Developing courage to lead

I recently realized that I have a problem with leadership, and it is an emotional one.

I have spent significant time studying leaders, reading about their lives, trying to understand what makes them leaders. Intellectually, I felt like I understood it. But emotionally I realized that I don’t believe in myself as a leader. Just talking about myself as a leader makes my heart race, my palms get a tingling sensation, and get nervous. 

That is what I’ve been working through over the past month. Even though I can recognize leadership in others, I struggle to call myself a leader. This is the case even when in the midst of leading a team. I see myself as someone who can gets things done. I can define a problem, find a path to move forward, and fix it. That’s what I’ve always done and that’s how I am comfortable contributing to teams.

As I look to the future, however, I know that my contribution to teams and society as a whole will be capped if I don’t develop my leadership. So I’ve been wondering, how exactly do I become a leader? Is there a checklist I can go through and come out at the other end as a leader? Do I wait until my manager tells me that I should lead a team (hint: it turns out, that’s not how leadership works)? 

In essence, in order to lead all I really need is: 

  1. A point of view, or vision, of how something should be
  2. Conviction & commitment to pursue that vision
  3. Courage to share it with others and compel them to follow

The only person preventing me from leading is me. Item number one on the list is not a problem, I have plenty of thoughts of how things should be. I can definitely argue a point. The second item may be an issue at times, there are few things I feel enough conviction about pursuing, so I can easily drop things. However, I don’t think that’s a big problem. The third element, however, is where I struggle the most. I am afraid to let others down, afraid of not looking smart, so I stop myself from trying to compel others to follow. Instead, I wait for others to lead the way. 

Addressing this issue is truly an emotional challenge. The prescription seems to be courage, practice, and resilience. 

I need to build up the courage to define a vision and share it while it is still not a done deal. I have to be willing to hear criticism and use that to grow. I need to distance my sense of personal worth from my work so that when others provide feedback on my work I don’t take it personally.

If I don’t do this, I will chicken out of sharing my thoughts until it is too late. I will continue to spend so much time thinking through the problem that the opportunity to lead will pass me by. I will become another one of those that hears their awesome idea from someone else and say: “Argh, I could have said that! That was my idea!” Too little too late. 

To be sure, most of this I already knew intellectually, even before this past month reflecting on it. So, what truly matters is what’s next. What am I going to do about it? 

  • I will carve out time to write down my vision & point on view on things I believe to be important. 
  • I will share this with others before I feel ready to do so. I will not keep a task to “polish X vision doc and share it once final” for weeks at a time. I will form a point of view and share before I have all the answers. By doing that, I will learn. 
  • I will not shy away when I get negative feedback on what I share. Instead, I will use that to learn, iterate, and keep refining my thinking. I will repeat that cycle as many times as necessary. 

By doing this, I hope to build up my courage. I know it will suck at first. As I write this, I feel a tingling sensation in my palms signaling nervousness. I really am afraid to let others down, and I will need to have the courage to risk letting others down in the short term for the long-term rewards of becoming the leader I know I can be. 

A note on self-awareness and the enneagram test

If you’ve heard of the enneagram test, I’m described eerily well as a self-preservation type three. Emotionally, if I’m not continuously achieving or succeeding, I feel like everything will come down crumbling around me. Continuous achievement is to the self-preservation three a requirement to prove that they deserve what they have. Any sort of failure, such as disappointing others, is felt very deeply as a threat to everything accomplished so far. 

I mention this because learning about my enneagram type was an unexpectedly emotional journey. More than once, I teared up as I read the hard truth about the fears that drive me. With that awareness, I can see how the fear of letting others down has been sabotaging my own learning and development as it relates to leadership. If you’re too afraid to look stupid, leading will become far more challenging. 

How I have transitioned job functions

Recently, I’ve been advising students and recent graduates. A common consultation request I get is to discuss career transitions. When people look at my experience, they often wonder how certain work transitions were possible.

I hope that my experience is helpful to folks looking to switch functions or industries. As such, I’ll let you know the key things that have been successful for me.

Transition 1: MIT Chemical-Biological Engineering undergrad to Accenture Consulting

This one is simple to explain. Most people don’t realize that consulting firms aren’t looking for management and business gurus for their Associates/Analysts straight out of undergrad. In fact, many consulting and finance companies, such as Accenture, hire a significant amount of engineering students as consultants for their analytical skills.

The trick for this one? Convincing the firm that you will be prepared, confident and comfortable when working with a client. I find that the analytical portion of the consulting interview process is easy for engineering students to prepare for. The key area were engineering students blunder is in articulating clearly their answers in a way that showed they were ready to communicate with clients.

Storytelling is a crucial skill here. Often it’s not about what you’ve done, it’s about whether you can explain it to someone for the first time and make them feel a part of your story. Make them intrigued by the problem and ultimately happy and excited about your solution. Have them “feel” the pain you went through as you failed and then show them what you ultimately learned from the experience.

Transition 2: Accenture System Integration & Technology Consulting to Accenture Management Consulting

A key goal I had while at Accenture was to learn about management and business. I joined Accenture initially as part of their System Integration & Technology Consulting. This was a great start since it leveraged more heavily the analytical skills developed during my engineering education. However, Accenture also has a Management Consulting practice which I realized would help take my learning opportunities in the management and business side to a new level.

The trick is, just like a promotion, a company needs to have justification to approve an employee’s transition from one role to another. There are several factors that the company has to consider:

  • Track record: this is the most important. A company is unlikely to invest in transitioning you to a new role and helping you thrive in the new role if you aren’t already performing well on an existing role.
  • Skillset: does the employee demonstrates having the right skills to perform well in the new role? For any missing skills, can the employee reasonably develop them in a short period of time?
  • Headcount: do we need additional people in the role the employee wants to transfer into? Can we more easily replace their headcount on their existing role?
  • Transition cost: moving an employee to a new function always has costs. Training in the new role, disruption to their existing team’s role, etc. The company needs to consider all this.

So, how do you overcome all this and justify the transition? In my case, it took two key elements: (1) a strong performance track record and (2) senior management support.

The strong performance track record was possible because I clearly understood what the company expected of me. I clarified the company’s established responsibilities for my function, not just for my level but also for 1 and 2 levels above my existing one. That is, as a Consulting Analyst, I was ensuring that my work didn’t meet or exceed the analyst requirements, but instead I looked at the Consultant and Manager ladders and tried to meet or exceed those as well. I often checked in with my manager and looked for opportunities to replace low-impact work with other more impactful work.

The senior management support was correlated with the performance track record. By becoming known for being able to solve problems well and help managers, senior managers and executives started to come to me for special requests or side projects that I could help them with. Since I was diligent about saying no to low-impact, irrelevant work, I often had the additional time to help with these important requests.

At the time I was intent on moving to Management Consulting, I had a set of performance ratings ready to back me up. More importantly, I had several members of the senior management team ready to make a case for why I should be granted the transition. My transition to management consulting was approved a few months after my request, thanks in large part to these two elements.

NOTE: all that I mentioned above also helped with transition 2b, relocating from the Accenture Boston to the Accenture San Francisco office (which has higher demand, thus hard to transition into.) An additional step I took there was to ask Senior Managers I knew from the Boston office to introduce me to partners in the San Francisco office. Thanks to their endorsement, the partners in the SF office agreed to talk to me and later supported my case for a transfer.

Transition 3: Consulting to Product Management

This is really several transitions. Which is the point I want to illustrate. Sometimes, you need to make several smaller, adjacent transitions to ultimately land the position you will be happy with. This was my experience here.

I was happy as a consultant at Accenture. As I mentioned in the above transition, I had various supporting senior managers & senior executives, had roles I enjoyed, and a good track record. For a while I thought I’d stay in consulting forever. However, a part of me didn’t want to miss out on tech. However, I was puzzled, how does someone with a chemical-biological engineering degree and a few years of consulting experience joins a startup in the tech world?

I owe a lot of gratitude here to a great recruiter who pinged me at just the right time on LinkedIn. He wanted to talk to me about a role at a tech startup. At the time, I was busy and didn’t respond. However, he followed up a week later at just the right time for me to look through the company website and realize that the team working at the company was amazing and I’d be lucky to join that team. I interviewed and got into the company as a Product Engagement Manager. This was very similar to a Customer Success Manager role, which I knew wasn’t the last stop of my career. However, it allowed me to use my enterprise client skills I had acquired as a consultant to help the startup while, in return, I could learn about product, technology, software as a service, and startups.

Once at the startup as a customer success manager the story of how to transition to Product Management was very similar to transition 2. The specifics may have varied, but the framework was the same. I had the same barriers to overcome — and the same strategy to overcome it. Say no to low impact work, focus strongly on deliver high quality, high impact results, get strong performance reviews, help out executives in work related to my target function that helped me develop new skills and, ultimately, get executive support to transition to product management.

Due to the nature of startups, however, timing can be a bit more unpredictable. It could have been the case that new positions in Product Management, my target function, wouldn’t open up for 1+ years. I saw that happen to other people seeking to transition. However, the experience and learning opportunities, plus executive support, I gained while pursuing the transition would have been valuable regardless of whether I accomplished the transition while at that company or in a future company.

One thing I’d add is that for this specific transition there was more of a skills gap that I had to narrow down, so I had to be deliberate about the extra projects that I helped out with. I focused on projects that were high impact, but also helped me develop the skills I was missing for product management.

Bringing it all together

The key learnings that I’d abstract out of all my transitions so far are:

  1. It ultimately boils down to senior management and executive support. If they are convinced that you can do an excellent job on the new role, they’ll invest in you.
  2. The easiest way to convince management about anything is data – a great track record proving that you deliver strong results and can learn the skills required to succeed in the new role.
  3. The best way to deliver those strong results are to (a) understand your role expectations, (b) say no to low-value work to free up time for high-impact work, (c) aim to deliver excellent results 1-2 levels above your current level’s expectations.

One important factor I failed to talk about, but it’s a simple one, is that you should never forget that people are just that, people. Ultimately, they will be more likely to help you if they think you’re awesome, which is just as much about your personality as it is about the results you deliver. Simply put, be kind and genuinely care for others as you do great work. A competent ass is still an ass.

Joining Google

I’m embarking on a new journey in my career and I’m incredibly excited for what’s to come. I will be joining the Google Product Management team, focused on Hire [1].

This is an exciting next step for me and one that I wouldn’t have considered even just a year ago. Google is a company that I’ve admired since my middle school years.

A Google fanboy

When I first discovered the internet, I started building a local web directory, similar to Yahoo!, which linked to great websites. That project didn’t go anywhere, I was a kid with lots of curiosity but no knowledge or resources on how to build a product. However, I was very keen on the idea of making the web more accessible to everyone. When I discovered Google Search, I was blown away. Over time I discovered Gmail, Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Docs. These were all revolutionary in and of themselves. Today, I use 5 to 10 Google products every day, and I’m as much of a Google fan as I was in the early days.

When I told my parents that I’d go to work for Google my mom said: “It’s about time, you’ve always been making me use all those Google products.”

A bit about my journey

After getting an engineering degree from MIT in Chemical-Biological Engineering, I thought that my technical and analytical skills were quite polished. I pursued a consulting career to learn more about business.

My 3 years in consulting at Accenture helped me learn about enterprise clients, financial forecasting, planning, writing business cases, project management, and IT delivery. It was a great experience and I considered staying in consulting for my entire career. However, a part of me wanted to explore tech and startups. I moved to San Francisco in 2012 and, surrounded by folks in tech, decided to go for it when BloomReach knocked on my door and asked me to interview for a Product Engagement Management role.

A note I’d make about this time: while a consultant at Accenture, I considered working at Google. However, I wasn’t qualified for the jobs that I was interested in. I was either too junior or had no relevant experience. I never applied.

I joined BloomReach, a Silicon Valley-based tech startup, in 2013. My time at a startup has been an amazing learning experience. I dabbled in problems spanning customer success, sales & go to market, engineering, people & operations, and more. I got to shape my role and spend more time in the areas I was interested in. The learnings I had were based on real startup situations and market challenges. I can’t imagine a better way to have learned.

BloomReach also satiated my thirst for knowledge about product development. Deep passion for technology always fueled me and being able to learn about it while surrounded by brilliant engineers was a privilege. Being at a startup allowed me to transition into product management with no CS or MBA degrees, something that would have been much harder in a big company. [2]

I got a message from a Google recruiter about 1-2 years ago. At the time, I had hesitations joining a large company. I liked startups and wanted my next role to be at a company even smaller than BloomReach. I also had hesitations that my current PM experience and training was sufficient to pass the interviews at Google, a place known for still having a technical interview that tests you for knowledge on software engineering fundamentals if you want to join as a PM.

Over the last 4 years at BloomReach, I’ve had the fortune of working alongside some of the smartest individuals I’ve met. Some came from small startups, others from companies like Microsoft, eBay, Bain, Google, and more. Some had Computer Science backgrounds, others had MBAs, yet others had neither of those. Yet, they all had a ton to contribute to BloomReach as it has grown.

As I entertained career options after BloomReach, I focused on the people, company culture, and values. It was the same criteria that led me to BloomReach four years ago, which worked out extremely well for me. Why change those criteria when it worked so well? I wanted to be surrounded by a world-class product team with many individuals I could learn a lot from.  After speaking to many people at Google I decided to go for it, relaxing my prior requirement of my next role being at a small company.

Looking forward

Google has a world-class product and engineering organization. While I’m eager to work side-by-side with them, I’m aware of some of the challenges of moving to a large company. Initiatives at Google are often killed by management if they don’t show progress, you may end up working on a product or area that’s not your first choice, and the role may get more specialized or narrow than you originally wished for. I will keep this in mind as I navigate Google over the next few years.

On the flip side, I look forward to making the most of the opportunities to learn from people at the peak of their fields. I’m also eager to make a significant impact on a company that I’ve long admired.

[3] See more resources at

New Year Reflections — Will you transform your life in this coming year?

New year, new beginnings – or so they say. “What will the new year bring?” we often ask. “Happy New Year!” we often exclaim. Are we taking the time to really celebrate and enjoy the holidays? Are we taking the time to reflect and take the proper steps to enjoy the new year?

Each day presents us with at least one opportunity to change the rest of our lives. So why do we place so much emphasis on celebrating the beginning of a new year? The reason is, I think, that a year is a time that is long enough for us to really transform our lives, but short enough so that we can still reflect on it and learn from all the experiences we have experienced.

In a day, you can adjust the direction in which your life goes. In a week, you can reach a new destination. In a month, you can make new friends and start new relationships. But in a year, in one year, you can build a new life for yourself. It is amazing how much we can do and change while living through the four seasons. So, what will I transform in my life this coming year?

A year ago I found myself thinking about my future. I would, I said, make a change from my engineering life into a more business-related one. I would find a way to complete my bachelor’s in chemical engineering, but I would graduate and move on to something different. I wanted a career that allowed me to make a big impact in society and organizations but allowed me to frequently interact with others. I also wanted to meet many new people, expand my social group, while simultaneously keeping my friends close.

This year allowed me to do that and more. Although I did not test for my black belt in Taekwondo, which was one of my goals, I think that my year was all I could ask for. I took some time off taekwondo and focused on academics, work, and friends. I also used that time to plan for my summer in Japan, a summer that was life-changing all by itself, and to figure out my career plan after graduation. Taking that break allowed me to clear up my mind in a way I may not have been able to otherwise.

A lesson I learned from that process, however, was to always keep communication open with others. To not shy away from sharing my honest thoughts with those around me, friends, family, instructors, and peers. Not keeping things clear may give rise to misunderstandings, and may end up hurting relationships unnecessarily.

I also learned that although it is great to have a close group of friends, you should always listen to your heart and your mind. There are times in which only you will know what is best for you, and if you don’t give yourself a chance to explore what your mind is telling you to do, what you feel is right, you may be giving up on the life you always hoped for. I love my friends, I cheer them every minute I can, but sometimes I have to be strong and self-reliant, cause only I will be there for myself every second of the day.

Here is a summary of what the seasons this year brought me –

Late Winter – Spring 2009 Just like the fields flower in the Spring to symbolize the new beginnings, there were plenty of new beginnings for me. Although I had a successful Academic semester, my major accomplishment was to learn to keep myself happy and relaxed! I think that, although I have always been on the ‘happy and relaxed’ side, this year is marked by an optimism I had not felt before. Maybe it was partially triggered by reading “The Secret”, Eckhart Tolle, or one of those philosophical books I read, or maybe it was just the strengthening of my relationships with my family, friends, and that special someone. Whatever it was, I think that my approach to life and the way I looked at it made this past year possibly my happiest yet. Waking up every morning and allowing myself to feel good about me and my day, and whatever it may bring, allowed me to really absorb and enjoy the beauty of each day. Even when times were not the best, when friendships/relationships were rocky, when family was not at its best, or when academic pressures were at their peak, there was hope and happiness within me. I always new things would be great. Not okay, not good, not fine, but fantastic.

Summer 2009– When the heat of the summer came around, I ran to beautiful Japan and there had a summer I could never summarize. As I wrote on my summer report about my summer –

How do I begin this report? There are far too many things I would like to express and share from my experiences in Japan, far too many to summarize here. However, to keep things simple, I will just say that my summer in Japan was a life-changing experience, and the memories from this trip I will forever treasure.

I think that is the best description of my summer. I wrote plenty about Japan – if you ever wonder what I did or loved so much in Japan.

Looking back at my summer, all I can remember is happiness and joy. I allowed myself to smile and laugh for no reason, to truly be present at the moment, and to stop thinking that “tomorrow” or “someday” I would be able to have the life I wanted and truly enjoy happiness. I replaced that thinking with knowing that there is no better day than today, no better moment than the present, to feel the warmth and happiness in our hearts that I had always been ‘seeking’. Maybe it was not Japan in particular that made my summer special, maybe the special part of it was me allowing myself to truly enjoy life.
I am now thinking about my summer in Japan, and it was a beauty. Those long days were beautiful and allowed me to truly experience what it was to be completely free –

Fall 2009 – Early Winter 2009 The fall season was one of many changes. The spring flowers and green summer leaves were now transitioning into more serious and mellow colors, and so was my life. But far from being a sad transitioning phase, it was yet another season of happiness and love. Although I missed my life in Japan, and the freedom I felt there, after some stumbles and lessons I learned that I could be free and truly happy anywhere. I did not need to be at a particular place to allow myself to be happy, optimistic, and free. I enjoyed the company of my friends, and I was able to strengthen my special relationship, which had bloomed during the Spring. I was also able to reconnect with friends and find a job, the job I had been asking for – a job that would allow me to transition from engineering to a more business-y job. This would allow me to solve problems while interacting with others and to make a big impact in organizations.

The late fall and early winter greeted me with snow in mid-October and then some brutal cold. This was before my travels to warm (almost hot) Puerto Rico. Just as I moved physically in the world, allowing me to escape the cold weather and embrace warmth, I learned this year that when everything seems cold around me, in my surrounding emotional world, I can transform my thoughts and my reality to keep my heart warm. I can always choose to irradiate happiness and love, and not to let the coldness and bitterness in the air infect me. There is always a way if I believe, and it is that way that I will always keep my life open to.

Concluding Remarks –

I am happy and have learned to be happier. This year has allowed me to transform my life mentally and emotionally and helped me become stronger and better. I will always strive for better, but will never stop enjoying the present, this very moment I am living. There will never be a better moment to be truly happy than NOW.

Enjoy the Holidays & Happy New Year ~
To a great 2009 and an even better 2010 ~
Life gets better, moment by moment.

Thoughts after being deferred by MIT Early Action

It was on early November that the waiting started for me. I had already sent my application to the best engineering college, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All my dreams were based on receiving an acceptance letter from that university; after all, I had been working for it since I was 12. I didn’t receive much encouragement from the people around me, but I was encouraged by the faith I had in myself and my abilities. The only thing that made me feel uncertain was the fact that I am not the student with perfect SAT scores or a 4.00 GPA. I come from the west part of Puerto Rico, were 99% of the students are encouraged to study a bachelor degree and be proud of themselves, and not going farther than the local public college. Having my target in another way of living I was looking forward to apply to the best colleges in the field I wanted to study, even if it meant moving to another country. That way I first knew about MIT and by visiting its website, reading the Blogs on it, and attending the MIT Information Session in the other side of the island I fell in love with MIT and its culture, people and history. I decided that there is no best combination for me than living in Cambridge and studying at MIT. My motivation kept growing as I read daily about the college. That’s how I decided to fill my application as soon as it was available in early August. I filled the application and without letting anyone criticize and/or read it, I sent the application. By early November the MyMIT website reflected that they had received my whole application, now I had no other choice than wait.

One minute after I knew that MIT had received the application, and that I could make no change to it, questions started popping in my head. Did I give my best filling that application? It was right to send my essay without waiting for someone else to revise it? Is my GPA of no more than 3.8 going to matter more than my schedule? Have I taken the right decision applying early? As the number of doubts inside me started to grow my self-confidence disappeared, I was sure that all of my dreams were going to remain as dreams. I was doomed to do nothing more than studying in the community public college and then working somewhere near my parent’s house. As time approached the EA notification date, I felt emptier and without breath, I refused to have that life many expected from me. What scared me the most wasn’t getting a decline letter from my perfect college; it was the fact that I had no time and/or money to apply to other colleges out of my island. My frustration grew as I was reading the news at the MIT blogs, only 12% of the students who applied EA had been accepted. Knowing that many of those would be the ‘perfect students’ I hated myself for not having read any prep books before taking the standardized tests I took and for not having taken classes with the ‘easy’ teachers, that way getting at least the ‘perfect’ 4.00 GPA. But oh no, my GPA had dropped after taking hard courses and, trying to do good in those courses, there was no time for preparing for some standardized test or taking a course for doing good on them.

The date finally arrived; there were comments on the blogs of students that had been accepted and their profiles. Predictable, students with more than 4.00 GPA (impossible in PR) and with almost perfect scores in the College Board tests had been accepted. Three days had passed and still there was no package for me. I soon knew that if you were accepted you would receive a tube with confetti inside! MIT people are awesome, was the only thing I could think. After almost one week, I had the opportunity of calling MIT to know the admission decision. Knowing that, I decided to call when my mother informed me that there was nothing on the mail. A voice on the other side asked me for my name… then my birth date… and finally said: “you’re calling from Puerto Rico, right?”. “Yes”, I replied as my heart and breathing stopped and waited for the admission decision. After what seemed as an eternity for me (I was about to collapse with nervousness) the kind voice on the other side softly communicated my admission decision: “All I can tell you right now is that your application has been deferred to regular action…” as the man on the other side finished the worst thoughts came into my mind. “Thanks” was all I could say when the soft voiced man finished speaking. As I hang up the phone, I could only imagine myself having the same life that I had been trying to evade since my birth, now I felt unrealistic and foolish, why hadn’t I applied to all of the other great colleges out there? Maybe they could be almost as good as MIT and I could feel as if I had achieved my dream by attending one of them… at least I could go to study out of my country!

Desolation invaded me as I realized that there was no space in such a great college for a person like me. How foolish I was in thinking that I could get in, and worst, in EA!

Soon I went to a friend of mine and informed her about my deferral, and to my surprise, SHE CONGRATULATED ME! I was shocked by her reaction and she knew it, so she hugged me and said: “You weren’t declined, and I trust that you’re going to be accepted in regular action, I trust in you”. I was almost shaking, all the pressure I had been feeling for the past hours for nothing, after all a deferral was not a decline after all! So I started cheering up and doing better. But after a couple of hours I just found myself writing this… and why am I writing this? I’m simply trying to put my thoughts in order and start living my normal life and working hard so I have the opportunity of getting into the college of my dreams, MIT…