As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Sree Menon.
A C- Level exec with experience in scaling start-ups and Fortune 500 co’s, Sree has had an interesting journey to the C- Suite. Having been an ‘only’ many times, her experiences make her a tireless advocate for women in the workplace.
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?
While attending B school, I began to harbor ambitions of becoming a CEO. India (at the time) had just begun liberalizing and people were starting to be introduced to the joys of a consumer market. The path to be a CEO meant you started as someone who ‘carried the bag’. This led to me sales positions and eventually operations. With growth in my career, the path grew as well — I had to have P&L management (Profit and loss management) experience to attain my goal, so I started seeking roles that would give me that experience, and here we are!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As the COO and previously GM of a business, there were always situations that happened to us that were completely out of our control. Managing through those situations, creating a plan, and energizing teams can be challenging and stressful, but with the right mindset, it can also be interesting.
As COO of a business, which depended on China-based supply, we saw our business being impacted in January 2020. It was not clear then why we were experiencing such an impact, but slowly the news of the virus started coming out.
At first, it seemed like another of the typical outbreaks Asia has faced in the past. We did not, in our wildest dreams, think that this would be global and as long lasting as it has been.
When China started getting better and our team and sellers were back in action (however slow), the US went down.
It was extremely hard to see demand jump like ever before, while also not being able to fulfill it with all the supply chain disruptions.
Eventually, we were able to find alternative solutions to shipping inventory to our buyers but not without experiencing issues.
More importantly, we stuck together as a team, found solutions daily (not knowing what that day would look like), and eventually came out the other side stronger than before.
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 had to take a trip to China — it was my first and I was super excited. Every day, I would walk from my hotel to the workplace soaking in all the sights, and I would write a blog on slack for the team back in the US about my experiences. Things were going really well. Then I had to take a flight to another city. It was an early morning flight and I met my coworker for breakfast at the airport. We had plenty of time, I took out my passport and started walking to the gate. At the gate, I handed over the case with my passport inside, and to my surprise, there was no passport! I had dropped my passport at a foreign country’s airport! The gate agent held the plane for 15 mins as my colleague and I frantically searched the airport. The plane left without us as we continued our hunt for the missing passport. Two hours later, it showed up at lost and found and we were able to take the next flight in. We missed our first customer meeting but were able to make it on time for the rest of them. Funny now, but super stressful then, not to mention how sheepish I felt for making a silly mistake!
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?
There have been so many people in my life who have made it possible for me to be where I am today. From a senior executive at GE who saw my potential and helped me migrate to the US, to my managers at Dell who took risks on me. Every one of them materially impacted my life and my development as a leader. I am forever grateful and have made giving back an operative principle of my life. In my experience, it is true that the more you give, the more you receive.
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?
You cannot scale as an executive unless you learn how to handle stress. It’s like an athlete focusing on fitness to do well in their sport. There are several ways to managing and handling stress. For me it starts with:
- Delegation and making sure that I focus my energies on the most important items that need my immediate attention. This helps remove clutter in my mind and gives me space to think deeply and have a higher-level perspective on things.
- I am a meditation and breathwork practitioner. For the last 20+ years, I have practiced these exercises daily. These breathing and meditation tools also help reduce the noise level in my head, energize me, and keep me positive
- I work out regularly. Running, cross fit, and tennis are part of my weekly routine. Exercise releases endorphins that trigger positivity and we all need that.
I was about to go on stage and inspire a room full of women and some men at a Grace Hopper conference. But made the mistake of checking my slack. There lay a very stressful message. I got caught up with it and had no idea how I would be able to shake it off and get up and be my best self. Then I took a few minutes to practice an ‘active’ breathing exercise. 5 minutes of focused breath work and I was able to leave all the stress behind — I was able to get into the present moment and find my flow.
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?
The most basic argument for a diverse executive team is that it should reflect your customer set. The 2020 census revealed that the demographics of our country have changed. An executive team that mirrors that demographic will understand the customer in a deep way, and that can be very valuable to the company. I often balk when I see a business focused on women consumers with very few or women executives or a male CEO leading a business that sells only to women. I see that even the venture capital world is largely male, and women entrepreneurs have a harder time getting funding, all because the male VC’s don’t appreciate the business problem that addresses a female consumer. The same is true for minority founders.
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.
I believe that all three of them are highly interlinked. Representation allows for inclusion and inclusion enables equity. On the one hand, there are companies that are guided by this mission and their actions reflect that thoughtfulness, but on the other hand there are many companies that just make statements that are appropriate for the moment without the intent of making a meaningful change. It helps that there are some forcing functions in place (ie. regulation around Women and minorities on Boards) but true change only comes when everyone in committed to the cause, no matter how hard it is to stay committed.
I also believe in individual impact. Individuals can find ways to mentor, sponsor, and support minority groups, while also putting pressure on their organizations to make changes.
As someone who takes individual responsibility, I mentor several women and also sponsor them. Sponsorship is key, giving people the tools is helpful but sometimes the barriers for success are too rigid. It needs someone who is at a more advantaged position to be able to help overcome them.
I also mentor homeless & underprivileged youth who are just victims of a bad situation and need an environment which shows them the power of possibilities and help them overcome their circumstances.
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 between executives and non-executives is that the buck stops with the executive. An analogy I can share is that of a coach — the coach is responsible for picking the players, understanding their skill sets, placing them in the positions that they play best, ensuring that the players work well together, they play with a plan, they get better skilled at their plays, they play to their strength, they put in the effort, and eventually they have good outcomes, aka a win.
That in a nutshell is what differentiates an executive from a functional leader or a manager.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Often people think that the CEO or the executive have all the answers. That when faced with a tough situation or just day to day challenges, the executive has the answer and the best one at that — that is not true at all. A good executive has good perspective, can ask good questions, knows who to ask, and has the risk appetite to make a decision. Good executives learn from mistakes and have the courage to say they are wrong and make changes.
These are vulnerable traits that many execs hide and propagate a myth that they are ‘super people,’ appearing to be super strong and having all the answers, as well as the right perspective. The truth is that execs are just like regular people, and they too make a ton of mistakes. Over time, the hope is that their judgement gets better, and they make fewer of them in the long-haul.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I moved to the US after a few work trips because I believed that as an ambitious woman, I could thrive here where there are no apparent biases.
But over time, I realized that women were held to different standards. Men are expected to be aggressive, unabashedly ambitious, and arrogant. And women were expected to be docile, couch their ambitions, and be humble. I have seen these expectations play out many, many times in the course of my career.
In one role where I was leading a very high-profile project, I was pulled aside by the HR manager and advised that the executive overseeing the department did not like aggressive women. She advised me to not push back on him in meetings, instead have one on one meetings where he would be more comfortable to being challenged
Even recently at an interview at a PE company, I was asked several times with different angles, why I was looking for CEO roles. Yes, titles may not be relevant in some context, but I literally was interviewing for a CEO role and I know for a fact that this question would never have been posed to a man!
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I am surprised at how much change management is needed in an organization, no matter what scale or stage. As someone who is a trained change management leader, I had thought that smaller and less matrixed companies would not need it. But to my surprise (and also not) is that as long as you are dealing with people, the issues tend to be similar, although they just mutate depending on the environment.
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 of the mindset that anyone can be anything if they desire it and are willing to put the work in. To be an executive is a lot of responsibility and the buck stops with you. This means that the executive should have the ability to scale, knows how to handle stress, has the skill to zoom out and in as needed, and most importantly is a good leader.
To scale, it’s important to transition from being a subject matter expert to someone who knows enough about everything to gain perspective, make the right connections and thus make good decisions.
They would have to use various tools in this process- process management, delegation, and the right mindset to deal with the stresses of having a high-profile job.
An executive, by default, is expected to be strategic in nature, which means that they must have a bird’s eye view, but also have enough business sense to know what to focus on and prioritize effectively.
And last but not the least, if you cannot inspire people and get the best out of them, an executive job is not for you. One has to enjoy working with people, understand them and be able to inspire them to be the best version of themselves.
Some of these traits come naturally to some and may not to others. Either way, no one has all the skills needed to be an executive.
Everyone must refine their natural skills and acquire some others. But the important thing, is to have the will and the determination to learn and put the work behind it.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Most of my advice is universal, it applies to all genders. A few things I will say specifically to women is:
1. Be aware of the hidden biases that you are facing. Not to say that women should change who they are or be inauthentic, but awareness helps in their ability to navigate it.
2. Get rid of the ‘savior mentality’ that traps one in tactical activities. Do not get into the efficiency trap — Women are dependable and hard workers and I love that, but let’s be careful that we don’t disproportionately take on low level activities that no one else wants to do. Inculcate Strategic thinking and focus on building that skill.
3. Know your worth and be vocal about it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As an individual who has been as lucky and privileged as I have been, I feel an obligation on my part to give back. I do believe that to find meaning in life, one has to give back. And this can happen in small or big ways. All of us have the ability to make a difference in the world and definitely if you are lucky to have experienced traditional success, then all the more so.
In the corporate world, I continue to be a tireless advocate for women and minorities. It has not been an easy path for me — whether it is mentoring women or hiring great female leaders, or advocating for more Women in the Boardroom, I find ways to make the path easier for those who come after me.
In terms of contributions to the community and the world at large — I am on the board of Parivaar, a non — profit that works with underprivileged children in India; Volunteer with various local communities — Lifemoves ( breaking the cycle of homelessness), Stand up for kids (organization for homeless youth) where I volunteer my time and mentor youth; East Palo Alto Foundation where I mentor youths and help them to stay in college.
I would like to impact society in a bigger way and hope to be involved in policy making or other areas where the scale of my impact can be much larger. More to come on that. ☺
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Enjoy the journey. It’s never as good as you think it is when you get there, especially if you burn out on the way to getting there.
In the early years of my career, I was very caught up with my work and career progression. And when I did achieve the sales target or the promotion I was chasing, it seemed less pleasurable than I had imagined. Those were maturing moments for me, and over time I started learning how to enjoy the process and focus on the work and worry less about the outcome. The scoreboard takes care of itself with focus on the process.
2. You can achieve everything in life, maybe just not all at the same time.
I wanted to have a great career, focus on my husband and small child, take care of my parents, volunteer and also pursue my hobbies, all at the same time. After several years of attempting perfection, I was burnt out and exhausted. I learnt how to focus on a few things, do them well and continue to do what I wanted to do, but on a longer timeline. There is no glory in being a 30 under 30 or any such lists, they are meaningless and puts unnecessary pressure on people.
3. Believe that only the best will happen to you.
Several times I have encountered failures and it was hard to understand, in the moment, why that happened to me. I had done everything right, but the results were just not there. After a lot of heartaches, looking back I would realize that I was so much better for it. Sometimes, it was the growth and learning, and at other times it was a bad situation that I had skirted. Those learnings came only after, when looking back.
4. There is no need to compromise your authentic self.
As an ambitious and assertive woman, I faced any number of biases. I started adjusting to the environment by hiding who I was and flexing my personality to gain acceptance. It really was not needed. One cannot be the best version of oneself unless you bring your authentic self to work every day!
5. You are as capable as anyone else out there.
It’s the classic imposter syndrome. It afflicts many. It’s a good thing to be somewhat intimidated by a challenge, it brings out the fighter in you, but definitely not a good thing if it holds you back.
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 believe that we must inculcate a culture of giving back. There are many countries which mandate military service e.g: Israel. I would inspire a movement where everyone (no matter who they are and where they sit in an organization) volunteers their time for nation building. It could be building a home for the needy or tutoring a child, anything. The idea being that we all need to get out of our bubbles and be interconnected with each other and build a society that is caring, equitable and supportive of all members.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘Only you know you, and don’t let anyone else define you or put you in a box’.
This is my original quote based on my own experience. Even as little girl in a very patriarchal city, where the cards were stacked against girls, even before they were born (female feticides were very common then), I knew that I did not fit in. Girls had very defined roles and had very little opportunity to create their own destiny.
Even though I did not have much exposure to possibilities (besides an encouraging family), I knew I was capable of achieving more and be whatever I chose to be.
At every stage of my career’s progression, I had people try to put me in a box and putting limits to my potential.
I started my career in consumer goods Sales in India, then moved to Operations at GE, then transitioned to running the Commercial digital businesses at Dell, ran the Motors vertical at eBay (with no background in auto) and most recently as a COO of a shopping start up. Every role was different and challenged me differently. I believe the only reason I thrived in every role was because I knew who I was and what I could become and did not let anyone define my capabilities.
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 am fascinated by people who break rules, who have conviction and have the risk appetite to go all in on what they believe. If you have ridden in a Tesla, I challenge you to not be awestruck by what that machine can do. It takes a visionary to take a very radical concept and make that a reality and power through all the difficulties. Elon the mad genius made the idea come true and his concept has made such an impact in the world. I would love to have a private breakfast with him, please make that happen will ya? ☺