When Paige Arnof-Fenn was in her 20s, there was only one job she wanted: Fortune 500 company CEO. The Boston-based, Harvard-educated MBA came from long line of business executives - her father was the chief executive at a bank - while Meg Whitman, the ex-Hewlett Packard CEO, and Ursula Burns, the former Xerox CEO were her role models.
Arnof-Fenn was well on her way to becoming the top dog too. At 25 she became an assistant brand manager at Procter and Gamble and at 31 she moved to Coca-Cola, where she reported to the chief marketing officer, who, at the time, was the legendary Sergio Zyman, the man responsible for marketing Diet Coke and New Coke.
She was doing everything she needed to do to position herself as a future CEO, except for one thing: She didn’t feel as if she was making any meaningful difference to her company or to others. “I felt like I was missing out on something,” she says. “I was always trying to bend, break and change the rules. It was frustrating.”
In 1998, Arnof-Fenn quit her corporate job and joined a dot com startup as a vice-president of marketing. She then joined two more, including one that would become Zipcar. In 2002, she started Mavens & Moguls, a marketing, PR and branding company that includes Fortune 500 companies as clients.
The shift to entrepreneurship was liberating, she says, and it allowed her to help companies in ways she couldn’t do before. “I’m making my clients become more successful,” she says. “I’m helping them increase their profile and bring them more customers and I’m doing it for people and products I care about. I am making a difference to my clients.”
As Arnof-Fenn found out, occupying the corner office is often not enough. These days, people want to make a difference, whether that’s helping their companies grow, encouraging staff to become better leaders, working for a business that does good in the world and more. “Anyone can be a difference maker,” says Tim Correia, senior vice-president and general manager at Trulia, a Zillow-owned real estate listing and data company.
Help people find a purpose
If anyone knows what it takes to be a difference maker, it’s Correia, who, over the last 11 years, worked his way up from software engineer to leading the Trulia team. He’s overseen numerous people and helped lead the company through a successful IPO and eventual Zillow acquisition.
All of the difference makers he’s encountered have one key thing in common: a sense of purpose. “I’ve had a number of great leaders over time and they’ve all found a purpose that’s bigger than the product they’re working on or a single piece of tech,” he says. “That bigger purpose allows you to evolve over time.”
Usually, that purpose is set out by a business’ leadership, he says. Difference makers are the ones who understand their company’s values and know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Trulia’s mission is to “build a more neighborly world by helping you discover a place you'll love to live,” he says. “We’ve been able to help the team understand that purpose and that’s allowed us to have an eye toward the bigger things we’re trying to accomplish.”
To Samuel Dinnar, a Harvard industructor and co-author of Entrepreneurial Negotiation, making a difference comes down to empowerment. If people feel that they can do something different then they will. “People need to feel activated,” he says.
Empowerment, though, is something leaders must foster. Companies with what he calls “can do attitudes,” allow employees to take risks, and more importantly, fail without judgement.
“If people feel as if they can try new things and still have the respect of their peers when they fail then they’ll succeed,” he says. “Successful people dare to speak their minds, dare to experiment and they feel safe trying.”
Get the right tech
It also helps to have the right technology, says Dinnar. Whether it’s collaboration software, state-of-the art computers or data-collecting point-of-sales systems, technology democratizes work and allows people to influence others no matter where they’re located.
For instance, at one time CEOs would have to meet staff in smaller groups, now they can communicate with thousands of employees and take questions in real-time, he says. While he still thinks face-to-face interactions are important, tech “can be useful for creating more progress and for making things go faster,” he says.
At Trulia, technology is core to what they do. They’re always trying to launch new products and use technology to enhance the customer and staff experience.
Whether it’s creating new data-gathering tools for their clients or deploying software to help their employees work more efficiently, technology has been important to the company’s success. “We leverage technology and use it to help connect the dots throughout the organization,” says Correia.
Trust your team
There are many other things companies and individuals can do to help encourage difference making in an organization or within themselves, including being more aware of problems and thinking up creative solutions to those issues, says Correia. Being passionate about your work is also important, adds Dinnar.
It helps to have people you can trust and rely on, too, says Arnof-Fenn, who has 40 freelance marketing people on her team. “You need be a good conductor, but conducting won’t sound good if you don’t have an orchestra that rises to the occasion,” she says.
While Arnof-Fenn knows she can’t be a Fortune 500 CEO anymore, she feels as she’s making more significant contributions to society as an entrepreneur than she’d be able to do as a corporate bigwig. “I want to leave things better than when I found them,” she says. “If I’m not making a difference, then what am I doing?”