Inspirational Woman: Colleen Berube | Chief Information Officer, Zendesk

Colleen Zendesk

As Zendesk’s chief information officer, I am reshaping Zendesk’s benchmark for modern IT at scale and a customer-centric workforce.

I’m passionate about the role of both customer and employee experience in the digital age.

I have more than 20 years of experience across multiple industries and in an ever-changing technology landscape, helping companies to put their customers at the centre whilst creating work environments focused on collaboration and open communication.

Previously, I was an executive in residence with PwC and worked on a range of commercial and internal initiatives. I was also vice president of IT for Adobe Systems, and have also held executive-level IT roles at Cisco Systems, Palm, and SAP.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

While we all have goals, I think it’s important to recognise that even when we feel clear as to where we want to go, the path to get there is rarely a straight one. What might feel like a failure or a setback, or even a detour, may still be taking you in the right direction.  I’d say this is true of myself.

While I have always known that I wanted to lead, I never sat down and planned my career path – I had aspirations and goals, and I wanted to continually push myself to learn more, but the road to getting there was certainly not a direct one, and I was ok with that. I looked to continuously grow myself, to take risks and to make an impact and I believed I would achieve my goals when I was ready.  It’s the diversity in experience along the way and the growth that I gained from taking those divergent paths that prepared me to become a CIO.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

We all face challenges along the way.  It’s important to remember that we are human, and we are on a life journey – you can’t think of your career in isolation. One of the challenges I faced, as many do, has been juggling family life with the demands of my working life. We all want to get it right, and I know first-hand that this is not an easy thing to do.

In saying that, early on in my career, I attended a talk with a keynote from a fairly prominent CEO and I’ll never forget what she said. She said that the problem with work-life balance is that everyone focuses on the balance. She explained that instead, she thinks a good ‘balance’ is about recognising what’s important at any given time. Sometimes the family will have to come first and work will have to give. Sometimes, work will be more important, and we will rely upon the support of our families. This way of thinking has helped me make decisions that I could live with and also helped me put the right perspective on it overall. It helps to contextualise priorities and make better decisions.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

For me, big achievements come in all kinds of flavors. Of course, I am extremely proud of the role my leadership played in bringing Adobe to the cloud. But to be honest, the examples that I am truly most proud of are those where I made an impact on people.  I think back to a note from one of my team members when I left one of my previous roles “I wish you could see the difference you’ve made in my life through my eyes.” How can you beat that!?

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?  

Something that I didn’t always understand in my career was the value and importance of having a clear sense of your goals and priorities – then letting those principles guide how you want to work and live in alignment with that. It took time, but as my career developed, I realised that if you are clear with yourself on what matters most, and you let your decisions flow from that, your actions will better align to your intentions and you will be better prepared to achieve your goals and desires.  You will even perform better.

Earlier in my career, I believed that working harder would demonstrate my commitment and would make me more successful. I was two years into a particular job and I found myself working all day Saturday, all day Sunday and staying up at night until 11pm or beyond to keep up or get ahead.

This pace of work not only impacted me, but also my family. So, I made a decision that I needed to create space and dedicated time to recover and not be constantly working. At first,I thought that everyone would immediately feel that I wasn’t pulling my weight. However, I started to receive comments at work about what a great job I was doing. I was actually performing better and showing up better. I was more balanced, felt happier, my family was happier and it showed in my work.

I’ve carried that lesson with me throughout my career since – recognising that we are in control of our priorities and need to be clear with ourselves on what matters most in order to perform better and succeed.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee? 

I am both a mentor and a mentee. Mentorship can help us lift each other up and celebrate differences. I believe that all of us are capable of and can benefit from some kind of mentorship. We all have our very own cheerleaders, mentors and teachers from when we were younger to thank for the guidance they gave us, supporting our growth – and it’s important to pay it forward and inspire the next generation. Mentorship isn’t just about value for the mentee, though. As a mentor, you continue to learn as well.  One thing I have done is focused on being the person to connect the dots. It’s helpful to identify behaviors or skills you see that you want to learn from others. You don’t have to have a formal mentorship relationship to do this. Also, remember that you can learn from both people who do things poorly as much as you can learn from them doing it well.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Times are changing for women. However, there are still inequalities. Many women still earn less than their male counterparts, there’s been a decline in female university graduates with STEM degrees, and in too many cases, women are simply not holding senior positions.

Throughout my career, I’ve had opportunities to speak at certain events, based on the fact that I’m a woman, in a senior position, in the technology sector. To be honest, I’ve resented being invited purely based on gender, rather than on my ability and my work. It is for this exact reason, that I set myself the goal to ensure I attend events, so that I can offer my perspective and insight in the true spirit of diversity. I hope that by speaking up and sharing my experiences, I will be able to inspire other women to believe they can achieve what they set out to and to show them that it is possible to attain positions of seniority.

While there is always more to be done, change can be accelerated by showcasing the potential of female leadership. Rather than waiting for some natural order to fall into place, we must inspire change. One of the most powerful things each of us can do is to do well and to be someone worth emulating. I encourage anyone reading this to show up, showcase what you’re good at, enjoy doing what you’re doing and to encourage and inspire others.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

I would tell her to not be discouraged and to never doubt her goals. Be ambitious. Never consider a job that might be a ‘stepping stone’ to your end goal as a waste of time. Just because things aren’t moving as quickly as you want them to, it doesn’t mean you won’t get there in the end. We all doubt ourselves sometimes, but remember, often, the job you didn’t love along the way, is the one that can be instrumental in getting to where you want to be.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future? 

At Zendesk, one of my future goals is to bring an “engage anywhere” IT experience to all of our employees. Much as customers today expect an omnichannel experience with a business, I believe that our employees should get the same experience that we offer to our customers.

A tool like this would allow employees to ask any question that they want, and using any channel that they want to. I think it’s important we use our technology and offering, to empower the people that make us the business we are.

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