Aliza Knox has been dubbed “a kick-ass woman slaying the world of tech,” having held leadership positions at some of the biggest global tech companies – we’re talking Google, Cloudfare and Twitter.
Prior to forging a career in tech, Aliza spent decades as a global finance and consulting executive and is now a board director and a regular columnist for Forbes, where she shares her wisdom (and humour) to help professionals who dream of “doing it all.”
Speaking to Capsule following the release of her book Don’t Quit Your Day Job, Aliza says it is actually possible for women, in particular, to have it all – there’s just a few mind shifts that have to happen first.
Capsule: In your book Don’t Quit Your Day Job, you talk through six essential mind shifts women should embrace when thinking about their career direction – what are they?
Aliza Knox: The 6 mind shifts are illustrated using stories of men and women from all over the world, ranging from age 22- mid 60’s. Three key ones are “Connection trumps tech savvy, even in tech“, “Go for both – Your work and your life are on the same team”, and “Stamina is a muscle- build yours!”. I’ve provided more details on these below.
Is there one in particular you think is especially relevant right now?
Stamina is particularly important given the pandemic experience and the changing world of work. Stamina is often described as ‘just doing it’ or ‘gritting it out’. This is not what I mean. Forcing yourself to stick with tasks you hate can lead to burnout and saps energy. I think of career stamina as something far more positive. It’s that initial discipline or perseverance plus the positive force of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm grows from liking what you’re doing and succeeding at it.
Stamina is a virtuous cycle. Working hard with enthusiasm generally leads to accomplishment and success. That experience of success in turn helps generate more enthusiasm and energy, which leads to more wins. I see stamina as an empowerment equation: Perseverance + Enthusiasm = Stamina.
Stamina helps create a sense of agency in your life. And unlike an immutable, personal characteristic you’re born with, such as having blue eyes, say, stamina can be built. You develop career stamina much as a runner builds stamina for a big race — by practicing specific skills and mental habits, and avoiding others.
You talk about ‘social capital’, and how even in this digital age, connection trumps tech. Why is this something women should continue to focus on?
My view is that connection trumps tech savvy — even in tech. I think this is something everyone should focus on. Connections with peers and leaders can be as significant as work performance when it comes to rising and thriving. Arguably the most important capital you can accrue in business is not financial capital, but social capital. As with financial capital, building and maintaining social capital takes time and attention.
To me, it does not mean using people to get ahead, or viewing work relationships in a transactional way. You can accrue social capital in a way that is true to your personality and values.
Some social capital stems naturally from your interactions at work, of course, but by focusing on building it, you can expand beyond those people you organically meet. You want strong, trusting relationships with your boss, mentors and supporters, as well as with co-workers and other peers, employees and mentees.
Building social capital across departments helps you get things done. If you’re in sales and have a good relationship with someone in engineering, for example, and you want that person to spend extra time with a client discussing systems architecture, you’ll likely get a better response than you would if you lacked that strong connection. Social capital can also play a part in getting promoted. If you’re interested in a job at the next level, and someone within the division who knows you advocates for your work, that support can go a long way toward putting you ahead of others in line for the same promotion.
Women, in particular, benefit from social capital. A 2019 Study by Kellogg School of Management showed that women who form a strong inner circle with other women who can share career advice are nearly three times more likely to get a better job than women who don’t have that support system. McKinsey work in 2008 noted that , of the nine leadership behaviours that improve organisational performance, women use five more often than men. One of these is people development which is partly driven by, and dependent on, connection. And in a 2022 article based on Boston Consulting Group research, one key call-out for women in tech is to ‘reach the top’ is to ‘Maintain regular contact with mentors… and foster these long-term relationships’.
Social capital is not only critical to leader’s success, it also matters for those on their team and in their circle. Helping nurture connections for others is part of aiding their development.
Nearly all of us ‘drew down’ on our social capital during the pandemic. Part of re-creating a new normal includes rebuilding those connections and continuing to develop new ones. Social capital is harder for dispersed workers to create. In today’s global and often virtual work world, with so many people working either far from headquarters or from home, focusing on social capital is particularly important. It takes extra effort to build social capital from afar, but it’s doable.
You’ve had an incredible career – what’s been the most rewarding moment so far?
What I like focussing on in business is growth – helping businesses and people grow. The most rewarding parts of my career have been when I’ve been able to help other people develop. I’ve worked with a number of capable, talented people who would certainly have gone far without my assistance. But I’m proudest of perhaps having been able to help a variety of individuals accelerate or broaden their careers. For example an executive assistant I brought into Google who wasn’t sure what she wanted to – or could do – is now Head of Product Marketing at Tik Tok, APAC.
What’s been the most challenging?
Acknowledging that you can’t be fully in control. For example, I’ve twice taken a job where the inspiring person who hired me left either just before I started or shortly thereafter. It was disappointing and made me question my decision, but there was no way I could have known.
What do you think is the most problematic mindset women have when thinking about their careers, especially the age-old work/life juggle?
People generally believe they’ll come to an ‘either-or’ moment when one of their most important desires must give way. Often, this is posed as a work-versus-personal life dilemma. They ask themselves ‘Isn’t it impossible to have a great career and a really fulfilling personal life?’ Or, “Don’t I have to sacrifice one for the other?”
There are trade-offs to be made, of course, but often it works out that they can do more than they thought. (Former Managing Director of Twitter Australia and New Zealand) Suzy Nicoletti originally rebuffed me when I asked if she would take an important role running mid-market sales and operations for Twitter in Australia. She was comfortable in her job elsewhere and said she wanted to have kids. She said she was sure she had to pick one or the other, but couldn’t do both. I thought she could be a good leader and a good parent, and I managed to convince her to try. Fast forward several years —- she had risen to Head of Twitter Australia /New Zealand and had three children!
When people face what they feel are these “either-or” moments, they need to reject the adversarial model of “work or life” and instead embrace an expansive, flexible vision that enables them to establish goals for all areas of their lives and move toward these.
So many people are contemplating a career change right now – what’s your best piece of advice for those trying to figure out what they want in their work life?
One thing to be careful of is assuming the “grass is greener” in another company or career. Many people are emerging from the pandemic with feelings of burn-out and think a change will help. However, The Wall St Journal recently reported that “recruiters who work with white- collar workers say many who jumped to new positions during the past year’s rush of job-changing have found that the roles are a poor fit, or the frustrations of their previous jobs exist in the new ones too. A large number of workers have returned to previous employers “
If your current career provides great learning opportunities, good challenges, is a cultural fit, and meets your financial needs, you may want to ask yourself hard questions about why you are considering a change.
If you decide you do want to change, things to consider are doubling down on your strengths (the things that really differentiate you and that you know you are good at), understanding what your values are, so you can determine whether the next career fits with these, and making sure you have a support network. While a good social network is important, developing a personal board of directors (a small group of people with varying expertise and experience who can provide support and advice on advancing your career) is also key.
Don’t Quit Your Day Job by Aliza Knox – all profits from the book are being donated to Vital Voices, a non-profit organisation that works to elevate women’s leadership around the world.