INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: SARAH CLAYTON
Shanan Walsh is the Director of Supply Chain. 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.
Throughout the course of our interview, Shanan broke down my traditional views of failure and built them back up into this incredibly innovative way of thinking. I don’t think it was her intention to create a new normal for me, but when a belief has been so deeply engrained since childhood, and has proven its worth, you can be quite convincing.
When Shanan is not realizing innovation through failure, she is looking for her own next personal challenge – and then supersizing it. She’s the kind of person who decides to run a marathon, then elevates it to a Disney Goofy Challenge where you run a half marathon then a full marathon back-to-back. In her words, “if something scares the absolute life out of me, I’m going to do it.” Exploring beyond your comfort zone can be intimidating, but some of the best experiences and opportunities come when you need to divert from your original plan.
Her Back Story
PHOTOGRAPHS BY: NITI RANDHAWA
Tell me a bit about your childhood and family?
I was a big explorer. My parents were great at encouraging me to discover new things – my dad especially so. He was an entrepreneur in his own right, still is today, and he was big about encouraging me to build, to explore, to ferociously practice constant curiosity. He built the first house I ever lived in, that was the sort of environment I grew up in – literally build the walls you imagine for yourself. In junior kindergarten, I was the kid that couldn’t be pulled away from playing with these big wooden blocks, immersed in building the stories of my imagination. Through the years I was always encouraged to explore the boundaries of what I wanted to learn and read equal part science books, equal parts fantasy books and everything in between.
That subconscious exposure to seeing the practice of taking an idea and bringing it to through to fruition had a big influence on me. All the intensity, hard work and perseverance required to see an idea through, and the failure that comes with it. It gave me a very practical understanding that whatever it was I wanted to be when I grew up. I just had to put in the work to build my own toolbox, and use it. That’s really what it came down to right from the very beginning.
Did you always want to get into technology and operations or was it because of a series of experiences?
Definitely a series of experiences. I had subjects I was interested in: I liked science, I liked physics, I liked math. I genuinely enjoyed all those fields but I had yet to find an application that wound them all together. In twelfth grade, a friend in school approached me with a program called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a program where schools around the world build robots to compete against a set of challenges. Coming from an all-girls school, building robots wasn’t even on the radar. Yet it was just so evident that we had to do it, so we made a pitch to the Principal and pieced our team together.
We were one of only two all-girls teams in Canada. We started to experience the revelations of “ok this concept from physics comes into play here” and “to figure this variable out we need to put calculus to the test” and intertwined it with, sheer creativity. I think we placed in the semifinals that year, far better than any of us ever imagined. And that lit a fire in me, in the team, in the school. In my graduating year we had the highest number of women move on to pursue engineering in the school’s history, and they were all members of that robotics team. It catalysed something special that was previously missing there, I think; innovation.
How do you stay motivated? How do you pick yourself back up when things don’t work out the way you thought they would?
I suppose it comes down to the only variable I can effectively control is how I react. I can be faced with a really negative situation and from that choose to wallow in self-pity for a day, two days, three days and that will get me nowhere OR I can take it as an opportunity to say to myself “it didn’t work out, let me understand why.” I can’t control how something might be perceived, I can’t control whether or not an event will happen in a positive or negative way, but I can learn from it and I can take it as an opportunity.
I suppose that ties back to growing up in a household where I was encouraged to explore, discover and try different things because it was ok to fail. You get better from each iteration. You can’t go into a first attempt of anything and expect perfection because that’s just not realistic. They say it takes ten thousand hours to perfect a craft. Maybe it’ll take ten thousand attempts for me to hit a goal, but I’ll learn a hell of a lot more with each failure along the way. I have a love-hate relationship with failure in that way! It doesn’t feel good, but you come out better for it in the end.
Her Career Path
What do you love about working in tech and software?
It is ever changing. I always, always say I am never, ever bored because each day brings a new technology, a new integration or a new software frontier that helps the business continually evolve. Looking at Achievers as an example: the Achievers that I started with is far from the form it takes today. That sort of evolution is phenomenal, and that the technology exists within reach of my phone or my computer – in ten years’ time it could be Star Trek hologram recognition, who knows? It’s a far cry from building with blocks in JK, but the sentiment is the same; dream it up, and build it. Someone figured out how to create fire. Someone invented the wheel. Someone will go to Mars. We go where we choose, if we’re brave enough to pursue it. I love that about tech.
What is your current role at Achievers? What do you find rewarding about it and what are the barriers you face?
I support a team I can only describe as superheroes. They are responsible for supporting and maintaining strong and healthy vendor relations around the world. In parallel, they support our members who reward themselves with locally meaningful products, experiences, you name it. The world is their oyster, and we support how they wish to celebrate it. There are benefits that come from learning about expanding globally and interacting with partners who aren’t necessarily used to the existing business model we have. Seeing the team grow with our expansion and using their own perspective to take actions that add value is rewarding.
A barrier experienced within my role also touches that same global scale. When you’re talking about global delivery or product standards, you’re tackling a large-scale operation. It can be difficult to maintain such a high standard of service when you’re located in one little pocket of Toronto, Canada and you need to stretch that same experience and consistency over to Sydney, Australia. It’s a pretty long reach, and one that needs its share of input and support from members within the team or other departments. It necessitates a cross-functional effort to share insights and expertise, and collectively build refinements to make the experience better. Or we collectively look at a failure, learn from it, revise it and put out another product or process. It may take ‘ten thousand’ iterations, but we’ll get there.
Can you share your thoughts on being a woman leader in an industry that is predominantly men?
Being in a male dominated industry, I think it’s very important to set an example and maintain your voice. You can’t shy away from stating your opinion or facts. There’s always going to be an audience wanting you to succeed and they will be cognizant of how you share yourself or react. It’s very important to have women leaders and to infuse that positive presence throughout many industries, but especially in tech. As women, the knee jerk reaction may often be to step aside, however we need to have sense of presence and confidence in our voices.
Otherwise, what if our best idea yet passes us by? Why let that happen? All perspectives matter, it does nothing for nobody to keep yours tucked away. All of the leaders in my department are women. We’re a very unique case as tech teams go, but I think it speaks volumes as to how successful that team is under that leadership. In time, I hope it doesn’t matter what your gender is, but instead what matters is what you can bring to the table and the ideas you have.
What are your thoughts on how the tech industry is challenging the traditional norms for personal branding and etiquette?
The concept of a personal brand is an interesting subject even just by the meaning behind the word. You say the word “brand” and what may come to mind are the big, bold logos of the world. Apple, Google, Amazon. Saying each of those triggers some form of a vision of those companies in your mind’s eye. Each of their products carry the theme of their respective brands. Maybe right away there’s a company in that mix that you trust over the others. The same applies to you or I.
Your “brand” is that generalized intellectual, emotional, visual representation of “you”. I think sometimes there’s confusion in that your brand goes no further than the brands you wear or carry, but that’s where Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg serve as great examples to counter that mentality. Clothes won’t pitch an idea, you do. Share your passions, your insights, your experiences, your ideas, and in doing so you are pulling the threads of your brand together like little data points to your story. Kind of like the adult version of connect-the-dots! Be authentically you. There’s no replica for that! Where the tech industry has shaken things up somewhat is in the very social manner we can share ourselves today. We are much, much more public with our lives and the content that’s meaningful to us. That can stir up some trouble if you’re not careful. Whether it’s social media or an idea, whatever you put out into the world is a reflection of you, and your brand.
Her Lived Experience
Shifting gears from career, how do you enjoy spending your spare time?
It can vary so broadly. There’s a creative side of me, I love to draw, do any sort of sketch work and sometimes I’ll play with different kinds of paints. It’s freeing that part of the mind that I don’t always engage in any other day of the week. I love reading. It’s important for me to always be learning, and I find that exposing yourself to different subjects helps you gain different perspectives.
I’m also still volunteering with FIRST today. I’m really focused on helping the other girl teams, who are still few in numbers. It’s nice to go by and see them and have that chance to say “I was in your shoes, it’s daunting. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities and push through.”
Sometimes I just like to explore. You don’t want to look back on your time and say “you know what it would have been really cool to try x or y or z”, your opportunity is now: the only thing that’s going to hold you back is yourself.
How do you find time to balance all the demands you have professionally, but still make your personal interests a priority?
It doesn’t always work out, to be honest. It’s looking at everything that you want to do, everything that you want to accomplish and deciding what makes the cut. An analogy I use is “it’s all laundry”. You have your clothes sitting in a pile, and it’s not organized, so you need to consciously look at it and decide what’s most important: what do I need today, what do I need tomorrow, what do I need a week from now and you start to group that laundry. It comes down to prioritizing and managing your time. It doesn’t always work out – it’s sort of like those questions like “how do you do it all” and really you just decide how, or what, you’re going to do first. The key is to not lose sight of those personal interests or needs, when the weight of other parts of your life weigh heavy. It’s tough, and I need to get better at it myself, but it’s important.
Any other advice you want to share while you have the floor?
Fail. Fail hard. Fail often. Accept the failure and move on from it. If it scares you, do it. If it’s something that starts to instil any level of self-doubt, then it’s all the more reason that that you need to look in the mirror and say “let’s do this”, because what’s the worst that could happen? You fail – you take that and learn from it and move on and do it again. So fail, listen and put yourself out there, because you don’t know what you don’t know.
I always say keep an open ear and an open mind. Very often I tend to think that we don’t know the story of any one person and we don’t know what they could bring to the table. Put yourself out there and speak to people and talk to people and learn from them.
I think people, and women especially, tend to count themselves out before they’re even in. They’ll see that they’re in an interview room with 15 other guys and be like “oh, no chance, I don’t have a shot”. You don’t know what any of their backgrounds are, if they have as much experience as you. You have absolutely no idea, so look at them as a person and someone you can learn from, maybe, and have that value in yourself.
Are there any personal or professional goals you want to achieve in the future and how are you going to work towards them?
Every fork in the road has led me somewhere I could not have forecasted so in some ways it’s hard to say. If I was asked this question when I graduated university, I probably would have said I would be in the pharmaceutical industry because of the pipeline of my program. However, I graduated during a recession and no one was hiring, so I went to Disney and had this amazing experience. I saw first-hand their amazing customer service and then had a totally different perspective on sitting isolated in a lab staring down a microscope.
Had you asked me at the end of Disney what I would end up in, I probably would have said something more to the tune of going back to engineering. I don’t necessarily think of things in terms of a deadline and I don’t think in things in terms of “six months’ time I want to be here”. It’s more I look at what’s in front of me and say “I want to figure out a way to fix this or accomplish this” and if that takes three weeks, six months or ten years, that becomes my focus. Sometimes if you have your eyes so fixed on a target, you put blinders on to everything else.
The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.