Last week, we had the pleasure of hosting 200 people at Seat @ the Table, to listen to an accomplished panel of women at each level of management share their experiences about advocacy, bias, best advice, and failure. We couldn’t pick out a favorite quote because each panelist was so illuminating and insightful in her own unique way.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity but are the panelists in their own words as they shared their stories. There is inspiration for anyone wanting to advance in their careers and grow the number of women in technology at every level of management. As we encouraged every attendee, let reading this be just another step of many you take to move us all collectively forward.
The phenomenal panelist featured are:
- Annie Case, Global Strategy & Planning Senior Associate at Uber
- Lauren Mullenholz, Global Head of Insights at LinkedIn
- Sarah Leary, co-founder and Vice President of Marketing and Operations at Nextdoor
- Selina Tobaccowala, co-founder of Gixo and former President and CTO at SurveyMonkey
You can also watch the full discussion here.
Q: What is your reaction to the current events (Uber, Facebook/WSJ engineering bias, The Atlantic)? How do you or your company fight diversity debt or make sure your company isn’t falling into similar traps?
Annie: I would say my biggest learning over the past few months has been: you don’t need to and you shouldn’t wait until you have a burning platform to tackle some of these issues and to think about these things. I think we (Uber) are now really starting to dive deep to understand the issues that we have and try and understand what we can do about them, but I would say as a takeaway for all of you after tonight, think about even in your own companies whether you think it’s a huge problem or whether it’s something you think you do really well, just think about what you can do and the impact you can have at your company to make it a better, more equitable place to work.
Lauren: I would say the news generally has been really disappointing to see. I think one of the things that I want to do is not feel like it’s such an overwhelming problem, that it’s hopeless, and I found a lot of hope in action, in Linkedin, my company.
One of our executives has really made it a huge initiative across the executive team and of the company to really focus on this and bring this unconscious bias and this conversation to light, which I think has been really helpful. The leading from the front, and really making it a priority at the company and the two ways in which we’ve attacked it. I’m not trying to say it’s perfect, but two ways that I’ve seen it be really effective to attack it is hiring. So making sure that you’ve got diverse panels, whether it’s underrepresented minorities, or women on the panels. That’s a really important thing. A lot of the times we circulate the same talent between the tech companies, and we know our numbers aren’t where they need to be. Thinking about hiring talent differently is definitely a focus. Also, investing in people, particularly women, to help them get through the leadership ranks and learn the skills and the things that they need to be successful. I think those have been the two things that I’ve seen most meaningfully change the environment at Linkedin and where we’ve started to make progress.
Sarah: We have a responsibility as women in the industry to make an effort to be mentors to younger people, younger women who are coming along. You see this happen all the time amongst men. But it’s really making an effort with younger people who are coming into the industry and going a little bit out of the way to make them feel comfortable, sometimes to make them feel a little uncomfortable and push them, give them the feedback about how maybe they are behaving or presenting themselves in a larger group meeting.
Selina: I’d say that one of the most important things, especially if you’re starting a company, is starting with diversity right up front and trying to make sure that you’re making those conscious decisions, because when you think about hiring other people, you are more likely to hire people that are similar to you. The more diversity you bring in in that early stages of the company, the more likely you’re going to be able to keep that up.
Q: What would you tell your first-time manager self that you wish you knew then or what’s the best advice you hated hearing early in your career or in your current stage?
Annie: My best advice that I received that I think is useful for everyone just starting out but even beyond that, is always have an opinion. For me, it doesn’t mean always exercise that opinion and feel like you have to weigh in on every topic, but always force yourself to think about “What would I do if I were the decision maker in that situation?” Always think about, whether it’s your manager or your manager’s manager, or the CEO of the company, at every level, try and craft your own opinion on whatever it is that’s going on, because that will help prepare you for when you do get promoted and you do rise in the ranks in your organization, you’ll have exercised that muscle to be thinking beyond your current role.
Lauren: Striving for perfection, especially as a first-time manager, is a trap that I see people fall into all the time. I think it’s inevitable as you go through a transformative experience, as you move up the ranks, that you’re going to have stumbles. Just setting the expectation around perfection not being the goal. It’s really about resilience, it’s really about what you learn, it’s really about how you grow. Then giving people, especially first-time managers, the empathy around that, and coaching, to teach them where the pitfalls are along the way, but then definitely not setting the expectation of perfection, I think is important for yourself as you move into new roles and also for those that you manage.
Sarah: Be human. I think sometimes when you’re a first-time manager, you think you got to be the manager and you got to do things by the book. Trust your gut a bit there and just think about having empathy for the person on the other side, and you’ll tend to make pretty good judgment calls along the way.
Selina: What I would tell myself, is that as a manager, especially I feel like as a young female manager and you’re managing in technology, mostly men, you’re a little reticent to cut low performers. That was something that I took a lot longer to do. Looking back, you want to be generous and you want to give people feedback, but there’s never a time you look back and say, “Wow. I wish I had let that person stay here longer.” Versus, you look and you say, “Oh my goodness. What a performance improvement, or “The team is better off because I let that person go.” That’s something that I found very difficult early on in my career, and it’s that balance of like, you want to be kind and you want to take care of people, but keeping someone on your team who’s not performing isn’t being kind to them either. It took me too long to realize that in my career, and that’s the thing I would definitely go back and tell myself.
Q: An advocate is someone who is ahead of you in their career and explicitly sort of tries to pull you up and along on the career ladder. Was there an advocate or sponsor who made a real difference in your career and do you do anything differently as a result of this person and his/her influence?
Annie: My greatest advocate is also my current boss, who is also in the room tonight, so I don’t want to flatter him too much…
His greatest advice to me has been, “Get out from behind your bunker.” He says that to me all the time, and it can be really frustrating when I’m like, “What does that mean? How do I do that?” But he’s been there every step of the way to help me do that and serve up those opportunities to me, because it can be really easy to figure out what you’re good at and to want to lean into those things, and if something feels more challenging or feels scary or new, to kind of lean back on those strengths because it’s comfortable. But having someone who will constantly push you to step out behind that. He would say to me, “If you’re batting a thousand at the work, it’s not because you’re amazing, it’s because you’re not pushing yourself hard enough. There should be some failures in there too.” He’s just been a wonderful advocate for me and helping me to push myself to do more, be more and think about what I want to do next.
Lauren: The person that pulled me over to the insight team that I now lead, the former leader of the team, was someone who I had worked with as a partner and just saw some potential in me. He convinced me to come over and manage a team at Linkedin for the first time. He consistently believed in me, and I know had many conversations when I wasn’t in the room about the things that I was doing, about the things that I was leading, about my potential, about my potential for his role, really the fact that he was grooming me and coaching me along the way and giving me at-bats. He was constantly seeding his conversations with the leadership team, with the other people who would ultimately end up making the decision whether or not I was to take his job. The whole time he was advocating for me, pushing me, teaching me, coaching me, and advocating for me, he was creating other advocates with his advocacy.
What it’s changed about how I do things is I never realized how important that is. And using your own position to help other folks on your team, and in particular women, especially if they have a confidence gap and you think they’re amazing, really just leaning in and advocating for those folks, convincing them about their own worth but also making sure that you’re telling everybody else how great they are. It’s something that I’m super passionate about seeing how much it’s impacted me.
Sarah: I got very lucky at Microsoft. There was an early VP, Robbie Bach, who was really two levels up from me who I got a chance to work with him on a couple projects. It included traveling around the country and talking to press people, and we just clicked. And from that point on, he became a great advocate for me and really tried to open up opportunities for me. I just think, you’re going to get opportunities that don’t feel like automatic mentorship; it’s not this like, “Hey, will you be my mentor?” You get these opportunities where you get a chance to work with someone different, and they get to see you in action and decide whether or not they want to be an advocate for you.
I think the other person who’s been an advocate has been my co-founder, Nirav Tolia. Really, he was someone who had started a company before, had led a company, and when I had left eBay after the sale of Shopping.com, he was the one who said, “Come do this with me.” I felt so fortunate to have someone who had been through the process before bringing me along. He was part of the reason why I ended up at Benchmark as an entrepreneur-in-residence, and I’m grateful for that opportunity.
Selina: I would probably be remiss without mentioning Dave Goldberg, who was the CEO of SurveyMonkey, and taught me more than I could ever imagine or discuss in two minutes. But I would say that one of the biggest things that he taught me was again, continuing to push yourself in new ways for your own learning. He said to me one day, “You need to get on a board.” And I was like, “Okay.” And it was hard to imagine at that time what advantage am I going to learn by being on a board. But it was him pushing me, “This is what you need to do to get to your next step.”
For me, it turned out to be great. I’m somebody who’s extremely detail-oriented and what being on a board taught me was you have to be able to make decisions both with imperfect data and that you’re trusting the people, in that case, the executive team. You’re checking, do they have the right resources to do their job? And I brought that back to SurveyMonkey, where I said, “Okay. You need to make sure you’re empowering your team completely for them to be effective, and that what you’re looking at with the team — do they have what they need to be successful?”
With Dave, he taught me how to build a great culture, he taught me how to think about problems in new ways, but apart from an advocacy perspective, when you find somebody who’s pushing on you saying, “You can do more,” or “Think about ways you can do more. Here’s how you can do more,” and is willing to push on you, that to me is the most important thing in that advocate or mentor.
If you don’t feel like in your current role your manager is an advocate for you, really think about, is this the right manager for me? Part of what, for you to grow, you want somebody who’s both pushing on you but supporting you, like I was just describing. It is finding that right relationship in terms of that; it’s a very very important relationship, especially if it’s your first time managing or thinking about your career.
Q: What do you do if you have a really crappy manager that doesn’t really like to manage and you’re sort of stuck? Where do you find advocates, or where you should look, and what should you do?
Annie: One of my mentors gave me the really great advice that I need to be specific about the things that I need in order to do my job, and if I’m not finding that from him I need to be finding that from others even in that role, and obviously do the best that you can to change that reality and to be able to move into a different role or onto a different project when you can. But just make sure that you’re carving out the things that matter most to you and being very specific about what those things are. Because often it is less an issue of you actually not just liking each other or whatever it is, and it normally comes down to communication. So I think finding ways to have that more productive conversation can be really helpful.
Lauren: I think it’s a mistake to not own your own career and to rely on a manager. It’s great when you do have an advocate, it’s great when you do have a great manager, but I think just taking ownership over that and finding mentors who can turn into advocates, because a lot of young women ask me, “Well, how do I get an advocate? What am I supposed to do? I can’t just walk up to someone and say, ‘hey, will you advocate for me?’ That’s so awkward. What if they don’t like me? What if they don’t know me?” I think finding people you respect to get advice from as mentors first can really help turn other folks other than your manager into advocates, especially when you don’t have a great manager, making sure that you’ve got that support and advice where you can go to other folks and get that guidance is super important.
Sarah: I started to reach out across the organization and talk to other people. It was actually a Kathleen who was really two levels up in a totally different adjacent team, and I just reached out to her and said, “I want to do more. I want more.” I think that that maybe influenced some changes, but it was done very authentically, not as a power-play or anything. I was 23, I didn’t have any power. But being able to articulate, “Hey, I want to do more, and I just have a manager who’s not pushing me and just doesn’t seem that into it.”
Selina: It is your responsibility to be telling your manager, “Here are the things that are important to me. Here’s what I want to do,” and that should be a two-way dialogue, but there will be a point where you realize that a manager is not somebody who’s focused on making sure that you’re learning, and to me, that’s the biggest thing, which is, are you in a situation where you can keep learning? If you’re in a situation where you can’t keep learning, then it’s figuring out, is there a place I can keep learning at this company? Because I value the product this company’s doing, and the mission of this company. Or, should I leave? To me, you get to that point where you’re saying, “Is there a better opportunity?”
Always, to follow onto that, is when you’re interviewing, you should be interviewing the hiring manager as much as they’re interviewing you. It’s asking them questions: Can you give me an example of how you’ve helped somebody succeed on your team? Can you give me an example of the type of person who doesn’t succeed on your team? Those are okay questions for you to be asking when you are walking into the room to interview at that next job, because that hiring manager, that manager relationship, is extremely important at any job, as I think we all know.
Q: For all of you, has there been a failure that has been particularly painful that has shaped what you do and how you do it? What lessons do you continue to bring forward in your life as a result of that failure?
Annie: A major one for me and is definitely something that informed everything that I do today and the way that I approach my work today.
For me, I was super fortunate to play on my soccer team in college. I was really lucky to be recruited to this awesome team where I came from high school, was big fish in a small pond, but then got to school and was kind of steady, middle of the road on my team, and it as hard for me to make that adjustment because I was not used to not winning. I was not used to not being the best. My defense mechanism, or way of coping with that was to have a really bad attitude. I had a bad attitude with my coach; I would blame him or say that if I wasn’t playing it was because we didn’t have a great relationship, and I really took it out on my teammates and my coach because it was a defense mechanism for what I was actually just quite insecure about, which was my own ability to compete with these Olympians and World Cup players.
That felt like a failure to me because I know that I was never really able to reach my full potential on that team because I had a bad attitude, but the valuable learning that came out of that was when I then graduated from college and was going into my first job, I thought a lot about that experience and thought, “I never want my attitude to be the thing that holds me back.” So the way that I approach my work now and ever since then has been to to say, “Let me be the one who has the best attitude on the team.” I will only let my attitude be a positive, and I won’t let it hold me back.
Lauren: The things that have really stuck with me as real failures are more around opportunity cost, when I let myself down and I don’t go for something or ask for direct feedback or want to know more information because I’m afraid of what that response will be.
There was a point earlier on in my career where I had an opportunity around a really technical role, and someone else who was super technical was slotted into that role instead, and instead of going to the hiring manager and saying, “Hey, you know, I understand that someone with more technical skills was the right fit for the role. How far off was I? What are the things that you saw or didn’t see? Was this just circumstance? Was it me?” I was afraid to hear a “No,” and I wasn’t good enough so I didn’t have that conversation. I didn’t get that feedback, and I created a story in my head around that which I carried with me. I think it was an opportunity cost and also a story that didn’t necessarily have to be the case, because later I was offered that technical role. The not knowing, or leaving things on the table because you’re afraid to ask, that’s usually where I feel the biggest sense of failure.
Sarah: For me, I had a pretty public failure with the first company that I helped co-found after I left Benchmark. We basically started a company, got to about 15 million unique visitors in a month, and the three co-founders looked at each other and were like, “This isn’t working. It’s not the big thing that we thought it would be.” We had raised seven million dollars, had 12 employees, and this was a week before my 40th birthday, so that made it a little bit more stressful, and I was like … To be honest, I hadn’t really failed at anything in my life. I like winning. To sit around and look at each other and say, “This isn’t working,” and potentially turning to your employees and saying “It’s not working.” We offered to give the money back to our investors and Bill Gurley said, “I invested in a team. Get back on the field and see if you can come up with something.”
For me personally, our approach to building the product was all wrong. We spent almost two years in stealth working on this, not getting member feedback, customer feedback, all things that I had learned at Microsoft 15 years earlier, and we had made the most classic mistakes. It was pretty public, and it was personal. It was all-consuming. It was out of that experience that I pretty dramatically changed the way that I think about creating products, bringing them to market, testing them, because I don’t want to waste two years of my life. If we ever sat down and you’re telling me about an idea, I am like, “Oh my god. Don’t waste two years of your life working on something that you don’t get any feedback on.” It was very painful, but it was an incredible learning experience that then led us to eventually founding Nextdoor. But personally, that was very public and painful.
Q: How do you prepare yourself so that you can effectively hear feedback?
Lauren: I think one of the things that’s been really important for me is just trying to have a growth mindset and understanding the challenges and falters are just part of the process of learning and growing. Even if it’s a difficult conversation like I should’ve done in the role that I just talked about that was a failure, if I can put this as a learning experience and I’m going into this to learn, it depersonalizes it a little bit, where it doesn’t feel as sensitive. You’re like, “Okay, I want this one ready for … This is a learning experience. This is going to give me an action plan … “ I’m a very action-oriented person. “This will give me an action plan of things that I can do and control coming out of it,” and then just going in with that kind of mentality has helped me be able to receive feedback.
Sarah: I read something recently that basically said, “When you’re getting feedback, grade yourself on how well you received the feedback.” There is a natural defense mechanism that definitely comes up, but saying, “Okay. How am I doing in receiving this?” A lot of that I think just comes from not reacting emotionally and trying to force yourself to take that extra breath and listen before you respond, because for someone to have the courage to give you feedback, it’s a gift that they are giving you, that they believe that you can be better.
Selina: I would add onto that frequency. Obviously, I worked at SurveyMonkey, so feedback was a core part of our culture. It meant that as a manager, every single quarter, I was sending out feedback survey to the entire team that worked for me, plus just my direct reports on a very regular basis. Get in the cadence of constantly receiving feedback and letting people give it to you both anonymously as well as one-on-one … I took every person either one-on-one or one-on-three for lunch within three to six months after they started, and I always started off and asked them, “Tell me something you loved about SurveyMonkey.” It’d get people sort of warmed up and excited to talk to me. Then I’d always say, “Tell me something we could be doing better.”
By just making it so frequent in terms of the amount of feedback that I was receiving, you get … The thing is like, “Okay. We’re going to get better.” It’s that growth mindset of “We have to get better.” But the more you build that or flex that muscle of receiving feedback, the better you get at it, and you’re like, “Okay. I’m going to keep getting better. The team’s going to keep getting better.” I’d say just continuing to figure out how on that regular cadence can I be getting it? Obviously, there’s nice products out there to do that.
Q: What is the next seat at the table that you guys are looking at and what are you doing to get there?
Annie: I would be really excited to run something myself. My background is in consulting, and now I’m on this global strategy team at Uber where it does feel a bit more still like an advisory role. I’m learning a ton and I love the exposure both in consulting and now to all different kinds of projects and all different kinds of people, but I do think there’s a part of me that feels frustrated often about feeling like I’m not ultimately accountable for the outcomes. I know that switching to that world would have its own host of frustrations as well and be really challenging, but I think that’s something that I would be really excited to see how I operate in that environment and would be a great learning experience for me.
Lauren: I took on the global leadership role of the team in January, so still new-ish to running a global team, a bigger team, and definitely enjoying that experience. But I think kind of after I’m done garnering the lessons from this leadership phase, I do want to go build something again. I helped build the sales solutions business at Linkedin, and I love to build things. I just love getting my hands on building and shaping something. So I’d probably love to build a product team doing data products and build a business.
Sarah: I feel like I’m in this incredible opportunity to build a great company, and you can spend your entire career looking for that. I was lucky enough to have been at a great company like Microsoft early on, and I thought, “Gee, how do you go and think about creating your own version of that?” I feel very lucky that we have the opportunity to do that.
On a personal note, I don’t think that there have been enough successful female founders of consumer internet companies, and I’d like to do it for the team, I’d like to do it for myself, I’d like to also be an example that people can look at and hopefully be able to share that experience, and hopefully young women out there can look at and like, “Look, so and so did it, I could go do it.” Because I truly believe that it helps for people to see others be successful and gain a little bit of that confidence that “I can go do that.” “Look, there’s someone who I relate to who has done it.” I feel like we have a unique opportunity to do that at Nextdoor.
Selina: I’m a first time CEO, and we’re trying to launch our project in the next two weeks, so it’s very exciting and the biggest thing for me is trying to launch a successful product, build a successful business. We’re trying to make a huge social impact on people’s activity rates, so that’s our mission and our goal.