Ellen Wong - Calm - Director of Engineering

EPISODE 13 | 45 mins

How to inspire leadership on your team


"Career progression is not a good enough reason to go into management; the reason should be to support people."

In this episode 🎙

Our guest today is Ellen Wong, an expert in managing people and the Director of Engineering at Calm.

In this episode, we explored Ellen’s management path from senior engineer to managing director. We also discussed what it really means to lead by influence—something people talk about a lot but don’t really explain.

Ellen breaks down several of her recommendations to leading folks senior to her, how she builds trust with a new team, and what leading by influence means to her.

In this episode you’ll learn:

🤝 What it means to truly lead by influence

🤯 How to lead people more senior than you

👯 Using vulnerability to inspire others

🤩 How to enable and empower others to lead, too!


  • 2:02 - Leadership Without Authority
  • 8:13 - Discovering My Leadership Brand
  • 10:53 - Balancing Employee Happiness and Results
  • 12:06 - The Benefits of Accountability in Leadership
  • 15:38 - Challenges of Being a First-Time Manager
  • 25:30 - Leading Senior People in New Environments
  • 34:18 - Diverse Role Models in Leadership
  • 37:33 - Scaling Teams and Improving Diversity
  • 43:11 - Hard-Won Learnings in Organizational Commitment
  • 47:32 - Fitting In

Connect with Ellen:


Connect with Darja:

LinkedIn | Twitter | Substack

Connect with Anthony:

LinkedIn | Twitter

Follow Bunch:

LinkedIn | Twitter

Full Transcript 🤓


Hey there. Welcome to another episode of Teams at Work. My name is Darja Gutnick, and I'm the CEO and Co Founder of Bunch. I'm co hosting the show with Anthony Reo, who is also my cofounder and our COO. We are on a mission to help anyone become a great leader. And together with our team, we're building an AI leadership coach to achieve exactly that.


This podcast is for a new generation of leaders. Every episode, we talk to an inspiring guest who is running a high performance team or a company to learn about their journey and what they do in their day to day to be an effective leader. So no matter if you're leading a team already or simply interested in becoming more effective at work, you can build your leadership skills by investing as little as two minutes a day with our AI leadership coach. If you're curious, download it for free on the Apple App Store today by simply searching bunch, leadership, coach. Your journey starts with a quick assessment of what kind of leader you are today. And then you will receive personalized daily leadership tips to help you grow faster into the leader you want to become tomorrow.


Our guests in today's episode is Ellen Wong, Director of Engineering at Calm. Ellen has held positions at renowned companies like Intel, Microsoft, Singer, Workday and Sisense before she joined Calm. We talked to Ellen about how important this to be through influence, not through authority, if you want to build happy, thriving, and diverse teams. And especially if you're leading people that are more senior than you. I personally found Ellen's authenticity and vulnerability super inspiring. She shared with us how she struggled as a first time manager and even went back to being a senior engineer after her first attempt. To give herself enough time to reflect on why she wants to be a manager. She knew she was ready when she understood that the reason she wants to go into management is to enable others to read as well. She's one of the most inspiring tech leaders we have spoken to so far, so let's just jump right in.


Hey, Ellen. Good morning. It's so nice to have a year. Morning. Thanks for having me. It's so nice to meet you. Yes. We were super excited to have this combo.


Because I was scouting on lead desks content pages actually, and I found a, I think, a blog post in the top that you gave or panel that you joined And you were speaking about strategies for implanting without authority, and that really caught my attention. So it's a bunch. We also believe that Everyone can be a leader and it's really not about formal authority necessarily, but influence and leadership is much, much wider and contextual than that. So I would love to hear what you meant by that actually. And which strategies are those exactly? And how do you use them day by day?


It's funny you brought up the elite depth panels. So I remember, like, doing that panel was super interesting because they were, like, you know, four or five leaders, a lot of different companies. I'll have videos slightly different philosophy and philosophy and personalities. And and actually one of the other panelists disagree with me, like, during the panel, And who so so sorry. I'm so sorry, Ellen. Like but you know what? We became friends. We actually just grabbed dinner the other night. Like, because of that, like, in a panel, we became friends. And and we talked, you know, and great deal about, like, you know, the importance of influence, especially when you're in a leadership position.


And I think for a lot of early career leaders. Like myself included when I just started is to think, oh, you know, when I was an individual contributor, I have no authority. So as soon as I'm managing people of authority, and I can just tell people what to do now. Yay. So so easy. That is just so wrong. Actually, as I found myself growing in leadership, managing larger and larger team. It's true you have more people, you know, in your lead, in your care. But at the same time, your role on day to day so much of it is about influencing other people that are not in your organization, perhaps other leaders who equally have strong opinions about how things should be done, and it might be slightly different from you. And even like with direct reports, now you're managing other leaders, which means they also have their opinions and, you know, you hire really smart people to do their best work. And so, of course, you're not in a position to tell them and they pay what to do. And so, like, I would say in my day today, it's, like, rarely. It's it's about authority. It's all about influencing.


And I remember just talking to one of my engineering manager on the team about this the other day. How do you have influence? Exactly. That was your question. Yeah. Absolutely. Especially if you're joining us a new leader, it's especially now in the real world. And it is really challenging. Right? Like, when you have, you know, the rapport, when you're like, when you're in person in an office, maybe you have casual conversation, you build that organic trust.


And now in the remote world, when you first join, like, okay, now I have these things on these influence and where do I like where do I go with this? And it really start by, like, active listening. And what I mean by that is if you're asked to go drive an initiative and it involves, like, several different teams, leaders, people, perhaps in different function, you really can't get people to do the things that you need them to do without understanding their mood patient. So one of the first thing I remember was my first onboard and I'll go on it remotely was, okay, mapping out who are all the people, like, in the system? Right? And what are they you know, and and can I answer the question? What do they care about? What do they measure it on? And how can I support them? Right? And so, like, really one by one really mapping out that your ecosystem to getting things done.


And then from there onward, like, building trust It's like a drop in a bucket each time. Like, okay. I understand what what is it that you need, and here's how I can support you. Right? And so it helps when you do need something from them. You can frame it in a way that one, they understand what it is, and two, that they care about it. Like, oh, you want, you know, higher performance. I want higher performance. You want better user engagement. Me too. I want support team to be, you know, a little bit less less underwater. To translate it to something that they care about. And so I think that is really the core of building influence. Super spot on.


We actually had a tip I think that is very similar, Anthony, if I remember correctly that's literally called, like, the state older map or something like this, but we literally were encouraging our users to visually map out who they they actually interact with the most and what they care about in order be able to place kind of your initiatives in that in that map. So I could not agree more. I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of people doesn't actually do it because it looks like this great idea and, like, meaningful thing to do, but also it's kind of out there and, like, you start your job and then you have to computer and, like, where do you map? Do you go to Miro or, like, really? Do you, like, do the thing? But it actually so it's so nice to hear that this is something that you actually do, actually use and actually recommend because I really truly believe that most successful people actually do that.


And I think, like, to that point, both sides is true, like, identifying, you know, the right person for what you need is really important in their motivation and speaking their language. And at the same time, knowing when to back off. Right? Because, like, if you are, you know, gushing on something, and and you're not getting that energy, you're not getting their response, and not knowing how to back off. You actually, like, break a lot of trust. Imagine someone who's really pushy and like, hey, Ellen, you know, like, you really need to do this. It's really important to me. Each time you're working trust because you're saying, me, me, me. It's about me. Right? So that especially in the beginning, have you not built up that relationship yet. It's really important to know when to back off and then, you know, try again in a slightly different way. Yeah. That's such a good thought as well.


I think you're you're starting to dive into development. So I'd love to double down on that and just sort of zoom out to the the the team level. I know I think like us, you're you're committed and and I think passionate about happy thriving and productive teams. What are your signals like, what are the signals for you when a when a team is either thriving, happy, productive or vice versa, not thriving, not happy, and not productive. What do you look for? That's so sad. You're not happy. You know? Sorry. They're not productive.


I remembered a couple of jobs ago. I one's attended a low back story. I attended this, I think, a leader another female leader from Cisco where she talked about her leadership journey. And and she was like, you know, a lot of people don't think about it. But as you grow in leadership, you really need to understand your brand. What is it that you're known for? Like, what is it that people say about you when you're not in the room? And I that's when I was like, oh, I I didn't know what my brand was. And so, like, well, the best way that you find out is to ask people that you work with and people that you know from, you know, personal lives. So I asked my coworker what is this what would you say, like, the top three things in my brain and eyes like an asset of ten people? And to my surprise, all of them collectively have at least one thing in common when is saying that, Ellen, your teams are always so happy as frequently that we would be, you know, on our headphones, but the laughter would just pierce through the headphones in there.


Just like, what's so funny? What's so funny over there? And that's and I didn't even realize it. That's just, like, part of who I am. That's how part of how I lead and how my my team just organically become that way. And I think when we were in the office, when you walk into the office, kind of the the test is just like, are people energized? Are they excited to come into work? Like Monday, it's a great test. If your team is coming in, you know, either person or on Zoom, well, Monday and they're energetic. Even if they're tired, you know, they chuckle those are, like, little bits of signs that, hey, you know, your your team morale is doing pretty great. Right? They're happy to be here and even, you know, like, the first day of the week.


But then I think beyond just especially now that I've seen a lot of different leaders and work with different ones, there is the it's not just happy. Right? Like, you can have a team that's, like, worked out really super cool things, fun stuff, and and maybe they're doing, you know, like, challenging projects but I think making him an impact. I think that to me is also super important. Right? I think I was talk talking with this other leader the other guy, they were like, yeah, you know, working with this leader, this person is really well loved by the team. But then their team is just kind of off on the side doing the cool projects but not really tying to the overall organization, you know, impact. And as a result, their overall impact is lower. Right?


So I think there is the day to day happiness and finding joy. But there's also the inherently are we making an impact, you know, to the world, to the business, to our users? And so I think it's truly the true happiness is when you have both elements. And it's really hard. Right? And I think I certainly see you know, some bucket of early leaders either prioritizing one over the other and not really think about both at the same time. You know, one can would be overly indexed on, oh, employee happiness. It's like, oh, you know, do the fun projects and not, you know, really course correct when, hey, here's the high impact thing. Maybe less fun, but here's how we can, you know, get you excited and engaged. So really, like, constantly adjusting is really the key to a happy and productive people.


I think it's it's really great that you brought up this example because I think that's exactly what happens. You kind of learn how to do the one thing first and then the other thing. And my question would be, how do you advise tech leaders particularly just engineering teams to kind of learn the other thing at the same time? So if I'm someone who is, like, truly collaborative and the team is really important to me. Chances are that I kind of don't really keep the big picture in mind maybe so often and, like, I'm not really focusing on the result side of things as much, and I'm not tying back to, like, the bigger company objective and all this, and vice versa. Do you have advice for both of these archetypes, so to say kind of how to counteract this bias or the preference that they have.


I think that part of what you just described there require, you know, self reflection. Right? Like, do you know what kind of leader you are? Right? Perhaps, you know, knowing yourself you are very result focused and you're a little bit like less people oriented or, you know, less about, like, you know, cultivating to joy and psychological safety in your team. Right? In that case, I would say if the project delivery and and outcome is what drives you. Right? Don't don't shy away from that because that's your superpower.


But perhaps you can, you know, partner up with someone. You know, it could be, you know, a person on the team who just naturally cultivate that environment, and promote learning, promote psychological safety, partner with them. Right? Or perhaps like another person, another leader with a team that can, you know, add to that element. And if you are the other side where you're like, oh, you know, when my team just rounds, oh, I just I I just give in then then you need the other person. Right?


It it could be an it could be a person. It could be a system. It could be a metric. Right? So so one tip actually that I if I find myself actually leaning more and more on as like growing leadership is having clear guidance on what is the success criteria. Right? That way, you keep yourself accountable as well. And so it could be a set of metrics. It could be, you know, because it could be customer satisfaction. It could be, you know, service performance. It could be, you know, revenue targets. Right? There might there'll be some things that are measurable within a certain time frame. Right? It could be an outcome, a launch of a product within a certain time frame. And so communicating that very clearly to yourself, to your team is a way to keep, you know, everyone accountable And to my surprise, like, you know, over and over again, as I manage different kinds of teams, people actually get more engaged when they're kept accountable.


One of the, you know, engineering manager that managed prior first year in her career, and she was like, hey, to keep the team accountable, aren't I just being a hard ass? Like, aren't I just, like, putting the whip on? And it wasn't until, you know, we did a three sixty feedback group where, you know, the reports, you know, something like, oh, you know, how can my manager, you know, support me even more? They all ask for accountability. So so for for those who actually, you know, have that similar mindset, just know that it's helpful. When people have a goal to strike for. And I actually had a conversation today with one of my team members and they asked me for advice actually on exactly that, like, there wasn't security around am I too harsh on my team? Like, I'm always trying to help them to stay accountable and kind of like pull them back to what this is the actual objective and think there wasn't actually any reason to be insecure about it because I don't think that was the actual issue. There was, like, another kind of side issue. But, yeah, it's, like, it's interesting how we intrinsically assume that accountability, something bad, or, like, we're almost, like, parents coming into the room and are, like, did you clean your room already? Or, like, there is somewhat weird association, but this accountability thing.


I was digging into your previous experiences, and I saw that you moved Ed Zynga from a senior engineer to a development leads. And then as you switched to Workday, you actually became senior engineer again, which I found really interesting because it doesn't happen very often that people have versatile enough to kind of go from, like, senior IC to then a manager to then senior IC and then manager again. Could you share a little bit about that, like, episode? And why did you decide to actually go to IC?


When I was at Zynga, I had a really supportive manager who I'm still, you know, a a dear friend to this day. And I remember I was one of the senior engineers on the team and at some point just so I think naturally, I I like to drive collective outcome. I I like to, like, support people around me even if they're not my reports. And he was like, Ellen, you should be a manager. And I remember fighting it at the time. It was just like, why? I I enjoy coding. Like, I'm I'm still learning it, like, at the time it was about one engineer. So I'm still learning Android. There's so much cool things to do. Why would you wanna make me a manager? And at the time, his answer was, I mean, he's pretty cheeky. He was like because you're older now. You know? Just just step into leadership. Like, just do it, man. When do I? Why do I? Why you can't make me a hard sign. I'm trying to give you an opportunity. And so I'm like, oh, buying. It was, like, literally. That was a one on one conversation that I reenacted just now. So, like, buying. I'll do it.


But then, like, I I walked in and I was just making all the textbook mistake of the first time managers. I was, you know, I was an Android engineer and it was I stepped into the role. I didn't give up any of my IC work. And in my mind, I was, like, oh, I can do both. No. Of course. Why? Of course. Why not? I can do both. And so then, you know, I was that what it means is I was doing both jobs poorly. Right? My IC work was delayed. And so I'm like, you know, I wasn't ever used to telling, you know, the the team that I'm delayed. And and that was the first time I kept telling, like, oh, no. My my IC work kept getting delayed. And at the same time, the team wasn't very well supported. Right? Because I was trying to code all the time. Trying to block out that focus time.


And it was also a very challenging environment for first time manager. This is where, like, the diversity aspect Right? I was the only female leader in a group of, I would say, organization of sixty people. I was one of nineteen leads. Slash manager on the team. And so I remember walking into this room. I mean, in my mind, I I don't know. I just like to think of it as, like, almost a funny thing I walked in and I was like, men, men, men, men. I'm like, this is funny. I'm like, the only female here. What's going on? Like, And so it was just like, you know, a combination of things.


I I wasn't having a lot of fun, I would say. I learned a lot though. I learned a lot about, like, what not to do and and how to, you know, like, balance different things and what work and what didn't work. So I think that experience set me up for being a better manager the next time around when I was ready. So, yeah, I definitely after that experience, I'm like, oh, big managers are not for me. I'm gonna go back to be a NIC. And when I went to Workday, SNIC, I actually observed that, you know, great leaders have just large impact on people's lives and well-being and and happiness. And I'm just like, okay. I think I'm ready to go back into that now, and that's when I, like, fully talk on that full management role. That's a beautiful story. Thank you. Thank you for sharing this.


And then based on all that, Ellen, what would you what do you think the biggest challenge for managers is today? I felt that being a first time manager itself, it was hard enough because it it was very hard for me of, like, learning to do, you know, one on ones, learning to you know, pull away from the, you know, tried and true, like, you know, you know how to be a successful IC, and you have that instant gratification of like, checking in code, and you see it in production also. Like, all of that, you have to pull away from that and relearn a sense of skills. And I I think that in itself is challenging enough. And today, we for for a lot of people, they're still working in a remote world. And I just find out really really hard. Right? Because a lot of trust building, a lot of rapport is, like, you know, based on organic interaction. And when you're in a remote working situation, those don't just happen. You you kind of have to orchestrate it. And so, like, that's an extra like, learning curve for especially new managers that are being managed for the first time in a remote world.


I personally do think that like, line manager, like, first level manager have the toughest job right now. Right? Because they they are on on, you know, on how to deliver on projects. Like, if you have, like, a deadline and and, you know, driving a bunch of people to deliver on an outcome. They're on on a hope for that. And at the same time, they're also taking care of their team. Right? Because their team are also stressed out, especially, like, those their home environment may not be as as peaceful as this. Maybe they're, like, you know, dogs and cats and and and children didn't even count. Yeah. And and and, like, you know, throwing all of that in and and needing to make that connection and trust in the remote world. It's all just it's just extra and every little bit just adds on and it's like, I I think the advice to a lot of the managers on my team, especially first time managers, just just pace yourself Right?


It's like you're going from instant verification of IC work into something that is gonna take longer to see results. So it's, you know, you you need to it's it's a it's a marathon, not a sprint. This is something I also remind myself of. You need to kind of bake in some quick wins for yourself. Right? If you aim for something super ambitious when you are a first time manager, and you don't, you know, get that joy of achieving something till the end, you're gonna burn out. So, like, really making sure that you bake in those quick wins understanding switching into a management role that the instant gratification doesn't come as easily. And and learning to enjoy the impact as a leader. I think those are all challenges, especially today. And we've had some really, really, really cool conversations with technical leaders over the last months on the podcast but also off the podcast.


And I think one of the things that's really crystallized in my head is just how unique the engineering leadership journey is and how special it is. One thing that I remember, one guy said was just just how stark the contrast from going from it's not just general IC work to manage work, but almost other disciplines have it a little bit easier because designers are talking to customers. There's this, I guess, easier transition. You're deploying more soft skills in your IC roles. And then in management, you can kind of slip into it a little bit more. Not saying it's easy by any means. How do you view this for engineers specifically? And do you find that a lot of engineers require soft skill training? Or do you think they're ready? Like, how are the soft skills when they first jump into management? How important is that to you? Because of my previous experience of rushing into management and just fall flat on my phase and just bruises everywhere. And then go back to be a nice seat.


Whenever someone who is, you know, hopefully a strong IC. Right? Like telling me, oh, they want to be, you know, switching into management, I'm always taking that extra step to to ask them the questions of, like, you know, to kind of gauge, are they ready or is it the right time? Right? It doesn't mean, like, you are a manager and you're not, like, is this the right time? And often I would ask them the question, you know, what is the reason? What is the why? Behind wanting to go into management. And if their answer is just career progression, I'm like, hey, you can progress as an individual contributor as well. That is not a reason. Right? That's not a good enough reason. So what is the reason?


And for those that I find to be the most successful is because that, you know, become successful managers are, that that the reason is to support people. Right? And so often I would ask them does that excite you more when you dig into really complex problems or figure out, like, you know, a new architecture or resolve a really difficult issue or bug with the stat, give you energy? Or is it when you, you know, pull together a bunch of people and drive a collective outcome? Or you teach someone something new or you help someone, you know, achieve something that they weren't that cheap before. Which one clearly spark more joy. Right? Anyway and if the answer is the first one, I'm like, let's find you more, but you just do that. Right? And instead of, you know, just thinking that management is the only way to go. I think knowing the why and knowing the timing is really important. And second, whenever possible, what I try to do is to have them in an environment, you know, doing the job before officially transition them into an official manager. So most often that on my teams, a lead would already be managing project, driving collective outcome, perhaps having some casual one on ones with folks before I officially have people reporting to them. Because I want to see what they are like in that element. Right? And and for them, it's also an easier transition. It's merely in a way a like job title change and a few reporting change instead of, like, the whole function change around them. So for me, personally, whenever possible, I'll try to create an environment where they're not just going from one role to another so drastically in transition them into it.


I I actually had a follow-up on this kind of related to the the only woman in the room situation, and and this is going off script a little bit. So do let me know if this is not something you're comfortable with answering. But I can't imagine, like, what you have, you know, like, experienced ICs and a lot of them are still men, of course. Not as many anymore are, like, more and more female engineers, which is super exciting. And I see that whole space open up for all types of diversity, which is, like, really good. I think we we actually made progress in the last couple of, like, in the last two two years, especially I feel.


But still, like, when you have the situation, when you kind of have to support someone who is maybe more senior than yourself and also a man. And, like, they are really, you know, in their element, they really know what they're doing, and then you kind of, like, are, you know, like, sending them off on this, like, new journey and you need to, like, give space. But at the same time, also, you know, next them sometimes. And, like, how do you like, what are the tools that you learned to lead maybe more senior people and their element, but that they are kind of new to your re or your environment, which is management. Like, a couple years ago, I I actually have that exact same situation, and I find myself sweating a little bit. Right? I would I had already been managing multiple teams and managing sort of, like, you know, early career to, like, fresh graduates.


And I remember suddenly coming into my team was a prior CTO, a man, someone actually much much older than me. And also, someone who is, like, you know, loud and and, like, opinionated, and it's not It's not super obvious that it would work out great. Like, it wasn't that obvious that it would work out great. So definitely going in, I I remember talking to my mentors and previous managers, like, yeah, I don't I don't know. Like, does this kind of, you know, I was, like, a little bit intimidated and also wasn't sure how I can, you know, support this person. And the advice I got was just just ask them. And so that's what I did.


I remember the very first one on one that we both sat down. And I remember, like, he kind of, like, have this body language like this, and he was just, like, So yep. And I'm like, mhmm. Yep. We're working together now. It's like, Like, yeah. I mean and I think it was even, like, you know, we don't this is him. Like, we don't have to do this. We don't we don't have to do one on ones, like, you know, I don't need to talk about my feelings. I don't I don't need this, you know. I don't do feelings. They don't do feelings. You tell me what you need. I do them when we're good. Right? So that was that was the thing. And I'm like, okay. So so he he doesn't need what I normally provide for my other reports.


But then so I asked him, okay, cool. Well, I've heard you have you have a great reputation about delivering. You've drive, you know, all these other projects before. So I'm super excited to have you on the team. I'm really in this role where my job is to support you. So tell me how I can best support And I think he just kind of paused and looked at me. And he was like, well, tell tell me how I can support you. And that conversation just just started blowing. Right? Because I'm like, cool. We have the same common goal, which is to support each other. Yeah. And so, like, then we just start drawing on the whiteboard. Like, okay. For this project, what about this? Is is the most exciting? What do you think is the right direction and why? Right? And then we we talk about the project. We talk about building a vision. We talk about, like, why we join the company. And and then it just flows.


Every now and then, and I went on once, I was slipping a feeling, asking him how he's feeling. Sometimes he would open up. Sometimes he would like, we don't have to do that. I'm like, okay. Like, I respect that. We don't always need to do that. But, you know, it's it's I'm here if you need it. Yeah. It worked out great. And I still think you know, he wasn't in my report the whole time I was in that company, but I still still think we had a great relationship and I still get message from him every now and then So that's a really really great showcase, I would say, like a case study almost. Thank you so much. Maybe I'll jump in on the back of that.


You know, looking forward, what are you still trying to grow in? What are you still what do you still find challenging? It wasn't, like, until a couple years ago, I really dive into, like, what are my core values? Right? What what are the things that drives my behavior and and guesty motivated and then get out of bed every day. And one of the few things is actually growth. Like, I care a lot about the growth of my team, like, my my leaders, like, people in the organization, and for myself as well. And I think that for, you know, many years leading you know, to to this it was always about, like, career progression. Like, okay. If if I was a lead, you know, do I do I stop managing or do I become, you know, in a different path? Okay. When you're first level manager and then I'm sorry.


Like managing leaders and perhaps is around growing scope and impact. But then, like, I think as you keep growing in your leadership journey, the the growth path is not as mapped out for you. It's more about, like, figuring it out on your in a way on your own. Right? So every every week I actually, you know, with a group of other leaders. We we talk about this. Like, how do we grow in our career? And what does grow really means?


I think in I remember in my last job, I I was like, I wanna grow. I wanna grow. And I remember my exec and my boss at a time said, what do you mean by grow? Essentially when I started thinking, like, wait, I can't just use the same formula as I had before. Right? Is the letter might have stopped, like, Where where what is the what is the next thing? And and maybe the next thing is not available or clearly available where you are. So I think part of the growth conversation is to figuring out, like, what is truly important to you. Mhmm. And so as I do some self discovery, I think that two things that's important to me. One is actually quite aligned with, you know, why you all do this podcast, which is, like, you know, creating more like, amazing leaders out there. I think -- Mhmm. -- and and being, you know, a supportive voice for them. Right? I think that's that's one one piece. Thank you so much. Yes.


And second is to, like, find joy in my work. Sometimes we can be like in the rat race a bit where we're like, okay, do more, do bigger, better things. But do we enjoy it? Like, because I think it it talks to sustainability. Right? Because it well, I find joy in my work. I'm energized. I bring my best self to work. And I think most recently, I was reading this book called Flow, and and it really resonated with me. Did you check the Cali one? Or Yes. Yeah. That one.


And I remember the key takeaway and it's like a surface of reminder for myself. I actually have a little call out in my, you know, like, journal that, you know, just remember joy to to to have joy in your work, in your day to day, it's just that you're in the right kind of challenge. Right? You're no underwater, you're not, like, you know, do under challenge, so then you'd be bored. So the right amount of challenge and allow yourself, like, focus time to go, like, accomplish these, like, increasing challenges. As leaders, especially as your scope grow, it's so easy for your calendar to be just be full of back to back meetings And then you're just a week away, and you're like, I'm like, what happened? What happened? What what I do.


We call it, like, the tractor mornings where, like, on Saturday morning, like, how you wake up on Saturday morning is a very telling signal of how you wake was because if you wake up, like, subtractor rolls over you and you're like, wow. Why have exhausted? Then it's probably a sign of, like, that didn't really go well. There weren't too many meetings. I like too much training. Yeah. And it's like and and especially if you're in a dynamic environment where things keeps changing. Right? Like, your priorities could have shifted drastically even just from three months ago.


I remember thinking, like, you know, that's that's usually the signal where I'm like, okay, I need to, you know, change something, which is like, I'm tired. I can't quite articulate what I've accomplished in the week. And I I can't quite articulate, like, oh, you know, what am I what are the what are the goals of the quarter and how have I meaningfully made progress in it? Right? Because it all needs to kinda tie back to a bigger picture of what it is that I'm I'm trying to do.


And I remember when I and and when I first joined an organization, okay, there's so many things. Like, I'm just putting all the things in my bucket and just like trying to do all of them. And I forgot to hand them off. And so, like, over time, even though they're small and bits and pieces, says it was really starting to drown my calendar and, like, not allowing me to focus on, you know, other kind of work or high impact work. And so, like, I remember there was one week where I just ended up, like, ten things. I'm like, okay. Here's ten meetings. I don't actually need to be all of them. Like, it becomes an opportunity for other people, and then I allow me to focus on other things. And so I think it's so important to really understand, like, what is it that you're trying to accomplish, make your plan? And then give yourself that focus on to actually work on it and not be split brain. Great to hear that on a Wednesday. I'm already making plans on the structure of my next week much better how I'm gonna revisit my own stars. One more time on Friday. Super inspiring. Thanks for the reminder. I think it's so so crucial. It's so easy to get caught up in the whirlwind.


Let's talk about DE and I. Obviously, a very hot topic in tech and everywhere else. How do you make sure you get enough diverse candidates into the pipeline and through the pipeline currently? So let's talk a little bit about the hiring in and out. Well, like, before jumping into that, I think we hear Dee and I a lot in conversations and sometimes it's easy to forget, like, the why be high that is important. Hopefully, it doesn't need a lot more convincing, but, like, you know, to just relate on a personal level, I think I talked about my first time transition into management where there wasn't clearly someone that I could to see, oh, someone who look like me, who sound like me is doing this job.


And of course, I can do it. And it's very subtle, but, like, to me, I remember being in that environment. In order to do my job, I almost had to pretend to be a man. Right? Because all of the role models around me were for men. And they have a different kind of leadership, a different approach, exactly. Like, different kind of presence. And it wasn't until, like, two jobs later.


I remember interviewing at a company where the VP of Engineering was actually a woman it was like this emotional response talking to her during an interview, and she was talking about, you know, what what inspired her to be a leader and her leadership style. And I remember, like, having this emotional response, like, wow, I can lead and just act like myself. That was the pivotal moment where I'm like, I'm gonna be joining this company because this is going to really allow me to be myself and and lean. Right? And I can learn how to do that and be effective. I don't have to pretend to be someone else, which is exhausting.


So I think it's important to remember DNI work is is hard. A lot of times there's no no right answer, but it's so so so important because that will be people that, you know, they see representation and they, like, you know, aspire to be something that they didn't think was possible or easy. But, like, going back to, you know, your question, do we deal with the E and I? Right? There is the technical aspect, which is if you're hiring, there is a pipeline, you work with your recruiting team, and you also want to in a way, audit your interview process to make sure that it is, in fact, DNI friendly. But then I think even taking a step back from that, it's, like, what does Dee and I mean to your organization? When we're saying we wanna be more diverse, what does that mean? Right?


And in tech, some people might jump straight to, like, oh, just is there you know, men and women is the ratio, you know, pretty even, right, or or or mix of that. But it's not always that. I'll give you an example. So another job ago, when surveying the existing team, we talk about what would be the most impactful in, you know, adding to the existing culture and the topic of diversity came up. To our surprise, it wasn't the ratio of, like, male and female. It was actually the ratio of senior and early career readiness. And so they were actually saying, yeah, we've so we we were hiring everyone that can, like, hit the ground running that we lost the opportunity for the for the senior folks to mentor and teach and grow in leadership.


That's a common problem. I think in, like, scale up teams in particular. We get so many questions about this. Yeah. And so then as a result, based on that survey and really understanding, And and, you know, not gonna lie, like, at the time, there weren't that many females on our team either, but that wasn't the the most prominent problem. And so we really focused on reshaping our interview with to be up in more early career friendly. Right? For example, if your if your interview questions was like, Tell me about how you've scaled teams in the last five years. That's clearly not early career funding. Right? Or if you require really deep understanding in architecture or scaling architecture, that's also not, like, someone who's you've been out of school for two years isn't gonna have that experience. So, like, really having a different set of questions or a diverse set of, you know, candidates for early career folks was crucial in us, like, able to actually hired, like, you know, twenty, thirty percent off the next batch to the early career, and that balance out So I think one is, like, definitely to understand, like, what is the highest impacting and making incremental progress.


I found it super interesting to hear that you kind of turn to the team to ask for which aspects are actually kind of worth improving on and also kind of weren't afraid of, like, asking openly, like, what kind of diversity do we need? Like, what do we want to kind of tackle next? I think that's also such a good kind of stake at the crown because I think many people very insecure around the topic. It's a highly politically loaded topic, obviously. So you oftentimes see leaders kind of either step away from it and kind of, yeah, we do, like, diversity initiatives, but, like, it's not my thing. Like, there is these other people that do this. Or, like, oh my god. Yeah. Yeah. We have, like, super diverse friendly, like, hiring processes. This is how it goes.


But, like, I think it's really difficult to allow yourself to kind of emotionally connect to the topic and kind of really open yourself up and ask because it's it requires asking questions like, what do we get out of it? What type of diversity? How would that even go? Which, like, effects would it have and things like that? And I think a lot of the thoughts you just shared are so great because they actually showcase that, like, human side. The very, like, open curiosity side of things.


Like, don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask questions to your team of, like, what aspect do we want to focus on? And, yeah, it's not written anywhere, which you have to start with. Right? Like, you can actually have impact. Yeah. And and I would say, you know, not just DNI, there are certain topics where it's perhaps more controversial in some organization versus the other.


And I think one advice that I've been given that I think is is perhaps interesting to share here is to understand for certain initiative, like, what is the organization level support? Right? Like, let's say you're really passionate about diversity and you're, like, pioneering it, and you can do all of the survey, ask everyone, include everyone in solution. If you're not in an organization that, like, truly supports that or has a bandwidth to even process that information, you're not gonna be very successful. And so, like, knowing kind of the level of support or the appetite for the the organization to actually improve things is important because you wanna be aligned with, you know, your overall, like, leadership and and company as well in order to be successful. Yeah.


And I think it's it's really it's so easy to get, like, very frustrated when you want to act on your change maker and you are a wrong environment in that sense. Like, it you can't align because it's, like, really just too far away. I think that's a very typical career stack in a way or like energy sec for somebody I still see so many people actually kind of struggling with their direct context because there's a lack of alignment what they actually want what the organization wants in, like, on the larger scale. I think that's so useful. Do you have any advice, actually, again, of going on script, but I think it's a really relevant question. Do you have any advice since you took on quite a few different roles throughout your career and, like, from your experience, how do you actually find out whether an organization is fit it for you what the context has the right type of, like, priorities that you would then align with.


Actually, it kinda goes back to earlier when we talked about influence without authority. Right? So guess who you don't have authority over? Your your upper upper management. Right? Like, people you report to you and and people who are senior to you. They absolutely you know, it's it's absolute influencers. There's there's no authority whatsoever. So it's going back to the listening. If you never had any FaceTime with them, you have zero influence. They don't even know who you are. So do they even know who you are? And are you able to ask them questions to to understand what they're motivated by.


When there's something you care about, like, may it be, like, diversity, may it be, you know, work by balance or whatever it is. Right? Like, how do you translate that to something? A senior leader who is in a position to, you know, be a change maker to understand and be motivated to help you? And I think that first start by active listening. Right? If you go in with a leader, you don't have any relationship with and just go in with your ask, it's gonna come off as, like, pretty, like, you're out of alignment. Like, hey, do you even know, like, my world? Do you even speak my language? Right? So I think that it's so important to really understand what do they care about, what is it that's motivating for them and then try to translate what is it that you want done into something that they care about. I think most don't even take the first step in building that relationship. And so, like, you know, if you're truly someone that wants to, you know, create a change, then start by first listening and understanding what is the overall organization what did they care about? I hope I was active listening during all of that Ellen because I am striking a lot in and I think a lot of it will stick with me for a very long time.


What else do you wish you perhaps knew earlier that you sort of found out maybe in the last couple positions or maybe even in the position you're in now around some of these really, really, you know, they're really hard won learnings around organizational commitments and buy in and understanding the space you're in and just all of that stuff. Because this is, like, This is really great. It's it's funny you said that, like, you know, at what point of my career, like, that I learned a lot of these things because I think, you know, as you progress in in different roles, you know, IC management or different industry, you pick up bits and pieces. But I feel like for me, it all kind of came together when I was at my last job where I was part of an musician. So a lot of the learning actually came together you know, the the thoughts around influence without authority, alignment with the overall organization It really you know, I experienced it for the first hand in that experience.


So I was working at a was a series b startup. We were about, like, a hundred twenty people, and the engineering team was about thirty people. And I remember, like, one day, there was a meeting where everyone's, like, leadership only and we're going to a room and it was made to be known that, okay, a merger is happening. So another, like, slightly bigger, not less super big company, is gonna be merging, acquiring us. And then about a month later, the head of engineering, Quinn. So my my boss who I, at the time, who I, you know, at my ideally and I learned a lot from, is just so happen to be leaving the organization and pursuing a different opportunity. And so around that, like, that moment and and, like, as as time evolves, like, myself and the team becoming the team to be integrating the product.


So we're, like, in the trenches with the new leadership, figuring out what is the first product to deliver combined product. And that really put all the skills of influence without authority two is high gear. Right? I absolutely have no zero influence and zero authority over a scoop of people. People. Yeah. It's still people. And suddenly, I'm in a room with, like, you know, the the chief product officer, their the VP of engineering that I'm meeting for the very first time. You know, convincing them, like, what is gonna be the right approach as we, you know, merge and and ship our combined product. And so, like, I think that was actually where I learned a lot of this.


You can't go in, you know, with what you think the other people need to need to hear. Right? It's that you kind of first need to listen. And so that, like, the first six weeks, I would say, is I was just sitting in rooms, just listening to what everyone is saying. Right? Like, they might be saying, oh, I need to be doing this product as soon as it'll be this way. But what they what they really say? And so you gotta peel back the different pieces. You ask the question like, oh, you mentioned that you really want it done by this a certain time, can you tell me more? What what is the reason behind?


And with each of the leaders, I kind of have these conversations where I'm asking the deeper question that the five levels a lie. And from there, kind of map out, okay, oh, what is everyone's true motivation? For some, it might be we need to have a plan. Because everyone else is spinning, we need to have a plan so that they know what what is the goal post and there's some sense of stability. For another person and another leader might be business outcomes. We need to be shipping something by q four because that's the order where, like, a lot of companies are going to be using their budget and our health highest sales quarter. For some other person might be, they care about the job security. Right? I want to in insert my opinion here because I met her. Right? So depending on who is the person that is, like, in a way in a conversation, like, you really need to first understand why are they doing or saying what they're saying in order to push something forward? So with all of that, the proposal was something that in a way address a lot of people's key concerns, not everything, right, because you can't please everyone, but something that actually people can like, react to you and agree upon, and that's when we can push forward.


I would say another thing I also learned in that experience is that I wish I knew earlier is what matters most is fit. Having gone through an acquisition, had a lot of fun, really great team. But over time, as I started to, you know, continue to work there. I realized it wasn't for me anymore. And I think that I always you know, having the growth mindset, I was always thinking, what am I not doing? Right? I was always like, what am I not doing that I could be doing to improve the situation? But ultimately, it came to a fit. I see this over and over again. Someone who might be in a small start up, and the start up group is no longer for them, so longer the right fit. Or in this case, the company has changed. So the core, like, alignment core values start to diverge from what I really care about and I was no longer, you know, in a place where it fits me and my growth. And so sometimes while it's important to always being part of the solution and focus on what you can be doing to to change. I think it's also important to take a step back and say, Oh, is this still the right fit? Or am I actually, you know, in the wrong environment for pursuing the things I really care about? So, yeah, those those are a few things that, like, in in that one role I learned a lot and put piece all the learnings together. It's really impressive. I was just gonna say, I think that that the takeaway from me really is leadership comes from within, is I think a a catch phrase in a way.


But I think, Ellen, you're for me, your philosophy is really resonating as look inside first, but more so than just that that sort of like almost superficial phrase, It's really a lot of people think influence is something you have to project. Right? It's something you have to send out to the world constantly. But I think everything every every question we've asked. I think every almost every answer is -- Take it in. -- find the stability within yourself first, and then you're actually gonna naturally radiate the effects that you want.


Obviously, not as simple as that, but that's really my take away, and I think that's an unbelievably healthy reminder, particularly for folks who are early on and just being promoted to management feeling like they have to be the voice in every room, the decision maker, in every decision, the the person, you know, doing all the things for all the people, for all the time, for all the different reasons. But it it really is sometimes actually taking a step back and listening to others, but also listening to yourself in a way. So for me, it's a really a really really healthy reminder. Correct me if I'm miss miss phrasing or miss No. No. No.


And and this is why, you know, in the beginning of the call, on YouTube talk about why you do this podcast that, like, really resonated with me because I think having a voice and in a way empowering, like, aspiring or, you know, early or current leaders out there to be their authentic self and find ways to be the best version of themselves. I think that is super powerful. One amazing leader can impact so many lives. And with this work, you're influencing thousands of leaders, then imagine, like, how many more, you know, lives and impact this is going to make. So I'm thankful. That I get to speak with you all and and, you know -- Yeah. -- listen to all of your learnings as well. Super cool. I was I you're after tab like, perfectly. I don't think We don't have done any better job summarizing it. It's exactly yeah. It's exactly why we're passionate about sign up work, and it's was so great to have you on the show. Thank you so much for coming on and being so authentic and so vulnerable and just so empowering. Thank you. Thank you for having me, and it's been a great conversation. Thanks for listening to teams at work.


Let us know what your thoughts are on today's episode. You can find us on Twitter, @darjagutnick and @anthonyareo. Or simply follow bunch at bunch_hq. And don't forget Subscribe if you like the episode. Because we always have interesting guests who join us and share valuable knowledge as well as actionable advice. Yeah, we're looking forward to hearing from you. Please do get in touch. At the beginning of the show, we did mention that we're building an AI leadership coach that helps you level up as a leader in just two minutes a day. Check us out on the Apple App Store and simply search bunch leadership coach to find it, try it out and let us know what you think. And that's a wrap. We are your host, Darja Gutnick and Anthony Reo, and we're excited to speak with you all soon. Until next time.