Lori Munoz of Exo on the Five Things You Need to Succeed as a Senior Executive
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lori Munoz.
Lori Munoz is the Chief Financial Officer of Exo (pronounced “Echo”), a health information and devices company with an initial aim to reinvent ultrasound. She joined Exo after strongly identifying with its mission to bring cost-effective healthcare to the world. She believes Exo will be the company to bring that mission to life. Munoz brings over 30 years of medical device industry experience, providing financial and fiscal leadership. Munoz is passionate about her work in the medical device industry. Throughout her career, she has played a pivotal role in start-ups that have developed life-saving devices.
Munoz is a mother of three and currently resides in the Bay Area with her husband. When she’s not working you can find her playing fetch by the pool with her dogs.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
When I was in school, I had plans to major in computer science while minoring in accounting. However, after my first accounting class, I knew numbers were my calling. Other students complained about accounting, but I found it fascinating and thought everything made perfect sense. It was like a puzzle for me; I loved how everything fit together.
I moved to California and worked at a government contractor. Unfortunately, I didn’t have security clearance. This created a challenge for me, as I wasn’t able to interact with the teams or have insight into product development. That challenge led me to the medical device industry, where I worked for a start-up that made neurological catheters. It was there that I found true purpose and meaning in my work.
Shortly after I started working with the medical device company, the CEO sent out a letter from a little boy that had an inoperable brain aneurysm, making him unable to run and play with other children. After undergoing a procedure that used our investigational device, the little boy was able to do both! This was truly a defining moment for me. I was so proud to be part of a company that makes lives better. I have been in the medical device industry ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
After working at Exo for only one week, COVID-19 hit and we were told to shelter in place. I had to learn people’s names and faces via Zoom. The first few weeks at Exo were a whirlwind, and my expectations of my new position completely changed. We had to quickly rethink the office space and put together COVID-19 policies and procedures to ensure our employees were both safe and engaged.
The initial start of the COVID-19 pandemic was very challenging. I had the added duties of leading a pandemic response team while also championing my traditional job duties and getting to know my new team virtually. This was an experience unlike anything I had ever faced before. Our entire team has since adjusted, and I am very proud of Exo for navigating these uncharted territories and staying on course.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was the Accounting Manager at a public company and had a tight deadline to close the books and prepare the financial statements for the earnings report. Our cost accountant was supposed to have his work completed by the end of the day on Friday, but he was invited to go golfing with senior leadership. He let me know that he wouldn’t have his piece of our work completed by his deadline, and therefore, I was going to miss my deadline. I remember being so upset that I really let him “have it.” He laughed and said, “I will get it to you on Monday” and proceeded to go golfing. The following Monday, I was the one who got called into my former bosses’ office and was given a stern warning about the manner in which I spoke to people. I learned some very valuable lessons from this experience. The first is that it’s critical to plan ahead, and when you’re working on a team with others, always allow for extra time. The second lesson I learned is that getting upset or emotional with colleagues doesn’t benefit anyone. You can’t progress or get the help you need if you can’t get along. I look back and laugh at this story now, but it still remains a pivotal lesson in my career. The female executive who shared this wisdom has become one of my closest mentors.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have been fortunate to have a lot of great mentors throughout my career. However, there is one particular female executive who took me under her wing and showed me how to lead with class and character. She had this great way of working with people and made team members feel appreciated and heard. She gave me a lot of really valuable career advice and opportunities that have shaped my career path. I work very hard to emulate her style within my team and take her input to improve myself. She always provided clear and concise feedback on ways to improve performance and the tasks at hand. She promoted professional development by encouraging team members to take additional classes and seminars and would recognize team members when they excelled at a task. I appreciate how she challenged me to think outside my comfort zone and take on work assignments beyond my scope.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I abide by, what some would say, “traditional” ways of preparation, meaning that I do my homework, take notes, rehearse possible questions and practice several times before presenting. My practice routine often also includes running or walking, as it not only helps me clear my head, but it also allows me the time and open space to rehearse my presentation or think through questions while on the move. Pre-COVID, I would run outdoors with a colleague and rehearse a big pitch or upcoming presentation, and I found it to be incredibly helpful. Once we can safely gather again, I recommend trying it.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity and inclusion are vital to the workplace. There are multiple studies that show that the most successful management teams are diverse, and I’ve seen this firsthand. Diverse teams benefit from considering different perspectives, and as such, when building a product or a company, it is important to bring people together that have different backgrounds and views of the world. We operate in a global world, and having a diverse team ensures more customer views and perspectives are considered and incorporated into the end product.
For Exo specifically, this is exceptionally key because health care patients come from all walks for life. Our team strives to have that reflected in the board room and across the company so that we can make the biggest impact. Additionally, diverse companies are in a better position to attract top talent. Company culture is important to team members, and they want to work with companies that are well represented across a variety of backgrounds.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I am a big believer in education. My husband and I have always encouraged our children to pursue education. It’s an extremely valuable tool for all aspects of life. If we can level the playing field and ensure that everyone has access to education, whether that’s educating our workforce on how to be better mentors or educating children in our communities, it has the power to transform our society.
I also believe that if we can educate people on how to overcome biases and preconceptions that a lot of people carry into the workforce, it could be a gamechanger. I fervently believe in helping people recognize and celebrate, rather than be threatened by, our differences.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers– in fact, most people–think they have a pretty good ideas of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I enjoy being an executive because of the integral role I play in creating culture and helping employees develop and grow in a meaningful way, while seeing firsthand the positive impact of the policies, procedures and trainings put in place. Decisions like choosing healthcare plans are so important for any company, but especially a start-up. We always look for ways to help our employees, and assets such as competitive medical benefits make a considerable difference in people’s lives.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
As a CFO, I think people assume that I only care about numbers and the bottom line, and that is just not the case. I really care about our employees, the technology and doing the right thing as a corporate citizen. People may be surprised by this, but discussions about employee well-being and even climate change are important aspects of my role.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
My professional experience has been that women typically have to work harder and perform better than their male colleagues in order to be viewed as equally competent. In addition, U.S. women do almost two times more unpaid care work than men on average.
In my opinion, as a woman it is a challenge to balance being forceful and being heard. I believe there is a double standard when it comes to being direct. Typically, when men are direct, they are perceived as a good leader and contrary to that, if a woman is direct, she is perceived as angry or harsh. As we continue to see more females take on leadership roles, I hope that being direct will not be interpreted differently among men and women. Luckily, I have great male counterparts at Exo.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought I would be left alone in spreadsheets and number crunching, but really, I spend a lot of time trying to understand the needs of the other organizations within the company. My role involves trying to tie them all together with numbers, making sure that we allocate the resources needed for each department to be successful.
I spend a lot of my time working with and talking to people outside the company. I work very closely with outside investors to ensure they have all information they require, and I speak with potential investors about Exo’s products, technology and long-term strategies. I also work with outside accounting firms, bankers and attorneys routinely to ensure we are in compliance with relevant laws and regulations.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think anyone can be an executive. Some of the most important aspects include having passion for your work, caring for others and truly caring for the company or organization. You can tell when executives are really committed to their company and products, as you can see their motivation, follow-through and trust. Being an executive isn’t always easy, and sometimes it requires being a part of extremely difficult situations, like firing and reprimanding employees. To be an executive, you have to be prepared for these challenging situations.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Hire people that have the skills you don’t. You don’t have to be the expert in everything. Hire team members that can take on some of those specialized roles and responsibilities.
I also encourage women leaders to spend time mentoring and teaching others. Give constructive criticism and feedback. On the flipside, never stop listening and learning from women who are early in their careers. Think of mentorship as a two-way street.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe my work with medical device companies has made a positive impact on the world. I enjoy working with companies like Exo that help provide practitioners with better tools, ultimately resulting in better health outcomes for the patients they serve. I’ve also used my skills to work with non-profit organizations that I am passionate about, like the JW House, where I currently sit on the finance committee.
I’ve used my success to hire and mentor young people. I was greatly impacted by my mentors and now it brings me great joy to help professionals flourish in their career.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Build your network: Make sure to spend time building relationships. You never know who will reach out to you in the future and be able to help make a connection or provide guidance. Or, in that same regard, when you may be able to help someone else. A very recent example of the power of networking happened at Exo. I reached out to an investor that had invested in one on my previous companies to get some advice on a financing matter and after hearing about Exo and our future, the investor decided to participate in our last round of funding. That relationship resulted in a win-win, I received outstanding financing advice and the investor received an opportunity to invest in a company that they would not have known.
Everything is negotiable: You can negotiate anything. A recent survey stated that 60% of women don’t negotiate salary from a fear associated with it. Remember, the worst thing anyone can tell you is “no.” When starting a position, it is important to remember you can not only negotiate salary, but things such as stock options, bonus and time off. Everything is negotiable, I once negotiated the price of a pair of shoes at Nordstrom!
Ask for constructive feedback: Don’t settle for only positive praise; push for constructive feedback. We all have room for improvement. In my past experiences, asking for feedback has resulted in things like additional trainings or one-on-one support for things like public speaking coaching, which has helped advance my career.
Stop apologizing: Women apologize for everything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had women come into my office and start the conversation with, “Sorry to bother you.” Stop apologizing. Try starting with, “Hey, do you have a second?” or “Hi, do you have time for a question?” Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
Follow your instincts: Your instincts are always right. This is especially true when hiring. I’ve been in situations where I noticed red flags during the interview but hired anyway, only to be very disappointed later on. I should have trusted my initial gut reaction.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I believe the way to influence people and make a difference in the world is through education. I believe most of our problems can be solved through learning different perspectives. Now that digital learning is available, it makes it easier to access new ideas and learn new skills, which creates endless opportunities. The importance of education can’t be overlooked.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” — Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh. A.A. Milne.
This quote says it all. Women need to believe in themselves. We all need to believe in ourselves.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I just started reading Becoming by Michelle Obama, and I think she is an amazing woman; she carries herself with such poise and grace. She leads by example and is passionate about causes. I love her quote, “when they go low, we go high.” I think these are words to live by. I would really love to have lunch with her.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.