Lisa Mascolo, a Stevens alumnus and current trustee of Stevens, has served in many senior leadership roles such as Managing Director at IBM, Executive Vice President at UnitedHealth, CEO of Optimos, and founding partner at Accenture. She has founded Listen Learn Lead to provide executive coaching and leadership development services to small and large businesses. She supports Teach for America, Room to Read, and the Women in Military Service to America Memorial, among other philanthropic engagements.
In this interview, Lisa talks about how technology is not for its own ends but an enabler of problem-solving. She also talks about the leader’s job as listening, learning, and teaching, in addition to leading; how a leader needs to be both effective and admired, both confident and empathetic, and know what to do when they don’t know what to do during disruptive times.
Wei Zheng: Hi Lisa, thank you so much for speaking with us. I really appreciate you giving us the time to share your leadership experience and insights.
Lisa Mascolo: Happy to do so.
Wei Zheng: Could you start by giving us a brief overview of your career history?
Lisa Mascolo: Sure. I had worked as a young kid, and I think of this as part of my career history, for a woman who taught me how to ride, horseback riding, and she was a really important influence in my life and she was a really important influence in my decision to pursue college and a career.
I went to Stevens. My undergraduate degree from Stevens was in a curriculum at the time called Systems Planning and Management and when I graduated, I was attracted to the consulting field because I like the idea of not necessarily knowing exactly what I was going to be doing every single day and consulting has that sort of allure and appeal. I think the reality’s probably slightly different.
Nonetheless, I went to work for what at the time was Arthur Andersen, which was known primarily as an audit and accounting and tax firm. Although they had just started a consulting division and it was the consulting division that I joined when I graduated and I spent almost 30 years with that company.
The consulting group ultimately became Andersen Consulting, and then ultimately became Accenture. Accenture’s now close to a 50 or 60 billion dollar a year enterprise and I spent all of my time, virtually all my time, at Andersen consulting in Accenture in the public sector, which is to say all of my clients and the work that we do and Accenture still does today is largely in and around IT. All of my clients were public sector clients, government clients. So I spent almost 30 years at Accenture.
I retired from Accenture, took a little bit of time off. I took the job of CEO of a small DC-based IT company primarily focused on serving the federal government. I was the CEO for two and a half years. And then I did what I always intended to do, which was to hang out a shingle and spend my time doing leadership development and executive coaching sort of one on one with individual clients.
I like to say I was quite happily doing that until a recruiter called me in late 2015, friend of mine, at a large retained search firm and she said, hey, I’ve got the perfect job for you. And I said, yeah, you’re confused. I already have the perfect job, you know, some days I don’t work, some days I roll out of bed at nine o’clock. I’m really happy doing what I’m doing.
She called me back a month later, and she said, no, they really like to talk to you. And it turned out it was IBM and it was leading the public sector business in the US. So the federal government and the state and local governments. And it was really an opportunity given my passion for the public sector, it was really an opportunity I couldn’t pass up and I executed that role for three and a half years, decided it was time to let the next generation of leaders step up. I felt like I had done a decent job of coaching and grooming them to take on the leadership and then I spent another probably nine months with IBM working on some global corporate leadership and culture issues and left IBM at the end of March of this year. So that’s kind of the snapshot.
Wei Zheng: What are some formative experiences that have influenced who you are, who you have been and what you have been doing?
Lisa Mascolo: As I said, I am passionate about the public sector. I contemplated on a couple of occasions actually going into government service. And I have this conversation all the time with my government clients, you know, where can you make the biggest difference? Is it on the inside being a government employee, is it on the outside banging against it? And the conclusion I came to was that actually it’s the marriage of the two, it’s the government officials aligned with external consultants, service providers. When you get that right marriage, you get to drive a lot of really important benefits.
My passion for the public sector really came as a result of my paternal grandfather, who was a civil servant. He worked in the city of New York, and he was what I like to call 311 on feet. If you know 311 today in most cities or most major cities, you can dial 311 non-emergency and get help, get information. And this was obviously a long time ago but I would accompany him in the summer, we would get to spend some time with my grandfather when we were not in school, as kids, little kids, my sister I, and we’d go with him to the office and he’d go into the office in the morning and he’d pick up a pile of tickets, trouble tickets, and his job was to go figure out what the issue was and figure out how to resolve it and I saw him doing just that. Right, talking to people, understanding what the issues were, and figuring out how to use the resources of the government to solve those problems and when I left Stevens and went to Arthur Andersen in the consulting division, I said, they said, well, where do you want to work, you know, JP Morgan, Mars Candy? I said, No, I want to do government work. And at the time there wasn’t really a lot of government work, but I got that bug and for me that was a formative experience, you know, being with my grandfather.
And as I mentioned earlier, my other passion, certainly as a kid, as a young adult and even today was horseback riding, and I spent all my free time at the barn. My father decided when I was four years old that I was a bit of a troublemaker and he was gonna, you know, take me to a place and make sure I understood what it meant to have responsibility, to learn. And I don’t think he expected the extent to which I would know become passionate about horses and riding. And that experience, you know, every non-school, non-waking moment I spent in the barn, taking care of horses ultimately teaching kids, learning responsibility.
The woman that I rode for and worked with, she was way ahead of her time in terms of women business owners. And she embodied in my view what it took to be a continent business person and still be empathetic, and still be able to spend time with people and horses, and get the best out of them. And, you know, things I learned from her was, to me, was really important, the way she taught, and she really taught me that the job is to be a teacher and she was big on, you know, listening and observing before coming to conclusions.
And I think the probably the third sort of set of formative experiences was my home life. Not that it was third in the list, but I probably argue it was third in the list. My parents were really committed to us doing what we were passionate about and making sure that we understood that in order to achieve, you had to work hard. And both my parents worked, and they both worked hard, and they played hard too, they enjoyed their friends. So I think it was, you know, it was really those three sets of experiences that I think we’re really formative for me.
Wei Zheng: Those are really interesting experiences. Then later in terms of education, you got a bachelor’s degree in Systems Planning and Management from Stevens. How has that background influenced you in your career?
Lisa Mascolo: It was sort of ahead of its time. When I went into Stevens, I expected to start as a physics major, frankly, and found out those people were way smarter than I was. And I think my first year on campus was the first year they offered the Systems Planning and Management curriculum. And so I know I jumped on it and switched.
And it’s a lot like what I said about the woman that I rode for. Her name by the way was Natalie Johnson. It’s very similar in that what I think the thing that I learned most was analysis and problem solving and how to think logically about problems even when they didn’t appear to be logical and also how to use my intuition and resources around, just about the logic of solving a problem. It’s about the art of solving a problem.
And while I know I always tell people who are thinking about going to Stevens, you know, well I don’t I don’t use you know vectors was a great class. I loved that class. And fluid dynamics, fascinating stuff. I don’t use that stuff in terms of my day to day work, whether that’s leadership or management or operations. And that classwork was informative and formative in that I really had to figure out how to solve problems and address things that I didn’t know how to do. And I think that’s a fundamental point that we’re missing in leaders today. We don’t teach leaders how to do when they don’t know what to do.
Wei Zheng: Could you say more on that?
Lisa Mascolo: Yeah, I think the pandemic and other situations are kind of emblematic of that, right, as a leader I have in my mind what I view as a decision-making framework. And decisions that you have to make as a leader go from the simple to the complicated, to complex, to chaotic, and frankly beyond chaos is disorder. And I like studying chaos and disorder. I think we need to do a lot more of that. Because too many of our leaders when confronted with a very different situation don’t know what to do. We haven’t taught them how, we haven’t been actively engaged and saying, hey, what are you going to do when you don’t know what to do?
And there’s real things to do when you don’t know what to do and this is not a topic in my view that we spend a lot of time on or nearly enough time on and you see it, whether that’s in governmental leaders or corporate leaders or in other places. While we were able to react relatively quickly in certain areas to the pandemic, use that as the example, I still think that there are areas where leaders fail to step up and spend too much time trying to figure it out, right.
My decision-making framework, you know, when the situation is simple, the leader has the opportunity and I think the obligation to listen and learn and then make a decision. I’m not necessarily about consensus management. I am though about taking advantage of all the resources around you when the situation affords you that luxury right, if you’ve got the luxury of time, as a leader you should engage, you should listen and learn from other people. As you move from that left end of the spectrum from the simple to the chaotic, you better have had the right experiences, the right teaching, better have built the right relationships with the people because when you get to the right end of that spectrum as the leader, even when lives aren’t at stake, you know, like in corporate America, even lives aren’t at stake, when the situation is chaotic, as a leader you have to be able to step up to the plate and hit the ball out of the park, which for me means it has to be the right order, it has to be the right directive, and people have to believe that it’s the right order and the right directive in order to execute it. We don’t spend enough time thinking and talking about decision making, situational decision making.
Wei Zheng: So, do you have an example in your career, either you have done it, or you have seen other leaders done it, in terms of when they absolutely know that they don’t know what to do, but they did something following a process or following their intuitively built knowledge base in terms of doing specific things that they can do to try to figure out the situation?
Lisa Mascolo: Yeah, sure. So, I can’t tell you that specific client, but I can tell you the situation. And the situation was that, as a result of human error. And it was a human error on a team that was working underneath me, a really important system supporting a government function crashed, for lack of a better word.
And the first thing you have to do is to understand the impact that a crash like that is going to have and if you don’t know the impact, it’s because you haven’t been involved. And so one of the things that you have to do when you’re charged with being a leader is understand the risks associated with everything that’s in your purview.
And when I understood what the system was and what the crash was and what the implications were, as soon as I heard that that particular system crashed and this is not about me, but as soon as I heard that particular system crashed, the absolute first thing in that case I did was call my client. And people like oh my god, you can’t call the client, you know, we’ve got to figure- absolutely not. In that case you need to call the client, you need to put a you know a war room together, you need to put a team together, you need the right people with the right skills immediately on it, figuring out doing the triage. And we basically got it fixed in about six hours, probably six hours longer than the client wanted to take.
And I believe that that was about as quickly as it could have been fixed because we understood ahead of time what the implications of that thing going down were and we were prepared to do that and I think, as I said, we don’t spend enough time, we spend a lot of time gyrating in place as operators, managers, and even some leaders gyrate in place. I would argue that, then those people aren’t actually leaders but we need to be a lot more intentional and thoughtful about future events, right.
The idea of the black swan is really what this is, this point is about right. Putting locks on the cockpit doors after 9/11 is sort of not really helpful, right. A lock should have been on the doors. Somebody should have been thinking about what are the catastrophic risks and not to say that we don’t do war gaming, but we also don’t do war gaming enough in small enough situations that become big disasters and it’s a hell of a lot easier to say this stuff I think than it is to do but until and unless we’re really intentional and thoughtful, we’re going to continue to see bad things happen unfortunately, but I think it’s you know it’s incumbent on the leader to be thinking about the future, both in terms of setting the vision, the strategy, the direction and all that stuff that leaders are supposed to do as well as thinking about the challenges, the bad things that could happen.
Wei Zheng: So from a leadership development perspective, what are some ways people can pick up those important skills to enjoy the normal times? I can immediately think about, for example, taking coursework in crisis management or for leaders to practice doing scenario planning. For example, anticipating potential risks. Is there anything else they could do during normal times to prepare for those times where they have absolutely had very little to follow and it’s a chaotic situation?
Lisa Mascolo: Yeah, I’m always surprised in a chaotic situation how many times a bit of information that I heard at some point in the past becomes valuable. Had I not taken the time in the simple times to listen, my teams will tell you, you know, I am sort of famous for never turning down a conversation, you know, if somebody wants to have a conversation with me about something that they think is important, I’m not just going to talk about the weather. But if there’s something that they think is important or something they want to explore something they’re not certain about or something they dislike, when you have the luxury of time, you should always have those conversations.
I think too many leaders think they don’t have the time to do that. My view is they don’t have the time not to do that. Those are very valuable conversations. To your broader question, the thing that has to happen is that the whole curriculum, in my view, around leadership and leadership development, has to focus on this topic of what to do when you don’t know what to do.
Wei Zheng: That’s a good point.
Lisa Mascolo: There needs to be a plank of the leadership platform.
Wei Zheng: Absolutely. And this is related to one of the things you mentioned during our first conversation. You were asking me, are you differentiating between leadership or management or operation, right? Is this related to that?
Lisa Mascolo: Yeah, there’s a big difference. I would argue that too many people who have the title of leader are actually managers or even operators. There’s nothing wrong with being an operator or being a manager, they’re just not leaders.
Lisa Mascolo: And leaders are people who have to set the strategy and the vision and they have to recognize that as a leader they serve at the pleasure of the leader. If the people who are following the leader don’t like the leader, don’t think the leader is doing a good enough job, they’ll walk in, especially in a corporate setting, you know, they’ll vote with their feet, they’ll walk from the leader.
In my business, in the IT business, if you run a system test team and there’s four people on the team and two of them because you haven’t given them the proper direction, let’s say, two of them screw up, you could work hard, you can probably work really hard and fix what they screwed up. When you lead 100 or 1000 or 10,000 people you can’t fix what they don’t get done.
So the leader’s job is to set the vision, the strategy, the direction and then to capture the hearts and the minds of the people and move them in that direction. If the leader doesn’t understand that he or she serves at the pleasure of the lead and their job is to capture their, you know, I like to see say head, heart, and gut, and move them in that direction, you’re not a leader. The simplest definition of a leader is somebody who has followers and if they’re unwilling to follow, you’re not much of a leader.
And that’s very different than managing, which is setting a schedule being in the details, right? My example before about the system that crashed, I was absolutely in the details. And I’m not in the details of everything that goes on. That’s the job of the people who report to the leader and the people who report to them and the people who report to them.
The leader can’t be in the details of everything. Otherwise, the leader is stifling progress and is not a leader. That’s a manager, somebody who needs to be in the details of everything, probably, has a trust issue and probably hasn’t taught their people well enough. The leader’s job is to let the people step up in an appropriate manner and take on responsibility. I always view my job as a leader as you know, eyeballing my successors. Who’s going to take my job?
Wei Zheng: So let’s discuss your career experience in terms of milestones, successes, and failures. How did you emerge as a leader? You mentioned being a leader is when you have followers. How did you notice that people were following you, or what do you do to emerge as a leader?
I was having a conversation with some graduating Master’s students the other day, and one thing they wanted me to ask my interviewees is how did they emerge as leaders. How did you get other people to see you as a leader? So how did you emerge as a leader in your experience?
Lisa Mascolo: I wouldn’t say that it’s accidental. I do think there are people who say in a very altruistic sense, take maybe like Martin Luther King or John Lewis, right. John Lewis for me is a great example.
And I love the John Lewis story. I actually have the original artwork. If you’ve seen John Lewis preaching to the chickens point. I actually have that original artwork. That was a young man who at a very young age felt a calling to move people, felt that what he had thought and what he had to say could move people and he practiced that. He practiced preaching to the chickens and that’s where I think he fundamentally had a calling, and he believed in his ability to move people to the good. So that absolutely happens.
I think in business there are probably people who say, I’m going to be a great leader. I do think it’s a natural evolution or progression and it starts with I think an ethic, especially my business and ethic around client service. Right, the leader’s job is about clients and people, not about shareholders, it’s about clients and people.
And so, you know, as a young person I was one of 10 coders, right. I was on a program for the State of New York, the statewide accounting system in Albany in God knows what year, 1980 something. And in order to do my job properly, I knew I had to have conversations with the clients and the guys that I worked for said you need to have a conversation with the client about, you know, this thing and figure out how we’re going to make it work. And so you do. You have a conversation with the client about whatever the thing is, and how you’re going to make it work. And you ask questions. And you think about it, and you formulate a plan and an answer and you share it with people.
Sometimes what happens is you’re good at that and the people who see you see you’re good at that. And they say, hey, you were pretty good at that, why don’t you do it again, you know, over here? And instead of, you know, you spending 12 hours a day doing that, why do you spend six hours a day doing the conversation with the client and then have the conversation with two of these people who will now be your team?
And so you move from leading yourself, which is the fundamental tenet of leadership in my view, of leading yourself to leading others and bigger groups of others. And you hope along the way that you get good coaching and mentorship and that the people around you tell you when you’re doing a good thing, when you’re doing a bad thing.
Feedback is essential. And you got to have your own point of view about what kind of leader you want to be. For me, servant leadership is really important. And I don’t mean that in any sort of religious sense, per se. It is about understanding that leadership is a service calling, service to your clients, service to your people and ultimately, yes, in the corporate setting, service to the shareholders or stakeholders. But it’s learned for most people. It doesn’t come naturally to everybody like it did to a guy like John Lewis who had a natural gift for the vision and the ability to move people and that’s fundamentally what the leader’s got to do, right, you’ve got to move people and you learn how to move people. There’s a lot of storytelling in leadership and there’s a lot of listening in leadership.
Wei Zheng: How do you listen? A lot of people talk about being good listeners and listening. What are the secrets of listening that can move people?
Lisa Mascolo: You actually have to mean it. People who hear and don’t listen, I have limited time for them. You actually have to want to hear what somebody has to say and you actually have to believe that there’s value to you and to them in having a conversation and listening to what they have to say because it’s the interaction.
Somebody might come to a leader and say, hey, um, geez. I’ve been experiencing this and it doesn’t feel very good or I don’t like it and this is what I think we ought to do about it. I love to say to my guys I’m okay with a squeaky wheel. It’d just be nice if occasionally the squeaky wheel showed up with its own oil can.
We might not use your can of oil, but somebody who comes with a problem and a perspective on the solution, you really want to listen to those people because they care and you’ll have a conversation and you’ll probably end up in a different place than either one of you thought when you first started the conversation, but effective listening is because you want to listen and you want to learn as a result of listening.
Wei Zheng: So coming back to your career line and what are some major successes and failures you’ve experienced, some milestones that helped you grow into a better leader?
Lisa Mascolo: I would argue that you learn most from the failures, right, successes, you know, and I was a terrible coder, they were happy to stop me from coding things because I was a really bad coder.
Lisa Mascolo: The successes sort of come, right, you learn but that doesn’t mean you do everything perfectly. But success comes right to you. You do a thing. Somebody says, okay, but you might think about doing it this way, and then you go do it that way. I think you learn a lot from the failures. And I like to cook a lot too. If I don’t drop, not the not the plate itself, but the stuff on the plate. If I don’t shove you know at least one meal or one component of one meal down the disposal every week, my view is that I’m not trying hard enough. I’m not experimenting. I’m not trying new things. You know, when people say failure is not an option, it means you’ve gotten to a place where you shouldn’t be in first place.
We need to learn from our failures and I love to say, I’ve had some epic failures. And you know, I can remember what I call my very first epic failure and I was probably four years old in still Arthur Andersen at the time. So I was what we would have referred to as a Senior Consultant. And I had a small team and we were redesigning a part of the State of New Jersey’s unemployment system. And in those days, you know, there weren’t a lot of tools. And so you were doing the design of the system with a little flowchart template and eighty columns spreadsheet paper. And we had worked on this redesign probably for three weeks and I was presenting it to my boss’s boss.
She would ultimately become one of the first female partners in the consulting division of Arthur Andersen and she was not the nicest person, but I was determined that you know we had done a really good design and we fundamentally missed a really important point because we misunderstood a conversation with the client. And so the guts of design was wrong. It was basically wrong.
So we had wasted three weeks, and she called me into her office and she took a piece of paper, a little five by eight piece of paper that sat like a notepad and a little plastic dish. She pulled out one of these pieces of paper and she was famous for using her blue felt marker and while she’s screaming at me and redrawing the process because she’s using this blue felt marker (I still have the paper somewhere), it’s just covered, it bleeds. It’s just blue ink when she’s done and she throws it at me and she says, now that’s what you should have designed in the first place, go do that. And I picked up my pile of eighty column spreadsheet paper, this tiny little piece of paper that had blue ink on it, went in the bathroom, locked the door, and cried for 20 minutes.
And it taught me two things. One, what I would never do if I were in her position and two, we didn’t really listen to the client. We didn’t really hear the client and we didn’t ask enough questions to make sure we actually were on the same page, saying the same thing. And that was a pretty epic fail. And you learn a lot from those failures, good and bad. What to do differently and what not to do when it’s your turn. And for me that was really a formative experience.
Wei Zheng: So let’s imagine, let’s do a thought experiment. So let’s imagine you are her in a similar situation. Someone now has made a big mistake. What would you do differently?
Lisa Mascolo: What I would do differently is the entire process. And that’s not a cop out answer. This was a really important part of the system and what should have happened, both on my part, and on her part would have been a check in. Two days into the client interview process, we should have had a check in, wherein she might have said, hang on, I’ve been doing this for a long time, I don’t think that’s how that’s supposed to work. You need to go back to the client and make sure you guys are on the same page, talking about the same thing.
So I’d like to think that we can prevent epic failures by being better leaders throughout the process. Does that always happen? No. It doesn’t happen because you know the story I told you before about the system crashing. It was a human error. And it’s not about pointing fingers. It’s about understanding the implications and figuring out how to fix it. Now it’s about being truthful about what happened to cause the epic failure and making sure that we learn from that so we don’t do it again.
Wei Zheng: So what about when you’re facing that conversation. What if the failure is done and it’s a big failure and this person walks into your office. How would you conduct this conversation in a way that you’re not screaming, but you still make it a point, an important point, helping this person realize how big of a mistake that is and what they can do differently?
Lisa Mascolo: I think in those situations, most people understand that it’s a really big deal and they’ve really made a mistake. If it’s willful and negligent and you come to that conclusion through investigation, then it’s one conversation. If it’s not willful and it’s not negligent and we understand how the mistake got made, it’s about fixing the mistake.
And in the case of the system going down, the one that I mentioned earlier, it actually cost the company money because that was part of our contract, right. If the thing goes down for an extended period of time, you’re going to get penalized. Is that great? No. Do you take it out of some individual’s paycheck? No, because, fundamentally, I view those things as a failure of leadership. That somewhere along the line, there’s a reason that it happened, again unless it’s willful and negligent or a bad intent by a bad actor, which really doesn’t happen too often.
The conversation that you have with somebody is hey, let’s say it’s in the case it’s human error, tell me what happened, you know, help me understand how you think this happened, and how do you think it could have been prevented? And what do we do differently in the future? There’s no point, there’s no value, it’s like kids, I don’t know if you’ve got kids, but I mean you could scream at your kid and they’ll get scared and they’ll stop doing whatever it is that they’re doing at the moment but it doesn’t change their behavior.
To me, it’s about behavior modification. If it was, you know, bad process, bad behavior that caused the failure, we need to go back and understand why it happened and what we need to do differently. Screaming at somebody is not going to modify behavior. It might in the moment, but it doesn’t actually help them learn and do better the next time.
Wei Zheng: Good point. Thank you for sharing that. So let’s talk about your technical consulting role, which is interesting. So you have worked in different organizations IBM is sort of a technology and also a healthcare organization and before that you were a consultant probably working with different organizations and types of organizations, but in our conversation you talked about your role being a technical consulting role throughout these different organizations, could you say more about that? How do you see that role and what are some strategies for you to get better and better in that role?
Lisa Mascolo: So when I say technical, and that might not have been my best word choice, what I really mean is IT. All of the consulting work that I’ve done, whether it was Accenture and its predecessor companies or as the CEO of an IT company, or leading the IBM consulting business, it’s all about IT. It’s all about systems, you know, helping our clients solve their problems and 99.9% of the time when we’re helping our clients solve their problems, there’s IT involved, whether it’s building a new system, remediating something, there’s IT involved. So that’s really what I meant by technical. It’s really IT. And that’s the enabler, IT is the enabler, so it’s not really about the details of the tech, which I certainly understood, right.
One of the things which always makes some of my people laugh because they don’t think I have much technical skill, you know I actually wrote a compiler. I suspect 90% of the people out there who are in IT don’t even know what a compiler is. I wrote a compiler as my senior project at Stevens.
So you need to have some detailed technical chops. You need to understand what the teams are doing so you can ask appropriate questions, but to me, the technology is strictly the enabler.
Consulting is about solving problems. It’s about understanding the problem. It’s about figuring out what the solutions are, how do you bring those solutions to bear in an efficient manner because the government doesn’t have, you know, as a taxpayer, I hope the government doesn’t spend money like water. We’ve got a responsibility to make sure we present solutions that are effective and efficient.
Wei Zheng: So what type of learning have you gained in this role of being the IT consulting enabler. So what about this enabler role? How do you get it better, because a lot of our graduates and I know current students too are very strong in this technical role, how can they become better enablers?
Lisa Mascolo: Yeah, so I think that the question there is, you know, do those folks have a perspective on their long term aspirations? If somebody wants to be a database designer forever and ever and ever and ever because it’s the thing that they’re passionate about and they want to get smarter about, they want to produce better products. That’s a great thing. If somebody wants to be a database designer because it will teach them how to think and solve problems and use that as a stepping stone to manage others and ultimately lead others, that’s great too. I think it really depends on the individual.
Technology is strictly an enabler. Technology is what enables you as a consultant to deliver a solution to a client, again, whether it’s, you know, building a system to launch a rocket or building a system to answer taxpayer questions without having to have a human being, whatever the system is, the technology is what makes that happen, but the technology is not the, in consulting, the technology stuff needs to happen. Somebody needs to get it done. But it’s not the be all and end all. It’s not technology for technology’s sake. It’s technology as an enabler of a solution.
Wei Zheng: So what about the latter group of people you mentioned, the group who is interested in using their technical skills backgrounds to jump off into leadership positions. What are some things you would recommend they do to help with that transition?
Lisa Mascolo: I would go back to some of the things we’ve talked about, which is to understand that in order to lead you have to have a perspective about the clients that you’re serving and the people who are going to help you serve those clients. And even if that’s even if you’re in an internal JPMC’s IT department or as a consultant outside of an organization, it has to be about listening to hear what the real problem is and then figuring out what the solution is. It has to be about making the client and your team successful.
I’m not that interested in people who say I need this job in order to prove I’m a good leader. Well, actually then, you’re not, you don’t need to be on my team anyway. The job is to solve the client’s problems, certainly in my industry, in consulting, the job is to solve the client’s problem.
And I think that’s true whether you call it consulting or you’re a chemical engineer for DuPont, there’s always a there’s a thing to be done, there’s a problem to be solved, there’s something that needs to get done. You could do it yourself individually and work on it 12 hours a day. You could be deploying a team to work on a whole bunch of those problems 12 hours a day.
Wei Zheng: Interesting. So last time we talked, we talked about leadership and you said and I quote, “the holy grail of leadership is to be both effective and admired,” which I think is a very insightful point. But could you talk about that could just start by just talking about why it’s hard to be both.
Lisa Mascolo: I think there’s language challenges. I think one of the most important words in the English language, in any language, however you say the word in whatever language, that word is “and.” It’s a tiny little word. It’s only got three letters and people sometimes present themselves with false choices, they present others with false choices. When somebody says, “Do you want me to do this or that? Just tell me which one.” Well, no. Actually, no. I probably need you to do both. And we need people to think about whatever the situation is. We need people to think and we need people to think both.
Being effective without being admired is not leadership. Being admired without being effective is not leadership. In order to be a leader, ie to get a thing done right, again, whether it’s leading yourself, leading others, leading a company or country, whatever it is you need to be both effective, which means you get the job done, you get done what you’re charged with getting done and you do it in a manner that resonates with the people who are around you.
They look at the result and the approach and they say, wow, all right, good result and it wasn’t a death march or good result and I learned a lot. They don’t say, you know, geez, we got the thing done but it was a death march. It doesn’t mean people don’t work hard, doesn’t mean they don’t work long hours.
To me, you have to be, I used to say, an effective and admired leader for good, right, because you could easily argue that Hitler was effective and admired. There’s no question about that. We don’t have to today think that that was a good thing. And he was effective and admired. He got done what he said he was going to do and there were plenty of people who admired that. Leaders, I think leaders have to be, you know, I use three words credible and passionate and they have to really understand themselves as a leader in order to be effective and admired.
Wei Zheng: When did you realize that? Were there events or successes or even challenges that made you realize or start a focus on that?
Lisa Mascolo: Yeah, I mean, it’s sort of a long time coming, it’s evolutionary, it’s certainly you know thoughts that were kicking around in the back of my head when I was sitting in that bathroom crying right. She was effective. She made me understand what I didn’t do right, but I certainly didn’t admire the approach and I know I can remember sitting in that bathroom vowing to myself that I would never do to somebody else what she did to me. Not to say that the content or knowledge of the client and the system and her content was right.
She was right. The approach was terrible. And, you know, even that long ago that was certainly my commitment to myself to the people who are going to be around me that I would never do that because it feels crappy, feels terrible when somebody treats you that way and it’s, as I said, it’s like yelling at your kids. You know, it might work in the moment you might scare them, it’s not really the right way to operate.
Wei Zheng: What are some other good ways of gathering leadership skills?
Lisa Mascolo: You know, all the obvious things right it’s asking questions, observing, reading, just actively determining that you want to be a better leader is probably the first step.
People who just sort of tumbleweed from one experience to another you know get asked to get something done, they get it done, they get asked to get a bigger thing done and a bigger thing and a bigger thing and then pretty soon they’re a leader. To me, that’s a tumbleweed experience. It’s not an intentional and thoughtful experience and whatever it is that you want to get done, I think people should be intentional and thoughtful about it.
Being a better leader requires intent and thought to be a better leader. Asking questions, reading stuff, talking to people, trying out theories, operating in a court, you know, having a strict set of things that you adhere to, and being consistent, right. Leaders need to be consistent. That doesn’t mean you don’t evolve, doesn’t mean your points of view don’t morph over time, because they clearly do. You need to be consistent and you need to be credible.
Wei Zheng: So I’d like to transition a little bit and ask you some questions about being a woman in technology. You have written and spoken on this topic. Could you share a little bit about your own experience as a woman in tech and what challenges you experienced and how you have navigated them?
Lisa Mascolo: My generation has some understanding of the struggles of the generations of women before us. I’m not sure we had as much of an appreciation for them as we should have and that probably colored some things and I think we do a crappy job of teaching the current generations of young women what the generations before them had to do and go through for them. I think if we talked to most young certainly professional women today, most of them are probably pretty convinced that they could do whatever they want to do. And that’s not really actually borne out by the facts.
One of the things that we still absolutely face, at least in a corporate setting, and even in a big academic setting, is the patriarchy, the hierarchy, is largely male dominated and I’m, you know, married to a man, I love my husband, I love my two sons. You know men aren’t evil and the patriarchy, the system that we’ve all grown up in for generations and generations and generations.
In fact, we saw it today. I don’t know if you saw it in the news, I can’t remember what her name is, had just become the you know the 35th Fortune 500 female CEO. So what that means is 7% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
It’s a failure in my view, which is why I got into the leadership development and executive coaching sort of one on one. We do a very poor job of coaching and mentoring women because most of the people who are charged with coaching and mentoring women are men.
When you do a good job, you tend to get feedback like hey, that was great, you’re doing a great job, you know, could you go do this thing? If somebody provides feedback that says, hey, you’re doing a great job just keep on doing it, that’s useless. It’s absolutely useless. It is not actionable. It’s not helpful. Does it feel nice? You can go home and say, hey, my boss told me, I’m doing a great job. Okay. It’s like going grocery shopping when you’re hungry. You put a lot of crap in the bag, you get home, you feel like you can’t actually live on it.
It’s not actionable and we need to teach young women how to ask for feedback and how to get good feedback.
Wei Zheng: How do you do that? Can you share one or two pieces of advice?
Lisa Mascolo: Yeah, you know, first you need to fairly and accurately assess your own strengths and weaknesses. You should have a perspective on what you’re good at, what you’re not so good at, what you’re passionate about, what you want to get better at. You should have a perspective on your own performance, grade your own performance, and ask for feedback.
You can’t pigeonhole somebody whether your boss is a man or woman, you can’t say, hey, when you come in contact with them in the hall, hey, tell me how I’m doing. I really want to ask for feedback on some sort of a regular schedule basis. I’d like to sit down with you in two weeks and get your perspective on what I’m doing well and what I need to do in order to continue to improve, what I need to do in order to continue to stay with this organization.
If you put somebody on the spot. They’re going to react and you’ll probably get you’re doing a great job. Just keep at it you know you’re not my problem. Just keep doing a great job. Again not helpful feedback.
So I think going into a conversation about performance having your own point of view on performance or even sending it to somebody ahead of time and saying, hey, in anticipation of our conversation next week or the week after, I’ve lined out what I think I’ve done well because bosses don’t always have the level of detail either that they need.
So I’ve, you know, I’ve lined out what I’ve been working on for the last three months. Here’s the things I think I did really well. Here’s the things I need to improve on, you know, here’s what I wanted. I like the idea of going into that sort of a conversation prepared and giving the other person something to respond to with an appropriate amount of time.
Wei Zheng: That’s good advice. Anything else?
Lisa Mascolo: I do think it’s important that we are our biggest critic and our biggest fan. I don’t like stereotyping or generalizing and in general, women in team leader managers and even leadership roles will say it’s not about me, it’s about my team. To me, that’s another one of these false “or” choices. It is about my team and it’s about me, it’s about my ability to set the vision and direction and move the team to get it done. We don’t teach women to take appropriate personal credit as well as credit for what the team accomplishes.
Wei Zheng: Well, my last question, has to do with another holy grail of professional women, which is work life balance. What was your experience like maybe when your kids were younger? How did you go through that?
Lisa Mascolo: My one point on work life balance. And I sort of said it non flippantly one day and it was poorly phrased, I said I don’t believe in work life balance. And before I could get to another half of a sentence, they were all over me. One, it’s personal, and two I think it’s about integration.
I only ever have and had one to do list. I’m not two people, I can’t split myself in two, and plenty of days when you know kids lacrosse games were number one on the list, many of times I was in Germany or some other place or China when the kids lacrosse game was happening and I didn’t go. It’s personal. You need to decide what’s appropriate for you and your family, but if somebody asked me for advice I’d say just make one list, not two.
Wei Zheng: How do you decide what’s on that list? You talked about how you change it, adapt it to the current situation. Do you have any rules of thumb for yourself when you make those decisions?
Lisa Mascolo: Fly by the seat of your pants’ gut. No. I mean yes and no. You know, from a professional standpoint, what’s critical? And you try to plan, you have to have some approach to a plan, you do have to be my two other favorite words, intentional and thoughtful. You can’t show up on a day and say, except in the case of an emergency, obviously, you can’t show up on a day and say, hey, I’m going on vacation for two weeks tomorrow how does that sound? That doesn’t work.
You need to be intentional and thoughtful, you need to have a plan and, I believe, sometimes you decide that the work thing is most important, and other times you decide that the family thing is most important. And that’s personal.
Wei Zheng: And it’s okay to shift.
Lisa Mascolo: Absolutely.
Wei Zheng: Well, do you have any last words for our audience?
Lisa Mascolo: I think when it comes to leadership, it’s really important to be active, to understand the situation that you’re in, and apply different skills depending on the situation. When you’ve got the luxury of time, the leader’s job is absolutely to listen and learn and to lead.
I think the leader’s ultimate job is as a teacher and I think the way that you do that in part is by being intentional and thoughtful and passionate. Leaders who aren’t passionate won’t be admired. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, do something else. You can’t lead without having a passion for the environment, the topic, the agenda, the company, the clock. Whatever it is, if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, go figure out what you’re passionate about and then you’ll be really good at it.
Wei Zheng: So identify an area of passion and do that intentionally and actively to pursue leadership. Thank you so much Lisa. I really appreciate your wisdom.
Lisa Mascolo: Okay, happy to help.
Wei Zheng: Thank you.
Lisa Mascolo: Okay, bye.
Wei Zheng: Bye.