Insights Portfolio Sessions: An Interview with Traci Burgess, CEO of BrightBytes
Insight Venture Partners

By: Carolina Küng
Original post from Insight Venture Partners

Longtime EdTech executive Traci Burgess is wrapping up her first full year as the CEO of BrightBytes. BrightBytes is a data analytics company that helps schools to better understand their students. The company launched in 2012 and now serves one out of five schools in the U.S. BrightBytes is at the forefront of data-impact learning. 

“K-12 education, and the world as a whole, is data-rich and information-poor,” Burgess told us. “One of the things that BrightBytes brings to school districts is a meaningful way to make sense of data and use it to impact learning for students and the education institutions themselves. We take very complicated issues at a school – like the dropout rate – and we layer in different analytics and years of research to bring school districts, teachers, principals, and leaders, information that’s easily digestible and actionable.”

Burgess has spent her career entirely in education. Her early passion for mathematics led her to pursue a career as a math educator. After deciding she wanted the opportunity to help students on a larger scale, she made the move from the classroom to leadership roles in education sales and publishing, and eventually, into educational technology.

Traci Burgess recently sat down with us to talk about her journey, the most impactful piece of advice she received while building her career, the lessons she has learned as a CEO, and her views on the importance of setting and driving clear and measurable personal and team goals. 

Read the full discussion below, but in summary, Traci provides the following advice to emerging leaders in growing companies:

  • Find a mentor and learn to use the person effectively
  • Be an empathetic team leader
  • Create short and long-term goals for yourself and track your progress against them
  • Encourage your team members to do likewise
  • Never underestimate the value of effective team communication
  • Give talented team members a seat at the table and encourage them to lean in

Q: What was the best piece of advice you were given when you started on your path from math teacher to CEO?  
Traci:
I had a strong mentor when I was young who helped me set a path to my end goal. One thing he told me was that the best leaders were those who could build out talent (he’d been in sales, all the way up to COO). He said, ‘If you’re going to progress into being a CEO, you must first show how you can build out a team. Scale the team, scale the company, move to that next level of operating, and you’ll have a natural transition to being a CEO.’  That’s the approach that I’ve taken with my career.

Q: We often come across anecdotes where a new CEO has a moment when they realize, “Oh wow, I’m actually running this company.” What was that moment like for you?
Traci:
I was very fortunate that when I started at BrightBytes I had a three-week learning period with both of the original founders where we spent a tremendous amount of time onboarding. Onboarding was a whirlwind situation and somewhere around week three when the current CEO stepped away, I remember being at a Friday meeting where I twice said “Well, we should think of it this way,” and twice I was corrected because there was no more “we”. My heart skipped a beat. That was a defining moment for me.

Q: What was your first real challenge or loss as a CEO, and how did you handle it?
Traci:
That’s an easy one. Early on in my tenure I had to make some tough staffing decisions and I didn’t realize how much of an impact this would have on the greater organization until it was underway. I have lived through restructuring and layoffs at past companies – but this was totally different. I realized that every move we made was going to directly affect and change people’s lives, that we were impacting every degree of their lives. This taught me the importance of being thoughtful and empathetic as a team leader – it was either that or losing all of my people.  

Q: What did that experience teach you about yourself and your leadership style?
Traci:
Simply put, it taught me never to underestimate the value of communication.
Since then, I’ve made communication a focus across BrightBytes. For example, we’ve introduced meetings that bring middle management and the executive team together once a month to problem solve and build relationships. If we’re communicating with middle management leaders often, then we can make sure that changes are properly understood and debated across the company. And, every Friday we get together as a whole company and discuss these same issues. We communicate and we’re much more transparent than we would have been had I not gone through that experience up front.

Q: Female advocates like Sheryl Sandberg and Sallie Krawcheck have been very vocal on the need for women to “lean in” and to redefine our workplaces. How does that compare with your style of leadership, and what are your thoughts on it?
Traci:
I would agree with that. Some of the frustrations in my career came when I thought I was ready to lead a company, but I wasn’t leaning in. I was sitting back, thinking that my actions and my performance would get me there automatically. That just doesn’t work for anyone.
Women definitely have to “lean in” more. Women have to be comfortable at the table with other executives and feel like they belong there. That’s the hardest thing, and I watch it even here, where some of the women who I think are amazingly talented tend to sit back and wait to be called, versus voicing their thoughts and being more assertive. 

Q: And as a leader how are you promoting a “lean in” attitude?
Traci:
Having the right people at the table and encouraging them to speak is the trick. It’s on me to bring talented women to BrightBytes and also to give them the voice to speak up so they can excel and move up through the organization. And that goes for anyone in the organization – I’ve invited everyone on my team to sit down with me for an hour every two to three weeks. Interestingly enough, the women who have taken me up on that offer are the very same women who I think could be leaders someday very soon. 

Q: What do you discuss at these meetings? 
Traci: 
During our chats, we focus on goals and goal setting a lot. We talk about clear paths, you know, “What are your near-term goals? Where do you want to be one month, one year, three years, five years from now?” It seems to me that the tendency out here is not to think about that, and I’m always surprised by this. I also think it’s a West Coast/East Coast thing.

Q: How so?
Traci:
When I was growing up, we always kind of knew, “This is what I want to do in one year, this is what I want to do in three years.” If somebody asked you that question in an interview, it was pretty easy to communicate your answer.

I’ve asked that question to several people in this organization and they can’t answer it. I’ve made an effort to change that mindset and get everyone to think about it – especially the women here who want to be successful and grow in their careers. I’ve taken it upon myself to work with these folks to make sure they’re more career- and goal-oriented.

Q: Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s just the nature of how companies work these days – where employees inherently expect to change jobs/careers/industries several times throughout their working lives? 
Traci:
Yes, I think changing jobs is much more acceptable today than when I was growing up.  Often people believe that their next step is much larger than the experience they have behind it, and that we [the company], should just recognize that and put you there. I find that people often think along the lines of, ‘If I just do the work for a couple of years, I should get the next opportunity. And if I don’t, I’ll move on to another organization.’ The problem is that people spin in these roles, especially women, because you’re not getting the skill set and you’re not focused on the end goal. You’re going to continue to spin in an organization and probably never reach your true potential. So, I’ve tried to change the mentality here to say: “If this is your end goal, lets actively think of all the steps you need to do to get there.” 

Q: Examples? 
Traci:
It’s the beginning of the year, so in a recent all-company meeting, I ended with why I think goal-setting is important and gave the team my three goals. I was open about them – and they’re not financial goals, talking about hitting your numbers and growing the company – they were real goals. I made them see me as a real person who’s not afraid to be open about how I feel and to assess my areas of improvement.
I had a lot of people approach me afterward to say, “Can I sit with you for an hour to talk about my goals and get them down on paper?” – That’s when I started my weekly chat program.

Q: All of that said, what advice would you give to other CEO’s?
Traci:
Get your team to think about their career, think about their goals and realize that they may not be able to achieve all of them in your organization. You want to coach and help them along. At the end of the day, this is about people. It’s really important to me to retain, train and keep everyone on this team motivated. I’ve been in organizations where developing people wasn’t the most important thing that CEOs and other leaders thought about. It’s a big mistake to go through the time and expense of bringing on folks and then not take care of them. Plus, goal-setting works. I learned very early on from my manager that you should have three goals every year, and three goals every week, and you should spend time thinking about how to achieve those goals. Keep yourself measured. If you don’t do that, a lot of noise and other things get in the way.

Q: What’s one interesting fact about you that most people wouldn’t know about?
Traci:
I think a lot of people who know me would say, “You’re never going to retire. You’re too driven, you’re always going to be in the mix of things.” What people don’t know is I dream of someday living in the Bahamas.

Now I say that, I probably never will…But I think when people meet me, get to know me and see me in my workspace, they would never think I could ever calm down and live in that environment. But it’s a thing I think about often in the back of my mind – escaping, going there and having a whole different perspective on life.