Culture / Q&As / Startups

5 questions with Myra Norton: How transparent leadership empowers teams to grow and scale

What does it take to scale an early stage company? According to Arena’s COO — leading with intellectual humility, asking questions, and putting people first.

Culture at Arena is built around kindness, civility, and empathy, says COO Myra Norton. (Courtesy photo)
Myra Norton never wanted to run a startup. Now she’s ready to scale her third.

A recovering academic, Norton did graduate work in math and statistics at Temple University as part of a future faculty fellowship that had her set on the tenure track. But a move into the ranks of administration made her realize she had a love for teaching but not the politics of higher education — a realization that set her out to try something different.

A friend was going through the sale of his tech business and asked her to make the move to Annapolis to help him with that process. This role was her first startup experience, and she learned the ins and outs of early stage company operations through to acquisition. But it was the energy and the day-to-day impact that gave her a new love for leading people to build.

“The people that you bring into an organization are really what make it successful or not,” she said. “Having folks that are just solid human beings and share a passion for the vision of the company is really important.”

Now the chief operating officer of Arena, Norton leads a growing team on a mission to “rewire the labor market.” Arena has applied AI and predictive analytics to talent acquisition in healthcare and is now expanding into other industries across the human resources technology landscape, starting with hospitality. The team has offices in Baltimore and New York.

We sat down with Norton at her office in the Federal Reserve Building just outside of Camden Yards to learn how she is leading with a people-first perspective as the teams head into 2020 with new product, in new verticals, all while working to scale a vision-driven culture.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What have been some of those pivotal moments in your career that led you to where you are now?

After working for my friend’s company through the acquisition, I was recruited to Northrop Grumman, where, for a big company, I got to do some pretty entrepreneurial things. At the time, they were changing the way they build predictive models to estimate labor costs for their contracts. I worked in a group that was me and five men, the youngest of whom was 62. They had retirement countdown clocks on their desks — like 476 days 20 hours and 4 minutes — and they were such great teachers. They let me do whatever I wanted to do. If I had a new idea, I got to implement it. They were really open to my perspective.

One of them was a mentor to me. He would take me down to the factory floor where he had started at age 18. He would say to me, “See when you see part number 67242 in the data, this is what it is. You have to solder this thing on to this part.”

He taught me in a really tangible way how important it is to understand the human element of data — those things that the numbers can’t quite capture. When I tell people that I was the only woman in a group of five me, they are like, “Woah.” But that team and that experience was so valuable to me. They each had such different life experiences and different perspectives than I did. We did a lot of great work together.

Then I got a call from the attorney who had helped my friend sell his business. He asked me to come join a startup that didn’t exist yet. It was going to be an analytics business and they needed someone who was analytical and who could talk to people and he said, “You’re one of the only people I know who has both of those things.”

This was pivotal for me. I loved what I was doing at Northrup Grumman. I got to work with the government. I got to build my own models. I got to do all this cool stuff that I thought was cool. This startup was nothing. I had never done anything that risky before, so it was a really big decision.

I remember when I drove to meet with the chairman and CEO, after they had made me an offer. I still didn’t know what I was going to stay, and I just had this feeling wash over me — ‘If you don’t do this you’ll always look back and wonder “What if?’”

I grew the company successfully and I fell in love with building. I got to build that product from nothing to something, I got to see it get in the hands of our first customer and then expand. And what I learned in that company was that we were a services business trying to be a product.

I really didn’t want to run a lifestyle business. We were generating revenue and the company was growing but I really wanted us to take what we were delivering as services and make it a product, but in order to do that the company needed to be capitalized differently.

I was at another pivotal moment, do I want to keep running this business or do I want to do something different?

That’s when I met Mike Rosenbaum. We were in a CEO group together and he got to telling me about what he was doing with what was Catalyst IT Services at the time, now Catalyte, and that he was incubating this idea. I really believed in the vision and so I came on board before there was an Arena and helped build the company to what it is now.

What are some of your key strategies for bringing the team together and fostering their growth and development?

Leadership sets culture. It’s something that Mike and I are both very aware of: How you show up as a human being when you’re leading an organization — whether you like it or not — is going to have a huge imprint on the culture of the organization.

I had one of our data scientists describe our culture once as “blissfully egoless.” I’ve never heard a better description. No matter what role we are hiring for whether it is the chief revenue officer, an engineer, a data scientist, or a customer service rep, the things that are important for the Arena culture are general kindness, civility, and empathy.

The product that we’re delivering is something new and is something that people aren’t used to using, and it can be a little scary to think about algorithms making decisions about people and data telling us something about somebody that we want to hire that runs counter to our own intuition. It’s really important that all of us have a large amount of empathy for the people who are using our product and so we need to demonstrate that just as human beings.

Intellectual humility is a big thing that we look for here. We are doing something here that has never been done before and it is dangerous to think that you have all the right answers. Part of what we look for in every role is the willingness to be wrong, the openness to be upfront and share your opinions, and the ability to have an open dialogue and disagreement. We have this philosophy that the best ideas win — this isn’t a meritocracy. The best ideas come from across the organization. We want to have a place that encourages those things to bubble up.

I will say that that is something that as we have gotten bigger, it’s become harder to do. You can say until you are blue in the face — bring the ideas. But if people aren’t bringing the ideas, why aren’t they? Do we need to create different pathways for people to surface their thinking? That’s something that is constantly on my mind: How do we do that at various stages of growth? It’s easier when you’re 10 people for everybody to share their ideas, everybody sort of knows what is going on. At 35, everybody does not know what’s going on, so how do you create that open communication and pull the thinking out of people?

One of the things that we’ve tried that works is bi-weekly town halls. We get together in-person wherever I am and share virtually with the rest of the team. People can submit anonymous questions in advance of the town hall, and then I or whoever the right person is, will answer those questions. Part of why we’ve done that is that not everyone is comfortable surfacing their questions in a larger group setting and this helps eliminate that concern. And, if one person has a question, somebody else probably has the same question, so answering the question in that public space creates an environment where people are more willing to ask more questions or express concerns.

We also do an all-company offsite once a year. Part of what came out of our offsite last year was a couple of areas that people really wanted us to focus on as an organization. I really have a firm belief that we all have to own — not just me, we as a team — own the things that we want to see improve.

The team self-organized into three work groups: one that is working on talent at Arena, one that is working on community at Arena, and one that is working on operational excellence at Arena. These things were surfaced during the offsite as areas that we want to make improvements on and these are people who are passionate about those certain things and they are surfacing ideas to make improvements.

We’re working on reenergizing that work. I think that what people learned in that process was that it’s hard to get folks coordinated around a common goal, but I think that exercise in and of itself is really valuable.

A lot of times when we abdicate our responsibility for the culture in which we work — it’s much easier to complain about things that we don’t like than it is to be a part of the solution, so I think that the approach of having all of us own what the future is and what the solution is and what the culture is and what kind of team we want to have here has been really good.

Thinking of the things that you’ve done to be very transparent as a leader and as an organization, how does that impact the type of candidates that come to you?

There’s a handful of characteristics that our recruiting process tends to attract. One is folks who are aligned with our mission, that want to work in this type of industry, they want to work in AI generally or they want to work with AI in the more qualitative aspects of human endeavor. On the software side, we get people who want to work on the technical problems that we are solving. It is a mix. Which is good, but means that our vetting process needs to ferret out if somebody is going to be the right fit. We certainly are always looking to be better at that.

Part of how we do that is that we have interview teams. If we’re hiring an engineer, it’s not just the engineering team that is going to interview that person. We divide up. Somebody is going to be doing a culture interview, and somebody is going to be doing a technical interview, and somebody is going to be doing a business interview, and those people are going to come from different parts of the organization.

This accomplishes two things. It gives the candidate a clearer sense of what the organization is, the answers that someone from client success gives is often very different than what the answer that someone in engineering will give, just because their lens is different, not because they are not aligned. That gives the candidate a real flavor for what the organization is like.

It also forces us to be really thoughtful about different skills of the candidate. Maybe this person is really very strong technically but they have never been in a startup before. Are they ready for this? Do we have any concerns for what that fit is going to be like?

One of the things I’ve learned is that you’re going to make hiring mistakes. I’ve made them the company has made them, and I think you have to be really diligent at recognizing that as soon as possible when that has happened. If you have made a hire that is antithetical to your culture, that damage can be done pretty quickly.

For me, and I tell everyone on our team this, I take it personally and seriously every single person that we bring into the company and I sit down with anyone that we are contemplating bringing in, even if I’m not screening them I want to sit down with them and know who they are. It’s a huge responsibility that a company takes on. When you ask someone to leave where they are or ask them to join you, you are asking them to make a commitment.

I take that commitment seriously. We want to make the hire, we want to get it right. The reality is that you don’t get it right all the time. So the right thing to do, the most humane thing to do, is recognize that as soon as possible.

What was a challenging interpersonal dynamics situation that you’ve encountered? Any lessons learned that you apply now as a result?

I had a situation where we brought in a leader in the organization into a new role that didn’t exist before and very quickly I began to see some indications that things weren’t quite right.

Fast forward two months down the road, and two of our clients reached out to us with complaints. It was then that I realized that we had a bigger issue here and we had to do something about it.

After we parted ways — you can’t have your two largest clients complaining about someone in the organization — that’s a problem — I was concerned about the team. They just had this new leader and now they’re gone. Is this going to be disruptive? How are they going to feel?

I communicated with them that we were going to part ways and they were like, “Oh thank goodness!” They started to tell me all of these horrific stories of poor communication and inappropriate things, just all kinds of stuff. And I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me that! Don’t you know that you could have come to me?”

They said, “Well we didn’t want to burden you, you don’t need to take this on, we were going to tell you, we were taking one more shot at it.”

There are a couple of things I learned from that.

One, I trust my gut. When I feel like something is wrong, even if I can’t put my finger on it, I really dig in to figure out what it is.

And two, I think of myself as really approachable and that people are going to come to me if there’s an issue. I realize that it’s not necessarily that I’m not approachable, its that there’s all kinds of dynamics at play here with people.

Part of what I’ve changed is that when I have a leadership transition, now I do one-on-ones with the new leader’s direct reports to check in to see how that transition is going. I’m going to let the new leader know that I’m going to do that and make sure that they are okay with it. But I intentionally have that conversation for a month or so until there is a sense of that the new leader is onboarded and things are going well.

It used to be frustrating to me because I’m like “I’ve told you guys, why don’t you come tell me this stuff!” But I realize it’s not that simple. As the company gets bigger and there’s more going on and I’m not having as many causal interactions with people because I’m in 20 different places, so not everybody is comfortable. So for me, I feel more responsibility to ask these questions.

I’m much more intentional to ask people what they are worried about. I ask the uncomfortable questions. Not just with my direct team, but I do quarterly one-on-ones with everyone in the company — that is another thing that I started after uncovering some really uncomfortable interpersonal dynamics that were happening. This is my way of making sure that I have a direct one on one interaction with everyone in the company on a regular basis so that I can have a pulse for how people are feeling.

In those conversations, I ask, “What are you excited about? What are you worried about? What concerns you? What do you think we’re doing wrong?”

I think if you’re afraid to ask those questions, you’ve got a bigger issue. And very rarely does somebody say something that shocks me. But sometimes people will say things where I’m like, “I’m going to have to think about that, you bring up a good point and I don’t have a good answer right now.”

Going back to intellectual humility that’s one of the core tenants of my own personal philosophy of life, I don’t feel like I need to have all the answers in those conversations, it is more important to me to get out from people whatever those uncomfortable things are that they aren’t talking about. And I think that when you have a highly technical workforce this can be even more of a dynamic, when you have folks who are maybe more comfortable working in isolation or they are introverts, you’ve got to pull that stuff out.

I just had a situation where I in some informal conversations realized that there was not a shared understanding of some of the things we were doing as an organization. My initial reaction was frustration, like “We’ve talked about this! We went over this in a town hall, we have out mission document, I don’t understand!”

Any time I start to feel that way now, I’m like, “Time out!” You’re going into defensive mode, there’s clearly something that is not working, so what is it?

What is the thing that you do to make time for yourself? How do you keep yourself charged up?

Meditation. Even if it’s five minutes before my kids and my husband are up, that helps me stay grounded and not get sucked into the chaos of 5000 emails and whatever. I’ve been practicing on and off for about 10 years, building into a mostly daily practice for the last couple of years.  It was my father’s death in 2009 that really led me to mindfulness practice, though I grew up the daughter of a Theologian and Minister, so in some sense mindfulness is in my DNA. That and I think moving my body in some way, I don’t know if I would always use the term exercise, but doing something to care for my body on a regular basis.

But the thing that charges me up — at least once a month I try to get together with people in my life who love and accept me for who I am. No conditions, no expectations. That can be friends, family, colleagues, whatever, but spending time together where there is not a purpose. It helps me stay centered.

Connect with Norton on LinkedIn.


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