Career Lessons from Sarah Friar - Nextdoor CEO and ex-Salesforce and Goldman Sachs exec [by Gemma Monahan]

Feb 28, 2020

Gemma Monahan is a Project Officer at Westminster City Council and is on WhiteHat's People Leadership Programme apprenticeship.

I use the website Nextdoor both personally and professionally, so I was excited to have the opportunity to listen to the CEO Sarah Friar speak with likeminded professionals in an open conversation recently. WhiteHat shared the opportunity for free tickets to the event and I was lucky enough to get one, so thought I’d share some of the things I learnt for those that weren’t able to join…

The recycling industry in which I work is relatively male dominated, so I was keen to hear how Sarah has excelled as a female within the technology industry, her story was both inspirational and thought-provoking. 

The informal discussion began with Sarah explaining her background growing up in Northern Ireland during a time of conflict. She believes this taught her the humility to take risks and be curious. An avid reader, eager to learn and grow, community really mattered to Sarah then and is now at the forefront of her success.

A childhood ambition to study at Oxford could have come to an end when told that her parents could not afford the fees, but Sarah didn’t let her circumstance stop her, and secured a scholarship with Arthur Anderson to complete an MEng in Metallurgy - The only scholarship at Oxford to include business qualifications and certainly not your typical route to become an Equity Analyst!

It was whilst doing an internship in Ghana that Sarah got the travel bug, also realising that she did not see herself in an engineering role moving forwards. She progressed to work at McKinsey, achieving an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business whilst there. It was during this time Sarah learnt that constraints can be positive as they force you to take responsibility for arbitrary decisions. 

Not having the funds available to progress on her own at this point, Sarah decided to develop her career at Goldman Sachs. Whilst working here, Sarah was given opportunities to stretch and challenge her boundaries to achieve and develop. She says that this is something we should all do within our organisations – Push people to stretch themselves but know where the boundary is! 

After leaving Goldman Sachs, Sarah worked at Salesforce before moving on to become CFO at Square. Under Sarah’s leadership, Square launched its initial public offering in 2015 and added $30Bn in market capital. Whilst working here, Sarah was able to develop her efficiency and delegation skills. A key piece of advice Sarah picked up during this time was to “Go and watch a customer use your product… Do not ask them.” Human psychology can and does affect the decision-making process. 

It was not surprising to hear that Sarah had many venture capitalists making contact. Although Sarah had enjoyed working at Square, she felt that Nextdoor would give her a further sense of purpose and the opportunity to bring communities back together again - A lifelong passion and also a challenge not yet faced by another start up. Sarah recognised that community and kindness are great for business.

When asked, ‘What tips Sarah would give her 25-year-old self?’ her response was “To try not to worry what others think and to not be such a perfectionist as it is often hard to take risks when trying to be perfect. 

Sarah’s tips for managing work/life balance include;
•    A drive for urgency is important and can help get things done
•    Surround yourself with ‘people tellers’ who will give honest and constructive feedback
•    It is ok to do personal at work and vice versa – Agile working is key to success!
•    Lead by example – Do not ask someone to do something you would not do yourself!
•    Set goals that are SMART (Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time bound)
•    Once SMART goals are set, let staff manage their own time to allow for positive personal work/life balance

Sarah also highlighted the importance of mentoring and knowing the difference between mentors and advocates, stressing that it is important to choose advocates wisely and not to overburden mentors by focusing on one area of improvement at a time.   

I hope to apply some of the above tips within the workplace moving forwards, hopefully you do too!

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