Name: Julie-Laure Mikulskis

Current position: Head of Technology at YLD

Bio: I lead the technology team at consultancy YLD which is made up of a talented group of product designers and engineers who help our clients ship better digital products, faster. My role is to provide the team with the support they require to help organisations modernise their digital capabilities. I am passionate about bringing people together and building great tech teams that understand the customer and impacts of what they are delivering. I also work very closely with our clients to understand their challenges and guide them in their transformation.

Hi Julie, thanks for chatting to us about your career path today. Tell us about your life before leadership – what kind of roles and projects did you work on?

Before taking on a leadership role, I was very lucky to work on a lot of projects and in a variety of industries. I have however, had a slightly atypical journey into the tech world.

After graduating with a Masters in Marketing and IT in Paris, I became a Digital Project Manager as part of a small team for Codegent in London. I stayed for a while working on some awesome products and clients projects and learned an incredible amount. I am forever grateful for what the founders, David and Mark taught me there; it was the very beginning of my career in tech and they imparted some amazing advice which led me to where I am today.

After Codegent, I worked for bigger digital and advertising consultancies as a Delivery Lead working with clients such as Nestle, British Airways and EY on a mix of product and campaigns delivery. It was a fantastic experience and a great way to gain more knowledge of the creative and tech industry. My fondest memory is the 2014 campaign I led for British Airways called The Magic of Flying – it won several awards for innovative use of technology and it was incredible to be part of this. 

During this time, I was responsible for bringing a multi-disciplinary team together in addition to developing client relationships. I worked on some very innovative campaigns with some amazing engineers. Even though I wasn’t coding, I was always interested in understanding what the engineers were doing and had a lot of empathy for them and their work.

After a few years in the creative world, I got itchy feet. I wanted to focus more on organisational transformation and helping companies deliver better tech products, but I was not quite ready to leave the consultancy world (as I think it really gives you the best and broadest learning experience). Luckily, I connected with Nuno Job (via Twitter!) and we started chatting to see how I could help the team at YLD and their clients. A few months later, I joined YLD as a Principal Consultant for one of our biggest clients, sport live-streaming company DAZN. I am very proud of the work and changes we achieved there! 

While I have never been a software engineer, all of my roles relied heavily on technology, as such, I became passionate about the team energy that comes with building tech products and enjoyed the intellectual challenge. I am not a technology domain expert so I always lean on people with knowledge when I don’t know the ins and out of specific technologies and this has really helped me through my career so far.

How did your first leadership position come about, and was it intentional on your part?

I honed a lot of my leadership traits and skills in previous roles as Delivery Lead, but my current position as a Head of Tech is my first ‘real’ leadership position. I wasn’t expecting to be promoted into this role so soon (February 2020) but it was always an aspiration of mine. When the opportunity arose, I was extremely excited to push to the next level and move from leading engagements to a much wider team.  

How did you manage the transition? What came easily/what was difficult?

The transition felt quite natural to me, applying my leadership skills and experiences to a larger team. The easy part was around the skills I already heavily used for running clients’ engagements and motivating teams. The hardest part was probably the need to let go of the details. I am no longer deeply involved in the delivery of a single engagement but overseeing all our engagements and teams at YLD, providing them with the support they require to do what they do best.

Covid-19 also made everything a little bit more tricky. As a business, we had to learn to adapt fast, make tough decisions and be even more empathetic towards our clients and teams. 

What was your biggest failure in that first leadership role?

Focusing too much on the details and not thinking enough about the strategic part of my job. This led to a lack of clarity for my teams in terms of my role and priorities, and meant I was incredibly busy.

It can be a common struggle when you move from a single project to a leadership role overseeing multiple projects, clients and teams. Over time I learnt to focus more on supporting and guiding the teams to successfully deliver on their objectives and on evolving our organisation and its processes as it grew. 

What made you keep doing it?

Generally speaking, I am not someone who gives up easily when facing a challenge; I enjoy the process of reflecting on what has gone wrong and focusing on how to do better next time. 

I also get a lot of fulfilment helping others solve problems, develop themselves and deliver to their potential. Learning every day in my job and seeing the progress we make as a team definitely keeps me doing it. 

Tell us a fun fact that nobody knows about you

If I am not in front of a laptop working you will likely find me exercising; water skiing, snow skiing, or on a surfboard! I am a very active person and love sports in general and absolutely love exploring the world. Often I try to combine both.

My last big adventure was climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (the highest single free-standing mountain in the world – 5,895 metres) last year with my husband; it was the most amazing experience, eight days completely disconnected and living outdoors. The climb is not that hard in itself (although a good level of fitness helps!) but we got hit by a snowstorm on the way to the summit and it was really difficult. You have to be very determined to keep going in that situation. It was a brilliant opportunity to push myself however and one of the best experiences in my life that I’ll remember forever.

My husband and I also run a travel blog where we try to document all our travels and activities. Obviously this year we have not really travelled but are hoping we can go adventuring again soon! 

What are the three key skills you think every leader needs?

I think there are three key skills leaders should master and this is especially true for the ‘new normal’ we find ourselves in:

  1. Develop effective decision-making skills

Nothing sucks up your time like poor decisions.” – Shane Parrish

Our current reality is a result of our past decisions and good decisions therefore make things easier for our future selves. Leaders make decisions all the time, but making good and smart decisions is really hard. You have to learn and implement a variety of tools and behaviours to improve your decision-making processes and produce better outcomes.

Knowing when to make decisions quickly and when to wait, as well as how to use your team effectively is essential and sadly not something we learn at university. I have recently decided to take on a course to build on this and really recommend it! 

2. Cultivate emotional intelligence

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” -Maya Angelou

Emotions matter and in uncertain and challenging times, there is perhaps no leadership skill more in demand than emotional intelligence. The ability to understand yourself (self-awareness), to be aware and in control of your emotions (self-regulation) and being able to express how you are feeling with little worry as to how vulnerable you are, is something that makes people feel safe and develop trust. In the ‘new normal’, leaders need more than ever to listen to others as well as understand the wants, needs, and viewpoints of those around them (empathy). Showing compassion by asking your employees, customers and suppliers how they are feeling goes a long way. It does not mean you are required to fix or solve all the problems, but it does mean you are acknowledging someone’s emotions and can offer supportive words and gestures. 

3. Giving and receiving feedback

The key to learning is feedback. It’s impossible to learn anything without it.” – Steven Levitt

Feedback is important for your employees to achieve their goals, build trust, reinforce individual accountability, keep them engaged and much more. As a leader, the ability to give feedback – both positive and constructive – is key to the long-term success of your team and ultimately your organisation. Through it, you help individuals grow by teaching them how they can improve and by reinforcing the things they are doing well.

In a leadership position, you can’t expect other people to be proactive about giving you feedback, so you need to ask for it. It’s a powerful opportunity to lead by example that will have ripple effects throughout the organisation. When it comes to receiving feedback, leaders should also be ready to accept what is being said by listening with the intent to understand not to respond and by rewarding the candour. It takes effort for someone to offer criticism to a senior leader or their boss and leaders need to learn to accept it. In my opinion, many don’t do this well because most of us don’t have the skills to receive feedback and process it in a positive way. It’s a shame because it’s the best way to become a better leader. 

What have you learned about acquiring and retaining talent?

Employee acquisition and retention are so important, especially in the tech industry where competition is extremely fierce. Unfortunately, I think the traditional hiring process is not set up to consistently produce good outcomes and this is under-appreciated. 

Being honest about who you are as a company and ensuring a cultural match with candidates is essential when hiring because it aligns expectations on both sides. This helps you assess interviewees’ understanding of the company’s values and priorities, but also gives them the information to decide if you are the right fit for them. People who accept the job will do so for the right reasons and avoid disappointment down the line as you communicated the truth upfront. 

For me, the key ingredient for retention is through intrinsic motivation. For example, empowering individuals to undertake work that has impact. From experience, people value empowerment and productivity more than compensation and benefits. In addition, companies who encourage open communication where ideas are debated at all levels, will create a healthy environment whereby people are happy and engaged. 

Finally, people thrive in companies that provide ongoing training and clear professional development paths. This helps employees feel valued and intrinsic to the success of the company. To them, it’s an investment of their worth and an incentive to stay. 

How do you motivate your team and manage their stress levels?

Once you have worked out interpersonal dynamics and built a team that is enjoying working together, I think the most important aspect of maintaining motivation is to give your team ownership and for them to take full responsibility for their decisions. While you have to equip them with the necessary context and parameters for them to make decisions, I teach my team(s) to find their own solutions and act decisively. 

It is also important to be extremely clear about the goals and mission we are trying to achieve; people want to make an impact and be part of something bigger. By clarifying the purpose, monitoring and communicating progress, you thereby increase motivation. 

Once these key ingredients are in place, it is important to bring teams together with real energy, and don’t underestimate a bit of light-heartedness and fun in the process. 

As for managing teams’ stress levels, everyone is different and does not deal with stress in the same way. There are different types of stress too, those related to the work and those related to personal situations.

A big part of managing this is psychological safety, ensuring my team feels safe to speak and knows they will be listened to – I am here to help them no matter the subject. We have built a safe environment where I feel people generally will come forward if they have reached an unbearable level of stress. We have also recently set up an initiative within YLD to raise awareness of mental wellbeing by fostering a culture of trust, empathy and inclusion in our workplace. This includes counselling, a paid membership to meditation apps, a Slack channel to share stories or concerns and much more. 

How do you manage your own stress levels and productivity?

Having the discipline to disconnect each evening allows me to recharge the battery for the next day. I keep time in my diary for exercising and meditating every day and that’s non-negotiable. I also try to not be too hard with myself and practice self-compassion. I know I am doing my very best every day and if things didn’t go well it’s because some days are just better than others. 

I also recently started being stricter with blocking time in my diary for ‘deep work’ as Zoom meetings were getting out of hand, leaving me little time for actual thinking. 

How do you stay in sync with other parts of the business?

We have a weekly leadership meeting to discuss priorities, challenges and progress updates on goals. We also have a Slack channel where we provide updates when necessary to keep everyone in the loop in real-time. 

I am a big champion of transparency, so will always share anything with the teams that I feel they should be aware of. 

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

Maybe not in five years’ time, but in the future I would love to run my own company developing a product that improves people’s lives. I have some initial ideas but won’t be revealing them just yet!

Finally, what product do you wish you’d invented?

As you now know, I am a big fan of health and wellness and its data: sleep tracking, meditation, health, exercise etc. I use a lot of these types of apps and products (Apple Watch, Oura ring, Elvie…) and admit it would be awesome to have invented one of these. However, in my view, this industry is only just developing, so there is definitely room for improvement and never too late to get involved at some point in the future. 

Thank you, Julie!