“Oh, no! I would never have thought of selling my shares in the first startup I worked for. It didn’t matter how much I stood to gain personally—between youth and naivete, we had a culture and storyline that would have been a signal that I didn’t believe in the company. I could have never considered doing that to my friends,” Silver McDonald, now the Vice President of Growth at Hazel Health, said while reflecting on her first startup job. This level of empathy is unmistakable to anyone who knows her. She falls on the opposite side of the spectrum of traditional, self-motivated leaders. Rather than having a go-at-it-alone mentality, she has chosen to build her career using a team-centered approach allowing her to collaborate while also using strategic insights and customer relationships to drive her decisions. She focuses on building a long-term business instead of what provides her a personal win. Her EMP profile aligns with an InnovateHER.
“I feel weird saying this,” she said, “but my interpersonal sensitivity has always been really high. I can walk into a room and read it almost instantly.” She attributes this skill to the adversity she faced in early childhood. Silver lost both of her parents before the age of 16 and became a ward of the court—moving frequently between foster homes, observing, and adapting along the way. Additionally, as a redheaded girl named Silver who was 5-foot-11, she was an easy target for bullying in her early years. Because of this bullying, Silver established resilience at a young age—and even the wherewithal to feel empathy for her bullies. As she aged, she came to recognize empathy as not only a tool for survival but also a superpower. Instead of shutting down, Silver chose to open up to understand the culture, motivations, and social cues of those around her so that she could better adapt to her environment while also developing a strong sense of self at a young age. Empathy became her way of connecting with others, and it helped her assimilate in the midst of so much chaos.
After a tumultuous childhood, Silver’s first job out of college was at a small, two-person company that was quickly acquired by the slightly larger visionary group, Razorfish. Her very first role was that of team leader. In that role, Silver did what she always did—she helped to develop the company culture and built cross-functional team relationships, earning the trust and loyalty of new colleagues and clients. Once again, she latched onto empathy and social connection as survival skills. That risk paid off, and her entrepreneurial skill of empathy helped her move to the next level in her career.
Silver rose through the ranks and saw the company grow from 30 people to 2,000 within two years. With a team of people, all under the age of 30, they built a tight-knit culture led by connection, collaboration, innovation, and passio n to bring brands into the digital era. After six industry-leading years, incredible organizational success, and developing lifelong friends, she began to personally long for something more. She wanted to give back to her community and match her talents with her desire to help others. She was also feeling the telltale signs of burnout.
It was time for a pause.
Without realizing it, Silver’s extraordinary empathy for others was on track to becoming an InhibitHER. She had focused on what was best for her friends and colleagues but hadn’t stopped to examine what was best for herself. It was time to break that pattern. After some soul-searching, it became clear to her that whatever she did next would be in the social impact space. She began reaching out to a small group of friends and mentors. The more she shared how much she wanted to be immersed in purpose-driven work, the more people responded to her. Opportunities began to flow from the relationships she had previously built, but the difference was that Silver had defined her own motivations and was determined to set her own path. This led her to join another startup, Schoolnet, where she stayed the next decade, and to start a strong career in EdTech, as she combined the best practices across technology, consulting, and education to impact student learning.
A running theme began to appear in the challenges Silver accepted: She was recurrently being asked to rebuild collapsing teams, even whole departments, while developing solutions to new industry challenges. Perhaps the best example of this theme was at LEGO Education. When she was first hired as GM of the US and as part of the global leadership team, the US team’s motivation and satisfaction were low. “How will these people make an impact,” she thought to herself, “if they don’t enjoy coming to work every day, if they are not aligned around the needs of our district customers, and if they don’t trust the people they work with?” An employee feedback report ended up being an exercise in benchmarking because three years later, when she left the company, her team had the highest scores and was a top-performing team in LEGO Education.
When asked what she did to turn the team around, she said, “Empathy has to be balanced with organizational strategy, execution, and achievement. I focused on customer orientation, team development, and getting people into the right roles to be successful. I spent hours talking to them, guiding them, and helping them find positions that matched their talents and career goals. Helping people be successful and thrive is one of the things I’m most proud of [during my time] at LEGO Education.”
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