Women of the C-Suite: “The gender gap is real, but don’t be afraid of it,” With Laura Baldwin of O’Reilly

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Baldwin. Laura started with O’Reilly in October 2001 as chief financial officer and added chief operating officer to her responsibilities in October 2004. She became O’Reilly’s first president in March 2011 and is currently responsible for the company’s worldwide […]

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As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Baldwin.

Laura started with O’Reilly in October 2001 as chief financial officer and added chief operating officer to her responsibilities in October 2004. She became O’Reilly’s first president in March 2011 and is currently responsible for the company’s worldwide businesses. Prior to O’Reilly, she was a consultant to the publishing industry and managed several large consulting engagements across all genres of publishing and media. Laura’s media career started at Chronicle Books — the large, premier publisher of popular culture, art, and children’s books, as well as gift products. She served as Chronicle’s CFO for 10 years, establishing its successful distribution business and helping bring Chronicle’s gift business to market. Chronicle Publishing’s diverse media properties, including TV stations and newspapers, was where Laura developed her love of the media business. Laura has worked in banking and in corporate governance, holding positions in worldwide cash management and corporate finance. She attributes much of her success to her all-girls high school, where she was taught that leadership was available to anyone who demonstrated initiative and drive — regardless of their gender. Today, she brings that diversity of thinking to O’Reilly, where she helped create a diversity scholarship program and fosters an inclusive and open workforce. Laura is an avid reader and a passionate advocate for lifelong learning.

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

Mystory is really about saying “yes” to a series of opportunities that I found interesting versus being intentional about any long-term career path. I started out in banking, running an old keypunch machine. I was always a math person, but banking is where I learned how to marry those skills with process and business. Banking led me to say “yes” to roles in cash management and finance — always for companies whose products I loved. It was at luxury retailer and perfume company Giorgio Beverly Hills that I learned finance was really telling the story of the operational decisions made every day in service of the business. That observation was a game-changer for me. Even as a financial analyst and, eventually, a controller, I engrossed myself in the business operations of every company I was fortunate enough to work for. That personal curiosity around business decision making and strategy development led me to my current role. When I joined the company as CFO (another “yes”), I intentionally led the team through an operational, decision-making lens. That focus led to a promotion to COO and then president. I guess you could say the story of my career path is a combination of my love of numbers and my natural curiosity.

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

In 2011, I took over as president of O’Reilly from the company’s incredibly brilliant and iconic owner, Tim O’Reilly. It was clear that the world of publishing was changing dramatically, and I knew in order to survive and grow we had to change our long-term strategy and become a true media business. That was a tectonic shift for O’Reilly and was the most difficult time in my career. Trying to build a company strong enough to survive its founder, who by the way the entire company wanted to please, came with challenges and pushback against new ideas I didn’t anticipate. However, the experience taught me to trust my instincts and to make the right decisions for the organization as a whole. I’ve always framed my role as balancing an ecosystem of shareholders, customers, and employees. At times, the decisions that kept that ecosystem in balance emerged from listening and responding to that pushback. I still use the lessons of that time as the basis of how we think and operate as an organization today.

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 was a financial analyst for Giorgio Beverly Hills in the mid ’80s, the company purchased its first desktop computer. We were all a bit nervous as no one had any idea how to get started. I volunteered to jump in and learn a program called Symphony, which was a combined word processor and spreadsheet software solution. Now, that was the heyday of luxury retail, and our owner, Fred Hayman, was traveling the country to meet with the CEOs of major high-end chains and stores. I worked so hard to figure out that software. After many sleepless nights, I proudly announced that I had moved all of our manual reporting over and we were now “computerized.” I carefully printed out all of the sales reports Mr. Hayman would need for his trip and off he went. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite the expert I thought I was. My boss got a call that we had just disclosed the incorrect (and in some cases competitive) sales data to every account he visited, causing great embarrassment. I was mortified. I got called into CFO David Horner’s office, fully expecting to be fired. Instead, I was told, “You’re not working hard enough if you’re not making mistakes.” That simple lesson has set the tone for my entire career.

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

We really care. All the way around from customers to employees, we really care. We have a set of operating principles we wrote in 2011, and the first one is “Is it best for the customer?” Everyone at O’Reilly works diligently to build a better company for our customers. We also work diligently to build a better company for our employees, creating opportunities for career growth within an environment that encourages employees to “put their families first.”

The story I can share here is my own. My husband and son were in a horrible accident many years ago. My husband broke his neck and was severely disabled for a long time. Surgeries and physical therapy followed, creating incredibly intense days. Tim O’Reilly never once questioned where I was each day or how I did my job. He simply let me do my best during that extraordinary time. I’ve tried to emulate that compassion with all of our employees. Two years ago, one of my colleagues asked for a moment of my time. His wife had fought breast cancer the previous two years, and he wanted me to know she had been declared cancer-free. He told me that our support during that time was a true gift. Today, that moment remains one of the best conversations I’ve had within the company.

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

There’s so much media coverage talking about robots and artificial intelligence taking away jobs. We’ve doubled down on our online learning solution, investing millions to help build what we see as a different future. We believe that technology can and should enable workers and that the jobs of tomorrow will be based on the skills people learn today. But we don’t just provide “courseware.” What we try to do is to help people understand why certain trends or technologies are important and how to navigate what we see on the horizon. We call it the O’Reilly Radar, and it’s built into the DNA of our entire organization. We provide a learning environment that helps people put this technology-driven world into context and sheds some light on what’s possible — not just what’s being automated. In the absence of real context, fear can take over. We see that happening a bit, and we believe we can alleviate that fear and help everyone find their place in the economy of tomorrow.

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

It’s the same advice I would give to any leader: Do the right thing. That guidepost is your rock as you navigate day-to-day decisions. Always work to balance your ecosystem of employees, shareholders, and customers — never choosing one over the other. Do your homework and stick to your guns. Don’t be scared or afraid of change. Be informed, well-read, and relentless in your pursuit of excellence. And most importantly, find purpose in your work and love what you do!

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

Trust is earned, not given. Once you recognize those who have earned your trust, bring them close and let them run with their roles and shine. Whenever I’ve shifted our strategy or business model, I tend to do it in deck form, laying out my thinking, justifying the why, and building the pillars that will substantiate that shift. However, I leave the details to the exceptional teams who are doing the work every day. They come back to me for approvals or help thinking things through, but they’re involved in creating that future versus simply being told what to do. Whether your team is big or small, bring them in — their ideas and insights will make you better.

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’ve been fortunate to have several mentors throughout my career. At Giorgio Beverly Hills, David Horner taught me if I wasn’t making mistakes I wasn’t working hard enough, and Fred Hayman taught me that presentation was everything. Jack Jensen and Nion McEvoy at Chronicle Books taught me an eye for design and a passion for taking care of the talent that made our work possible. At O’Reilly, Tim O’Reilly taught me about running a mission-driven business. However, the mentor that affected me the most didn’t even realize she was acting as a mentor.

Kathy Franzen was the CFO of Giorgio Beverly Hills following David Horner. This was the late ’80s, and it was definitely still a man’s world. I watched her navigate the all-male senior team with grace and dignity. She never deferred to the male leadership in the room as I had previously seen women do in the workforce. Instead, she challenged them — which made them and everyone around her better. She gave me opportunities because she saw potential in my hard work. She elevated those that earned it. I learned how to lead and grow talent simply by watching her. It was a gift.

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

O’Reilly is uniquely positioned to make a difference in the world of technology, where horror stories of the “brogrammer culture” continuously make the news. In 2015, we started a diversity and inclusion scholarship program for underprivileged minorities and women to participate in our technology events. To date, we’ve granted 500 scholarships, and many of those attendees have gone on to earn jobs in technology. Some have even returned as speakers at our events, having become leaders in their companies. We recently brought in many of the large tech companies as sponsors of the diversity and inclusion program, which means the number of scholarships will grow significantly. In my mind, that’s goodness.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Do the homework. I wish my younger self had been told the importance of doing the homework and being prepared. I use this term inside O’Reilly all the time. You have to do your homework before you move forward with any decision. We have a Japan office, and I was going over to renegotiate our debt. I didn’t research the cultural differences before I arrived and went in guns blazing to get what we needed. It wasn’t well received by our Japanese team or the banks we worked with. It took a long time to overcome that initial negative impression. I found out years later those bankers were talking to me through a translator when in fact they were educated in the US and spoke fluent English. What a surprise when I discovered that fact five years into the relationship. Lesson learned — always do the homework.
  2. Don’t back down when you know something is wrong. Inside every organization I’ve worked for there are team members who say, “We don’t do it that way” or “We don’t need to change.” However, if your instincts are telling you something is off, and the numbers and the growth aren’t what you aspire to, you can’t back down from doing the right thing. I talked earlier about shifting O’Reilly’s strategy in 2011. That shift was difficult, but in the end, it was exactly what we needed to do. At first, it was met with major pushback, but I stuck to my guns and didn’t back down. In the end, becoming a real media company was our saving grace and enabled O’Reilly to become who we are, and how we operate, in the world today.
  3. The gender gap is real, but don’t be afraid of it. Early in my career, I watched women take a back seat and not always trust their instincts or their intelligence. I watched men talk down to women in the workforce, and I’ve been told I was “too aggressive” more times than I care to admit. I was negotiating a distribution deal early in my publishing career, and the company we were working with had a male manager who said to me, “Well sweetie, we need to have your boss in the room to move this forward.” I simply stood up and claimed that we didn’t intend to work with people who disrespected anyone on our team, including me. They apologized and we did the deal. It was a great partnership for many years because I wasn’t afraid to be the woman calling the shots.
  4. Your people will only work as hard as you do. Leaders set the example more than they realize. I was working in banking, and we had a Monday deadline for some contracts we were trying to close. I had a small team, and I left early on the Friday before our deadline. Unfortunately, even though I left instructions, my small team didn’t have the sense of urgency they needed. We missed the deadline and cost the bank a good amount of interest. Thank goodness I learned that lesson. I never ask or expect anything from my team that I’m not willing to do.
  5. Don’t take it all so seriously. We spend more time with our work colleagues than we do our families and friends on most days. That work has to be fun. Joke around; make people laugh; find pleasure in sharing a meal and getting to know your employees. One of my first jobs in banking during college was such a difficult time for me. I hated work. Everyone was so stoic and took everything so seriously. Heaven forbid anyone make a mistake, as that was the end of the world. I saw that behavior early in my career, and when I learned it wasn’t that way everywhere, the world opened up for me. “Laughter is the best medicine” is really true and should find its way into the work culture.

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. 🙂

Education. I’m watching and following what’s happening in our country with the decline of the public education system — amazing teachers who give more of themselves than most and have no training and no help navigating the ubiquitous growth of technology or how to teach that to our youth. We pull funding from schools and ask districts to cut sports, music, and art programs — all the things that nourish creativity and spark joy. It’s not just about keeping the US competitive. I believe every child who’s not enabled academically today will find it hard to survive the technology-driven landscape we see in the future. We have to reevaluate our priorities, stick to our guns regarding education, and enable our children to become the people that have the ideas to change our world.

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

I actually have two quotes that are on my monitor in my home office: “Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve,” by J. K. Rowling, and “Just remember: pressure’s a privilege — dream big and truly go for it,” by Billie Jean King. Everything I’ve accomplished and tried to provide for others came from a position of strength, from not backing down when it was hard. When I think of the true milestones in my career, they all came after a period of difficulty and great change that required intensity of both purpose and drive. Now that I have those successes behind me, I face each new challenge with such hope and aspiration since the outcomes have all been good…but also because I do the homework.

We are blessed that some of the biggest 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 🙂

I would have to say Greta Thunberg. At just 16, she displays more passion than anyone I’ve ever seen. She’s also an advocate for education, trying desperately to teach the world what we continue to ignore: that climate change is real and that only we can reverse the damage we’ve caused. To live a life with that much passion and to create a platform with the possibility of changing the world must be simultaneously challenging and exhilaratingly powerful.

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