How to Become a VP: 6 Tips from Women Who Have Done It
In politics, the vice president is a strategic partner and back-up to the country's leader. In business, the VP role is similar (though comes with no access to Air Force Two). VPs are high-level managers who oversee departments or functional units and work closely with company CEOs and presidents to help set corporate strategy across the business.
Sound intriguing? If one of your career goals to become a VP, know that there's no linear path and no national election to get there. You'll need to actively manage your career to secure the right experiences, opportunities, and relationships you need to succeed in a VP role.
To help you do that, we spoke with ten women who've reached the VP level and asked them to tell us their stories and pass on their most valuable advice. Here's what they want you to know:
1. Build a wide base of skills.
The single most-repeated piece of advice from all of the VPs we talked to? Diversify what you bring to the table.
Being great at one thing—say, writing code or marketing products—might be the most important success factor in an individual contributor role. But to have a shot at the VP level, you need to expand your skill set.
"Having a breadth of skills becomes more important as our careers progress," says Susanna Holt, VP of Forge, software company Autodesk's platform business. "Make sure you acquire varied skills, and that people know you have those."
And don't be afraid to leave old skills behind as you acquire new ones, says Megan Hansen, Vice President of People at Smartsheet: "At every key step-change in leadership, you need to show up differently, and that means letting go of things you are probably pretty good at in order to learn new skills. It can be uncomfortable, but if you continue to do what you did to get promoted to a Director role, you will not be showing your capacity for what comes next."
Bridget Kimball, VP & Chief Architect of Intuit's Consumer Group, explains how you'll draw on this knowledge in higher-level roles. "As you advance, your ability to see the big picture is more important than deep knowledge," she says. "You can't be an expert in everything, so pick the areas that you want to invest deeply in and learn enough about the rest to be able to contribute and leverage the strengths of others."
That means that in the beginning and middle of your career, don't be afraid to take opportunities in other functional areas, even if that means making a lateral versus a linear move, says Vicki Muscarella, VP of Engineering and Data within the Specialty Pharma business unit at CoverMyMeds. "I believe there is an advantage to becoming more of a generalist, and I believe that individuals who have the largest impact are T-shaped in experience and knowledge. Breadth, especially for a leader, brings a lot to the table and oftentimes will lead to opportunity. Diversity in background is a real advantage," she says.
And if you're wondering what kind of skills these VPs are talking about, Pam Dodrill, VP of Customer Support and Success at Zapier, has some examples for you. "Are your presentation skills ready for external audiences and large internal audiences? Are you able to show you can get strategic initiatives up and running with cross-functional teams? If you're responsible for revenue, did you meet your goal and also contribute in meaningful ways to help your teammates achieve their goals? If you're not sure, or if the answer is 'no,' then it's essential to find a way to work on those skills," she says.
2. Start thinking about your impact in terms of “how” vs. “what.”
Beyond racking up skills and experience, you'll also need to change the way you drive change at your company. Ashley Karr, VP of B2B Marketing at CarGurus, explains what that looks like:
"When you're early in your career, you're often evaluated on the 'what' of your job, in terms of the results. In my world, the 'what' could be the impact of the campaigns you're delivering on revenue. However, as you move up from a manager to a director and then to VP, it's less of the 'what' and more of the 'how' you're delivering those results. Are you able to influence the decisions of other departments to get them to resource your projects? Are you able to change behavior of other teams in order to deliver better results or change the way you operate? It's a different set of skills that are less visible and concrete, but super critical to the impact you have on an organization."
In order to have the energy and perspective to make that impact, Susan Billingsley, Vice President of Global Marketing at predictive analytics company <intent>, notes how important it is to set boundaries around your responsibilities. "You cannot be a strategic leader when you're constantly reacting from the weeds," she says. A good way to start practicing that strategic thinking? "Anticipate the needs of those around you. You need to understand the long- and short-term needs of the businesses, but you also need to understand how your role and your specific day-to-day actions impact other function leads and leadership, and their ability to do their jobs. People like to work (and promote) those who perform their function well in a way that makes the whole machine better, faster, and stronger. As with anything else, it's not just about you."
3. Don’t assume your managers know you want to become a VP—tell them so yourself.
Women are paid less, promoted less, and have less career satisfaction than men; even at companies with high-profile mentoring programs ostensibly meant to even the playing field for women, men still get 15% more promotions, says a HBS study.
That's why it's vital that women advocate for themselves versus waiting to be noticed and rewarded when it comes to moving up in their company.
As Carolyn Guss, VP of Corporate Marketing at PagerDuty explains, you need to find opportunities to be heard. "This is an easy thing to say but can be hard to do. Remember, you are the most experienced person in the room in your specific role. So be sure to listen to the viewpoints of others, but then speak up and share your own. Don't wait to be asked."
Holt experienced this challenge—advocating for herself— first hand. "I spent many years as an engineer, and then as an engineering manager, before becoming a director and subsequently a VP. I might have progressed faster if I had shown the confidence to ask for opportunities early on," says Holt of her experience climbing the ladder.
And Hansen encourages women to start advocating long before they're ready for the promotion: "Talk to your leader about your desired path. Don't assume that they know. Don't wait until you are ready for the role. Do it now and enroll them on the path with you."
Dana Robinson, VP of Content at streetwear marketplace StockX, suggests women offer to take on projects across the company to show they're serious about stepping up. "I coach women to take big swings that might be outside of the scope or purview of their current role (and comfort zone!) and then use those big swing successes to drive the conversation around growth within the organization. It's important to remember that nobody is sitting in a room waiting for the right moment to promote you; it's on you to convince them that you're worthy of it," she says.
Katy Cockrel, also a VP at StockX, echoes this advice: "Women are often hesitant to make the case for themselves when it comes to things like pay parity and equity of advancement opportunities. It is imperative that you strategically self-promote, highlight your accomplishments, and shape perception of yourself amongst your colleagues and leaders."
4. Find mentors and ask them for feedback.
Though mentorship alone isn't enough to get you a VP spot, having a collection of mentors who are willing to give you their advice and perspective is valuable as you take on more responsibility, said the VPs we interviewed.
And if you're smart about it, you can find a mentor and a sponsor at the same time. As Cockrel explains, "There is some argument between the value of mentors vs. that of sponsors — I find them both to be key and if it's the right person, you can 'kill two birds with one stone.' You want to be sure to tap someone who is highly networked and willing to tap into that network for you, a decisionmaker who is 'in the room' and is willing to advocate for you whilst inside."
Billingsley says she'd describe her path to VP as "blessed by mentors and sponsors." She continues: "My success was, and is, a function of hard work and asking 1,000 smart people for their perspective on how to do things. Find people more experienced than you who are willing to validate or invalidate your thinking and give you the confidence to be bold."
Start finding mentors early in your career, says Holt. "One mistake I made was to not ask for advice enough. Now I know that there are many people out there willing to share their experience and expertise. We just need the confidence to reach out to them."
Be ready to accept criticism as well as praise, and see the value in both. "Learn what areas are holding you back. Conversations like this are hard to hear sometimes — they're called growing pains for a reason! Even if the feedback is hard to hear, listen anyway. Those hard conversations tend to contribute the most fuel to career growth," says Dodrill. "Leadership development takes a 50/50 investment between you and the company you work for. Be sure to self-reflect and contribute everything you can to your growth, don't just expect it to happen because you are a top performer."
It's vital that you lean into your failures to learn from them, says Hansen, especially when you're starting out and still stretching into a new role. She uses her experience as an example: "I had built a career on delivering great work products, as an individual and through individuals. Being a VP meant that I was leading leaders and that was a whole new ballgame that I was not as prepared for as I thought I was. I feel pretty blessed to have had a leader at the time who encouraged and supported my journey, and I worked hard to not make the same mistake twice. Errors were made, but I learned from them by creating a safe space for my team to share what they needed from me, and by getting feedback from my peers and the leaders I partnered with so that I could fail forward and fast."
And keep that always-be-improving mindset even once you reach that VP spot. Janet Vito, VP of Sales and Marketing at uShip, the world's first and largest shipping marketplace, says, "Feeling comfortable means you can easily become complacent. To truly drive business value, you need to be able to think and do 'outside of the box,' be open to all options, and not take the easy route because it's easy to take."
5. Hire and empower great talent.
A key part of leadership is knowing how to build and support a team, and that's especially true for VPs, considering their large set of responsibilities. "It's important to realize that your success is tied to the success of your teams. If they feel supported and that they have ownership of their work, they will achieve amazing results," says Kimball.
That might mean hiring people who are better than you, and Hansen says that's a good thing: "Don't be afraid to hire people more experienced or skilled than you are, as leadership is not about being the smartest person in the room, but about enabling the smart people you hire to do what you hired them to do."
And when you're thinking about empowering the people around you, think beyond your immediate team. "Even more important [than advocating for yourself] is being a champion for other women in your workplace, both your direct reports and your peers. You will thrive by helping to create an environment where all women can thrive," says Robinson.
6. Make sure there's space for your ambition at your company—and that it's the kind of company you want to be leading.
"At any given company, there are a limited number of VP level roles," says Karr. "You may be doing an amazing job and be on a promotion track, but at some point, you're limited by the availability of what your company has to offer. If you are well-respected and are ready for that next level, but are not sure that a role exists that meets your development goals, I would encourage you to have an open conversation with your manager about it. In many cases, companies will find something that will help you progress; or if not, you can be more open about your need to look outside your company and can set up a better transition plan for yourself and your team."
Even if the VP role does exist at your current company, make sure it feels right for you and what you believe in. "Once you develop the right skills and feel that you are truly ready, you make sure the VP role you're after is the right fit for you," says Dodrill. "In order to gain trust as an executive, you need to be aligned within the culture you work with, otherwise it's not going to be fun, and it should be fun! When I found myself in this position once, my mentor told me, 'If they don't get you, they don't get to have you.' That doesn't mean anyone is 'bad.' It just means there's a better place for you to be."
Think you may want to work for one of the incredible women highlighted here? Check out open roles at the companies mentioned:
- Apply for open roles at Intuit
- Apply for open roles at Autodesk
- Apply for open roles at <intent>
- Apply for open roles at Smartsheet
- Apply for open roles at CoverMyMeds
- Apply for open roles at Zapier
- Apply for open roles at CarGurus
- Apply for open roles at uShip
- Apply for open roles at StockX
According to a recent study, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen 150% since the pandemic started. But these acts of violence are not new — they are part of a much larger history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S.
That makes celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (which was named a month-long celebration in May by Congress in 1992 "to coincide with two important milestones in Asian/Pacific American history: the arrival in the United States of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843 and contributions of Chinese workers to the building of the transcontinental railroad, completed May 10, 1869") this year all the more important.
As we reflect on recent events and how they fit into a much larger history of discrimination, we're also taking time to celebrate and acknowledge the many achievements of the AAPI community.
We asked several of our partner companies what they're doing to honor AAPI Heritage Month at work, and we were inspired by the range of responses, covering everything from campaigns to #StopAsianHate to educational events on AAPI history.
Here's what they're doing, in their own words:
Empowering authenticity - LogMeIn
"Our theme this year is AIM to Be Real. We are embracing our new company values and celebrating those who bring their authentic selves to work, who help create space to celebrate diversity of thought, and who give back to the API community. Our Asian ERG, Asians in Motion (AIM), is hosting several events: a discussion about bringing your authentic self to work with Jerry Won (Dear Asian Americans podcast); a refugee-led virtual cooking class; ERG Movie Club discussions featuring Bollywood films, and a virtual volunteer event where we will offer career development mentoring for young women across Asia."
Learn more about LogMeIn here.
Educating on current events — Raytheon Technologies
"Raytheon Technologies is honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with an enterprise-wide global town hall event – Real Talk: Building CommUNITY Together. Organized by the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) employee resource groups across the company, employees will share their personal experiences and discuss ways to support Asian American Pacific Islander communities. The event will also feature prominent leading advocates from renowned civil rights organizations to provide insight into the national context surrounding recent events. We will also feature AAPI employees internally and on our social media channels."
Learn more about Raytheon Technologies here.
Encouraging awareness, growth, and learning — Moody's
"Moody's is encouraging awareness, growth, and learning during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with the following activities, led by our Multicultural Business Resource Group and DE&I team:
- Weekly newsletters featuring AAPI employee profiles and cultural resources
- Video screening and small-group discussions supporting #StopAsianHate
- Cultural panel discussion featuring employee stories
- Professional development activities
- External speakers speaking about Asian leadership"
Supporting professional development — Freddie Mac
"Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at Freddie Mac – Together, We Are Stronger
Freddie Mac supports the professional development of Asian and Pacific Islander employees while promoting an increased awareness of the value they bring to the organization and our local communities. Our InspirASIAN Business Resource Group is hosting various activities throughout the month such as:
- Personal development session on empowerment led by a coach from our Employee Assistance Program.
- "Stop Asian Hate" lunch and learn geared toward discussing the hurdles facing the AAPI community.
- Fireside chat about racial injustice with leaders from our InspirASIAN and ARISE (employees of the African diaspora) BRGs."
Fostering inclusion, learning, and belonging – Nestlé USA
"At Nestlé USA, the Pan Asian Network (PAN), one of our many employee resource groups that support our Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion initiatives, will host a variety of events to honor and acknowledge Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. These activities will foster greater inclusion, enhanced learning, and belonging for the AAPI community. PAN will highlight women's development in Asian cultures, Asian leadership and what their culture means to them, culinary innovation of Asian cuisine, intersectionality of LGBTQ+ and Pan Asian community, as well as an enhanced learning watch party of the PBS movie 'Asian American.'"
Learn more about Nestlé USA here.
Promoting cultural literacy – Relativity
The Community Resource Group at Relativity
"For Relativity, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is an opportune time to not only celebrate the rich AAPI cultures represented within our company, but to also foster awareness and allyship amidst the current rise of AAPI hate. RelAsians, our internal community resource group, has organized a few activities for May: a book club focused on AAPI heritage—because we feel it's never too early to gain cultural literacy, a weekly spotlight on AAPI Relativians, and a virtual event that takes attendees on a tour through an Asian grocery store, introducing native vegetables and staple ingredients for traditional home-cooked Asian recipes."
- Contribution from Neha Pant, Sr. Performance Engineer & Angie Ocasek, Sr. Specialist, Partner Enablement – Co-Chairs of the RelAsians Community Resource Group at Relativity
Learn more about Relativity here.
Creating transformative experiences – Facebook
"At Facebook, our APIs employee resource group's mission is to create transformative experiences for all APIs at Facebook, Inc through key cultural awareness and engagement highlighting the API community. To kick off APIHM, we will host a series of events and conversations for the community and its allies designed to support the API community around the theme, The SUM of Us, including:
- Letting Others In: a mindful discussion series that privileges intersectional voices, storytelling, feedback, and vulnerability as tools for building empathy and inclusion amongst organizations.
- Racial Healing Learning Session: specific to the API Experience focused on naming of experiences and emotional responses, understanding the body's responses to racial trauma, what the audience can do in the moment for self-care, and long-term strategies to overcome the effect of the traumatic experience.
- Bystander Training/self Defense Workshop"
Learn more about Facebook here.
Extensive and exciting programming — 2U
"At 2U, Inc. we'll be honoring Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with extensive and exciting programming coordinated by our employee-led Asian Pacific Islander Network (APIN). In a year marred by exceptional challenges APIN has centered activities around the ameliorating themes of joy, culture and wellness. Be it delighting in a ukulele mini concert, reading an interview highlighting an API coworker, winding down after too much screen time with a somatic healing session or engaging in a panel discussion with API tattoo artists, we have a packed month ahead with opportunities to support oneself and the API culture! Follow along @Lifeat2U on Instagram for more!"
Learn more about 2U here.
Amplifying voices and educating others – Smartsheet
"During APAHM, the API at Smartsheet community will be hosting several events and activities to educate others, amplify AAPI voices, and celebrate the AAPI community! We plan to kick off the month with a documentary viewing and discussion to learn about AAPI history, and hope to share personal stories from our AAPI employees throughout the month. We'll end with an opportunity for the community to celebrate itself by gathering together for fun and games, while eating food from local Asian-owned restaurants."
Learn more about Smartsheet here.
Rising together in sports and culture – NBA
"For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, APEX is proud to present a multitude of celebratory activities, headlined by an NBA Family Virtual Town Hall and, with the NFL and MLB, an Asians in Sports & Culture Symposium themed "Together We Rise" featuring prominent Asian personalities from the sports world. We are also launching a PSA with an NBA star, honoring Eid-al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, offering a bystander intervention training led by AAJC, and – because the celebration wouldn't be complete without food – hosting a sushi making class for our members."
Learn more about the NBA here.
Creating courageous conversations – Commvault
"This May, we are celebrating all our Asian/Pacific Islander employees, not just Asian Americans. We will spend the month learning about and celebrating the diverse cultures of Asia through weekly events and activities led by our Multi-Culture ERG. Vaulters and external guests will teach us the history of practices such as yoga, origami, and Asian cuisines. We will also discuss topics like the rise of hate crimes against Asian people and the recent spike in COVID-19 in India. These activities and courageous conversations will engage our workforce and create support for our Asian and Pacific Islander communities around the world."
Learn more about Commvault here.
Honoring history through virtual events – Collins Aerospace
"Collins Aerospace supports our AAPI colleagues not only in May, but all year. Our parent company Raytheon Technologies hosted a virtual Town Hall last month to provide a safe space for open dialogue about recent events targeting Asian Americans in the U.S. In addition to this entity-wide event, our Asia Pacific ERG at Collins is hosting events that educate and honor the importance of Asian Pacific American history such as virtual Lunch & Tours spotlighting South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and India; and Thoughts & Support sessions. Site-specific events include virtual cooking class, and viewing PBS docuseries Asian Americans."
Learn more about Collins Aerospace here.
Highlighting new perspectives – MongoDB
"MongoDB will share daily historical facts, highlights of Asian American pioneers, and perspectives from our AAPI employees in a dedicated Slack channel. We will also be providing access to an Asian Pacific American Heritage Month webinar, organizing a trivia night, and holding Processing Together sessions for our internal AAPI community due to recent hate crimes happening across the globe. These sessions are a safe space for employees to share their stories and sentiments of what it is like as an Asian American in America today. (Read MongoDB employee Monica Lu's story about being an Asian American woman in tech here.)"
Learn more about MongoDB here.
Spotlighting diverse communities – Bumble
"At Bumble, moments like heritage month celebrations are often our anchor to ensure we are spotlighting diverse communities. In alignment with AAPI Heritage Month in May, Bumble is rolling out a series of thoughtful programming to encourage internal education and around how to support the Stop Asian Hate movement and better serve the Asian community globally. The lineup of initiatives include:
- BuzzWord DEI Discussion Series with featured guest speakers: This conversation will focus on the Asian community within the context of larger cultural issues such as dating app experiences, fetishization, masculinity, and representation.
- Bumble will be inviting employees to join a virtual Vietnamese coffee-making class. Created in partnership with Phin Bar, an urban brew-bar that offers Vietnamese-style steeped coffee combined with house-made ingredients, Bumble hopes to facilitate a deeper cultural learning and community bonding experience for the team.
- Bumble will also be activating channels across social media and our product to educate our community about bystander intervention and raise awareness around the importance of supporting the Stop Asian Hate movement."
Engaging in daring conversations – Procore
"In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month in May, Procore recently organized an internal event to recognize and support the AAPI community. The event was hosted as part of our ongoing internal speaker series, 'Daring Conversations & Allyship,' to create space for an open dialogue around diversity, inclusion, and belonging. All employees were invited to tune in as employees from our AAPI communities shared their unique experiences, addressed anti-Asian hate, and discussed actionable ways to support our AAPI community."
Learn more about Procore here.
Taking action to foster change – SeatGeek
"This month the POC ERG will be meeting and hosting different activities to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This includes creating a safe space to discuss current events, and what actions our communities can take to foster change, sending out a newsletter which will highlight the Asian community in every aspect, and lastly, we will be hosting a guest speaker.
We hope with these planned activities and meetings, we can highlight, and uplift the Asian/Pacific American community, as well as bring awareness to the horrible ongoing attacks they are facing."
Learn more about SeatGeek here.
Uplifting and inspiring the community – Okta
"Okta's People of Color (POC@Okta) ERG is planning to commemorate AAPI Month with a series of fireside chats and iconographical facts posted internally in the #poc and #all diversity Slack channels! These chats will feature Dion Lim of ABC7 News and Comedian/Actor, Ronny Chieng. We will conclude the series with a partnership with Pride@Okta featuring supermodel, TED speaker, and transgender advocate Geena Rocero. The goal of this series is to educate, uplift, support, and inspire! The Okta leadership supports its AAPI employees, customers, and community."
Learn more about Okta here.
Empowering cultural diversity and leadership – Quip
"Salesforce will be celebrating through multiple virtual events, such as a leadership panel on the power of cultural diversity, a tea tasting, a tai chi class, a haka workshop, and more! Members of the Quip team have also compiled an extensive list of resources to support AAPI communities, including ways to donate, take action, and learn more."
Learn more about Quip here.
Focusing on lived experiences – Mindbody
"The Mindbody United ERG focuses on a different heritage or history each month, with May devoted to Asian & Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This ERG seeks to provide a platform to both celebrate and learn together. This will manifest in two ways: As a newsletter and a Zoom meeting. The newsletter will feature contributions directly from team members, while the meeting will feature Assembly member Evan Low as our speaker. It is our goal to focus on the lived experiences of the AAPI community, address discrimination, and how to chase after the part of the world we can make better."
Learn more about Mindbody here.
Promoting harmony and unity – T. Rowe Price
"T. Rowe Price is aware and appalled at the recent spike in hate crimes against the Asian community. In response, the firm will center Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month efforts around harmony and unity, in alignment with the Hawaiian value, Lōkahi – Forward as One. To share best practices, successes and areas of opportunities, T. Rowe Price will co-host a Leadership Panel on Asian Leadership Challenges with Baltimore Asian Connect, a consortium of Asian business resource group leaders at local corporations. The firm will also host a book club and restorative listening circles for Asian American associates and their allies."
Learn more about T. Rowe Price here.
Celebrating Asians globally
"May is Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month. Although traditionally a US celebration, at Autodesk we are celebrating Asians globally. The Autodesk Asian Network is hosting Innovative Leaders, including Lori Mukoyama and Jonathan Zee. Lori Mukoyama is redefining experience-driven design globally at Gensler. Jonathan Zee has an extensive portfolio of buildings that are helping to shape cities around the world at Goettsch Partners. Lori and her husband Jonathan combine design, architecture and engineering in their work while simultaneously manage a family together during this pandemic. This event is hosted by AAN, as part of a monthlong series of APA Heritage Month events."
Learn more about AutoDesk here.
Arezoo Riahi isn't a big fan of the "fake it till you make it" approach. She'd rather ask for the help she needs and learn from it.
Autodesk's Director of Diversity and Belonging joined the design software company from the nonprofit world after a long career in connecting people from different cultures. While her work had been deeply rooted in DEI values, there were certain parts of the strategy-building aspects to her new role that she wasn't sure about.
"If you know it, show up like you know it. If you don't know it, you shouldn't fake it. And Autodesk didn't shame me for not knowing everything. They helped me, and the entire team, by providing the resources that we needed, bringing in outside expertise to help teach us when we were in new territory," says Arezoo, who has been at Autodesk for three years now, during which she's been promoted twice into her current role.
We sat down with Arezoo to hear more about her path into DEI work, what she thinks the future of that work must include, and what advice she has for women looking to build fulfilling careers, from knowing what you don't know and beyond.
Inspired to bring people together
Mocorro, France, Switzerland—though Arezoo grew up in the Chicago area, she didn't stick to just the U.S. when it came time to pursue her education. International internships and study opportunities confirmed the perspective she had growing up: people are more alike than they are different.
"My parents are immigrants from Iran, and I was born in the United States. I saw the benefit of having exposure to a different culture, a different language, different food and rituals, and I was fascinated by that," says Arezoo. It was spending a summer in Mocorro that really sparked her passion for equity, she adds. "I realized for the first time that while we have so many different experiences as individuals, our commonalities are actually much more prevalent."
Arezoo took that focus on bringing people together to the Institute of International Education, where she led the TechWomen program, partnering with different companies to bring 100 women from 23 countries to Silicon Valley for mentorship.
One of those companies was Autodesk. Long before they reached out to offer her a role to join their DEI team, Arezoo got an up-close look at how the company worked, and she was impressed. "I realized that there was a real magic about the people at [Autodesk]," she says. When she was offered the role, it was the people that made Arezoo excited to take it: "I felt like the work I was hoping to drive would stick."
Pursuing positive impact
In moving from the nonprofit to the corporate world to pursue a career in DEI, Arezoo was driven by a conviction that she could make just as big—if not even bigger—of an impact on equity and belonging in that setting.
"I knew that the impact corporations can make on their people and outside of their walls is significant," she says. "And the beauty of working in a corporate setting is that because we are revenue-generating, we're not relying on outside funding to make that impact. There's more agency in designing what that impact looks like."
Arezoo has made that impact across different DEI verticals, from mentorship to employee resource groups to analytics to communications. Along the way, she's picked up new skillsets and strengthened her capabilities as a leader in this space.
Right now, as Director, Arezoo's focus has come full circle, expanding Autodesk's DEI efforts on a global scale. "We're taking a closer look at all the countries we are located in," she says. "The word 'diversity' doesn't mean the same thing wherever you are, and we are looking towards an expanded global approach which would diversify representation and ensure a strong sense of belonging both within and outside the United States."
4 tips for building your career
Arezoo is excited about where she is in her career and what she's working on. She has a few pieces of advice for readers looking to find similar fulfillment:
1. Know what you don't know. As referenced earlier, Arezoo is comfortable admitting when she needs a bit of help. Instead of bluffing your way through, says Arezoo, asking for help can show that you're self-aware and ready to learn.
"You have to be willing to go where you might not know," she says. "In some companies it's like, well, you've got to know everything before you walk into that position. Not at Autodesk. They saw my skills, they saw my potential, and they continue to invest in me despite the fact that I haven't necessarily spent my entire career in the DEI space. That is really powerful when you're trying to grow your career."
2. Embrace a growth mindset. This means believing that you can change, and putting in the work to do so.
Arezoo uses the example of a failed relationship to explain what she means: "You can walk away from it and be like, 'Everything was that person's fault, and I couldn't handle it anymore, and I walked away.' But for me, it's also been about, 'What did I do wrong? What did I do to contribute to this relationship that didn't work?'"
In her personal life, when friends told Arezoo that people can't change and that that's why relationships end, she pushed back. "I refused to believe that. I think I can be better. In order to not have a failed relationship, there are things about me that I can do better or differently," she says.
The same goes for work: failure happens, and with that comes an opportunity to learn. "If you don't have a growth mindset, you will never do your best work. You will always be limited by yourself," she says.
3. Take control of your own progress. "A lot of times, people wait for things to fall in their lap," says Arezoo. "It's not worth it. Start thinking about where you want to be in five years, and recognize whether or not the path you're currently on is going to get you there."
In her own life, for example, that's meant speaking up when team changes would've left Arezoo with a job she wasn't excited by. By taking control and sharing what she wanted, Arezoo was able to land on a happy medium that worked for everyone. "You have to see yourself as a collaborator, particularly in things that are going to impact your own career," she says. She also suggests saying yes when you can - which will be even more challenging as we experience the social stressors of navigating a post-pandemic world - and being willing to try lots of new experiences.
4. Tell your own story in a way that serves you. Ready for a meta reflection? The way this profile is structured—focusing on Arezoo's background seeing value in diversity, following her as she realized she could make an even bigger impact in that space in the corporate world, and including advice for other people to find their own paths to fulfillment—comes from the way that Arezoo has learned to tie together her background into a cohesive story that resonates with employers.
"You can have experiences that may not feel like they're in any way connected, but you can connect them yourself," she says. "I started my career in international development. Then I started doing outreach and recruitment. Then I did information sessions, then selection panels. How are those things connected? Well, what I learned in international diplomacy about building mutual understanding is the foundation of my own philosophy related to diversity and belonging."
"You can have a defined path for a while," adds Arezoo, "but the rest of it is ambiguous. Don't worry about how it's all going to take shape. Just get the inputs, get the different experiences—you can tie it together later."
Get an inside look at the interview process for sales roles at LogMeIn, one of the largest SaaS companies providing remote work technology, from Michael Gagnon, Senior Manager of Corporate Account Executive Sales.
Listen in for actionable tips that will help you ace your interviews. Spoiler: one of the most important characteristics the sales team hopes to see is someone who brings their authentic self to the interview! They also look for motivation and, of course, sales skills.
Don't miss Michael's take on the importance of encouraging allyship from a leadership position and his efforts to do so as a leader within LogMeIn's Pride employee resource group.
Are you interested in joining LogMeIn? They have open roles! To learn more about them, click here.
How Being an Open Member of the LGBTQIA+ Community Has Helped Procore’s Alex Zinik Overcome Imposter Syndrome at Work
Alex Zinik wasn't surprised that she started her career in education—she decided she would become a teacher when she was just in third grade.
She was surprised while working as a paraeducator in the school system and preparing to become a special education teacher, she discovered that it didn't feel quite right. "I didn't know if that's what I really wanted to do," she recalls.
So a friend suggested she take a job during her off summers at construction software company Procore. She thought this would be the perfect opportunity to try out this new challenge, and if she needed to, she could go back to the school district once the summer was over.
"Five summers later, I'm still here!" she says, smiling. "And I see myself here for many more years. I just fell in love with the company, the culture, and with the career growth opportunities I was presented with."
As part of our Pride month celebrations, Alex, currently the Senior Executive Assistant to the CEO at Procore, sat down with us to share how a common fear—the fear of being found out—underlay the imposter syndrome she felt when pivoting to an industry in which she lacked experience, and the anxiety she often felt before coming out to her friends and family about her sexuality.
Read on for her insight on overcoming negative thought patterns, being yourself, and paying it forward.
Recognizing patterns when working to fit in
Alex first learned about imposter syndrome—an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be—a few years ago. She was immediately struck with a sensation of feeling less alone—of recognizing that there was a name for what she'd been experiencing on the job.
"Imagine being part of a group where you're told your whole life that you're not good enough, or that you don't fit in, because of your skin color or your sexuality," she says. "It's so important to understand that we're not suffering through this alone. Imposter syndrome is way more common than we think it is, and it's so important to be open about it."
As she read more about it, Alex recognized signs of imposter syndrome in her day-to-day work: feeling shy presenting her work to stakeholders or avoiding using technical terms for fear someone would think she didn't know what they meant.
"I realized I would try to shove the thoughts down and avoid putting myself in certain situations at work," she says. "That was actually a lot like how I used to treat my sexuality before I was open about it. And I realized that I was putting so much brain power into not being found out—and that I could put that brainpower elsewhere. That's what's helped me get where I am in my career today. Because if pushing down those thoughts and ignoring them didn't work with my sexuality, why would it work now with my career?"
Leaning in to opportunities to be herself
Two mentors have played a big role in guiding Alex's career thus far.. First is Suzanne Mayeur, Procore's VP of Special Projects. She hired Alex, gave her her first stretch project (collecting data on improving the company's shuttle and parking services), and guided her through her first promotion into a travel role. Michael Denari, Procore's Director of Procurement, also supported her career growth at Procore. He taught her how to run Excel reports, gave her opportunities to present to executives, and supported her pursuit of project management certification.
"When I was a kid in high school and college, I didn't really ever have that passion for what I wanted to do," says Alex. "I never studied harder for anything in my life than I did for that project management test!"
She passed on her first try, and enjoyed working in program and project management within Procore's procurement team until Suzanne reached back out with an opportunity to support Tooey Courtemanche, Procore's CEO.
"It was so scary to think about," says Alex. "I was really comfortable in my position in procurement and I felt like I was in a really good place in my career." The imposter syndrome she'd dealt with earlier in her career almost kept her from taking the job. "I spent a lot of time asking, 'Am I good enough? Do I have the right qualifications? Will everybody find out that I only have teaching experience under my belt?'"
But Alex remembered what she had learned: that she had power over her own thought patterns, and that she could redirect them. "I said, 'I am good enough. In fact, I am going to use what I've learned to accomplish more and continue to grow in my career.'"
She took the job, and now loves all aspects of managing the office of the CEO—especially the opportunity to study Tooey's leadership style.
"I spend day in and day out with him. And one thing I admire is that he never changes based on his audience," says Alex. "He's the same Tooey we all know whether he's talking to a new hire he runs into in the parking lot or whether he's talking to investors on Wall Street. He's himself, he's proud of who he is, he's open about his story. He embraces who he is and he's authentic, and that's a good reminder."
Creating opportunities for others
In Alex's past jobs, she didn't feel comfortable being out as her authentic self. "My coworkers would assume I was straight...I would try to blend in and stay under the radar. I used to get extreme anxiety whenever one of my coworkers would ask me personal questions. Because how could I tell them about the awesome weekend I just had with my girlfriend?" she says.
That's not the case at Procore. She's been out since she joined the company. "As soon as I stepped foot in Procore, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I can be out here; I can say 'my girlfriend and I'; I don't have to hide who I am.' Everyone was so welcoming and so supportive," says Alex.
Now, Alex is working to make sure that Procore stays a safe and supportive place for everyone. She's spoken about Pride on Procore's All Company Update calls and currently serves as the co-chair for Procore's PRISM (Pride Raising Awareness, Involvement, Support, and Mentoring) employee resource group for LGBTQIA+ employees and allies. With PRISM, she helps host events and create volunteer opportunities, and partners with other ERGs, including Procore's African (Descent) Council, to support allyship across identities.
As part of Procore's June Pride month celebrations, Alex is hosting a Daring Conversations episode about the never-ending process of coming out, and celebrating with virtual events across Procore campuses. Personally, she's celebrating her first Pride with her now-fiancé (Alex's girlfriend recently proposed to her!).
"I want my fellow LGBTQIA+ employees to know that not only am I part of this community, but I'm an ally to them. If I can do my part by being out and open, I want to; I want to promote psychological safety as much as I can, and make a positive impact where I can," she says.
If you told Paula Manchester that you weren't good at math, she wouldn't believe you.
"That's a global indictment," she says. "'I'm not good at math' implies that you don't have the ability to nurture that muscle. And then I'd ask what kind of math? There's a lot to math."
Instead, she'd introduce you to a growth mindset perspective: "Try 'I have not yet been exposed to differential equations. Let me open the book and start studying, let me get access to teachers and tutors who can help me understand this, let me begin to practice,'" she says.
"A growth mindset says, 'There's nothing that I can't do. It's just that I need to learn how to do it, I need to practice doing it, I need to have the right circumstances in order to achieve this goal.'"
Throughout her long career as a leader in healthcare and pharmaceuticals, Paula has leaned on her growth mindset when approaching new challenges, expanding into new responsibilities, and understanding her mistakes. (Because yes, even an expert leader still makes mistakes, and cultivating a growth mindset means there's endless opportunity to learn from them!)
We sat down with the Senior Director of Global Commercial Development at global biotech firm CSL to learn more about how Paula's growth mindset shows up in her life and her work.
Determining her path towards growth
When Paula entered Stanford as an undergraduate, she thought her next academic stop would be medical school. She started down that path, taking psychology classes where she first learned about concepts like the growth mindset.
Instead, she got an MBA at Northwestern.
In between those two educational experiences, Paula determined what kind of life and career she wanted to have.
It was during an internship at a historically Black college's medical school that made her realize that she didn't need to be in the room with patients in order to positively impact their experience. "My eyes were opened to the ecosystem of healthcare," she says, "and I realized it would probably be a tighter match between some of my interests in terms of how people make decisions. I knew I could make meaningful contributions without necessarily going to medical school."
Following her interest in how patients were informed about their health, Paula pursued a career in marketing and communications, working at Merck and GSK before taking on her role at CSL Behring. Now she leads the marketing strategy in the transplant space, partnering with the company's R&D team to bring potential new therapies for those patients into the world as regulatory-approved products.
"It's exciting because it means that patients who have been through so much might not have to worry about losing their kidney, going back on dialysis, and maybe even having to go through years and years of waiting for yet another kidney transplant," she says of an investigational treatment in development that aims to address antibody mediated rejection of transplanted organs like kidneys. "The work that we do every day means that somebody can hold on to that very precious gift of life that they've been given. That brings me energy every day. It gives me inspiration. It also allows us to be very clear...there's no question—we know we're impacting patient lives."
Growing with others
Business school was the first time Paula really had to learn to be effective through others. "You learn how to drive performance under very tight circumstances in order to produce a high quality deliverable as a team," she says.
Those skills served her well in her post-MBA roles, and have been especially useful now that she's at CSL Behring.
She accepted her current role for two reasons: first, she believed in the company. "When I got a chance to come to CSL a couple of years ago, I was thrilled because of what this company stands for. A lot of companies talk about being patient-focused, but this company lives it; it's woven throughout our DNA," says Paula.
Second, she was intrigued because the role came with a whole new set of responsibilities—and a new group of people to work with and through. "I was attracted not only because of the work, but also the challenge of a larger remit," says Paula. "I knew that I could work across boundaries, not just in my particular swim lane of marketing expertise, but to be accountable for leading a cross-functional team."
She was immediately proven right: her new responsibilities were significant. "People will laugh and say, 'What you wish for, you get,'" says Paula, smiling. "I wanted a larger remit, and that came to me in spades. There's just so much to do, which has taught me a lot about prioritization and flexibility."
Paula credits her ability to stay calm in the face of so much change with her growth-focused outlook. "Every experience I have is an opportunity to learn," she says. "As opposed to setting up a particular decision or opportunity as 'either I will fail or I will be successful,' every event is an opportunity for success because it's framed as an opportunity to learn."
4 ways to incorporate a growth framework into your own life as a leader
Paula has specific tips for anyone interested in becoming more effective by approaching opportunities with a growth mindset:
- Learn to listen well. From being able to pick up on subtle cues in meetings to unlocking coworkers' participation by making them feel heard, Paula says much of her success in seeing challenges as opportunities—and helping others do the same—comes from listening. "Quite frankly, given some of the issues that we're dealing with in contemporary America, I think that there's probably plenty of room for increased listening skills, right?" says Paula.
- Get comfortable reflecting in the moment. "Part of the growth mindset is the notion of not being perfect," says Paula. "There's always an opportunity to get better and better. By reflecting, you can ask, 'How specifically can I get better?'" Paula often will do a quick debrief with herself after conversations and meetings to reflect on how she conducted the conversation, how she listened, how flexible she was, and what her outcomes were. "Reflecting can be very, very powerful," she adds. "As a Black woman in corporate America, it's especially important because of the pressure to be excellent in everything we do. But for everyone, especially in 2021, with what we've been through this last year—COVID, disparate access to healthcare, social distancing, working remotely, the global nature of all this disruption. There's an opportunity to think about what we just went through as a society and to ponder what the lessons are."
- Practice long-term reflection, too. Paula leads after-action reviews for her team each quarter where she asks four questions: what happened, what worked, what didn't work, and why. "It's not a complex tool, but it enables you to remove the emotion, and reveal more of the concrete data. You can leverage the observations of others to provide that perspective that you may not be able to see as a team member," she says.
- Read, learn, and share. If you consistently seek out opportunities to learn something new, whether in the pages of a book or in a classroom or just from a peer, and then you go out of your way to help others based on those new insights, you're well on your way to practicing a growth mindset, says Paula. "Open your eyes and look around—there's somebody who needs [what you have to offer]."
Interested in growing alongside Paula and her team? Learn more about CSL's open roles here or click here to join an upcoming virtual event with Paula and other women leaders at CSL this Thursday, May 27th!