Office Hours: I'm the CPO and CTO of StepStone and was previously the CTO of IKEA.Featured

Hi everyone! Iā€™m Susan Standiford, Chief Product and Technology Officer at StepStone, an online job board company that operates in over 20 countries. Prior to StepStone, I was Chief Technology Officer at IKEA Group and Chief Operating Officer & Chief Technology Officer at The ZEAL Group. Ask me anything about technical leadership, operating, management, building companies, and more!
Thanks so much for joining us @susanstandiford4!Elphas ā€“ please ask @susanstandiford4 your questions before Friday, June 18th. @susanstandiford4 may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites šŸ”„šŸ‘šŸ¾āž•
Hi @susanstandiford4! I'm currently a data scientist at a large retail company exploring an opportunity to join a friend as the technical co-founder of a software start-up. I have an advanced degree in CS but suffering from imposter syndrome since I currently spend my days building models not software (aside from a few side projects). Two questions: 1.) What do you think the most important technical decisions are at an early stage of a company? 2.) What are the most important technical skills to have in order to make those decisions and implement them so that the odds of success are maximized?Thanks!
Hi Susan! Appreciate you taking the time to do this.I'm curious about your overall product strategy to building a job board company. Given there are soo many online job boards out there, what have you found to be the most important features or approaches to grow a job board that both companies AND potential employees want to use?
Hi @susanstandiford4, two questions:1. Could you tell us some actionable points which helped you reach where you are today? I am always inspired by people in leadership roles, but I struggle to carve a path out for myself which will take me there.2. As a CT/PO what are your biggest points of focus? Do you spend your time building relationships, taking high-level decisions, advising reportees, or doing something else entirely? Thank you for taking the time to respond to us! We really appreciate your support in helping us grow.
Hi Swarali - thanks so much for your much to discuss here :)1st question/answer: super interesting that you ask about actions and talk about paths for leadership. so...where to start...firstly, for growing leadership, spend some time on where you want to get to. Covey's 7 habits is an incredible book for thinking about this. if you know your destination (or generally where you are going), you give yourself flexibility and the ability to make decisions in context). Second, and related: I really like a meme that's out in the working social networks. I think we've all seen seen the meme that show how we "think" growing our careers looks (a graph moving swiftly and predictably up and to the right)...and then the picture of reality...which involves very lumpy and indirect progress. it has a visual that you should take to heart - to be accepting that the paths are not always clear and predictable. If you give yourself the breathing room to allow for circuitous paths and unpredictability it can open your eyes to opportunitesthird...and I've found this to be particularly valuable in my career growth as a leader - be willing to be unconventional. Convention can be something that holds many of us back...a role doesn't typically have someone who looks like me...a role doesn't seem to "fit" in a career path...etc....the more you're willing to look outside of that, the more that can give you opportunity. I can say that being a woman in tech, in tech leadership, in executive leadership and on boards...this is something that I've learned to be comfortable with. (including the wearing of baseball caps and jeans everywhere I go :)
On the 2nd question...the reality is that all of these things have to be your point of focus...they all have to be worked and balanced. The higher up in an organization you go - meaning the bigger span of influence and span of control you have - you have to find ways to balance decision making.In the worst case...when you're overwhelmed, and at times we all feel like that, it's a bit like plate spinning. constantly trying to keep the plates spinning is, you job is to figure out how to put order and sustainability to your focus. I always think that the best leaders think up down and out. - up: do you understand the pupose, strategy, goals, and outcomes. this is super critical. this needs time and attention - and when understood it still needs care and feeding. Without these though, it will be hard to delegate and distribute the work I always put a priority here- down: do you have a great leadership team? They should be empowered to do their own strategy and execution. As a leader this is fundamentally your lead and scale an org.- out: this is one that I think many of us come to late (at least I did). your partnerships and relationships outside of your own span of control is super critical to build. This is building span of influence, having empathy, and will ultimate lead to stronger organizations!
Thank you so much for being open to share your experience. I work as a Project Engineer and I would like to be in a leadership position. From your experience, what qualities do I need to get there? Your best tips in your career as the only women in the room?
Hey Alexandra - thanks for your question - I love it!So, I've spoken at length about the 5 qualities of leadership that I look for when I'm hiring or promoting leaders. They are being smart, getting things done (GSD), having agency (not just getting things done, but knowing how or being able to fight through the challenges or ambiguities), giving leverage (enabling others...could be as simple as documenting code so that others can be better), and being humble (meaning being curious, open to challenge, good at giving and getting feedback, and - of course - accepting improvements with humility).I think focusing on these traits is an interesting opportunity...they can be for any level of your career (tailored of course for level) and are great to look at for all leaders (and not just managers). the other thing you ask is about being the only woman in the room. yes, that's getting better, but unfortunately is still a common occurrence (particularly in tech and tech leadership). so, my advice for you is to get comfortable with being unconventional. Until women or other under-represented folks are in tech and tech leadership, then it will be, let's make the unconventional conventional :). It does't make it easy...but if you can have comfort with that discomfort it will be easier. On the last point, I've really done well with my career by embracing unconventionality. I have a high tolerance for, it's been easier for me in many ways. those of you with lower tolerance for risk (e.g. taking on new areas of responsibility, moving cities for an opportunity, etc.) will have to find your own unconventional path :)
Really love those 5, thanks for sharing.
Really loved this! Thank you so much for sharing!
Hi Susan! Do you have any good dialogue or actions that help solicit honest feedback? I'm eager to learn and grow, and appreciate candid (well intentioned) feedback that helps me build better solutions and become a strong leader. But I find it can be uncomfortable for some people (especially my direct reports) to provide this since it can be interpreted as unkind and no one wants to be the "bearer of bad news". I've tried creating a space of open dialogue but find it can be awkward, I've also tried to "lead by example" but that can go salty really quickly if the other person isnt receptive. I imagine you got to this great career rank through consistent, strong feedback. Any insight on how to cultivate this in organizations not built with radical candor?
Thank you for taking our questions Susan!What is your criteria for determining what technical dev to do in house vs what to outsource?Do you have tips on how to best lead technical teams who are working on problems/projects that are out of your own personal domain of expertise?
Hi Susan, Women like you help break the glass ceilings for the rest of us so thank you! I am developing my business DiversifAI and would love your thoughts. My question is: In your experience, what is the workload and compensation framework for board members of medium-sized companies?A bit about my project for context:DiversifAI is a curated board-member-to-organization matching application for a fast, low-friction solution to onboarding the most value and diversity-add professional (we are starting with board members). We know that gender and ethnicity are critical components of diversity that help foster a successful organization. Still, to achieve the highest level of diversity, recruiters should also consider personality traits. So, in addition to offering a large, curated pool of qualified under-represented professionals, DiversifAI (the AI) cross-analyzes personality traits (e.g., big five and disc) of candidates with current team members to help onboard the most value and diversity-add professional.
Hey Daniella - thanks for the question. It's kind of a tough one though for this forum. probably one for more of a back-and-forth dialog. (so feel free to reach out for different/deeper discussion).I'll give it a go for a few thoughts. I do sit on several boards as an independent Non-Executive Director (NED) and also sit as an advisor on several other boards. Additionally, I am an angel investor and have personally invested in many early stage startups.What I can tell you is that it's really quite varied. If you are looking at standards for publicly traded companies, there's a better frame of reference for matter the size. Here the boards are usually extremely tightly run. - remuneration: there are very clear compensations (a combination of cash remuneration with stock grants or purchase) that are publicly stated in the companies. These are set in the chairman's or compensation committees and approved by the shareholders in the AGM (annual general meetings)- meetings/time commitments: usually boards will say 1-2 days a month of obligations between scheduled meetings and deep dives/exec collaboration. Proper board meetings are scheduled 1 and 2 years in advance...expectations range here, but typically are 6-9 board meetings a year plus 1-2 day strategy sessions. there will be more for committees (if you're on can expect another 1-2 days over the course of the year and you'll get an incremental cash payment for committee membership). for smaller companies, it's usually a little less formal. you'll still have formalities of course, but if you're not public, then the time commitment and formality will depend often on the aspirations of the company (where are you in funding rounds, what are the growth ambitions, etc.).There's a job-board style site in the UK called that is trying to de-mystify the board seating and get away from the traditional (old-boys) network. It gives nice visibility to a variety of board roles with time and remuneration expectations. Check that out for more info,
Hey Susan! I'm new to tech. I'm curious how you managed to grow as an engineer and become a CTO? (i.e. How did you advocate for your growth in the company?)
Hey Saba - great does a nerd become an executive :)There are a couple of things that I think helped me on the way. Firstly, I am very interested in the business outcomes. I've been pretty good at trying to be more focused on the outcomes than the outputs. This is a skills that you work on and grow. when I first started my perspective on outcomes were narrower than they are today. but always having the curiosity to try and better understand the business and outcome context has been really helpful.- when I was at Retek (early engineering career) it was a startup...we were all very close to the business and growth goals. we celebrated the revenue goals and understood the clients that we were working with because we all sat together in the "garage" (OK not really a garage, but we were all thrown into a big room and understood openly the targets). that was helpful- when my career started to grow from there, I spent time trying to be curious with my try to understand their context. So, at Travelocity I got to know our CMO and really understand the challenges there. that helped me to focus on outcomes. I wasn't very good when I started, but over the years I grew that skill.- every career step-up for me has required me to do this. a broader span of control and influence means that you should always be looking for levers for the business and the teams.
Hi Susan! Thanks for taking the time to answer questions. I'm currently in the process of hiring a CTO for my startup. I've been solo till now, and wondering what are some of the not so obvious things I should be looking for outside of technical skills, culture fit and leadership.
Hi Ravid - great question! Building a team for a start up is super critical. the size of the team means that the hire has an immediate and over-indexed voice (at least until the teams grow).some specific things that I think are really worth considering:- communication...this is probably my top thing to look for. Is this person a great listener? do they ask good, clarifying questions. Do the clearly communicate their points and perspective. I put this at the top of the list for a non-technical founder to consider. you're usually hiring for a skill you don't have. therefore, they need to be the bridge between you and that domain. - business acumen. can they translate technical challenges and approaches into business terms. this will be critical for trust. you need to trust that decisions are made with the view to the current growth expectations of your start-up. there are always trade offs for feature, scaling and volumetric needs, and tech debt burn-down. it will be critical that you and your CTO are on the same page for outcomes...then you will trust that best decisions are made in the moment.hope those many more to mention..but those are my top two (outside of yours).
Very helpful. Thank you so much.