CEO on the spot: 10 questions with Hootsuite’s Irina Novoselsky

The chief executive of the social media performance platform discusses the importance of authenticity and explains why you should only hire people you’d want to invite round for dinner

CEO on the Spot header

For Hootsuite CEO Irina Novoselsky, nothing should be seen as impossible. Her family moved to the US from Ukraine as refugees when she was just four years old and, after watching her parents build a new life for themselves in an alien country, she came to believe that with hard work and resilience, anything can be achieved.

Since then, Novoselsky’s career has taken her from Wall Street to becoming the first female CEO of US-based jobs site CareerBuilder at the age of 32. Now at the helm of social media performance platform Hootsuite, Novoselsky aims to give others the same opportunities to advance their careers as she received.

Here, she explains what CEOs can learn from sports coaches and why more business leaders should use emojis.

Q
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
A

I came to the US as a refugee from Ukraine when I was four years old and I witnessed the resilience of my family, as they arrived in a new country with very little and worked their way up.

There are two lotteries in life. One is the geography you’re born into – I didn’t win that one – and the other is the parents you’re born to, which I did win. They took me out of a difficult situation and gave me an appreciation for the importance of hard work. 

People face challenges every day, having the resilience to keep going is what’s most important.

The experience really shaped my mentality. The idea that nothing is impossible is cemented in my brain. Those that work with me know that the concept of ‘no’ doesn’t exist for me. I refuse to be told something can’t be done. I believe that, with the right team, anything can be achieved.

Q
What made you realise you were ready to become a CEO?
A

I don’t think anybody’s ever ready for their first CEO role. Being a first-time CEO is really hard. The skills that you need to get to that level in your career aren’t usually the skills that make you good at that next level, so you need to be willing to keep progressing.

The biggest lesson I learnt is how to be your authentic self as a leader. I’ve worked with some really amazing CEOs and I carefully watched how they lead. There was one in particular, who I really looked up to, but I was a 32-year-old millennial woman when I first became CEO – I couldn’t lead in exactly the same way as they did, I had to find a way to lead that was authentic to me.

It took me nine months to find my voice and learn that it’s okay for me to use emojis in emails and to be more vulnerable and a little bit more culturally relevant in my references.

A lot of people filter their behaviour when they first get promoted, but the job gets a lot easier when you’re authentically yourself.

Q
What do you think makes a good leader?
A

The best leaders are the ones that make their team feel inspired and empowered, while still being held accountable. It has less to do with the individual and more about how they make others feel.

Leaders need to give people direction and an ability to thrive in their role. The three main elements of my job are: set the strategy, pick the right people for the team and then help them to achieve their personal goals and the company goals.

Q
How would you describe your leadership style?
A

My leadership style is driven by my dedication to finding people who are smart, talented and hungry and then giving them opportunities. 

So much of leadership is the ability to morph and adjust so the person you want to lead feels inspired. 

It’s like the different love languages [which describe the different ways people like to receive and express love in a relationship], you have to find out what communication method works best for each person you lead. That comes with failures and successes. 

Q
How do you define success? 
A

A lot of people think someone has to have prior experience to be successful in a new role. But the most successful people I’ve hired have been those I’ve taken a risk on.

I pivoted careers. I left finance and moved into operational roles before I became a CEO. It was a challenging transition but I managed to find leaders that were willing to take a chance on me. I want to be able to keep taking those risks as a leader.

One of the things that motivates me the most is the ability to positively influence people’s careers. I want to help others get to where they want to be.

Q
What do you look for when you’re hiring for your leadership team?
A

They need to have a team mentality – that’s really important to me. This means prioritising the business’s goals over their own specific priorities or selfish interests.

We also look to recruit people who are problem-solvers. I love it when people recognise their mistakes and take ownership of them because that means they have confidence in themselves to find a way to solve it.

Being a good human helps a lot too. Life is short and who you work with is really important. At Hootsuite we have a ‘no-asshole’ policy. My advice for other leaders is hire people you want to be at dinner with or share a flight with. The people who I put on my team are the people I want to emulate.

Q
What do you consider your biggest mistake and what did you learn from the experience?
A

Managing people is really difficult. I make mistakes on a daily basis and a lot of them relate to leadership. But this shouldn’t be seen as a big deal. A mistake is just an experiment that went wrong and if you want to innovate, you have to be willing to experiment.

The mistakes that stick in my brain are generally people-related – did I fail to communicate a problem in an effective way? Was I unable to develop somebody that I really should have? Did I react too quickly to a problem or move too slowly? To be a better leader, I need to constantly push myself to think from other people’s perspectives and bring vulnerability and empathy to the role.

Q
What’s the biggest challenge facing your industry at the moment?
A

The social media industry is changing massively. There are 5 billion people spending almost three hours a day on social media. What other industry has that many eyeballs on it?

When you think about the last 10 years, organisations have used social media as a signpost, pointing people in their direction. The next 10 years will be drastically different.

In the future, the focus will be on improving social media performance and leveraging its potential. I think it’s really important that we lean into unlocking the value of social and the impact it has for your community, business and organisation.

Q
Which book do you think every business leader should read at least once?
A

I love reading books written by sports coaches because there’s a lot of crossover between building a successful sports team and a successful corporate one. One book I’ve read over and over again is The Score Takes Care of Itself, by [former San Francisco 49ers coach] Bill Walsh.

It’s funny because I’m into sports, but I’m not that interested, and people often wonder why I read these very intense sports books. But they really get to the heart of the question of how to build a high-performance team.

Q
What do you do outside of work to protect yourself against burnout?
A

Taking time off for vacation and sleep are incredibly important for leaders. Some think it’s a taboo topic but I think chief executives should talk about the benefits of taking time off more – we all need to unplug and recharge.

I’m capable of doing two to three months of intense work and then I need to unplug. That’s what works for me. I also try to maximise my sleep and get eight hours every night.

Each person has to figure out what works for their own mental wellness. My work gives me a lot of energy and passion but I need to recharge so I can bring my best self to work.