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Sara Varni: Building High Functioning Teams and Leading with Compassion

How Twilio’s CMO Sara Varni cultivates growth and development amongst cross-functional teams through her leadership style and feedback.

Sara Varni is known globally for building high-functioning teams across creative, campaign management, public relations, and product marketing. Sara is a fearless creative marketing leader with an impressive track record of driving awareness and demand for enterprise software products. 

Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn more about how Sara improves her listening skills on a daily basis in order to remain attentive and excel in a role that requires her to wear multiple hats. 

1 When is the first time that you started managing a team? 

I first started managing a team at Salesforce and I’ve been a manager for over 10 years. It wasn’t something I had prepared for at all, my manager essentially found a new role outside of Salesforce that he was really excited about and it all happened overnight. It was a really scary experience and I definitely had importer syndrome but I was in so deep that I had to learn to swim and make it happen. 

2 What’s something that you wish you knew about leading a team when starting out? 

I think for the most part you have to learn by doing but the one thing I look back on and wish I had learned earlier was that what motivates you as an employee might not motivate your team members and everyone is motivated by different things. I think figuring out what motivates each team member is really critical if you want to achieve the best results across the entire team. 

3 Do you identify what motivates your team members when you first join the team? 

Yeah, every time I take on a team, I sit down with each person individually so I can understand what their role is, how they fit into the organization, and what really gets them up in the morning. Sitting down with every team member helps me understand the culture of the team and allows me to think of tactics and programs that I can use to motivate the entire group. 

4 What’s one thing that you had to work on improving when you first became a manager? 

One thing that I’m still working on today is listening. I think to be a good manager you have to be a really good listener and I think that it only becomes more difficult as you begin to take on larger teams. I constantly have to remind myself to focus and be in the moment because my role as CMO entails switching across different functions. I could be in a meeting about our website, or events, or demand generation which requires a lot of context switching so I think it’s important to remind myself to take advantage of the moment. 

5 How do you plan for your day? 

I have a few different tactics that I use depending on what’s going on. My dad is a lawyer and I always watched him growing up. He would always have these huge yellow legal pads and every morning he would make a list of everything he was going to do and now I write a list every morning of everything I need to tackle and try to coordinate it with my calendar. 

I also have the luxury of having an assistant, so I sit down with her and we break down my priorities for the year and determine how my time is being split across all of my priorities for this week, month, and quarter. Another thing that I recently started doing that I’m proud to say is working really well is working longer days Monday through Thursday then blocking Friday off to do a recap and get work done. I’ve seen my productivity increase drastically because I have the time to reset and strategize for the upcoming week. 

6 What is your preferred format for meetings that focus on KPI’s? 

If you’re pre-launch, I like to see a workback schedule so outlining that it’s a three-month project, determining where we are or where we need to be, and outlining what the next couple of months will look like and then I like to take a deep dive into topics that we need to explore a little more. Sometimes I will rotate it and ask for the full status of everything that’s currently happening with the project from top to bottom so we can get into the details. It all depends on where I think we are with the project and how I think the team will benefit most. 

7 Does every meeting always have a measurable topic? 

I’m empathetic to the fact that certain things are going to be very easy to measure and certain things are going to be focused on intangible outcomes or be awareness based. I try to create a balance and make sure that people aren’t trying to manufacture metrics just to check a box, but I do want people to have goals so there’s a long-term strategy that they can work towards and try to achieve. 

8 How do you find a balance between figuring out how and when to communicate? 

I think it’s super important for everyone to communicate their work to whoever it’s relevant to in a really consistent and thoughtful way. I’m big on sending monthly updates to the marketing team that start with metrics and lead into a few projects that we have coming up in the next month so we can all determine what our action items are and where we need to help. I think it’s an art because if you approach it with a set formula people will zone out and delete the email right away whereas if it’s super compelling and reads like a magazine, people will know what to expect and be more compelled to engage. 

9 Can you elaborate on the concept of a generosity gene? 

Salesforce was full of amazing leaders that had great momentum and there were people there that gave me tons of their time because they had the generosity gene. There were people there that had been helped by managers themselves and they knew that it was time to give back. I don’t want to narrow it down to one or two people because I had tons of mentors that helped me in many different ways. 

You can learn more about the generosity gene here.

10 What is your leadership style? 

I’m pretty balanced but I probably lean more towards the reserved leadership style and I try to stay calm in any scenario. When you look at what’s happening right now with COVID there are people that are legitimately concerned about their wellbeing and health, they have kids running around in the background, and they’re working intense jobs that are difficult during regular times. So, I think where I can be most helpful is to just be there for them and be responsive and let them know that everything’s going to be ok and that’s really what I’m trying to focus on. 

11 How do you emphasize growth, learning, and development within your teams? 

My approach to performance and motivating managers to be better managers is generally to provide feedback in the moment. I always try to coach in the moment so if I see something I don’t like in a meeting I will pull them aside pretty soon after and just make suggestions on how they can improve. I love to give feedback right away because it’s more tangible and they can get a good sense of what’s good and what great can look like.

12 Do you have any resources or tips for leaders who are looking to get better at their craft? 

I have a few different books that I would recommend. I love Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan and John King, it’s a great book that walks through the different stages and mentality certain team members might be in and how you can identify those and create an even playing field so everyone’s working together and playing nice. I also love Start With by Simon Sinek. It’s a very fundamental, customer-centric book that I think is really important for marketing organizations. Another great book that’s all about providing effective feedback is Radical Candor by Kim Scott.

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Konstantin Tsiryulnikov

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