112: Balancing Leadership, Parenthood, Technology, and Learning with Entrepreneur and Executive Emily Foote

Ep112 Balancing Leadership Parenthood Technology and Learning with Emily Foote TalentGrow Show with Halelly Azulay

Many working parents struggle with balancing work life and family life. This was especially true for Emily Foote, entrepreneur and co-founder of Practice, recently acquired by educational technology company Instructure, who juggled being a new mother with growing her company and navigating its acquisition. Emily shares why she thinks it’s best to combine rather than separate these two aspects of life, and on this episode of The TalentGrow Show she shares some first-hand advice for others struggling in a similar position. We also discuss some of Emily’s insights about workplace learning and technology based on her multifaceted career path. Learn how to adapt learning cultures to the changed pace of work that technology has ushered and how to balance appreciation with constructive criticism in the workplace (something that many leaders struggle with!) Listen and don’t forget to share with others!


Emily Foote is General Manager of Practice by Instructure. Driven by the ideal of providing equal education opportunities for all learners, Emily co-founded Practice. A former Teach for America and KIPP teacher, lawyer and luddite, Emily has embraced technology’s potential to help educators scale great teaching and learning. Emily received her B.A. and M.S. Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania and her J.D. from Drexel Law.


  • Emily shares her story about balancing her family life and her work life after she had her first baby (7:35)

  • The first lesson you learn as a parent is that you can’t control anything (10:23)

  • How do you manage your priorities as a mother and a working woman? Emily weighs in with perspective from her own life (12:18)

  • Halelly connects Emily’s advice to the idea of deep work vs shallow work (14:50)

  • How do you prevent other people from disrupting your balance and pulling you away from either work or family? (15:09)

  • Emily highlights the way the pace of work has changed in modern times because of the exponential growth of technology (15:40)

  • What Emily means by “learning cultures” and why she thinks they are so important especially today (16:25)

  • Emily explains the idea of ‘appreciation jolts’ (18:40)

  • How to properly balance appreciating what is going well in the workplace with acknowledging what is going badly (19:45)

  • Two ways for structuring more effective workplace learning now and in the future (22:00)

  • What’s new and exciting on Emily’s horizon? (23:58)

  • One specific action that Emily recommends you take today to upgrade your leadership skills (24:48)


  • Check out Emily’s Learning Management software Bridge

  • Connect with Emily on LinkedIn

  • Listen to Episode 92 of The TalentGrow Show for an Israeli Airforce Pilot’s insights on learning from failure 


Episode 112 Emily Foote

TEASER CLIP: Emily: I think we all know that we live in a time where the pace of change, due in large part to technology, is unprecedented. Coupled with that change, people are working longer. I think the statistic is that now people work 65 years. People change jobs faster. A new statistic for Millennials, by the time they’re 38, will have had 10 to 12 jobs. There are Bureau of Labor statistics that say that roughly every 4.5 years you’ll change jobs. And then finally the half-life of skills is five years, which means that much of what we learned 10 years ago is obsolete and half of what we learned five years ago is irrelevant. If you aren’t in a culture of learning or aren’t continuously learning yourself, you and your company, if there’s not a strong learning culture, are going to be left behind.

[MUSIC] Announcer: Welcome to the TalentGrow Show, where you can get actionable results-oriented insight and advice on how to take your leadership, communication and people skills to the next level and become the kind of leader people want to follow. And now, your host and leadership development strategist, Halelly Azulay.

Halelly: Welcome back TalentGrowers. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow and this is another episode of the TalentGrow Show. Podcast where we develop leaders to be the kind of leaders people want to follow. Because we don’t anymore of those leaders that we don’t like to follow, right? This episode is going to be fabulous for you because Emily Foote, my guest, she’s an entrepreneur and cofounder of a company that was then successfully acquired and she did all of this while also having a baby and another small toddler and she manages to balance her family life and her work life and we talk about how she does it. It’s not easy but she has some ideas. She also talks about the importance of scheduling yourself to do deep work versus just the shallow work. And we talk about the importance of having a learning culture in your organization and what that means and some of the statistics that help us understand why it is so crucial in today’s work world. I hope that you enjoy this episode with Emily Foote on the TalentGrow Show. Let’s get to it.

Okay, TalentGrowers, this week we have a businesswoman who is driven by the ideal of providing equal education opportunities for all learners. Emily Foote is the cofounder of Practice. She’s a former Teach for America and KIPP teacher, a former lawyer and she says former luddite and she’s embraced technology’s potential to help educators scale great teaching and learning. Her company that she founded, Practice, then became a part of the up-and-coming learning management system Instructure. She did this originally from her own Philadelphia-based educational technology company that is now a global company and all of this she did while pregnant and growing a family. So she’s got lots of lessons she can teach us about women in leadership, about leadership in general, and the important role of continuous learning. She’s an entrepreneur, a mother of two young daughters, she grappled with how to separate being a mom and an industry disrupter, but she’s decided that the ideal is to combine rather than separate her identities. Emily, welcome to the TalentGrow Show.

Emily: Thank you for having me Halelly.

Halelly: It’s a pleasure, and I really look forward to speaking with you about all of these interesting insights that you have into the workplace. Before we do that, we always ask our guests to describe their professional journey briefly. Where did you start and how did you get to where you are today?

Emily: Sure. I started as a teacher, like you mentioned, as a Teach for America core member teaching first grade, and then for three years I taught in a public charter school KIPP and always felt very close to education, obviously, that route, and providing people who may not have had the same education opportunities that I did similar opportunities through a good education. Then to be quite honest, I burned out. The last schools I were at were 7-5, every other Saturday, most of the summer, and so I became a statistic that turned over. As a break from teaching, which I think is one of the hardest jobs, I went to law school. But I took a little bit of a different path. I kept somewhat of a common thread. After law school, I practiced education law, special education law, and a professor of mine called me while I was practicing because there was a grant that he had received to help close a skills gap in the country, and I was extremely intrigued by this, because the way he taught in his classroom was the underpinnings of the technology he received the grant funding to build. In his classroom, it was the first time in my educational career that I graduated feeling quite competent and confident as opposed to feeling like I was tricking everybody because I was quite a good mimic. It was a fantastic way he taught, and the technology that we eventually built replicated that and the driver is how do you get people to master skills? It’s really through practice and feedback. That’s quite difficult to do at scale and that’s the technology craft.

Like you said earlier, I was definitely a luddite, not a technologist in any sense of the word, but the idea that technology could help improve education for people was appealing enough for me to take another turn in my career and leave lawyering for the technology world.

Halelly: And then you decided to just start your own business?

Emily: Right. The grant gave us funding to do that. It was a small business innovation research grant, and the idea behind it is it’s from the federal government and you have two things to prove to be able to get continual grant funding. One, are you making a societal impact, and two, can you build a sustainable business around it? We believed that this technology could have a societal impact. We weren’t sure if it would be commercially viable, so we took a leap of faith to start the company and spent the first few years kind of heads down, making sure through the grant funding, that it was effective. Once we knew it was effective and could really impact people’s lives, then we built the company around it and worked on that second tenant, which was the commercially viable.

Halelly: And then what happened?

Emily: That was 2011 that we started. We first started in the education space, which is clearly near and dear to me. Then we had some inbound interest probably around 2014-15 from a company that thought this technology could help better prepare their own workforces to be successful with this big scale. That’s when we realized this actually could be quite a good business. That was 2014-15, we continued to build it, and then we got away from grant funding and did a couple of rounds of fundraising. I did a series while I was pregnant which was an interesting journey. Then we got acquired at the end of last year by a company that I had – myself and the entire team – had always looked up to as a company that we aspired to be like, which you mentioned in the beginning. The name is Instructure, known as makers of Canvas, which is a very loved money management system in the education space, and then they entered the corporate learning space which we were big into a few years back under the brand name Bridge.

Halelly: I see. I did some research about you, preparing for the show, and I read your story about how you navigated that acquisition. It’s an amazing story. I definitely want to share it here with listeners, only because my show is definitely not about women in business or men or anything like that – I think everybody can learn lots of things that we can share with them. But the idea of this balance, I really want to dig in a little bit. You say that you leaned in during a period of time when most people tell young parents, I guess, or new parents to lean back, right? Pregnant, you already had a baby and then you continued with this pursuit of the acquisition and you joined a male-dominated industry, technology. And so lots of people in any industry and of both genders, or all genders I guess we should say now, struggle with balancing personal and professional life responsibilities and navigating all of that. I’d love to hear your story, just to share a little bit of that story that you shared in some of your interviews you’ve given before, because I think our listeners would like that. And tell us about this balance. What do you think about it?

Emily: The story of the acquisition is the fun story. I had my second daughter last August, so it was August 21, day of the eclipse, and a few days later I got a call to see if I could come to Utah which is the headquarters of the company that eventually acquired us, because they wanted to talk about acquisition. My first child was the company, and then I had my first daughter and now my second daughter, so I immediately said to my husband, “I have to go to Utah this week.” He said, “I don’t think that’s appropriate. You had a baby two days ago.” I called my doctor and I was like, “Can I go to Utah in a couple of days?” He was like, “No, you cannot go to Utah.” But it was such an exciting idea for me because really, I just so admired this company. But I ended up doing the call virtually and in the beginning of the call, I tried to pretend that I didn’t just have a baby. It was a video conference. I just had my head in it and I had my daughter, Hazel, next to me in a little bassinet but out of the view of the video and I assumed the call would be an hour. It ended up being three hours, so toward the end when she woke up I was like, “I just had a baby. I have to bring her in.” So doing that first call and they were so lovely about it, but that was one of the first meetings.

Obviously we went in pretty in depth due diligence for about a three month process, and it was great because she was on every call because she was a newborn. She had to be next to me. We were doing role call where we had calls with the lawyers and Hazel was always listed on the call. That was the beginning. There was definitely some less-smooth parts of that. Toward the end of the diligence round, they asked if we could do demos for their clients or their prospects to see the reaction of the prospects, would this resonate with our market as a product. There was one, a rather large company, and a lot of pressure on it and I was home to do it up in my room, but the baby was hungry and I was breastfeeding, and so I tried to time it, but as I think all parents know, the first lesson is you can’t really control anything. I had hoped she would be asleep during this one-hour critical call, but she decided to wake up and was screaming and I was on a video call. So I quickly muted myself – thank God I wasn’t talking right then – then started breastfeeding her but had to readjust the camera so they wouldn’t see it, so I could jump back on. There was a little bit of juggling, but it all made for good stories.

Halelly: It does! It’s such a great story and I love that. It shows resilience and creativity and being able to think on your feet and keep going when things change, which are all things that happen in business, whether breastfeeding a baby is involved or not!

Emily: Exactly. It is worth noting – I think it’s quite important to say – I am extremely lucky. I’m much more lucky than many women in the country in that I do have help. I have an amazing partner, husband, who is as equal of a parent as I am, and I have an incredible nanny which I know is a luxury, to be able to have somebody so that I can do the balancing that not every mother has the luxury of doing when the majority of us have to work and raise a family.

Halelly: It’s true, and it becomes a lot more challenging then. So when people talk to you, you have an interesting perspective because you’re a working mother, and you are also a business owner and now I guess just a senior leader in a business, and so you have both perspectives of the employee needing flexibility or to figure out balance, but also from the perspective of running a company and thinking about what makes sense or what should we do, how should we react to these kinds of needs? Just as a working parent, how do you try to balance all of those competing priorities and needs? What’s a couple of short, maybe concise tips, or ways of thinking, can you share with listeners?

Emily: It’s a great question, and I have not mastered it in the least. However, there are a few things I’ve done that have been really helpful. My oldest daughter will turn 2 shortly, and then my youngest is 1, so I had two close together. Prior to becoming a parent, I didn’t have much separation. I worked a lot and I love work. I just didn’t have much time where I turned things off, which I think everybody struggles with, with technology. What I’ve learned or done that has been quite helpful with balancing work plus parenting is when I’m home and the girls are awake, I do not go on my phone or use my computer. When they’re in bed, I definitely sometimes have to keep working at night, but it is something that has been wonderful for me from a perspective of spending quality time with them. That was a new skill for me to learn, how do I actually turn off and unplug? But it’s lessened my guilt, which some says you shouldn’t have but I do, of working full-time. That when I’m home, I’m completely present. That’s one thing.

The second thing is a new thing as well, which I never did before, but I am consciously, I block off time in my day that I can get things done that I typically would have done at home before I had a family. So I have some hours that are sacred to not be interrupted by meetings or emails or etc., to get projects done that need concentration, where my old habit was I would do them after work, when I’m not interrupted by the daily ins and outs of a business.

Halelly: Great. That’s what Cal Newport calls deep work, versus shallow work. It’s so important and so many people are now just pulled in so many different directions that very few of us ever have the opportunity to make time for that kind of work, especially in an office environment where distractions abound. So you just protect your time? How do you prevent people from pulling you in out of that?

Emily: That’s a great question. I’m not perfect at that skill yet. It definitely is a time that does get overscheduled, unlike others. So now I’ve started to get creative in naming it things that typically won’t get! I’m conniving on that one! I have not mastered that, but I try. It’s a new thing for to even have that time, but it is so critical. I think we are so overwhelmed and distracted by interruptions, namely from technology or how often we unlock our phone or get emails or we use Slack as our communication skill that you’re just constantly bombarded and overwhelmed. So trying to have some sacred time to do that deep work has been critical. But I’ve not mastered it, sadly.

Halelly: That’s all right. We’re all a work in progress, but good for you for even consciously being aware of it and working toward it. I think that’s the best any of us can do. In your work, as you’ve described your journey, you believe in the limitless power of learning and education and you’re a proponent of what you say are learning cultures. So, I’d love for you to share with us a little bit more about what do you mean about learning cultures? Why are you such a proponent of learning, and why do you think learning leads to being better leaders?

Emily: I think we all know that we live in a time where the pace of change, due in large part to technology, is unprecedented. Coupled with that change, people are working longer. I think the statistic is that now people work 65 years. People change jobs faster. A new statistic for Millennials, by the time they’re 38, will have had 10 to 12 jobs. There are Bureau of Labor statistics that say that roughly every 4.5 years you’ll change jobs. And then finally the half-life of skills is five years, which means that much of what we learned 10 years ago is obsolete and half of what we learned five years ago is irrelevant. It’s the fact that the world is changing so fast and therefore we need new skills. We’re working longer. We change jobs more. Skills are becoming obsolete that we’ve learned prior. If you aren’t in a culture of learning or aren’t continuously learning yourself, you and your company, if there’s not a strong learning culture, are going to be left behind. There are statistics there of who stays on the Fortune 500 lists and the timeframe has been getting shorter and shorter. I think it’s directly tied to the fact that we don’t create strong learning cultures where people can evolve in line with the rapid change that’s happening all around us. That’s why I think it’s quite important to create a learning culture, especially if you are the leader to create that place where your teams can constantly learn and develop and it’s okay to fail as long as the outcome is learning something new and growing and developing so you can stay relevant.

Halelly: I definitely want to pick up on that word, that it’s okay to fail. Because a lot of people, well, some people never talk about it at all, because failure is not an option for them. They say failure is not an option. But even the people that will give lip service to it – they’ll say, “Oh, it’s okay to fail” – a lot of times your words and your actions don’t match up as a leader. So you’ll say things like that, but if somebody makes a mistake, they’ll never hear the end of it or you’ll just step right in and save them from themselves and from the mistake and from the learning that probably will happen from having to deal with the consequences of their mistake. What are some things you teach leaders or that you believe will help leaders really make that okay or really build that kind of a learning culture?

Emily: That’s a great question. Two parts of that question, from an answer perspective. I read an article, around 2015, it was in Harvard Business Review, and the title was why organizations don’t learn. One part of it was – it was great, because it gave you practical things you can do to create a learning culture, and one part was this thing called appreciation jolts. The idea with appreciation jolts is if you see something good, recognize it and the outcome of that is that it will encourage people to play upon their strengths and not try to fit in for fear of trying something new and failing. And so I’ve consciously, as a leader of our own company, have created this culture of appreciation jolts. We do them at our all-hands, we do them in our communication threads. When we got acquired there’s something called Motivocity that the larger company that acquired us does, so we continued that culture.

What I realized was, that was phenomenal and it did create this culture where we recognize strengths so you didn’t have to just fall in line with what everybody else was doing. But we also weren’t as good with recognizing our failures, so we started this new thing where we’ll do all team case studies, where we’ll present something that’s not going well, in one of the different functions in the business, and we’ll collectively as a team brainstorm in more of a designed-thinking way, how can we solve this problem? We’ll come back the next time we all meet together and talk about whoever was owning the failure that they presented and talk about did they implement the solution that the broader team came up with, and what were the results? And that has started to create a culture where we’re not only highlighting the great things that we’re seeing, but we’re also highlighting the failures and showing that these are great opportunities for us to learn and grow.

Halelly: That’s so important. Listeners might recall that we recently had another episode with a former Israeli pilot who was talking about implementing the same debriefing methodology that they use in the Israeli air force to cut the onboarding time for new pilots by half, and cut mistakes and accidents by 95 percent, and it’s this really cool way of everybody talking about mistakes very openly, but for the purpose of learning. Everybody learning from it, rather than hiding mistakes.

Emily: It’s incredible. I’m going to have to go back and listen to that episode. These case studies that we’ve done have been one of the most impactful things that we’ve implemented in terms of pushing our business forward. It just takes the impact of failure, what we’re doing wrong, and turns them into learning for growth. It’s sounds like it’s very similar to the former person you had on.

Halelly: I’ll link to it in the show notes also, and Emily I’ll send you the link to it. It’s so important. I love that there’s synchronicity between what you described and what he described. We don’t have a lot more time to talk together and there’s so much more that you can share, so this is always the frustrating part of my decision to make my show a 30-minute show. You specialize in learning – obviously the products and the services you create with your company are all focused on learning, and I know that you’re doing a lot of innovation in the workplace learning space and arena. What can you share, maybe one or two quick ideas or factors for us to know about how to help structure more effective workplace learning, and in the future?

Emily: Great question. I think there’s two things for structuring stronger workplace learning now and in the future. One is to provide opportunities for people to practice and get feedback. Creating a culture where learners are encouraged to try new things, but not in a bubble. In an environment where they’ll immediately get their direct feedback, whether from their peers or their manager, or ideally both. That’s very hard to do, but if you start doing small, tactical things, like after every meeting or after every call, regardless of whatever level you are at the company, taking 10 minutes or five minutes, even, to say, “What are some of the things we just did well? What are some of the things we didn’t do too well, and what things should we change going forward?” It’ll create that culture of feedback so that people can grow. That’s one.

The second thing, and this is more for companies as a whole, is to take the time to learn about each of your employees and what motivates them. What are their drivers and where do they want to go? So that you can create those pathways for them to grow and develop in a place that’s going to be motivating for them and ultimately that will help your bottom line. Really having much more focus on individual career development.

Halelly: 100 percent agree. This is what Dr. Bev Kaye calls the “stay interview.” She was on episode 62, she talks about that. It’s great, and I know that we’re going to share how people can learn more about the way that you all are structuring that, because you have a very cool and exciting tool that helps people do just that, but anybody can do it, really, with very little access to additional resources. It’s that mindfulness that you just described. Emily, before you share one specific action – and we’ll tell everybody how to keep in touch with you – what’s new and exciting on your horizon? What project or discovery has your attention these days?

Emily: There are a lot of them. I think what’s really exciting in my role as the vice president of customer engagement is everyday, I get to be with either prospects or current clients, and it’s really exciting to me to see companies across the world really trying to build a more engaged workforce by doing things like we just talked about. Building more feedback loops, really focusing on individuals to see what their career path is, and creating stronger cultures of learning within the company. The companies that I see doing the best are the ones that have that foundation of learning, and it’s really exciting to see that in all different industries.

Halelly: That is exciting, and it is hope-inducing. Love it. What’s one specific action that you recommend our listeners take today, tomorrow, this week, that can help them upgrade their leadership skills or upgrade their learning skills or whichever angle you want to take at it?

Emily: I think it’s quite simple – potentially the most undervalued skill of a leader, to me, is listening. Really active listening. Listening to respond, not just hear. The best leaders I’ve been around are the ones that listen and hear before they respond, and engage in it. I’ve watched it between myself and them and between those leaders and others. Create strong, trusting bonds that help everybody individually and in the company excel. It’s a difficult skill but I think it’s one of the most important skills for leaders.

Halelly: I totally agree. Let’s try to concretize this a little bit. We say listen more actively. Don’t just hear. And listen more before you respond. Is there a prompt or a hack or a way that you’ve found useful to help you do that? Especially when it’s easy when it’s calm or when you’re not pressured for time or when you agree. But it gets harder when things are stressful or there’s some kind of conflict. What’s a way in which you’ve found to help you slow down and listen?

Emily: Two things that have helped me. One is, whenever I’m speaking to someone on the team, especially in one-to-ones, I try to ask questions after listening, to guide them more, as opposed to just responding with advice or action steps. That’s been really helpful, because the person uncovers much more, and then I can learn more, so that’s the non-question responses are more meaningful. The second is a trick that I’ve learned from Second City is to do the “yes, and.”

Halelly: Oh yes, and Second City is an improv group, in Chicago.

Emily: Exactly. They’re fantastic, and they actually have a division that’s not just for improv, but it’s called Second City Work and they’ll help work with companies, namely around communication skills, through improv. They came and worked with one of our advisory boards. And that skills is saying, “Yes, and,” after listening to somebody, has been really helpful to highlight your listening. You have to say yes to what they’re saying in the end and you build upon it, which requires you to listen first. That small tip has been extremely helpful to me.

Halelly: Love it. Of course that’s instead of saying, “Yeah, but!” Which we are so used to.

Emily: Which really shuts people down.

Halelly: It absolutely does. Excellent. Thank you so much. Those are very specific, actionable tips. I know that the TalentGrowers will appreciate and try them. Emily, I’m sorry that our time is up. I know people are clamoring to hear more from you and about you and what all the good work that you’re doing. What’s the best way to stay in touch?

Emily: Sure. For people to learn more about the work I’m doing, they can go to GetBridge.com, and if they’d like to stay in touch on a more individual level, you’re welcome to find me on LinkedIn.

Halelly: Excellent. Emily Foote. And we’ll put the links in the show notes. It’s been a pleasure talking with you and I really appreciate that you’ve taken the time from your busy schedule and spoken with us, so thank you today.

Emily: Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful to be out. I really appreciate the time.

Halelly: I hope that you enjoyed that, TalentGrowers. I think that Emily’s story is a very interesting one. Kind of common in some ways and uncommon in others. I hope that you found it inspirational, but most importantly I hope you took actionable nuggets away from it because, as you know, my hope with this show is not just to inspire you and then for you to just go back to doing everything as you were used to, but for you to have things you can actually apply. Because then you actually become better. We’re all on a learning journey. We’re all growing. We’re all a work in progress and my hope for you is you’ll ratchet up your skills a little bit and become an even better leader and a better person as a result of having listened today. I really appreciate you sticking around and listening to another episode of the TalentGrow Show. I’m Halelly Azulay, your leadership development strategist here at TalentGrow, and until the next time, make today great.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the TalentGrow Show, where we help you develop your talent to become the kind of leader that people want to follow. For more information, visit TalentGrow.com.

Get my free guide, "10 Mistakes Leaders Make and How to Avoid Them" and receive my weekly newsletter full of actionable tips, links and ideas for taking your leadership and communication skills to the next level!

Don't forget to LEAVE A RATING/REVIEW ON APPLE PODCASTS/iTUNES! It’s easy to do (here’s how to do it in 4 easy steps). Thank you!!

Like the Facebook page of The TalentGrow Show!
Join the Facebook group – The TalentGrowers Community!
Intro/outro music: "Why-Y" by Esta

You Might Also Like These Posts:

100: Cultivating a Culture of Growth and Learning in the Workplace with Elliott Masie

The "STS Formula" for giving positive feedback and appreciation

101: Lead with a Story -- Motivational Leadership through Storytelling with Paul Smith

Ep027: From Busboy to Big Kahuna: Leadership Lessons from Hilton’s CLO Kimo Kippen