Women of the C-Suite: “Your happiness and success depend not just on your role but on the culture of the company,” With Mikaela Kiner of Reverb

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mikaela Kiner. Mikaela has a Master’s degree in HR Management, is a certified executive coach, and experienced consultant. In 2015, Mikaela founded Reverb, helping companies create healthy, inclusive culture that engages and inspires employees. An HR professional for nearly twenty […]

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As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mikaela Kiner. Mikaela has a Master’s degree in HR Management, is a certified executive coach, and experienced consultant. In 2015, Mikaela founded Reverb, helping companies create healthy, inclusive culture that engages and inspires employees. An HR professional for nearly twenty years, Mikaela enjoys coaching leaders at all levels and supporting women and girls in tech. She’s been quoted in Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, and The Muse, and is a member of the Forbes Human Resources Council and Puget Sound Business Journal Leadership Trust.

She’s the author of an upcoming book Female Firebrands: Stories and Techniques to Ignite Change, Take Control, and Succeed in the Workplace (Greenleaf Press, January 2020). Mikaela is married to Henry, a musician, artist, and teacher. Their two children Simon and Sidonie are good at challenging the status quo and are a constant source of learning and laughter. She lives with her family in Seattle.

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

Myparents are both employment attorneys on the plaintiff’s side — that means they represent people who have suffered some kind of mistreatment or discrimination at work. I grew up hearing those stories at the dinner table and thought there had to be a better way. I landed my first HR job after college and began to focus on how employers can create workplaces where people are happy, challenged, and feel a sense of belonging.

After fifteen years in corporate HR, I started my own consulting firm for several reasons.

  • I wanted to practice HR without bureaucracy and do the work leaders need when they need it. In large companies, you have to do talent reviews or succession planning at a certain time each year, whether or not that’s the most important priority. In consulting, we’re hired to do the work that’s most important so we’re helping leaders do what they need when they need it.
  • In 2014 I completed my certification in executive coaching. While my employer allowed me to moonlight, I had no time and was down to one client who I had to meet early in the morning before work. Coaching is incredibly fulfilling, and I realized if I was going to become a great coach build a coaching practice, I needed to make it a priority.
  • With two kids, I wanted more control over my time and schedule. People are often surprised that being an entrepreneur is more flexible than working for someone else. But I’ve found that it allows me to prioritize flex time over face time, set my own goals and priorities, and work when I’m at my most productive.

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

I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the partnerships that have formed naturally with other business leaders, especially women whose firms are semi-competitors. Several of us refer business to each other and have even offered to share resources in a pinch. It started organically, but now we meet for a quarterly happy hour. Rather than competing, we’ve formed a valuable support system of female founders.

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?

There was a potential client who approached us with a multi-million-dollar project. We drew up a contract and met with him to go over the details. He acted as if they deal was done, even saying he was going to introduce us to the team. Just one problem — he never signed the contract. He would email weekly telling us the work was about to start. This went on for some time before we realized it was never going to happen. The clincher — two years later I he sent a note that he “still needed our help.” By that time team member who was going to do the work had moved on, but I sent him the email and we had a good laugh.

I learned the important lesson that there’s no commitment until a contract is signed. Also, to cut my losses earlier when red flags arise with a potential client.

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

We live by our values, and that really is a differentiator for us. One of my favorites is Kindness, and I firmly believe leaders can be both kind and effective. Kindness looks like being kind to yourself and kind to others. Our staff are so driven, I notice they don’t take a lot of time off, or they keep up with email while they’re out. Time off is so important, I knew I had to find a way to force it. For the first time, we’ll be closing the office for a week during the holidays. My hope is that shutting down gives everyone permission to rest and take care of themselves.

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

We’re thrilled to be working with a large technology company on increasing inclusion at work. As part of that initiative, we’re hosting a series of panels featuring industry leaders who are role models when it comes to inclusion and belonging. Panelists share their views and personal stories including when they felt excluded, how they’ve advocated for underestimated colleagues, when they’ve made mistakes and how they recovered. Each panel is followed by a skill building session where facilitators lead small groups teaching individuals what they can do if they experience or witness inappropriate comments at work.

The participants have given us feedback about the impact this work has on them. It demonstrates that inclusion is truly an important priority to their leaders. Many people have told us they want to intervene when they experience or witness something inappropriate, but they don’t have the language. They freeze and think of the things they wish they had said or done after the fact. By giving people skills to advocate for themselves and others and interrupt the status quo, they’re able to regain a sense of control and improve their own situation. That’s empowering.

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

Be vulnerable. As a leader, you know you have to be positive, inspiring, and rally the team. You want your team members to confide in you if they’re having a hard time, ask for help when they’re stuck, or give you a heads up if they’re going to miss a deadline. You can only expect them to be vulnerable with you and trust that it’s ok if you also model vulnerability. Tell them when you’re uncertain, when you need their help, or if you’re having a lousy day. It takes a strong, confident leader to ask for help.

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

The first thing I always do in leadership roles is to find a right-hand person. You need someone who’s smart, talented, hardworking, and trustworthy. This is the person you can delegate to, confide in, and ask for honest feedback. Without someone like this by your side, leadership can be lonely and overwhelming.

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?

One of my favorite managers who is still a mentor and role model to me is Mala Singh. Three months after Mala hired me as the head of HR for PopCap Games, it was time for performance reviews. I’ll never forget what she said when we met for my review. She told me I had written more about my last three months than most people who had been with the company all year. And she asked, “Why are you so hard on yourself?” It made me realize the culture was less critical than at my previous companies, and I was grateful. Mala helped me shift expectations of myself from perfectionism to good enough.

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

One of the most important things I do is serve on the board of Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST), whose mission is the prevention of sex and labor trafficking in the United States. Many people don’t realize trafficking is an issue in this country, and BEST helps educate them. Reverb donates 1% of profits to BEST and we hope to do more in the future.

Another thing I do is that I always find time to mentor and advise professional women. If professional women don’t do that, I don’t know who will. We must support one another and start to debunk the “one seat at the table” myth.

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

  1. Set Boundaries. For years I worked 60–80 hours a week. I was successful, but I wish I learned much earlier to find a place where I could succeed and have better balance. Those places exist, you just need to look for them.
  2. Know Your Worth. Your first salary has a lasting impact on what you make. When I took my first job, I had no idea what to expect and I didn’t know I was supposed to negotiate. Luckily, I had a boss who worked hard to catch me up through a series of raises and promotions.
  3. Choose Carefully. Your happiness and success depend not just on your role but on the culture of the company. For instance, some cultures are more aggressive, others are collaborative. I’m an introvert and realized after many years that working in extroverted companies drains me.
  4. Find Allies. We all need mentors, sponsors, peers and others we can trust and confide in. Figure out who yours are and keep them close. It will make the hard times much more bearable.
  5. Enjoy yourself! Life is too short to be miserable at work. Work is hard, but it does not have to be unpleasant or all consuming. If you love the work, the company, and/or the people around you it makes a huge difference.

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. 🙂

I would encourage every person to learn how to deal effectively and constructively with conflict. We have such a fear of conflict, and most people lack the skills to have hard conversations. Avoiding conflict leads to giving up, giving in, and pent up frustration. It prevents us from challenging bad ideas and speaking up when we witness toxic behavior. Schools, universities, and workplaces should all teach collaborative conflict skills.

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

I love Shirley Chisholm’s saying “If they don’t give you a seat, bring a folding chair.” When I worked in corporate HR, I met many leaders who didn’t understand the role or value of HR. I had to work hard to get invited to everything from business reviews to leadership team meetings. These meetings were often about the very things I owned like salaries, bonus, and time off plans so I insisted on being there. To me, bring your own chair means creating space for yourself and knowing you belong at the table.

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 Adam Grant. I am intrigued by his thinking — he addresses the most relevant workplace issues in a straightforward way and brings examples to life in a way that’s approachable. I admire his creativity, empathy, and humor. I often cite his podcast in conversations and even quoted him in discussing collaborative rivalry in my upcoming book.

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