We’re passionate about the world of work and how we can make it better for everyone.
That’s we launched this interview series where we pick the brains of experienced leaders, business owners, managers, and individual contributors to get their thoughts on how we can collectively build better workplaces.
Join us in our next installment below as Susan Nolan—Chief Operating Officer at LearnUpon—shares her insights with us.
We’d love to get to know you a bit better, tell us a bit about your backstory.
I grew up in Bray in Ireland with parents who were both teachers in local schools and a brother who also chose teaching as his career.
When I was trying to decide what to study in college to start my own career, my father shared the advice that, if he could go back and do it all over again, he would go into technology instead of teaching.
As a result, I chose a four-year Information Technology degree at Trinity learning how to program in Java and design information systems.
Twenty years later, I’m the COO of a technology company that provides a Learning Management System (LMS) for corporate learning at scale.
In the end, I listened to my father’s advice and landed on his dream path of combining both technology and education!
At the end of college, I knew I was capable of developing and designing information systems, but I felt a stronger passion for creating a great experience for customers using those systems.
Because of this, I took on customer-facing roles in technology companies across various industries after college.
In 2014 I was ready for a new challenge and, through sheer luck, I was introduced to Brendan Noud, LearnUpon’s co-founder and CEO.
LearnUpon had eight employees at the time and was looking for an operations manager to help scale the business.
After talking with Brendan, his vision to build an LMS that puts both the customer and the learner first really resonated with me.
I knew then that Brendan and his co-founder/CTO, Des Anderson, were building a fast-paced and ambitious company, with a great product vision and unique culture.
I found myself at home here at LearnUpon and on a new journey where I’ve continued to learn and grow for the past eight years.
If we were to ask a friend to describe your personality to us, what would they say?
I asked a few friends how they would describe me before answering this question and two consistent descriptions came through: determined and strong.
On the determined piece, when I set my focus on something, I make a plan and commit to it.
As far as being strong goes, when I face setbacks, my resilience allows me to bounce back and adapt as needed.
Thinking back to your career journey, what’s an interesting story that stands out?
I’m lucky to work at a learning company and both our solution and culture reflect the view that it’s essential to always be learning.
With this, I’m a firm believer that we should always find opportunities to learn from our own actions and the interactions we have with those around us, so, naturally, the story that came to mind here is one that impacted me along my own learning journey.
A fantastic L&D college recently shared the concept with me that “leaders control the weather in their teams,” and this story is exactly about that.
A few years ago, I was leading our finance function here at LearnUpon and we received a customer email about their subscription that I was copied into.
I immediately went into problem-solving mode and jumped into Slack to message the dedicated Customer Success Manager (CSM) for that customer to offer up my thoughts on the issue and solution.
The CSM was in the office and came over to me laughing. As soon as they saw the "Susan is typing…" note in Slack they said to themselves “Please don’t be for me,” knowing that my message was likely about the customer email that just came through.
We joked about it and solved the customer issue together during a quick chat. However, upon reflection on the interaction after it happened, that one engagement delivered such a powerful insight to me.
I thought an easy solution would be quickly responding in Slack, but this may in fact have not been seen as a positive engagement to my colleague on the receiving end.
I want all of my interactions in the workplace to be positive ones, and that day I learned the importance of taking a step back to consider my communication style and my presence in all the different forums—from personal 1:1 interactions, to group meetings, to Slacks, to emails—before delivering any type of communication.
How I show up and engage may impact the weather for someone else, so it’s important to ensure we’re setting the right climate for each scenario.
What’s the most impactful lesson you've learned over your career thus far?
The most impactful lesson of advice I’ve received in recent years was from a mentor who once said to me “Isn’t life a wonderful thing that as human beings we can reset ourselves to try again?”
I look back on tasks that I would have approached differently if I could start again, or at a conversation I wish I’d managed better, and the important thing is to take time to reflect, forgive yourself and apologize if needed, then try again.
We all make mistakes, but if we’re not recognising those mistakes then we’re not opening ourselves up to learn!
Thanks for giving us some insight into who you are! Let’s jump into things. When you hear the phrase “build a better world of work”, what comes to mind?
When I hear the phrase “build a better world of work,” what springs to mind is cultivating diverse teams to foster collaboration.
Each one of us can do what we set our minds to. However, we’re all unique, with different experiences and perspectives, which means that we all do things differently and have varied strengths.
Take programming for example—I learned in college that I had the skill to do this, however I had to exert more energy to do it well.
On the other hand, interacting with customers (at LearnUpon, my customers are my fellow employees) naturally energizes me, so I prefer to focus on that aspect of our work here over programming—which is an area other colleagues of mine really excel in.
My point being, teams collaborate best when everyone brings something different to the table that complements the overall team.
A better world of work is striving to build a diverse team where everyone shows up with different strengths and perspectives. Together, these unique backgrounds can accomplish amazing things.
For you, what’s the main blocker you see as standing in the way of building a better world of work?
While building teams, it’s possible to fall into the habit of gravitating towards people that are like us. To avoid this, it's important to continuously assess our existing team’s capabilities to identify opportunities for new, diverse voices to complement them.
What’s one thing within our control that we can practically do to build a better world of work today? And, how do you recommend going about it?
Taking the time to really understand our fellow team members, from both a work and personal perspective, goes a long way in building a better world of work.
As I mentioned before, we all have different preferences and come from different backgrounds, so learning about each other, including what takes more energy, what motivates us, and how we perceive praise and constructive feedback, can practically help us get there.
Can you share one thing you’ve experienced, seen, or read about that is leading us towards a better world of work?
Recently, we came together as a leadership team and did the Insights Discovery exercise where everyone completes a list of questions and receives a profile type to understand their working style, strengths, and value they bring to the team.
We had a leadership coach talk through styles with us and then we met as a group to discuss what we’re strong at, opportunities for improvement, and how all our profiles connected.
It was interesting to learn that all of our executive team members had different profiles, and it backed up my point above that diversity of backgrounds, opinions, perspectives, and styles has the ability to build a better world of work.
We’re better when we’re all coming with our diverse thinking and experiences and collaborating as a unique group.
I’m curious, thinking about building a better world of work, is there a company and/or leader who stands out to you as someone we should follow? If so, what are they up to?
I really like Kim Scott and reading her book Radical Candor a few years ago and her philosophy of caring personally while challenging directly changed how I lead in the workplace.
Thanks Susan! How can our readers follow your work?
Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.
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