Women in STEM: “If your team doesn’t trust you, you are not a leader.” with Roni Frank of Talkspace
Trust is everything. If your team doesn’t trust you, you are not a leader. Period. Your ability as a leader to inspire and motivate employees is based on trust. When people trust you, they have confidence in your decisions.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Roni Frank,Co-Founder of Talkspace, an online therapy platform and mobile app that connect clients directly with licensed therapists anytime and anywhere. Roni, who serves as Head of Clinical Services, is leading the company’s provider network of more than 1,500 therapists and responsible for quality of clinical service and therapist network growth. Roni is committed to open access to mental health care for every person in need. Roni and her husband co-founded Talkspace in 2012, while she was pursuing her Master’s degree in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy at the New York Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. Roni earned her degree in 2013. Before co-founding Talkspace, Roni was a software developer at Amdocs, a leading software and services provider to communications and media companies. Roni received a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, in 2000.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, and worked for six years as a software developer in IT. I thought software development would be my career path.
It wasn’t until my husband, Oren, and I experienced a crisis in our marriage and decided to go to couples therapy that I even considered a career change. My experience in therapy was so powerful that it ultimately led me back to graduate school to study psychology. It was there that I learned about the obstacles in mental health care and the entry barriers so many people face.
Research shows that 1 in 5 U.S. citizens suffer from mental health issues each year, And yet roughly two thirds of them don’t have access to services — that’s 35 million people who need care completely left without it. I was passionate about fixing this gap and expanding access to mental health care.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When Oren and I first founded Talkspace, we were worried about working together and about how it would affect our marriage. Our friends and family also seemed concerned, warning us that starting a company together might damage our relationship and the family dynamic. As it turned out, working together feels almost like raising a third child. At work and at home, we both feel that the support we get from one another allows us to overcome the shared challenges we face. Our relationship actually now feels more equal and empowering.
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?
When we launched Talkspace, the first service we offered was scheduled video therapy sessions. No one was signing up — people just weren’t engaged with the service.
But they were interested in something else. At the bottom of our old homepage, there was a button that said “Customer Support,” which we eventually realized users were interpreting as “clinical support.” Since we were so small at the time, I was actually the person checking the Customer Support inbox, which quickly became flooded with emails from people about their personal problems.
After a few months, we realized that people wanted to be able to communicate via text, without the need to schedule an appointment. This was huge intel, and inspired us to revamp the model of online therapy we were creating. We moved to messaging therapy and re-launched the product anew in 2014. People immediately started to sign up!
From this experience I learned that if you want to deliver value for your customers, you have to listen to them. It’s so important to speak to your customers early and often to learn about what they want, what they don’t want and what they need.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Talkspace stands out because of our culture: we prioritize kindness and supporting one another, period. This helps us cultivate a safe environment for curiosity, innovation and risk-taking, which is critical for the success of any start-up. No matter how talented a given candidate is, we only hire people whose values are aligned with ours.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Talkspace recently launched psychiatry services as part of our mission to make quality mental health care accessible and affordable for all. For some mental health conditions, a combined treatment of psychotherapy and medication would be more effective and would lead to better clinical outcomes, so it’s important for us to be able to offer all options on the Talkspace platform and to allow people the highest level of care.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
It’s not necessary to emulate stereotypically “masculine” qualities in order to be a successful, assertive leader. Instead, stay authentic, quiet those voices that tell you that you need to show more dominance, power or control. These qualities, despite being considered “strong and masculine” are not effective. On the contrary, they create damage in companies and in society — and eventually they will create damage in you. Realize your strengths and advantages as a woman, and that you bring something else to the table that is very powerful and critical for the success of your organization.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
My advice to any leader — regardless of gender — about how to manage a large team is to hire people you completely trust, and always lead them with that trust in mind. Give them the space to grow while you mentor and support them — never micro-manage! Trying to control your team is not only unproductive but will shut down morale and creativity. Micro-management is the opposite of leadership.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
For the past three years, Talkspace has donated 500 months of free therapy to a population in need. The first year, we donated Talkspace therapy to members of the LGBTQ community in the wake of the Orlando mass-shooting. In 2017, at the start of the #MeToo movement, we donated therapy to female-identified survivors of sexual assault. This year, in collaboration with the non-profit Give an Hour, which provides free mental health care to at-risk populations, we are giving away 500 months of free mental health care to teens in need.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Leadership is not about you. It’s about growing other people, helping them reach their full potential. Once you are a leader it stops being about your individual talents, your successes, and starts being all about coaching, motivating, teaching, supporting and finding resources for your team. Leadership is about helping other people become the best they can be.
2. Trust is everything. If your team doesn’t trust you, you are not a leader. Period. Your ability as a leader to inspire and motivate employees is based on trust. When people trust you, they have confidence in your decisions.
3. Sense of purpose. When employees have a strong sense of why they’re doing it and where it’s heading, they engage with work in a profoundly different way. A leader’s role is to show each employee how their work is essential to achieving the company’s mission. Sense of purpose fuels passion and allows people to rise above the challenges.
4. Empowering employees. Leadership is about creating a work environment in which people are empowered. That means encouraging employees to take ownership and make decisions without supervision. To empower employees, leaders need to delegate, set clear expectations, give employees autonomy over assignments, give constructive feedback and last but not least — recognize employees for hard work and successes!
5. Lead with empathy. Empathy is the skill of understanding and recognizing others’ feelings and perspectives. You cannot effectively lead someone you don’t understand. To practice empathy, you need to set aside your perspective and listen to the other person tell you about theirs. Listen carefully and ask thoughtful questions.
Empathetic leadership is essential for employee retention, productivity and happiness at the company.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed. It is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
When we first started Talkspace, we were a small group of people passionate about making a difference. Having a strong, dedicated and passionate team is everything! As a founder, you need to believe that this group of people can build something new, stay committed, and with patience, change the world.
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