The Power of Diversity: Building Grit and Owning Your Career with NetApp SVP and General Manager
NetApp SVP and General Manager Kim Stevenson shares her career journey through major tech shifts and the birth of new industry sectors. She gives us her best career advice, tips on how to be a change-agent, and underscores the importance of Diversity & Inclusion.
SVP & General Manager at NetApp
Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast where tech leaders from global enterprises discuss their journey to scaling multi-billion dollar businesses. Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax with more than 20 years of experience working with global enterprises. Join us to hear about the experiences and mentors that played a role in their growth.
Kim Stevenson, SVP and general manager of NetApp has a diverse experience spanning finance, services, and marketing, holding COO and CIO leadership roles at Intel, IBM, EDS, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise. She has also served on numerous boards of directors for leading tech innovators. In this episode, Kim talks about her wild ride in technology and the importance of moving away from a transactional society to a relationship building world. You'll even hear a very inspiring story of Rose Knox and her journey of overcoming societal norms through a time of resistance.
Chet Kapoor: Hi Kim, how's it going?
Kim Stevenson: Great Chet. How are you doing today?
Chet Kapoor: Doing great. Super excited to have you here to talk about you and your journey to where you are now. So, I'm really, really looking forward to this conversation.
Kim Stevenson: Well, I've been around a long time, Chet. We might not be able to cover the entire journey.
Chet Kapoor: I don't think so. I don't think so. You're getting close to hitting your one-year at NetApp and have spent many years in technology, right, Lenovo, Intel, IBM, others. Tell us a little bit about your journey and how you got here.
Kim Stevenson: Yeah. So one, I don't think you could have predicted how I got here. Right. But I have had the real pleasure of living through almost every major technology shift that matters. The first phone I had was a bag phone in my car, right. Google didn't exist when I started. And I've seen the careers invented and created. I was a CIO for a time. And when I started the CIO career it didn't even exist. But I've seen companies die very quickly because they missed shifts and as well as companies reinvent completely new industry sectors that today we can't even imagine living without. Right.
Kim Stevenson: So, it's been a wild ride and I've learned a few things that I think really helped me and likely would help others. And I would say the first is that I've had a very wide set of different experiences. And what each experience gives you is it helps you build a perspective and to see different ways to overcome obstacles, because we all have obstacles to overcome along the way. So, I started my career in accounting. Then I went through financial planning and pricing and I had a marketing job and a corporate strategy job and an IT service delivery job and product development, etcetera. So I had this wide set of functional, diverse experiences, and I learned something valuable in each of them.
Kim Stevenson: But I think the key is that you could get your diverse experiences through different functions like I did, or different companies or different industry sectors. The important part is building that perspective that allows you to see problems through lenses that maybe others don't see. And that will create a wedge that you can leverage to accelerate your own career, your own company, whatever the case may be.
Chet Kapoor: The other day, I was having a conversation with a few folks and I said the one thing that I would love to do is to get everybody in the company to understand a P&L, right. And that's essentially what you're saying in a different way. Or a different way to put it is make sure you look at the elephant holistically, not just the part that you are touching, and getting a good view on it. Having a holistic experience makes all the difference because you understand how you fit and you're motivated to drive the whole. Is that a fair way to put it?
Kim Stevenson: Yes, it's absolutely right. And I'll tell you, I've spent three years in accounting. I did not like it. I knew it wasn't for me. But I use my understanding of accounting principles and of cash flow and the income statement every single day in this job. So it matters.
Chet Kapoor: It does. It does make a difference. What was hard?
Kim Stevenson: The hardest thing is, I'll say, over my course of my career, I'll have a lot of misinterpretations of my intention. So I'll have a good intention and it just won't come across as a good intention. And catching those is really, really hard because most people will just take that and run with it. You have to find ways to make sure that you're interpreted correctly, that it's not about what you say, but what people hear. And then, if they don't hear exactly what you intended, circling back, and whether you need to apologize or clarify or reset the situation, it's really important. But it's not easy. And for me, I've found having other people give me signals about, "Are you sure you really meant that?" is important, because you're trying to drive towards a clear sense of purpose in a single unified direction. And these misinterpretations can really muddy up the water.
Chet Kapoor: Yeah. It's really interesting. Well, the phrase that a lot of people use is "trust and validate." I think about it a little differently, which is communicate, align or align, communicate, but validate the alignment as well, which is essentially what you're saying, right?
Kim Stevenson: Yes. Yes.
Chet Kapoor: What was easy?
Kim Stevenson: I was fortunate I think, in that I started my career with IBM and I happened to be working on a semiconductor project that was about, this will sound silly nowadays, but it was going to combine faxing, scanning and printing into a single chip. And that was amazing that that could happen, right? And I sort of knew then that I would stay in technology. I just could see the world changing, society's changing, the economy is changing because of technology. And so when you have passion for something like that, it really is easy to, I say, get up every day, come in excited like, "What can we do to change the world today?" So to me, it's always been centered around the technology and what the technology can do for the world.
Chet Kapoor: It always brings a smile, doesn't it? I mean, you can always feel like you're a kid in a candy shop, right? I mean, it's like, "Oh my God, this is so cool."
Kim Stevenson: Exactly. Exactly. And maybe it's hard to say, "You got to say no sometimes too."
Chet Kapoor: Yeah, no, for sure, for sure.
Kim Stevenson: But yeah.
Chet Kapoor: I wanted to ask you a follow-up question on the diversity of experience. Not many people make the transition from being a CIO where you're consuming technology and going from there to actually being a product leader where you're creating technology. And it seems like you've done it a couple of times. I would think that there are many, many people in IT that inspire to do that. Any words of advice for them and or how did you go back and forth between the two?
Kim Stevenson: Yeah. It is a, I think, unusual transition, but probably one that's more important going forward. I looked at it this way, from when I was consuming the technology, I used to tell the product developers that I worked with, I said, "Look, I'm here to exploit your technology." But help me understand how to do that and I'll help you understand the use cases and the business problems that we're trying to solve. And by the way, I'm only willing to pay for something that solves a business problem that we have. And that ended up being a good discussion, but having that great partnership and really trying to live in the other person's shoes when doing that.
Kim Stevenson: Then when I came to the product side, I really tried to not lose my voice of the customer. And I try to think through the things I'm willing to invest in, the things that we're willing to prioritize or maybe bump out of a release, from a "Would a customer pay for it? What business problem does this solve from a customer?" So I would say I'm much less technical than a typical product manager, but much more customer-insightful than a typical product management person. And finding your own unique value and then surrounding yourself with a team of people that compliment that versus people that are just like you has worked for me.
Chet Kapoor: It's like it's focused on the use case, right? On either side, if you focus on the problems you're trying to solve and just maniacally focus on that, it should work, people should be able to make the transition on both sides.
Kim Stevenson: Yeah. That's right. That's right. And to your point earlier, Chet, understanding the financial side of the equation helps you really quantify the value of the use case that you're going after.
Chet Kapoor: So it's been close to a year, you've been at NetApp, and you're leading their largest business unit, the Foundational Data Services Business Unit. And how's it been? I mean, it's COVID, things are different, how's it been going?
Kim Stevenson: It's been a year of adjustments. I think that's probably true for everybody. The good part is that I think as people we've grown much more tolerant of one another, because we're all in this kind of difficult situation. So whether it's a colleague from work or a customer or a supplier, everybody's just a bit more tolerant. And I find that great to have that human spirit come out a little bit more clearly.
Kim Stevenson: The frustrating part, though, is that we've seemed to move into a world of transactions. We go from meeting to meeting to meeting. And they're all Zooms. And so it's sort of whatever the topic of the meeting is, finish that, move to the next one, finish that, move to the next one. And I feel like we're losing a bit of the relationship that it takes to actually sustain a really good team. Right. And I mean good as in people feel valued, you feel like your contribution matters in that team and you the direction you're going in and that it's going to make an impact. And so, I think this world of "everything is a transaction," we're going to have to pay our dues on letting that happen too long and need to invest in some relationship building time. And I think it's difficult, the current work environment that we have, but hopefully we'll be able to moderate that to some degree over the next few months.
Chet Kapoor: It definitely seems like there was euphoria on, "We don't need to go to work. We can work from home." And now we're at a point where it's kind of cool to work from home, but it would be great to at least go back to having some interpersonal discussions beyond just Zoom. Right? I think there'll be some steady state that sits in-between the last three months and the 20 years before.
Kim Stevenson: Yes. And I think about, particularly, people at the beginning of their career, right? As you work your way through your career, your network is a very powerful tool in helping you to manage your career and to really pursue your passions. And I think about my network, my strongest network are people that I've worked with and earned their respect as well as developed respect for them. And I can call them any time now. And after 35 years of working, I have quite an extensive network. And I worry that the younger generation won't have that same type of network. And I think that that can be more limiting. And so, I do think that building out your network in a way that is effective is something that you can't lose sight of given the work environment that we find ourselves in at the moment.
Chet Kapoor: Inclusion and Diversity is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. You and I have talked about that before. And you definitely have a perspective on this from what you did at Intel and at other places as well. What do you think we could be doing differently?
Kim Stevenson: One of the things that I think is probably the biggest change agent, if you will, is to really make sure that you're in an environment that's a level playing field for everyone. And if it's not, then who's going to make the changes that need to happen? And I'll give you some examples that I think every individual can make and then sort of company. Company example would simply be, have a diverse slate of candidates and a diverse set of interviewers if you're hiring, right. That's a company. A company can put a policy in place.
Kim Stevenson: But as an individual, right, if you're not being heard in meetings, which is a frequent complaint of women, right, that we're not heard in meetings. And so, I simply say, "Okay, well, how am I going to be heard?" Right. One, I'm going to sit right at the center of the table or in the center of the Zoom room. Right. I'll use the tools to my advantage. And then I typically have a colleague in the room reinforce what I say, if I'm constantly overheard or ask for my input and I could say simply to you, "Hey Chet, we haven't heard from you. What do you think about that topic?" And all of a sudden, then people are willing to listen to Chet, right, because you were invited into the conversation. And so, I think there are things like that that we don't need the system to change as much as we need people to change while we're changing some of the bigger systemic issues that face us in the workplace, but also broadly in society too.
Chet Kapoor: I think that is an awesome idea. So it's almost like you have somebody in the meeting that's not you, that is the inclusion person, if I may, and they are responsible for drawing people out, right. Because as you and I have talked about, it's different people. Some people think on their feet, some people don't, but everybody's opinion matters. That's a great idea. I hope a lot of people start implementing that because I think single-handedly, that should change the way meetings happen. Great idea. Any other tips and tricks like that that have worked for you or things that have not worked?
Kim Stevenson: So what typically doesn't work is getting frustrated or angry and displaying your anger. Right? And so, we all go through that, right? That there are times where we're frustrated. And I find that it's best if I take a deep breath, try to think about why they would be acting that way and then confront it, right? And the deep breath really matters, otherwise you do things that may be you'll regret later. So write it down before you say it maybe.
Chet Kapoor: Yeah.
Kim Stevenson: But it's natural to be frustrated. When you're trying to drive change, frustration is a natural feeling. It's just a matter of using that in a constructive manner.
Chet Kapoor: Who inspires you?
Kim Stevenson: I am going to say somebody that you probably never heard of, and her name is Rose Knox. And Rose Knox was the president of the International Grocers Association for nearly 60 years. She was born in 1918 and married young. Her husband had a number of businesses, but the one that was very successful was making gelatin. And then he passed away suddenly. They were in their twenties. And it was a time when women couldn't own a business, you couldn't have a bank account. And she had a seven-year-old son that signed all of her contracts. So she inherited the business and had the seven-year-old son. And she overcame all of these issues that faced women at that time and went on to be the first president of the International Grocers Association as well as run her own company. You can still buy Knox gelatin in the grocery store. It was later sold to Unilever, I think.
Kim Stevenson: But she worked until she was 94 years old. She was the first person to implement in the United States, a 40-hour work week for factories. She was the first factory to change the doors. They had a door that women went through, a door that men went through, and a door that black people went through. She made one door, she locked the other two. Everybody went through the same door. And met a lot of resistance. She had to fire her factory manager when she locked the door because he didn't want to do it. So she fired him on the spot. And I'm really inspired by the story and the journey of change and overcoming what was societal norms at the time to make it better for every one of her employees. So, it's a great story.
Chet Kapoor: It is a phenomenal story. And I think history has a long, long, long, long list of people that we don't talk about. But you don't make a hard right or hard left, right, you actually make a bunch of turns. And it takes a lot of different folks to actually make it happen. That's awesome. And do you think about her often? Or is it something that you were inspired and it's something that you think about once a year or once every two years?
Kim Stevenson: So I think of her often actually, because I'll say to myself, I won't say it out loud, but I'll say, "What would Rose do? I mean, really, what would she have done in this particular situation?" And to me, it helps build my grit, right. Because things are hard sometimes and you need a little bit of grit to get through.
Chet Kapoor: Yeah, no, that's awesome. That is awesome. We all have a version of Rose in our heads. Right? Whether it is a role model that we've read about, that we've had. And so, it's always good to say, what would that person do? I find that to be extremely helpful.
If a younger version of yourself was here, what would be the words of wisdom you would tell her?
Kim Stevenson: I would say you own your career, nobody else. And that means you need to have a plan. Now, plans are meant to be adjusted, so it doesn't have to be fixed. But you have to work towards the long-term and the long-run. And there's no sort of short-term step that's going to overcome the work it takes over the long-haul.
Chet Kapoor: That is awesome. Kim, this has been absolutely phenomenal to hear you talk about your journey, to hear you talk about how you've overcome and all the diverse set of experiences and your thoughts on having the inclusion coach or inclusion person in the meeting, to all the way to talking about Rose. It has been absolutely awesome. We really, really appreciate you joining us for this podcast.
Kim Stevenson: Thank you so much for having me, Chet. I really enjoyed it.
Narrator: Find your own unique value and surround yourself with a team of people that compliment versus people that are just like you, is a great takeaway from this episode. Kim also reminds us that relationship building and inclusion is vital to sustaining a really good team where everyone feels valued, appreciated and makes an impact. Who will you invite to the conversation?
Narrator: Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and phenomenal stories to come so stay tuned.
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