In Japanese, Rakuten stands for optimism and that is also the perfect word to describe their General Manager for Canada, Jennifer LaForge. LaForge has a strong digital background. She worked in the online travel space for ten years before joining Ebates, which was eventually bought out by Rakuten, in 2012. Never one to shy away from a challenge, she was thrust into different roles almost annually. While on maternity leave from her role as Director of Operations and Product, her own GM was promoted to COO of Rakuten Americas and asked her if she wanted to take over her role in 2018.
We spoke with LaForge in April in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A big topic of our conversation was about the differences in people’s experiences. Some have been busier than ever before, while for others, it has felt like one long day. As a leader, she is trying to understand the differences in these experiences and help bridge them together. While listening to her talk about her own career path and success, I was reminded of a quote from “The Last Lecture” by Carnegie-Mellon professor Randy Pausch. He said, “Luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Looking at Jennifer LaForge’s career path, truer words have never been spoken. She is refreshingly humble and candid. She is also this week’s subject for #WomenInspiringWomen.
Women are not always considered for leadership roles at tech companies, and yet you are the GM for Rakuten.ca. What steps did you take to get your seat at the table?
What is surprising to a lot of people is that I have a diploma in computer programming. I started this career thinking that I was going to be a web developer, that I was going to code. I have not really coded a day in my life. After getting my diploma, I decided that I don’t want to do this, I’m not a coder – I’m far too social. My first job was at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts on their acquisition and development team and I created an internal website and database and began organizing and digitizing all of their files into a database for the team to be able to access. That digital programming experience led me into travel and to a sales role at Expedia.
I started my career with an education that I wasn’t using, but it got me in the door. Then it was 10-12 years of understanding that there is a ladder, really working my butt off and being scared most of the tie. It was taking on challenges and being courageous. It was hiding and managing imposter syndrome and saying nobody else knows that I don’t know. As long as you can prove it and learn it, you are going to be okay. It was a lot of hard work, a little bit of luck and having the right people as my advocates to support and challenge me.
Reflecting back on this, I couldn’t have got anywhere without courage. I think there is a fine line between confidence and courage and a lot of people thought that I was very confident person, but a lot of the times I wasn’t. I was just really courageous, and that’s how I got there. I supported people, I learned from people, I made a ton of mistakes but I didn’t let that hold me back, it propelled me forward. It was a combination of things aligning, but they didn’t align on their own. There was also a methodical part to this by accepting opportunities but also positioning myself for those opportunities with that courage. In my 20’s I had a mantra, and when I went for interviews or had a new project thrown at me, I always said that I am young enough to fail. What I took from that is that if I fall down completely, I’m 27 years old and that is not how my story is going to be told. That’s changed now that I am older and have a family. To get to this point, I had to think, I might not make it, I might fail, I might screw up and look stupid, but it was better to me than doing nothing or feeling safe.
Everyone who has made it to senior leadership roles has had to deal with some disappointments and failures along the way. What have you learned from your own?
What’s most relevant, especially moving into this role, was being more humble and thankful for the experience of those failures and disappointments. It’s also gratitude for all of the people that I have worked with throughout my career, whether it was good, bad or really ugly. I’ve had awful working relationships and awful bosses. At the time, you think that life is throwing you this unfair, awful period of time and you won’t take anything away from it. That’s where you learn and grow the most. I had to think that I’m glad you are teaching me where my weaknesses are and how I can be better to get through it. I’m glad you are opening my eyes. That’s been my biggest takeaway and helped me to fall more gracefully. It also taught me to be kinder to myself and others. It’s realizing that we are all human and that you need to trust yourself and others perhaps more than you would like to.
We are living in unusual times with the pandemic. How do you keep your team motivated in this new world?
I think that communication has to be consistent, it has to be clear and very genuine. Nobody wants to hear that everything is roses when you know that it’s not. I make sure that I communicate at all levels whether it’s with the entire team and being very frank, open and honest about how things are going, where the challenges are and what we need to do. I’m also having meetings with individual teams to see what’s working and what’s not. This is without their managers so that they have an open forum. It’s about giving them the opportunity to express what they need. On an individual level, I have a list of people and every day, I am checking in with a dozen of them. It’s not about how that project is going; it’s about how they are doing. It’s about knowing who they are, the situation that they are in and the disparity of experiences. It’s letting them know that I care about them and understand what they are going through. A lot of my time is being spent at all levels of communication. What I found is key during this unusual, emotional time is being vulnerable.
We had a team meeting and traditionally we are going through our numbers, presentations and doing learning sessions. They always start with silence – no one wants to say anything. As a leader, I felt that it was my responsibility to say, “Guys, I’m having a hard time, this is what I am feeling, this is a really hard point for me and this is where it got better.” By leading the conversation and letting people know that I’m not doing so great all the time, everybody started opening up. It is difficult to communicate feelings and emotions, particularly with your team when not everyone has the same relationships. So, we developed a way to communicate without using emotion. It’s saying, “Hey guys, I’m at a 20% today. “ or “I’m at an 80% today, how can I help you?” The team really adapted well to that and are now telling each other when they need help. It’s a way of letting people share but also finding a safer way to share without a personal and emotional dialogue. When leaders don’t have vulnerability, it leaves you thinking that you cannot share, that you have to struggle alone and start to self-doubt and self-question.
One thing that really resonated with the team was when I said that you need to know that you are enough and that you are doing enough. I know that everyone is concerned about feeling like they are productive, feeling like they are contributing and feeling like they have things under control. No one does. When I said that, there was a collective sigh with everyone, including the men, which is important because they need that outlet too. As a female leader in a situation, men may not have the emotional skills here that they may have controlling a boardroom. This is where women have to step up. For women in leadership, this is our time to shine and show why we are important. This is why we bring value and this is how we manage situations like this.
Rakuten, as a company started using Lean In Circles. What has this meant to your office which is 60% female?
I have no role or place in a Lean In Circle. The reason is that I am a leader and people are different when there is someone in a leadership role present. It doesn’t create the same atmosphere, so I purposely do not join in and I let the team experience this without me. What this does for them is it gives them a safe environment to be unabashedly, unashamed of their ambition and open to expressing how they feel amongst their peers.
They can talk about leadership and what they like or don’t like without fear of that reprimand. That’s given them so much confidence. You see them stepping up more. You see when they have to give presentations – there is not that shakiness, and their thoughts are more organized. They become bolder. The best part of the Lean In Circles is allowing people to become their true selves as a woman without reprimand or apologies.
You are being mentored through the CEO Circle. At a senior level, why did you pursue this mentorship opportunity?
This is not the first time that I have had a mentorship. I’ve been blessed with people, both male and female, who have mentored me. One mentor taught me formal etiquette like how to eat at a formal dinner. I come from a small town and my family were farmers. Having someone to take me aside and say you licked your butter knife at a formal event was important. My style developed from that, and a lot of the time, it’s informal and situational.
With the CEO Global, this is the most structured mentoring opportunity that I have ever had. The reason I joined it was because at the top where I am now, it’s very lonely. I was new in this role as General Manager and I was acutely aware of just how much I had to learn. I couldn’t do it on my own and I couldn’t rely on my leadership team to do it for me. I was at a level where I should be able to find additional resources to help me grow – that’s my responsibility. There are a lot of men in the CEO Global Circle. There is also Elevate which is exclusively for women’s networking, but I wanted to sit at the table with men. It’s given me a very structured opportunity to lean on experienced people who have a very different perspective than my own. Oftentimes, it’s with men who help me remove the emotion from the situation, which I need to work on, and helping me figure out what I want to say a lot of the time.
You are known as a change-maker in the world of online retail. Online retail is more important to business now than ever before. Without having a crystal ball, what changes do you see coming our way once life normalizes in terms of the user experience?
We are holding out for a really exciting ride and it will be our time to shine. The majority of retail sales are still coming out of brick and mortar stores. There is a disparity in how retailers think of online shopping. There are still some who don’t play in that arena at all and there are some who consider digital their bread and butter. Now, with the millennial generation and smaller companies coming out, we are seeing that they are completely online. I think what’s going to come out of this is that you are going to see much more importance come to the digital world across all retailers. They are going to have to place more importance there. You are going to see more sales coming from the digital side and away from brick and mortar.
I also think that we are being forced to diversify our online shopping experience. For example, there are people that call themselves online shoppers, but they only shop on Amazon. Now, we are being forced to shop at different places because there is an out of stock or you can’t get delivery so you are forced to go to a different retailer. As consumers, we will diversify which is beneficial to all retailers. I have been fascinated by online grocery delivery. They are in the very early part of their digital journey and they are going to have a hay day. We will enjoy the convenience and there will be big growth in this category.
Women who can break the glass ceiling and get those senior leadership roles are inspiring. Who inspires you?
My female inspirations are Helen Keller and Anne Frank. They always have been. I’ve got their books from when I was a little girl. They are taped together and falling apart. They have been my foundation of inspiration. Obviously, Adrienne Down Coulson, the former GM of Ebates and the COO of Rakuten America has been a great source of inspiration. The respect that I have for her is limitless.
I find inspiration from every single woman that I work with whether they are just coming in the door and I see that hunger, ambition, the bravery, mistakes and the reactions of people who are at the top with me and growing. I find that inspiration from everyone because everybody has something that will inspire you. No one should be held on a pedestal.
What does success look like now versus when you first started out in your career?
Success used to be very personal. It was about what is my title, how fast I moved up, what do I know now and what have I learned. The common denominator is “I” and “me”. Now my success has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the people that I am leading. Are the people under me thriving? Are they growing? Are they developing? If they aren’t, then I’m not successful. That is the shift – it’s not about me anymore. My success will come naturally, if the people that I have been given the responsibility of leading are successful. I can’t imagine thinking the way I used to anymore.