Rachel Orston is the Chief Customer Officer at SmartRecruiters. Rachel manages all Professional Services, Customer Success, and Customer Support teams to help customers scale their talent acquisition efforts around the world.

Rachel has extensive expertise as a serial entrepreneur, tech executive and customer success pioneer.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role.

Apart from the first few years of my career, my background has been in the technology industry, specifically the technology services industry. I have mainly focused on the consulting and implementation of technologies which evolved as the internet grew into different types of platforms back in the 90s.

I am a very act of service-orientated person and starting in that industry, I always gravitated towards relationship development and supporting people. It was such a natural progression to move into that Chief Customer Officer role. The thing that is so interesting looking back now is this really wasn’t a role that existed when I started my career. I knew early on that I wanted to be an executive and I’m thrilled that CCOs are amongst CEOs, CFOs and other C-Suite roles. As CCOs, we are still a relatively small and new group; there are only about 6,000 of us globally.

As for my role today, I lead the entire post-sales function. This is everything after the sale from support, professional services, account management and customer success.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I had a couple of phases of planning my career. I think it’s something you should revisit often and ask yourself, “Am I where I want to be? Am I headed in the right direction? How do I feel about where I am?” I have asked myself these questions countless times and I think that self-awareness is really important.

These questions first came to me back when I was a journalist at Turner Broadcasting and had an opportunity to work at CNN. I had just graduated from Northwestern, which was one of the top journalism schools in the country. Landing a job there really couldn’t get much better than that! It was an interesting time, particularly because the internet was just emerging. That’s what opened my eyes to what I thought I wanted to do which was broadcast journalism, to online journalism and online media. At the time, I didn’t quite know where this would take me, but I knew that everything was going to be through the web and be digital. I just followed this thread and it snowballed from there.

I never turned back from this decision and I knew I had to look at what skills I needed. That’s when I went back to education and got my master’s at Georgia Tech because I wanted that technology background alongside a business degree. There were then various roles and opportunities that were given to me along the way that allowed me to grow and build upon my service experience.

The biggest turning point for me was in 2011 when my former CEO called me shortly after being hacked. He was really worried about their customer base and at that time not many companies had been hacked which meant it was a super scary time. The company was a fast-growing SaaS business and they had a sales team and a support team but no one that really managed customer relationships. And so, he offered me a position to come and help retain their customers and grow the broader support organisation.

I then created a new professional services and customer success team and grew into the CCO role that I am in today.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I’ve faced so many career challenges. I would say growth in itself just naturally presents its own challenges. Managing global teams was a new and daunting prospect for me and building out offices in different countries was something I hadn’t done before. This can pose challenges such as how to hire and retain talent and grow teams remotely.

I also faced challenges as my career grew such as at my first board meeting and how to manage investors. Women occupy just 20% of board seats globally according to Deloitte. Moving up in my career was also about how to navigate Fortune 100 customers given the huge scale that they work on. There are various personalities and business challenges that come along with those relationships too so navigating those was often a task.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I am fortunate that I can sit here and say I’ve had so many milestones both big and small. I would say one that really stands out was becoming a CEO of an early-stage start-up. I would also say that watching the women that I have hired grow into VPs and SVPs is such a huge personal achievement for me. I am lucky that I am still in contact with many of the women I have worked with along the way and still mentor some of them. Sharing the industry with such inspiring women is a great achievement.

I am also really proud to be recognised as a leader within the global customer success community and someone who helped build that community into what it is today.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I recently did a post on LinkedIn about the advice I gave my own children who are now in college. Although I first and foremost work in technology and I am very proud to represent SmartRecruiters, I’ve always considered myself working in the people business vs. the software business. I am a people person and I love that every day I get to work with people and for people.

My ability to navigate relationships and the ups-and-downs that come with this is a big part of my success. Relationships are hard and not all relationships work out but how you build lasting relationships that endure takes a lot of work.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Hone in on your soft skills such as your communication, presentation and relationship-building skills. These are so critical. I have a mantra of the 3 C’s: communication, compassion and curiosity and by that, I mean:

  • Communication – this is at the heart of how you connect with people and it is so fundamental to having a successful career.
  • Curiosity – so many people don’t stay curious and have a drive to learn. They rely on easy answers and fixes so they can’t grow and learn. We are in a copy-and-paste and move-on world. How do we truly build a learning and curious culture?
  • Compassion – how do you build empathy and put yourself in someone else shoes? I think this comes if you are strong on the other two Cs.

Ensuring you are always working on those 3 pillars will get you a long way in your career in technology.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, 100% and this is something I feel very passionately about. Just as an example, I have yet to be part of a board that has a female board member on it. I know there are some female board members out there, but they are pretty few and far between. This is why one of my next big goals is to sit on a board.

I believe that it is something that needs to be addressed in the education system early on. A lot of young women start to figure out and think about their paths as early as 11 or 12. If they are not exposed to leadership roles and we aren’t intentional about it, a lot of women are going to miss out on seeing the art of the possible for them. A lot of the work we have to do to bring more women into tech roles starts way before university. I personally believe that computer languages should be taught alongside other languages just as you would with a foreign language. Electing a computer language should be required and standardised in the school system.

It’s a different time now than it was 20 years ago given the rise in social media. It is now such a different way of growing up that we need to look at where can we drive more influence through the channels where young people are. For better or for worse, that is where they are getting most of their information and influence. How can we find a way to influence young women and be more thoughtful? This is where they are now building their self-identity and worth.

You can do all the positive PR and implement better curriculums but, you also have to combat the noise that is out there that is destroying their self-esteem. We need to look at the elephant in the room that women’s self-worth and identity are deteriorating with social media; it is eroding their confidence. It is a real tragedy. If we can’t fix that, all of the other initiatives will be made redundant. It’s very hard to be a confident and independent young woman in this day and age.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

This is a really systemic problem and it starts by closing the wage gap. We need to have better paths to promote women into key roles. There is a lot that needs to happen and there unfortunately isn’t one silver bullet. Wages and compensation gap are a good starting point but it’s also about being more intentional about how women are promoted in their different career paths.

Although I think the STEM movement is helping women, I don’t think this is the only area that needs support. I am a prime example of someone who doesn’t have a STEM background yet I am working in the technology sector. We need this across the board; we have huge gaps for women in executive roles not just in the STEM sector but across all sectors.

A 2022 report by Deloitte noted that the global average of women on boards sits at just under 20% (19.7%), an increase of just 2.8 percentage points since the last report, published in 2019. At this pace, the world will not reach parity until at least 2045, over twenty years from now. The report also cited a strong correlation between boards that have women and women CEOs. Companies with women CEOs have significantly more balanced boards than those run by men—33.5% women versus 19.4%.

It starts with the top. The faster we fill boards and executive roles, comp strategies will start to change. We need to drive the change at the very top and that starts with the money and how businesses are ultimately funded. The decision-making is made here and that’s where we need to push for more women.

There are currently only 21 per cent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

If I could wave a magic wand, I would love to instil a feeling of true self-worth, high self-esteem and confidence in all young women and girls.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

I tend to focus more on broader women in business resources as I think this is a problem that goes beyond just the technology industry. I am a big fan of finding your people and finding your tribe. I joined Chief and I feel like I’ve found my people but there are loads of other networking groups. Find peers and safe spaces where you can have great conversations with like-minded people.

Get physically out of your comfort zone and connect with women in your roles. I believe in the power of community. My biggest learning curve moments have come from sharing and being open with other women about the challenges I’ve faced. There is nothing more empowering and comforting than being in the company of other women and professionals. This is by far the thing that I would recommend the most, even more so than any podcast or book.

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