Mary Beth Vassallo: “Life is a journey, not a destination”

You need to understand the power of influence in order to get things done. In my first few roles, I was single-minded, sometimes like “a bull in a china shop”. That worked up to a certain point, then I got myself a mentor and he taught me that being persuasive and engaging, and you can […]

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You need to understand the power of influence in order to get things done. In my first few roles, I was single-minded, sometimes like “a bull in a china shop”. That worked up to a certain point, then I got myself a mentor and he taught me that being persuasive and engaging, and you can build buy-in from key people.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Beth Vassallo.

Mary Beth Vassallo is Vice President & General Manager of North America at Nexthink. She is a proven sales leader with a consistent track record of delivering revenue performance utilizing consultative selling. She has expertise in building strong, trusted relationships with customers and partners across worldwide geography. Her proven experience includes recruiting, developing, and managing direct and indirect focused sales teams. She held executive positions in large, mid-size as well as pre-IPO start-up companies contributing to turnaround efforts, hyper-growth, and a successful IPO.

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?

I’m a second-generation Italian American, after coming to America in the 20s, my family settled in an Italian neighborhood on the north side of Syracuse. I grew up the youngest of 4 children, with a private catholic education. However, growing up I was extremely dedicated to gymnastics with dreams of becoming the next Olga Korbut. I was always competitive but at the same time a bit of an introverted. Unfortunately, my gymnastics dreams did not pan out — but the fundamentals of concentration, independent strength and competitiveness still serve me well today. I studied Mathematics and Computer Science at Syracuse University. I landed my first job with a consulting company 6 months before graduating and was placed at IBM where I was a software developer on a government project. From there, I moved into IT operations at General Electric.

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

My career has been more like a jungle gym than a ladder. It has given me the opportunity to explore, stretch, learn, and grow. Moving from IT to “the vendor” side was pivotal for my personal growth. I worked at Boston-based Digital Equipment Corporation as a system engineer and moved into sales only because a door opened when the sales rep I supported went out on maternity leave and never came back. This was another critical turning point in my career. She and I are still friends. We talk about her decision to stay home and the impact it had on my career. The next few important steps landed me in my current state — moving from individual contributor to management, building teams and business from the ground up multiple times with different go to market models, expanding to run global/diverse teams and leveraging experiences from large corporations, mid-size hypergrowth companies and startups.

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?

In a previous role, I was a sales leader trying to break a large, male-dominated organization. After trying every trick in my book to land introductions, I decided to go out on a limb and send flowers to all the assistants of the executives I needed to meet with. Over time instead of being kept at arm’s length, they helped me secure every meeting I needed. From that, I was able to make serious traction and over a four-year period increased our business from 25 Million to 400 Million. Not only did this teach me the power of a kind gesture but also to think outside the box without spoiling the opportunity. Sometimes you have to get creative in order to make a dent but that creativity should only ever help you ease the door open — not blast through.

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?

From an early age, I knew regardless of the career path I chose that I wanted to be in a leadership role and my mother was a big influence in that. She saw my leadership skills as a young girl and was the one who pushed me to enter the technology world before most people even knew what a computer was. Every time I would land a new job or get a promotion, I would call to let her know and she’d say, “one step closer to becoming a CEO.” She is 99 now and asks me why I work so hard…

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?

I would love to say that I practice yoga or meditation, but the truth is that the best way I relieve stress is through preparation. For me, the only way I feel comfortable ahead of a big meeting or presentation is to prepare and feel confident. When I feel most confident is when I am least stressed. Last year, I was preparing for our Experience event where I was the master of ceremony and I started preparing weeks in advance. I pulled out many old school tricks that help me to prepare — note cards, rehearsing in front of a mirror, etc. During that day, while on stage there were many times that I had to improvise but because I felt confident there was no stress and I was able to do so seamlessly.

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?

Diversity and inclusion have never been more important in the workplace. I’ve seen the importance of diversity in all aspects of my career both as an executive in a US-based company and when I was an executive for an Israeli company. I’ve seen firsthand how gender and cultural diversity brings a different mindset, point of view, creativity and innovation to a company. It starts at the top and if the leadership team is more open to listening in a diverse environment, then they are more likely to see their company flourish. It creates more opportunities and ultimately, attracts more and better talent.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society?

The first step we need to take to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society is to look in the mirror and truly understand (and be honest about) where changes need to be made internally. From there, it’s all about talking to all different types of people and listening to their backgrounds and problems. When it comes to recruiting, this may mean looking outside of your normal parameters to find candidates — it cannot just be about filling a role but finding someone who brings more to the table while still being able to do the work at hand.

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?

If we look at an orchestra, the CEO would be the conductor. They are the ones to set the mission and strategy goals and put the teams in place. Ultimately, they are responsible for every piece of the company to fit together — similar to how a conductor is responsible for ensuring every musician plays cohesively. Executives have a similar role but only for their piece of business. Each executive is the conductor to a piece of the overall business goals and executes against it — they are responsible for that line of business and the strategy around it.

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

I like to think that there are not many challenges between men and women executives and that our work can speak for itself. That said, for me personally, the biggest challenge is not in the day-to-day but when I first started in a leadership role. I realized that many of my role models and mentors were men and there was a lack of women in the roles I aspired for. This has been something I keep in mind often and is one reason that mentoring the next class of female leaders is so important to me.

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

When I started at Nexthink as VP and GM of North America, I felt confident going into the position — I knew what I was walking into. There were no striking differences between what I thought the job would be. However, in the past, I have gone into a job with goals in mind on how fast I wanted to make a tangible impact to the larger team. What I quickly learned is that oftentimes, it takes a long time to get through the early stages of logistics and structure changes when working with new teams. To me, it was like building a house — if I built a house on sand, it would immediately crumble. I had to prioritize the foundation first in order to create change and impact that would be long-lasting.

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?

To be a good executive requires you to have the desire for the greater good, company mission and the people. I think it’s a common misconception that you need to know and be everything but what is more important is that you surround yourself with people that you trust and that can fill out your shortcomings. Putting the right team in place is the first step in being a successful executive. On top of that, communication and being able to actively listen is key. If you are not able to partner with and inspire your team, you will not be able to flourish and achieve your business goals.

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

Understand that the way you communicate may not be heard or consumed in certain workplace cultures, therefore you need to recognize what is working and adjust accordingly. Unfortunately, many times when women are communicating in a passionate manner, it may seem emotional. To me, I have never been misconstrued when I speak authentically. Personally, I believe authenticity is the most important trait any leader can have and can help to immediately connect with someone and establish trust.

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

My son was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 8 years old. I quickly learned how important having a community of families going through the same thing was so I became involved in Take Steps — Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation. I have now been actively involved with the organization for over 15 years. Luckily, my son is now in remission and on a medication to help but there is no cure. I am passionate about fundraising and supporting this cause so that one day — there may be a cure for all.

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

You need to understand the power of influence in order to get things done. In my first few roles, I was single-minded, sometimes like “a bull in a china shop”. That worked up to a certain point, then I got myself a mentor and he taught me that being persuasive and engaging, and you can build buy-in from key people.

Your career may have an impact on your personal life (as much as you try to balance it). Work-life balance is so important. However, I would not be able to continue at the pace I do if I did not consider my work also as a hobby. Although I have missed seeing my friends due to travel or long hours, I have made such great friends at the companies I’ve worked for.

Cement customer relationships throughout your career. Networking and having connections that you can count on is such a critical part of any job and I wish I prioritized this more in my early years.

External passions will help your career. As I mentioned, I consider my work to also be a hobby but it wasn’t until later that I realized other passions such as my charity work with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation helps my career and build my skills.

You may be faced with an ethical dilemma or something at work that conflicts with your values. Trust your instincts, consider things very carefully and confide in people close to you because you could save someone else from the same trouble.

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.

There are so many people in the world who are looking for opportunities to thrive, build unique skills to progress and solidify their future. I would love to do more for that cause. Recently I was involved in fundraising for an organization called Resilient Coders. This organization strives for social justice through economic empowerment, and in the opportunity for meritocracy in tech by training people of color for high-growth careers and connecting them with jobs.

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

My favorite life lesson quote is “Life is a journey, not a destination,” originally stated by Ralph Waldo Emerson. A huge part of living is the process of learning and figuring it all out. In my early years, I was timid and had to overcome my fears. Over time, I realized life is about living and we should enjoy the unfolding and the process. As I navigated the journey, I became more confident and my fears started to subside. Every time a bit of doubt or insecurity enters my thoughts, I try to remember it is just another journey…

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

There are many prominent people I admire so selecting just one to meet with is difficult. Today I would choose Lady Gaga. There are a million reasons why but here are my top 5. Gaga is seen by some as controversial but all I see authenticity. Beyond the makeup and costumes, she is sensitive, caring, kind, open, raw, and so real but she also has a good sense of humor and can make you laugh. This is why she is loved around the world! She was born talented but stayed true to her values, worked very hard to become a top — singer, songwriter, and actress. She is a humanitarian and channeled her fame to do well in this world. #Bekind21

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