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What I’d say to me back then – Zendesk SVP Global Marketing, Prelini Udayan-Chiechi, on hiring a team to win the ‘Champions League’ of technology

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett July 14, 2023
It’s not about choosing the first man that puts his hand up, but seeking out the quiet women.

Prelini Udayan-Chiechi
Prelini Udayan-Chiechi

Prelini Udayan-Chiechi has worked in tech marketing for almost 25 years now, after an initial foray in financial services, a sector she found quite restrictive. She made the move into tech in 1999, with stints at large organizations like IBM and Adobe, smaller companies, and roles in the UK and her native Australia. 

Although Udayan-Chiechi liked maths and computers at school, and was good at both, she chose business studies at university, with a focus on HR. After her first year, she realized that if she was going to start at the bottom of the career ladder, that may as well be straightaway, so she switched from a full-time to part-time degree:

When I decided to enter the workforce, I remembered my work experience from when I was 16. I contacted Zurich Financial Services and they offered me a job straight away.

Udayan-Chiechi was put on an 18-month fast track scheme, working in different departments and that's how she discovered marketing. She made the move into tech marketing at a very small CRM company with around 100 employees:

That's when I got my foray into the international element, to recognize how important understanding the maturity of different markets was and how tech played in the different markets. Why I love tech itself is, you could take something really complex and simplify it for the audience.

Equal split

Udayan-Chiechi has been at Zendesk for the past six years, most recently as SVP Global Marketing. Looking back to her early days in tech, the industry has gone through so much change. Even up until five years ago, she was the only female from a leadership perspective around the table:

That's now changed where you see almost an equal split between men and women in the room. It has also created the diversity element that's come through - diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and having that full diversity in ethnicity, age, different backgrounds. That's been the biggest change that I've seen in the last five years, more so than in the previous 10 or 15 years that has taken place.

One of the things Udayan-Chiechi has created to boost diversity in her own team is a path for people to come into the tech sector where they don’t require degrees:

There's a standard path that everyone is told they need to go down: complete high school, A-levels, do three to four years at university, then go get a job. But that is not the learning path for every person out there. What has changed, and I think tech is a sector that's changed this for us all, is to be able to think people learn very differently.

Some of the early hires that I had, I was looking for potential, not necessarily those that had the degrees. Once hired, I made sure they were doing supplementary studies as they were working because those studies are important long-term for their careers, but it doesn't mean it's a standard path that you have to get a degree.

Udayan-Chiechi is also focused on seeking out those women who may not put themselves forward naturally:

So not looking for the first man that puts his hands up and says, I can do everything, but looking for those quiet women who are working in the background that you might not notice and giving them the platform to be able to shine. The only way we are going to see more women at the top is by creating the platform, encouraging and lifting up other women in the process.

Society needs to do more to support women to return to work after career gaps as well. Zendesk offers similar parental leave rights to all, giving people the opportunity to be out of the workforce and not limiting the opportunities for those who return. 

A number of Udayan-Chiechi’s team have had children, gone away and come back; in many of those instances, the women have gone through a lot of changes in the 12 months they've been out, and the business has changed as well:

We can't necessarily expect them to come back and be the same person that they were before they left. How do we look at what the interests are, what’s going to work for them, do we have the flexibility in terms of how do we encourage them to come back. 

I've often encouraged people to come back part-time before they go back into full-time roles that we offer to them. Sometimes they might be in a certain role that they can't travel as much anymore. It’s about providing them the role that they're going to be set up for success.

Diversity platform 

While providing opportunities for women is important, providing a platform for diversity across the board is critical. Udayan-Chiechi is the executive sponsor for the Zendesk Mosaic employee community, for People of Color and allies, and would like to see more women in tech from diverse backgrounds. 

This is something Zendesk is championing as an organization. At the firm’s Showcase event in London in June, there was an all-women panel – something you’d expect if the topic was women in tech or diversity, but this was ‘Delivering a customer-first strategy’. Udayan-Chiechi says: 

The great thing about the panel that we included, there were amazing customers, but they were from such diverse backgrounds. It was slightly younger and slightly older. There were People of Color. It was just like representing women overall.

The big thing I want to encourage as we think about women is also bringing that DEI and belonging with it, because it's so important that we start to see it. Otherwise we go from having men and then we have women, but we don't have all those other elements that we need to have in there.

Age is another facet of the diversity spectrum that should be factored in. Udayan-Chiechi’s team includes people as young as 18 or 19, along with people up to 60. That mix is important as ideas come from different levels of experience, perspectives, education, family upbringing and culture.

Udayan-Chiechi uses a football analogy to explain how she approaches building a diverse team:

I'm not hiring a team of strikers, I’m hiring a team to win the Champions League. I need a team that knows how to play together and everyone's going to play the different roles and they need to be able to slot in different positions. You need that diversity across the team, age is a big part of that, but it's all those other elements as well that makes that winning team together.

If Udayan-Chiechi could go back and give her younger self some advice, it would be to not worry about being right or wrong, but how you make others feel: 

When we are younger, we're ambitious and we want to get ahead. You think you've got to show your manager you're doing a great job and that's what you're appealing to. But it’s your colleagues and your teams around you, people that might not even work for you because one day they might end up working for you. I'm very much about managing across and down, I care about everyone below me and how do I uplift them versus managing up. 

I would say to a younger Prelini, that's where she should spend her time, building those relationships. It's not about being right or wrong in what happens, but how do you compromise, how do you come out with the best ideas, and ideas that come from across the board.

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