December 28, 2014

3 Ways Being a Mom Helps Me Be a Better Leader

I am surviving the day-to-day balancing act of both rearing a child and growing my professional career. Some days, I may even describe it as thriving. 
No, I don’t hold the secret to every working woman’s work/life balance (or integration). I just mean that, to date, I am fortunate to have had more good days than bad.
People who know me professionally would agree that I love what I do. I am passionate about the discipline of marketing and analytics and I love applying my skills and experience to hard business challenges. I thoroughly enjoy mentoring and coaching the people on my team (officially or otherwise). Going to work everyday with a great group of people and achieving great results truly fills my bucket. It’s where I find my flow.
When I was expecting my son, people would regularly tell me that I would “change” once my son was born. Their knowing looks implying that the passion I brought to my work would be muted and that I would not longer feel the same satisfaction from it once that I had a baby. This honestly scared me! Would the act of giving birth truly change something so core to me? And would it happen so quickly and dramatically?
Spoiler alert, in the end, motherhood didn’t “change” me. More precisely, it “enhanced” me. Like any life experience, the particular one of motherhood became folded into the me that was already there. It helped shape how I work, manage and lead.
My son is now 8 and I am still regularly asked by expecting moms-to-be about how becoming a mother “changed” me. In their queries, I hear that same unspoken uncertainty and fear that I felt before my son was born. So when asked, I often share 3 ways I “evolved” as a leader once I became a mother.  
1. Remembering every person experiences the world differently
Countless research studies show how difficult it can be for leaders to get out of their own heads. It is far too easy to assume that others think and experience the world like you do and then to feel angry, frustrated or wronged when the meeting you planned goes awry or a key person doesn’t engage. In the heat of a stressful moment it is easy to believe the transparency illusion where we believe we are communicating how we are thinking and feeling far more clearly than we actually are.
When I learned I was having a son, I felt in over my head. I grew up with just one older sister, and didn’t have any frame of reference for little boys. Plus, my husband regularly horrified me with his stories about the roughhousing he and his 3 brothers called “playing”.  How on earth could I effectively mother a little boy when I had no experience with it?
Net net, I couldn’t use my own experience. I could never intuitively know what what going on in his head -- and this isn’t a bad thing! This frame of reference (plus the fact that I love him fiercely) means I actively check in with him about what he’s thinking, feeling and how he’s perceiving the world and to actively assess how well I’m communicating with him.
Because I regularly flex this muscle with my son, it has helped me to keep it top of mind when relating with my team and colleagues. It helps in my work interactions to always assume positive intent and to be curious about reactions or behaviors that are different from mine.
Plus it reminds me to focus on communicating my expectations, needs and thoughts in ways that are most helpful to others versus what works for me.

2) Everyone is someone’s baby
You may have heard Plato’s quote, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. Or the golden rule, “treat others as you want to be treated”. Both are good, solid, compelling reasons to act with kindness and understanding. A spin-off that I like is, treat everyone as you would want your child to be treated.
I’m sure I am not the only mother who occasionally feels some early-worrying pangs over my son’s inevitable first heartbreak or about the terrible, bullying boss who may make his first summer job a miserable experience. Even as I just think about these common life experiences, I can feel my lizard brain, “mamma bear” instincts kick in.
Don’t worry, I don’t act on these instinctual responses. I totally recognize it’s not realistic (or wise) to protect my son from these common pains of life. However, it is the power of my maternal instinct to protect him which reminds me that there is a mother (and a father) who feel just as strongly about every person I come in contact with out there in the world!
I work to build authentic relationships with my team and colleagues in order to see who they are, as a whole person, not simply the finance guy or engineer or whatever role that they hold at work. Helping everyone be feel comfortable being their whole selves, their best selves, at the office encourages the high level of engagement needed to solve the toughest problems facing a business. And it makes for a stronger, happier team environment.
I want my son to find his “flow” in an environment where his manager and colleagues all know and appreciate him -- all of him. Wanting this for him someday, makes it a priority for me, in my work environment, today.
3) My personal wellness is a top priority
We are all familiar with the airplane takeoff protocol that in the unlikely event that oxygen is needed, the masks will fall and you should secure your own mask before helping others. I’ve learned that self-care isn’t selfish. In fact, making my own wellness a priority is necessary in order to be able to balance (or integrate!) the different aspects of my life. I regularly remind myself that both my body and my mind need to be strong so that I will be able give my best toward both my personal and professional goals.
Avoiding burnout and lowering stress is key when you’ve got multiple plates spinning overhead. Luckily, the prescription can be as simple as exercising regularly and taking your vacation. Both these activities help make you a more effective leader at the office and allow you to be present and engaged with your family at home.

I am always flattered when I am asked about my experience as a mother and an professional. And generally, when I share my insights I believe I help allay a few of their unspoken concerns. Please share your thoughts on how being a parent helped you be a better leader.

August 27, 2014

3 ways startups hurt professional development

I’ve seen this story unfold more than a few times. Young people, straight out of college (or not), join a tech startup. They start as interns and with their high energy, can-do attitudes and simple presence in the room they become a part of one startup’s history and culture.
Cultural bonds tighten as they also find their friends (and dates) within the confines of the startup team and they learn a way of working specific to that one startup, with that team of people. And sometimes, without the context of having experienced anything or anyone else, they develop a kind of ultimate attribution error and believe this one way is “the best” way.
The people managing teams at startups may not have had any previous experience coaching people, and may not have benefited from development coaching themselves. Worse, they may have picked up some bad habits or simply don’t value it. Professional development could even be actively denigrated as a “big company” or “bureaucratic” concept.
We know the majority of tech startups end in failure or acquisition and not in highly publicized multi-billion dollar IPOs. And the reality is that these young people will likely need to work somewhere else over the course of their career. By ignoring professional development, leaders at startups are doing these young team members a critical disservice.
Things move quickly and it’s easy to see how investing time on efforts which derive long term benefit for the business and, personally, for any one team member could fall below the line. In my experience, it’s not done intentionally, but through benign neglect. And that’s a shame.
There are 3 areas of professional development that suffer the most:
Valuing diversity
Many startup teams are not at all diverse. It makes sense because it’s easiest to work closely and well with people who are most “like” yourself - gender, ethnicity, education etc. As a business grows, integrating new people into the team becomes necessary and if those tasked with recruiting lack the needed professional development around building a strong team, bias is that much more likely to creep into the hiring.
Of course, valuing diversity goes beyond hiring practices. It means seeking input and feedback from people who think, communicate and approach solving the toughest business problems differently from you. This appreciation of diversity, of difference, comes with experience and self awareness, and is generally learned from seeing it modeled and through day to day situational coaching.
Young professionals who do not have the opportunity receive this kind of coaching/development early in their career may tend to chalk up style differences to “not a good culture fit” versus recognizing the need to adapt their own style in order to get the best from different kinds of people. This lack of adaptability and understanding of situational leadership may make it harder for them to ascend to and succeed in leadership roles.
Many startups, in the early days, are appropriately run as “command and control”. Team size is small, communication is simple (all in one room) and there is a single priority -- build an awesome product.  Founders assign a team member to execute a desired tactic soup to nuts and this is possible because its execution doesn’t create dependencies on other departments because there are no “other” departments.  Nor are there competing priorities across functions because there are no functional teams.
As a business grows and the team grows, actual collaboration becomes necessary. One needs experience navigating and negotiating across competing needs and priorities in order to build empathy and understanding for different points of view, even when (or especially when) you disagree. True collaboration requires investing the time to understand how best to work with others for a successful execution, and this is not generally required within a command and control startup.
Soft Skills
I’ve written about how a leader’s soft skills are perhaps the most important part of professional development and are one of the hardest to coach even under the best of circumstances.  Soft skills comprise:
Gravitas is consistently displaying confidence and credibility so people will feel “safe” giving you leadership roles and following you
Communications is the ability to “command a room” and covers actively listening and relevantly adding to discussions
Appearance contributes to how others perceive you and perceive your gravitas and ability to command a room.
When the development of soft skills are neglected, or worse maligned, in startup culture, it hurts young team members most if the startup is acquired by a larger organization. Unlike founders who are looking to ‘rest and vest’ in that situation, the young team members who may want to advance their careers there are at a disadvantage because they haven’t had the soft skills coaching that would allow them to take on roles in the new organization.
For young people starting out their professional careers at a startup, I suggest proactively asking for professional development coaching and, actively seek out mentorship from leaders outside your company who may be better able to provide it.  
And for startup founders and leaders, it’s important that you keep the professional development of your teams a top priority. It isn’t “bureaucracy” or the dreaded “overhead”, it is the right thing to do to support the young people early in their careers who are helping make your vision a reality.
Related Links

June 17, 2014

What are soft skills anyway?

“Soft skills get little respect, but will make or break your career.”  - Peggy Klaus, “The Hard Truth About Soft Skills

Many, if not most, professionals are smart. Countless people have the education, experience and brainpower to identify and find solutions to today’s pressing business problems. And yet, they don’t all move up the corporate ladder. We all know, at some level, that it’s not solely about being smart or performing well technically that opens up executive office doors. It is the elusive “soft skills” which play a critical part.

Soft skills are hard to name and define; and thus difficult to develop.  You need to have a clear sense of what the skills are, and then you can more easily ask for feedback and measure progress. A Harvard Business Review blog cited the Center for Talent Innovation’s study that says the most important soft skill is executive presence.

3 key elements within executive presence
Executive presence connotes that others, especially existing leaders in the organization, perceive you as “leadership material”. Some young women I have mentored have heard “you lack executive presence” as a key reason why they did not get the desired promotion or growth opportunity, but they don’t get precise feedback. Here are the top 3 elements from the study:

67% of the executives surveyed agreed this was a core characteristic. Gravitas comes from the Roman virtues, and connotes dignity, importance with a certain substance or depth of personality. To me, it’s about confidence and credibility; it answers the question, will people feel “safe” following you.

Your verbal communications are how you demonstrate your gravitas. It is your ability to “command a room”. It is not only in formal presentations, but even in meetings with your peers. Do you listen actively? Do you ask the right questions? Are you able to relevantly add to discussions in areas outside your sphere of responsibility?

While not the top factor, it is clear to see how appearance could negatively impact both communications and gravitas. It’s the reason why the tried and true advice is to “dress for the job you want”. Yes, it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover. But it’s also true that, like it or not, your appearance will contribute to others’ perception of your gravitas and to your ability to command a room.

How to develop executive presence in your team
Personally, I never had the “executive presence” discussion with any one of my managers. It was just not talked about or named. Coming up, it seems you either had “it” or you learned “it” through osmosis. And, well, that’s just not scalable.

I’ve found that the most important thing you can do to increase your team’s executive presence is to talk about it with them. Underwhelming advice? Maybe, but truly it is that easy. Just begin talking about executive presence as a factor in how individual performance will be evaluated relative to earning promotions.

I endeavor to talk about it with every person I am fortunate to have on my team. I don’t make it a single discussion or like the awkward “talk” you have with your mom or dad at 13. I just work it into day-to-day work, 1:1’s and quarterly goal setting and performance reviews. Just talking about it increases each person’s self-awareness around how they present themselves and are perceived by others. And it provides a common vocabulary for asking for and providing feedback for improvement in this area. And it requires nothing more innovative than a conversation.

How do you think about executive presence? How are you developing your team?

April 30, 2014

Building a Superstar team

"A" players hire "A" players
You may have heard this quote attributed to Steve Jobs, “‘A’ players hire ‘A’ players; ‘B’ players hire ‘C’ players”
In my career, I’ve found it to be consistently true. And, I’ve learned that it’s also rarely that simple.
Team makeup impacts everyone's performance
Any one person’s performance is, to some degree dependent on team composition: the diversity of skills, relevant experience, role clarity, work style preferences and personalities involved. And this means are times that “A” players find themselves within team dynamics that constrain them to performing at a “B” or “C” level. And this is frustrating to everyone involved
One way this can happen is if team leaders approach hiring as simply filling a role versus building a high performing team.
Superstars can lift everyone’s performance
Of course there are times when hiring superstar performers lift the productivity of the team. However, this rarely happens by accident. It requires active, engaged leadership (with help from their HR partner) to identify and articulate what the “right” A player would need to bring to the team.
Lou Adler shared his hiring philosophy that there are four kinds of work types: Thinkers, Builders, Improvers and Producers. And that while each type is necessary at all stages in a company’s life cycle, the balance shifts over time.  With companies needing more Thinkers and Builders at the outset and more Improvers and Producers as it matures.
Identify the hill to take or to take the hill?
Adler’s article reminded me of an interview early in my career where a startup CEO asked me, “do you prefer a) to be the one to identify the hill to take? or b) to be the one to take the hill?
At the time, I fumbled through my response because I thought it was a trick question. With time and experience on the other side of the hiring desk, I see it now for what it was. A genuine way of trying to get to know me in an interview setting.  
There isn’t a “right” answer to his question and my picking a) didn’t mean I couldn’t execute, nor did picking b) mean I wasn’t strategic. It’s simply an effective question designed to help him learn who I was, how I work and where I find my flow. This is critical information needed when assessing who to bring onto a team.
Team member diversity
Having different kinds of people on a team make it a stronger team. And that’s not just some management platitude, Harvard Business Review cited a study which confirmed when teams are diverse, more meaningful innovation occurs.
But successfully managing a diverse team can be harder on its leader. There is greater need for role clarity, communications and successful mediation of inevitable conflict. And I suspect this is may be why some managers struggle with the act of team planning and opt to forgo team diversity for homogeneity.

And by the way, if you’re interested, I prefer to “take the hill” :)

Related links:
Good leaders get out of their own heads

April 12, 2014

What's our Plan B?

“I love this idea! what’s our Plan B?”
Anyone who has worked with me has heard me use this phrase. I say it often. It only takes a few meetings to learn that having a Plan B is necessary in order to get an idea green lit, funded and resourced.
Don't get me wrong, I'm no "Debbie Downer". It's just that no matter how confident we are in the success of a program at the start, there is always the chance of execution error, miscalculations or just run-of-the-mill, unexplainable, under-performance. And it’s better to be cognizant of this potential at the start.
Projects are about engaging with risk, not avoiding them
An Econsultancy blog around recognizing the risk in project management says this:
Projects are about engaging with risks, not avoiding them. We engage with risk in order to achieve commensurate rewards. If we can eliminate all risks, then the project is probably trivial, the rewards inconsequential. Most of us want to work on projects that make a difference. So we have to deal with risk.
It goes on to confirm that the best time to think about risk is at the outset of the project. And to ensure the team is aware of the signs so that issues can be dealt with as they occur, not when too many of the dominoes have fallen.
2 more benefits of establishing a Plan B
In my experience there are additional benefits to teams who clarify their Plan B up front.
1. Clarity and transparency around the metrics
I’ve written about the many benefits of getting everyone singing off the same metric song sheet and it applies here too. The program team needs to be on the same page around the metrics that will trigger the decision to move to the established Plan B.
2. Fosters a risk tolerant culture
I want team members to bring me their move-the-needle ideas. And I want them feeling good about what the business learns from every test. Establishing a Plan B as part of their original idea removes much of the destructive “blame game” dynamics that could potentially come into play. 
Because the Plan B is part of the team's original idea, if/when a Plan B needs to be implemented, the program itself isn't a failure. And the focus can be on gaining learnings that can later be rolled into the next idea.
Planning for Plan B
Business-moving ideas will always involve some risk. Proactively planning a Plan B helps mitigate that risk. There is less hesitancy in calling issues out and putting the already-agreed-upon alternative plan into action. And it keeps the focus on learnings for the business vs. an innovation-crushing blame game or witch hunt.  

Happily, I have been fortunate to work in online businesses where technologies like A/B testing, content management systems (CMS) and marketing automation tools allow programs to be easily monitored and quickly adjusted to Plan B when it’s been needed.  

Tell me what you have learned about managing risk while fostering a risk tolerant culture?

April 2, 2014

The grass is always greener, Gwyneth

When I first heard about Gwyneth Paltrow’s remark that moms with “office jobs” have it easier than she does, I didn't have any reaction. Whatever, an actor with an opinion…

However, as the fervor grew around her comment and sarcastic responses were published, I felt compelled to bring a new perspective to the conversation: empathy from one working mom to another.
All moms are just doing their best
I believe every mom can also stipulate that being someone’s mom, anyone's mom is difficult - period, full stop. And just like the Anna Karenina quote about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way; there are the big and small stresses that are part of every mother’s experience which are unique to them. As outsiders, we just can’t know or fully understand it.
We romanticize what we want, but don’t have
Unless she's struggling with mental illness, it’s been my experience that all moms are all trying to do the right thing by their kid(s) all the time. This is true whether she manages the home, works 9-5, works 80+ hour a week 50 weeks a year or is a wildly successful movie star that has to be away on location for weeks at a time. Every mom is always, actively figuring it all out for her kids.

It's easy to demonize the "other" and assume the worst about them.  And it's especially tempting when the "other" has things in her life we have idealized or 24 hour nanny support, cooks and maid service or making millions in just a few weeks of hard work a year.

From what Gwyneth said, my suspicion is that she is, on some level, idealizing and romanticizing MY life.  My normal, routine, professional + wife + mother life with an almost 8 year old son.  One where I commute an hour to an office every day, take work home every night & weekend, and continually try to achieve that elusive work-life balance.

Of course, the day to day stress, drama and ups and downs in my life are things she can’t and doesn’t know. And that’s the point -- she’s romanticized the generic trappings of my "office job" life because it’s something she doesn't have in hers.
So let’s call a truce: one mom to another
Absolutely, she shouldn't have said what she said. She was having a little pity party about her life and said something insensitive. Maybe she was tired from working all day and was missing her children? I can relate to that.

Let's all remember that lesson from our mothers: the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.  No matter which side you are standing on.

So for whatever it's worth: Gwyneth - no harm, no foul.

March 23, 2014

Achieving "Smarketing" is challenging

Have you heard of "smarketing"?  I don’t know who is credited with coming up with the term itself, but I think it's fantastic!  

It’s a term to describe the desired alignment between an Inside Sales team and a Marketing team: Sales + Marketing = Smarketing  

I always like 'branding' complex concepts and ideas with memorable names because it provides a shared vocabulary. And, unfortunately, aligning Insides Sales and Marketing teams tends to be complex and fraught with tension. It doesn’t have to be and it absolutely shouldn’t be. If there were any two teams who need to be actively collaborating and working hand-in-hand it is inside sales and marketing. 

So why does the relationship between Inside Sales and Marketing teams get tense and complex?

This Harvard Business Review blog summarizes the key drivers of the trend of companies to move more toward inside sales.  And in includes this quote that, for me, illustrates the crux of the marketing/insides sales dynamic:

Inside Sales is a transactional engagement and the focus is on opening opportunities. Outside teams are solution and relationship based...our Inside Sales...require persistence, research and back end work

This highlights two ideas that can fuel tension between marketing and inside sales teams:

a) that inside sales is transactional and
b) the work of inside sales requires persistence and research.

Here’s the thing: if Inside Sales work is transactional, then the leads delivered by Marketing must be highly, highly qualified and just moments away from a purchase decision.  And if Inside Sales requires persistence and research, then the sales rep is accountable for actively working leads delivered by Marketing; being persistent and creative about cultivation.

So Inside Sales wants Marketing to deliver them large volumes of highly transactional leads, and Marketing expects Sales to be persistent about cultivating and closing. Tension, anyone?

I’ve found true collaboration and "smarketing" can occur if the two teams align around the business metrics that need to be optimized. And by opening the kimono around the processes of each of the teams. Active dialog on both fronts helps smooth out rough edges and keeps the expectations of each team well managed.  

In an earlier post I wrote about the many benefits of getting everyone to sing off the same metrics song sheet, and a significantly more collaborative inside sales and marketing team relationship is a key benefit.

Inside Sales is a growing trend, and Marketing leaders must embrace it. Kick it off on the right foot and actively collaborate with your sales lead. Own the process to ensure both teams are aligned on priorities and have a common view of the metrics for business success.  This will help smooth out the rough patches on your way toward true “smarketing”.

I'd love to hear from you. What are you doing to achieve “smarketing” in your organization? Any tips to share?