551 Sarah Jolly:
Every great company needs a visionary leader, an inspired and aligned team playing their A game…and the operational leader who puts the systems and processes in place to assure steady growth.
I’m Melinda Wittstock and today on Wings of Inspired Business we meet an operational dynamo changing the game for a tech company as its operational CFO.
Sarah Jolly is the CFO of Point Solutions Group, a multi-million dollar technology company with a drive to promote diversity and opportunity in engineering and technology.
The entrepreneurial bible “Rocket Fuel” talks about why every visionary CEO founder needs their “integrator” – the Chief Operations Officer who manages the day-to-day detail and systems that allows a vision to scale. Sarah Jolly is that rocket fuel, and today we’re going to learn from her the necessity of prioritizing that role – and what it can mean for the success of any company. First…
Sarah Jolly is a powerful mixture of multi-disciplinary experience, leadership, and gifted at simplifying and solving complex problems. From operational processes to culture to revenue generation, if you have a problem, (yo) she’ll solve it. She says she likes to win, knows the right way to do it, and enjoys making it fun for her team.
After spending 10 years in corporate accounting, Sarah found her sweet spot in growing companies where she could do all the things. As the CFO and operational maven for a company which doubled in size each year, she cultivated positive culture, efficient operations and systems, and (of course) ninja’d the finances. She went on to launch a new office for a finance and accounting consulting company, growing the team from one to 15 in just one year. Sarah did this while simultaneously handling all aspects of sales and leadership in a new market.
These days she’s the CFO of Point Solutions Group, joining founder CEO Paige Goss to grow and run a multi-million dollar national company with a drive to promote diversity and opportunity in engineering and technology.
Today we talk about the role of operations and systems in growing a company, the ideal time for a founder to bring in their operational equivalent, and how to build a vibrant and diverse culture.
Take out your phone and download Podopolo so you can participate in the conversation. Because as female founders we can often fall into the trap of trying to “do it all” to “have it all”, and why to grow businesses we have to be willing to invest in team and operational systems early enough.
Sarah Jolly is going to share her own journey to becoming the CFO/COO of the tech company Point Solutions, the systems we need for success, and why women must learn to lift as we climb and support one another to assure success.
Let’s put on our wings with the inspiring Sarah Jolly.
Melinda Wittstock: Sarah, welcome to Wings.
Sarah Jolly: Thank you so much for having me.
Melinda Wittstock: I’m excited to talk to you and get the COO perspective. Because most of the time on this podcast, we talk to CEOs. And I’ve come to learn that a CEO does much, much better when they have a great COO.
Sarah Jolly: I think so.
Melinda Wittstock: So you recently joined Point Solutions.
Sarah Jolly: That’s right.
Melinda Wittstock: And tell me about what that was like integrating into a company with a really amazing CEO, but needed her COO. What were some of the first things that you did, and what were some of the transformations as a result?
Sarah Jolly: Sure, absolutely. So, yeah, you never know really what you’re walking into. You can have conversations ahead of time, but for a CEO, even if they recognize that they kind of want to expand and scale, you never know how they’re going to really respond kind of handing over the reins. So there were some question marks walking in. I think Paige and I have a great dynamic. But pretty quickly we recognized our complimentary skills and really leaned into that. So for me, that was huge, right?
Figuring out what was her biggest priority, and what she wanted to continue doing, what gave her energy and let her really lean into that. And then kind of take everything else and figure out ways to automate it or spread it out, kind of empowering the rest of the company to take those tasks on. So for me, looking at systems was a big piece of that, but also just looking at kind of communication paths. And really kind of shoring those up and setting expectations across the board about what I wanted to do, and then talking to people and learning what they thought was needed kind of as a company, as a whole.
Melinda Wittstock: I like that you said that with the CEO, let her do the things that she is best at, that makes her heart sing. And then the COO is doing everything else or figuring out who else needs to do… I mean, that’s awesome. So in her case, I mean, I know Paige, so she’s a sales dynamo, right?
Sarah Jolly: That’s right. Yep.
Melinda Wittstock: She’s great at bringing in all the revenue. And you can bring in loads of revenue, but how can you make it profitable revenue? What do you need to be able to really grow and scale the business? What are all the systems, all that kind of stuff. And that can be, for a lot of CEOs, like watching paint dry, right?
Sarah Jolly: Yeah. It just it can be so draining if you’re that kind of dynamic personality that loves to be in front of people. And she feels so passionate about this company she’s built, which is part of why she’s been so successful, right? And so having to step back from that and kind of look at the books and program a system that, yeah, like you said, it’s just mind numbing. And it can really kind of take some of the fun out of what you’re trying to create as a CEO.
Melinda Wittstock: It can be really hard for a CEO though to find a great COO. There’s a wonderful book called Rocket Fuel that talks about how every visionary CEO needs their integrator COO. But the integrators are hard to find.
Sarah Jolly: And we’ve talked about kind of that interesting dynamic that we have, and I think a lot of good pairings of visionaries and integrators have where I don’t have to be in charge all the time. I’m happy to let her kind of run with her vision and stuff, but I also don’t have a problem being in charge. So when it’s time for her to be out of the picture and be off doing her awesome sales thing, I don’t have a discomfort with kind of making decisions and taking the reins. And so we really kind of flex back and forth in those positions. And I think it’s important to kind of have that dynamic and that flexibility because there are going to be times when it’s appropriate for me to step up, and say, “No, no. I got this one. I’ll take care of it.” And times when I need to kind of take a back seat and let her be the face of the company.
Melinda Wittstock: At what point should a company have a COO? I see a lot of companies wait too late.
Sarah Jolly: Yeah, absolutely. So I think that’s a great point. Because a lot of times, I mean, it’s kind of like accounting, right? It feels like something that you don’t really want to have to pay for, but you know you kind of need to. And so it can be hard to pull that lever. I think, like I said before, if a CEO finds herself or himself in a position where a lot of the joy is out, right, you find yourself kind of in the weeds and doing stuff that you know is not your sweet spot, it’s time to step back and kind of really examine where you’re spending your time and energy. And I think also having a clear destination in mind. Some CEOs just kind of want to build it to a certain point and keep it as a lifestyle company. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But for CEOs who have big goals and dreams, and really want to grow beyond themselves, I’d say sooner rather than later you bring in someone who can help you do that.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely right. So, I mean, to me, a COO is not an expanse, it’s an investment. Right? So when Paige brought you in, did she tie you to results?
Sarah Jolly: Yeah, absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: And so talk about that a little bit. Because I think a lot of people make the mistake of hiring people generally where they, oh, I’m going to get this person to come and do something. Well, okay. Great. But to what end. Okay. So what are some of the things that you’re on the hook for?
Sarah Jolly: Yeah. So I mean, we kind of hold each other accountable, right? So the idea was, all right, I’m going to take this on and free you up to go sell more. So let’s see that increase in revenue, but then I’m really going to focus on the backside. Like you said, we’ve got to make it profitable, right? So increasing those margins, really thinking long-term about, okay, we’re growing quickly so where do we invest that’s going to pay off down the road? So it’s both, it’s watching expenses and kind of making sure they’re going the direction we want, but also driving revenue. And then for us, a big overarching thing is culture. So we talked about kind of some metrics we could watch there and touch points we could increase. Just because growth for growth’s sake, it doesn’t really help a company in the long run, right? You got to be aware of how you’re doing it, and how you’re treating people along the way.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. So when it comes to that, and I think this is a really great segue here to big chunk of stuff I want to talk to you about, which is that corporate culture, but also in a technology company. Most technology companies are just riven with bro culture. There’re not a lot of women, certainly not a lot of diversity. And so what are some of the things that you’re doing in terms of innovating there to have a truly diverse and supportive culture that attracts people of color, LGBTQ, women, et cetera.
Sarah Jolly: Yep. So Paige herself is in the LGBTQ community. And so she’s very open about that. So I think that that’s a biggie, right? Just being authentic to who she is automatically kind of sets the tone for others in the company. We do things like, on our resumes, we take off names. And we really just want to look at skillsets and move people forward or not based on that, and not based on a gender or a race or anything like that. So that’s a big one for us.
And then we’re both moms of young kids. And so we understand other moms, but we also just get everyone’s kind of in a different spot. And especially this year with COVID, everything’s been bonkers, right? And so we’ve really pushed ourselves to offer more flexibility to everyone, and to say, “Hey, here’s what works for us. And we’re going to be back in the office. Not everyone has that option. So let’s work to be fluid and find a solution.”
And I think as much as tech has a bro culture, you’re absolutely right. But I think we have so much opportunity in this industry, right? Where else can you just work from wherever you want? And you have access to cutting edge stuff. And so why should we be stuck in tradition and do things just because that’s the way we’ve always done them. So we really try and lean into that, and make it just a place where people can come as they are and make it work for them and their families.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. That’s really, really important. So what are some of the metrics that you look at to measure some of those kind of, I guess, call them impact, kind of mission aspects of the business?
Sarah Jolly: I mean, for us, it starts at the top, right? And we look at our leadership team. And Paige is a female and I’m a female, so right there, we’re a little different than how most companies start. But it has to go all the way down. And we’ve talked about in every level of our hiring, let’s examine kind of who we have in the driver’s seat, and who we have on the teams. And I think nothing makes us more proud than when we walk into a meeting and it’s females and people of color, and this whole diverse team and every other company has a bunch of white dudes sitting at the table. I think that’s phenomenal, right? And that’s why we do it. So we do. We look at percentages across the board. We’re very aware of compensation and making sure that our roles, like the names of people’s jobs are consistent, and then the compensation within that is fair across the board.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. That’s wonderful. I think women in business have a real opportunity to remake business. Just because it was done a certain way before doesn’t mean we have to continue to do it that way. And most of the entrepreneurs that I interview on this podcast, and most of the female entrepreneurs I know period, went into entrepreneurship to begin with because they had an impact or a mission or something, some sort of change they wanted to see in the world. What’s the overarching goal in that respect of Point Solutions?
Sarah Jolly: So it is to increase diversity in the technology industry. I mean, we do a lot of work in the federal space, and that’s a tough industry to kind of get your foot in the door. You have to know the right people, right? So now that we’re in there, we really try and take advantage of that and bring people along with us who might not normally get a shot at that industry. I think Paige and I have both had experiences in our life that it’s a non-starter unless we can bring people along who deserves to be there regardless of gender or race.
Melinda Wittstock: Right. Well, it’s so inspiring. It’s really important work to be doing. I know as I build Podopolo, which will have an increasingly large tech team, making sure that that tech team is fully diverse. So I’m always “Okay, so how can I find those people?” Do you have advice for me or anyone else in the tech space about really creating that diverse team?
Sarah Jolly: Yeah. I mean, it’s still a fairly male dominated industry. And so as we look at candidates, I mean, that is the majority of who we run across. But for us, we push really hard to include some nonwhite males in the pool each time we’re looking at a candidate. And like I said, we remove all those names so that by the time people get to that final interview level, it’s really just been a skillset decision at that point.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. Exactly. So are there places that you look or whatever for talent? I guess, there are probably meet-ups or Facebook groups or whatever for women in tech and that kind of thing.
Sarah Jolly: Yeah, absolutely. And Paige is very active in kind of the women in tech community here in Colorado. My background is more finance, so I have a pretty good community of female workers in the finance side. And that’s who we sourced for our accounting role that we hired for recently. But yeah, I think that’s important. And we try and be aware of offering people referral bonuses. Because I think you can really easily run into the trap of, well, I’m just going to bring in my buddy who looks just like me, and you don’t push yourself to find those organizations and those networks that have a more diverse group in them.
Melinda Wittstock: All of a sudden this year with Black Lives Matter and everything, I mean, so many companies I know consulted with diversity experts, and a new title, CDO, has come on. And I know Podopolo was one of those companies. I mean, what can we do just in our marketing materials and the way that we hire and all those things to make sure that we’re on point with that, right? Because it’s so easy for startups to hire from the pool of people that you know.
Sarah Jolly: That’s right. Your friends and family. And yeah, absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: All of that. Yeah.
Sarah Jolly: And I like that you brought up marketing materials. That’s something that we’ve been kind of redoing ourselves and we are hyper-aware of. And our marketing team gets it, and they’re absolutely on board. But kind of that representation, even just in the pictures on our website and the things we post on LinkedIn, making sure that we have that awareness and that inclusivity.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh gosh. It’s so funny, just in terms of finding photos, stock photos of African Americans or Latinos in tech or women in tech, it’s impossible. It’s really, really hard. So just even those stock photos.
Sarah Jolly: And that should tell us there’s a problem, right? Yeah.
Melinda Wittstock: Because my designer and I were realizing that we just couldn’t, there was no stock footage. My God, this is really a problem.
Sarah Jolly: That’s right. But good on you for being aware, and for kind of looking to make that change.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh yeah. No, it’s so, so vital. I mean, it’s really been my dream kind of all along. I enjoy that. I think teams that are truly diverse, you’re aligned on mission and on where you’re going as a company, but the diversity is what’s going to make you great because people who come from different backgrounds and different experiences and different skillsets are going to spot things that you won’t see.
Sarah Jolly: Absolutely. Absolutely. Earlier this year, I had the chance to talk as part of a round table discussion on some focus groups the US Chamber of Commerce was doing specifically around diversity and inclusion. And we talked a lot about just COVID generally and how it affected businesses. And every company there who kind of had a more diverse leadership team felt that they benefited from that diversity through this time. Because you do have a bunch of different perspectives and ideas, and people who maybe didn’t have the easiest path to get to where they are. And they’re used to kind of working through some hurdles and hardships. And I think it’s so, so important to a healthy company.
Melinda Wittstock: It really is. So tell me a little bit about your journey. How did you end up the COO? What was it that made you want to be a COO? What is it about you that makes you a great COO?
Sarah Jolly: Yeah, sure. So like I said, my background is mostly on the accounting and finance side. I started off in oil and gas. So you want to talk about a bro culture, kind of old-school. So I will say I had the opportunity to learn a lot about that industry, but also just about kind of bringing groups together to get something done. I had the opportunity to kind of work on some special projects and help with acquisitions and systems. And it was at that point that I think I really kind of got the bug to do essentially what a COO does. I mean, that certainly wasn’t my role there, but just bringing a lot of people together, and getting Barb from this department to work with Tom over here, even if they don’t like it. But we all got to do this to get here. And just kind of always having a different challenge to tackle every day. That was almost addictive for me. I love kind of change and challenge and variety. So I enjoyed that immensely.
And then moved on from there to work with an accounting consulting group in Dallas. And they were pretty small. I was employee number eight, something like that. And I became their CFO. And at that point really had a chance to kind of see the inner workings of growing a company and be hands-on in virtually every area, right? And I loved that because everything you do has an impact. You’re not a cog in the corporate wheel, you’re making real time decisions that affect lives and families and this whole company that you’re fighting for together. So I liked that, and I got to kind of marry my love of change and challenge with being really hands-on in a lot of different areas. And so, although my title was CFO, I kind of realized after the fact, oh, I was doing a lot of COO type things.
And I think that’s really that part that I love the most. So when it was time to move on, I knew that’s what I wanted to find was a COO role. I certainly wanted to bring my finance background with me and use that to help a company. And around the time I was looking Paige kind of reached the decision that she needed some help and walked into a meeting, and said, “I want someone to come run my company so I can go sell.” And four different people at that meeting said, “Oh, you need to meet Sarah Jolly.” So the rest is history, but it was just kind of the universe bringing us together.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. That’s a really important point because knowing what you need and just putting it out there, telling people. Because people will have somebody in mind. And I mean, that’s really important. But if you don’t ask, if you don’t put it out there-
Sarah Jolly: Absolutely. I have a lot of young women who want to talk to me about how do I get there? How do I become C-suite? And that’s one of the biggest pieces of advice I give is just kind of realizing what you want, and yeah, telling your network about it. Because like you said, you won’t be the one that comes to mind when somebody is looking, and you have to kind of take a little bit of a risk and got on a limb to get to that new spot of growth.
Melinda Wittstock: Absolutely true. So we’ve skirted around this in the conversation, this importance of female community. The whole reason that I even launched this podcast was it was the podcast I wish I’d had when I was coming up as a founder. I’m on my fifth business now, and I found that it was difficult to find great female mentors or community when I started this few years back. And I see all that blossoming now. I see women helping each other with more of a spirit of abundance rather than scarcity, and that kind of weird competition thing that used to be the norm.
But I really believe that when we’re actually actively helping each other, whether we’re just mentoring each other or promoting each other, or buying from other female businesses, or investing actual investments in female run companies, when we have exits and that kind of thing, we’re all much stronger. We all benefit. We can all do so much more when we come at it in community. And I think that’s just how we’re wired actually. But on the flip side of that, I see so many women still kind of toiling in isolation, or not reaching out, or not asking for help. And so what’s the kind of internal kind of switch that needs to be made among women to really get more into that abundance mindset where it’s just part of the day to help other women.
Sarah Jolly: Yeah. I mean, that’s the million dollar question, right? And I love, I think you said it to us in conversation, Melinda, but lift as we rise. And that’s so huge in my journey. I think even before really being a female executive, just kind of as a manager. And that was the one thing that was the most rewarding for me was to kind of empower someone and give them the experience they needed to move to that next level, and watch them kind of blossom. And so I think you’re right. I think as women, we’re often wired to live in that space of collaboration and community and teamwork. But for whatever reason, that’s been shut down and we’ve isolated ourselves. And I think it takes a little bit of vulnerability to take that first step, and say, “Hey, actually I need someone to talk to. And this is kind of hard. Is this hard for you?”
And not everyone’s at a place where they’re ready to take that step. But I think even just exposing yourself to other strong women. And even if you’re just watching from the sidelines, oh, how does she do that? And, oh, I love when she did that. I think you kind of start to internalize we can do this and we can do it together. And it’s not me against the world. It’s us all helping each other out. But I think it is important that as we go, we remember to kind of look back and offer a hand up. Like, “Hey, come along with me. I’m not just forging this path alone. I want us all to benefit from it.”
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. So, so important. So what is your big vision? Where do you see yourself going and the company going over the next, say, it’s hard to see beyond five years, but where’s your heart leading you? Where do you want to be?
Sarah Jolly: Absolutely. So Point Solutions Group, I mean, we’re growing so quickly, doubling in size each year, which is a phenomenal ride to be on, right? And we want that growth and that trajectory to continue because the more diversity we bring to this sector, the better for everyone. I think for me personally, whatever happens with Point Solutions Group, I want to continue this, I kind of call it being a queen-maker as opposed to a kingmaker. But I love that. My heart is in finding female founders and doing whatever can be done to help them kind of explode and get to that next level. And I think you’re right. I think sometimes that’s funds, that we have to put our money where our mouth is. Sometimes that’s just hard work and running alongside someone for awhile. But the more people I can impact and just kind of make female leaders the norm, I think the better everyone will be.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah. Well, you’re part of a group called A11OW. And the l’s in A11OW are ones for 11, which is very “portally”. And some listeners will remember, I did an interview with Cynthia Del’Aria, who is also part of that group. And that’s how I met you through Cynthia. And so tell me a little bit about A11OW, and what A11OW is seeking to do.
Sarah Jolly: Yeah. So A11OW is just that heart that I was talking about. Our kind of vision is to marry the money, because I think we can all agree, the flow of money to female founders is just broken right now, right? Females get better returns, but they’re getting less than 2% of the investment money. And that doesn’t even make sense logically much less as humans who care about each other. So we really want to address that part, but also then use the power of media. Because I think media really does have the power to change society’s views and norms.
We talked a little bit earlier about representation and marketing and things like that, but I think the same is true just for females seeing other leaders. And I want my son and my daughters to grow up in a world where they see women leading and men leading, and it’s all just normal, right? It’s not like, “Oh, how does she do that? How does she balance?” That’s not the question. It’s just, of course she’s doing it because she’s great, and great women should get the opportunity to do great things. So I think just really that exposure along with kind of the funds to back it up and propel people, that’s a really powerful combination. And that’s kind of our big vision, right, to change things over the next few years.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s fantastic. So Sarah, how can people find you either via Point Solutions or by A11OW? How can people find you and connect with you?
Sarah Jolly: Yeah. So I mean, we have websites for both, pointssolutionsus.com, or A11OW, with the ones instead of l’s, a11ow.com or LinkedIn. And like I said, I’ll always take the time to talk to someone who just wants to chat or want some advice or to bounce some ideas off someone. So I’d love to hear from anyone who is interested in reaching out.
Melinda Wittstock: Fantastic. Well, thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with us today.
Sarah Jolly: Thank you for making time and having me on. This was great.