Viki Slavin of ProdOps: Three Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

When I’m hiring for a position, I constantly remind myself to take a chance on candidates from other industries. Instead of considering candidates one by one, I believe in reviewing all the professional experience, all the military experience, all the academic experience, etc. This helps remove whatever positive or negative bias I develop when I hear someone’s name, or when I see something I like or dislike jump off a CV.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Viki Slavin. Viki Slavin is the CEO of ProdOps, which builds and deploys solutions for companies to automate cloud infrastructure and improve workflow. Married and a mother of one, Viki has 15 years of experience initiating and managing business ventures, consulting on software operations, and training R&D and IT departments. Today, she and her team provide software solutions for startups, SMBs, and large enterprises, including IBM, Cisco and Paypal.

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?

The pleasure is mine! As far as my backstory goes, the sum of it is self-reliance. I was born in Belarus in 1979, which was then part of the Soviet Union. When I was ten years old, after years of trying to emigrate, my mother, sister and I were finally granted permission to leave.

We settled in Ashkelon, a peripheral city in southern Israel. Lacking a father figure, money or opportunities, I learned to rely on myself fairly quickly.

Ever since then, I have been determined to better understand the inner workings of the technology we experience every day, and connect it to the business world. I’m not a coder — I don’t design the 0s and 1s. But I knew there was more to it — making sure those 0s and 1s actually serve a company’s goals.

I joined a software company, where I met my eventual business partner, Evgeny Zislis. He was the coder, frustrated over business bottlenecks. I was determined to fix those bottlenecks. It was a perfect match.

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

Before we kick off with a new client, we do research and identify the bottlenecks that are making things less efficient. In the early days of the company, I took it for granted that prospective clients would appreciate a thorough review, which is why I didn’t hesitate to point out flaws. One instance showed me that I was a bit too aggressive, and taught me the importance of listening.

I had identified some serious issues, but when I revealed my findings to the company, I must have embellished the details when describing how bad the situation really was. The company CEO told me that I had oversold myself, and had come across as blaming them.

I was stunned, but I thanked him for the feedback. The fact that it all happened in a single meeting was a bit uncomfortable, but it helped me learn the importance of modesty, and of letting clients own their past and their flaws. It changed how I do sales, because it taught me to listen.

Nowadays, if I spend 70% of a meeting speaking, I know there’s a problem. Humans can speak at 100 to 175 words per minute, but they can listen intelligently at up to 300 words per minute. The lesson was: speak less, listen more.

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?

I hope this doesn’t come across as a cop-out, but the funniest mistake I made was not being able to laugh at my mistakes! Like most people, I look back at honest mistakes — personal and professional — and I know I judged myself too harshly. We all need to give ourselves more credit for doing our best, and need to learn to laugh at ourselves when things don’t go as planned.

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?

Believe it or not, the person who comes to mind first was actually one of my very first clients. Mr. Zohar Zilberman taught me the importance of being selective with onboarding.

When CEOs draw a line between employees and clients, it usually goes from the former to the latter. That is, “if I hire quality employees, I will earn quality clients.” In fact, the opposite is no less true and often goes overlooked — If you focus company energy on clients that bring serious long-term value, you will retain and nurture talented employees. This is how one creates strong company DNA.

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?

I’m old-fashioned in this regard: my go-to is a preparatory conversation with a trusted friend. Someone with whom I have no business connection, just to talk it out. He or she may talk me through the worst-case scenario, and then it won’t faze me.

Once, I was readying myself for a call with a new client, a media enterprise company. Its board wanted to run a strategic transformation project, and had started to pour serious money into it. When we came along, we interviewed their lower management staff members to see how receptive they were to upper management’s plans. It turns out that they hated the plan.

It was clear nothing was going to work as expected, and it was on me to report these findings. A friend suggested that I speak to two senior managers before the call, let them know the situation, and give them the option to not have them presented. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the moment I gained their trust 110%.

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?

The importance is about harnessing the opportunity. 2020 has been a shock to us all, but has opened the door to serious change.

To take the male/female business divide, it’s not a coincidence that the countries who are coping better with COVID are led by women. As women, our emotional intuition is typically stronger. This is key for building and leading teams, and has never been as crucial as it is now. COVID is challenging our mental health like nothing else we’ve seen.

Of course, men also bring certain advantages to the table. I’m not advocating a 180-degree flip. Rather, my position is that better decisions are made when a variety of voices sit at the table.

It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake. When something produces better results, we shouldn’t have to advocate for it this intensely! Things simply don’t work as well when all decision-makers and business leaders come from a single demographic.

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.

Because I’m a business leader, creating a more representative society starts with creating a more representative business, which starts with recruitment. The most natural check we can place on our internal recruitment systems is by adding multiple channels.

Conventional wisdom suggests that algorithms’ influence on recruitment will only increase here on out, and for certain large companies that may be inevitable. But algorithms are built by humans, who suffer from the very biases we’re trying to avoid.

If we proactively train recruiters and HR professionals, I believe that more human eyes in the process will be a good thing.

When I’m hiring for a position, I constantly remind myself to take a chance on candidates from other industries. Instead of considering candidates one by one, I believe in reviewing all the professional experience, all the military experience, all the academic experience, etc. This helps remove whatever positive or negative bias I develop when I hear someone’s name, or when I see something I like or dislike jump off a CV.

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?

People say that ‘CEO’ is a lonely position, because everything falls on you. The CEO decides whether or not to scale, if and how the company survives. Survival is existential, so the pressure can be intense. If something falls between the cracks, you’re the backup, even if you may not be the expert at that particular aspect of business.

All managers have to set an example, but only company executives are responsible for sustaining a company’s business model.

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

The biggest challenge, by far, is valuation. Companies led by female executives receive lower valuations for seed-funding.

Personally, I have bootstrapped everything, so lower valuations haven’t hindered me in this way. That being said, companies interested in acquiring ProdOps have approached me and told me the importance of surrounding myself by male co-founders and senior executives. I’m always shocked for a second, but they’re products of their environment. Surely, the fact that I work in enterprise software, a field dominated by male executives, exacerbates the issue.

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

I imagined being a CEO as mostly closing partnerships and determining strategy. Basically, anything and everything that’s at the forefront of business development.

But in reality, so much of the job is about keeping the team connected, and sustaining good company culture — the company DNA that I mentioned earlier.

People want to work with good people, and because of that, it’s on the CEO to create a positive organizational culture.

CEOs aren’t just about ‘closing.’ More generally, we need to be people-focused. A lot more of the job is internal than external.

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?

People think being an executive means taking charge, but the reality is that most people can say “I know what’s right — follow me.” Being able to demonstrate initiative is essential, but it’s not the best indicator of who will succeed in executive positions.

Executive decision-making means filtering out the great idea from the noise, and doing so only after brainstorming three times over. This is how you get people to move with you, instead of after you.

Above all, a successful executive lets people make certain mistakes, so that they can learn and grow. This is necessary for long-term success. If employees don’t grow, a company can’t grow.

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

My advice is that even if you are under pressure because you have a lot on your plate, stay people-oriented.

A friend of mine recently left her position as a senior manager at her company, partly because her executive manager was terrible. After giving notice, it took the executive manager 21 days to set up a conversation with her about why.

It’s no wonder she left.

We female executives must never underestimate the value of our empathy and emotional intuition. It goes a long way.

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

When you work with open-source software, by definition you share knowledge for free. In a way, we create some of our own competitors. I for one think that’s a good thing.

More recently, my company and I have stepped up to the plate fighting food insecurity. COVID has ravaged Israel. For the past few months, unemployment has hovered between 20 and 25 percent. Families that were living paycheck to paycheck have now been forced into food insecurity, and sadly, too many are falling between the cracks.

A few weeks into the pandemic, I organized a way for companies to salvage unused food delivery budgets and pool them for those at risk of missing meals. I started with outreach to individual companies and restaurants, transferring extra funds from food delivery service accounts. Thankfully, we were able to expand to supermarkets, larger restaurant chains, and even Leket, Israel’s leading food rescue organization.

It’s been a tremendous experience, and I feel blessed to play my part in helping out during these challenging times.

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

Aside from what I have shared already, here are some of the lessons I have learned that I definitely wish I had known before I started my journey:

  1. Look forward, not up. That is, concentrate on the challenges in front of you, and don’t worry about the big players in your industry quite yet. Invariably, it will take time to compete with them, and spending too much time thinking about them will only intimidate you.
  2. Understand your key assets, and know that money isn’t one of them. You can bring in or raise as much as you want, but you can’t place a dollar-value on talent and company development. Surround yourself with dedicated, talented people. They are the secret sauce.
  3. There are no magic spells — you can’t just say things and expect them to happen. Rather, you need team members who will listen, which means explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing. When I decided to make a push into American medtech companies, I needed the confidence of my managers, so that they would align with my vision. If you don’t earn their confidence, you end up with a decision but without a reliable timeline.
  4. I thought that starting my own company would be the biggest risk I would ever take. The truth is that when your business grows, you end up needing to take even bigger risks later on. Expanding to Miami and London were riskier decisions than starting ProdOps in the first place, but these expansions were no less existential. If this seems daunting — a never-ending cycle of risk after risk after risk — there’s good news: with each risk you take, you’ll be wiser and more ready than you were the last time.
  5. Finally, I wish I had known the careful balancing act needed between positive reinforcement and the need to push people beyond their perceived limits. I don’t believe in glass ceilings, and I don’t want employees who believe in them. At the same time, people respond better when achievements are recognized. This is an area where I am always working on myself and getting better, and I encourage aspiring executives to do the same.

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.

Basic necessities are obviously crucial, but I think the negative environments we experience outside our homes influence our experiences at home with our loved ones. For many people, these experiences take up the majority of their time awake each day.

If I could inspire a movement, it would be one geared towards creating positive environments where people work, learn, or spend their time outside of home.

From psychological help to recruitment techniques, it would need to be comprehensive.

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

Absolutely. Two words: “Take ownership.”

If you have to put all your eggs in one basket, make sure you maintain control of the basket.

After I started ProdOps, senior executives from outside the company wanted to join, on condition that they gain a certain amount of control. Thankfully, I was wise enough to propose another solution: start a new company alongside ProdOps and let them join *that* one.

That second company would go on to close within a year or so. ProdOps, meanwhile, remained successful.

If you take ownership, you’ll be less timid about taking necessary risks. Whatever money you make by exiting or selling out will feel great in that moment, but the decision could haunt you later on.

Aside from the valuation challenge I mentioned earlier, this is another reason I have bootstrapped everything.

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.

Love him or hate him, Elon Musk is truly dedicated to changing the world. He is as sincere in his belief as it gets.

If you’re reading this, Elon, lunch is on me!

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