Girls in Tech is a phenomenal organization, dedicated to helping girls and women who are passionate about technology. More than ever, our world needs this global non-profit organization to empower women in STEM fields. Last year Adriana Gascoigne, Girls in Tech’s amazing founder and CEO, asked me to give a talk at GIT’s annual Catalyst Conference. The title of my workshop was “A Career without Regret: Have Greater Impact on What You Care About.” GIT’s Joanna Furlong interviewed me shortly afterward, asking what advice I could give to women in technology, from the perspective of my own career journey in Silicon Valley. I’m a man — not a woman — and there are many important issues we did NOT cover. But I hope you find this interview helpful. (This originally appeared on the Girls in Tech web site. Much gratitude!)
8 Questions with Motivational Speaker and Leadership Expert Jim McCarthy
How did you end up doing management consulting?
I came to the Bay Area about 25 years ago. I worked at different Internet companies and received my MBA from Stanford. I was employee #258 at Yahoo, starting there in 1997. Then I worked at other Silicon Valley companies that were pretty successful. So, my story is kind of a typical Silicon Valley story. Then about four years ago I left the startup that I was to do leadership consulting. People told me, ‘Jim you’re a great coach. You’re a great mentor. Why don’t you focus on that?’ I started doing that in terms of individual coaching, career coaching and consulting with companies on how to build high performance teams. I focused on things like how to hire the right people, how to set them up for success, how to be a successful first-time manager.
How did this work evolve into motivational speaking?
I was diagnosed with cancer on February 5, 2013. That’s when I got the call from my doctor. Fortunately, it was very early stage prostate cancer, which is very treatable. My doctor and I decided to do active surveillance, so there’s been no surgery or anything like that. And, fortunately, the cancer hasn’t shown any signs of spreading in the last three and a half years.
But, getting that cancer diagnosis was a real wake up call for me. I continued to do the leadership consulting, but I also thought to myself, ‘Maybe I have some experience or perspective that I can share with people’. I always wanted to be a motivational speaker, but I was always too scared to try.
It sounds like the cancer diagnosis gave you the push you needed.
Unfortunately, we all know that life can end way too soon, for anyone, at any time. I didn’t want to live a life with regrets. There’s a story from a guy who taught entrepreneurship at Stanford Business School. And he said there’s people who wish they had done a startup. But then they reach the age of 45 or 50, and they haven’t done it. They are absolutely inconsolable. They live with all these regrets about never having tried. But then there’s other people, who do try. Maybe at age thirty they try and the startup is a failure. But, at least they’re glad they tried.
There’s a quote, “Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.” There’s only three post-its here at my desk, and that’s one of them.
What do your workshops for Girls in Tech and other organizations focus on?
There’s three main buckets to what I do. One is happiness workshops, which is the more inspirational stuff. Embracing your mortality. Having a career without regrets. Other workshops are on goal setting. Getting stuff done; achieving your business goals. And then the last bucket is focused on the nuts and bolts leadership topics, like how to hire amazing people, how to be a manager. All of this is from my experience in Silicon Valley for 20 years building teams.
What do you think young, first time leaders need to think about?
One of the greatest sources of wisdom and success in life is when you recognize what you do not know, and can manage around that. The first thing a CEO of a new startup needs to recognize is that they don’t know everything. But the good news is, they can get help from advisors, mentors and career coaches as well. For me, running teams in Silicon Valley for 20 years, I’ve had to hire a lot of people on various teams, very quickly. And then I’ve had to manage them, so I’ve had to “eat my own dog food” in this regard.
Another thing young startup leaders need to consider is how to manage people for the first time. Even if someone isn’t a CEO—if they’re working at a startup as an individual contributor and then in a few years, they are managing people, this impacts them. That’s a huge shift. It’s an absolutely fundamental change in how you work. And most people are never trained on that, not at all. So, a lot of what I do is training on how to be a first time manager. Most people don’t learn it from their managers because their managers have never learned it either. But there’s no reason it has to be this way—this stuff is absolutely learnable.
A lot of the appeal of startups is lack of process and flexibility. But why is structure and process important to startups as they grow?
There’s lots of ways to think about this. With hiring, for example, one wrong hire at a startup can doom the startup. Literally. If you have a three-person startup and that fourth person you hire is very wrong, that could be the end of the company. Within months or a year, that wrong hire could really screw up the whole thing.
Between the randomness of the three people sitting in a garage somewhere, trying to start a company to having three hundred employees and growth and processes, a very painful growing curve occurs. I’ve experienced that kind of hyper growth at Yahoo! and several other companies. The challenge is to be very fast and very opportunistic and to make stuff happen quickly, but to put in enough process along the way that everyone benefits and no one is held back. It’s easy to keep working 100 hours a week, but that doesn’t scale very well.
What are some strategies startup members can do to manage stress?
One strategy would be to find time once a day or throughout the day to do a mindfulness practice, or breathing exercises, quiet time or even prayer. It can be at the start of the day, when you first come into the office, it can be in the evening, or after lunch. Even focusing on your breath for a minute can lower your heart rate, lower your blood pressure. All of this is also very good for creativity, innovation and teamwork. People who are scared or stressed out are not at their best. They don’t make good decisions, they fire off flame emails and then spend two hours doing damage control; they’re impulsive and can be abrasive. Mindfulness and mediation is a way to reduce stress and improve teamwork, and improve a person’s health and happiness.
Another thing is a gratitude practice. It sounds kind of silly, but scientific research indicates that if you are grateful for what you have in your life and who you are, at any given moment your nervous system reduces its stress.
You’ve written that people should “live as if they have cancer.” A lot of people do that for a few days or even a week. But how can you sustain that perspective in the long-term?
I always try to bring things back to very specific practices that you can do. Not just inspiration. In some of the workshops I do, I literally walk people through a five-minute meditation. A lot of people don’t realize how refreshed and less stressed it will make them feel.
The same thing goes for gratitude. For example, I do affirmations every day. For example: I’m grateful my mom and dad are still alive. I’m grateful for my health. I’m grateful I have meaningful work. These are actionable, real things you can do and put in your calendar each and every day. It’s more than feeling good – it’s building it into your routine. Gratitude and mindfulness start to become one and the same after a while.
Spending 10 minutes a day doing breathing or mindfulness or a gratitude practice—that’s about 1% of your day. That 1% spent relaxing, reducing your stress and being grateful and thinking about what’s important to you will make the other 99% of your time awesome. It’s the magic 1% of your day.
[Photo courtesy of Руслан Гамзалиев for UNSPLASH]