are at the top of their game. Earning their trust takes time.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
That it is still a subject of conversation. We should be past the question, shouldn't we? But since you asked... women tend to want to show they are unique, creative, independent, and special. We have had to take a backseat for so long that we have the need to get noticed immediately. The fact is that women start more conversations and men finish them.

I am an expert in verbal and non-verbal communication. I see many women do damage to their image by not understanding how people are interpreting them. It is difficult to do, but women have to find a balance between keeping heads down, rolling up their sleeves and working, or screaming 'pay attention to me.'

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
Ms. Sandberg is Harvard-educated and works in the tech industry. She is part of an elite group of women. Thus, her book, albeit a good read, is irrelevant for most of us. Nonetheless, anyone who can start her own movement and bring attention to the needs of women is good for women.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
The lack of one has been to my own detriment, which is why I advise everyone else to get one. Keep looking until you find a person who works for you. It is not like a marriage, you don't have to stick with the same one. As for being a mentor to others, it is the best. A lot of my friends who were once stay-at-home moms now come up with the most fabulous ideas for new businesses. I put forth as much energy as any one of them needs in order to launch their projects. They can learn from my 10,000 mistakes. Maybe that could be my book: Ten Thousand Mistakes in Business.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Well, if we change the question to what 'famous' female leader I admire, it is no contest... Hillary Clinton. Being a leader in our country has become a difficult, thankless, and endless job. The time spent, the information her brain must consume and the travel she endures make her a working woman's hero. Especially at her age. She has gone the distance at full throttle. It is the unsung female leaders who deserve as much admiration. All women who have taken up the challenge of being a leader in business are accomplished. It takes so much work and commitment. It will be interesting to see Generation Y take our places and observe how they will improve the path.

What are your hopes for the future of ZMF?
Longevity. To provide a secure place for men and women to come to work, knowing there is no limit to their personal vision, and to impassion them to want the same for those who follow. Among our values are loyalty, fun, perseverance, hustle, and attitude. If I can live up to those, then I have done my job as a leader. I so believe that poor or just adequate communication skills cause people to not reach their full potential in life. If I can continue to get that message out and go on teaching people how to do better, then ZMF will have been true to its mission of creating 'extraordinary communicators.'