One tip for anyone to be a great leader: Hire people way better than yourself! It’s an easy mistake to worry about hiring someone more experienced than you and why it won’t work. You might think — they won’t want to work for you or they’ll overshadow you. When you start managing a larger organization, by definition you should be hiring leaders for areas that have WAY more experience than you at running that function, and hopefully are way more talented and amazing than you. You will not have run every function in your organization. At best you’ll have worked in or run 2 or 3 of the functions you’re managing — so you need to find those true experienced leaders to successfully run a great team. When hiring someone for our company to run marketing, I was fortunate enough to find an incredible partner who knows a thousand times more than me about building a brand and developing a world-class marketing team. When recruiting him, I went with the most honest and simplest answer I could think of: you’re a fantastic fit for our team, you can change the trajectory of this company with your expertise, and I can’t wait to learn and partner with you on our company.
I had the pleasure to interview Jessica Shalek, COO and Co-Founder at Common Networks. Jess brings experience from her time as Head of Business Development and Product Lead of the developer platform at Square. Prior, she worked at Morgan Stanley technology investment banking specializing in IPOs.
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 began my career in investment banking at Morgan Stanley the summer of 2007 which was the strangest time to start a career in finance since just a few months later in the fall of 2007 was the start of the crash. At that time, most of my trading floor had disappeared but at the same time it was an incredible start for someone junior like myself.
While at Morgan Stanley, I worked on some incredible IPOs from General Motors, Splunk, Workday, LinkedIn and Facebook to $500M market cap trucking companies. But after six years, I realized that I spent 90% of my time doing the same thing over and over again, and making it perfect, and only 5–10% of my time was I given the opportunity to work with technology companies that were solving interesting problems which is what I really loved. It was an optimization game, not an innovation game. I realized I loved solving new and interesting challenges and I wanted to do that with 90% of my time.
So I left my job without a job, and made a list of the companies I thought were doing amazing things, and were post-revenue but pre-IPO. Square was at the top of my list of companies and personally, I found the product to be valuable. Francoise Brougher was just joining Square to build out their business team and offered me a job without a role. I felt very excited about the stage of company, the product, and the team and just said yes. This led to my role building out business development and partnership, and ultimately, developer platform growth for Square.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Leadership comes in many different forms. When I left Square to found Common Networks, I had the experience of leading a decent sized group at Square. But in the early days at Common Networks, most of what we did was on the ground, literally. Or in my case, sometimes on the roof. At the beginning, I was the installer — I went out in the field and climbed roofs to install equipment. I would go home to my husband and ask, “What am I doing?” I had come from this great company, qualified to lead a large team, and now I was feeling very under-qualified. But that experience, as we have grown, of leading by doing, has been incredibly valuable.
I now run a team that includes technicians who install all day, every day, and having done that myself, gives me great empathy for this super important team at our company — what their day is like and how hard their job actually is, and the credibility it gave me as a leader that I actually did what they do. I think it shows that I’m willing to do what it takes, not just tell people what I think without ever having walked in their shoes. You may have an opportunity to run big organizations but I have found that you can be even more impactful by doing the work, especially in a young company. And even at large companies, leaders have to be willing to pick up the pickaxe and shovel when it calls for that.
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?
When I first started my career in investment banking, I always had to have 2 things with me at all times: my ID badge and my Blackberry. One day coming back from picking up lunch at a New York City deli for a few colleagues, I had no free hands, because as every woman knows, women’s suits for some reason don’t have any pockets! I stuck all my things into the lunch bag and walked back. Later that afternoon I was trying to figure out what I had done with my blackberry and realized I had thrown it away with lunch. I had to go explain to my boss that I needed him to approve a new Blackberry because I had literally thrown the last one away. I was mortified.
It took me a while but I’ve been very grateful for moving into technology from finance where I can wear jeans that have pockets on a daily basis.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Internet service is a really fun and an incredible place to build a business but also incredibly hard.
As four people leaving Square, we could have built another fintech company. But instead we chose to build an internet company — which is part ambition, arrogance, and ignorance, but such an incredible place as it touches people’s lives on a daily basis, and impacts millions of people. Everyone has been complaining about internet service for decades, it’s not getting fixed and people don’t have any choices. Millions of people have been stuck with the same few providers for decades and it isn’t working for them. Internet is too important in people’s lives for there to be no choice. Customers are desperate for someone to treat them differently and offer an affordable, great experience with their home internet.
And that’s what Common Networks is all about, bringing choice to a market that traditionally has not had any. We are building technology that will impact how millions, even billions of people will get online. And how fun of a problem that is to work on. There are a lot of great niche products out there but they don’t get to have that kind of impact on everyone’s day to day life.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m very excited about the next generation hardware Common Networks is developing to bring gigabit speeds to people’s homes. Most of us in the United States desperately want fiber internet in our homes, but the truth is, it’s too expensive to build out, especially in suburban density communities or in developing countries. So how are we all going to get fast, affordable internet that isn’t controlled by a monopoly?
Common Networks is currently using millimeter wave wireless technology and a graph-based network to deliver reliable, gigabit speed internet for a fraction of the cost of installing fiber. I’m excited not only about how this can dramatically lower costs and improve quality in the U.S., but this could also dramatically change the equation for getting high speed internet into developing countries currently on 2G or 3G internet speeds.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be yourself but be self aware. It’s too exhausting to try and pretend to be some model of a leader that you’re “supposed” to be. Do your best, and be happy while doing it.
There are aspects of what makes me me that I really don’t want to change and I think that’s not only okay, that’s great! It’s what makes me unique and how I got where I am. However, as a leader I have to be self aware. I know that my style may make some people uncomfortable at times. How am I going to counteract that? I’ve thought a lot about how to ensure amazing people can thrive working with me while I remain true to myself. I have had to be willing to work on myself without changing my core. I have worked on how I communicate and I’ve worked on the margins so that people can be successful working with me.
I’ve found that when recruiting or retaining people, most people want to work for someone authentic — even when that means I’m clearly flawed. The best people I work with everyday like working with me not because I’m the perfect leader from a leadership book, but because I’m a real person who’s true to myself and unapologetically wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt to the office.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
One tip for anyone to be a great leader: Hire people way better than yourself! It’s an easy mistake to worry about hiring someone more experienced than you and why it won’t work. You might think — they won’t want to work for you or they’ll overshadow you. When you start managing a larger organization, by definition you should be hiring leaders for areas that have WAY more experience than you at running that function, and hopefully are way more talented and amazing than you. You will not have run every function in your organization. At best you’ll have worked in or run 2 or 3 of the functions you’re managing — so you need to find those true experienced leaders to successfully run a great team.
When hiring someone for our company to run marketing, I was fortunate enough to find an incredible partner who knows a thousand times more than me about building a brand and developing a world-class marketing team. When recruiting him, I went with the most honest and simplest answer I could think of: you’re a fantastic fit for our team, you can change the trajectory of this company with your expertise, and I can’t wait to learn and partner with you on our company.
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?
Insert my cliche here! I’ve been with the same partner since I was 18 years old. We met in college and the rest is history. My husband Peter has been my constant career and life partner. He pushed me to leave finance and explore my career options, reminding me that I would be able to not only get a great job if I left, but that I could do whatever I wanted. He’s always been the voice of confidence when I didn’t have my own.
He supported my leaving Square to found Common Networks but gave me some amazing advice and words of caution as well. He’s a founder of a company (Joyable) and was brutally honest about the toll starting a company takes — I believe his exact quote was “are you sure watching me do this for the past 2 years makes you want to do this?” However, he’s never once questioned my choices in the end. He’s just been 100% supportive with the decisions I’ve made, even when they come at a big personal cost for us. While I was in finance I worked long hours and through our vacations or when my leaving a very stable job for a startup meant changing our financial situation.
Watching him as he founded his company, I learned so much and applied those learnings to my founding of Common Networks. In particular, I learned that when you are a founder, you feel like there is always a mountain of stuff to do in front of you and only in looking back, can you feel like you have been very successful because you have gone from nothing to something. Whether it’s founding a company or taking it public, it is really easy as a founder to forget to celebrate the successes along the way, because you are so focused on the next thing. It’s easy to always be stressed out — or maybe even depressed — and watching him go through that, I’ve learned that you have to celebrate the wins even as you transition to the “okay, what’s next” mentality. Otherwise, it’s too easy to run yourself into the ground with such high expectations.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope the goodness that I inspire in the world is mostly that there is this false choice to either do the right thing or be super successful, especially in tech. There are so many times in business (but life too) where people believe you choose between doing the right thing and getting ahead. I’ve actually found the opposite. When I worked in partnerships at Square, people had this impression that negotiating a “good” deal meant screwing over the other party. I never had that mentality. Ultimately the best partnerships that last are ones where BOTH parties walk away thinking they have a great deal. How can you do that if you’re trying to screw the other person?
Too often people think that life and especially business are zero sum games. They’re not. They’re repeat games with the same players. Having a reputation as someone who does what they say is an incredible asset in business — and it’s also just the right thing to do.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)*This question will be used for the round up.
Hire people that are more amazing than you.
See #7 answer for explanation and example.
Be yourself. Be Self aware.
See #6 answer for explanation and example.
Always ask why.
This was actually fantastic managing advice I received when we started our company from one of my founding partners, Grace. She’d see me working with people on my team and I’d be trying to get them to change their thinking on a given decision. She told me I wasn’t asking why they were coming to the conclusions they were, instead I was just trying to show them my way. She didn’t disagree with my comments, but she first helped me see that if I first understood why someone was coming to their conclusion, I’d much more likely be able to help them come to a better answer. It also helps that most people want to feel heard and understood rather than railroaded into a different way of thinking.
Be direct and simple
The simplest and most direct answer is usually the best in business. Rarely is a convoluted scheme going to beat the direct, clear one. This is especially true when dealing with other people. When I was leading partnerships at Square my advice to people on my team was usually to just be honest and direct with the partner. These were going to be our long-term partners, why not just be clear about what we wanted or needed and see if they could make it work. Trying to hide things, backchannel, or maneuver usually just led to more meetings and fewer results because no one even knew what a good partnership would look like! By being respectful, direct, and clear, people know where you stand and will usually mimic the behavior back to you.
Don’t ignore your moral compass.
There are so many times in business (and life too) where people believe you choose between doing the right thing and getting ahead. I’ve actually found the opposite. When I worked in partnerships at Square people had this impression that negotiating a “good” deal meant screwing over the other party. I never had that mentality, ultimately the best partnerships that last are ones where BOTH parties walk away thinking they have a great deal. How can you do that if you’re trying to screw the other person?
Too often people think that life and especially business aren’t zero sum games. They’re repeat games with the same players. Being known as someone who does what they say, is trustworthy is an incredible asset in business but it’s also just the right thing to do.
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. 🙂
We have entirely transparent compensation — literally everyone in the company can see what everyone else in the company makes, both in cash and equity. As a result, we don’t negotiate, we just give you everything we can offer. This was a practice that from the beginning of Common Networks, I was super passionate about doing. I hope our company inspires more people to be more transparent with their compensation if we want a workforce that treats people fairly.
Statistically, women do not like to negotiate. So, women generally make less than their male counterparts. Compensation is usually opaque, which leads to well-intentioned, but ultimately bad or unfair decisions. It’s easy to have unfair pay practices when you don’t have to own up to it.
Fairness in pay is so difficult to do in a company, particularly to do it well. There are a lot of excuses for why companies can’t do this but at the end of the day, paying people fairly attracts people to your company. We want to get rid of our biases, make everything equal regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation. Sunshine will always be the best disinfectant.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing — that it all started with a mouse.” — Walt Disney
The Walt Disney Company may be famous for a lot things these days but its founder was reminding us to never forget that it started with a simple, wonderful, small idea. Staying true to the core of why and what you started your business for or who you are is incredibly important.
I also love this quote because having a sense of humor in business is equally important. Even Walt wanted us all to remember that one of the largest and most influential media companies ever began as a cartoon mouse drawn on a train.
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Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!