“The most powerful leaders are those who are their authentic selves, which inspires others to be their true selves” With Nicole Alvino of SocialChorus

Be genuine: No one needs or wants another fake person or more jargon. The most powerful leaders are those who are their authentic selves, which inspires others to be their true selves. One of the most important things an employee ever told me was how he felt he could completely be himself as a gay […]

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Be genuine: No one needs or wants another fake person or more jargon. The most powerful leaders are those who are their authentic selves, which inspires others to be their true selves. One of the most important things an employee ever told me was how he felt he could completely be himself as a gay man in a traditionally ‘bro culture’ sales role. Creating that type of environment that supports employees’ unique traits and passions is critical.

I had the pleasure to interview Nicole Alvino, co-founder and chief strategy officer, SocialChorus. Nicole is a two-time company founder and current chief strategy officer at SocialChorus, the leading workforce communications company. She guides the company’s strategic growth and direction and works with leaders at Fortune 500 companies to help them transform their employee experience. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and three young sons.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to your specific career path?

My journey started with jail time. Not mine, don’t worry! I love inspiring change — in people and organizations — to bring innovative concepts to reality. With this in mind, I started my career at Enron, which at the time was creating markets in everything from weather derivatives to dark fiber capacity, in addition to gas and electricity. I was working in structured finance, which was incredibly exciting until my bosses went to jail.

Two were mentors of mine — who wrote my letters of recommendation for business school. To say I was disillusioned with the business world was an understatement. I always thought business played an important role in solving big problems and driving change to create a better world — but this experience caused me to completely rethink that. After some backpacking and soul-searching in the South Pacific, I realized that I still loved business and the impact it can make on society — I just needed to do it my own way. At that point, I committed myself to only starting companies where I could control the culture and the ethics, which are a necessary foundation to deliver the societal impact I know business can have. Fast forward and today I am a two-time company founder focused on creating a better, more connected worker experience around the globe.

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

My interesting stories are all about our customers and employees — since I am the most proud of the work they do. SocialChorus is a workforce communications platform that transforms the way the organizations connect and align with all of their employees. We believe every worker matters and ALL workers deserve to be as connected and as informed as the CEO. We give workers consumer-like technology and leaders a communications mission-control, where they can create and target the right content to the right worker at the right time to align their business — and drive culture and the bottom line.

One of my favorite stories takes place in Midland, Michigan, the home of The Dow Chemical Company. Dow is a phenomenal company doing incredibly innovative work. We went to meet with executives to explain our vision and technology and how they could better connect their global workforce. Like many manufacturing companies — they had a challenge in reaching their manufacturing employees through traditional communication channels. Dow’s leaders agreed with our vision and loved our product and team, and now, we are almost three years into our relationship and have 85 percent of their workforce engaged on our platform, helping them to reach every worker with the information and stories they need to thrive at work. Recently, I was at a dinner party where there was a Dow employee, who was able to show me his Dow Connect app and tell me how he and his co-workers use it to stay connected and better align distributed teams. I love seeing the change I am inspiring benefit others!

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 am not sure it’s a funny mistake, but a big one to mistake and one that I have really learned from. For any leader, hiring and retaining top talent is one of the most important responsibilities. My mistake was not trusting my gut and intuition. In my first startup, I was so eager to hire a manager to offset some of my day-to-day operational duties that I was hasty. I had a bad feeling about a particular individual, but allowed my desire to fill the role quickly overshadow what I knew to be a bad hire.

This hire was not only the wrong culture fit, but he ended up actually stealing from the business, so I had to fire him on the spot. My gut had told me that he was not telling the full truth in his interview process and I learned the hard way the need to listen to that. Sadly, I have made additional hiring mistakes over the years, but have learned to trust my intuition in these situations. As my first-grade son is learning, ‘mistakes are magical’ and am grateful for making bad ones to make me a better leader.

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

SocialChorus’ customers include seven of the Fortune 50 — which, humbly, makes our company stand out. The more important part is that we share values that EVERY worker matters with some of the largest companies in the world. Our shared passion for a more connected employee experience and a focus on deskless workers — i.e., the 80 percent of the global workforce who don’t sit at a desk — is really important.

One of my favorite memories is having one of Hilton’s C-level executives tell me they needed a better way to connect and engage ALL their team members around culture. Conrad Hilton’s founding value of hospitality is core to Hilton’s culture and something that he and his team are passionate about delivering — providing the same experience to every housekeeper that the executives get. They have deployed our technology worldwide to all their team members. We share this value around the importance of reaching and engaging EVERY worker with some of the most incredible companies — Ford, Kohler, AB InBev, Phillips66, Cargill, M&G Prudential, PVH Corp, Love’s Travel Stops — just to name a few of our customers.

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

We are focused on giving the deskless worker a more connected and fundamentally better work life. Only 1 percent of software venture funding each year goes toward the deskless worker — however, they represent 80 percent of the global workforce, and growing. I believe that every worker regardless of pay grade, status, location, etc. deserves to have the same access to technology as the CEO. We continue to iterate on our technology and experience that we can give to every worker. We have an incredibly talented product and engineering team who continues to surprise and delight our customers!

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

I believe in creating a culture of open, honest communication and one that encourages and rewards challenging the status quo and risk-taking to drive innovation. I believe that having an active hand in innovation makes any team thrive. Any hard problem requires new ways of thinking and I firmly believe women can bring new points of view and a different perspective to problem-solving. Diversity in thought has proven to drive business results, and women can drive this diversity in thought by modeling and inviting open, honest communication and collaboration.

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

I will go back to direct, honest communication here. And add the importance of delegation — I have found that a 10-minute ‘stand-up’ once a week for the whole team and/or a short weekly video update (under two minutes!) is a great way to keep a large team aligned on the high-level goals and vision. This way, your managers are well-positioned to manage their teams for performance — both operationally and culturally.

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?

Cheryl Lipshutz. I have only had one female boss and it was very early in my career, when I was 23 working in structured finance at Enron. She was also my only business school recommender who did not go to jail (the other two were men who did). Cheryl empowered and elevated me in a very male-dominated culture. There were several times when she would tromp us both up to the 50th floor, where all the executives sat — and tell very senior leaders that I needed to be there and was the most competent person to do the work required on a certain deal (even though I was the youngest person in the room by 15 years).

When Cheryl was leading a big corporate development deal and our CFO told her she could have anyone in the business to work with, she chose me. He almost did a double-take and wondered why she would choose someone so junior as her top draft pick. It was that type of unabashed action and confidence in my ability that has remained with me throughout my entire career. I am eternally grateful for the example she led and for showing me I could hold my own in any room with any type of executive.

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

To be honest, at this point in my life with three boys ages 4, 5 and 7, my biggest focus is on being present and raising them to be thoughtful, compassionate, contributing citizens of the world. Between this incredibly important parenting work at home and working to grow SocialChorus (which requires a lot of travel to visit our global customer base), I do not have much time or energy left. However, I am very passionate about inspiring our female employees and setting an example for them, as I believe the world is a better place with more empowered women working in it.

I also firmly believe that life is a journey and we are able to contribute and experience different things at different points in life. Before I had children, I was focused on supporting women in the developing world with the education and life skills necessary to be economically self-sufficient. I spent time working with some incredible women in Kenya and Ethiopia who were able to do meaningful work in their local communities to educate young girls and women. This type of education of a community is always the foundation for economic independence and success.

What would you say are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each. This will be used for the BuzzFeed roundup stories.)

Be honest: I started my career at Enron and saw my bosses go to jail. This disillusioning experience taught me that no amount of fame or financial gain is worth compromising your integrity. Especially, in our ‘post-truth’ era, people are yearning for truth. Clear, concise truth. Operate with integrity first, and all your other goals will fall into place.

Be genuine: No one needs or wants another fake person or more jargon. The most powerful leaders are those who are their authentic selves, which inspires others to be their true selves. One of the most important things an employee ever told me was how he felt he could completely be himself as a gay man in a traditionally ‘bro culture’ sales role. Creating that type of environment that supports employees’ unique traits and passions is critical.

Listen, especially to your critics: Leaders need to make decisions. True listening — not “wait-to-talk” listening — gives you the best information to make decisions. Ask questions so you can understand the breadth and depth of an issue. Your customers. Your partners. Your employees. And your critics. You always need a different point of view. It’s a good check to ensure that your decision is the right one.

Empower, and eat lunch last: The best leaders build incredible teams who are executing on the vision the leader sets. You must empower people at all levels to take risk, make decisions and fail quickly. Part of that empowerment is showing a level of sacrifice — eating last — which demonstrates the value you place in your team.

Lead by action: As the saying goes, actions speak so much more loudly than words. In order to truly lead, it must be by actions. Words are incredibly powerful and great leaders should be able to inspire and mobilize with words. But nothing replaces your actions — especially what you are doing when you think no one is paying attention. One of the most meaningful compliments I have ever received was when my one of our superstar employees said she thinks to herself, ‘What would Nicole do?’ in challenging situations.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

With three young sons, I have become very passionate about experiential, community-based early childhood education. After my boys’ experience at their Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool (a student-centered educational philosophy that incorporates experiential learning), I truly believe the world would be a better place if children — all children — learned the importance of working together and working through conflict at a young age. This early childhood foundation of working together through challenges and differences is such a key part of developing children into adults who can make the world a better place. Sadly, far too many children do not have access to early education at all, which puts them at a huge disadvantage in the rest of their lives.

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

“Live a life that entails risk, requires soul and invites reflection.”

I am not entirely sure where I first saw this, but I have had it hanging in my office for the last decade. I believe that the most amazing experiences and parts of life come from doing things that invite risk and require soul since you are completely out of your comfort zone. Starting my first company was the hardest thing I had ever done professionally — it required risk and soul, and lots of sweat and tears. However, I would not have learned important business and life lessons without it.

That is where the reflection part comes in. We need to be able to reflect on our experiences and learn from them. I have been very fortunate to travel quite a bit — I have been to 65 countries and lived on 4 continents — and my travel experiences exemplify this quote. There is nothing quite like sharing a conversation with a Bedouin on the Sinai peninsula, or taking a tea ceremony class with Japanese Obasans in Tokyo, or being invited into the home of a Sherpa in Kathmandu. These are rich experiences and represent the essence of life.

Parenting is a large theme in my life right now, which is another metaphor for this quote. I hope to continue to take risks and learn from my mistakes so I can be a better person. And mother. And leader.

Nicole’s Social Profiles:

● Twitter: @nalvino


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