Shira is now head of community at Yerdle. We conducted this interview when she worked at Zynga.
WHO SHE IS: Shira Levine, Global Community Director, Zynga
SUCCESS STORY: Transformed Zynga’s 300 Million Facebook fans into a revenue driver for the company.
WORK SCHEDULE: Weekdays 9:30-6:30, and often on call. Some work after hours from home.
KIDS: Two boys, ages 5 & 3
SANITY VICES: Weekly swim and yoga (that means one each per week) and some form of dark chocolate every day. Crock pot cooking. Planning low cost, homespun elaborate birthday parties for the kids. My book club—made up entirely of women from my neighborhood.
Editor’s note: We’re featuring Shira because I met her recently at a career panel organized by Northwestern University, and I loved what she said. In addition to advising people unhappy with their job to nurse their passions while they toil and then “switch it up,” Shira spoke directly to the women in the audience about the importance of finding good mentors. We wanted to expand on how to seek out the right mentors in this feature, and Shira smartly walks us through the three kinds of professional relationships she believes women need in the work place. It’s very sound and useful advice. Shira also talks about savoring the small things – yogurt handprints – with your kids, seeking the flexibility you need even in a full-time, challenging job like hers, and how to ask for flexibility. Everything she says is so important, and I hope you will read every word. – SD
MB: What exactly do you do at Zynga?
SL: I run our Global Community Team—Zynga games have combined online community of 300 Million Facebook fans on 120 pages in 17 languages.
MB: Walk us through how you got to this point in your career.
SL: I was into “online” community before there was an Internet. I started as a cartoonist and comics fan girl who worked at DC Comics (home of Superman and Batman) back in the days before the web. In those days, people flew around the world to meet others who shared their passions. I went to business school as the web exploded. A small collectibles trading website called eBay heard there was an MBA with collectible industry experience so they recruited me out of school. eBay was the first massive commercial community at scale. The web was connecting people with shared interests. I realized my true calling had to be enabling these massive fan armies to form deep connections with each other and consumer brands.
MB: On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the most), how flexible is your job?
SL: 8—at this point, as a parent, you have to assume a company is going to work with you on work / life balance. If they aren’t willing to work with you, then reconsider the importance of that employer. Compromises will be made, and you may not want to demand a flexible schedule in the interview, but in this day and age I think you can assume a company will work with you. I might be spoiled from working in the Internet, where the hours are somewhat more flexible than banking or retail. The downside of this flexibility is that the Internet is always “on” and so I often work round the clock, whether I’m in the office or not.
MB: When people you manage ask for flexibility, what works and what doesn’t work in the way they pitch you on the idea?
SL: I try to pay the flexibility I seek downward to let folks know that a life outside of work also has value—as long as they keep up with the work. If the work is getting done, I approve working from home or elsewhere. What works: prior history that shows someone completed a deliverable even if they took a break during the standard work week. First time askers—give the reason for your request, and reassure me that you’ll meet the deadline by hook or by crook, and then make good on the promise.
MB: You are a big believer in mentors, especially for women. How can women seek out a mentor who adds value and is helpful?
SL: I believe women need three types of relationships in professional settings. Friends, Peers, and Mentors. The three are very different but critical in the workplace. With men, the lines are more blurred. For women, of those three, friends are probably the hardest to come by and the most necessary. We all need someone at work who understands the stakes and who will also let us blow off steam and cheerlead for us. I’ve been most successful in the friend department by friending other women who are my same level who work in different departments. I’ve literally said to women I work with: “Hey, another woman director! Let’s have coffee.” I have never been turned down.
Peers of either gender are people you may not know well, who are your level, who can offer assistance reaching a work-related goal. These folks are also important from a “we’re all in this together” standpoint. They will be the most apt to see that helping you helps them gain greater insight in the organization and makes them feel smart. Some peers may eventually become your friends—that’s an added bonus. And of course you can repay the favor when its your turn to provide information that helps them in return.
Finally, mentors are folks you reserve specifically to help you move ahead strategically. A mentor could be anyone, male or female, whom you admire for their good judgment. Please note: you do not have to like or even relate to a good mentor. A good rule of thumb here is to ask potential mentors for candid advice. You’ll be surprised at how much help you get when you ask for advice. I recently turned to two very different mentors for advice on the same thing. One is a lot like me—someone I want to emulate in my life and work. She gives me heartfelt, sisterly advice and help. Another is not at all like me, and because we are not emotionally invested with each other, she gives fantastic professional advice. A few times in my career when I felt I had no mentors, I hired a coach. I highly recommend this tactic—unemotional advice about the here and now is priceless. And, on a personal note, I never trusted anyone who offered to be my mentor. My actual mentors have occurred organically for me. It should go without saying that your demeanor about how you handle these relationships matters. Friendly, upbeat, passionate about your work, and helpful all come to mind for irresistible relationship building. I haven’t ever set out to be anyone’s mentor directly but I do offer unsolicited encouragement whenever I can—particularly to working moms. It’s nice to have a little sisterhood going in an office setting.
MB: What’s your biggest challenge as a working mom and what do you do to address it?
SL: I really miss my boys during the day. My heart literally aches for them. We do a joyful reunion dance of love when we see each other every evening. On the other hand, working a demanding, fast paced job is the real me. It’s difficult to justify giving your mental / professional needs equal footing when you’re a mom. My hope is that because my boys see me go work every day, they’ll understand the necessity of work (nothing comes for free) and the value of commitment and hard work. Even though they’re young, they are proud of me. I feel smarter because I work. That is a great gift to my boys. By far our biggest challenge is simply making it all fit in. My current professional life has been an exercise in letting go. We have comprehensive help at home—feeling secure about where my kids are and with whom takes care of a lot of my mommy’s not there anxiety.
MB: What’s your best time-management or work / family management tip?
SL: My boys are young, so they’re not super scheduled at this point with weekend extra curriculars. Our most sacred time is lazy weekend mornings. We all get in bed together and prolong cuddles / breakfast / home-based activities / cartoon watching as long as possible. This together time is a chance for me to be 100% mom: I love it. Our kids crave undivided attention from us when we come home from work. This transition is sometimes challenging! I sometimes sit in the car outside my house to take a few breaths and change gears. I want to be there 100% when I walk through the door.
On the one hand, I want to advise: keep your expectations low so you’ll always be delighted when things work out. On the other hand, I also believe you can manifest your working reality by thinking through what you and your family need and then going for it. A lot of factors play in to making the right decision about work—type of job, location of office, travel schedule. Steady routines are blessings for kid and family management. Seek your definition of how you need it to work and then beg, borrow, and negotiate to get there.
MB: What advice do you live by as a working mom?
SL: Life is far from perfect for the working mom. Cut yourself some slack and treat everything as an experiment. If this year, you compromise getting a promotion because you need to leave at 4 PM every day, then next year you can change it—if you want it. Don’t underestimate the power of asking directly for what you want. The time when your kids are very young, totally needy, and you are a zombie is fleeting. In a few months or years, I promise you’ll miss it! Many is the day I look down at my leg and see a perfect yogurt handprint on my pants. It always makes me smile. Frankly, it’s a badge of pride.
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