Karen Williams, SVP of Customer Support and Services at Cornerstone, leads the company’s commitment to improved customer experiences and overall satisfaction. She is enthusiastic about creating cultures of customer centricity and customer success, which is what she discusses with Fairygodboss in detail.
While she’s only been in her current role since August 2020 (it’s new!), she has worked her way over to it from her previous position as the executive vice president of product strategy and customer services at Saba, which was acquired by Cornerstone last year. In that role, she oversaw the product lifecycle from idea generation through to implementation and ongoing support.
Williams filled us in on how she got to where she is today — including the importance of communication and listening. Here’s what she had to say.
Tell me a bit about how you got to where you are today.
With more than three decades of experience in the high tech industry, I have broad knowledge of the software business, holding senior roles in development, SaaS, support, services, product management, and product marketing within several organizations. These include IBM and Cognos.
In all my roles, I have worked in close partnerships with leaders, driving product direction and process transformation, operationalizing vision, and helping teams execute for positive business results.
What advice would you give to someone seeking to gain broad experience within organizations as you did? How were you able to make those transitions?
I would advise to try new things and think about your experience from the perspective of your strengths and how you would apply your strengths to ANY role, not just the areas you have worked in before. You need to be curious, have a learning mindset, and step into new things with excitement and confidence. By bringing your strength to the table, you can outline how they make you the right candidate. This has worked for me. A key part is to network and know the right people. I always had someone vouch for me at the company before applying, so it is very important to keep your network alive and positive because you never know when you will meet again. There is no substitute for working hard. Make sure you create advocates and maintain relationships inside the organization. Once I got into the interview, instead of focusing solely on my experience, I talked about which strengths I bring to the table. If you understand and truly believe in those strengths, people will believe in your confidence. They will see the sincere drive behind what you are trying to achieve.
How have you managed change during the Saba/ Cornerstone OnDemand merger? How do you ensure that your team is set up for success?
Driving change requires leaders to have this key skill: communication, which provides clarity of the objective. Keeping people informed about what you are doing and why you are doing it is the most important thing to do. I don’t believe there is such a thing as overcommunication.
Every leader is different, but I can’t emphasize my preference for smaller group meetings when trying to communicate and manage change in my teams. All staff meetings are important but often it is good to break them down into smaller groups so you can be more specific. I also conduct skip level meetings so that the managers know who I am and there is a connection. Most importantly, one-on-one meetings should always take place. I feel strongly that there is no replacement for these! This is the only way to really hear someone and build a connection. Lastly, Email should be used as a last resort! Emails are least effective because they tend to be lengthy and lack the emotion and enthusiasm behind what is being said.
What’s one strategy you’ve used when managing an individual and team that you think has been particularly effective?
I’m not sure I can narrow this down to one strategy. That is the answer I would give: one strategy doesn’t work for every person or every team. You need to individualize the approach. How I do that is to listen to them and understand where they are coming from, then actively address their concerns. You must listen to be heard.
How has your day-to-day changed amidst the COVID-19 pandemic both professionally and personally?
Previously, I had always worked out of an office. I never worked from home for more than a day at a time and that didn’t happen very often. I was convinced that I couldn’t work from home. However, when forced to with the COVID-19 pandemic, I not only got used to it, but I also learned to really like it and wonder why I never liked it before.
I have always hired remote employees, but I am now even MORE comfortable with a remote team. If you are diligent and effectively manage people, then there should be no issue working remote.
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
I’m pretty sure that you will not have heard this one before. My mentor told me many times, always with a smile, “Don’t try, just be.” I would describe what I was “trying” to do, he didn’t want me to “try” — he just wanted me to “be.” It took me a while to figure out what he was talking about. You don’t try when you’re being, you just simply do. Be your authentic self and do.
What advice do you have for women in your industry who want to take their career path to the next level?
I would recommend that you get a mentor or advisor — it doesn’t matter if they are inside or outside your organization. You can also have more than one. If you have more than one, it’s often helpful to have them be different in focus. For example, you could have a leadership mentor and a different mentor that has domain expertise in an area you want to development (ie. product marketing).
What I’ve learned is that being “assigned” a mentor is not the best way to form authentic connections. What worked well for me was connecting with individuals who were at this spectacular 16-day leadership training with me. I look for mentors who have experience and knowledge further ahead of me. It is important to find a mentor that can see you and what you are that you cannot see. The person who sees your awesomeness when you don’t. The right mentor can do that for you. The other way to stay sharp and stay learning is to be a mentor yourself. This helps you collect all the practices you may have forgotten from your past and bring them to the present again. It keeps me sharp. Keeps me practicing what I know. I believe in cadence with meetings, maybe every 2-3 weeks. Decide what kind of mentor you want; coaching to learn techniques like in leadership, career coaching, or expertise around your area of knowledge like a technical architect. Also, decide if you want short-term to help get to the next step or long-term. I have had all these kinds of mentors and have been a mentor to many. Being a mentor gives me energy! It is important to always keep working on yourself. It makes a difference.
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