First: Be Helpful

Interview with Elisa Hebert, VP Engineering Operations at Fairwinds
May 31, 2022
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Elisa is a values-forward executive leader with 20+ years’ experience driving business and technology teams from nonprofit to SMB to Fortune 100. She leads with a strong bias for kindness and excellence, consistency, and action. She is currently serving as VP of Engineering Operations for Fairwinds, where her focus is strategic growth, operational efficiency, and delivery excellence while balancing the triad: team, customer, company.

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What are the traits of successful leaders?

First, helpfulness. Fast follow: kindness, excellence, humility.

Certainly, some people have made their way to positions of power and influence through a command and control approach. But that’s fundamentally a position of fear on the part of the leader. 

To strip back that fear and be willing to be vulnerable and wrong - to lead by example and with authenticity - this is what inspires others to want to join you and to stretch into their growth edges toward their own leadership potential.  

People want leaders who give them confidence in the path forward, clarity in the process, and approachability (and availability!). They’re looking for someone who encourages and influences - someone with whom they can picture success together.

How do you manage your work-life balance? 

Let’s start with this: I’m lucky.

I work from home, my wife is an amazing partner, and my kids are out of diapers and tall enough to reach the milk (though a full gallon can still be tricky). I like to tell people that the real wax on your skis is when everyone in your house can wipe their own butt and get their own snack.

I’ve definitely had times where I worked 60hrs+ a week and sacrificed family for work. I said yes way more than I said no. And I do believe that some of my say yes to everything because it will get you into the room or a seat at the table or build a relationship or show just how smart I am… it helped get me where I am today. But it’s not sustainable. 

So now, I’m more selective in what I say yes to. My goal is to be helpful, including my family and personal relationships. I say yes to helping my colleague with a PowerPoint deck, I say yes to a long conversation with one of my skip reports about their career path, I say yes to making a Rainbow Loom bracelet with my daughter, and I say yes to helping my neighbor install his ceiling fan.

I no longer say yes to everything, and that gives me the space to see my life as a holistic picture rather than an either/or.

What do you look for when hiring? 

Enthusiasm, authenticity, kindness, humility.

None of us got here all on our own; I want to hear about how a candidate has worked with others - what have they done to be helpful, and who has helped them? What about in the moments when things are a hot mess - how do they ask for help, and how do they show up for others?

I work in technology - so yes, the tech matters. And there are a lot of very smart engineers out there. I’m a big fan of the No Brilliant Assholes rule. I don’t care how good you are; what matters most is how we operate as a team.

We are diverse - I want a candidate to want that, as a core value. I work hard to show up as my whole self - to model that you can be out and queer and visible as an executive leader in tech. You can bring all the parts of you that you want to share to work each day, and be celebrated in your authenticity. I want to see how a candidate - especially those who come from over-represented groups - makes space for others to shine. 

What would you consider your biggest professional high and low?

My biggest professional highs have been around watching other people step into their awesomeness and being able to support that ride. I’ve had the great fortune to work with several people through their transitions into leadership roles, taking on direct reports for the first time, and leading growth organizations.

My lows sit in that same space. When I haven’t been able to find authentic connection and support people the way they want to be supported, it feels like crap. We all want a fundamental connection to the bigger picture, and it’s my job to encourage that, to figure out how to protect, inspire, motivate, and develop the teams and individuals I support.

Most engineers are problem or puzzle solvers. They like to figure out how the tech fits together and how to optimize it.

I love the puzzle of the machine of a business - especially a more front-edge technology business. I love the kinds of people that are drawn to that emerging or leading-edge tech, and I love the problem space of helping people figure out how to grow and evolve.

What’s the best advice someone's ever told you?

Early in my time working in technology professional services, I was deeply frustrated about some process challenges - specifically with the lack of adoption by the team. Why were they ignoring these changes - or worse, digging in their heels against them - when I could so clearly see the upside?

At the time, I was not in a position of power, and I had not yet learned to influence. I was very binary in my thinking - either a thing was right and correct… or it was not. My ability to see and navigate nuance was nil. 

I expressed my frustration vocally, articulately, with data and plans - and not a small amount of finger-wagging. I was not doing a great job of getting alignment or bringing people along.

My boss pulled me aside and said - It doesn’t matter how right you are, how righteous your position… if you act like an asshole, nobody wants to listen to you. 

Read: I was right, and I was being an asshole. 

I’ve heard her voice in my head a lot over the last 20 years, reminding me that approach, tone, and clarity in communication matter. So does speed - we want to move fast and pivot and be nimble, but for the big stuff, you have to slow down and make sure everyone is on board with your ideas and direction. 

Tl;dr: themes from one of my favorite books, Radical Candor

  • It doesn’t matter what you intend to say - what matters is how it lands in the other person’s ear.
  • As a leader, when you feel like you have said something 937 times (especially when you are communicating change), other people are just starting to hear it. Say it again, in new ways - in meetings, with visuals, or 1:1s (we all consume information and learn in different ways) - and again and again. 

Parent. Partner. Maker. Servant leader. Persistent learner. I want to know how everything (and everyone) works. RI native, living in CO. Ocean > mountains, but dry air > humidity. 

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