04 April 2018
I sat down with Michelle McNiel, Solutions Architect at Motiva Enterprises to discuss her career success as well as her opinion on many trending topics in the realm of Diversity & Inclusion. Michelle is a go-getter whose quick career advancement is one to take note of. She discusses the challenges of moving into a management role, what inspired her to move into a Salesforce-focused career and what's really holding us back- ourselves!
Tell me about your career progression into your current role.
I started in a sales role 7 or 8 years back, and my company (at the time) made the switch from Microsoft CRM to Salesforce. My boss just didn’t have the time to figure out how to use Salesforce and train the team. I've always enjoyed finding easier and faster ways to do things, and I learned that I could do this within Salesforce through basic views and reports. Wanting a change of pace in my day-to-day, I asked my manager if I could have one week to build out reports to assist our team in the transition. Before I knew it, our director called me into her office to ask if I wanted to administer their Salesforce. I went to Dreamforce (the Salesforce conference) that year, and began immersing myself in everything Salesforce. After some time, I moved into product management, still learning the ways of the Salesforce Admin, and began getting certified.
One year at Dreamforce, I sat in the lobby of the Hilton Union Square and played with a developer environment, acting as though I was assisting a hospitality company roll out Salesforce. The woman sitting next to me asked what I was doing, and I showed her. Within 30 minutes, she offered me a job and I moved to Texas to work for her. I was a Business Analyst for a little while. About a year after that, she left, and I took over her role as the manager of the Salesforce team. I did that for about three years before I realized I wanted to dig deeper into solutioning versus being in a management role, which led me to the Architect position that I hold today.
What were some of the key factors that propelled you into leadership so quickly?
A lot of things came together to bring me to where I am today, but two things stand out most to me:
I am not afraid to speak up and speak truth.
One of the earlier companies that I worked for had a core value of "Candor", and it was there that I was taught that no one benefits when people skirt around the truth just to avoid conflict. Truth is so critical, in and out of the office, and if the concern is that people won't accept it, we need to work on the delivery (understanding the person's frame of reference, listening to their side, etc), not avoid facts.
I observed people.
Sure, I've had an opportunity for training over the years, but there are some things that are harder to learn from a classroom, like:
- Facial expressions and other non-verbals and the results that they bring during difficult conversations
- Putting together a PowerPoint presentation that is targeted to your audience (I've learned this one through many instances of creating the perfect deck, only to find out that the key person I was trying to persuade wasn't following it at all due to needing a different level of detail).
- Which questions to ask in consulting situations
- Leading meetings with large groups of people
- Presenting to senior-level executives
Any chance I had to watch, I did. I'd then note the things I wanted to try out and look for opportunities to practice. I knew that the sooner I could master these skills (which, by the way, I still haven't actually mastered), the more I could accelerate my career.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career so far?
When I moved into management, I don’t think I realized how hard it was going to be. I had mastered the area of Salesforce administration and talking to the business about how to design solutions, process improvement, etc- it came so naturally to me. When I was offered a position to lead the team, I thought I could just coach them the way I did things, and we would be strong, which was a big mistake! I started to learn as I was coaching people, that everyone is different. I knew that already, but for whatever reason, it was hard to put into practice. At the beginning, I was much more of a micromanager. I just wanted to do things my way because that’s what made sense to me. Then, I started reading more about servant leadership- instead of expecting people to do everything my way, I tried to learn how to put my team first, and coach them to their strengths. It was a huge mind shift for me, and it was my job to figure my team out, instead of making them figure out how to do things my way.
I realized at that point, that I could have a diverse group of 8-10 really productive people, versus one person completing tasks the way I had imagined. The challenge for me was stepping back and humbling myself. I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing and I needed to learn a new skill. It took time. I can’t say I’m an expert at this point either, but it’s a learning experience.
What are your thoughts on education and certifications in relation to career success, specifically for those in the Salesforce community?
Degrees are very important. This might be coming from my CareerBuilder days, but we used to always tell people that a degree is like a driver’s license- it can be tough to move ahead in your career without one (not impossible, but tough!). That being said, I got my degree in Public Relations and now I’m in IT.
Specifically, in my industry-get certified. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I've heard some people in the industry say that certification isn't as valuable as it used to be because so many people have them, but I'd argue that if so many people have them, why aren't you one of them? If you work in the industry and are using the tool, it's not a lot of prep work to get it done. If you don't yet work in the industry, then it's a great way to get familiar (after all, you'll need to actually know how to do the job if you want to do the job). Also, it's never too late to learn. I told myself over and over that I would never be able to compete with people who started this when they were in school. Then I had to tell myself over and over that this was a ridiculous excuse that was just making me feel better about not being where I wanted to be. And then I got up, trained myself, and started heading there.
Do you believe the “glass ceiling” exists for women in the workplace? What should companies be doing to combat this?
I have not personally experienced this in the companies where I have worked, as I have had many supportive leaders over the course of my career who encouraged me to figure out what I wanted to do and go for it. However, I have noticed that I have put my own glass ceiling over my life, completely unintentionally. I had a couple of things that I felt put me at a disadvantage:
- I didn't get a degree in technology
- I was one of the few women on the teams where I have worked. For over two and a half years at one company, I was the only woman on the team of my peers, and that was even with the team completely changing three times
- I was young for my role. Most of the people I worked with in management were 10+ years older than me.
But as my career evolved and I started thinking about my most recent job change, I realized that I wasn't doing myself any favors by believing that I was going to be judged by my age, gender, or background. I would pursue this next goal supported by my accomplishments to date and my faith that I would end up wherever it is that God wanted me next.
My biggest piece of advice here is to observe confident business women whenever you have the opportunity. There was a woman with whom I worked at my last company who was in a very senior leadership position. Whenever I got the privilege to be in a meeting with her, I carefully watched how she listened to others, how she responded, and what questions she asked. She didn't seem to feel the need to lay her voice aside to "act like a man" in meetings and find ways to "compete with the boys" as I have heard others talk about. She was thoughtful, confident, and knew that she had worked hard to get where she was -- and her individual personality would shine out whenever she was involved.
In your experience, what are the benefits of diverse teams and organizations?
When I was coaching my team, I talked a lot about “healthy tension”. I think it’s so important to have healthy tension. I find that in meetings, you sometimes have people who are experts on how the business should be run but aren’t familiar with the technology, and they come with very specific ideas on how they want something implemented. In my experience, I’ve seen that if we tried to make the technology behave that way, it won’t always work out the way they thought!
Sometimes it’s an awkward conversation. Sometimes, I go home at night and think- that was awful! But, as I start to work through those conversations, I start to realize that I needed that smart and innovative business person to draw me out of my design principles box, and they needed me to make sure the end-to-end app would scale. That same healthy tension is important on any team. When you have people who come from different backgrounds, it takes effort to step out of your frame of reference and think about something from someone else’s perspectives. You’re forced to do that on a team of diverse people. Then, you approach new situations with that open mind because you’ve had to do it so often. Which then, full circle- applies to the project meetings.
As of 2017, only 18% of CEO’s are women, and only 3% are women of color. We can’t change these figures overnight, but what are some practical steps that organizational leaders can take to improve their pipeline of diverse talent?
I want to flip this question around-- while I believe that leaders do need to be intentionally taking steps to grow in their equality mindset, I also believe that much of the control is in our own hands. Thanks to the strong and persistent women who paved the way for us, we can look to examples of women who beat the odds and accomplished things that were once just a dream (or even once seemed an impossibility). One way we can thank them is to remove the limits we put on ourselves. We need to remember that with hard work, we can get trained up, practice core business skills, and master our domain. As we do this, we will continue to inspire other women to do the same. And while I don't have any scientific research data to back this up, I have a hunch that if we started to remove our own limits and grow in our strengths, our capabilities would be undeniable and we'd begin to change the landscape.
Thank you Michelle for your words of wisdom!