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Leadership Spotlight: Katharine Coomer Navigates Management as a Millennial

Mar 11, 2021 11:19:56 AM / by Kelley Shea

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re shining the spotlight on the women in leadership roles at Ivy.ai. In our first installment, Katharine Coomer demonstrates how younger generations are increasingly improving the workplace as they enter upper management.

Over the past decade, the millennial generation has been getting a bad rap—they’re lazy and entitled, they want participation trophies, and they’re tech-obsessed. These are a few of the attributes assigned to them by older generations. There may or may not be some truth to these stereotypes, but if one thing is certain, it’s that this generation is quickly moving up the ranks in the workforce.

In speaking with Katharine Coomer, Ivy.ai Director of Operations, it seems the traits that correlate with her age are the same traits that enable her to excel at her job and enhance the company overall.

Katharine oversees Ivy.ai’s Implementation, Customer Support, and Project Management teams, as well as various initiatives and processes. In a nutshell, her goal is to help the company operate smoothly day-to-day, and continuously improve on a long-term basis. Comparing her role to putting together a puzzle, Katharine says the key to process improvement is in understanding how to arrange the pieces strategically and identifying which pieces are missing. 

While historically, women have had a more challenging time climbing the corporate ladder than their male counterparts, an American Association of University Women report found that societal barriers leading to gender bias are heightened for millennial women. Not only must this generation find a happy medium between being assertive and being liked, but they also have the challenge of managing in a time when many of their older colleagues are still in the workforce. This can make it difficult to get buy-in from those folks who may question their authority and expertise.

Starting out her career as a young woman in the male-dominated tech world, Katharine was aware of the barriers she might face and therefore, she was deliberate in her progression. Using these challenges as a catalyst for empowerment, she made a conscious effort to not only master her role, but to identify the company’s vision and learn how she could contribute to it.

While she has had her share of patronizing interactions, she states that this hasn’t impacted her career progression at Ivy.ai due to her supportive leadership team. Rather than dismissing her ideas, she was given the autonomy to implement her proposed solutions. When asked if she was worried about failing, she states:

“I’m not afraid of failing, and I know that even if I do, I will use it as a tremendous learning opportunity, and I will have a plan to get us back on track.”

While technology remains one of the top career industries for millennials, interest in STEM fields is actually declining among both millennial and Gen Z women. Katharine went against the grain in this aspect. She studied neuroscience and psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill and soon after graduation, she became the sole implementation specialist at Ivy.ai.

Understanding how human brains process information is critical to building life-like, conversational AI. The success of deep learning in AI is a direct result of insights from neuroscience—memory, learning, and decision-making. During a chance meeting with Katharine, Ivy.ai CEO Mark McNasby recognized that her educational background combined with her analytical mindset made her a prime candidate for bot building and an asset to the Ivy.ai team. 

Majoring in a high-demand subject like neuroscience at a prestigious school meant that the environment was hyper-competitive. Not only were Katharine’s peers competing with themselves in the pursuit of self-improvement, but they were competing with one another for the same extracurricular opportunities.

Among her generation, this is not an isolated experience. Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s meant that many millennials experienced much more parental involvement and pressure from soccer coaches, piano teachers and various other instructors than previous generations.

This combined with the instantaneous reactions they’re accustomed to in the world of social media—a world in which they are far more advanced than generations before them—translates into the workforce quite well. This generation craves feedback on a level not previously seen in the work environment. By increasing feedback, employees develop their skills and streamline processes rapidly, ultimately serving clients and stakeholders more efficiently and improving the bottom line.

Katharine recognizes this advantage and puts an emphasis on providing and receiving feedback.

“I rely on my team for their transparency and feedback and I display that mutual respect by being transparent with them and providing them with feedback when appropriate.”

Taking this approach, her focus is on the progression of her colleagues and the future success of Ivy.ai as a whole. She offers unlimited support and encouragement to each team member, and states that “to be an effective leader, you must empower your team by delegating responsibilities to them and not micro-managing.”

According to a study from the Academy of Management, women have a tougher time than men delegating responsibilities. When asked to help with something around the office, women find it more difficult than men to say no. Katharine admits that this is something she struggled with as she grew into a managerial position. She had to intentionally teach herself how to take a step back and delegate so as not to cause a bottleneck in the flow of projects and processes. And she has since learned that additional responsibilities don’t necessarily have to correlate with more hours worked.

To this point, to negatively typecast the millennial generation as being lazy is a misunderstanding of their work preferences. They were the first generation to be immersed in technology from an early age, so their comfort level with tech like Slack and Zoom allows them to seamlessly work anytime and anywhere. 

Whether attributed to millennial trends or the Covid pandemic, the days of waking at the crack of dawn and schlepping into the office for a 9-to-5 job are all but gone. According to Upwork, over half of younger managers surveyed allow their staff to work remotely, and among those, 75 percent managed employees who spent most of their time working outside the office.

Katharine respects that each team member has different priorities and responsibilities outside of work, and she makes it a point to be considerate of this when collaborating on projects or delegating tasks. She is appreciative of the diversity within her team and the unique perspectives they bring to the table. She appreciates the freedom and flexibility within her own role and ensures she funnels that down to her team.

Acceptance of flexible and remote work is shown to improve employee engagement, retention, productivity, and a more diverse talent pool, all while reducing a company’s overhead costs and carbon footprint. While 97 percent of female millennials say work-life balance is important to them, this generation has a much better chance of having their wishes met than the career women who paved the way for them.

When asked what motivates her, Katharine says her colleagues at Ivy.ai.

“I work as hard as I do for this team because I truly appreciate the opportunity to work with such amazing people. I know that they are all working just as hard for me, so I will happily do the same for them.”

This is admirable, though not surprising, as younger generations tend to place a higher value on teamwork than previous generations. Women in particular prefer to work in environments that focus less on competition and more on cooperation.

A recent Deloitte study shows that millennials view leadership in itself as an achievement, rather than a path to prestigious titles or bigger salaries. The long-tenured employee hoping to earn a gold watch and a big pension upon retirement seems to be going the way of the 9-to-5 office job. To feel truly successful, 81 percent of the millennial generation said that they would need to have a higher purpose in their career, and 78 percent prefer their firms share their same values.

At Ivy.ai, we’re lucky to have an employee-centric community based on collaboration, trust, and empowerment, and it’s apparent that Katharine helped create this culture. 

Kelley Shea

Written by Kelley Shea

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