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6 Mindsets To Rise And Thrive At Work, With Aliza Knox

Are you new to your job? Or are you planning to be in C-suite? Then, this episode is for you! J.R. Lowry welcomes our guest, Aliza Knox, the author of Don’t Quit Your Day Job, who shares some tips on how to thrive in the workplace. J.R. and Aliza take a plunge into the six mindsets needed to advance and flourish in your workplace. Learn more on how you can excel in today’s world of work and create a balanced working life with Aliza. Tune in to this episode now!

“Check out the full series of “Career Sessions, Career Lessons” podcasts here or visit pathwise.io/podcast/. A full written transcript of this episode is also available at https://pathwise.io/podcasts/aliza-knox.”

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6 Mindsets To Rise And Thrive At Work, With Aliza Knox

Tech Executive and Best-Selling Author Of Don’t Quit Your Day Job

My guest is Aliza Knox. She is the bestselling author of Don’t Quit Your Day Job: The 6 Mindshifts You Need to Rise and Thrive at Work. She is also a tech executive, senior advisor to the Boston Consultant Group, speaker and lecturer, contributing columnist at Forbes, and non-executive director. She began her career at Bankers Trust in New York and then spent a number of years at BCG in Australia before moving to California for roles at Schwab and Visa International. She returned to the Asia-Pacific region in 2007, taking regional leadership roles, in turn, with Google, Twitter, and Cloudflare.

Over time, she shifted into more of a focus on non-executive board roles, including at JVS, InvoCare, GfK, Singapore Post, Scentre Group, Grant Thornton, Healthway Medical Group, Tyro Payments, Health Metrics, and Azentio. She was named the IT Woman of the Year in Asia in 2020, the AWA Singapore International Businesswoman of the Year in 2015, and a Top 100 Women in Tech in Singapore. She was also elected to the Chief Executive Women in Australia in 2016. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Math and Economics from Brown University and her MBA from New York University. Her family lives in Singapore.

Aliza, welcome. It’s good to have you on the show.

Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

You’ve done a lot of different things over the years, and I’m hoping we’ll have time to get to as many of them as possible, but let’s start with the mix of things that are keeping you busy now.

Right now, I’m trying to have a portfolio career. I sit on four boards. I do a fair amount of mentoring. I would call it coffee mentoring, where people call me for help, and we can come back to that later, but that’s part of the reason I wrote the book. I have two very serious commitments.

One is to a young Australian Olympian, through a group in Australia called Minerva, where a group of businesswomen got together and realized that we cheer on Australian athletes, but at the end of their athletic careers, many of them have so solely focused on their athleticism or their sport that they don’t have anything to do when they finish. It is more common for men to end up as broadcasters or sometimes financial salespeople. This is a way to help these women while they are still in their athletic careers, so that they have something afterwards.

Through the Asian University for Women a number of years ago, I was mentoring girls at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh, which tries to help marginalized and impoverished women get into university. The last mentee that I had was Afghan, and she was sent back to Kabul after graduation, so we spent a lot of time and energy [working to get her out of Afghanistan].

The university did great work, getting either 148 or 158 women out of Kabul. Not all of them graduated, but a significant number [did], so I spent a lot of time with her. She is in the US. She is seeking asylum and has had her interviews. She is now at Brown University, where I went to school, getting a Master’s in Public Health. It’s very exciting. We’ve got a lot of work to do to try to get her family out. That’s probably a third of my time, [along with] a third board [work], and the board [work] includes [being] a senior advisor to BCG, and then a third, maybe a little bit more, as time for myself.

It’s good that you were able to help that young Afghan woman and that she was able to get out of Afghanistan, given everything that’s going on there and all the rights of women that are being removed steadily, including the [recently announced] elimination of their ability to work in NGOs. It’s a tough environment there, for sure.

It’s very tough. Her sister and family are still there, so we are working on dealing with that. They [Afghanistan] are out of the news these days, which is unfortunate.

You mentioned some of your director roles. You’ve been a non-executive director or board member for a long time in a number of different industries over the years. How would you describe the life of a non-executive director? What’s your experience been?

As a full-time non-executive director – I’m [technically] not full-time, but not working – it’s a little bit easier than when you are part-time and still have your executive role. For me, it’s [been] an interesting experience. I started my life as a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. I had a job before that, but I would consider that the first formative part of my career.

I will quickly lay this out. I think of my career as a series of software releases. 1.0 was Boston Consulting Group and Financial Services, 2.0 was Tech: Google, Twitter, and Cloudflare, and 3.0 is this portfolio career. Having left consulting and gone [into] operating [roles], which was something I wanted to try, I thought board work might be somewhere in between. When you’re a consultant, and hopefully this never happened to you, but it’s possible for a client to pay for the work, have it done, and throw it out, to basically ignore everything.

When you’re an operator, you’re doing things [yourself], so that doesn’t happen, and all the responsibilities are on you. When you’re on the board, it’s a little bit in between. It’s probably closer to consulting because with boards the phrase is, “Noses in, fingers out.” You can’t do anything. You can only ask questions and recommend [a course of action], but it’s a little more active than [being] a consultant, in that you are there over a long period of time. You’re getting to know the business, and you’re able to ask questions and make suggestions. I thought I wanted to see what that would be like, and I did start several years ago while I was still an executive.

The reason a lot of people do it after their executive careers is that they get to a point where they say, “I don’t want to be full-time anymore. I don’t want to be a 9:00 to 5:00 or 8:00 to 6:00 or 100-hour-week executive, but I want to keep my brain going, and I have some contributions I can make based on my experience.” Most times, boards are looking for a specific experience or expertise when they ask an executive or former executive to be on the board. That’s what being on the board is about. The main responsibility is to hire and fire the CEO, and then there are a lot of regulatory and governance responsibilities, but [more broadly] you’re participating in helping guide the company over time.

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Aliza Knox on the role of boards: The board’s main responsibility is to hire and fire the CEO. Then there are a lot of regulatory and governance responsibilities, but [more broadly] you are participating in helping guide the company over time.

With your tech background – companies and boards are desperate for people with legitimate tech expertise – I’m sure that’s been a big draw for you and a big help to you in terms of what you’ve been able to contribute.

I often remind people that I am not a technologist. While I have been at tech companies, the part of tech that I can add is how they move quickly, why they do some of the things they do, and how they scale. What I can’t add is beyond the very basic tech stack. What do you do next? I’m not an expert in Kubernetes or edge computing. It’s interesting because when I get calls for board seats, sometimes I do need to remind people what my limits are and what my expertise is and isn’t.

You’ve served on boards in 4 or 5 countries. Is the way that a board functions different in different countries?

I’ve been on boards in the UK, Germany, Australia, and Singapore. It’s four countries. The way the boards operate is a little bit more dependent on the chairman than anything else, [and] whether the board is private or public. Those are probably two bigger differentiators than the country, but the country is an element in two ways.

In Germany, specifically, they have a two-tier board. They have a supervisory board and an executive or management board. Independent directors like me are on the supervisory board, and they have final power over the management board, but German law does give powers to the executive board, and it’s stronger and different from the way it works in other countries. I also think style comes from the country. In many parts of Asia, and it’s not just Asia, but you see that many companies are still family controlled, run, or influenced, and those [companies] might have a different style than one where it’s a fully independent board. Those are a few factors where you see differences.

German law gives powers to the executive board and it's stronger and different from how it works in other countries. Share on X

A lot of people do board roles later in their careers. You got involved in this relatively early compared to most people. How did you get those first few board roles?

It wasn’t that early, but the way to get board roles, and a lot of people are getting board roles earlier now, and they should because you don’t need to be 50 or 60 to add value as used to be the thinking. The way I got it was first serving on a volunteer board, a nonprofit in San Francisco, but I didn’t do that as a stepping stone to get on corporate boards. I wanted to volunteer for this nonprofit, which helps people who are out of work or otherwise marginalized to get retrained to get jobs.

There’s a lot of debate in the board community as to whether serving on a nonprofit makes any difference or not when you get your first board role. I have no idea. In my case, I happened to have done it, and on my first board, the chairman of the nonprofit that I had served on did get called to ask about my board contributions, but there are plenty of people who do not do nonprofit boards first. That’s a matter of, “Is there a nonprofit you’re interested in? Is this something you want to learn about?”

Then the second thing I did was go and tell people I wanted to be on boards. I have a very good friend who went on boards earlier than I did and is a very successful board member. I said to her, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to get on boards,.” She was like, “Why not?” I said, “No one’s asking me.” She was like, “Have you told anybody you want to be on a board?” I felt pretty dumb. I had this vision in my mind that you work as an executive, generally as CEO. You retire and people call you to go on boards.

That still happens. CEOs retire and they get called to go on boards. Plenty of people who are not CEOs, like me – the most I have done is run Asia for a number of companies – are eligible for boards. You can show that you’ve had a very big executive job, even though it wasn’t C-Suite. It’s interesting because many of the roles I have had are much larger than CEO roles in smaller companies. It’s not C, so you need to have a narrative. What I was always told was, in a job interview, you need to have an elevator pitch, something you can say quickly to the hiring manager about who you are and what you do. In boards, you need to have three bullet points in terms of the value you add. You’re not even allowed a few sentences.

You need to have an elevator pitch in a job interview, something you can say quickly to the hiring manager about who you are and what you do. In boards, you need to have three bullet points regarding the value you add. You're not even allowed a few… Share on X

In my case, it’s APAC, Tech, and SaaS, but again I have to clarify after the dot points that tech is not as a technologist but [from having worked in] tech companies. Those are the three areas. I’m a woman, so at some points, there have been efforts to get [more] women on boards, but you then need to go and tell people you want to be on boards.

I do think that networks still work to some extent. Sometimes when we’re looking for new board members, people say to the board, “Is there anyone you know?” If [those] people are on those boards where they’re looking, you might get asked, but more and more searches are going to executive search firms. I’m not sure how many. I have heard in the maybe 1/3 to 40%. In those searches, having told an executive search firm that you’re interested in a board role will help in getting on their list.

You need to go out and pound the pavement with the exec search firms and tell them, “I’m looking for board roles and here are the three things that I bring.” A question that is often asked is, “Have you ever been on a board?” That’s very frustrating when you’re going for your first board [role], because you haven’t been on a board, but once you crack that, that helps a lot. They want to know that you have board experience and that you understand how a board works and how to behave on a board.

You were doing this at least initially while you were still in an executive role. Not everybody gets the chance to do that. How did being a board member help you be a better executive, and how did being an executive help make you a better board member when you were overlapping?

I’m not positive it did. One thing to note is, I was able to go on boards as an exec, but I had to get permission. I did have to ask the company. The first place I did that was Google, and I had to go through Legal to make sure there was no conflict, and it wasn’t absorbing [too much] time, and the agreement was always that if anyone felt it was affecting my executive performance, I would resign from the board.

As a board member, it helped me think about some questions to ask, although frankly, a lot of my ability to ask questions and parse problems came from my consulting career. As an executive, it more gave me insight into how little the board knows about what’s going on in a company. That makes it a bit scary to be a board member.

I spend [a lot of] time reading board papers and in board meetings, but I’m cognizant of how little we know about day-to-day operations and how people feel about the company and the culture. We can ask questions, but the reality is that as a board, there’s a lot we don’t know. The bigger the company, and the more complicated the company, it’s not possible as a board member [to know everything]. That’s what makes it a little bit scary in the sense that you are responsible for the company with limited information.

It’s impractical to think that you’re going to be able to put in the amount of time that would be required to fully understand the day-to-day, even if the company’s management was comfortable giving the board that access, which isn’t always the case.

Sometimes you run into problems where management is maybe managing the board a fair amount. It’s not like I feel that I don’t have access to information, but even when you are an exec in a company, you only know about your role and what’s going on. CEOs don’t know everything. As an exec, unless you do something illegal, you are not personally and financially liable. Whereas, as a board member, you are. It’s a daunting task, and that’s why you see many people deciding not to go on boards anymore.

It’s in the post-Enron, WorldCom era over the last several years. The regulatory expectations of board members and the legal expectations have certainly risen a lot relative to what it was like before that time.

In most cases, there is Directors and Officers insurance, D&O, but It’s still a big responsibility.

And there are limits, obviously, to what that will and won’t cover, too. Not that I am a lawyer, which I will never profess to be.

Let’s change topics and talk a little bit about your book, Don’t Quit Your Day Job. You hinted at the impetus for writing the book a little bit ago. How did it all come together, and how did you and your co-author Wendy Paris join up for it?

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Thanks for asking about the book. Wendy is a ghostwriter. She helped me write it because I had this idea, and I didn’t think that I could write it myself – I would never finish – but she’s not a ghostwriter, because I put her name on the book, because why not? It’s great for both of us. I found her through a journalist who was in a writer’s group with her, and we wrote together based on my ideas and her better writing ability. It’s interesting. I spent all these years in consulting and structuring communication, but I did need some help to structure this. The impetus was that I do spend a lot of time talking to people about their careers.

As I’m older, I’m a woman, I’ve been in tech, and I’ve been in sales, which is a little less common, I have friends coming to me. I have younger people, and even people that I have met over the years at work, are coming to me, and now I have my friends’ kids and my kids’ friends. I’ve got kids in their early twenties coming to me for help.

When I sit with them and talk about issues in their careers or things that they are facing, I realized a couple of things. 1) There are many commonalities. 2) If there’s nothing else you learn from being in tech, it’s that you have to scale, and having coffee with people is not scalable. It’s not scalable because there are only 24 hours a day, and I don’t want to spend it all mentoring, and it’s not scalable because I don’t like coffee. I drink a very weak decaf latte.

I’ve learned to do that over the years, to have coffee, but I can’t do that all the time, so I thought maybe I could think about the stories I was hearing, the people I was talking to, and the commonalities, and write them down. That was where Wendy helped, where I blurted out all these ideas and issues, and she helped me make them coalesce into these six mind shifts. Now when people call for help, and I still spend a lot time doing this, I do ask, “Have you read the book, or can you read the book first and see if it gives you any ideas?”

One of the mindsets that you talk about in the book is that you’re in a relationship with your career. Talk a little bit more about that.

You’re in a career for a long time, unless you find a way that you don’t need to work anymore, which does happen. You get lucky in a tech stock. Maybe you inherit money. Maybe you partner with somebody else, and you decide you are the one who’s not going to work. But otherwise, many of us are in a career for a long time. I’ve been married for 30 years. I’ve worked for longer than I’ve been married. That’s a long time.

People need to think about it as something that grows and morphs over time, like a relationship with a partner. Many people have read, whether it’s in glossy magazines, self-help books, podcasts, or articles, that you can’t expect to get everything you need from one other person. That puts too much pressure on a relationship, and there are lots of reasons for that.

You can't expect everything you need to get everything from one other person. That puts too much pressure on a relationship. Share on X

Similarly, we need to think about our careers that way. Somehow, we went – and it made a lot of sense [during] the industrial revolution, where we worked to have an income and pay rent and pay for food – to [the idea that] careers should be fulfilling and rewarding, and you should learn from them. Many of us are fortunate enough to work for companies that have a mission and a purpose, and a lot of companies try to have that now. We got to some point where a career should fulfill your passions. That may be possible for some people. It really may. Maybe there is a career that is everything they have ever wanted to do, but for many people, I don’t think it is.

You can get a lot out of your career. You can get constant learning. You can get social interaction. You can get the reward of feeling you’ve fulfilled some tasks, but you can’t get everything, and maybe you need to do some things on the outside. We talk about a career as a ladder that you climb, but it’s not an object. It changes, but it probably still can’t give you everything, and maybe that’s too high a bar.

I talk a lot about what you can get out of your career and maybe ways to get things that you want outside your career. For example, and she’s not in the book, but I am friends with a professor who’s an avid equestrian. I don’t know how many careers there are as a horse person, and there are a number of careers in terms of working with racehorses or working in stables.

I’m a little frightened of horses, so I don’t know, but I’m sure there are some careers. I’m also pretty sure that there aren’t as many as there are people who like riding horses, because there are a lot of the latter. This person is a professor. She’s an economics professor. She’s good at it. She loves her job. She enjoys engaging with the students. She’s great at her research. She’s written a couple of books. But she is passionate about horses.

Her career does not directly fulfill her passion, but what it does is give her enough income to have horses, and it gives her flexible timing. This may be less of an issue now that we have gone to more hybrid work for many people, but she’s closer to my age. What it did over the years was give her long winter breaks, and long summer breaks, to be where her horses are. She has this relationship with her career where she’s got all these things she likes out of her career, but it doesn’t fulfill all her passions. It enables her to fulfill her passions.

The equation is different for everybody. You talk about that in the book. You make the related point that work and life are on the same team. Many people look at work and feel like they’re at war with work. They don’t necessarily find the ways that it does give them fulfillment, and then that puts much pressure on their home life because life has to make up for everything that you feel like you’re not getting in the many hours that you spend at work. It’s tough unless you come to this point of acceptance of all of it.

There’s been much discussion about quiet quitting. The quiet quitting descriptions seem to range from, “I’m going to do what’s required and not much more, and I’m going to try to have more time to do the things I like.” I think that’s fine. [Then there is, “I’m going to mail it in. I’m going to do the bare minimum and disengage as much as possible”, and to me, that sounds soul-destroying.

I’m mostly talking about people who have white-collar careers who have some options. I don’t know if much of this is relevant if you have no choice in a career, job, or repetitive task that you hate. In all of this, I’m talking about people with some degree of optionality, but if you are at an office-type job where you’re mailing it in or doing the bare minimum, to me, that sounds soul-destroying. You can eke that out for weeks, months, or maybe a year, if you need to financially while you look for something else.

The idea of wanting to do that, to me, sounds tough. It sounds tougher than making an effort to find something you want to do.  It sounds good, rebellious, and great on social media, but you’re still spending those hours each day having to do something that you hate, and there are many choices out there.

Every job has bits of it. The administrivia or the political parts that you don’t like. Most people can find something where the balance is that they are engaged and learning in the bulk of it, and they get through the bits they don’t like. The idea of grinding out hours of stuff you don’t like, so that you can quietly quit sounds very upsetting. Even though I said, “Don’t quit your day job,” it’s not “never quit.” Many times, you don’t need to quit to have the life, career, or job that you want, but if you get to that point where it’s soul-destroying, it’s time to go.

It’s a dark place. I had the same reaction when I first heard the term. I can’t imagine going to work every day, phoning it in, and not losing my mind, as you say, within days, weeks, or maybe months.

You talk about stamina in the book. That’s another one of the mindsets, the importance of building stamina. How does that take root in practice to help you find inner peace with your day job?

I wrote two equations for the book. I am not sure either one will become as famous as E=mc², but one of them was stamina equals perseverance plus enthusiasm. Back to quiet quitting, at a certain point, I don’t think anything is pleasant if you are grinding it out. There’s lots of discussion around sticking with it and having the ability to persevere, and that’s important.

Angela Duckworth talks about grit, and her material is amazing. Beyond hanging in there, there’s the ability to do it with some degree of enthusiasm. Figuring out what you are going to get out of it and what you are going to learn from it so that stamina isn’t hanging in there. It’s enjoying at least part of it.

One example in the book is a woman whose name is disguised. I know I’m giving female examples at the moment. In the book, there are about three dozen examples, and it’s about 60% women, 40% men, all people I know. Some are disguised, some are not, but there are stories to try to make the ideas relatable for most people so they can see,“This is what happened to me. This is what I was thinking about.”

In any case, Barbara was at a tech firm, not one that I was at, but one that I knew about. Somebody had asked me to talk to her, and she said, “I’ve got to quit. It’s too bad. I’ve been there a while, and I like it.” I’m like, “Why do you have to quit?” [She said], “They are bringing somebody in over me. I was running sales, and now this person’s going to be head of sales, and it’s demeaning and demoralizing. I’ve got to go.”

The reason I’d been asked to talk to her is I knew the person who was going to be her boss. I said, “I know the person who’s coming in over you, and he’s a good guy. He’s known for developing people. He’s known for how much he puts into his team. He’s a great leader. You might want to think about staying and seeing if you can learn something from him, because you can always go, but once you go, it’s hard to come back.”

CSCL 45 | Thrive At Work

Aliza Knox on the case of someone who had been layered: Consider considering staying and seeing if you can learn something from [your near manager], because you can always go, but once you go, it’s hard to come back.

As an aside, it’s interesting. I found that at least 5% of people who left during the Great Resignation have gone back to their prior companies. That must be understated because many people who regretted leaving probably [weren’t able to] go back because jobs have been filled or they aren’t welcome back. It’s important to, and I talk about that a bit in the book, make sure that when you leave, you’re going to something and not fleeing.

I said to Barbara, “You can always leave. Why don’t you think about it?” I’m sure she talked to more people than me, but she decided to stay. She stayed with gusto. She said, “I’m going to see if I can make this work and if I can learn anything from this guy.” She stayed for years. She got two promotions [while] working with this person. She learned a lot. The second promotion was while she was on maternity leave, which probably shouldn’t be worth mentioning, but unfortunately, it still is.

Now she is a CRO, a Chief Revenue Officer, at another well-funded startup, one that would have gone public probably in the last year except for the state of the market. My view is that if she had left when she first talked about leaving, she would have continued to be head of sales at smaller companies. She was at a company that had been, when she got there, maybe series A. It was a small tech company on a rocket ship, but not big yet.

She had learned a lot, but she wasn’t going to learn more because there was nobody to pay attention to her. By hanging around when she was layered over and having some stamina to stick with it, she found that she got a lot out of it and developed more. I think if she hadn’t stayed, she would have continued to have a good career, but in the same type of roles she’d had before.

Because she learned something and had the stamina to stick it out, she’s at a higher level than she might have been otherwise. That’s one example where saying, “I’m going to give it a shot. I’m going to hang in there for something I don’t like, and I’m going to do it with enthusiasm, gusto, or good attitude that gets me through some bumps, and it’s going to do something good for me,” which it did in this case.

It’s a good example. I like the equation as well that the notion that stamina equals perseverance and enthusiasm. Attitude, which is reflected in the enthusiasm part of the equation, is important. At the same time, it only gets you so far, and you need that perseverance, grit, or whatever word you want to use to be able to get through the invariably tough times.

You’ve been in the Asia-Pacific region for a large part of your career. You talk in the book both about the importance of connection, and also that distant is the new diverse. I’m curious to hear where you come out in terms of how you think about the importance of co-location relative to the opportunity that comes from having people from far-flung parts of the world potentially in consideration to be part of your organization.

This is interesting, and we’re all waiting to see where the post-pandemic culture falls out. What will be the mainstream? I’m a little skeptical about never meeting your colleagues, saying that we are fully remote forever and we don’t meet. Maybe I’m a Luddite in the social connection arena. I’ve found over the years that having the chance to meet people, whether it’s chatting in the hallway or meeting once a year at an offsite, helps form a connection by maybe some stories of things that happen – missing a plane together or spilling a drink on someone. Somebody [recently] spilled wine on me, which wasn’t great, but now there’s a story around it. Those things create these stories that you have forever that create some bond. The question for me is, “Can you create those if you never meet?”

Having the chance to meet people, whether chatting in the hallway or meeting once a year at an offsite, helps form a connection. Share on X

I do think that you can be hybrid most of the time, work from home, or work from somewhere most of the time, if you get those occasional opportunities to meet. The issue with some of those is that a company has to have enough money to bring you together once in a while if you’re far-flung or if you’re all over the world. If you look at the big tech companies, they all have global sales conferences, for example, tech conferences or kickoffs, but those are very expensive to host.

The important thing is to work on how you can create some interpersonal connection if you never meet other people, and there are ways to do it. One is to create time at the beginning or end of Zoom to have some small talk. I found during the pandemic that while it was nice to be at home and people were more productive – although now I have seen studies saying we are less productive – there was this initial burst where I was like, “I’m going to get my work done.” Zooms or whatever, online meetings were scheduled every hour.

What happened were real-life settings where people were late to the meeting, or somebody’s eating potato chips or crisps, and they share with you. Someone’s sneezing, and we talk about their cold on Zoom. I noticed you sneezed, and you turned it off. You quietly sneezed, there’s none of that conversation, and so you have to make it.

I’ve seen many places where people are working from home, but they’re in the same city or even the same part of the city, and in those, I would encourage them to, at least once in a while, go for a walk together. It doesn’t have to be coffee. Have a walking meeting where you can be outside, enjoy nature if it’s not the dead of winter, and have your meeting that way.

I’m a little skeptical. I have seen, for example, in law, accounting, or consulting, which I would consider apprenticeship careers, the younger people are struggling. I have a good friend who runs a major law firm, and they feel that in the pandemic, they have lost a generation of lawyers because [prior to the pandemic] a young lawyer might stop somebody in the hallway and [ask a more senior lawyer], “Can you look at this and see? Does that sentence look okay?”

They would do that, but they wouldn’t feel emboldened to email you or go into your calendar and ask for time with the partner –  “Can you spend ten minutes with me to ask you about this sentence?” By the same token, [when we’re in the office] the partner might walk by me in the hallway and say, “Aliza, I’m going to this interesting meeting. Do you have an hour? Come with me.” They probably wouldn’t do that if it was on Zoom.

It’s not osmosis, but it’s closer to osmosis than planned. It hasn’t been happening. Those kinds of firms have had higher churn rates. They are losing more people, which is expensive for them, and they have more people who are dissatisfied or who aren’t succeeding. We are still figuring this out in terms of how we make hybrid work.

In firms where the tasks are very clear, so maybe in some tech firms where a developer has a very clear goal and can work with a team, there are a lot of platforms to do that. The organized way might work better. I have a good friend running a gaming company with very far-flung developers, and that seems to be working, but it’s still reasonably small.

While I say,  “Distance is the new diversity,” I didn’t necessarily mean everybody was far-flung. I do think when we talk about diversity, we used to talk about it as gender-only, then it became about ethnic makeup. Age is important too, but I do think where you’re from is important. You talked about all these countries where I’ve been on boards and distance – having lived overseas – is a bit of diversity, too.

I do think having a corporation where not everybody sits in exactly the same place does build diversity, and distance is good, but somehow, we need to bridge the gaps that distance also creates. When I was head of Asia for all these firms, I always said for those roles that I needed to go to headquarters four times a year to at least meet with the people I was interacting with or other key regions – maybe the EMEA region – for me to get to know them so that when I needed help or when I was trying to understand something that they were doing that was successful, I could reach out and ask them in an informal way.

It’s especially important when you’ve spent so much time in the Asia-Pacific region. It’s a long way away from the rest of the world and many time zones away. It’s helpful to have those points where you do get to have that in-person interaction.

I want to shift a little bit and talk about some of the formative moments in your career. You started in finance when you first moved to New York after graduating from Brown, but you said earlier that you view consulting as maybe the official start of your career. Why is that? What did you take away from your time at BCG that’s helped you in the years since then?

I mentioned this a bit when were were talking about boards, but what consulting teaches you or what it taught me was how to communicate clearly and start with the conclusion and then explain it. in my education, where we were writing term papers, you’d write all this stuff, and then there was the a-ha at the end.

Consulting teaches you that you better get the a-ha at the beginning and then be very clear in the explanation about the why. It taught me a lot about how to pick apart problems, figure out parts of the solution, and put it back together. It taught me a lot about building client relationships and about trying to understand what was going on in companies. To be honest, it’s pretty hard to understand a company until you are inside one. That’s one of the transition things that people talk about a lot when they leave consulting to go to operating [roles] or to go inside a firm is how much more empathy they end up developing for the client.

When you’re a consultant,  you’re like, “Can I get these numbers tomorrow? Print off these or help me analyze these. Put these into a pivot table.” The client says, “I can’t. I don’t have this.” You’re a young consultant, and you think, “Are they lazy? Do they not want to do it?” Once you’ve been inside, you’re saying, “You’d think the company would have those numbers, but their systems don’t produce it very easily, or it will take five days to get them.” Somehow until you are inside, you don’t fully get it. Consulting does teach you a lot about building relationships, looking hard for solutions, parsing problems, communicating, and analyzing.

I can remember one funny story from my time at McKinsey. One of my colleagues asked for some big data query from one of the regional bell phone companies. The query was so big that it took down the network IT systems for a brief period of time. He got abused by everybody in terms of the ribbing he took for that.

What was your shift like when you moved into an operating role? A lot of consultants struggle with that transition in terms of getting into the flow and the longer-term time horizons that come with it. What was it like for you?

It was a little bit challenging, but it was also eye-opening, because you get more empathy. I enjoyed it because I was always there at the end. I presume McKinsey had this too, but I felt like at BCG, there was a broad spectrum of partners ranging from people who were unbelievable intellects and came up with all the amazing new ideas to people who were a little more practical like me.

I don’t know that I came up with anything that anybody had never thought of before, like the experience curve. I was good at saying, “That idea is going to work for this client, and that idea is going to work over here.” I loved the ability to be able to be an executive and implement things. Instead of saying to somebody, “Why don’t you try this?” I could say, “Let’s try this.”

Consulting firms do more implementation now than they did when I was there and probably when you were there. When you’re an operating executive, you have to agree with lots of people across the firm. I’ve always been in matrix organizations. I’ve never been able to say, “We are doing this,” and then the whole firm jumps to it, but [as an operating leader] you do have much more ability to execute directly. That was fun, and I liked it.

CSCL 45 | Thrive At Work

Aliza Knox on the transition from consulting to operational leadership: You need to agree with a lot of people across the firm when you’re an operating executive, but you do have much more ability to execute directly.

 

In my case, I didn’t find the adjustment too hard. The one thing that’s always challenging is that consulting brings together a certain type of person who is generally driven and likes analysis. In a [corporation], you might have a broader range of people, and you need to figure out how to motivate them. They’re not all motivated necessarily by the same thing. It was all great learning, and that’s what I loved about it, that it was a different type of career.

To me, one of the big differences you hit on is that in a consulting firm, you’ve got this group of incredibly highly capable and self-motivated individuals. You go into a company, and it’s a mix. You have some people who are phenomenal, and then you have some people who are less than phenomenal. You’ve got to figure out a way to get more out of all of them.

In a consulting firm, you would exit the people who didn’t pan out. There was an expected churn, and in most companies, those people end up oftentimes being around a lot longer. It’s a very different thing to have to motivate people who need that motivation that was easy in a way in the consulting firm.

The interesting thing, as you said, is that some of those people stick around. They are the foundation of those companies. When we were both there, consulting was up or out, and it’s still pretty close to that. Everybody wants to go up, but you need some people who say, “I’ve made some other decisions in life. I don’t need to be the rock star. I want to be solid. I like my job. I’m going to do this.”

Learn to appreciate that and understand how important their roles are in those firms. As you said, a lot of those people are motivated. They are not motivated to necessarily be CEO. They like their job or their group and want to stay, and then some people aren’t as motivated at all. There’s a lot of learning on the EQ side, too.

You’ve been a leader in a lot of different situations. How has your leadership style evolved over the years and in different situations?

I’d need to ask somebody else about that. I’m not sure. I hope it has evolved. I went to a public high school in California where the most popular and best-looking women were the cheerleaders, and I was not a cheerleader. I didn’t try out, but I don’t think I could have made the cut anyway. I am not sure if that’s why, but I feel like it has made me a cheerleader [in terms of my] leadership style.

I like to try to motivate other people, encourage them, and develop them. If you ask me about the most fulfilling part of my career, I like to hit my numbers. I like helping grow companies. The most fulfilling part of my career has been helping other people develop. A lot of the people in the book are people who started working for me and have gone quite far.

I think that they’re all super capable. They would have done it without me, but I believe and hope that I may have accelerated their careers. That’s the most meaningful thing I’ve done. I describe that leadership as development and cheerleading, to be honest. What’s changed over time is I do care a lot about delivering. Even at this advanced age, I still show stress. I know that I do, but I showed it much more when I was younger. I’ve learned over time to exhibit it less and not have the people around me stressed because I’m stressed, and to try to drive them through motivation and delivering on goals rather than stress, but it is something I have always worked on.

One of my earlier interviews was with somebody I worked with at State Street who was at one point a volunteer firefighter. She described that as, “Literally life and death.” When you’re in a workplace setting, very few things are life and death. It helped her to put things in perspective and remain calmer in all of those circumstances.

I bet. Maybe I should take that up because I’m still working on it.

You’ve talked at multiple points about the mentoring you do. Are you hearing any particular themes from people right now that jump out to you as being amplified issues that people are facing, other than the return to office or the hybrid evolution that’s going on at the moment?

That’s a big one. Now, specifically, people are worried about inflation and being with a company that’s long-lasting because they have this strong background in tech, and tech’s having a bit of layoffs. There’s a lot of specific concern right now. I still think the pervasive issues are about, “I want to get some fulfillment out of my career.”

When I talked before about the relationship between your career and your life, I do think you should get some fulfillment from your career. Maybe not every passion, but you’ve got to get some. People want to feel that their company or their manager specifically is invested in them, and that’s timeless.

There’s a McKinsey study about why people are leaving. Higher wages and work flexibility have moved into that top right-hand box because of the pandemic and because of inflation, but what has always been there is still there: “I want to have a manager who’s developing me or invested in me,” and “I want a company that recognizes me or realizes what I’m doing.”

Those are still important. Coming back to hybrid, one of the things that’s tricky is that sometimes the way you feel recognized by a company is by seeing some of the top executives who have a chat with you. Now, tech companies do town halls and shout-outs, but they have to figure out more ways to make sure that the employees who aren’t seeing them in the hallway or maybe ever are feeling recognized. That could be with awards that often work for the sales team. It could be with educational investment. It could be with better healthcare.

That’s what people are seeking. They want to be in a career where they think they are learning and where they understand the company is not necessarily taking care of them. That’s one of the lessons that I impart in this mentoring. Often younger people come out of college where parents and then maybe professors have been helping them, taking care of them, and they’re expecting the company to do the same thing, and I don’t think companies do that.

Companies take care of their shareholders. They want to take care of people to the extent that they want to grow them, and they want them to deliver for the company, but the company is not responsible for Aliza Knox or JR Lowry. They’re responsible for their shareholders. Trying to explain to young people that they should expect some [support], but that there’s also a limit and they need to take care of themselves – that’s where you get back to understanding your relationship with your career – but that’s what I hear a lot.

Companies take care of their shareholders, and of course, they want to take care of people to the extent that they want to grow them, and they want them to deliver for the company. Share on X

Last question. If you could give one bit of advice to your younger self in terms of how to manage your career, what would you go back and give your younger self in terms of that advice?

Something I’m big on that I wrote a lot about in the book that we didn’t get a chance to talk about here is building a personal board of directors. Similar to what we talked about in terms of corporate boards, as an individual, you do not necessarily expect to find one [perfect] mentor. Some people don’t [find any]. That depends a lot on chemistry and happenstance. Creating a board for yourself of different people who get to know you over time and who can give you advice – I have written a lot about it. You can read it. I’ve written a couple of articles about it too, and I’m not the only person who’s written about it. That’s [the advice] I would give my younger self.

I only came to that a few years ago, and it would have helped me a lot in my career. In some places like BCG, I had amazing mentors who did a lot to pull me up through the firm, but in other companies, I didn’t have that. I’ve had a manager who’s invested in me because they hired me, but [they’re] not doing anything else, and a board of directors would have helped a lot.

The other one is that it’s never as bad as it seems. You go through troughs in your career. It always seems terrible when you’re there, and life goes on. Something maybe your board of directors can tell you when you are at your lows is that it’ll get better.

Excellent points to stop with, and I’m glad you got a chance to put the personal board of directors point in there before we wrap. This has been great. We didn’t get to everything. It’s always tough to do, and there’s so much that we could cover, but I appreciate your time. It was a good discussion, and I look forward to putting it out there for everybody to read, listen to, or watch when it gets published.

Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me in for a discussion. We are proving that distance is a new diversity. We are across the world doing this. I’m in Sydney, and you’re on Cape Cod. It does show that, at least for many things, you can cover the distance. I appreciate it. It’s been great getting to know you.

Thank you again. I want to thank Aliza for joining me to discuss her board work, her book, Don’t Quit Your Day Job, some of the highlights from her career journey, and what she’s learned along the way. If you’re ready to take control of your career, visit PathWise.io. If you’d like more regular career insights, you can become a PathWise member. It’s free. You can also sign up on the website for the PathWise newsletter and follow pathways on social media on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. Thanks, and have a great day.

 

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About Aliza Knox

CSCL 45 | Thrive At WorkAliza Knox is the best-selling author of Don’t Quit Your Day Job: 6 Mindsets to Rise and Thrive at Work. She is also a tech executive, senior advisor to Boston Consulting Group, speaker and lecturer, contributing columnist at Forbes, and non-executive director.

Aliza began her career at Bankers Trust in New York. She then spent a number of years at BCG in Australia before moving to California for roles with Schwab and Visa. She returned to the Asia Pacific region in 2007, taking regional leadership roles, in turn, with Google, Twitter, and Cloudflare. Over time, she shifted into more of a focus on non-executive board roles, including at JVS, InvoCare, GfK, Singapore Post, Scentre Group, Grant Thornton, Healthway Medical Group, Tyro Payments, Health Metrics, and Azentio.

Aliza was named the IT Woman of the Year in Asia in 2020, the AWA Singapore International Businesswoman of the Year in 2015, and a Top 100 Woman in Tech in Singapore. She was elected to Chief Executive Women in Australia in 2016.

Aliza earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Math and Economics from Brown University and her MBA from New York University. She and her family live in Singapore.

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