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10 Tech Leaders Share Their Most Meaningful Leadership Secret

Execs from companies like AirBnB, Capital One, AutoDesk and VMware share openly.

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BY Lisa Calhoun - 09 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Saturday, at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, hundreds of tech leaders gathered for Connect, the annual developer conference of the 100,000-member Women Who Code organization. I'm proud to serve on the global board. There were deep dive discussions on the tech topics you'd expect, like artificial intelligence, security, robots, and data storage.

But the most packed, standing-room only sessions were the most personal ones, where leaders shared how they lead. In their own words, here are some of those hard-won insights on leadership at some of the fastest growing companies on the planet. Which one speaks most to you?

Clara Liang, Director of Product, AirBnB

"Growing means being comfortable getting uncomfortable."

Stacey Yan, mobile lead at Capital One

"Performance is motivated by a person's purpose, their view of potential, and play. The most powerful of these? Play. You have to get your team playing to really engage their full capacity."

Amy Gershkoff, Ph.D, Chief Data Officer, Ancestry

"The simple but delightful fact is that diverse teams produce better outcomes. A McKinsey study shows diverse teams product 15% more profitable companies, and my own experiences bear this out."

Mimi Hills, Director, Globalization, VMware

"One critical thing that makes a great program manager is knowing how to do negotiation. The second most most important thing is seeing beyond process. You don't just 'do things right' as in follow the procedure--you need to do the right thing, regardless of the procedure. The third most critical skills is strategic thinking--knowing your industry and where you sit in it."

Aubrey Blanche, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Atlassian

"One thing that has helped me a lot is knowing when to take advice, and when to let it lie, understanding that sometimes it's going to help me be more authentic, and sometimes, it's just advice from the lens of a person who has a stereotype of what a leader looks like."

Aileen Sandridge, VP of Engineering, Groupon

"Cultural norms are powerful, and affect almost everything. By setting a tone of ownership, accountability and respect, teams behave well when I'm not even there. I also believe in a growth mindset, so when my team is struggling--it's not bad team. It's, what can I do to create the learning or skills they need to adapt?"

She adds that over the years, she's learned, "techniques that help overcome some of the cultural baggage of being a woman in tech leadership. I have learned to sit at the center of any table. I have my points organized before the meeting and I deliver them early on so there's no question of my contribution. When I am interrupted, by a man or a woman, I speak louder--until they stop talking."

She went on to add that, "Imposter syndrome is real, and the way I've learned to deal with it is a technique from mediation. You know the idea about just letting a thought drift on by, in the river and flow of your thoughts? I do that. I may notice 'oh, I'm feeling self doubt now.' It's not going to kill me. I just accept it. I ask myself, what do I need to do to achieve my goals? I don't tell myself I have to be more this or less that. I am training myself to focus on what I need to do to get where I want to go, and not to get derailed by the negative thoughts."

Aradhana Vaidya, Engineer Cloud Rendering, Autodesk

"Customer feedback is not a moment in time; it's a continuous process," says Aradhana Vaidya. "You don't want to get lost developing for power users or a new market segment. You have to be guided by your product vision--what problem for real people are you really trying to solve? You use your product vision, and customer feedback, and market trends to decide where to go next."

Jennifer Tacheff, VP Partnerships, Women Who Code

"My teams have made lemonade out of lemon rinds time and again because they felt empowered, championed and supported. When you have honest communication and rapport, you can learn what your team members truly excel at and what they're passionate about. You can then create the pathways and the structure to support this and hopefully get out of their way."

Geanie Asante, Ph.D, VP/Senior Project Manager, Wells Fargo

"Often it's not about you, it's about them--the people you are leading--and what they're dealing with."

She shares that as a black woman in tech, she respects the dynamic of sometimes being received as a stereotypical angry black woman, or the reserve, being seen as too reserved. She's used this dichotomy to make her leadership style more intentional. "People push you as far as they know they can. You have to stand up for yourself."

To create the strength to take your stand, she recommends you, "take an hour every day to build a foundation for yourself---meditation, exercise." She adds that, "I heard Madeline Albright say 'there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women,' and at first I thought, that's kind of harsh. And as time has passed, I've found there's nothing more true. I've found I am passionate about helping and mentoring. For every glass ceiling you encounter, you punch through and pull up another woman."

Hilda Fontana, SVP Engineering, LD Products

"I love getting the right people in the room, white boarding and bringing in users, engineers, everyone. I'm inclusive. I love it when we're a proper team. My leadership secret is to let people know they've been heard. Even if you say no, that they've been heard matters in how they receive your decision."