I recently kicked off a series of Career Q&As with successful leaders. The goal is to provide practical advice and insightful lessons you can leverage to further your career. Next up is Ann Hiatt, a leadership consultant, and the former Executive Business Partner to Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt. Ann offers great advice on taking career risks, trusting your intuition, and effectively managing stress.
Ann Hiatt received her initial business training during 15 years as the Executive Business Partner to Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) and Eric Schmidt (CEO and Executive Chairman at Google/Alphabet). Ann now consults with executives of Fortune 500 companies as well as European and Silicon Valley startups and is on several advisory boards. Ann has recently relocated from Silicon Valley to Europe and brings with her a unique perspective on what it takes to succeed in business today and how to apply that to any organization. She is also a sought-after international speaker having spoken at conferences across five continents.
Ann is a native of Seattle and studied International Studies at the University of Washington before moving to California to begin a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley. She speaks Swedish fluently and Spanish conversationally among other European languages. In her elusive free time, Ann enjoys running, scuba diving and traveling.
What’s a book that has influenced your career or life, and why?
I love anything written by Adam Grant. His book, Originals, is a favorite of mine since I’ve spent 15 years of my career surrounded by and collaborating with truly original thinkers and am fascinated by them. His insights and research really ring true for me. Also, he’s a spectacular human being. If you’re not already following him, you should!
Was there an experience you had before age 21 that shaped who you are? What was it?
My first job ever was at a startup in Redmond, Washington in 1995 (back before anyone knew what a startup was). I learned from the entrepreneur founders (who were also brothers) what it’s like to start your own company, land your first clients and grow your first team. I had no idea how much that job was preparing me for my future career at Amazon and Google and beyond.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
I almost killed Jeff Bezos two months after being hired at Amazon in 2002. Seriously. Luckily that isn’t the end of the story or my career. While it was the worst day of my professional life, it taught me that no matter how spectacularly you fail you always learn something. When the helicopter that I hired for Jeff Bezos crashed with him inside I learned that I am really good under pressure and with crisis management. I just hope to never need to use that skill in that way again!
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?
I would say to take big risks early on. Don’t be afraid to ask the “dumb” questions or to show lots of ambition. You will never ever receive anything if you don’t ask, so be bold! I wish I had learned that lesson 10 years earlier than I did. Oh, and max out your 401k savings contributions every year—especially in those early years. Compound interest is your best friend!
What are the bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I have been lucky to work in very innovative companies and teams. With that said, there have been times when even those people told me no when I wanted advancement. I had to trust my gut, rather than listening to advice to be happy with what I had, and push harder to find creative ways to accomplish my growth goals. Eventually, that meant taking the scary step of starting my own venture.
If you could go back in time to when you were entering the workforce and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be bold! Aim much, much higher than you can currently imagine.
What’s one of your proudest professional accomplishments?
Most of my proudest moments involve creating success within impossible circumstances. At the moment that means building a 6-figure consulting business in less than a year after leaving Google—all while in a new country, language and network. I love helping global entrepreneurs thrive!
What’s something unexpected that has happened in your career, and how have you responded?
My very first job out of university was working for Jeff Bezos at Amazon. That came very unexpectedly and literally changed the course of my life. I learned not to fear failure, to be bold, and to trust my instincts.
Since entering the workforce, how have you changed or transformed?
When I started at Amazon in 2002 I was timid and deferential. That didn’t last long! In order to survive in that environment, you have to be daring and confident. Those lessons served me well when I left Amazon to start a Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and then in my 12-year career at Google as the Chief-of-Staff to the CEO. Now as an independent consultant I use those skills and experiences every day with my CEO clients. I am so blessed to have learned to be proud and confident whether I’m on stage, coaching a CEO or in a one-on-one mentoring session. I still have moments of doubt and imposter syndrome, like most high performing people, but I’ve learned how to combat.
When have you felt stuck in your career? How did you break out of it or push forward?
I loved every minute of working at Google but eventually decided to leave in year 12 because there weren’t opportunities for me to grow there. I had hit a ceiling that felt arbitrary and I wanted a bigger challenge. I realized that that kind of challenge would only come if I took a leap of faith in myself and started my own company. It’s been both terrifying and very satisfying.
Who is one person you admire? Why do you admire them?
The notorious RBG! Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a pioneer who has broken glass ceilings for so many people. She is brilliant, clever, quirky and unapologetically herself.
What habit or practice helps you manage stress?
I had a full-on midlife crisis a few years ago and found that exercise is my very best form of therapy. (Although I did talk therapy as well!) I find now, even when life is happy and calm again, that I need protected time every single day to move my energy out of my head and into my body. I need the sunshine and fresh air and relentless pace to keep me grounded so that I can then do my best mental work. In true Silicon Valley form, several years ago I signed up to run a half marathon to raise money for charity before I had ever even run a 5K. I am happy to say that I completed that goal (several times over now) and felt very strong and proud at the end—which was exactly what I needed at that moment in my life. I have continued these physical challenges to myself which helps my drive and confidence in all areas of my life.