Jennifer Morilla, CEO of Jen Morilla LLC, will be the leadership- and performance-focused keynote speaker at the upcoming ASUG Best Practices: SAP for Midmarket conference. In this first interview of a two-part Q&A, Morilla discusses leadership challenges; strengths and skill sets; leaders as role models; and coping mechanisms given ever-changing business dynamics.
This is an edited version of our first interview.
Q: What leadership challenges do you see as unique to technology leaders in organizations today?
A: I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be just technology leaders; I think it’s a general leadership struggle. Team management, I think, is one of the biggest things—especially with everything that’s happened since 2020, with people working remotely. All the things that are really important to keeping the momentum and motivation for employees and teams. And creativity—allowing people to be able to be creative.
In business school, we had classes on management, leadership, etc. But they didn’t really prepare you for having conversations with someone, really getting to know the dynamic of a person and the way people work. One of the most beautiful things that’s come out of the pandemic is that managers really got to understand individuals and how their teams work.
For instance, you have a mother whom you know is working on a very high executive-level team. She’s managing working from home and being a mother and a wife—all at the same time. As a manager, there’s not much you can do because you’re working from home as well; there’s no office for anybody to go to. Just having that level of communication and empathy, I think, is really important. This is a very different perspective for leaders.
Q: What would you say are the skill sets and strengths senior and middle managers need to bring to their jobs day in, day out?
A: I think middle managers and high-level executive leaders need to look at their values: their personal values and their corporate values. What are the values that they withhold for themselves—but that they expect their team to have? I run a small team of seven people. Do my company values differ from my personal values? Do the projects, the clients that I take on, differ from those values? If my clients don’t align with those values, I’m not going to take them on. If somebody is joining my team, I want to make sure that they align with my corporate values. As a leader, especially as upper management, you want to have your values in check, not only corporate, but also your personal values.
The two biggest skills and strengths that we don’t emphasize enough would be empathy and creativity. When you give people the space to be creative and do what they love doing, things shine.
Years ago, when I worked for a marketing agency, my boss and mentor—who is still my mentor—said to me, “Jen, always remember, it is more expensive to hire somebody new than to keep them.” I remember working for him and not really understanding that. Now that I have a company, my team, and my people, I fully get it. Recently, I was at dinner with that mentor; I told him I will never forget that piece of advice. There is something beautiful about having a team that grows with you, having people who want to continue growing with you.
Not everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. Not everybody wants to be a leader. But everyone wants to be creative. Everyone wants to have freedom, to have space to be creative, to have autonomy. I think that when you allow people to have that, what will come of it will be even greater. No upper-level manager wants to sit at a conference table and just be told “Yes.” They want to be told how that’s not going to work, and why don’t we do it this way, or how about this way? When that starts to happen, innovation happens, growth happens, as do profit and performance.
Q: What have you seen and what would you recommend as coping mechanisms for leaders, directors, and managers as we continue experiencing health care challenges, supply chain and business challenges, shifts in technology, and more?
A: That’s a tough one. I think it returns to having empathy and understanding where your team is. One of the biggest things that I’ve seen in the industry is allowing employees to have a mental health day. A friend of mine, who works for a huge corporation, was going through a rough time. She had lost somebody in her family. She had a week off. But she was still very much struggling with her mental health. The corporation has a mental health sabbatical. Basically, for six months, she was allowed to take a day off if she felt she couldn’t perform as she needed to. She was an upper manager. Having that space and autonomy made her feel more comfortable. For upper management, I think it’s about having that empathy to understand and recognize your team.
Also, check in with people. I check in with my team regularly, and not just through Slack or Microsoft Teams. Message them saying you’re checking in. Ask if they’re okay, about the family, about the kids, about their spouses/other loved ones. One of the biggest takeaways I got from my team was that they loved that. They didn’t feel like they were just an employee; they were actually part of the family.
Q: How do you see technology leaders as successful role models? What’s a successful role model?
A: The definition—for me—of leadership is creating something that doesn’t exist. Leaders create leaders. Tech leaders can be successful leaders if they create more leaders and allow for creativity and innovation. That only comes into play when you have the space and freedom to provide that for your team.
The biggest struggle, not only for tech, is for a leader to step back and not say “Here’s the way I would do it; nobody does it better than I do.” I think understanding that people can—and will—do it better than you can mean stepping away from your ego to create a greater team and more leaders.
Watch for the second Q&A of our interview series with Jennifer Morilla, where she’ll discuss her ASUG Best Practices: SAP for Midmarket keynote themes, including the importance of personal and corporate values, as well as the challenges of cross-organization KPI, goal communications, and alignment.