As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Colleen Gallagher.
Colleen Gallagher, currently the CFO of Premise Data, is a financial leader with more than 20 years of experience. She is passionate about helping companies and individuals thrive. Throughout her career, she has collaborated with investors, boards, and executive teams on operational and financial strategies, which led to exponential revenue growth and increased profitability.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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?
I’ve always been a curious person that was good with numbers. In high school, one of my favorite classes was macroeconomics because I felt like the numbers could tell a story with meaningful data. That led me to major in Finance in college. From there I went into consulting as I wanted exposure to all types of companies, big and small, across several different industries. I honestly never thought I would stay in consulting for more than ten years, but I learned so much. Consulting provides a great technical foundation from a financial perspective, but the real benefit is the education you get across the entirety of the business. I gained exposure to managing teams, business development including M&A activity, and understanding the needs of investors. After completing my MBA, I wanted the opportunity as an operator to drive the financial performance of a company from within and moved to the West Coast where I’ve focused my efforts on high growth companies.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I started with Premise in the Spring of 2020. The country had just entered lockdown due to the global Covid pandemic. As such, I did not meet many of my executive team peers, or the team members who would report to me, in person. This required building trust in this new remote structure. It required introducing new processes into a workforce that was dealing with a new work environment every day. While this experience wasn’t unique to Premise, it was like no other challenge I’d faced previously. On top of the day-to-day challenges Covid presented, Premise also began an all-virtual fundraising process a few months later. This required developing trust and credibility across the organization in order to put our best foot forward with the current board and future investors.
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 certainly didn’t think it was that funny at the time, but I learned a few good lessons! When I first started out, I inadvertently left a document with sensitive information on a printer at a client location. Luckily for me, it was discovered by someone already privy to the information and it was returned to me with a quick reminder to ensure I was more careful next time. Without question, this was a strong reminder of that finance professionals deal with extremely confidential and sensitive information. But this experience also helped me recognize that, as a manager, we need to focus on the takeaways from a mistake rather than the mistake itself. We can’t change something after it has happened, but we can help identify to that person how it can be avoided next time. The important part is the lessons learned from our mistakes.
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?
I have been lucky enough to have several great mentors, bosses, and colleagues throughout my career making it difficult to pinpoint one person. Without a doubt, the common trait that each of them possesses was the ability to provide me with radical candor and constructive feedback. I respect these executives for their ability to have the difficult conversations because they knew this was the best way for me to grow both personally and professionally as an executive and leader. Just as important, they acknowledged my successes.
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?
For high stakes meetings or events, there is no better preparation than practice. Premise raised an $85M investment round during the pandemic which meant all our pitch meetings were done virtually. In preparation, I would start a zoom meeting with just myself, run through my part of the presentation, and watch the recording afterwards to help identify areas where I could improve. This allowed me to check my timing and ensure I was hitting all the relevant points. For me, practicing in a similar environment helps me prepare for the meeting real-time.
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?
I’m so pleased to see the attention Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is now seeing at the corporate level. One of the key areas where I see a benefit across organizations is diversity of thought and representation, which is so important. People from different backgrounds and cultures provide a larger set of ideas and solutions to problems. This variety is how we drive innovation and creative positive change in society. If everyone has shared values or experiences, the ability to identify new solutions is limited. For a company trying to create a new product or market, this can be the difference between success and failure. Additionally, diverse leadership teams are more reflective of society as a whole and can motivate employees to continue their growth and development if they have broad examples of successful role models.
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.
The best way for us to truly create an equitable society is to provide employees with a forum to share their experiences and offer support. At Premise, we recently started a Women’s Employee Resource Group. This grassroots effort was initiated by a group of women at all levels throughout the organization, which demonstrates the need and desire for such a group. I am so pleased to support them as being part of this organization has connected me to the heartbeat of our female workforce. Collectively, we decided that we want to provide some targeted support for issues that uniquely impact women and provide a space for people to speak candidly. However, we also offer events with great content relevant to the whole organization to attract allies. To truly foster inclusiveness, I believe that we need to share stories rather than change behavior to better conform to a model that was in place ten or even one year ago. The goal is to educate people about different perspectives.
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?
The key difference is that executives are setting the overall strategy, culture, and values of the organization. Said another way, executives work on the business rather than in the business. On a day-to-day basis, this means that the executive team is making decisions to reinforce or achieve that strategy. Importantly, an executive should be working with their team on ways to turn that strategic direction into operational excellence. Because of our unique vantage point, we have accountability to ensure the business is performing across all aspects of the company.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
First, we don’t have all the answers and we’re usually not the smartest people in the room. It is our responsibility to ask questions, gather relevant information, and make decisions that align with the strategic direction of the company. One of the most important traits a successful executive must have is the ability to hear new perspectives, and if they’ve hired the right team (which is also a must-have executive trait), then they’ll want to hear these perspectives. Second, 99% of executives are approachable and want to hear from their employees. Early in my career, I sometimes felt intimidated to reach out to more senior people in the organization, but I promise you, the executive team encourages initiative so don’t be afraid to ask. For me, the opportunity to interact with people across the organization is one of the best things about my role.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Time and time again, I’ve seen women and men evaluated differently for their directedness and decisiveness. While these traits are considered strengths for men, they are often seen with a negative lens for women. For example, women are expected to use softer language and seek consensus, while men are believed to speak with authority and assertiveness. I think this also manifests itself in small, subtle ways that make it difficult to pinpoint or address. My advice to women is to ensure you understand your goals and those of anyone else you are dealing with and seek common ground. I’ve found it then becomes less about you or them and more about the shared outcomes you are trying to achieve to make everyone successful. Additionally, in male dominated fields, like finance, it’s not uncommon for a woman to find herself in a room full of men. This can feel like an intimidating and overbearing environment in which to provide your perspective and certainly a challenge I’ve encountered at various times throughout my career. I encourage women to take the chance and speak up. The more often you do this, the easier it gets. If someone brushes you off or dismisses your input, it’s often more about them than you.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
By this time in my career, I thought I’d have all the answers to all the toughest challenges! That’s just not reality nor does it allow for the growth mindset that I believe is in each one of us. If you attack each day with the belief that you are going to learn something new today, you’ll be surprised at how much you accomplish.
Do you think 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 am a firm believer in the concept of the growth mindset, which says that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work and that growth comes from overcoming challenges and failures. So, yes, I believe that anyone who wants to be an executive can be, although some people may have to be more proactive about focusing on their areas for development. There are several skills that people develop on their way to executive management. Some of those skills are hard skills gained through experience in a specific role. Other skills, that are equally important for executives are soft skills like grit and resilience. Things will never go as planned and they will never be as easy as you want them to be. Executives don’t see these situations as obstacles but rather as opportunities to learn something new at each turn. If someone is uncomfortable in these situations and has a limited desire to grow their skillset, they may not be the best candidate to be an executive.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
First and foremost, take care of yourself, which will allow you to be more present for your team. As women, I think we often do the opposite; we try to take care of others around us first. You need to be at your best to ensure that you have the space and capacity to lead on a day-to-day basis. Find what helps you rest and recharge. For me, I work out regularly and do my best to set boundaries that protect time on my calendar in the morning. Each of us is different, but the important part is ensuring you acknowledge, respond to, and prioritize your own needs.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I hope that I have been able to help other people achieve their goals by providing mentorship, support and guidance. I believe that if you can help others identify their strengths and improve their weaknesses, there is a flywheel effect to help benefit everyone.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Seeking help is not a sign of weakness (whether it’s personal or professional). This is what makes you stronger.
- Build a network of mentors with a variety of backgrounds. I always thought that I needed to ensure my mentors were successful finance people when in reality some of the most influential people to me have been those from different backgrounds. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to be your mentor.
- Don’t start off seeking consensus — differences of opinion are what drive innovation and change.
- Ask for what you need and be specific. Advocate for yourself. The worst you are going to get is “no” and even if that happens, there is learning in that!
- Develop relationships across your entire organization. People often make the mistake that they need to focus on what their direct manager thinks because the perception is that person has an outsized impact on your career. This was particularly true for me when I first started my career. However, how we approach performance reviews has evolved to be more inclusive of broader feedback. More importantly, as one progresses in their career, the relationships you build with your peers and other team members are often more important to your success and impact as a leader.
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 love to continue to see more diverse executive teams and boards. As I’ve said, the benefits for an organization can be tremendous. I hope that any insights I’ve shared today may help inspire someone to continue pushing themselves to these types of roles.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
To be honest, I’d never been someone that had a quote or mantra that I followed. However, I do like the concept that has been made popular recently that says, “be the boss of your life”. I have spent a lot of time working very hard to ensure I do well at work and that my company succeeds. I like this philosophy because it reminds me that I have agency in all aspects of my life and to take time to ensure that I’m a well-rounded individual.
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 recently attended an interview of Dr. Dambisa Moyo and she is so inspiring! She has a background in finance and economics and feels passionately about diversity on boards. She shared great insights and advice. I’d love to chat more with her about she has managed her challenges and used those to provide better insights and achieve her goals.