Editor's Note: This article is the first in a series featuring working women who've had a big impact on the tech industry, developed in partnership with multinational tech services company HCL Technologies. To read about other inspiring Red Ladder Honorees, click here.
Atlanta native and mom to Jacob, 11, and Joshua, 8, Melissa Koehler has spent her 19-year career working in and around technology within the entertainment industry. Like every successful working mom, she’s climbed through the ranks thanks to an essential combination of her own smarts and dedication, and mentors who have encouraged and guided her along the way. And like every successful mentee, she’s now dedicated to mentoring others—including her own children.
Before we talk about formal mentors, was there anyone in your life who guided you informally? Without a doubt, my dad. He hammered it into my head that there was no mountain I couldn’t climb—and beat men to the top. He’s also somebody who always demonstrated his priorities. I vividly remember, when I was 10, that there was a homeless man my dad knew on the side of road. My dad, who was in the transportation business, pulled over and said, “Hey, you wanna go have some lunch? Then I can put you to work with some vans I need washed today.” He showed me that compassion for other people is more important than anything else. I’m that type of leader now. I don’t want my team to have to choose work over taking their mom to her first chemo treatment or going to their child’s performance. I give them space for their personal priorities and I get productivity and loyalty in return.
How did you begin in the tech field? I started indirectly, working my way through college at a small advertising agency that put ads on movie screens. I moved my way up in the production and operations group at the agency, and was able to spearhead the analog-to-digital transition in cinema—it was a total accident! After eight years at the company, I was recruited over into the tech vertical at Turner. I’ve been there ever since.
Were there many women in tech when you got started? I was literally the only woman in the room—not just, eventually, the only 26-year-old vice president in the room.
Wow—who could you count on for guidance? I had male mentors, and they very much were teaching me the way to adapt in a man’s world. They had good intentions in trying to take me under their wing, but I was learning to take on male behaviors. I thought I had to. I was an arrogant 20-something who was rising in the ranks too fast, without good coaching. Luckily, the last two years I was at the ad agency, they hired a female COO. She changed my life.
Do you remember what was so extraordinary about her? Yes, because I am still mentored by Vicki to this day! She came to our company from The Weather Channel, and right away I began to report to her. In the first month, she pulled me aside and said, “Tell me who you really are, because your behaviors don’t seem like they’re authentically you.” That was such a powerful thing to say, and I instantly got very defensive.
How did Vicki cut through that? She just put her heart out there. She said, “I’m not here to take anything away from you. I’m here to support you, so let’s spend some time building up a relationship.” I was yearning for that and hadn’t even realized it. She started more as coach—asking questions to get me to come to my own conclusions. Then mentoring me, helping me to see my blind spots and telling me some hard truths, in order to work out some solutions and grow as a professional woman.
What do you think she saw in you, to want to invest that kind of time in your professional development? She saw someone with a strong work ethic, integrity, and a passion for people. But I needed help in bringing them together in order to be a leader. Vicki also believed in reverse mentoring; she would seek guidance from me around how to enlist and recruit talent from my generation. That’s become a critical component of how I mentor now.
Who do you mentor? They’re primarily women, but some men,as well, and they range from 23 to 60. I try to focus on being the person I needed when I was younger and on being empathetic to those who are reinventing themselves later in their career journey. One thing I work with them on is their brand. We all have a brand, whether or not we’re deliberate about it. What do you want to be famous for, and what are you doing to make that happen? This came out of an executive development seminar I went to in 2009. There was a comment made about what I expect from the people who come into my office: Be brief, be bright, and be gone. It wasn’t how I wanted to be seen. That’s when I understood that taking actionable steps around my brand was essential.
Changing yourself is incredibly hard; how did you manage it? I started by going to my direct reports and saying, “I would love your feedback on my behavior; please be open and candid, and tell me anything that concerns you about me as a leader.” The way they described me was, “Somebody that gets things done” and “Problem solver.” People above me, though, described me as personable and warm. That told me that I wasn’t being same person across the board, and also that I wasn’t putting people first — even though I needed to.
Parenting can be kind of a mentorship, too. Are there any ways you feel you mentor your boys? My husband Kevin is a fireman and a stay-at-home dad, and he and I are very deliberate about how we want to shape our sons’ worldview. My husband has the boys take me on dates; he gives them a playbook for what that should look like: They make reservations, open car doors, pay for dinner and use their manners. It’s a way to help them understand how to treat women they are interested in getting to know and just good etiquette that is timeless. We continuously, almost to the brink of annoying, reinforce the Golden Rule. It’s simple: just treat others the way you want to be treated. We don’t try to shield them from the real world, and we educate them about different cultures and ways of living. This is to show them they should seek to understand, never to judge. We try to reinforce that Dad and I are a team and investing in our marriage is top priority. We take an annual trip without the kids and try to date often. We remind them that they will leave one day and we still have to want to hang out with one another! There are so many important, positive experiences that formed the way I am today. I’m trying to pass them down.