Roxanne Petraeus on the army, leadership design, and forgiveness culture

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Roxanne Petraeus is the CEO of Ethena, a training platform startup with intuitive and powerful admin tools built to make required training easy, engaging, and effective. Previously, she worked as a consultant for McKinsey, and before that, she was an officer in the US Army. She found that no matter the setting, whether consulting or the military, there were ways to make compliance training better. So, she started Ethena in 2019. The company has incredibly positive word of mouth among HR leaders. It is now trusted by thousands of companies like Netflix, Figma, Notion, Pinterest, and Carta to provide actionable training for their employees. And the employees love it. Ethena has a 93% positive rating, and over 1M positive reviews. Roxanne is a natural leader, and her eagerness to question and reinvent old paradigms is at the heart of Ethena’s ascendance. 

There are two types of training, and only one makes a difference

The military was a fantastic place to experience two types of training.

The first was excellent outcome-based training. Soldiers were taught to jump out of planes and reload a gun quickly—the sort of thing that, if you do correctly, will save your life or the lives of others. But there was also a lot of check-the-box work, this mandated training where you just had to sit there, thoroughly checked out. Shoot, for some of the trainings you could just sit on your phone for an hour while someone droned on. Once the time was up for check-the-box training, you were done. It was so strange to me that both of these trainings existed in the same organization. Unfortunately, sometimes, very important topics like sexual harassment get treated in a “check-the-box” style. 

When I left the military, I went to McKinsey. I was surprised that this organization, with otherwise great learning, also treated topics like ethics and inclusion with an almost identical check-the-box approach. I knew there had to be a better way. So, I started Ethena

Leadership means caring about the people and the company simultaneously

Whether you're leading soldiers or startup workers, one thing great leaders do is turn the temperature down. Working in high-pressure environments can wind people up—a great leader can recognize and defuse that tension.

Leadership is often just caring about the people you have the privilege of leading. That doesn't mean coddling people, but it does mean understanding what motivates them and helping them get to where they want to be in their careers. A leader has to balance their team’s diverse personal motivations and harness that energy for the good of the organization.

I read a Medium post by Andy Dunn, founder of Bonobos, where he stated this somewhat painful truth: as a leader, everything is your fault

Outstanding leaders understand the buck stops with them. When things go wrong, you have to own it. And when things go right, you don’t get the credit—your team should. Being a leader is not always a fun job because you’re responsible for everything that goes wrong. But seeing your team accomplish greater things than you could do alone is incredibly rewarding.

Roxanne with Brandis Anderson and Anne Solmssen.

Inclusion is an organizational structure 

Feedback is the key to an inclusive workforce. The idea of zero tolerance seems fundamentally flawed because anytime you get a group of people together, there will be interactions that accidentally hurt people. Of course, some issues regarding physical and psychological safety require zero tolerance. But if you have zero tolerance for all mistakes, you aren’t giving people the chance to grow.

We think about building mechanisms for feedback where people can tell you when you screw up versus building a culture assuming we will never screw up and make no mistakes. We try to maintain this humility as one of our guiding principles at Ethena. We have Feedback Fridays, which are a dedicated chunk of time for bilateral feedback between managers and direct reports. It’s like a pressure valve, so if something is happening, we can ideally catch it early. We also do engagement surveys and a DEI survey to try to be more data-driven about our decisions. We’re not a flawless culture, so we always think it’s best to elicit wisdom from the crowd we’ve gathered here at Ethena.

It’s easier to think about ethics and inclusion as a spectrum versus if you're just ‘good or bad.’

It’s better to help organizations understand where they are in their journey and where they want to be in a year. Then, instead of not knowing where to start, it’s easier for organizations to identify the specific actions they need to take.

You need to tailor your motivation style

Not everyone is motivated by the same thing. Some people love the win, while others love teamwork and camaraderie. All my direct reports are incredibly high-functioning individuals and also very, very different people. What motivates one will make another feel uncomfortable—some love public praise, while others would be legitimately upset with me if I praised them like that. I try to channel my inner Ted Lasso and recognize that everyone has a unique thing that makes them tick.

The best leaders are the best versions of themselves

In the Army, I remember one archetype of a leader being dominant. A man: tall, big, strong, loud, never cries, all hoorah and hyperbole. I knew I could never fit that mold; it just isn’t who I am.

Roxanne speaking to the entire Ethena team at an off site. Photo credit: Julie Dietz

My natural style is to sit back, hear what other people think, and ask a lot of questions. I’m ok not being the most intelligent person in the room, and despite being different than what so many other leaders were, it worked for me. The power of saying “I don’t know” has been helpful and freeing for me at Ethena. Curiosity compels me to learn more about specific functions and how they can help us with our mission.

Go after customers that scare you

We had some incredible early logos within our first year of being a company. Zendesk and Netflix both bought our training. The only reason that happened was that we shot our shot. It happened because we were lucky to get on a call with them, and they bought into the pitch and the vision, even though the company wasn’t fully baked then. Usually, I like to do a lot of preparation, and while that’s still important—if the right opportunity comes up, you have to be willing to take your swing because that moment might not come up again.

"You have to be willing to ask for something that you don’t think you necessarily deserve."

Collect internal feedback frequently

Many of our ideas come from our own use of the product. In particular, we use surveys so much, including an ethics survey we do once a year. Our customers have asked for this ability, too, so we allowed them to ask employees if they feel like their manager acts ethically. This more robust feedback loop can help teams get good internal data about what’s going on.

You can’t just ask people once a year if they’re happy or enjoy the working environment. That’s a very check-the-box approach that isn’t all that useful. Your reporting needs to be more holistic and embedded in the culture. This cohesion and trust are how you build more inclusive teams. You have to have that constant data and insight collection; it’s a streaming approach as opposed to one that’s static and just does one or two workplace surveys a year.

Culture is the future of work

One of the fundamental things we believe at Ethena is that work culture is not a fad. Work has been marching towards a place where you can be your whole self. But when you examine what that looks like in practice, it will be different in every workplace. People want to work for companies where they’re excited to show up every day.

This excitement usually means your direct manager is good, and you feel that you’re in a place where you can grow and learn and be respected as a human being. This doesn’t mean businesses that prioritize culture are “softer”—it means they prioritize being an effective business for everyone. Companies like Netflix and Airbnb have embodied this modern mode of thinking. Employees no longer have a lot of tolerance for that old-school style of grinding people into the ground and extracting every last ounce of value from them.

The future of work is about figuring out how you can get the best people to show up and do their best work. You do that through culture. I once heard this amazing phrase, “culture is the worst behavior your organization will tolerate.” That’s a good definition of culture because it’s about what it’s like to be in an organization when the leader isn’t in the room. Authentic leadership isn’t about what occurs when you—the CEO—are present; it’s about what people take away and the behaviors they do with your implied trust. The only way to influence that is with culture, which is why it will get even more focus with this next generation of workers.