By OpenX in Life at OpenX|January 3, 2024

Spotlight Series: Sophie Coleman at The Trade Desk

As a part of OpenX’s ongoing Women in Tech series, we recently hosted Sophie Coleman, VP of Go To Market at The Trade Desk in our New York office for a live conversation ranging from learning how to lead to developing confidence, and beyond. Read on for key takeaways from the session.

You have to spend time being bad at leadership to learn to be good at it.

One of the dirty secrets of leadership is that you have to spend time being bad at it to learn to be good at it. The job of someone in leadership is to get roadblocks out of the way and let people be their brilliant selves. The things that you did as an individual contributor are not the same things that are going to make you successful as a leader. As a leader, a lot of people’s days are influenced by how I walk up to a situation. It’s OK to fake it til you make it, but do it with humility. 

I also think when it comes to leadership roles there’s this inclination to say, “Once I get more senior, I won’t feel imposter syndrome or anxiety anymore,” but I don’t think there’s a connection there. You have to be confident enough in leadership to ask a bunch of questions. Nobody knows everything. If someone tells you they know everything, they’re full of it. Particularly in this industry, everybody is learning all the time. 

Get comfortable with ambiguity.

When it comes to adtech, I think it’s really tempting to think, “I’ve got to learn it all.” Part of the issue is by the time you’ve learned it all, most of it has changed – there’s so much in flux at all times. The people who succeed are the people who get comfortable with some measure of gray. You don’t have to love ambiguity, but you do have to get comfortable with it. 

There’s still a gender bias in tech.

When you go to any adtech event and look at the line for the men’s room and the line for the women’s room, it’s immediately apparent that gender bias still exists, but it’s not specific to adtech. I think there are a lot of opportunities for women in sales, but in a lot of other areas, the more senior you get, the more sparse it appears. 

Women are also still getting paid 80 cents on the dollar. If you do the math, , in certain jobs that means giving up close to $1 million in compensation over the course of a career. That’s life-changing money. Men negotiate at every much more frequently – every job offer, every annual raise, every achievement. I think about the million dollars and force myself to negotiate every time now, too. 

Stop clearing the plates.

I had a job where we would have catered lunch in the conference room for meetings, and when everyone was done, they would get up and leave their plates. I’m a fixer, so I would pick up the plates. My boss at the time pulled me aside and told me to stop clearing the plates. I said, “Oh, no. I don’t mind,” and he responded, “but the other women in the room do.”

Be deliberate about boundaries.

I spent a lot of time waiting for other people to set work-life balance for me, and that never happened. And then when I set that boundary, I thought something terrible would happen, but no one cared. Everyone just moved on.

I’m much more deliberate about those boundaries now. It used to be that I didn’t have the boundary to eat dinner with my kids, but I do now. If I have to get on the train to be home for dinner, you can set a meeting with me then, but know that it will be via phone. You have to do this yourself. Even the best-meaning boss in the world won’t know enough about your circumstances to set those boundaries for you.

The relationship with your direct manager is crucial. 

Every decision we make in our careers feels like “this is the decision,” but the reality is that’s not the way your career works. However, the relationship with your direct manager is crucial. Choosing the people I work for has been really important. I’ve had perfect jobs working for the wrong people, and it doesn’t work out. 

Mentorship is most effective when it’s someone you connect with.

There’s a difference between mentorship and sponsorship, and there’s a place for each. Mentorship is most effective when it’s someone you connect with. People have been so generous with me, and I now realize that mentorship helps people on both sides. Whenever I’m talking with someone I’m mentoring, I learn something about myself or a problem I wasn’t thinking about in that way, or advice I’m not following myself until I said it out loud.

You’re good at your job because you’re a human.

In adtech, we’re trying to help our clients navigate through change all the time. It’s really hard to do that without deep relationships, and the same is true for your colleagues. What feels like silly or small gestures go such a long way. I’ll sometimes send flowers or something if I know someone’s having a really tough day. All of human interaction is interpretation, and you don’t get a lot of those cues virtually.

What we see as boxes on the screen are human beings working with human beings. I was actually disappointed when they introduced blurring your background in Zoom. Seeing someone’s photos or artwork was something that made it feel really real. It was a way to connect beyond just the work and make a personal connection with people, which makes everything go easier. You’re good at your job because you’re a human.

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