My Personal Journey

The velvet-lined rut

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am a privileged Silicon Valley executive with no grounded reason to complain. I have my home, my family (our adult kids came home) and a living that creates a comfortable lifestyle. So don’t feel sorry for me.

But here I am, in the middle of a global pandemic, back in lockdown in a state where the infection numbers are going in the wrong direction, turning sixty today. Wow – that’s a big number. I’m not afraid of it, but as I look back on the lives I have led, and look forward to the lives I still plan to lead, I cannot believe I find myself living a life which, while comfortable, is a velvet lined rut where I can’t see over the edges to the track and the fields and the horizon beyond. And which is not the life I chose.

I have always traveled since becoming a working adult. I’ve been all over the world, as have most tech execs, meeting people, learning, stretching my mind on technology and culture. I’ve always traveled for fun too. Back to Europe at least once a year, even when the kids were little. Dragging the family to Asia, to Europe, to Central America, to the Middle East, to Italy and France over and over, reveling in the art, food, history and excitement of the new experience.

Travel is a choice. Some people never have the choice because of their work but many office professionals do. There comes a point in a career where you choose whether to concentrate your career near home, or not. Some people don’t want to be on a plane every week. They prefer the stability and security of being home every night and choose a career path accordingly. But I never chose to be domesticated the way I have to be now.

I thrived on the variety and stimulus that comes with a mobile lifestyle. Visiting customers, factories, conferences and international colleagues. For some, like me, the movement became the purpose. The lack of repetition, the continuous joy of moving from place to place and experience to experience. The visual stimulus of art; the palate stimulus of food; the ability to wander free, accountable to no-one in the moment. Human beings are, at their core, nomadic and with me that desire is right at the surface.

So lockdown is a challenge. A maturing opportunity – at sixty – to grow up maybe? To stop searching and stay in once place? At fifty I wrote that I recognized the loss and challenges of aging, “Clearly only a healthy dose of humor and self-depreciation is going to get me through this.” At fifty five I retired to sit on boards and travel. At sixty aging has now taken over my body so I can’t worry about that any more – so I serve on a number of boards, 100% on zoom, but no travel! Unthinkable. Especially when I now know we (office workers) can work from anywhere. The lockdown proved that if nothing else. I could do my job from Italy as easily as my living room, if they’d only let me in.

This pandemic is a dramatic loss of freedom for everyone. But life is now distilled down to its essence – the pure spirit. There is no room for frivolity, no room for superficiality in the face of so much tragedy and restriction of movement. My only choice is to learn to appreciate the velvet in my rut and cherish the time – not knowing how long it will be.

Photo: Pompeii © 2011 Penny Herscher

Leadership

Stop focusing on your startup valuation!

It never ceases to amaze me how hung up entrepreneurs get on the valuation of their startup as they raise money. It came up in a coaching session again yesterday.

In the abstract yes, valuation matters. It tells you how much of your company you are going to sell in order to raise money. It sets a baseline for you which you will (hopefully) exceed on your next raise. It’s a validation that your work has value.

But it is NOT a measure of pride, or ego, or size.

Your valuation, like a stock price, is a reflection of the perceived value of your company at the moment in time when you are raising money. There will be times when the startup market is hot and you can command more, there will be times when it has cooled because of an economic downturn, or a global pandemic, and your valuation will be lower. Or the market your idea is in is hot, or not.

What matters more than valuation is: Are you getting the right amount of money to give your idea life? Think about the next one, or two, major milestones you need to achieve to prove your idea will work and is scalable. Then figure out how much money you need to raise to get 90-120 days past the critical proof point. Add to that number to allow for the unexpected and that is how much you must raise. Once you have that you are looking for an investing partner who shares you vision and will be with you on the journey.

The other consideration is what value opportunity are you creating for your employees? The higher the valuation on funding the higher their option strike price and so the less money they will make when you finally reach liquidity. Now, if your company is a rocket ship, the difference between an option price of 50 cents or a dollar doesn’t matter, but at a later stage the difference can matter and when there is a preference stack on your company getting greedy can wipe out your employees’ opportunity. We’ve seen this happen with unicorns who achieved huge valuations only to have them come down dramatically on sale or IPO. So don’t lose sight of the need to make your employees money as well as yourself.

I have written before that all venture capital firms are not equal. Some are good, some are awful. The same applies to angels btw. I have seen short-sighted angels do more damage to young companies and entrepreneurs than I would have thought possible by focusing on their cut and not the long term health of the company.

It is more important to a) raise the money you need and b) find a long term investing partner than finding the best possible valuation. If you own 40% of your company but it is worth $20M at the end you have short changed yourself and the impact your idea can have if, instead, you own 15% and it is worth $1B.

Photo: Stone canon balls Jordan © 2017 Penny Herscher

Boards

How boards must change

“The full weight of responsibility for change rests with those who control the institutions” – White Fragility:Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Our institutions in the US are led predominantly by men. Women would simply not have the rights we cherish today, such as the right to vote, if the majority of men in power had not supported them. 

Companies have been paying attention to gender diversity among employees for some years now. It’s been talked about at length but it was not until California mandated that boards include women, and major investors like Blackrock began to use their weight to require female directors, that many companies have moved quickly to bring one, or more than one, woman onto the board. Finally, when faced with a potential fine or a “no” vote from a major shareholder, boards listen. European boards would not be 40% female unless it was the law. Setting, and meeting, serious targets works to bring about change.

But our institutions are also led by people who are predominantly White, or if you are in technology, White or Asian. Which means we, the leaders, carry the responsibility to create the change needed to make our workforces, our leadership teams and our boards racially diverse. It’s both the right thing to do, and we now know diversity creates better decisions and better results so there is no business reason to object.

As Omar Johnson says in his compelling Open Letter to White corporate America “Inside your company walls, you need to hire more Black people. Period.” 

I am horrified by the recent murders in the Black community. The human and social cost of systemic racism in the US is sickening. I am humbled by my ignorance and committed to getting better educated and taking action. I must do better. Our companies must do better.  

The way I, and my fellow directors, can effect change is to be committed, supported by action, to helping our companies become truly diverse at all levels. Racially diverse and gender diverse. It will take time but boards and governance committees are responsible for reviewing our ESG programs–Environment, Social and Governance–and to show progress. This was a growing area of focus which is now in the bright spotlight of current news. Several large institutional investors had started to demand diversity at the board and executive levels, which will add fuel to drive change.

As directors we must ask the questions and require the metrics which will drive meaningful, ongoing improvement to racial diversity in our companies. It’s past time.

Photo: The Alhambra Spain © 2018 Penny Herscher

My Personal Journey

I know why my Grandmother drank gin at breakfast

It is day 60 of our shelter in place. Everything seems calm in Cupertino, California. Companies have quickly and successfully transitioned to working from home. Jack Dorsey has said Twitter employees can work from home forever, friends are posting gorgeous pictures of their new lives on Facebook and for the first time in more than 10 years there is very little traffic on 101 at 5pm.

But inside the California ranch houses there is a seething going on, a desperation at the role we find ourselves in in the pandemic. In this case “we” is professional, smart women. Women who have careers; women who have had the privilege of help in the house and have not cleaned a toilet in 25 years; women who like to stimulate their brains with hard problems to solve and challenging debates. Women who are used to being respected for the work that they do.

Women still do the majority of the housework but this work is not respected. And it is repetitive and never ending. It’s like Groundhog Day except I am not learning to speak French or do ice sculptures because I either don’t have time or simply can’t concentrate long enough in the breaks I have. Every day it falls on women, as I am seeing with my girlfriends, to keep the house running, fed and clean. As Eleanor Margolis says in her Guardian piece “Stop this retro nonsense about lockdown being a return to domestic bliss for women.” It isn’t, it is return to the stifling life so many women led before emancipation. Even though some men are posting on Instagram as they step up and help around the house (why weren’t they before?) it is a rare man that will clean a toilet unless he’s paid to do it.

My grandmother was a smart woman. She went to Cambridge University, studied biology and graduated before women were allowed to formally receive a degree. But then she married and moved to India as a wife of the British Raj. She was never able to work but volunteered for local women in what is now Pakistan. By the time I knew her in England she volunteered as a local magistrate but spent much of her time cooking, cleaning, looking after my grandfather, drinking gin, angry and unfulfilled.

I understand why. I, like her, was not cut out to work on the household day in and day out. I respect my friends who chose to stay home to raise their children, but I did not. I chose a career and to hire people to help me with the house and the children. But now, with the arrival of Covid-19, I live in a world where every day I do the same thing. Get up, make bread, make coffee, empty the dishwasher, load the dishwasher, run laundry, cook, clean the kitchen and, once a week, shop and clean the house or cajole young adults into helping me clean the house. And keep my professional responsibilities going on Zoom while competing for bandwidth with the same young adults who are working from home. Zoom goes up and down; bandwidth comes and goes like my patience.

I have no real complaints. We have food, a roof over our heads, an income, a vegetable garden and our family is healthy. I know we are lucky. But even knowing that, the loss of my old life of stimulating conversations, travel to meet with interesting people in exciting places, dinner with friends and most importantly the freedom of being my own master preys on me. And while I don’t typically pour my first glass of wine until 6pm I understand why some days my grandmother didn’t wait and numbed herself earlier in the day. 

I have always known I was fortunate to be born into a generation where women can have a career outside the home. Now I feel it more than ever deep in my tired bones.

Photo: Paris © 2019 Penny Herscher

Boards

Women Board Directors and Chairs – Why do the numbers remain so low and how we can change them!

I was recently honored to be named board chair at Lumentum, a terrific public company in the technology space. As I thought about my new responsibility, I became curious as to how many other companies have women board chairs and unfortunately what I found was not good.  

First, for context, consider the number of women on boards in the US. While the number of women directors has increased marginally in the last few years, women still make up less than 23% of the S&P 500 directors**.

The situation is no better as you go down the market to smaller companies.  Women only just achieved 20% of director seats in the Russell 3000 halfway through this year (up from 16.4% in 2018). Additionally, while all S&P 500 companies have at least one women director (the last holdout added a woman earlier this year), a staggering 10.8% of the companies in the Russell 3000 still do not have a single woman director.  

Companies in the information technology industry are even worse—woman comprise less than 15% of the board members in this sector (perhaps the only “good” news is that the energy sector is even worse, with women comprising only 11% of the board members).    

And remember, just one woman on a board isn’t enough. We now know that more than one woman in the room changes the dynamic to enable the women to be more likely to be heard and not interrupted and/or talked over, as well as often providing greater representation of the customer base. It’s good to see Blackrock will vote against boards who do not have two women on the board in 2019 and Vanguard and State Street will now vote against boards with no women. Investors can definitely put social pressure on this issue. 

But while we chip away at simply getting to a reasonable percentage of women onto boards, the number for the chair position remains abysmal. Only just over 4% of the S&P 500 or of the Russell 3000 had a female board chair in 2018. While we strive to get greater gender equality on boards, we must also recognize that leadership positions on boards should also be open to women.  

We know it’s time to change. The research is now conclusive – diversity in all its forms makes business sense at every level. 

At the top, California is forcing a change with its new, controversial law to mandate the number of women on boards; other states such as New Jersey are considering following California which will increase the number of boards affected. We see that larger companies, typically under more public scrutiny, are ahead in fixing the problem. Companies with < $1B revenue had 12.8% female directors in 2018 whereas companies with > $20B revenue had almost twice as many at 24.1%. 

Having diversity at the top can also help mitigate risk in the #metoo era. I have observed firsthand that women in leadership positions are able to see and identify problematic behavior very quickly (not that men can’t but many women, including me, have been the subject of the inappropriate behavior and so they know immediately the impact of the problem). Sexual harassment incidents can cause material reputational, and hence valuation, damage in today’s social media era and boards need to be both sensitive on this issue and vigilant. 

I have served on public company boards since 2006. For many years I was the only woman on the boards I served on and even today I am the only woman on one of my four public boards. I’ve learned a lot about where the resistance to change comes from and how powerful it is when a board decides to diversify.  While the law can push change, change can be even more powerful and beneficial when the benefits of diversity are recognized within the boardroom.  

So how do we make change happen so that boards become more diverse, including offering greater leadership opportunities for women at the board level?

First, we must recognize the benefits that come from board refreshment.  In my experience part of a good board evaluation process is recognizing that there should be reasonable board turnover on a regular basis. Over 50% of the Russell 3000 companies made no changes at the board level in 2018. When you think about how fast the world of business is changing this slow rate of change at the board is surprising. 

There are a number of steps related to board refreshment that boards can take to encourage greater diversity at the board level.  These steps can include the following: 

  • Reviewing the skills and experience truly needed by the company and then taking a hard look at whether all directors still belong on the board through that lens. This requires board members to engage in a real board assessment process, assessing each individual director (not a check-the-box process) and can lead to a difficult conversation with a long serving director but it’s necessary to ensure the company has the best possible board in place.
  • Recognizing the potential loss of independence for long-term directors. This one is controversial in the US where the average tenure of a director is greater than 11 years, and in 25% of cases is greater than 15 years. Europe is different. I serve on the board of Faurecia, a publicly traded >15B euro global company headquartered in Paris. In the EU a director is not considered independent after 12 years and so directors will typically be asked to serve only two 4 year terms and this is made clear to a new Faurecia director up front. While most US companies do not have term limits, in my experience there is a basis for the belief that very long-serving directors (however that is defined) can become more closely aligned with management and less independent.  
  • Putting age limits in place. Again, this one is controversial since age diversity, both young and old, can add to the richness of the discussion in the board room.  Further, and as with term limits, hard rules make for hard cases.  I know this personally, as one of the greatest directors I have ever served with was 80 years old and an active chair when he passed away this year but if a director is snoozing in the meeting or out of touch with the industry then s/he should probably be aged out.

Second, boards must be willing to elect first time board directors. And yet of the <50% of companies who did elect a new director in 2018 less than 25% hired directors with no previous experience (although again large companies were twice as likely to do so as small companies). I’ve heard the objection too many times – “we don’t want to have to work with a new director, it’s too disruptive”. Well guess what? You need to in order to bring diversity and fresh talent into the director pool. I’ve been involved in doing this several times now and so long as a member of the board signs up to mentor, and the candidate signs up for director training, you can absolutely find a rich pool of highly experienced executives who are ready to work hard to learn how to be a great director. 

Third, boards must have a transparent recruiting process. The days where a board hires their golfing buddies need to be over (yes, I’ve seen this behavior). The governance committee needs to be clear and open with the whole board about the specification, the process and the recruiter. Since the majority of directors are still male it is very reasonable to need to hire a recruiter to bring candidates to your attention whom you would not normally meet.

But finally I want to tackle the elephant in the room – the directors who just don’t think diversity is important. Its old school thinking, and time will age these directors out, but in the meantime it’s important for the directors who do believe in the power of diversity to speak up. Male or female, directors should insist that the boards they sit on diversify and insist that board searches target the group that is being sought for the board – be it gender or race diversity – because unless a search targets a diverse candidate the probability is the next hire will likely be a white male who is known to the board. Having led this effort myself, I know great women can be found, although the recruiters have to work harder, and the new director may be a first-time director.

Again, the law can be used to force change. In France 40% of the directors must be female and my experience of the women I serve on the Faurecia board with is that they are smart, engaged and steeped in the industry and markets Faurecia serves. But the bias runs deep. When I was joining the French board a US director I served with had the nerve to tell me that this had led to weaker boards with unqualified female directors. He stunned me with his claim that forcing diversity reduces quality. This is simple bias without any basis in fact or research.  Unfortunately, I know such statements continue to be made behind closed doors—an all too difficult reality to recognize—but I admit I was still stunned to have my fellow director make such a statement. 

So what’s the answer?  Unfortunately there is no single answer.  Instead, it requires a broad attack on a number of issues.  But for my $0.02, the critical first step is recognizing the importance and benefits of diversity at every level and setting determined goals to change the numbers, especially in the board room and including within the leadership of the board room.  

** Statistics from the Corporate Board Practices in the Russell 3000 and S&P 500: 2019 Edition which asks the question Why Aren’t Boards Diversifying Faster?

Equality

Is 2019 a turning point for women executives?

On International Women’s Day today I find myself asking could it be that the momentum is finally building to escape velocity? Escape from a world where the majority of corporate power is held by white men? It feels like it.

The new California legislation requiring the boards of companies who have their headquarters in California to have women on their boards may or may not be constitutional but for the first time it is absolutely forcing the conversation. I’ve been raising this issue for many years now and for the first time I feel the wind at my back. I am now getting frequent inbound inquiries asking for suggestions of women I know who would be qualified as board directors, sometimes even from men who have been die hard opposers to the need or benefit of adding a woman (or one woman more than me) to their boards.

As any recruiter who has been working on getting women onto boards for a while now will tell you this is not a supply problem. There are plenty of highly qualified CxOs who are female and interested. It’s been a demand problem, especially when the easiest objection to put up is the director must have prior public company board experience which perpetuates the bias to older men. Now it’s finally changing.

We are also seeing, on the heels of the #MeToo movement, that executives who sexually harass their employees, or have affairs within their company, are no longer tolerated. Even a couple of years ago this was not the case as I saw to my dismay but it’s clear now the objectification of women in the highest corridors of power holds them down. Some of the most senior executives are now being brought down by their failure to respect the women around them. It’s about time.

We have the largest number of women in the Senate and in the House of Representatives in history – potentially energized by our current political environment – but maybe also because women are finally coming into their own politically.

And maybe, just maybe, the toxic conversation towards women that we see at the highest level of our government is the dark just before the dawn. Are women finally reaching into enough levels of power that the resistance to us sharing power is having its last, blustering hurrah?

I choose to believe so.

The movement to put women onto boards is profoundly important. In no way will this lower the quality of directors (as several men have told me) but will instead improve the quality of the conversation and the financial results of the companies. Less group think, less clubby agreeing. More diverse input and, I often see, less of the old and tired conventional input. Women who have made it to the top of their game in 2019 have had to work harder and be smarter to get there – they are often over qualified before they come to the table. If a woman graduated in the 1980s or 1990s I guarantee she has at some point had to out-work and out-smart the men around her to get ahead. The unconscious bias has been powerful and unrelenting but when you meet women directors and CxOs today they are impressive because they have had to be to get to where they are.

I believe, more strongly than ever, that we need to create a world where women have equal opportunity with men. As today’s campaign theme says #BalanceforBetter. Balance so women have equal economic opportunity to make money and lead enterprises. Equal opportunity for political power. This is how we create stronger societies and lasting peace.

And I believe the tide has turned, the momentum is building, and we are entering a world where power can be shared across genders.

Photo: Herculaneum © 2011 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Talk in Powerpoint not in Word!

It’s tough to listen when you just want someone to get to the point.

People talk too much for many reasons: nerves, wanting to be recognized or heard, wanting to look knowledgable or sometimes even because they enjoy talking, have lots of thoughts in their head and want to get them out. If you are with friends in a restaurant and they enjoy your style – who cares? But in the office talking too much will work against you because you’ll suck up other people’s time which they will, eventually, resent.

It’s very important to match your style to your audience – whether you are presenting to 1000 people or talking with 1. But it is much harder to be concise than to let your thoughts flow. It is much harder to make a 3 minute presentation that a 10 minute one. It takes discipline and a great deal more preparation.

Being concise is a skill you can learn, like any other skill or language. It takes work, and practice, but once you learn it it is very powerful.

First, consider Powerpoint and Word. In Powerpoint you write down bullets. Short, smart, impactful bullets. In Word you write many sentences, elaborating and expounding on your thoughts.

To teach yourself to present concise ideas start by preparing your bullet points before a discussion. You’re going into a one-on-one with your boss and you know you need to make some points, and discuss some issues. Prepare by making your bullet point list (preferably 3 or less, no more than 5). Then, when you are in the discussion stick to your points. Don’t run on about one or another, make yourself concisely state your issue/point of view and stop.

If you do this every time before you go into a meeting then the next step is to learn to do it on the fly. You’re in a discussion, you know you have a point you want to make, take a deep breath, count to 5, or 10, focus your mind to only the essential of what you want to say and state 1-3 short points, not an essay. Then be quiet and pause for clarifying questions – which gives you the opportunity to crisply expand your thoughts in response.

It is also important to watch your audience carefully. Are they truly with you or zoning out and politely nodding? If you talk more than a minute, pause and check in with the person you are talking with. Ask an open ended question like “what are the holes in what I’m saying” not a closed question like “make sense?” to which yes is the polite, but meaningless, answer.

With some people you may find having a piece of paper and drawing a picture of your idea, or your key points, may help. Many people are more visual than verbal. Sitting with a large pad and jotting down your points together can help you focus and not ramble on. This physical prop can also help you listen better. Writing down what the other person is saying will help you focus on their ideas instead of simply thinking about your response before they have finished.

Finally, always be aware of time. It amazes me when I meet with people and they talk for 10 or 15 minutes about themselves, what they want to tell me etc. without noticing how long they are talking, especially if we only have 30 minutes! If you need to catch up socially first then schedule that into your meeting time; if you simply need a focused conversation schedule 30 minutes and be disciplined about it. One prop is to wear a watch and put it on the table if you need to learn this. Most people will support you if you are straightforward about why you are watching the time. And if you are given 1.5 hours and your executives, or board, want a discussion don’t ramble on for an hour about generalities (as I recently experienced in a board meeting). Talk for 15 minutes max and then figure out how to make your discussion interactive.

The exception to this, of course, is if you are telling a story or you have been asked to make a speech on a topic. Whether that story is professional, or personal, if you have permission from your listeners to tell a story then take your time. Expound, embellish because that is part of the pleasure for the listener and part of your persuasive power to build the picture in your audience’s minds.

If you are naturally loquacious being concise is a hard change to make but it is an incredibly powerful skill for your career and it can be learned. If you want outside help join something like ToastMasters, or a competitive debate club. Nothing focuses the mind like competition.

Photo: Dante’s Barque, Venice © 2018 Penny Herscher

Leadership

What impression are you leaving once you leave?

It can be a strain to be aware of your actions 24/7 but as a leader it is critical. You leave an impression every time you interact with anyone, and if you are a busy person you may be leaving the impression in a few seconds.

Think about when you enter a meeting room, realize you are in the wrong room and leave. What did you say? Did you come across as simply having read the wrong room on your calendar, or as a disorganized ditz.

How about when you have just given a talk and there is a line of people waiting to talk with you, but you are tired? Do you take the time, despite your fatigue, to greet every person, listen to their question and thoughtfully answer, or do you say “sorry, have to get to my next thing” and leave?

Or you visit a site in China, or India, and you are horribly jet lagged but to the employees who you are meeting with your visit is a big deal. Do you let on that you are struggling with jet lag and whine a bit or sit up straight and force yourself to be charming and attentive to them?

Then there are the times you go out with sales people to celebrate a big win or mourn a loss. Do you relax and have a few too many drinks because you are with the lads, or do you keep a watch on your own imbibing so as to not make a mistake and say something you’ll regret.

There are thousands of such moments when you need to chose how to behave and, as a leader, I believe you always need to keep the impression you leave at the front of your mind. For you the encounter may be minor and forgetful but for the people you are meeting with – employees, customers, peers, shareholders – it may stick with them for years, especially if you let them down or disappoint them in some way.

The more people who work for you, the more important every small interaction is because your time gets sliced thinner and thinner. When you have more than 20,000 people working for you, which you may do one day, every moment leaves an impression as the CEOs of the big companies are very aware.

I’ve watched dear friends in powerful positions struggle with this. The stock takes a precipitous tumble on one day and it can be hard not to lash out and be negative to the people around you. The company misses its number and it can be hard for the head of sales not to get drunk with his boys. I’ve fought hard not to be negative when grossly over tired and had to lecture myself in the ladies room mirror to stay positive. We are all human and being self aware and conscious of the impression you are leaving with the people around you is serious work.

But if you want to be a leader it is critically important. You never know who is watching (particularly important if you are CEO of a public company). You never know what is really going on in the lives of the people you are working with and how much they may be needing you to lift them up that day. You cannot know how you may change their career choices with a few thoughtful moments.

So pay attention! I wish I had more than I did.

Photo: A pigeon hogging a Venetian water fountain © 2019 Penny Herscher

Leadership

Don’t argue in front of your customer!

We’ve all been there. You’re in a meeting with a prospect or customer and someone on your team says the wrong thing. You’re infuriated and your knee jerk reaction is to correct your teammate in front of the customer. Or get angry with your teammate. Not a good idea.

This can happen when you take a junior engineer into a meeting and she feels she has to tell the customer everything that’s wrong with the product. Or a senior executive who commits you to a schedule you know you can’t make. Or a loser sales person who can’t stop talking. Or a hungry, skilled sales person who is trying to pull a deal in earlier than you think makes sense. Or a tired customer support person who is down a cynical rat hole.

When these things happen, or the thousand other ways you can see the wrong thing being said in front of the customer it’s up to you to keep a cool head and manage through without getting angry or embarrassing your teammate in front of the customer. A customer is in the room with you to get as much out of you as he or she can to solve their problem. They don’t want to know about your problems. And they certainly don’t want you to air your relationship dirty laundry in front of them.

So how can you prevent or manage this?

First prepare. Hold a prep meeting and try to anticipate the issues and questions that may come up. Be as clear as you can what the pot holes could be and who is playing what role in the meeting.

Then, if your teammate is saying something you know is wrong, try to deflect by going on a tangent. Don’t say “John is wrong… we can’t commit to that”, instead ask a question of the customer to take the conversation in another direction.

If you are still on the wrong track let the issue go unless it is going to seriously damage your project or company’s future. There are not many issues discussed which can’t be changed with a follow up conversation. “I know John committed XYZ to you but when we got back to the office and did some more digging we realized XYZ is not the right answer (timing, service etc) for you.” Customers do that to vendors all the time!

And finally be sure to debrief with your team. Great coordination in front of the customer comes with practice, practice working together as a team. Learning who should speak on what issue, who has command of what topic. You won’t get it right the first time you work with your team, but over time you’ll build the muscle memory to navigate tough issues in front of the customer. But in the meantime, don’t disagree in front of her!

Photo: Tapestry in Sevilla, Spain © 2018 Penny Herscher

Career Advice

Startup or large corporate – which is best for you?

Everyone has an opinion of whether you should work for big companies or small, startup or corporate, but the answer is very personal. I was coaching a group earlier this week and the question came up as “I am working for a startup but everyone is telling me I should go work for a big corporate now for my resume – what do you think?”

I believe there is no right way, no right answer. But there are dimensions to consider as you map out your next step.

  • Are you working for good, experienced managers? Do you respect them, and will they invest in you? If so, stay with them as long as you are growing and learning – whether you are in a small or a large company. It is so much more efficient to learn from good managers than from bad. There are a thousand ways to do a job badly and a handful of ways to do it well so learn as much as you can from people you respect for as long as you can.
  • Are you working for a winning startup? I have found many employees are very loyal to their company, even when in their hearts they know it is failing, and yet if the company is not winning you may not grow. It could be that you get more experience because you get a battlefield promotion, but more likely if the company is not growing your responsibilities and span of control will not grow. Remember 9 out of 10 startups fail. So if you are early in your career and want to advance fast try to find a startup (if you chose to do one) that is growing.
  • Do you long for more formal training, If so then it’s probably time to go to a larger company and grow your large company skillsets. These may be larger team management, scale, working with international teams, and probably politics. Larger companies will typically either having training programs internally, or have the budget to send you out on courses. I was fortunate enough to be sent to the Stanford Executive MBA program, all expenses paid (while I was pregnant) because the company wanted to invest in me. It was a fantastic experience for me, a math major with no business training, to learn the basics of finance, marketing, management and organizational development in a crash course. A startup would not have been able to invest in me that way.
  • Do you want to manage lots of people? Again, a large company stint may make sense for you. It is certainly a great experience to manage a large team of people or a large P&L at some point in your career. But with that will come both good and bad politics. Good – the art of influencing people in a constructive way; Bad – the art of backroom lobbying and selfish decisions. So prepare yourself for both.
  • Do you need stability? There are times in all our lives when stability is very attractive, such as when we are caring for an ill family member, and times when it doesn’t seem important. Be aware of what you need right now.
  • Do you need to make a high end salary for the level/job you are in? Larger, established companies will typically pay more, especially if you are in a very competitive job category. Startups will typically want to conserve cash. Make sure you know what you are worth in the market at large and then consciously make the decision that works for you and your financial plans.
  • Do you enjoy risk and want to have fun? Well then, a startup is probably for you.

And when you are all done, looking back on your career from a beach or with grandchildren on your knee, what’s important is that you have lived to your highest potential (whatever that means to you) – and that you have worked for and with great people in fun companies. Life is too short to work in low quality companies, with and for bozos, when there are so many terrific companies and people to work with.

Photo:  Sheep in the Roman ruins of Baelo Claudia on the south coast of Spain. © 2018 Penny Herscher