11 tips to push past your leadership comfort zone: Women in IT award winners share

Anxiety about failure can hold back your career progress. Silicon Valley Women in IT award winners discuss how they conquered it
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"We all know that growth happens when you get out of your comfort zone. But our anxiety about failing is what keeps us stuck in our comfort zone." That's a great quote from Anuradha Gali, senior engineering manager, Uber Technologies, who rightly points out the role anxiety (and let's not forget fear) can play in holding us back from trying something new. Gali is among the women who were recently recognized for their achievements in technology at the Women in IT Awards.

We caught up with a number of the Silicon Valley winners and asked them to share a moment they had to break out of their comfort zone and what advice they would give others about doing the same. The awards program, now held in eight cities, has been shining a light on female tech leaders since it was founded in 2015 by the business-technology site Information Age.

[ Read also: Want more female CIOs? Break these 3 rules. ]

Let's hear some candid stories about how these award-winning women have grown in their careers and what they believe others can learn from their experiences:

1. Anticipate customer needs; constantly question "why" 

Woman of the Year

I constantly question the “why” of the solutions we build, knowing that if we have the “why” right, we can always figure out the “how.”

Rashim Mogha, eWOW Founder and Head of Product – AAU, Automation Anywhere: To be successful, you must be continuously innovating. For me, it is all about proactively thinking what our customers would want next and prototyping new ideas. And that’s how I break out of my comfort zone. When you work from a perspective of anticipating customer needs even before the customers know it, it often involves creating a new solution, exploring new technology, and chartering into an unknown territory. I constantly question the “why” of the solutions we build, knowing that if we have the “why” right, we can always figure out the “how.” With the pace at which the technology is evolving, there is almost always a way to figure out how to create a solution.  

Advice: Encourage creativity and bring a culture of design thinking

Solutions that worked yesterday and today will no longer work tomorrow, so it is important that IT leaders continuously break out of their comfort zones and lead their teams to find innovative solutions. Putting your customers first and always aiming at providing them a better experience will help. Bring a culture of design thinking to your team. Encourage your team to be creative. Bring diversity of thought. And operationalize the mundane so you and your team can create solutions that change the world for better.

2. Recognize when you have different shoes to fill

Entrepreneur of the Year

Nicole Hu, CTO & Co-Founder, One Concern: As CTO, I don’t really code anymore. So the biggest strides I’ve made have been on the non-engineering aspects of my responsibilities, such as getting people to rally behind the business and managing the delicate and often complicated parts of people dynamics. It’s not just about the coding. I realized I had different shoes to fill. That really caused me to transform, because if I didn’t do it, it was going to hurt the entire team and company.

Advice: Get clear on the cost of inaction

I was very scared. I think that’s normal. Good support systems (your family, friends, partner) will help you believe in what you’re doing because there are days you won’t have the belief, or you’ll lose your resolve. Constantly surround yourself with people who are clear with what you want to do, have confidence in your ability to do it, and empower you to do your work. For me, the key was in realizing the cost of inaction. What would happen if I didn’t step up? If I’m not loud enough in a meeting, what will happen? If I don’t push for women leadership in the company, what will happen? Get yourself comfortable with the why, and then surround yourself with people who believe in you to do it.

3. Be willing to adjust your leadership style 

Data Leader Of The Year

Anuradha Gali, senior engineering manager, Uber TechnologiesAs I went from leading engineers to leading managers and managers of managers, I had to significantly change my management style. While leading engineers, I was detail oriented and had high visibility into all aspects of the projects to ensure success. But as I grew in my career, I had to let go of my desire to have such granular visibility and instead focus on making my directs successful. I had to come up with frameworks for a coaching style of leadership: focusing on outcomes, communication and escalation, accountability etc. There are some things that I am interested in getting right, like the product architecture, so I continue to stay engaged on such critical aspects while giving room and facilitating success for the leaders in my team.

Advice: Adopt a growth mindset, fail small and fast

We all know that growth happens when you get out of your comfort zone. But our anxiety about failing is what keeps us stuck in our comfort zone. So it is critical to adopt a growth mindset – that both yourself and the people around you have good intentions and have the ability to learn and grow into the next level. Then you will begin to see small failures as learning opportunities rather than catastrophes. So, go ahead and get started – fail small and fast to learn from it and keep moving!

4. Be willing to place big bets before everyone else

CTO of the Year

Geeta Chauhan, AI Practice Head/CTO, Silicon Valley Software Group: I placed a huge bet on Ethical AI before it became a hot topic. When I gave my first talk on decentralized AI last year in Seattle, there were data scientists from large technology companies who expressed disbelief in the feasibility of achieving decentralized AI in a secure and private way. This year, both Google and Facebook announced at their Google IO/F8 conferences that “The Future is Private,” and they are now pivoting to this new secure, privacy-preserving decentralized approach.  

Advice: Take on a challenge outside of your comfort zone annually

In fact, if you are not failing, you are not taking enough risk to advance forward.

Constantly challenge yourself to grow to the next level. Each year, take on a new challenge outside of your comfort zone. Start small at first, like getting back into coding again or public speaking, and build those muscles. Don’t be afraid of failing. In fact, if you are not failing, you are not taking enough risk to advance forward. Once you achieve success, you will find it hard to stop. You will be on a path to getting a new level of flow in your career and on your life journey. 

5. Use your curiosity to unlock business impact

Business Role Model Of The Year

Bernadette Rotolo, SVP Head of Global Systems, Warner Music GroupI came to the realization a long time ago that I could easily be eliminated if I didn’t demonstrate confidence and enthusiasm for learning new things. What has worked to my advantage is that I am very curious, and I love to explore new opportunities that can make a significant impact on the business. I also enjoy a good challenge, which allows me to lead my own destiny and define my successes and failures. My background is not in engineering, but rather as a leader in technology. I took on projects that focused on infrastructure rather than on systems applications. This allowed me to learn, grow and continue to be perceived as a leader who is not afraid to venture into new territories, learning as I go. Taking risks, learning from my mistakes, and taking chances have been the norm for me.

Advice: Build a reliable team willing to take risks with you

The technology industry is so fast paced that we must change in order to stay relevant. It’s not a choice, but rather a necessity. To be successful, technology leaders must have a strong team on whom they can rely. In my role, I am not a subject matter expert on every topic. The key ingredient is having a team of capable individuals who I can trust will do the job successfully. One of my strategic priorities is to build a strong and cohesive group so that I can continue to raise my hand and take on new work beyond my comfort zone and engage my team of talented professionals to do it with me!

Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.