“Don’t interrupt me.”
It’s something we’ve all thought and probably more than once But YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki isn’t one to leave anything to chance. Though she’s a powerful woman with an estimated net worth of $500 million who oversees hundreds of employees, the chief executive and business leader is the first to speak up when her tech-industry colleagues talk over her or her female counterparts.
“Even when people are well-meaning, there are sometimes microaggressions — people will just cut you off,” the senior Google leader (and 16th hire) said at the CNNMoney American Opportunity breakfast.
In work and in life, Wojcicki doesn’t take things lying down — and neither should you. She leads the second-largest search engine company in the world, has five children, and still finds time to advocate for women’s rights.
After graduating from high school in Palo Alto, Harvard University, the University of California – Santa Cruz with a master in economics, and University of California – Los Angeles with an MBA, in 1999 she says she “joined the startup that founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had recently started in my garage.” That’s right — Larry Page and Sergey Brin co-founded Google in Wojcicki’s garage in Menlo Park.
Since that time, Wojcicki has played an important role in Google's strategy and business development. In 2006, she advocated for the acquisition of YouTube. Chad Hurley and Steve Chen sold YouTube to Google for $1.65 billion.
Here are a few ways in which we could all be more like Susan Wojcicki — boss, chief executive officer, business leader and all-around badass.
We can’t all have a unicorn grow up in our garage — heck, I don’t even have a garage — but we can be open to trying new things. Next time someone presents you with a new challenge or opportunity try saying yes — instead of a reflexive “no.”
Wojcicki was the first Google employee to get pregnant. Seemingly undaunted by the situation, she took that opportunity to shape the tech giant’s parental leave policy — and later pushed to expand it even further.
Not content to stop there, she then explained to the business world why they should be following suit in The Wall Street Journal: “When we increased paid maternity leave to 18 from 12 weeks in 2007, the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50 percent. (We also increased paternity leave to 12 weeks from seven, as we know that also has a positive effect on families and our business.)” So take control of your approach to pregnancy at work, and plan your return from leave accordingly. Schooling your entire industry on parental leave afterwards? Optional."
Particularly in large companies, there’s a tendency to accept the status quo — even when things could be run better or more smoothly with a simple change. Wojcicki cuts through this. At The New York Times’s New Work Summit in 2017, she said, “If you come into [a] company and see something is not working, fix it.” It can be daunting to question long-standing approaches. But if they're not working, people will thank you.
On the topic of maternity leave, Wojcicki points out that “mothers come back to the workforce with new insights. I know from experience that being a mother gave me a broader sense of purpose, more compassion and a better ability to prioritize and get things done efficiently. It also helped me understand the specific needs and concerns of mothers, who make most household spending decisions and control more than $2 trillion of purchasing power in the U.S.”
Boom. Don’t discount your maternity leave as irrelevant to your professional life. Ask yourself, what have I learned? How can I leverage that at work?
Wojcicki cites her toughest leadership lesson as “to not give up and to know where you want to go.” She adds, “When you feel like you’re part of the team and you have a goal, you can work through a lot of challenges and issues.” A good place to start? Try SMART goals to quickly make your objective more manageable and strategic.
Like so many of us are still, Wojcicki used to be defensive when she was told what was doing wrong or what people disliked about her performance. But she cites changing this approach as a valuable lesson learned, adding that “As you get more senior, your job is to hear what’s not working so you can make it better.” Business always feels personal, but you can learn from criticism, and it's often more well-intentioned than you might think.
Anyone can be a manager, but to be a Wojcicki-grade powerful woman and leader, you have to endeavor to get the best from the people around you — to take an interest in what drives them and what they want to achieve — and figure out how you can use that information to support your team and company goals. In other words, you have to be a coach. It may be a real challenge at first, but get into the habit of asking your team members what they like about their work and try to weave that into your subsequent asks. Like Google’s best managers, Wojcicki learned this early on.
You can’t solve a problem until you’ve heard what it is — and you can’t hear it until you’ve shown people that you’re willing to listen. In addition to being a good listener, Wojcicki points out that the growth of technology in enabling communications has made it all easier than it was even ten years ago. We just have to remember to do it.
We all know that women in leadership roles are sorely needed, but Wojcicki makes the case for breaking up the Silicon Valley boy’s club beautifully in Vanity Fair: “There is a solution that has been proved to address gender discrimination in all its forms, both implicit and explicit: hiring more women. Employing more women at all levels of a company, from new hires to senior leaders, creates a virtuous cycle. Companies become more attuned to the needs of their female employees, improving workplace culture while lowering attrition. They escape a cycle of men mostly hiring men. And study after study has shown that greater diversity leads to better outcomes, more innovative solutions, less groupthink, better stock performance and G.D.P. growth.”
If you’re in a position to hire — particularly if you’re in Silicon Valley — hire women.
Wojcicki is frequently asked a variation on the question “How do you manage to ‘have it all’?” And she frequently answers. But she points out the inequality of the question. “The fact that I’m a woman CEO and I have five children is unusual. Other women want to understand, ‘Well, how did you do that?’ and ‘How do you make life work?’” But, there’s a time and a place. “When I’m at a business conference talking about business and all of my peers are talking only about business, I think it’s important that we’re treated in the same way.”
Truth, Susan Wojcicki, truth.
Ellie Hearne is an experienced leadership coach and founder of Pencil or Ink. She has worked with leaders at Apple, Google, Starbucks, and Marriottâ€Š—â€Šas well as numerous start-ups. She tweets about life and feminism here, and about leadership and communications here.