HERstory: Meg Sakakibara, Director of Marketing, Unbounce
With over 11 years of experience, primarily in B2B SaaS, Meg Sakakibara helps drive the strategy and objectives for a team of 20 incredibly talented marketers at Unbounce on a mission to bring great marketing to the world. Best known for building high-performing teams, Meg has been instrumental in building out the company's marketing funnel and creating a team environment that feeds creativity and boundary-pushing work.
How did you break into leadership?
Early on in my career, I was lucky to have an amazing manager who had a strong work ethic and set a high bar for marketing excellence. I soaked up as much as I possibly could from her, and tried to anticipate her every ask and comment in advance. I quickly learned that paying attention to even the smallest detail was what pushed average marketing over the edge into memorable territory.
When she accepted a new opportunity, she left large shoes to fill. Even though I was much less experienced, my vice president of marketing (at the time) decided to give me a shot—and promoted me to Marketing Manager. I was in a bit over my head, but I was able to get up to speed pretty seamlessly with everything that I had learned from my manager. This opportunity set me on a solid path, and I was able to gain a lot of valuable experience early on.
What unique obstacles or challenges have you faced as a woman in a tech leadership role?
One of the biggest challenges I've faced as a woman leader working in tech has been finding the middle ground between being viewed as too aggressive and being viewed as too passive. It can sometimes be challenging to be seen, heard, and taken seriously without coming across as too pushy.
While I'm the first to admit that I may have stubborn and opinionated genes (thanks, dad!), I know confidence and assertiveness is often mistaken as bitchiness. The number of times in my career that I’ve been told to smile more or that I look ‘unimpressed’ is astonishing.
This is a widespread problem impacting ambitious women all over the world. It stems from a deep-rooted societal expectation that women should be nice, smile often, and look pretty. Much of the feedback I’ve received would have been different—or not given at all—if I were a man.
How do you influence your own career growth?
Having a clear goal of what you want next and discussing it with your manager often is critical. I've been fortunate to work for great companies and managers who are genuinely interested in my professional development. The conversations about where I am, where I want to be, and what I need to do to get there have happened frequently. It's important to have this dialogue multiple times a year—and it shouldn't be a surprise to your manager. Hopefully, they have been helping you get there and are making the recommendation on your behalf before you need to ask.
However, if you feel you deserve that promotion or raise and it doesn't seem like it's going to happen organically, then find your confidence and make sure you do ask.
Even when our actual performance is equal, women often tend to underestimate their abilities and performance while men tend to overestimate their abilities and performance. In a famous study investigating why more women weren't in top management positions, Hewlett-Packard discovered that "women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements."
Don't be afraid of getting shut down. In the worst-case scenario, if the answer is no, at least your manager will know where you're at and what you want. If anything, you should be more afraid of being held back because you didn’t even try.
If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I don't regret any of the choices I've made throughout my career. Each experience has helped me grow and learn. However, if I were to go back in time, I would tell my younger self to give my gut feeling more credit.
In my senior year of high school, guidance counsellors came in to help the students figure out which programs they should enroll in following graduation. I had always imagined that I would end up in business, until I met with my counsellor. I had been a strong student in all of my classes, except math—my weakest subject. When I met with my guidance counsellor, she recommended that I not pursue a Bachelor of Business Administration, since I was weak at math and there are lots of courses in a business degree that I wouldn't do well in, such as statistics, economics, calculus, and accounting.
Feeling discouraged and uncertain of myself, I took her advice and started university in a Bachelor of Arts. After a year of full-time studies, I had no idea what the heck I was going to do with a BA. I was taking courses just to fill the prerequisite requirements of the degree, not because I was interested in the subjects. It was at that point that I finally realized that I am the only person who knows what's best for me, and I should have enrolled in the BBA program after all.
Despite losing a year and a lot of money, I switched degree programs and started again. Yes, I had to work harder in those math courses—but I still got solid grades. It was a painful but valuable lesson to trust my gut and not allow other people to determine what I am or am not capable of.
What’s been the highlight of your career thus far?
For me, the highlight of my career was when Elastic Path decided to expand its partnership program, and we began to pursue Adobe as a strategic partner.
We hosted elaborate multi-quarter campaigns around Adobe Summit, which included emails, cold calls, online ads, direct mail, and even billboards. We had a gigantic booth, secured a speaking slot, and hosted a partner luncheon as well as a legendary after-party.
During that time, I was lucky enough to work with a team of unicorns. We were like a well-oiled machine—everyone knew exactly what they needed to do, and we all worked really hard. (Not to mention, we had so much fun.)
We definitely got some attention from Adobe—and, later that year, I was honoured to be named MVP of the Year by the executive team at Elastic Path.
That was such an amazing and rewarding experience, and now I always strive to build teams with that same level of energy, creativity, unity, and drive.
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“To lead people, walk beside them...
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence.
The next best, the people honor and praise.
The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate...
When the best leader's work is done, the people say,
‘We did it ourselves!’”
—Lao-Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher