Women in Tech: Leadership Lessons And Leading Through Crisis

It’s 2023, and still only 33% of women are in tech positions—with representation for women in tech leadership being much lower. In this episode of the Break the Bias podcast, Holly Corbett, VP of Content for Consciously Unbiased, speaks with Jill Stelfox, CEO of Panzura—the only woman CEO in data management. Jill stepped into this top leadership position during the pandemic when the company suddenly went remote.

Women in Tech: Leadership Lessons And Leading Through Crisis

In this conversation, Jill shares how she successfully navigated pulling her new team together during a crisis and turned the company around, why she encourages her employees to “bring your weird” to work, and why she thinks companies that lack radical transparency are set up to fail. Listen to the full conversation here, and read below for three lessons from Jill on successfully leading through crisis.

Create Community By Focusing on Empathy At Work

“Covid was a wonderful time for female CEOs, because I think what people needed was empathy,” says Jill. “People were really, really scared. I immediately figured out [stepping into the CEO role during Covid] that this is more than just a boss-employee relationship. I saw we needed to become a community really quickly and that it would take open, transparent communication about what’s going on.”

To keep her new employees feeling like they were part of a community at work as they went remote during the pandemic, Jill launched a series of virtual events. The goal was to create opportunities for employees to connect outside of work to continue relationship building, such as group finger painting sessions with employees’ children or building LEGOs together over Zoom. In addition to offering virtual events, Jill also prioritized spending time talking about what makes people tick during company meetings, such as asking them about their dog in the background of Zoom or the art supplies sitting on their desk.

RELATED: Bioneers Co-Founder Nina Simons on Women’s History Month & Shifting Leadership From Head To Heart

Realize The Employee Engagement And Mental Health Connection

It became clear during the pandemic that what employees need is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The types of support people would benefit from most varied depending on their unique situation. For example, someone living alone during quarantine may be struggling with loneliness, while school shutdowns create different challenges for parents. Jill partnered with a company called BetterUp to provide coaches to every single employee—not just the leadership team. This allowed her to track the types of coaching people were tapping into most, which was focused on everything from mindfulness to parenting to sleep to health challenges to communication and leadership.

“What we saw in 2020 is that 85% [of coaching was focused on] personal wellness, and only 15% was [focused on] corporate [development],” says Jill. “And our company financials in that year were the best: We had the highest growth and the highest company satisfaction. A big part is because people took care of themselves first so that they could [show up more fully] at work, which [enabled greater success].”

RELATED: How Technology Can Help Us Close The Gender Gap At Work

Make Radical Transparency A Company Value

Jill believes that companies who don’t practice radical transparency, which she simply describes as honesty where CEOs explain both the good and the bad to employees, are set up to fail. “There’s not an employee in this company that doesn’t know the four important goals that we’re going after for 2023,” says Jill. “They all know our strategic plan. Everything that we present to our board, we present to all 300 of our employees. I think sometimes CEOs think, ‘If I tell all my employees about X, somebody is going to take advantage of me.’ And somebody does take advantage of me, and I don’t care if one person out of 300 people takes advantage. It’s worth the transparency to the rest of the employees and their families to know what it is we’re trying to do. I think it’s fine, and I think it’s fair.”

Jill also thinks the value of radical transparency applies to discussing current events at work that are impacting the lives of employees. While a survey done by the independent news group 1440 found 79% of people find it stressful to bring up current news topics for fear of starting an argument with family, friends or coworkers, Jill thinks it is possible to create the space for people to respectfully disagree when talking about these larger cultural issues when the team has different political views.

“The Roe-v-Wade situation reminded me how important it is, because this hot-button issue affects politics and religion and families and male and female,” says Jill. “Initially we were not going to have a company-wide conversation, but it was the men who said we need to get everybody on the phone because we can tell that our women are hurting. We have a company coach who is our mediator for all these conversations.” Jill recalls they had about 250 people on a conference call talking about why some people are sad that it was reversed and why some people are happy that it was reversed, and what does it mean for families and for religion?

“No one is trying to convince somebody to think differently,” says Jill. “The point of the conversation is to understand the difference. And if you can understand the difference in how people think, you can respect them more. There was no agreeing on that call, but there was a deep understanding of each of the sides. Out of understanding can come compromise, and a way forward.”

When it comes to a successful DEI strategy, many leaders lack a clear path for making progress and must learn on their own without clear guidelines. From inclusive leadership training to hiring diverse talent, Consciously Unbiased is your one-stop shop for learning experiences and solutions to help companies of all sizes build the framework for inclusive workplaces where all employees feel valued and engaged. Discover more about our DEI Training.


Holly Corbett

As the Director of Content at Consciously Unbiased, Holly Corbett is fueling inclusion through storytelling to build a passionate community and creating experiences inside organizations to transform workplace culture.
Download our DEI Training Overview
Learn about our immersive DEI training experiences and how our DEI workshops are creating real change.
Thank you for subscribing!

Sign up and join the Consciously Unbiased movement today!

Get the latest DEI news, events, and research straight to your email and let's create a social impact together.

Thank you for subscribing!