Frances Zelazny: “Talk about pressure!”

I think the number one myth about executives is that we are all corporate machines without feelings, stress, or personal frameworks when in fact, it is the exact opposite. Being in an executive leadership role requires a great deal of empathy. Having empathy and the ability to recognize the humanity in your team makes for […]

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I think the number one myth about executives is that we are all corporate machines without feelings, stress, or personal frameworks when in fact, it is the exact opposite. Being in an executive leadership role requires a great deal of empathy. Having empathy and the ability to recognize the humanity in your team makes for better collaboration, creativity, and better business outcomes overall.

As a part of our series about powerful women, I had the pleasure of interviewing Frances Zelazny, CMO, Signals Analytics. Frances Zelazny is a seasoned marketing strategist and business development professional with over 20 years of experience with successfully building and scaling startup technology companies. Zelazny is currently the CMO of Signals Analytics where she drives the company’s transformational positioning as a category leader in the advanced analytics market, contributing to its aggressive growth. Prior to Signals Analytics, Frances served as CMO of BioCatch and also ran an independent consulting firm focused on helping early-stage and midsize companies with their business and marketing strategies. Prior to this, Frances was Corporate Vice President of Marketing & Strategic Operations for L-1 Identity Solutions (now Idemia), a premier biometrics and identity solutions company. Frances has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Hofstra University and a master’s degree in International Affairs from New York University.

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

I’ve worked with startups throughout my career, but it actually wasn’t my plan A. Originally, I had aspirations to be the next Madeline Albright working with world leaders to tackle global challenges like sustainable development. But when I graduated college early, I found myself at a financial services startup working with the CEO on building the business and after a short while, I was hooked! I pivoted and decided to study the international political economy in graduate school at NYU which helped to blend my interests in business and international relations into a unique career that works for me and continues to allow me to grow and learn.

Since then, every company I have worked with has been a unique experience. I’ve traveled the world to work with governments of developing countries to further their social and economic goals, drafted legislation on privacy for state governments, testified in front of numerous committees, and been involved with more than a dozen startups as an operator and as a mentor, coach, co-founder, and board member. Simply put, I never get tired of being around smart people with great business ideas.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I joined Signals Analytics just a few months before the coronavirus pandemic hit so I had to learn a new industry and new company in a very short and pressurized timeframe. It was truly a baptism by fire, but as someone who has worked with startups for the past two decades, I know that anything can happen at any time. Once we understood the severity of the pandemic, my boss called me and said, “Frances, this is your time to shine.” Talk about pressure! But we both knew I was up to the task. We quickly put together a revamped marketing plan to deliver the type of engagement and awareness needed for our solution in a time of crisis. For us and our clients, data and analytics were the way out of this crisis and it was my job to explain to the world what our solution did and how it can help companies be data-driven. We have seen more companies relying on data to build their strategies and make decisions, and know the role of data will become even larger in the months and years to come.

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 you are in a startup, the biggest mistake you can make is being afraid to make a mistake. From spelling errors to mistranslations (always a risk when working internationally) to winging it at press interviews or going undercover at trade shows to do competitive intelligence, funny stories always abound. Add to that the working mom angle, changing diapers while on conference calls and pumping breast milk while on the road for business, and it becomes truly embarrassing! I say take it all with stride. At the end of the day, we are all human.

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

My passion for building companies is what drew me to the role of Signals Analytics. Previously, I was involved with one of the first facial recognition companies and ended up working with other category disruptors for the next 20 years. The CMO role with Signals Analytics was a chance to pivot to another massive growth sector, data and analytics, and apply my enterprise SaaS experience to a company that had unique capabilities and IP, an existing marquee client base, and get them to scale.

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

An executive, at the end of the day, provides a vision for the company and also absorbs the shocks and the stresses on behalf of the organization. Executives have responsibilities to both employees and shareholders and need to manage the expectations of both audiences. We need to be strong, yet vulnerable, action-oriented, yet reflective. This was something I never really thought of until the first time someone said to me, “How do you do it?”. I was always so focused on getting my job done and getting results that I didn’t realize that people also looked at me on a human level.

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

The best part about being an executive, especially in the startup world, is being able to see your ideas and visions come to life while also being part of the process. In marketing, this can be very fun, especially when it comes to creating a brand, strategizing in category ownership, working on a new logo, or more tangibly, launching a demand generation campaign and seeing leads turn into sales, something I am particularly focused on at the moment as we capitalize on the tremendous market opportunity in front of us. There is a real joy and pride that comes with seeing a concept that originated from yourself, a colleague or a team meeting develop into the value that is created and then appreciated by the customer.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

When you are an executive, there’s nowhere to hide! While there is pride and joy in seeing a vision come to life, there is also the responsibility when things don’t go right and there is no break. The important thing is to operate with integrity, anticipate problems, and try not to make unnecessary mistakes.

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

I think the number one myth about executives is that we are all corporate machines without feelings, stress, or personal frameworks when in fact, it is the exact opposite. Being in an executive leadership role requires a great deal of empathy. Having empathy and the ability to recognize the humanity in your team makes for better collaboration, creativity, and better business outcomes overall.

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

I think the real question is what are the biggest challenges we face as a society. At the end of the day, the workplace reflects broader societal frameworks — lack of role models, limited access to child care and elder care, stereotyping, etc. These are the things that hold women back in the workplace. If men are raised to respect the capabilities of women and society prioritizes family issues and health care, this question would no longer be asked. The pandemic has only exacerbated this issue, where already the headlines are raging, “In the COVID economy, you can have a kid or a job.” You see policies being developed that do not take the working parent into account and not all workplaces can offer the flexibility that working parents need. Paternity leave policies are waning in the US and where they are offered, oftentimes they are not taken for a variety of reasons, again marginalizing the working mother to “figure it out”.

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

Well, I certainly didn’t plan on a pandemic so that’s one major difference. Other than that, having worked with so many startups to date, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect and was pretty confident in my decision to join Signals Analytics. My priorities were unique, differentiated technology and value proposition; proven concept with referenceable customers; and finally, good culture. With these three, I was sure I would be able to help guide them to success.

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?

Having creativity, vision, and knowing how to execute our baseline. The ability to inspire and empower a team through leadership — and knowing how to bring people along on the journey you are creating — is what makes an executive great.

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

Listen to your inner voice and do what you think is right. One of my favorite sayings, “Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb; that’s where the fruit is,” pushes me to try new things in business as well as in life. Be bold. After 20 years in the industry, it is important to be bold in all aspects of life, not just business. You cannot be fearless in the office and meek everywhere else, and vice versa.

There is no reason a woman cannot have a seat at the table, but it is important to set the right expectation for yourself, your team, and your family. It is important for all to recognize and appreciate your ambition and to know they have your back and are helping you along your journey.

To help your team thrive, engage them, bring them into your thought process, give them the space to be creative and to help solve problems, to jump on things they are interested in pursuing, and showing them the importance of each of their roles.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have to give my husband this recognition. We met at work many startups ago and we always had a front-row seat to each other’s work styles and work environments. We will often brainstorm together and trade business strategies and stories from the trenches. He has been my partner on so many levels and has made it possible for me to do what I do at work, while we raise a family together at home. I am grateful for his support and the example that he sets for our two girls on what they should expect from their future partners. I would imagine that any successful female executive would have to have a supportive home life.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I have mentored many entrepreneurs over the years and tried to give them coaching and guidance on what would make them successful. I’ve also opened my network to people I meet and try to make connections in order to refer them for jobs or introduce them to new opportunities.

In addition, I always look for ways to get involved in my local community and with my children’s schools. This keeps me grounded and centered around my core values.

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

  1. There is no such thing as a perfect work-life balance. Some days you win and some days you lose. As a working mother, there are days where you feel like you aren’t giving enough to your children, and others where it is hard to balance work. But at the end of the day, I feel rewarded on both fronts and am a firm believer that my girls are getting a front-row seat as to what is possible, and in the process, they too are gaining their own fortitude and confidence in how to navigate this world. The best is when they overhear a work conversation and after weigh in with their own advice on how to handle a situation!
  2. It is ok to show your vulnerability — we are all human. Remember, empathy is crucial to being an effective leader. Showing empathy to others is just as important to show the same empathy for yourself.
  3. You do not need to know everything to be respected, so just ask the question. The more questions you ask, the more you will learn, and while it seems counterintuitive, most people like to teach! More than likely, you are not the only one who is thinking the same thing.
  4. A bad plan is better than no plan. You can always adjust and edit the plan in order to meet the goal, but if you wait for perfection or to figure out every possible scenario, nothing will ever happen. In the world of startups, this is a death sentence.
  5. People’s true characters come out under pressure. Life throws us many curveballs as we are seeing now with the pandemic. There is a question about quotes later, but I’ll put one of my favorite ones here — “life is 10% how we make it, 90% how we take it.” Everyone was obviously having a hard time adjusting to pandemic WFH life when I was recently working on a project with a group from another company. Every time we would get on our Zoom calls, we found a way to laugh. Their attitudes were infectious and I found myself looking forward to the weekly calls with them. When the project was over, we planned a Zoom cocktail party to celebrate!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am a firm believer in education and this would be where I would put my energies into. It’s often been said that education is the great equalizer and it is so true. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to get a Ph.D., but there is a foundational element that a K-12 education provides that leads to opportunity, creativity, and making connections with other people that reduce bigotry and hatred. When I think about my career path, which started in the Delegate Dining Room of the United Nations and all the foreign dignitaries that I came across, the most striking thing was the emphasis on education and enabling the next generation of leaders in their countries.

As we examine this issue closer to home, the role of education looms large in so many ways: against the rising hatred and bigotry that we face, retraining people who have lost jobs that will not come back (like coal mining), and reinvigorating the economy, our healthcare system and the way we consume and communicate post-pandemic. There is so much to do and we need to harness the talent, creativity, and energies of the children to have faith in the future. Along these lines, I am proud to say that my family is embarking on a community project now to collect laptops and tablets to be distributed to inner-city children who are not able to keep up with online learning because they don’t have access to devices and the internet. The number of children that fall into this category is surprisingly large. I don’t know if this will inspire a whole movement, but it is our way of trying to leave the world a little better than how we found it and light a spark in our own way.

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

“I’d rather die of thirst than drink from the cup of mediocrity”—Famous Advertising Slogan from Stella Artois

This pretty much fuels my life, my passion, my focus, attention to detail, and whatever I am doing from the mundane to the complex. People know I am genuine, passionate, and will do what it takes to create success. It doesn’t mean I am always right, but it does mean I am present in the moment and that counts for a lot in a world full of distractions.

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

Sheryl Sandberg. I’ve read her book and there are a lot of points she makes that I agree with, and a lot that I don’t so it would be fascinating to have a conversation about those points and talk about our experiences as being women in the workplace. I’d also love to dive into how we can pave the way for the next generation, work-life balance, work under fire, dealing with personal and professional crises, managing a family, the difference between startup vs big company, b2b vs consumers, privacy, etc.

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