Yaffa Cohen-Ifrah: “EQ is equally important to IQ when hiring ”

Getting buy-in is important — as the head of Marketing, I make big decisions that affect many different stakeholders throughout the company. To give one example, not long ago we totally rebranded Sapiens (changing all our product names, refreshing our website, our look-and-feel, etc.). Moves on that scale fail if you don’t get company buy-in before executing, […]

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Getting buy-in is important — as the head of Marketing, I make big decisions that affect many different stakeholders throughout the company. To give one example, not long ago we totally rebranded Sapiens (changing all our product names, refreshing our website, our look-and-feel, etc.). Moves on that scale fail if you don’t get company buy-in before executing, because people hate to feel like they weren’t asked about things that will significantly impact their day-to-day professional lives.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing. Yaffa Cohen-Ifrah. Yaffa joined Sapiens in January 2014 as Chief Marketing Officer & Head of Corporate Communications and leads the global corporate marketing activities, analyst relations and corporate communications. Prior to joining Sapiens, Yaffa served for two years as head of investor relations at Partner Communications Ltd., a leading telecommunications company. Before Partner, Yaffa was the director of investor relations at Strauss Group Ltd., an international food and beverage corporation. She also served as investor relations officer and corporate secretary at Adama (Makhteshim-Agan Industries), the world’s largest manufacturer of generic agrochemicals. Yaffa holds a B.Sc. in Biology from Tel Aviv University and an MBA in Finance and Marketing from Pace University, New York.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I completed an MBA in Finance and Marketing, which were always my two professional passions. Earlier in my career, I focused on finance. I held financial analysis roles at leading U.S. retail companies, including senior financial analyst at Victoria’s Secret Beauty and manager of financial planning at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Eventually, though, I realized that I missed living in Israel, where I was born and raised. I moved back and led investor relations for a few large corporations, including Strauss Group, a leading consumer goods company.

When the opportunity at Sapiens opened up, it was a perfect fit. I can combine my love for marketing and finance as the CMO and head of corporate communications, which includes investor relations and working closely with Sapiens’ CEO and CFO.

What is it about the position of CMO that most attracted you to it?

When I took my position at Sapiens over five years ago, I arrived at a great company that was doing well…but I knew there was a whole other level that could be reached. The entire Marketing division of our global company consisted of three full-time employees, including me!

I shared my vision with Sapiens’ CEO, Roni Al-Dor, who is very forward-thinking and collaborative, and he empowered me to build-out a large global team of innovative marketers that has significantly increased lead generation and strengthened Sapiens’ brand. We are now focusing on being thought-leaders and constantly running innovative campaigns and producing top-notch marketing collateral. Sapiens participates in approximately 60 global events, hosting two large annual events for our customer community. We recently completed a re-branding and re-naming project, which was a major milestone for the company. Being able to grow-out a team and watch Sapiens evolve has been exhilarating, especially because it has exposed many more insurance companies to our transformative solutions.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

I conceptualize being an executive as very wide-ranging, which requires organization, focus and multi-tasking. First and foremost, I’m responsible for setting my Marketing division’s overall goals and strategies, and then accurately allocating my budget to ensure my team is empowered to help us achieve those goals. I’m constantly in communication with both my team and Sapiens’ other management members, to monitor progress and adapt to a constantly evolving business landscape. Part of my responsibility is also trying to mentor my team and help them grow professionally.

It’s important to stay up-to-date on what is happening in the market, as well as with our top competitors. I’m also frequently communicating with both industry analysts and investors, to make sure they have all the information they need and that they are satisfied with the company’s performance.

I view all of this as being holistic, which requires balance. If one area is negatively affected, there is often a cumulative negative impact on all areas.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I’m privileged to be a part of a dedicated and passionate management team. Our CEO and CFO seem to have unlimited energy! They are constantly thinking about how to improve Sapiens and how to take the company to the next level. And my Marketing team is wonderful — hardworking, creative and smart. I couldn’t succeed without them. As a huge added bonus, our team likes to have fun and jokes around throughout the day with group texts and funny messages.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

I love my job, but it’s not always fun to wake up in a hotel room and think, “Where am I?” Since I’m responsible for both Investor Relations and Marketing, I’m on the road often, whether that’s the U.S., Europe or India. I actually enjoy traveling, but as the married mother of a teenager daughter and pre-teen son, I don’t always get on the airplane with a smile.

Also, getting a few extra hours of sleep per night would be nice.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being an executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think sometimes people think that once they reach c-level, they’ll have total control. That’s not true, even for CEOs. Ex-Navy SEAL leader and business consultant Jocko Willink often talks about the importance of “decentralized command,” a concept I believe in strongly. The best leaders work collaboratively and openly with peers and empower those who are lower in the business hierarchy with the necessary tools and strategies, and then let them succeed.

I’m not a huge sports fan, but a good example of this happened in the 2015 NBA Finals. Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors were down in the series when the special assistant to the head coach came to Steve with an innovative idea. Steve implemented this idea without ego and the rest is history…

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Things are certainly improving, but I think women still feel guilty about not being able to “do it all” at home and in the office in a way that many men do not. Also, on a biological level, child birth and the resulting maternity leave, although obviously wonderful, can be a professional interruption that requires careful planning and strategy.

Also, sometimes women are socialized to be demure and to defer to men. I live in Israel, which tends to be a very direct and candid culture. That fits me well, as I prefer being direct and having honest conversations. You can’t solve what you aren’t willing to face. Putting the real issues on the table quickly and without ego is the only way you can solve them and move forward.

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

During the end of the summer of 2017, my team and I were busy finalizing our massive annual client conference, which was set for early September in Florida. There were reports of an expected hurricane, so I started intensely studying maps, learning about hurricane winds, consulting meteorological experts, etc., to try to figure out the potential impact and what we should do. Two weeks before the conference, we had to make a decision if to keep the conference dates or postpone it to a later date (we had over 300 people registered to the conference). It was a hard decision but we decided to postpone it. Few days before the conference, Hurricane Irma severely damaged the hotel we were going to host the conference at! We ended up having to cancel the conference, unfortunately.

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’ve always dressed professionally. But when I was starting out at Saks Fifth Avenue in NYC, one of the fashion meccas of the world, someone took me aside and told me that I had to dress more fashionably if I wanted to be a key employee for a fashion brand in such a fashion-conscious city. I laughed when I saw the movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” because it reminded me a lot of that incident and how I felt. But I think the underlying message that employee relayed to me is true: it’s important to understand the ideals and strengths of your company’s brand and then embody those to the utmost of your abilities. I loved my time at Victoria’s and learned so much there.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I knew it would be a busy and dynamic environment, but… Sapiens has acquired eight separate companies since I’ve joined! These acquisitions are so interesting, as they involve quickly learning about a new culture/country, new technology, a new workforce, etc. I love strategizing with all the key stakeholders about how we will re-position Sapiens after these acquisitions, some of which have been quite large and have even changed Sapiens’ core products.

Every single day at Sapiens is interesting and chaotic and wonderful — there is so much to do, I just wish there was more time.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

People who are overly sensitive to criticism or indecisive. The worst kind of executives are solely motivated by money/personal advancement. They of course often end up alienating their team and everyone around them, and don’t last.

The opposite traits are obviously very helpful. I try to nurture my team and prepare them for professional growth, and put the company’s needs above my own. Perhaps counter-intuitively, acting altruistically often brings a lot of personal benefits. Who doesn’t want to work with someone who is helpful and thoughtful?

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

The same exact advice I would give to male leaders: set an example with your hard work, care about your team members and empower them to succeed, confront issues directly and honestly, promote diversity at your company, accept constructive criticism graciously and try to help women when you can.

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?

My mother was a strong woman who taught all of her children that education and hard work are the keys to success. She always encouraged me to pursue my dreams and really believed in me, as did the rest of my family. One of my brothers now owns a vineyard and my large extended family loves getting together for a great meal and a few excellent bottles of wine.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I’m acting as a role model for my children, particularly my teenage daughter, to show them that women can be ambitious and succeed, while also lovingly fulfilling my role as a mother. It’s not easy at all, but definitely possible with a lot of hard work and the right support system (I’m lucky to have a GREAT and understanding husband, who is also very accomplished in his own right).

I also try to mentor my team members and create pathways for their current and future success. Additionally, I dedicate time to helping young people who approach me for advice during the early stages of their career.

I’m fortunate financially and I allocate resources to a few of my favorite charities.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Rest and recovery are crucial — I’m a Type A personality and my default setting is “go, go, go!” But when I do that for too long, the quality of my work and relationships can suffer.
  2. EQ is equally important to IQ when hiring — I have a great team, in part because I try to prioritize emotional intelligence and cultural fit when hiring. I’ve found that focusing solely on skills or the resume can lead to a bad fit.
  3. Make time for fun — as noted in the first point here, excessive focus on work can lead to diminishing returns. I schedule periodic “fun days.” My team takes a break from the daily hustle and bustle and goes kayaking or has a nice breakfast together at a quality restaurant.
  4. Getting buy-in is important — as the head of Marketing, I make big decisions that affect many different stakeholders throughout the company. To give one example, not long ago we totally rebranded Sapiens (changing all our product names, refreshing our website, our look-and-feel, etc.). Moves on that scale fail if you don’t get company buy-in before executing, because people hate to feel like they weren’t asked about things that will significantly impact their day-to-day professional lives.
  5. You really can positively impact people’s lives — young people tend to be idealistic, but they can also get discouraged by the scope of the problems facing the world. I think the younger me would have been ecstatic to know that I’d have the privilege of working for a company that is helping insurers support people during some of the darkest times (severe illness, death, catastrophes) of their lives.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

As I said in my “Five Things” answer, I truly believe in Sapiens’ solutions and their impact on people’s lives. We offer software solutions that help insurers offer a better customer experience. People often turn to insurers during the worst moments of their lives and I want as many insurers as possible to be equipped to offer immediate and personalized help during those trying times. I meet with insurance management teams all over the world and they are great people with their hearts in the right place. I just try to help them understand that Sapiens can enable them to more effectively help their insurance customers and positively impact the world.

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

My ringtone is the song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” by Eric Idle from Monty Python. It’s actually quite a dark song when you listen to the words, but I like the literal interpretation of the chorus. It’s of course preferable to be happy as opposed to sad, but there are also productivity benefits. Studies consistently find that happier employees are more productive and successful. When I’m tempted to feel self-pity or worry, I try to remember: always look on the bright side of life! And I remind my team that although what we are doing is important, making mistakes gives us something to learn from.

We are very blessed that some very prominent 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 keep a biography of Elon Musk in my office. He’s working incredibly hard to solve the world’s most pressing problems in very innovative and bold ways. His tremendous capacity for sustained hard work, and the unorthodox ways in which he leads his teams, raise a lot of questions I’d like to ask him. I think a private lunch with him would be fascinating and I’d get better as a leader.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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