Terri Avnaim of Sauce Labs: Why We Need To Start A Movement To Create A Widespread Sense of Empathy for Others

I would put my energy into creating a widespread sense of empathy for others. We started to see some of that at the beginning of the pandemic — people feeling united and caring for each other’s well-being — but it stopped rather abruptly and I hope we can find a way to bring it back. Things are so charged, so political, so heated right now that it’s difficult to imagine the nation and the world coming together. We all have more in common than we realize and I would love to see us all make a concerted effort to get to know each other better, ask questions, listen to each other, seek to understand each other and empathize with what others are thinking and feeling. Empathy enables so many things like kindness, cooperation, compromise, and hope. It’s a little thing, but the world is a better place when we have empathy for others.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Terri Avnaim.

Terri is the chief customer and marketing officer at Sauce Labs, a leading provider of continuous testing solutions that deliver digital confidence, where she manages a global team of marketers and inspires the company’s customer-first culture. Before joining Sauce Labs, Terri was vice president of marketing at Predixion Software, Inc., and executive director of marketing for Dell, where she was responsible for setting the global demand generation strategy for the company’s software division. Her career also includes a 13-year stint at Quest Software, where she held various marketing positions, including vice president of corporate and field marketing.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

For me, everything ties back to a love of storytelling. I’m a communicator at heart and I love to tell stories, so I knew that whatever I did had to have an element of storytelling involved. I briefly considered going into journalism, but a friend of mine convinced me to consider corporate communications instead. So that’s where I started and over time I moved from corporate communications into a variety of other marketing roles, always with a focus on telling stories and building brands.

I’m a bit unique in that I grew up in corporate America mostly at one company. I was with Quest Software for 13 years, and that’s where I fell in love with marketing to the developer persona. Developers love transparency and authenticity. Those are two important values to me, so I appreciate the opportunity to market to that kind of audience. Developers are as smart as they come. If you’re not delivering something of value to them, you’re not going to get anywhere. But when you do provide value, when you show them that you understand and can help them, they’re as loyal a group as you’ll ever find. It’s a terrific challenge and it’s driven my career for the last 20 years.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I think it’s happening right now with the pandemic that we’re living through and the adjustments we’ve all had to make. It’s been a huge challenge for me, personally. I’m the type of person who gets energy from being around my team and being in creative environments. I’ve always thrived on getting into a conference room with my colleagues and peers, grabbing the whiteboard and problem solving as a team. With the shift to a fully remote workforce for the past few months and for what looks like the foreseeable future, it’s become incumbent on leaders to find new ways to keep teams connected, energized, and engaged, and keep the creativity flowing. It’s an ongoing challenge and I’ll likely look back on it as one of the most significant learning experiences of my career.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s not funny so much as it is embarrassing, but earlier in my career, as I was just starting into leadership roles, I felt as a marketer, it was my responsibility to come to every meeting with a big idea that would blow everyone’s mind. After doing that a few times, my CEO pulled me aside and gently told me that I don’t have to feel compelled to show up at every meeting with a big idea or a surprising new revelation. He taught me that rather than wow-ing everyone with something unexpected, it was better to spend time sharing my ideas and collecting feedback before I presented them broadly. As I started doing that, I realized that the more I shared, the more I collected input, and the more I listened to the observations of others, the better my ideas became. More importantly, not only were my ideas better as a result but so were the relationships I built with my peers, and I deepened my understanding of the business.

I still carry that lesson with me today. Even though you’re in marketing, and even when you’re the CMO, you don’t always have to bring the show. I learned that my job is less about being “creative” and more about deeply understanding the customer and the business so that I can help grow the business. That was a pivotal turning point in my career in terms of shaping both how I work with my peers and how I view marketing in general.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are two people that came to mind for me actually. Both were former managers of mine: Carla Fitzgerald and Aggie Haslup. Both Carla and Aggie were early examples for me of women who balanced having a C-level job and being a mother. At the point in my career when I started having kids, there weren’t a lot of examples of women who were diving deep into motherhood at the same time they were growing their careers. I had plenty of examples of women stepping back and becoming consultants or going part-time, but Carla and Aggie were both early examples of amazing leaders who deeply cared about their teams and careers but also deeply cared about their families and being fully involved as a mother. For a long time, I thought I would need to choose a family or a career, so it just meant so much to me to see them and know that was a possibility for me too.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Any time I’m starting to feel overwhelmed or feel like I’m struggling to tap into my creative energy, I try to remove myself from the work environment, which, in the context of today, is my home office. Whether that means going on a walk or just something as simple as sitting outside, I’ve always found that physically changing your perspective can be tremendously refreshing, and in fact, most of my creative ideas come to me when I’m not at my desk.

When it comes to dealing with the stress of a high-stakes meeting or public presentation, the key for me is preparation. I’m the kind of person that likes to walk around with ideas in my head for a while before I put them down on paper, so when I have a big presentation or I’m going to be on stage, I start preparing and practicing as far in advance as possible. The more I prepare, the less stress I carry. I’ve also learned over the years that some of the situations that seemingly carry the highest stakes are great learning opportunities. I think this is especially true of board meetings. Earlier in my career, I tended to think that my job was to impress the board or convince them of something, but now I approach board meetings as a great opportunity to keep an open mind and learn, and in doing so, have gotten so much more out of them than I ever did before.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Obviously, there are more good reasons to embrace diversity in the workplace than I can mention in this space, so I’ll just focus on one that I think gets overlooked at times: it’s essential to truly understanding and delivering value to your customers. No matter where I’ve been in my career, the long-term success and sustainability of the business have always been tied directly to how well we know our customers. As a marketing person especially, to be successful, you have to know your customers. You have to empathize with them and understand their viewpoints. And the only way to understand the viewpoints of a diverse group of customers (and if you don’t have a diverse group of customers, you probably won’t be in business for very long) is to have an equally diverse group of employees who themselves share those viewpoints. I don’t care what business you’re in or what products or services you sell, if everyone at the table has the same set of experiences and viewpoints, you’re going to miss opportunities. The obvious moral, ethical, and societal benefits notwithstanding, embracing diversity is just plain old good business.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

I think it starts with doing everything we can to make sure that individuals feel like they can be their true, authentic self at work. And here’s the thing: as a white woman, I don’t get to decide what that looks and feels like for minority groups. I don’t get to decide if we’ve created an environment where they can be their authentic selves. It’s not about leadership simply decreeing that everyone here should feel comfortable. It’s about the people in those underrepresented groups feeling that way. And the only way to know if that’s happening is to truly open ourselves up to discussion. We have to be curious. We have to ask questions. We have to open up and give people an avenue to express how they’re feeling or explain why we might be falling short despite what we think are our best efforts. The worst thing we can do as leaders is to not talk about this issue. Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse. It’s not acceptable as a leader to just say “well, I didn’t know you felt that way” or “I didn’t realize we were falling short in this area.” We have to keep asking questions and keep pressing the issue.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

It’s all about scope and purview. When you’re a director leading a single team, it’s about your team and empowering them to achieve their goals. But when you’re in the C-suite, you always have to think about and represent the entire company. You still have to lead your team and you still have to make sure they have the tools and resources they need to be successful. That never changes. But your purview needs to broaden such that you’re constantly thinking about things in the context of the entire company and constantly thinking about how the work you’re doing impacts other groups in the company. If you lead marketing, for example, it’s no longer enough to just think about how a creative campaign or marketing program might impact lead generation. You also have to think about how it might impact something like recruiting. You now have a shared responsibility to look after the well-being of the entire company, even if at times it’s to the detriment of your team or your specific function.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think the biggest myth, by far, is that you have to know everything. In reality, it’s more important to know what you don’t know and hire to fill your gaps. Being consciously aware of your limitations (everyone has them; being a C-suite executive doesn’t change that) is so critical. Your job isn’t to know everything; it’s to make sure you put the right people around you, give them everything they need to be successful, and constantly communicate with them and with the rest of the company to ensure you’re aligned on your priorities. Those things are far more important than having a depth of knowledge in a given area.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

As I talked about earlier, one of the biggest challenges is simply not having enough examples to follow. It’s hard to be what you can’t see and model. That’s why Carla and Aggie were so important for me, and why it’s so important for female leaders to take the initiative and mentor others who want to follow a similar path. The other challenge is related to relationship building. The longer you’re in the business world, the more you realize that opportunity is largely a function of the relationships you’ve worked to build. For many reasons, building those relationships is harder for women than it is for men.

For starters, there just aren’t as many female executives out there, and that translates into fewer opportunities for women to network and build relationships with other women. On top of that, and this may be uncomfortable for people to hear and confront, but the reality is it’s not as readily accepted for women to socialize with male colleagues in one-on-one or small group settings as it should be. Many women are uncomfortable putting themselves in those settings, and even when they do, it’s not always viewed favorably by those around them. So, you put it all together and it’s clear, to me at least, that the process of networking and building industry relationships just isn’t as simple and straightforward as it is for men, and it’s something women have to work to overcome.

All of which means, as women, we have to be there for each other. Support each other, reach out to each other, talk to each other. When I first started my career, there were so few women in leadership roles and so few opportunities for women to grow into those roles that it almost felt like you had to be competitive with one another. That’s one of the most refreshing things about the time we’re living in, how supportive the female community has become of one another. We need to keep that up.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

At this point, I’ve been around long enough that I pretty much know what to expect with a given role, but if I were to go back to earlier points in my career and compare my expectations about what I thought it would be like to be a CMO to what it’s actually like, the biggest difference would just how much of my time, energy, and creativity are dedicated to things that you wouldn’t traditionally think of as marketing. When you’re younger and thinking about becoming a CMO one day, you tend to think about the more creative side of marketing, things like coming up with key messages and taglines, directing creative campaigns, and delivering compelling content. You don’t think about things like recruiting great talent, guiding career development, balancing complex budgets, managing clashing personalities, and figuring out how the needs and priorities of other departments intersect and align with yours. But that’s where you wind up spending most of your time.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I think the most important trait is authenticity. One of my favorite authors and podcasters right now is Brene Brown. She’s always talking about why leaders need to be authentic. Being a leader is hard enough; it’s that much harder if you’re not being authentic to who you are. My experience has been that those who struggle with the demands of leadership are those who think they have to be something different or be something they aren’t just because they’re now an executive or are now in a leadership role. That works against you. The more comfortable you are in your skin, the better executive you’ll be.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be vulnerable and trust in others. As I mentioned earlier, becoming a leader doesn’t mean you now have to know everything or do everything yourself. It’s the complete opposite. The higher up you climb, the more trusting you have to be, and the more open you have to be about the fact that you don’t know everything. If you’re not willing to be vulnerable and say “I don’t know,” you’re going to struggle. Focus on surrounding yourself with a great team, and then trust them to do great things.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

One of the things I’m most proud of in my career is founding “Women in Leadership: Brave Conversations.” It’s an annual Bay Area event designed to provide a platform through which women in technology can share their real-life experiences and help each other on their paths to professional and personal growth. I’m blessed with the opportunity to host the event each year and moderate the various panel discussions. To meet so many inspiring women and see the impact they have on each other, it’s hard to put into words how rewarding that is.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

The first would be what I shared earlier about the value of collaboration and how important it is to understand the people working around you and empathize with their world. As a marketing team, for example, the more we understand how our sellers think and how they interact with customers, the more adept we are at providing campaigns, content, and enablement to help them do their jobs effectively. The same goes for our product and engineering teams. The more we understand their world, the better we are at articulating value and creating demand for the product. The more you understand the world of your peers, the better you are at your job.

The second thing I wish I’d known earlier is that as you grow into leadership roles, the team that works alongside you is every bit as important as the team that works beneath you. Early in my career as a leader, I would focus too exclusively on my team, my direct reports. If I needed someone to brainstorm with, I went to my team. If I needed input on something, I found someone on my team to provide it. What I only learned with experience is that my time was often better spent collaborating with my cross-functional peer group. That’s proven especially true at the C-level. The relationships I have with my CPO and CRO, for example, are every bit as important as the relationships I have with my marketing leaders. I spend more time working with my peer level than I spend working with those on the marketing team. This is again why it’s so important to have a team you can trust and the willingness to trust them. So much of what a leader does is about collecting information and input from others and then trusting in your team to deliver on the day to day challenges that exist.

The third thing goes back to the idea that being a leader is not just about being great at the one functional area for which you have responsibility, but about doing things for the betterment of the entire company. For example, I gave the opening address at our company Kickoff earlier this year (way back when people could still get together for those kinds of events!), and I gave a similar opening address at our virtual annual user conference a few months later. Now, neither of those are “marketing” activities, per se, but they are as valuable as any contributions I’ve made to the company this year.

The fourth thing I wish I’d known earlier in my career is that you should never be afraid to ask questions, even when you’re outside the safety of your team. Even now, whenever I’m in a meeting with my peers on the executive team, if I have a burning question that I feel like should know the answer to but don’t, whenever I ask it, invariably someone else says, “I’m glad you asked that because I was wondering the same thing.” Just because you’re moving up the ranks doesn’t mean you have to lose your curiosity and your willingness to ask questions. It means just the opposite. Ask more questions. Be more curious. I can almost guarantee someone will be glad (and relieved!) that you did.

Lastly, I used to think that I had to own all of my ideas from beginning to end. I used to think that if I didn’t do all the work involved with bringing an idea to life, then somehow it was less of an accomplishment. I could not have been more wrong. If you’re taking an idea from concept to all the way through to execution entirely on your own, it means you either aren’t collaborating enough and are missing out on valuable input from others, or you don’t trust others to provide that input. Neither is a good thing, and neither is how you lead. I’ve learned instead that my job as a leader is to plant seeds, provide direction, and let my team take it from there. If you’ve hired the right people, you’ll almost always find that what they deliver is far superior to anything you could have delivered entirely on your own.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would put my energy into creating a widespread sense of empathy for others. We started to see some of that at the beginning of the pandemic — people feeling united and caring for each other’s well-being — but it stopped rather abruptly and I hope we can find a way to bring it back. Things are so charged, so political, so heated right now that it’s difficult to imagine the nation and the world coming together. We all have more in common than we realize and I would love to see us all make a concerted effort to get to know each other better, ask questions, listen to each other, seek to understand each other and empathize with what others are thinking and feeling. Empathy enables so many things like kindness, cooperation, compromise, and hope. It’s a little thing, but the world is a better place when we have empathy for others.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My mom used to tell me when I was younger (and still does today) “to do what you love and the money will follow.” That was relevant back then and it still is now. If you are lucky enough to find a career that aligns to your talents and passions, good things will happen. Now, I find myself telling my kids the same thing!

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I mentioned Brene Brown earlier; she would be high on my list. And, of course, Michele Obama. Both are amazing women that I’ve long admired, and I can only imagine how much learning and inspiration would come from meeting them. Also, I just recently watched the documentary “RBG” and would literally be starstruck if I ever had the chance to meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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