Communicating Effectively (and Directly) with Tami Reiss
Episode 13: Communicating Effectively (and Directly), with Tami Reiss
There is a lot of talk about how using words, such as “sorry” “just” “I think” can hurt our communication. Tami Reiss wants to change that. Tami is the CEO of Cyrus Innovation and the Founder of Just Not Sorry, a Google Chrome plugin that underlines trigger words in your emails that may undermine your communication. In this episode, Tami shares insights of her career in tech, how she came up with the idea for Just Not Sorry, and how she brought it to life.
00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast: Conversations With Women Changing the Face of Business. And now your hosts, Sallie Krawcheck and Kristy Wallace.
00:13 Sallie Krawcheck: Hi, everyone. This is Sallie Krawcheck, the Chair of Ellevate Network here with Kristy Wallace, our President, for the Ellevate Podcast. Hey, Kristy.
00:21 Kristy Wallace: Hi, Sally. How's it going?
00:22 SK: I'm great. How are you?
00:24 KW: I'm fantastic today. And as you can tell, I'm super excited about our guest today.
00:29 SK: Well she's a great guest. I've been reading about her... I gotta tell you the truth, I didn't know she was an Ellevate Network member, so when I saw that you had spoken to her, I said "How did you get her, Kristy?"
00:41 KW: The power of networking. A member in our New York chapter that I have gotten to be close with actually reached out to me and said "You know what, I met this wonderful woman, Tami, and she's a member too, and she should be on your podcast." And I fortunately agreed because Tami was pretty fantastic.
00:58 SK: So it's Tami Reiss, CEO of Cyrus Innovation, and here's another great thing about her; Founder of Just Not Sorry. So Kristy, tell everyone what Just Not Sorry is.
01:09 KW: Just Not Sorry is a plugin, a Google plugin that underlines in your email when you use words like "just not sorry", obviously, [chuckle] there's other words as well. And so, I've been using it...
01:24 SK: "I think", yeah.
01:25 KW: And "I think", yes. So I've been using it as well, and it's really interesting because you find that... And I didn't think that I did. I used these words quite a bit, and they're not needed. So I might email someone, say, "Hey, I'm just checking in with you," or you could just say "Hey, I'm checking in with you," and "just" tends to soften it in a way that I think doesn't make the statement as impactful. So it just raises your self-awareness of using words like that.
01:57 SK: So we polled the Ellevate network members and asked them, "Do you think the use of words or phrases such as 'sorry' or 'I think' undermine your communication?" 44% of the women we polled said "Yes, but only if used too much." Just under 40%, 39% said "Yes." 10% said, oh, I like this, "People need to stop telling women how to speak," and 3% said "No." That's really interesting. I like the 10%, "Stop telling us how to speak."
02:29 KW: Yes. Yeah.
02:29 SK: Right? [laughter] "I'm gonna 'I'm sorry' if I want to and I'm not gonna apologize for it, Kristy. I refuse to apologize for apologizing."
02:36 KW: No. So I have a funny story for you. As you know, I have a son, Benjamin, he's seven.
02:42 SK: And adorable with his... Does he still have the mohawk?
02:44 KW: He does.
02:45 SK: I love the mohawk.
02:45 KW: A little curly mohawk.
02:46 SK: Love the mohawk.
02:48 KW: And he just had his first sleepover. So, I was reaching out to the fellow parents to kind of give 'em a heads-up we're gonna be watching Star Wars. And when I was writing the email, I was reading it to my husband and it kind of went like this: "Hey parents, we're gonna watch Star Wars. If you have a problem with that, let me know. We can watch something else." And he said, "Why would you phrase it that way? Just say we're watching Star Wars." And it was really interesting because I was trying too hard to please and to give people the option, and I didn't need to if someone had a problem... Yeah. Everyone was fine with it. But it's interesting how sometimes we catch ourselves in these situations and it's very eye-opening.
03:32 SK: It's interesting, I think I'm the opposite, actually. It's probably because I worked on Wall Street for so many years, and worked with so many guys, that I tend to send the one sentence...
03:45 KW: Yes, you do.
03:45 SK: I know I do. I know I do. And it's funny because yesterday I found myself padding an email to someone I didn't know as well as I know you with "I'm sorry, hope you're well. I hope you understand... " I mean I was bugging out on a dinner invite. [laughter] So maybe I figured just saying "Hey, I can't make it," probably didn't work, but I did find myself trying to layer in the extra "I'm sorry" because I tend to go the other way, having work with the guys for so long. So it's probably all about balance.
04:18 KW: It makes sense.
04:19 SK: Good! Well let's see what she has to tell us.
04:21 KW: Alright. Great.
04:37 KW: We're here today with Tami Reiss. Hi, Tami.
04:39 Tami Reiss: Hello.
04:40 KW: Thank you for joining us. And I wanted to jump right in 'cause it's something really exciting to talk about here. I just found the Just Not Sorry plugin for Chrome, and it's pretty amazing...
04:54 TR: Thank you.
04:56 KW: For myself, because I do find myself using certain words, particularly "just" a lot, the word "just". And so, I would love to hear from you, what was your inspiration for creating this? And tell us a little bit more about Just Not Sorry.
05:11 TR: Sure. So Just Not Sorry is a Gmail plugin that works with Gmail on Chrome, so technically it's a chrome plugin, that allows for you when you're typing your email, if you use one of the trigger words, it'll underline it, sort of like spell check, but with a different hue, so that it alerts you that there's probably something that you just typed that you didn't want to. And the trigger words are geared around things that make you come off as less confident in your message, or less professional in your message, and that is the entire plugin; it's a pretty simple thing. And the inspiration for it came from a conversation I was having with some female friends of mine. I, at Cyrus Innovation, run a program for female founders; we call it our Female Founders initiative. And part of that is that I will meet with female founders for an hour on any given Friday and give them product strategy advice, how to work with developer advice, and a variety of other things as they need it, and therefore I got to meet some really amazing women. And my friend Sarit was organizing a brunch for a community she's trying to develop called the League of Extraordinary Women, so...
06:22 KW: That's a pretty cool name.
06:24 TR: It is a pretty cool name. And the people who are there were directors and higher level management and CEOs and founders and great powerhouse group of women, and we were watching Amy Schumer clips and laughing our heads off as to the unconscious and very conscious biases that are out there in the world. And one of the conversations geared around the Amy Schumer "I'm sorry" clip from her, I think it's her second season, and the four expert female panelists sitting on a panel who just can't stop saying, "I'm sorry." And the women in the room talked about how each of them was trying to be more conscious of the using of these words generally when speaking. I turned to my friend Gillian Morris, who's the CEO of an app called Hitlist, and I said, "Hey Gillian, if we created an app that highlighted every time you wrote 'sorry', would you use it?" And she said, "Brilliant! Absolutely!" [chuckle] And so then I turned to the rest of the group and I said, "Hey guys, if we were to create a Gmail plugin that highlighted every time you type 'sorry', would you use it?" And everyone said, "Yes! Oh my gosh! And can you make it highlight 'just' too?" And that is positive direction. So I'm a specialist when it comes to product strategy and lean validation.
07:47 TR: And Steve Cohn from Validately teaches the importance of false positives, that when someone says, "Oh I love it," that isn't necessarily a positive direction that you should build it. But he talks about how when someone is willing to either give you their time, their money, or their social capital, that's a real positive direction. And so everyone saying, "Yeah, we'll totally use it," was not enough. But there was a woman in the room whose name is Kara Silverman, and she runs a PR firm called Small Girls PR, and she said, "Not only would I use it, but I will give you free PR for this."
08:21 KW: I love it. That's validation.
08:23 TR: And that was validation on all three counts. Next morning on Monday, I walked into the office and I said to our lead engineer who was not assigned to any particular client; Cyrus is a consulting agency, so our engineers get assigned to clients, I said, "You get to build this really cool thing with me this week." And he did his own research and read a number of articles, which helped us expand the list of words. So the initial app launched with the words "just", "sorry", "I think", "I'm no expert", "does this make sense", and "actually", based on three articles he read that were geared around undermining words and otherwise.
09:04 KW: You don't realize how often you use those words.
09:09 TR: And very often we get critique that people are being less polite or less nice. But if you read the sentence and you just eliminate the word, it doesn't come off as mean. It doesn't come off as rude. It doesn't even come off as overly direct, it just comes off as direct. "I'm just checking in," "I'm checking in to see if this happened." "Actually, we were able to do this." "We were able to do this." "Actually" comes off with a surprise. If you were assigned a task and you completed it on time, why would that be an actually? We're really about bringing mindfulness and awareness to your choice of these words, because as you noted, a lot of it is unconscious, that these have become verbal ticks and written verbal ticks. Similar to the "like", from the valley girls, what happens is, is that we are not even aware that we're putting them down. What this does is it brings that level of awareness that you can make a choice. Did I mean to put in a "sorry"? Am I trying to use it as a social lubricant? Am I trying to smooth something over? Am I saying this 'cause it's actually a surprise? Or am I saying this because that's what I think I'm supposed to say, when in fact if I took it out, it would be fine? So...
10:16 KW: Is this a woman thing?
10:18 TR: So I think, and I say I think because I am not an expert on this, I think that women use some of these words more than others. We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from men who say "I think" too often. So they use the "I thinks," too often and they're really happy to those are now highlighted, we're now highlighting. "I feel" and "I believe", as well as "literally", 'cause there was enough push for that even though I don't think it's 100% on [10:44] ____. And so, men love it too, and I think that also as gender norms get shifted and we've raised a generation of men that are more sensitive and more understanding hopefully, they tend to fall into these traps also where they're trying to be nicer. And there's a difference between being nice and not being clear.
11:05 KW: And you did talk about the power of words, because when you don't have the inflection, you don't have the voice behind it. The words really matter.
11:13 TR: They're the only thing that matters.
11:15 KW: And there's been other commentary around... I even grew up during the use of "like" verbally, or the... Would upspeak verbal habits or ticks that we get into that impact the perception of what you're saying, or the validity of what you're saying. And so there's so much around how we speak. This is... It's really around, what are the words?
11:45 TR: It's very much about the words. There was actually a gentleman who emailed us, I think two or three days into launch. I had been interviewed on NPR or something of the sort, and he wrote to us and he said, "I really like your app, but you should tell your founder that unless she loses her LA upspeak, no one's ever going to invest in this." And I very politely wrote back, "Thank you so much for that feedback. I lived in LA for 13 years, old habits die hard. I'm working on it. We're all works in progress." 'Cause it's true, I talk with an upspeak. It sometimes sounds like I'm asking a question when I'm making a statement. It's something I'm working on. I've been very lucky to have mentors and people that care about me and want me to be successful, who help me through these things. I'm not perfect. And one of the bugs in the app... 'Cause when you launch things, it's okay for them to be un-perfect, meant that I couldn't actually use it on my work email, 'cause it had a conflict with SalesforceIQ, which is a plugin we use.
12:43 KW: Interesting.
12:43 TR: And we knew that, but we said SalesforceIQ isn't our target population, 'cause again, the salespeople weren't our target population; your everyday other worker was. And so we launched anyways, but it meant that I couldn't use our app. And I had to be so hyper-focused about not using any of the words in an any of the emails I sent to journalists. And if you wanna talk about a mindfulness game, that was just incredible. And we've gotten reports from people that as they continue to use the app, they see it not only change their text message conversations, but also their verbal. Even though they still say the words, they're more conscious of them and they say, "Oh, I didn't mean to say sorry."
13:24 KW: Yeah. Having transparent conversations like that can lead to self-improvement and maybe stronger, deeper connections with others.
13:33 TR: Yeah. There's a concept going around that a guy named Jurgen Atkinson... I forget his full name, but his first name is definitely Jurgen. He wrote a book called Management 3.0. And probably five, six months ago, he tweeted out a video they had created around, instead of the feedback sandwich, the feedback burrito, or the feedback wrap, I forgot his exact terminology, but he talks about studies around how the feedback sandwich of saying something positive and saying something negative and ending with something positive, that Oreo cookie. What happens over time is that employees get accustomed to that, and when you say anything nice, they're waiting for you to say something negative.
14:13 KW: Sure.
14:15 TR: Whereas what he recommends, and I don't know if it's right, I haven't looked at his data, what he recommends is this more direct communication. "Hey, there was X scenario. I noticed you did A. In the future, it would be better if you do B. Let's have a conversation about how you might do B in the future, so that when you come back to that scenario, you'll make a better decision in the future." It's not mean, it's relatively direct.
14:39 KW: Sure.
14:40 TR: And it gives the feedback that you need while still being in this relatively positive thing of saying "I want you to be better because I care about your performance here, and I'm not telling you you screwed up the entire world and I'm not yelling at you, but I'm saying, 'Hey, if we all improved a little bit, who knows what could happen.'"
15:00 KW: Exactly.
15:01 TR: I try to do that.
15:02 KW: I'm gonna try that too. I like that. Make sense.
15:04 TR: Tell me how it works.
15:06 KW: I promise I'll share. So, I wanna get into... You're a woman.
15:12 TR: I am.
15:12 KW: Yes. And you work in tech.
15:15 TR: Yeah. [chuckle]
15:16 KW: Coming from the West Coast, East Coast, I mean...
15:19 TR: So I have generally been really lucky. I tell stories about my time at Cornerstone OnDemand where the CEO there, Adam Miller, who's still CEO, and I think they've now been around for 17 years or something. He transferred me from one team to another team, [15:37] ____ Product team, and he doesn't remember this conversation 'cause I saw him recently, but I was telling him about it. He said to me, "All I know is the next person on that team is going to be a woman." And I said, "Why do you say that?" And he said, "Because I believe in 50/50 teams, and the well-balanced teams build diversity and build diversity of opinion." And he said, "I'm trying to get it to happen on our tech team." He's like, "If we ever hit 60/40 on our tech team, I'll be really proud."
16:01 TR: And so, he was the first executive that I worked closely with in tech. And before him, I worked with a guy named Mike Jones. Mike Jones who runs the Science Incubator was the person I worked with before I joined Cornerstone, and his mom was actually working with us. So not only did he have a lack of gender discrimination, he had a lack of age discrimination. And his mom did better at our jobs than any of us were doing. It was hilarious. So I think I've been relatively lucky, but I've definitely had my share of not good experiences. There was a person who I interviewed with who was a CTO, and I stepped out of the interview and I called the director of product and I said, "That guy is sexist, and I don't think I wanna work for this organization." And the director of product told me, "No, he's just an engineer, he's not very socially capable." And I let him convince me that I was wrong, and then when I joined, it still became very clear that this gentleman was sexist. And shortly after, I got to leave and I was very happy about that.
17:03 TR: But I think we end up trying to prove ourselves. We learn tech lingo. We try to get in with the boys, and that isn't necessarily the best way to do it. I wrote an article about how I will never learn to code and you shouldn't either. And it's directed at product managers and designers because there's a sense of, impostor syndrome isn't really the term for it, but a sense of inadequacy around people in the tech world who cannot code, and I don't think that's the right sense. I think that we should all be celebrated for the strengths that we bring to the table, whether that means we're a salesperson or we're a marketing strategist or we're really good at copy, or other things that we bring to the table that being able to code does not. And beyond that, I believe that code is craft and that it's a craft that you should keep up. So "learning to code at a bootcamp" isn't really learning to code as much as spending two or three years in the job, in the same way that taking a two-week or weekend course in marketing doesn't make you an excellent marketer; you actually have to do it.
18:10 TR: It's a craft, and we should each find the craft that works well with our talents or the thing that we're passionate about that we're willing to put in the time to learn how to do better. And so, when it comes to sexism, it's rampant. Unfortunately, there's a lot of unconscious bias, so it isn't just a matter of the things that people do on purpose.
18:32 KW: Yeah. That makes sense. So, you don't know this, but we're kindred spirits.
18:38 TR: Okay.
18:39 KW: And I say this because I read that you wanna visit 50 countries and all 50 states by the time you're 40.
18:48 TR: It's true.
18:51 KW: I wanna hear about this, 'cause that sounds like a dream come true!
18:54 TR: I've been to 43 states. There are seven that are missing; Alaska, Arkansas, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Carolina, Iowa, Nebraska, or North Dakota; those are seven. So I'm working on those. I may take a road trip in the next month or so, we'll see. But I love seeing the states. I, in college, spent a quarter in Australia and New Zealand traveling, and it was spectacular. And I said, "Wow, there are these amazing national parks here. Why don't we have national parks?" And then I realized we did have national parks, I just didn't grow up in a family that saw them. Since then, I think I've been to 30 national parks. I love them so much. I think our country is absolutely stunning. But I also think that it's important to be worldly and exposed to different cultures. I've been to six continents, technically, and I'm waiting on Antarctica. I'm very, very jealous of my friend Ben who recently spent a long time in Antarctica, phenomenal guy. He and his wife are on a year around the world journey in an effort for him to feel inspired and figure out what his next startup's going to be.
19:58 KW: I agree with that. My husband and I, right after I had my first child, and I've worked in the startup environment for years, and kind of just like I'm tapped out, I need a break. And my husband was starting his own company, and so we traveled the world for a few months with... My son, I think was six months old at a time, in Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Europe, West Coast, and it was just great. There's nothing really having a block of time to focus on yourself and travel and learning and seeing the world.
20:41 TR: Something that Cornerstone does that I wish I had stayed around long enough to take part in, and I hope at some point to be part of a company that does this really cool thing, they do a sabbatical year. Well, it's not a full year, but it's a sabbatical. And if you've been with the company, I think for six or seven years, you qualify for a six-week paid vacation, aside from your regular vacation, where you can do whatever you want. And they're calling this past year, the Year of the Sabbatical, 'cause it was finally the time for people to start doing it. [chuckle] And it just seems so awesome, and a lot of people have done amazing things. And sometimes that amazing thing is spending six weeks with their kids.
21:16 KW: Mm-hmm.
21:17 TR: And sometimes it's traveling the world, and sometimes it's volunteering in Africa to do tech stuff, but there's lots of opportunities that don't involve work. And I was part of a panel in Brooklyn run by Liquid Talent and the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce on the future of work. And there was guy there who I'm totally blanking on his name, but he runs a consulting company, and they help companies find purpose for their employees, and help individual employees feel the purpose of what they're doing. And I think that that'll become more and more important and helping work-life balance happen and realize that people will be more productive if they have outlets for these personal passions within their work life.
22:01 KW: I agree. I was recently at an event and a woman from Deloitte spoke, and the way she described it made a lot of sense to me. She said our bodies, us, our beings, it's like a house, and you've got a room that's your job, and you have a room that's your personal, and maybe you have a room, exercise, and art or a hobby, or whatever that is, but it's hard to live in a one-room house that's just about work, or that's just about one thing. You need a mixture to create that full... And it was interesting, and she was saying it from the context of employers. You can't look at your workforce just in terms of people that work. You have to look at it...
22:48 TR: They are not resources?
22:49 KW: Yeah. [chuckle] It's people that have families, that have lives, that have outside interests. And the more that each person can really embrace their full potential and their full being, the happier they are, the more productive they are. I see that a lot. Our team is a group of amazing men and women and they have hobbies and sports and interests and it makes us all better connected, but I think also happier.
23:22 TR: I have an employee who recently I introduced to another friend of mine who... He and I worked together at Pivotal and he's at another company. And I sat down with this employee and I was listening to him in other meetings and I said, "Hey, I think that you're pretty passionate about A and B, and we may not be the best environment for that level of passion. There are a number of our competitors that are much more dogmatically advocating for A and B. Would you be interested in me making an introduction? I know that there's non-compete clauses and things of that sort, but I don't want you to feel restricted by those. I really want you to feel fulfilled. And if those things are really at the core of your being and we're potentially getting in the way, let me open this door for you."
24:07 TR: And we had a really frank conversation and he said to me, "Actually, no, I think where we're at is really great and I love being able to advocate for that here, and I love being able to push the envelope here." And I said, "Great." And he said, "But, I think my next move is not gonna be a consulting company, it's gonna be a product company." And I said, "Well, if you'd like any introductions, I'm happy to do that." And so we've been able to have a very frank conversation about what his timing is. He's able to manage my expectations. We can manage client expectations and I can help him and make introductions in a way that I wouldn't be able to do if we weren't having this open conversation about what's best for him, 'cause it may not be us.
24:42 KW: That's great. Thank you so much for joining us today.
24:46 TR: Thank you for having me.
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