“It’s critical that you leverage technology to engage your team.” with Elizabeth Collins VP at Sonic Foundry & Akemi Sue Fisher
Most of my employees aren’t in one of our offices, but rather are working remotely all over the country. It’s critical you leverage technology to engage your team. When my team and I do our daily video calls, I encourage everyone to utilize the video tech that we build to help us communicate better. I have found meetings on video to be tremendously helpful, but that’s sometimes a hard transition for people to make. People don’t always want to be on video all the time, but ingrain that mentality in your culture. The more you see your team, even if you aren’t all in the same place, the more you can get on the same page. With video, you gauge people’s reactions better and foster more collaboration.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Elizabeth Collins, Senior Vice President of North American Sales at Sonic Foundry, the maker of Mediasite Video Platform. Elizabeth joined the company in 1999 and is one of the longest-standing employees, having stayed during the acquisition by Sonic Foundry in 2001. In her tenure, she has been part of the leadership team which has developed and deployed the Mediasite technology. Mediasite helps higher education institutions, healthcare organizations and enterprises create, manage and deliver videos (like lecture capture and microlearning, continuing education, online trainings, etc.). At the heart of all those videos is very powerful metadata which reveals important viewership and content trends.
Thank you so much for joining us Elizabeth! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
First, thanks so much for having me. I went to Carnegie Mellon University and studied industrial management — business administration history and policy. I didn’t have a clear plan when I graduated and interviewed in a lot of different directions — everything from jobs on Wall Street to tech companies. After graduation, I started working at the technology transfer office at my alma mater which was fascinating to me because I had a front row seat to the different technologies being developed and commercialized.
I then went to an early-stage seed capital firm focused on tech ventures in Pennsylvania. I was heavily involved in selecting companies to fund and helping with their business and marketing plans. One of the companies that came across my desk was called ISLIP Media, which began out of R&D funding at Carnegie Mellon with a goal of creating searchable, digital video libraries — making video as searchable as text. The company caught my eye. It was the 90s and I was pretty sure I’d be rich in two years and retire. That obviously didn’t work out quite as well as I would have liked but it was an exciting time.
I took a leap and left my job with the firm to work at ISLIP Media. I loved my time there — we worked with big broadcasters like CNN and places like the Holocaust Museum to make their produced content more valuable. In the early 2000s we saw a big need to not only make existing videos as searchable as text but also capture and stream video. This became the foundation for our first version of Mediasite. The company has since evolved over the last two decades. Sonic Foundry eventually bought Mediasite in 2001, and the rest is history.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I grew up loving the TV show The Jetsons, but I didn’t really think it would happen in my lifetime. But it feels like it did. I guess what is most interesting since I started at Sonic Foundry is not unique to me; it’s the exponential pace of innovation and how we have come to not only accept but expect the pace to continue. The first-generation iPhone was released just 12 years ago. In that short amount of time the way we do nearly everything has changed — the way we communicate, shop, learn about news and world events, bank, pay for goods, manage our homes and personal lives, watch traffic patterns, etc. It’s all being conducted with the touch on a device that weighs a few ounces but is more powerful than the first supercomputers. We still don’t have the machine that pops out your favorite food immediately upon request, but the pace of one-touch order and delivery is getting us pretty close.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us about what lesson you learned from that?
To me, the worst mistake is one you can still feel in the pit of your stomach — like when you hit ‘reply all’ or forward an email to someone you shouldn’t have. We’ve all been there. There have been lots of mistakes, but I can’t say that any of them have been funny.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One of the things we’re so proud of at Sonic Foundry is our fantastic customer retention, which averages 10+ years for our largest customers. That speaks volumes about Sonic Foundry and is a result of us listening to our customers, providing good support and innovating our products to help them accomplish their goals. Our customer support and success teams are unbelievable and receive consistently high marks. We’ve also got a global network of sales engineers and an engaging Mediasite Community where customers can network, get support and find training. It’s crucial that we work hand in hand with our customers to understand their needs. As cliché as it sounds, it truly does feel like a big Mediasite family and we look forward to getting together at our user events throughout the year.
Are you working on any exciting new products now? How do you think that will help people?
Video adoption is becoming more and more pervasive every day. What Mediasite ultimately does is connect and engage the viewer, presenter and content — regardless of location. We’re always trying to make the learning process as interactive and personalized as possible. We announced recently new engagement features like embedded quizzes, social video, live chat, polling, ask-a-question, annotations, etc. to create an immersive experience.
Ensuring the videos are accessible as possible is of the utmost importance to us. As I mentioned earlier, our roots are in creating searchable, data-rich content. At the heart of Mediasite is very powerful metadata about who’s watching, videos’ effectiveness, etc. Recently, we announced a new partnership with IBM Watson around artificial intelligence, which we’re extremely excited about. Watson’s speech-to-text technology gives our customers deeper insights into the video’s data than ever before, taking our video search capabilities to new heights. With full-content search, users can search everything said and shown in many languages. Plus, Watson helps to create cleaner video transcripts, which is especially important in higher education where accessibility requirements are high.
Another exciting project is the launch of the latest version of our video and web conferencing capture and management software, Mediasite Join. It’s an add-on feature to Mediasite that works with existing conferencing technologies like Zoom and WebEx. You just invite Mediasite Join to the call and it records and archives everything said and shown. It’s an upload destination for collaboration, and you’re left with a searchable gold mine of knowledge to reference anytime.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
It’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your individual team members and tailor leadership to accommodate them. In tech and relationships, and in a market where we’re managing senior executives, it’s important to give them space to be creative but also to guide and lead them in certain directions. It is critical to make sure that you build the right team but also to understand and accept the differences of their strengths and weaknesses.
What has also helped me from a leadership standpoint is to have walked in the shoes of those I’m leading. I really think its important that if you’re leading a sales organization, that you have sold on a sales team. It’s so helpful to have direct expertise in terms of understanding the roles and responsibilities of the people you’re leading. If you don’t have experience, that’s OK, but ask lots of questions and become as educated as you can. That is what’s going to help the team you’re managing respect you and help the overall organization thrive.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Obviously, we at Sonic Foundry live and breathe the idea that the workforce is becoming much more virtual. Most of my employees aren’t in one of our offices, but rather are working remotely all over the country. It’s critical you leverage technology to engage your team. When my team and I do our daily video calls, I encourage everyone to utilize the video tech that we build to help us communicate better. I have found meetings on video to be tremendously helpful, but that’s sometimes a hard transition for people to make. People don’t always want to be on video all the time, but ingrain that mentality in your culture. The more you see your team, even if you aren’t all in the same place, the more you can get on the same page. With video, you gauge people’s reactions better and foster more collaboration.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m fortunate, because a lot of great family, friends and colleagues continue to influence and guide my career. My transition into the world of sales was a pivotal moment in my career, which ultimately led me to my current role. I attribute that to the CEO of GE, Jack Welsh. I don’t know him personally, but he inspired me 25+ years ago during a keynote address he gave at an Information Week conference. He really took me out of my comfort zone and gave me the push I needed to try sales. He spoke about what it means to be a leader and run a large company. One of the things that really resonated with me was that he didn’t believe you could ever have a CEO without sales experience, without understanding what it means to have a quota. Shortly after that, in my late twenties I made the decision to move to a sales position, because I aspired to one day have a leadership role.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Growing up in a dual career household where I watched my mother get involved with various charities, the importance of giving back was drilled into my brain very early on. I learned that the more you have, the more you must give back to help your overall community. The more time you put in, the more you help organizations to grow and thrive. I volunteer and serve on different museum, school and visitors boards and activities in my Connecticut community. I also enjoy volunteering for events at my 10-year-old fifth grade daughter’s school.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Experience” and why?
1) Always listen. Listen to your team, customers and employees. Listening is critical to gaining a full understanding of anything being worked on.
2) Set a goal for every meeting. It’s easy for a meeting to get off track, and before you know it there’s five minutes left and you’ve only tackled the first thing on your list. Think of the five things you want to accomplish before it starts. You need a clear idea of the goals, and everyone will leave feeling more efficient and productive.
3) Know when it’s time to make the hard changes. Sometimes you can let the status quo go on too long. Maybe it’s easier that way. But it’s important to the overall success of your organization to get out of that comfort zone. Just because something is comfortable doesn’t mean it should continue.
4) Have fun! Make sure that your team is working hard but that they are also having fun. Happy employees = happy teams = happy customers. It’s important to create an environment that is rewarding for everybody. All work and no play doesn’t get you anywhere in the long run.
5) Be confident in your ability to lead. That’s especially important if you’re a woman leading in a world where there aren’t as many female role models, like in my field. Sales and the tech industry are typically dominated by men, but it’s crucial to remember that women are just as capable of leading in any field.
You are a person of great 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?
There’s so much noise right now and everyone’s got an opinion, but there’s a lot of negative. I don’t think we talk about kindness as much as we should. My daughter’s school was voted ‘The Kindest School in America,’ and I love that. How does that transition to the workforce? Observe what impact kindness has on your work. We should make kindness a priority when we talk about proper practices in HR. Any sort of movement around that in the workforce, not just on a personal level, would be very valuable.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Man plans and God laughs.” Life is unpredictable, unexpected and inevitably change will occur. I had a lot of plans for my life, but everything changed at 41 years old when my husband died. I had to come up with a Plan B — it wasn’t Plan A but I rocked it, and you can, too. Understand that you can’t plan out every detail of your life, and you need skills to adapt to be most successful.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us!