Wednesday, May 23, 2012

PR over exposure is a dangerous game

Eric Jackson wrote a painful piece in Forbes this morning comparing Sheryl Sandberg to Kim Polese - and while I don't agree with his judgement that they are alike (one is wildly successful, one less so) he throws a bright light on one of the risks that can plague female tech executives: over exposure.

The over exposure starts because when you are a fresh new female executive you are rare and a novelty. The press wants to cover you because your opinions are new grist for the mill on everything from technology, to child care, to diversity in the office. Your PR team loves it - it's an easy way to get the press' attention and get the ink on the company. When I was a new CEO in 1996 I ended up on the cover of the San Jose Mercury News - amusing but of no value to my company Simplex. The press I got that was useful to Simplex was tech press and then business press around our IPO, not the many panels I did on being a female CEO with two small children.

Over exposure is a deadly trap. In the end you are judged ONLY on your financial performance, and unless you think a great deal of press coverage about you is going to drive your top line results you need to tread very carefully. Kim Polese was extraordinarily over exposed. She was naive, and taken advantage of by her PR firm but she was young, pretty and articulate and so a great product for them to sell. But Marimba did not prove to have legs after the bubble burst and while there is no shame in that per se - that's life in the Valley - it was a long way to fall for her celebrity, and was not necessary.

I put this observation into practice a few months ago at FirstRain. We were choosing a new PR agency and I had been clear with my team that while I was happy to do panels and talks on technology, or even on public board experience (I am on two public boards RMBS and JDSU), I am not willing to overload on the female tech CEO talking circuit. So imagine my irritation when one of the PR firm leads decided that the whole strategy should be to use my gender to get FirstRain in front of the press and would not shut up about it.

In Sheryl's case the risk was lower than Kim's because she was already a proven executive at Google, and Facebook's a juggernaut, so she is also already successful there. Extensively exposing her to the press in the year before the Facebook IPO made sense - she is then "known" to the investment community and the retail investor and so could carry the revenue end of the IPO roadshow. And if she has larger ambitions post Facebook (who knows...) then the positive exposure raises her name recognition at a national level.

It's a fine balance. You can only be a role model, mentor and adviser to young women if you have a successful track record. And yet the thirst for female tech role models is so great that once you have a high profile position you get given the stage - and it's tempting. My input to my team is never, ever lose sight of the end-in-mind which is business exposure for FirstRain (or Simplex last time). The "woman CEO" platform comes after that and in service of that purpose only -- unless I am doing it on my own time.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Advice to my son on his high school graduation

My son Sebastian graduates from Harker High School this week. At the request of his adviser I wrote him a letter to capture this moment in time, and my advice for his future.

May 16, 2012

On a train in New Jersey

As you read this you should know words are an inadequate way to express the depth of our love and admiration for you. But let me try to share with you how Dad and I see you and feel about you.

You have become a marvelous young man - literally "causing great wonder" - and I am thrilled for you. Three sets of parents have contacted me to tell me how you made a difference in their kid's lives this year. Your kindness, leadership and caring for the younger kids is unusual and a sign of your big heart. The world is a tough place to live for everyone, regardless of wealth and status, and it is the people who are kind and caring of others that can make life easier and happier for the people around them. No matter what circumstances you find yourself in, never lose that wonderful part of you.

With leadership comes responsibility. You are blessed with natural charisma. People are going to follow you once you discover the depth of your personal power. I suspect you have only scratched the surface so far. You began to feel it on stage and it has been such fun to watch you develop your glorious, funny stage presence. You have talent and charm. A potent combination.

When combined with confidence and a passion to make the world a better place in some way, personal power can be a very positive force. When combined with insecurity or selfish purpose it can be very destructive. My wish for you is that you stay grounded in the strength and vision you have and don't let insecurity or fear distract you. Stretch your intellectual muscles, open your mind and explore what kind of life and purpose you want and you'll figure it out. But stay positive always. Don't give in, as some people do, to negative judgments of others. Everyone needs your warmth and leadership, even if they can't ask for it.

Please learn how to care for your health my darling. Our bodies need exercise to stay healthy. Especially in our family. Your passion for learning, theatre, music and video games does not leave much time to care for your body. Don't forget it and wake up one day at war with it. Going to college is a great time to change your routine and build time in to exercise, but going to college in a big city is also a very hard time to do so, so pay attention.

And your mind... You have a big brain and there is no greater asset in the Western world to build a career with. We are so very, very proud of how your thought processes are developing and, I confess, truly delighted that you are following the math route. If you study maths or engineering you can do anything. Anything. Technology is the engine of our world now and it is going to change every aspect of human life in ways we cannot yet imagine. 

You are living in an incredibly exciting time and you will, in some way, be a part of the dramatic changes the next 50 years will see. Its very important you work hard though. Hard work now and for the next 10 years will profoundly change the choices you have for the following 50 so please, please don't waste your time. Dad and I have worked hard because it gives us freedom. Freedom for our family, freedom of choice, freedom to work on ideas we find interesting. Freedom of choice in how you spend your time is incredibly precious and allows you to pursue your passion. Dad and I both believe this and we exercise our freedom in different ways, both pursuing joy and happiness.

Finally, we hope you find someone to love, and who loves you, to share your life with. While there are many times in life that it is just fine to be alone, especially when you are young, there are also many times when being with someone you care about makes a huge difference to the quality of your life. When you are really happy, when you are down, when you are ill, when you are celebrating, when you are exploring a new world, or rebuilding your old one, when you are raising children or taking care of aging parents - all are times when being with another person and sharing the experience with another person changes the joy and quality of the experience. Really corny I know, but true. So date lots of girls, be kind to them when it's over, have a great time in college, but when you meet that one person who makes you really happy more than half the time hang on to her. And be loyal to your friends, they'll save your life more than once!

You are beloved. Much loved. By Dad and me, by Melanie, by Granny and Grandad, by Farmor. By your aunts. Your family loves you deeply and forever. Because you are you, and you are one of us, and we choose to love each other unconditionally. Like black Labradors.

I hope we are alive to see you graduate from college, and dance at your wedding, and kiss your first child, and help you plant your first garden, and kite board with you, and climb ruins with you in exotic places, but in case one of us is not keep this letter. I love you so much tears are dripping onto my iPad as I write. I know, I can see you rolling your eyes, but one day you'll feel the same way about someone and it is a wonderful feeling. When you were born and I held you for the first time I felt I was looking into the face of God (note God is the word I use for the deep mystery we feel in love, whether or not you are atheist).

Congratulations on your graduation from high school. Congratulations on emerging as a fine, honorable young man with such a bright future. Enjoy it. Celebrate it with your friends. And most of all -- Be happy!

All my love from your over-the-top, unabashedly proud


Monday, May 14, 2012

My life is not a sausage factory

Yes high tech is still dominated by men - but it doesn't have to be.

In Kara Swisher's hilarious keynote speech at the Women of Vision dinner last week she said "my life is a sausage factory" referring to the predominance of men in the high tech industry. Kara reigns supreme in the world of tech journalism so she's talking with men, and writing about men, most of the time. She's a kick - outspoken, whip smart and fearless - had me in stitches.

She's right though. There is an unhealthy focus on young men right now with the talk of "brogramming" and the frat house culture -- probably about to be celebrated in Bravo's new reality TV show Silicon Valley. I'm willing to bet anyone a dollar that the new show will stereotype women as a) young, pretty and in media, b) arm candy for partying with or c) if smart, then ugly.

But real technology companies do not have to be like that.

My life is distinctly not a sausage factory because FirstRain has women throughout it's leadership - and what may be unique is that the CEO (me) and the COO (YY) are both women and mathematicians. Now this was not by design - it is simply a result of being open to women as tech leaders, and hiring the best person for the job.

Frankly when building a company having the best person for the job is the only thing that matters. The best person means the intellect, the experience, the creativity, the skills and the cultural fit to build a great solution. We don't have enough women coming into the pipe today (hence the need for non-profits like the Anita Borg Institute who threw the dinner Kara spoke at) but even with the 20% women CS graduates we do have you can find great female software architects and engineers if you are open to them.

YY and I have worked together on and off for 20 years. We're both mathematicians, both have programmed, both worked in marketing for a while. YY's a deep nerd, mother of 3 with her wife Kate, and the best person I could have hired to run the technical teams at FirstRain. Our VP technology is male (Marty), one of our two lead architects is male (one of our founders), the other is female - again we were gender blind when hiring but sought world class talent. Our managing director in India is a female engineer (Aparna), promoted from the engineering ranks because she was the best person to lead what has developed into a truly world-class software engineering and analytics team.

So we have ended up with a management team that is about half female, the women are on both the technical and business sides of the house and I am very (unreasonably?) proud of that. And I'd like us to find more female engineers among the applicants for our open San Mateo and Gurgaon software engineering jobs. Give me a mixed grill any day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Golf is an old man's game (in Silicon Valley at least)

It's different here. Yes it's not perfect, but it is so different. We don't care if Mark Zuckerberg wears a hoodie, men don't wear ties here and the last point in Julie Steinberg's recent WSJ article on the Nine Rules Women Must Follow To Get Ahead  --- that as a woman you need to "Dress well and play golf" is just out of touch.

Successful young people (men and women) in Silicon Valley certainly don't need to play golf here to get ahead.

In 25 years of being a high tech exec I have played golf only once - and then it was only because the sales team begged me to - and they hired a pro to play with me so all I did was putt (I think they didn't want me to slow them down!). I have never, ever felt I needed to play golf to get ahead. Even with the older golf playing execs I worked for I found they still liked to go out for a drink or a great meal to bond.

In today's Silicon Valley the bonding hobbies are younger men's hobbies. You are more likely to be bonding over the benefits of a titanium racing bike frame than over titanium clubs. You may well want to be able to discuss fine red wine. You will definitely need to be able to bond over tech gadgets and geek out on how many LEDs are in the new iPad.

And what I find so exciting about the under 35 generation here is that you are also very likely to bond over family. What little Katie is doing in school, where little Tommie likes to go camping. I see a generation of young nerds coming up who, while they still outnumber the girls 4 to 1, are very much more engaged in their homes, their families and their outdoor hobbies than the prior generation of executives where the old boys club and golf are much more prevalent.

So don't pay attention to old school advice about having to play golf. Instead make sure you work hard, impact the business and either be the executive, or understand the next generation of execs coming up because they are the future.

But note: I have a few girlfriends who love golf - now that's a good reason to play!

Top 5 Reasons to Understand Your Customer's Customer

Previously published on the Huffington Post

The world is slowly climbing out of the great recession as companies around the world begin to increase investment and hiring. But for B2B sales teams looking to recapture growth during these early days, it's critical to understand who's really paying their bills and keeping the lights on--and guess what? It's not your customer ... it's your customer's customer. And if your sales team doesn't deeply understand the business problems of these folks, then you'll lose to competitors who do.

Before I get into the reasons why this is, consider some of the big, underlying changes happening in the market today. As companies start growing and investing again they are spending money, but they have fewer people than they had before. This means less time to accomplish key objectives and an even stronger focus on developing efficient strategies and processes to drive revenue growth ahead of the competition.

As a result, they are changing the way they do business, innovating in the vertical integration of their product lines and socializing their go-to-market, because if they can innovate and out-execute the competition in the way they serve their customers they can gain more market share as spending comes back.

To accomplish this, large companies are now talking about "business transformation" in their sales teams, "cultural transformation" in how they interface with their customers, and building a "social business" as a new way to look at their internal collaboration process.

With all these trends, the end objective is the same: How to better solve their customer's business problem and so gain market share. And so how do you solve your customer's problem? Well like you, their challenge is revenue, profit and market share. So when your sales team understands their customer's customer--and the business dynamics, competition and growth opportunities that their customer has--magic happens.

 Here are the top 5 reasons:  

2012-05-10-1.png1. You can focus on the customer's business problem, not your products It's a cliché, but a true one: your customers don't buy products, they buy solutions. But you can't sell them a true solution unless you know what problem they are trying to solve, and understanding their customers will give you the insight you need to hold a useful conversation with your customer.

If you pitch product you become a tactical vendor; if you can discuss their customer and how they are serving their customer you become a member of your customer's team. For example, is their customer driving price down on them - and so is your opportunity to help them take cost out of their operating expenses? Or are they focused on revenue and end user growth - and can your solution help your customer reduce their time to market?

 Understanding the customer's problem is sales 101 right? But it is surprising how many sales people still pitch product. It's essential you provide your sales team with the intelligence and systems to stay on top of the customer's ever changing end-business problem (see #5).  

2. You can align your solutions with your customer's evolving needs.

While the customer is always right, reality is they may not actually be asking for the right solution. Maybe this is because they lack specific knowledge of the options available, they have budget concerns or because internal politics are at work.

But consider a recent study by the Corporate Executive Board -- buyers don't contact vendors until they are, on average, more than half-way through the buying process. This means that by the time you are contacted as a vendor (if you are contacted!), it may be too late in the process to help your customer identify a better solution mix for their needs. If, on the other hand, you truly understand your customer's problems and challenges because you have studied their customer, and you are engaged with helping them meet these needs, then you can design specific solutions to meet the needs of their evolving business--before your competitors are asked to get involved.  

3. You can design your marketing programs to address what you customer cares about

It is possible today to understand what an end buyer cares about in ways that have simply not been possible before. The Web and social media create an unprecedented level of transparency into a market, and can show you what's top-of-mind at your end B2B customer. And it's a noisy, Big Data world which means you need technology to do it.

There are millions of articles, blog posts and Tweets posted on the Web every day, but using newly emerging semantic analytics you can monitor intelligence in a very precise way. You can now analyze the intersection of three views of your customer's business and so understand what the top issues are for them. When you can see the intersection of: - the vertical market you are targeting - the business line you are selling and - the role which is going to buy your product (e.g. CIO, EVP Sales et al) you can then target your marketing campaigns to speak to the specific issues the companies in a vertical market care about.

By monitoring what your target market is talking about you can ensure your messaging--and your value--speaks to their top-of-mind problems.  

4. You find new customers.

Many businesses have triggers that drive new customer opportunity. It could be generic management changes, like a new executive being hired, but just as often businesses are driven by precise, industry-specific changes that create new opportunity for you. Is there a government RFP released that impacts your customer's business? Has a competitor created a dislocation in your customer's end market? Does your customer need to execute M&A flawlessly to execute their strategy?

When you understand your customer's customer you can monitor the very specific events and changes in their business that signal an opportunity for you. Automatically alerting your sales person on their iPad or mobile phone each time there is an industry-specific event which impacts their customer will win you new business.  

5. The majority of your sales team can be as effective as the top 5%.

2012-05-10-3.pngMost sales people don't like to do research, but the top 5% --your rainmakers--do. They already do the work to understand their customer's customer, they plan out a campaign, they do research every morning before they place any calls. They study the customer and understand the customer's business and many will spend 1-2 hours a day doing it.

When you provide Enterprise Customer Intelligence to your sales team and teach them the Why and How needed to focus on their customer's customer, you'll raise every team member's productivity. And when you integrate the intelligence into the CRM and social enterprise systems they are already using, there are No More Excuses.

Your Customer's Customer is the real revenue engine behind your business, and the B2B companies who truly believe this, and are investing in the systems for their sales teams, are the ones who are already pulling ahead of the competition, even in this lukewarm recovery.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Is it ever acceptable to use the term "Rape" in a business context?

Are you made uncomfortable by the repeated use of the word "rape" in a work setting? To my surprise I was.

First let me preface this by saying I am no shrinking violet. I'm a CEO who grew up in the semiconductor business where blue language and sexual harassment is/was common. I'm tough to shock and I will drop an F-bomb myself to make a point (although I am trying to stop this!).

But I found myself in the middle of a conversation about how a class of vendors would "rape" the company being discussed. There were 10 men in the room and me, and the word kept getting repeated, with intensity, from person to person as the discussion grew. It's not the first time I have heard the word rape be used for a company being "skewered", "screwed", "taken advantage of" etc. in a pricing and supply discussion. However, I was surprised to find myself reacting to the repeated, high energy use of the word. I had an internal stress reaction - I was distressed and very uncomfortable. Of course I schooled my body and face to make sure no reaction showed, and watched my own reaction flow through me until the conversation switched to another topic.

It made me consider whether it is ever OK to use such a violent word in a business setting?

Rape is a violent act, in 90% of cases against women. One in six women in the US has experienced rape or attempted rape - and it is one of the most under-reported crimes. Rape is featured widely in classical art by artists like Titian, Rubens and Poussin. It is shown both as a violent act and as in-the-end-she-liked-it in films. In no case are women, or most men, numb or indifferent to the physical and emotional violence of visual portrayal of the act, or the description of the act.

We use other violent words in business. We talk about "attacking a market", we talk about "killing an issue", sometimes we tastelessly use war terminology when describing a market strategy, talking about defeating the enemy. Business is not for the faint of heart.

But I find men talking about "being raped" by business terms a bridge too far. It's insensitive to the violence of the real act and it's terrible after effect on the victims. To me, it's in the class of talking about women's bodies in a business setting - carrying the objectification of women in the media into the workplace. It's in bad taste and insensitive. But to bring the issue up at the time would be professional suicide (notice the use of the word for another violent act in a phrase which is in common use). So I just "suck it up". Would you?

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