women in leadership


It’s time for Tone at the Top on Diversity – or Why Uber is Yet Another Wakeup Call for Boards and CEOs in Tech

 Uber is just the latest company caught in the act of discriminating against women in it’s workforce. Sadly for many minorities in tech this is an old story.

As Ellen Pao writes in today’s Time article it is an indication of “tech’s existential rot”. In a world that “started off seemingly harmlessly by white men funding white men with few exceptions. When only white men were given opportunities, only white men were successful. White men went on hiring only white men, because it seemed to be a common trait of successful employees. Then investors who were white men decided only white men could be successful and doubled down on white men. White men who succeeded in the system decided it worked and saw no need for change. Fifty years later investors can’t break out of that pattern.”

But it is time for the pattern to break for many reasons. There is mounting evidence that diverse teams build better products – they are more likely to understand the buying behavior of their customers if they reflect the customer. There is also growing research that companies with diverse boards and management teams produce better returns for investors -so now some investors are encouraging boards to take on diverse board members.

But more importantly it is no longer acceptable for companies to allow employee harassment to continue while HR departments stand by or worse become part of the problem, as Uber is finding out to it’s detriment. The #deleteuber campaign has been due for a while and will hurt. (note, I switched to Lyft a year ago after reading about the leadership culture at Uber.)

So if it is no longer acceptable at the board level, in the executive team, and in the engineering ranks what can we do to make change happen faster?

I have worked in the “bro” culture of tech in Silicon Valley for more than 30 years. I have repeatedly experienced unconscious bias (sometimes not so unconscious ), being underestimated, being dismissed, being propositioned etc. and I have worked hard to over come it as I became a CEO who grew my company through a successful IPO and acquisition. And as I have done so I have been open and public about my wish to be a role model to other women that you can be technical, and be in a leadership role, and have a family in the technology industry. It’s possible to do and be happy.

I was conscious of the challenge I was facing from day one when I was one of only a handful (I think 5) women majoring in math at Cambridge in my year, out of about 300. And so, to be a role model, I have always tried to hold a leadership position in any situation I am in, especially if everyone else in the room is male.

It is so clear to me now that the problem we have in tech is not a pipeline problem. Yes, we need more little girls to like computers, and more little african american boys to believe they can be Mark Zuckerberg, but we have plenty already who enter the tech world. But the women leave in droves within 10 years because the environment is hostile. Our problem is keeping women in an industry that makes life difficult for them.

It is time to set the tone at the top. To insist that boards have at least 2 or 3 women on them (not just none, or the “we have one so we’re done” you see on so many boards). There are now several recruiters who specialize in finding qualified women with the right experience for boards. For example Beth Stewart of Trewstar would tell you there is no shortage of qualified women to serve, but a shortage of boards who think this is an important issue.

It is also time for boards to insist that the CEO builds a diverse leadership team. This takes real work to find diverse, qualified executives but it can be done in most fields. Uber is just one of many examples where a mostly male leadership team is simply deaf and blind to the issues facing their female employees.

“Tone at the top” is an expression used by boards when reviewing the results of the annual audit. They discuss whether the management team is committed to honest, ethical behavior and whether they operate with integrity. The discussion is important to sign off the financials – after all what audit committee chair would want to sign off the financial filings if he did not believe the CEO and CFO had integrity with the numbers?

It’s time for companies to embrace a “tone at the top” discussion around equal opportunity for all employees. It is time for every board to pay attention to the diversity statistics within their companies. How many women are employed at every level, has the company done an audit of pay across gender to check that women are not paid less than men for the same job? Are the percentages of women in leadership growing or shrinking? It is just not hard for HR to run reports and track progress over time – but it takes a serious discussion on the importance of diversity from the board down to build a world class company in the 21st century.

I am hoping this is what Eric Holder and my friend Arianna Huffington will now do for Uber.


Open Letter to CEOs: Manage Your Interaction With Your Board!

Posted in Inc today

So you’re the new CEO of your own company. You’re living the dream! You’ve thought through the pros and cons of being a CEO and you’ve got your first round of venture capital funding.

This means you also have a board to manage, which can be a minefield for you. So how to navigate the minefield? To begin, you must create a well-organized board meeting. Use my Top 10 tips to run a board meeting as a starting point but once you have the logistics down, it’s all about your behavior and leadership in the room.

One of the most common mistakes I see with new CEOs is thinking they need the board’s approval. You don’t. Your job is to figure out the strategy, what to do and to make good decisions so that your company grows. A board’s job is to support and advise you. Sometimes board members get confused about this and they will believe that they are there to make decisions; however, beyond hiring a new CEO or deciding whether to put more money in, they don’t have that power. If you take their advice and it’s wrong, they’ll still fire you, so the decisions, ultimately, lie with you.

The board needs you because you are the leader, the one who hired your team, the one who holds the strategy and the one with the customer relationships, so replacing you is a major risk for the company (not to mention a major time sink for the board members). The board will judge you on the quality of your decisions, whether or not you follow their advice. If the board loses confidence in you then they will replace you, but up until that moment you are in the driver’s seat and they are there to help you. This is not permission to be arrogant or disrespectful, but understanding this dynamic will help you be a better, more confident CEO. What you need most of all is to gather all of the input and perspective you can from your board, but not decisions.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to ensure your behavior in your board meeting maximizes the result:

1. Are you unconsciously seeking your board’s approval? For example, what do you say when an investor tells you to do something that you believe is wrong? If you are seeking their approval, you will probably validate the idea “that’s a great idea,” but if you are seeking input, then you’ll acknowledge the idea instead by a comment such as “thank you for your input, let me think about it.” Develop a stable of respectful responses that tell your board that you heard them, it’s good input, but you’ll still need to decide.

2. If you are female–is your behavior serious enough? If you giggle, fidget, run your hand through your hair or exhibit any of the “girlish” characteristics, you will be judged and taken less seriously. Unfair, but true. So learn to sit still, don’t fidget, lean forward, take notes (but in a considered way), lower your voice and dress carefully. Imagine how a strong male CEO whom you respect would sit in the meeting- are you conveying the same level of gravitas?

3. Where do you sit? Don’t sit at the front of the room, eagerly presenting all the slides to your teachers. Sit in the middle, or at the head of the table, and host your staff as they present their materials. Sit yourself between the power players, not in service to them.

4. What is your communication between meetings? Again, you are running the company and while some level of update is appropriate between meetings, a running commentary is not. Think about what impression you want to create. The more you communicate the details, the more you invite your board to weigh in with their opinions. Be thoughtful about what, and when, you communicate. You want to be thorough, but that is why there is a board packet. Assume your board members can read.

5. Have you properly prepped your team? It’s worth having a prep meeting with your team to talk through the agenda and what you want to get out of the meeting. Manage their presentations to be crisp and brief (three slides is a good rule of thumb). Use their time wisely and excuse them before the long debates begin, because they have real work to do.

Your board is there to help you. They are not your friends or your teachers. They are investors and representatives of the shareholders who only want you to maximize their return. Up until the time that your company is profitable and/or public, you need their support. Always keep in mind, you are running the company, not the board. It’s worth remembering that in 99 percent of the cases, the board needs you to lead the company more than you need them. If that is not the case for you, then you may be in the wrong job.

Respectfully remember that up until the minute they fire you, your board needs you more than you need them. Remind yourself of this and you will keep your head in the right place during board meetings.

Leadership, My Personal Journey

Me in the New York Times: What Parents Can Teach A CEO

When the New York Times said they wanted to interview me for the CEO Corner I had a series of reactions:”Wow – that’s great!! Fantastic exposure for FirstRain!”

“OMG – what will I say? What if I sound like an idiot?”

“Help! What will I wear?”

Classic girl. Worried about what I’ll wear and what other people will think. Yes, even 54 year old CEOs have the same thoughts you probably have if you are female. But in the end, I’m very pleased with the result… and I wore my favorite dress.

Penny Herscher of FirstRain: What Parents Can Teach a CEO


Why being “too aggressive” is a compliment for a leader

Much is being written right now about high performing men and women are described differently in reviews. Kimberly Weisul in Inc calls it an “insane double standard”, and who wrote up the original survey in Fortune points out the old truth professional women know:

Jane – who is a strong female – gets the feedback to be less aggressive whereas Joe – who is a strong male – gets the feedback to be more patient.

In Kieran’s survey a full 71% of women had negative feedback in their critical reviews, vs 2% of men. Why am I not surprised?

I’ve always been characterized as “too aggressive” and “too ambitious” in my reviews. From day one, until the day I became a CEO. Then the very same characteristics were praised – you are aggressive – that’s great!

When I wanted to recruit a world class board member to my board and identified Larry Sonsini (who I did not know) my board said “you’re being too aggressive, you’ll never recruit him” – and then I did. When the IPO market shut down after the dot.com bust and I needed to get my company public many people said “it can’t be done, you should just sell the company” – but I took it public in a very successful IPO in 2001 (with the help of Frank Quattrone and his CSFB banking team – Frank is very, very aggressive). When the financial market cratered in 2008/9 and we decided to pivot FirstRain to the enterprise it took every ounce of aggression and assertiveness to do it – and we did – with the result that FirstRain has significantly higher quality personal business analytics than anyone else because we cut our teeth on hedge fund managers.

For young women wanting to get ahead – especially if they want to be a GM or run their own company one day – I say be aggressive. Be a rebel. Stand up and be noticed – don’t conform. As Cindy Gallop (an original rebel) says you can’t change the world if you are worried about what other people think all the time.

And if you are a rebel, embrace it. There’s an interesting section in Ben Horowitz’ fantastic book The Hard Thing About Hard Things where he talks about When Smart People are Bad Employees. One such type is the Heratic – and two of the three examples he gives are indeed bad for your company. But one, the Rebel, may change the world for as he says “She is fundamentally a rebel. She will not be happy unless she is rebelling; this can be a deep personality trait. Sometimes these people actually make better CEOs than employee.”

I recognized myself when I read that. I am sure I was tough to manage. I am sure I got heaps of critical feedback because I was aggressive, and ambitious, and challenged the status quo every day. But it is those same characteristics that make me a leader and a (reasonably competent) CEO. 

I did have to learn how to be kind with my strong personality though. Early on I was not always aware of the affect I had on other people. But once I figured that out then I let my aggressive personality blossom, and took care of the people who were following me.

So when someone tells you you are too aggressive and you need to tone it down smile and say “thank you” and keep going.

Equality, Leadership

Three things you can do to hire women and change your company forever

Posted in the Huffington Post

Our world is changing very fast, and the role of women is changing
fast with it — and, mostly, for the positive. We have more women in
power, more women in the workforce, more women in control of their lives
but there still aren’t representative numbers of women at the top of

And yet, we now know that diverse teams make better decisions. We know women make 85 percent of consumer
buying decisions, and so, if you sell anything to them, you probably
want women in your decision structure. As a CEO, if you’re making
strategy decisions, and hiring decisions, you want a diverse set of
opinions around you to advise you. It’s time to pro-actively bring women into your workforce.

why would any company build an all-male leadership team now, or an all
male board, or a board that is mostly male with one token female? The
most often-cited reason is that there are no qualified candidates —
what baloney! When Twitter filed for its IPO with no women on the board
(despite the dominance of women on social media) the reason given was:
“The issue isn’t the intention, the issue is just the paucity of

It’s just not the truth (as the NYT kindly pointed out
to Twitter at the time). There are women available to hire, but you
have to be determined to build a diverse leadership team to make it
happen because the easier path (less work) is to hire people just like
you: men. You have to be willing to do the extra work, find the diverse
candidates, and open up your job spec to change your company for the
future — and for the better. It’s just good business.

Here are three roles where you can change the numbers:

Board of Directors: Mostly male still. Women hold only 16.9 percent of board seats,
10 percent of boards have no women on them and those numbers are barely
changing. If, as many boards do, you set your search criteria
narrowly… for example, must have been a CEO (that cuts most women
out), must have prior board experience (that cuts most women out), must
be retired (the women in the workforce are newer and so less likely to
be retired) then, presto! all you see are male candidates.

solution here is to open your search up to operating executives who are
not CEOs. They are in related industries in powerful operating positions
like CIO, GM or CFO and probably have no prior board experience. But
everyone starts somewhere, and there are excellent training programs you
can go to to learn how to be a public company director.

Software Engineers: Mostly male still. And with hiring practices like the “Bromance Chamber
at DropBox not surprisingly! Twenty percent of CS majors are girls, and
the best technology companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel et
al) both compete to hire them and invest in programs like the Anita Borg Institute
to learn how to both recruit them, and retain them. But the best
companies also reach outside the rigid spec of pure computer science.

the solution is to be open to a wider set of candidates, without
compromising quality. Open up to girls (and boys) with math majors, or
double majors in math and computer science — those who wouldn’t make it
through the narrow filter of typical CS hiring processes, but who are
likely smarter, harder working, and need just a small amount of training
to be fully effective for your company. Facebook even runs a summer
intern program for students without technical degrees, knowing they can
train them and wanting the very best brains for their engineering teams.

Sales People:
Mostly (white) male still. A lingering bastion of the smart,
golf-playing male in a crisp white shirt. When challenged on the limited
number of female candidates being presented, most recruiters will whine
and complain about the limited pool.

The solution: Deliberately
ask your recruiter to do the extra work to find the diverse candidates.
At my company our sales recruiter did, and we found excellent female
candidates immediately. It’s been my experience that women sell just as
well as men, so why not get a mixed team in place so you see the selling
challenges from more than one perspective?

In all these cases,
you are not trying to hire women. I’d never compromise the quality of
the hire for race or gender. Many women would (quite rightly) be
offended if they thought they were only being hired because of their
gender. What you are doing is insisting on a diverse candidate pool and a
level playing field for those candidates. And, in my experience, that
leads to stronger candidates, to gender balanced teams and, as a result,
to better decisions.

At my own company, FirstRain,
where I am CEO, our board is 50 percent women. My senior leadership
team is half men, half women. That’s no accident. If you are determined
to see diverse candidates you will — and have absolutely no compromise
on quality — quite the reverse!