Twenty years ago, Lisa Utzschneider made a decision that changed the course of her career: She decided to pivot away from the nonprofit sector and interview for an entry-level enterprise role at Microsoft. Only, she didn’t get the job.
When Utzschneider—who today is the CEO of Integral Ad Science (IAS)—asked the recruiter why she was rejected, they gave a simple answer: they weren’t sure she had the passion. “I called back and asked for another interview, and they agreed to give me a shot at another role,” she says. “This time, I made sure I demonstrated my passion and excitement about the opportunity and landed the job.”
Utzschneider, who had earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from New York University, decided to transition into the tech industry because she felt like something was missing from the work she had been doing.
“I wanted to find what I was passionate about, what I was good at,” she says. “I began networking and realized sales would be a good fit for me because I’m goal-oriented, results-oriented, and competitive.” That realization led to a decade-long career at Microsoft, followed by leadership roles at Amazon and Yahoo.
Here, she shares some of the best leadership practices she has learned on the job—and has brought to IAS.
1. Hire on Potential
Microsoft didn’t have to take a chance on Utzschneider—her experiences lay elsewhere and she didn’t ace her first interview. But they clearly saw something in her, and she proved them right: Utzschneider would go on to win the Chairman’s award for spearheading a massive reorganization within the company.
Today, Utzschneider pays extra attention to job applicants who demonstrate their commitment and potential. One recent hire learned that Utzschneider would be speaking on a panel and reached out ahead of time to share her excitement about the subject of the talk. After the event, she sent Utzschneider an email and asked to meet.
“I get a lot of requests, but that stood out because I could tell she knew what I was about and what IAS was about,” Utzschneider says. “Her email made it clear that she wanted to be a part of IAS, and she knew how her skillset could help us. To me, that’s a total win-win.”
2. Always Prepare & Speak Up
Utzschneider spent 20 years of her career living in New York City while working for companies based out of the West Coast, which meant she was often just on the line rather than in the room.
“I learned quickly that in order to have a presence and for people to know who I was, I had to speak up and say something meaningful,” she says. “So, before each meeting, I would make a point to prepare and ensure I was able to speak up and contribute to the conversation. Over time my colleagues knew who I was and respected my opinion, and it opened the door for me to be included in more opportunities.”
3. Be Open to Feedback
At IAS, Utzschneider invites any employee to send her a one- or two-page memo summarizing an idea or opportunity for the company. Just after starting as CEO, she received a memo from an employee in their Chicago office outlining what a better parental leave policy could look like.
“She sent me articles on the economic impact to employers, about the likelihood of employee retention with and without adequate leave, and information on the mental health impacts of a comprehensive parental leave policy,” Utzschneider says.
Right away, Utzschneider got to work. Within a month, the policy was updated to allow for 16 weeks of paid leave for primary caregivers and four for non-primary caregivers.
4. Trust Your Team to Prioritize
As a working mother, Utzschneider wants her team members to have a life outside the office. The key, she says, is to create a culture of transparency and clear objectives. For example, with one of her direct reports, “It is really, really important to him that he goes and sees his daughter pitch in her softball games. And we have that connection. We talk about, ‘How is she doing in softball? Did they win last night?’ But the key is that he’s transparent about it, he’s doing a great job in his current job, and he’s trying to be true to both his professional priorities and his personal commitments.”
To create this culture, Utzschneider recommends managers be clear with their team about expectations, deliverables, and timing so that everyone is on the same page about how performance is being measured. Then allow team members the freedom to get there on their own, even if their hours or work style may be different than yours.
5. Don't Forget to Maintain Your Network
You may be a leader or manager in your institution, but it’s equally important to regularly assess the scaffolding you’ve surrounded yourself with when it comes to mentors and what Utzschneider calls “executive sponsors.”
“A mentor is someone who can coach you, help you develop certain skills, and help you think about your career path. But an executive sponsor is someone within your company who can support you, represent you, and be in the room when leadership is making decisions about promotions, raises, and succession planning,” explains Utzschneider. “Having both is a winning ingredient in a successful career.”