Purpose Through People: How ServiceNow’s Laura Clayton McDonnell Honors Her Family By Paying It Forward
Laura Clayton McDonnell starts off every morning with one sentence: "My purpose is to live life in an exemplary manner with courage, curiosity, compassion, humility, integrity, and optimism."
She didn't always do that. It was only after completing Compete to Create's training program on how to create a high-performance team, taught by the coach of the Seattle Seahawks, that she articulated that mantra. "We did a lot of meditation, a lot of study," says Laura. "It was really about understanding what your purpose is and what drives you, and understanding what drives other individuals, to help people get to the next level."
But even before she had the words to encapsulate her approach to life, Laura believed in leading by example.
She has her parents—who immigrated to the States from Panama—to thank for that approach.
We sat down with Laura to hear more about her career, her approach to mentorship and leadership, and why, after a long career in tech that included leadership roles at Apple, IBM, and Microsoft, she chose to join ServiceNow as Senior Vice President of Sales - East, Canada and Latin America.
Inspired From the Start
Laura grew up in San Jose, California, where her family moved after her father joined the U.S. Air Force. She heard both Spanish and English at home, and from an early age, had an appreciation of all her parents had done for their family.
"They sacrificed a lot to come to the U.S., to provide opportunities for a family yet to be born," she says. "They knew they weren't going to return. They left behind their family and their friends, their culture, their food, their music, their language to come to a place where they didn't know anybody."
Laura also had a first-hand look at the injustices faced by immigrants like her parents, including when they experienced housing discrimination in Northern California, and actually brought forward a lawsuit—which they won. "It made me realize how important it was to give people who did not have a [seat at the table] a voice," says Laura, who decided to pursue a joint JD/MBA at UC Berkeley as a way to give back to her community.
Her career started in private practice, where she did a lot of pro-bono work with women- and minority-owned businesses. And while she loved that kind of work, her day job felt too removed from customers and business strategy, so she switched over to being in-house counsel at Apple Computers.
"It was an environment with lots of innovation, and even more importantly, the purpose resonated with me: you could change the world," explains Laura.
That job exposed her to sales, and she loved having the chance to present to clients; she did well enough to move into a full-time sales role at a different company that was later acquired by IBM. It was in that environment that Laura got a crash course in the essence of selling, which she brings back to purpose, too: "It's really understanding what that individual wants to do, what may be getting in the way, and then what you bring to the table to help get rid of that obstacle so they can achieve their goal," she says.
At IBM, Laura took a position abroad, where she got to live in Latin America and use her Spanish language skills. "It was like coming home," she reflects fondly.
But then it was time to go to another purpose-driven organization—this time, Microsoft, whose mission Laura still remembers clearly: "Empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more."
Not long after, an opportunity with ServiceNow arose, and Laura felt that the company's purpose—to make the world of work work better for people—aligned strongly with her own, and she knew she'd found her next challenge.
Laura's career has changed form over the years, but it has always lived up to a belief her family instilled in her from an early age: "Seeing is believing."
"Helping build that vision of what something could be and how you want to be is something that's absolutely critical," explains Laura. "My mom, Barbara Joan Clayton, was the first one to drive that home."
From Mentee to Mentor
When asked to describe her first-ever mentor, it's her mom that Laura mentions.
"She was trying to create an environment in the United States for a child of color who was growing up and not seeing folks who look like you doing things that you'd like to do," explains Laura. "Now, I make sure that with everything that I do, I'm doing the very best that I can."
Her mom's influence informs how Laura mentors others. "It's important for people to know what drives and motivates them. Do you want to be a leader? Do you know why?" she asks.
Laura can answer her own question, and she often shares her personal motivation with those that she's mentoring, especially other women of color: "I'm very influenced by my parents and what they did and how they provided us with opportunities to grow. There was an expectation in our family to take what you've been given and the opportunities in front of you and not fritter them away. To make sure you're delivering value back to your team, to your community," she says.
"There is something innate in me that drives me to help others become successful—that's what drives me as a leader," adds Laura.
While Laura always had that motivation, it wasn't until that NFL-led training course at Microsoft that she knew exactly how to draw out others' motivations.
"When you're mentoring somebody, you're trying to get them to that next level of performance, that next level of value, that next level of wherever it is that they want to be. But how do you do that? What are the steps to make that happen?" she asks. "When I mentor folks, we talk about purpose. Why are you doing this? Why are you doing what you're doing? Why do you want to do what you want to do?"
At ServiceNow, Laura is helping to roll out an organization-wide mentorship program after a successful pilot. "We need to make sure that we're giving people something that's solid, durable, that has a long-lasting value," Laura says. That means rooting mentorship in practicality, she adds. "We normally pick something that we want to work on together to help get them to the next level. It's not just sort of generally chatting. It's having a conversation with a purpose to get to an end."
2 Tips to Make the Most of Mentorship
Looking back on her own approach to growing and helping others grow, Laura has two key pieces of advice for others looking to make the most out of their careers:
- Understand your purpose. It's okay if you don't yet have a morning mantra like Laura does. But you can build your own. Look for reflection exercises to help you figure out what drives you. "Once you know what your purpose is, then you can take it to the next level," says Laura.
- Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Growing a career requires taking risks, says Laura, who points to her own: leaving law for business; taking on a sales leadership role when she'd never sold before; going from an institution to a growing startup. "It's about finding those moments where you can take a risk as an opportunity to grow," she says. "If you truly want to be a leader and help other folks grow, you need to role model that kind of behavior."
The ocean metaphors are strong at cloud infrastructure company DigitalOcean (DO). Their all-company retreat is called Shark Week. Linux-based virtual machines that developers use are Droplets. And their annual employee engagement survey is called The Tide.
A couple of years ago, that survey, which is designed to understand the employee experience in order to identify ways to improve it, revealed a gap: employees, particularly in the tech organization, were looking for more development opportunities, especially around mentorship.
Many of DO's employees worked remotely, even before the pandemic. As Nicole Jablon, the Organizational Development Program Manager at DigitalOcean, explained, "Teams tended to be siloed in the way they work together, and with us being remote, it was hard to make those connections."
To address that need, DO's People team partnered with Senior Technical Leadership to pilot a mentorship program. Under the guidance of Danielle Traynor, Sr. People Business Partner for DO's CTO division (the tech side of the organization), a mentorship committee was formed to get the program off the ground.
Now with two mentorship cycles under its belt; a growth rate of 275%, from 12 mentor-mentee pairs in its first year to 45 in 2020; 88% of mentees agreeing that the program has given them greater confidence in achieving their goals; and 96% of mentors volunteering to serve as mentors again, it's proven to be a success. "Having a formal program facilitates collaboration and makes networking a little bit easier," explained Nicole, who is working to make the program a permanent part of the DO employee experience.
We sat down with Nicole to learn more about how DO's mentorship program works and where her team is looking to bring it next.
How the program works
For now, DO's mentorship program has focused on the tech side of the organization, where most of its engineers and technologists sit. Nicole is currently planning with the rest of the Organizational Development Team what an organization-wide mentorship program could look like in 2021.
To run the program, the CTO Mentorship committee asked would-be mentors and mentees to fill out applications explaining their interests and personal goals in detail. For example, Peace Obasi, a Team Lead in DO's Customer Support and Success department, says that she applied because she wanted guidance navigating her next career move with DigitalOcean. "I have always been interested in management but had no idea where to start," she explained.
From there, Nicole and Danielle worked in partnership with the CTO Mentorship committee to match individual mentors and mentees. "We wanted to make sure that the pairs were as effective as possible," she said. "We looked at the goals of the mentors and the mentees, as well as what the mentors felt like they could offer from either their skills, their experience, or their strengths."
Next, they facilitated a training session for mentors to ensure they were set up for success and had all the tools and resources they needed to be effective mentors. They also conducted a group training for both mentors and mentees that focused on the goals of the program—professional and personal development—and some of the options for coaching and relationship-building. "We tried to keep it relatively flexible because we knew each pair was going to work a little bit differently depending on each mentor and mentee's needs, desires, and goals for the program," she said.
From there, mentees and mentors were free to kick off their relationships, but knew they always had additional support if needed from Nicole, Danielle, and the CTO mentorship committee. The committee implemented several checkpoints throughout the program to course-correct where needed. An early survey revealed that mentors and mentees wanted more structure in the conversations they were having, so Nicole worked with the committee to provide additional resources and templates Additionally, mentors also expressed interest in connecting with other mentors to share ideas and best practices. Nicole created an opportunity for this need by creating a forum and facilitating a conversation among the mentors.
The program was structured to run for six months. If people dropped out or left the company along the way, Nicole worked to find them a new match. Otherwise, everyone made it to the end and the majority of participants—70% of mentors and 68% of mentees—believe an informal partnership will continue after the program formally ends.
Who the program works for
Nicole recognizes that the appeal of a mentorship program is about going deep on some of the bigger questions that a focus on everyday responsibilities can obscure. "It's not just at DigitalOcean—many people just don't have the time to self-reflect or they don't necessarily know the best way to do that," she said. "It's important, and we've seen that our mentors can really ask the mentees the right questions to understand what they want out of their careers."
That's what Archana Kamath, a Senior Manager in Engineering at DO, was hoping to do as a mentor. "I have had several excellent mentors throughout my career who have helped me navigate both my professional and personal growth. Mentors are especially helpful when you are at certain crossroads in your career and [are] looking [for] advice and experiences which can help guide you. I wanted to pay that forward," explained Archana.
Here are some other highlights Nicole and the committee received from the feedback program participants submitted.
For mentors, the program has been a great way to:
- "Build relationships with people at DO that they may not otherwise connect with"
- "Give back and also to interact with newer perspectives from people at different stages of their careers"
- "Break down barriers to information internally and promote more healthy working relationships between orgs within the company"
- "Help someone achieve their goals"
- "Understand and help mentees define their growth goals, then work together to find an actual plan or strategy to get them moving in the direction they want to grow in"
For mentees, DO's mentorship program has allowed them to:
- "Not only speak, but work alongside someone who is experienced in the areas I wanted to develop; it greatly improved the way that I approach problems and I am grateful for it"
- "Bounce ideas around that were challenging in my day to day role in technical support, and take a larger picture on things to deliver on a more robust learning program when I transitioned to learning and development"
- "Realize what I wanted to do with my career and do a self-reflection on whether that would be the right fit for me"
"We are so excited that from our pilot of just 12 pairs, we were able to expand the program to 45 pairs," said Nicole, who hopes to see an even bigger mentor/mentee class in 2021. "I think that's just really telling of our culture that people know they want this development, they want mentorship opportunities. They want to learn and they want to grow."