As a partner and Chief Marketing Officer, Blair Shane helps define how Sequoia, and the founders and companies we partner with, present themselves to the world. Previously, she served as Associate Dean and CMO of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and led the 2008 relaunch of the California Academy of Sciences.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
Openness and appreciation. Openness to me means being curious and listening to different perspectives and ideas. It’s about embracing not knowing, and seeking context whenever I join a meeting or a project to understand the different angles and inputs that can inform my decisions. I tend to be a pretty fast-paced thinker and decision maker, so I remind myself not to close out options too quickly.
Appreciation is about people and teams. I’m a big believer that you can’t do everything on your own. Appreciating individuals sincerely and frequently has helped me grow really successful teams. Today, that might mean simply thanking a team member in detail for giving her all as she launches a new program. Or it could be thanking my husband tonight for taking our son to baseball so I could work late.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
Don’t wait and stay hungry. Maybe it’s the frustrated entrepreneur in me that makes me think this way. I didn’t start a company right after school—I wish I had. Don’t wait. Go have that conversation about making your dream a reality, even if it isn’t fully baked. Don’t listen to the voices saying you need to be better prepared. And don’t think you have to be the smartest person in the room—you just have to find the right people and convince them to help you. Even the most ambitious and intelligent among us tend to second-guess ourselves. That’s a waste of time. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and if an obstacle appears, change course and approach from another vector.
Once you’ve started something, staying hungry comes into play. One of the hardest things for startups today is that it’s no longer a sprint. It used to be you’d go public or get purchased in five years. Now, because there’s so much capital available, you might be private for 10 years or more. It’s become a true marathon. Staying hungry and maintaining the resilience to keep going that extra mile is key. The most successful founders demonstrate those qualities.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
Focus is a super-important aspect of my life and work. A few years ago, I was introduced to The Five Minute Journal. The thing in it that I’ve implemented regularly is identifying three things that will make your day great. I’ve applied that idea to my life at work and at home.
At work, my direct reports share three things in every one-on-one. It’s not just a laundry list of what they’re doing that week; the idea is to focus on the top three things they can do to impact the business in the next period of time. What’s valuable is that it’s not just the urgent things—it can and should be important long-term projects that require prioritization, focus and dedication.
I also try to apply the same concept to my life outside of work, whether that means being present for my children or going to Bikram. The top-three concept helps me focus, creating more satisfaction in my personal life and greater impact in my business life.
What don't you know that you wish you knew?
In my personal life, I would like to know how to be an extraordinary parent given social pressures, the influx of technology and the pace of change today. How do you help kids develop the right social skills and astute communication skills as they grow into adults? I’m sure it’s not terribly complex; it’s just something that I feel woefully unprepared for. I think it’s super important not only for Zoe and Luke, but for society at large.
On the professional side, I am fascinated by the potential of conflict resolution. I’m perplexed as to why, century after century, religious conflict and secular terrorism persists. Given the rise of technology and a general increase in wealth and knowledge, why can’t we solve those problems? I would love to spend time learning all the tools at our disposal to create peace, either as a large-scale effort or in my local community.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom—talk about someone who is appreciative and humbled by how much there is to learn. I’m also reading Vendela Vida’s novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. Others include The Road to Character, by David Brooks, Adam Grant’s Give and Take, and, speaking of parenting, How to Raise an Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
I had a great job at Schwab when I was approached to run marketing for the California Academy of Sciences. I came home the night of the interview and told my husband, Rick, “I love the Academy, but I don’t want to be the marketing director of a science museum. I like science, but it’s not my passion, and it’s a 150-year-old museum, and I have this really good job, and it’s a nonprofit, and it’s slower-moving, and who knows if I can be successful.” I had basically talked myself into not pursuing it.
Then Rick gave me the best career advice. He said, “Blair, you just described a situation where you get to build something from the ground up. You get to reinvent what a museum of the 21st century can be. You’re going to regret not trying.” And that “regret not trying” line really stayed with me. It’s the litmus test I’ve used since.
What unit of time matters the most and why?
For me, it’s an hour. An hour gives me enough time to not feel rushed, which helps me stay present with the person I’m with and listen and learn as much from them as I can.
Bill Patterson was the chairman of the board at the California Academy of Sciences when I worked there. He was an incredible investor and leader, in part because when you were in his presence, he made you feel like you were the only person in the room—regardless of who you were. That’s a tremendous gift to the person across the table. I’d like to make people feel that way.
- Practice appreciation
- Focus: What are your top three?
- Don’t regret not trying
— Blair Shane, Partner & CMO, Sequoia