Before the pandemic hit, I had been traveling the world, living a digital nomadic life — the laptop lifestyle we all strive for. Before all the “stay home” orders went into effect, I traveled to my parent’s house. I wanted a safe place that I could be at long-term, but I also wanted the time to spend with my parents. I don’t always focus on quality time with them when I’m focused on my success in business, that’s why it’s great when I’m blessed with these interludes that allow me the convenience of being able to focus on both simultaneously. It’s been great having focused time to innovate and serve in business, but also to laugh and enjoy time with my parents.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melanie McSally, one of the country’s authorities on streamlining businesses to maximize profits. She graduated top of her class in engineering school and in her Master of Engineering Management program and holds a number of certifications, including a Lean 6-Sigma Black Belt. She has helped top institutions transform teams and revamp processes. She’s written and delivered courses for top institutions like Harvard University, has worked across a number of different industries, has helped businesses at all levels, has been a senior executive at multiple top institutions like Eze Software, Berklee College of Music and Harvard University, and now runs her own business and speaks all over the world. Melanie learned early in her career how to navigate politics, accomplish goals, and become an accomplished and respected leader in technology. In her free time, Melanie sits on the board of three non-profits all with the common theme to help lift and empower others, she is a competitive triathlete, and she has a passion for helping those around her optimize their path to success.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Istarted my professional career as a pastry chef and while my stint was successful, I quickly realized that long hours combined with nights, weekends and holidays away from family, wasn’t the career for me. Starting my career in the service industry before going into engineering gave me the beautiful gift of being able to translate between business and technical folks. That gift, combined with my parents teaching me to see things as they could be rather than as they are, have driven my passion for streamlining, optimizing, and creating innovative solutions to complex problems. After doing this at Harvard University for nearly a decade and earning my Lean 6-Sigma Black Belt, I decided it was about time to pursue my life-long goal of being an entrepreneur. The time had come to share my gifts, expertise, grit, and passion with those that could benefit most; other entrepreneurs and small business owners.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
I’ve always wanted to be my own boss, even from a young age, but I had this belief that you needed to go through a “broke” stage to get to the “success” stage of owning your own company and I never wanted to be “broke”. Working for others I knew I could make a bigger impact off on my own. I knew I could succeed and yet I wasn’t taking the plunge. That is until I turned it into a challenge. I decided to treat starting a company as a case study. I sought to see how fast I could make my first dollar. What a testament it would be for someone that specializes in streamlining. It took only 37 days from the moment I quit my job and set off to learn how to speak and sell from stage. I didn’t even realize it was so quick. I was so focused on meeting the right people, learning the right strategies, and putting all the necessary systems in place that I stopped counting. Ironically, the systems I put in place for myself are the very same systems I now offer as services to my clients.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
When the news of COVID-19 broke I knew people would pull back resources and go into conservative mode, when really this would be an ideal time for them to invest in technology and elevating their digital imprint. So, my team and I brainstormed and came up with Hack-a-Summits, which are mini done-with-you sessions where we build out your digital solution for specific objectives like capturing more leads, increasing efficiency in lead conversion, automating follow-up, etc… In the last month we’ve helped dozens of businesses go mobile, monetize their websites, and create digital courses and membership sites.
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?
I am grateful to all the people, whether managers, peers, employees, friends, or family that were hard to be around, that offered a significant challenge in my life, or acted as a naysayer. Like I mentioned earlier, we grow and develop most from the challenges in life. I had a boss once that, at the time, I called the devil. She was a delightful human being, but our work styles did not mesh well and the work environment was secretly making me miserable. I was feeling the pressure, acting like a protective layer to my large team, and so I tried everything in my tool belt to improve our working relationship, to no avail. In the end, I left the organization. I grew immensely from that period of time. I wouldn’t be the person and leader I am today had I not gone through that experience. In fact, that relationship set my path to entrepreneurship in motion. I learned many lessons from that relationship, but two come forth as the most significant: 1) you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others, and 2) not all battles are worth fighting. Within 6 months after leaving that job the majority of my staff moved outside the department or left the organization entirely. As hard as it was to leave them all unprotected, I know I made the right decision.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
Throughout life I have led a driven life. Over time, my definition of success has evolved, but the drive to achieve success is always there. The biggest challenge with being driven is the balance between business success and family success. Some believe it’s about balance, but I believe it’s about priority. At different stages in life I prioritize different things. When I was transitioning between corporate life and entrepreneurship, after I had sold my house, and before I started traveling as a speaker, I rented a house in Salem Massachusetts and spend the month vacationing with my parents. One day we toured some Navy ships as they were docked in Boston harbor. My dad, a Navy vet, told stories of happenings in various parts of the ship. It was the first time I was both reminded of his age and all that I didn’t know about his life.
Before the pandemic hit, I had been traveling the world, living a digital nomadic life — the laptop lifestyle we all strive for. Before all the “stay home” orders went into effect, I travelled to my parent’s house. I wanted a safe place that I could be at long-term, but I also wanted the time to spend with my parents. I don’t always focus on quality time with them when I’m focused on my success in business, that’s why it’s great when I’m blessed with these interludes that allow me the convenience of being able to focus on both simultaneously. It’s been great having focused time to innovate and serve in business, but also to laugh and enjoy time with my parents.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My dad was an entrepreneur so both my parents get that when I’m in their spare bedroom behind the closed door it’s because I need focus time. We come together for meal breaks where we catch up on our days. They tell me stories of golfing, their favorite pastime, and what’s going on in the news, and I share with them the new products I’m creating for clients, as well as other business news. When they’re available they join me as participants on virtual summits I’m speaking on. They don’t often get to go to my live shows, so having them be able to see me speak from the comfort of their living room has been an added side-benefit. At the end of the day we all see this experience through the lenses of gratitude. I’m grateful for the time I get with them, the homecooked meals, the stories, and having a safe place to “ride out the storm” and they’re grateful to have the quality time with me, helping me with my business, and knowing I’m safe. When you look at the situation this way, it’s much easier to overlook any small annoyances or inconveniences that may arise.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
Originally, I thought I’d talk about stereotypes, but honestly, I think the hardest part is having a personal life. To be a successful engineer you need to be smart, have confidence in yourself, be a problem-solver, and have grit. Being focused in this mindset makes it hard to break focus and take time to find someone to spend your free time with. And if by chance you do, it’s hard to create anything lasting when your mind is telling you to return your focus to the success of your business. This is compounded when you’re frequently traveling. It’s hard to meet and develop lasting relationships when you don’t spend any time in a single place for longer than a few days.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’d be kidding myself if I said I have this all figured out. Finding my soulmate is still not my top priority, however when I am in a city for longer than a night, I usually head out with some of my fellow speakers to socialize and meet new people. For me it’s about compartmentalizing. I don’t try to split my focus in too many directions. When I put my schedule together, I leave plenty of space for the four main pillars: exposure, revenue, innovation/creation, and me-time. Me-time can range from daily fitness to socializing with friends to vacations. I’ve found through experience that overlapping these pillars have led to mistakes, missed opportunities, and in some cases burnout. Therefore, when I’m in a pillar I’m dedicated to that pillar.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
When I managed large remote teams, I wouldn’t let people work from home when they also needed to handle childcare because, let’s face it, the hardest part of working from home is all the distractions. It is hard to get work accomplished when you have competing priorities. That being said, solutions are best found when your life or livelihood depends on it. Here are my top tips for balancing work and family obligations:
- Schedule the day out with your partner and your kids. Provide dedicated worktime to each adult. Perhaps one parent takes the morning shift and the other takes the afternoon shift or perhaps you alternate 2 hours on, 2 hours off to cover meetings and other work-related commitments. Make sure every member of the family is aware of the schedule and set rules and boundaries around who is allowed to interrupt whom and when. Negotiate an alternative schedule with your workplace as needed to accommodate childcare and make sure you effectively communicate this to all stakeholders (managers, employees, peers, customers, etc…). Not all jobs will allow alternative schedules so hopefully one of the adults in your family can work alternative hours. If that’s the case, make sure you’re fair to that person and give them the dedicated quiet time they gave you during the hours they’re putting aside for work tasks.
- Build dedicated work / quiet time into each adult’s time with the children as well as dedicated fun/engagement time. For instance, maybe one parent takes math time — provides a teaching and then gives the kids an exercise. That adult is available for questions but is otherwise working on their work during the exercise time. Then maybe for fun they play a game that re-enforces math in some way, like sudoku. Perhaps the other adult takes an English lesson and you have a mini spelling B or Scrabble time during your fun time.
- Take some time to escape. Whether you have date night after the kids go to bed or you get out to go for a run or walk; remove yourself from all work responsibilities and parenting for a period each day to reduce stress and keep you going strong for the long haul.
- Communicate both when things are going well as well as when things are not working. Communicating early, before things escalate will allow you to prevent tension and avoid catastrophes. Communication is important both between the members of your household as well as with members of your company. If you cannot honor a commitment or if something is not working, talk about it. It’s better to ask for help in developing a solution then it is to not follow through on a commitment or have to address a problem.
- Remember that times are tough for everyone and everyone is just doing their best. Keeping this in mind before reacting to a situation will help reduce playing the blame or defensive game and help ensure you approach a situation with empathy and compassion.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
The hardest part of being home for a long period of time is the lack of diversity. You’re in the same setting, with the same people, and with the same things to see, eat, and do. The way to stay sane is to break up that monotony the same way you would normally, but in a slightly different way. Instead of commuting to/from work, go for walk and listen to your favorite radio station, podcast, book or meditation. Have social meetings with friends and colleagues just like you would normally but do so virtually. Break up your day with varying your tasks — some analytical, some creative, some business, some fun, some alone, some with family, and some with just your partner. The keys to your sanity will be variety and balance.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I get it: I’m an athlete so I always want to know how far to the finish line so I can properly dispense my energy. Not knowing where the end is can make even the strongest feel anxious. My first bit of advice would be to put less focus on the news. While it’s important to stay informed, immersing yourself in negativity will do you no good. Find a cadence that keeps you informed but doesn’t allow you to focus on it incessantly.
The thing about problems is that they’re solvable. We are an intelligent, strong, and resilient nation. We come together in times of crisis and we let our humanity shine. This one is no different. It is a tragedy that so many people have died as a result of this pandemic and we are certainly not out of the woods yet. We are and will continue to mourn and pay tribute to our losses. We also stand strong and united in limiting new loses through the tireless efforts of our healthcare workers and everyone playing their part in social distancing. Finally, we should remain hopeful knowing that the end is near because we have the brightest scientists and researchers working day and night to find a cure.
One can always find multiple perspectives in any situation. It is not hard to see all the tragedy that has come with this virus. I like to focus, however, on all the good that has come out of it. Berklee College of Music released its first ever virtual orchestral piece, large corporations have learned how to work remotely when they once thought it was impossible, new technology has come on the market, more people have developed passive revenue streams for themselves, some families have put down their devices and started having dinner together again, people are finding new and innovative ways to connect and help each other, and there are a ton of new resources available for small business owners that didn’t exist before. My business is busier than ever. We’ve helped dozens of businesses go online or elevate their digital presence. It’s been exciting watching people innovate and create. It’s also been really cool to see people do things they never thought were possible.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to your family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Get away from the negativity. Shut the TV off, get some fresh air, move your body, and/or meditate. To reduce anxiety, you need to remove yourself from whatever is causing the anxiety, whether that is actually or figuratively. If you can actually remove yourself by turning the TV off or going out for a run / walk, then do it. Doing so for even a short period will help dramatically. Some people, however, are not so lucky and cannot avoid the anxiety-causing behavior all together. For instance, healthcare workers on the frontline are likely feeling anxious for their families right now. In that regard, taking precautions to ensure you’re not bringing any germs home coupled with giving yourself a daily mental and physical break will help. I recommend an app called Headspace for some gentle, guided meditation. You can choose durations from 5 minutes on up and you can choose guided meditations to work through a myriad of common anxieties.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Our Family is a circle of strength and love. With every birth and every union, the circle grows. Every joy shared adds more love. Every crisis faced together makes the circle stronger” — unknown
I love this quote because in times of crisis we find that we are all connected; we are all family, ohana.
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!