Susan Preston has built a reputation as a savvy angel investor, author and speaker who also has previously held senior management positions at public and private companies. For the past five-plus years, Preston has served as the managing member of the Seattle-based SeaChange Fund, formerly known as the Seattle Angel Fund.
Under Preston’s leadership, SeaChange has invested some $20 million in about two dozen startups in the Pacific Northwest, the majority of them tech companies. She has earned multiple honors for her leadership, including the Angel Capital Association’s Hans Severiens Award and U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell’s Women of Valor award.
Preston also is in demand internationally as a speaker on best practices in the angel-investing. She also has served on some 35 boards of directors to date at both private and public entities, including the founding boards of the Angel Capital Association and the Angel Resource Institute; been a partner at three law firm.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated? The leaders I’ve found to be the most effective, inspiring and empowering all possess several, often undervalued, traits. They lead with compelling confidence and humility; they deliver creative solutions for hard problems; and they create an inclusive, welcoming culture that permeates their organizations.
The best leaders are not reactionary, rather they bring transparency, remain calm under pressure and lead by an example that prioritizes integrity far more than what I believe is one of the most overrated traits in a leader: charisma. Leaders with these combined traits are well positioned to drive results and build engaged, high-performing teams of ever-smarter people, all aligned behind a shared and well-communicated goal.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader? Just look around a typical boardroom. One of the most significant barriers as a woman is simply not looking like the predominant decision-makers. This is not conscious. As humans, we have a natural tendency to prefer those who look like us. This doesn’t justify the behavior by any means but does give some insight into why it occurs, so it can be addressed.
There are numerous studies comparing gender-neutral resumes with identical gender-identified resumes showing the marked difference in how they are rated by hiring managers. The more that women assume roles of leadership, the less this phenomenon will be a barrier.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? We need more women who have achieved prominence to actively support and intentionally carve out opportunities for other women. The Puget Sound [region] has some outstanding organizations that offer strong networks for women leaders, yet, we can still do so much more to elevate each other and foster greater success.
We need more female role models who inspire young girls to learn and gain confidence from seeing their drive, intelligence and talent. We need everyone to see and assimilate the impressive statistics about women business leaders and their correlation with superior company performance. The numbers are compelling, and yet, often ignored. Companies that prioritize gender diversity are 15% more likely to outperform the competition.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you? I’ve learned to live life with passion and enthusiasm [and] include as many people as possible in conversations. Never lose sight of the goal, in any scenario. It’s important to give of yourself. I will always take coffee with young female entrepreneurs. If I can give a piece of sage advice or direction, I have taken one further step toward fulfilling my duty (with pleasure) of helping the next generation of influencers and leaders.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders? One huge issue that baffles me every day is women’s lack of confidence, particularly in a room full of men. I was taken aback by this trait when researching women entrepreneurs while at the Kauffman Foundation. I’ve never even paused to consider a gender difference when in such situations.
So, whenever I speak to a predominantly female audience, I emphasize how we should view ourselves. I’ve said, “First and foremost, you (women) must recognize and convey your skills, intelligence and knowledge. When you believe in yourself in these terms, then and only then do you consider you are female and can uniquely deploy the strength that this different perspective brings to any conversation.”
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to learn as you go. If you have 75% of the qualifications on a job description, [then] have the confidence to know you can learn the other 25% (or more)! You need not to have studied something before doing it.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts? Networking is everything. When you are done putting in your 10-hour day, you need to spend an hour or two expanding your connections through events, mentoring, utilizing social networks, etc.
What would you do differently in your career? The list is endless, not because I dislike my career, [but] rather the opposite. I truly love what I do. I think it’s the proverbial: “If I’d known then what I know now, what could I have achieved?” But I have very few regrets.
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon? In the garden. Getting my hands dirty is cathartic. Entertaining friends and family — I love to cook! And, if I get more than a weekend, traveling and experiencing all the amazing places and people our world has to offer.
What would be the title of your autobiography? “Reflections of an Opportunistic Risk- Taker.”