Build relationships before you need them. I once interviewed for a position that instead of calling the references I gave them, reached out to random people in my network. Suddenly I was getting calls from people I hadn’t spoken to in years, and it quickly made me realize the value of cultivating and maintaining your network so that everyone has a lasting positive impression of you, as we’re all more connected than we realize. So take that call from the colleague that needs something, and never be too busy to help someone out. You should be serving the people in your network much more often than you’re asking them for a favor. Aim for a 3:1 ratio.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabrina Williams.
Sabrina Williams, Chief People Officer at Curriculum Associates, has over two decades of experience in human resources. Throughout her career, she has worked as a powerful change agent, laying the foundation for long-term success through the implementation of comprehensive strategies that put in place people, systems and organizations that enable new business capabilities and revenue opportunities, cost savings, leadership development and pipelines, succession planning, cultural transformations and best-in-class internal service delivery. In heading up HR departments for companies such as Brigham Health, Tufts University, Hill Holiday and more, her transformative efforts have been rewarded with numerous awards, including the Boston Business Journal’s Best Companies to Work list, The Rosoff Awards, and the YWCA Women Achievers Award.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in public housing, going to public schools and realized early on the power of education to change the course of my life and that of my family. I immigrated to NYC from Jamaica West Indies, and my mother was consumed with us “getting” an education. She was one of 13 and did not have the chance to go to school beyond grade school. Unlike NYC, Jamaica did not have a public education system beyond grade school. I honor her by making education a priority, and being at CA is an opportunity to see the power of education on a national scale and change many lives, including my own.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
In the short time since I’ve started working at Curriculum Associates, the thing that strikes me the most is how in tune the company is with the humanity of its employees. In a few months, I’ve had more experiences around the human condition than at any other company, and the vulnerability that the company culture encourages is truly impressive, whether it’s about personal challenges, helping each other through crises, or even discussing religion and life philosophies. In fact, one of the first conversations I had with the CEO was about our personal spirituality, and that was one of the first times I had that kind of conversation in a workplace. In most workplaces, it would be years before a subject like that is broached. But to experience that and see how the culture encourages that openness while also balancing respect of differing beliefs and experiences really shows the emphasis the company places on the whole employee, not just viewing them as disposable worker bees.
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?
When I first started my career in HR, I was working at a big company in a relatively junior-level position. Things went great at first, and I was promoted in less than a year and given the opportunity to work on several important projects. So when the EVP of HR called me in for a meeting about a year after I started working there, I presumed we were going to discuss my next promotion. However, I was shocked to find that the meeting was actually to discuss her disappointment with my performance due to what she perceived as a lack of engagement and contribution in meetings. I was utterly unprepared for this, and immediately responded defensively, but she told me to take a moment to think about her feedback and consider whether this was the job for me. I walked out of that meeting angry and embarrassed, and immediately pulled out my resume to start applying for new jobs, as I was convinced I no longer wanted to work there after what I perceived as a lack of acknowledgement of my hard work. But then I talked with my older sister about the situation, and she shared some insightful wisdom that I adhere to to this day: It’s not about you, it’s about how you make others feel when they’re with you. As I mulled this over, I realized that I hadn’t been thinking about how to be of service to the people around me. I hadn’t been asking my boss how I could help, sharing takeaways from meetings, etc. Instead, I had been focused on making myself shine to the detriment of my office relationships. This became a defining moment for my career as my focus shifted from myself to being of service to others. I ended up sticking with the job, and my boss even became a mentor later on!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Curriculum Associates truly lives by its mission to make classrooms better places for teachers and students, and it’s amazing to see the amazing work they do in transforming the lives of students. Education is so important — if we can move the needle for one teacher and one student, that’s another full generation of change that is happening, and Curriculum Associates is playing a big part in that for so many students through its evidence-based, personalized learning materials.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
As CPO, I’m heavily focused on strengthening corporate culture, with the goal of Curriculum Associates becoming a leader in diversity and inclusion. My current projects are focused on supporting work/life balance, increasing community involvement, revising the candidate pipeline and hiring procedures, increasing internal mobility, reducing turnover, and strengthening employee engagement. The hope is to create an even more inclusive and supportive culture, which in turn allows employees to truly thrive and grow both professionally and personally.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
No, we have more work to do to get young girls interested and engaged in STEM careers. I recently mentored a group of girls via a science club at Stuyvesant H.S. in NYC, where I went to school. It was reinforced that we have to debunk the myths that girls are not good in math or science and that it is incumbent that employers like CA get involved. We are pretty proud of the fact that close to 50% of our engineering team is made up of women and over 20% are women of color. Part of how we have been able to make inroads is to use internships and coops as an opportunity to expose students to the rich opportunities available for those in STEM in an industry that they may not have thought of: education technology.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I can remember so many meetings being the only woman / woman of color. I am very comfortable being a woman / woman of color and I’m able to own that reality and not be afraid to be the only one championing it. As an executive, I have the responsibility and the privilege of being in the room, so I need to be willing to be that and not have that be the deterrent. You need to have the voice for the people that aren’t there.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that women don’t like technology, and that is far from the truth. Most of the women I know not only like technology but in fact make the majority of technology decisions in the home. Women also now make up half of students getting STEM related degrees.
Another myth is that technology is only cool if you work in Silicon Valley or in Cambridge. Cool and exciting work is happening everywhere, and you probably have more opportunities outside of those regional areas to make an impact because the need for great talent is universal.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Listen more, talk less. Example: Early on in my career one of my mentors told me that my worth would not be measured by what I did but in a lot of ways by what I chose not to do. I was at a conference and was giving a talk on inclusion and I realized that I was not “modeling” what I was espousing. I was doing all the talking, I was not engaging others, I was preaching not leading. Mid-way I remembered what my mentor told me and took the talk into a different direction at the break. I asked others to share their thoughts and perspectives and I just listened. I was more impactful by allowing my lack of action (talking) to inform the session. I learned to be still and just be in the moment.
- Consider the implications of “not” doing something. Example: was asked by my manager to work with the marketing team to come up with a plan to expand our employment brand. The marketing team was busy and since I was a newly minted MBA, I figured I would just do it myself. In the presentation to my manager, she stopped my half way and asked where the marketing team was and why they were not here. I told her I had did it myself. Instead of being pleased she was very upset. She said that my job was not to do the work ( boil the ocean) but instead was to get the marketing team to engage and partner with me. Lesson learned… just because you can do something , ask yourself is that what I should do.
- Success is relative. Example: Looking back at my career, many of the achievements I used to consider my big wins are just window dressing at this point. The real successes are the intangibles — relationships with your coworkers, watching a team member you mentored going on to do great things, etc. My success isn’t just about what I do, but about how I’ve invested in the people around me.
- Words matter. Example: I once gave a presentation and used some incorrect terminology. My colleague called me out on it, but instead of admitting my error and moving forward, I dug in and threw off the flow of the whole presentation as a result. The issue wasn’t so much that I used the wrong words, but that I was unwilling to take criticism and responded in defensiveness. No one is always right — admit and learn from these situations and move forward. People are paying attention not only to the words, but how you say them, so it’s important to be intentional with communication. How you choose to communicate speaks volumes more than what you say, so make sure you’re choosing the best method, not the most convenient method.
- Build relationships before you need them. Example: I once interviewed for a position that instead of calling the references I gave them, reached out to random people in my network. Suddenly I was getting calls from people I hadn’t spoken to in years, and it quickly made me realize the value of cultivating and maintaining your network so that everyone has a lasting positive impression of you, as we’re all more connected than we realize. So take that call from the colleague that needs something, and never be too busy to help someone out. You should be serving the people in your network much more often than you’re asking them for a favor. Aim for a 3:1 ratio.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Effective leaders inspire others to do their best work, not do it for them.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The larger the team, the further removed you become, so you have to be purposeful about your interactions at all levels of the team. Hold skip level meetings and empower people to make decisions at all levels — even the very bottom of the chain, so that you’re an enabler instead of a bottleneck. Be intentional about hiring a smart, diverse team, including a great project manager that can implement processes that ensure project allocation is done equitably and plays to your team’s unique strengths. On top of all of this, make sure you’re celebrating the small, individual wins in addition to the larger team wins. A personal thank you can do wonders for morale.
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?
One of my former managers gave me great advice.
I was asked to work with the marketing department on a campaign for our diverse customers. This was outside my HR wheelhouse, but given my recent MBA, I was excited to take this on. I was unsuccessful in getting the marketing support I needed, so I did the work on my own. At my meeting with the head of HR (my manager), I presented the work. My manager was silent. She asked if this was based on marketing’s input, and I told her “no.” I assumed that she would be impressed that I did it myself, and she was not. She told me that effective leaders inspire others to do their best work, not do it for them. That changed my view of leadership and my role as a leader. It was a paradigm shift.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Every day at work I get to help advance Curriculum Associates’ mission and change the world one student at a time. As Chief People Officer, this has meant implementing diversity, inclusion and company culture-focused initiatives to make the company even greater. Outside of work, I volunteer for numerous nonprofits focused on education, the arts and economic empowerment for those less fortunate than myself, including as the board chair for United South End Settlements (provides social services), the treasurer/board member for the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts (helps people improve their lives and build stronger communities through free education, job training, and placement), and a board member for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could inspire any movement, I would campaign for free education all the way through college. The positive impact of access to quality education is transformative not only for individuals, but for society as a whole.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorites is “no surprises.” Given my professional role, it is critical that I embody transparency and discretion. It is crucial that people know where they stand with me and vice versa.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂
There are three people I’d love to sit down with: Bill Gates, Pete Frates, and Jay-Z.
I love what Bill Gates is doing with the Gates Foundation, and I’d love to hear more about that. I am also incredibly impressed by the way Pete Frates, who recently passed, took his A.L.S. diagnosis and instead of sinking into despair like the rest of us would, made it into a cause that was so much bigger than himself with the Ice Bucket Challenge. I hope that I could be that selfless were I to be in a similar position one day, and wish I could have met him. A New Yorker myself, I’m also phenomenally interested in Jay-Z’s rags to riches story. He’s also recently become a voice in the movement addressing incarceration of young men and the impact it has on generations, particularly in the African American community. I’d love to talk with him about his work in this area and how he uses his influence as a famous musician to bring about positive change.