After three and a half years at a government non-profit organization focusing on improving the city’s economic prospects; and you returned to the corporate world as Chief of Staff at LivePerson. How did you make your way from point A to point B?
Bloomberg was an atypical government organization to a certain extent because the mayor was known to be running the city like a business, which attracted a lot of excellent business talent to join the government. My role with the industry transformation team was to essentially extend that strategist role to become the industry strategist for a city. It was a wonderful role in terms of giving me the opportunity to operationalize a strategy and I was given sizeable, multi-million dollar budgets that I took and did business development and sales with. I continued to be a strategist and actually operationalized and implemented strategies successfully to deliver results. I had P&L and business development responsibility, so I was able to build partnerships and launch public-private ventures as well. When people look at your resume, those are the skills that will let them know you are a person that makes things happen.
I got the job at LivePerson through networking. I went through a search process at the end of the administration knowing I most likely would not serve the next mayor, taking the time to meet with different people and continuing to narrow my search. With Bloomberg, I basically ran all the industry teams. In each industry, we have a CEO advisor board for the city, so I got to meet so many business executives in the city across industries. In that position, I could leverage that network and start talking to people at different companies and partnering with them on different projects so they knew who I was and my capabilities. I was very lucky I was in the right role working for the right guy and that I had very strong relationships that enabled me to do what I wanted to do.
By the time I met LivePerson’s CEO, I knew I wanted to work for a midsize company. I knew I wanted to work in an innovative company that’s not afraid of change. My preference was in the technology space given I was a TMT Partner at Oliver Wyman and that the first task I had with the city was to rebuild the technology and media industry. I knew I wanted to work with a leader who I could learn with and learn from, and so I was introduced to Rob Locascio, the LivePerson CEO. There wasn’t a job posted or anything…I just thought it would be good to meet with him and maybe he could lead me to another contact who was looking to hire someone to join their team. So I met with him a couple times and the conversation was very interesting in terms of what he was trying to do with the business what he was trying to do with the culture of the company. Eventually, he asked me to join the team and created the Chief of Staff role for me to work as his right hand.
What were the most notable differences you experienced transitioning from the public sector to a publicly-traded tech company? Where there any unforeseen surprises or challenges?
To be honest, it wasn’t that difficult. I think the New York City Economic Development Corporation was a great training ground because the people in government are so different from the people in consulting. Consulting is full of super ‘Type A’ individuals, who are driven and committed and whom you can really rely on to deliver results. As a manager, you know exactly what carrots you need to dangle in front of them to get that horse moving.
When you move into the government, people are motivated by completely different carrots. They are a group of people who have more of a business background or for-profit mindset that “we need to deliver results.” It’s all about the results. It’s about jobs, it’s about companies and everyone is driven in a way where you know you can rely on them. Even though the government is considered to be a 9 to 5 job, no one works 9 to 5. These are people who work late because they are passionate about what they do and deliver. The carrots for those people are different. They are motivated by the challenge and you have to give them the opportunity to push themselves and they will always deliver results. This doesn’t account for everyone in government, though. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the ‘government lifers.’ They are the civil servants. They are the classic 9 to 5 – they clock in, clock out, they take lunch breaks. There are people who are very comfortable with this lifestyle. For them, it’s a lifestyle job. I respect them. They are working families; many of them have kids and cannot commit any extra hours outside of the 9 to 5. But sometimes what can be done in 24 hours can lead to 24 days. I think that’s a very typical picture of how government functions.
When coming to the government, you’re dealing with real-life situations, with real-life people. Consultants are people who are driven on their own. You don’t need to tell them what to do, they will run and go, versus in government, you really learn to manage people with a wide spectrum of motivations and incentives. Government is also very political – different people have different agendas. Government is a really great training ground for someone to understand political alliances, to understand managing different types of talent, while always delivering great results.
Lastly, there was a great sense that I was having a lot of impact when working for the government. If you implement your initiatives correctly, you will have direct impact on the city, not just the company or industry you are working with. When you are generating a billion dollars, you have just created tens of thousands of jobs…that’s really rewarding.
Given my past working experiences, I would put private sector somewhere between consulting and government. The people here at LivePerson have the same goal as consultants do, in terms of the for-profit aspect. It’s very clear we need to deliver results in terms of revenue and profit, and compensation and bonus act as the carrots you can play with to achieve those results. When in government, however, I learned that money isn’t the only option you can use to incentivize people and I learned different management techniques to do so. For these reasons, the transition has been good. The consulting skills never leave you. You come in, you know you’re not supposed to change everything, you listen, you build alliances, you get to know people. It has been a great time.
What about your non-profit and government experience have you found to be translatable to your current roles at LivePerson?
I will say that some people often find it very hard to position me given my non-traditional path. When you come out of consulting, it is easier for people to think you’ll be Head of Strategy or Pricing or Analytics. When you throw in a not-for-profit government gig and say you want to come back to profit, how do you connect the dots?
First, you really learn the process of making things happen in government. I think if you can make things work in government, you most likely can make things happen in the private sector. The bureaucracy, the politics…if you learn how to jump through all those hoops in government, it’s relatively easy in the private sector, especially for a company of 1,000 employees compared to 100,000 people.
Second, in government, you learn that joining forces is very beneficial. Because of the structure in consulting, if you deliver, you get promoted. But in government, a lot of times the most networked individual in politics gets promoted. I think that realization is applicable to a private sector company… knowing that you can’t shine on your own and that you need to build the right support network within the company to advance your agenda and to make things happen.
The last piece I mentioned was learning how to operationalize your strategy. I learned to implement a ton of strategy in the government. During my tenure, I launched 40-50 initiatives and programs in New York City across different industries. It’s good to recommend a strategy, but you need to know how to actually implement the strategy when push comes to shove. That implementation and operational skill is very useful in any role.
A career is made up of many building blocks. When you exit consulting, you have different building blocks built into your foundations – analytical skills, client management skills, or business development skills. When I graduated from consulting, I was a business leader and more on the strategy side. But when I went to work for the government, I got the people management, the shrewd business development, and the operational blocks. As you gain more experiences, you continue to build that house that is your career out of these different building blocks you acquire from each role. When I came to LivePerson, I brought with me my consulting toolkit and my knowledge of coming up with templates and coming up with strategy and process. I brought with me my government skills and the ways I learned to work with different people and to join forces and make things happen. I don’t see my path as traditional compared to most consultants, but I also don’t have difficulties articulating what I learned in each step of my journey and how that has helped me along the way.
As both Chief of Staff and Global Head of People, can you describe the roles and how you balance between the two?
As a Chief of Staff, you truly are the right-hand to the CEO, his or her closest adviser, a partner in developing the vision and the strategy of the company. The CEO can come up with the vision, but the Chief of Staff is responsible for asking the tough questions: How you are going to do that? What are you going to do with sales? How is marketing going to generate leads? What are the customers like? How do you segment the market? What do customers really need? You help the CEO build the strategy to deliver.
I originally hesitated to take the Head of People role because my background is in strategy and operations and my goal was to become a CEO or COO… to really run the organization. One day, my CEO told me, “There’s only two assets in a company – money and people. We trust the CFO with the money, we trust you with the people, and combining those two is what makes the company move forward.” When you manage people, you influence how we recruit and develop our talent, then you look at how these things fit into the strategic plans and the functional operation plan of the company. You are constantly playing a chess game when you are Head of People plus Chief of Staff. At LivePerson, I’m working with over a thousand people. How are you going to move them around? How are you going to manage the resources? How are you going to partner with the finance team so you can hit the revenue targets and the margins? People are the biggest expense in a tech company, so you become very mindful and start asking questions like, “What is the most cost effective way to service each of the customer segments?” Once you have that answer and strategy, then you start figuring out how you are going to move people, what you are going to move in-house and what you are going to outsource.
I think a lot of CHROs say they want a seat at the table. As Chief of Staff, I happen to start with a seat at the table and I just put on a different hat. I know the agenda, I have a voice, and luckily our CEO also really cares a lot about the people and the culture. I am Chief of Staff, which involves thinking like a CEO and thinking about running a business and driving performance and high growth high returns. On the other side, you need to be the people person, you need to protect the people, you need to create the best environment to recruit and retain them. Often times that can be at odds. If you have an extra dollar to spend, do you spend that on R&D development or do you spend it on a wellness program? How do you balance that? But the sky’s the limit with my combined business strategy and people role, so I try to combine them.
As an executive search firm, we have observed an increasing number of organizations looking to recruit former consultants for executive HR roles. Despite this trend, many current and former consultants don’t consider taking on such roles down the line because they don’t view HR as the function for them. As LivePerson’s Global Head of People and a former Junior Partner at Oliver Wyman, how did you bridge the gap between consultant and people person?
As a strategy consultant, if you decide to pursue the people path you have to ask yourself if you are really truly passionate about people. I have no HR background, absolutely zero. But I came from two organizations that have good talent management strategy….management consulting is known for its very rigorous onboarding process, very rigorous recruiting process and very rigorous review assessment process. Even though I don’t have the HR background, I know what should be the right outcome or the wrong outcome. I know that my consulting background lends me the business intelligence that most HR professionals struggle with, so the combination of consulting and HR can be powerful.
But as a former consultant, you then must see if you can bridge the gap between business and people because often times they can be at odds. This year, one of the tools we used was an engagement survey. If you do a traditional HR engagement survey, you’ll find out that people are either happy or not happy. I didn’t want to just find out whether my people are happy or not happy – what they are happy and not happy about is what truly matters. We were able to do some analysis of the responses to really figure out what matters to our talent at LivePerson. When we think about what makes people happy, usually what first comes up is work-life balance. The survey data surprisingly told us that work-life balance is one of the bottom five things that matter to our employees. That’s an example where the strategy/business/consulting mindset comes in. We are very data-driven, we’re trained to be data-driven. When a team member tries to propose a different program, the consultant will always go back to the survey. The people side forces you to think differently because you know that the data doesn’t always tell you the full story. For example, you know there are other things that affect the workplace, like management. Without good management you can’t deliver good results in a lot of other areas and this knowledge doesn’t come across in a survey. That is when your people knowledge needs to kick in to make connections outside the data to figure out what really matters to your team and employees.
There has been a lot of discussion recently on the composition of the corporate workforce, especially in the tech industry. As a female of Southeast Asian origins, what have your experiences been like in the industry and how do you see yourself participating in these conversations?
I’m currently a member of the Women in Power fellowship program at the 92nd Street Y, which gives me a lot of perspective about gender diversity and women in business because I’ve been very active in conversations about these issues. I know I would love to participate more in the discussion on diversity in the workplace.
I used to say lack of diversity was the consequence of the supply of talent – everyone starts with the source. For example, there isn’t enough female talent in tech because of the supply of talent from engineering schools, which obviously skews the demographics in an organization. As a mom with two kids, I think marriage and childbirth also have a strong influence in what women desire to do. Is there a women’s issue? Yes, there’s obviously a smaller network of women in the high-tech industry. And in terms of racial and ethnic diversity, they’re still mostly white men at the top of the tree.
In addition to focusing on the sources of these issues, I think we should focus on what will make things easier for women to be successful, to make companies more welcoming or make the idea of working in a tech company more welcoming to women. You might not have that many female developers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have more women sales people, marketing people, etc. I also believe that tech companies can do a better job in recruitment by inserting more women into that process. I’m not saying we set a quota to hire ‘X’ number of women each year, but we can have more female interviewers in the process that will provide a different perspective as we bring in different candidates to try and neutralize a more or less male-dominated environment. I actually do believe that the recruiting process is more objective in the tech industry than you would think if you look at other industries.
Here at LivePerson, we aren’t perfect, but we are definitely trying. I want to believe that if you are a good engineer and a good developer that people will look past whatever color you are, whatever gender you are. These aren’t things engineers and developers care about in the recruiting process. They just want to find the best talent to join the team.
How do you see LivePerson highlighting diversity & inclusion as a priority?
We have a really open workspace where we try to accommodate all our talent. In Israel, where family is very important culturally, this week we have a summer camp going on in the office open to all the children of our employees – I’m talking about hundreds of kids. In Israel, there are two weeks before school starts where summer camp ends and parents end up taking vacation to take care of the kids. So two or three years ago, our people group decided to put together a summer camp in the office: 16 different conference rooms filled with hundreds of kids for summer camp at our Tel Aviv office, which has 400+ employees.
Fundamentally, I don’t think that we should only focus on women, we need to also focus on families. It can be same-sex families, heterosexual families, but when you build an environment and a company that is open to and supportive of families, I think that goes a long way. You can’t just support the wife and not the husband. In different offices, we do different things. In New York, the demographic is still quite young. We had a summer party, went to a restaurant, basically just drinks and food for an afternoon to socialize and connect with coworkers. In Atlanta, which is our second largest office globally, we’ve been doing tailgates, a family funday tailgate where they have screens indoors showing college football and outdoor space for kids to run around and tailgate cookout that people can enjoy. I believe employers need to be more open-minded to develop their people strategy by understanding who their talent is and then go from there.
LivePerson has gone through various shifts since you joined the company in 2012. Do you see the changes as part of a turnaround effort?
I do. And we aren’t done yet…we’re still turning. If you look at chat, it’s basically all about capturing the traffic on your website. If you look at the late 1990s, everyone’s trying to get online, people are busy setting up their websites, and gradually when you have a good website, you set up e-commerce, then set up an automatic support site, then we found we needed a way to communicate with our users, so chat was created. If you look at a majority of brands nowadays, everybody has chat. Our CEO had the foresight to know that chat was going to one day be a commoditized product and that it wasn’t going to be as profitable as before and that’s absolutely true. When we realized the messaging business was being commoditized we made another realization: people were shifting from website-desktop to a mobile phone. We saw that this was the future and it’s so exciting that we aren’t just competing for your time on a website; we are competing for your time on your mobile device. No one wants to call 1-800 numbers anymore. It is the most annoying thing in the world! What if you have the option to message the brand instead of calling them? The message will come from your phone and you won’t be tied to your desk during your lunch break trying to fix your bill and chatting with an agent.
So in 2012 we started to replatform…I would consider this a type of turnaround case. When you replatform you essentially create a product that will kill your own product. Our CEO basically asked us, “What would you do to kill LivePerson right now?” We built a new product, replatformed in a way that would enable messaging and became more open so that we can have an API to have more partners hook into it. It’s a different way of connecting with consumers. We were no longer a growth company and instead became an investment company. We invested three years, I’m talking about tens of millions of human resources in this new platform. Very few software companies have gone through a replatforming initiative and successfully emerged on the other side and continued to grow. We are currently moving our customers to the new platform and haven’t had one customer who said he/she won’t move. Their concerns are about, for example, having round corners versus sharp corners. You explain to the customer that round corners aren’t important, what is important is taking part in messaging that is the future.
I truly believe this company will make it through this journey. Our deal size will increase; our usage will increase as soon as people download the new package. We now sell multimillion-dollar deals because the traffic on phone calls is insane. That is a multi-billion, maybe trillion dollar call center market we are breaking into. So if LivePerson is successful in disrupting the voice market, this is not just a 250 million-dollar business anymore… this will be much bigger. I think in 12 months we’ll have a better story about how Live Person successfully turned around or perhaps pivoted to go from being a chat company to a messaging company.
Since you joined, LivePerson has grown from 6 to 13 offices, increased by 500 employees and established a presence in 21 countries. How have you prepared for and navigated these on-going changes within your own role?
As the company continues to transform, we are continuing to fine-tune the engine. The challenge, I think, as a truly global company is culturally. When I say culture, this is me combining my Chief of Staff and people role. You’re not doing culture for the sake of doing culture. I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes in people strategy, the notion that culture is to make people feel good, to make it fun. I am a business person. I believe culture is what the company needs, yes to drive retention and engagement, but ultimately as a for-profit organization, culture is going to drive performance.
As the company continues to grow globally, there are employees I won’t be able to interact with personally, so I think optimizing the system without complicating things becomes more important. You need to be standardized, you need to be globalized and if you can put in a simple-to-use system to make info more transparent, more real time, that’s absolutely important. As companies continue to grow those are things you need to start thinking about. If you only have four or five offices, then logistical issues are easier to deal with. But when you are a company of 13 offices, how do you go about organizing a global town hall when there is no one time zone that works for everyone?
As a business leader, you make tough choices. There are certain regions that are a higher priority because they are a more critical mass of employees or there are certain regions where you will actually put an HR person there. But how do you leverage that person so they serve their region and the global culture? You can’t just create two different teams, in terms of location, that are exact replicas of each other. That’s not going to drive skills, that’s not going to drive efficiency and it’s not healthy because the teams are doing their own thing based on what they know about demographics in that region. So I needed to globalize the team and my different people leaders constantly need to be on the same page and have a comprehensive view of working together globally and making the people strategy work. I would say that’s the challenge we have as we continue to grow…figuring out how we scale culture, how we use culture to scale the business, how we stay transparent, consistent, global, but not too rigid because each region is still different.
Inside and outside of the office, you wear many hats. What is your recipe for successfully managing the different role in your life?
If you talk to my staff, they will tell you I’m quite zen and I think that’s part of what you need to do when you’re wearing all these hats. Nothing really stresses me out because I know my capabilities. I know if I’m committed to doing something I’ll get it done. I know what resources I have at work and in my personal life. I think when you wear multiple hats; the key is your own confidence. If you’re constantly worried you might get fired, you’re probably in the wrong job, in the wrong role, in the wrong company. I’m very fortunate that I have a really trusting relationship with my boss. That’s one thing I know that will keep me here, but not necessarily the only thing. I’m the owner of the business and everything I do is to do the best thing for the business. My trusting relationship with my CEO is one of the reasons I believe he hired me. I’m going to tell him exactly what I think is right for the business. If I challenge him or disagree with him I tell him exactly what I think and I’m not fearful that I’m going to get fired.
I have a very healthy family, I have a great partner and husband. It’s absolutely important to have that as a career woman. I know I’m not a multimillionaire like Sheryl Sandberg, but there’s a thousandaire in me that will make it work. I think women executives if you decide you want to have a career; you need to have a good husband, a good partner who is in it with you. I have a trusting partner that will be able to do that.
How do I decompress? I always meditate. It’s not just because of my job, I’ve been doing this for the past 20+ years. You naturally breathe and naturally decompress and you don’t need the yoga mat and therapy session to meditate. You can meditate in the subway; you can meditate in the shower. Even just one minute, ten seconds… there are things you can do to calm yourself down. I think that’s most important. I’ve seen very senior people, men and women, crash because they don’t find a state of calmness. I sleep well every night and I think that’s very important.
All of this helps me stay chill. Yes, I have some stressful moments here and there. Overall, life is a learning opportunity. I will work my very best, give it all to be successful, give it all to deliver results. What if you fail? What if you make a mistake? What if you didn’t deliver exactly what you thought you could deliver? I think most importantly, when you ask yourself, “Have I tried my very best?” and the answer is yes, then it’s not a failure, it’s a learning experience.