How To Speak Up And Ask For Support From People Who Are In Positions of Authority

Photo by Charles Deluvio

There’s a lot going in our world that is frustrating and heartbreaking, which is why I love how in the last episode of Build, Melinda Briana Epler ended on such a positive note:

“I firmly believe that if we change tech, we can change the world, because tech is so much a part of the world, and it’s increasingly so. Almost every company is becoming a tech company, and we have the power to really make a difference, whether it’s in your startup, whether it’s in your team, whether it’s in your company, whether it’s in tech as a whole, the entire industry. If you can affect change in any one of those areas, even if it’s you becoming a successful entrepreneur, that in itself, as an underrepresented entrepreneur, that can make a big difference.”

I know it’s easier said than done.

It is scary to speak out. You worry about what people will think, especially your boss, teammates, and peers. Plus the impact it will make on your career + day-to-day.

I’ve been there…

I was afraid to challenge authority for fear of losing my job or the criticism that I’d receive.

But then I realized that change doesn’t have to be HUGE to make an impact. Small acts every day, month, and year do add up.

I realize you might still be on the fence, so today I want to share a recent story of how I spoke up in hopes that it will inspire you to speak up the next time you are presented with an opportunity.

Earlier this year, my sponsor, Pivotal Tracker invited me to moderate a panel for their series called Product Stack. I took one look at the panel that had already been assembled and I cringed. I was going to be the only female on it.

I don’t have an issue with being a token and encouraging others to be as well. But I also have a goal to encourage, educate and empower others to speak.

Instead of backing out or just accepting the moderator position without challenging the composition of the rest of the panel, I decided to speak up and ask my sponsor if they would be open to a change:

“I want to make sure we are sending the right message to our audience regarding diversity and inclusion. I’m going to push that we change the composition of the panel to have other women and minorities on it. I realize it means that some people will need to be removed. Are you open to making the change?”

My sponsor was open to it, which reaffirmed my choice in continuing to work with them. We agreed that it would be a joined effort to find new panelists.

“I tried… but I can’t find any speakers who are available. Everyone is too busy!”

Time and time again I hear from conference and event organizers that they just can’t find speakers.

When I dig a little deeper, what they really mean is they can’t find someone on short notice (within a week or month), and they haven’t thought to look outside their immediate network of friends and colleagues.

I’m going to go ahead and toot my own horn here, and say I don’t have either of these problems because I start my search early. For an event, start at least 6–8 weeks prior to the event. For a conference, start looking 3–6 months prior to the conference, especially if travel is involved. Plus have some understudies in case something comes up!

Aside from my network, I have 3–4 groups both online and offline that I plug into. For this particular event, I reached out to the Women in Product Slack Group and Leap because I figured they were the exact group of individuals who could speak on the topic.

“We don’t want to lower our standards!”

I don’t know what other organizers standards are, but these were my explicit standards:

  • Must be an engineer, designer, PM, or product leader
  • Must list prior speaking experience and the topic you spoke on
  • Share a video or a testimonial from the last time you spoke

I also hopped on the phone to screen them and set up a couple coaching sessions to help them nail down talking points.

Results from The Product Stack Panel

Did this take time? You betcha!

I spent about an hour 3–4 weeks prior to the event, planning and communicating with the panelists.

The day of the event, I did an informal icebreaker to warm the panelists up one more time, and make sure they felt good and prepared.

The panel ended up being composed of 4 females, 1 male, and myself.

Product Stack Panelists — February 2018

Jeana Alayaay (panelist) is a Senior Manager at Pivotal responsible for internal development. An early proponent of Lean Startup and Balanced Teams, Jeana has helped train companies such as GE, The White House and Mitsubishi-Fuso how to build teams and launch products following these philosophies and methodologies.

Robin Calhoun (panelist) is a Product Manager with Jama Software. She uses her education in human behavior and economics to identify and understand patterns in the way people work, and patterns in product development data, to help people make better decisions. Robin’s goal is to enable people to understand, manage, and gain insights from the rich data we already have access to. Before joining Jama, Robin was a product manager at Tendril, defining data-driven Energy Service Management Products. She holds a degree from Columbia University in Neuroscience and Behavior, and Economics.

Amy Chow(panelist) is a global technologist, writer, and speaker. Amy has managed a multi-million dollar software product portfolio where she helped launched several products for Fortune 500 companies, startups, and federal government agencies. As a writer, she has been featured by Arianna Huffington and currently serves as a Technology Council Member at GLG, advising equity firms on emerging technology. Amy is also an advocate for positive female content in the media, and is an investor in Darling, a print and digital media platform redefining female-driven content. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University.

Rose Haft (panelist) worked on her first virtual reality headset in high school. Since then she has worked on the various different aspects of augmented and virtual reality technology ranging from software and computer vision to hardware and optical design. Rose started Lumenora in June 2016 after researching how to use AR and VR to detect cancer in early stages and how it can be used to further prevent deaths to cancer. She earned a BS in Physics from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and has studied optical engineering, robotics and biology at the graduate level. She has founded other companies to improve the education and healthcare ecosystems as well as a nonprofit.

Jim Semick (panelist) is co-founder and Chief Strategist of ProductPlan. For over 15 years he has helped launch new products now generating hundreds of millions in revenue. He was part of the founding team at AppFolio, a vertical SaaS company. Prior to AppFolio, Jim validated and helped launch GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting (acquired by Citrix). Jim is a frequent speaker on product management and the process of discovering successful business models.

Poornima Vijayashanker (moderator) I’m the founder of Femgineer. I’m an avid public speaker who gives talks around the world on topics ranging from engineering to entrepreneurship. I’ve given a TEDx talk, I host a web show called Build sponsored by Pivotal Tracker, and have authored two books: How To Transform Your Ideas Into Software Product and Present! A Techie’s Guide To Public Speaking.

I’ve also been an entrepreneur-in-residence at 500 Startups, a mentor-in-residence at Techstars, a lecturer at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, and the founding engineer at Mint.com, where I helped build, launch, and scale the product until its acquisition in 2009.

I received degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science from Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

Does it really matter?

The event was sold out thanks to my sponsor’s marketing efforts.

And the vast majority of attendees stayed in their seats for over 90 minutes to listen!

Granted we did somethings to keep it interesting, like splitting the panel into two parts and pausing between them for a short Q&A from the audience.

After the event, a few audience members came up to me to tell me they enjoyed the event, found it to be very helpful, and appreciated the diverse backgrounds + insights of the panelists.

More importantly, the next day, the panelists thanked me for the opportunity to speak!

I can’t see into the future, but I have two hunches. The first is that more people will be willing to speak and share their experiences with others — having seen the panelists. The second is that those who attended our event will spread the word, and when they consider hosting or moderating a panel in the future, they will remember the caliber of ours and copy us, which is the sincerest form of flattery!

So the next time you are asked to help or invited to participate in a panel or an opportunity that showcases people, take a moment to gauge how open the leaders are to making a change, and if they would consider your input.

Curious about the panel and what we covered?

The panel was called: How to Be the Best Product Manager: Navigating Evolving Tools and Trends.

We covered the role of the product manager rapidly evolving. How product managers can be sure that what worked in 2017 will work in 2018. Dissecting trends in the product management space, looking at how they translate to a career in product management, and the day-to-day life of a product manager.

You can watch the full panel here (video starts about a minute in).

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Check out these additional posts on the importance of speaking up and asking:

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