06 Aug An Interview with Kayti Sullivan, Yelp Senior VP – Lead More and Do Less
Kayti Sullivan is a Senior VP at Yelp and runs Yelp’s customer success team. She is in charge of recurring revenue to the company of approximately $1 billion. Join Wendy Hanson as she sits down with Kayti and they discuss how to “lead more and do less.”
Wendy: Today, I am honored to have Kayti Sullivan with me. Kayti is the senior vice president at Yelp, currently running Yelp’s customer success team. She’s in charge of all the recurring revenue to the company, and that’s estimated to be nearly one billion dollars this year. She started in the company over 10 years ago as a front-line sales person and managed sales and go to market teams all over the US and western Europe. In addition to her experience at Yelp, she works as an active adviser for a few startups and a few side projects related to furthering women in business and leadership.
Wendy: Kayti lives in Mill Valley with her episode husband and nine month old baby, Axle. She’s a passionate cyclist, avid reader, and lover of travel. Please welcome to the show Kayti Sullivan.
Wendy: Hi, Kayti. It’s so great to have you on the show today. Thank you for joining us.
Kayti: Of course. Thank you for having me. It’s an honor.
Wendy: Well, I loved when we were talking about lead more and do less. I thought that would be a great theme for today, because you have a lot of wisdom on that that you could share.
Kayti: You’re too kind.
Wendy: Yes. So tell me a little bit, where did that come up, lead more and do less?
Kayti: So it actually came from a one on one that I had with our CFO who’s become a bit of a mentor to me in the last 18 months or so, and he’s seen me do a lot of big things and interesting projects at the company, and I’ve recently taken on something that is a bit more strategic and requires a lot more working with different stakeholders. I am a very, very high energy person. I need to keep myself very, very stimulated. Otherwise, I go a little bit nuts, which generally I think has been a good thing in my personality and my career, but can sometimes be a bit of a double-edged sword because while it means I can sustain a high work pace, for a long period of time, it also means that I feel the need to sort of constantly be busy, and that’s not always a good thing.
Kayti: So I was in a one on one with our CFO, and he said to me, I was talking to him about needing to keep myself a little bit busier, and he said, or maybe you need to lead more and do less. And I’d heard of the concept before in my early management career, but for some reason, it just really struck me this time around and really resonated with where I am in my current projects and my current work, and it struck a tone of kind of capturing what leadership is all about. And you and I have talked about how what’s old is new again, and I think this is one of my earliest leadership and management lessons. I think I learned pretty quickly that you can’t get in and try to pace set with your employees.
Kayti: You can’t just get in there and try to do everything with and for your employees. But the best managers instead are really capable of understanding what needs to get done and leading people to that outcome as opposed to trying to do more for them. So anyway, this concept, it was so well stated the way that our CFO said it, lead more, do less. That really resonated with me, and I’ve been really trying to focus on how I can be busy with leading as opposed to busy with busy work.
Wendy: Yeah. And I love that that struck you, and it’s something, it’s like a mantra that you can keep in your head, oh how am I doing today, leading and doing less. What does that look like? The difference between … what were some of the things that happened after you got that thought?
Kayti: Yeah. I think a couple things. One when I would find myself sucked into doing something very tactical, for example, managing my inbox, just the classic thorn in the side that a lot of people feel on a consistent basis, I would ask myself, am I leading more by doing this activity. And very often, I would find myself drawn into these activities where I would realize, no, I’m not leading more. I’m just cycling through to get things done to feel busy, and I sort of realized that some of those things, you still need to get done, like managing your inbox, but instead, allocating 30 minutes in the morning where you’re just going to get that done, and then actually prioritize a much meatier task that’s going to require a lot more thought, that’s going to be a little bit harrier and more difficult to get into is a much better use of my time, rather than spending two hours managing my inbox.
Wendy: Yeah. And I think that’s such a great lesson for any manager, even any team member. We don’t take time, at BetterManager we do our map survey, and we ask a question, how often do you take time to reflect, and I think we’re at about 80% of people saying never. When we talk about reflection is that kind of standing back and having some kind of mantra to say am I leading in this case, or am I just doing, what will give me the biggest bang for the buck here, how is it going to make the biggest impact on the organization and on my team.
Kayti: Yep. And it’s easy to skip over those reflection points because we are so busy and there’s so much to do, both at work and our lives. It’s easy to say oh I hit my four things on my to-do list, as opposed to I hit my two priorities. It’s a very different concept.
Wendy: Yeah. When you focus on this, what is the impact on the people that you manage, because that’s how people learn how to manage, by looking up, and they’re getting some great lessons from you here. How is that showing up?
Kayti: Yeah. I think one is thought leadership.
Wendy: Yeah, that’s great. I love that concept, and we talk about it in coaching a lot of co-creation, you know?
Wendy: And you have two people together, and you do that so well across the organization and bring excitement in and how do we look at this together, and you don’t need to own things to make change.
Wendy: And you can lead by any seat on the bus. That’s what people need to realize in organizations, no matter where you are.
Kayti: Or as I like to say, you don’t need a manager title to be a leader.
Wendy: Yes. That’s great. That’s great. One of the things that you and I have talked about a lot, too, is vision, because oftentimes, we just get in to task. This kind of goes back to lead more, do less, without really a vision or painting the picture for people of what it is. How does that show up in your work, and how does that impact you?
Kayti: Yeah, that’s a great question. I definitely am a big advocate of leadership with vision and kind of bringing a vision to your team. I kind of think about it in three different ways. There’s piece number one, which is where are we going, which I think inevitably everybody wants to understand if they’re part of a team, no matter what part of a team you are.
Wendy: And our brain needs to know that from a neuroscience standpoint. If we don’t know where we’re going, we’re really going to kind of circle. Yeah.
Kayti: Exactly. So where are we going. I think piece number two is, I think, vision for your team. If you’re a manager or a leader, you actually really have to have a vision for each individual on your team. And I think piece number three that relates to vision is keeping the big picture in mind and context. So I’ll elaborate a little bit on each of them.
Kayti: To the first point on where are we going, I really do believe that people need a beginning to be working towards, and that’s why we have milestones and goals. That’s why people love new year’s resolutions. And generally speaking, most people in business really want that direction, and your job as the leader is to provide that for people, regardless of how senior or how large or how small your team is. Like you could be managing a team of two. You still need to provide vision to that team of two.
Wendy: Where are we going, yeah.
Kayti: When you have a department of 6,000, you need to provide that vision for them. So I really try to make it a point at least once a quarter, if not more frequently, but once a quarter is my bare minimum to set aside time to think, per our previous conversation about reflecting about where we’re going, and that requires sometimes a lot of work. Sometimes I myself am kind of lost in forest and I need to stop and think. Sometimes that means I need to talk to stakeholders or talk to my team to gather input on the vision. Other times it’s like clear as day to me. I set aside 45 minutes to think about it. Within five minutes, I’m like I know where our vision is. I know where we’re going.
Kayti: So it’s not always clear, but sometimes it is. On piece two, which is the vision for your people, I had a previous colleague here at Yelp, a guy named Pete Hancock. He had this awesome mantra that I have borrowed from him that I love, which is give your people a reputation to live up to. And I loved that because right away, he had sort of said it early on in my management career and right away, I had somebody on my team who was like decently hardworking, but not necessarily the hardest working guy in the room. But I could see he had it in him. He just had a tough time getting focused and kind of accomplishing what I thought he was capable of accomplishing. So I sat down with him, and I said, I think you have the capacity to be the hardest working person on this team, and started talking him through what I thought that meant and asking him if he believed in it, and yada, yada, yada.
Kayti: Fast forward six months, I had been sitting at our pod with our team. I kept saying there’s John Smith, the hardest working person on our team. And sure enough, you fast forward six months, and he was the hardest working person on the team. His output metrics far surpassed anything else. And I think people want to have a high standard and a vision to live up to. And I think you as a leader, it’s really important to be able to see the best potential in people and help draw that out of them. I think giving people a vision for themselves and telling them what you say is a really enabling and powerful way to do that.
Wendy: I just love that. And there’s another side of that coin, too. When you see somebody as they are going to be the best leader, they are creative and resourceful at what they do, we collect evidence that they are.
Wendy: You say oh, this person is really a loser, they’re never going to make anything on this team, you’re going to collect evidence to that.
Kayti: Yep. Absolutely. I believe that it is your obligation as a leader to spend time to get to know somebody until you get to a point where you can see the best in them. And sometimes it comes equally, and sometimes it comes with a lot of work, but it’s really, really important to do.
Wendy: Yeah, well that’s great. I love that. And you had one more point on the vision.
Kayti: Yes. The third point was, and I’m a big, big, big believer and advocate of this is always keeping the big picture in mind. And so I think as a leader, you have to give this both to your people, but also to your peers and to yourself and even to your superiors sometimes, keeping that big picture context, and understanding that we are all one. We are all one small part of an entire system that’s working together.
Kayti: It’s really easy to believe that your work or your struggles or your stresses are the most important or are dominating your amygdala or your brain over the course of that day. And it is that greater context that allows you to see the bigger picture and relax and understand where you are. I think it’s a great stress reliever, and I think it’s a really great way to understand how you fit into a business, into a company, what work you do, how it matters. In some case, not in a bad way, but in a lot of ways, how it actually doesn’t matter, and so don’t freak yourself out.
Wendy: Yeah, right. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Wendy: Yeah. So you’ve been at Yelp for 10 years. You came in as sales, and now look where you are 10 years later. You have lots of lessons, and you’re in charge of so much of this recurring revenue, one billion dollars, lots of responsibility. My god. What advice would you give to new managers coming in?
Kayti: Yeah, that’s great. I would say a couple of the more memorable ones and especially ones that are applicable if you’re in the first two to five years of your management career would be number one, the team takes the tone of its leader. That was something that my very first sales director when I became a sales manager used to repeat over and over again. The team takes the tone of its leader. And boy oh boy, is that true. So I used to have moment when I would kind of be going home that night, maybe I’d be having a not great day or week, and I’d say ugh, my team is so blank, like fill in the blank here. My team’s been so lackluster this week, or my team’s just not holding themselves to a high standard this week.
Kayti: And then I’d sort of stop and ask myself, am I lackluster this week? Am I not holding myself to a high standard this week? And it was a really great way to understand how like kind of there is an I in team as a leader. And I think how important the tone you set for your team is, and you know, how much ownership you actually have over everything.
Kayti: Another one is always explain the why. So many of the things I believe in in leadership, I’ve borrowed and stolen from other great thought leaders, and this was a Simon Sinek TED talk that I saw ages ago.
Wendy: Which will never get old. We use it all the time. Because it is, if you understand the why, it’s kind of the vision piece.
Kayti: Right, exactly.
Wendy: It’s the GPS piece. My last question because I just admire you so much, I admire the fact that you are such a leader in business and a woman leader in business, and a mom. Lucky little Axle, he’s got a mom that’s out there making a difference in the world. As you look at this, and I think all of us have to do this, what do we want our legacy to be? Like what do we … as we get to the end, and we’re looking back, we talked about don’t sweat the small stuff. What do you want your legacy to be, Kayti?
Kayti: So I think two things. I think if you’d have asked me this five years ago, I would have had one answer, which still remains true. And I think now, I probably have a little bit more added on to it. But I would say first and foremost, and I used to talk about this with employees, I think about when I’m like 90, and I’m sitting on a rocking chair on my porch, but when I’m sort of looking back on my life, and hopefully I’ve got grandkids or great grandkids, I want to be able to point to something in the world, point to it, and say I helped build that.
Kayti: And so for a long time, that’s been what’s fueled my desire to continue to contribute to growing Yelp is I really believe in our mission, I really love the company, and I want to be able to look back and say look at that thing that I helped build, and it was influential in our society.
Kayti: I would say the things that have added on to that are two fold. One is I’m really motivated by hopefully creating life changing experiences and events for the people who work for me. So whether that be financial or career opportunities, like just give somebody a shot, even though might only be five years into their management career, put them in the biggest job they’ve ever had and accelerate their career and they look back when they’re 90, and they say, wow, that moment in time Kayti really believed in me and gave me that opportunity, that’s really motivating to me is to have some life changing events for people who work for me.
Kayti: And then additionally, now that I have a kid, it’s so cliché to say, but I think a lot about what kind of a role model and what kind of I guess model I set for my son. And I think about when he’s in school and when he goes to college or doesn’t go to college. I don’t know, you never know, 18 years from now. But when he goes out into the world, when he’s a grownup, I want to make sure that I’m living a life today that when he talks about me, he can feel like he has something that my mom is a badass, my mom was an incredible leader, et cetera, et cetera. I want a legacy for him as well.
Kayti: I’m sure that that will continue to evolve and change over the course of my life and as I have more kids and kids get older and all of that and more career experience. But I would say as of today, those are the two to three things that are the most important to me.
Wendy: Well, that’s great. And it’s wonderful to think of your son and the stories he will tell about his mom that are yet to be … and what he learns and how he learns about women leaders. That’s why you’re such a great role model for that. You’re really competent and out in the world, and hopefully we’re not going to struggle with this in 18 years. It will just be a big given where now …
Kayti: Fingers crossed.
Wendy: Yes, fingers crossed. This will not be a podcast 18 years from now.
Kayti: Yes. 18 years from now, they’ll say remember when there was a question about women in leadership or equality of how we treat women.
Wendy: And more opportunities. That’s what I love that you’re also working with startups and you’re advising and mentoring. That’s part of your legacy, too, outside of other businesses also.
Wendy: That’s just terrific. Well, thank you for sharing your wisdom today.
Kayti: Thank you for inviting me.
Wendy: Yeah, and we’ll be in touch. So thank you. Take care.
Kayti: All right. Have a good one. Bye.