Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Nicole Kealey of Alida On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

Penny Bauder
Dec 6, 2020 · 15 min read

Know that you are good enough. — If a job description has 10 requirements, more often than not, a man will apply if he meets 6 or 7 of them. In contrast, a woman may meet all 10 of them and still feel not entitled or confident enough to throw her hat in the ring. We, as women, need to overcome this inferiority complex of “Am I good enough?” or “Am I going to measure up?”. Have trust in your abilities and recognize that you definitely are good enough and press onward.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Kealey. With over 20 years of experience in enterprise software, Nicole has extensive experience in strategy development, integrated marketing, and solution management. Nicole joined Alida (formerly Vision Critical) as Chief Strategy Officer in January 2020, to focus on go-to-market strategy and marketing. Nicole was with SAP for 8 years and was most recently Global Vice President Intelligent Enterprise and Industry Marketing. Prior to joining SAP in 2012, Nicole was with Adobe for 13 years where she held a variety of senior roles across Developer Marketing, Industry Marketing, and Product Marketing. Nicole’s experience spans a number of software segments, including Customer Experience Management (CXM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Data Management & Analytics, and Content Management (CM).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have spent my 24-year career working in marketing roles in the tech industry. I have always believed in the strategic importance of marketing in setting a company’s overall go-to-market strategy, and jumped at the opportunity to join Alida earlier this year in a role that would combine both Strategy and Marketing.

I wish my story of how I got into marketing and tech was more exciting, but in reality it is entirely pragmatic. I was studying Business and opened my Intro to Marketing textbook and read that 75% of all jobs involve marketing and I said, “Sold!”. The career opportunities available to me in my city at the time were to either go into the public sector or technology. By process of elimination, I chose tech.

No matter what role I’ve held in my career, what I find most exciting about the technology sector is the impact that it has on a business’s ability to grow, evolve and optimize. And in 2020, the true importance of technology to an organization’s ability to survive and thrive has been especially fascinating.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

It would have to be entirely rebranding a company in the middle of a pandemic. When I joined Alida in January 2020, there was a lot of conversation around evaluating the need to refresh the Vision Critical brand. After much deliberation, we made the decision to move ahead and selected one of the top independent and creative brand agencies to help with the process before the COVID-19 lockdown began. Despite the challenges we anticipated we might face through the process, we decided to keep going full steam ahead. In my opinion, this decision required a lot of courage from the team and from our CEO Ross Wainwright, in particular.

Now that we are on the other side of our rebrand, I know this was absolutely the right thing to do. We even realized the unique opportunity we had with working remotely. Since our teams couldn’t travel to meet customers and attend events, we were able to move at a much faster pace. We got much more done in that 7-month project cycle than we would have under normal circumstances.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A few years ago, I was leading the presence for a company at a large, expensive and senior global event. We were big sponsors, spending half a million dollars and impacting over $300 million pipeline every single year. The event had thousands of attendees and we had a large delegation of employees onsite. Our company had a massive booth that included multiple boardrooms directly inside where over 200 meetings happened over the week. I was in one of these boardrooms when a meeting was about to begin. Given the nature of the event, it was not surprising that there were only men getting ready to sit around the table. One of my most senior stakeholders turned to me and asked, “Hey Nicole, can you get me a coffee?” I smiled, pointed to my left and said, “The coffee machine is right over there.”

I wouldn’t call this story a funny mistake. It was more of a risk because he could have reacted very badly when I basically ignored his request. It’s so easy for women to get pushed into orchestration and administrative roles and tasks, especially in Marketing. We need to be mindful of not adopting those behavior when they are expected of us.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company has spent the last 20 years giving global brands a competitive advantage by helping them to uncover their customers’ truth. We invented the first “insight community” in 2000 to give our customers the ability to glean deep and continuous customer insights. Now, as Alida, we recognize that while vital, customer insights are not enough in today’s world. Companies need to be able to put those truths into action to improve the customer experience in real time. We now do that through our comprehensive CXM (customer experience management) and insights platform, which we truly believe to be unique in the marketplace with the breadth and depth of feedback and insights we are able to help our customers put into action.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on a lot of projects! We just kicked off our first-ever virtual global event series called Alida Activate that launched on October 20 and 21, 2020 in North America. It was exciting for us because we were able to reach more North American customers in those two days than with our multiple physical events that were located in large metropolitan centres in past years. The upcoming Alida Activate conferences include virtual events in France, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and Asia. We have some great brands in the line-up set to co-present with us for all the events and share their thought leadership in using customers’ insights to optimize their businesses.

The other project we’re doubling down on is our partner ecosystem expansion. This work is being done on a global scale and we believe that this is going to be unique for Alida in the marketplace as we deliver completely new sources of value for our customers. From a strategic standpoint, this project is important as it involves all functions across our organization, such as the partner, marketing, enablement, sales and product teams.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I’m not sure I’ll ever be satisfied with the number of women in STEM. While I’m encouraged to see more women entering Engineering and STEM fields than 20+ years ago, I see this as an issue on (at least) two dimensions: the first is getting women to choose the field and the industry in the first place, the second is supporting the advancement of women to senior leadership and board positions.

Entering STEM: My niece just started an engineering program at The University of British Columbia (UBC). There are many more women in her class than even a few years ago, which gives me some hope. Interestingly, all the promotional materials UBC’s Engineering program feature women prominently. These are the kinds of signals we need to be sending to change the perception of what normal looks like. We need to be doing this in both explicit and implicit ways to encourage diversity on all fronts, particularly in the tech sector.

Leadership: We need to encourage women in leadership across all functions and not just in the ‘traditional’ functions where we’re used to seeing women. In many leadership teams, it’s highly common to find women in the traditional roles of marketing and HR. What I want to see is more female CEOs, more female board members, more female heads of product, more female heads of finance and more female heads of operations.

Looking at gender diversity in our company as a whole, we do really well overall, but we need to continue to work on ensuring our most senior leadership roles represent the diversity we have across the company. Most companies in the tech industry have a lot of work to do in that regard.

I would have expected us to be further along by now. This challenge is not unique to the software industry, it’s just worse in the software industry. There are so many dimensions to the issue. One of the most powerful things we can do is to ensure the conversation is not only taking place amongst women. We need both women and men at the table talking about it in order to have an open and constructive dialogue about how it can be addressed.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

There are a few articles that have made the rounds lately on the challenges faced by women in the tech industry. Women are stereotyped for not being strategic or technical. It is an interesting thought that women gravitate towards business functions that lean more heavily on communication skills and interpersonal skills. I would argue that these are critical leadership skills and are relevant to all the functions within an organization, not just in Marketing and HR.

It’s easy as women to get pushed into orchestration and administration roles. We need to be mindful of not adopting these behaviours when it is expected of us, as illustrated in my ‘funny’ story above. At Alida, I helped establish the Business Womens’ Exchange (BWX). We organize quarterly meetings for our global employees to take part in discussions about the issues women face in the workplace and how we can better support each other. In our last session, we talked about the definition of ‘bias’, shared some personal experiences on the matter, looked at research about gender bias in particular and spent some time in small groups discussing common situations women face and what we can each do to address them. What’s great is that the BWX has active participation from both men and women employees, and it’s been really valuable to have men sitting at the table and having these discussions with us.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

The “myth” I would like to dispel is the stereotype around women not being strategic or technical enough for a job in STEM. Somehow, women are still popularly believed to have fewer skills in these areas than men. We need to continue to challenge these old ways of thinking. This biased way of thinking towards women can be detrimental and cause negative effects like anxiety, lack of confidence and job avoidance. With fewer women in the tech industry, this only makes matters worse and creates a vicious cycle.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

My top 5 leadership lessons are:

  1. Carpe Diem! — I know it might sound cheesy, but there’s no better way to convey this important point. You must seize the day and be your own champion. Don’t wait for others to manage your career for youI suffered from this early on in my career. I would wait for opportunities to be bestowed on me and for people to see my potential. Eventually, I understood that I needed to be the designer of my own career path and become my own champion. Nobody was going to do that for me. Firstly, it’s essential to get clear on what you want — defining this can be difficult early on in your career. Secondly, once you have that clear vision, be proactive in seeking out and raising your hand for opportunities that will help you get there.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

You are the pacesetter for your team. Help your team by guiding them and setting goals that stretch them to achieve beyond their expectations. You, and they, will be surprised at what you can accomplish together. That said, the pace can’t stay at 200% all the time. Be mindful of when to ease your foot off the pedal so the team can catch their breath.

Living through the pandemic has brought about so much uncertainty and strife, both in the professional and personal space. It’s the time for leaders to be aware of the needs of our team and offer flexibility where needed. As a leader, you’re in a position not only to lead, but also to serve. This means paying attention and listening to your team. Show them that you truly care about them and you respect their contributions to the company.

Finally, it’s essential to foster a culture of collaboration and experimentation. The technology industry is fast paced and constantly evolving. For people to thrive here, they need to continuously learn, integrate ideas and stay on top of the game. At the same time, it’s okay not to have all the answers all the time. It’s better for us to acknowledge what we don’t know and go find that information than erode our credibility with an incorrect answer. Also, sometimes things need to break before progress can be made. As the saying goes, perfection is the enemy of great. So, don’t focus too much on preventing failures. There is often more to learn from failure than success.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

The best way you can manage your team is by celebrating their differences. I believe that the most powerful teams are those that are made up of people that bring diverse approaches and points of view to their work. Homogeneity in teams should be avoided at all costs. I have always been committed to celebrating diverse experiences and backgrounds as they are essential for building a strong team.

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 about that?

It’s interesting and perhaps a little sad when I think of the key people that have supported me in my biggest breaks. Almost every single one of them is a man.

The person I am most grateful toward is the person who helped me get my first job in the industry. I was working at my university and the head of our IT department introduced me to his friend who was the VP of Marketing at a local software company. He opened a door for me and I practically leapt through it. Had he not done that then, I would not be here today.

To me, the realization that most of my ‘breaks’ were facilitated by men tells me two things: Statistically, perhaps it makes sense since I’ve worked in a male-dominated field for my entire career. But it serves as a vivid reminder to me that as women we have a responsibility to pull each other up.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have always supported causes that are close to my heart, such as supporting mental health and addiction or supporting the community of the developmentally disabled. I’m actively involved in supporting a group home for displaced women in my neighborhood. In general, my preference is to get involved in individual acts of kindness or charity rather than massive organizations. The pandemic has opened up so many opportunities for us to help our community. I’ve helped in a small way by sponsoring catered meals from a struggling restaurant to a long term care home. I believe we should all do our part to help those in need in whatever capacity we can.

For me, the impact that I can have on individuals rather than through groups is more meaningful. One such way is through mentoring. I have been a mentee and continue to be a mentee, but I also mentor several people. I’ve honestly got as much, if not more, from the people that I have mentored than people who have mentored me. It’s always enriching for both people involved.

You are a person of enormous 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. :-)

For me, the biggest thing that comes to mind is inclusiveness. Diversity of opinions, backgrounds and people is what makes great teams. I have been extremely fortunate to work for global companies with offices and colleagues around the world, and have met some truly exceptional people in every country I’ve visited. One of my most formative experiences was working for Adobe early on in my career when I was in my 20s. Adobe’s culture of inclusivity deserves to be celebrated and recognized, and it’s one that I will continue to try and model in organizations I’m involved with.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve got two.

One of my favourite quotes is a phrase that my father used a lot, which is simply “Less is more”. This can be applied in many different ways. More work, more money and more success is not the answer. Sometimes you need to actually focus on the things that are more important, such as relationships and well being. In marketing, “less is more” relates to the desire people have to elaborate endlessly on things. Sometimes sharing a couple of quick thoughts will leave people wanting more.

The other one is actually from a fortune cookie, and it’s “Shoot for the moon! If you miss you will be among the stars”. I’ve kept this fortune on my desk for well over 10 years and I look at it often. This one resonates with me because like many women I can tend to be risk averse and it reminds me that taking a risk doesn’t mean that there is a binary outcome — it’s not going to be either a ‘100% success’ or a ‘100% failure’. Sometimes, a ‘really good success’ is worth having taken the risk in the first place.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I would love to sit down with either Michelle Obama or Oprah Winfrey. They are incredible women who have always exuded confidence in everything they do. They have never allowed other people’s perceptions of their shortcomings to hold them back.

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