Women in Business Q&A: Jen Brandenburger, Director of Critical Response and Shared Services, Lyft

08/07/2017 02:39 am ET

Jennifer is the Director of Critical Response and Shared Services at Lyft, working to deliver a safe, comfortable and delightful experience to all Lyft drivers and passengers. In her nearly four years at Lyft, she has built a 24/7 operation with over 200 team members focused on responding quickly to customers who report safety issues on the platform. In 2015, Jen relocated from San Francisco to Nashville, where she oversaw the launch, build-out and operations for Lyft's new customer experience center.

Prior to Lyft, Jennifer managed local government relations for Pacific Gas & Electric Company in San Francisco and San Mateo counties, as well as managed constituent relations for a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Jennifer is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder and Seattle University School of Law.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I moved around a lot in my childhood and post high-school, and as a result have become incredibly adaptable, flexible and comfortable in new environments. My nomadic ways have given me the confidence to take risks and never settle for the status quo. There’s no reason to stay in a job or at a company that doesn’t fulfill you every single day.  

Over the years I’ve also learned the importance of networking, which is an insanely important skill to have inside and outside the workplace. The more people you know, the more apt they are to help you—and the more opportunities you have to help others. There’s a certain level of comfort in knowing that you don’t have to have all the answers all the time—it’s totally okay to call people for help or guidance.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Lyft?  

Before I joined Lyft, I worked in the legal and public policy realm, primarily at the local level, which has helped me immensely in my current role. Although I’m now in a fairly operations-heavy role (which has been a steep learning curve unto itself), my law degree and local public policy experience have enabled me to develop a lot of credibility and strong working relationships with our legal and government relations teams. They’re key partners in building out policies focused on how we help drivers and passengers and are also essential in helping manage through various crises and legal issues that have arisen in the wake of ride-sharing’s expansion across the country. Since I can speak the same language, we’re often more quickly aligned than if I didn’t have a policy and legal-focused background. Some days I regret not pursuing a more business-focused track in college or an MBA, but working at a startup has probably been the best education I could have hoped for.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Lyft?

I’m grateful to Lyft for giving me the autonomy and the trust to take risks. I started in 2014 when we were about 150 people. My team at the time was all of two people. Fast forward almost four years later, my team is now 200 and the company is 1,600. In 2015, I left San Francisco to move to Nashville to launch and lead our second corporate office. In less than two years, we’re now 450.

At a startup, particularly in its early years, you don’t always have structure, policies or systems set up to help guide decision-making. The challenge and the opportunity is that you’re often on the hook for creating them—and ensuring they’re adhered to—once the need arises. You find yourself reacting when you’d rather be proactively directing and executing the strategy. As we like to say around here, we’re flying the airplane (or driving the car, I guess) while we’re building it. Resources are also always a challenge given how quickly the company is growing (we’re now in 350 cities in the US) and you’re constantly building business cases to support the additional resources.

I look at these challenges as opportunities—we’re always building here, always starting at the ground level, which means having significant input in shaping policies and processes that will guide how things are done here long-term.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Take risks. Be the first to raise your hand for career-changing opportunities even if it requires a step down in compensation or title. Almost always, these kinds of opportunities will catapult you much farther ahead than if you hadn’t taken the leap of faith in the first place. I took a pay cut when I started at Lyft but the personal and career growth I’ve experienced the past 3.5 years has far surpassed anything I would have accomplished in my former roles at a more well-established company.  

Also, wherever you go, you have to be passionate about the product and the culture. Startups are a grind and growing pains are real. If you don’t truly believe in the product or the culture, you’ll find it incredibly difficult to get through those times.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

The power of positive attitude, a growth mindset (vs. fixed) and never playing victim to your circumstances are essential. Of course you should find trusted peers or mentors with whom you can confide and vent, but when working with your direct reports, peers or leadership—show up with a smile on your face and a solution-oriented mindset and you’ll go far.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

As my mom always told me, you are the only one who will set your boundaries. Admittedly, I’m still working on this. I have a bad habit—borne out of necessity from being an early employee at a startup that operated 24/7—of being overly responsive. It took me a long time to fully grasp the example I was setting by working off-hours. It creates a certain kind of pressure for others to do the same—even when you loudly advocate and encourage them to create their own work-life balance.

Yes there will be times where you have to put in extra hours at night or on weekends, but if there’s nothing pressing, leave on time (or early!). Establish disciplined systems and processes so that people feel comfortable truly signing off on nights and weekends. Ask direct reports or managers to text after hours if there’s an urgent issue so you’re not checking your email constantly.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

I’m pregnant with my first child (due in October) and I think there’s an added pressure women face when trying to start a family that doesn’t feel quite as stressful for men in the same way. We are fortunate at Lyft to have a fairly generous family leave policy (by US standards) but in a fast-paced company—and given my always-on disposition—I think there’s still some worry about what might pass you by while you take time off. That said, from everything I can gather, that stress lifts the moment the baby is born.

Fortunately, there are countless women at Lyft who have taken leave, returned, and been even more successful in their roles. I think what it boils down to is having a leadership team that actively supports parental leave, as we thankfully do. Secondly, if you’re a people leader, it’s essential to build a team predicated on mutual trust. At the end of the day, I’m 100% confident the team is more than equipped to handle anything and everything thrown their way.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

To be honest, I’ve never really had any formal mentorship in my career, which is something I regret. In the absence of a formal mentor, I’ve been fortunate to have a number of great managers who have doubled in this mentor role, either through direct feedback and development conversations or by me simply observing and internalizing the parts of their leadership style I admire.

This latter part has helped guide me in how I mentor my own direct reports and other colleagues. My current manager has been instrumental in shifting my approach towards more direct conversations. In my early days of managing, I used to shield my direct reports from tough conversations and take all the heat myself. Her perspective is that someday I’m not going to be there to protect them and it’s much better professional development for them to learn to stand on their own two feet—and she’s right. She recounted an experience with her former direct report who didn’t fare well after she departed because she hadn’t been adequately prepared to deal with the leadership’s directness and expectations of her. That served as a word of caution for me.

Suffice to say, I’m pretty sure I’ve made it harder on myself by not seeking out mentorship earlier in my career. If I were first starting out—or better yet, if this were my child to whom I was giving counsel—I would absolutely encourage finding someone whom you trust, respect and admire.  

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?  

There’s nothing better than a boss whom you respect and admire. Mine is Mary Winfield, the VP of Customer Experience at Lyft. She’s incredibly accomplished and has transformed our organization—and our company—into a customer-first company. She maintains a strong work-life balance and perspective. She’s direct, never satisfied with the status quo, and drives our team to continually refine our work. She oversees our team of over 450 people and yet religiously finds the time for mentorship to her direct reports.

What do you want Lyft to accomplish in the next year?

I happen to work for a company whose values I deeply believe in and it’s important to me personally and professionally that Lyft continue to relentlessly focus on our commitment to diversity and inclusion. This applies not only for the company itself—but also to how we interact and support the broader community. These values define who we are and what we’re collectively working so hard to build.

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