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Lessons learned on leadership with Karen Peacock and Leandra Fishman

In this week's episode we're really going Inside Intercom as we share some highlights from an event we held for staff.

Last week Intercom’s CEO Karen Peacock and recently appointed CRO Leandra Fishman spoke at an internal staff event event and we wanted to share some of the highlights with you. They spoke on the topic of leadership, and although we’re a little biased, it was a fascinating and enlightening discussion, with a lot of great insights gleaned from their respective careers. Over the course of the conversation you’ll learn not just about what makes a good leader, but a good ally, a good colleague, and a good friend.

With everything that’s happened these past few years, we’ve finally started to grasp the systems of discrimination and inequality that still plague our society and industry. As colleagues, managers, and leaders, we can’t just remain passive bystanders. But how can we use our position to empower co-workers and create a more inclusive, diverse, and engaging experience for everyone?

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • Leadership is not just about having a clear vision for the team – it’s also about serving others. Ask yourself: What can you do to help? How can you remove obstacles? How can you serve the customer better?
  • Having a diverse team is not just better because all the different thoughts, points of view, and experiences make it more profitable in the long run. Diversity makes sense because it’s just the right thing to do.
  • When it comes to being a good ally in the workplace, don’t just wait for people to tell you all about their troubles – educate yourself on your privilege and find out ways in which you can support them. Sometimes, it can be something as small as giving openings in meetings to people who might not be getting the same airtime as others.
  • When it comes to overcoming challenges, remember Karen’s mantra “no only means no for now”.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Leadership journey

Karen Peacock:I’m not going to go through a typical resume, but I thought it’d be maybe a little more helpful or interesting in this context to share a little bit more around what Dee was talking about. So in college, I studied math and computer science and engineering. And at that time, and maybe still now, there was no talk about leadership. That was not at all on the curriculum. And so I graduated from college with excellent skills around math and computer science and engineering and able to solve lots of problems, and certainly no formal training on the leadership side. 

I worked over the summers and I worked my way through college to help pay for that, but always as an individual contributor. My first job out of college was with the Boston Consulting Group, BCG as an individual contributor as well. And I became an excellent individual contributor. I could do my work very well. And when I first became a manager, I realized very quickly that that was a totally different job and I had no training or preparation for that. And I wasn’t very good at it. Because I tried to do exactly the same things. I just tried to help other people solve their problem very well. And I was focused on right or wrong answers versus “Hey, here’s where we’re going.” And I thought it was all about the work. And yes, the work was one piece of it. But it certainly wasn’t all about that.

“I believe in this company – the vision and the mission and what we’re doing, and it’s a company that invests in people”

I went to the Boston Consulting Group for a few years and then I went to business school at Stanford for a few years. I learned a lot more about leadership there because that actually was a part of the formal conversation. It was really eye-opening for me. A few years later, joined a startup. I lead product management and some marketing, and I ended up getting promoted to reporting into the CEO, which completely broadened my perspective about what was important. Because I was thinking all of a sudden about all different functions, and I was on an executive team and it was just a very, very different world for me.

A few years after doing that, I joined Intuit. And that was a just an amazing place for me for many reasons, including from a leadership perspective. And one of the things that we always talked about, invested deeply in was being a leader in developing leaders. I probably know about 20 different people from Intuit who are now CEOs of different companies. Headspace, LegalZoom, a whole bunch of other companies.

And at the time, I took what all my friends told me was a bad move and a real step back, because I had been leading product management, reporting into the CEO and I became a senior product manager with nobody reporting into me. And it was like, “Oh, what are you doing?” I’m like, “No, no, I believe in this company and the vision and the mission and what we’re doing, and it’s a company that invests in people.” And so I took that leap, and over the years ended up taking on more and more responsibility there. And just learned most of what I’ve learned about leadership there.

Learn that it is about the people, the vision, the purpose, and work, in that order”

Learn that it is about the people, and vision and purpose and work, in that order. Not work, work, work. And that it’s much more fun and rewarding for me rather than just doing the work to actually lead people and lead teams. And one of the things that I get most excited and inspired by is when folks on my team do amazing things, things are so much better than what I had thought of or imagined.

And so over the years, I spent more and more time on things like vision and purpose and strategy. And getting all arrows point to the same direction and really just ended up realizing that life was about so much more than just getting the answer right. And it really is about where are you going? Why does that matter? Why is that exciting? Where does everybody else want to go? How can you best inspire and empower the people around you? So, that’s a little bit about my career from a leadership perspective. But Leandra, would love if you would share some of your leadership background.

Leandra Fishman: I have never had a plan for my career in my whole life. I don’t have a college degree. I didn’t have the upbringing of education, and I didn’t have any guidance in that area. And so when I finally made it through school and started working, I stumbled into a sales organization. I was at the bottom of the rung and I thought, after a year, that I wanted to start moving up. And the leader at that organization asked me if I had a college degree, and I said I didn’t, and he said, “You’ll never be successful without a college degree.” And that was a shocker for me because I didn’t hear that language growing up and that wasn’t a part of my scope. And I believed it, I thought, “Oh, wow. I’m not going to be successful.” If that’s a requirement and I don’t have that people aren’t going to think I’m very smart.

And so I spent my career without a plan because I already thought I wasn’t going to be able to accomplish a lot. But I realized one, in a sales organization, everyone only cares about the numbers. And I’m quite good at math, so I loved numbers. But I also recognized that in sales, it’s all about building relationships and solving problems. And so I just kept my head down like, “Well, okay, I’m not going to be successful, but I know I can control three things. One is my attitude, second is my effort, and three is my intention.”

And so from that point, I’ve always had that optimistic can-do attitude. I’m a really, really hard worker. And I take a lot of responsibility in my intention of serving and solving problems. And so, for the first 10 years of my career, I just really slowly moved up the ladder, never because it was a plan. But just because I would keep my head down, work hard, master my job, kind of look up and look for the next thing, and then go to that next thing. I was an individual contributor for 10 years.

Leadership by being in service of others

Leandra: I think my leadership style developed out of that because I was managing people that were twice my age, with years and years more of experience. And I thought, “What am I going to be able to teach them?”The first thing that I’ve always done for everything is I go buy a book, I’m an avid learner and reader, and everything I have is self-taught. I’ve never taken any formal sales or leadership training, I’ve just taught myself all along. These people had all this experience, what was I going to do to tell them or teach them? My first thing is, “What can I do to help? How can I solve problems? How can I remove obstacles?”

And so my leadership is really of servant leadership. If I can help empower the people that are going through the day-to-day challenges and have the best intention of solving customer problems and doing the right thing for the company, it will all elevate through that.

“I developed my leadership style around doing the right thing for the customer. When we do the right thing for the customer, that starts to trickle down”

I think you have to first go within to understand your core values, what’s important to you. I always recommend people to be true to themselves. For me, leadership was developed watching other examples of people in organizations that I work for and saying, “Oh, I really like that about that person or about this style.” But also knowing my core strength. And so leadership, for me, as I mentioned, is really around solving problems.

I was always focused on the biggest, most important thing to me, which was the customer. And so, I developed my leadership style around doing the right thing for the customer. And when we do the right thing for the customer, that just starts to trickle down. And focusing on leading by example of having my mentality be about the right thing for the customer, the right thing for the company, the right thing for the team members. My success comes out of that.

And so I had to switch that mentality, though, getting into leadership, shifting my perspective to know that it is greater when we all can come together as one and achieve so much more. I had to move from an individual contributor mentality to a leadership mentality and then connect it to a greater good. When we lead by example of our morals and values of integrity and authenticity and hard work and strong work ethic and desire, and we channel that in the right way, everything, from a leadership perspective, elevates.

“You don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. And being a manager does not make you a leader”

Dee Reddy: Karen, do you have the same perspective on leadership?

Karen: I think you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader. And being a manager does not make you a leader. So those two things are actually very different concepts and people mix them together all the time. To me, being a leader is about having a clear vision and purpose. And that can be about serving others, it can be about delivering huge value to customers. So, having that vision and purpose and having a set of values that people can count on in the good times or the bad times. Just having a clear idea of what you and your team are about. And that could be your team of peers, what you’re about: Why does that matter? What’s the reason behind that? How are you going after that?

And along the way, caring about other people, helping them achieve their goals and their dreams. I have never met someone I would consider a leader who doesn’t care about others. So that to me is a necessary step, you have to care about other people. I’m a big believer in the concept of servant leadership and leaders working for their teams, as well. And ultimately, inspiring people to come together and work together to achieve a shared vision. Where are we going? What can we do together that we could not individually do?

Women leaders, or just leaders?

Dee: Karen, I’m going to start with you for the next question. We often hear about women leaders and it’s spoken about almost as a separate concept to mainstream leadership. It’s almost as if it’s been siloed away. Do you prefer to be identified as a woman in leadership or just a leader? Is there room or scope for both?

Karen: I think it’s a great question. I have such mixed feelings about labels in general. I think, at a high level, I prefer to just be me. I’m lots of things. Each of you is lots of different things. Yes, I’m a leader. Yes, I’m a woman. Yes, I’m a mother, I’m a daughter, I’m a friend. We have so many dimensions to all of ourselves, and I think it is best when we can all be our whole selves. And there’s a lot of talk about that. And that’s part of what I love about today, it is so real in everything about our whole selves.

There’s a lot of stories in the press about women CEOs. I always pause in terms of what I’m going to think about this. And my general take is, I am great with stories about women CEOs when they serve the purpose of inspiring other people. Just like we were saying in the beginning, if they serve the purpose to make somebody else think, “Yes, I can do that.” Terrific, I’m all for those stories. When they serve the purpose of dividing the world and taking down people or creating any negativity and division, then I’m not for that.

“To me, it’s just, how can we all be our best? And obviously, we’ve got different gender preferences and bodies, but that’s okay too. We can all be equal”

Leandra: I absolutely agree with what Karen said. I sometimes forget that I’m a female executive because I am just myself. I think that what we all have is threads together, as Karen mentioned, the many different ways we describe or label ourselves. But in essence, the one thing that we have as equal is that we’re all human. And to me, bringing your best self, no matter which category you put it in, I want to be a part of that. I think of everyone in an equal way. And I agree with Karen, sometimes I shied away from “all-female” because there can be a tone to it that feels dividing. And to me, it’s just like, how can we all be our best? And obviously, we’ve got different gender preferences and bodies, but that’s okay too. We can all be equal.

Embracing diversity

Karen: As we were starting to craft some of our statements around diversity, equity, inclusion, I struggled with the why. Is it because diverse teams are more effective and more profitable? To me, that’s not the main why, the main why is because it’s just the right thing to do. The world is a better place when everybody can be their best. And that’s the thing that I feel most strongly about. Each of us should be able to be all the things we want to be, however we identify, however we want to show up, whatever we’ve been counted out in the past. So to me, that’s the key why behind it.

And then it’s a hard area to act well in without doing a lot of tokenism. I’m always trying to balance: How do you make a real change? How do you truly and genuinely embrace this without trying to just do token counting and quotas, while driving change? So those are some of the things on my mind. We’ve been working a lot with the people team, and we’ll be sharing more on some of the things we’ve got coming up soon and some organizations that we’ll be partnering up with to help develop people both in the community as well as at Intercom.

“What I thought I was doing right, I realized was not enough, it was too much of an endorsement of the status quo. I realized that you need to be actively working to be an antiracist”

Leandra: I completely agree. My perspective is that it’s great when you bring different cultures, people, backgrounds together because you get a whole different level of brainstorming, thoughts, opportunities, experiences, and the diversity actually does make us better. I’m a huge reader, you’ll always hear about the books that I’m reading, but one of the big my aha books last year that I recommend to everyone is How to Be an Antiracist. It was just a real eye-opening book for me. I’ve never considered myself by any means racist, but it’s about recognizing there is a difference. You’re fighting for inequality, not just being passive and saying, “Oh, well, that’s not me.” If we don’t help and unite the people of the minority when we are the majority, we’re never going to be able to achieve that greatness of equality. And so I completely agree with Karen. It’s not just about the numbers or the token effort. It’s really about what’s behind it and the intention that we’re all going to rise together.

Karen: This is another topic that Leandra and I had not talked about, which is favorite books. The favorite book I read last year was How to Be an Antiracist. It just changed the way I was thinking about things. What I thought I was doing right, I realized was not enough, it was too much of an endorsement of the status quo. I realized that you need to be actively working to be an antiracist, otherwise you are perpetuating the status quo, and you end up being racist. Even when I didn’t realize it. It was a huge “aha” which I’m still processing and figuring out the different ways I can work on that.

“Imagine you were facing that every single day, in every way, times a hundred. What would that be like?”

In terms of women and allyship, and I would extend this to anybody, for whatever reason, whether it’s for gender identification, for race, or for any other reason, who has felt counted out, or ignored or underestimated at some time, which is probably most people. I think you can use how you felt at a time like that as a way to tap into your own empathy. How did that make you feel? Was that fair? Was that a way to have the world you want to live in? Do you want the world to be more like that or less like that? And now imagine you were facing that every single day, in every way, times a hundred. What would that be like? I think you can use those feelings to channel your energy to be a better ally.

But I also say, make sure that along the way it doesn’t become about you. About your personal hardship, about you wanting to feel better about yourself. This isn’t about you earning a gold star. And make sure you also don’t put the burden on other people like, “Oh, tell me all of your troubles.” Well, educate yourself. Do some work on your own. And again, I thought the training we did here on allyship was terrific. I’m looking forward to some of the new ones and how we can each do our best in terms of being allies.

Being a better ally in the workplace

Karen: I can start with two ideas, and Leandra, you can share as well. I think one thing is making sure that everybody has a voice at the table. And oftentimes, in any room that you’re in, whether it’s virtual or in-person, some people take up a lot more airtime than others. And so, whoever is getting less airtime, for whatever reason, as an ally, you can try to give those folks openings and ask like, “Hey Leandra, what do you think?” And that’s not just for women or however you identify. Giving openings for others is a big one, while making sure you’re not putting people on a spot where they’re like, “Oh, this is actually worse and making me more uncomfortable.”

I’ll also tell you a story of one of my favorite moments of allyship. This was when my kids were one and three. So my son Jack is now 16 and my daughter Katie is now 14. But when they were really young, it was hard doing all the things that I wanted to do. I was a director of product management at the time and I was trying to lead my team and we were fighting off Microsoft, and I had a one-year-old and three-year-old, who I love deeply, and a husband who worked intensely and traveled all the time. And I was just trying to figure out how to do it all.

“And I got to a point where I just felt like I was way out of balance. I talked to myself and I was like, ‘What is it that I really need?'”

And I got to a point where I just felt like I was way out of balance. I talked to myself and I was like, “What is it that I really need?” It’s not that I want to quit and be full-time not working. I really like working. And I really love my kids. And so I tried to make it really specific: What I want to do is to be able to take my son to a music class and take my daughter to the park. Let me just write down the specific things that I want and see whether I can just make those happen.

And I went and talked to my manager and I was like, “Look, this is what’s going on in my life. I want to be able to go to this music class at 4:00 o’clock on Tuesday and be able to bring my kids to the park for a couple of hours at some point during the week. And I know that’s going to be hard.” And he just looked at me, “Great, just do it.”

“Making sure we’re including everyone and their voices, knowing that people can be a little bit quieter and encouraging that open communication, I think it goes a long way”

A couple of years later, I was moving to a different job and I was apologizing upfront to the person that I was going to be reporting to, “Hey, is it okay? I want to do this thing and this is really important to me.” I was in this total backseat, apologetic mode about the whole thing. And he was like, “I’m not sure.” He’s a really good guy but wasn’t sure what’s going on. And so I went back and talked to the first manager, and that manager, his name is Dan and he’s still a friend of mine today, he said, “You tell anybody who has any problem with you doing that, tell them to talk to me.” And I was like, “Yes.” And forevermore, I will love him. Find spots where you can help support people, especially when it’s something that really matters. It really mattered to me, and he was absolutely there for me.

Leandra: I think that’s a great story. And I agree with Karen. Making sure we’re including everyone and their voices, knowing that sometimes people can be a little bit quieter and encouraging that open communication, I think it goes a long way. I would also say, from a hiring perspective, it’s important to encourage that opportunity, that we’re looking at all different types of candidates to come in, and we’re trying to find a balance. In the US, we are 50% male and female. So I always try and make sure we have that representation in all aspects of our lives, especially at work.

Learning to ask for help

Leandra: It’s a hard balance to strike. I would say I’m still learning to do it, and I get better at it as I get older because I have a stronger sense of self. But I think it’s about knowing what’s important to you and understanding your boundaries, and being able to communicate in that way where it’s really focusing on what’s important at the different levels, whether it is that customer level, the company level, the team level, or the self level.

“I think advocacy has to first come from the self, knowing what your own boundaries and your priorities are, and having the courage to share that”

And to make sure that you’re listening to yourself so you know whether this is a boundary you need to put up or a boundary you need to take down. How do I advocate in a way that’s authentic and genuine like, “Hey, this is real for me”? It’s not about making a big thing about it, or being defensive or not. She didn’t go into it assuming the answer was no. But just communicating and sharing, “This is my situation,” and allow people to serve her in a way that was supporting her highest good.

I think advocacy has to first come from the self, knowing what your own boundaries and your priorities are, and having the courage to share that. This is not easy for a lot of people who can be like, “It’s hard to ask for help,” or, “I can do it myself.” Sometimes the hardest thing you can do to advocate for yourself is to ask for help.

Overcoming challenges

Karen: One challenge that I felt I had a number of times was not being considered, not being in the consideration set when a new opportunity came up. Hearing about a promotion once it’s happened for something that I wanted. And here’s a good example of that: When I was at Intuit, I had been the VP of product for a particular area and the VP of marketing for a particular area, and the next thing I wanted to do was a general manager.

And I told people, “I want to be a general manager.” I put my hat in the ring for the GM job that came up. I didn’t get it, but I got a lot of positive feedback of like, “Good for you to put your hat in the ring, you’re on the right track, here are the areas to work on.” And so I felt a little bruised by not getting it. But I was like, “Yep, I did the right thing.” You got to put yourself out there and then not feel bummed when something doesn’t happen in the first round. To me, no only means no for now.

“Stay in the room, work your way in, don’t give up. No only means no for now, and good things can happen to you over time”

Get used to asking for things. It won’t happen immediately necessarily, but over time, it will. I didn’t get that first GM job. And about six months later, I get this email announcing two other promotions to General Manager of two other peers of mine. And I was like, “What the hell? I didn’t even know those jobs were open.” Nobody talked to me about that. I didn’t have the chance to pitch myself. I don’t mind losing a fair fight, but if I’m not even invited, that just feels wrong. I was really pissed off. But after I cooled down a little bit, I was like, “I could either quit or I could like keep going for it.” And I thought, “I’m going to keep going for it.”

And so I went and talked to a number of different folks who were the top two or three people at the company, who would be the only people making decisions on that in the future. And I said, “You know, I’d like to be a general manager for all these reasons. Here’s why I think I’m ready. I want to be your next general manager. So the next time there’s one of these jobs open, I want to be your first phone call.” And the two folks that I talked to looked at me and smiled, “Okay, you are very clear.” And I was like, “Great.”

About six months later, I got that call. And I became the General Manager of the Intuit Employee Solutions Group, which was a billion-dollar business. And it was amazing, it was everything that I wanted. Furthermore, the next level up from that was SVP of all of the people that were promoted to general manager, the job that I didn’t get, the two jobs I didn’t even get a chance to go for, and I was the first person promoted to SVP. Stay in the room, work your way in, don’t give up. No only means no for now, and good things can happen to you over time.

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