By Rhonda Bodfield –
Constant Learning – A Foundation for Tech Leader
Cristie Street learned an important lesson about leadership when she was in the fifth grade.
At the time, “because I said so” was a management style that worked pretty well with younger sisters. With her Girl Scout peers, however, it earned her a reputation as a “bossy” patrol leader – long before any movement to recast that adjective in a positive light.
“I learned then that if I was going to be a leader, I was going to have to come up with different approaches,” said Street, the managing partner and CEO of the information technology solutions company Nextrio. Launched in 2002, it has grown from its founding three members to 43 employees.
While founder Oscar Fowler is a big-picture, methodical designer, and husband Bill Street is akin to a quick and resourceful M*A*S*H medic, Street’s particular superpower lies in guiding conversations with clients – translating technical IT language into something more accessible and helping them land on a decision that rests somewhere on the spectrum from the ideal to the pragmatic.
“There’s not a lot of ‘casual dating’ in technology,” Street said. “You’re either outside the building or inside in their deepest, darkest secrets – and that can be sensitive. I’m always looking for ways to help business owners become more comfortable with these decisions.”
Street also spends a lot of time thinking about leadership. She notes a frustrating vacuum that became increasingly evident when a budding leader in the company asked what leadership book she would recommend.
“That was a surprisingly difficult question and I think it’s because we’re in such an interesting time,” she said. “We have experts who are not really experts. They’ve just written a book. And because so many of our leaders end up just defaulting to someone else’s philosophy, I’m not sure we’re taking good advice today.”
There is a better option, she believes. Synthesize a couple of different philosophies. Absorb information. Talk to your clients. Know what’s working in the industry. Find inspiration in what’s working in other industries.
The pace of technology adds another layer of challenge.
“Our employees have to be super excited to work in a business that is not OK with good enough,” Street said. “There is no ‘we’re done, we’ve achieved, we’ve arrived’ in our business. We can have the greatest day today and then come in tomorrow to find new things have arrived on the scene.”
She takes that same approach with her board work, where she chairs efforts for the Arizona Public Media Community Advisory Board and the Ronald McDonald House Charities. She also serves on the Tucson Metro Chamber board and is a partner with Social Venture Partners.
Street said she serves to give back and to help the nonprofit community, which makes up a large part of her clientele. She is humbled to help drive important organizations.
But there’s another reason it’s worth the time investment. “I’m really greedy about taking these opportunities to learn from someone else’s experience. I always take away something, whether it’s something we should emulate or something we should avoid.”
Nextrio also has put significant effort into closing the gender gap in the company given that women are estimated to hold about one-third of the jobs in the industry. About five years ago, the company started working harder to recruit women in technical and leadership positions, in part to reflect the demographics of their customers.
Women now make up nearly 50 percent of Nextrio’s staff, and half of its leaders.
When company leaders asked women why they stay, they overwhelmingly list work-life balance, flexibility and opportunities to grow – the same things that Street herself values.
But there’s also her family, which includes a son, 3, and a daughter, 10. “I also feel it’s my obligation to model what I want to create for others. If I go to leadership land without taking care of my family and myself, then that’s not sustainable.”
The success of others is also key.
“I don’t separate as much as I should my own success from others. That’s maybe a female thing to do as well. But I would rather feel at the end of my life that I helped 43 other people achieve their goals, whether that’s buying a home, taking vacations, learning a second language or adopting a dog. That’s my reward and my goal.”