It is a myth that you must act powerful to gain respect — many people confuse being “the one who is responsible” with being “in power” and that in order to “act like a leader” you need to “act powerful”. Both men and women do this — decibel level and states of constant dissatisfaction don’t generally keep people on their toes in a good way. It breeds anxiety.
I had the pleasure to interview Lisa Partridge. Lisa started working with XYPRO in 1990 in the sales organization and assumed responsibility for the Sales and Marketing function as Vice President in 1997. Instrumental in XYPRO’s growth and leadership position in the HPE NonStop security world, Lisa was promoted to President in 2011 and assumed the role of CEO in 2014 following a management buyout of XYPRO’s founders. Lisa is a seasoned professional with hands on experience in many areas of a running and growing a software development organization, with a focus on employee engagement, customer relationship building and strategic product management decisions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Like many of life’s journeys, I got into technology indirectly and moved to Los Angeles unexpectedly. When I was a high schooler in Calgary, I had an inspiring teacher who often talked about her traveling experiences and her time in the Student Work Abroad Program (SWAP), which enabled her to live and work in the UK for a couple of years via a special student working holiday maker VISA for commonwealth countries. I couldn’t wait to do the same thing! I applied for the Visa and in 1987 I headed to London! I had the time of my life! Living, working, exploring and learning to be an adult.
That teacher changed the trajectory of my life.
Eventually I landed at a software company that had a European sales distribution relationship with XYPRO Technology in California. Through the training process, I was able to get to know the folks at XYPRO and they invited me to join their company and come to California. Having never imagined living in the States, let alone glamourous Los Angeles, California, I was thrilled. For that opportunity, I am forever grateful.
I started out on the sales side of the organization here at XYPRO, which was a much smaller company at the time. In small companies, everyone pitches in to help in every area and so I learned a lot about what’s involved in running a software company, supporting customers, coming up with product ideas, networking, etc. The market for our solutions was a relatively niche group that uses a particular “big iron” server for very high volume online transaction processing. Our customers are B2B, Fortune 500 companies. Thanks to the vision of XYPRO’s founders, we pivoted our specialty focus to Cybersecurity in the early 1990s and were definitely early players in the space. Other than a small blip in 1994, Our business grew slowly but steadily. I was allowed to be quite autonomous in how I built up the sales organization and distributor network, moving into an officer level role as VP of Sales and later promoted to company President. When the founders realized they wanted to retire, I was approached to gauge my interest in a management buy-out. I was terrified but with a partner I did it. In 2014 that deal was closed and I became the CEO.
The scariest part then and the scariest part now is being ultimately responsible for everything. Responsible to our client base and, most importantly, to the employees who trust their jobs to the decisions I make.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
As a young and hungry salesperson, I was often looking for ways to distinguish myself and help the company make its numbers. Enterprise software sales often has a long sales cycle, months and sometimes years is not uncommon. Contract negotiations in these cases can drag on and it was easy to dodge communication back in the early days because email just wasn’t used — it barely existed! We communicated over the phone, wrote formal letters, sent faxes etc.
One sale that I felt should have been closed but kept dragging on, frustrated me. I had a good relationship with the customer, I just needed their manager to sign off. I don’t know what possessed me (I had probably just read one of those books about sales and taking decisive action to close the deal) but I decided to just jump on a plane and go there unannounced, with the contract ready for signature. I showed up and did just that! My customer was floored, his manager was so amused by it that he signed the agreement on the spot!
This was over 20 years ago now and that customer is with another firm now but we still run in the same circles and whenever the topic comes up about how long we’ve known he each, he still tells the story with great delight!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I’m not sure that I found any of my mistakes funny. They usually ended up costing us money and I tried not to make them twice, that’s for sure.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe what makes XYPRO stand out is our attitude/approach. We are a company that cares and it’s very important to us that our employees know that and that our customers know that. We don’t do everything perfectly but we genuinely try to right any wrongs and always get better.
As a result of this attitude we have enviable employee engagement. Our expectations of performance are high but we also make genuine, honest efforts to have a positive, supportive, innovative workplace. From employee benefits like paid parental leave and ½ day summer Fridays to career path opportunities, leadership and mindfulness training and free onsite yoga. We know happy employees work hard and support the cause. The result is a blue chip customer base with near 100% customer retention rates.
We all use the same credit cards, banks, cellphones, online shopping portals, gift cards, POS devices that you do. We’re building security solutions to protect all of ‘you’ and that means all of ‘us’. Approach every decision from that perspective and it’s easy to care enough to make sure the job is done well.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Cybersecurity is an industry that is moving so fast because those with malicious intent are smart and have the time and the resources to keep trying new ways to steal data, money or just create chaos. Security professionals like us have to be right 100% of the time but the criminals only have to be right once and they’re in! Companies like XYPRO are constantly researching, investing, catching up and anticipating methods and finding ways to, at a minimum, reduce the risk. BYOD, IoT, VPN, ISO, PCI are all acronyms over which those responsible for the security of an organization, lose sleep.
Our newest project is a product called XYGATE SecurityOne®. This is a next-generation risk management and security analytics platform that actively detects “Indicators of Compromise” and alerts on suspicious activity in real time. Our patented contextualization technology gathers data from multiple, disparate sources and uses specialized security intelligence algorithms to correlate, contextualize and analyze events to display a detailed security incident picture in real time. Those responsible for monitoring security at some of the largest banks and credit card companies in the world can detect security events and stop them in their tracks, before they become a breach.
When I first started with XYPRO, we were early participants in information security. It wasn’t a requirement, there were no compliance regulations in place — security was a “nice to have”. Those clients that came onboard back then were early adopters and visionaries who foresaw, as XYPRO’s founders did, the importance of security and protecting the data of their customers, which is all of us.
Now, security is a requirement. The seriousness with which a company approaches protecting their customers data has a direct impact on their business and on public opinion. A security breach is more damaging than a network going down for other reasons (like a hardware failure or a software bug). A security breach requires that you notify your customers that their personal information may have been stolen. A preventable security breach can mean the end of someone’s career and potentially put a company completely out of business.
Security innovations that lead to products like XYPRO’s SecurityOne are there to protect your personal information, your money, your identity.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Luckily the status quo is no longer the status quo. Things are moving at a rapid rate — Girls Who Code, Women in STEM, Women in Tech — these are all organizations focused on encouraging technical education, networking, internships, mentoring and more. Opportunities to be exposed to Science, Technology, Engineering & Math, where it hasn’t been previously encouraged, opening up doors that were historically open only a crack. It’s a great start. It’s still not an equal representation for women but it will get even better over time. My 13 year old son has asked “why are there special computer classes for girls?” This is progress as he doesn’t know a world where it’s odd for the girls to be scientists, coders, CEOs ; I know at XYPRO we get more applications from women than ever before. Our internship program, which started about 10 years ago is a great indicator — the first intern we ever hired was a woman in her 40s who had gone back to school to learn a new skill after raising her kids. It was the start of a very successful program at XYPRO from which we do the majority of our full-time recruiting in all the disciplines related to a software development company.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Honestly the biggest challenges I faced that was specifically about my gender was navigating the heavily lopsided ratio of men to women in work-related social situations and the world of technology “events”.
The learning came about in situations like Friday after work drinks, tech conferences, trade shows, big tent events where the business and social was mixed and the lines get blurred. There is a lot of drinking and partying at these events. In these situations, everyone’s job is to network with coworkers and clients. Sometimes the problem is being left out of a work social event because the organizers didn’t think to include the only woman, or the plans are something they think a woman wouldn’t enjoy (sometimes they’re right). When there’s alcohol involved, inevitably someone “crosses the line”. Back in the day, it was very common to find myself one of maybe 30 women in a group of 500 men at a conference, for example. I was young — in my early 20s and inexperienced. I am happy to say that nothing terrible happened because I frequently had people looking out for me and running interference, but I was embarrassed more than a few times. A woman often feels shame for not being better prepared and allowing herself to get into uncomfortable or even sometimes, dangerous situations and I am very grateful for good friends that kept their eyes on me. Men generally don’t have to worry about things like that.
Men also rarely have to cope with the isolation of being left out of a group social activity because they’re the only man.
These experiences greatly influence how I keep an eye out for young women that may be participating in similar trade events and definitely how we handle social events internally at XYPRO. Responsibility and professionalism are an example that has to be set from the top.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
You must act powerful to gain respect — many people confuse being “the one who is responsible” with being “in power” and that in order to “act like a leader” you need to “act powerful”. Both men and women do this — decibel level and states of constant dissatisfaction don’t generally keep people on their toes in a good way. It breeds anxiety.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why?
1. You’re a leader — decide what kind. Practice being the type of leader you had or wanted. When you fall short, apologize if that’s warranted and try to do better.
Make your instructions clear and your expectations high. Be there to help them and reward them with more opportunities to learn and shine. People will work very hard for you if they know you aren’t just waiting for them to screw up. Similarly, if someone isn’t pulling their weight, you have to tell them. Give them a chance to do better, but if they’re not cut out for the environment or the task, be honest and don’t prolong the agony. Finally, don’t take credit for other people’s achievements — it’s far better to make it known that someone awesome on your team came up with the idea that saved the day. That type of honesty is good for everyone.
2. Try to listen more than talk. This one is so hard for me. In order to make the best decisions, sometimes you need to let your team work through finding the solution themselves. As a woman CEO in technology who didn’t study technology, I sometimes feel I need to show my value, prove that I deserve to be at the head of the table — so I want people to know I have an answer right away. I can end up regretting that and wish I’d let everyone else speak up first — the best solution could have remained unsaid out of respect for me as the boss. I personally really appreciate straight talk and welcome people coming up to me and professionally pointing out a potential flaw in a plan or an idea that didn’t get discussed. I recognize that speaking up is not easy for everyone and they may hold back if it appears I’ve endorsed or made a decision already.
In group meetings, I’ll write in the corner of my notebook “don’t talk” just to remind myself. Some of the best ideas can be revealed that way.
3. Pay attention to the type of employee you tend to hire. Are you really making sure to diversify your team? Is there representation from different genders, cultures, orientations? It really does make a difference. You’re limiting the creativity and problem solving by hiring the same type of employee over and over. You may be saying to yourself: “I want to hire the best! Male or female.” and that’s true, I completely agree — but what is your definition of “the best”? It’s important to search beyond the familiar — that’s where ingenuity and collaboration can really blossom. And don’t forget that time when someone gave you a chance.
4. Pay it back. If personal gain and recognition is your motivator, I think you’ll find little support from those around you. Make your team the reason you do what you do. Someone gave you a chance, make sure there are opportunities for others to capitalize on such a chance.
5. Support yourself. The isolation of leadership can be difficult. When you start out as part of the workforce and then advance up the ladder you’ll have to learn to limit what you share and with whom. You lose camaraderie, sounding boards and sometimes friends. It’s important to find and maintain, supportive, trusting relationships. Find interests outside of work and seek out external advisors, networking groups or leadership coaches. I am a member of Vistage and it’s literally been invaluable for me as a person and for the decisions I’ve made for the company.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think I was lucky to be working for a company in the early 90’s that was really just getting started in a new space, not quite a startup and certainly nothing like the startup culture we have now. That environment gave me the freedom to learn via experience. I took advantage of a real opportunity to grow and that’s what anyone wants, really. Opportunity.
In technology, there are more jobs than there are qualified candidates, so companies like mine spend a lot of resources recruiting, ensuring employee benefits are progressive and competitive and that the company culture and work environment are positive. Employee engagement and retention of the best contributors is the goal. A team that is thriving is productive — So my advice for women who aspire to a career in tech is the same advice I’d give anyone: Get the right education and experience under your belt, but even more importantly — do your best work.
When your team members get restless, worried they’re not taking advantage of every opportunity or that they’re falling behind their peers, I really encourage you to be straight with them. Meg Whitman, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard said it best when asked what advice she’d give her younger self: “Do the job you have now and do it well. I don’t think it matters how small or how big the task is, if you can do it just a little bit better than what is expected, you will be noticed and rewarded”.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Delegate and have a system for reporting status and progress. Assign responsibilities to people and make sure they know that you expect them to be responsible for the results — then give them the resources for success. Be there for questions and make sure they know it’s safe to ask. When they need support, provide it. When they’re successful, you’re successful.
Just as important as providing opportunities to be successful is recognizing when someone isn’t right for a role. It’s best to be honest and decisive as early as possible. Things only get worse over time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Without a doubt it’s the founders of XYPRO Technology, Dale & Sheila Blommendahl. Without them, I literally wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have ended up working at and eventually running XYPRO. Without them, I wouldn’t have moved to California, met my husband and had my son.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I feel very lucky to have been able to use my position to provide the types of benefits that support working parents or those caring for relatives. I feel strongly that people shouldn’t have to worry about healthcare. Without getting into whose responsibility I think it should be, I feel privileged to have achieved a level of financial success where we can provide that for our employees along with dental and vision. Our employee benefits include time off for volunteerism, jury duty, helping out at your child’s school — things that provide the employees the chance to give to their community directly and indirectly.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two. The first is from a book I read by comedian, writer, actor, producer Amy Poehler. Her book, “Yes, Please” had a great impact on my decision making abilities. I used to spend a lot of time worrying what people would think of the decisions I made. Realizing that is not actually accomplishing anything was a dose of straight talk that I needed at the time. I use this quote all the time. I’ve put it in company presentations and taped it to my computer monitor.
“You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.”
― Amy Poehler, Yes Please
My other favorite is by motivational speaker, Simon Sinek. I am a great admirer of his “servant leadership” philosophy. When speaking to impatient, young employees, I remind them:
“Some people get to the top of the mountain quickly and some people take their time getting to the top of the mountain. Don’t forget that you must actually climb the mountain.”
— Simon Sinek
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I feel compelled to choose a woman, given the subject matter of this article but to be honest, I’d love a sit down with Simon Sinek. I so respect his thought process and admire his position on how you treat people and that you can always keep trying to do the right thing, even if you’re not successful 100% of the time.