5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became an Executive” with Andrea Johnston of OpenTable

An Interview with Phil La Duke

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…Don’t be afraid to take chances. This could pertain to new ideas that are unproven and may fail or may be wildly successful. This could pertain to a new role that you may not have the expertise in and that is scary, but what a great opportunity to expose yourself to something new. Or, this could pertain to embarking on a totally different career path and you may be concerned that it might pigeon-hole you.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Johnston. As Chief Operating Officer, Andrea Johnston is responsible for OpenTable’s top-line growth, sales and services, restaurant and product marketing teams, as well as overseeing the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. Johnston is focused on driving expansion in international markets, exploring new revenue channels, and overseeing the final shift of OpenTable’s restaurant partners to its flagship GuestCenter operating system. She has been at OpenTable for over eight years, leading restaurant customer acquisition and growth and retention for the business around the globe, with an industry-leading 51,000 restaurants in the network. Since joining in 2010, she has been dedicated to leading high growth sales teams who specialize in helping restaurateurs leverage the power of the OpenTable network and hospitality solutions that help them run and grow their business. Prior to OpenTable, Johnston founded and worked at various technology companies with a specific focus on building teams and providing small to medium size business owners with tools to help them succeed in the marketplace. She developed a customer-centric approach through her experience as a lobbyist and an entrepreneur. Johnston holds a BA degree from Vassar College, an MPH from Columbia University and an MBA from the University of Southern California.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Andrea! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

The first part of my career was in international women’s health, where I was a lobbyist and fundraiser. I got into this because I was passionate about giving women access to health services, education, and information. There is such inequality across the world, and I was motivated to help break down some of those barriers. From there, I co-founded a non-profit organization, an online network to connect people from around the world who were working in reproductive health. It was amazing how technology could bring people together globally to share program designs, educate each other on fundraising, provide e-mentoring, and simply network. After several years, funds were harder to raise, LinkedIn launched, and I decided to head to business school to figure out how to tie a revenue model to my organization. Not so easy when you don’t start with one in mind, and unfortunately we closed up shop.

I knew I loved tech. I loved building things. And, I needed to be passionate about who we were serving. My next move was to go headlong into a wine marketplace startup. We provided technology to help wineries manage their eCommerce sites and sell wine directly to consumers and restaurants. It was exciting to build teams from scratch, grow our customer base, and help small businesses get their wines to market. It was a thrilling 5 years, and then I made the jump to OpenTable when the right position opened up. At OpenTable, it’s very similar — we’re providing technology and services to restaurants to help them run their business and fill seats.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of COO or executive that most attracted you to it?

Since I joined OpenTable in 2010, I’ve been focused on leading high-growth sales and service teams who specialize in helping restaurateurs leverage the power of the OpenTable network to run and grow their businesses. In my new position as COO, I’m taking that a step further with a focus on our top-line growth, running our customer-facing teams, as well as overseeing our headquarters in San Francisco. The position of COO takes those areas I’m passionate about — the team, our restaurants, and the business — and allows me to take a holistic view of the company. Now, I have immediate insight into the impact and value that all of OpenTable’s teams bring to the business and can foster cross-functional collaboration that raises everyone up.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a COO 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?

To me, being an executive is different than other leadership roles in that you elevate your thinking to take into account the entire business instead of just the performance of your function. It has been exciting to pivot from being a Sales and Services leader to also thinking through the strategic decisions related to partnerships, product development, consumer marketing, and the impact on our growth in both the short and long terms.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Accessibility to our people and teams. Who says “no” to a meeting with the COO? 😉 I love getting to know the people who make our company thrive. It’s wonderful to interact with people at all levels and across functions. Not only do I get to know them as people, but I also learn details about different sides of our business. It enhances my knowledge and makes me feel more connected.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

You have to be “on” all the time, meaning being present as an executive in front of your teams, your customers, and the public. Also, I would say, being more mindful of what you say in a meeting. There have been a few times that I threw out an idea just as food-for-thought, and teams took it as an action item and executed. I love the gumption, but the truth is that in doing so, there was a trade-off on other work we needed to prioritize.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a COO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I’ve heard people say that executives are not approachable and don’t have time for people outside of executives. At our company, and at my prior companies, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Although I don’t actually have an office, I have an open-door policy and encourage folks to swing by my desk, Slack me, or put time on my calendar to chat. It’s important to be accessible, listen to my team, and answer any questions they may have. When my co-execs come to town, they take a seat in a very public place to make themselves available. They host meet-ups with the team and happy hours. One of our values is #WinAsOne. You can’t win as one if you don’t create a culture of collaboration and accessibility across your business.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

As you move up through management, there are fewer women at the top and even fewer women of color. The numbers illustrate this in just about every industry, which means it is widespread. Diversity of viewpoints and experience helps build better teams and better companies. If you are in the minority at the exec level, it may be a challenge to galvanize support for ideas and initiatives. I’ve found the best way to overcome this is to develop relationships and trust at an individual level with your colleagues and socialize your thoughts before a broader group meeting.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

With this promotion, I thought that my workload was going to double. The truth is that it has not. My responsibility has grown, but when you have an incredible team behind you, it’s easy to shift your focus and put your attention on new areas. The key is to trust your team and let some things go in order to balance your time.

Certainly, not 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?

Inspiring. Open-minded. Passionate. Driven. Team player. Entrepreneurial spirit. These are a few traits of successful execs that come to mind. In fact, I think that applies to anyone in leadership.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

I would give this advice to all leaders: Get to know your team at all levels of the organization. Help your people become better managers and leaders. Create a true sense of teamwork. Have fun. Specifically for female leaders, teach women on your team to use their voices, assert their opinions, and jump into discussions. It doesn’t come naturally for some women, so encourage them to speak up and create a forum for their voices to be heard.

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?

Over my career, I’ve had the incredible fortune of great managers, leaders, and mentors. Those words don’t all mean the same thing. However, Francine Coeytaux was the embodiment of all three, and she was a great manager, leader, and mentor. When I worked for Francine, she was the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Pacific Institute for Women’s Health. She hired me on as a Development Associate, meaning grant-writer aka fundraiser for the organization. In many ways, Francine is the one who taught me how to sell. She’s a visionary, an innovator, and a charismatic leader. Under her guidance, I learned to write persuasive arguments for foundation grants. I learned to push the envelope in funding meetings, and if the answer was feeling like a “no,” to creatively pivot and address how our ask aligned perfectly with their charter. I learned the art of persistence, the ability to navigate a situation, and how to balance a hard sell versus a soft sell that would leave the door open. I also learned how to close the deal. As a leader, Francine was able to rally the troops behind her vision and get people excited about where we needed to go. But more than all of these things, Francine was an incredible mentor. I had an idea for a better way to connect emerging leaders from around the world, and it involved building an online network. Not only did Francine support my idea, but she helped me craft our mission, opened up her network to help me raise funds, and allowed me to carve out time during my normal workweek to pursue my vision. This was an incredible gift — a selfless gift — which ultimately allowed me to launch the Global Action Network. Francine and I are still in very close touch, and I think that my leadership style developed largely thanks to her influence.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1- Block your calendar for a few hours every day so you can actually get work done, instead of just talking about it.

2-You don’t need to be in every meeting where a decision will be made. Trust your people and their input. They will keep you informed and you can always course-correct if needed.

3- Don’t sweat the “work-life balance” dogma. To me, those two things don’t feel in opposition. I love my work and I love my life. In many ways, what I love about both are the same. I think we should think about work-life integration and value the similarities in each, the types of people in each, and the passion in each.

4- Don’t be afraid to take chances. This could pertain to new ideas that are unproven and may fail or may be wildly successful. This could pertain to a new role that you may not have the expertise in and that is scary, but what a great opportunity to expose yourself to something new. Or, this could pertain to embarking on a totally different career path and you may be concerned that it might pigeon-hole you.

5- As a leader and a manager, put your focus on making the folks on your team the best they can be — it’s core to your role.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Can I use Jack Handey? Kidding. I’m not well-versed in life lesson quotes, but I can share a quote from my Dad, which became a mantra for my family when we were growing up. He would always say, “push through the pain.” Of course, we applied this to soccer games, learning to water ski, or when one of us got sick. But he was an entrepreneur, and what he really meant was that with a ton of hard work, there are ups and downs, failures and successes. It’s part of the game. And if you don’t keep pushing, you can never achieve what you want on the other side. This applies to both personal and professional. I like to push through the pain and have fun along the way, which makes any accomplishment much more rewarding.

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

Richard Branson. He’s an incredible entrepreneur who has built a great brand in Virgin. I especially love his approach to customer service, which translates all the way through to the way he interacts with his team. Plus, I think he would be a ton of fun.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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