Getting Ahead

This Manager Has Been Promoted Six Times at the Same Company—Here’s the Basic Skill She Swears By

person with long, brown hair, smiling
Kirsten Pinkston, a customer experience program manager at Esri.
| Courtesy of Esri

In 2008, Kirsten Pinkston faced every college student’s nightmare: graduating into a recession. But taking on a temp job with Esri, a leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, changed everything for her. Even better, the Redlands, CA–based company was near Pinkston’s home in Southern California.

“When I learned about their world-changing mission and technology, I knew that it was the company for me—and it was right in my backyard,” Pinkston says. “I jumped at the chance and never looked back!”

When Pinkston’s assignment ended, the company offered her a permanent role in their technical support group, which became the perfect stepping stone into a successful career in customer advocacy. Several years (and six promotions!) later, Pinkston is now a customer experience program manager, where she leads her own team and champions the customer’s voice at every turn.

Here, Pinkston talks about her career path at Esri, how mentorship has been crucial to her growth at the company, and the skills that have helped her succeed as a manager.

You’ve been at Esri for more than 10 years. What attracted you to the company and what has kept you there?

Initially I was attracted to Esri’s commitment to helping solve the world’s most challenging problems, and I’d always had an interest in technology. I didn’t know much about GIS then, but I knew that I wanted to contribute to a company that was making a real difference in the world. While I can point to many reasons for staying with Esri, among them the endless professional development opportunities and my love of GIS, I stay for the people. The opportunity to learn from, collaborate with, and support some of the brightest, most creative, and passionate people is extremely fulfilling.

Describe your career journey at Esri. How is your experience emblematic of Esri’s dedication to developing talent and promoting from within?

In my 12 years with Esri, I’ve held seven positions across two divisions and three departments. Whenever I’ve expressed an interest to learn or grow, I’ve been met with training opportunities, projects that challenged me, new roles, and mentorship—all a testament to Esri’s dedication to developing talent and hiring from within. I also have my peers, managers, mentors, and HR partners to thank for their consistent support in achieving my professional goals.

When my temp assignment in marketing ended, my HR partner helped me find a permanent role with Esri’s technical support team as a receptionist. Within a year, I knew I wanted to learn more about GIS. I expressed this interest to my manager, and he was extremely supportive and immediately got me signed up for courses.

After months of learning about GIS and ArcGIS, I began supporting ArcGIS Desktop users, first as an analyst and then as a development technical lead. This allowed me to sharpen my technical skills, become an expert in troubleshooting software performance, and eventually triage software defects to the development teams for consideration and review. It was during this time that I discovered my love for helping Esri customers and my commitment to amplifying their voices.

Once you transitioned to customer advocacy in 2014, did the opportunities for growth continue?

My then manager and mentor on the customer advocacy team was extremely supportive in helping me reach my professional development goals and take my leadership skills to the next level. In an effort to stretch my responsibilities, I was given a project to formalize the feedback review process for our annual customer survey. Before I knew it, I had the opportunity to interview for the customer advocacy program manager role.

In 2018, when Esri’s customer experience (CX) team was established, our division director asked me to consider a career path in customer experience. After a few Google searches and a deep dive into CX community forums, this was a no-brainer for me. An opportunity to strategically gather customer feedback about all things Esri? To focus on improving the touchpoints our customers care about most? I couldn’t wait!

What are you responsible for in your current role?

As a CX program manager, I’m responsible for ensuring the success of the CX team and all the activities that support our Voice of the Customer (VoC) program. VoC is an industry term used to describe the process of soliciting customer feedback through surveys and other channels, interpreting the results, and sharing insights with decision makers to influence changes that benefit the overall customer experience. By asking customers the right questions at the right time in their journey with Esri, we can more easily identify our opportunities to improve and learn from what we’re doing right as a company.

In what ways did your time working in technical support prepare you for different roles within the company?

There is so much that I learned during my time in technical support (enough to fill pages), but if I had to zero in on a fundamental skill that has helped me throughout my career at Esri, I’d say that active listening—the ability to dig into an issue and really understand what a customer is communicating they need—has been key. Listening, analyzing, and problem-solving, no matter how big or small the issue, are the cornerstones of my role as a CX program manager, and I credit my time in technical support with having prepared me for this.

What skills are necessary to succeed as a program manager?

I learned from observing several of my mentors over the years that the role isn’t about managing people or projects. It’s really about being an advocate for people’s growth, inspiring action toward a common goal or strategic vision, and acting as a support and North Star along the way. I try my best to practice active listening, to be available to my team, and to foster a safe and inclusive work environment where ideas and creativity can flow freely. Problem-solving skills and forward-thinking also go a long, long way!

What are you working on right now that excites or inspires you?

The thing about working in CX is that there’s always something new to learn from our customers—which in itself can be really exciting! It also means our work is never done and I enjoy that challenge. We’re currently working on a customer health score project that will result in a tool designed to provide Esri decision makers with a more holistic understanding of our customers’ behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. By combining operational and customer experience data into one report, we’re able to more clearly identify business opportunities to improve the experience for our customers.

We’re also gearing up for our annual Esri User Conference, which will be virtual. Each year, we distribute a pre-event survey to all attendees to learn about their satisfaction and experiences with Esri as a company. Not only do we ensure each customer comment is read by Esri staff, but our CEO Jack Dangermond also reads every comment that is addressed to him directly. This year, we’ve ramped up our feedback review process and tools to make it easier for staff to read and address customer comments. Our new process will also result in a richer, closed-loop analysis performed by the CX team. We’ll generate and share a report with survey-takers just before the conference, summarizing the results and the steps Esri will take to address their feedback.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue a customer experience-related role?

First, I think it’s important to have an inherent passion and empathy for customers—listening to their voice, understanding their needs, and helping them reach their goals by putting yourself in their shoes. This can be done in any role! Also, developing your active listening and communication skills will be key for any CX role, as you’re not only gathering and interpreting customer feedback, but you’re also acting as a megaphone for customers to your colleagues across the company.

There’s also a level of buy-in and excitement that CX professionals need to generate with internal stakeholders to influence and drive change. This means knowing your stuff—how the feedback data is collected, stored, and documented; who gathers the data; and why the themes are important. If you love customers, numbers, solving problems, telling stories, and innovation, CX is for you! To develop your CX skills, I’d recommend checking out the CXPA and Forrester Research resources; both organizations have a wealth of knowledge about roles and industry best practices.