Conversation with Juliana Zaremba | Director –Strategic Partnerships, Difenda

Meet Juliana Zaremba. She is the newly appointed Strategic Partnerships Director at Difenda. As part of her role, she is responsible for Difenda’s channel partner program, and their global Microsoft Partnership among other things. Prior to this role, she has worked with the Herjavec Group and CDW. She is a proven leader and achiever with inspiring perspectives on life, work, and leadership. An avid reader and philanthropist, she lives with her husband and daughter in Ontario, Canada.

Channel Take is happy to feature Juliana in our ‘Women in Channel’ interview series. Here’s the conversation.

First, let us go back a little in time. Please share something about your early career choices? What drove you to this path? Were there any biases you had to face early on? 

While in university, I did have an idea about what I wanted to be. But like for many others, it changed when I entered the workforce.  My undergraduate and graduate studies were in Mathematics and Economics. I wanted to become a statistician and help businesses make decisions based on data.  But when I was interviewing for jobs, I realized that I preferred roles that put me closer to the customers. And so, I started my career in technology as a Business Analyst. My mentor quickly recognized that I was more of a Project Manager. And so, I went back to school to learn more about that craft.  I was young and it was early in my career. I felt I needed a degree to be able to switch roles.  My passion for solving client problems in business, my urge to stay planned and organized, and my love for data-driven decision-making are what led me to this early career shift.  I remember being one of the very few women in the technology industry at the time. But women in Project Management roles were not totally uncommon.  Maybe because of this, I did not face many biases at that time.

What motivates you? What is it that one thing that gets you to push that bar a notch higher every time you think you have made it! 

My job is my passion. I have always worked in roles that have excited me, so motivation is never hard to find.  When I support clients and use my knowledge to help them grow their businesses, I feel like I am making an impact. I enjoy that.

I also crave challenges and I challenge myself regularly. For instance, while working through different roles, I pushed myself to continue education and secure certifications early in my career.  Later, transitioning to leadership roles unlocked several other challenges and growth opportunities for me.  I had to expand my approach to work and think beyond customer support challenging myself to push the boundaries further all the time.

I certainly do not feel like I have made it. I have not ever felt that way. This is not because I am not proud of what I have accomplished, or the work I have done. It is because I know that I should continue to learn and grow. For this, it is important to surround myself with people who support me in this pursuit. 

Having a core network of key people who will give me candid feedback, help push me to achieve my dreams, and be my cheerleader when I need them is so important in business. It has been crucial in my career.

Juliana about motivation.

Everyone has made their share of wrong choices and mistakes in their professional life. How does one bounce back and fly higher?

In my opinion, mistakes are an opportunity to learn and grow, not a place to nest your negativity. Have I made mistakes in my career?  Of course!  That is how I have learned the difference between what makes sense on paper and what will work in practice.  My quick 3 recommendations:

  • As I mentioned before , have a circle of people _ to bounce ideas off, get candid feedback from, and draw support from. This has helped me immensely. 
  • I believe in homework. Business proposals or decisions, I recommend to have clear plans and be reviewed by as many leaders and stakeholders as possible. 
  • Lastly, I highly recommend doing a proof of concept, or a trial.  Take your ideas and try them out quickly in order to “fail fast” or get more realistic feedback. This is a great way to learn from wrong decisions and make changes before there is a large impact. 

Is there a person, advice, book, or experience that may have turned things around for you at work, and how? Please share.

I wish there was a silver bullet that I could share with you, but the reality is that there is none.  My career growth has been a culmination of so many different aspects of my life.  My education, my family, my love for technology, my passion for continuous growth, the incredible mentors I have had, and amazing teams I have worked with over the years _ have all added to making me what I am today. There is no one piece to this intricate puzzle that can be removed.

When asked similar questions by mentees or in other interviews I always share that I never could have told you in university what my career path would have looked like, but at every turn I chose my path based on my gut and what would help me personally grow, as well as support more businesses.  Every time I face a challenge or decision, I also use my analytical approach to assess the changes. I then discuss issues with my mentors to get candid feedback. And finally, I review my choices with my husband, who has been my partner in life since university.  Typically, after all these discussions and assessments, I have a strong feeling on what is the right move and then just go with it and give it everything I have. So far, that has not failed me.

When someone is ambitious at work should they have to compromise on life? How do you strike a balance?

Everyone I know that is ambitious at work is also ambitious in their personal lives. They do not compromise, but find a way to make things work.  Balance is therefore hard to define, as it is very different for each person.  In my case, I certainly have had times where my focus has been on work, or my education, or my personal life.  I generally follow what makes the most sense for my family and I at the time. 

Juliana about work-life balance.

As I mentioned earlier, I have been with my husband since university, and when we first met, we both shared a passion for career and family growth.  I would not be where I am today without his support, and the reality is that for both of us there are times where we work together to balance work priorities or personal priorities – that is my definition of balance. 

The last two years with COVID have certainly been interesting, though. I had stopped commuting to work, and travel was no longer part of my work or personal life. As a family, we used the time to learn new ways to balance.  I have had many people share with me what they have done to find balance when work happens at home. I used trial and error to find what works for me.  The reality is that balance is what you make of it. And finding ‘your balance’ should definitely be a priority.  I am so thankful that Difenda is an organization that feels the same way. So it is very easy to make this a priority for my family.

What does leadership mean to you? How early in your career did you know that you wanted to become a leader? 

I recently shared a post on LinkedIn that resonated with me.  After being new at Difenda and having some unplanned time off as we battled COVID at home, I saw a post that reminded me about why I love working with the team I am on.  The post was on the Leadership First page and shared the 9 traits of exceptional leaders: respect, authenticity, communication, humility, accountability, leadership by example, empathy, vision, and care.  When I think back on leaders that have shaped me and my career, they all possess those qualities in spades.  So when I work with a team I ask them to give me feedback on how I can support them and their growth while we are jointly growing the business and serving our customers.  I try to cultivate these traits as a leader, and ask for feedback as to whether I possess these traits or not.

I do not know when exactly in my career I realized I wanted to be a leader.  I do remember my first leadership position. I had been a Project Manager (PM) for a number of years before, and I was now going to be leading other PMs.  I was confident that having been in the role myself for so long would help me jump right into leadership. but I learned very quickly that leadership is lot more than being good at the job you are leading. 

Juliana about leadership.

I made a lot of mistakes at the beginning but having my former colleagues as my team helped. They became part of my journey to leadership and were patient to work with me as I learned along.  In that role I realized I was passionate about leading and supporting others in their careers. At that point I knew that I wanted to continue to lead in future roles as well.

Is being or becoming a woman leader tougher than for men? What are some of the challenges and biases? How does one overcome them?

This is a difficult question to answer.  I certainly only know my experience and the experience of other women and men that I have worked with.  But in those cases, yes, I would say that being a woman leader is often more difficult than it is for men.  Unfortunately, even in 2022, the technology industry is still primarily male-dominated.  When you are in a more technical position or in leadership, it is even more obvious that there is a gender imbalance. Therefore, in this industry women in some cases need to prove themselves to be given opportunities that men are often more naturally considered for.  This situation is shifting, and different companies have distinct ways of addressing the continued disconnect, so the reality of the struggles for women today depends entirely on the company they are working for, and the company’s leadership. 

Knowing how Difenda dealt with women in leadership was important to me as I moved to this company.  I had worked with the team before and knew several of the leaders. I saw them make hires based on the skills and cultural fit for what the company is looking to accomplish. That is what I respect and what I want the company I work for to represent.  I get the same opportunities at Difenda that male leaders do and get the same level of detailed review on my business plans.

Juliana about Difenda’s approach to women leaders.

It is hard for me to give advice on how to overcome the challenges of being a woman in leadership, as experiences can be varied and depend on the company and team one is working with.  All I can say is that it is important for individuals to know who they are, what they want to do, and what they need to do to get there.  Be open to feedback and be flexible to address the challenges and changes that come with being a leader.  Have a network that supports you that is also honest. Surround yourself with people who can help you tell a bias from a constructive feedback. Most importantly, be determined. If it is your dream to do something in your career then do not let one person or interaction stop you from achieving that.

Explain your perspective on what the role of an organization is in enabling and grooming leaders. How have your previous bosses or organizations helped shape your career? And how does Difenda do it?

Leaders are so crucial to the success of every organization, and that has become more apparent to businesses in the last two years dealing with the pandemic.  Growing and grooming leaders is not an easy task, and it requires you to be in tune with your employees and your business plan. 

For me personally, building relationships with my team, both leaders and team members, is the key to my success and continued learning. I think organizations that provide that feedback experience to their leaders in addition to training, are going to be the most successful in growing solid leaders.  Difenda is wonderful in this way.  The leadership team is very engaged with the entire organization, continuously giving everyone an opportunity to share what they have learned, and respecting feedback that is provided.  As we grow, we value the engagement of the entire team in what we are building and that allows all of us to work together to drive success in the business and certainly in our team as well.

What is your advice to those who are pursuing leadership roles? How does one switch roles from being a specialist or individual contributor to a leader? 

My advice to anyone pursuing a leadership role is to go for it!  Find your tribe, and make sure you have the right people in your inner circle who will give you feedback when you need it and help you grow while you embark on this journey.  Make sure those people will also help you celebrate your wins along the way – stopping to celebrate is often lost on leaders as we have the next big thing to work on, but you need to enjoy the milestones as you hit them too. 

For me, training has always been important as well. I know it does not replace on-the-job training, but it helps me base my decisions on facts and look at things rationally when I need to so that I feel like I have done my best assessment of every situation. 

How to switch from being an individual contributor to a leader is different for every person.  Once you know you want to lead, then I suggest finding a mentor or someone in leadership that you can shadow and ask questions of and learn from.  Also, find out what training may be available from your organization, and certainly what skills are required in the leadership position you want to obtain.  Then it comes down to working towards your leadership goal, while doing your best work in your current role, and taking a shot at a leadership position when you feel you are ready.  The worst that can happen is that it is not a good fit, and then you ask for candid feedback so you know what you can work on to get better.  Leadership is not a destination, it is a journey. Because of this, there is no clear checklist to get there, but with persistence it is possible.

Juliana’s advice to leadership pursuers.

Can you talk a little about your new role and what your goals are for your organization as well as for yourself?

Certainly, my role at Difenda as the Strategic Partnerships Director is to manage our global partnership with Microsoft, as well as our channel.  As we moved to a channel-first model I was responsible for developing a formal channel program and then engaging with new partners to support our hypergrowth.  With our current partners, I am developing individual engagement strategies that allow us to drive success towards our joint goals. I must constantly consider the company’s own business, our business at Difenda, and Microsoft’s security goals in the equation.  I am fortunate to be able to work with so many different departments in our organization to realize these plans and see us provide the best cybersecurity services we can for our global customers.  My goal for the department in this organization is to grow and continue to develop as we bring change to the business and to the cybersecurity industry.  After preparing the strategy and now executing the plans, I know that 2022 will be a foundational year for us while we add people to the team.  In 2023 and beyond, we will be able to focus on and make sure we are realizing our growth goals, and supporting the company on our long-term goals as well.

For myself, I always have the same foundational goal for growth.  I love to be challenged, to work with our customers, and to drive business through solving complex issues.  If I am doing that daily with a company, my passion makes it feel like it isn’t work. My new role will certainly push me to continue to evolve and grow with our company and the industry, and allow me to continue to be better.  Of course, I also have personal goals and am excited to prepare to travel again and enjoy fun activities with my family as we continue, evolve, and grow together.