Kendra Niedziejko: “Words are important”

While you can be anything, you can’t be EVERYTHING. I grew up in the 1970s with relatively young, progressive parents who tirelessly encouraged me and told me “you can be anything you want to be.” I took those words to heart and approached everything in my life as if there were no barriers. However, as […]

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While you can be anything, you can’t be EVERYTHING. I grew up in the 1970s with relatively young, progressive parents who tirelessly encouraged me and told me “you can be anything you want to be.” I took those words to heart and approached everything in my life as if there were no barriers. However, as I’ve become older and wiser, I’ve learned that while I can be anything, I can’t be everything, which is a very important distinction and one that took me years to learn and accept.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kendra Niedziejko. Kendra Niedziejko is the Chief Financial Officer at xMatters and has over 20 years of experience in building high-growth financial teams at technology companies. She previously served as the company’s Vice President of Finance since October 2014. At xMatters, her major achievements have included closing a 42M dollars debt financing round with Golub Capital in August 2016, and a 40M dollars Series D Funding Round led by Goldman Sachs in February 2018. Prior to joining xMatters, Niedziejko played a pivotal role in completing IPOs at both E-LOAN and OpenTable.

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?

There are only 64 female CFOs in the Fortune 500, and according to a 2019 IDC report on Women in Technology, only 24 percent of women hold senior leadership positions in tech. I’ve been fortunate in my career to be presented with a wealth of opportunities for personal growth and promotion, leading up to my current role as the CFO at xMatters. However, I have also encountered challenges along the way. Many of these challenges were oftentimes directly related to being the only female in the room among upper management.

I started my career in San Jose at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) on the tech team. At PwC I was promoted early, which did not typically happen, but at the time the San Jose office only had one female audit partner. It’s very different now, but 25 years ago, it was a male-dominated environment. I did a lot of recruiting activities for PwC and the management had a full career growth path set up for me, but I wasn’t excited about the prospect of staying in client services.

I will admit, I felt a lot of pressure to stay at PwC because I was the “token female leader” and management put a lot of time into the development of my career. Ultimately, after three years at PwC, I was recruited out in 1998 and became an accounting manager at Net Dynamics. After two months in that position, Net Dynamics was acquired by Sun Microsystems and I transferred to the Sun Microsystems Software Group as an analyst.

In 1999, I joined E-LOAN as an accounting manager and immediately began working on their IPO — just before the first dotcom explosion — which was an interesting and wild ride.

From E-LOAN, I moved to OpenTable, where I also helped take the company public. I left OpenTable in 2010 just after they did a secondary offering because I had already done two IPOs in the course of 10 years. I wanted to take a step back and focus on my family. I decided to cash out options and take a self-financed sabbatical. This was a difficult decision as I was at the “top of my game” from a career perspective, and had so many options available to me. There is so much weight on women pursuing executive roles and we oftentimes have to choose between prioritizing a family versus taking a promotion. My advice for women at similar crossroads would be this: you can’t get time back with your family but you can always reinvigorate your career. My own career is a testament to this, as I ultimately went back to OpenTable in a remote, part-time role.

I joined xMatters shortly after OpenTable was bought by Priceline in 2014. I started as VP of Finance, reporting to the CFO, and led the company’s 40M dollars Series D round with Goldman Sachs. It was a great opportunity to showcase my value which also led to my current role as CFO.

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

I was just hired as the VP of Finance at xMatters, and I was starting my third week. I was on my way to work on Monday morning when I received a text from the CEO telling me that my direct boss, the current CFO, was involved in a bad bike accident and was not going to be in the office for the foreseeable future. After only two weeks in my new position, I found myself completely on my own and working directly with the CEO.

Life is about teachable moments and that experience taught me that you always have to be ready, willing, and able to move, change, and adapt at a moment’s notice. You can’t be afraid of stepping into new opportunities or stepping up to lead a team or fill an opening as the situation evolves.

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?

While it’s hard to pinpoint one specific instance, I have plenty of memories from when I was a young manager in finance and I had a very naive perspective about work issues. I was always questioning, “Why isn’t this working as expected?” “Why isn’t this done yet?” This resulted in more than one conversation with my bosses where I was told directly that I “had a lot to learn.”

This rigid perspective was an important area of improvement for me. Professionals who start out in finance prefer everything to be black and white, firmly organized, and make sense down to the last penny. But real life is messy, and recognizing there are shades of grey is a crucial component to success. The quicker I was able to learn that the more successful I was able to be as a manager, leader, and employee.

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

I think my journey is different compared to many of my peers. While my position as a CFO is the pinnacle of my career path, there were points in time and points in my career where I questioned if I even wanted to be a CFO.

I turned down the opportunity to be the interim CFO at E-LOAN because I was not confident I was ready to assume the responsibility and personal liability associated with a CFO role. From my experience, the CFO and CEO roles are more impactful to a company’s bottom line and success than other C-suite positions, and I kept asking myself, “Do I feel I am capable?” I enjoyed the responsibilities that led up to being a CFO, but I questioned my desire to assume the ultimate responsibility for the position entailed.

Even though in form and function, I had been performing the duties of a CFO for quite some time, I needed to work around the idea of being a CFO before I was mentally ready to commit. I take the position seriously and I believe it’s important to your board and your fellow leaders that you are “right” for the job — particularly in a role as influential as the CEO and CFO.

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?

Being an executive is learning to step back. You need to be enough of a subject matter expert to understand what is going on in the business while being cognizant not to get too far in the weeds. If you are always in the weeds, you’re hindered from watching for trends and planning strategically.

I am asked questions all day long and I solve problems all day long, but I think the most defining feature of a C-suite role is the ultimate responsibility. It is the role of the executive to assemble all of the facts and make the final decision. Someone has to draw the proverbial line in the sand.

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

I enjoy the fact that my role, in particular, is different from my fellow C-suiters. The acquisition of knowledge, even outside my specific discipline, and understanding of how things work is very important to me. In order to do my job effectively, I need to have a working knowledge of what each department is doing and a deeper understanding of our technology and operations. At the end of the day, everything turns into numbers — every action and decision has a financial impact. This gives me a seat at the table in almost every discussion.

However, there are also some days I don’t touch anything numerical — that’s what keeps my job interesting. In addition to traditional accounting, finance, legal and sales tasks, I’m involved in procurement, accounts payable, contract and vendor negotiations, understanding insurance; privacy; risk, and risk management. All of these different facets fall under my purview.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The main difficulty in being an executive is finding the right balance where you invest your energies. It is difficult to ensure you are staying close enough to the action and keeping your ear close to the ground, while also keeping the plates spinning across the organization. If you’re too close to the details and daily operations, you run the risk of becoming myopic and losing sight of the bigger picture. On the other hand, if you’re only sitting in meetings and not working with the numbers, you lose that crucial connectivity with your team all the way down the line.

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

The first myth is that you turn off your computer at 5 p.m. and leave your employees to handle any remaining work. I’ve never subscribed to that philosophy and I wouldn’t ask my team to do anything that I wouldn’t do or haven’t done.

When we’re working on a difficult project or a tight deadline, I am always connected to my team and helping in any capacity I can. If my team is working late, I am working late.

The second myth is that executives simply show up and sit in meetings all day. A good executive is well connected and aware of what is going on in the different departments. They use meetings to form the necessary connections across the company to ultimately make the best-informed decision.

The real work that a good executive does is less tangible than a specific deliverable. They are responsible for keeping everything and everyone connected to ensure that the organization works as a cohesive unit.

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

Simply put, there are not many of us. A survey of more than 1,100 women and men working in the tech industry and in tech-based roles found that most companies do not have plans to solve gender balance in the workforce, rating gender diversity as second to last of all nine areas of inclusion. In addition, the study found that only 25 percent of IT workers are female.

Beyond that, I think we are at an intriguing turning point. It will be interesting to see how the pandemic-related work from home shift will change the work landscape for men and women. Traditionally, the female has been the primary caregiver in the family and has had to juggle leaving work early to pick up children from daycare or school and then help with homework and cook dinner, while still working a full-time job. These responsibilities either don’t exist or are shared in our new reality. I believe this work from home transition will drive change. Men who have traditionally been laser-focused on their career, while the childcare happened around them, are currently being confronted with the chaos of the home environment. I think the appreciation factor will be considerably higher, and when we start to return to the office, it will be interesting to see how this experiment has affected the male/female work dynamic.

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

I never anticipated how unstructured certain elements of my job would be. There are specific deliverables and initiatives that I can plan for on a regular calendar basis, but I have learned that I need to allow for a certain amount of unscheduled time in my calendar to address issues and questions that arise during the workday.

The type of person who gravitates to a CFO role is someone who appreciates and seeks control. It took me a while to accept that I would not be able to control exactly what my day was going to look like.

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?

I wholeheartedly agree that not everyone is cut out to be an executive. There is a natural evolution that elevates people in a company. Simply because someone is your best salesperson, that does not always equate to that person being the best sales manager. Hello, Michael Scott.

To be a great executive, you have to be an excellent problem solver and you have to be willing and able to work collaboratively and compromise. If you can’t do those two things or if it’s a challenge for you or you simply don’t want to, then it is better to stay in an individual contributor role and not pursue an executive position.

For some of my colleagues, it makes more sense for them to be an entrepreneur or a consultant and counsel C-suite executives versus being in a corporate executive position. There are alternate ways to monetize your expertise without being in an executive-type role.

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

In order for a team to thrive, you need to acquire and retain quality talent, which means allowing for flexibility. Leaders need to ask themselves, how can I best support my team and keep them at the company doing what they love and enjoy? It’s important to listen to the needs of your team members and think outside the box to make things work. This can mean anything from temporarily shifting an employee to a work from home schedule to working out an arrangement with an employee who decides to move to another country for a few months due to personal life challenges. My best advice would be this: when you have good people, do what you can to keep them around.

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 get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had the opportunity to work alongside Matt Roberts, the former CEO of OpenTable. Matt and I started working together at Net Dynamics, where I initially reported to him when he served as the controller. Matt left Net Dynamics for a position at E-LOAN and when he was promoted to VP of Finance, he hired me as his first accounting manager. I was then promoted to controller and when Matt moved into the CFO role at E-LOAN, he promoted me to Controller. After E-LOAN, Matt and I moved on to OpenTable together — we were considered a bit of a “package deal” — where I was the Sr. Director of Accounting and Finance and he was the CFO. I’m very grateful to Matt and the great partnership with him that opened so many opportunities.

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

I’m a big proponent of mentorship and a big believer in sharing knowledge and encouraging others within my company. I’m also very passionate about education and giving back to my local community. I do my best to spend a considerable amount of time volunteering at my kids’ school and coaching the school’s swim team. Advocating for education is very important to me and I consider it a personal cause in my life.

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

  1. While you can be anything, you can’t be EVERYTHING. I grew up in the 1970s with relatively young, progressive parents who tirelessly encouraged me and told me “you can be anything you want to be.” I took those words to heart and approached everything in my life as if there were no barriers. However, as I’ve become older and wiser, I’ve learned that while I can be anything, I can’t be everything, which is a very important distinction and one that took me years to learn and accept.
  2. Words are important. When I started college, I initially pursued a degree in international business, but after taking my first accounting class, I fell in love with it. I appreciated the numerical simplicity and preciseness it presented, specifically that all accounts could be “balanced” or “reconciled.” However, I learned the farther I climbed up the career ladder the less I dealt with numbers and the more I dealt with words, such as writing memos and reviewing contracts.
  3. While you may think everything should work a certain way, in real life, it doesn’t. I remember working on the E-LOAN IPO with our outside auditors from PwC and Tom Berkery, who was West Region Financial Services’ managing partner at the time. At one point, when I was struggling with some inconsistencies in the numbers, Tom told me, “Kendra, the books of the world do not balance.” His words have stuck with me throughout my career and serve as a reminder that while I think everything should work a certain way, in real life, it doesn’t always work that way.
  4. Ask for what you want. I wish someone had told me at the start of my career that I needed to ask for what I wanted. You cannot rely on others to recognize it and give it to you. This is something all women starting their careers should be told. Culturally, men and women approach career advancement and salary advancement very differently. Most women assume that if they put their head down and work hard, management will notice and they will be rewarded. Men have no qualms about asking for exactly what they want, even when they may not have entirely earned it. I learned this lesson late in my career and now I share it with all of my female counterparts — do not be afraid to ask for what you are worth.
  5. Maintain work-Life balance. Lastly, in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Every day I marvel at how fast time moves. “Work-life balance” is not just a phrase on a brochure or website. Work will always be there in some form or fashion, but kids grow up quickly and you can’t get time back with the people you love. It’s important to keep this in perspective and allocate your time accordingly.

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 strongly believe in the importance of education and maintaining a quality public education system, because it is critical to the success of democracy.

I would like to reinforce the importance of education and inspire people to continue their education in all forms, whether that is a traditional two- or four-year college degree, attending a trade school, or simply fostering a love of reading, consuming information, and bettering yourself.

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

I have a number of quotes on the wall by my desk that I can reflect on during the workday, but the most relevant to my work life is the simplest: “progress, not perfection.”

Early on in my career, I devoted a lot of time to the elusive goal of perfection. Whether that was trying to complete my “to do” list before leaving for the day–which never seemed to happen– or striving to create the perfect forecast.

Eventually, this pursuit of perfection began to wear on me and it impacted nearly every facet of my life. In order to grow, I did a considerable amount of self-introspection and self-healing. Now, when it comes to projects like budgeting and forecasting, I tell my team that it is a matter of “degrees of wrong.” We know we will be wrong, but the goal is to minimize just how wrong we will actually be.

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

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