Karen Catlin moderated a panel on how to be more strategic. Karen is a cofounder of Femgineer, whose mission is to educate, encourage, and empower female tech professionals and entrepreneurs. The members of the panel were Ann Mei Chang, Senior Advisor for Women and Technology in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the US Department of State; Meena Kaul-Basu, Director of Engineering at Oracle; Mary Fernandez, CEO of MentorNet; and Christine Reimer, Director of Professional and Implementation Services at Intuit.
Karen said she decided to do this panel when she heard someone talking about how they got feedback about needing to be “more strategic”. She started talking what a “strategy” is: A plan for future success. There are two parts to this where people get stuck. The first is “what does future success look like?” and the second part is “how do I get there?” This panel was for women who don’t get it and what to do about it.
Ann Mei talked about three steps or rules that help you be strategic. Those are: 1) be audacious, 2) take big risks, and 3) articulate your goal.
She used an example from when she worked at Google in the mobile business. At the time, they were only a 50 million dollar business (small for Google =D).
When it came to being audacious, they decided that the goal they wanted to reach was to become a 1 billion dollar business. They ended up hitting that goal in 3 years. Her words were, “If you don’t imagine it, it won’t happen.”
This was around the time that the iPhone had just come out and before Android. Ann Mei’s team decided to bet big on smartphones which was a controversial bet at the time. The thinking was, “If we’re going to be a billion dollar business, we have to take big risks.”
She talked about articulating your goal and the need for having a one-sentence pitch that lets people know where you’re headed. She used an example from the Department of State. The research showed that women are 23% less likely to have access to mobile phones in developing countries. The one-sentence pitch her team used was, “Reach gender equality in broadband access by 2010.” This goal made it easy to agree on what they were working on and move towards it. Ann Mei says, “Be as clear and concise as possible.”
Meena talked about how to create a strategy. She said that you need to understand the context/environment you are working in. In business, you need to also find a way to leapfrog across your competition. And finally, you need a solid plan that you can communicate to your team. She used an example from when she worked at Sun Microsystems. They were investing in a new technology for deployed virtual clusters on boxes. Some people were not sure whether this would work but they worked hard to make sure that the team was completely committed to it.
Mary sees strategy as “one leg in a three-legged stool.” The other two legs are mission and leadership. She says that strategy is always in service to the mission and set down by your leadership. She talked about crises and how you should avoid them.
She listed what crises are not. Things that are not crises: funding being cut, new leaders appearing and disappearing. These things are business as usual. Crises happen when there is a threat or a failure to the mission and/or the leadership. How do you avoid crises? You don’t. Crises will happen and they will happen when you least expect them. The cause will be a surprise and the answers will not be clear. However, since you can’t avoid it, be prepared for it and this is where strategy comes in to play. You have a responsibility to the mission of your organization and you need to be aware of what’s happening with your leadership and how your strategy will be impacted.
Mary also talked about using metrics effectively. She said that metrics only have value when they are aligned with the mission and strategy of an organization. She touched on “vanity metrics” which are metrics that make you feel good but do not reflect on what you actually need to deliver.
Christine talked about communication and how to find time to communicate effectively. She used an analogy describing oars for a boat. At best, if someone on a team does not understand how and what you are trying to do, their oars will be in a neutral position and result in drag. Sometimes they are actively against you but in her experience, 90% of the times it’s because they have no idea what you are doing. By properly communicating your plan, you can maximize impact by bringing people along.
During the questions and answers period, Karen asked the panelists about a situation where things did not go well. Each of the panelists answered with a personal example. It was nice to see women who are so high up in their careers talk about how they failed at some point. Here are two quotes that I pulled from their examples:
- Mary: After talking about a technology at AT&T that was amazing but never went anywhere. “If you do not have the right stakeholder buy-in, nothing will get done. Sometimes you need to stick your neck out and find the right person.”
- Christine: Talking about meetings where you say something brilliant and nobody listens. Later, you hear the same thought you had, re-articulated by someone else and everyone thinks it’s wonderful. “The right message at the wrong time is the wrong message. Pay attention to timing. Be thoughtful on how you are delivering your message and get feedback all the time.”
Key takeaway: Learn how to communicate effectively.