They chatted about why competencies are more important than experience when you’re building a team, asking yourself what you want to see from your career, the sins of tech, her 5 Dimensions of Leadership, and more. Below is a full transcript and video of the discussion.
When you and I met, I was looking for a job and you were a leadership recruiter inside of Google, but what had your career been before that role and what path has led you there?
My career has been quite varied. When I went to college, I wanted to be a veterinarian so I went to UC Davis and graduated in French Linguistics. I worked for a couple years as a college recruiter, then went to business school at the Kellogg School at Northwestern and went into banking. After that I was in commercial real estate for a number of years.
Then my dad died, and that was one of the most defining moments of my life. It forced me to question, “do I even love what I am doing?”. A lot of people don’t ask themselves that. I thought, “what is it that I’ve always loved to do?”.
While I was working for these other companies, in financial services, I always volunteered to go on campus and recruit on their behalf. I’ve always loved assessing people, engaging with people and finding the matching pieces while understanding the business situation, so I decided I wanted to be a professional executive recruiter.
It took me a few years to get into one but I did it. I networked my way in and I discovered that what I was good at was talking about competencies, namely those deconstructed elements of how you do something. Even though I didn’t have experience as an executive recruiter – just the experience as a college recruiter – I got into Spencer Stewart and was there for 12 years.
Rather abruptly – I admit I can be a bit impulsive – I decided to leave and write my book. I was then on my own doing consulting for a number of years, also got married and divorced, and entrepreneurship wasn’t generating the income I was used to… I wanted to go back to a firm.
I was able to join a firm and lead their executive recruiting function and someone I’d previously hired, Stuart Kaplan, went to Google when the firm sold, and he invited me to interview there to lead their diversity efforts inside executive recruiting. I was led to create a mobility program and when I did, I used the tenants in my book to create this program that later you, Alana, participated in.
Can you share what you wanted to be when you grew up?
I have this report I did, when I was 10, on careers. I wanted to be a model – because I’m 6’ tall and everyone told me I should be – and a veterinarian or an orthopedic surgeon, because my mother had been a physical therapist and worked extensively with orthopedic surgeons, and I thought that was really cool.
I zeroed in on vet medicine, but when I went to college found it was not my style. The degree I graduated with actually taught me well on how to think, such as finance and accounting. My mind works better with systems.
What is a key challenge you faced in your career?
There is the challenge of being a black woman, in general, but we could talk about that for hours.
I remember going to graduate school and a colleague saying I was on financial aid, I said, “actually no, my parents paid for this.” I questioned why they assumed that. Those types of microaggressions I encountered over and over and over again. Fortunately, I came from a strong stock – my parents were very remarkable and gave me and my brother a tremendous amount of resilience. They would say “Go at it again and if you don’t like it, then have a rationale and a plan for what you are going to do next.”
I’ll share another angle, about the most difficult time in my life, which was right when I joined Spencer Stewart in 1997. My son was one and I started a day after his birthday, then my mom passed away the following month. At the end of that year, I had asked my husband for a divorce. That first year or two was rough. I spent my entire career in Chicago – even though I’m a California girl – and I didn’t have a deep system of family to help with my son. We had a nanny/babysitter but emotionally it was a pretty rough time. I dug deep and I really developed a profound spiritual practice that has helped me since.
How did you figure out that it was important to hold that spiritual practice and how to sustain your energy?
After my dad died, three years before my mother – I believe there are angels and guides around us – I was so distraught and having a hard time getting my act together. My hairdresser recommended that I get a massage and sent me to this guy, who ended up being a healer and holistic practitioner – quite different than a masseuse! He saw something in me and we started a relationship that we still have to this day, starting in 1994. I consider him my guru. He also gave me a book, “An Ascension Handbook”. My mind was blown and I kept going deeper into my understanding of how this universe actually works and the impact we have on creating our lives.
Now, did I make some stupid moves since, of course, but it’s all part of your growth and forgiving yourself and expanding your consciences and awareness. That was the pivotal moment for me. My mother’s death was easier, if conceivable, to process because I had an understanding of why she needed to go and how I needed to move on and honor her. And I learned through mediation how to tap in and feel their presence and guidance. It can be in the most difficult times that you find strength.
Before I dive into the book, what has motherhood taught you about leadership?
Patience. I am more patient now then I probably have ever been. I am incredibly impatient, especially with driving. It’s not that I am leaning on my horn but I see things, I am assertive, and the metaphor I see is that I am looking a mile down the road, while most are looking at the car in front of them. I can see all the activity between here and there to decide if I should try to accelerate. There is a whole strategy and that is how my mind works.
My son, who’s 25, taught me a great deal of patience and he also taught me that I am a guide. I am not here to tell him what to do. I am a humble guide and my parents were that way with us.
This I remember very clearly about you – I had to find a new job and you were adamant about how “it’s your journey” and “you’re the one that has to run it” – you seemed to know that in the end, people are the ones that have to control their careers.
What inspired you to write this book after years in executive recruiting and what was your core thesis?
The first thing that struck me, shortly after I joined Spencer Stewart, is that you can be a very popular person as an executive recruiter. I knew it wasn’t about me, it was about what I did. People would come hoping I would help them find their next job and I’d say, “probably not, I represent the firms, not you”.
There are millions of opportunities out there you can create if you have clarity in what you want. That was a big aha for me. Why would you want to come and put your destiny in my hands? It’s so limiting and passive. You can’t just go, “here, fix my life”.
I remember sitting in my office on the 34th floor looking at the plaza, people walking by and thinking that no one was going to interact with our firm because we only worked with C-Suite and above, which represents the top 1% of leaders and executives. It bothered me that, as a black woman, I knew how little access people of color, women in particular, had. It’s already hard.
What if I could offer something that’s providing insight into how this all works so people could take away and use it for themselves for their own benefit?
The funny thing was that it didn’t dawn on me until I was in the final stages of editing that the process I’d created actually mimics the executive search process. People think executive recruiting is just digging into a database and throwing some data at it and in fact it is much more thoughtful than that. That is where my systems thinking came in and I realized how it matched up.
What an individual should be doing is setting a strategy. Don’t start by writing a resume, start by asking what it is you want. As a recruiter, that’s what we ask our clients – what are you looking for – and then we develop a strategy to go find that. They parallel exactly. That’s why I wrote it and I’ve been grateful that it has stood the test of time.
A lot of this is based around competencies and knowing what you are good at and owning your awesome – have you found in your career that it’s hard for people to do that? Are there people that find it harder to do this?
Yes, there are several different sides to that.
The quick one is, as women, we don’t do it as well because we’ve been socialized not to promote ourselves.People see it as being braggadocious to say, “I’m really good at such and such”. I can tell you, as a recruiter, if you don’t tell me what you are good at, how do I know?
Some of the other elements have to do with competency pieces and you understanding what they are. It’s amazing the number of people I’ve interviewed that don’t. They can tell you what they’ve done but can’t tell you how they did it. That’s always a yellow flag for me.
I also ask competency-based questions. I can look at your resume and see you have experience. But I’ve met people who have a lot of experience who aren’t necessarily competent. I will say these are more often men than women, because the system often carries them along. The references are, “They got it. They’re good. I’ve worked with them”. But I’ve been in the same company with some of those people, only to find that our experiences and our capabilities were completely different.
The other element of competency, that is absolutely important, is the set of criteria against which talent should be hired. The competencies should be the same for when you hire as when you retain and promote and are progressing employees. We should be relying on competencies to really dig in and see what behaviors are exhibited to give us a lens into seeing if they will be successful in a role.
Now that you’re a bit out of tech with a rear-view mirror into what you’ve been through – what do you think some of the sins of tech are and what aren’t we doing right? Or what could we be doing better?
All any organization is, is talent. You need to be assessing that talent and developing them effectively. Let me give you an example as to why tech companies are the way they are.
Larry and Sergei are sitting around in a garage, or so the story goes, and they need to start growing and they said, “who do you know?”. That’s what most people do. 22 years later, that’s still what they’re doing. There are built in protocols pointing to having “the best talent in the world”, but they aren’t always looking around the world – particularly for senior level roles – even when they have the time and resources to look around the world.
That’s one of my biggest gripes – it’s gotten too comfortable and lazy and a victim of success such that 4M people want to work at a company like Google, and their mindset becomes “we’ll skim off the good ones.” What about the other 7B who didn’t apply? You can’t tell me that there aren’t a few hundred thousand who would be even better than some of the ones that made the cut.
It’s a mindset shift of what “good” looks like that a lot of tech companies need to overcome. Did you go to MIT or CalTech or Stanford, – 80% of senior people did. But I’m not convinced those are the absolute, smartest people in the world to be doing what they do. There is this over indexation on pedigree, and related to that, domain expertise – we love someone with a patent and PhD. They must be smart, which is probably true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it makes them a leader.
When you start moving from being an individual contributor into the leadership ranks, different competencies are required and I’m not sure these tech companies are expecting and holding leaders accountable for exhibiting those behaviors. This contributes to the DEI and the representation issue. If leaders are not used to dealing with people that don’t look like them, how good are they going to be at leading them? Some might be instinctive but many are not. I dare say – I’m going to generalize, for any engineers in the room, excuse me – but I think a lot of engineers are lower on the EQ scale and higher on the IQ scale. It highlights the importance of soft skills, speaking to what a true leader is. Frankly, that is why I created my podcast, 5th Dimension Leadership.
I’ve listened to your podcast and I love that it’s the full person we bring to Leadership – why don’t you talk about the 5 dimensions of Leadership and how you arrived at them?
It was a bit of a process. When I first started a podcast, it was more about speaking out. This was before George Floyd, so it wasn’t coming from the place of emotion and anxiety, which came later.
We pivoted to really talk about Leadership because it’s something that I know a lot about. I’ve interviewed thousands of leaders, so I think I’m pretty credible in that regard.
The 5 dimensions that are really critical to Leadership are:
- Know Yourself
- Speak Your Truth
- Inspire Love
- Expand Consciousness
- Activate Mastery.
I tend to frame my questions to my guests in that way as well, as hearing their chronological story of how they got to where they are, and then digging into more of the Who Are You. As a recruiter, I care as much about the Who Are You as what you have done. You can be the most accomplished person in the world and also be someone that I don’t even want to know, based on your behavior.
I want to see a whole person and to the extent that I can tap into that and that is part of activating that point for people. I’m so committed to helping somebody find their purpose and tap into that part of themselves.
Question from Audience: What executive skill traits should anyone think about having to manage and go about their day-to-day? Aka being the CEO of your own life in addition to being a professional woman.
Ginny: The linguist in me is going to say skills and traits are different. Skills are what you have learned. Traits are more innate. You can modify and enhance, but I think they’re different things.
This whole idea of grounding mindfulness – pausing – is one of the best lessons I learned early in my time at Google. It’s an incredibly fast-paced environment. The weight came when the VP I was reporting to asked me a question and then he put me on blast and added other people to an email and posed the question to me. I started to respond to that email and then decided I was going to wait 24 hours before, because he wasn’t asking me a question that needed an immediate answer. I wanted to establish my credibility and expertise by being thoughtful. I’m going to wait. I later told my team that – sometimes, you have to wait. Just wait. That woman is about to go on maternity leave, the other one is about to move to Paris. They aren’t focused on this because it is not a priority for them. So wait, until they’re out of the way and then move forward.
I started writing something yesterday for my newsletter, “Are you leading your life or is your life leading you?” So many people are so reactive to what’s going on in their life that they’re not pausing to ask, “What do I want? What do I want today, in the next half hour, in the next five minutes?” Not, “what do my kids need?” That might be something you have to accomplish too, but focus on your goals for the day and the longer term.
My father would say, “If you aren’t clear, then your ass is flapping at the wind.” You are going to be reactive to everyone you come in contact with. Until you get control over you and what you want, the universe will support you, but you have to know what that is. It shouldn’t feel burdensome, it should feel light, because you are in control.
Alana: As a working mom, one important thing I’ve figured out I needed to do has been sheer prioritization. Certain things are going to get done today and certain things are not going to get done. In that prioritizing, I have to be on that list. It can’t be for 18 years, or however long, that I am at the bottom of the list. What is leftover of me when that is done? Will I ever be able to sustain that? For me, it has been a real journey that sheer prioritization was going to have to be the name of the game. But, over time, that does mean I’m going to have to put some things down for other people and do yoga tonight, and some emails will not get done tonight and they’ll have to wait. Once you start respecting your time and other people’s time you actually start being very efficient.
Question from Audience: What suggestions do you have for finding roles that you’ll love in tech, or frankly any organization?
Ginny: My one-word answer is Networking. That doesn’t mean that you don’t apply. A lot of people view it as the lottery and they aren’t being deliberate in what they want. Would you please decide what you want first? Get clear on that, have a strategy around that, and get an inventory on your competencies to ensure they align with the role. Start with yourself first and then do a targeted look at the companies that you actually want to work for. Don’t apply to the ones you don’t necessarily want to work for.
Alana: Let’s say you have to find a job – I found that different people go about this in different ways. I advise a portfolio approach, similar to when you would apply for college. Make a list of your safe schools, reach schools and dream schools. I found that some people went all “safe” and some were all in “reach” and “dream” land. There should be a balance between all of these and I would encourage a portfolio.
Kate: Find what you love in a job, and then remember that you still need to be doing something you’re good at. I’d love to be a professional painter, but that’ll never happen because I’m just not good at painting.
This is an executive coaching tool: Take the opportunity to reach out to family, friends, close colleagues, people you trust, and ask them for what they think you’re good at, not what you are bad at, just focus on “could you share with me some of the things you think I am great at?”. Get that feedback, do the analysis on what you actually like within that, and then you can start to see how those line up. Then match it to potential roles. Use it as a gauge to help narrow in on where you’ll have long-term sustainability.
Question from Audience: I’m both technical and creative, however, I find that I’m always tapped for the highly technical. I’d like to be a PM in a more creative environment. Any suggestions for interweaving those aspects to land a better PM role?
Alana: What strikes me about your question is what I hear time and time again. We can end up, especially women and other minoritized populations, as fixers. We are basically getting pulled in to fix someone else’s problem. We do have to watch out that that doesn’t become a habit overtime, both for us and for the organization we’re in.
One of the things I find that helps break that – but it is hard – is to train ourselves to ask for what we want and ask for what we need. Often what happens is we haven’t expressed clearly what we want, and the organization often thinks we are aligned, but we aren’t. Or they’ve seen that we do stuff on the side but they may think we’re just doing it on the side and not be aware of career aspirations.
Until you put that out there, you are not having a real conversation. You have to start going through some of the motions even if it makes you nervous and you have to figure out how to say it. You have to have the conversation whether or not to know if it’s there or if you should be looking more broadly. You need to tell them what you want.
Ginny: My father always said, “Tell people what you want”. Straight up. Otherwise, they are going to assume they know what you want. That is my advice.