Community//

How to solve the “if only someone smart would work in corporate” problem, With Laura Jennings

I call this the “if only someone smart would work in corporate” problem. When I ran MSN for Microsoft the country MSN managers and their staffs around the world reported directly in to me at corporate. Although I’d travel twice/year to every country MSN was in, it was always a challenge to keep everyone in […]


I call this the “if only someone smart would work in corporate” problem. When I ran MSN for Microsoft the country MSN managers and their staffs around the world reported directly in to me at corporate. Although I’d travel twice/year to every country MSN was in, it was always a challenge to keep everyone in the loop. When you’re 3,000 miles away from the central office, the “why”s behind decisions made at corporate — the hundreds of little facts and daily decision points that add up to a policy or change in direction — are invisible. The further away you are from a decision the more capricious those decisions can look. And yet every corporate decision may result in costs, trade-offs and additional work required at the remote location. This can cause folks at the end points to sarcastically wonder why no one at corporate seems to have a brain. When I took over MSN, we had just launched in over 50 markets over a proprietary telecom network. I decided to transition MSN to an HTML-based internet service a year later, which required us to initially scale back our worldwide presence as we transitioned. While this absolutely made sense for the company — and for every market we were in over the long-run — it was a painful transition for those markets we exited for a period. There may have been only 1,000 customers in some smaller countries at that time, but those were 1,000 customers that really mattered to the country manager. It was imperative not only to keep communication lines open, but to acknowledge the burden this decision would place on already-overworked country managers and give them tools to manage it.


I had the pleasure to interview Laura Jennings. Laura is the CEO of the modern gifting company Knack. Prior to Knack, Laura was a venture capitalist with the international private equity firm Atlas Ventures. Laura began her career at Microsoft, where she ran a number of core businesses including the email division and MSN.


Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?

As an early-stage Microsoft executive I focused primarily on emerging businesses, launching the original Microsoft Office product, bringing Microsoft Exchange to market as the Vice President of the Messaging division, and serving as the Vice President of MSN during the formative years of internet-based content and applications. I went on from Microsoft to Atlas Ventures, one of the largest international venture capital firms, where I ran our Menlo Park and Seattle offices as well as coordinated our IT investing worldwide.

After watching internet commerce evolve for a decade, I formed Knack in 2015 around the concept of celebrating consumers themselves as a creative force.

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

Every day as an entrepreneur is a roller coaster ride, and it’s hard to separate your personal emotions from whatever happened in the business that day. But I learned something very early on that has helped me: when everything seems to be falling in to place, you’re on the right track.

We staged a pop-up shop during holiday 2015 to test our MVP. Of course we seized on this idea much too late in the year, had insufficient staffing, no shop fixtures and nevertheless had our sites set on staging the shop in one of the premier shopping locations in the city. Impossible. But then a friend introduced me to someone with years of store merchandising experience who was looking for something to do 20 hours/week. And the mall we’d targeted just happened to have a dark spot come up in a prime traffic location they wanted to fill and offered us a great deal to take it. My then co-founder and I visited a high-end furniture maker and threw ourselves at his mercy, confessing that we needed to stage a store two weeks’ later and didn’t have much money…and he loaned us some great fixtures. And so it went. Every time we thought we’d hit the wall we couldn’t get over, somehow exactly what we needed would appear.

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

It’s absolutely imperative that everyone on the boat is rowing in the same direction. This seems obvious, but that’s why so many managers screw it up.

It’s easy to assume that the big picture in your mind has been communicated effectively to every employee. After all, it’s obvious to you, and maybe your direct reports. But is the big picture clear to a new employee fresh to the workforce? Do they understand the company values well enough to make the right trade-offs? Are the KPIs you’re tracking directly related to the most important initiatives of the company? Are you leading by example?

In my experience, people want to live up to the expectations set for them. So if you’re not being clear about what you want out of your employees — especially in large or distributed organizations — you may be the problem. Start with the basics and make sure every employee is able to connect what they do to the big picture.

What is the top challenge when managing global teams in different geographical locations? Can you give an example or story?

I call this the “if only someone smart would work in corporate” problem. When I ran MSN for Microsoft the country MSN managers and their staffs around the world reported directly in to me at corporate. Although I’d travel twice/year to every country MSN was in, it was always a challenge to keep everyone in the loop.

When you’re 3,000 miles away from the central office, the “why”s behind decisions made at corporate — the hundreds of little facts and daily decision points that add up to a policy or change in direction — are invisible. The further away you are from a decision the more capricious those decisions can look. And yet every corporate decision may result in costs, trade-offs and additional work required at the remote location. This can cause folks at the end points to sarcastically wonder why no one at corporate seems to have a brain.

When I took over MSN, we had just launched in over 50 markets over a proprietary telecom network. I decided to transition MSN to an HTML-based internet service a year later, which required us to initially scale back our worldwide presence as we transitioned. While this absolutely made sense for the company — and for every market we were in over the long-run — it was a painful transition for those markets we exited for a period. There may have been only 1,000 customers in some smaller countries at that time, but those were 1,000 customers that really mattered to the country manager. It was imperative not only to keep communication lines open, but to acknowledge the burden this decision would place on already-overworked country managers and give them tools to manage it.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

I sincerely believe that people will live up to your expectations, so set a clear direction, expect greatness out of your employees, and take the time to recognize even small initiatives that have made a difference.

Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on retaining talent today?

I think people today are highly motivated by personal growth. Growth can come in alternative forms: new responsibilities, exposure through cross-functional task forces to other areas of the business, formal training opportunities relevant to their career goals.

Now that millennials constitute the largest demographic group in the US workforce, much has been written about managing the millennial at work: How do you motivate them? Do they have a short-timer mentality? (And my least favorite) Are they “entitled”? In fact, I’ve been in rooms of fellow CEOs where this has been a topic of discussion.

To me, it’s all about focusing on outcomes, rather than the means to those outcomes. Obviously, every company has values and cultural norms that can’t be violated, but outside of those critical essentials I believe it’s important to let go of telling your employees exactly how or when you want them to achieve their objectives. After all, do you really care if they’re still in their chair every night at 6pm if they’re overachieving their objectives and their customers are delighted? Let go of the small stuff and focus on the prize.

Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

1. You need to know what you’re good at and what you’re not

2. You need to lead your team where you want them to go, and by when

3. You need to measure what’s critical to success along the way

4. You need to motivate the team through personal example and effective communication

5. You need to celebrate success, both of the team and each individual personally

You are a person of great 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. 🙂

My movement would be called BRIDGE THE GAP. I’d like every adult in this country to develop 3 new personal connections to people different from them in a personally challenging way. Feel strongly about the abortion issue? Attend an event with someone on the other side of that argument. Tired of “liberals” stereotyping working class whites? Have coffee with a professor from your local university. Worried that immigrants might drive up crime in your town? Attend a mixer held by a local nonprofit working to stabilize new immigrants in town.

We’d kick off the movement with high-profile dinners between politicians, academics, celebrities and movement leaders across political party, gender, racial and demographic lines. But the dinners themselves would be private so that none of the participants needs to worry about “scoring points” against the other side. The guests lists and the time spent together would be publicized as examples to get the ball rolling, but what actually happens during their meetings is between them.

Do I think that minds will change as a result? Perhaps in some cases they will. But more importantly, these meetings will lower the volume on demonizing “others” as we learn to see those we disagree with simply as people just as committed, concerned and flawed as ourselves. Think of this as a series of national Thanksgiving dinners where we deliberately seek an afternoon of common ground with the uncle we disagree with about almost everything the remaining 364 days/year. But it makes us say afterward, “well, he’s not such a bad guy even though he’s wrong about XXX.”

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

Mark Twain said “When in doubt, tell the truth.” To me, this isn’t simply a directive not to lie. Rather, it’s permission to acknowledge your challenges rather than fake your way through something because you’re afraid to show weakness. I think this can be especially tempting as a female in male-dominated professions, but it happens to everyone.

It’s also a directive to keep it simple. Don’t spin a story when a simple answer will suffice.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres. We publish pieces written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Learn more or join us as a community member!
Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Well-Being//

Lean Into Your Start-Up To Stand Upright For Yourself

by Danielle Tate
Community//

A Radical Leap of Faith: Leaving Corporate America for Good

by Lizzie Fourman
Wisdom//

How I Found the Courage to Quit

by Wendell Potter

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.