Mikaela Kiner is the founder and chief executive officer of human-resources consulting firm Reverb, which is focused on helping fast-growth companies scale up quickly while ensuring a healthy, inclusive work culture. The Seattle company’s services include management and leadership development, executive coaching and providing professional human-resources support.
Prior to founding Reverb in 2015, Kiner spent some 15 years in HR leadership roles with major companies like Microsoft, Starbucks Amazon and Redfin. Reverb, which has a staff of eight, including Kiner, works with a team of nearly three dozen consultants, facilitators and executive coaches.
Kiner also is the author of the book “Female Firebrands,” which presents the stories of 13 professional women from diverse backgrounds who recount their career journeys and how they overcame challenges ― including sexism, bias and other inequities facing women who aspire to leadership roles. Kiner also does her part to give back to the community and serves as a board member, strategic advisor or mentor/coach for several organizations, including Social Venture Partners Seattle, Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking and PeopleTech Partners.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated? The most successful leaders are trustworthy, vulnerable and mission-driven. They have plenty of grit and resilience to help their teams get through tough times. I also value transparency, kindness and humility. All of these traits help your team by freeing them up to be themselves, make mistakes and persevere.
Arrogance (often interpreted as confidence) is hugely overrated. I have seen plenty of confident but not capable leaders fail because of an unwillingness to listen and learn. Decisiveness is good, but not when it trumps curiosity. I subscribe to Liz Wiseman’s theory that the leader should be the genius-maker, not the genius.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader? It’s a blend of not seeing yourself as a leader (you have to see it to be it) and others not seeing you as a leader. That presents a lot of hurdles to overcome. I am optimistic today because we have more women in leadership roles, and more women entrepreneurs. The numbers are still only a drop in the bucket compared to the number of men in leadership and the amount of funding that goes to male founders. Movements like #MeToo, Ban Bossy and #LikeAGirl are providing more positive examples for girls and young women than I ever had.
Women too often face a double bind. That is when a man demonstrates leadership qualities he’s praised. When a woman does, she is often labeled as aggressive and told to try being less aggressive and more assertive. Women are plagued by intangible feedback like this throughout their careers. It is both gendered and unactionable.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations? First, we need organizations (not women) to lean into the knowledge that more women in leadership means more revenue, more profits and more innovation. The onus is on companies to seek out and develop women, beginning early in the pipeline. Government and education also have a role to play.
Societal and organizational change can be slow, so I like to give women tools too. As women, we can increase our confidence, improve our negotiation skills and ask for what we’re worth. One strong indicator that leads to a high degree of personal and professional success is when girls participate in sports throughout middle and high school, so keep your girls playing!
Women should seek out mentors and sponsors, take advantage of training and development, invest in themselves and chart their career paths. Women typically need to work harder to reach these levels. Or, you can become the boss so that you call the shots and define what success looks like.
I am not blaming women. One day when sexism, bias and double standards are eradicated, women can just be ourselves and succeed on our merits. Until then, we need to build these muscles and fight for our role at the top. Enlist advocates and allies to help you along the way.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you? So many! Ask for what you’re worth; it’s probably 25% more than you think. Advocating for other women is powerful, so use your voice and position to open doors for others. If you are open and vulnerable with your team, they will do the same for you.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders? Know your values and boundaries, and make sure you choose to work with companies and leaders who are in alignment. At a leadership level, a values disconnect can be the biggest cause of dissatisfaction.
Invest in yourself and the talented people around you. Don’t be afraid to hire people smarter than you, or you will burn out. Work continuously to create a healthy, inclusive culture where all voices and identities are welcome and valued. Create the organization you want to be a part of.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts? Hugely! I never networked intentionally until I started my business 4.5 years ago. But I networked unintentionally because I enjoy keeping in touch with people I respect and admire. Networking is nothing to be afraid of and it does not have to feel salesy or inauthentic. Many of the best experiences, jobs and opportunities come to you through your network.
Networking today is part of my day job. I regularly attend events related to women and girls in tech, closing the pay gap, and all things startup. I meet people through causes I care about ― serving on the board of Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) and sponsoring companies like the Female Founders Alliance. Go where your purpose takes you and you’ll meet others with a similar mission.
What would you do differently in your career? I might have planned out my own career path, something I never did formally. If I could go back, I would have explored more job rotations early on and done an international assignment sooner than I did. I would have established firm boundaries early about work hours, as well as when and how quickly I respond to email.
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon? If my kids have a climbing competition or soccer game, that’s where I’ll be. Second to that, probably at home or in a favorite coffee shop like Empire Espresso reading a good book. I just finished “Such a Fun Age” by Kiley Reid.
What would be the title of your autobiography? “Benevolence and Brute Force” ― subtitle TBD.
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Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.