Welcome to Powerful Leaders, No Apologies.
Links from the episode:
[11:06] What does leadership look like for you?
[12:22] Trust is earned
[16:35] What is inspiring you?
Debbie Foster (00:03):
Welcome to the Powerful Leaders, No Apologies podcast, the 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 affinityconsulting.com/powerfulleaders. Here’s the show.
Debbie Foster (00:34):
All right, here we are with another episode. I’m pretty excited, Beth. I’m even further along in the journey of getting our hats and I almost have my voice back to a hundred percent, although it’s still a little raspy
Beth Thompson (00:47):
Compared to where you were a week or two ago. I mean, I know two weeks ago you had literally no voice. So very, very happy with this Debbie Voice today and very excited about our guest today.
Debbie Foster (00:59):
Yeah, I am too. I am too. So I’m really excited for Valerie to join us. She’s going to introduce herself here in just a second, but before she gets to introduce herself, I want to do a quick little story introduction because I have, through my 25 years of working in legal and technology, I have met some women in my time that I’ve thought, wow, they really have it together. And Valerie’s actually one of those people. And my story with Valerie starts a long time ago. So the first legal conference I ever went to was in either 1997 or 1998, and I went to that same conference every year. It was for a software company. And at one of those conferences in the mid two thousands, I met Valerie. And Valerie was working very closely with another woman who was someone that I really respected and looked up to who was a product manager at another software company and they were working on an integration.
And I remember like it was yesterday, I remember watching those two do this presentation and how refreshing it was to see two women who were talking about really technical things which was so abnormal and unusual and out of the ordinary. And I’m really excited for you to hear Valerie’s story because she did step away from legal for a little short period of time. And very recently, Beth and I found out she was back in legal again, and we are both super excited to have Valerie on our podcast. So Valerie, I would love it if you would introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background, kind of how you got into legal and what you’ve been doing over the last however many years you’ve been doing this.
Valerie Connell (02:43):
Well, my name is Valerie Connell and I’m the head of Product at Action Step, which is a legal software company, and I’ve just recently joined them. But my background with Legal goes way back, even before when Deb and I met, if I can step back even into my personal life. So growing up, I grew up in the Washington DC area. My family was in the Foreign Service, so they served at embassies around the world. So my background is in political science. When I studied at college, I studied political science and my expectation for my career was that I was going to join the Foreign service or be a lawyer, either one of the two. So I studied political science and I followed up on that. I worked on Capitol Hill, I was a daily reporter. I did what’s called the Leg and Reg Beat, legislative and Regulatory.
And so you work your way up, you start in regulatory, then you move into legislative, you work on Capitol Hill, you record everything that happened on Capitol Hill that day and you publish it the next day. Back then, they didn’t have any of these online services. And so we published at five o’clock the next morning with couriers taking them out to all of our customers throughout the city and so forth. So I was deeply ingrained in the political side of things, and I worked my way up to editor to this publication, this daily publication of legislative goings on and the company for which I worked planned to start putting things online. And this was new and innovative and online back then meant a huge mainframe system, think Lexus Nexus, that was the only things that were online. You had to log in and get your information because there was no such thing as the internet back then.
So they had this whole team of mainframe engineers, but they needed someone who could translate the business needs and the customer needs into the technical needs. And I was able to bridge that gap. And back then it was called a business liaison. So I took the needs of the customer and the business and translated those into engineering requirements so that they could do that so they could build the system online. So that was my introduction to the technical side of things and a little bit of legal because most of our clients were law firms. But then I moved strictly into legal when I went to go work for Word Perfect Corporation. So that again, is dating me
Beth Thompson (05:26):
And we know Word perfect very well. We are back there with you.
Valerie Connell (05:31):
Exactly. And if you’ll recall, word perfect was really huge in every law firm in the country, and I was in charge of corporate training. So I traveled around the country and trained at law firms, taught them how to use Word perfect and how to implement it into their processes. So became very familiar with law firms and how they worked. At that point, I was working in Utah because that’s where Word Perfect was based, moved back to Washington DC and started working for a very large law firm, and I headed up their attorney applications department. So that meant I was in charge of any applications used by attorneys. So there’s the business of law and the practice of law, and I focused on the practice of law, what applications attorneys needed to use and how to make them more efficient and effective and productive during their day. So focused on the attorney applications. This is a long story, and I’m not making it short, I apologize.
Debbie Foster (06:36):
No, I love, listen, the fact that you worked at Word Perfect, I don’t think I knew that. Maybe I knew that way back when, but that’s amazing,
Valerie Connell (06:43):
Right? Well, one of the attorneys at the law firm was named the president of a software company, if you’ll recall, way back in the day. So he was made the president of Gsoft, and we had worked very closely together on the attorney applications, and he asked me to come and be the product manager for the products at Gsoft. So that was my actual first employment by a legal software company. While I had worked for software companies and I had worked in legal, this was the first time where they were joined together. And it was also my first association, well, it wasn’t my first association, but that’s where we were pulled into Lexus Nexus. So I worked for four different legal tech startups that were acquired by Lexus Nexus. And so I just kept getting pulled into Lexus Nexus and then I would leave because Lexus is a very large organization and I really like the startup mentality.
I like building things and being part of a scrappy organization, if you will. And so I would leave, go to a startup that then got acquired by Lexus Nexus. So after four different times I thought I really need to escape from this gravitational pull of Lexus. And as you mentioned, I left legal for a bit and I’ve taken a foray into several different areas that were great learning experiences. So I went into Ed Tech for a little bit. I went into consumer, I was with an online travel agency, and then I went into healthcare tech, all of which I learned a lot of things, but I kept getting pulled back into legal. That’s where all of my contacts were, that’s where my history was. And so in 2015, I got pulled back in with Net Documents, and you’re very familiar with the Net Documents product.
At the time when I joined, we had a 2% market share and we were still a startup, but the whole purpose of this was to scale this up and put in place processes that were scalable. You can only be scrappy for so long, but if you want to play with the big guys, you’ve got to scale up. And so that’s what I was brought in to do was start product management at Net Documents and we were able to do that. So we scaled, grew significantly in the market. They’re a huge player in the market right now. So now my most recent foray in legal is with Action Step. And we’re at that same point when I joined Net Documents. We’re moving from the startup to the scale up phase. And so bringing in some processes that are scalable and helping us to grow, especially in the US market action step is based in New Zealand, but we’re expanding in the US market now. So that was a long story made long.
Debbie Foster (09:46):
No, that that’s awesome.
Beth Thompson (09:48):
They brought in the right person. I mean obviously you and I, Valerie met when we both worked in Net Documents. I know, correct. Firsthand what you can do for a company. So Action Step is very lucky to have you and I can’t wait to see what you can do there.
Valerie Connell (10:02):
Debbie Foster (10:03):
And I think it’s so this idea, because I know when we work with our clients and they’re really frustrated about how things work from a software perspective, and they’re like, does anyone want to know what we need? Does anyone want to know how we need to use the software? That’s such a special skill to be able to really understand the user stories and what the user experience needs to be and to help engineers and product developers and user interface people really understand how to make a software program work for a law firm. That’s such a key role. And we’ve worked with Action Step for years. I mean, I remember when meeting Ted Jordan, the founder of Action Step, I don’t know, eight or nine or 10 years ago, and talking to him about his hopes and dreams for the product. And this is just really cool kind of full circle. And Beth and I both really enjoyed watching you kind of grow and contribute in a pretty cool way at Net Documents. I would love to know a little bit about what does leadership look like for you? You’re really new. When did you start at action step in the last month?
Valerie Connell (11:14):
Debbie Foster (11:15):
Five weeks. So you’re learning about your team and they’re probably spread across the globe.
How do you, as a new leader to a new group of people, what are you doing? How are you getting ’em all together? How are you getting them to trust you and follow you and all that good stuff?
Valerie Connell (11:32):
Well, the first thing, trust is earned. I cannot demand that. I can’t expect it of them, and I have to earn their trust. We have already gotten together, we got the entire team together in New Zealand a couple of weeks ago, but it really is about understanding where they are and where they want to go as people. So while I have goals with my organization, the first thing I want to do is get to know them as people. What are their hopes? What are their dreams? Where do they want to go? Where do they see themselves now and where do they want to be? So that’s my first step in terms of leadership is making sure that they’re not headcount and they’re not resources. People
Beth Thompson (12:15):
Trust is earned. I think we may have found the title for this podcast, Debbie. We’re going to have to make enough
Debbie Foster (12:20):
Beth Thompson (12:21):
Debbie Foster (12:22):
It’s so true. And I just was reading something a few weeks ago in preparation for a meeting that we were having with a client about how long it takes to build up trust and how quick it is to lose it, right? It only takes one thing and suddenly all this work you’ve done, it’s, they were describing it as the anthill, the answer running up with little greens of sand to build the hill, but it only takes one shoe to just knock the whole thing over. And I think that’s a really important thing is leaders to really think about how do we build trust and how? How are we really intentional and conscientious about things that break trust down to try to be proactive about making sure that doesn’t happen
Valerie Connell (13:09):
Well? And I think it’s also important, while it only takes a moment to break the trust, you can build it back. But to me it’s like a plate that you’ve dropped and it is broken. You can glue it back together, but it will never be whole. And once you’ve lost that trust, you can regain quite a bit of it, but there will always be those cracks. And so the best policy is to not glue it back together, don’t drop it in the first place.
Beth Thompson (13:38):
I think our podcast is evidence that there are certainly more and more women in legal tech today than there have ever been. So in the earlier days, there weren’t a lot of females right in legal tech. What are some of the challenges that you faced that you had to over overcome, and how did you attack those challenges?
Valerie Connell (13:58):
Well, I’ll be honest with you. I did not have a whole lot of experiences where I was not taken seriously and where I was not given full credit for what I was doing. I felt that I was working in a great environment where people recognized my skills and gave me the appropriate responsibilities and challenges so that I could grow. And I felt that I was respected as a person regardless of my gender. And I would hear a lot of people, a lot of women say, I’m not being promoted because I’m a woman. And there were instances where I would see their work and think you might want to be a little bit more self introspective because there may be other reasons behind that. And so I didn’t feel I was held back because of my gender. There are lots of challenges that I had, but they would be the same challenges had by anyone else regardless of their gender.
So taking on a new team, taking on new projects, all of the challenges that you would have in business and taking on new leadership roles and so forth. But I do want to say there were a lot of times where I might have been dismissive of when some women were saying those types of things because it hadn’t happened to me until it did. And then once it did, all of a sudden I was like, oh, that’s what this feels like. It was very blatant. I mean, they didn’t even try to hide it, and it was very hurtful because they were people that I trusted. And then the challenge is not what they’ve done, but how I’m going to respond to that. And I think that there are times when people should fight back. They should challenge things. There are times when you need to recognize that this might be time to move on because I won’t be able to change this culture or this behavior and it will just canker me, create a canker in my soul and not make an impact for other people. So that was a challenge that I had the one time, and I haven’t run into that again since. So I just want to acknowledge that it does happen. It’s not as frequent for me as it might have been for other people.
Debbie Foster (16:35):
So what is inspiring you and how do you inspire other people to get through their challenges? Do you have a favorite book? Do you have a favorite kind of go-to on how to fill your cup up so you can best give to other people?
Valerie Connell (16:55):
I do have a favorite book, and it’s called Leadership and Self-Deception. It’s by the Arbinger Institute. I think it’s because you should always be introspective, and that’s something that I try to teach other people is let’s make sure that you understand your position. I have an acronym that I use and everyone who knows me hears it at nauseum. I use the acronym C T R in a lot of things. And in the end, it means choose the right. But in business, I use the C T R cost, time and risk. If you’re evaluating a product or a project, look at the cost, the time and the risk. But in building a roadmap, I look at the current target and route and all of that just sounds like, yeah, that’s what you would do. The thing that I feel that people most often miss on is not their target but their current because they’re not as they think they are.
And so they’ll, their target may be spot on, but the route that you take to get there changes based on where you are currently. So if you set your compass at 310 degrees to reach that target, but you’re starting from a different point, you’re going to miss your target. And so it really is again about introspection, always be looking internally. And then my third thing with C T R is curiosity, transparency and respect. That’s my mantra. Always be asking questions, whether it’s about people, about projects, about the business, about finances, about cultures, always be learning. So be curious in all aspects of your life. Transparency, of course. I mean, don’t play games. Have integrity. Don’t withhold information from people. Lay the cards on the table, be honest. And that’s how you earn people’s trust. And then respect. You cannot gain their respect if you don’t respect other people. So show empathy, disagree without being disagreeable. Those are some of the things that I like to follow that C T R acronym,
Beth Thompson (19:17):
It’s a lot of impactful advice here in this little nugget of 30 minutes that we’re aiming for. That’s fantastic. Valerie,
Debbie Foster (19:25):
I love the different CTRs that you threw out there. We’re going to include that in our show notes, all of the, because that was like three or four different CTRs, all really impactful. And that one about, was it current target route target
Valerie Connell (19:41):
And the route? Yes.
Debbie Foster (19:43):
Wow, that’s really impactful. I was talking to a lawyer today about some interviews I had done at their firm, and I was describing some of the culture challenges. And she said to me, I just don’t see how any of that is true. And I said, someone once said to me, when you’re inside the jar, you can’t read the label.
Valerie Connell (20:06):
Oh, that’s interesting.
Debbie Foster (20:07):
Right now I feel like that’s the really assessing your current situation. It’s so easy to believe that it’s better than it actually is, or you’re in a different place than you actually think you are. I just love that. So good. So good. So this podcast is called Powerful Leaders Know Apologies. We really wanted to spend some time talking to our guests about what we see is phenomenon of how often women apologize far more often than men. And I don’t think I found a single thing that says that that is not the case. And it isn’t to say that we shouldn’t apologize when we need to apologize. It’s when we apologize in a way that discounts our ideas or makes us apologize for what we believe to be true. It can be really damaging. So there’s a quote, it is by Dr. Tara Schwart, and it says, apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength. But compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships. So really picking when our meaningful, impactful apology should be put into a conversation versus using it as what we sometimes referred to on this podcast as a filler word. I’m sorry that I can’t show up for that meeting at that exact time. We tend to do that more often. I’m curious what your thoughts are on apologizing on women apologizing. It’s is it something that you’ve noticed? Any thoughts?
Valerie Connell (21:47):
It is something that I am guilty of constantly, and I’ve become more self-aware since I started listening to this podcast. I hear it in myself, but I remember one time someone said to me, you don’t have to apologize or give a reason. When you’re declining, whether it’s accepting a project or an invitation, all you have to say is, that doesn’t work for me. And I have used that quite a bit. That doesn’t work for me. And then you can offer an alternative or not, but you don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to apologize for not working within the bounds that someone else wants to put on you. You just say, that doesn’t work for me. But I am very aware that I say it regularly and I’m working on it.
Beth Thompson (22:44):
That doesn’t work for me. I really like that because one thing that I have noticed lately is I have definitely cut way back on the apologizing, but I’ve only recently started to recognize that I actually don’t have to give an excuse to your point. I don’t need to give an explanation about anything. I can just give a response. I can decline something, but I don’t actually owe them any reason for that.
Valerie Connell (23:11):
That’s right. That’s exactly right.
Debbie Foster (23:14):
Yeah. And I think that one of the things I’m mentoring someone, I’m, I’m actually mentoring two people right now, which has been so fun for me. Two younger women leaders, and I was talking to one of them about apologizing and about not feeling obligated to show up for something or do something because you think someone is going to think less of you because you weren’t accommodating to their schedule. And now that I’m not a young leader anymore, it’s hard for me to remember how hard that was when I wanted to be seen as a leader, to be seen as someone who was willing to put in the work. I remember always feeling like I had to figure out how to be accommodating. And so it’s kind of a little bit of a flashback thing. As I was listening to her say to me, it’s really hard when my boss says, how about we do that tomorrow at four o’clock?
And I was planning on leaving early tomorrow, and I feel like I have to cancel my plans because my boss wants to meet with me at four o’clock. And I struggled for a minute to give her some advice because I do remember that. And I said, here’s what I would recommend. I would recommend that you say, I could probably figure out how to make that work, but it would really be helpful for me if we could do that the next day. It’s a new boss and a new situation, and she’s worried about upsetting the apple cart. And then you watch the response that you get from that person and her boss happens to be a man. Watch the response that you get. If your boss says, absolutely no problem. Don’t change your plans, then you know that you don’t have to do that. And I feel like as a young person in leadership and thinking about this concept of apologizing, we have to figure out how to have those candid conversations with our peers and with our leaders so we can embrace the kind of freedom that we probably will be given instead of being fearful that we’ll be judged.
Does that make sense?
Valerie Connell (25:21):
Debbie Foster (25:24):
Yeah. I think everyone should mentor, Beth and I have talked about this, about how valuable our experiences around being a mentor and being mentored. It’s so powerful,
Valerie Connell (25:37):
Right? I love mentoring as well, but you need to do it on your terms. As a mentor, one of the things that I’m starting to learn, you need to take care of yourself. You can’t give it all away. You have to keep some for yourself. And just like they say, put your mask on before helping others. You absolutely have to do that. But then help others. Don’t stop that. Put your own mask on because it doesn’t say, instead of helping others, it’s before helping others. So make sure you’re taking care of yourself and then help others. And that’s where the mentoring comes in.
Beth Thompson (26:12):
I just use the mask analogy yesterday with someone. So that’s definitely a good one. And I am currently exploring putting together a mentorship program so that we can connect mentors and mentees. So stay tuned for that. But we are at the final. Awesome. We are at the final segment of our show, and that is where we ask you what your leadership superpower is. What do you think your superpower is as a leader, Valerie?
Valerie Connell (26:42):
I do believe that it’s finding alignment, helping people find alignment, whether it’s within a department or whether it’s in an entire company. If you don’t have alignment, then you have a whole bunch of silos within companies, or you have people who may appear to be working together, but really heading in different directions. And so exposing things that may be out of alignment. And sometimes that’s painful, like I said, with introspection. And take a look at what we’re doing and look at our current to make sure that we are aligned so that we can reach our target. And so I do think that’s my superpower, is bringing alignment to an executive team and to an organization beyond that.
Beth Thompson (27:31):
Thank you so much, Valerie. This has been a really great conversation. It’s so wonderful to reconnect, and we’re happy to have you back in the legal industry, and I’m sure we’ll be able to work together and see each other very soon. We appreciate it.
Valerie Connell (27:46):
It is great talking with you women, and this podcast is fantastic. Thank you for what you’re doing.
Beth Thompson (27:52):
Debbie Foster (27:53):
We appreciate that. And we are very excited about what we’re doing here. And a great big thank you to Chelsea Schuster and Brittany Felix who helped us produce this podcast. We could literally not do it without them, and I think we’ll call it a day with that.
Beth Thompson (28:13):
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 (28:23):
And check out our show email@example.com slash powerful leaders for resources and ways to connect with us. See you next time.