SysAid CEO Sarah Lahav: “Let’s start a movement to teach children empathy”

I’d start a movement to teach children empathy. At the root of injustices — including those that drive the “women in tech” cause — there is a severe lack of empathy. Technology accomplishes wonders in our world, but it’s not creating more empathy — in fact, research suggests it might do the opposite. On a personal note, I see how a […]

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I’d start a movement to teach children empathy. At the root of injustices — including those that drive the “women in tech” cause — there is a severe lack of empathy. Technology accomplishes wonders in our world, but it’s not creating more empathy — in fact, research suggests it might do the opposite. On a personal note, I see how a lack of empathy affects my middle son, who is becoming a talented dancer and faces ridicule and bullying as a result. I don’t think kids his age are developing empathy, or if they are, they’re way behind schedule.

I had the pleasure to interview Sarah Lahav the CEO of SysAid. SysAid Technologies’ first employee, Sarah is now CEO and a vital link between SysAid and its customers since 2003. As CEO, she takes a hands-on role evolving SysAid with the dynamic needs of service managers. Previously, Sarah was VP Customer Relations, where she began her role as #1 advocate and supporter for all SysAid customers. Besides SysAid, Sarah’s top priorities include spending as much time as possible with her three children and dancing in zumba classes!

Thank you for joining us Sarah! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career began in 1992 when I joined the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). I taught infantry how to drive the Israeli version of a Humvee. After two years in the IDF, I worked in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, for two years as the equivalent of a U.S. congressional aide. There, I figured out that I wanted a technical career, but I was way too social to be a coder.

So, I took night classes in IT administration and worked during the day at Iscar Metalworking, where I was the only woman in the IT department. I joined SysAid in 2004 as employee number two and the company’s first tech support representative. I worked my way up through the support department and customer relations team to become CEO in 2013.

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

The first time I went to a conference as CEO of SysAid, no one thought I was the CEO! Part of the reason was because of my Hebrew name, Sarit. Non-Hebrew speakers couldn’t recognize whether this was a male or female name. Plus, most of my counterparts in IT are men, so they expected me to be a man.

This happened again and again, so eventually I adopted the English name Sarah to prevent further confusion.

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 Israel, I know the tech scene, the culture, and the language. When I started visiting Europe, Australia, and North America, I was a fish out of water.

In the U.S., I kept telling potential customers, “I will take you out.” They understood that I wanted to treat them to dinner or drinks. When I used that line in the UK, they interpreted it as, “I will kill you,” because I didn’t specify that I wanted to take them out for dinner or drinks. There was some confusion, but no one was killed.

The lesson was that if I am going to run an international software company successfully, I need to become a student of culture, and I have.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

One thing that makes SysAid stand out is our eagerness to learn from customers, even when the lessons are painful. For example, in March, we suffered an outage at our Virginia datacenter. Our customers couldn’t have been more gracious and understanding, but they did give us feedback. They said we needed to be more direct and transparent with our crisis communications.

During the outage, we were working 24/7 to resolve the problem, but our customers didn’t know that! We assumed that we’d identify the root cause much faster than we did, so we kept postponing announcements. Our lack of communication came across as indifference. So, we listened to our customers and completely revamped our crisis communication and response plan.

We’re always seeking meaningful feedback from customers. We stay humble and never assume that we know better than they do.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

SysAid is always working on exciting new projects (many of which are in stealth mode), and our biggest initiatives are around artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.

Basically, IT people have much rougher jobs than anyone realizes. When things go wrong, they get blamed. When systems are working properly, they get zero credit. Meanwhile, they spend a ridiculous amount of time on repetitive, manual tasks that don’t feel rewarding and that don’t receive appreciation. I’m talking about things like password resets and employee onboarding.

So, we developed Automate Joe, a service orchestration tool that handles all the boring, manual tasks. We think it will help IT service desk agents because they can now automate repetitive work and instead spend more time on creative, valuable projects.

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

Ok, buckle up, Jacob. I’m very outspoken about anything related to “female leaders” and “women in tech.” Not all women like what I have to say.

The problem with the terms “female leaders” and “women in tech” is that they make us seem like aliens who have landed on a foreign planet. Yes, there are gender imbalances in IT in terms of pay, power, and numbers. Yes, some men are chauvinists and mistreat women, myself included. I’m rooting for a future where the phrases “women in ___” and “men in ____” become extinct.

I’ve always believed that business is about people and culture, and that’s true regardless of your sex or gender identity. My advice to female leaders is no different from the advice I’d give to male leaders or transgender leaders: mentor your teammates to become indispensable. When people feel capable and purposeful at work, they do great things on their own initiative. Get out of their way.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Small team or large, you’re always in charge of the culture and of instilling purpose in the work. The difference with a big team is that you need to invest more effort in getting face-to-face time with your employees.

Texts, emails, and other digital communications are not equivalent to in-person conversations. If you want the team to follow, lead them one conversation at a time. You’d be amazed what happens when you sit down with someone and ask about her goals and challenges.

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?

I’m particularly grateful to my oldest son, who is on the spectrum. He is in sixth grade and goes to a regular school rather than a school for kids with special needs. He shows up every day and fights against his disability. He cannot walk away from his challenges, so he accepts his barriers and strives to overcome them.

My son teaches me that we can’t always choose our challenges. We have to deal with what life presents us. As CEO, I can’t walk away from SysAid’s challenges. My son inspires me to confront those challenges daily and never walk away.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My team and I at SysAid try to bring some goodness to the world through our passion and expertise: providing IT service management technology. When certain nonprofits come to us seeking help, we are open to offering our platform and services at a discount or even on a pro bono basis. I’m proud to say that numerous community hospitals use our software along with many other outstanding organizations.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Lesson #1: Have a sense of humor. In my first IT job at Iscar Metalworking, I once installed the wrong operating system on computers that run the manufacturing line. My co-worker said, “You had a blond moment.”

“Well,” I told him, “at least this blond is actually getting something done.”

Could I have exploded on him and gone to HR? Sure, but to what end? If you can remain calm, refuse the role of victim, and laugh when others want you to cry, no one can mess with you.

Lesson #2: Speak up. Once, when I went to a conference with some male colleagues, I noticed that prospects were directing all their technical questions to them. So very nicely, I asked my colleagues to shut up and let me answer.

I don’t care whether you’re an introvert or extrovert or what your personality test scores say. Speak up, otherwise people will fail to recognize how knowledgeable and capable you are.

Lesson #3: Service is an output of accountability. Last year, I canceled a license with one of SysAid’s software vendors because they seemed hell-bent on blaming us for technical issues. They spent service calls trying to convince us that we messed up. Solving the problem was not their priority.

I don’t know how these service desk agents were incentivized, but clearly, there was no incentive to take accountability. As a result, they were incapable of providing service. You can’t solve problems that you’re unwilling to own.

Lesson #4: Find big insights in little details. Leadersare responsible for understanding the full lifecycle of their business. Whenever anything goes wrong at SysAid, I ultimately own it as CEO. So,once a week, I dedicate two hours to a single team within SysAid. I do their work, whether it’s making sales calls, handling tech support, or joining in on quality assurance testing.

That way, I discover the little details that impact our success. Those insights are indispensable when my leadership team and I make critical decisions and plan for the future.

Lesson #5: Always have mentors. If you reach a point where you’re mentoring others, but no one is mentoring you, you’re at risk of stagnating and losing touch with reality. You need people who can say, “Hey, Sarah — I think you’re going about this all wrong. Let’s talk it through.”

Anyone can give you their opinions. The difference with mentors is that they invest in the relationship long term. They don’t obsess over what you’re doing today — they focus on how what you’re doing today connects with your five-year goals.

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?

I’d start a movement to teach children empathy. At the root of injustices — including those that drive the “women in tech” cause — there is a severe lack of empathy. Technology accomplishes wonders in our world, but it’s not creating more empathy — in fact, research suggests it might do the opposite.

On a personal note, I see how a lack of empathy affects my middle son, who is becoming a talented dancer and faces ridicule and bullying as a result. I don’t think kids his age are developing empathy, or if they are, they’re way behind schedule.

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

Two of the greatest gifts in my life have been to pursue my passion for IT and to raise three wonderful children. Golda Meir, the fourth woman to become prime minister of any country, made a comment that has resonated with me: “Women’s liberation is just a lot of foolishness. It’s men who are discriminated against. They can’t bear children.”

Of course, Meir was joking. She was subject to intense discrimination during her career. I love how she turned the tables though. Instead of leaning into victimhood, she recognized one of her immense powers and redirected her pity towards men. That quote isn’t really about childbearing — it’s an attitude towards life.

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 😊

I’d love to have a private breakfast with Winston Churchill, and yes, I know that’s impossible. I’ve had a fixation on Churchill after watching and reading The Darkest Hour.

Churchill fascinates me because he was faced with decisions a leader would never, ever want to make. He was humble and understood his limitations, which is hard to do under such immense pressure. Churchill did suffer from depression and had his vices — namely, drinking — but he accepted responsibility and did his duty anyway.

CEOs have their darkest hours too. Everyone is struggling. But we’re humans, and if we stay humble, we can overcome anything.

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