Hold yourself to the values and standards you’d like to see in your teams. I don’t know a CEO that isn’t stretched for time, and, in the race to meet deadlines, it can be tempting to abandon little details that matter — character-reflecting details in the way you follow-up on requests, show up on time, prepare for a meeting, or communicate by email, to name a few. Approach each interaction with the integrity you expect from others, and, when you make mistakes, own them. While most days seem like a constant stream of demands for your direction, thoughts, or decisions, each individual employee may see only that one single interaction with you, and it matters. Honesty and character are not on a sliding scale, once tarnished, they are unlikely to be fully recovered.
As a part of my series about “Lessons from Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Cook, CEO of Zaloni, with nearly 30 years of experience in enterprise software sales, strategy, and consulting; specializing in Data, Analytics, and Business Intelligence. Prior to Zaloni, Susan held leadership roles as the Executive Vice President of North America Sales at MicroStrategy, Global Vice President of Sales at IBM, Worldwide Vice President of Sales, Consulting and Strategic Pursuit at Hewlett-Packard and Group Vice President at Oracle. Susan has led organizations ranging from startups to more than 500 people with revenue objectives greater than $500 million. She brings her expertise in selling and positioning technology as solutions to Zaloni customers, helping them achieve their data and analytics vision.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well, that’s kind of a funny story. I graduated with a degree in Finance and thought I would turn out to be a high flying investment banker. I went to school in icy cold Chicago. I had job offers from many of the Chicago banks, but also one offer from a technology company in Dallas. As an impetuous kid in my early 20’s, I chose warmth over logic and took the finance and accounting job with what used to be Electronic Data Systems in Dallas. It didn’t take me very long to realize that tech companies pay their technologists a whole lot more than their accountants. I learned to code in old mainframe languages and then got deployed all over the world to work for enterprise customers. I’ve been implementing and selling technology ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The more relevant question should be what hasn’t happened since I started as CEO last November. We had civil unrest and curfews in India that shut us down for days. We have had a global pandemic that changed the entire way we work. We’ve had a historic recession and our customers have been going through their own unprecedented upheaval. We have had racial injustice and civil unrest here in the United States. Along the way, we released new branding, new pricing, new messaging, new processes and the most significant new product release in our history — all in the last nine months. But other than that, it’s been pretty quiet and boring! My CFO jokes with me that I’ve had about three years of CEO experience in the last 10 months!
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?
Early in my sales career, I was overly eager to be the most helpful resource for my customers. It took me a while to shift from my consulting mindset into that of a salesperson. I remember working on my very first seven-figure software deal with a large tech company in Austin. We had just finished presenting a successful POC and proposal to the CIO. We had won the business! A day later, while the contracts started routing through their procurement, the CIO called me to ask a question about a key feature. I said, “Oh if you like that feature, you’re going to love what we have coming out in our next release.” You can imagine what happened. I delayed the biggest deal of my career by a quarter. My then Sales Director and Sales VP were aghast at my rookie mistake. The lesson for young sellers is that when you have won your deal, stop selling! By the way, the same Sales Director and Sales VP were the best mentors I could have ever asked for. They taught me most of what I know about enterprise sales.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I started at Zaloni in November of 2019. Soon after joining, the city where over half of our team lives, Guwahati, India, was shaken by a string of violent, immigration-related protests followed in subsequent weeks by massive floods, effectively shutting down that office. Soon after, our CFO, for personal reasons, had to take an indefinite leave of absence. This was quickly followed by COVID-19, which not only affected our team, but dramatically impacted every one of our customers and target industries. To call my first months a trial by fire feels like an understatement! With the way I was raised and my personality, I am not wired to consider giving up, but I do rely heavily on circles of support to help me sustain the energy, enthusiasm, and focus needed to progress during challenging times. From my family, to close friends, to mentors, colleagues, and my executive leadership team, each concentric circle is invaluable to keeping me present and accountable.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have to credit my parents for the person I am today. My mother is a lovely, genteel southern woman who has always coached me to “kill them with kindness.” I learned from her that kindness is not a weakness. You can be civil to anyone, friend or foe, and you can be gracious even when delivering the most difficult news. My father on the other hand instilled in me this insatiable drive to be better. Instead of recognizing four A’s, he asked why did you get the one B? That’s not to say that he didn’t love me or was overly harsh, it’s that he had such lofty expectations of his kids that we felt that we always could and should strive to be better. I am blessed to be a combination of my parents’ strengths and I hope I instill these same qualities into my daughters.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I am using a quote from Ruth Bader Ginsberg. This seems fitting right now because I am so deeply saddened by the loss of such a powerful and impactful leader. At a time in our history when we so desperately need positive role models for equality and fairness, she was our bright North Star.
I would just like people to think of me as a judge who did the best she could with whatever limited talent I had… to keep our country true to what makes it a great nation and to make things a little better than they might have been if I hadn’t been there.
My version of that quote is that I may not have all the answers or always be the smartest person in the room but I can make a positive impact on everything I touch. I’ve always tried to teach and demonstrate by example how to make every interaction, relationship, company, situation, etc. better than how I found it. She said it better!
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Most companies cite data as their second most important asset, preceded only by their customers or employees. The rise of devices, systems, and software focused on collecting data has occurred alongside the advances of machine learning, AI, and tools capable of deriving valuable insights from large data sets. This proliferation has caused a data explosion, where more data is better, but only if it is governed, secure, and easily accessible. In their zeal to take advantage of big data’s promises, from new product creation, to actionable consumer profiles, to operational efficiency, many companies participated in the data explosion, collecting massive amounts of data, without the infrastructure needed to protect it, clean it, and unify it for analytics.
Zaloni is that infrastructure. Our end-to-end DataOps platform, Arena, connects data sources across an enterprise, applying workflow automations for quality, classification, and preparation. We make data easily accessible through a self-service, augmented data catalog, and then allow data scientists and analysts to leverage the data in whatever AI or analytic tools they choose. Regardless of an enterprise’s current cloud and vendor landscape, we ensure that IT will spend less time wrangling data and that analytics teams will achieve better, faster outcomes. In short, we remove all the friction in a well-managed data supply chain.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
That’s easy — our people. Early in my days at Zaloni, I traveled to India to meet our team over there and then on to Dubai to meet with a few of our largest customers. Our location in India is in Guwahati in the northeastern corner in the state of Assam. I had to travel from Raleigh to London to Mumbai to Guwahati. That was a long trip. I was more than a little jet-lagged and bleary-eyed when I arrived. The team in India was absolutely lovely. They were so kind and gracious. I always had a cup of Assam tea in my hand but the funniest thing was how worried they were about the spiciness of the food. They organized a beautiful dinner buffet for 115 of us to get to know each other. I think all 114 of them asked me if I was OK and if the food was too spicy for me. I think they must have thought I was pretty wimpy! In their jobs, they have this attitude and culture of doing whatever it takes to help their peers and customers. They are so resilient and creative, any type of problem or obstacle is a minor setback, nothing stops them from going around or over any hurdle. Our team in RTP shares that mentality, too. The teams wouldn’t hesitate to work all weekend or stay up all night if one of their peers or customers needed help. It’s this amazing culture that we are all one family.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Everyone loves online shopping. During this pandemic, I can’t imagine life without the ease, convenience, and breadth of the Amazon shopping cart. At Zaloni, we have created, and are currently expanding, the “Amazon-like marketplace” for a company’s data assets. Our current self-service marketplace offers collaborative access to customizable metadata, unique data automation workflows, and the ability to easily send the data into a shopping cart and “checkout” to an analytical tool or sandbox of choice. Soon, we’ll be enriching this shopping experience by giving analysts access to alternate forms of data, providing them with data suggestions (‘if you liked this data set, try this one…’), and allowing them to see trends across their data — most popular sets, those favored by certain teams, essentially treating the data as its own product.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Absolutely not. I believe there are key life stages where improvements result in significant change. For example, ensuring that STEM programs in schools contain content and activities appealing to girls, and the success of those programs is, in part, measured by the diversity of participation. As women enter the tech workforce, ensuring that talent teams make clear potential paths to advancement and the vision for diversified executive leadership, regardless of how many women are in such positions at the time. Boards of Directors have to hold their CEO’s accountable to diversity metrics, as well as financial metrics. As women do advance, emphasizing company flexibility policies around life events, such as starting a family, so that retaining female talent is not an issue. I’ll use another one of RBG’s famous quotes. When she was asked how many women will finally be enough on the Supreme Court, she famously answered nine. I won’t be satisfied until the majority of our Tech companies have women in CEO positions. Women already make up the majority of students in our universities and many of our graduate programs — why can’t we be the majority of CEOs?
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Many of the greatest challenges that face women in Tech are common to people who are in the minority and have always been so. First, many young women lack the professional self-confidence that comes from seeing themselves reflected in leadership roles. The best way to solve this is by creating policies within organizations to purposefully promote more women. Second, to make up for the lack of women executives, it is important to foster mentorship networks to help guide women professionals through the tough life choices, work situations, and career advice needed to advance. In my time at MicroStrategy, I helped found a group called, At the Table, which promoted relationships between women leaders and employees. Third, we all know many women leave the workforce due to the conflicting demands of work, childcare, and home responsibilities. Managers, working with human resources and executives, need to create the flexibility critical to keeping women, especially during key points in their life or career. For even better retention results, talk to women and men from day one about this flexibility (maternity and paternity benefits are essential), help them see a path with your company during times of conflicting demands.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
From my experience, the answer to any standstill usually lies with your customers and prospects. The key is building trusting, authentic relationships so that they are willing to share hard truths with you — truths about your product and people and where each isn’t meeting their needs. Once you have their trust, create multiple opportunities to listen. Find out why you lost that deal, what their roadmap looks like, how their businesses are evolving, what their key challenges are today. Their answers are your pathway to growth.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Hire the right first line leaders — any sales organization succeeds or fails based upon the sales managers on the front lines. These managers are responsible for hiring your sellers and presales technical talent, as well as teaching and inspiring your sellers every day. As the VP of Sales or CRO, spend most of your time enabling and empowering those front line leaders. They have the most direct interaction with your customers and are the face of your brand. If your front line sales leaders are set up to succeed, the growth will follow.
In your specific industry, what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
At Zaloni, we work in B2B software sales, often partnering with highly-regulated customers in financial services, insurance, health care, pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications. Before March, I would have waxed poetic about our coordinated inbound and outbound approach, emphasizing using events and meetings to build engaged leads, which are pursued by our SDR team and then Sales. But then COVID-19 arrived, events ended, travel stopped, few people had an office phone anymore, and our approach had to abruptly change.
Today, we focus more on vigorous, personalized inbound marketing, such as engaging social media, or relevant industry news, or compelling virtual events, all supported with an optimized marketing stack, and fueled by valuable thought leadership. Personalization success requires well-defined personas paired with corresponding content — this act of ‘right-content to right-person’ has become even more important during the pandemic.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
As we discussed, customers are Zaloni’s greatest priority. We not only work to retain customers, but also to help them scale their data initiatives and solve more and more challenges over time. To do this well, we first encourage continuous partnership communication through regular check ins with customer success that include platform stakeholders at multiple levels. Additionally, we have an active Customer Advisory Board, where customers become advisors giving us insight on their latest needs, strategic direction, and advice for our roadmap. Then, we follow up both the regular check-ins and CAB meetings with QBRs that include our product team, which is charged with ensuring our product value matures with their needs and scales with their business. When working with large enterprises, the needs of one stakeholder often differ from another, it’s vital to repeatedly ask questions and listen to a wide range of users in order to determine the most-needed product and service improvements. Specifically, in these COVID-19 times, I am personally sending notes regularly to our customer champions for no other reason than to say “Checking in just to make sure you and your team are healthy and hanging in there. Is there anything I can be doing to help?” I find it interesting that, in the past, I have sent notes inviting these same executives to events or updating them on various topics and I would get no response. In the last seven months, every single person has responded to my note simply asking if they and their teams are doing alright.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to LEAD a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be authentic and humble as you approach every decision, meeting, presentation, and 1:1 conversation. Trust and respect are more important than having all the answers, and being true with yourself and your people is the best way to gain the advantages of both. Your leaders hold the keys to unlock solutions, though it often requires willing collaboration and debate to unearth them. Having the respect and trust of a diverse, skilled leadership team results in their willingness to help you with the toughest questions and the thorniest challenges.
- Hold yourself to the values and standards you’d like to see in your teams. I don’t know a CEO that isn’t stretched for time, and, in the race to meet deadlines, it can be tempting to abandon little details that matter — character-reflecting details in the way you follow-up on requests, show up on time, prepare for a meeting, or communicate by email, to name a few. Approach each interaction with the integrity you expect from others, and, when you make mistakes, own them. While most days seem like a constant stream of demands for your direction, thoughts, or decisions, each individual employee may see only that one single interaction with you, and it matters. Honesty and character are not on a sliding scale, once tarnished, they are unlikely to be fully recovered.
- Communicate the “why” at all levels of the organizations, not only with your direct reports. Give context about your thought process and decisions, beyond simply the final message. Being transparent with your team builds trust and loyalty as employees experience being admitted to, and co-conspirators of, company direction.
- Employ rigorous measurement, hold teams accountable to the results, make the results visible (good and bad)… don’t focus on the activity. Ensure everyone has what they need to be successful. Especially in a tech start-up, the temptation is huge to try to build your technology to be all things to all people. When your resources are constrained, the bigger decision is not what to do; but rather, what not to do. If you don’t obsess over the tangible measures, such as ARR growth, customer usage, or release dates, you could find yourself and your teams overly busy but not achieving results.
- Find value in your work-life balance. We all know how important it is to have interests that refuel you outside of the office. In order to get more out of time away from your laptop, spend mindful time recognizing both what empties you out (for me — tough decisions, Covid-19, working from home, the daily news, pitching investors, managing expenses and cash) and then what fills you back up (for me — mentoring younger employees, closing a big deal, laughter, time with family, exercise, 7–8 hours of sleep). Be purposeful in trying to balance your calendar, avoiding too much of what empties you out and choosing to focus free time on the specific activities that fill you back up.
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.
I have a child with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and some autism spectrum characteristics. She is an inspiration to me every day because everything she does is harder for her than for most of us. Standard social functions that we take for granted, like a classroom test or going through the drive-through of a restaurant, for her, takes courage and huge amounts of extra energy. We were blessed to have the resources to get my daughter assessed in her elementary years and place her in a private school that specializes in teaching kids with learning differences. Not all parents and children have those resources, and too many kids with learning differences are not identified as having special needs early enough to avoid the diminished self-esteem and depression that can result as they get older. What if Keira Knightly or John Chambers had been told they were not worthy or not capable of achieving great things because of their dyslexia? What if Temple Grandin had never been given a voice? We owe it to our children, especially those with limited resources, to identify their differences early in their education and guide them in the way they personally need to learn. Inspiring a movement for better early assessments and support for all of our children would mean the world to me.
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 am reading The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates. I have always admired her and respect the impact that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has had on health around the world. In her book, this quote struck me in its simplicity and obviousness, “If you want to lift up humanity, empower women. It is the most comprehensive, pervasive, high-leverage investment you can make in human beings.” I have two daughters and five nieces. Empowering women, especially the young women I love so dearly, is what I am here to do. Additionally, I wholeheartedly agree with her statement and not just because of the global data that backs it up. I have seen it in my own life and career — when you lift up women, the ripple effect is limitless because they will pay it forward to other women and their families. And, finally, she and I share the same faith and values. I don’t foresee my work life coming to an abrupt end at some magical age. Rather than retirement, I hope to apply the skills and experiences from my business life into a role that’s focused on making the world a better place. I would utilize a breakfast or lunch with Melinda Gates as a practice interview for that final chapter in my career.