Susan Strayer LaMotte

CEO, exaqueo

1. Do you remember a time when you were happiest as a child? Where were you, who were you with and what were you doing?

I think I was born to tell stories. From the moment I could talk, I wove tales – whether through writing stories, performing them on a stage, or sharing anecdotes. I loved the idea of characters and the roles people play. One of my happiest memories was sitting at a MacPlus in the newsroom at school. I had a English teacher who wrote poetry, ran the school newspaper and taught football players how to play chess in this newsroom that was full of a myriad of stories every day. Whenever the computer was free, I’d sit down and write. For hours. Stories have meaning, and now, to empower people to tell their work stories is pretty impactful and full circle for me.

2. What seemed like an inconsequential decision at the time, but in hindsight turned out to fundamentally reshape your life?

I have been working since I was 13 and one of my earliest jobs was at a store called Drug Emporium. It was a big box store that mainly focused on health and beauty items. At 16, they made me Head Cashier which meant I was counting thousands of dollars every night, and doing safe drops of large sums of cash. I had Assistant Managers and Managers who were three times my age. This seemingly mundane experience was incredibly impactful to how I viewed work and life. In one hourly part-time job, I saw every adult moment of life play out: relationships, births, deaths, divorce, drugs, and more. Having a role with such authority and connection to people so much older than me, meant I got to see how it could be. I grew up really fast there. So fast, that when I got fired because they thought I stole money from the safe, I realized how this job had changed me forever. PS: It was $20 and I didn’t take it. To this day I have no idea where that $20 went.

3. What habit or behaviour or belief have you recently acquired? Why is it now in your life?

I’ve started tracking how much water I drink every day.  I have been really terrible about self care and so I am starting at the bottom. Since water and sleep are the basic building blocks to everything health-related, I feel like if I can make progress here

4. When was the last time you changed your mind about something really important? What was it and what led you to change your view?

I used to really believe in the so-called ‘American Dream.’ The idea that you should work really hard if you want to acquire wealth and you’ll be handsomely rewarded. Work more, earn more, and get all the things. As I have grown older I realize the true cost of achieving all of those things and question where it ends. I do believe there’s a tipping point for money and wealth and I am starting to realize the real difference between want and need. Maybe it’s becoming a parent and prioritizing the things we want to teach our kids? Either way, no judgement of others, just a choice for me.

5. What’s one misconception people generally have about you?

When you’re Type A, the stereotype is all-consuming. For me, I think it’s that I want to be in charge all the time, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. As a mom, wife, and business owner, there’s a great deal to manage, direct, corral, and delegate. Some days it’s nice to be directed and told what to do. I’m a great rule follower. Let me also share one really important thing here–social media propagates misconceptions in so many ways. I recently questioned something respectfully on Twitter and everyone jumped all over me, defending the idea of the person I was questioning assuming I was attacking her. It’s so frustrating to me because now all of these people have a perception of me that simply isn’t true.

6. What personality trait has got you in the most trouble? What kind of trouble does it get you in?

I want to help people too much. This sounds like one of those fake interview answers: ‘oh, my worst trait is that I am a perfectionist!’, but really it’s a challenging characteristic. It is the reason I have always had to work to be a better listener. Instead of really listening to people sometimes, I jump right to the solution because I just want to help. That means I sometimes miss what people really want: empathy, a shoulder, reflection. The other challenge is the selflessness that should come with helping others. Last year, I spent a great deal of time helping someone through a challenging situation. I haven’t heard from them since and it bothers me when it shouldn’t! Reciprocity shouldn’t be a requirement to help someone but I’m working on shedding that feeling.

7. Have you always had the same political beliefs? If so, why do you think you have held them so long? If not, what event caused you to change your view?

We’ve had a two-party system here in the United States for a long time and I’ve affiliated as a Democrat as long as I can remember. I typically don’t talk about politics publicly. My views are very personal, and like anything else online they’re often misinterpreted. I’ll always engage respectfully offline, but never online. But for anyone who asks, here’s why I lean the way I do: I firmly believe that not everyone has the same starting line in life. Our life outcomes are based on both luck and the choices we make. And here in my country, I believe supporting others to provide opportunity is essential to our collective growth and success as a population. When we start focusing on our individual freedoms or needs without regard to the people around us, we shift from living in a community to a vacuum, and I always want to be part of something bigger than me.

8. What is that thing which is OK to ask you about, but which other people are wary to do so?

I write and talk often about being a working mom. I think young people tend to ask working parents questions that err on the side of positivity: ‘how do you do it all as a working parent?” rather than what’s really on their minds. I want people to ask: ‘does having kids inhibit your career success?’ And if they do, I’ll say ‘yes.’ Work takes time and energy. I look at all these young, single people running, growing, and selling their start-ups. I applaud their energy, their drive, and their passions. But it is a hell of a lot harder as a parent. And when you choose to have kids, you have a responsibility to give them your energy, your time, and your attention. That has to come from somewhere, and often that’s work. It’s a choice you have to make, and there’s no right or wrong here. There’s no doubt I would be wealthier and more successful if I didn’t have children. Also, they are by far the greatest thing I have ever done. There are a million things I get wrong as a parent, but Christmas morning when the first thing they wanted to do was give presents to each other instead of opening their own, I knew my husband and I have done something right. And that’s a win that’s more valuable than any contract I can sign.

9. What’s the last image on your camera roll? Care to explain?

In the midst of this chaotic year, both my husband and I are dealing with ill parents. While we were visiting his mom, I took the kids out of the house so my husband could have some of the hard conversations that need to be had right now. We went down the street to the park and it was a gorgeous South Carolina day. For some reason, my kids spent the entire afternoon getting along and I snapped a picture of them together at top of a slide, deliriously happy and getting along.

10. What is your most prized possession? What’s the story behind it?

My father has been fighting Alzheimer’s for six years. He had already lived a really challenging life in many ways, and the past six years have been grueling for my mom (his caregiver) and my whole family . He can’t write words anymore and only occasionally knows who I am, so I really treasure the last letter I received from him. It’s a beautiful thank you note for a birthday celebration. Seeing his handwriting now brings me to tears.

11. If you were to survive the zombie apocalypse, what role would you play in the new society that would follow?

I read this question out loud to my husband and he laughed for several minutes straight. So I asked him to answer it for me: “Oh, wow. You wouldn’t do well. There wouldn’t be any hot water. Things would be way too dirty, with no antibacterial anything. You don’t really have any agricultural skills, and you hate guns. And the zombies will eat your fists. I think you would play the role of the person they leave behind to slow down the zombies.” Sounds about right.

12. Aside from family & friends, if you could invite any 3 people - living or dead - to your final dinner party before the end of the world, who would they be and why?

My life has always had a soundtrack running through it–music is a thread through everything I’ve ever done. My kids’ names both have musical connections. My wedding invitation was a Hatch Show Print and I’ve been to hundreds of concerts from Journey when I was 10 years old to the last show I went to: Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. And since I love a good story I’d bring three of the all time greatest singer- songwriters: Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, and Lori McKenna. If you’re a parent, I dare you to listen to When You’re My Age without crying.

13. Can you give an example of a time when you had to learn the lesson the hard way?

With my daughter, I took only three weeks of maternity leave. I had a million excuses as to why (start-up business owner, too much to do, etc). I can never get that time back. Ever. With my son, I took two full months. It may not be much to most people but it was indulgent to me and I am so grateful I could make it work. Now, with several new moms on our team, I’m glad we’re set up to give them the time they deserve.

14. What decision makes you say, “What was I thinking??” when you look back on your career?

I launched the first social recruiting game, My Marriott Hotel (yes, that’s my voice on the trailer!). It was a time when few companies had a careers presence on social media and I was pushing innovation in HR that marketing hadn’t even attempted yet. (Fun fact: I was the first person to reserve the @RitzCarlton handle on Twitter because I was afraid someone else would take it.) While the game got major media attention, and a great deal of visibility, I knew so little about gaming, adoption didn’t pick up long-term. It was a hard lesson–I wasn’t thinking downstream–how would the game last? How would we acquire and keep users? But it’s such an important lesson to any activation–short-term gain is one thing, but success lies in loyalty and adoption.

15. What role do you find yourself playing when you join a newly formed team? Can you explain why this happens?

For some reason, I find myself supremely satisfied when I get shit done. That means I am often the doer on a team. I love to see progress, check boxes off, and watch order come from chaos. Lately I am spread more thin than I am used to and have to lean on others more than I like. That’s not a bad thing, but it’s hard when you’re a doer. Unrelated: control freaks often masquerade as doers 😉

16. Have you ever been the weakest member of a team? How did you handle it?

Oh my, in business school every finance and accounting team probably groaned when I joined. You learn the most when you know the least. But even now, this happens often, and I quite like it. Building a business is about finding people who are smarter and better than you are in many ways. I find I am the most satisfied when I have very little or nothing to add to a team. It means we have found the right people, we have trained them well, and they know what they are doing.

17. When it comes to our work and industry: what scares you most?

This may be the easiest question to answer and the most unpopular answer: technology.
For two decades our already-process driven industry has looked to technology as our savior. We complain about candidate and employee experience, the lack of caring, and the lack of diversity and inclusion. These are all human problems and we are trying to solve them with robots and AI. We’ve convinced ourselves that automation makes it easier for candidates and employees. But the reality is, they don’t want that. They want to be cared for, heard, and understood. There’s no piece of technology that can do that. And the more we progress in HR Tech, the more we automate and the more damage we do to the employment relationship.

18. What common wisdom in our industry needs to be debunked?

That work is all about what you get. Employment isn’t a transaction. It’s a human relationship. You’re not bartering or getting cash for a product. When we make assumptions about people (candidates care the most about compensation!) we stop listening. Ask yourself this: when your organization is going through a tough time, do people stick it out or jump ship? In a strong, solid relationship, you stay even through the hard times. We need to get rid of the funnel. People aren’t parts in a manufacturing plant. Think about it more like a garden. Everyone can grow in the right conditions.

19. If you could add a question for the next person to answer, what would it be?

Why did you choose to tell your story here?

20. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions With … ?

Tisha Leslie, RM head of Zillow, former EB head of T-Mobile. She looks at our industry in such a thoughtful, creative way–getting to innovation and answers without the drudge of the HR process. The way she thinks is inspiring and unconventional. And I love it.

Thank you to Susan Strayer LaMotte for taking 20 Questions for The Brainfood Tribune. Get in touch with Susan and exaqueo for expert guidance on Employer Branding

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