As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Casey.
Heather Casey is President and COO of PartnerHero, the outsourcing company for companies that care about quality and values. The mother of two has overseen the company’s growth from 40 employees to more than 1,400. Through this growth, she has ensured that the company never sacrifices its people-first mentality, which in turn has led to high retention and successful partnerships.
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?
Following in my parents’ footsteps, I was a world traveler at a young age, so it’s always been important to me to have a job with a cross-cultural and international element to it. In my early career I knew I had the soft skills to succeed in creative parts of business, but I didn’t know about my hard skills until I joined an operations team at Genentech. There, it all fell into place. I’ve always been an efficient critical thinker that quickly understands the connections between things, so operations is just such a natural place for me to be.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In the past year, we’ve broadened the executive team by adding more senior leadership roles. The entire journey with PartnerHero has been interesting, but after five years of Shervin (Founder/CEO) and I essentially running the company ourselves, it has been really eye-opening and satisfying to bring in these new individuals — with their own perspectives, ideas, and goals — and witness them take ownership of the company’s success along with us.
In the past, some senior leaders that we hired didn’t work out. Burned by that experience, I assumed I would always need to run things. But with the team we have now, it’s a whole different story. I’m learning so much, the teams are growing and succeeding, and it has been so fulfilling to see leaders with deeper expertise in their areas of business take up the reins.
I always thought that maybe Shervin and I were a bit strange for having this vision of building a company in the outsourcing industry that is really people-first, that rebels against the notion that people should be treated as numbers. In watching this new batch of leaders, I realize there are a lot of talented people who share that belief.
Our new SVP of Operations says what we have is “lightning in a bottle.” I think that, but I’m biased. It’s been encouraging to see outsiders come in and validate that from their own perspective.
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?
When I joined PartnerHero — at the time just one small office of about 40 employees in San Pedro Sula, Honduras — one of the first things I wanted to do was implement 1:1 meetings across the organization. I put together a presentation that I was really excited about and put a meeting on everyone’s calendar and called it ‘1:1.’ When it was time for the meeting I walked into the room and everyone was sitting in there, pretty quiet. I was really excited, thinking “this is going to be really fun, everyone is going to love this.” I started the presentation and everyone continued to remain silent — no smiling, no nodding, nothing.
I stopped and asked, “Is there something going on? I’m getting really weird energy.” Someone raised their hand and said, “In Honduras at operations centers, when you have a ‘1:1’ on your calendar, it means you’re going to get fired.”
Everyone there that day thought they were going to be a part of a mass firing. That is when I was reminded that context is king. You cannot assume that business practices you understand cross-cultural boundaries in the same way.
The story also serves as a reminder that there are outsourcing companies with negative cultures, and reinforces for me how important it was for me that PartnerHero succeed. It’s not just about our revenue; it’s about changing the culture of an entire industry from one that treats people like numbers to one that allows people to thrive and gives them opportunities to learn and grow.
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?
If it were up to me, I would be doing the same thing today as I did yesterday and the day before. When I find something that works, I like to double down and really optimize that. I don’t take the time to dream big and reimagine what could be as often as I should. Thankfully Shervin, our CEO, is blessed with this gift. He pushes me constantly and although I’m not usually thrilled about it at the moment, I can honestly say that every year I look back and can see where his vision and his drive have paid off. I’m better for it and the company is better for it.
One example is the three-month rolling contract that is now a standard at our company. Most outsourcing companies try to trap customers with long-term contracts. When Shervin told me that we were moving to a three-month contract I thought it was a terrible idea, that it would make it impossible for us to do long-term planning and that we’d lose clients. He helped me realize that if a client wants to leave, they will try to find a way to leave regardless of contract length and that it is up to us to earn their business every single day.
Not only has the three-month contract made things easier on our operations, but it has also been wildly successful. We earn the work every day and that’s just part of our ethos now. Partners feel less pressure and it also makes it easier to sell our business because clients know that if they don’t like something they can easily walk away.
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 think authenticity is a really important part of reducing stress. If you don’t have the opportunity or feel comfortable enough to be authentic in your work environment — especially in moments of high stress — it can compound and create a lot of mental tension. When I’m preparing for a hard meeting or conversation, I take the time to get some fresh air and set my expectations and intentions from a place of authenticity. It allows me to think and articulate my thoughts more clearly, and reduces stress for everyone involved.
I do pilates twice a week. There have been busy times at work when I didn’t exercise much and it wasn’t good for me. I feel better when I do something good for my body, even if it’s just a small thing. Now I purchase my pilates classes in advance, which makes it harder to back out, and I put it on my calendar and hold myself accountable. Also, if I feel myself burning out, I actually sit down and make a plan for how I can rest and come back. There are periods when it’s necessary to work especially hard, but operating in a state of constant burnout doesn’t help anyone.
Lastly, I aim to sleep nine hours a night. I remember sitting in a meet and greet with some new employees and I was explaining to the group what my job is and how I work. There was a woman sitting in the back and I could see that she was just not convinced. I opened it up for questions and she asked if I was ‘one of those people who only sleep 4 hours a night.’ I replied to her ‘No, I sleep nine hours a night.’ I told her that even in times when something has to be sacrificed to meet the demands of work — self-care, time with friends, relaxing in front of the TV — the nine hours of sleep is so crucial to me that I won’t budge on it. This was a good reminder that I should never pretend that I’m superhuman. I was happy to tell them that I make tradeoffs just like everyone else. I can’t get it all done, but I have certain things that I won’t compromise on for the sake of my health and sanity.
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?
Diversity is good for business. Having more experiences and backgrounds at the table means you have a higher chance of finding the right solution that will meet more people’s needs. Diversity is the best thing you can do to be sure you’re growing in a progressive direction, rather than becoming stuck and left behind.
An understanding of diversity is especially important for managers and leaders. My picture of an ideal worker comes from my dad. He had a strong work ethic but always remained humble. He was never entitled and was intrinsically motivated. So when I entered the workforce, I tried to model this, but I also assumed that every other worker I encountered operated in this same way. But people have different needs and desires. With 1,400 people reporting under me, it’s imperative that I understand that.
Fostering diversity in an organization is also important in order to empower those from historically disenfranchised communities. I was interviewing a very smart, driven Black candidate and he was telling me that he was struggling to move forward in his career. I didn’t understand why, as he had great qualifications, experiences, and goals. He said, “If there’s no one that looks like me, I don’t actually know how to make it work for myself.” As soon as he said it, it was so obvious. When he looks up and no one looks like him, it’s like a map with no direction. Seeing someone that looked like him helped him understand that it’s possible. It doesn’t need to be skin color. Could be a matter of religion, socioeconomic status, ability, or a number of other factors. But to see someone who has some of those qualities serves as encouragement to keep going.
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 people at the top have to genuinely care about inclusion, representation, and equality. You can’t just hire a DEI person and say “this is your responsibility, make us look good.” You can’t just sign up for marketing fluff. You have to decide who you want to be and ask yourself how far or how close you are. Then you have to take tactical steps. One of those steps might include hiring a DEI person, but they are not responsible for all things related to inclusion and equity. This hire is one helpful person in the quest to do more.
We hired an expert in human-centered design thinking. It wasn’t a workshop where we were taught to be more equitable. It was more like an ongoing course, with homework. We had several two-hour sessions and in between, we interviewed people who are different from us, and then we discussed the learnings as a group, and came to agreements on how these learnings would lead to tactical changes within PartnerHero. It would have been easy to just read a book, but she held our feet to the fire. As an executive team, we were forced to face things that made us uncomfortable. We were forced to think of things differently and as a result, we understood things differently and made different decisions because of what we’d learned.
At PartnerHero we are unabashedly concerned about inclusivity. We’re not shy about who we are, what we believe, and why we believe in it. We’re also a community that is welcoming of everyone as long as you are respectful to everyone. When we signed a major LGBTQ community app as a partner in the early years, I knew there would be some tough conversations because of our roots in Honduras, where being out is not always safe and there are fewer protections against homophobia in the workplace.
I put a message out saying “I’m proud to announce this new partner. You are entitled to your own beliefs, but I want to take this opportunity to remind you that PartnerHero is a discrimination-free zone. And if you’re not on board with that, this is not the right company for you.” I didn’t tell anyone how to feel but I did tell them how to act, and in that regard, I left zero room for interpretation. It set the stage for those who were comfortable to be empowered and forced the rest to adjust to a progressing world. To create a more equitable society, you need to do the work yourself, say it publicly, and hold the people around you to the standards you expect.
One incredible thing that has come out of remote work is the sense of community that we’ve seen grow within the company. For example, we have a channel called Women Empowerment where women at the company from all over the world share, discuss, and support each other. The vulnerability and care that I see in that channel, and many others, astound me. I’ve seen women support each other through health issues, career opportunities, even tragic situations.
We certainly have more work to do as a company to be more inclusive, but when I see the amount of support and care that our employees show each other, I am proud of the culture that we’ve built.
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?
Part of your responsibility as an executive is to let functional leaders have the autonomy to make forward progress in the ways they think are right but to always hold them accountable to the culture and values of the company. Ultimately if the decision of the functional leaders leads to a compromise of the values or culture, the executive is on the hook for that decision.
Executives are also responsible for thinking many years out and knowing what the company needs to do to stay competitive and succeed. It’s not a one-day-at-a-time type of job.
I love the quote, “Don’t try to match the competition. Watch your flank.” Success is not about being the best at everything, but about making those right-place right-time investments that make you stand out.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the myths is that as an executive you can just make whatever decision you want for any reason at any time. I guess you could do that, but you would alienate your workforce and probably lose your executive colleagues’ trust along with it.
The other myth is that respect is given, not earned. It’s easy to assume that because someone is in the C-suite they are knowledgeable and respected, but you have to earn that every day just like everyone else.
Something that haunts me that you could call a myth is the idea that our employees might be asking if company leadership really cares about them. Because the reality is that I’m at work because I do care so much. If I didn’t, I would just be making decisions off of numbers and spreadsheets, which can never take into account the whole story. In our business, how much we care is really the whole thing.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
It’s still true that women have to work harder to earn respect. When a male leader shares an opinion or idea, there’s a higher chance It will be appreciated at face value. As a woman, even an executive, you’re asked to provide more proof and substantiation before you’re taken seriously.
Double standards are rife. Emotionality in a cis white male leader is often seen as endearingly authentic, whereas in a woman, non-binary person, or person of color, it’s often read as unprofessional.
The social conditioning is so strong and pervasive, it’s hard to recognize when it’s happening. So many people (not just men) are clueless about it, which makes you question yourself when you experience bias.
I don’t get as upset about this as I used to. I channel my feelings into care, advocacy, and forward-mobility. I validate the experience of women and other marginalized people. I teach them to assert and advocate for themselves, and find skillful ways to navigate the workplace and climb the career ladder without compromising their feelings or values more than they have to.
I also make use of my privilege being a woman in power to make changes where I can. I can set policies that create more balance. I have the power to push back assertively when I witness flagrant bias or disrespect, and sometimes open people’s minds as a result. I also have the ability to sever ties where that is what’s called for. I just fired a lawyer not behaving respectfully toward me, and in his response he showed his true colors even more.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The number of meetings: meet and greets, networking, interviews, etc. When you become a COO it isn’t just about putting your head down and working. It’s crucial to spend more of your time talking to people and communicating the vision. At first, it meant I was working very long days, nights and weekends because I didn’t bake it into my schedule. I’ve learned that I can delegate some of the “heads down” work but I can’t delegate the vision communication, so now I bake it into my day. At first, I didn’t like it and I would lean on Shervin to be more of the spokesperson and I would sleuth around in the background. Over time I realized that, especially as a woman, I’m doing other women, the company, and myself a disservice by shrinking into the background.
Is everyone 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 don’t think everyone is cut out to be an executive. You have to be very comfortable making hard decisions and living with the consequences. You have to master your own emotions and cognitive biases, and find the appropriate combination of head, heart, and gut when making a call that will affect other people’s lives.
If the buck stops with you, you have to be willing to take your licks when you make a mistake and own it, and also give other people credit when things go right so you can keep your team motivated. The decisions I make are 99% based on what’s good for the whole group. The thought process is really, “How do I keep this whole boat afloat?” It can be really easy to get deep into rabbit hole issues. Suddenly you’re fixing an issue for 3 people instead of 1,400.
You have to feel comfortable speaking difficult truths and doing unpopular things. Most people don’t want that kind of responsibility.
With all of that said, there are as many ways to be a good leader as there are good leaders in the world. I would welcome any person who is passionate about helping other people to thrive and willing to be responsible for the outcomes they produce to pursue this path.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
You have to fight a bit harder to get yourself out there. There’s a lot of fear that we operate with as women: the fear of being left out, or the fear of not being listened to, to name a couple. Those fears never really go away but you can’t give into them. I’ve talked to so many women who don’t have as much confidence in their ability to do their jobs as some of the men I know. The worst thing you can do is give into that. I’ve gone through those moments when I feel like a complete failure or I don’t know how to navigate something. The only way through that is to give yourself enough space to gain clarity.
I’m always going to be authentic. The worst thing we can do as female leaders is pretending to be something we’re not. I’ve struggled because I’m not an emotional leader. Some people saw me as heartless. I wrestled with this a lot until I realized that I’m actually not heartless, I just think differently. Authenticity for me means being comfortable with that fact. So my biggest advice is to just lean into authenticity. Women could rule the world if we all just became really comfortable with who we are.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The first most proud moment I have had with PartnerHero is seeing some unjust and oppressive systems in Honduras crumble because we opted out of compliance with them. If one company doesn’t follow along then the system breaks. Realizing the impact we’ve had there was a big moment for me.
Additionally, through being generous with our knowledge and our community, I’ve seen people pass through PartnerHero and go on to truly thrive. We have someone who worked at PartnerHero for many years and just got an amazing job at a Canadian company. And while I know she was born to be a success, I also know that through being here and working with some of the partners she worked with, she’s been given the opportunity to develop an amazing career. She learned about a world that she wasn’t aware of and now she’s moving on to something else and she hopes to move to Canada one day. I remember when I found out about that a few months ago I thought “even if this is the only person that we impacted in this way it would be a success” but I know there are many stories like this from PartnerHero.
We brought Silicon Valley to parts of the world that didn’t have access to it, and they are gaining skills that are no different than what people in San Francisco have. After PartnerHero they get to go off and do things they might not have been able to, had we not been a part of their story. We’re constantly trying to raise the bar for our pay and benefits. Every year we ask, ”How can we make next year better than it was this year for our people?”
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Don’t take things so personally. I used to take it really personally when people would quit, and I still struggle not to. It used to feel like an adjudication on me personally since they are leaving a company I built with my own hands. It would feel like “they’ve left me.” Now I realize better that a) that was a very self-centered way of looking at it, and b) it just wasn’t true. People leave for all different reasons that have nothing to do with leadership. Don’t take things so personally.
- Feel free to experiment, but don’t forget who you are and who you’re trying to be. We’ve experimented with a lot of things but have learned to cut things off when they just aren’t working. Sometimes you have to move on.
- Invest in proper IT equipment and good security practices early. Even though no one wants to pay for it, it is so crucial. It’s so much easier to do things right the first time than to fix them later.
- Pick core values that people actually want to live by. Pick values that are real and authentic. Then you don’t have to spend so much money writing them on the walls. This applies in work and in life.
- I knew this going in and it’s a bit cliche but working here has confirmed for me that you should aim to hire people who are smarter than you. Don’t build a team of people that only you can teach. Build a team of people that can teach you. I’ve had a few cases where I wanted to hire someone and I had to convince myself, ”It’s going to be okay, they are going to be smarter than you, and you’re going to be okay.” You have to get out of your own way and realize that this isn’t about you and your own ego.
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.
The authenticity movement. It’s such a core belief of mine that I forget that most companies and most people don’t operate that way. If I could inspire a movement it would be to be your authentic self at work and in life.
There would be two obvious positive outcomes. On the human side, I think we would all be happier humans and therefore a more connected global community. We would be kinder to one another and more understanding. We wouldn’t be all pent up and ashamed. We would be free. On the company side, I think all of these things equal more profitability, lower attrition, higher productivity. You can be a leader organization. When Covid hit and we asked senior leaders to take a pay cut they all said yes. They wouldn’t have done that if we treated them poorly every day. They did it gratefully.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It all ties back to authenticity. I believe that we cannot have it all. When I’m having a tough time, feeling mom guilt, feeling like I’m not doing enough at work, not enough for myself, for my friends, I like to revisit the tradeoffs I’m making. It may not be cool but I’ve never liked the “we can have it all” mantra. I think it leaves us feeling like we’re never enough and we’re always tired. I think you should pick what’s important to you and prioritize those things. It’s okay if the things that aren’t on that list don’t get that much attention.
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’m going to say Jon Stewart. Not just because he’s funny (which he is) but I think he deeply cares about the issues that he talks about. And he doesn’t just believe that a comedic angle or the news alone will change the world. He digs deep and does the hard work to look for what is really happening and finds an angle that touches on our core beliefs and emotions. And it haunts him, you can see it in his face. He is haunted by the inequity he sees in the world. I have to imagine there’s a lot of baggage and sadness that comes with that insight and responsibility. I would love to hear him reflect on that in his own words.