The “Me Too” movement helped bring attention to systemic challenges women face everyday and held people, in many cases men, accountable for their actions. Women now have more permission to be an upstander and support people whose voice was not heard or not believed. But there is still work to do, especially in corporate America where it’s easier to put on a facade of change under a sheath of employee resource groups and diversity quotas. Until there is inherent change in how we show up to each other and cut out the bullshit to focus on what really matters at the heart of these changes, long-term, positive change will not be sustainable.
Taking the first step in my journey
I have worked in different functions across multiple companies ranging in size from 9,000 to 140,000 employees globally. Fortunately, I found true happiness, fulfillment, and confidence to be myself on my current engineering team. But it took time, honest soul searching, and a mantra of not settling to find this.
When I started my journey in corporate America, I was an intern on a Finance team led by a Greek male Vice President who had a “harem” of women reporting into him. I mention his Greek background because he used that as an excuse for his, at times, inappropriate behavior towards women. There are more times than I could count where he would say, “It’s okay, I’m European”. It also didn’t help that it was 2010 and I was just happy to have a job coming out of a recession in the U.S. I was naive and lacked experience to know at the time I did not have to put up with this.
But then I woke up when I had a heart to heart with my Director. She was a powerful leader but I could tell she was tired to fight the good fight for women (or maybe fighting in the past had proven to be futile?). Additionally, she had to focus her energy on three daughters to teach them how to be independent, strong women. Lucky for me she saw my passion and helped me put it to good use in an organization where women held the majority: Human Resources (HR).
Learning about sponsorship
To this day, I still love connecting with and helping people. When I joined HR, I saw the opportunity to apply what I cared about in my work, which became visible to other leaders from the work ethic and dedication I put into the people programs I was building. In fact, this is when I first experienced sponsorship. An HR Vice President learned about my interest in becoming an HR Business partner, where I could connect my passion for people with the business strategy, and recommended me for an internal position, which was the start of the next phase of my career journey.
My experience in HR varied based on the team, leadership, and company culture. There are two managers who immediately come to mind when I think of the positive impact they made on my life, Denise and Anuradha. Although they were both women, I do not believe there is a correlation to gender and good leadership. Rather it was about how they showed up.
Denise was a thinker. She ensured everyone on her team took two hours per week to invest time to think. In this day in age where we expect everything instantly and to move at the speed of light (at least that’s what it feels like), it was refreshing to have this permission to slow down and reflect. And speaking of reflection, Anuradha taught me how to take that to the next level and to always noodle on things before responding. In fact, she was my inspiration when I named my blog! Bottom line: when I was under a team that had a vision focused on doing what’s right and put people first, I was happier (note: not at my happiest, yet…).
Learning from leaders
But as my team and/or company changed, I noticed that if leadership did not define and stay true to their values or the team was only focused on their own agendas, the culture deteriorated, along with my happiness. This may seem like common sense but so many people put up with corporate politics and stay. As quickly as Denise and Anuradha come to mind when I think of positive leadership, I can also think of two leaders who taught me what NOT to do.
These two leaders book ended my career in HR. At the start of my career as an HR business partner, I worked for someone who only cared about how he looked (this was NOT my sponsor who I mentioned above). I observed him take credit for other people’s work and then push the blame when things went wrong. Sadly, I had to make the ultimate call for my own well-being to leave that company but at least by that time, other leaders took note of his true colors and he left shortly after, at which point a leader who cared about people replaced him.
At the end of my HR career, I worked for a Vice President who although had good intent, could not make a stand to save his life. Instead he would try to please everyone, which we know does not end well. This caused undo pain on our team, including the creation of unnecessary drama as we all stepped on each others’ toes since no one person had clear direction, limiting our ability to feel empowered to make a decision.
It was time for another turn in my career, even if it included taking the risk to leave HR and venture into a role as a “People Engineer”. This role did not have a set career path but I knew if I was supported by a solid leader and empathetic team, I could set the direction in the next phase of my career journey.
Becoming a People Engineer
Tim took a chance. When I was his HR Business Partner, he saw how I cared about making time for people and cutting out politics. No cookie cutter templates or fluffy, “hand wavy” responses from me. You got the honest truth. One person once told me “I was Tim’s one and only HR love”. He agreed.
Tim pushed the status quo by building his team differently than other Engineering leaders. As important it is to hire Engineers who build innovative products and services, it’s just as important to invest in our people and remember they matter most! Tim was the first reason why I don’t believe in a correlation between gender and strong leadership. But change is the only constant and Tim made the hard decision to step into a new role. And that’s when I got to know Skye, my current manager.
Skye leads by expressing deep curiosity in the way he asks questions and helps you find the solutions on your own rather than micromanaging you into submission. He pushed me to ask myself, “how can I take People Engineering to the next step?” Similarly to how I transitioned into an HR business partner role to bring together my people and business passions, I began exploring how I could build our people programs into our business strategy and decision-making. Skye is the second reason why I know gender doesn’t define you as a leader.
Beginning my journey as Chief of Staff
As Skye transitioned into the role as Director of Cloud Infrastructure Engineering, it had become clear he had a need for a Chief of Staff to get the business rhythm structured and our team comfortable with his different leadership style. Note I say different, but not better. That’s the beauty behind strong leaders; by showing up in different, but still supportive, ways, we can learn so much more so quickly as long as you’re paying attention.
We began exploring the idea of me taking the on the role of Chief of Staff but I was scared. Get out of my comfort zone where I’ve excelled for the past nine years at the risk of failing? But then I noodled and remembered if there are two things I’ve leaned on the most so far in my career, it’s these two phrases of wisdom:
- If you’re in your comfort zone, you’re not learning (thanks to a great Professor at Santa Clara University)
- Don’t wait for perfection (thank you Agile!)
But I could not have taken the final step to actually put myself into the role if it hadn’t been for Skye and my team’s support.
Just this week alone I made a mistake but rather than my team pointing blame at me, they wanted to retro. I’m surrounded by other leaders who push the status quo and support failure as a way of learning. I work on a male and female leadership team (about a 60/40 split) who have led teams to help build secure DNS, VPN, and other Networking products that are setting industry standards. These leaders also sponsor a widely loved employee resource group, Women in Technology, that walks the walk. We’re not about just meeting a quota to check off a box but rather about making positive, sustainable change. We may not be able to help all underrepresented populations at once but we’re focusing on making one step forward at a time. My team is the third reason why I feel that great leaders can come in many shapes and forms.
Us vs Them
Why does it have to be us fighting the good fight? Let’s cut out the fighting, politics, and sole focus on what makes us look good. Instead focus on what makes us better humans. We have this power to connect, even during a time of crisis. Lean on this power to leave this world in a better place than you found it. It’s not always easy to be that upstander so find a sponsor to support you. That’s how we create positive change together for generations to come.
- Take risks and move on if a team, company, or culture is not the right fit. It’s better to have a couple of short lived roles on your resume than a lifetime of unhappiness.
- Leaders show up in many different ways and there is always something to learn.
- Let your career be a journey that takes random turns to help you grow. A ladder only moves in one direction. That’s no fun!
- Don’t fight. It’s tiring and not sustainable. Instead, find opportunities where you can bring peace through positive change.
Max enjoying a delicious bowl of pasta in Las Vegas, the weekend he treated me to an early birthday treat of seeing Britney Spears in concert. Boy, does that bring back memories!