“Why effective leaders need to create opportunities for their team to grow” With Gladys Kong, CEO of UberMedia

Invest in your own team. An effective leader looks for (and creates) opportunities where his/her team will grow. Part of my job is to know what career paths my employees want and support them on that journey; they deserved to be challenged and grow in the areas they are interested in. If you invest in […]

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Invest in your own team. An effective leader looks for (and creates) opportunities where his/her team will grow. Part of my job is to know what career paths my employees want and support them on that journey; they deserved to be challenged and grow in the areas they are interested in. If you invest in your people on this level, they are more fulfilled, interested and engaged, which ultimately benefits the business because their growth paths are reflective of the business’s growth path. Secondly, and more importantly, listen. Great leadership can be defined by healthy environments where people are given a voice that’s being heard at the highest of levels.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Gladys Kong, CEO of UberMedia,dedicated to innovating and developing new ideas within technology startups. Since joining the company as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) in 2012, Gladys has been responsible for growing the business and building a team to take it to the next level and beyond. In 2016 and 2015, Gladys was named one of Business Insider’s “30 Most Powerful Women in Mobile Advertising.” In 2016, Mobile Marketer named her one of the 25 “Mobile Women to Watch.”

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

I grew up in Hong Kong and first came to the US as a teenager, attending high school in Northern California. My parents were both math teachers at one point in their career, so it was very important to them that my two sisters and I were good at math — some would say that’s very typical Chinese parenting! I remember as a young kid, every summer my mom would go through the math textbook for the next year and teach us everything before the school year even started. Her philosophy is that if you are always ahead, then you won’t be intimidated by the subject and you will always have the confidence you need to excel. So, I followed that path and have always been drawn to subjects related to math and science. Even through college — I got my Engineering degree from Caltech, then later my masters in computer science from UCLA — math and engineering always felt very natural and led me down the path of becoming an engineer first, then a CTO, now a CEO. When I look at my career, the aspect that I truly love is problem solving. For example, programming at its core is finding a way to make something work, whether it’s as simple as sorting a list of numbers or developing a game, it’s about thinking through a problem, executing on a solution, and VOILA, It works! That’s what I love. In my role today as a CEO, problem solving is still a large part of the job, and it’s a similar process of thinking through problems, working with my team to brainstorm solutions, executing and finding out what works.

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

For me, the biggest story of our journey so far is how constant reinvention defines success. If you’re doing something right, you’ll be working in an ultra-competitive market, and your competitors will continually eroding your margins. In order to not only survive — but to thrive — you have to constantly seek new opportunities. Our story of reinvention was migrating our business from an ad sales business at low margins to become a platform advertising company at higher margins to become a data analysis and sales company at even higher margins. To do this we had to take risks and invest in new areas, and be willing to kill off old businesses to shift the resources to the new. Those were often scary decisions, but paid off for us handsomely in a more protectable, faster-growth business.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?

It’s not exactly funny but it’s something I learned a lot from and happened when I was a first-time manager as a VP running my own R&D group. I was faced with my first ‘employee issue’ and I was very nervous about how to handle it properly. I read management books, sat down with another VP to figure out the proper way to handle and felt well-prep. Halfway through the conversation with the employee, s/he started crying — which I did not expect as I considered him/her a friend — and I wondered what I did wrong. I asked, “what did I say that made you cry?” She said, “It’s like I’m talking to a different person. You were talking to me as a manager and that person was unrecognizable and scared me.” I was so focused on being a manager and ‘handling it’ that I forgot to be me.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

That situation taught me a valuable lesson: no matter what it is, you have to be authentic and true to who you are. Be yourself always. In that situation, I forgot to listen — which is such a large part of who I am as a human being. I completely missed the mark in what I thought a manager was and how a manager was supposed to act when talking to someone.

What do you think makes your company stand out?

Our genuine love and respect for data and technology. Our culture is believing we are a technology company, even when our customers aren’t always technical people. Everything we do is rooted in good methodology and sound technology. I am steadfast that UberMedia can stand by our technical integrity — no vaporware, no promises we can’t keep. We never forget where our value lies, and that’s the tech!

Can you share a story?

We recently hosted a customer dinner party and I met one of our new customers in the travel sector. I asked him “What made you choose UberMedia to work with?” He explained to me his company has a unique business challenge that he strongly believes mobile location data can help solve. He knows there’s no readily available solution, but he was hoping to talk to an expert in mobile location data to see if they can come up with something together. So, he started contacting all the location data companies he knows of and described the problem he was looking to solve. The only company who responded to him was UberMedia. Our sales person was interested in learning about his unique business challenge and then brought it up to our Data Science team to see if we can come up with a solution. A couple weeks later, we showed him a prototype of what we could do, and our recommended approach to solving his issue. The level of personalized attention and care was what made us unique, coupled with our genuine interest in data and technology to help clients answer their business questions. That is shown through the curiosity and passion the team has to listen and solve problems.

This also reminded me that business is personal — there should be no clear delineation between the two if you are doing right by your customers. It has helped me personally as a leader to get reminders like this every now and then — the folks you work with, whether they be customers, partners, or employees, are people that deserve a personal connection with you. Having that as a foundation for a business relationship makes your professional successes easier to attain as a true partnership and make for more rewarding wins.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? Always!

How do you think that will help people?

With our experience working with many companies of various sizes across different verticals in the past few years, we are incorporating our knowledge and expertise into our data platform to make it extremely flexible and easy to use to serve company of all scales. Whether our client is a Fortune 100 company or a regional brand with a handful locations, we want to arm them with data sets that can answer their unique business questions. For a retailer, whether you have one store or thousands of stores across the country, you want to know more about your customers, you want to know the foot traffic to your stores and more importantly, to your competitor’s stores, and in 2019, we are putting all that at our client’s fingertips. That is revolutionary for any brands or store owners, they can now make more informed business decisions by having access to customer insights that were previously not available to them through the click of a few buttons. We are very excited about that.

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

Invest in your own team. An effective leader looks for (and creates) opportunities where his/her team will grow. Part of my job is to know what career paths my employees want and support them on that journey; they deserved to be challenged and grow in the areas they are interested in. If you invest in your people on this level, they are more fulfilled, interested and engaged, which ultimately benefits the business because their growth paths are reflective of the business’s growth path. Secondly, and more importantly, listen. Great leadership can be defined by healthy environments where people are given a voice that’s being heard at the highest of levels.

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

Scaling a team is never easy; there will be growing pains. The best thing you can do as a leader is to prepare your team for speed bumps and work together to prepare or avoid. Part of this is to take a serious interest in training the next level of managers so that growth is well supported on every rung of the corporate ladder.

A good leader puts the necessary investments of time/energy/resources so individuals can thrive for the collective good. Often times, start-up founders make themselves crazy because they try to do it all, not having built a team that they trust to perform their roles well. Most of the time, that leadership ‘style’ (if you want to call it that) impedes growth, frustrates employees, and destroys morale and effectiveness. As a leader, if your foundation isn’t strong with a well-supported leadership team, the more you grow, the more unstable the organization.

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 could think of a few people whom I am very grateful for their help and inspiration to get me to where I am today. One particular person who came to mind is Bill Gross, Chairman and CEO of IdeaLab. I have known Bill for more than half my life, he definitely inspired me to be an entrepreneur. I remember doing my first summer internship for Bill while I was a student at Caltech. I worked on a prototype of an educational software for young children, creating interactive graphical encyclopedia pages to teach important dates and facts in history. I was amazed by the product vision and how much I was encouraged to be creative in developing the prototype and to come up with solutions every step of the way. That experience taught me many important lessons that I still remember today. One of them was how empowerment and encouragement unlock human potential. Another lesson I learned was it doesn’t matter how many of my ideas failed, it’s important to keep looking for one that works. That is a lesson that has helped me tremendously throughout my career and helps me to keep a positive attitude.

After I graduated from Caltech and got my Masters at UCLA, I had the opportunity to work for Bill again at Idealab as the head of Research and Development and then again at UberMedia when he mentored me and taught me valuable skills to be a leader and a CEO. I feel very fortunate that I had the opportunity to watch upclose how Bill made inspirational presentations about new ideas and about our company. If I were to name the one thing that I learned from Bill that has helped me the most in my career, I would say it is the “can do” attitude that he inspired in me, which leads me to inspire in my team. That has helped me and my team through very difficult times and challenging situations. I am forever grateful for that.

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

This has been a growing focus for me personally, as well as for UberMedia. Three years ago we started hosting a charity event every Christmas to celebrate our success by doing something to help our community — both locally and globally. So far, we’ve spent a day at the Los Angeles County Food Bank, made shoes for kids in Africa, and put together care packages for the troops. It’s become a Christmastime tradition for UberMedia and one every employee looks forward to every year. It’s a small but growing contribution that is a time for our team to interact with each other beyond what we do at work. We have learned so much more about each other doing charity work than I ever expected, and it has really bonded us.

On a more personal level, my parenting philosophy has always been to raise strong and independent kids — I have a son and twin daughters. For me, much like my own parents, I find it really important to make sure my kids are not intimidated by math. This applies especially to my girls. For whatever reason, society conditions girls to believe they aren’t good in math and science; that it’s meant more for ‘boys.’ Much like how I don’t want fear to stop my employees from doing something, I don’t want fear or social, gender-normative ideals to stop my kids from wanting to try anything. My advice to both my kids and work-team is the same: think through things versus having unsubstantiated fear. While it’s a small form of making the world better, I hope to inspire others to try, to give themselves more credit, and to spread that kind of bravery to other people in their lives.

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

  1. Value of listening — This is a big lesson for anyone who wants to have healthy working relationships. Active listening that’s rooted in a positive attitude makes it possible to find solutions together and more quickly than combative or negative attitudes.
  2. From an operational standpoint, leaders need to be mindful to not burn through cash, just because you have it. It sounds very obvious but we see time and time again small companies throwing money at big parties or fancy dinners or other things that yield very little (or no) return. It can be tempting because the funds are there but they’ve been entrusted to you by investors to be spent wisely. Act as if the money being spent on the business is coming out of your own checking account. Guaranteed that’ll result in a more conservative approach to spending (which is a good thing!).
  3. Don’t be afraid of making the tough decisions. Leadership comes with the responsibility of making the tough decisions — What kind of deal do we offer that customer? Who should we hire (or fire?) When is it time to pivot the business? — when those times arise, tackle it head-on. The longer you avoid making critical decisions, the worse it is for the business, typically. Know that it making difficult decisions comes with the job.
  4. Can you have it all? I believe that you can, but not all at the same time. Some days/weeks/months, you’ll be thriving professionally but your personal life takes a hit, and other times, vice versa. It’s important to set your expectations, create boundaries for yourself and stick to what you believe is right. As a mom of three, family time is of utmost importance, but as a CEO, so is the health of UberMedia’s business and employees. I commit to what I think is achievable for both sides of my life and do the best that I can at both. That means that sometimes I have to be flexible, sometimes I have to be more open to delegating, and sometimes I have to re-manage the expectations of those around me. Do your best, and when you’re starting to feel like you might be in over your held, ask for help! There’s no shame in it.
  5. Make yourself a priority. This is a hard one because often times, you feel like you’re either driving yourself into the ground by trying to do it all, or failing at everything, all at once. In the last few years, I’ve made an effort to improve self-care, whether that be taking some time to read a book, prioritizing time with my girlfriends, getting more sleep, or going to the gym, when I feel good (and more rested!), I am happier and able to tackle my big jobs as a CEO and as a mom/wife with more gusto and positivity.

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 try to really support ideas and push people to practice effective listening in every part of their lives. It may not be your traditional idea of a ‘movement,’ but I feel it’s an important and very valuable part of understanding how to interact and work with others. Today’s climate is divisive and I’m finding that it’s hampering our overall ability to show kindness, empathy, and in some cases, respect. What we need to understand is that disagreeing is not in and of itself a bad thing. But our overall energy shouldn’t be spent disagreeing and trying to convince others you are right; it’s not productive. Instead, the movement I’m starting first within UberMedia’s walls is to identify when we disagree, and then identify what we have in common, before debating our way towards a solution. Finding common ground first sets the tone and direction of the conversation to be healthy, meaningful and productive.

In this day in age, opinions are strong and typically hyper-focused on one thing; they can be very polarizing, divisive and corrosive. People make snap judgements for the sake of time, instead of listening. This world can be a much more tolerant and respectful place when listening in a core part of handling differing opinions. As a movement, we want effective listening to thrive within our workplace and our everyday interactions. Overtime, we’ll all be better humans for doing so.

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

Like my older sister, I went to Caltech for my undergrad degree. But unlike her I was overwhelmed with all of the smart people there. All of a sudden I felt insecure about my abilities. But what I realized during my time at Caltech was that being smart was not enough to succeed. My sister often quoted Thomas Edison during those years: “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

I’ve been around a lot of smart people, but successful people work hard and are driven. I remind myself of that when I face problems and challenges, and sometimes the answer is that I just have to work a little harder. If I push that much more, I can succeed. We have to give as much credit to our hard-work as we give to talent and natural abilities. Hard work is how you maximize natural gifts.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @gladyzzz and @UberMedia on Twitter

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