Women in Business Q&A: Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software

Sabrina Parsons has served as CEO of Palo Alto Software since 2007. She and her husband, Noah, founded a British software distribution company in 2001 that was acquired by Palo Alto Software in 2002. She writes regularly on her blog Bplans.com about business planning and other tips for startups.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was lucky enough to go to an excellent all girls college prep school, Castilleja School, in Palo Alto, Calif. Going through middle school and high school in an academically competitive, yet all girls environment was a gift I wish all girls could have. I never encountered the idea that girls couldn't do math or science, or that we needed to look pretty in hopes that boys would like us. Instead I wore a uniform and went to school with girls who were all trying to get A's in every subject, and in an environment where girls did everything.

It was not until my freshman year at Princeton that I encountered anyone who thought girls couldn't participate at the same level as boys in a classroom environment. I remember other girls in college saying things like " I feel like I can't raise my hand in class," and not understanding why that would be an issue.

After graduating in 1996 I came back to the Bay Area where I grew up, and jumped head first into the Silicon Valley dot com boom. I never thought about gender discrimination, and I just ignored people who tried to make it an issue for me. I just put my head down, worked smart and hard, and got things done. I was involved in several startups, and worked crazy hours, but was at a time in my life when I had plenty of hours to do with what I wanted.

I didn't think about or even feel like I had encountered gender discrimination until I became a working mother. This is not because the discrimination didn't exist and wasn't happening, it's because I refused to see anything or anyone who wanted to try and tell me I couldn't do anything the boys could do. But being pregnant and having a child immediately presents you with physical limits.

Having a baby made me understand what it meant to have to make a choice about work or motherhood. It was there and then that I made the decision to change the norms in my office. I refused to leave my newborn in daycare, and I refused to stop working. I wanted to be able to advance my career, but also be the mother I always imagined I would be. So I just put aside any naysayers, brought my baby into work, and kicked butt at Palo Alto Software. There was a period in my life from 2003-2011 in which people would comment that it seemed like I was eternally pregnant or holding a baby. Yet during that time I was also growing a company, became CEO, and launched the new product that has become the rising star in my business.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Palo Alto Software?
As a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I gained a passion for tech and entrepreneurship. I experienced the struggles entrepreneurs face when launching successful startups, and wanted to dedicate my career to helping other entrepreneurs succeed. At Palo Alto Software, we help entrepreneurs develop lean business plans, pitch investors and manage their growing businesses better. Without my past experiences, I wouldn't have the first-hand knowledge I do today that allows me and my team to develop a great product and help people succeed in business.

I also experienced the Silicon Valley work style. I always knew "face time" at the office was really just BS, and that no human being really worked 18 hours a day 6-7 days a week. I was always a person who worked smart, and not just hard, and the culture of "living" at the office always bothered me.

When I became CEO I wanted to change the culture at Palo Alto Software and take the good from the high tech startups of the Silicon valley, but leave the bad. At Palo Alto Software we don't have foosball, or bring in dinner, or do your dry cleaning. Instead we give real benefits that matter. People who work smart and achieve their goals, but also have a happy life outside of work, are the best type of employees.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Palo Alto Software?
About nine months after I took over as CEO of Palo Alto Software the U.S. started to decline into the great recession. I had to navigate a company, running it profitable and cash flow positive as per the mandate given to me by the founder. It was a difficult time for all businesses, and ours was no exception. I had to batten down the hatches, cut expenses as best i could, and put the company into a position to survive the recession, without killing it. With the help of my COO, Noah Parsons, (who is also my husband) we cut expense by almost $20,000 per month. We found savings through the infrastructure of the company, and did not have to lay off any employees. Not one lay off. It was a hard and challenging time, but using a methodology of lean business planning, and forecasting and budgeting, and then managing actual results to the plan and the forecast, we were able to lay the groundwork to take Palo Alto Software to the next level.

As we made it out of the recession, our primary software offerings were still Windows-based desktop tools. I knew that the industry was evolving towards SaaS, web-based models and wanted to make sure our company was a leader in this movement. I put together a plan to start building LivePlan, our SaaS offering, and then strategically and carefully started transitioning from selling Windows based software, to selling LivePlan. Since then, our company has thrived and we've grown exponentially in size and revenue. We're now the number one small business planning and management company in America, and our flagship product, LivePlan, has had over 400,000 small business users.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
The tech industry is still very much a man's world. I've witnessed countless examples of "brogramming", which is a term to describe tech companies that have a culture of discrimination against female employees. I also understand how difficult it is for a woman to advance in her career, especially as she reaches the age where she's considering starting a family.

My number one piece of advice to fight this is to not apologize for who you are and what you want. Women apologize far too often, and too often are given the advice to change how they act and relate to men in order to be successful. As much as I love Sheryl Sandberg for getting the conversation started about women and leadership, I do not believe that a woman needs to "lean In" to a mans world. I think women need to be strong and be themselves, and not try to change how they negotiate, or act in meetings to get men to take them seriously. Just be you, don't apologize, work hard and smart (maybe even work smarter than men) and kick ass.

We need to ask Corporate America to change it's norms rather than asking women to act like men in order to succeed.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I can do anything I set my mind to, as long as I have confidence, I work hard, and I don't apologize for who I am. Before anything else in this world I am a mother. Next I am a partner and best friend to my husband. Then I am an excellent CEO, running a company that produces an excellent product that makes people better at business.

Understanding these things about myself has made me a much better leader and boss. My employees will also always put their families first, and that is the way it should be. If I treat them with respect, allow them to have the right priorities, they will be loyal and work really hard to help make Palo Alto Software successful. People like to work for a company that believes in them and produces a product that helps other people succeed.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't believe that parents should have to maintain a work/life balance, but rather, we should be integrating our work and personal lives. If you're truly passionate about your career, it shouldn't feel like work to you, and succeeding in your career certainly shouldn't come at the expense of your family life.

I've made work/life integration easier at Palo Alto Software with my kids at work policy. If my kids are sick, school is canceled, or our usual childcare is unavailable, I bring my kids to work with me. I also will leave the office early to attend swim meets or other events for my kids and finish up my work later at night at home. As CEO, I'm not the only one who enjoys this freedom. I offer these opportunities to all of my employees. I believe that employees who are able to work flexible hours and worry less about their home lives are happier and more productive.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the biggest issue for women in the workplace is that Corporate America was designed by men and still caters to men. It's still considered noble for men to work late and put their career before their families, but when women do so they're accused of being bad mothers. What's more, is that Corporate America's rigid hours and lack of flexibility makes it difficult for women to integrate work and life, especially once they have children. This is the reason why we see a lack of women in executive roles in Fortune 500 companies. When women reach an age where they are at a stepping stone to moving up in their career, they're also at the same age where they typically start having children. And most of the time they're forced to make a choice between the two. Men do not face these same challenges.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I'm not sure that I can say I have one person who has been my mentor. What I have had is an abundance of very smart, very hard working women in my peer group. I have been lucky enough to surround myself with women from my high school and college years that are incredibly smart, hard working and successful. I have been able to reach out to them when I am down, or help them when they are down.

I have felt them cheering me, and booing detractors. I have done the same for them. Interestingly, blogging, and social media have allowed me to connect with women in an intimate way, as they read my stories and I read theirs, and we reach out and support each other. I think the number of women that I know and that I count as my close friends who are extremely successful and taking the world by storm- all the while not letting corporate America dictate to them is inspiring.

I hope that my stories inspire younger women and help them see that they too can change the way Corporate America treats women.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
This past summer I was lucky enough to attend and give an introduction at the White House Summit for Working Families. During a panel about working mothers, Michelle Obama shared a story that I truly related to. She said she went to an interview at the University of Chicago Medical Center and instead of leaving her then-newborn Sasha at home, she took her with to the interview. She didn't have a babysitter at the time, was breastfeeding Sasha, and didn't want to say no to the interview.

She said:
"I thought, look, this is who I am. I've got a husband who's away. I've got two little babies. They are my priority. If you want me to do the job, you've got to pay me to do the job and you've got to give me flexibility."

It was really great to hear someone so influential sharing my beliefs. Women shouldn't have to hide the fact that they have a family. It's ridiculous to expect women to completely separate their work and home lives and it's also ridiculous to assume that because a woman has children she's somehow distracted or less valuable to the company. If you give a motivated working mother the right flexibility she will be fiercely loyal, and will work as hard, if not harder than anyone else.

What do you want Palo Alto Software to accomplish in the next year?
Aside from growing revenue, growing our employees and launching into new markets, I want Palo Alto Software to be known as a leader in the movement to change corporate norms. I want to have the best development team (regardless of gender) and have our employees feel that they shouldn't worry about their careers if they have children. I want to have a happy, healthy and productive team that enjoy coming to work every day and are as passionate about this business as I am.