Unleash Your Leadership

#19: The EQ Advantage in Technical Leadership With Bhavini Soneji

June 27, 2023 Priyanka Shinde Season 1 Episode 19
Unleash Your Leadership
#19: The EQ Advantage in Technical Leadership With Bhavini Soneji
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of "Unleash Your Leadership", I chat with Bhavini Soneji, a seasoned tech executive with over 25 years of experience as a CTO and VP. Bhavini shares her insights on the crucial role of emotional intelligence (EQ) in technical leadership and provides valuable advice on becoming a successful technical leader.

Explore the challenges faced by women in the tech industry, including biases and stereotypes, and discover the importance of allyship and creating safe spaces. Bhavini's involvement in women's forums and her commitment to fostering inclusivity shed light on building a supportive environment for all.

Furthermore, gain valuable insights into the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and technical leadership. Bhavini's expertise in human-centered design and streamlined automation provides a unique perspective on leveraging AI to create experiences that enhance people's lives.

Discover Bhavini's inspiring journey and her organic approach to life and career decisions. From her early experiences of overcoming fears and taking risks to her transformative leadership roles in various industries, her story will leave you inspired and motivated.

"The EQ Advantage in Technical Leadership" offers practical wisdom for aspiring and current technical leaders. Whether you're looking to enhance your EQ, navigate biases, or harness the power of AI, this episode provides actionable advice and thought-provoking insights. Tune in to unlock the secrets of effective technical leadership and unleash your own potential.

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β€Š πŸ“  Hi everyone. Welcome to Unleash Your Leadership podcast. Hope you're having a great day or week so far wherever 

you're listening 

from. Today, I'm excited to talk to another great leader that I have had the privilege of working with. During my time at Cruise, I want to invite Bhavini Soneji, who's a seasoned tech executive.

She has been a C T O and A  VP with over 25 years of experience driving business and customer outcomes. She has led team transformations through different growth stages across public companies like Microsoft and startups like Cruise and Headspace, and spanning different industries like autonomous vehicles, healthcare, wellness, enterprise, consumer social.


Also advises and mentors, executives, and plays an active role in the Los Angeles C T O Forum. Welcome to the podcast, Bhavini. 

Hey Priyanka, thank you so much for having me here. And thank you for doing this. I think, , doing this community discussions and learnings and sharing and creating this forum is super helpful.

I have learned myself from the past such forums and continue to doing so, so thank you for doing it. 

Of course. My main intention of starting this was to not just share more about the nuances of leadership, but also talk about  what other leaders think and how they have, , come to exploring their own leadership skills and,  so on.

 Always happy to with that. Yeah. Tell us a little bit more about you and 

what do you do for the world? Yeah, I think for you, described some of my day-to-day work, but the underlying theme is I love using human-centered design with streamlined automation to create experiences that improve people's lives.

And this is what keeps me motivated and keeps me challenged. And along with this for me, what's important is giving back to the community and paying it forward. And as part of that, I do advising C-level executives mentoring at Techstars, first round Plato. And also I founded a group of women technology executives in Los Angeles to support and foster this group while I play an active role in L A C T O Forum, as well as Chito, which is a women executive leaders group.

And while I'm not working I love  having fun with my kids. So I enjoy outdoors, I love nature, and I have twins that keep me busy. 

Wow, wonderful. Yeah, you're doing a lot of different things and it's amazing. And of course, , family time and just re recreation is so important for all of us, and I'm glad that you bring that up.

You're doing so many things. I would love to know  a little bit more about your journey and how you came about to be in your current position in life. 

Yeah. It's funny, I'm actually not a planner, so a lot of things when I reflect back has happened organically and just being more in intentional rather than being fully, , it has to happen.

This. Milestone this time. So I have a little bit different perspective with with my life story. And the way I see it is when it started. So I was born in India and it's a country which has a lot of gender biases prevailing in society from homeschool to work. And in spite of these challenges, my parents did not conform to mass thinking and they challenged the status quo.

And this was evident when, , they let my sister and I do a trip when we were just 12 years old across Africa. So these were  the. Starting roots of me,  discovering my adventurous and risk-taking spirit. And this has been the essence throughout my life. So I did my schooling and did computer engineering back in India and then the masters in Chicago.

And after that I started at Microsoft. I was there for 15 years and loved the company, loved growing and discovering myself. As part of that, and got the opportunity to work on the largest cloud service like Windows update, as well as being a founding member of a startup within Microsoft.

The only difference is you don't run out of funding. Mm-hmm. But you're still doing all the necessary customer-driven, data-driven decision making, pivoting. And then I was also, I got a experience to run a satellite group from Boston. So bringing about a lot of , headquarters culture building those relationships driving Autonom city and empowering remote teams.

It was a very amazing experience and then I was at, I moved at that time to startups and this is where it was a phenomenal journey moving to relocating from Seattle to Los Angeles. And one of the things that happened in my personal life resulted in me finding companies that.

Were more mission driven, and that aligned to my mission. So that's where I was at Heal, which was bringing evidence-based care and removing the friction from patient to get to care. And that was super impactful because as we all know, if you discover and nip the issue at the start, it's much more easier to tackle versus letting it sit sit on and fester on.

And I was at Headspace leading their technology. And again, a phenomenal experience. And you hear customers saying how it has helped them how, , the, the feedback that you get, it's just so satisfying. You hear people saying, I can sleep without taking sleeping pills, or someone saying My partner is a better human being.

It's just so contagious. And then at a cruise where, , we save lives because now you don't have a distracted driver sitting behind the wheel. So loved the transformations that were needed as each of these companies went through the growth phrase and the typical story of, , you're flying the plane while building it.

So you , , have to have the grit and perseaverance. Through it to drive the outcomes and innovate with different options. 

 That's such an amazing journey. I have to ask you about your Africa trip. I mean, is that something you and your sister took alone or was that, with the parents, but you chose it?

Actually it was not with the parents, it was alone. My grandparents were in Africa, so we just took the trip and visited them. And it was it was very interesting because when I reflect back , it was my parents believing in us. Giving us that confidence that we can do it and , us taking that risk.

I was, I was really scared. And but when I reflect back those were the opportunities that , enabled us to try something out overcome some of our fears. And we and Manchester would just wander around the local area and try different things, learn some new languages. But it's, it's, it's just it's very unique about when people believe in you.

, your skills and your inner strength multiplies and it becomes safe to try things out. 

Oh, I totally agree. And  that is so true., it just makes you a different person when some of these external factors seem like they're  supporting you and you're not  going against the tide .

And I'm sure that played a big part in your journey and, and where you are today.  I wanna  applaud your parents , for doing that.  

, that's where I think of, and I, , aspire towards creating a nurturing environment and believing in the team.

Because, , that's when they tap in on their true hidden potential.  

I'm sure  at that age, having gone through these experiences, you probably were thinking about something in terms of where you wanted to be. So tell me what you wanted to be when you were younger. , 

it's funny I think when, when I was younger, I remember my parents telling me stories about I would go and do ,  teach people , just as a the, the friends a around locally and all.

But one of the things that I remember was Computers was introduced during high school. I was lucky to have that. And that's when I discovered my interest in problem solving and logic transformation with computing power.  You could just do amazing designs by just one or two changes, and that was  a big aha moment on, oh wow, this thing is so much potential.

And I remembered I was like, I did not. I couldn't see blood, so I was like, I don't want to go into being a doctor because I would be the patient on the table there. And so I think sometimes it's just having the clarity of nos and helps also to , , know which path to try out.

And so that's where for me , that problem solving and building things, et cetera took my passion towards engineering. 

Wow. , it resonates so much with me. I think it was similar. I got a chance in high school to take a computer class and it just introduced me to programming , and  that's where I thought, okay, this seems like a really interesting thing to work with.

, and similar to you,  I didn't want to go into  medical school, even though I could have, and  especially my mother was really, really passionate about me becoming a doctor, and I was like, ha, I don't know. I'm done. I don't think I'm cut out 

for that part. So yeah, it was so, 

so similar in that sense.

So you, early on you  realized  computers was the thing that you were going to get into and that's how you went on and did computer engineering. And of course,  a lot of years since then , when we think about your Technical journey. Tell me a little bit more because you mentioned that, , sometimes there are biases, and I have personally experienced these as well, and especially with women and being technical,  for a lot of people, it's very difficult to fathom that  women can be technical and highly technical, and one of the first things you talk about is computers, right?

So what has been your experience as you have navigated being in a technical role and then also getting into a technical leadership role? 

Yeah. So I think Sometimes when I was when I was entry into my career, I was pretty naive and I never had these thinking about a female engineer or a male engineer or , different classifications.

And. As I grew into leadership roles a lot of lot of things started to surface which were very much eye-opening. And you would, you would realize that the biases that people have are playing such a crucial factor. Into the decision making of the day-to-day aspects. And this is where there were firsthand experiences that I saw as well as , experienced it myself.

And that's what led to some of my more , , passion towards. Bringing allyship , having these women's forums for them to create this safe space to , ask questions, to get help, to get support, to not be discouraged. And, and it is a two-way partnership. So I work a lot with other leaders and helping them , , how to bring some of these.

Allyship and it is not a one point thing, right? It is, it's a lot from, , how do you hire, how do you think about hiring, how do you foster an environment to create that culture? And that culture and environment is across so many fronts, whether it is, , you're doing reviews or whether you're assigning projects, or whether you are,  running a particular project.

And how to focus around some of the development aspects and  processes that can keep these things going because it's not a one point thing. It is a continuum. 

Yeah, I agree. I think there is so much that has been done over the years and a lot of progress has been made and there is still much to do.

So as you've been 

working with your teams and. Yourself  moving into more of the leadership roles. My first question is , what does leadership mean to you? And  when did you first become aware  of your own leadership skills and qualities and aspirations?

 Yeah, let me, let me tackle the first one.

So I think what leadership means is, In my mind, it's very unique and that is one of the reasons you see it. It's it's art, it's creativity, and that's why you see so many books because. How everyone sees it is quite unique. At the same time, there is a common theme that exists. And so the way I see is leadership is a practice, it's not a position, and it's a way of operating irrespective of the title.

So for me, it comes down to  four questions. The why, who, how, and what. For example, the why. It is starting with the customer, , having what is the problem and being able to seek truth around it and drive customer-driven, data-driven decision making and bringing that alignment around the why.

The second one is the talent. How do you retain the best and how do you inspire and develop? And for that, you want to bring in the best, but at the same time you want to make it such that, , you let them run with it. And , the same goes that. If you put fences around people, then you get sheep.

So how do you make sure that you're hiring curious people? How do you make sure that  you are making sure that they have the ownership mindset, growth mindset. And then the third one is the how. So this is around the culture and the environment that as a leader you want to foster so that, , people can take risk.

People can drive innovation as well as , things around one team. You want to break that silos and create a collaborative environment. And last but not the least is the what, which is the drive for results. So how do you have the grit and perseverance to drive innovation and outcomes, and how do you use technology as an accelerator for that?

And continuously focusing on the the five rigors, the five whys. I do that five wise for not just for, , operational incidents, but even for any other processes or efficiency drivers because it really helps people to get to the root cause. And so I would, the way I would summarize it is, It's a holistic viewpoint with people first and making sure your vision, strategy, and execution is in alignment to those governing principles.

I can really see it's a very.  Comprehensive way of thinking about leadership because it's not just one thing or it is not just who you see. One person, every leader is different and they bring different things together and, and the way you stated it is just like there is all of these different pieces to it, and all of these need to be working together with each other.

Totally. Totally. And I think you mentioned around , when did, when I become aware of the leadership skills I think it's a journey and it's a not one single point, and I think it's still evolving. I. When I reflect back, right, you realize the different moments from childhood schooling and, , your whole life interactions are implicitly, , building and nurturing some of these skills that enabled your leadership.

And some of the early indicators for me at work at Microsoft were. I was able to connect the dots and think end to end without boxing in an org or, , road silos et cetera. And that was something that was coming naturally to me which resulted in me becoming a go-to person. And that's when I was asked to step up to lead some cross projects.

And another one was I loved helping others and some of the successful mentoring advising reinforced and that is where my journey is still continuing on how to help others and bring the best in them. . 

Yeah, you're right.  Sometimes there are  multiple indications and then at one point you   lean into it fully.

And,  that's what you're mentioning , as you took on,  more of  leadership positions, not just the mindset itself.  What surprised you most about when you started leading teams?

Yeah. I think couple of things one was just the naiveness and us underestimating the importance and investment on eq. With some of  my aha moments as well as it's about being open to other styles and what uniqueness they bring to the table. So how do you become self-aware and embrace those?

And, , success is not just about growing yourself, but growing others. So these were some of the my own , , learnings and ways of improving myself. But I think there were some of the things we touched, like also some of these unconscious biases were really what surprised me on , examples around when , you would have one person.

Just being loud, noise and, , taking over the room versus being open to, , input or how people have biases where you might suggest something but , someone else suggested and they'll be like, yeah, that makes sense. And you would just be like, was this, was I even here? Or did I not just say this?

And I think even  things around Labels that hinder. So I would have,  management calibration reviews and all of that. And people would be like, the, the words that they would use would be so much you can say, coming from bias standpoint. , oh, this person is very , whiny.

You wouldn't use that person for,  a male person versus And there are pockets where you would, , implicitly you see leaders  putting hard work, like as you were saying, technical challenging problems to non-female versus that person is equally, , talented, but just YouTube biases gravitating more towards softer skills.

For  that individual and you have to, as a leader, create these pockets and situations to show these awareness and for people to drive that change. And it's just so interesting that it's, people have the right intention. They are, in majority of the cases, they are open to change and they're open to seeing how they can improve and what, what are some of the ways that , they should watch out.

So I've done some of those transformations at different companies with my teams. And, but , it was like at the start, the surprise was , not to take it personally, Right, and not to get frustrated and angry. Because sometimes with that you  more, , just shut down and at least I have tendency sometimes to shut down.

So how do you. , take a breather and see what are the ways to bring a change rather than make it personal, even your side or that other individual side. So it, it, there were definitely a lot of surprises than what I would have ever imagined. 

Yeah, , it becomes very challenging to, navigate those things when you   wanna  do a great job, you wanna build great products, you want to , support your team.

And sometimes this can feel like a challenge, it can be a distraction, but it is so important to navigate it and, . Like  you did. Which is also help other people understand that this is happening. A lot of  about allyship is pointing it out first? Cuz like you said, it's unconscious bias. So many people just don't realize that they are doing that.

, and so it's great that  you have been working on it and I wanna call out an important point, which is really necessary for people to hear again, which is you said not to take it personally. 

Yeah. And a lot of times if you take it personal, you   go inward in a shell and there are self doubt  creeps up on you.

And a lot of times it is just that the other person doesn't understand. It's not about your own abilities. And I've personally also been  in this situation where  you start just doubting,  , what did I do wrong? , am I not good at these things? And it's. It's really never that, it's just the perception or, or some inherent biases that folks have.

And that could be hard. I mean, we as a society have grown up in some ways, and even today when I talk to so many people not just about gender biases, but there's so many different ways and biases that do come up for people. , 

just one, one other thing to add on, I think it's also so important that time to understand there are so many factors playing in, as you said, right?

Imposter syndrome comes about the, the being able to stand up and speak and advocate for yourself and being able to , suggest different things that will work out. So it's not just one, it's  all the things working, , against and. How to be mindful about,  taking taking the time to be kind to yourself and being able to be able, for me, sometimes it works as, Not thinking about advocating for myself, but advocating for someone else.

And taking that bigger view and perspective just helps to bring a different lens and that gives you the energy to, , go and drive that change because it is going to be very, very impactful for the company overall and for the leaders there. 

Yeah, that's very true. I think for many of the folks who might be dealing with certain challenges and situations, if you can think of it as , how can I help another person?

Cuz  there is a research and a study that suggests that women especially are, have an easier time advocating for others than themselves. And so this is a great place where you can solve a problem that is for you, but through advocating for others because there's so many people similar to you and you can do that and whatever that might be might be gender bias.

It could be something else, but solve it for somebody else. And maybe you solve it for the entire community in some ways. So I love that. You also mentioned EQ and as you thought about leadership, and especially when we think about technical teams and software engineers or engineers, there's, there's this persona and a stereotype, right?

, they're very quiet, they're introverted, they're probably sitting heads down coding, and of course not true for everybody. But as you shift into more senior roles, Especially with today's  complex and ambiguous products and programs, engineers also have to interact with so many teams and, and so they have to start  building out their EQ and leadership skills.

So how have you, , seen this happen and how have you worked with your teams and helped them build out those skills? 

Yeah, I think one of the key aspect is when you think of the. Problem. Right. The, the technicality is one aspect of it, but the, , as a, as a organization different.

Functions play different role in delivering the last impact lasting and scaling impact, right? So there is, , product, there is engineering, there is design, there is business, there is sales, there is support. And so engineering is one part of it. And in order for this to work effectively, We need to have clarity of the, the problem, right?

Otherwise ,  you can build different solutions, but it's not about you build it and the customers will come to it. We all know that has not worked. So how do you. Know that, okay, , what is the problem? And that's where engineers need to know the problem, not just tell, Hey, here's a solution.

Go and build me the solution. And then how do you then , look at what are the solutions that will work and ideating on what is going to, what is working or not working from all the hypothesis, et cetera. And that is where it is very important to have the communication skills. And partnering and collaborative skills because that hole together is what is driving success.

And that is where you need to make sure that  you have the right partnership with your product group. You have the right partnership with your designers, you have the right partnership with your T p m on the, the, the prioritization. What are the execution milestones with business because. They might be selling something else versus what you are building or, , they have feedback on what can be changed because what they're hearing.

So I think this closed loop communication and partnership and collaboration is very, very crucial. And this is what helps with that one team mindset. Because if you just say, oh, it's not my problem. That one was not done correctly, or this function is not done, or I'm waiting on that. It's not going to, the, the outcome is not gonna be successful.

You're not going to be acting as one team, and you want these relationships so you can, , be open to asking, suggesting, and , having some of those hard discussions during challenging times. 

Yeah. It's so important because the product doesn't get built by just one team anymore.

And really important for everybody irrespective of their functions to build certain skills and communication. . Emotional intelligence and this is great that you have been encouraging your teams.  As you think about all the future leaders, especially the technical leaders that are rising and coming up, and what advice do you have for them?

The way I dunno about advice like this is when I reflect back, this is  what has worked for me. And so one is honing in your leadership by being self-aware, right? Watching out for your own biases or habits, and experiment with the mindset and habit shifts that you want to aspire to. And this is not about just on job, it is in your day-to-day as well.

Because I have learned so much from just my parenting as much as I've learned from on job and above all, being kind to yourself, being authentic, being humble and hungry to grow. So that's one aspects of, , developing yourself as a leader and honing it. Second one is, , staying abreast and relevant learning from podcasts, books, articles.

There's no better way than learning from others' journey. And this has been something that has helped me significantly. And would highly recommend, and even if, , everyone's lives are busy, you have work, you have home, you have elderly care, you have kids but , there's times and pockets where, for me, the audiobook has been most critical because I would be able to do my chores and,  continue listening.

So find creative ways that work for your knowledge. And you can, , spread it beyond just your area, because that helps for you to broaden your. Thought process. Third is creating a personal board of directors, right? Couldn't emphasize more around surrounding yourself with different people who believe in you, who compliment you, who , have similar goals for you to learn from, and being able to.

Have your authentic discussions and sounding board. And last but not the least is,  investing in a coach. It's, it's just so interesting to see , people invest more in , a physical personal trainer, but they don't think of investing in a coach. Because your mindset, your mental model is also what needs  help and guidance.

And as you climb up the career ladder, It gets more and more lonely in these leadership roles. And you want someone to bounce off ideas. You want someone to tell you the truth. You want someone to guide you through the transformations and help bring out the best in you and become the force multiplier.

And I think this. Plays a very important role. I have, , experienced and benefited myself and there were, there were two cases where I have seen such impact as well when I was coaching a person who was a 360 difference and later on they were like, At one of those moments in our session, that person was actually thinking of,  leaving her career and they were like, your questions, your discussions was such pivotal that day.

And this is where, so , the person I go deeper into  the tactics, you can read all of that. , it's not about just the tactics because you have enough articles and books, but what are the. Things that are holding you back. What are the things that are,  specific to you that can help spark things differently?

Those are where, , a coach comes into place. And an another example that we were discussing about the person's career progression and how they would be getting to their next level. There were some of the fears that were able to come up in the conversation, which were just so aha for that individual that they, they, they were like, oh, this is, this is just amazing.

And you could just see things change after that. So I think these are some of the things that I see myself and I feel like, , others can benefit for keeping keeping tuning, retuning yourself constantly. 

That's wonderful. . And I have to say this,  I did not prompt Bhavini to say anything about coaching, and you can just hear from her own experience of having a coach herself and then coaching  others is how transformative it can be for every individual.

And so I'm glad you brought up  coaching is not just about bringing you out from  somewhere  you are  down or stuck. It's also can be where you're doing good and you just wanna get to great and you wanna get there faster.

 Like meditation , or mindfulness. You don't want to just do those things when you're feeling not so great. You want to continue to do them. Even when you're feeling good, because that's continuing to have an impact on you even without you realizing. 

 Thank you for sharing that with everybody. I do wanna ask you this, and  it  becomes almost  inevitable that I have to ask you this. With everything going on currently and of course with  AI coming in, right?  There is so much just chatter around AI and how AI are going to change things and. There is this apprehension and some people are really excited about it. So tell me about how you think AI plays a role for leaders and organizations, especially since you also come from a more technical, Background. 

Yeah. I think AI is step in the continuum. Of driving efficiency through with the power of technology, right?

So if you think of the phases that the progression along, right there was time when everything was paperwork and then we brought about digitization. And then there was time when the dis digitization went to the next step of, , bringing more insights and using data to, to drive inferences and decision making.

And now this is now to the next level of seeing that. Okay, how do you speed up some of these? How do you drive that decision making and insights in a much faster way? And the, the, the key is the multiplying exponential power of variations and scenarios that human mind cannot comprehend is what AI brings to the table.

And if you think of these situations arise in every aspect of, , your day-to-day, whether it is manufacturing, whether it is education, whether it is building software solutions, whether it is, , even leadership and EQ and , just bringing about fostering a culture. All of these aspects there is just.

So much where AI can drive innovation and speed and make a better outcome for our day-to-day lives. And in, in just a short amount of time you have seen how people have adopted, I have seen,  leaders adopt AI in. They're,  just the getting the pulse of their teams and being able to , assess and see what can be done in a quick fashion.

Just the turnaround over there being able to, tech engineers are being able to use it for better documentation, better ways to , clean up their code et cetera. Just the speed in now, developer productivity is humongous. Leaders are able to use it to improve their communication in this today's day and age with the global culture and time people spend in refining their communication, this is a huge saving because now it's able to create this polish without requiring an additional person for you to go and do that.

So I think it is, It is just enhancing in so many different ways and just the education sector I think people are able to use it in a much more effective way. And this is just the, the starting point. So I see huge, huge opportunity for AI and the transformation it's going to bring in for.

Every sector and the key is gonna be how companies embrace it rather than fighting it. 

Yes, of course. That's great to hear. I totally believe  there's so much things that AI can help us do faster. I'm particularly excited about  the, with program management and how it can speed up things and how it can make things more accurate.

So for example, like working with engineering estimation is always such a hard thing to do because it involves , you have to understand the complexity. There are so many unknowns. And so, , with all the data that we have, AI can maybe give us more accurate predictions of  how long something is going to take.

And then of course, , it'll keep learning, but I feel  it can support engineering so much with  capacity planning, estimation, resource management, and so forth. So , I'm excited to see all of those things  Put in place as well. 

Awesome. Yeah, totally. Plus one to that. . 

Well this has been a wonderful conversation.

Thank you so much for sharing such wonderful nuggets of wisdom with us. What comes next for you? 

So for me while I explore what is next for me, I'm currently pursuing my passion of nurturing leaders and growth companies to scale and become force multipliers. This is through both fractional C T O and executive coaching.

So I coach and advise executives and teams to discover and build on their superpowers bring clarity to their strategic goals and partner to develop effective execution plans. And as a fractional c u I help build world class technical teams, architect software products, and establish processes for operational success.

Wonderful. Please share with our listeners where they can find you.  

The,  most common and intuitive place for everyone is LinkedIn. So just LinkedIn slash Bhavini Soneji.  

Great. Thank you so much for taking the time and talking to me and coming onto the podcast. I wish you all the very best  and we'll continue to follow you and see all the great stuff that you're doing.

Thanks for having me here, and it was a great chat. 

Same here. Bye