Meet Tissa Richards, Athena’s newest executive coach. As a repeat Silicon Valley startup founder, Tissa is an expert in navigating the challenges of entrepreneurship, funding, and senior leadership. Today, Tissa helps fellow women executives identify and articulate their own professional strengths, values, and goals to become the type of leaders they aspire to be, both professionally and as board directors.

What should an Athena member expect working with you?

Our sessions will always focus on what clients want to work on. I build a safe and trusted relationship where they can say, “I would never admit this at work—where I feel obligated to be an infallible leader—but I feel comfortable enough to tell you what I’m struggling with so you can help me figure this out.”

First, I listen and ask questions to help her identify and articulate her skills. We do this by mapping accomplishments to core competencies. From there, we work to identify the value she brings to her stakeholders, her role, and to her industry as a thought leader. It’s crucial that she can say with confidence that this is who I am, this is what I do really well – and this is the result. This is absolutely foundational to many other things like tackling challenges, leadership development, personal growth, or securing board roles.

What are the top challenges that your clients face, and how do you help them address them?

One of my clients’ biggest challenges is not being able to succinctly articulate, communicate, and embody the value they bring to the table. When executives can’t do this, it manifests in other challenges: “I don’t know how to be heard,” “I don’t know how to take up space at the table without seeming arrogant,” “I don’t know how to manage a team where I’m respected, without worrying about being liked.” I help people let go of imposter syndrome by working together to clearly identify and internalize the value they bring, so there is no room left for self-doubt.

I also really enjoy coaching about non-gendered leadership. Every executive faces challenges, and some attribute those challenges to gender. I help my clients see that most of those challenges can be overcome by honing their executive and leadership skills. Once they can confidently articulate their value, they can be intentional with their communication, decision-making, and presence. As a result, perceived gender and psychological barriers disappear. It’s incredibly empowering.

How is your coaching advice shaped by your experience as a female founder in Silicon Valley?

My experience has helped me guide other founders and senior executives on questions such as “How do I handle difficult conversations or conflict?”, “How do I raise money?”, and also on deeper, more personal challenges like “How do I handle the loneliness of leadership?” or “When should I trust my instincts versus listening to advice from more seasoned mentors?” These personal topics make an impactful difference in our emotional wellbeing and resilience as executives or founders.

How do you recommend executives balance work with self-care?

As a tech founder, I felt like I had to appear bulletproof for my stakeholders – investors, customers, team members, and partners. But we’re human, not superheroes. When you’re emotionally, physically, or mentally worn down, or traveling constantly, it’s hard to maintain crucial relationships and a basic level of self-care. As a founder or executive, you always have to be on top of your game. There is a tendency to keep exhaustion hidden, as if it’s a dirty little secret that you’re tired or worn out. But here’s an equally important secret: We’re all human. We all experience this.

Overcoming this requires that you be really honest with yourself and ask: Do I really have enough to give? Do I need to delegate some of the workload? Do I need to set more stringent boundaries? You need to give yourself grace, because we’re all overachievers. It’s important not to feel frustrated or like you’ve failed at something simply because your brain or body were overworked. That’s why I turned down some really interesting roles right after exiting my most recent company; it wouldn’t be right for them, or me, when I didn’t have the capacity to give it my all at the time. It’s ok to admit it out loud. I tackle these topics with my clients – as well as the related topic of guilt – so they can be their most effective professionally, and their most healthy and fulfilled, personally.

Why is learning about the boardroom important for founders and entrepreneurs?

Founders and entrepreneurs make ideal board directors. We know how to understand and tackle operational challenges and how to pivot. More critically, successful founders are strategic, long-term thinkers. They approach challenges from a variety of angles and know how to future-proof a business. They’ve got the leadership skills necessary to be successful board members: they’re collaborative, know how to listen and take input, how to communicate efficiently, how to recognize and nurture talent, and how to handle conflict with diplomacy. Most founders have served on their own boards and hold their companies to stringent standards, so they are familiar with board responsibilities and corporate governance.

Engaging in more formal learning about boards at different company lifecycles or in different domains – as well as learning how to articulate how they add value to those boards – is valuable for founders, as it is for any board seeker. It’s also important to be very intentional about planning the path to your next board seat.

I’ve heard you talk about the importance of “taking things off the table” as an executive leader and decision-maker. Can you elaborate on this skill?

If you’ve honed your leadership style and know the value you bring, you know what you will and will not tolerate. If behaviors or situations begin to push the barriers of the culture you’ve created, you’ll feel empowered to respectfully say, “This isn’t how we work. We’re going to take it off the table and reset this interaction.” The first few times you act intentionally like this, you may be uncomfortable or even fearful – what if you lose the deal, don’t get the funding, or get fired? I remind my clients to trust their gut. There are very few fatal errors and taking things off the table when they don’t align with your values is not fatal. You’re creating a strong, effective leadership style that protects the people who work for you and builds resilience for yourself.

Honing this skill is equally important in the boardroom: you may have an opposing viewpoint, need to stand your ground for what’s right, or have to exercise your fiduciary obligation. Being comfortable with taking things off the table takes practice, and I work on it with my clients.

What tips do you have for women leaders on gaining confidence?

When you know exactly what skills and qualities you’re respected for, you won’t worry as much about being liked. This worry will begin to be replaced with the knowledge and confidence that you can command a room and handle any situation that comes at you. You cannot let fear control your leadership in the workplace. This is something I’m passionate about – replacing fear with confidence.

Learn more about Tissa Richards here. Athena members can schedule time with Tissa Richards by logging into Athena. Athena membership allows you to fast-track your path to the C-suite or boardroom, giving top women leaders access to exclusive learning and virtual events; board, visibility, and CxO opportunities; and coaching from industry leaders like Tissa. Learn more about membership here.

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