How life lessons learned from baseball help drive Avalara exec Liz Armbruester

Liz Armbruester, senior vice president of global compliance for Avalara, and her family showing their Seahawks’ pride. From left to right: Justin, Liz, Mike and Will. (Photo courtesy of Liz Armbruester)

Liz Armbruester clearly remembers her moment of reckoning. She was dropping off the oldest of her two sons for his first day of high school. Her kids, it suddenly felt, were practically grown up.

“I had an overwhelming feeling of, ‘wow, how did this happen?’” Armbruester said. “I knew everything about work, but nothing about their lives.”

She loved Vubiquity, a company that provides technology for entertainment distribution, and was challenged in her vice president role there. But it was overshadowing her personal life, leading to missed family dinners and disconnection. At that high school drop off, Armbruester confronted herself in her car’s rearview mirror and vowed to make changes.

Three days later an acquaintance reached out with news of an opening that might interest her at Avalara, a cloud-based company providing tools for complying with tax codes. A couple of months later, in November 2013, she started the job. Armbruester is now senior vice president of global compliance for Seattle-based Avalara.

Liz Armbruester, Avalara’s senior vice president of global compliance. (Avalara Photo)

She’s thriving in the new role, leading a team that helps businesses comply with ever-changing taxation and reporting rules imposed by a patchwork of local, regional, state and national taxing authorities.

Armbruester, a passionate sports fan and former pitcher, says that lessons from athletics — and baseball in particular — has helped shape a successful career. That includes goal setting, resilience, passion and working hard to be at the top of your game.

Baseball is “that perfect combination of team and individual contribution,” she said. Personal skill comes into play, but “it can’t just be about individual talent. It has to be about how those pieces fit together.”

And Armbruester is employing strategies for a better give and take between home and work life. She sees it not so much as a balancing act, but more of a healthy integration of the two.

“How do I make the two fit together? I have to incorporate elements of my life that are important in a more structured way, where I don’t feel this massive obligation all the time to go-go-go with my work, or with my family,” she said. “I have to give myself some grace to make the two connect.”

Armbruester is exploring ideas about how she can guide and advise other, particularly younger women who want to advance their careers. It took so long to learn certain lessons about influencing and working with people, she’d like to share her tips “so women can make different choices earlier in their careers, so more women are advancing into leadership roles.”

We caught up with Armbruester for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Seattle

Computer types: Lenovo ThinkPad

Mobile devices: iPhone XS Max

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: My favorite apps are Venmo, Smartsheet, FaceTime, Alaska Air, WhatsApp, Twitter, Medium, Slack and Golf Now. I’m usually on apps for a specific reason and I’m usually multi-tasking, so it’s important that they are easy and quick — I don’t have the time to click more than 3-to-4 times to get to what I want. I really appreciate apps with a great customer-focused design. I love WhatsApp for international travel and a coworker just turned me on to Signal — seemingly more secure, but I’m going to talk with our security team about that! Oh, and I can’t forget the ESPN app — I have to keep up with all my favorite teams.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? I have an office on the interior of our high-rise building located in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Our employee experience team elected to put the cubicles near the amazing window views and move our execs to the interior. It’s the little things that make my office work for me: the electric standing desk, no overhead lights, and a few reminders of what’s most important to me (pictures of my family). I also have an open door policy, so I love how close my office is to all my teams.

Liz Armbruester’s workspace highlights her family and passion for sports. (Avalara Photo)

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Plan your schedule reasonably. You have to know which big rocks and small pebbles you can and want to move in the week, but allow for flexibility and impromptu activities. I’m always looking ahead as well, typically 3-to-4 weeks, to ensure I’m prepared for bigger projects, meetings or trips.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? When it comes to social media, the network I use generally depends on the situation. I enjoy Twitter because it’s a mix of business and personal, which allows me to keep up with people in every aspect of my life. For strictly personal reasons, I use Instagram with the occasional “like” going out to Avalara activities. For business, LinkedIn is useful to me because I am able to find some great articles relevant to my job, career and industry on there.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? I have very few unanswered or yet-to-be-addressed emails. It’s important for me to stay on top of what’s going on. I use email when needed but I’m old school, so I like to respond in person or on the phone. I do, however, go by one rule: if I’m cc’d that tells me I don’t need to respond, so those are read and filed or deleted.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 29

How do you run meetings? I run meetings with a stated objective, on time and with known and stated actions as we close the meeting. I want people to know why they are there so I can keep them engaged in the meeting. If I see someone not involved, I often ask for input to drive up participation. I spend a lot of time “translating” or educating people about what we (as a company or team) are doing, why we are doing it and creating the link for them to understand how they contribute to the outcome. It’s in those meetings that participation is critical as the attendees need to demonstrate comprehension and an open QA is often the best mode to reach that outcome.

Everyday work uniform? Orange! I typically dress business casual or casual to work. I try to stay closer to the business casual side, but I work with a lot of technologists and the dress around our offices tends to reflect a lot of denim, shorts and t-shirts. On most Fridays, you’ll see me repping the Hawks or my favorite college team because Fridays are jersey days at Avalara.

How do you make time for family? It’s intentional, however five, 10 or even 15 years ago, family time just happened as a necessity. My children were younger and more dependent on me. As they got older, they had choices and needed to find their own balance between sports, friends and family. We have a pretty tight extended family that like to do things together so I don’t think my boys would say as teenagers that family time was a chore. My husband and I traveled extensively with both my boys with their baseball programs and “vacations” typically always had a tournament component to them. Yes, I’ve “vacationed” in Chehalis, Yakima, Tri-Cities, Spokane, etc.!

They now both play baseball for and attend the University of New Mexico, so I’m sure a few upcoming trips will be in some fine destinations within the Mountain West Conference.

Liz Armbruester and her family at a University of Arizona game. Armbruester has a degree in molecular and cellular biology from the school. (Photo courtesy of Liz Armbruester)

Last, we always made time for family dinner and that applied to all of us. Sometimes it didn’t happen until 9 p.m. with our crazy schedules, but sitting and eating a meal (with no phones) was a good way for us to connect. Extended family (aunt/uncle, cousins, grandparents) dinners on Sundays were another easy and organic way to keep us connected.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Music, family and playing golf. Oh, and the spa is nice from time to time.

What are you listening to? Two podcasts: Harvard Business Review’s (HBR) Women at Work and Radical Candor

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? Medium, HBR, Yahoo Finance and I use the Apple News feature on my phone for the latest trending news.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? Right now I’m reading Shonda Rhimes’ “Year of Yes.” I’ve just started reading it, but it’s great so far. I’ve also got “HBR’s 10 Must Reads On Mental Toughness” in my backpack on my current trip and I always keep a copy of “Daring Greatly” by Brené Brown close by as well.

Night owl or early riser? What are your sleep patterns? I am an early riser, I get up and go. I’m not much good after 10 p.m. and when my head hits the pillow I’m in deep sleep within 20 minutes (at least according to my Fitbit). Like most mothers, I stopped getting real sleep the moment my first baby was born and am always at least a little bit awake. Now that both of my children are out of the house, I may be getting just a little bit more sleep than I did in the last 20 years. As I reach my fifth decade, I definitely need my sleep more than ever.

Where do you get your best ideas? It’s typically a process that starts with a good read, a conversation or a presentation or conference. I get a day, a few days or a week away from that event and I can digest what I read or heard. Typically, it’s an organic translation or application thought process to apply what I’ve heard to a problem or opportunity at work. I’m most often alone when that happens — in my car, my office or on a plane!

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I don’t have a particular person in mind, but I’d love to shadow someone who makes their living being more creative or artistic. I’d like to see how they balance the creative process with the business side of their lives.

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