Operator Spotlight: AdRoll President Roli Saxena

“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who run them — operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game — building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next. 

This month we spoke with Roli Saxena, president of marketing technology company AdRoll and board member at Culture Amp, an employee listening platform.

You’ve had incredible success with high growth companies across a variety of industries and sectors, from LinkedIn to to Brex, and now AdRoll. What’s the thread that pulls them all together? 

ROLI: There are a few common threads across all these experiences. They all were in big markets and solving real pain points for their users. And that’s why they each had strong traction in the market with their flagship product and were transforming into multiproduct companies. They also have hybrid business models with both subscription and usage-based pricing. This not only provides the predictability of a SaaS company but also brings an upside with the ability to ‘land and expand.’ 

Customer success and product usage is a strong revenue growth driver and my experience building that at LinkedIn, along with building customer-centric sales organizations, attracted me to each of these opportunities. In my current role, I bring the same level of customer centricity across product, design, revenue, and marketing.

How did your experience in different functional areas prepare you for a major operating role like President? 

ROLI: I am a business leader with go-to-market (GTM) expertise. My first 7-8 years were in product and more recently I’ve spent 10-12 years in a variety of GTM roles — marketing, sales and success. Each of those transitions were motivated by the opportunity to solve big meaty problems and to learn. As an engineer by training, all these experiences have helped me become a systems level problem solver — addressing the problem at the first principle level. A great benefit of all these changes is that I am not afraid of new challenges or of testing new ideas in a structured way. 

Over the years, I have learned that what scales you as a leader is intellectual curiosity and hiring and developing talent. Your job as a leader is to bring strong leaders around the table, set the direction, and give your team space to go execute to that common goal. The collective power of a team with strong aligned conviction is magical.

Which aspects of finance, product, and marketing are most crucial to nail as AdRoll continues to scale? 

ROLI: AdRoll’s mission is to create a level playing field for ambitious ecommerce brands of all sizes. We built our strength in advertising, data, and machine learning and now offer a multi-channel campaign management and attribution platform that enables marketers to attract, engage, and retain their shoppers all from within the AdRoll platform. We also deliver real-time analytics and insights to marketers to best optimize their marketing budgets. Given where we are in our transformation, we have to nail continued product innovation. We are in a highly competitive space and so velocity of innovation is critical for us to keep our lead and gain share.  

What kind of impact do you want your leadership and work style to have on the teams at Adroll and the company overall? 

ROLI: As an introverted woman of color, I am very focused on building a culture of diversity and inclusion. I am fortunate to be working for a company that has prioritized DEI efforts at all levels, including our Board of Directors where we have three independent members who are women. 

Outside of our culture of inclusion, I am invested in building a culture of rapid decision making and accountability. Companies in our stage often lose their startup agility and speed of execution because of fuzzy lines of accountability and stalled decisions. We have adopted the Bain RAPID framework to help us make high quality decisions quickly and consistently. In addition, we run bi-weekly Business Review Meetings (BRMs) with leaders in the business to drive accountability on key priorities. These meetings also create transparency within the organization and space for healthy collaboration.

You’ve also been a board member at Culture Amp for several years now. What advice would you give to other operators considering their first board seat? 

ROLI: If you are considering a board role, be honest with why you want to be on a board. Being on a board is a time commitment and it is something that you need to evaluate how it fits into your personal and professional commitments. Assuming you have the bandwidth, deeply understand what value you will bring to a board and are able to articulate that effectively. For me my motivation was to leverage my experience in scaling GTM functions to help CEOs and founders that have found product market fit operationalize to scale. Once you have strong value prop, let your network know that you are looking for a board role and you will find opportunities come your way.

When you land your first board position, I would recommend avoiding the first time board member mistake that I hear many of us have made. As a first time board member, you are anxious to show your value and often lean too much into advising the management team on how to run their business. The CEO and the management team are closest to their business and have reasons for their decisions. The best board members ask open ended questions that shine a light on an area the management team isn’t thinking about or challenge their assumptions. Additionally, as a board member your role is not only to have fiduciary responsibility for the company’s operations but also to be their cheerleader. Running a company and operating a business is hard and having partners on your board goes a very long way.

You’ve given excellent advice about guarding your time. Can you summarize some of your best tips for prioritization? 

ROLI: I put boundaries on my calendar and manage them ferociously. I spend time on Sundays writing down the 1-2 things I would like to accomplish that week. Then I make sure I carve time out on my calendar to work on them. Finally, before signing up for a project or priority, I ask myself two questions:

  1. Where does this fit into our business or my personal priorities? If it’s high on the list, why does this activity/project need to happen now?
  2. Am I the best person to do it?

I often find that by the time I am done answering these two questions, my to-do list is much smaller than what I started with.

What’s your secret super power or your biggest kryptonite? 

ROLI: One of my super powers is building authentic relationships quickly, which over time has translated to a large network. I am always happy to help connect people within my network. My kryptonite is not being able to disconnect after work or on weekends. In the short run, it works fine, but if left unchecked it leads to burnout.

What’s one thing you’ve done to empower the next generation of underrepresented leaders?  

ROLI: There are a few things I am proud of — one is leading and building the LinkedIn Women in Leadership Network, along with a few of my colleagues. The program was launched in 2013 and it is great to see the impact it has driven for raising women in leadership roles. The second one is launching a fund (Neythri Futures Fund) with 90%+ of LPs who are women operators from South Asian descent. I find it fascinating how many South Asian men participate in venture as VCs or LPs, compared to very few women. Creating economic opportunity and access for that group has been fun so far.

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