July 13th, 2021

Harini Gokul is a skilled operator, board advisor, and investor with experience scaling teams across three continents. She’s led customer success, marketing, and strategy at companies such as Microsoft and Amazon Web Services with expertise in cloud leadership, digital transformation, international business development, and go-to-market strategy planning. Her superpower is knowing how to take a vision from the whiteboard to reality.

Below, read more about Harini’s experience leading large-scale transformations at AWS, her insights on the importance of belonging for teams, and tips for women and people of color to exercise their financial power through investing.

How can companies ensure their customer success teams, processes, and strategies are all in line for growth?

Historically, customer success was construed as a reactive function. It was a team you would turn to when things go wrong or to put out a fire. However, in today’s world where customers have more choices than ever before, customer success is a strategic imperative. Customer success is the key differentiator in this product-led era, and we are now moving towards a proactive approach to leverage customer success to grow and scale your businesses.

Once we know why it’s important, there are two things a company should focus on. It starts with the customer and working backward from what the customer is looking to achieve. There are two key questions to ask:

  1. Who is your customer’s customer?
  2. How does your customer define success?

Next, build customer success in your internal DNA and culture. That starts with ensuring every role in the organization understands how they tangibly contribute to customer success. If customer success is only the job of the customer success team, that is a recipe for failure.

What is the unique value you bring as a leader?

It’s all about stewardship, guidance, and asking the right questions. I help people understand what they need to reach their goals. My superpower is making whiteboard visions real. There are many talented strategic leaders who are visionary, and there are others who are incredible execution machines. But there are very few people who can both build a vision and then make it real.

I also bring a lot of global experience. I’ve scaled teams across three continents and 13 countries in Europe. That’s experience most companies want because it shows that you have experience in setting a vision that brings together different cultures and diverse teams. In our increasingly distributed and global world, having a leader whose vision can bridge cultures and roles is key.

Why is it important for you to steward belonging as a leader?

Understanding the difference between fitting in and belonging is a concept I have learned to appreciate. Showing that you’re a part of the team often factors into how successful you are. At my first consulting job in the U.S., I participated in activities I didn’t enjoy to feel like I belonged to the team. It took me drinking several beers and sitting through games to realize that it was exhausting to try to fit in. I had to do the work to realize what I brought to the table—my unique skills and capabilities. And when I brought my whole self to work, my teams actually performed better.

As a leader, psychological safety is my top priority. This allows you to say things without editing yourself a hundred times in a meeting. When you’re constantly self-editing, you aren’t as effective because you’re in your head rather than being present. When people can be themselves, careers grow—and businesses and customers are positively impacted.

You’ve made several big career transitions. How do you know when it’s time to make a change?

When I feel too comfortable, I know I need to go somewhere to start learning again. I thrive with range—when I do multiple things and am learning from all of them. Think about what you need to keep yourself engaged, curious, and learning all the time. I am very intentional in choosing which paths to take.

I also follow my 10-10-10 analogy which asks you to consider how you will feel about something in 10 weeks, 10 months, and 10 years. It forces me to prioritize the important over the urgent and do the hard and uncomfortable things that set you up for long-term success.

In addition to your high-profile operating role, you also invest in new ventures. How can women leaders get started with investing?

There is a clear connection between boards and investing: being network-driven. Someone once said to me, “Board seats are like diamonds. There are so few of them, you only give them to people you know, love, and trust.” The same applies to investing.

Investing is a journey that every woman and person of color should be on. We should know what we bring to the table in terms of our strengths, and translate and leverage those to investing.

There are so many incredibly talented leaders who have financial independence and economic assets, but they may not even think about investing. We have to change that narrative. Representation matters at all levels—it matters in the workplace, it matters in the boardroom, and it matters in who writes the check. We have to level the investing playing field so all of us are comfortable exercising our financial power for issues we care about. And, investments come in all sizes! I started with a $5,000 check to a startup (that is now a Geekwire unicorn).

How has Athena helped you in your leadership journey?

I wanted to be part of a community where I could contribute and collaborate. I love the community of women at Athena. It is an incredibly nurturing and supportive community, not just about finding the board seat but about making your board journey successful. I am excited to be part of it and contribute. When you find something good, you have to leave it better.

What advice do you have for leaders rising in the ranks?

Know what you want, why you want it, and what good looks like. Once you know that, build your expertise. There is no substitute for experience, so build a body of work. Then, build your community and support each other. Reach out and understand what you can do to amplify someone else’s voice.

Ready to get started on your own journey to the boardroom? Download Athena’s new guide detailing 10 steps you can take to land your first board seat (and succeed when you get there.)

Athena provides the persistent support women leaders need as they rise in their careers. Learn more about membership here.



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