Authentic leadership in the tech industry
How the AGSM MBA program helped Sarah French land a senior leadership role at LinkedIn
How the AGSM MBA program helped Sarah French land a senior leadership role at LinkedIn
When Sarah French enrolled in the AGSM @ UNSW Business School MBA Executive, she had one objective: to obtain a prestigious qualification that would help her build her career.
Now Head of Strategy & Operations for Talent & Learning ANZ at LinkedIn, Sarah says her time at AGSM helped shape a fulfilling and meaningful career, allowing her to find her place as an authentic leader.
“To be honest, I came to AGSM for the three letters after my name because I felt like it would help open up career opportunities,” Sarah says. “But what I got out of it was an understanding of myself, and I pivoted my career as a result.”
With a background in corporate strategy, Sarah had never considered a role in the tech space. So when a ‘Googler’ in her MBA cohort asked if she’d be interested in a role at the company as an Industry Manager with a focus on sales, she immediately thought it wouldn’t suit her.
“Initially I said, don't be ridiculous. I'm a corporate strategist, not a salesperson – I don't think that's for me,” Sarah says.
“But at the time, we were learning to think deeper about what motivates and energises us. And I started to go on a journey realising that it’s not just about the role description. It's the skills required. So, if those skills are something that energise me, then that job could be a good fit.”
This different lens helped Sarah realise the role actually did require her strategic skills, but some aspects would make her feel fulfilled and motivated. So, she went for it. And she’s very glad she did.
“Studying at AGSM empowers you to take risks and do something different. So, I thought, well, this is the perfect time to take a risk in my career. This led me to taking a huge leap, both into tech and into sales. And I haven't looked back.”
The opportunity to make a lasting difference
In 2021, after eight great years at Google, Sarah was at a point in her career where she felt she needed to set her course for the next phase of her professional life.
After investing in a lot of coaching and finding what she calls her personal ‘north star’, she wanted to her next role to be one which maximised her ability to make a positive and lasting difference.
In 2021, the opportunity at LinkedIn presented itself. Now the Head of Strategy & Operations for Talent & Learning ANZ at LinkedIn, Sarah says her time at AGSM and her launch into the tech space at Google, opened her mind to the world of authentic leadership.
“LinkedIn’s vision is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce, which is such a cool thing. And in discussing the role with people here, I realised that many of the challenges I'd faced in previous roles were similar to the ones I would face in this next career opportunity,” Sarah says.
“I felt like I could bring a whole heap of learning and apply it to a new environment and make a bigger, positive, lasting difference at LinkedIn. So, I took the plunge despite the pandemic, and the potential challenges it posed.”
Adapting her leadership for the pandemic
While Sarah describes her move as COVID agnostic, there is still no denying that the pandemic impacted her new role. She says LinkedIn’s support during this time was vital and taking the time to tune in to the needs of her team and adapt her leadership when required was also extremely important.
“LinkedIn redesigned their entire onboarding experience for a virtual environment, and this helped ensure I felt a sense of belonging from day one, enabling me to be a better leader from the outset,” Sarah says.
Leading a team across both Sydney & Singapore, – Sarah said she needed to keep the focus on setting a high bar to make her team feel like they were still progressing and achieving.
“I lead from a place of love, joy and support and I set the bar high – together my team and I find a way to smash that bar. I found this style was great for the pandemic, and I leaned into being vulnerable and open with my team and allowing them to feel comfortable doing so as well. We had genuine care for each other and I’m grateful for how we got through the pandemic together.”
On the other hand, Sarah noticed that if she was too hands-off while navigating in a virtual-international environment, there could be a lack of clarity, motivation and purpose as to what they were meant to achieve.
“So as a team, we asked, what does amazing look like? How do we get there and support each other in a collaborative way? And that was such a powerful learning for me,” Sarah says.
“That clarity and purpose is so important, no matter what our personal circumstances.”
Sarah says she also tapped into what she learned at AGSM, leveraging problem solving and teamwork skills to achieve business outcomes.
“Once a quarter in the final year of the MBA, we were given a real-life business problem in a field we knew nothing about. We had to work with a bunch of people we didn't know that well and present a solution back within a few days.
“And if you think about the pandemic, it was the same thing. We had to solve real-world problems with a set of circumstances we knew nothing about. So, while I use the problem-solving techniques and frameworks I learnt at AGSM a lot in my day-to-day job, they were especially helpful when we had to rally so quickly in a pandemic, especially when starting at a new company.”
Managing work, home and self-care
Sarah also had to throw raising a two-year-old and home-schooling a kindergartener into the mix. She said there was a steep learning curve to making this work for her and her family. Some days ended with everyone in tears.
“I tried to work and parent simultaneously, but for me and my kids – it didn’t work. So I just went back to all the tools in my toolbox. I had to rely on extreme organisation and prioritisation and dial up the importance of self-care. Even if that meant just leaving the house for an hour to go for a walk.”
Sarah accepted all the help on offer. As a result, she was able to work from her parents’ house to separate work from home, which helped her be the person she wanted to be for herself, her family and her colleagues.
“LinkedIn provided two months of half-day Fridays during the 2021 Sydney lockdown to help employees wellbeing. This greatly helped me to fill my cup. They also offered extra days of leave to cover emergency childcare, which again enabled me to create better separation between work and home – something I am extremely grateful for.”
Making the space to lead with authenticity
Before Sarah transitioned to the tech industry, she says she was constantly faced with the challenge of “being a female leader with presence.” And despite trying several different approaches, she kept receiving the same feedback.
“Gravitas was a word that plagued me early in my career. And when I think of gravitas, I think of taking up space. I think about being serious and authoritative – traits that are quite masculine to me. So I tried to do that, but it wasn't working for me,” Sarah says.
It wasn’t until Sarah stepped into the tech world that she discovered female leaders that didn’t need to try and change their leadership style to be seen and heard.
“In the tech industry, I’ve seen some amazing role models that lead with authenticity. I learned that I have more presence by showing up purely as Sarah French, and the more I can do that, the more success I’ll have.
“LinkedIn has allowed me to show up completely as myself from day one. And I've no doubt I have presence and impact, but I'm doing it in my way.”
Sarah says she’s found her home as a senior leader in the tech industry. Now she can lead passionately as her authentic self, surrounded by others that work to create space for people to “show up as themselves.” She loves how the industry encourages bringing the benefits of every part of you to your role. She’s not sure whether the corporate world has caught up yet.
“At LinkedIn, there's also a huge focus on diversity, inclusion and belonging. And we receive a lot of leadership training on this. We get together monthly as a leadership team to share stories and refine our skills and culture,” she says.
“Having that so ingrained in our culture means we’re creating space for everyone to show up as their authentic selves. And I think that's something we're ahead of the curve in and leading in many ways.”
Sarah’s leap of faith to join Google helped pave the way for her current position at LinkedIn, where she feels free to be herself – an empowered leader in tech. And she knows she might still be stuck climbing the corporate ladder without the help of her AGSM MBA.
The personal changes Sarah experienced were the biggest impact for her – it made her change her perspective and take the leap into tech. Sarah also benefitted from the skill development of the program, but it was her mentality of leaning into that final year that changed everything.
“I love that Sheryl Sandberg quote; ‘don't climb the ladder, climb the jungle gym,’ and my time at AGSM was a real pivot point for me to get off the ladder and get on the jungle gym and I feel so much richer for it.”
“I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without what I discovered in my MBA. I found a home in tech, where I can be myself, feel energised and fulfill my mission. And I have my AGSM MBA to thank for that.”