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Powerful Leaders, No Apologies Episode 25 Podcast Banner


Show Notes

Beth and Debbie engage in a candid conversation with Triona Saunders, Chief Marketing Officer of Actionstep. Triona shares her inspiring journey from law firm marketing to becoming a global CMO, highlighting the challenges faced during maternity leaves and the invaluable lessons learned about adaptability and empathy in leadership. Tune in for insights into marketing across diverse geographies, the power of transferable skills, and the unique strengths working parents bring to the professional realm. 

Links from the episode:  

Dax Shephard Podcast

Who is in your Personal Boardroom by Zella King


[05:19] Having a personal boardroom

[08:00] The juggling act of a working parent

[17:54] The value of transferrable skills

  • Transcript

    Debbie Foster (00:03): 

    Welcome to the Powerful Leaders. No apologies podcast, a show about women who are ready to own their power and change the world. My name is Debbie Foster. 


    Beth Thompson (00:12): 

    And I’m Beth Thompson. Our guests are fierce and fabulous women who are making a difference in their personal and professional communities. Are you ready to be inspired? If so, stay tuned and also check out our website at affinityconsulting.com slash powerful leaders. Here’s the show. Welcome back to another episode of Powerful Leaders. No apologies, Debbie. It’s November, what is it? Is it November? It’s almost December, actually. 


    Debbie Foster (00:43): 

    Almost December. 


    Beth Thompson (00:43): 

    As I look at the calendar, it is crazy. The year is radically gone. 


    Debbie Foster (00:48): 

    It’s crazy that we’ve been doing this almost a year and exciting at the same time, and I’m looking forward to all the fun things we have planned for 2024. 


    Beth Thompson (00:57): 

    I was thinking over the weekend, we should do a little recap at the end towards the end of December of all of the amazing guests we’ve had all year long because we’ve had some really incredible guests so far. 


    Debbie Foster (01:09): 

    That’s a great idea. Maybe we could get somebody to throw together a reel or something like that. I don’t know how to do that, but I’m sure someone we know knows how to do that 


    Beth Thompson (01:17): 

    Certainly. But speaking of incredible guests, I’m super excited today. We get to chat with one of my Action Step colleagues and I am just so excited to be working with her and I’m looking forward today to learning some things about her that I haven’t yet learned. So welcome to the show, Triona. We’re happy to have you here. 


    Triona Saunders (01:36): 

    Thank you, Beth. Thank you, Debbie. Thank you so much for having me on. Looking forward to talking. 


    Beth Thompson (01:40): 

    We are. Well, we would love for you to start out, tell everyone what you’re doing currently and really about your journey to get here and what all you’ve done so far in your career. 


    Triona Saunders (01:49): 

    Absolutely, yeah. I’m the chief marketing Officer for ActionStep, which is a legal tech company. I got there through, I suppose, a few interesting routes over the years. I actually started out working at law firms, so running marketing and business development for law firms both in the US and in Europe. And then spent a little bit of time doing some business consulting after that, which led me to work with some technology companies, a RP companies and other software companies. And then when I moved to New Zealand about five and a half years ago, I met Ted Jordan, who is the founder of step, and we really hit it off. I could just see the potential of action step right away having worked in law firms myself and wished for some of these tools over the years. And so it was early days. That was 2019 when things were really just starting to take off there. So I’ve really been on quite a journey for the last five years or so with Ted initially, and then obviously with the leadership team as it’s grown at action steps. So yeah, it’s morphed into this fantastic role now, this global role and exciting things to come. 


    Beth Thompson (03:02): 

    Well, you obviously are not from the US and you don’t have a New Zealand accent, so please tell everyone where you’re from. I’m sure they’re all guessing right now. 


    Triona Saunders (03:10): 

    Yeah, it’s probably not too hard to tell, although it has changed over the years. But no, I am from Ireland, so I grew up in Ireland and went to university there and then very quickly moved to the UK to do a master’s and then moved to Boston, which is still the town that probably owns my heart. I just had such a fantastic time there. I was there through pretty much my twenties, so that probably influenced my accent a little bit, especially when I’m in the us. I suddenly start sounding like I’m from Boston and then moved back to Ireland for a little while and had the opportunity then to move to New Zealand. So it’s been quite the journey and very different cultures and learned a lot over the years. But yeah, so my accent might be a little bit of a mix of lots of places at this stage, but it’s always a fun fact. Whenever I do a talk or anything, people are always like, where is she from? 


    Beth Thompson (04:04): 

    Yes, I always get a kick out of your time in Boston. I think that’s great. We always ask our guests about inspirations. What’s inspiring you? Are there people that inspire you? Are there books you’ve read or you’re reading that you would recommend that have really been inspirational to you? Podcasts, anything like that we would love. We always like to share and we put links in our show notes. What inspires you? 


    Triona Saunders (04:28): 

    So many things. I mean, I’ve been so inspired over the years by different people that I’ve worked with, particularly women, but also some fantastic men as well. Podcast was interesting because you’re trying to think of one that’s really cerebral and business focused on that, but actually the one that I listened to, I come back to again and again and I love it for its variety and expansiveness is Armchair Expert, the Dax Shepherd show. It’s just such a lovely mix of celebrity mixed with psychology and a real range on the psychology front from business psychology to what makes us tick as humans, which is so much a part of what we do every day. So yeah, that’s probably the one that I come back to a lot and I really enjoy it as a jumping off point for then exploring other things that you might not been exposed to. 



    And the other thing that I’ve come back to recently is actually a book that I probably relied a on a lot when I first started out consulting, which would’ve been about 10 years ago, is a book called Who is in Your Personal Boardroom? And I actually worked with one of the women who wrote it, Amanda Scott. She co-wrote it with a woman called Zella King. And it really was this concept of just, I actually have it here in front of me, but this concept of rather than having a sort of formal mentor, which I think we all are familiar with and would’ve had over the years or even having kind of a formal coach that really you should be surrounding yourself with different people and they fulfill different roles in your life. And having this idea of a personal boardroom that gives you what you need throughout your career and that’s going to change over your career, it’s going to change over your life depending on what’s happening in your personal life as well. And that concept has really stuck with me since, like I say, that time when I went out on my own as a consultant and really needed that frankly emotional support from my network. 


    Beth Thompson (06:19): 

    I’m going to check out the Deck Shepherd podcast. My guilty pleasure is Rob Lowe’s, literally. So I have a feeling this one’s probably a little more educational, but along the same vein in terms of entertaining, 


    Triona Saunders (06:32): 

    Well, I saw Rob Lowe was on Dex Shepherd and he was fantastic, so I must check him out actually. That’s a good recommendation. 


    Beth Thompson (06:38): 

    It’s really fun. It’s a fun, he interviews all types of celebrities. It’s a fun, listen, Debbie, when we were in New York for the women who lead someone else was talking about this book and incorporated some of this personal boardroom ideology into their presentation. I don’t remember off the top of my head who it was, but I loved that concept. 


    Debbie Foster (06:59): 

    I do remember that, and it was really impactful to me as well. I don’t know that I’ve taken the concept of the personal boardroom as formal as I probably could, but I do feel like Beth, you’re on my personal board for sure, and if I have an issue or I want to bounce something off someone, there’s nothing more valuable than having a group of people. In my case. I think if I were naming off the people, it’s mostly, if not all women, but I think it’s a really important concept, a group of people that can hold you accountable but also are willing to have hard conversations and also just listen when you’re struggling with something. I love the idea. 


    Beth Thompson (07:42): 

    Speaking of hard conversations, we want to switch gears a little bit and talk about obstacles or challenges that you have had throughout your career, whether they were female oriented or not, but we would love to hear about some of the challenges you may have had and what you did to overcome them. 


    Triona Saunders (08:00): 

    Sure. Yeah, I mean I think probably the time that I would’ve found the most challenging in my career and frankly in my life was that period of time when I was having children and working full time and trying to juggle all of the things. And at the time was working for a very large, probably the largest law firm in Ireland, so kind of 600, 700 people. So high expectation in terms of frankly FaceTime. It was probably a more traditional firm than maybe I’d worked in before. And I had two pregnancies and maternity leaves in that time. And funnily enough, European law is very long maternity leaves and that sort of thing, which is great in lots of ways, but actually causes challenges in other ways. Obviously the US model isn’t ideal either with women literally coming back to work after six, eight weeks or whatever. 



    But in Europe you can take up to a year off and then people come back and expect their jobs to be the same and they can’t possibly be the organization’s moved on the the people around you have moved on and your role, even if you’ve had your role kept open is not the same. And so I think I’d six months off a piece for both of those children and coming back was sort of having to dig my role back off multiple other people and sort of reacquaint myself with the people who mattered at the firm and what was happening. And you have to really be careful to bite your tongue I suppose, and accept that things have changed and you don’t necessarily know anything anymore. You need to sort of treat it almost like a new job again. But I did find that period just very difficult, the balance of expectations, long hours and the blow to your confidence that you just get naturally from, like I say, coming back into the working world, having been out of it and questioning your worth, I suppose that creates some interesting behaviors in yourself as well as in others. 



    And so that was hard to navigate, I have to say. And learned a lot, learned a lot. So I would say one of the things that I do try and focus on a lot with women, mid-career, who also it always comes mid-career, just when you’re career building and then you also end up having children around the same time, but being really thoughtful around that time and not making rash decisions at that time to absolutely change your life is just key. Don’t give up. Those first few years are so hard. Don’t give up because investing in your future future and it’s so tempting to go, oh, this is too hard. I need to just give up and I can get back to it in five years time, five years won’t come, or if they do come, then you’re not the same person. So yeah, that was probably the hardest time in my career. 


    Debbie Foster (10:43): 

    It’s funny, this came up on the podcast probably a few months ago, but it recently came up for me in a conversation with some younger associate attorneys. There were three of them, two of them happened to be pregnant in a larger firm and they were talking about this concept of women breaking the glass ceiling, but the kind of complimentary or not complimentary. Other side of that is the broken rung. And it talks about how when men are climbing the ladder, there aren’t any broken rungs at the bottom. Women’s broken rungs are having a baby and being out for six weeks, eight weeks, two months, three months or a year, whatever that looks like. And the business goes on and people get promoted and sometimes people have two kids or three kids. And so that happens to them in a short period of time where it might be like six or seven years of work that you miss two or three years of. And during that time, other people who maybe started at the same time as you that either didn’t have children or didn’t have children yet or were men, didn’t have that missed opportunity. And it talked about the trajectory of women’s careers. This article about blast ceilings and broken rungs talked about the trajectory of women’s careers and what happens when you miss those first couple of rungs at the bottom from a compensation perspective and also from a promotion perspective. So interesting that you’re tying that back. It is really kind of scary. 


    Triona Saunders (12:16): 

    It is 100% and I don’t think we do any service to women to say to them, you should absolutely be exactly the same when you come back, or it should be exactly the same for you. It’s not about being exactly the same, it just needs to be an equal playing field and to recognize that this is the case that you have been out of the workplace for a little bit, so let’s put some sports in to make sure that you can get back to where you were and keep up with your cohort, I suppose. And I think that’s maybe where organizations miss out a little bit. They it’s left up to the individual and maybe the individual’s manager, and that’s about it, and that’s not really enough. So it does do a disservice I think, to women. And when you look at people who are successful, and in this context it was law firm environment. This is why we have so many male partners and not so many female partners. Those male partners have wives at home looking after the children. So whereas the female partners don’t quite get the same and then you’ll see people dropped to part-time or go to in-house roles or just take a different path. 


    Beth Thompson (13:16): 

    I think part of it too is maybe setting your own expectations for coming back and knowing that you’re not coming back exactly as you left and knowing that there is going to be this adaptability or flexibility in your new role, even if you’re coming back to the same role time did not stand still. And allowing yourself to have the grace and kind of buffer to kind of ease back into it and know that you can be just as good, might take you a minute, and to really just be patient with yourself and know that you’re going to have to work. 


    Triona Saunders (13:53): 

    Absolutely. And you’ve acquired new skills when you’re out too. I think that’s what people forget. You’ve discovered hidden depths to yourself that you never knew you had before. And it’s really hard to translate that into a working environment and it’s certainly not a conversation you feel comfortable having because you’re still assimilating it yourself, frankly. But that’s something that I always like to say to women who’ve just had, or just coming back from maternity leave, is you’ve developed skills yourself that will stand to you for a lifetime. That ability to cope and chaos and to operate on low fuel, et cetera, is a superpower in of itself. 


    Beth Thompson (14:27): 

    Well, just learning to multitask organically without you having to do it. So therefore now you’re probably, it’s a skill that you’ve gained that you may not have had when you left. 


    Triona Saunders (14:38): 



    Debbie Foster (14:39): 

    I wonder, given your awareness to how that impacted you, how has it changed how you lead other women in the workplace? 


    Triona Saunders (14:50): 

    I think it definitely made me more empathetic. I probably lean towards that anyway. I’ve always leaned towards trying to understand what’s motivating people or why are they behaving like that? Okay, I want to understand that a little bit more. I think I’m probably particularly sensitive to it for women and particularly women who have other responsibilities outside of their work. And it doesn’t have to be children, it could be elderly parents or anything else. But yeah, I think my empathy is definitely through the empathy is in just wanting to understand what’s happening with people and making sure that I am supporting them. That’s probably something that I would do more now than I used to when I was younger and maybe a little bit more just gung mill through what we have to do type of thing. So yeah, I would say that’s probably the biggest change. 


    Debbie Foster (15:38): 

    I feel like that is a great reminder for, I mean my kids are 28 and 30. It’s a great reminder and I feel like I do get reminded of it regularly. I work with a lot of firms where there are young women and this one firm that I just worked with, two out of the three women were pregnant to really help them remember some of those things so they maybe not even remember them, maybe to help them understand that it’s okay to come back different and it’s okay that your priorities are shifting, and that doesn’t mean that you can’t have the same career goals. You just have to figure out how to be a great juggler and how to be present when you can. I think maybe thinking about where I feel like I miserably fail at juggling is I don’t do a good job of making the most out of 15 free minutes. I get distracted by 20 other things when I have 15 free minutes and then boom, it’s gone and I have to start my next thing. But I think there’s a real skill to people who can say, there’s a 15 minute gap on my calendar. I’m going to get these three small things done in that 15 minutes. And maybe you just start to think about how you leverage your time differently and how you have the most impact for the time that you’re actually focused and head down doing work. 


    Triona Saunders (16:59): 

    Absolutely. And I honestly think that working parents are the most efficient and effective people out there because they know they can’t stay until six 30 or until whatever time it might be. They need to get out the door for pickup and they’re boom, boom, boom, get through it. So in a lot of ways it actually helps people be, as you say, more efficient with your time. So yeah, it’s just appreciating, I suppose, what skills people bring as a result of what else is going on in their life. 


    Debbie Foster (17:25): 

    So you’ve had an interesting career journey, law firm marketing software. I think it’s fascinating. I’m really curious, if you were thinking about yourself 15 years ago, did you imagine this to be your journey? And I really would love to know more about your role as CMO. Did you face any obstacles from other leaders, maybe other male leaders in your journey to that CMO role? 


    Triona Saunders (17:54): 

    Well, I’ll start with the 15 year, I suppose look forward. I definitely would not have seen myself here at the time. I would’ve been in that law firm environment, which has a lot of rote. There are so many law firms that need marketing and business development expertise, particularly in the us. You can have some really interesting careers just focusing on that and that alone. I think for me, I wanted to understand was my skillset transferable to other industries? I’d felt like I had worked in professional services all of my career and I just wanted to know could I stretch it a little bit? And it was sort of around the time when digital marketing was really coming into play at law firms and I’m probably naturally quite a metric driven person, and it was sort of frustrating to me that wasn’t necessarily being adopted with open arms. 



    And so I really wanted to sort of go out into the world and be in more metric driven environments. And then all of the consulting that I did over the years, the brand work that I did with different creative agencies really then fed into me being able to take on this role with Actionstep and kind of come back out from the cold, so to speak, on the consulting side, and really come back into being part of a broader team with a common mission and not just setting the strategy, which is obviously the remit of that consultancy role, but really bringing it to life and dealing with all of those execution challenges and then really having a team that’s becomes almost like family that you really are all growing together, learning together, and all, like I say, focused on the same goals. So that’s I suppose why I’ve ended up here probably has been mostly motivated by those sorts of things. 



    But it definitely is a real sandwich of passions of legal marketing and the passions of technology and what it can do, I suppose what they can do together from getting to that CMO role. I mean, when I initially working with actionstep, I was consulting with them on a number of days a week basis, so project focused. They had a very small marketing team, which we rolled out and replaced. And so the role was really at that stage about building the team and making sure that it was fit for purpose. And don’t forget that action step is like a number of different geolocations. So you’re trying to build a marketing strategy for Australia, which is a pretty mature market from cloud adoption point of view. And for the uk, which is really, we have a customer base there and we’re growing there, but the US is really the market that we have been investing time in for the last number of years. 



    And so very different hats for those different markets because almost like three different marketing plans because the markets are so different, the maturity of our business in those markets is very different as well. And so that’s really what the CMO role is about, is really managing all of those things and having a team that actually is focused on different geographies or different specialisms within that and being able to roll those different strategies up into a common umbrella brand and offering that actually resonates with each of those markets. So that’s been the sort of challenge. I’ve been CMO for about a year and a half. I was a VP of marketing before that, after I consulted for a year or so. So it’s kind of been a slow creep to get to here. I wouldn’t say at Actionstep. I mean, we have some incredible women on the team now. 



    I definitely was a bit of a pioneer from a female influence side of things on the leadership team for the first few years. There were a lot of fantastic men that I continued to work with and me finding my voice and making sure that I was heard, it was important. And my style of influencing does tend to be a little bit more one-to-one encouraging people this way, encouraging people that way. I’ve learned to become a little bit more vocal and just say it out loud with the group over the years, which I think is very much playing into that kind of male mindset of loud and vocal and visible. But now with Valerie Canal, who I know well, and Daniella Boul, who runs our customer team on the team as well, I mean we’re kind of a force to be reckoned with. I like to think so. It hasn’t been hard to get here. It’s been a joy, to be honest. 


    Debbie Foster (22:20): 

    I love this idea of transferable skills because honestly, because we all are working a lot with law firms and with Lawyerist, I think that is a big challenge for people who have practiced law, been in that environment for a long time and maybe are not happy in their current job, is it seems really risky to wonder if your skills are transferable and then act on it and see what that looks like. So I love that you did that, and the answer turns out to be, in fact, yes, the skills can be transferable 


    Triona Saunders (22:53): 

    And making yourself uncomfortable. There’s something good about making yourself stretching yourself a bit and not knowing the answer. And it’s scary and it’s exhilarating at the same time to sort of be in that spot and you realize the things that you do know and that can be transferred. And there’s a wonderful woman, Erin Victor on my team who also came from a law firm marketing background. And I remember when we first talked before she joined us, me saying to her, I know you’re worried about whether your skills will transfer and trust me, they will. I can tell they will. So it’s a confidence play. It’s a leap of faith to do it. But I’m so happy that I did. It’s been a really fun and varied journey to here. 


    Beth Thompson (23:35): 

    It’s that time where we head into our final segment of the show. I can’t believe it’s gone by so quickly, but we ask every guest the same question at the end of the show, and that is, what is your leadership superpower? Or perhaps you have more than one, but we would love to hear what your superpowers are. 


    Triona Saunders (23:54): 

    That is a tough question to answer. I mean, I did mention empathy, and I do believe that actually that’s an underrated skill. I also think that being adaptable is probably something that I do well. I sometimes can maybe come off as chaotic, but I can hold a lot in my head and go down a lot of different paths at once to a certain extent. And we talked a little bit about just the different markets that we target, and obviously each of those have their own dynamics going on regulatory wise or economic wise. And just being able to adapt to those things and pivot and then help the team to adapt to, because obviously not just about me, but making sure that everybody else is on the journey with you. This is why we’re doing things this way, et cetera. And just really being transparent around that and being able to pivot based on what’s in front of you. So I would say those two things, empathy and adaptability probably are combined. Certainly something that I feel are strengths. 


    Debbie Foster (24:55): 

    I love those. Those are great. And I really have to work hard on the empathy one. So I’m always admiring people where it just comes naturally because it’s a lot of extra work for me, but it’s worth it. The work is worth it, for sure. Trina, thank you for being with us today. I loved hearing your story, love getting to know you a little bit more, and you gave some really great little nuggets of wisdom in there. 


    Beth Thompson (25:20): 

    Yes, thank you. So happy you were here. 


    Triona Saunders (25:23): 

    Thank you both. 


    Beth Thompson (25:26): 

    And that’s a wrap. Thanks for listening to Powerful Leaders Know Apologies. Be sure and subscribe to our show and help us spread the word by sharing our show with your network. 


    Debbie Foster (25:37): 

    And check out our show notes@affinityconsulting.com slash powerful leaders for resources and ways to connect with us. See you next time.