Heather Laird Spain
Heather Spain

Heather Laird Spain

Career & Leadership Coach

Silicon Valley

Years in industry?
1.5 years since my “career pivot” from Google to private career coach. Prior to that, I spent over a dozen years in marketing and communications, most recently at Google for 6+ years, and prior to that, in the nonprofit sector. As a career and leadership coach, I weave together my experience as a coach and my background in communications to help professionals build meaningful careers and organizations build effective workplaces.

Who or what inspired your career in tech? 
In some ways, I’m an unlikely technology person. I’m somewhat of a luddite. I don’t love learning how to use new technology and it makes me a little cranky when my Gmail interface is update. But, I am completely inspired by the power of technology to enable people to connect, to share ideas, to access information.

What’s been your best hack ever?
I don’t like a lot of bells and whistles and maybe because of working at Google for so many years, I rely heavily on Google Calendar, Drive & Gmail to stay organized. I use Google Calendar to manage my work, personal/family calendars and for project planning (i.e. reminders to do things on certain dates). I’m a firm believer in getting things out of my head and onto paper (or rather, onto screens), so I use Docs on Drive and even just email for jotting down ideas and thoughts. Aside from apps/tools, I think building in buffers and breathing time is essential, whether it’s blocking off chunks of my work calendar to devote to a project or intentionally leaving a weekend day free of commitments for our family.

What has been your greatest career challenge and how have you handled it?
Two moments in my professional life stand out: First, when I first started at Google, I had no tech PR experience and had only worked at small nonprofits. Those first few months learning the ropes of doing tech PR coupled with navigating a huge, flat organization like Google was like drinking from a firehose. Needless to say, my training as a Cultural Anthropologist served me well. And the second moment is what I’m emerging from: leaving something secure and known to reinvent myself and build my own business. It has been energizing and inspiring, but there have been moments of fear and self-doubt and what the hell am I doing, too.

What is your biggest career success to date?
Perhaps not surprisingly, my biggest accomplishments emerged from my greatest challenges. I learned so much and am proud of what I accomplished at Google: helping to launch and tell the stories around key products at Google, and its leaders, culture and people, and building an employee-led grants program and engagement program to drive more resources into the local community. And though its still early days, I’m proud of the business I’ve built and the work I’ve done to get here.

Who are your role models?
Many family members and friends come to mind. But ultimately, I’m inspired most deeply by acts of kindness, generosity and resilience I encounter with people in my life.

If you could go back in time, what’s one tip you’d give your teenage self?
Invest in yourself. Create time and devote resources to your own career development.

What do you do when you’re not kicking butt at work?
I have two young kids, so I’m usually trying to keep up with them. The activities that keep me sane are running (ideally, on a trail), yoga/pilates, and curling up with a good book.

Flats, heels or kicks?
Do flip flops count as flats? 🙂 For business, usually ballet flats, or heels when I need to seem taller. For play, usually flip flops or retired running shoes.

Best career advice book?
A blank journal. I don’t mean to be flippant. There are certainly loads of great career advice books, and I’ve read and benefited from many of them. But I think the value of self-awareness when it comes to your career is crucial, but often not talked about. I think developing your self-awareness, almost like a muscle, to really get clear about what’s important to you, what gives you energy, being curious about what bugs you, and what lights you on fire, is at the heart of building and navigating your career. So create some space to be honest and curious about yourself.

Who are the women in tech that you most admire and why?
I really admire people who bring humanity into their work as leaders, who are courageous, and who aren’t afraid to start hard conversations: Sheryl Sandberg – for championing and amplifying the conversation around women, families and career. Irene Au – currently at Khosla Ventures, she previously led UX at Yahoo and then at Google. I admire her leadership, creativity and thoughtfulness on advocating for the importance of design in technology. She brings her whole self to her work, incorporating mindfulness (she’s also a yoga teacher) in her approach to technology design. Genevieve Bell – She was my Cultural Anthropology Professor at Stanford before she went to Intel. I have loved following her career and admire her for rigorously and fearlessly bringing in cultural and ethnographic practices to technology. She’s helping to bring an understanding of how people live around the world to Intel, so they can design technology that reflects those experiences. To top it off, she’s got a wicked sense of humor.

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