Editor’s note: Dalia Asterbadi is founder and CEO of realSociable, a pioneer in technology-driven marketing communications and sales analytics, and earlier was a co-founder of ClubRunner, a membership automation platform for nonprofits. She is inspired by technology and in her university years in Canada was one of only three women studying systems engineering – and it was at the same time as she was finishing pre-med. She recalls that it “snapped” her into place as she had to learn to deal with overwhelming amounts of change, learning and pressure to meet expectations when most people assumed she would fail. Since then she has been at the forefront of driving innovation and change in sales/marketing and customer success.
Q: What drove you from systems engineering to leadership and launching a company?
Dalia Asterbadi: I never really traded engineering for business; in fact, I believe it gave me a unique advantage. My training allows me to build frameworks around different needs, both at a macro and micro level. Realizing that solutions I built created influence drove me to take my initiatives to a different scale. I define leadership as someone who sees a solution to a problem and is not restricted by the standard process or limitations such as resources or budget.
In my third year of studying systems engineering at university, my father introduced my sisters and me to charities and encouraged us to get more involved in giving back. My sisters had graduated from University of Waterloo’s world-renowned Computer Science program, and all three of us were focused on using technology to make life easier.
At that time membership associations were leery of using Hotmail. We created a solution by collaborating with peers of our local volunteering foundation and then co-founded ClubRunner after the Rotary Club of Sunnyvale, Calif. asked us for ‘the product that boosts memberships.’ That was over 10 years ago, and the company now serves over 7,000 customers around the world in seven languages. We bootstrapped ClubRunner, and it has been in sustained profitability for the past seven years.
Q: That’s remarkable for three women. Was there someone who advised you?
Dalia Asterbadi: Our guidance was from our father. He was instrumental in building ClubRunner – an innovative model at that time. He came from an era of technology over 50 years ago, so he understood architecture and data from its true bit and byte.
Q: Tell me about your father and what you learned from him about leadership.
Dalia Asterbadi: My father was an engineer and specialized in computer science in the 1960s. He launched his career at IBM and then built several technology companies, innovating in financial service workflow management, document management and cloud design. He once had nine of the top 10 North American banks in his technology. Gaining that level of trust takes a steady, sound combination of vision, vigor and patience. He was humble about it, which I view as true leadership.
He is a genius when it comes to technology and business, and my leadership was defined through him. While growing up, he taught us to tackle problems and see technology in a different way. Through his mentoring, I also learned that a key part of leadership is the ability to take risks and look outside the box to find forward-looking solutions.
I was inspired by the many stories my father shared of what made IBM the place it was in the 1970s. I learned that success really comes down to a relationship, and those stories influenced me when I started realSociable in 2010.
Q: You enjoy creating solutions and innovating. Do you think that is a key attribute of a tech leader?
Dalia Asterbadi: Sometimes leaders build a kingdom or an empire; others have an ability to create an opportunity or redefine the problem set. I don’t see one being more successful than the other. Each has difficulties and each has merits. I think the key attribute to possess is that you’re able to be a person that can go from one area of the business to the other. Personally, I like to be the strategist and find solutions to needs and take it to design and implementation. But I’m not naïve to think that I have all the skills required. That’s why advisors are necessary to help the life cycle, so the leader doesn’t cut herself short. I think both rely on a very similar trait, which is trust in your vision and trust in the execution.
Very rarely do people have the ability to create the opportunity, take it through milestones and incorporate it. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did it. But they relied on their inner circle, their key hires, their management and leadership teams they knew would not steer them wrong. Their empires were built on a figurehead with the support of big teams versus an empire that was built strictly alone.
Larry Ellison was a fairly ruthless, calculated, strategic and brilliant person in operationally taking Oracle to an empire. We don’t see that very often. From start to finish, he was a risk-taker.
Q: You mentioned teams. What is your philosophy in recruiting talent and your leadership team?
Dalia Asterbadi: In my experience, I’ve had to play every role that I’ve every hired. It’s not that I performed the roles at capacity. But knowing the roles allows me to identify key attributes and skills and performance criteria necessary to fill that gap.
Additionally, I like to stand up an entire team where there are no gaps between people. Everyone needs to have an opportunity to fulfill themselves. I think it’s one of the most important things in building a company. The key is unity. That being said, it is essential to align them with the growth model you envision as market maturity sometimes forces you to play a different tactic until you feel there is a fit to fill a wider gap. Sometimes there is a fine balance between mind share and market share.
Q: What leadership skills are necessary to build a company culture?
Dalia Asterbadi: I typically say the personality of your company is based on the personality of your leadership. If the leader has a subconscious inferior complex, or a Napoleon complex, he will tend to create a hierarchal or political organization. For an innovative company, I don’t think it’s effective to build a culture around keeping things in line but rather influence progress and positive outlooks.
One of the key things I’ve always looked for in anyone I’ve brought into my organization is that the person is prepared to grow. If you’re not quickly learning and seeing how your group, your team, your goal can scale, you’re not doing anybody a service. That’s also part of how you build a culture. When you build a team, you have to make sure they become ambassadors at any stage.
Q: You’ve been quoted as saying that social is the new hello. And you’ve said that you’re visionary. How do you think social and customer success efforts and technologies will differ in two to three years?
Dalia Asterbadi: I believe business will go back to the new old-fashioned way. I think there will be less process and number-driven automation and there will be a relationship matrix that will come back. Knowledge will become ubiquitous and selection criteria will be based on characteristics that can only be established through a genuine and mutual interest.
One element where I think social will drive change is email. There will be less push and more pull through natural conversation and social chatting. I also think we’re going to see a lot of groups occur and technologies that create personalized ways to create a channel.
Also, discoverability will be opt-in. And product statements will come in real time. I think social applications and disruption will fall into different categories and be less of a noise factor. Reality is people will want a story, not random snippets of content or outreach. The journey is about mutual exchange and growth.
In the new old-fashioned way, we’ll go back to the principles of solution selling, and it will be truly about a journey. Relationship managers will be replaced by automated tools that, at each stage, will gradually help customers become aware of the life cycle so there is no chance for something to be dropped.
Competition is going to become so fierce. If a company is not aware of a customer as a true personality and truly aware of how they can react or proactively engage the customer, that’s where we’re going to see some hits.
Q: Do you have a top piece of advice for other entrepreneurs or leaders?
Dalia Asterbadi: I think two things are key. First, I enjoy collaborating with people. If I have one real job description or audacious goal, I want a chance to work with everyone who sees a different way to perform their role. As I advise others, if you believe in an idea, it could happen. Don’t be confined by the paradigm you’re in when solving problems.
The second key is advice from my father who said, “Do what you love; don’t focus on validating yourself.” So I’m also involved in philanthropy. I’m involved in a group called Engineer Girl, which I really like. Its goal is to influence young girls (ages 11 to 17) to have confidence to pursue STEM.
Usually the girls are afraid. We play a role in helping them plan their future in what they want to do. It’s not about affirmative action for women; it’s about the ability to not worry. No matter what they end up doing, it’s knowing that they are doing what they want to do. I truly enjoy helping others, and it’s a big part of the source of inspiration for me.
Q: How important to you think it is for a leader to be philanthropic?
Dalia Asterbadi: Yes, I do think it’s important. It’s really great if you have the luxury of being as generous with your time and resources as Bill Gates and can do it on a massive scale. I volunteer with a lot of local universities. I also volunteer with Camp Enterprise, which is for high school kids to help clarify their insecurities about their dreams. It makes you rethink your own dreams and reprioritize. Looking through a different lens at what you do is important.
Anyone should explore being philanthropic, even if it’s just as a volunteer. I believe giving is a form of taking. It’s actually an important learning experience. And it doesn’t cost you anything to participate.
Dalia Asterbadi, a pioneer in technology-driven marketing communications and sales analytics, is CEO and founder of realSociable, a company focused on social insight for deeper engagement with customers. Engineer, inspirational speaker and author, her latest book is titled “The 21 Immutable Plays of Prospecting: The Truth Behind a Winning Culture and Bridging the Gap between Sales and Marketing.”
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of SandHill.com.