Sit at the Table: Reflections on Becoming a Leader


By Racquel Russell, Vice President of Government Relations and Public Affairs, Zillow

Last night I had the honor of being recognized, along with 15 extraordinary women, as one of the Puget Sound Business Journal’s 2019 Women of Influence.

Receiving this award has been a moving experience, and it has caused me to reflect on what it means to be an influential woman in business, especially at Zillow, a forward-thinking and innovative tech company that supports and makes me feel excited to get up and go to work every day.

From Congress to corporate boardrooms, the number of leadership roles filled by men still far outnumber those filled by women—and for women of color the leadership gap is even larger. I believe that together we can work toward bridging these gaps.

When I think about what makes an influential leader, some of the top principles I think about include encouraging women to take their seat at the table, hiring people who are smarter than you, building bridges, and leading with empathy.

Take Your Seat at the Table

Before coming to Zillow in 2015, I was the  Deputy Assistant to President Barack Obama in the White House, where I was a principal decision maker on urban affairs, economic opportunity, anti-poverty programs, nutrition, and reproductive health across his Administration.

One of the most career-supporting pieces of advice I ever received came during that time from a mentor, Nancy-Ann DeParle, who had spotted me in the Senate and advocated for me to get a job in the White House. I was suffering from imposter syndrome at the White House, as my career was growing very quickly there. 

One day I was to be the primary presenter in a meeting Nancy-Ann was running. It was a large meeting with a veritable “Who’s Who” of health care in the Administration. When I entered the room, I saw a huge table with two rows of seats around it and thought to myself, “I’m not sitting at that table.” Even though I had arrived early and there were plenty of seats, I chose to sit in the row behind the table. .

Before the meeting started, Nancy-Ann caught my eye and pointed to her Blackberry for me to look at mine. She had written, “Sit at the table.”

In that moment, I felt excited to be asked to sit there—but upon more reflection, I felt disappointed in myself because someone had to tell me to take my seat at that table. 

This is something I’ve never forgotten, and I’ve told a lot of people who ask me for advice—especially young women: You were hired for a reason, you add value, and if you were invited to the meeting your seat is at the table.

Hire People Smarter Than You

From the very beginning of my time at Zillow, this company and its leaders encouraged me to shine. I was invited to meetings with C-level executives who listened to what I had to say. I was rewarded for my performance and felt empowered.

One of the first articles I read about Zillow’s culture had a quote that stuck with me: “Hire people who are smarter than you,” and I remember thinking what a fascinating principle this was. 

Now as my team at Zillow grows and accomplishes truly amazing things every day, this mantra makes perfect sense. Hire better than you, listen to them, and then let them shine. Our culture is powered by the notion that ideas come from all levels. We encourage employees to share new ideas, and we take measures to ensure employees have a voice in decisions.

Remove Barriers and Build Bridges

It’s an exciting time to be at Zillow because we are in the midst of a massive transformation to reimagine the real estate transaction. Through new technology and services that make it faster and easier than ever to sell, buy, rent and borrow, Zillow is building the seamless transaction experience that people want and deserve. 

I see this transformation to reimagine what’s possible extending into our workplace culture, too. We believe strongly that embracing a diverse workforce not only enhances our workplace culture, but is key to our success as a company. We now have a dedicated team focused on leading the company to a more equitable and inclusive environment, removing barriers, and building bridges so that everyone can feel supported in taking their seat at the table.

Lead with Empathy

I believe a big part of influence is leading with empathy. 

Not everyone might think the same way, but in my experience getting to know my team and being connected to them as people—caring about their lives outside of whatever we are working on—enables us to tackle big challenges and draw from everyone’s best strengths. I watch us accomplish incredible things when everyone feels seen and can contribute from a place of being appreciated as a whole person.

At Zillow, I’ve also had the opportunity to help drive positive outcomes in our community. With my seat at the table, I’ve been able to advance a social impact program that prioritizes partnership and capacity-building with our government and nonprofit partners. 

During my years at the White House, I saw first-hand the power that companies in the private sector can have on social issues. Now each day I’m able to bring what we have here at Zillow to our community, where we can help solve significant problems like housing insecurity, homelessness, and education and opportunity divides.

Listening to the other honorees last night tell the stories of how they came to be recognized as Women of Influence was exciting. It filled me with a lot of hope and enthusiasm for the future of our region.

I’m grateful for this honor, and I look forward to using my influence to encourage more people who are maybe not accustomed to sitting at the table to take the seat they’ve earned and use their voice to influence real change.

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