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Julie Binder on Leading Through the Growth Stage
Mixing Board Studio Session
Julie Binder is the SVP of Brand & Communications at the women’s & family health startup Maven Clinic where she reports to the founder and CEO, oversees all internal and external communications, as well as the brand team. Before that she was the Head of Communications at Compass, the VP of Global Communications at Percolate, and the VP of Corporate Communications at ADT. She spent the first decade of her career working at a global PR agency, spent three years living in Switzerland and China, before she found her sweet spot working with founders in growth stage tech. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two young daughters.
In this Studio Session, Julie and Mixing Board Founder, Sean Garrett, talk about why momentum and credibility are critically important in growth stage comms; how to walk the talk around culture and where to hold yourself to a higher standard; and, five questions you should be asking your team on a monthly basis.
SG: How do you get from producing a musical at Columbia to Maven?
JB: I started my career thinking I wanted to be a TV producer. I worked as a producer all the way through college and worked on the Varsity Show musical at Columbia — I convinced Columbia University to spend about $50,000 on four days of incredible musical theater, which was my earliest experience with fundraising. I had a cast of nine, including Kate McKinnon and Jenny Slate. I had the most fun you could possibly have as a producer. I peaked early.
The early 2000s were the worst era for television, it was before the streamers. I’m a person who needs to love the mission, I have to love the product, so I went into communications rather than TV. I do love the “show must go on” mentality and all the behind the scenes work. My team knows that if there’s any opportunity for a walkie-talkie, any impossible deadline, a huge opportunity, my sleeves are rolled up — I am so ready to go. I have brought that producer’s mindset to my entire career.
I’ve done a lot of things, I’ve worked at big companies, I’ve worked at small companies, I’ve worked in agencies. So much of the journey for me has been about finding the right mission to turn into a movement, really finding something where I’m excited to roll up my sleeves and put in the work. Certainly at Maven, my own personal experience has never felt more relevant to the work that I do, which makes it a lot of fun.
SG: Have your career decisions been more “this is who I am,” versus this is an interesting challenge or project?
JB: It changes over time. Early in my career, I was very hungry to learn. Very hungry to have those at big moments — get me in the meeting, give me a chance. I even wanted to be in those internal agency meetings to pitch my ideas or even just to hear how the conversation was had. I had that hunger to be in the room, see how the decisions are made, see how the business is run, and learn as much as possible. After I got to a point where I understood a lot of the core skill set of comms, then it became about how do I grow as a manager? How do I grow as a leader? While at the same time paying a lot of attention to the kinds of cultures where I felt most comfortable taking big swings at bat. What are the kinds of places that allow me to do the things I want to do outside of comms?
I am such a principled person at my core, I have to believe that the business impact is a net positive. I have to feel like I understand it, I’m connected to it, and it’s meaningful. Landing at Maven was just this incredible moment of all of those threads coming together. I was coming out of an experience where I had a really hard time getting pregnant. I was going through a very rough run with IVF and miscarriages all while I was the member of an executive team of a company going through the heart of the rapid scale growth stage. I found those things to be radically incompatible. When a doctor would ask, “What’s your work life like? What’s your stress level like?” The only thing I could do was laugh.
In many of my prior roles, I’ve been the only woman or one of the few women on the exec team, and the only mother of young children. Both of these experiences are really important to me in my life. Being a mother and being present in my young children’s life is so important to me. I was also put on this earth to do the work that I do and I love my career. How can I do both of these things at the same time? I found it really challenging, and wasn’t sure I was going to be able to find a path to do that.
Luckily through my network, I had lunch with Maëlle Gavet, who is now the CEO of Techstars, when I was doing some consulting between roles. She kept saying “Maven” to me in the meeting. By the end of lunch I was like, “I’m either going to go write a book about my experience going through infertility — because it’s a category that needs a hero, and I would love to write the iconic book on that. Or I’m going to go find the next mission-driven company.” I was looking for the right space for me where I was going to be able to have the life that I wanted and do the work that I wanted — I just wasn’t sure if that existed.
I’m really grateful for Maëlle for saying Maven about four times during that lunch. I went home, looked up Maven, and sent her an email the same day saying, “Oh, okay, can you introduce me to Kate?” And about 24 hours later I had a meeting with Kate Ryder (the founder and CEO). It really was a moment where everything was pointed in the right direction.
SG: What a well-timed moment powered by intentionality.
Before Maven you were at places like Compass and ADT — all very different but there probably were some commonalities in where they were in their respective progressions. How did you see these opportunities?
JB: It really goes back to that producer’s mindset and that momentum build. I joined ADT as it was being spun out from Tyco, 11 months pre-IPO. It was — go build a public company comms team, do the investor roadshow, do the listing, and really help reinvent and reposition the brand around the Internet of Things. This is when Google was buying Nest and all of the cable companies were really investing in having connected home offerings.
It was such an interesting moment for me, that career experience. I’m so grateful for those leaders really betting on me, pretty early in my career, to be able to have such an important role. The thing that I learned there is that it’s incredibly hard to change a culture that has been around for more than a hundred years.
Through that experience, I went to San Francisco with our Chief Innovation Officer and sat down with early stage founders who were working on Internet of Things products. I just kept thinking to myself, I want to be on the other side of this table. I want to work with founders. I’m just not interested in working on any brand that’s a custodian to the past. The vision and the momentum building is what I love to do.
SG: At growth stage startups, you’re inflecting from this place of being early stage, where you can get away with a lot of things. Doing comms for those organizations is very different. It’s also very different from the established Fortune 500. Growth stage is this weird in-between land — most of the hires are made, most of the growth is done, so much stuff is already set up for either future success or future disasters. It’s a weird and interesting place to be in a comms role. How do you see that role in that very rocketshippy place?
JB: We’re like teenagers. It’s that awkwardness where sometimes you really show up as an adult with all the sophistication. Maybe the functional leaders have been in place a long time so they have their operating rhythms, their data, they’re all in-sync, and the talent is in place. Then there are those functions that are still immature and have some work to do to catch up to the rest of the organization. What I love about my job is having that bird’s eye view across the company, which gives me a unique and valuable perspective on the strengths to leverage and the risks to manage. At the same time, not in any way shrinking from the boldness that you need at an earlier stage.
From my time in big company, corporate land, I still have a ton of respect for the work that Edelman does on the trust barometer, thinking about deep stakeholder engagement and what that looks like. But with startups, there’s this existential threat that they have, by nature of being VC backed and disrupting the status quo. I’ve always found that startups need to push further. You have to actually get people’s attention and get people to care about what you’re building.
In growth stage companies, the role of comms, at the highest level, is really about momentum and credibility. At Maven, those two lenses with which to grow the organization, that’s something I wake up and think about every day. I think a lot about momentum building. Of course, fundraising is a big one but also the product announcements, the customer announcements, the acquisitions. You have to play with the frequency of those things to show more and more momentum. But you’re ultimately not going to land in a good place if you aren’t at the same time building credibility. That really starts with your employees and building a strong foundation from the inside. In this radically transparent world that we all live in, your employees see everything. You have to think about how to deeply engage them and make sure that they are the primary stewards of the brand externally.
SG: How do you best leverage employees? You don’t go to employees and make them the arbiter of whether you’re doing a good job or not, but they can effectively veto what you do just by saying, “That’s not us,” or, “That’s BS,” or, “That’s ridiculous.” There’s a defensive posture that I see people play a lot now and with internal functions. But how do you make it offensive? How do you take from employees and build that into your momentum?
JB: You have to constantly remind them that they work at the most exciting place on the planet. When you’re an early stage company, you do all-hands meetings constantly. At Maven, we’re always adjusting our frequency. We still do them weekly, which is a lot, and we’re probably about ready to exit that into more of a team-driven cadence, with less frequent companywide all-hands meetings.
Every single week you have to talk about your customer. In our case, we bring in a real Maven member story every single week, something that’s happened in the product in the last week. It’s usually a really emotional story about how someone’s life was changed as a result of having access to Maven. We get feedback from our employees all the time about the level of purpose being so high. Even in the engineering departments or in other functions that you don’t think about as maybe necessarily being as receptive or where that’s less motivating.
It’s just helping remind them that the work that they do really matters. The more they’re connected to that, they’re going to lend that voice externally. We’re in this crazy place with Maven right now where we have 30,000 job applicants every month and we have 50 open roles. You can share that kind of data point with people internally and they suddenly all feel like they got a promotion and they’re all elevated. If you keep up that momentum internally, it absolutely comes out everywhere on the external side.
SG: You mentioned purpose and the values — obviously those things don’t operate separate from the business model, they operate within it and they guide it. It actually sits with the engineers as opposed to just “a nice outcome” that coincidentally connects to our purpose. It actually has to feed in what people are doing and what they’re building. That’s a job that everyone in the company should do on their own, although the person running comms and brand often becomes the steward for it. How do you see your role in ensuring that purpose is interconnected with everything?
JB: At a company like Maven, it’s easier to do because we can bring in those customer stories. And because we’re in family building, pregnancy, and all of these life stages — it’s the oldest rule in comms — dogs and babies just work in PR. To have somebody come in and talk about the fact that they got a positive pregnancy test after a lot of negative pregnancy tests, and they attribute that to Maven, their Maven care advocate, and their provider, that is incredibly meaningful. To hear that in a business meeting, and then to turn around and talk to a prospect about why they should invest, or building out a part of a product, it just really creates that sense of meaning and purpose in everyday work.
It’s also about how you show up in those moments where it is difficult. Maven’s response around the overturn of Roe was really a moment for credibility. For a company that was founded on the idea of better access to healthcare, this really touches the core of our purpose. We started talking about it as an exec team about eight months before the decision came in June of 2022 and we knew that just issuing a statement was going to feel radically insufficient to us. It was one of those moments to stand back and say, what are our members going to need? How is that going to feel for them? What changes? How are our clients, in a B2B2C business like ours, going to feel in the moment, navigating one of the most politically divisive issues in a generation?
We have to consider the pressures that they’re going to be under and how we can show up for them, in an apolitical way, to help guide them through a healthcare topic where they probably don’t want to be on the front lines of making decisions. Understanding that we need to ask, how can we build something? Not just say something. It’s going to matter in that moment. Those are the things that really reinforce, to our people and to our partners externally, that this is not a wallpaper mission for us, something that we hang on the wall. This is something that is very much the true north of what we’re building and why it matters.
SG: Are there ever moments where something happens and you think, this thing we’re doing here doesn’t sit well with me? Or, this doesn’t feel like this really is what we stand for. How do you bring that up and how do you resolve that situation? In your role, you’re not only thinking about what that potential topic is, but you’re also thinking about the downstream of three months from now if this thing festers, that’s going to cause a problem that could potentially be a comms problem.
JB: On the product level, I never feel that way. Women’s and family health has been so under-invested. The needs are so urgent and so great, and our clients are constantly pulling us in places saying, “I’m going to buy a product in this category. We get such great feedback from our employees about Maven, and I hope you build here because I need to buy something in this space and this feels like a natural extension.” We’re in the very fortunate position of having a few different growth opportunities in front of us. It’s really the question of prioritization and making sure that we’re not trying to do all of those things at the same time.
Where I do worry about it and where I do give a lot of feedback to our exec team, is around walking the talk around culture. If you’re going to sell a product like ours that is very much about inclusion and the health equity agenda of buyers, you must hold yourself to the highest bar. We have to keep a close eye on our people practices, our culture, and where we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard — given the business that we’re in. Those are the things that I’m usually the squeaky wheel on. While the responsibility of culture building and authenticity aren’t solely the duty of Comms, I see myself and my team as huge enablers of those things in our day-to-day work.
SG: How big was your team when you joined in 2019 and how big is your team now?
JB: Back in 2019, four maybe? Maven was only about 80 people at the time. We’re almost 10 times larger than we were when I started a couple years ago. My team is about 15 people today, half on the brand and creative side and the other half doing comms. We have a really broad remit — everything from the social media team to the employer brand team sits with me. We’re a two-sided marketplace. We have 1099 providers on our platform and we have to make sure that we’re not just treating them as a pass through to our member, instead we try to deeply engage with them. They have a lot of options of where they can go and practice, in terms of digital health platforms. We want them to feel really connected to what they’re doing at Maven, especially at a time when so many providers are so burned out and quitting healthcare. There’s such an opportunity for them to feel that same sense of purpose that our employees do.
SG: What’s your approach to building a team at this stage with this kind of velocity?
JB: I am so lucky, because I’ve had the same senior team under me for years. I feel like I learned from my own mistakes earlier in my career. I was one of those hotshot ICs who had a really rough run making it into management and leadership. I used to feel like people were an obstacle to the work and I just wanted to do the work. Learning to lead through people has been so much of the journey. The two things that I have gotten much better at are hiring and feedback.
On hiring, it’s not that I have a magic secret sauce. I just do what the experts say to do, I just did not do for a long time. As a comms person, it’s so easy to be biased toward charismatic storytellers. Instead you have to think very critically about, what do I actually need? Forget a job description. What are the three things that this person actually has to be great at the end of the day? They don’t have to be things that neatly show up in bullets on a job description but you have to get very strategically clear about what this person needs to have. You have to figure out the best questions to get to those skills as efficiently as possible in a 30-minute conversation. Then you have to ask the same questions, in the same order, every single time, to every candidate.
I used to just want to spend all the time on getting to know you questions — why did you do this role and why did you do that role? And yes, there is a place in the interview process for understanding the journey and the decision making. But to really make sure that you’re evaluating candidates consistently from a very even playing field, you need a core filter. This started to give me a much tighter lens during the interview process. And then asking everybody else on my hiring committee to have the same level of rigor around all of the things that they were testing for, allowed me to bring some great candidates to the table.
For every single hire at every level on my team, we do challenge assignments in front of the whole team.
SG: Oh, you’re one of those… What’s the challenge? Do they have to give a presentation?
JB: Yeah, Sean. And it’s great. I’ll give you an example. I hired this amazing woman to run employee comms. In the challenge assignment I asked, “Tell me how you would announce and launch the new values to our employees.”
I was already about 75% of the way through this process with our executive team at the time, and I like to ask questions about things I’m actually going to have to think about. I want you to be on this team and bring expertise, so help me think about things I haven’t thought about, help make me smarter. I also asked her about issues management. There’s been no shortage of crises, so pick one and tell me how you’ve talked about a difficult social issue with your employees. Those were the two questions.
I give them the assignment a week in advance and I say, “Come to this meeting with my team. You can present with something or nothing, totally your choice. Just tell me how you would approach these two situations.” It’s not about how much you know about Maven or how much homework you’ve done. It’s just about how you think and how you would approach this. It’s incredibly helpful to understand how you would work with people and also what their level of interest and investment is in the role.
SG: Do you have people who are like, “Nah, no thanks. I don’t want to do an assignment?”
JB: No, not at Maven, I haven’t. One of my colleagues at Maven, who I’ve been friends with for a long time, was an early Uber employee. He worked there in 2013 and he got a challenge assignment at Uber about how he would launch the Oklahoma City market. He flew to Oklahoma City, took pictures of himself at the airport talking to drivers. There’s that level of — I want to work here, I am thinking about the problems and opportunities, and I am bringing all of that with me. It’s amazing when you see that level of commitment to the brand and interest in what we’re doing.
Hiring has been an area where I have invested a lot into the front end of the process to make sure that that rigor is there. That has helped enormously in making sure we have the right fit and that the people that we’re bringing really add a lot to the culture and the skillset of the team. And in the case of the internal comms person I mentioned, she gave such a phenomenal answer to how she would launch the values that we hired her. On her first day I was like, “So just do that.”
The other thing is around feedback. Particularly during the pandemic, it was very hard to give feedback. I love working in person — let’s talk in the hallway, let me come over and sit next to you, let’s have a conversation, let’s work on the deck together. Moving into a totally remote world introduced some new challenges. This is where we have to walk the talk and recognize that many of our employees, especially those who are parents, are going through really difficult situations. Over Slack, it’s much harder to get a sense of what kind of day someone is having. Do they have a kid crawling over them right now while I’m trying to ask them how they think that last meeting went? How can I help create the right container for us to be able to show up with shared expectations around feedback? Both giving feedback to them and hearing from them about what they need from me and Maven.
You know what it’s like at startups — there are a ton of priorities, there’s a ton of stuff going on. Somebody who worked for me who gave me this amazing tool, we call them PD (professional development) chats. Every single month, I set up 30 minutes with all of my direct reports. Any tactical to-do list item is totally out of scope for the conversation. I ask them to write the answers to these five questions:
How would you rate your Maven experience on a scale of one to 10 and why did you give it that number?
What are three things you’re proud of in the last month?
What are three things you could have improved?
What can I be doing more of or less of to support you?
What are the three areas you’re focused on in the next month?
The answers are always fascinating to me. Then I write out, in advance, in the same Google Doc, what are you doing well that you should continue doing or do more of? What should you stop doing or do differently? Anything else? It’s just little bullet point responses from both of us, but we can see each other’s responses and read it. That 30 minute conversation is a great space, outside of a performance review or outside of a meeting with a hundred agenda items, to really understand what’s going on for someone personally.
It helps me figure out, are they in a mode where they’re like, “Give me a big project. I want to go for the next promotion and I really want to be challenged.” Or are they struggling with a coworker, or dealing with a major personal issue? There’s not really an easy way to table that in the day-to-day flow of the business. It’s a great way to establish a lot more social fabric and feedback fabric where then, those little slacks and little conversations have so much more context. I feel so much more deeply connected to what’s going on with my team.
SG: It sounds like a great tool that any manager could use. But is there something unique about the comms, or brand, or social teams where you think this is especially valuable?
JB: Yes. Sometimes they sit really close to the sun and have very upfront visibility to execs, but they often only get a fragment of context and background. And so, what did they mean by that? Or what’s actually going on behind the scenes in this one area? That is one really helpful place for it, because they all have to get comfortable giving feedback to execs. It’s good to have a space to do that. In growth stage startups in general, but also specifically for comms, there is way more to do than there is time.
I’m a person who really believes that we all need rich, full lives outside of the work that we do day to day. Making sure that there’s a space for boundaries around, how much are you actually working? Am I seeing your green light on Slack after hours too often? What’s really keeping you up, making you work longer hours than you should? Where can I be helpful in making sure that we’re aligned on what needs to get done, what can be punted, or not done at all?
SG: One of the differences about your role now, versus the ones you’ve had in the past, is that you have brand attached to your title. Where does that change things? Does it make anything different? Is it just a recognition of a truth that already existed? Or is it something different?
JB: Part of the reason I really love my work, is that there’s never been a better time to work in comms or brand. Just the number of channels that exist, every playbook is being reinvented. I don’t want to be narrowly defined to — you should work with journalists or you should work on our owned channels in this one way. I don’t want to think too narrowly about how to really activate our purpose and deeply engage our members and our clients. It’s also partly my boss giving me a lot of latitude to say you can be channel agnostic. Just figure out the best way to help us maximize our impact and support on that.
There are a lot of brand specific challenges in our space, including the response to the overturn of Roev Wade, how we think about inclusion and inclusive language, how we deeply engage men in journeys where historically women have been centered in the content and the product. These are questions that touch our business very broadly. Without a clear owner for them, did one person writing one blog post end up having outsized influence even though they weren’t really having the conversations at the highest level? It gives me the responsibility and the accountability to make sure that I’m thinking broadly about what kind of company we are, and how we want to show up. And make sure that I’m giving the right frameworks for everyone in the organization, not just thinking about the stakeholders and the channels that I own very directly.
SG: Assuming that they don’t have the ability to put on a four-day musical, what advice would you give people who are entering comms these days as they think about plotting out their career so they can do something that you’re like you’ve done someday?
JB: I would encourage them to get really good at asking questions. A lot of people who go into comms understand and appreciate optics, and want to look smart. But the people who do really well are those who are very, very curious of everyone around them. Getting very good at asking the right kinds of questions, that assume positive intent, and really get to richer strategic topics, is really important.
Also being in an environment where you’re really trusted. People are throwing you a ball and giving you enough support to be successful, but where you really have to figure some things out for yourself and develop your own point of view. When I started my career at Ruder Finn, I was lucky that the leadership team there gave me a ton of responsibility early on. If it had been super structured where you’re in one particular box and you have to succeed in this box before you move to the next box — I know I would not have grown as quickly. Those environments, where frankly it’s a little bit messy, are actually the best opportunities to say, “Hey, I can add some value here. I am willing to do the work and figure this out.”
You have to be very clear with yourself about what sort of experiences are important to you in your career. I spent three years in my agency career living abroad in Europe and in Asia. That only happened because when I was a bold little 25 year old, I said to my boss, working abroad is an experience that’s important to me in my career and I’d like to have it here. Here’s how I think we could do it, and I’m either going to do it here or I’m going to do it somewhere else. My manager at the time was like, you should do it here, let’s build it and make it possible.
That taught me that after you’ve already done the work to establish yourself in an organization, intelligent self-advocacy can really help you create situations and paths that might not otherwise exist. Self-advocacy within a career changes over time, but that was a really good training for me later on, particularly as I thought about becoming a parent.
There’s never been a more fun time to work in comms. I was talking to somebody this morning about a sophisticated ChatGPT query to bone up on how growth marketing intersects with comms. There are just endless opportunities to engage with people and learn. It’s a really fun profession.
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