I’ve been gathering stories from Customer Success Managers as part of my ongoing learning for UpdateAI. One introduction led to another and I found myself speaking with dozens of powerful women leading CS teams.
I quickly learned their pain points extended beyond the workplace. Especially this past year, they expressed feelings of burnout and anxiety. But this wasn’t a new feeling for most women in tech.
Too many working mothers have been forced to choose between their job or their children. And it’s not by their own doing. Founders and leaders at the top of the organization create work environments that shame employees for having personal lives.
I listened to Maranda Ann Dziekonski, Kristi Faltorusso, and Emilia D’Anzica share similar stories on our panel, “Real talk: Customer Success + motherhood in a pandemic.” Maranda said she hid the fact that she was a single mom when applying for customer success roles at early-stage startups. Kristi shared that she didn’t feel it was possible to balance pregnancy with her career. Emilia told us she was called out by a colleague for leaving the office at 5pm.
As Customer Success Leaders, they’ve worked to create a culture on their teams that not only acknowledges and accepts working parents, but empowers them.
I put together a list of insights and advice from the panelists. Here’s a list of five actionable ways CS leaders can help set the tone for a more manageable work life, especially for parents on their team.
1. Model a culture that respects time off
Parents face a monumental battle to balance the 24/7 needs of their kids against the demands of their daily work hours. Respect that parenting is a 24/7 job—Customer Success management is not.
As a leader, you can set the tone for a more manageable work life by having one yourself. Let your team know when you’re stepping away from your computer or out for the day. Don’t respond to emails while you’re gone or send new Slack messages.
Kristi works hard to model this behavior after experiencing the other side of it: “I've worked for companies where I would get emails at 3am and all weekend, and that sets the tone for the culture and the communication within the company. I refuse to do that. There is nothing that I need to say to my team that needs to be said on a Saturday morning, there is nothing that needs to be said to my team at 3am. I'm showing my team that they can create boundaries and set what is appropriate for them and their family.”
Model a culture that respects time off. Whether it’s a day or an hour, let your team know that they can step away and not be expected to still check-in or respond to messages.
2. Share your own experiences with parenthood
Turns out, we all have lives outside of the office. Sometimes that means we see a kid wandering into the background of a Zoom call or a dog barking throughout a meeting. Especially in times like these, humanizing the workplace is crucial.
Modeling real-life parenthood encourages your team to feel comfortable sharing their own experiences. Managers should strive to be allies with their team members, not strike fear in them. If a CSM needs to care for a sick child or reschedule a meeting last minute, you want them to be open with you so you can help.
CSM leaders can better serve their team members when they have all the information. Modeling that your life exists beyond work, and showing compassion to their needs, helps break down walls of communication.
Maranda points out the ability of these interactions to strengthen both team and client bonds. “Our CEO had a baby during the pandemic. And this has been incredibly helpful for everyone in the company because his baby shows up to a lot of meetings. We have a lot of parents at our company. When we see all the kids, we celebrate it. It's not like oh my gosh, don't bring your kid. We’ve also seen customers’ children, along with their pets or their homes. I think this whole experience humanized the fact that we do have lives outside of work. And it's made us more human to everyone.”
3. Give clear outcomes and goals, not required hours
Customer Success VPs are in a unique position to manage the expectations and workload of the whole team. By giving clear outcomes and goals (rather than required hours), you reinforce more productive work habits.
I’ve seen many startups shift to a more outcome-oriented mindset during the pandemic. With office noise silenced and less impromptu desk-side chats, tasks and goals become clearer. People can actually work and complete tasks without distraction—imagine that.
The next logical step is to remove the boundary of work hours altogether. The goal is to figure out how your team members can work without distractions—whenever and however that looks for them.
Maranda adds, “I think it's less about, are you getting work done between nine to five, and more about, as long as you get your work done, I don't care if it takes you 40 hours a week, or 30 hours a week, or you do it at night or really early in the morning. We're in an environment [as CSMs in tech] where we can really advocate for that to not matter.”
When you align your team on the desired outcome, it gives them the flexibility to work when they're most productive. They’ll be more focused and you’ll get better work.
4. Encourage open communication, without judgement or further explanation
Emilia brought up a great point about taking your employees’ feedback seriously. “They wouldn’t tell you they had a tough week if they didn't expect you to ask for help or to find out what's wrong. Really listen to the cues of how people are presenting themselves in a meeting or how they're feeling in their weekly reports. Those are the cues, as a leader, you need to listen to and act on them.”
Let your CSMs know you are listening when they speak. There’s no better way to encourage open communication. And just as important, don’t require an explanation. Give them space to share what they feel comfortable sharing.
Create a format for giving feedback and getting your attention in an easy and casual way. Make it a good experience and they’ll rely on you for help, which should be the ultimate goal of CSM leaders.
5. Avoid email and messaging outside of work hours
The hierarchy of modern workplaces makes it really hard to ignore or say no to your boss. If you are the boss, this is something to be cognisant of.
Emilia uses a tool to delay sending emails during work hours, even if she drafts them on weekends. “If I’m working Saturday morning, I don't think I should stress people out or make them think that it's okay to be working on the weekend. But that's when I'm really productive. So I want to reserve that space for me. But I make sure it goes out on Monday morning.”
It also helps to set expectations for turnaround time on every platform. For Slack, you might expect a response within the hour. For email, replying within 24 hours might make sense. Setting these expectations empowers your team members to control their own schedule and get more done.
Put together a communications protocol for emergencies too. Being prepared for major issues ensures some sense of calm in the midst of chaos. Beyond reducing anxiety, it’s also a great way for leaders to think through strategies and protocols for the entire organization.
Parenting and Customer Success: How can I help?
Over 2.5 million women have already been forced out of their careers during the pandemic—by an overwhelming and imbalanced burden of care, a lack of support from their companies and communities, and sheer burnout.
In researching the normal CSM workday, I found that CSMs parenting small children face an even steeper uphill battle than peers in non-customer-facing roles.
Endless Zoom calls with customers who may or may not be sympathetic to a toddler in the room. Long lists of tasks and to-do’s that bleed into evenings and precious alone time (if there’s any at all). Put that together with a societal failure to balance the load sustainably, and burnout is right around the corner.
UpdateAI’s mission is to make meetings better so you can do better things. We are building out our platform (www.update.ai) for CSMs just like you. I’m collecting stories, suggestions, and pain points to help me shape the product and I’d be grateful to hear yours.