Insights for Growth: Stories of Enterprise Innovation Podcast

Episode 3: XE, Cecilia Tamez, Chief Strategy Officer

In this episode, Chris Goward is chatting with Cecilia Tamez, Chief Strategy Officer at XE.com. Listen in to hear Cecilia share insights with us about innovation and customer experience.

Key insights

  • In a world of data, everything changes. You are always learning something new.
  • You need multivariate data. To build a successful data platform, accept that your business, customers, and products are constantly going to change. Don’t build a static model, design an infrastructure to accept change.
  • To grow in your career, you must always be uncomfortable and challenge yourself about what the next step is.

Episode Transcript

Chris Goward

Tell us your name and title.

Cecilia Tamez:

Okay. My name is Cecilia Tamez. I am chief strategy officer of Euronet, money transfer segment and the money transfer segment are two different companies. Ria money transfers and XE money transfers.

Chris Goward:

Right. Okay. So now you’ve been with XE for quite a long time. That was sort of where you started from, and now it’s become Euronet. So let’s start with XE. Why don’t you tell our listeners what that’s about?

Cecilia Tamez:

So I started at XE 16 and a half years ago. XE, when I started, we were five people at the company, and it was really a small, very nimble company where we were just trying a whole lot of things. The internet world in terms of business was pretty non-existent. So most of the people that asked when I told them one that I worked at XE, they couldn’t fathom the idea of having a business online. The web was really just a place where you put a page to tell people your business existed, but it didn’t do anything. It was just static. Maybe it had horrible flashy things and ugly colors. But XE was really a company that was built by two guys, Beric Farmer and Stephen Dangler, and their vision was really to build a company that did something with technology. They love technology. And so when I joined the company really, it was a very entrepreneurial business in that we just tried whatever worked, we were inventing it as we came along. There was no such thing as digital marketing. There was no such thing as … SEO was just in its infancy at the time. A lot has changed from that moment.

Chris Goward:

Right. Yeah. I remember those days. I started building websites in ’94, and back then, it was you could barely put color on the pages, never mind function and interactivity, and you’re right. Businesses were putting brochures online, essentially.

Cecilia Tamez:

Pretty much. It didn’t do much. In fact, the way XE started was that Steve and Beric wanted to prove to the world that the internet could do stuff. And they built the first dynamic websites in the world, which was, you can program it to do things like a currency converter. And that was just an example that they wanted to show the world that the internet could be dynamic.

But then when people started coming to the site, they were coming specifically for the currency converter because it was adding a lot of value in their life. And so at one point it became, we’re not a technology company, we’re a currency company. That’s also a technology company. And that’s how we forged ahead with XE. But it speaks a little bit about the spirit of entrepreneurship and the willingness to change. Which is you start off doing something, but when you realize your customers have a problem and you’re solving it, you have to be willing to evolve that business. You have to think about what your customers want and where the opportunities are.

Chris Goward:

It was great when we met actually a year or so ago. Because I’ve been using XE for years in running my business, every week, I’m checking currency and using the service. And so it was kind of neat to hear more about the business as it progressed. And growing with the business for 16 years, you’ve grown a lot into the senior leader of the company. So what’s your area of responsibility now?

Cecilia Tamez:

So my title is Chief Strategy Officer. I do two main areas. One is, I help leadership articulate the strategy. I do market research. I bring about external data to try to understand our customer segments. What’s the size of our markets? What are the opportunities? Where do we go?

And then there’s a process of storytelling, which is such an important part of data, which is data unto itself doesn’t do anything.

You have to attach a story to it. And that’s really what strategy is, is looking at the information ahead and bringing that together and deriving insights from it. And from those insights is driving opportunity. The other side of what I do at the business is, I run the data science program at the money transfer segment level. Part of that is it’s a complex thing. A lot of times people think about data science and they think about people really smart guys in a back room that can’t have a conversation.

But really the program has evolved quite a bit from the days when I was literally just trying to solve the problem of getting access to data as a marketer and trying to figure out the impact of what I was doing and understand the return on investment all the way through to now where we’re trying to drive predictive analysis and machine learning. But you can’t get to that point if you’re not setting the right foundations in data. So you need to make sure that you are driving the right infrastructure, the right data model, the right systems and technology, but most importantly, it’s the right culture. And that is that data needs to be embedded in the culture of every function. And it has to be not just a data driven organization, but an insights driven organization.

Chris Goward:

Right. Using the data for insights. And it’s interesting to hear you talking about storytelling combined with data. That’s not a typical perspective as you’ve said. The thought of data scientists or analytics experts, they’re kind of a lot of times just sort of report generators or we’re looking for patterns, but not really tying it to the customer, which I think gives you perspective.

Cecilia Tamez:

It’s so important to make sure that your data model is a customer centric data model. And I mean that not just in a very buzzword where everyone says, “You have to be a customer centric business.” Being customer centric is intrinsic to everything you do in the way you think about your business, understanding what their needs are, understanding what value propositions you offer and what is it that you are giving to your customers.

But the really important part of that is, how is that customer behaving when they’re consuming that value proposition? And that’s one part that historically data systems don’t do well, they focus on transactions. And there’s so much that happens between the moment that the customer starts that journey to the moment that they complete a transaction that oftentimes a lot of companies are focusing on legacy operational data environments, where they’re focusing on a transactional model.

How many transactions? What’s the margin? How much money did we make? What was our growth? Those kinds of things. And the challenge with that is that traditional data models are really structured in a way where operational models are designed to execute transactions. That’s what they’re going to do. So they have tables all over the place. They summarize things in a way that’s efficient.

Because historically storing data was really expensive and you needed to normalize everything so that everything was structured exactly as you meant it to be, because you need that operation to read smoothly. Now along comes business who suddenly decides, not suddenly, they’ve always been, but I’m hungry for data. I need to understand what I’m doing.

Especially as business started moving into the digital world, they needed to understand what that journey looked like. And for the first time ever, we could record, we could track all of those different steps in a digital business that we couldn’t in a bricks and mortar environment. We’re now just getting to the point where you hear rumors about billboards being able to measure the number of eyeballs.

And I don’t know if it’s true, it’d be an interesting and rather creepy thing to do. But in a digital business, you have the privilege that your customer’s consenting to give you the data of their behavior. And previously where people were a little bit uncomfortable with that, you have a new generation of people who expect that it’s an exchange. They’re giving you their data. They’re consenting for you to collect their data. And privacy by design is really important.

But as an exchange, you have to give them something back. And that thing that you give them back is a better experience. It’s not requiring them to make so many decisions. It’s you taking that information and being smart enough to give them the best experience and the best value for their time. And that something that traditional data stores can’t really achieve when they’re designed to execute transactions.

So that’s when you have to really rethink how you structure data, how you enrich that data in a more multidimensional way so that you can ask more complex questions of it. And when you get to that point, that’s the Mecca where you can start getting into machine learning. Because you’re learning about the variables that are impacting that behavior that drive a successful transaction, as opposed to there’s a transaction. How did we get there? I don’t know, but there’s a transaction.

Chris Goward:

Right. So you’ve been focusing a lot on building the kind of infrastructure that allows you to collect the right data and make meaningful insights out of it. What sources of insight do you find most interesting for understanding the customer? Are there a variety of different methods or sources of the data that you’re looking for? Are you combining different sources of data or is it purely the behavioral website tracking data? Where do you look?

Cecilia Tamez:

Well, the thing about data is that you’re going to be giving different data depending on where people are in their journey. And then there’s the identifying data. And then there’s the non-identifying data. And that’s where privacy by design becomes really important. Because you can do a lot of analysis of customer data without having to know that it’s John Smith. One of the things that we do is as we collect data, we create spaces where data is anonymized.

We removed PII because then you have a much better opportunity to democratize access to that data. Source of the data that comes in is dependent on where that customer is in the journey. So if you think about market data, you’re not talking about a specific customer, you’re talking about general data and what is the World Bank saying in terms of the volume of money transfers around the world?

That’s really aggregate data, but it’s important to understand the size of your market. And how is COVID impacting remittance or money transfers? That’s an important piece of data that you need to collect in order to understand how your business is going to be impacted. Then when you get into the customer data, that there’s the anonymous data of customers who have not shared information yet, because they might just be browsing.

They will have consented to their information being collected because by law, we are required to do that. But you don’t know what their name is or who they are. Once that customer goes to do that conversion funnel, then they’re providing more details about themselves. And there is an expectation as I said of an exchange. I’m giving you this information for a reason and it’s to make their journey better.

It’s to reduce the amount of friction that we give them in their customer journey. You don’t treat every customer the same, a customer who’s sending $100 isn’t going to require providing as much information as someone who’s sending five million dollars. So you need to treat those customers adequately and collect the data as you need it. And then from there, you can look at that journey and say, “Okay, these are our customers over here.”

You can connect that data. We connect it through events. And then we can look at that journey and piece those pieces together to drive those insights.

Chris Goward:

Okay. So, that’s really important. So you’re looking at data from multiple levels, like the macro patterns for how to take the direction of the business and how to optimize the overall plans and strategies and offers and product and experience, but then down to the individual behaviors and segments and personalizing experiences that are optimized for them and what they need.

Cecilia Tamez:

That’s right. Yes.

Chris Goward:

I imagine you learn a ton with all of the people that are going to XE. And are there surprising insights that have come out that you’ve found that people are behaving in ways that are different than you would have expected early on, or?

Cecilia Tamez:

So, I’ve been in this business for a while. So I’d say not surprises. I think surprise is when you learn something you weren’t expecting to learn. But I think if you’re just constantly open to learning and accepting that you’re never going to know everything, then that in itself is, yeah, I’m always learning something new. And I think it’s because one, you may have a journey, but that journey is always going to change. You may have a context, but that context is always going to change.

So your product might change. The journey might change. The customer might change. The season might change. And this is why it’s so important to look at multi-variate data, because all of these things are impacting the result that you get from a customer experience. You need to make sure that you are always open to acknowledging that you don’t know everything. No one knows everything.

The moment you think everything, then you’re not very smart. But if you’re always open to saying, okay, it’s always going to change. And that’s one of those important tenants of building a successful data platform is, accepting that your business is constantly going to change. Your customers are constantly going to change. Your products are constantly going to change.

Don’t build a data model that is static because it will be accurate for about five minutes and then everything will change. And that’s the biggest challenge that people have with data quality, is that they built data for a moment, not an infrastructure to accept the change of time. So that’s super important.

Chris Goward:

So a data model or a strategy or an approach to business, I would imagine. And this is something that I’ve found in a few of these interviews as we’ve been going through this series, is the theme of humility I think of actually approaching business that we don’t know everything and that you have to just test and learn and look for the insights and look at the data and talk to customers and really get connected with what you might not see from our own perspectives.

So that’s an interesting thing that you’re touching on. So would you say that over the last 16 years, there have been major initiatives that you’ve sort of been championing within the organization?

Cecilia Tamez:

Yeah. Certainly data has been one that I’ve been pushing for for a really long. And it didn’t come out of I think there are certain areas of data that are trends and data. Five years ago, BI was the end all be all of everything. Lately it’s machine learning and AI. But the reality is that all of those things are really just solutions to solve your problem. And that is how can you treat your customer better? How can you serve your customer better? So for me, when we were five people around a table trying to build a business, data was and it’s a very different world. Back then, you had your hub and spoke data warehouse that cost millions of dollars to build. But then as we started to engage more with customers, as customer behavior started changing online, it no longer became the static page where all we measured was page views. That was it. You measured the success of your website by the number of page views you had. And then we went from there and we said, “Okay, maybe it’s not about page views. Maybe it’s about how long people stay on your page.” And then, somebody came up with bounce rate, and then it was, “Well, it’s not how many page views, it’s how many people.” And it was like, “Well, how many unique users do you have?” And that became the big thing. And that in itself was even then a lot easier to do because most people only had one device. They had the family computer, they would go to the family computer, they would do their internet browsing on their telephone line. And then that was that. But I think data was important for me because I always wanted to understand the impact of what I did. And I wasn’t always a data person in title or in responsibility. My responsibility was to grow the business. How do you drive more traffic? How is SEO working? How is creating an expended key set of keywords impacting the growth of my page? How is that impacting my competitors? How is a campaign working? Is it succeeding? Is it not succeeding? If I do an AB test, is that working or is that not working? I always had a desire to understand the impact of what I was doing in the business and data became the way that I could explain it. So data became this thing that was really important to me as a marketer. I wanted access to that data and I didn’t have access to it because the IT guys would say, “Well, hold on a second there, there’s a lot of private information in there. You can’t have access to that.” And I would say, “Well, I need to know what’s going on.” So that’s when we came up with how do you remove PII out of it so that I can get access to what I need? I don’t need to know it’s John Smith. I need to know that there was a person and they clicked on a campaign and then they succeeded or not. So really data was just, I championed data. And that has been one of the key things that I’ve been driving in the business, mostly because I wanted to understand how I was impacting the business.

Chris Goward:

I think it’s really a unique story of your path coming through marketing up to data and strategy. There aren’t a lot of marketers in my experience of marketers coming years ago from agency background. A lot of marketers, it seems like they have an allergy to data sometimes, and that’s not so much today. I think marketers realize now that they have to be data informed, insight driven.

But from back then, it seems like a pretty unique story. So what got you started on really needing to understand the data and being sort of oriented towards that from a marketing background?

Cecilia Tamez:

I think there’s a stream of old school marketing that just wanted funding and out came the results on the other end. And data actually gave you something that perhaps some people weren’t welcoming, which is accountability. What are you doing with the money we’re investing? And what’s the return on investment? If you can’t answer that question, then no one’s going to be sniffing around.

But at the end of the day, if you have a culture that’s data driven- and I think that’s not the reality today- if you have people in marketing that are interested in data, then they’re not marketers. At the end of the day, we have to be data-driven and data shouldn’t be coming from a data team or analysts. Everybody is responsible and accountable for data within their function. Everybody is an analyst, everybody needs to constantly be looking at how they can improve. And data is the tool that allows them to do it. It’s not going to improve for you. It’s just going to give you the tools you need to gain the insight and to drive the change.

Chris Goward:

So, did you always have support from the founders or from senior level for this perspective, or what were the challenges you faced in that?

Cecilia Tamez:

It wasn’t so much that I didn’t have support. It was more that I did struggle to articulate the purpose and the reason and why it was important. There were times when I would be sitting across the desk multiple times when people would just look at me and I had this concept of a customer centric, event driven, multidimensional data environment. And I would just be salivating over how excited I was. And they’d look at me and let’s say, “Why? Why? I don’t get it.” So it’s been a journey for everybody to really understand the purpose of that and the value of that. And it’s not until companies like Google who have come in and built empires with the use of data that people have started to understand the power that data provides and the responsibility. Because it can be used in evil ways as much as it can be used for appropriate ways. We always have to be mindful of that. Our intent in collecting that data may be good, but once data’s collected, it can be used by other people. And you need to make sure you’re shepherding that and respecting your customer’s data.

Chris Goward:

Yeah, sure. So you had a vision early on for what this could be, what the data could look like and what it could deliver. How do you gain support? And it sounds like, build a culture, like you’ve mentioned, where everyone is an analyst, everyone’s responsible for their data. How do you get that traction, build that culture? What are ways you’ve done that?

Cecilia Tamez:

So it’s always not … you’re never going to get 100% of people in a company who are that way. You’re always going to have some struggles. I think the key is to make sure that as you bring people into the business or as you have people in your business, you need to make sure that you’re driving that culture and that culture needs to come from the top. But it’s a journey because I think the most important pieces is results. And that’s how you convince people to buy into it. If you build something and it doesn’t deliver value, people are not going to understand. The biggest challenge with data and I can speak firsthand on this one. The biggest challenge with data is first, you’re setting up your foundation. You have to have the right data model. You have to have the right data structure, has to be accurate, has to have its recency, all of that fun stuff that happens with data governance. Even if you have the best insights in the world, if you can’t do anything with those insights, then you might as well not do it.

Because data isn’t about knowledge. It’s about action.

And so, the biggest challenge I think that you face is how do you turn those insights into value? And operationalizing insights and operationalizing data, now it’s being understood more like automation would be the manifestation of that is really the frontier that we’re facing now. And as businesses are moving from bricks and mortar environments, and suddenly overnight as a result of COVID, how every business has to be a digital business, every business has to become a tech company. There is a huge journey there of how do you get that? You can’t build a digital business, you can’t build automation, you can’t build machine learning, any of these things that are the vision of what people expect from data, it can’t be done if you don’t have the right foundations.

But you need to be prepared to do something about it. Otherwise, it’s just a report that sits in somebody’s dusty folder.

Chris Goward:

Yeah. I think that’s perhaps the quote of the day for me, is that data isn’t about knowledge. It’s about action. If you don’t have a way of actioning or I think the mindset of looking for the real insight behind the data, then that’s where people become useful is when you can start to try to understand patterns, try to understand what’s the human side of that? Again, going back to the story of it, what’s the person behind that data? And that sometimes it’s a leap for people.

Cecilia Tamez:

Yeah. You can have the most perfect machine learning model with a 98% accuracy rate. It could be the wrong model. It could be the wrong data source. There’s so many things that could be wrong with it that it’s accurate, but it’s not accurate for what you need. And this is where human creativity and insight become really important. You need to have that context and you need to understand your business and your business model. You can have the most perfect data. If your business model is broken, you’re not going to succeed.

Chris Goward:

Right. So, let’s talk about your journey. Now, I’ve heard others, successful executives talk about how they’ve really valued their experiences in many different organizations to learn different things that they bring to their final career. But you’ve taken a different path, completely opposite. You’ve grown up for 16 years from sort of being in customer service all the way up through marketing and now chief strategy officer. So how did you learn what you need to know to do that? And how do you gain the experiences? And tell me about that journey.

Cecilia Tamez:

You look for the helpers. Part of it was that when I started at XE, and the name of the company has been the same, but it’s been a very different company in multiple generations of company. Different people come and different people go. And the thing is that everybody knows something you don’t, and you want to be inquisitive enough to understand where they’re coming from and what they understand and what they’re learning, and how can I apply that to my knowledge base and how can I drive innovation from that? So I didn’t come up with a multidimensional event model. I think Amazon built that, but developers in my company were exploring how to leverage that to build software. And I thought, “You know what? I could use that for my purposes in data.” So I adopted a model that was being used for a different purpose, and I took it and I owned it in my own environment. But it wasn’t something that I came up with. And that is really how you grow in a business. You have to always be open to learning from other people. You always need to embrace change, not resist it, and always be prepared to change with that organization. And so, I went from a company that was five people to accompany that now is 4,500 people. Every step of the way has been an opportunity to learn. And I think ultimately, the way you grow in a company is to always look for how you can deliver value. And that has been a journey for me every year. The year is ending and I think to myself, am I adding value to this business? Is it time for me to go? And I’ve come to that discussion with my bosses in the past to say, “Is it time for me to go? Should I go now? Am I delivering value? Am I getting the growth for the business and for myself that I should?” And sometimes having a conversation, it’s a scary conversation to have, because it’s like you’re having a conversation about whether you should leave the business. But every time I have that conversation, it comes out with, okay, what is my next step? What can I do differently? How can I grow? What should I be doing differently so that I can continue to grow with the business? And that you always have to be willing to embrace and accept. And maybe one day, that conversation will be, maybe this is time for me to go somewhere else, but you have to be willing to have that in your head, and maybe you can’t have it with your boss. But certainly you need to reflect upon that in order to drive that growth.

Chris Goward:

I think that’s a really important insight. And it sounds like the approach you’ve taken obviously is one very much oriented toward curiosity. Like you’ve mentioned, looking at and even as a marketer, trying to understand the data model that a developer is using to build product in itself is kind of an unusual experience, because most marketers probably wouldn’t dig under the hood to look at that. So that curiosity drove you then to see a pattern that maybe you can apply. I think that’s really important, but then also the thinking about the question of whether you’re adding value, I’ve found that to be one of the most important predictors of success of employees at Widerfunnel as well, is those who come to me and say, “Where can I add the most value?. It might not be in the role that I’m in right now, but maybe there’s something else,” and constantly thinking about that, about the value add, and thinking about everyone around you as your customer, what service are you offering to them?

Cecilia Tamez:

Yeah. Yeah. I very much see myself as when I think about the people that I serve, I think about them as my customers, everybody that you work with is a customer. You are adding value to what they do, and if you’re not serving your customers, you’re not doing your job. So it’s very important to understand that being a leader isn’t about controlling. It’s not about making the decisions, it’s about enabling and it’s about mentorship. And you need to help the people around you because you’re never going to be able to control everything in a … it’s not sustainable. You can’t make every decision as a leader. Your job is to prepare your people to be able to make those decisions for themselves. And data is a really important part of that, because if you can operationalize that decision making and help people understand what drives those decisions, then they can be more autonomous and they can themselves drive more value for the business.

Chris Goward:

Right. So enabling people to make their own decisions, having access to the data. And I guess there’s got to be some sort of ability for them to fail as well. Like having the confidence that they’re not going to be punished for failing.

Cecilia Tamez:

Yeah. So important. I don’t think about it as failing. I think about it as learning. It’s not like, are you going to be successful or are you going to fail? It’s an experiment. And from that experiment, you’re going to learn. And that was one of the things that was really built into the culture of XE when it was first started. Steve and Beric were incredibly curious. They love technology. They love tinkering. They loved experimenting. That was at the root of what that business was about when they built it. So that was really something that was built into the way they raised me as a person in that company is to be curious about how it worked and to think about how we could make it better. And that was, that is the root of XE, is how can we build something that adds value to other people? That’s how we built the currency converter.

Chris Goward:

Oh, cool. So that sounds like that culture of humility and experimentation and innovation has been there from the beginning. So it was kind of a good ground to be growing in.

Cecilia Tamez:

Yeah. It came from the top. And one of the challenges that I experienced when XE was acquired is that you went from a culture of being a dot com with not as many controls and moving into a business that is publicly traded. And certainly it’s a lot more structured. And the number of layers of decision-making become a lot more challenging, but that in itself was a learning experience. And the reality is that XE without the support of Euronet and the business that it is now, it wouldn’t be connected to the capabilities and the opportunities that it has. It’s a trade off. But part of being able to make a case for doing something again, rooted in data, is that people need to see the proof in the pudding. And so, it’s a way of communicating that. How do you build a business case to get people to agree to fund something? The opportunities are much bigger. You just need to be a little bit more structured in how you made that decision.

Chris Goward:

Right. So let’s talk about that for a moment, because starting from five people now, 4,500 people, the structures and organization obviously is very different. And typically as organizations become larger, they become more and more resistant to change, especially when they’ve been successful. There’s you kind of get comfortable with what’s working and innovation in many cases becomes more difficult. Have you noticed that pattern throughout the growth?

Cecilia Tamez:

I think what impacts innovation is not so much organizational structure, but getting to a point where you have something to lose. When you’re a startup, you have nothing to lose. You try everything because everything is a possibility. And everything’s an opportunity. Once you build the base of revenue of customers, every time you change something, it’s going to upset somebody, even if you know that there’s a good intent around it, you know it’s better, people like pattern and they like not to change. So, it’s something that is different, but I think the key is that as an organization changes, as your organization becomes more complex, you need to create different connectivity with your coworkers in order to be functional. When you’re five people at a table, everybody knows what’s going on. Everybody’s part of the decision. The biggest challenge moving away from that is accepting that you’re not going to be part of every decision. That is an emotional struggle to step away from being part of everything. As you become bigger, the challenge is not being part of every decision, but finding out how do you find out what you need to know? So there’s that fear of missing out and having to try to put your feelers in everything and try to determine what’s going on and where do I add value? Or what do I not know that I need to address? So navigating a much larger organization, I think, really is important to think about how you want that organization to function. What do you want to achieve as an organization?

And how do you create clarity for everybody around the direction you’re all moving towards? So it’s not about this is my function. I own it, step off. But how are we going to work together and how are we going to collaborate in order to achieve it together?

It’s so important that you win as a team and you lose as a team.

So you need to make sure that your organizational structure reflects the goals that you’re setting for your business. And that means that you need to be creative about how you structure that organization. So as a data team, we’ve gone through multiple iterations of how you build the data team. And part of it has been a data team as part of a marketing team, then a data team that stands alone, a data team that has infrastructure and the people that face the business because there’s different sides of that. And then bring data scientists into it. And they’re not always going to be the most advanced at business, but they’re really advanced in data science. So, how do you get them to understand the business? Because your data, people even your structural data people need to understand the business in order to build the right data model. It has to be a reflection. So we’ve actually moved into now creating a matrix team where we have specialized data people embedded in teams. And they go to the weekly meetings, they understand what’s going on, and their responsibility is to drive value for that team. But we have a centralized team where we all work together. We communicate with each other, we support each other, but we need to make sure that we’re delivering value for our customer. Kind of like a rotation model, right?

Chris Goward:

Yeah. So some of this is seems pretty … you’ve learned from experience and how to come up with these kinds of models. Have there been, you think of any epic failures in innovation or decisions that sort of went sideways?

Cecilia Tamez:

Sure. None that I’m willing to share. I think not so much about epic failures, but as I said, learnings, that if you have your data team too segregated and too separated, they’re going to miss the action. Not everybody’s going to think, “I have a business problem to solve, call the data guy.” Sometimes that’s not inherent in people’s natures. So you need to make sure you’ve got a data person sitting in the action to understand what’s going on. That came from a realization that my team was too segregated and they needed to understand the business better. So, we evolved.

Chris Goward:

Yeah. Okay. So how do you learn? You’ve talked about being curious, leaning on people who have insights or specialized areas of expertise. Do you learn from reading or is it mostly from the people around you or mentors? How do you learn the skills of like, even thinking about the organizational structure and data and silos and management to leadership? There’s a lot of topics that you obviously have learned about besides just being naturally brilliant. How do you-

Cecilia Tamez:

You learn every which way that you can. The fastest way of learning is to learn from somebody else. A lot of these ideas are ideas that I’ve learned from my coworkers who are brilliant people and they always have something to offer. Always try to take some of their learnings and make them your own and apply them to your existence. There are times when I first started learning about data as a … I did have an affinity to technology. You had to work at a tech company in 2004, everybody was … we were a bunch of nerds. Everybody was curious and embedded in technology. But I think you have to get the learnings wherever you can. So when I first started getting into data, the first thing I did was I went to a few conferences. And I learned from people’s presentations because you don’t always know what to look for.

And I find that industry conferences tend to be really helpful because they sometimes include things in context of what you’re looking for that expand how you see a problem, or how you see what you’re trying to achieve. One thing that has been incredibly helpful, and it’s going to sound silly, but ‘for dummies’ books. When I started learning about how to build a data warehouse, I literally went out and bought a Warehouse for Dummies book and BI for Dummies.

Those books for me have been really helpful historically when I’m starting a venture, because they really break it down into the most simplest of terms. Nowadays the internet is an endless source of information. Everybody has a YouTube channel. Podcasts, they’re everywhere. Information is everywhere.

Chris Goward:

I think I can see a couple for dummies books on your bookshelf actually. That’s true. Look at that.

Cecilia Tamez:

Investing for Canadians for Dummies.

Chris Goward:

Cool. That sounds like it would be interesting. I should grab that one. Along with the ukulele back there. So maybe we’ll get the intermission later. So how would you describe your leadership style? How has that evolved?

 

Cecilia Tamez:

I try to approach it from a servant leadership perspective. My role is to enable my team to get them prepared to be able to stand on their own and ultimately to get them to do my job so that I can do another job. That hasn’t always been the case. When I first became a manager and I remember this very clearly, I became a manager for the first time, we were still a really small company. I’d never received management training. There was not a lot of training in my career. We were always inventing things as we went along. And I decided to take a leadership course, and it was a really insightful course because they taught me some really important things that I’ve carried with me forever and ever, which is, when you first become a manager, the expectation when you’re building your career is I’m going to grow my career. I’m going to become a manager. Then I’m going to become a director. Then I’m going to be an executive. Fantastic, that’s my career. But the emotional challenges that happen along the way are things that nobody really talks about. So when you first become a manager for the first time, as a first time manager, they’re generally not going to give you a team of 18 people. You’re going to have a small number of people. It’s going to be a small operation. At least it was in my experience. And so as you’re teaching somebody else to do your job so that you can manage them, you think, “Well, if I’m teaching other people to do my job, what am I going to do?” And there’s always a little bit of insecurity there of what value am I adding as a manager if other people are doing the thing that I do?

Chris Goward:

What if they do it better than me?

Cecilia Tamez:

Right. It’s one of the greatest insecurities nobody talks about. And I think it’s really important because the value that we add is teaching people, guiding people in scaling what we know onto a group of people so that they can do it better. And ultimately, your job as a manager, as a leader, not so much a manager, as a leader is to hire people that are better at things than you are. Because ultimately, you understand the business, you understand the problems, you understand how to prioritize what needs to be done. Your job should be to hire the best people you could possibly hire, and ultimately teach them to do your job so that you can move on and do other things. When you become a manager, we need to teach that to our people. We need to teach them that it’s okay to feel that way. They’re going to feel that way, but they need to push through those feelings and embrace the opportunity to teach someone everything you know and to learn from them. Because learning is a two way street. I’ve learned so much from the people that I hire. Once you become a director, then you’ve got multiple managers and you’re further detached from the doing. And the emotional challenge of that is I’m not doing things. I’m asking people to do things. And you have to make that leap of valuing for yourself what you bring to the table. And if you’re not doing it, you need to embrace the value of leading. And then when you become an executive, that in itself is always a challenge as well. And that when I first became an executive, nobody sits you down and said, “Okay, this is how you’re an executive.” And you’re looking at it and you think, “Oh my God, I’m an executive. What does that mean?” You’re even further removed from the direct day to day doing and that in itself is a mental leap as well. But at the end of the day, you always have to be mindful of what your role is, what value you’re adding, you’re teaching people, you’re guiding people, you’re driving strategy. You’re driving insights. And your experience is what brings that insight to the table.

 

Chris Goward:

So there’s never a comfort zone level where you can just like plateau and put your feet up. And there’s a whole…

Cecilia Tamez:

If you’re comfortable, it’s time to retire.

Chris Goward:

Right, right, right. Yeah. Sure.

Cecilia Tamez:

Yeah. You should always be a little uncomfortable because you always have to challenge yourself about what the next step is.

Chris Goward:

Yeah. There’s a book that I’ve always loved. I read years ago by Mihaly Csikszentmilalyi called Flow. And he has this diagram of this sort of upward sloping gap area, which is the flow zone. And once you get within the flow zone, you feel like you’re really operating at your optimal, but that only lasts for a certain amount of time. Because if you operate at that level, you suddenly hit the bottom of the flow zone, where you get bored.

And then, the only way to stay in the flow zone is to hit more challenges and get back into the flow zone. And I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t embrace because everyone wants to get a little bit more comfortable and there’s a natural aversion to risk and the fear that that comes. But it sounds like you have to embrace the fear and embrace the risk of being displaced or being out shown by someone else or whatever to allow yourself to grow.

Cecilia Tamez:

Yeah. The most emotionally troubling times of my career have yielded the most growth whereas you’re in that turbulence, there’s something there to be learned. There’s something there to be overcome and that never stops. It’s something that you always have. Growth isn’t just about leveling up on your title. Growth is about leveling up in your abilities, in your learning, in the value that you deliver.

And some people really aren’t meant to be managers. Some people are just really good at what they do, and if you were to take that skill and that value that they deliver and put them in a management position, it could be the worst thing you do for someone. So you need to think about those career paths and say, “This is a person that has a ton of value. How do I create a structure that allows them to feel like they’re progressing and level up?”

But not necessarily in a way that puts them in a position where they have to take care of people. That in itself is a skillset unto itself that is really challenging often not acknowledged in terms of how hard it is to be a leader and how much training and learning needs to happen in order for someone to do that well.

 

Chris Goward:

And when did you realize that that was the right path for you toward leadership?

Cecilia Tamez:

I think that the interesting thing is I didn’t grow in the company. The company grew with me. So, as part of one of the first people in the business, as the company grew, I participated in a lot of the roots of what this business was about. And my role was not so much about moving up, but instead focusing. So moving away from doing everything and then driving more focus in how I was delivering value.

So it went from coding and doing translations and product implementation and marketing and everything, and talking to customers to focusing on marketing, focusing on data, focusing on strategy, and just narrowing my path so that I wasn’t all over the place.

Chris Goward:

Right. Okay. Yeah. That makes sense. The hundreds of people kind of just started emerging underneath-

Cecilia Tamez:

Underneath.

Chris Goward:

Yes. As the company was growing in your wake.

Cecilia Tamez:

Yeah. Well, when we were acquired, suddenly we kind of became part of a much bigger organization overnight. XE didn’t naturally just grow. We were acquired and we connected with other companies. And so, that was an instant growth that happened, that in itself had a lot of lessons.

Chris Goward:

Yeah, sure. And so maybe a little bit of background might be interesting context in terms of like where did you grow up? What was your family structure look like? Your brothers and sisters, where do you sit in that?

Cecilia Tamez:

So I was born in Mexico actually. I lived there for about nine years and my mom married or remarried and he was Canadian and he lived in Mexico with us for a couple of years. And then we made the journey to Canada. So it was my mom, my stepdad, my sister and I, and we lived in Canada for, well, until January, at which point we now moved to the States.

I studied nothing to do with technology. I study languages of all things. And then just kind of fell into technology because I loved it.

Chris Goward:

And where did you learn the ukulele?

Cecilia Tamez:

I was given a ukulele as a gift. It’s one of the best gifts you can give somebody.

Chris Goward:

What a joyful gift, what a great idea.

Cecilia Tamez:

It was a great idea.

Chris Goward:

Cool. So, okay. Let’s wrap this together then. Thinking about the listener who is working in a large enterprise or aspires to, they have ambition and energy, they want to be a change maker, like you have. What would you tell them that you wish that you’d known early on in your career?

Cecilia Tamez:

I would say believe in yourself, trust that you know more than you give yourself credit for. Because oftentimes as you’re moving up, sometimes as you move into different circles of leadership, you always feel like maybe you don’t know what they know. It’s really important to be open to learn, but also acknowledge that you have your own set of knowledge that you can contribute.

You’re there for a reason. You’ve been asked to join that leadership circle because people believe in you. You need to believe in yourself and find your voice. But at the same time, acknowledging that you know but also acknowledge that you don’t know and be prepared to learn. So always be hungry for knowledge, have humility and accept that other people have something to teach you.

You’re not always going to be right. So when you’re wrong, admit it and take accountability for your mistakes, because that’s how you build integrity and integrity is the best currency that you can have as you grow your career. Because if people know that you function with integrity, they trust you, then you’ll have a much more effective working relationship with people and they’ll invite you to opportunity.

Chris Goward:

That’s awesome. It sounds like what you’re almost touching on the imposter syndrome concept that a lot of people talk about that especially people who have been successful and risen up, there’s always this feeling like, do these guys know that I don’t really know what I’m doing here? Does everyone realize I shouldn’t be here? And so that-

Cecilia Tamez:

Everybody feels it. Everybody feels it. They’re think they’re the only ones. And so they’re not willing to talk about it. When I enter a meeting and we’re going to talk about something meaty and I don’t know exactly what it is, my first approach is to say, “All right, guys, I’m going to play the idiot in the room. I’m going to ask a lot of stupid questions. And some of you may know them, and maybe I’m asking these questions on behalf of the people that aren’t willing to ask them. But I’m going to acknowledge that I don’t know everything. And I’m open to learning from you.”

Chris Goward:

That’s probably one of the best tips is to take that perspective just to come in and say, “I’m going to be the dummy in the room and just say I don’t know this.” And I think being willing to ask questions is obviously the only way to learn. So, that’s excellent. So thank you Cecilia for your time and for sharing your insights and knowledge with the listeners. Really appreciate it.

Cecilia Tamez:

Thank you for having me.