Lessons in leadership: A conversation with Humu’s female leaders

Becky Wood
Team Humu

Humu wouldn’t exist without the contributions of our incredibly smart, strong, and skilled women, from our co-founder Jessie Wisdom to our active Women @ Humu community and the women who sit on Humu’s leadership team. We recently hosted a panel with Humu’s upper-level female leadership: Sophie Alpert, Head of Engineering; Reigan Combs, VP of Marketing; Helen-Alice Miranda, VP of People; Dr. Stefanie Tignor, Head of Data Science and Insights; Leah Wilson, General Counsel; and Dr. Jessie Wisdom, co-founder and Head of People Science.

These incredible women shared how they got where they are today, the key leadership principles that drive them, and helpful lessons they’ve learned along the way. 

Natalie Miller: We know that careers are less of a ladder than a jungle gym, with lateral moves and twists and turns. Can you tell us about your journeys to leadership at Humu? 

Reigan Combs: Everything changed for me when I realized that leadership is having ownership over your work, not just a fancy title.

I started my career at American Express, and when I left I had two offers: one from Twitter, which had just gone public, and one from a (then) startup called Asana, which most people had never heard of. I put together a weighted scoring model of all the attributes that I wanted in my job, and it kept coming back Twitter, Twitter, Twitter — but I said, “I’m going to Asana. Most people don’t know what it is, but I'm going to have more ownership.” And that decision put me on a path to having a lot more ownership over important projects and eventually to being a leader. 

Leah Wilson: The advice I give to younger folks is, pay attention to what kind of problems you may want to work on in the future. Even if you don’t want to be a manager now, in five years you might. 

Natalie Miller: Can you speak more about your trajectory and some of the women who inspired you along the way?

Sophie Alpert:
I became a manager when I was working at Facebook. I didn’t know if I’d even like being a manager, but I knew I’d regret not trying it, and either way I’d learn something about myself. At one point at Humu, I felt like, “I've learned a lot in my job, but I've been doing similar things for quite a while now,” and was thinking about leaving. I spoke to [Humu co-founder] Wayne, and he asked if I’d be interested in a new Head of Engineering role. 

It’s worked out for me because I’ve always liked helping people, and the other reason is that I know I don’t enjoy focusing on a single project for a long time and instead find myself interested in many different things. The cool thing about this job is that I have to pay attention to many different things. It changes all the time, and I love the variety. 

Reigan Combs: My first manager at Asana was Emily Kramer, who led the early marketing team there. She was both brilliant and direct, which inspired me to be data-driven and to fight for the things that you believe in — but also also to have a really, really high standard of marketing. She helped me learn my craft well, but also showed me how to be a strong leader as a woman.

Stefanie Tignor: My expertise is in data science. I truly love data so much and understanding all the parts of a data system, from infrastructure, to statistics and analysis, to communicating and data storytelling. I realized leadership is a really great option for people like me because it allows you to connect all of those pieces for different groups across the organization. I love communicating cross-functionally and helping people understand how everyone’s work fits together. 

Helen-Alice Miranda: My move to Humu didn’t make a lot of sense to some people at first. I was working in global benefits which involved a lot of detailed strategy work and I moved into a customer success position at Humu. The Humu opportunity was just so interesting because it was a much smaller company and would give me more ownership and room to grow. I was happy in my career but I was thinking further out: where would I want to be in 3-5 years? So I took the leap of faith and have not regretted it. All of my career moves have been critical to learning something new and evolving as a person and leader. 

Natalie Miller: What principles or best practices do you recommend for leaders?

Reigan Combs: Clear priorities are incredibly important, both in terms of the things you’re going to do and the things your team is not going to do. I share my monthly priorities with my team and ask everyone to set their five priorities for the month, then we check on those things on a weekly basis. I think the prioritization piece is the hardest because as a leader, you have so many demands placed on you. Having the confidence to say no to things is crucial. And for me, having that confidence starts with knowing what my team has signed up for and what I've already said yes to, then making sure we’re not adding more on top of that.

Sophie Alpert: An interview candidate asked me this the other day, and I think that my top principle is putting people first. That guides how I live my life outside of work as well.

Dr. Jessie Wisdom: Similarly, one of the things that I focus on is building trust with people on my team. And that starts with hiring the right people. Early on in my career as a manager, I struggled with delegation, which I know now is all about trusting people and building relationships. I want to know that I can trust the people on my team, and I want people on my team to know they can trust me. 

Dr. Stefanie Tignor: I think a lot about impact. The most important part of my job is not making sure we use the most cutting-edge methodologies or that everyone's code is amazing.  It’s connecting people cross-functionally throughout the organization and making sure I’m aiming them at the right projects. Are other people at Humu able to solve problems in their roles because of the data science team? That’s my key metric for success. 

Natalie Miller: How do you balance leadership and set boundaries with the rest of your life? 

Helen-Alice Miranda: I’ve learned to set very deliberate boundaries. In my early career, I just worked the whole time. But as I became a mother and as society moved forward, I’ve been more empowered by examples like Michelle Obama and Sheryl Sanderg, who proved that you can have a family, bring your whole self to work (i.e., not hide the fact you’re a mother), still work hard, and the world won’t fall apart.

The most important part is choosing companies that value family and life outside of work, that align with the way you want to live. We can't all work 24/7, so it’s important to join a company that aligns with your values. Having a supportive partner is also crucial, as is paying for childcare.

I’m very transparent with folks about where I’m going to be and when I’ll be available. Sometimes there are things that are time-sensitive and it’s fine for me if someone reaches out “after hours” because I need to leave early to spend time with family. In the same way, I give permission to my whole team to set their personal hours and boundaries. 

Natalie Miller: Asking for a friend, what is the single best thing a first-time manager can do?

Dr. Stefanie Tignor: I encourage new managers to try out a lot of different management styles and experiment in the beginning, because it's hard to know what will work best for you. When I was a first-time manager, I was scared that if I tried something and it didn’t work, that everyone would lose trust and faith in me — but that’s absolutely not true. I wish that when I was a new manager, I actually experimented more and tried out more things as quickly as possible.

Ask yourself, what type of team meeting works for you? What type of communication works for you? How do you prefer to get status updates? How do you prefer to organize work? It’s an opportunity to experiment a lot.

Reigan Combs: When you’re starting to manage someone new, don't skimp on the onboarding time. What does success look like in the first 30, 60, 90 days and beyond? When you set up those starting conditions in the right way, it really helps people be successful and it makes it much easier for you to manage them because they already know your expectations at the start. 

Leah Wilson: Remember that the people you manage are not the same person as you, and what works for you won’t necessarily work for them. They’re also different from each other: different people are different! Don’t try to prevent people from trying new things, even if you’re not sure it will work. Letting people make their own mistakes and own their own growth is part of the process. 

Want to join a team with strong female leadership? We’re hiring! Check out opportunities at humu.com/careers.