People We Love
How to Be a Total Boss with Pandora’s Lizzie Widhelm
How to Be a Total Boss with Pandora’s Lizzie Widhelm
By Lili Göksenin
Photos by Jace Lumley
Within one year after graduating from college, Lizzie Widhelm had held three jobs. It started when she took a job on a whim in the nascent digital space as a sales planner. Four months later, she was poached by NBC. Four months later, she was poached again by a tech startup. In the space of less than a year, and by the time she was 23, she’d not only held three jobs, she was making six figures. This anecdote is a near perfect encapsulation of Lizzie Widhelm who now, a decade or so later, is the SVP of Ad Innovation at Pandora and the charismatic leader of an almost entirely female team.
“My mom raised three kids who get it done,” says Widhelm. “She was a teacher and my dad was working like crazy, so I’d sit sometimes for two hours waiting for them to pick me up at school. And there was no ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there.’ It was like ‘I’m working! You can study.” Widhelm respects her mom’s choices (“although at the time, I was like You’re the worst mom ever,”) and it changed the way she interacts with the world as an adult. “The sooner you cross over into the real world and go with the flow and find your own path in it, the better.”
Are you getting the sense of who this woman is? If you’re thinking she’s kind of a badass, you’re right. But if you’re picturing the classic Business Lady—dark suits, high heels, perfect blowout, heavy, dictatorial hand—you’re off track. Widhelm is a petite blonde (with, yes, a perfect beachy blowout) who comes to work in floaty skirts and graphic tees, or chic shift dresses and colorful heels. And she’s not a dictator; Widhelm’s demeanor is firmly located dead center between no nonsense and nonsense. In the fitting before our photoshoot, for example, Widhelm vacillated between doling out outfit judgment like a sassy older sister and discussing spray tans, to confirming meetings and zoning completely in on her phone for emails. She likes to have fun, and she likes to make money, and the lines are blurred—and she has no problem with that.
Widhelm’s team is tasked with creatively monetizing Pandora, a music streaming company that uses a proprietary “genome” to serve its users tunes they’ll love based on their own preferences. They’re the money makers behind the entertainers. After all, no ads, no money, no music. This dovetails with Widhelms own career priorities—“I’ve always been drawn to roles where I can quantify my contribution,” she says. “I love working here,” she says. “I love working with my team.” And although our study with Levo found that passion and purpose drive most women in their career choices, Widhelm has a surprising response: “I wouldn’t say passion and purpose are top five for me. I would say money is number one.”
GROUP DYNAMIC: Widhelm’s Santa Monica team from left to right: Jenna Grandolfo, Molly Mitchell, Laura McElhinney, Lizzie Widhelm, Claire Fanning, Megan McCoy, Mariana Estephanian.
But Widhelm has this other, super fascinating, super inspiring side to her. Money and finance might be her number one priority in her career, but coaching and mentoring future female leaders is a close second. Which brings us back to her team of women. It’s actually one of the main reasons we were so taken with Widhelm, even before we visited her and six of her team members in their quirky, colorful Santa Monica offices. So we asked her what kinds of qualities she looks for in other people, and what kind of advice she has for being similarly badass in your own life:
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1. Don’t waste time
“A time terrorist is someone who just steals your time! You know, they run long meetings, they don’t show up prepared, they don’t have their act together. Get to the point!”
Widhelm believes working moms are the antidote to time terrorists. “They produce like no other!” While she believes that dads are similarly driven, she’s noticed that moms have that special workplace je ne sais quoi. “They’re stellar communicators, they understand the interdependencies of time. They’re amazing project managers and they hit deadlines. They want to get home, they don’t mess around, and they’re not wasting everybody’s time.”
SMELLS LIKE TEAM SPIRIT: “Lizzie has developed this super power where she’s able to create ‘a-ha’ moments for everyone around her,” says Mariana Estephanian (left), formerly Widhelm’s executive assistant, and now a strategist on her team. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
2. Know. Your. Worth. Then ask for it.
Going from making $35K to $100K in one short year is a feat. Did she ever feel like an imposter? “No! I was like, I know how much money I’m making for you as a company. I know what role I’m playing and the revenue I’m creating.”
Her advice for asking for a raise:“You have to step out of who you are and watch yourself work almost from above. Really ask yourself how does this role create value for the company, and can that value be quantified. If you can quantify that value you can easily negotiate your salary.”
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3. Be Drawn to Problems
Part of the reason Widhelm was poached so many times when she was just starting out is because she wanted to work for companies that needed her. “Businesses have challenges and it can be perfect for a person that finds the excitement in a problem then can work really hard to solve it—and then produce value for that company. Being OK with challenges has to be part of your personality.”
4. Be Inclusive
Even though she didn’t necessarily come here to make friends, Widhelm is all about working in positive environment. “Be friendly, and make friends. Understand where people are coming from. Be inclusive—it goes a long way in terms of your reputation. People want to work with people they like. People want to refer people they like. People want to promote people they like.
5. Chase Opportunity
“Even if it’s scary! It never pays to stay safe and satisfied.” Huge caveat here: “You can’t keep chasing opportunity every three months? I know I did, but you do need to have some some track record.”
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