Career Life Stories: Caroline Ingeborn, Toca Boca

Caroline Ingeborn made a move from investment banking to a start-up and has never looked back. Now the COO & President of Toca Boca, Caroline talks about how taking a chance with a start-up has given her huge career opportunities as part of the Robert Walters Career Life Stories series.

How did you find your way into a COO position?

My background is in investment banking. After a few years at Lehman Brothers, I realized I wanted to get closer to operations.

Recruiters I was working with at the time told me I was throwing my career away. Against their advice, I made the move into a Corporate Development and M&A role at the largest media conglomerate in Scandinavia.

Along the way, I had provided some strategic advice to Toca Boca. They eventually asked if I wanted to join them in an operations role, despite my lack of true operational experience.

In the end, I took a chance on a tiny startup, and they took a chance on me.

How did your experience in investment banking prepare you for a role as COO?

My experience in investment banking trained me how to prioritize my time and execute under pressure. I observed how different individuals are affected by stress, and more importantly, how teams operate in high stress situations.

How do you describe your role?

The role of a COO is difficult to describe because the responsibilities vary from company to company. My own experience has been focused on growing and scaling the business, taking the company through different stages, and expanding into new areas.

What trends have you noticed within technology lately?

For better or worse, there will always be trends which affect the tech ecosystem. For example, there was a time a few years ago when every startup needed a growth team even if they really didn’t need a growth team; it was very difficult to attract funding without one. I am always trying to stay ahead what is going in the world in general, both inside and outside of tech.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a female leader?

Banking was extremely male-dominated with a specific culture around that dynamic, whereas Toca Boca is less that way.

No matter the industry, though, there are numerous ways by which we are all judged. For me, one of those ways is on the basis of being a female in a leadership role.

While its true that when the average female leader says something it can be interpreted a little different than when a male leader says the same thing, for me I find it unproductive to view every interaction through this lens. Especially since I think the same is true for many facets of someone’s identity, including cultural backgrounds.

What advice would you give other females in tech or those who are aspiring leaders?

Females, and especially those in pursuit of careers within historically male-dominated cultures, should try to focus positive relationships driven by mutual respect.

Don’t tolerate people who push you down for any reason, and if you have a bad experience, speak up. Following a negative interaction, however, the challenge is not to assume that every new experience will be negative too.

Just remember that for as many poor company cultures that exist, there are as many positive ones. There is no need to settle for a toxic environment.

What personal qualities do you look for when you hire for your team?

In the U.S. we have noticed this idea amongst candidates that if you want to climb the corporate ladder then you need to agree with the boss. I, however, appreciate candidates who speak their mind, even when their ideas are in direct conflict with my way of thinking. My experience is new perspectives are catalysts for team and company growth.

I also seek candidates who are positive, open-minded, and agile. The lack of infrastructure at startups can be very disturbing for some, so it’s important to hire those who are comfortable with a lot of change.

What question do you always ask candidates who are interviewing?

Let’s pretend you join tomorrow.

One year from now you come to me and say, “I’m so sorry, but I need to leave.”

Alternatively, you come to me in a year and say, “this has been the best professional year of my life.”

What has happened in either of those scenarios?

I got these questions from our old Chairman which are designed to find out what would make a candidate leave or love a company.

What career advice do you have for people who would like to set themselves up for a future role as a COO?

Years ago, I stressed about what was going to do and where I would end up. That sort of thinking didn’t benefit me at all, and I’ve since learned that there is a balance between focusing what you want to learn today and thinking long-term.

There are many paths which could lead to a COO role so my broad advice is don’t think too much, take some chances, and be open to change.

Despite what people say, you can actually move between functions. It may create a CV that is a bit broad, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not natural to have dreamt since childhood about a career in business development. You may need to try a few different things in order to discover your passions and interests, and that’s okay.

That concludes our interview, so to learn more about Caroline’s background visit her LinkedIn profile,  and give her a follow on Twitter!  For more on recruitment news, advice for job-seekers, and thoughts from other Bay Area tech leaders like Caroline, see our other career advice articles, and follow Robert Walters on LinkedIn and Twitter.