The Rungs of Learning with Mikaela Kiner, Founder, CEO and Author

When I got started in consulting, half of the people I connected with said I HAD to meet Mikaela Kiner. They told me she was a mover and a shaker, founder and CEO of a fast growing and well respected HR consulting firm. She's also the author of a recently published book called Female Firebrands and a fellow Starbucks alumni.


What no one told me was how kind and gracious she is but I found out for myself the first time we met. Since then, she's been a terrific supporter of me in my journey as an author and a newly minted entrepreneur and I'm grateful for her generosity.


Mikaela's "rungs of learning" come from experiences at large, well known companies such as Amazon and Microsoft, smaller start ups such as PopCap games (owned by Electronic Arts) and, most recently, from owning her own business.


Enjoy her story in this month's leadership profile.


You've worked at some world class companies (Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon) before starting your own. What is one key learning you've had from each organization that shaped how you lead today?

It's funny because each company I was with required I learn new things and unlearn others.


As an HR Manager at Microsoft, I learned how to juggle a lot coming at me at once. I had to be really efficient and learned to respond to requests and issues between 60 seconds and 60 minutes, no matter how big or how small.


At Starbucks, it was all about communicating in a different manner. Where as, at Microsoft, it was about getting to the point and doing it quickly, I learned to add the "fluff" at the beginning and end of communication whether that was verbally or in writing. This was part of Starbucks' culture.


At Amazon, my job took me to south India for a three year assignment. I learned so much about living and working in another culture, the assumptions you make and how things got done. I was the only westerner in a 2,500 person office.


I also worked very long days when I was there and that, coupled with the cultural differences, took an inordinate amount of energy. It was in this role that I learned how to set boundaries in my life around what is important to me and how long and hard I can work and what I wanted for the future. When I came back to the U.S., I quit Amazon six months to the day that I repatriated (a classic expat statistic) because I knew I wanted a different life for myself.


My time at PopCap Games also taught me how to not be so critical of myself. I had been there only three months when the performance review cycle happened. I wrote it like I was taught to write self reviews at Microsoft and Amazon - lengthy, detailed and self critical.


In the conversation with my boss, Mala, she asked me why I was so hard on myself. It was an aha moment that I was essentially raised in a type of company and culture for so long and that doesn't necessarily represent all companies and cultures. It doesn't mean PopCap Games wasn't rigorous or that there wasn't a thoughtful performance process, it was just different.


It opened my eyes to what kind of culture I want to be a part of and what kind of culture I wanted to create. In the end, I took all the good from the companies I worked at and left behind all the unnecessary stressors.


So what type of culture did you create at Reverb?

One of our core values is kindness. I also created a culture of customer focus, caring and being very human. The whole team is focused on working hard and doing our best and taking care of one another. One of the best things about working for myself is that we choose who we work with and collaborate with based on these values. If people aren't kind and respectful and don't care about their employees, we are not the right partner for them. I'm very proud of that.


What career advice do you find that you dispense the most often?

Instead of focusing on the practicalities (job title, pay, timing, etc.,), focus on your passions and what brings you joy. Those will drive the outcomes.


Think bigger picture, even if you assume there will be barriers. Don't assume the barriers are real and give up before even exploring the possibilities. Self limiting beliefs get in the way and we often shut ourselves down without even exploring it.


Personally, I'm glad I didn't spend my whole career at a single company because I did learn and unlearn different things at each place I worked.


Why do you think people sometimes overly obsess about climbing the corporate ladder versus learning what they can in their current role?

I think it's natural to focus on progression but the motivation is often shaped by our upbringing. Certain behaviors and motives serve us until they don't. How one measures their personal success is an example of this, be it the prestige of making more money and/or having a bigger job title.


When I left Amazon it was an extremely hard decision because I was bound by the golden handcuffs. There would be a lot of outstanding equity that I would never receive if I left before it was vested. But I also knew my time was up there and I needed more personal time with my kids. I told myself ahead of time that I was not going to regret this and I wasn't going to watch the stock price after I left.


What was one of the most difficult decisions you had to make in your career and what did you learn from that?

I had one job I stayed in for less than a year and it was clear pretty early on that it wasn't the right environment for me. I was so worried about the optics internally and externally of leaving even though the job became intolerable.


I left in less than a year and no one blinked an eye. It made me realize that, a lot of times, people know what's going on. They read between the lines and can recognize an environment that is toxic or has a bad leader. They don't ask or judge you for it because they get it.


How have mentors contributed to your growth and learning as a leader?

There are two mentors that have made a profound impact in my career - Dave Gartenburg and Jerry Hunter.

Dave and I were matched in an online mentoring tool when I was at Microsoft. As I was navigating a career decision, he suggested I create an objective list of everything I wanted in my next role and then evaluate the opportunity against that. Things like pay, scope, work/life balance, etc. I made a very long list and compared it to a job I was considering and it ended up being a perfect match.

The other mentor who had a huge impact on me (and still does to this day) is Jerry Hunter, the head of engineering at Snapchat. Jerry was, and still is, always available to me. He's helped me cope with stress and taught me how to depersonalize everything going around me. He constantly challenged me and never coddled me. There was incredible trust in our relationship.


You wrote a book, Female Firebrands, and just celebrated the one year anniversary of publishing it. Congrats! What did you learn from this experience?

The biggest learning was the power of women's stories and the power of the stories of different and diverse women. The result is that there is broad appeal and relatability and people can see themselves in them because of their diversity.


I've also met so many amazing people I wouldn't normally meet who are also writing books.


Thanks for opening up about your experiences on the rungs of learning Mikaela. Before we go, I'd love to hear what your focused on learning right now.

I'm prone to overscheduling and need to remember to set boundaries. I lost sight of this for a bit and my stress went up and my self care went down and it was not a good combination. I'm working on getting myself back on track.


Mikaela is the founder and CEO of Reverb, a Seattle based HR consulting firm. Their values are: exceptional, flexible, kind, principled and fun team no politics. Her book, Female Firebrands, profiles stories of thirteen professional women and offers actionable ideas on advocating for yourself at work.

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