Selling with purpose: How the sales-focused CEO listens, learns, and adapts

Tracy Young, co-founder and CEO of TigerEye, interviews Joanna Riley, CEO at Censia, about founder-led sales and leadership. Joanna Riley shares her journey from being inspired by her parents and growing up in San Francisco, her experiences working for the FBI and realizing her entrepreneurial aspirations. She discusses her various ventures, including building companies in China and her current role at Censia, an AI platform for talent. Jo emphasizes the importance of diverse hiring and how Censia’s platform addresses biases in recruitment.

Hosted by
Tracy Young, TigerEye CEO

Podcast Transcript

Tracy Young: Hi, welcome to TigerEye's LinkedIn live show. I'm Tracy Young, co founder and CEO of TigerEye. Today we are joined by one of my favorite human beings, Jo Riley, CEO at Sensia to discuss founder led sales.

Joanna Riley: Joanna, welcome. Feelings Mutual. Oh my gosh, thank you for having me.

Tracy Young: So you have such a, just such a crazy background.

The things you have done in your time here on this planet. Will you tell everyone just how you became

Joanna Riley: the person you are today? Oh my gosh, let's see. At one, I had amazing parents who inspired me a lot to become who I am. But I guess you're asking the journey to get to here. I was born and raised in San Francisco, which is kind of a magical place to be born, because I think it, it taught me that You could create the future.

And everyone was great, you know, ever, ever since I was a little kid, everyone created the future all the time. And so I think from a young age, I just realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I didn't know I wanted to be an entrepreneur actually, until I was not an entrepreneur. So my, I went to undergrad at university of Virginia and I was recruited to the FBI.

So it's my first job out of school, which I, I loved what I did. I learned really quickly that I did not love the bureaucratic structure. And I think that's really when I realized I wanted to be an entrepreneur. And so, you know, I wanted to do something that I could actually drive change and set my own pace.

And so at 22, I started my first company. It was an outsource sales and marketing firm. And. I grew that to 500 people and no idea. I look back and I, I think it was really about understanding. It came down to the talent that you had and the people I hired. And that was kind of something that stayed true throughout my entire life.

You know, when I was even in college, I was a rower and understanding that I wrote eights and even in that case, having. A team of unbelievable women that seven other women I never crossed the finish line without seven other rowers and one more coxswain. So it was, you know, those other eight women were key to every success milestone.

I think that was the case also with building a team and a company. And so after I sold that company, I. moved to China and had the experience of building a company in a country that I didn't know anyone. I didn't feel familiar. I didn't know how to speak the language. I was put into the situation where it was really about finding people and mentors and others that I could learn from and understand kind of.

where the opportunity existed. And so I sold that company and I went on to build my third company, which is the beginning of my journey into HR technology. And so the last 10 years I've spent focused on how do we change the way that humans get jobs and how do we change the way that enterprises find their most important and most expensive asset, which is talent.

So today I run Censia, which is my fourth company. My third one I took all the way through IPO. I learned a lot of I had a lot of highs. I had a lot of lows. And I think that really the person that I am today as I stand here came from a lot of the lessons I learned at the tough times, right? It's not like at the top of the mountain, you're like, wow, I'm really learning the biggest things here.

It's the journey along the way. And looking back on that and being able to make smarter decisions in the future. And and that's really where I think the success has come from.

Tracy Young: You know, every time I talk to you and only founders can do this, because founders know how crazy they are. And I talk to other crazy founders.

And it's so obvious because it's hard, you know, running a company. I'm, you know, I think on paper, I'm running my second company. You're running your fourth. We're also doing it in hard mode because we decided we found these companies with our husbands. Yes. So talk about that. Why, why, why are you so crazy? Why are you doing this again?

Joanna Riley: You know, I think that I keep telling people I'm in a stage right now at Cencia, Cencia is roughly about five and a half years old and we spent the first three and a half years just building our platform. You know, we're a, we're an AI platform around talent and we had to train all of our models for years.

We had to structure all of this talent data. We couldn't really, we didn't spend a whole lot of time with customers and talking to the outside world. We spent a lot of time building a platform and now I'm in the fun stage where it's all about customer acquisition and customer growth and team growth. It's not that, God, I hope it all works out.

You know, it's kind of like, all right, how do I make it work out to the next stage, and the next stage, and the next stage? And every stage is incredibly hard, but I think you, I always forget the first few years of building when I get to this stage. And so I think that it's like, it's, I mean, I can imagine I don't have children of my own, but I can imagine it's very similar to having children, you know, they get old enough to walk.

You're like, we should do this again. Like, they seem self sufficient. They're all right. Like, let's go have another one versus like, you don't do them all at the same time where it's like, I need to just make sure this. This child gets through the first six months. Oh, let me have another one on top of it.

And so I think that you do have to be Crazy, but I do think it's also around As i've gone through my journey One of the things i've loved is just that the people I now work with are so much better than I ever dreamed of possible That they allow for us to together pull off this massive vision that we're going after.

Tracy Young: Enough time passes by You just, you just forget how shitty it is, especially in the beginning, you know, before you have product market fit.

And it sounds like, you know, just, just like me at this company at Tiger, I, I just get to work with the best people and that is really crazy fun in itself and forget about everything else we're doing. Just being able to work with just only great people is, is awesome. So you talked about why the space is important to you. Maybe touch on like the changes you want to see.

Joanna Riley: I think that for us, you know, Censia is really about how do we understand talent at a very different level than technology allows today.

You know, it's kind of amazing. We've seen so many talent identifying talent is. It's, it's, we've always gone through different stages, you know, I will say my very first job that I got, which I was, I was sweeping the floors of a surf shop at eight. So that was my first job. But I handed a resume, which I have no idea what was on this resume, but I handed a resume to somebody on with, because they had a help wanted sign on the window, right?

As we evolved from passing resumes and help on at window signs, we evolved into job boards and allowed people to put jobs out, or sorry, we evolved into classified ads in newspapers and people would put out an ad and people would apply to that ad or they'd come to the shop to apply to the ad. Then we evolved into job boards where that was technology and using technology to distribute jobs and allow people to find them and apply to those jobs through the internet, which is incredible.

It gave many more people opportunities. And then the rise of LinkedIn came, you know, that was 22 years ago that LinkedIn came out and it was really about, you can put your, your work history out on the internet and allow people to find you for jobs that are maybe jobs you're not even applying to. Cause God knows everyone can't see every job.

Like let's allow recruiters to find people that fit. And LinkedIn was built as a SQL database for consumers with keyword search on top, right? It told all of us, put your job job out there and allow for people to find you. Well, at the end of the day, here we are in 2023, where Spotify is going to tell your next great song.

And, you know, Zillow is going to tell you if your house is going to appreciate, but we're still using keyword search on SQL databases and hoping to God that talent put the right keywords on their profiles to find them. And for Sensia, we believe that's completely going to change. And so it's about looking at talent based on what they can actually achieve, understanding what they've done in the past, where they're going.

We're really building patterns that allow us to identify talent that really can change and drive the impact of companies. We're super, I mean, we're very, very much focused on how do we create a different way of understanding people. And because we've done that, we've actually removed a lot of the inherent bias that exists in the technology, which leads to a much more diverse workforce.

You know, for example, women put 40 percent less skills on their resumes and profiles than their equal counterpart men. And so if you're a recruiter and you're typing away on a, a keyword based platform, you know, let's say just using LinkedIn or whatever, and I'm looking for people unknowingly women have underrepresented themselves by 40%.

And so I'm not going to find nearly as many because they didn't put all of the different keywords on their profiles. It's not like they're a keyword expert. And so, because of that, we have much less, we have fewer women going into pipelines or getting interviews, and therefore we're getting fewer women getting jobs. And this works across every underrepresented community. And so we really looked at that and said, how do we actually create structure around skills and meanings and titles and companies? And how do we start to understand people based on what they've achieved and what they can achieve versus Keywords.

And so what that means is that we've really allowed for us to inherit. We've inferred missing data across big demographics, and it's just led to a much more diverse hiring pool, and I think we looked at across the hires. You know, we can look back at the data, obviously, across the hires that were made last year in this in the past in 2022 across our platform over 70 percent of the hires were diverse, according to the company.

So diverse, typically gender and race. Yeah. And that to us is just like, like they didn't have, they didn't pick sentia because of diversity. That was just the outcome of who's the best talent. And that's so exciting for us.

Tracy Young: Hmm. I love that. Tell me about being a CEO. What's your role? What do you do? Explain it to me like I'm five years old.

Joanna Riley: It stands for the chief everything officer. And it means that we do everything necessary for the company to be successful. And our most important job is to hire people that are smarter and better than us.

And get out of their way so that they can actually drive the company into the direction it's supposed to go, which also the chief everything officer fix the, as the CEO, I would say my number one job is to drive the company into the vision that we're going into to continue to put us in an opportunity to, to achieve that.

And also to be able to find people that have the capability and the skills to do that. And I think the number one most important thing is to be able to build a team that Together we equal 100 percent but none of us alone can do 100 percent of anything or even 50 percent of everything we have to, you know, we're all experts at what we do and we're all different in what we're doing and therefore together we're a great team.

Tracy Young: So how does that break down in terms of time? If you were to just maybe split them into three buckets, how does it, how does it look like?

Joanna Riley: For me, I would say that I spend the most time kind of split across two big buckets, which are my customers and my team. I think customers, we have a big focus at Sensia where by focusing on the customer, everything else kind of gets sorted out.

That was, that was always the key. You know, we don't spend time. Trying to come up with the most amazing marketing before we have a product, or we don't spend the most time trying to come up with how do we have the coolest UX before, you know, we've got product market fit or we've got customer adoption.

And so for us, we really looked at it and said, let's focus on the customer. Let's solve their problems, understand their pain points, build technologies with the customers, and therefore be able to be successful as we went to market. And so I spend a lot of my time. Both now getting very strategic customers.

We, we do not look at how do we get tens of thousands of customers. We actually focus on how can we have hundreds of customers that pay us a lot of money and our, our partners for multiple years and really help them. Drive across, you know, all their HR and human capital decisions using data. So not just hiring, but talent management and workforce planning and compensation and re skilling and every other aspect of HR.

Tracy Young: You know, we had a conversation ages ago and we both saw ourselves as sales CEOs, which I don't think all CEOs think that way. Maybe it's because we're, we're sort of in like the enterprise software space, right?

Tell me about how you sell. Like if you were to teach someone how to sell, because again, so much of our jobs is, And when we talk to team, I always have to assume that a certain percentage of my team is trying to figure out if they're going to answer a recruiter's call or not, whether this is still a great place for them to work.

And then of course, they're selling to investors and selling to customers. So how do you sell? How does Jo sell?

Joanna Riley: Yeah, well, you know, it's hard. I think that. It's easy as a CEO to want to teach your team how to sell for the team to sell like me. Being a CEO and being a sales CEO is a really special place because people are so excited jump on the phone and hear it from a place of true passion and excitement.

I mean, There's nothing better than being all in on a company and feel like they could ask any question. I'm going to have an answer because I thought so deeply about it. But when I take that hat off and I think about how can I be repeatable, which is the most important part of being successful in my opinion, for sales and teaching others how to be sick.

To be to be good at sales. I think about it from a perspective of all right. I'm an individual. I didn't build this company. I'm not all invested in it. Like how, you know, how can I be successful? And I think one of the big things for me was. As I, I was, I was, I always look back and I think back to when I first, my very first time as doing sales and what made me successful.

And for that, it was really having very clear expectations, having very clear message that I was supposed to be communicating, like the simpler, the better, you know, a few key things that allowed me to be successful were understanding. The steps of sales, right? What, how does the sales pitch go? How do I tell a story?

How does the CEO tell a story? How does my colleague tell the story? And how should I tell the story? Giving the team materials that can actually answer those questions is like, it's so overlooked, but it's so enormously helpful. Like the first time I ever sold anything, it was sitting on a piece of paper and I like sat there and I memorized it.

And then I just kept saying it over and over on the next page. It had all the list of objections that I could possibly have, which every company. There's only, you know, 10 objections, really, like, I don't have time, I don't have money, I'm not the right fit, whatever, who are the competitors, like, there's only so many objections you get, and having, I had this, like, all these objections on the other page, and I was like, okay, I'm just gonna, it had the objection and how I overturned it, and I just memorized those, and that was like, That was it.

And I turned, you know, allowed me to become the person that today has gone on to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. I've bought companies. I've sold companies. I've been through IPOs. I've been through, like, horrible hostile takeovers. I've been through all sorts of things, and it's still these same capabilities and, like, learnings that I have to use.

So, I would say it's having clear expectations, having a real system of what to sell and how to sell and who to sell to, and then just... Consistent teaching and learning, you know, it, I, some, I forget sometimes that I had a, my executive coach the other day reminded me about how scary it is for employees to get on the phone with CEOs.

I'm like. I'm the most approachable person. Like, how could I be scary? And she, she was very good at reminding me like, okay, just across the board, this is a scary thing. They don't want to let you down. They don't want you to judge them wrong. Or like they could lose their job if they don't do well. And I'm like, no, that's true.

Like, she's like, yeah, but that's what they're thinking. And I make it that I am so much more available than they think. And it's, it comes actually from me. Oftentimes I set up reoccurring meetings with teams where I'm like, I promise. You guys see this in your calendar for the next month. Like I've set up two calls a week for the next month.

I'll bet you we end up not having all of those because you're going to totally get it by the second and third time. And it's unbelievable how just having that consistency with them is, is key. And then it helps. the leaders take over and do the exact same thing. And it's just kind of leading from example and trying to teach them with mentorship and with advisory around like, this is how I handle this.

This is what I've seen works and doesn't work. And then holding people's feet to the fire. I think people actually love being held to goals and having clear expectations, but we sometimes think that we wouldn't want to. We wouldn't want to tell them they're not delivering. And therefore it's kind of, especially in early days, it can be too loose around what the expectation is.

Whereas being able to say like, this is what I'm expecting of you. And all you have to do for success is get to, you know, get 10 of these a week and like, you're going to be successful. It's like, okay, I think I could do that. That's easy.

Tracy Young: Look, you you've gone through just a lot in life. Mostly because you've put yourself in these crazy situations where you building company four times and just lifetimes go by in that compressed time and things get rough sometimes.

How does joe get back on her feet when things are rough?

Joanna Riley: Well, it's funny that you're asking that question because you're one of the key people that's helped me get back on my feet and things have gotten rough in the past. And I think it is having great people in my circle and in my corner that I can turn to that are in similar situations.

I think having peers has always helped me through my career. And a lot of the time, you know, now I'm, I've been a CEO for so long that. They're like, yeah, but that's a CEO thing. I'm like, no, no, I actually think every stage of everybody's career has a group of people that are in their same situation that can really relate, that they can bounce ideas off of, that they can go to for help and advice and kind of thinking things through.

And I, that has been enormously helpful for me because it allowed me to understand number one, I'm not at all screwing up. It feels, you know, building a company. It feels all the time. Like you're like, I'm just not, if I was just doing this, like I could be as good as that. And especially if you get it, if anyone ever gets into like comparing themselves to others, it can be a very easy way of going, wow, I'm not good enough.

When I actually, by building that friend group and building that, you know, that peer group for me of other CEOs going through similar situations, it allowed me to really understand the truth behind. I always say the truth behind the headlines, like the story and the, the, the journey behind the headlines.

And also to know that we're in it together, that we, no one's story is perfect. Everybody's story is tough. Every single story. I've never heard anyone's story be like, you know what? It was easy. I'm so lucky. It rocked. I'm amazing. And I've never had any problems. Never once, like not one story has ever gone that way.

It's actually often. So much harder than I ever could have imagined their story to be and that's the stuff that really keeps me going, I think.

Tracy Young: I think for everyone listening, if there's one thing you remember from Joanna's interview, it's, it's impossible to do any of this alone. Forget about running a startup.

That's just like crazy in itself. Just life. It's, it's impossible to go through this journey alone, and I'm so happy to hear you talk about the support structure that you have. Okay, let's switch gears for the last few minutes. I really want to talk to you about leadership. What is your leadership style and what do you look for in your leadership team?

Joanna Riley: It's taken a while for me to understand what I am and what I am not. I always tell people now I'm, I'm really good at about 7 percent of things. So I shouldn't admit that I'm like, well, actually, I think I should because I'm like world class at 7 percent of things, but I find a team that's world class at the other 93 percent of things and then trying to really understand actually all of our different our own leadership ways. Like mine is much more based on I'm a very direct and, you know, I'm, I'm a very direct leader. So I'm very clear in what my expectations are and what, you know, how I will go about things, but I'm also incredibly passionate and vision driven. And it's a very much a, I'm a charismatic, if you will. And so for some people that are more analytical or study are like, it's gonna be a lot Joe. So adding a team that really balances that out, that can think for the person that is very much the charismatic, direct. But also bring in and represent those that are more analytical or more study and really being able to actually build a leadership team that solves different problems, but also communicates differently is something that's been a kind of big focus of mine now, and I, and I see that where we have to flex at different times and different stages and then each, you know, depending on a customer, even customers have different needs and they, they relate to others better.

And so kind of figuring that out and it can be as simple as, you know, my, my CEO and one of my co founders, he communicates through writing. I communicate through talking. You haven't figured that out. I communicate through talking. So like those two things, it's like, Oh, how do we find a middle ground? And then figuring out that strategy together is really key.

We also, you know, I, I've gone in and out of how do I track performance of the team and track what we're going to achieve? We use EOS, which is, I would say, an incredible for us, it's, it's, it works very well for the team to say what we're going to achieve this quarter and how we're going to achieve it.

Other people use OKRs, which is famous off of, you know, Google really was famous in building OKR. methodology, but I think having clear expectations and then being able to really hold people to them and, and figure out how together we go after winning them is something that is, I would say, the key part of my leadership.

Tracy Young: I'm going to have an opinion here just because we've gotten to know each other over the years. You are, it's obvious because your energy is just, you're a force of nature, you can't be in Joe's energy without, without actually feeling this, this, this crazy intensity and passion. So that's obvious because it just like, comes off you if you, you could even be in your aura at all.

You are aggressive, and I say aggressive in the most like, kind way, you are competitive, you're driven, you're ambitious. I think those things are obvious. What isn't immediately obvious is how good hearted and kind you are. And like the mix of them two, it's just you're such a beautiful person on the, on the inside and out.

And I'm just feeling very privileged to have gotten to like known you over the years and be inspired by you and have gotten your help as, you know, as a female founder and CEO. So thank you for that.

Joanna Riley: That means a lot. Well, I really appreciate it. You know, I think it's, we're all in this together and you know, it's easy to be kind.

Tracy Young: Yes. Like we don't, we don't do it enough.

Joanna Riley: So, oh my gosh, just reaching out to be like, how can I help? Or what can I do? Or, you know, just knowing again, that every journey is a hard journey. And I think that in a world that's so easy, it's so easy to be judgmental and it's so easy to be critical or Just, you know, competitive and I think that we just need some more kind people, you know, it's like we need and you're just again like this these comments from you are just like they've made my year like I think you are one of the most fantastic most kind people and you just you're so good hearted and you look for the good and everybody but you also are And I think this is where I'm very, very aware of everyone's greatness and power.

And you see that before everybody else. And I think that's such like a gift and it's something that makes those people feel more powerful and it makes them come into their light even more. And that's like a huge thing for any leader. And I think that this is where like, it doesn't take anything. That's like, it's in you.

It's a natural talents in me as a natural talent to just be kind of like help people out. And I think that this is where I'm excited for this new rise of. incredible entrepreneurs that believe in not having to be cutthroat or being ha, you know, evil or like not evil, but like just being mean or cold or putting people down, but actually like, you know, really encompassing the good.

Tracy Young: Yeah, yeah, to me. Yeah, sure. Lead, but also lead with heart. I'm excited for that too, and I actually don't think we can close this out any other way that's better. So, let's all lead with heart, whatever roles we're in, and I just want to thank Joe for joining us. Really always happy to talk to you and see you. I hope all of you guys enjoyed listening to this because I Sure did. Thank you.

Joanna Riley: Thank you so much for having me.

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