“Learn from your mistakes” With Sonita Lontoh and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Being in Silicon Valley, I see first-hand how the power of technology, innovation, ingenuity and entrepreneurship can create “magic” that can really make a big impact in people’s lives and literally change the world. I would like to encourage the Silicon Valley community to think of how they can help spread that “magic” to the […]

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Being in Silicon Valley, I see first-hand how the power of technology, innovation, ingenuity and entrepreneurship can create “magic” that can really make a big impact in people’s lives and literally change the world. I would like to encourage the Silicon Valley community to think of how they can help spread that “magic” to the developing world, to increase the cross-collaborations with entrepreneurs from the developing world so they too can leverage the power of innovation and ingenuity to improve the living conditions of all people around the world.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sonita Lontoh.

Sonita is the Global Head of Marketing (CMO) for HP’s 3D Printing & Digital Manufacturing business and has almost two decades of experience focusing on digital transformation both at Silicon Valley start-ups and Fortune 100 global technology companies. She is passionate about advancing more women leaders in technology and her many accomplishments include invitations by the White House to speak at former President Barack Obama’s Global Innovation Summit, recognition from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, induction into the U.S. National Asian American Hall of Fame and inclusion in MIT’s Notable Women Alumni list. Sonita earned her Master of Engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), her M.B.A. from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and her B.S. in Industrial Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Looking back at my career, the path wasn’t always clear, but thinking more about my own journey, I believe having the right guiding principles in the beginning really helped me get on a path what worked well for me.

Right after I graduated college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do and tried many things. I started a company with 2 friends from college, sold it, then I worked in several software companies in Silicon Valley. Afterwards, I decided to go back to graduate school to get both my master’s in engineering and my MBA. I think it’s really in grad school that I started to develop some guiding principles. The first one was that I realized that I really loved the intersection of new technology, new business models and policy. And the second was that I really wanted to work in an area that is contributing something more to society, rather than just selling a product. So, after grad school, I really leveraged these two guiding principles to choose the career that I went into. Over the next decade, I worked at a large Fortune 100 energy holding company, a few smaller venture-backed Silicon Valley technology company, and at the new digital business of a large global industrial conglomerate, Siemens. Although I had both an undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, in addition to an MBA, I have never actually worked as an engineer and have always gravitated towards the business side, though with a technology bent. I personally love Marketing because I love simplifying the complex and articulating them into simple language that resonate with our customers. I also love to work cross-functionally, both with internal and external stakeholders and Marketing provides me with that opportunity. Over time, I developed myself into an executive who focuses on Industrial IoT and Digital Transformation and that’s when HP called for this opportunity to lead global marketing for their new 3D Printing & Digital Manufacturing business.

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

There are many interesting stories as HP 3D Printing & Digital Manufacturing has really allowed me to reflect, learn and foster a growth mindset. But one story stands out. Today, as we all know, the world has changed and we’re in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before, and it is impacting our business, our communities, our lives. But, it is through tough times like this that sometimes who we are as a people shines the brightest.

During this unprecedented time, the HP 3D Printing & Digital Manufacturing team has risen up to the challenge to deliver more value not only for customers, but also for our communities, and for our society. I am so proud of how we’ve responded in these past few months. Under these uniquely-challenging circumstances, the HP teams, together with our ecosystem partners and customers, rallied to quickly design and produce more than 2.3 million mission-critical parts such as PPEs, face masks, face shields, ventilator and respirator parts, nasal swabs, and more to help healthcare workers battle against COVID-19. To me personally, this example really showed that people can truly achieve anything through growth mindset, ingenuity and true collaboration. We could not have achieved this alone and are forever grateful of what we can achieve together with our customers, partners and communities.

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?

This happened many years ago, when I was still in the early years of my career and a junior new employee at one large Fortune 100 company. At the time, I had an important meeting with the CFO of the company. I made the mistake of not jotting down any notes during our meeting. Mind you, I have always had a very good memory and at the time, I didn’t think it was necessary for me to take notes in order to remember and follow up on action items. Noticing that I didn’t take any notes, the CFO asked, “Will you remember all these? You’re not taking any notes?” From that experience, I learned that when people don’t know you well yet, they make assumptions about you based on the standards that they’re used to. Although in that particular case, I didn’t forget the action items that I needed to follow up with, the CFO was surprised and may have thought I didn’t take the meeting seriously. Over time, I developed a very good rapport and professional credibility with the CFO and he better understood my working styles.

None of us can 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?

Yes, there are basically two main people in my life who have truly helped and supported me along the way: my mother and my husband. I grew up in a society that was somewhat traditional, where the role of females were mainly as stay-at-home moms. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with stay-at-home moms and many stay-at-home moms are able to put a strong family foundation from which their children can grow and thrive. In my case, my mother had always been a very strong role model for me, both personally and professionally. In addition to her role as a mother, she is also a very successful entrepreneur and business owner in her own rights, which will always be a part of her legacy. Her success modeled for me the flexibility and commitment that enable a person to overcome challenges, and it reveals ways to navigate the issues surrounding gender diversity in the business world. The other person who has always been there for me is my husband. I attribute a large portion of my success to both my mother and him. My husband is a very successful entrepreneur himself, but he has also always supported my career choices and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. He has also always been the voice of reason and strengths during the ups and downs of my career journey. I think family and our support system are the backbone of our life journey and we should never forget the massive impact that they have in our lives.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

For me personally, being well prepared well in advance release and relieve a lot of stress. There are many factors you cannot control in any meeting, talk or decision, but one thing you can control is to be as well prepared as possible. From time to time, I have to deliver high-level keynotes at global conferences, sometimes, attended by important government officials, including some heads of states. I usually prepare for those high-level presentations well in advance, truly understanding both the message I want to deliver and the style with which I would like to deliver it. I find that delivering your message through powerful personal storytelling is the most impactful method. So, I usually write down the main messages, think of personal stories with which to deliver the main messages compellingly and practice a few times well in advance so my storytelling is natural. By the time the day of the presentation comes, I am usually very relaxed and usually use the time before the presentation to mingle and get to know the audience in person better.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

I think for me, diversity & inclusion is both a business imperative, as well as a values issue. Many studies out there have shown that diversity & inclusion have real impacts to business success and to employee engagement. For example, according to a 2015 McKinsey study, gender-diverse and ethnically-diverse companies outperform industry norms by 15% and 35%, respectively. Moreover, according to a 2017 Deloitte study, approximately 35% of millennials surveyed said that they had left a job for another job that has a more inclusive culture. So, based on these independent studies, I believe business leaders understand that diversity & inclusion is truly a business imperative as well as a value issue.

I also believe that for any company to truly embrace diversity & inclusion, it must have a strong set of diversity & inclusion core values and address the issues in a systemic way. First, it must start from the top, from the board of directors, to the CEO, to the executive teams. It has to have real resources and executive support to encourage diversity & inclusion programs and initiatives. And it has to have real diversity & inclusion goals and metrics in hiring, in developing leaders and in choosing suppliers. It has to be real, comprehensive and systemic.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

First, as I mentioned, it must start from the top. At HP, we’re proud to share that we have one of the most diverse board of directors of any technology company in the US. Approximately 54% of our board of directors are minorities, with approximately 38% women and 30% under-represented minority. We also have a chief diversity officer who has the full support of our board, our CEO and our whole executive leadership team.

From a human resources perspective, we have also realigned our hiring practices to ensure that we have a strong and diverse talent pipeline. For hiring, we ensure that we do not have unconscious bias and that we seriously consider qualified women and underrepresented minorities for the open positions that we have. We are also collaborating with other organizations such as the national Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU) and the Grace Hopper Celebration to ensure that we have access to strong, qualified and diverse talent pool. I’m proud to share that today, women make up approximately 35% of our total global workforce and about 30% of our executive positions. Moreover, underrepresented minorities constitute more than half of our total hiring in the United States.

We also understand in addition to hiring, we also must have programs and initiatives to retain and grow our diverse talent pool. At HP, we achieve this through our Catalyst program for high-potential women and underrepresented minorities and through our Business Impact Networks (BINs), which created local communities around the world where our diverse employees can feel a true sense of belonging, support and purpose.

Last but not least, from a diverse supplier’s perspective, we also have programs and initiatives to ensure that our suppliers base is diverse and representative of both our customers and employee base. In 2019, HP spent approximately 460 million dollars with diverse suppliers in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?

I believe good executives and leaders should be able to clearly articulate the vision of the business, rally the troops and marshal the resources to collectively achieve that vision. Good executives should also be able to make sound decisions, often with incomplete information and have the courage to move forward with that decision. Executives should also be able to balance the needs of the different stakeholders: customers, partners, employees, shareholders, in their decision-making process.

I also believe that good leaders develop other leaders, not other followers. There’s this concept of the leadership journey and the 5 level of leadership by John Maxwell that really resonates with me. Most people start with being a positional leader, that other people follow them mainly b/c of their title/position. This is the easiest but also the least rewarding. But over time, to be a true leader, you must build trust, credibility, influence and most importantly, be willing and able to intentionally develop others to be leaders themselves. When there are more leaders, more of the organization’s goals can be accomplished. The more you raise up new leaders, the more you will change the lives of all members of the team. And if you continue to invest in both growing yourself and developing others who are willing and able to develop yet other leaders, then you may reach the pinnacle of leadership. Personally, I don’t think I’m at the Pinnacle level yet, but as I go through my own leadership journey, the focus of developing my people to be leaders themselves become more and more important.

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

There are many myths about C-level executives, most perpetuated by the media or what we may see in Hollywood movies. As with other myths, some of may have some truths to them, while others are completely not true. One myth many people seem to have about senior executives is that they have all the answers. In truth, most of the time, we don’t. But if we have the right attitude and a growth mindset, we should have the ability to find a direction based on our experience, our network, our research, and the knowledge in our own teams. One of the traits of strong executives is to surround themselves with a strong network of expert and experienced advisors, who can help them with fresh perspectives to evaluate the challenges and opportunities they face.

Another myth people may have about senior executives is that they are oftentimes not approachable as they must have been aggressive jerks in order to get to the senior positions they are in. I think as one becomes more mature and genuinely confident in one’s leadership journey, one adopts more of the “servant leadership” style. Real leaders are comfortable in their own skins, exudes genuine confidence (not arrogance), and have the humility and curiosity to learn from their mistakes.

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

I think some women, especially early in their executive careers, may mistakenly believe that they must adopt the same characteristics as their male counterparts in order to be successful professionally. I truly believe we should just be comfortable in our skins. Behave the way that are natural and true to ourselves. As you grow in your career, you will feel more confident and comfortable to just be who you are. If you are aggressive and ambitious, then be it. If you are also empathetic and soft-spoken, then be it. There is really no one-size-fits-all. Only then can you be an authentic and “sustainable” leader. If you feel people are being discriminatory because of your gender, speak up, in a respectful and non-combative way.

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

To be honest, throughout my career, I usually had a pretty good idea of how the job would turn out. I’m pretty good in understanding since the very beginning the challenges and opportunities of every role I have had. And although the exact specifics and details of those challenges and opportunities may differ for every role, for the most part, the general directions of those challenges and opportunities have been consistent with what I perceived before I took the roles.

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? Can you explain what you mean?

Rather than focusing on being an executive, I would like to discuss a few traits that I believe are necessary to be a strong leader. My own leadership principles have evolved over time, but in general can be summarized as follows:

Leaders are customer-focused.

They take the time to understand the customer’s pain points and can articulate how the company’s solutions are helping to solve the customers’ problems. Leaders encourage other leaders and their team members to be customer-centric.

Leaders act like owners.

They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team.

And as I mentioned previously, leaders develop other leaders, not other followers.

To be a true leader, you must build trust, credibility, influence and most importantly, be willing and able to intentionally develop others to be leaders themselves. When there are more leaders, more of the organization’s goals can be accomplished. The more you raise up new leaders, the more you will change the lives of all members of the team. And if you continue to invest in both growing yourself and developing others who are willing and able to develop yet other leaders, then you may reach the pinnacle of leadership.

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

These are the advice I’d give to any leader, not just to women leaders, especially during these times of uncertainties due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I think during these times of uncertainties, leaders need to be even more authentic, compassionate, and be able to provide a realistic sense of hope. If you have good teams, people are usually motivated to do good work, even during uncertain times, as they want to feel good that they’ve accomplishing something. But during uncertainty, there’re many things that worry people and as a leader you want to be authentic, compassionate and hopeful. You can be authentic by openly and honestly sharing what you know (and don’t know). People appreciate honesty and transparency greatly and would rather hear the truth rather than you sugarcoating. You can show compassion by giving employees the space to complete their work and understanding that some employees may have to take care of their children and/or elderly family members during the day. Moreover, you can provide some realistic sense of hope by creating a safe environment for employees to celebrate the little things in life and making them feel that they’re a part of a community that cares, such as a virtual happy hour, virtual birthday celebration, and/or even sending them some light reading that provides a little inspiration during this uncertain times.

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

As I became more established in my career, I started mentoring and sponsoring many young people, be formally through my own nonprofit or other programs I’m involved in, or informally. One thing I notice with young people these days is that many of them mistakenly believe that in order to be happy, they must pursue their passion and as a result, focus too much on the passion part. Don’t get me wrong, I think passion is important and in fact, it’s best if you can work in an area that you’re passionate about. However, passion in itself is not enough. Over time I have found that true happiness and success come from doing the intersection of what you love (passion), what you’re good at (skills) and what the world needs (purpose). When you focus on passion alone, you are only focusing on yourself. But when you start thinking about how you can combine that passion with your skills and purpose, you shift the frame of reference from you to how you can be a valuable contributor to society and help the world solve its problems. This paradigm shift in thinking is powerful b/c it makes you less self-absorbed and ironically, more likely to be genuinely happy. I’ve found that people who are working hard to solve the biggest problems are oftentimes also compensated in the biggest ways, not just in financial terms, but also, in human satisfaction terms. The good news is that there are a lot of big problems in this world to solve, you can pick your choice. So, as we all think through our own journey, I always encourage people to always think of ways of how we can combine our passion, our skills, and most importantly, our purpose.

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

I think understanding and accepting that life is a journey is important. That sure we may or may not have a plan, but we should at least have a few guiding principles to guide us throughout our journey.

I’d say, for me personally, those guiding principles are:

1) Have a growth mindset, embrace change.

There’s always a delicate balance between the status quo and change. A good business leader balances them and can make sound decisions when faced with change. If you’re lucky enough to foresee the change, initiate and control it. Your colleagues and teams are more likely to respect and trust you when you establish a track record of effective decision making.

2) Learn from your mistakes.

As I say often, fail and fail fast. Perfection is overrated. It’s okay to make a mistake as long as you learn from it. I certainly have made plenty of mistakes, but I always did my best to admit and own up to it. We make mistakes but we learn from it to improve the next round. People need to feel comfortable taking a different route sometimes. If we aren’t making mistakes, we aren’t reaching outside of our comfort zones, and that is the biggest mistake of all.

3) Celebrate small victories.

With everything moving so fast, it can be easy to gloss over small victories. Instead, make a conscious effort to celebrate those. One of my team members recently achieved a small milestone with his projects. It wasn’t much but it was encouraging that he was on the right track. So we celebrated! Whether it’s things like this or your team reaching a monthly goal, stay mindful so that you can notice and celebrate all victories along the way. As business leaders, we have a responsibility to create a nurturing and healthy environment for our team members.

4) Find good mentors AND sponsors, both men and women.

Most people understand the concept of mentorship, but not so much of sponsorship. A mentor is someone you exchange and bounce ideas off of. A sponsor is someone, usually more experienced and quite powerful in the organization, who is willing to put his/her reputation on the line to advocate for you to help advance your career. A good mentor gives advice. A good sponsor advocates for you to earn the opportunity to get ahead. Another thing I’d advise is to become a mentor. I understand this may not feel natural to someone who’s just starting out in his/her career, but in the long run, it helps build your leadership skills tremendously.

5) Don’t just focus on yourself and your passion, but instead, combine your passion (what you love), with your skills (what you’re good at) and most importantly, with your purpose (what the world needs).

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.

Being in Silicon Valley, I see first-hand how the power of technology, innovation, ingenuity and entrepreneurship can create “magic” that can really make a big impact in people’s lives and literally change the world. I would like to encourage the Silicon Valley community to think of how they can help spread that “magic” to the developing world, to increase the cross-collaborations with entrepreneurs from the developing world so they too can leverage the power of innovation and ingenuity to improve the living conditions of all people around the world.

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

There are a few, but one that I like is I think by Thomas Edison, who once said “Innovation is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” and “Vision without execution is hallucination”. But Sun Tzu also said, “Execution without strategy is the noise before defeat.” So the point is, in order to succeed, a company must have both a solid strategy AND execution, it’s not one or the other, the two must go together in synergy.

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.

Can I meet two? One is Jeff Bezos. A lot of his guiding principles such as “It’s always Day 1”, “Always be customer obsessed”, “Focusing on the long-term instead of the short-term”, etc., really resonated with me. When you really think about it, a lot of the work that he and his teams have done with, AWS, and others, have really changed the American retail and cloud infrastructure landscapes as they created new business models and new categories that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. I also would love to meet Warren Buffett as I am a long-time Berkshire Hathaway Class A shareholder and a big believer in value investing. I have even read several versions of his Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis classic book. Finally, I am very impressed by Warren’s disciplines, values, humor, and common sense.

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

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