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Getting to the C-level isn’t common for women in any industry. With a few exceptions, rising to the top of a technology firm is even more uncommon. As CEO of software company SysAid Technologies, Sarah Lahav is one of those rare women.
Lahav began her career at SysAid in 2003 as VP Customer Relations. She was the fledgling company’s first employee. As part of her customer relations role Lahav developed SysAid’s Certification Training Program. In early 2013, she was named CEO. In this position, Lahav uses her interpersonal skills and technical expertise to consult with customers around the world.
As a CEO of a technology company with a background in industrial engineering, Lahav has learned a few things about being successful in a male-dominated field. She was happy to share some of her insights with me.
Over the course of your career, what was your biggest professional challenge?
Not being a native English speaker, by far the hardest thing I have ever had to do is stand up in front of a huge audience and deliver a presentation in English. Outside of my role of CEO I had never even had to give a presentation in front of an audience of strangers before, let alone in English. Yes I had presented internally, but it’s quite a different experience outside of the office. What if I got my words mixed up? What if I forgot a particular English word?
I admit I was very nervous, but then before I went on stage I realized that I couldn’t really mess the presentation up. If I said something wrong, the chances were I would notice before the audience did. If I couldn’t remember a word, I could simply say something else. What was there to be nervous about? If all else failed I could just laugh at myself. A sense of humor and the ability to laugh at yourself gets you a long way in any business situation.
Thankfully my presentation was very well received and I came out of the session feeling immensely proud of myself. It just goes to show that you can do anything if you’re willing to try.
There’s a lot of talk today about balancing our professional and personal lives, what was your greatest personal challenge?
Maintaining a work/life balance. Contrary to both stereotypes and opinion, women can have a family and be successful businesswomen at the same time. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.
I run a very successful company and still find time to play with my kids, to put them to bed . . . to be a mother. My husband (who is also a CEO) and I have worked hard to create a work/life schedule that works for us. Two nights a week I stay late in the office, whilst my husband leaves early to collect the children from school. The other three nights a week we do it the other way around. I don’t let work interfere with the precious time that I have with my children, and I avoid taking calls/meetings at home in the evenings until they are in bed. I’d much rather take a conference call with the US at 11.30pm at night then at 6.30pm in the evening when I could be playing with my children.
As you look back, what was your greatest success?
Receiving praise and adoration from our customers. Nothing fills me with a greater sense of pride and feeling of success. I’m addicted to our customers – nothing in my job beats being able to talk directly to customers and share in both their joys and pains with our product. Our customers are my family. My family are my greatest success.
What was your biggest surprise in business?
The people. We’re a technology company and technology is advancing at an increasingly rapid rate. No doubt we’ll be able to do something in a few months time that we never dreamed possible. Just look at the internet as an example. But do you know what is at the heart of all these technology advancements? People.
It’s people that make it happen. People created the internet, people keep it going by using it. It was people that created SysAid and it’s the people that use it that keep us in business. We (as an industry) spend so long talking about how amazing technology is, and yet we seemed to forget to talk about how amazing the people are creating and using it. So that is my answer, people continue to surprise me everyday and not just when it comes to technology advances. Our employees, our customers, our prospects, our competitors . . . there is always someone out there who is going to surprise you with the remarkable things that they can do.
What advice do you have for women trying to break in and then work in a “male dominated” field?
The same advice I would offer a man – work hard, go above and beyond your job description if you want to make a difference, and ensure you have a sense of humour. The last one is particularly important, because if you can’t laugh at yourself when someone is making inappropriate jokes or when you make a mistake, then work life is going to be tough.
When it comes to stereotypes, be it “women in IT” or “IT people are boring”, remember not to let perceptions define who you are. Challenge stereotypes when they pose a problem and rise above them.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Never ever forget your sense of humour.