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HERstory: Leela Srinivasan

Chief Marketing Officer, Lever

Leela Srinivasan is Chief Marketing Officer at Lever, a San Francisco-based recruiting software company that is transforming the way companies find, engage, and hire top talent. Previously, she served as VP, B2B Marketing at OpenTable and Director of Marketing for LinkedIn’s Talent Solutions business. In prior lives, she worked in management consulting for Bain & Company and spent five years in sales. She lives in the East Bay with her endlessly patient husband and three sparkling daughters.

How did you break into leadership?

I’ve made the move from individual contributor to leader twice in my career: once in sales and once in marketing.

First, the sales story, which took place in 2002. In my second job out of college, which was also my first and only sales job, I lived in Florida and had been doing quite well as an account executive. At our annual sales meeting that year, I happened to sit next to our VP of Sales for the Northeast, whom I really liked and respected. We got to talking, and I casually mentioned that, at some point, I’d like to explore people manager opportunities. He looked surprised and said, “Wow, I had no idea.”

Little did I know that he was preparing to open up a brand new sales manager position in our Boston office. He had planned to offer the role to the top-performing rep in that office, but she gave her notice immediately following the annual sales meeting. So, a couple of weeks later, he called me to see if I might be interested in moving north to take on the role. The rest is history.

The moral of the story: Don’t assume leaders at your organization can read your mind. Provided you are a strong performer, and you make it clear you don’t expect things to happen overnight, it’s healthy to talk about your career development aspirations. That way, your allies can be on the lookout for suitable opportunities for you when the time is right. For both sides, it beats the alternative of you having to leave the company in order to fulfill those aspirations.

Second, the marketing story, which takes place much later. I joined LinkedIn in January 2010 as the first product marketer for the Talent Solutions business. I had come out of management consulting and had an MBA from the Tuck School of Business, so my boss hired me with the expectation that I would be capable of taking on a leadership role. Six months into my time at LinkedIn, I was hiring my first marketing report. Incidentally, that first hire is still at LinkedIn 7.5 years later and now runs his own team.

What unique obstacles or challenges have you faced as a woman in a tech leadership role?

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my career to have worked for organizations which are genuinely supportive of women in leadership: Bain & Company, LinkedIn, OpenTable, and now Lever.

Given the news headlines over the last year or two, it is certainly not something I take for granted. That said, I suppose becoming a mother while doubling down on career always presents a challenge.

I had my first daughter five months before joining LinkedIn. This was back in the days before the company had a corporate shuttle or any offices in San Francisco. So, I drove 60+ minutes each way between the city and Mountain View, spent long days at the office, and didn’t typically see my baby in the evening (other than to feed her at night).

I was really fired up about my new job and the company, so I somehow held it together. But I went back to work with the intention of continuing breastfeeding as long as possible (hello, trusty breast pump). I quickly found that I couldn’t do it all. I was overwhelmed with the job and the commute and being a mother and not sleeping and all the things… so breastfeeding was the thing that had to give, for my own sanity as much as anything else.

After that, for three and a half years at LinkedIn, I made it even more interesting for myself by relocating to North Carolina for family reasons while building and managing a team based in San Francisco. I’d travel out to the Bay Area every three weeks or so to spend four days with my team.

During that period, I had identical twins who were born prematurely, so let’s just say there was a lot going on in my life. I got through it because my husband is a rock who gave me the flexibility to travel when I needed to, and because my boss and the rest of the leadership team were amazingly supportive.

How did you secure flexible working conditions?

In August 2010, I was 8 months into my whirlwind time at LinkedIn and loving my role. The company was growing like gangbusters. I joined when there were 500 employees. By the end of my first year, there were 1100. As paltry as it sounds, when you are going through hypergrowth, 8 months of institutional knowledge can be quite a valuable asset to your employer.

My husband and I knew we wanted to try moving to the East Coast at some point to be closer to his family. That summer, he casually began looking for a role in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina—and landed a plum role with Cisco almost immediately.

I remember feeling a sickening sense of dread about discussing it with my boss, because I REALLY didn’t want to leave LinkedIn.

The company didn’t have a clear policy on remote work at the time and no one else in marketing worked remotely.

Feeling nervous, I went to him, broke the news, and asked if there was any way we could try a remote working arrangement because I was nowhere ready to leave. To my relief, he agreed almost immediately that we should try it out.

With hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t that surprising. I had been working ridiculously hard, having already quarterbacked a big piece of pricing research, shipped a new product, taken on a significant role in the new customer conference we were about to launch, and worn multiple other hats in my first 8 months.

From his perspective, the prospect of losing his most senior marketer was probably pretty daunting. So, I relocated, we played it by ear for a few months, and I didn’t look back.

Of course, compromises had to be made. First, I quickly moved out of product marketing and into content marketing and events because, while I really enjoyed being a PMM, it simply wasn’t practical to do product marketing while located 2,500 miles from the product team.

Second, I had to agree to frequent travel, which placed some stress on my family.

Third, by not being in the Bay Area, I missed out on countless watercooler conversations and opportunities to spend time with senior company leaders and executives. I was still promoted over time, but would have loved for it to happen even earlier, and that was difficult when I was a less well-known entity to the leadership team.

So, my advice would be as follows:

  1. Earn the right to ask for a special arrangement.

    If you work hard and focus on adding as much value as you possibly can—if you can become what Seth Godin calls a linchpin—then you may just find that your employer is willing to make it work.
  2. Recognize that you probably can’t have it all.

    Gaining flexibility might mean slowing your promotion path, limiting your people management opportunities, or working weird hours to overcome timezone differences. That said, those compromises can be well worth it in exchange for that flexibility.
  3. Know that remote work is NOT for the faint-hearted.

    I was able to stick at it because I loved my job and was a really engaged employee. But, in order to be effective, I had to be highly proactive in many of my work relationships, so that people didn’t inadvertently forget to loop me into key conversations.

There’s also a certain amount of tedium inherent in working from home. I had many days which consisted of 6 or more hours of back-to-back conference calls. Though, being able to take said calls in sweats and slippers offered some silver lining. 🙂

If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?

Honestly, not a thing. There’s a butterfly-effect-type feel to my career and my personal life, with each chapter building on the previous one. To change anything might bring the rest crashing down. Instead, I see how past experiences (including adversity) have helped strengthen me in areas I didn’t expect.

For instance, I went to business school slightly ashamed of my background in sales and secretly wishing I hadn’t ‘wasted’ five years of my life doing it. I subsequently discovered that sales skills are incredibly valuable in life. Plus, empathy for my sales colleagues has undoubtedly made me a better marketing leader. So, from triumphs to failures, it’s best to embrace them all as learning experiences that ultimately make you who you are.

What’s been the highlight of your career thus far?

My teams have won awards and my companies have been successful but, without a doubt, the relationships I have built along the way—with colleagues, customers, partners, and investors—have been the highlight.

Something I took to heart at LinkedIn was the notion that ‘Relationships matter’. I’m truly grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to work with, learn from, hire, and nurture so many incredible people, and I do my darndest to keep in touch with as many of them as I can.

What’s your advice for up-and-coming marketers?

As an up-and-coming marketer, I advise you to be endlessly curious. Our field is constantly evolving, and we really have to stay on our toes to keep up with it all, from technological innovation to data privacy legislation to changing channels and customer preferences. It’s beneficial to develop deep expertise in your specific sub-area of marketing, but there’s also a lot to be gained by broadening your perspectives. If you’re in B2B marketing, network with B2C marketers. If you work in product marketing, grab coffee with your colleague in demand generation. Keep your ears open and always be learning.

Thanks to Jes Kirkwood who conducted this interview in February 2018.

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