On Tuesday evening, the Girl Geeks assembled once again to meet new folks, greet old friends, have a great meal, and most importantly, learn and get inspired. This month’s speaker was Carol Leaman, current CEO of 17muscles, and a lady with a career packed with great stories, important lessons, and plenty of common sense to impart.
September’s Dinner took place at the Waterloo location of Oliver & Bonacini, and was a pleasantly intimate gathering of 20. The smaller room and audience size made it easier to meet more folks and to have a group conversation, rather than lots of brief meet ‘n’ greet moments. Carol even put the crowd to work by crowdsourcing some ideas for a future presentation she’s doing.
We assembled around 6:30, and had plenty of time to chat with our tablemates (we were arranged at three tables). I had the enjoyable experience of attending a tech event with a number of people I hadn’t met yet. (Sometimes in the Region you start to think it’s impossible that there’s anyone left with whom you haven’t crossed paths.)
Carol took the stage a little after 7pm, and after providing a bit of information about her career background, regaled us with a number of stories that were often pretty wacky, but which also imparted some very important lessons about business, co-workers, and continual learning. Some key advice included the value of learning how to read a corporate balance sheet, not bothering to worry about being the smartest person in the room (but knowing your strengths and not being afraid to ask questions and work with people who complement your strengths), and believing that there’s always an answer to a problem or a way through a messy situation; just keep smiling and keep going.
I heard numerous comments about how amazing Carol is (to which I can thoroughly attest), and admit to feeling quite fortunate to have worked with and for her for three years.
Unsurprisingly, the question of being a woman in power (i.e. CEO) and in tech came up, and Carol’s response was basically, “I just do the job”, and through that, being a woman becomes largely irrelevant. When people know you’re competent, fair, and in charge, they usually fall into line because they want to contribute and do good work. Gender matters far less than the ability to make good decisions, treat people well, and make a company productive. (And those with problems working for a woman often have other, bigger issues and don’t last long…) Carol also admitted she she probably “thinks like a man”, though Terre Chartrand from Communitech noted that perhaps, more accurately, her strength was that, “You think like you”.
Carol did note that it is common for women in the workplace to get emotional, and that it doesn’t tend to help with respect and productivity. Men tend to be better at not taking things personally, and focusing on getting the job done. Interestingly, before the Dinner officially started, Carol and Michelle Kostya from RIM had a conversation about what it’s like to sell your company (Carol has gone through M&A a few times, most recently selling PostRank to Google in June of this year), and whether it’s like giving away your baby. Carol’s response was that it sometimes is like that (primarily when you work with a great team), but other times, when it’s just one fire after another to put out, selling can be more like kicking a terrible guest out of your house, and more of a relief.
Carol wrapped up the Q&A portion of the evening with a request of her own. She’ll be presenting to a group of female prisoners, and asked for our thoughts on what to tell them re. starting businesses and whatnot. A lot of insight came from the audience, especially about recognizing the circumstances from which many of these women come as part of where they’re trying to get to, the importance of valuing yourself and the people you work with, and the importance of learning to be able to make your own informed decisions, even if it’s stuff that you don’t really like doing (see: learning about finance).
It was also noted that perhaps one of the best examples Carol had at her disposal was just herself, her optimism, pragmatism, and willingness to admit and accept that she’s not always the smartest person in the room, but also knowing that no one has all the skills or all the answers, and leadership is about getting the best out of people no matter what they have to contribute.
Many thanks to Pj, Cate, and Michelle for organizing, and to Carol for presenting. Always great to come away from an event with your head buzzing with thoughts and ideas and a bunch of new business cards. Stay tuned, too, for the great stuff the Girl Geeks organizers have planned for the rest of the fall!