Asking the right question at the right time is a powerful leadership tool - Theresa Johnson, AirbnbFeatured

What are the skills you feel are essential to succeed in your role?Of the last 15 years of my life, 10 have been spent in a formal academic setting. So you could imagine that the essential skills I draw on everyday are the ones borne out of scribbling notes in lecture halls, agonizing over problem sets, and cranking out journal papers in a publish-or-perish haze. And that’s certainly true - but only half. And as we well know, a half-truth is often a great lie. I grew up in the Midwest, Missouri to be exact, Saint-“what-high school-did-you-go-to”-Louis to be precise. My answer to the high-school question never matched any of the few Stanford peers from my hometown. “This school is far below the state average in key measures of college and career readiness” reads the rating summary for my high school. I wouldn’t have guessed my school was rated a 2 out of 10. If you’d have pressed me to guess I’m sure I would have said it was an 8. Optimism is staring at a 2 and willing yourself and your team to see how it could be an 8. It’s the essential skill that all the others build on. In my years in academia, especially the last few perilous years of PhD work, it was optimism that spurred me to the finish line. Now in my role as product manager, I have to look at reality objectively and rally a team to create truly innovative and impactful products. The essential skill I use daily is problem-formulation. I’m most often asked how and why I went from a doctorate in plasma physics to a product manager at Airbnb. The answer is always the same - I asked a really tough question and tried to solve it. When I felt satisfied with the answer, I asked a new question. This process of constantly asking pertinent questions led me to ask “Where would I be most engaged, effectively challenged?”. If I had instead asked “where can I use the coursework I studied?”, I’d be in a very different environment. This practice is what stuck with me from agonizing over journal papers - how to ask a good question. Asking the right question at the right time is a powerful - if overlooked - leadership tool. It naturally guides how we get to an answer, which paths we follow and which we dismiss. So while techniques I learned in those late nights (convex optimization, big data and statistics) come in handy - the more complete truth is that the essential skills I perfected are optimism and problem formulation. I’d choose the ability to see the glass as half-full and ask the right questions over R and Matlab any day. Dr. Theresa Johnson is a Product Manager working on financial intelligence at Airbnb and an angel investor. Before transitioning into product management, she was a Data Scientist at Airbnb. She’s an Investment Scout for Sequoia Capital and completed First Round Capital’s Angel Track Investor program earlier in 2018. She has a BS, MS and PhD in Engineering from Stanford.
Hi Elphas – as a reminder – this is part of our new public posts series sharing conversations with women across tech on the topic of #careergrowth. Please share your perspectives and thoughts in the comments below.Theresa, thank you for sharing your thoughtful reflections with us. Inspiring stuff!
I really appreciate your insights and commentary regarding your high school education. It is proof that the school ranking doesn't have to be a limiting factor. I think in the Bay Area, especially, that is a big focus - maybe that can provide others the optimism you so value! Thanks!
Yes!! As someone who went through an extremely academically rigorous high school, I was taught that metrics like grades measured intelligence and potential for success. It's taken me a while to shake that mindset and recognize that my optimism and curiosity define me way more effectively than any grade could.Thank you for sharing! 😄