This year, Stern Women in Business (SWIB) kicked off Women’s Month by hosting a fireside chat with Aliza Knox, former Google and Twitter executive and current BCG advisor and board member to several technology companies. Knox was born in Iowa, grew up in California and attended college at Brown University. After undergrad, she moved to New York where she ended up attending Stern through valuable foresight and, according to her, a touch of serendipity.
In 1981 Knox was working at Bankers Trust and living in the West Village when she decided she wanted to swim as part of her exercise routine. However, in true New York fashion, there weren’t many places with space for a pool, and those that had pools were too expensive or too exclusive.
At the time, NYU was building a new gym by Washington Square Park and the only way to access it was if you were a student.
“I had initially thought I’d probably get an MBA, but I was in the spring training program at the same time,” Knox says. “It was a lot, but I still applied to NYU so that I could swim.”
Knox’s MBA led her to a consulting job after Stern, which in turn helped her launch a 40-year career. Amazing what an itch to get in the pool can do.
In addition to her board positions, Knox is a contributor at Forbes where she writes about leadership, labor trends and career advice. She is now based in Singapore and just finished her first book titled Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Six Mindshifts You Need to Rise and Thrive at Work, a guide of practical steps and mindshifts that can lead to both career and personal success.
Over the years Knox has crossed paths with younger professionals seeking her guidance as a successful woman in the male dominated industries of tech and sales. In spending time with them she said she found the inspiration to write it all down.
According to Knox, when most of us end up working for someone else, whether it’s a person, a university, or an organization, “It’s really about how to make your job work for you. We’re all talking about the great resignation, which I think is, in fact, really the great re-imagination.
“Maybe if, after 40 years of working, I could write down some stuff that would help other people accelerate their careers or feel better or think about a different way to think about work, that would be a great way to give back. So that’s what I did.”
In the book, Knox details a story where she coached one of her children’s friends on how to negotiate her salary for her first job offer after college. She was so happy with the outcome that she made a presentation for her younger classmates on how to recruit and negotiate offers.
“I felt so good,” Knox told The Oppy. “This idea that it pushed her to go and share with all her colleagues who are graduating and say, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ Like it was such a fast cycle. That was really gratifying.”
She went on to tell another story about her colleague at Google, whom she brought to Asia and increased his visibility within the company, accelerating his career.
“I mean, he’s really good so his career would have gone fine without me but it might have gone a bit faster,” she said. “But one of the things he talks a lot about, that I’ve learned, is just helping your employees become visible because you just don’t bump into people at the mini kitchen in San Francisco or Boston or wherever the headquarters are and he’s really learned to share.”
Another leadership value Knox writes about often is empathy. Simple things like saying thank you, making people feel appreciated and sending small tokens of gratitude all help create a positive feedback loop and “a culture of accommodation.”
We need to think about other people, reach out, or acknowledge people’s daily struggle balancing work and life, especially during Covid, Knox said.
“There’s lots of studies that show if people feel good about their work and they’re more engaged, there’s higher profitability. There’s quite a few studies on it.”
With the pandemic, Knox said she sees traits like empathy and flexibility becoming a part of the larger leadership trend.
“Now, I think that business leaders are recognizing other things that could hit despite all of our risk analysis. So I think that most companies have probably tried to become more flexible in how they approach problems and be quicker to respond. So I guess those would be two of the things, more empathy and maybe just more flexibility.”
The pandemic also means a relatively booming job market, especially for soon-to-be MBA graduates, Knox believes. But when it comes to job search she cautions against the tunnel vision trap.
“Try not to be overly stressed about which role you take, especially because you guys are a little bit older than a young graduate. I think people worry that they’re going to be locked in, you know, this decision is so important. And of course, it’s important. It’s your job. That’s what you’re going to do every day. But I have lots of stories in the book about people who’ve switched and switched a fair amount.”
One example in the book, Knox said, talks about a woman named Lisa Wong, whom Knox knew from Twitter. Wong wanted to transition into product management roles, specifically at Instagram. She didn’t get the role the first time she applied, instead she got a job at a smaller firm. A few years later she applied to Instagram again and got the offer.
“So, I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s not like this decision now is forever,” Knox said. “If you think you’re going to like it and learn from it, you can make the decision and go for it. Then you can move after.”