Ep 66: Chris Rydzewski: Believe In Yourself

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to interview Chris Rydzewski, long-time tech veteran, now serving as Executive Director for the Michigan Council of Women in Technology (www.mcwt.org).  Like many of our other “divas” Chris did not originally plan a path in technology.  “Ironically, I stumbled into it,” she said. Matriculating at the University of Michigan (http://umich.edu/ ),  “I loved math and stats,” she said, “but I wound up with a degree in marketing.”

Having lived in Texas for a while, Chris returned to Michigan and joined Compuware (www.compuware.com) in the early 1990’s. “Ironically when I interviewed with them, I hadn’t been following them.” Chris soon discovered that Compuware was a leader in application lifecycle and performance development/productivity solutions, particularly on mainframe computers; and she got hooked.    “They had 5 lines of business, and were really big, at that point.” For eight years, Chris sold Compuware solutions, supporting the Rocky Mountain states (Colorado, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Nevada – “lots of travel!”), primarily in the financial institution and state government vertical markets. She subsequently moved into covering parts of the Midwest until 1998. Then she became an international product line sales director responsible for coaching both direct and channel sales teams in South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. “It was one of my favorite roles since one of my personal passions is travel and culture. But it was also one of my most difficult jobs because of the language barriers and time differences,” Chris said. “I would be out on the road for a couple of weeks at a time. You’re constantly working when you’re doing that. Didn’t have a social life because I was always traveling.  As much as it was fun, when I came back I felt so disconnected.”

This led Chris to her next decision to move to BMC (www.bmc.com), “another big company”, she said.  She spent 5 years at BMC focusing on sales to large Michigan-based corporations like Kmart, the automotive companies, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan etc.  And then subsequently, she moved back to Compuware as a strategic sales manager for key “named accounts” that interested her, regionally. “I always loved working at Compuware,” she said; and the move allowed her to explore other products the company had developed including product portfolio management and change management offerings.

In 2013, Chris moved over to Compuware’s application performance management division, a growth segment for the company. “A company called Dynatrace was acquired and a lot of good technology came with it.” Within a year, Chicago and San Francisco-based private equity investment firm, Thoma Bravo LLC purchased Compuware for $2.4 billion. Under the agreement, Thoma Bravo split Compuware into two separate companies: the mainframe software business (under the Compuware name) and Dynatrace (www.dynatrace.com), continuing to focus on real-time software management and maintenance. Chris stayed with Dynatrace, selling for them for the next four years.  “One of the things I really loved about my whole sales career was identifying relationships and where the business drivers were. It was always about solving problems.  That’s what I love about technology.”

In the summer of 2017, changes at Dynatrace spurred Chris to leave the company. “I ended up doing some soul-searching,” she said. She asked herself questions like “what is my gift?” and “what is it that I should be doing, moving forward?”  As it happened, she was “tapped on the shoulder” to consider an opportunity with the Michigan Council of Women in Technology. “For the previous 12 years, I had always been a volunteer,” Chris said. “I had been on the Board of Directors, and had handled fundraising for many, many years.  I so enjoyed it and was super-passionate about it. There were many aspects of the organization that I loved and helped build!” So, Chris assumed the role of Executive Director. “We were at a point where we had grown so fast. There needed to be improvements from an operational perspective.”  In her new role, Chris is responsible for full MCWT P&L management with oversight over the organization’s fiscal health, its budget, fundraising, staff, and much more. She is laser-focused on “operational improvements and efficiency.”

With a mission to “grow and inspire girls and women in the field of technology in Michigan,” MCWT consumes most of Chris’s energies. As a successful sales leader, ironically, “in my career, I was always one of the few females with teams of men” she lamented.  “This is the ‘give-back’ time for me.” MCWT runs 35+ large and small events each year; has given over $1 million in scholarships to college-bound and post-college women and girls pursuing technology careers; will run 10 summer tech camps for 5th through 8th graders this year has 13 after-school girls’ high school and middle school tech programs; hosts an annual Website design contest for high school and middle school girls; a mentorship program for mid-career women, and much, much more.  While still small, compared to other nonprofits, MCWT “has lots of programs and stakeholders,” Chris said.  And she is now responsible to work closely with the Mission Officers, Infrastructure Leads, Staff, Volunteers, and the Boards to help drive success for all of the programs and events!

In looking at herself, Chris’s main personal strengths, thus far, are relationship-building skills, her penchant for problem-solving, and affinity for staff career growth.  She likes to “develop folks.” Chris has been grateful, too, to observe “many great leaders over the last 12 years” of her volunteerism at MCWT. “Everyone had a different style and approach, and I really learned” from each of them.  Key leadership lessons that Chris cited include:

  • “Be passionate” about whatever you choose to do.  She commented that at one point in her career, her volunteerism at MCWT became a “platform” for her and help cement her identity as a leader in her own company.

  • “Be open to new opportunities” Challenging opportunities may just appear, provided you have worked hard, and consistently have done your best.

  • “Believe in yourself.  Have confidence.” (dropped the Nike comment that was here)

  • “Be relevant.”

For girls and women of all ages, Chris exhorted them to “take some risk!  You are not really going to know what you are good at, until you try different things, and see what bubbles up to the top.”

Chris said that being a woman leader in a male-dominated technology workplace can be “a good thing.  I think women have different characteristics. I think we listen better. I think we communicate better.”  Some of her former colleagues “would be amazed at how I could pull out information” when she was making joint sales calls with them.   She emphasized that “you have to make yourself heard” particularly when you are in the minority in the workplace. “It is still, sometimes, a struggle for women to be in leadership roles,” she said. But she also noted that persistence and tenacity when attacking that struggle is key.

A self-admitted “workaholic,” Chris admits to occasionally having a problem balancing family, and work.  She has deployed a few practical tactics to address this. “My husband and I have ‘date nights,’ because if you don’t plan it, it’s not going to happen,“ she said.  She has also tried to make the time between dinner and when her teenage daughter went to sleep the time when everyone focuses on family. When she is driving her daughter anywhere, she turns her phone off.  As a family, they also plan big trips that all of them can take, together. “You should not always have your work drive you. Your family is super-important; there is so much more,” said Chris.

“Technology makes everything relevant” according to Chris.

She can be reached through the new and improved MCWT website (www.mcwt.org), and chris.rydzewski@mcwt.org.

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Ep 65: Jennifer Charters: Inspiration From An Iron Woman

Diva Tech Talk was delighted to interview Jennifer Charters, Chief Information Officer of Corporate Technology for Ally Bank (www.ally.com), one of the first online-only financial institutions in the United States.  Now boasting over 5 million automotive customers and 1.4 million retail banking customers, award-winning Ally has provided 24 hour/7 day a week Internet-driven financial services for its clients since 2009.

Coming from a modest background, Jennifer’s technology fascination began in middle school thanks to Commodore Computers. “My family purchased a VIC 20 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodore_VIC-20),” she said. “It basically looked like a keyboard, that you connect into your television.”  At first, Jennifer played with inbuilt pre-programmed applications but then began to create her own programs.  “I taught myself how to use Basic. I created a ‘choose your adventure’ program.” Jennifer fondly recalled going to work with her Dad, a lithographer, and “he showed me the computer room. He probably recognized that computers were becoming the future.”   In high school, Jennifer moved on to use Apple IIe (www.apple.com) computers and realized “I had a knack for the logical nature of coding. It came easy for me.”  She matriculated to Michigan State University (www.msu.org) as one of “less than a handful of women” in the computer science program, attracted by the fact that tech jobs “paid very well.”  She was also delighted that the university offered the opportunity to minor in two additional disciplines. “I chose Psychology and Business,” she said because “technology, just for technology’s sake, doesn’t necessarily make sense.  When you apply technology to a problem,” it does, according to Jennifer.

In college, Jennifer was fortunate to obtain internships at IBM (www.ibm.com).  Her first summer was spent in North Carolina, second summer in Rochester, Minn. and third summer in Chicago, Illinois. “I got experience trying all these different companies.” Also, as a member of the Society of Women Engineers (http://societyofwomenengineers.swe.org/), (where she found a lot of “like-minded women interested in technology”) she had numerous recruiters swarming. “One of the companies was Accenture (www.accenture.com),” Jennifer said. “It was Andersen Consulting at that time, and they talked about a career path with a lot of variety.”  Jennifer was hooked. “That idea of being a jet-setter and traveling all over the world and getting that opportunity to explore different areas really appealed to me.” Jennifer sold her car and moved to Chicago. “I started off as a programmer,” she said. “It evolved into project and program management; and gave me a lot of exposure to a lot of different companies, and roles within companies.” On average, Jennifer spent 18 to 24 months at each Accenture client she served.  She began in the telecommunications vertical market, then specialized in the field of Internet service providers. “That gave me the chance to work globally,” with stints at Deutsche Telekom (https://www.telekom.com/en) in Germany and Grupo Telecom (http://www.telecomitalia.com/tit/en.html) in Italy.  For Jennifer, the “exciting part was the startup aspect” of each of the challenges she tackled.  Then “In 1999, there were a lot of startups” based on massive adoption of the web. “My husband and I were presented with two different opportunities at startups, and we debated: who was going to do what. We decided only one of us should go the ‘startup route’. “

Their decision was that Jennifer’s husband should join his startup and “the funny thing about that was that in a year, his company was essentially defunct” although, ironically, the opportunity that Jennifer turned down successfully blossomed. “It was a really fun time to be in technology!”  At Accenture, Jennifer then focused on other startups including Focal Communications --- later acquired by Broadwing, which was acquired by Level 3 Communications (http://www.level3.com/en/), in an acquisition flurry. When that project ended, “it was a scary time.” Jennifer moved to a project at AT&T, in New Jersey, right after the World Trade Center was decimated by the events of 9/11; worked on that for two years; then decided to move back from Chicago to Michigan. “We decided to move closer to family” but still traveled each week. “Ultimately, I got pregnant,” and both she and her husband landed jobs in Michigan. Jennifer switched industry specializations to the automotive industry and then to an insurance industry project with The Automotive Club Group (www.aaa.org).  “What I was most interested in was staying local, then” said Jennifer.  This assignment became her entrée into the world of fintech. After having her first child, “I ended up on the road, again,” traveling to Madison, Wisconsin to work on another insurance industry customer. “Then I got pregnant with my daughter,” and had an epiphany. Her emphasis shifted to achieving a work/life balance. “That is when I began to look for other opportunities” outside of Accenture.

Jennifer obtained a project manager position (“a step down to achieve work/life balance”) at GMAC, the financing arm of General Motors (www.gm.com). “It was an interesting change of pace. But I didn’t realize what a change that would be,” she said.  She had her second child after having joined GMAC, and when she returned from maternity leave, GM had sold the financing arm to Cerberus, (http://www.cerberuscapital.com/),  a private equity company. “I found it exciting. It was a huge kind of shakeup, re-looking at our processes; and trying to find ways to make them more efficient. Fast forward another year and a half, and the worldwide financial crisis hit. I felt like I was in the crosshairs of it all. It was a financial company linked to the automotive industry, and those were the industries most affected. We were in real trouble, on the verge of bankruptcy.”  

The U.S. government bailed out GMAC, reinventing the entity as a bank holding company.  “It meant we had more regulations, but it also gave us the opportunity to start a bank --- an online bank: Ally Financial.” The key lesson for Jennifer?  “In crisis, transformation happens.” And Jennifer thrived because “with change is progress.” In that environment, Jennifer was promoted to program manager and then a director. “I felt like there was career momentum.” Eventually, she took her current promotion to Chief Information Officer, Corporate Technology, with responsibility for seven direct reports, and a large organization numbering over 180 colleagues.  “Banks had not always been very friendly.” With pride, Jennifer feels that online only Ally fundamentally has changed that. “We care about our customers. Our motto is ‘do it right’. Customers are really responding.”

“At a young age, my mom made it very clear that girls could do anything,” Jennifer said. Her personal strengths include confidence, based on taking many chances and tackling challenges throughout her career; a penchant for flexibly embracing inevitable change; a focus on what is truly important in life; and an enthusiasm for life-long learning.  “When I try to hire people,” Jennifer said, “one of the things I look for is learning agility: somebody who has curiosity, is continually ‘sharpening the saw,’ and looking for opportunities to stay fresh. In technology, it’s constant change.” Despite her strengths, she occasionally fears “that I am not spending enough time with family. I don’t ever want to look back and have regrets.”  To achieve balance, she relies on tools including her calendar and meticulously blocks out time for both work, and personal/family activities.

In her volunteer life, Jennifer is on the Advisory Board for the Michigan Council of Women in Technology (www.mcwt.org). She also coaches her daughter’s 12-week “GIRLS ON THE RUN” program, where she meets weekly with groups of girls “teaching them to be leaders, be collaborative with each other, and be kind.  At the same time, they also learn to run.” At the end of the period, they run a 5K race.

Jennifer, herself, has recently pushed herself to complete two Iron Man Triathlon Races (http://www.ironman.com/#axzz5BMqBTLsW). “I started that in 2014.  I didn’t know how to swim. If anyone had told me when I started this, that I would enter an Iron Man, I would have told them they were absolutely crazy.”  Nevertheless, once resolute Jennifer began to the process of learning, she got hooked again, using triathlete classes at Lifetime Fitness as her foundation, and inexorably progressing from there.

Key lessons that Jennifer has learned through her career:

  1. “Relationships are key. They come in so many different forms and help you in so many different ways.” Take time to develop them and maintain them. “Having people, you can talk to” is essential.

  2. Take the right amount of time for enjoying life.  “Understand what your priorities are. Take time for them.”

  3. It’s ok to take a step back. (“You actually learn quite a bit,” from taking the occasional break.)

  4. “Managing people is a whole different skill-set and experience. You use influence, since you are disconnected from the hands-on work. It requires trust; and it requires that you have a good team around you.”

  5. “Recognize that your career is your own,. It is what you make of it. You’re in the driver’s seat. Using your own strengths, values, internal compass to guide you will give you the best career for you. Follow your dreams.”

Jennifer can be reached through LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jencharters/

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Ep 64: Holly Rollo: Turning Uncertainty Into Transformation

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to interview Holly Rollo, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of RSA (www.rsa.com ), a Dell Technologies (www.dell.com) company, offering business-driven security solutions, designed to detect and respond to advanced attacks; manage user identities and access; and reduce business risk, fraud, and cybercrime. RSA protects millions of users around the world and helps more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies thrive in a high-risk world. 

Like some other Diva Tech Talk interviewees, Holly said: “You never know what’s in store,” since she did not originally set out to be a technology leader. The daughter of a Marine who was taught the value of determination and hard work at a young age, Holly’s journey began with a passion for investigative reporting. With an undergraduate degree from Santa Clara University (https://www.scu.edu) in journalism, “I had two job offers, right out college.  One with a paper, and the other as a PR person for a high-tech, semiconductor company.”  She chose the PR job and has no regrets since “what is amazing about marketing is that you’re constantly chasing a story. It’s a creative job. It’s a quantitative science job. It’s a technology job since marketing has gotten more technical.” Her philosophy is that journalism concentrates on telling the truth, and “that’s what we try to do as marketers. In technology we are trying to find the true things that really help people solve problems.”  One of her strengths is her “curious mind.” As Holly got started, she “asked the dumb questions”, including ‘what does this mean for customers?’ and ‘how do they buy it’….” The answers she received helped her ”understand the whole picture” and weave the right stories to promote and strengthen brands, products and services. “As I would drive the discussion to a more strategic level, I became a better marketer” since it helped pinpoint the right customers, the right segments, the right channels/methods of product distribution.

From National Semiconductor, (purchased by Texas Instruments (http://www.ti.com/)) Holly moved up through a variety of marketing jobs, building a substantial career and a wide perspective. “Early on, I was thirsty for as much experience as I could get.” She said that her path, which encompassed stints at Young and Rubicam, IBM (www.ibm.com) Sanrise (www.sanrise.com) Symantec/Veritas (www.symantec.com), Sybase (www.sybase.com), SAP (www.sap.com), Cisco (www.cisco.com) , FireEye (www.fireeye.com) and Fortinet (www.fortinet.com) , was forged by “focusing on what I was good at; what I was interested in. 

“What I am really interested in is major shifts or transformation.” So rather than working in status quo situations, Holly was motivated to take on “big, hairy problems.” Some of those included repositioning companies or older brands to take advantage of new markets, effecting full company turnarounds, positioning organizations for hyper-growth, or rationalizing and organizing hodgepodge tech product portfolios.  “I like jumping into the middle of chaos and making order out of it!”

Her career has also morphed, as her priorities changed. Holly said that life stages can surely affect your career choices.  For instance, starting out, she said, “the brand that you work for, ‘speaks’…” and choosing it wisely can determine your career trajectory.  “After that, there are different things that are important,” she noted. One of her career changes was inspired by a desire to “work with a woman who could mentor me.” Then, “later, as I had children, flexibility was more important,” she said. “Now, what I have learned is that I want to work with people who are amazing, people to have fun with, every day.”   

In making mission choices, Holly thinks that what instinctively drives decisions can be different for women than men. “Sometimes, what’s important is the money. I think women are sometimes uncomfortable with that idea.”  Holly also stated, “there are tradeoffs.” She cited the example of choosing a startup with exciting potential, great experience and an impressive title versus working for a larger, more established company at a higher compensation level. “You have to be your own advocate.  And you need know what you are advocating for…” When making key career decisions: “do the introspection; understand what’s important for you, at any point in time. Get as much information as you can; know what you want; know what your boundaries are.” She recently finished reading Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as If Your Life Depended on It by Chris Voss, a book germane to this topic, as well as other areas of business mediation, and then gave it as a gift to her daughter.

Holly also suggested, for personal peace of mind, “there has to be a conversation, at home, about tradeoffs.  You have to know what you can balance, at home, in that workload,” to construct the right career road. In collaborating with her family and children, she also tried to be transparent; “when you must miss something, it’s important to explain to them what’s going on. They’re going to be faced with the same challenges in their lives. They are going to have to make tough choices, too.”  Her daughter is 22, and her son is 20. “He’s going to be a husband someday. My expectation is that he’s going to do half,” so she has been setting an equity foundation and example for her children through her actions, conversation, and counseling.

To achieve balance, in times of stress, in addition to yoga and hiking, Holly reminds herself “it’s one day at a time, one work week at a time.”   The tech industry is unpredictable so “this can all change tomorrow. The best I can do is just focus on what’s right in front of me and take it in bite-sized chunks.”  She uses the same approach with her team, when facing gargantuan, challenges, and then they “do things they never thought were possible --- amazing, epic, incredible things.”

Holly is grateful to be in the security field. “There’s a bigger mission. Particularly in the current environment, you can really understand how what goes on in the digital world impacts us all. It’s about how you detect and respond, managing risk to your bigger business mission.”  The security issues are so massive according to Holly that “I constantly feel like we are behind.” To address the quickly-rising level of crime and malicious activity, “we have a lot of catching up to do. It’s not just information technology’s job. Everybody has to think about risk to the organization.”  She notes that the rise in security breaches is also affecting marketing technology, an exploding field. “There are over 6000 martech companies,” she said. “And half of those companies are less than two years old. Complexity is the enemy of security. So, marketers now have a role in opening up companies to data privacy issues and data risk.” She recommends that people read: Future Crimes: Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World by Marc Goodman, for a better understanding of the future  security issues potentially facing our world.

Holly noted that there is “a massive issue in technology employment,” and “everyone is going to be needed. We need all kinds of talent.  We need more women in engineering; we need more women in leadership; we need more women in storytelling positions.” With the advent of the “Me, Too” movement and more progressive societal influences, she thinks that “a lot of behavioral changes are going to happen” to assist in breaking down diversity barriers. “We have the power to vote with our feet, and choose not to work for a certain company, or a certain manager, leader or CEO.”  The biggest issue in Holly’s mind that needs to be addressed is “the pay equity piece.” She noted that each individual manager can change that. “Every year, we go through reviews. We have the power to address the pay gap” then. Her perspective is that pay equity is solvable, “if we chip away at it, little by little. Everybody can play a role.”

Holly can be reached on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hollyrollo/ and on Twitter at @HollyRollo.

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Ep 63: Jill Maiorano: Sales Leader, Blessed to Find Tech

Diva Tech Talk was thrilled to interview Jill Maiorano, Director of Strategic Engagements, Americas Division at Cisco (www.cisco.com).  A leader with robust sales and new business development background, Jill discussed wide-ranging topics from team management, startups, strategy and learning, to balancing home/family with a busy career.

“I was not a ‘technology tinkerer’ “ Jill said.  “From a relatively early age, I decided to be in sales.  My entire family were salespeople. If you wanted to get a word in edgewise in my household, or my extended family, you needed to sell your idea!” After graduating Eastern Michigan University, where she specialized in organizational communications and marketing, (focused on communication, public speaking, negotiation), she felt “really blessed that I was able to find tech.  And to this day, I use what I learned.”

Jill’s first tech sales job was with Allnet Communications, a division of ALC that provided long-distance services to business customers. She was only there a few years when Frontier Communications acquired the company in a bid to compete with telecommunications giants.  Frontier was later acquired by Global Crossing Inc. (www.globalcrossing.com), now morphed into Level 3 Communications (http://www.level3.com/en/).  Her first product portfolio grew from long distance services to “the Internet and selling Internet pipes; and that became frame relay, and other data networks.”  At Allnet, Jill progressed from frontline sales, to sales team management, to opening and managing markets throughout Ohio (Toledo and Cincinnati), to management of the entire Midwest.

Jill then changed jobs, in the heyday of telecommunication divestiture, to join the startup team at USN Communications, a CLEC, where she opened and managed 13 offices across Michigan and Ohio. “It was really a fun, innovative experience,” Jill said. But “it ended with a phone call from the president saying that we had run out of money, no more VC funding.”  That happened in November, and Jill’s wedding was in December (“it was interesting timing,” she laughed). “I spent the next two months running what felt like ‘resume clinics’ and writing referral letters” for the 150 people working for her. Then Jill moved to Qwest Communications (now CenturyLink, www.centurylink.com) as a director, running several states.  After she had her second child, she migrated to Sprint (www.sprint.com) and  “the easiest job I ever had” as a sales manager. “After climbing the corporate ladder, I wanted a little life/work balance, so I intentionally took a step back. It was fun. I had a great team. I spent two years working directly with customers.” Her next decision to plunge into greater technology depths drove Jill’s decision to join Cisco, 12.5 years ago.  “I went from the easiest job I ever had to a really fabulous job. There was an intensity shift.”

Jill is a Cisco enthusiast for a variety of reasons. “We take our investments, our future, very seriously,” she said. “We call it a ‘buy/build partner model’. We just completed our 202nd acquisition. We innovate. We have a lot of R&D and do a lot of internal innovation. We also partner with other ecosystem companies, to really provide our customers complete solutions. “ She also loves the fact that Cisco deploys a “work is something you do, not where you go” philosophy to help team members achieve life balance.  At Cisco, like many fast-moving tech companies, “we change every year,” Jill said. “For 11 years, I ran sales organizations. Each year was slightly different. For two years, I had 10 states; for a couple of years I had 2 states; bigger teams and smaller teams. I ran commercial for a few years; then I managed SLED state government, local government, K through 12 education, and universities.” Jill really enjoyed this latter assignment, because “there’s a sense that you’re making a difference. Education was taking on tech in a more meaningful, classroom-centric way. It was a really interesting time.”  

Then in 2016, Jill “took on a role that never existed before.”  Reporting to the Senior Vice President of Cisco’s $28 billion Americas (Canada, Latin America and the U.S.A), she was asked to “help with the way we engage with our customers, our partners, our employees.”  In that communications position, Jill said “it’s been a fabulous change. After 25 years of leading sales organizations, I am doing something totally different, and in many ways making a much bigger impact. It’s about how we engage. I have a small team of 7 fantastic women – first time in my life that I have an all-female team! –we are making  a difference in the way we (at Cisco) listen and communicate. “Jill’s busy team handles internal and external events, speaking engagements, public relations, internal and external communications of all kinds. “My team also captures the ‘stories’ “Jill said, both within and outside of Cisco, and “elevate and share them.” They have created very impactful Advisory Councils and “do a lot of survey” work to really listen to the field employees to hear more about what is happening in the market, with customers and partners.  Her team then sifts and analyzes the data to extract meaning and drive additional results. Ever action-oriented, Jill said: “I’m in the ‘then, what?’ business, and enjoying it!”

At this juncture, Jill feels very comfortable in her skin and has learned, along the way. For one thing, she has developed a strong appreciation for “mutual mission.” Jill said that to feel fulfilled, “most people need more than a number” for which to strive. “They need to feel they are making a difference.”  She believes that much of what Cisco offers truly makes a difference for customers. She is also intent on promoting unique treatment for each team member at the company. “While we rally around mutual mission, individual attention, understanding what makes that person tick” is a strength she uses, daily. “It takes time,” she said. “But until that connection really happens, I don’t think leaders serve their people as best as they can.”  She also candidly noted that patience is not an intrinsic part of her personality. “I have patience for the people, but not for the result.”

While comfortable now, Jill harks back to an earlier time in her career when she “felt defensive” as the only female leader in organizations. “Gaining results took some of that away, but part of it was simply deciding not to live in that ‘head space’ – to not allow myself to feel like I wasn’t welcome” among her male peers.   She gives back to the Cisco community by spreading that message and trying to help through an internal affinity group called Cisco Connected Women, a community for all women at Cisco, all over the globe. “I started the Michigan chapter. Then 2.5 years ago, I was asked to take over the Americas chapter of Cisco Connected Women.” It has grown to 4000 members in the Americas, with a 14-member managing board, and a 30-member Advisory Board.  “Connected Women’s role is to help attract, retain, develop, and celebrate women as part of Cisco’s competitive and diverse workforce,” Jill said. “We’re making a difference. And I have met amazing women; women I would never have met in my normal job!” Like other tech companies, Cisco is concerned about diversity, and so is Jill. “We are 23% female,” she said. “We’ve got a math problem here!” Jill decries the fact that while science, math and engineering are part of middle school and high school curricula, technology in many regions and school systems is noticeably absent. Jill’s rallying cry is “where’s the T????”.  She also notes that in film, and on television, female technologist role models are noticeably absent. “We don’t have a single film showing women doing meaningful tech,” she lamented. Cisco’s Connected Women, 7000 strong globally, implements outreach among adult women and in schools to encourage girls to pursue STEM curriculum and vocations.

In terms of her current personal situation, Jill’s children are thriving teenagers, so she is now “at an interesting place where I am trying to get back to things I enjoy” which includes tennis, a sport at which she has always excelled, working out regularly and socializing with friends. “Ultimately what makes me happy is having a blend. When things get out of whack, I really feel the stress. There is no perfect. You have to look at balance, long-term.”  She points out that dependent on the time in your life your priorities change. “We all need to have a little perspective; and let ourselves off the hook,” she exclaimed exhorting women not to be too hard on themselves over not achieving perfection every day. While work might take precedence one day, and family the next, each month and year are just the chapters. Jill also admits that she has an “unnatural fear of failure,” but has become much more comfortable taking risks, and learning from them.  “At today’s pace, you must be willing to be out on the edge, and then retreat, regroup and relearn.”

As an experienced sales manager for quite a while, Jill has several sales mantras.  One curriculum she developed started with a clip from the movie Tommy Boy, that emphasized intentional, focused listening in the sales process coupled with body language and other “buying signs.”  She also is a believer in what she terms “the sales fundamentals:” discipline, a process for contacting prospects and cultivating them, and the magic of face-to-face relationship building.

Key leadership and life lessons that Jill shared were:

  1. Be yourself. At some point in her career, she relaxed and “stopped trying to be one of the boys.” (Although she did learn to golf, “as opposed to drive the cart, which was suggested a couple of times.”)  When she mentors people, she advises them to be their authentic selves.

  2. “Go for it; be a pioneer.”  Try something new. “Do it different.”  

  3. “Embrace change.” The pace of change is intense, so keep up with it.

  4. “Be real with who you are.  Know your strengths and your weaknesses. Match your skills with your career.”

  5. “Create a woman friend network. If you have the right ones in your life, they will ‘high five’ you better than anybody. They will hug you when you need a hug.  They will nudge you when you need a nudge. And they will ‘call you on it’ when you need that!”

Jill Maiorano can be reached via Twitter at @jillmaiorano or via email at jmaioran@cisco.com.

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Ep 62: Melissa Kennedy: Everyone Can Innovate

Diva Tech Talk was excited to interview K. Melissa Kennedy, best-selling author, and Managing Partner/Global Innovation Facilitator at 48 Innovate (http://www.48innovate.com/) a novel platform for generating employee-driven problem-solving through nimble entrepreneurial practices in only 48 hours.  

Clearly a “change-maker,” Melissa owes her technology orientation to “good old Dad” who was a network administrator and “would invest any money we had at home in gadgets.” Melissa’s family had a Commodore 64, an Apple IIe and her father “really exposed me and my brother to technology at an early age.” In high school, she “dabbled” in tech; but went on to graduate from the University of North Carolina (http://www.unc.edu/) with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications.  “I graduated right when the Dot.com bubble burst,” and went on to work for North Carolina State University (https://www.ncsu.edu/) as the campaign co-leader for an education bond referendum, where she heavily used email as a primary method of reaching her audience. “20 years ago, that was a big deal.” The initiative was a great success.  Melissa’s team was able to ensure voter approval of $3.1 billion in higher education bonds --- “the largest higher education bond in U.S. history!”  She went on to drive the university’s first comprehensive marketing campaign. Since NC State was becoming a tech powerhouse, Melissa’s involvement there “serendipitously launched my career in more STEM-oriented” directions.

As successful as her career at the University was, “the pace was just way too slow for me,” Melissa said. So, she employed “information interviews” to ascertain “the fastest way from a university/government path” to the private sector.  She decided that returning to school was her best accelerator, and obtained her NC State master’s degree in marketing, with a focus on technology companies.  She “ended up creating my own study abroad program. It was really cool to be in a situation where you learn the traditional graduate level material, but it was like a startup in a way: where you could test, try and evolve” the focus of the program. For Melissa, this “opened the door, and gave credibility and validation” so she could move from higher education and government to work for what was then a startup provider of cloud-based e-commerce solutions – Channel Advisor (https://www.channeladvisor.com/ ) That company enables retailers and manufacturers to integrate, manage and optimize merchandise sales across hundreds of online channels including Amazon, Google, eBay, Facebook and more.

Then Melissa want on to join tech powerhouse, Cisco Systems, (www.cisco.com). “That’s when my career exploded.”  Beginning in field marketing, she concentrated on medium-sized businesses as part of Cisco’s Commercial Business Unit. Cisco was “going down market” and beginning to target companies of 5000 employees or less.  Melissa felt like “I had a real impact on the business because I applied some of my skills from a startup I worked with, in ecommerce, to this big networking giant. I worked with 3000-4000 channel partners, helping them scale their marketing efforts.” Among other initiatives, she helped launch an informative online TV show: TechWise TV (“way before Google bought YouTube!”).  Melissa loved “being a part of a team willing to take some risks.”  She credits her ability to work cross-functionally across many organizations as being key to her 5-year Cisco success; and is grateful for this period allowing her to experiment with a variety of marketing techniques, processes and technologies usually resulting in positive outcomes but also sometimes failing.

From Cisco, Melissa jumped headfirst into the world of entrepreneurship. “I just went all in,” she said. “I got introduced to StartUp Weekend” (https://startupweekend.org/) a nonprofit 54-hour event convening North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham Triangle designers, developers, entrepreneurs, and experts from all domains to do amazing things. “You would bring together people willing to go from concept to company” she said. “No money exchanged hands.  It was a pure exercise of teaching people, exposing people and developing an ecosystem, locally.”  Melissa facilitated over a dozen StartUp Weekends around the world (“from Rio de Janeiro to Cedar Rapids, Iowa”). Through her StartUp Weekend involvement, Melissa learned a lot of valuable lessons.  “It’s being in a safe place” that engenders learning something new.  “And you can take pieces and apply them through the rest of your career.”  She notes that “StartUp Weekend really helped the work I am doing today.”

Having had a variety of roles, what is Melissa’s advice for job seekers? Engage in information interviews. “It’s unbelievable how much information and advice people will share.”  Learning through her own career pattern, Melissa’s current company was born from insightful observations.  “Big companies have a problem moving fast,” she said. “The startup world taught me that there are tools and skills you can apply within big businesses to help them innovate.  And more importantly, you can help them enable and empower their employees to do cool stuff!”  She views her central mission as “making work meaningful, fun and productive, again.”  48 Innovate offers a methodology to help companies move from idea to concrete ‘executive proof’ plan in 48 hours or less.  “It uses pitch skills.  It uses design thinking.” She also deploys some “traditional” strategic management tools and planning, all wrapped into one fast-track program.   “Organizations can bring cross-functional teams to solve their greatest challenge or address their opportunity in 48 hours.”

“Innovation is simply change that matters,” Melissa said. “One small change can make a big difference.  Everyone can innovate, because everyone can observe and take action on one small change.”  Innovate 48 allows teams to reach across “silos”.  “Innovation is an experimental process. You have to enable cross-functional teams to do things, differently. Experiment and then scale. You have to teach people to work cross-functionally.”  Melissa also says that 30, 60 and 90-day follow-ups (“sprints”) are all part of the Innovate 48 process to ensure that cross-sharing takes place after the initial sessions, and that progress is being made, not just within the innovation team but throughout their organizations. “I’m passionate about helping other people do things they didn’t think they could do. I use technology in all of my work.”

Melissa has three tips for would-be entrepreneurs, startup founders, inventors:

  1. “You don’t have to know everything. If you get hung up on needing to know everything, you’re wasting your precious time, energy and talent.”  For things at which you are not naturally talented nor proficient, contract it to someone else, or consider partnering. Save your talent for what you do best.

  2. “You have to develop a ‘good enough scale.’  We’re plagued with perfectionism.  That sucks your energy and your genius.”  Melissa suggests evaluating your tasks and where you spend your time. Understand what the best use of that time is, given your talents, your skills, your unique “genius.”  Prioritize the high value tasks; concentrate on them.

  3. “The pursuit of innovation is all about practice.”  Practice being uncomfortable in times of uncertainty. Practice succeeding.  Melissa advises: “Start an innovation practice.  Start small. Do small things that are not part of your normal routine. Build the “strength muscle of being comfortable in the uncomfortable.” Then start applying for innovation opportunities (pilots at work, projects outside of your normal routine, etc.)

Melissa has written a book, that is now an Amazon (www.amazon.com) best-seller: The Innovation Revolution: Discover the Genius Hiding in Plain Sight,  to “share the things I learned.”  Following her own advice about taking risks she says: “It was a great experiment for me.  I had never written a book before. It was a ‘trial and error’ experience.” She discovered that “writing a book is lonely.”  A born collaborator (“that’s the premise of all of my work!”), Melissa found the isolation that authorship necessitated to be challenging. “There were days I wasn’t sure I was going to finish. But I persevered.”  And the book has been a “gateway for me to help others.”

Discussing failure “it hurts; it’s a little blow to the ego,” Melissa says. “Acknowledging it is painful, but it’s the first step.”  Then she counsels: “Walk away from it.  Try and get a little perspective; glean some learning.  See it as a path of discovery.” After inculcating the lessons, Melissa believes “then you start swinging for the big balls.”  Essentially, any failure allows you to “develop a tolerance for failure which lets you take more risk.”

Melissa says: “We’re in a new era. We have crossed from the Industrial Age, and its linear thinking, to the Information Age.  The tools, the processes, from the old age are not going to apply.  I have figured out to help leaders and individuals to make the simple change(s) that make a difference!”  She firmly believes “everyone has innovation within them. It’s up to us to go from idea to action.”

Melissa can be reached at her 48Innovate website (http://www.48innovate.com/) and on Twitter at @kmelissakennedy.

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