Lead(H)er profile - Potoula Chresomales, Senior Vice President of Product Management at Skillsoft
As the daughter of Greek immigrants and the first member of her family to attend college, Potoula Chresomales attributes a large part of her professional success to the public schools she attended while growing up in Queens, New York. Now she works at the intersection of education and technology, as senior vice president of product management at Skillsoft, where her mission is to help democratize the accessibility of knowledge through online learning.
Skillsoft is a global leader in corporate learning, with over 20 million users worldwide. “We create thousands of online courses, as well as books, audiobooks, and book summaries,” says Potoula, “and we deliver all of it through an interactive learning platform. Our goal is to help our clients create a continuous learning culture inside their companies. Learning takes time, and people don’t have a lot of time, so we try to remove that friction.” Skillsoft’s technology accomplishes this by delivering “small bites”: short videos, summaries, and specific pieces of information that address immediate problems one may encounter on the job during the flow of work. “We make it easy for micro-learning to happen, for example, during someone’s commute to work,” Potoula explains. “With e-learning, everyone has access, that’s what makes it so powerful.”
Skillsoft’s clients include 65 percent of Fortune 500 companies, including large healthcare and financial services firms. In her role as SVP of product management, Potoula leads the product and UX teams, who work together with the engineering team to build out the website that serves as Skillsoft’s core learning platform. Using an agile software development process, they are able to deliver new features every two weeks. Recent features include adding Chinese and Japanese languages to the platform, as well as AI-driven notifications for re-engaging learners. “It’s high velocity, and that’s challenging,” says Potoula. “But when we build a new feature that our customers use and enjoy, we can see that in our data, and it’s incredibly rewarding.”
The mission fuels her. “On our worst day, someone achieves a new goal at their job. Someone qualifies for a promotion. Someone learned a new skill that prepares them for the next step in their career. We have a purpose in this world that’s bigger than our company doing well.”
As an undergraduate at New York University, Potoula studied marketing and management, while also working part-time as a bank teller. She credits an early mentor for steering her toward business. “I was interested in psychology, and my mentor told me, if you like psychology you’ll love marketing—it’s the psychology of why people buy things.” Potoula took her first job with JP Morgan Chase, in their management training program. After earning her MBA at Dartmouth, she moved into product management, interning at Nabisco, then working at McGraw Hill, a publishing company. Eventually, she found her way into education. “I spend a lot of time and energy in my work,” she says, “so I wanted it to be aligned with my values.” She worked at College Board and Kaplan Test Prep before landing at Skillsoft.
To excel in her role as SVP of product management, customer focus is paramount. “The UX process involves prototyping, testing, and iterating, and it’s important for the customer to be in the middle of that cyclical process,” says Potoula. “If we don’t solve their problems, we don’t succeed. When I joined the company, there were 3 people doing UX, now we have a team of 15, and I’m proud of our customer focus.”
Other important skills include consensus building and team management. “I’m a storyteller. I have to explain things in a way that people can understand, so they see why it matters to the customer, and they get excited about solving that problem. My team is successful when everyone feels they can do their best work.”
Of course, there is always far more work to do than time to do it, and prioritizing is one of Potoula’s challenges. “We’re continuously taking inputs from the marketplace, and we pivot frequently. For example, we’ll move a playlist functionality from here to there to see if it makes a difference, or we’ll recalibrate our search algorithm to see if it helps people better find what they’re looking for.” In addition to reviewing research and usability data, Potoula speaks with Skillsoft’s clients directly. “Hearing a customer describe the problem, that’s the moment of innovation. I spend a lot of time living in that problem space.”
As for Potoula’s goals for 2020? “We just signed a big partnership with MIT’s Sloan Management Review. We’re co-creating a leadership development program, and I’m excited to bring it fully to market. Tech is at the center of leadership in the digital age.” The ed-tech space is exactly where Potoula wants to be, helping people achieve their career and personal goals.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I like going to the movies, especially ones that have some connection in history. There’s nothing like being in a dark room with popcorn!
What are your strategies for managing stress?
I try to get 7-8 hours of sleep. It helps me bring my best brain to the next day. Also, I spend a lot of time with friends and family. Something that feels really stressful when you’re in the weeds of it feels less stressful when you give it perspective.
How many cups of coffee do you have in a day?
None! I have a habit of drinking Coke instead. I drink it for breakfast to get my caffeine rush.
What's one of your favorite places in the Boston/New York area?
When I’m in Boston, I have a home away from home—the Hilton in Faneuil Hall, on Broad Street. They have a lovely restaurant that has a fantastic breakfast. It’s such a happy place, especially during the holiday season, and going there always puts me in a good mood!
What do you consider one of your proudest accomplishments?
Since joining Skillsoft three years ago, we launched a new learning experience platform in the marketplace and it is called Percipio. This platform has earned 13 awards to date and has millions of users. Our clients are reporting that learner engagement is at record highs and that means that it is helping people achieve their goals. That makes me very proud.
Is this where you thought you’d be 10 years ago?
10 years ago I made the shift into the education space. I was hoping to advance my career in product management, so yes, I do think this is where I thought I would be. I’m glad I have the role I have now, I love hearing from the people we’re impacting every day, and it’s great to know we’re making a difference.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
Find something you’re passionate about. There’s nothing like getting up to go to work when your passion and work are aligned. Every day is a joy.