Women in Business Q&A: Amanda Lannert, CEO, Jellyvision

Amanda Lannert

Amanda Lannert is CEO at Jellyvision, a technology company whose interactive software talks people through important, complex and snooze-inducing life decisions -- like choosing medical insurance, saving for retirement, or managing finances -- in simple, fun, and engaging ways. Jellyvision's employee communication platform, ALEX, is used by more than 800 companies -- 72 of the Fortune 500 -- and helps over 5 million employees make better decisions about financial wellness, retirement savings, and employee benefits.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
How has my life experience made me who I am? I'm the kid of an academic. I am a constant student and a studier. I believe in history and liberal arts and culture and books, because the more you learn, the more you can learn more, if that makes sense. I still have more questions than answers at this point in my career, and that's made me a more humble, curious, student-minded leader.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure?
I spent the first part of my career doing traditional consumer packaged goods advertising--TV and print in the olden days of advertising--and then I spent three years in a new business development think tank, where I watched large companies innovate ... or try to innovate.

I learned a lot about how big companies set up processes that in fact prevent innovation and invention, and that was really formative, and why I wanted to go and work in product at Jellyvision.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure?
The highlight is I get to do work I'm proud of with people I like and respect, and I really believe that the vast majority of people I work with can say the same. What we're doing matters. It matters to the people who use our software, to the customers we sell it to, and to the partners that we work with.

The challenge making sure we stay grounded and focused while we grow. The scale at which we work is changing so quickly, and we don't want to get so big and so slow that we start to suck. And that's really hard. Growth is hard. The challenge is staying nimble and resilient when you feel like you have so much more to lose.

What advice can you offer to women who are seeking a career in technology?
Here's what I can say about advice--I seek advice all the time. I get advice from great mentors and books and the people I work with. What you have to do--and credit for this idea goes to a guy named Tom Haley--is find someone who loves you and will tell you the truth.

You're not looking for an affirmation. You're not looking for a "yes." You're looking for the truth-- about your business, your skill set, your management style, whatever--because when you have the truth and you're smart and you're humble and you're resilient, you can fix your problems.

You can fix any technology issue, you can change any product, you can get new team members, you can go raise money, you can live to fight another day if you actually know the truth and have the good sense and humility to address your challenges.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's a mix between trying to be a happy, healthy balanced person and then truly showing interest and support for what makes the people who work with me happy and healthy.

I take a lot of vacation. People who work for me know that I'm out of the office a lot because I celebrate it. I'll announce, "Two more days until I'm out of here!" And when I get back, I take care to ask about how they're using their time. I want to hear about my colleague's vacations and their families and their interests outside of work.

It is a good thing to have a home life that is loving and supportive because this job is hard. It's good to have outside interests that can both calm and inspire you. It's balancing and rewarding and interesting.

For me, though, it just so happens that reading about my industry and thinking about business in my space are some of my hobbies. The key is to do what makes you happy and to pursue interesting ideas, and as long as work is part of that, you'll be all right.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think women leaders are being tasked to do more, faster, but that's true for all leaders, women and men. It's a human problem. The stories of hyper-growth unicorns get a lot of attention, and it's hard to remember what great performance is as a CEO. I think there's a lot of pressure to get rich quick instead of building a lasting, sustainable, meaningful business. You've got to have the discipline to build something real. I think that's the challenge for any entrepreneur. It has nothing to do with being male or female.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I am so grateful for my mentors, but I also get so much out of being a mentor myself. It is really hard to spend 8 to 10 hours a day staring at the same business with the same challenges and to be incredibly nimble and creative in the way you think. Mentorship--hearing other people's stories, seeing other people's successes, hearing about their problems--allows you to bring a fresh and nimble perspective back to your own problems.

Also, when people mentor me, I remember just how good it feels to receive the generosity of others, and it makes me want to be a more generous person. It makes me want to pay it forward. I'm getting more and more open and honest about what's really going on, what we've been through, etc, just in an effort to be helpful. Then other colleagues are more open back, and we're both able to learn and grow. And that just helps everyone in our community from a business perspective.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I like Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, just because she strikes me as someone really bad-ass. I like Sheila Penrose, chairman of the board at Jones Lang LaSalle, because she said, "I want to make Jones Lang LaSalle the best place for women to work in a brokerage," and accomplished that goal by trying to make it the best place to be a human in a brokerage--it just turned out that a lot of women were capable of doing the job. Also, I do like Sheryl Sandburg because she galvanized conversation and got people to think and take a point of view.

And then I like anyone who starts--those are my favorite women leaders. I love all the female founders--especially of tech companies in Chicago--because they've got the courage and the guts and the craziness required to make a real big difference in the world by starting their own businesses.

What do you want Jellyvision to accomplish in the next year?
I want us to grow without sucking. I want us to grow in a way where we are fast and responsive and focused and capable, and, most of all, helpful. And I want to do it in a way that is nimble and collaborative. I want us to be high revenue-generating, but still friendly to each other and friendly to the world, and helpful to each other and helpful to the world. I want us to do good and be good in a very high-growth, fiscally responsible way.