Venture Atlanta: lessons in leadership panel

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Sometimes it’s the hard skills that may get you in the door, but it’s the soft skills that keep you there and allow you to grow. Right now, according to the latest research, it’s actually not a dearth of coders that we face; it’s a dearth of people who possess the skills necessary to manage others, including one’s own self.  

These talking points, as well as how to lead, and find the right talent, was led by Holly Maloney, managing director of General Catalyst. She hosted panelists Kathryn Petralia, co-founder of Kabbage, Phyllis Newhouse, CEO of XTreme Solutions and managing partner at Legend52 Ventures, and Wendi Sturgis chief client officer of Yext. 

Holly: What was your aha moment when you assumed a leadership position?

Phyllis: I spent 22 years in the military and retired almost 20 years. When I left the military I realized I wanted to start my own company. I saw some of pentagon struggles we were having, and I knew about the struggles of hacking—getting hacked.

Working for Colin Powell was a fantastic leader, and a great man all the way around. I started talking to him about my qualifications, and I said I wasn’t sure I could handle the huge job and he said, “You’ll get qualified. What I’m looking for is a leader.” 

Wendi: Atlanta is near and dear to my heart coming from Georgia Tech. I was consulting in New York when there was no tech scene. I decided we needed to start one. When I was asked to move to New York, I felt overwhelmed with the idea of leading a company that was going to grow to 1000. They told me that I had the leadership, the positive energy, and I realized that it was a unique part of who I was. They believed in me, and I think that’s a part of it.

Holly: How did you make the transition as a peer among others and then transitioning to a leader?

Phyllis: It’s true. At first you’re under the microscope. People are going to see how you’re going to lead. 90 days into my new job at the Pentagon we had a hack. I have to say leading my own company was a piece of cake compared to that kind of stress. Leadership for me—I come from a family of 11, and I was 10—my mom told me I was a leader, that I had to lead. I knew that it was a responsibility of mine. I had to take the opportunity when it was offered.

Kathryn: I realize when I started Kabbage that I’d never had an interview. I had always been offered various roles. It’s a series of relationships and connections over time. Then, the feedback that you get in return.

Wendi: You can stretch yourself and set yourself up for failure. You do have to look for the opportunities, but at times it’s also good to know when to say no. I was replacing a guy who was very beloved. We were in the crazy go-go 90s. You just grab the tail of the tiger and go.

Holly: What are some critical lessons you learned to help fill in the gaps?

Phyllis: Building a team was different than being given a team (as in the military). People have to be mission focused, and that’s not always “doing it my way.” I decided every person who came in would give us a pitch about what they would if they had the opportunity, rather than interview, and we started to get some amazing talent. It allows people to come in and be innovative and creative and how we scale and not merely follow a job description.

Kathryn: I think it’s really hard when you’re starting a company. You have to ask people who’ve never done a given job before. It’s a lot about character and culture. Then, you need to get hardcore specialists, and it gets back to culture and leadership. Others who have done some of this before that can help you grow. 

Wendi: Hiring is incredibly different than it used to be. It’s about storytelling. We’re in a fight for talent. That’s the deal we’re all in right now. I could hire the typical salesperson but I needed an entrepreneurial salesperson. I was looking for guys who knew how to make things happen. I knew I didn’t have the story but I could see that say people from Google might not know how to roll up their sleeves. I hired a mortgage broker and while that didn’t seem impressive, he was fighting in an extremely competitive market.

Holly: Tell us about the concept of the fight to find the best talent.

Phyllis: We have to be flexible. Things have changed dramatically in the past 15 years.

Kathryn: We have people in multiple offices, but it’s important that people stay close.

Wendi: We strongly believe that coming from power down, we move so fast. We’re like a shark constantly on the move.  

Holly: As a leader how do you stay ahead or at least at the times your at with dealing with the generations? 

Wendi: I’ve been passionate about technology. I think it’s if you’re not passionate about it, it’s harder. Like snapchat I didn’t know what that was about, but I got familiar with. I’m learning about blockchain now. I’m listening to podcasts. I think this generation gets a bad rap now. If you know how to be agile with your management style, they can be huge assets.