Janae Smith has been overseeing the day-to-day operations at Kirkland-based telecom software-services company Audian as its chief operating officer since co-founding the small business in 2013.
She also is a two-time cancer survivor, beating it once as a child and again as an adult in her early 20s. That journey, she says, has steeled her will and given her the confidence to overcome challenges she faces in the work world. As COO of Audian, she also can draw on her years of prior management experience, including as a regional operations manager overseeing five branches for Sound Mortgage.
Smith, an Oregon native, moved to the Seattle area some 12 years ago, and says outside of work she enjoys traveling, warm weather and “spending time making memories with friends and family,” including her daughter and husband. As part of the latest Daring Woman interview, Smith offers some insights about the challenges faced by women striving to achieve leadership roles and ways to overcome them, her views on mentors and networking, and she also shares some advice for the upcoming generation of female leaders.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated?
From my perspective and experience in life, a good leader marshals by example rather than by force or ego. Employees (and all of us in general) want to achieve, want to do more than is asked, to prove themselves, bring success to the group and, of course, drive personal success. As a leader, it is my job to enable that by demonstrating the same characteristics I seek in my team every day in the office.
Demonstrative, “set a line” or “my way or the highway” leadership is clearly overrated, particularly in an employment landscape rapidly changing based on a new generation of workers. While much has been made about how to work with and manage “millennials,” there is some truth to knowing your audience as a leader and utilizing your strengths to meet them where they are. Millennials require a different approach than Gen Xers. A true leader inspires, understands and isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader?
Patterns and traditions of what a “leader” should look like and act like can be a challenge for women who are seeking to advance their careers into leadership positions. Perhaps the biggest challenge we as women still face is the dual role we choose as professionals and mothers. History is still on the side of the “stay at home mom”, and when a woman chooses to start a family, while pursuing her career in parallel, there can be some unfortunate stereotypes placed on us. This isn’t to say things aren’t improving, or mindsets aren’t changing, but it certainly presents a challenge moving forward.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?
Ditching the fear of rejection and putting yourself out there is key in reaching for prominent roles. Letting go of the idea that you won’t be selected and going for it with confidence is half the battle. Once I got beyond those hesitations, I have seen my career (and happiness with work) flourish! Prior to co-founding Audian, I was told “no” more times than I can count, but I was never willing to accept that as the answer. Being told no drove me to work harder and prove that the “no” was not going to dissuade me.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you?
I have had the honor of being a “little” sister to a wonderful woman that has lead by example. She left the small town in Oregon that we grew up in, went away to college and took life by the horns. She has been such a great sounding board and encouragement to me ― always there to cheer me on through the wins and encourage me to never give up. The key lesson I learned from her was that through dedication to your goals and dreams, you can achieve what you set out for, no matter what small town you’re from.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?
The only limitations you have are the ones you put in your path. Keep your eyes on the goal and don’t let anyone derail you. I love raising my daughter in a time where women are empowered to seek and obtain their goals.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
While I certainly recognize the value in networking and was able to focus on this earlier in my career, carving out the needed time to dedicated to this is a challenge right now. I would even say this is one of my biggest opportunities for improvement as a professional right now. I work… a lot… and every spare moment I have is spent with my family, enjoying our time together and trying to fit in that important R&R. There are great ways to network online via social networks, groups/newsletters I subscribe to, which will have to suffice until I have a bit more time!
What would you do differently in your career?
I’m sure everyone says this, but honestly, I don’t know that I would change anything. Every step in my career was a step that has got me here to owning and operating an exciting and successful VoIP/tech company. Through any challenging times, I’ve certainly learned the additional skills needed to get me to where I am today.
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon?
On the soccer field. My daughter keeps our weekends jam packed between the dance studio, the soccer field and building Ninja Warrior courses in our backyard. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
“Unstoppable.” I have overcome so many hardships in my life, including being a two-time cancer survivor by the age of 24 ― 28 cancer-related surgeries and the daily struggles of an immune disease courtesy of all the chemo. I have been told on multiple occasions by my specialists/surgeons/oncologists
that I just should not have survived. Hearing the words, “You should be dead” and “You need to prepare yourselves … this is a fight that you are most likely not going to win,” was terrifying in the most crippling of ways. My initial thought each time was, “You don’t know me!” Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that I am invincible. But I do believe that I am strong and my strength and determination to keep going and keep fighting has gotten me through unthinkable times.
It also gives me perspective in my career. When I face what feels like a brick wall or a frustrating circumstance, I take a step back and know if I have survived the things that I have survived, I can figure a way through this. I truly believe that most people are stronger than they give themselves credit for and when faced with adversity, dig down and find that inner strength. I always tell my daughter, “You can do it. You can do anything that you set your mind to.” It may not be easy, but you can achieve anything.
We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire.
Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.