After 20 years in the tech world working as a founder and executive at companies from Emtec to Syndio, in April Andee Harris started as the Chief Engagement Officer at HighGround, an employee engagement software company.

Out of HighGround’s eight person leadership team, half are men and half are women. And this is the first time that Harris has ever worked on a leadership team with equal representation from the genders, she says.

This isn’t totally surprising–top tech companies average only 22 percent of women in leadership roles–but it’s been a long time coming for Harris who simultaneously lead rebranding, marketing, and sales at top Chicago tech companies, while pioneering women-friendly business practices, such as established maternity leave benefits. Now she’s looking at creative ways to engage diverse employees through HighGround’s software.

Andee Harris, chief engagement officer at High Ground.
Andee Harris, chief engagement officer at High Ground.

In this interview, she talks the changing definition of engagement, what businesses often overlook when it comes to rewarding employees and why data is driving the conversation around women in tech.

You’re the Chief Engagement Officer at High Ground. Tell us about your role, and what drew you to it?

It’s a pretty cool role. It’s working with our potential clients, our marketing team, and also our product to make sure that we’re bringing world class solutions around employee engagement. Really trying to think outside of the box around employee engagement.

What are some examples of “world class” employee engagement solutions?

One really looks at the neuroscience behind engagement. What makes people feel like they are psychologically engaged? [Such as] growth mindset, purpose. Then…the data science. The reporting and analytics so people can see, are people in my organization happier by taking surveys? And then lastly, the social science, which is really around reward and recognition. How do you give people tools, like peer to peer recognition and…let people be rewarded by what we call intrinsic motivation, which is the idea that everyone has a different type of reward. It might be, as a 40-something-year-old woman, if I do something well I might not want a hoodie sweatshirt. So the idea is that I can be rewarded in a way that makes sense me, or will be a reward or experience I remember rather than a hoodie sweatshirt that I’ll forget about a day later—or give to my kids.

What would surprise people about employee engagement, that they may not realize is key for an engaged workforce?

The biggest thing we see is that if there is not a level of trust in leadership, then no matter what you do employee engagement will fall apart. Then after that you can think about cultural values, you can think about how you can engage your employees more, but if that foundation of trust isn’t there, then no matter how much money you spend on employee engagement systems it won’t work.

And then the other thing is that it’s very leader driven, manager driven. You’ll see people who join a company because they believe in the purpose and vision, and they’re so excited about the company. Then they get there and they end up working with someone who is not a good boss or not a good leader, and they end up leaving.

Speaking of leadership, HighGround is an exemption to the usual dearth of women executives—half of HighGround’s executives are women. Can you talk about how this changes the leadership dynamic?

It’s really cool, it’s the first company I’ve ever worked at where half the—well I’ve usually been the only woman on the leadership team. So I’m really excited to have colleagues who are also women on the leadership team. I think the biggest thing is that women are more collaborative. We’re a bit more thoughtful about how we do things. So I think the balance is really nice. We are a startup culture…but as women, we sometimes say, hey let’s take a step back and think about that. Let’s be a little more analytical, a little more collaborative. So I think that’s been something that’s been really nice in our team.

The other thing I would say, is we all have each others backs. We’re all really supportive of each other and our careers. We’re all around the same age and at the same point in our careers, so I think that’s really awesome too. We really respect the work we’ve done prior to HighGround.

We see studies that show women-led companies that perform better. But in the meantime, there’s still a startling lack of women in leadership roles, especially in STEM. Where have you seen the biggest breaks in the pipeline?

In the startup world, I think it’s especially harder for women, because a lot of startups don’t have 50 employees or more so maternity leave is an issue. The thought of someone leaving for six weeks or 12 weeks to have a child…everyone has so much on their plate. So I think there is a little bit of that concern about having women leaders, unfortunately. I’m not saying it’s right, but the truth of it is [some companies] don’t feel they can take that hit of having someone on maternity leave.

Women are being more particular about what they want and what they need. I don’t often think that startup and tech cultures are conducive to that. When I was interviewing in October of this year, there were companies I walked in and I knew right away it wouldn’t be a good fit for me. Most companies have their leadership team on their website, and I always look to see if there is any women on that team. I look at who they’re being funded by, if there are any lead investors who are women.

Do you have any solutions you’ve come across or things you’ve come across that can be done to address these issues?

Having some sort of mentorship program in place. It’s not necessarily just for women, but if you’re thinking of trying to get more women leaders in the company, making sure that they have positive role models either within in the companies, or allowing them to get coaching outside the company. It is also dependent on the other men on the leadership team. I have worked with incredible men, who have been very accepting where it hasn’t even been an issue that I have been a woman. Then I’ve worked with other men on leadership teams where it has been an issue. So I think it really depends on the culture, who is leading the teams.

As far as getting more women in the workplace… I work with an organization in Chicago called Lumity. I do STEM talks in high schools. I think that’s where it really begins, talking to them about careers and technology, and getting them excited. I also think it’s important to tell them careers in STEM aren’t just coding careers. You can be in sales, marketing, HR. I do know how to code, but I’m not a coder or developer. Just because I have a career in STEM, doesn’t mean I’m sitting behind a computer writing code all day long. 

It’s not always perfect for us, but we make it better for the people who come after.

This isn’t the only major leadership role you’ve had through your career: you’ve been a founder, and executive at Emtec and Syndio. What have been the key factors that paved your way to success? 

Everyone has personality strengths. For me, I tend to be more outspoken, and a little more on the aggressive side, and that’s worked well for me as a woman in the tech business. I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I also think that I’ve been very fortunate, the first company that I started in 1999, my other three partners were all men…I was just part of  the team. I think it’s good that there’s so much conversation about women in tech, but it almost puts a divide up too. Whereas in the 90’s, everyone just did their work.

But I suffered in silence. And looking back I think I suffered in silence a lot more with things like maternity leave, and trying to have my kids. I took six weeks off with one child, and five weeks off with the other. I was the first woman at my company to take maternity leave. And for me, it wasn’t so much about my maternity leave, but about all the women that I knew were going to take maternity leave after me. And that company is still around. And now we have more than 50 employees and a nursing room, so all the things that I was a guinea pig on, luckily it has benefited other people. I think sometimes for us, that’s our responsibility: it’s not always perfect for us, but we make it better for the people who come after.

Anything else you want to add?

Why is it now? Why are people talking more about women in the workforce now, more than ever before? A lot of time people will say, oh it’s Millennials. Millennials bring this up more. And I really think it’s more about the data now. You can see in companies what’s happening from the gender perspective whether it’s equal pay, whether it’s people not getting promoted. We have all this data, so we can really track it now. Before, we didn’t know. Now we owe it to ourselves. We understand what’s happening, and [need to] make sure it get fixed.

Note: Interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Karis is a Minnesota native and Chicago resident writing about tech and startups for Minne Inno and Chicago Inno. Got a newsy tip (or a coffee shop recommendation) for either place? Email: Tweet: @karishustad