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Mentor Interview: Madhu Jagannathan

Madhu Jagannathan, Upnotch mentor, is the CFO at INRIX, a tech company devoted to helping people go, cities flow, and businesses grow. With over 20 years of experience in strategic planning, profit & loss management, and investor relations, he is a skilled leader and dedicated professional mentor.

What is your superpower & why?

My superpower is mental resilience. In life, not everything is going to be smooth and there will be times that you will experience a setback. Mental resilience is really important. To be able to take a blow and just get back up and get back on the mission.

Tell me a little bit about your mentors - who they are or what topics do you like to cover with them?

I've had many mentors over the years. Currently, I work with a mentor who is a very experienced CFO. I look up to him for many different reasons. From time to time, I will reach out to him to seek advice on various issues that I experience at work. Previous to this, I've had mentors and professional coaches, to help me transition and navigate through different phases of my career. I think the nature of my relationships really changes over time as the types of challenges that I encounter also change over time.

Tell me about a time when a mentor helped you accomplish a specific goal.

I recall a mentor during my Microsoft days when I was a new people manager. Quite frankly, one of the challenges that I was facing was that I wasn't necessarily an expert in all the areas that my team was responsible for. I had the impression that I needed to be an expert first before I had the authority to lead a team. When I approached my mentor to talk about this issue, he actually helped me think about it a little differently. He made me realize that a lot of times as a leader you're not going to be able to have the expertise or even experience in all the aspects of your team, sometimes your job as a leader is to recruit and retain talent that will help achieve the team's mission. The job isn't always to know everything that your team knows. It really helped me navigate some of the challenges that I faced early on as a new people manager.

Can you describe a time when a mentor pushed you further than you thought was possible?

Working with a mentor at one point where I had aspirations to grow into becoming a CFO... He challenged me into thinking about what it takes to be successful as a CFO and taking action upfront, rather than waiting until I became a CFO, waiting until I was given a title. When I think about it, it really helped me think and act like a CFO, even before I became one.

Any advice your mentor has given you that you can share with us today?

There have been mentors who would focus on just taking care of my needs. I would just go into those mentorship sessions, looking out for myself. But there was this one particular mentor who made me realize that at the end of the day, we shouldn't take the mentor's time for granted. Time is a finite resource. Mentors have to make trade-offs themselves, so when I get into a mentor relationship, I always think about how I can be useful to the mentor in return. I try to understand some of their priorities as well. It is a give-and-take relationship.

What would you tell your mentor if they were listening to you right now?

To all the mentors who are listening to this, a big thank you, you may or may not know this, but you've all made a big difference to my life, even beyond my professional life. I have grown as a person as a result of all of the advice, coaching, and mentorship that my mentors have given me over the years.

What makes a great mentee in your opinion?

A good mentee is someone who is very thoughtful, comes prepared for the mentorship sessions, sends questions to the mentor ahead of time, and makes sure that the time is well used.

Why do you mentor?

People inherently, actually want to be helpful. I really do think under the right circumstances, almost everyone will want to help others, sometimes even at the expense of their own time. I think there is something so gratifying about making a difference to another person's life.

What topics do you like to mentor on?

When I first began as a mentor, I started with the assumption that I would mentor others in the finance function. But over the years, my passion has grown beyond that. One of the things that I'm most passionate about these days is mental fitness, areas like mindfulness. Today, I spent more time talking to people about developing their mental faculties, way more than honing their financial skills.

What is the strangest thing that a mentee has ever asked you?

I recall mentoring someone, initially, the mentorship was mostly focused on professional development, but as the relationship grew it turns out that this particular mentee was a new parent. A lot of our discussions really started to transition towards how to be a good parent. I have two young kids myself. I've spent a lot of time reading books about parenting and learning how to be a thoughtful parent, sharing some of those learnings with this person was quite interesting.

When was a time you helped a mentee solve a big challenge?

I recall working with a mentee at one point and she was trying to make a decision, staying at her current job versus pursuing an opportunity outside her current employer. To her, it was a pretty big decision, especially because she was tenured in her role. Making a switch was a very big decision for her. I enjoyed working with her on that. But I also remember the burden that I had, in making sure that I was giving her good advice, making sure that she owned the decision, and that I wasn’t crossing the boundary and telling her what to do. I wanted to make sure that I was there to help her think through this decision, but at the same time, I wanted it to be her decision. It was a pretty big responsibility.

Any embarrassing moments early in your career when you were thinking, “Oh, no, this might be it.”?

There was one time that I was meeting with a very well-established venture capitalist in Seattle, a very senior person. He was helping me evaluate various CFO opportunities in the startup scene. And somehow, I thought, I had built this rapport with him to a point where I could take the liberty of asking him if he'd be willing to mentor me. I had almost assumed that he was going to say yes. I thought it was a no-brainer, the body language, the warmth in our conversations was such that I thought, “Okay, this is a slam dunk, I'm gonna ask him this question.”

His answer was a prompt no. I was embarrassed, but I can understand why - he's a very busy man. He said, “Look, I have way too much on my plate. I don't believe I can take this on. I don't think I can do justice to a mentorship relationship.” He was quite transparent with me and I'm glad he told me that upfront, instead of saying yes to me, and not being able to do justice to the relationship.

Any funny or strange stories that you can think of, you had to do in order to close the deal?

I recall a funny, professional experience that I had many years ago. I was in my early 20s. I used to live in India at that time but I used to travel frequently to the United States, to work with our salespeople to close large deals. There was one particular trip that I made to Detroit, to meet with a fairly large automotive car manufacturer. I was accompanied by a very senior sales rep to meet someone really senior. It turns out that right before the meeting was to begin, the sales rep got a call that was very important and stepped away to take that call.

While I was waiting for him to join me, the secretary of the senior person asked me to go inside the room and meet with this person. I walked in and he was clearly in his late 50s, maybe even early 60s, very senior looking. I sat across the table from him and I had to say something to get the conversation going.

So I began by asking him if he'd ever traveled to India, I felt that was one of my comfort topics. He said yes, and asked me if I’ve traveled to India. I said that I've lived there for more than two decades, he looked at me and said, “You mean all your life?” implying that he knew how young I was. It was embarrassing but thankfully I was rescued very quickly by the sales rep who came into the room!

When did you know you achieved career success?

I was always passionate about working. Even back in college, I couldn't wait until I could get into corporate life. On my first day at work, I was required to wear a tie and I walked into this really fancy-looking office. This was 25 years ago, I felt like I'd achieved corporate success that day.

What is the secret behind your success?

The secret behind my success is humility and knowing that it's an ongoing continuous learning process. Keeping my mind open, recognizing that you can learn pretty much every day and almost from anyone, and not taking myself too seriously. Continuing to learn and be committed to that learning process. It is the biggest secret to my success.


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