Thursday, October 2, 2008

Leadership and Risk

I visited the Grace Hopper conference today in Keystone Colorado to give a talk on Risky Business – Building Teams and Taking Risk as the Leader.

As I always find when I talk on leadership I had a great time. About 300 women in the room (GHC is 1400 technical women this year), 50% of whom were students. My objective was to share my principles on how to build a company from a startup (an inherently risky proposition), illustrate my principles with stories and have fun at the same time.

I started with three key principles to leadership of a startup
1. Have a clear vision of what you are building
2. Refuse to compromise on the quality of your team
3. Embrace risk (note embrace not take risk)

The talk was very interactive. When I talked through how important it is to have a clear strategy that everyone understands I illustrated it with how we have all hands meetings and any question is OK, how I take every opportunity I can to make sure every employee can use the strategy as context for their decisions. That opened the floor up to questions - since I'd said any question is OK!

I talked about being uncompromising about the quality of people on the team - from interviewing practises to letting people go who are in the wrong job. A senior manager from Cisco asked me where I thought B players belonged then, and I said (not entirely facetiously) in a large company. There is enough risk in startups already - you have to have A players. And diversity helps because you get a better mix of ideas and opinions into the room.

I feel strongly that you cannot tolerate politics in a small company - it is just too inefficient. This is something I learned the hard way at Simplex and so at FirstRain I simply won't allow it. Trust is incredibly efficient. It lets you move quickly, it lets you make decisions without getting everyone involved if you have to because the team trusts each other to always act in the best interests of the company.

Then I took two examples of risk where I felt very exposed and talked them through with the group - taking Simplex public in 2001 when the window was supposedly closed, and taking my new baby into an executive staff meeting at Synopsys because I had to go into work (but was the only female VP in the industry at the time). I fessed up that my style of leadership - very open and transparent - does make me vulnerable personally and I have learned to embrace it (most of the time).

Of course, any time I present to a roomful of professional women I get the question on balance - how do I do it? do I think I am superwoman? do I judge women who slow down their careers for their families?

I think balance is a myth and I ended my talk with one of my favorite stories that always gets a laugh - how I dealt with it when my son broke his arm (the link takes you to my personal blog with just a few stories from my life).

It was great to see so many technical women together at the conference - it's inspiring because we still see disproportionately few women in CS/EE degrees and we need more, as a profession and as a country. And it was a privilege to share my beliefs and life stores with them.

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