INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: CARRIE TANGUAY
Vanessa Brangwyn is Vice President of Customer Success. She was interviewed as part of a 12 month Achievers Women’s Network (AWN) series. The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.
Vanessa is always on-the-go and always-in-demand, so much so we held her interview across the street from her office so she could be “in and out” and away from potential interruptions. She rushes through the door about 10 minutes late, takes a deep breath and sits down jacket still on.
As we start the interview her phone rings, it’s her boss, and you can see the anguish as she debates whether or not to answer it…she doesn’t. Throughout our interview her phone buzzes with activity and though she checks it often, she’s genuinely not being rude she must be fully available: her son is sick, there’s a major conference happening at work and she runs an entire department.
Despite all the chaos, she has this knack for making you feel like you’re her top priority and that she has all the time in the world. She smiles warmly and speaks quickly as she candidly shares the impact of the loss of her brother, her losing battle in prioritizing “me time” and how she accelerated her career after taking a one-year maternity leave.
Her story is one any career-driven mother can relate to and be inspired by.
Her Back Story
PHOTOGRAPHS BY: KENNETH BOVILLE
Tell me a bit about where you grew up and your family.
I grew up in a small town, somewhat sheltered. I went to high school in the middle of a cow field. To paint a picture of Bolton in the 90s – when I was 16 we got a McDonald’s and it was front page news. McDonald’s was where my career started and it turned out to be an amazing working experience.
I grew up in a very close knit, Italian family with all 4 of my grandparents and my dad immigrating to Canada in the 1950s and 60s. Though my parents both worked full time, we always prioritized big family dinners and there were lots of lovely traditions.
Are there any pivotal moments that led to where you are today?
When I was 15 my brother was diagnosed with leukemia. My mom quit her job and lived with him at the hospital 24/7. My dad kept working to support us and our extended family consistently provided with food and care. Everyone dealt with their feeling of helplessness in their own way.
And all along I was just a teenager focused on what I had going on: a math test, a party. Being 15 is awkward in general let alone going through this kind of family situation. My brother was sick for over 3 years and though initially he was in remission and had some good months, our family life never went back to normal. In 1999, his cancer came back more aggressively and the only thing that would’ve helped was a bone marrow transplant. A match wasn’t found in time and his illness progressed quite quickly. He passed away just after Christmas that year.
I was almost 19 and about to start university. Then all of a sudden our family life was completely rocked. My initial plan was to stay at home and take care of my parents. I was now an only child. I was their only child and I didn’t want to leave them. My parents gave me the best gift they possibly could have and encouraged me to stay my course, go to the University of my dreams and take the courses I wanted to take. My brother had come with me once on a tour of Guelph and I remember him saying “I can see you here, you fit in here”. Remembering that was the push I needed when I finally made the decision to go.
All through my small town, high school years I was the girl with the sick brother. Finally, when I got to University I could be just Vanessa.
What career path did you have in mind when you pursued a degree in psychology?
I grew up wanting to be a guidance counsellor because I had an amazing relationship with mine. I spent a lot of time in his office talking about my career and life. I set my sights on a psychology degree and stayed true to that but failed to realize I needed to attend Teacher’s College. Through some co-op work experiences, I quickly realized there were so many options out there and diverse ways of helping people. I feel like in my day-to-day life I am a pseudo Guidance Counsellor. In leadership, I serve that role. I’m not telling people which courses to take but there’s a lot of application of what I wanted to be when I grew up in what I’m doing now.
I went to University of Guelph for psychology and it was recommended to have a minor as well. On a whim I had taken an economics class and liked it. I never thought of myself as a “business person” until then so I switched my minor to Marketing Management because If you think about what marketing really is – it’s the study of consumer behaviour and how to get people to buy something. Psychology is a huge part of that!
How did you and your husband transition into parenthood?
Over the last 10 years Owen has been a huge part of my life. We just celebrated our 5-year anniversary and we work well together. From the beginning, we’ve always thought of ourselves as a team. We even gave ourselves a secret team name.
Being a team has really helped. Especially when 3 years ago we brought Evan into the world. It is really the only way we’ve managed. Both of us have busy jobs and travel for work. It can sometimes feel like our marriage is a business relationship because we’re so focused on who needs to be where and when and the logistics of running a household. What’s been great about Owen especially over the last couple of years with my current role is how much he really understands I have certain obligations and responsibilities that are non-negotiable.
The first 3 months of Evan’s life were among the hardest months of my life. I went into it over confident and was immediately brought back to reality which is that I know nothing about how to raise a child and there are no right answers. Right after he was born, I spent way too long researching every possible thing. Trying almost desperately to find someone or something to tell me exactly what to do. I had been so academic for so long it was just the way I learned. Unfortunately, there is no right answer. Just instinct. It took me a long time to come to terms with that. It’s funny now I operate almost exclusively on instinct now. We’re potty training right now and I haven’t read a single book or article on the topic. We’re just going on a whim and it’s somehow working.
Who is your biggest source of inspiration and why?
My mom inspires me in so many ways. So many of her years had been devoted to taking care of my brother and making him the priority. It must have been very hard for her to find herself again but she did. She put her heart and soul into using her experience to help others.
She found a way to get back into her own career. She worked in a hospice helping other parents who were going through the loss of a child. She then went to work for a children’s wish foundation, granting wishes to severely ill children. She was literally their fairy godmother. Working whatever their wish was: going to Disney World, meeting some celebrity, shopping sprees, so many cool things.
I find it so inspirational that she took her heartache and did something with it. At the time I had no construct for what that would feel like because I wasn’t a parent but now as a mother and knowing what she went through, it’s completely unimaginable.
Her Career Path
What are your responsibilities as Vice President of Customer Success? What do you find most rewarding?
As VP of Customer Success, I’m responsible for the team that owns our customer relationships and ensures our customers see the value in the programs they’re running. I manage an amazing team of leaders who manage people that service our customers in a variety of ways and truly become trusted advisors. They essentially become an extension of our customer’s team. They get to know the business and serve the end-to-end partnership.
The most rewarding part is watching people’s careers grow and flourish and having an opportunity to connect with my team on that level. For example, there are people on my team I hired over five years ago who have grown into leaders themselves. Supporting them through the obstacles they’ve faced, the challenges they’ve overcome and cheering on their perseverance is incredibly rewarding to me. In a similar way, I also feel the same about our customers. It’s a little bit cheesy but Achievers’ mission is to “Change the Way the World Works” and seeing our client’s employees feel more valued, appreciated and engaged because of our product is really rewarding too.
What do you love about the working in the Tech space?
I never ever thought of myself as a “technology person”. I shocked myself when I started working for a technology company and I actually liked it! Now I can’t imagine myself anywhere else. What I love about it is the pace! I love the ability to be innovative, to come up with ideas and follow through with action quickly. It feels like I’m part of something forward thinking and leading edge. I understand all industries are necessary and everything keeps the world ticking along but it’s the technology behind all of those making the world more efficient and propelling us into the future.
What advice would you give to people just getting into the workforce that want to follow your career path?
Building strong relationships has been a huge part of my career path. I remember when I was at my first software company, we got a new executive and she hired a bunch of directors she used to work with. I was so naïve in thinking, “it’s so coincidental that they all used to work together” [laughs] and now I realize that’s just the way the world works. Your relationships both internally and externally are critically important to your career. Find those people who you really connect with and maintain those relationships no matter how busy life gets.
You also need to take a leap of faith in yourself sometimes and think about the job you want, not the job you have. If I’m being 150% honest:
Was I ready for the VP of Customer Success role when I applied for it? Absolutely not!
Did I feel like I would eventually get there? For sure!
I had enough confidence to think I could do this! And whether I should go for it or not wasn’t even an option. I was incredibly grateful to have so many people that believed in me, which played a huge part in my confidence to go for it. I’m a firm believer in being authentic to who you are because when you do that, other people will believe in you just as much as you believe in yourself.
What challenges have you faced because you decided to take a one-year maternity leave?
It was a risk because in technology there’s such a rapid pace that doesn’t exist in other industries and a one-year mat leave is a long time. I knew Achievers would change and be different. In the year I was gone, we had two CEOs and we were acquired. I basically came back to a brand-new company. I didn’t recognize a lot of people. I worried a lot about taking the whole year but looking back, I wouldn’t change anything because I got to spend an entire year with Evan and I will never get that time with him again. That said I know people that are taking shortening maternity leaves so they don’t miss out on opportunities at work, and it’s a tough decision for a mother to make.
I’ve faced challenges as a working mother. The first one being re-integrating into the workforce. When I came back a lot had happened and I didn’t feel like I fit in any more. It was incredibly difficult. I bawled my eyes out my first day back because I felt like too much had changed. I couldn’t keep up and I was struggling with the thought of a stranger watching my child while I was at work.
Since then, of course, I’ve found ways to make things more manageable but there are still days when I need to make tough choices. Like when Evan is really sick and he needs me at home but I have a really important meeting. Many of my colleagues are on the West Coast and there’s often a need to have meetings later in the evening during my prime time with Evan. It’s the only time I see him all day but there could still be a lot of things going on and finding the balance there is important.
I had been given some misguided advice early in my career that when you do consider having a child you need to do it when you’re at a peak moment in your career because it’s where you will plateau when you come back. IF you come back. The reason I say that’s misguided is because in my personal story that hasn’t been the case at all. It’s been almost two years since I came back and they’ve been the best ones of my career, even though they’ve also been the hardest. Even though I’m juggling everything and experience extreme mom guilt – if I look at my nearly seven years at Achievers’ holistically, they’ve been my favourite.
Her Lived Experience
Since becoming VP of Customer Success what has been the impact to your mental health and self-care?
The role comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility including the entire Achievers’ customer portfolio and 55 people which can feel like a lot of pressure sometimes because there are a lot of competing needs. Right now, I’m not succeeding from a work-life balance perspective. Work is definitely winning. I try to dedicate those early evening hours to my family when I’m in town. I leave work on time to pick up Evan from daycare and spend time with him but immediately after he goes to bed I’m working again and what’s suffering most is “me-time”. I devote so much time to my work, to my child, then to my husband and then to me so by the time to I get to me… I don’t get enough sleep, I don’t eat properly. There’s definitely an impact and I want to be real because it’s not all rosy. My husband and I have had lots of conversations about how I need to find a better balance so I can be the best version of myself for everyone who depends on me, including myself.
My first step is acknowledging I need to do this. And my second step is to get better at asking for help and being upfront with people about what I realistically can and cannot do. I’m also getting better at figuring out how to best use our spare time as a family. For example, we just spent a few days away together for Evan’s 3rd birthday, and we prioritized ensuring he had a great time.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women in tech today?
I’ve been wondering how early do we need to start changing behaviours and creating a dialogue so women think they can be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I was recently at a “Women in Business” awards’ dinner in San Francisco where Talbott Roche, the CEO of our parent company, Blackhawk Network, won an award for her inspirational leadership. They announced that amongst Fortune 500 companies, only 6% are run by women CEOs and it shocked me. What was even crazier is that we celebrated that this number has doubled since 2009 (when only 15 of the Fortune 500 companies were run by women). It’s alarming. It was positioned in such a way that, “we should be happy”, but it’s awful when the population is about 50/50 and you have to ask why aren’t women getting as many chances as men?
I think in part it’s because there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to “have it all”. Especially for women who are very career focused and also mothers who have ambitions to be a C-Suite executive and be the kind of mom that can bring homemade cookies to their kids’ school. I hate when people ask “Can you have it all”? Like what does “all” mean?! I don’t believe you can “have it all” but you can have the different pieces of the life you want integrated so they work for you and your family.
How do you plan on teaching your son about gender inequalities and giving him the tools he needs to help bridge those gaps?
It’s only recently that Evan started understanding the differences between boys and girls and I’m shocked this gender gap already exists when he’s only 3. The biggest thing for me is to show him that women can do whatever they want to do and that men and women aren’t as different as some people make them seem. I’m fortunate to have a husband that participates in the household as much as I do, if not even more. He loves to cook, loves to iron and is an incredible handyman. We will both teach Evan and show him through our actions that we’re equal. I’m committed to making sure he grows up to be respectful and kind to women and everyone regardless of what they look like, how they speak, the colour of their skin.
It’s going to be really freaking hard though because of this society. He’s already picking up on things and there’s a lot of influence I don’t have control over. In the early days you have complete influence over your kid and then suddenly they go to school and they form these independent thoughts and you’re like “whoa where did you learn that”.
Any advice on achieving a “work-life balance”?
I interviewed a VP of Human Resources (HR) once and asked her about “work life balance”. She was the first person that said to me there’s no such thing as work life balance only “work life integration” and that really stuck with me. She also said if you measure if you’re succeeding on work life balance (or integration) on too frequent of a basis you will always feel like you’re failing. You need to take a long lens approach. For example, if I think about this week I’d definitely be failing because I’m all work and no life. But I’ve accepted this because we’re in the final days of preparation for our huge annual customer conference but hopefully in a few weeks I can focus more on life. But when I look back on the entire past year I generally feel like I’m balancing things. The other advice she had was to mix personal and professional. She recommended using one calendar for everything, her thought was “so you are a woman who is a VP who is also a mother, who is also a wife, and if your colleagues see in your calendar that you’re going to the dentist — ‘so what, you have teeth’”. I loved that simple trick and I’ve incorporated it into my own practice.
The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.