Women Of The C-Suite: Tricia Montalvo Timm On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
The Importance of Networking. Growing up, my parents told me to keep my head down and work hard. I thought that if I did that, I would be successful in everything I did. While it is important to work hard, that is not the only thing that matters. Building relationships is vital. Every opportunity I received was from a prior relationship. It was either a referral from an old boss or former colleague, a client, or even a mentee. It is important to build relationships with everyone around you as you build your career and don’t forget to nurture them along the way!
As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Tricia Montalvo Timm.
Tricia Montalvo Timm is a first-generation Latina board director, venture investor, speaker, and author. She rose through the ranks of Silicon Valley advising high-tech companies big and small, culminating in the sale of data analytics software company Looker to Google for $2.6 billion. Tricia is one of the few Latinas to have attained the triple achievement of reaching the C-suite, joining the boardroom, and cracking the venture capital ceiling. She is on a mission to inspire anyone who has ever felt like an “other” in the workplace to embrace their true selves, own their identity, and achieve success and fulfillment in their life and career. You can learn more about her at triciatimm.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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?
My parents were both immigrants to this country and wanted to create a better life for me. My mom was from El Salvador and my father was from Ecuador. They worked multiple jobs and prioritized our education so that we could live the American dream. Growing up, my mother would tell me that I could someday become a lawyer just like her grandfather and I believed her. I eventually graduated cum laude from UCSB and Santa Clara University School of Law.
I started my career as a corporate securities attorney working at a large corporate law firm in Silicon Valley. My practice entailed representing a wide range of companies from start-ups to large global public companies. After a few years, I transitioned to working as an in-house attorney for high-tech companies. When my kids were little, I decided to pivot from corporate life and stay home for a year. During that time I started a legal consulting business to afford me the opportunity to continue practicing law while having a more flexible schedule. Within one year, I grew that small business to over $1 million in revenue. After my daughters were both in elementary school, I returned to the workforce as general counsel. My most recent role was as the general counsel of Looker, where I led the company through a successful exit to Google for $2.6 billion. I am currently on the board of Salsify, a top B2B SaaS software company and a limited partner in several venture capital funds as well as an angel investor. I also just wrote my first book Embrace the Power of You: Owning Your Identity at Work which chronicles much of my life as the only Latina in the room in corporate America.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are many interesting business stories, but I think the most interesting thing I experienced in my career that I did not expect was the power of authenticity in the workplace. I kept my ethnicity and being a working mom under wraps for most of my career for fear that it would hold me back. I did that for almost two decades and eventually, the toll of hiding was too much. After some self-examination, I realized that in order to truly belong, I needed to accept myself first and come to the workplace as my authentic self. Once I started doing that, my career soared! I did not realize the impact of being my authentic self would have on me and others. My life’s work is now to mentor, support, and inspire others. That is something I never would have dreamed of when I started out as a young lawyer almost thirty years ago.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?
During my first year at the law firm, a partner asked me to write a legal memo for a case he was working on. He asked for the traditional kind of memo with the “To” and “From” headings and lengthy legal research and analysis. I spent weeks on this memo. I wrote, edited, and reviewed it more times than I can remember. I wanted to get it just right and without any errors.
When I finally felt like it was in perfect condition, I walked into his office and handed it to him. He looked at it and asked me to sit down. He glanced at the first page, looked up, and said, “Is this your best work?” “Yes,” I answered confidently. He glanced down again and then handed the memo back to me and said, “When you hand in a memo to a partner, the first thing you need to make sure is that you spell his name correctly.” I looked down and noticed that I had misspelled his name! I was shocked and embarrassed. But, then it got worse. He then continued, “And… you need to make sure you spell your name correctly.”
The lesson learned here is that sometimes we need to see the forest through the trees. When you first start out in your career you will find yourself overly focused on getting all the little details done “right” or “perfectly” and may forget to step back and see whether you addressed the big things. You don’t want to get stuck in the weeds!
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?
When I was a second-year law student at Santa Clara University, I participated in their on-campus interviews. Given its proximity to Silicon Valley, there were a large number of law firms participating and I was thrilled to take advantage of this program. Since I was top of my class I received almost a dozen job interviews.
Of the twelve firms that I interviewed with, only one firm sent a woman to interview me. All the others were white older men. In interview after interview, my confidence in my abilities lessened and lessened with each man I spoke to. They were all accomplished and very nice men who I am sure had the best intentions but I could not relate to them. We did not share the same interests or hobbies and we had very little in common. The conversations felt very awkward and I blamed myself for not being able to establish a connection with them. With every interview, I tried to change myself a little bit more to try and make myself more relatable to these men in hopes that this would make a difference.
Ultimately, my efforts in trying to pretend to be one of them did not pay off. I did not receive a single call back from any of the firms that sent male interviewers. What was more heart-breaking for me was to see that while I was being rejected, my white male classmates with less stellar academic records than mine were getting multiple callbacks. I felt like a failure.
I had one interview left. This last one was with a prominent Silicon Valley law firm that specializes in high-technology companies. By this point, I had created a visual in my head of who was going to show up. Older white men with dark suits. To my surprise, two ladies in more casual but professional attire greeted me. I couldn’t believe it. We immediately connected. We shared stories about ourselves and our upbringings. I told them about my internships and what I had learned. We laughed and enjoyed getting to know each other. I felt so much more like myself during this interview and was so grateful for the environment that these two women had created for me. In this more comfortable setting, I was able to demonstrate the value I could bring to the firm.
Out of the twelve interviews, this is the only firm that called me back, and ultimately I got the job. While I still had many challenges ahead as the first or only in the room, I often think back to that day. If that firm had not sent those two women to the on-campus interview that day, my life would have turned out differently. That position gave me the experience of a lifetime — IPOs, M&A, venture capital financings, public company experience, and much much more. It opened up a path for me to eventually become a general counsel working with entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and investment bankers.
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?
As a lawyer, I can tell you that making a difficult decision was almost a daily occurrence for me. As the general counsel, it was my job to provide advice and counsel to the CEO and the rest of the management team on which path to take when faced with risk. We were almost always in the ”gray area,” meaning there was never a clear answer. Each decision entailed taking some risk. It was my job to help weigh the possible consequences against the benefits of a decision and help the management team make a decision. Over the years, I learned that when representing a start-up company, it was important to keep moving things forward and that some risks were actually healthy risks to take. It doesn’t do anyone any good if I have negotiated a perfect risk-free contract if the business eventually goes bankrupt because we did not move fast enough to sign up customers.
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?
As an executive, you have the responsibility to not only establish the strategic vision but to set the culture. Not only are you trying to keep the business going and thinking about long-term growth, but every day you have to keep your team motivated and engaged. I believe that culture is becoming increasingly important to a company’s success and a CEO’s actions and the type of culture and values the company follows are now a strategic imperative.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe that some may think that the office of the CEO is easy. You get paid well, can make all the decisions, and have lots of resources. What can be so hard about that? But, in fact, it can be a very lonely position. As the CEO, you have the weight of the entire organization on your shoulders. You need to deliver value to your shareholders, answer to the board, and the lives of your employees are in your hands. Not knowing whether the strategy you chose or the decision you made is the right one can be very difficult. But you don’t have to make those decisions alone or in a vacuum. Successful CEOs have established a team of trusted advisors to support them. From a strong, cohesive team of executives to outside advisors, these people can help guide a CEO through the most challenging times.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Here are 5 challenges faced by women executives that are not typically faced by their male counterparts:
- Men are usually presumed to be qualified for a position, while women often have to prove they deserve the position. That puts an extra layer of work on women that men may not have in demonstrating the value they bring to the job.
- A woman’s leadership style may not conform to traditional norms. For example, a woman may be a bit more reserved or thoughtful in her approach, or she may lean towards collaboration and these traits may be construed as weak or as “soft skills” when in fact these skills can be very effective. You don’t have to be loud and aggressive to be a good leader.
- Men tend to do a better job at self-advocacy. They are not afraid to let others know they are interested in a promotion or the next stretch project while women may stay quiet and wait to be recognized for their hard work. This type of “waiting for permission” holds women back from getting that next promotion.
- Women commonly face microaggressions at work which start eroding confidence over time. Being mistaken as the assistant, constantly being interrupted, or being made to feel invisible are common experiences faced by most executive women in the workplace. This often leads to imposter syndrome.
- If you are a working mother, you may have the additional burden of proving that you care about your career. Constantly being asked whether or not you are returning to work, whether you need more time to work on a project, or being passed over for a promotion to make your life “easier.” You are repeatedly trying to prove to everyone around you that you are committed to the job despite having children. Working fathers don’t face this issue nearly as often as working mothers.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I did not think there would be so much math! I didn’t particularly like math in high school or college and thought that by pursuing a legal degree I would avoid having to make sense of numbers. But, in fact, there is a lot of math in corporate law. From cap tables to dilution, to financial statements to SaaS growth metrics, it is imperative that you get well-versed in the financial metrics that impact the company you are representing. In order to provide good sound legal advice, you need to understand how the company operates.
Is everyone 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?
No, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. I think to be an effective executive leader you need to be resilient, strategic, and have empathy. Leading a company will have its ups and downs and you need to have built resilience to navigate through the hard times. You also need to have a strategic vision for your company and be willing to hire the right team and then let them lead. You have to let go of the small day-to-day things and focus on the long-term vision of the company and always be planning for the unexpected. Lastly, you need to be a good manager of people. I think having empathy for your workforce and prioritizing a culture of belonging is critical to a successful company.
Someone with a fixed mindset who thinks there is a right or wrong way of doing things is usually not a successful leader.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The Importance of Networking. Growing up, my parents told me to keep my head down and work hard. I thought that if I did that, I would be successful in everything I did. While it is important to work hard, that is not the only thing that matters. Building relationships is vital. Every opportunity I received was from a prior relationship. It was either a referral from an old boss or former colleague, a client, or even a mentee. It is important to build relationships with everyone around you as you build your career and don’t forget to nurture them along the way!
- Creating Boundaries at Work. Starting off at a top-tier law firm as a young associate in the late 90s meant that I had no work-life balance. I was trained that way and it took me decades to realize that in order to be great at my job, I also had to have joy in other parts of my life. Working without a break was not the answer. Learning to set boundaries was an important part of that. One boundary that I am grateful I created was never missing family dinners. Every night no matter how busy we all were, the whole family would sit down at the table (phones away) and have a meal together. It was the one time during the day that we could put aside all the distractions of the day and connect with each other.
- Belonging Begins with Self-Acceptance. As a first-generation Latina and perfectionist, I was always striving to be accepted by others. I judged my value based on how others perceived me. Over time, that eventually leads to frustration, bitterness, and burnout. Now I know that in order to have a sense of belonging it begins with accepting yourself first. Showing up as your authentic self and not trying to change or mold yourself into something else. This takes time, but it’s worth it.
- Follow your Passion. Parents, counselors, and friends all have an idea of what you “should” be doing. The job that makes the most money or has the most prestige. But, often if you follow a path that does not align with your passion or values, eventually you feel lost or without a sense of purpose. My advice is to follow the job, cause, or activity that brings you joy. The job where you might be working hard all day but not realize the time went by because you were enjoying what you were doing or who you were doing it with. Your career should not be painful. It should be a place where you are excited to be growing and learning.
- Find your People. When you are climbing the corporate ladder, you will hit roadblocks. In those times, you will need to have the right group of people around you to support you. Whether you need a mentor for career advice, a partner to pick you up when you fall or a colleague that reminds you of the impact you made at work, you will need all of these people to help you navigate through challenging times. It is especially important to find people who have similar lived experiences as you because you might have something unique about your life that only those that have experienced it can understand. Being able to have someone to turn to and who can really “see you” and understand you is vital.
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.
I am deeply passionate about creating spaces of belonging. I think leaders and corporations who are not focusing on inclusion and fostering a culture of belonging at work will struggle to retain employees in the future. Right now two things are forcing corporations to reevaluate the workplace: the pandemic and Gen Z. Following the pandemic, employees started to rethink their lives, careers, and purpose. They are looking for more flexibility and fulfillment in their lives. Gen Z employees are among the most diverse in the workplace and are not afraid to speak up and ask for what they want. They are purpose-driven and looking for that in the companies they work for.
As leaders, we should be striving to create a diverse and inclusive workplace that represents the demographics of our country. In particular, I think that corporations are not seeing the value that Latinos could bring to the workplace. Latinos are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. and are a driving economic force in our country contributing over $2.8 trillion to GDP, which if it were a country would be the fifth largest country. Yet, Latinos are the least represented in the C-Suite, the boardroom and in venture capital. This is a huge blindspot in corporate America right now. Imagine if companies started bringing more Latinos into positions of leadership that could identify this market opportunity, and create and design products to serve this market. Not only would revenues and profits increase, but we would be lifting up a community that has been underserved for so long.
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
I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Brené Brown. Her work has had an enormous impact on my career. After two decades in the corporate world, I started suffering from anxiety and had reached burnout so I decided to seek help. My doctor actually “prescribed” me Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability. My transformational journey began that day. Starting with The Gifts of Imperfection and all of her books after that, I slowly began my own journey toward self-acceptance. During this time of self-discovery, I had the opportunity to meet Brené Brown briefly at a women’s conference. I entered one of my stories in a Storyteller Contest (and won!) just to get the opportunity to get a ticket to this conference so that I could watch Brené speak in person. I somehow ended up backstage with her as I was waiting to receive my storyteller’s award and she was waiting to give the keynote speech. I couldn’t believe it! I asked to take a picture with her and she signed my book and wrote “Stay Brave. Keep Storytelling.” Two years later I decided to write my own book about my journey and to inspire others who may feel like they don’t belong in the workplace. I would love to share this story with her and let her know the profound impact her work has had on my life.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.