Adopting an Agile Leadership Model:
an Interview with Sara Taylor-Demos from Cora Home
by Shayna Atkins, July 2019
In the modern business world, many leaders emphasize the importance of being “agile.” Agile is a type of business practice that works in iterative cycles. That means we don’t take months to complete any part of building a project. Instead, using weekly or biweekly “sprints”, we work on various features of a product in efforts to create an MVP that undergoes constant refinement through more iterative cycles. This management style requires a leader to be flexible, adaptable, and fast in their decision-making. How do leaders incorporate agile into their management? I reached out to Sara Taylor Demos, the founder of Cora Home to talk about her experience.
SHAYNA: Sara, what does agility mean to you?
SARA: Agility, on a basic level, means trying a few different things and seeing what sticks and goes. Creating this giant tree of possibilities, point to one of them and try it out. If it doesn’t work out, pivot quickly within hours or a day and just let go of it.
SHAYNA: How have you incorporated agile in your product development process?
SARA: I break everything down into sprints, user stories, and use Asana, which is an app that helps you organize. I also try to break it down to the level of particular tasks because anything bigger than “place this here” gets lost. Everyone needs a specific task. We are not in the space of collocation, so we need a lot more guidance and written documents. I break everything down into a 1-week sprint with due dates. We readjust regularly, and it can get a little cumbersome.
SHAYNA: How do you incorporate agile in your management style?
SARA: I constantly tell my team that if something is not working, tell me, and we will switch accordingly. We have very little money and time to execute. Agile means we are saving money, saving time, and being as efficient as possible to impress investors.
SHAYNA: As a founder, could you give an example of a decision you made that required you to be flexible or adaptable?
SARA: In the advertising industry, real money is flying out the door. I instructed everyone on the marketing side. If something is not working within a day, scrap it. If you do not see results, kill it right away. Probe the computer vision, and ask yourself: “Are you sure we have to do it this way? Can we do it this way instead?” I encourage the team to “think outside of the box” or think creatively about an alternative for the solution. Sometimes we are deciding between three bad options. So we have to think constantly about dependencies.
SHAYNA: How have your leadership skills grown or evolved over time?
SARA: I am much more direct than I used to be. Now, I’m like “F**ing do it,” helping me helps you get paid. I have to put a fire under people and talk about the consequences of time and money. For bigger budgets, I still have to watch every penny.
The most significant change in leadership style was the concept of “time.” Time is crucial. How to best balance between motivating the team, sugarcoating, and motivating versus making them want to run away. I also learned how to find good people and how to check out who is worth their weight. I learned how to be succinct, efficient, and how to hustle. I’m really dedicated to putting time into the team.
SHAYNA: What is your approach to complex problem-solving? What is your why / Life’s purpose?
SARA: My “why” is on a more holistic scale, it is more of a lifetime kind of “why.” I want to prove that women can scale huge businesses just as well as men can. We talk and bitch about it a lot, and champion other women. However, there has to be someone who stands up to the plate to build big businesses. I want to prove all these patriarchal figures are wrong. I need to do something for the next generation of women. I want to build a business that works and proves its point.
At the same time, I do not want to create a divide or a competition between men and women, I just want to level the playing field. (Don’t want it to be men vs. women, don’t want to be anti)
Why? Because I love building things. I love building products that people love. I just want to hear, “This product turned into something that made my life better.” from my customers.
SHAYNA: What mentor or role model did you have who demonstrated agile leadership?
SARA: Vaughn Jass who ran the organization Solstice, is a fabulous leader. He knows how to make people feel special and appreciated, and how to push people to the boundaries of what they thought was impossible. Solstice champions how to “defy gravity.” What would Jass say? When I said, “We can’t do that Jass,” his response made me ask myself, “why can’t I think about this?” He would make me consider different ways of getting things done. It wasn’t perfect but it proved the point. Hacking together really quickly demonstrated the ideas. I think that he is really brilliant at pushing you beyond what you think is impossible.
Sara is attending our event InnovateHER Transformation Summit, an invitation-only event for women executives leading digital transformation in the workplace. If you are interested in this event, or other agile tips and tricks, you can connect with Shayna and the team at AtkCo about all things digital transformation here.