Being an executive at a startup is very different from being a senior leader at a larger company. A senior leader at a larger company largely sits in “vision setting and team-coaching mode.” In contrast, an executive at a startup will find themselves doing many things, including things not really in their job description but that the company isn’t staffed to do.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Bucala.
Nicole Bucala is the vice president of business development at Illusive Networks. She has a proven track record of bringing innovations to the market within the security industry. Nicole came to Illusive from RSA Security where she was Head of Strategic Business Development and Technology Alliances. During her tenure at RSA, she built out the strategic partnership team and achieved annual triple digit partnership revenue growth through closing a variety of inventive partnership deals. Earlier in her career she served the U.S. Government, where she managed complex operations covering military science & technology and counterterrorism issues. Nicole received her MBA from Harvard Business School, her S.M. from Georgetown University, and her S.B. from MIT.
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 started my job serving my country, where I worked on counterterrorism operations using principles of technology and security. After three years, I decided that the government lifestyle wasn’t for me, and went back to school for an MBA. I still knew security was my passion, so I joined the private sector at a major cybersecurity company where I felt as energized about their goals as I did about protecting my country in my first job. I always seek to join companies that are mission oriented, like my current employer, which makes a product that benefits the greater good. There is nothing more satisfying than getting a call from a customer grateful that they had our technology deployed as we caught an attacker that other tools missed.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I joined Illusive, the women employees I met were excited to have a woman on the executive team (the only one at that point in time!) As I got to know them, I found something fascinating. Contrary to American tech companies which have predominantly men designing and developing the product, at Illusive, at least half of the people who made the product are women. This is because the company is Israeli, and everyone in Israel has to join the army and serve the country as a young adult. A lot of Israel Defense Force jobs are in cyber defense & offense, so Israel’s Army graduates have excellent skills in software engineering. Anyhow, this difference in gender makeup in engineering just goes to show you: there’s no difference between men and women in the skills their brain can develop. It’s all about what the culture inculcates as far as aspirations in young people.
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?
I took one day off (Saturday) between jobs: rather than resign earlier, I really wanted to finish up some projects at my old employer before moving on. This was not much of a break and so my head didn’t get time to re-set. I was so passionate about my prior employer (RSA), that when I introduced myself at my new company, I’m sure I must have accidentally said “I’m the VP of Biz Dev at RSA” a couple of times instead of at “Illusive”. I also was so used to typing my former boss’s name in emails that I almost sent him an email intended for my new boss — and caught it last minute. Next time, I’ll negotiate harder for more time off before a new job.
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?
There are probably two people. The first is my significant other. He stuck with me across several ups and downs, while I was earning three higher level degrees, across multiple years of long-distance and across five different jobs at all sorts of levels. When I complain to him about a problem, he pays attention and listens. He is incredibly gifted at both taking my side and giving helpful feedback, which is truly an art that most people can’t do. He’s like a problem-solver in my pocket! The second is my first manager in the industry. I was really lucky to work for someone who had enduring faith in my ability to learn and have an impact on those around me. He chose to hire me directly out of school, when I didn’t have much relevant technical experience, and in my first week on the job he told me I was “too intense, and a bit rough around the edges” and that when he received my resume, he thought it “landed in the wrong resume pile”. I made a lot of mistakes when I worked for him, but he was always exceedingly optimistic and patient, and over the years taught me much of what I know. Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone with those characteristics as their manager.
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 am someone who really mimics the environment around me, and I feed off of other people’s energy, positivity, or lack thereof. Fortunately, I have surrounded myself with an amazingly brilliant, confident, positive and energetic team of direct reports. We all try to be hugely supportive of each other and I’m really fortunate that they are great listeners. If I have an upcoming presentation or board meeting or call I’m worried about, shooting the breeze with one of my team members is a sure way to get me in a happy, confident mood. I also am really big into outdoors activities: love to kayak, horseback ride, trail run and that helps me relax.
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?
We all have our unconscious biases — each and every one of us. They are formed by our unique experiences over the course of our lives. It’s key to have leaders who can empathize with all the different types of challenges people may face. Unfortunately, it’s lack of empathy that kills relationships, teamwork and opportunity. The only way to gain that true empathy at the top is to make sure the leadership team is comprised of members who’ve faced a different set of challenges and found ways to overcome them.
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.
Each leader must have an obligation to not stand by when they see unfair behavior. If you are a leader, it’s your duty to notice these things, to speak up, and seek to change the behavior of others to create a more fair and inclusive environment. I take it on myself to fight for proper pay for women and men who work for me. If someone comes to me with a pay or leveling concern, I support my employees in making the case they need to make to get paid what they deserve. Right after I started here, I initiated the Illusive Women in Cyber Forum that focuses on advancing and empowering women in the cybersecurity industry through leadership development, education and building a personal brand. I hope through this forum we can expand networks, advance leadership skills, cultivate positive and creative thinking and ultimately generate the leadership team of the future in the cybersecurity industry.
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?
An executive, like any other senior leader, has to set a vision, and then mobilize direct and indirect reports to execute. What’s different is the executive has to look out for the welfare of the people in the company as a whole, including those who do not report to you. I am a big believer that people are your most important ingredient for success. Resolving conflict, helping talent grow, becoming aware of your blind spots and helping others see theirs, is absolutely essential for teamwork, for talent attraction and retention, and for achievement. As an executive, you have to be really good at working with lots of different types of people and sticking with them through the ups and the downs. Most importantly, you can’t expect to have your people treat your customers well if they themselves are not treated well by the executive team.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Some people say jobs get easier as you get higher in rank, because you gain more expertise — you stop doing and start coaching. I find it actually gets a lot harder, perhaps because I’m a people pleaser. You have people underneath you that you need to take care of. You have people above you who want your results to be perfect. And you may have peers put pressure on you or be competitive with you. You get squeezed from all sides and it’s almost impossible to make everyone happy.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There are a number of challenges, but one I’ll home in on that isn’t frequently discussed, is the difficulty women have (compared to men) in developing an extensive “buddy” network! I took a big risk in joining my current employer at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I hadn’t met anyone there in person, other than the CEO for thirty minutes at a recent industry conference. I was going into a sales role that would typically have had me on a plane every week, but I’d have to reach out and form relationships over Zoom from my house. Could it be done? Some of my older male mentors pointed out to me that if they were in my shoes and under pressure to “just get a deal done”, they’d call up one of their buddies who owed them a favor — which they recognized that, at my early age and with my gender, I couldn’t really do because I didn’t have the “buddy club” they did. That’s why I started the Women in Cyber Forum by Team8 and Illusive — to better connect women in the industry and help them form a crucial network of friends.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
My job requires much more technical expertise than I initially anticipated. This is forcing me to grow and bend in this direction really fast, and it will serve me well for the rest of my career.
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?
Bravery to rock the boat, and the ability to deliver solid results fairly quickly. If you deliver results but don’t have the bravery to make waves, you’ll stay a solid individual contributor. If you challenge conventional ideas but don’t have a way to follow through, you won’t be promoted to leadership. If you get put in a leadership position and put forth new proposals but can’t deliver results, you won’t be kept on the leadership team.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Have fun with your team. Most people want to enjoy talking with their boss, solving problems with them, and to feel appreciated by them for their efforts. Laugh, be silly, be humble, help them when they need it and ask them for their help. They’ll appreciate you for it.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I feel passionately about making sure unconscious bias does not affect pay and promotion progression for employees. I make a point to stand up for both men and women I see in the workplace who aren’t being recognized fairly for their full potential, and to support those who feel they are under leveled or underpaid and wish to pursue a resolution.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Have a plan for how to leverage all the digital communications options. With Slack, Email, iPhones and Zoom, working across 5 time zones and two cultures, I had trouble keeping up with all the different communication styles.
- Get a crash course on cultural differences in communications within your organization. If I had focused on the differences between American and Israeli communication styles, that would have helped me avoid some misunderstandings in the beginning.
- Being an executive at a startup is very different from being a senior leader at a larger company. A senior leader at a larger company largely sits in “vision setting and team-coaching mode.” In contrast, an executive at a startup will find themselves doing many things, including things not really in their job description but that the company isn’t staffed to do.
- My team would have confidence in my ability to lead right off the bat and that I could take the reins and run with things more quickly. I was coming from a company where there was a long path to proving oneself, gaining alignment and buy-in before beginning to execute. My current company, being smaller and in high-growth mode, doesn’t have time for that.
- That small wins for a big company can be big wins for a smaller company, due to the earlier stage of its growth cycle.
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’d inspire a movement that really focuses people to be outward facing, to spend the predominant amount of their thought patterns on others and how they can positively help other people. I have observed that many people become unhappy because they focus too much inwardly on their own feelings and needs. They are constantly seeking to climb the next step: to seek the next material purchase, the next status symbol, the next promotion. This can lead people to be greatly unhappy. I think the most important thing in life is to focus on the impact you have on others. How many people do you help in some way — help find an education, help seek fair treatment, help learn a new skill, help rise through their career? When I look back on chapters of my life, I don’t remember the achievements much, but I remember the people who helped me and the people I helped and that’s what makes me most happy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Most of us think we have limited money and unlimited time. In reality, the opposite is true: we have very limited time on this earth, while our fortunes can grow or shrink.” — I don’t know where I first heard this, but it really stuck with me. I make sure that I don’t take jobs for the salary (although I always make sure I’m paid close to what I’m worth in the competitive market for a particular role). I take jobs where I think I’m going to be able to work on something really challenging and have a solid impact on many people in the limited time I have.
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
Any of our board members, including but not limited to Nadav Zafrir, Yuval Sacher, Dave DeWalt, Aaron Jacobsen, David Cowan, Jeff Williams, Daniel Karp, Mony Hassid, and others. They each have extensive experience picking the best investments in their field. I’d spend the entire breakfast trying to find out their secrets for knowing where to put their money.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.