Women Of The C-Suite: Kate Eberle Walker of ‘PresenceLearning’ On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive
Stay true to yourself. People will have a lot of advice for you, but no one else leads exactly like you do, and no one else has been responsible for exactly your company, at this moment in time. When my kids were born I remember reading a bunch of parenting advice books and thinking that none of them exactly applied perfectly to me and my children. I did get some good ideas as a launching point for me to craft my own parenting style. Leading a company is much the same. Listen to the advice of those who have done it before, and apply some of their good ideas to your company’s current circumstances, but always stay authentic to your own way of doing things.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Eberle Walker.
Kate Eberle Walker is an education industry leader with 20+ years of experience managing, advising, acquiring, and investing in education companies. She is currently the CEO of PresenceLearning, the leading provider of special education teletherapy services for K-12 schools, and was previously CEO of The Princeton Review. Her book, The Good Boss: Nine Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work, will be released March 9, 2021.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my career in finance. But even before that, I always had a sort of dual interest, in numbers and in people. In college I majored in finance and accounting, but used every free elective I had to take classes in psychology and sociology. After college I worked in investment banking for 5 years, then got my MBA, and then joined Kaplan, where I spent nearly ten years working on mergers and acquisitions of education companies. That was where I connected the pieces of what I loved to do — I loved working with numbers, but I also loved figuring out what motivates people. That’s what makes a good deal person — understanding what each side really cares about, and coming up with a way to get everyone what they want. And, with every company we bought or invested in, I was building a deeper understanding of the education industry, and what makes a good business. By the time I left Kaplan, to join IAC and build an education business there, I had developed really strong views about what makes a great company, and I was ready to lead something myself. It was there that I led strategy for Tutor.com, then became the CFO, and ultimately CEO of The Princeton Review. After selling The Princeton Review, I was fortunate to discover PresenceLearning, where I have now been the CEO for the past two years. PresenceLearning delivers special education services to K-12 students, using teletherapy to make connections with the right therapist for each student. I believe passionately in what we do and the importance of using technology to improve access to services for children.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I joined PresenceLearning after over a decade working in college admissions and test prep at The Princeton Review and Kaplan. I was new to the special education community. As I got to know many of our speech-language pathologists and talked with them about their work, I began to recognize that my own daughter needed speech therapy. For years I had been coming to her teachers with questions, and they continuously minimized her differences and told me she would grow out of it. That wasn’t true. She had a real need that was very addressable with speech therapy, and without the therapy, it wasn’t going to go away. So once I got to PresenceLearning, I asked one of our clinicians to evaluate my daughter, and we started therapy. Today my daughter is a confident speaker and it has been life changing. Sometimes there is no better lesson than a personal one, and thanks to that experience I really understand not only the value of the services we provide, but the importance of helping parents get the right advice for their children.
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?
On my second day at the company, I ran into one of my new direct reports from the executive team in the elevator bank at the office- I was heading up and he was heading out of the building. He said he was glad he ran into me, because he was running out to get the gift cards, and wanted to know if I wanted them from a specific place or in a specific denomination. I had no idea what he was talking about, but we were having a company hackathon later that day, and I vaguely remembered talk of employee prizes, so I figured it had something to do with that. I thought to myself, oh wow, this team must have been really micromanaged in the past — I’m going to show him that I support him to use his own judgment and make these decisions on his own. So I told him he didn’t need to check details like that with me, and I was comfortable and confident with him owning it. I went on my way. Turns out, he had received one of those phishing emails that morning, which he thought was from me, asking him to go buy thousands of dollars of gift cards and send the codes! Fortunately, he thought the better of it on his way out to buy them, looked more closely at the message, and realized it was sent from a spam email account. So he didn’t do it, and came back to tell me what happened. I learned two major lessons that day:
1. Be clear. If you don’t know what someone is talking about, better to ask detailed questions and make sure you understand what they are really asking and why.
2. Invite questions. Make sure your team members feel comfortable questioning you if they don’t understand why you are asking for something. I now always emphasize to my teams that they always have the right to question “why?” when I ask them to do something.
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?
I owe so much gratitude to Mandy Ginsberg, who gave me my first C-suite role on her team at Tutor.com, saw my potential to be her successor as CEO at The Princeton Review, and helped me get there. More than half of female CEOs say they don’t even contemplate becoming a CEO until someone, typically a boss, tells them that they see it in them. This was definitely true for me, and Mandy was that boss who helped me reach my potential.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m a huge believer in the early morning workout. Starting the day with a run or yoga, to center my mind, gives me the opportunity to focus on the day ahead. My days are normally back to back, and non stop ; without that grounding personal time before the kids need to get to school, or the slacks and emails start pouring in — I wouldn’t be as decisive and clear-headed as I need to be at every moment during my day.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
You need a multitude of identities, experiences, and perspectives at the table when you’re making decisions that affect your organization. Diversity of opinions makes for better quality decisions, and companies that attract diverse talent perform better on financial metrics as well. This is especially true at a company like PresenceLearning, where over 95% of the clinicians who work for us are women, and the majority of students who we serve are Black or Hispanic. It’s critical that we respect, understand and represent the needs of every individual we serve.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Being truly equitable requires having quantitative and qualitative approaches. Build an action plan with data deliverables — treat it like any other important initiative you have at the company. You need metrics to hold yourself accountable — are you truly treating everyone the same? Who do you make exceptions for? Is there a concentration of any one attribute or group within a team? Some diversity attracts more diversity; people will be more comfortable joining a team if they are not the first or the only person of a certain race, gender, or other attribute. You can accomplish better representation if you measure it, and I recommend defining success as having no majority of any single race and gender on a team, and setting a goal to more than one representative of every race and gender on every single team within your organization. And you can’t forget to pay attention to the qualitative side — listen to the people you’re trying to better represent… believe their experiences, value their opinion, and then act on it. When hiring and promoting, you need to be deliberate in seeking out and actively supporting diverse talent.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
A CEO makes sure that the company has the right people, and that the people have what they need to succeed.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think the biggest myth has to do with how power is earned and used. Many think that people will listen to you because you’re in charge, or because you have an important job title. Sometimes I have people come to me saying “I can’t get that done, because people will only listen to someone with a senior job title,” or they’ll tell someone “Kate says she wants this,” instead of saying the actual rationale for doing it. But the truth is, people aren’t going to respect a job title; they need to respect you. People don’t do what you want them to do because you’re in charge, they do it because they respect you, and you have proven to them that you make good decisions. A CEO won’t be effective without the respect of their team. But also, you don’t have to be a CEO to get things done. No matter what job I had throughout my career, I worked hard to connect with people and figure out how to motivate them to do what needed to be done. Getting people to listen to you and follow your lead is something you can earn at any level, not something that is bestowed with a job title.
Another big myth is around perceptions of how decisions are made. There’s often an expectation that ideas come down or decisions come down from the CEO. I don’t find that to be true, because really it wouldn’t work that well to make decisions in a vacuum, when you need a lot of people to get on board to actually make things happen. So I try to lift up ideas, projects, and people that will benefit the business. An executive’s job is about supporting, not supervising. Any time someone asks me “What do you want me to do?”, I respond “What do you think we should do?”.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I have so much to say about this topic, I could write a book. Oh wait, I did! My book The Good Boss: Nine Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work is coming out in March 2021. In it I share stories from my own career as well as from many other successful women that shine a light on how women experience the workplace. I call upon all managers to pay attention to the often small setbacks and slights that women are faced with at work. Remember, most managers are men, so I’m calling on men in particular to do the work to understand this and help. The book presents nine simple things every manager can do to create a better working environment for women, starting with the basics. Chapter 1, Call Her By Her Name, gives examples of how women disproportionately are not addressed by their correct names in the workplace, whether because someone is using a term of endearment, assuming a nickname is ok without asking (i.e., calling a Jennifer “Jen”), or refusing to put the effort into remembering her new name if she changes it after marriage. Chapter 3, Don’t Ask “What Does Your Husband Do?” starts with anecdotes from successful female executives who still get asked in every job interview about their husband’s job and salary, implying that the salary a woman earns should vary based on how much income her husband generates. Generally, these are things that do not happen to men in reverse.
So there are a lot of these examples, large and small, that I try to identify in a productive way in the book, always followed by practical advice for managers on how they individually can help change circumstances for the better. Most male managers really believe in supporting the women they work with, they just need a little practical advice on how to do it.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Probably how little control I have over my day and my schedule. When I was younger I thought that once you reach the top, you call all the shots. But what happens in reality is that people need you constantly; so many things and so many people every day are dependent on something from you. You can’t leave them hanging, so your world revolves around everybody else, not the other way around. I still remember my first day as a CEO, at The Princeton Review. I had been the CFO prior to being promoted to CEO, so I already knew the team and the business very well. I had always been very closely connected with our previous CEO, so I didn’t expect a radical difference when I changed seats at the leadership table. But that first day, in my first meeting, I realized that truly everything was different. They waited for me to speak. They took everything I said as a direction, where previously it had been treated as an idea. Meeting after meeting people came into my office expecting me to know what they needed to do. By 6pm I was totally exhausted, in a way I never had been over years of working in jobs that often stretched to 8 or 9pm, if not midnight! It was an adjustment for sure, to really feel the ultimate responsibility of being the person that everyone relies upon.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There is such a difference between being a do-er and being a leader. Some people are amazingly productive and accomplished in their jobs, but being great at your job doesn’t necessarily translate to being a great leader for others. I think to be a successful executive you need to be more interested in people than you are in the work. You have to be a great teacher, not just the star student. Someone who really feels rewarded by making someone else successful will thrive as a leader. Anyone who cares about individual credit, on the other hand, should think twice about becoming an executive. I often joke that a CEO spends half of their day apologizing. To a client on behalf of your company, to an employee who had a bad experience, to an executive who is feeling burnt out, to a manager who needed to get something done and was waiting too long for an answer. The point is, you have to have some humility, and maybe even a thick skin to be an executive. People will criticize you for things that you didn’t directly do, and the most valuable thing you can do for your organization is to shoulder the blame, and stay focused on making it right.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Michelle Obama said, “When you’ve walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.” Most women leaders got to where they are with the help of at least one, and typically many, women along the way. We instinctively know that it’s now our responsibility to pay it forward and lift others up. While it remains a work in progress, most companies now have more women in their C-suites and on their boards than ever before, and women can feel the difference; it’s much easier to have your voice heard and respected when you are less of a minority. So it’s important to look out for other, less represented voices that may still be struggling to be heard, including Black, Latinx and trans women.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
For me there’s no separation between doing work and doing good. Our central purpose at PresenceLearning is to ensure that every child with a special education-related disability receives the therapy and support they need to reach their full potential. Tens of thousands of children will receive therapy this year from our clinicians. We take responsibility for continuing to push for innovation in education that will expand access for the children who need it most. For us that means pushing beyond special education services into mental health and wellness for children in schools. We rolled out a new program this year that I’m really proud of, called Finding Your Power in Uncertain Times. It’s a targeted group therapy program that helps middle and high schoolers sort through the incredible challenges we are all reckoning with right now — racial unrest, pandemic-related family impact, social isolation and day to day instability. We’re going to keep trying to meet kids where they are and give them what they need.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a CEO” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Talking to people is the most important part of your job. Many of the jobs that lead to a seat in the C-suite involve a lot of productive work. A CEO job is very different; much of your time is consumed with simply talking to people. At the beginning, whole days would go by where I would spend all day talking to people and then panic that I didn’t “get anything done”, because I hadn’t had any time to read documents, respond to emails or make board slides. I would say to myself, I really need to shut my office door more so that I can get work done. I realized soon enough though, that talking to people was my core job responsibility as a CEO. And listening, of course. Understanding where things weren’t working, where they needed un-sticking, who needed support, where direction was lacking. Without talking to people, you don’t know what you need to do to take the company forward. And that means talking to everyone, at all levels. If you let everything filter up to you through the hierarchy, you’ll miss those valuable insights that others might not even realize are critical.
- Self care is not an indulgence, it’s a basic nutritional requirement. In my first year as a CEO, I was so overwhelmed by the magnitude of people and things needing my attention that I felt like it was irresponsible for me to take time in the mornings to go to the gym. I would still wake up at 5am, but instead of going for my workout, I would convince myself every morning that the time would be better spent opening up my laptop and responding to emails. After a while, I stopped exercising completely. I ate meals at my desk. I stopped watching TV for enjoyment; if it wasn’t a business-related documentary, I didn’t have time for it. By the end of my first run as a CEO, I had gained weight and lost my edge. I was fortunate to have a break between jobs after we sold our company. With that extra time, I started running again. I doubled down and used my workout time to listen to books and podcasts for personal fulfillment. I realized that in fewer hours, I could accomplish more, with the energy and lighter mindset I gained from feeling healthy again. When I started my second CEO role, I knew better. I was absolutely militant about preserving my morning workout time. Instead of falling back into the habit of asking my assistant to bring me an afternoon espresso to fuel my uninterrupted work, I asked her instead to protect a half hour every afternoon for me to go for a walk and get myself a coffee. These moments away from work make your work better and your mind stronger.
- Personal and professional are not mutually exclusive. Often in a work setting, people feel the need to maintain a formal distance to be professional, especially when interacting between genders. But you have to get to know people, and be real about who you are, to have a well-functioning workplace. Everyone has something outside of work that is of central importance to them, whether it be a spouse/partner, their children, their pets, or something they love to do. If you don’t make an effort to know what that is, and to ask them about it, why would they care about doing their best work for you? Even as our company grows, I make a point of scheduling a 1:1 meeting with every new hire, and handwriting a personal note to every employee during the holiday season, to maintain that connection and to make an effort to truly know everyone and understand what’s important to them.
- Let others speak first. Once you say what you think, others will hesitate to disagree with the CEO. On my first day as a CEO, I threw out a crazy idea in a meeting — “what if we did…” I didn’t really mean it; I just wanted to start a discussion. But nobody said anything. I looked at the quiet group sitting around the conference room table, and saw someone writing in her notebook. “What are you writing?” I asked. “I’m writing down what you just said to do,” she responded matter of factly. “I didn’t say to do it!” I exclaimed in horror. “I just asked what if we did?” It might have been the worst idea in the world, but I realized that no one was going to tell me that. As a leader, honest opinions are the most valuable contribution you get from your team. Make sure they know that you genuinely want them to disagree with you, and poke holes in your thinking. Try to hold back and let others talk first, so you don’t pre-dispose them to your way of thinking before they have a chance to think for themselves, and maybe come up with a better idea. And if no one is offering an opinion, invite one. Always ask “what do you think?” before telling them what you think.
- Stay true to yourself. People will have a lot of advice for you, but no one else leads exactly like you do, and no one else has been responsible for exactly your company, at this moment in time. When my kids were born I remember reading a bunch of parenting advice books and thinking that none of them exactly applied perfectly to me and my children. I did get some good ideas as a launching point for me to craft my own parenting style. Leading a company is much the same. Listen to the advice of those who have done it before, and apply some of their good ideas to your company’s current circumstances, but always stay authentic to your own way of doing things.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
My driving mission in writing my book The Good Boss was to ask, if every single manager, whether of 1 or 100 or 1000 people, chose to actively seek to create a smoother path for the women who work from them, what could we accomplish in society as a whole. Taking individual responsibility for the people who work for you can collectively lead to radical change in equalizing the dynamic for women in the workplace.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I first started dating my husband, he shared his family’s one rule with me: “Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired.” That philosophy has proven to be absolutely essential to my approach to life and work. Much like the rule to put on your own oxygen mask before tending to others, you need to take care of your own basic needs to have a strong mind to tackle the challenges of the day. Sometimes taking that lunch break is the very thing I need to ensure a successful work day.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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
This is a pretty big ask at this moment,, but I would really love to talk to Dr. Jill Biden. I’m sure she’s just a tad busy right now, but the fact that we will have an educator in the White House is so exciting to me. She’s advocated for so much, like community colleges, which are a huge part of accessibility in higher education.
Her husband has been open about his own struggles as a child to address his stutter and how hard he worked to manage it. He’s a prime example of how special education services can smooth the way for so many and launch an individual into their fullest potential. PresenceLearning is a company of speech-language pathologists, and we are working every day to ensure that children get the speech therapy they need to thrive in their education and their lives. We work with many public school districts serving low income, racially diverse populations, and it’s so important to drive parent awareness. Parents need to know how to recognize speech disorders and to ask for the support that their public schools are obligated to provide them. So I would really love to brainstorm with Dr. Biden about how the incoming administration could help drive further awareness among parents about the resources available to them to evaluate and address the needs of their children.
And as if that’s not enough reason to chat, I also appreciate that she didn’t stop working when she was our Second Lady. I think that’s an important message to send to working women, and modern families: that just because your husband’s career took him to a highly powerful and visible place doesn’t mean your career has to be paused. I’d love to meet her — we could talk about so much!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.