Rachel Skaff (formerly Mushahwar) is the Director of North America Partner and Channel Sales at AWS, evolving the organization to be the new customer- and revenue-scaling engine for AWS by leveraging Partners to accelerate growth, drive innovation and shape the future.
Discovering a Talent for Solving Customer Problems
Rachel wasn’t always a technology executive, in fact, she studied and worked as a Civil Engineer in her early career. She was tasked with measuring the viscosity of asphalt coming off the back of cement trucks to make sure the temperature was right, otherwise, it causes the road to be bumpy. She recalls that it was the dead of summer in Arizona when she realized that there had to be a better way to do that job than stand outside in 115-degree heat with 275-degree asphalt.
“It seemed inefficient and fraught with errors, so I wrote a computer program that would do some field calculations for me. Not too long after, I got a phone call from the state engineer asking how I did it. I said it wasn’t hard – I had just figured out how to make it simpler. It was an a-ha moment; passion is finding ways to make things simpler. It’s about leveraging technology to change outcomes – those learnings start becoming intertwined into who you are,” she observes.
Rachel went on to pursue Computer Science Engineering, and her enterprise IT journey took her around the world building data centers (pre-Cloud) and implementing every major application as she served in executive engineering and technology roles at companies including PetSmart, DHL, and American Express, among others.
“If you treat an individual as they are, they will remain how they are. But if you treat them if they were what they ought to be and could be, they will become what they ought to be and could be.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“I’m naturally more customer-focused – I can describe the problem they’re trying to solve and can translate that into technology solutions and go-to-market strategy,” she notes. A senior executive at Intel shared with her that “talent is life’s gift to you; what you do with it is your gift back. Take a chance and come leverage your talents in high tech.”
“I was terrified; I had never been in high tech sales in my life – but I found the courage to take an unsteady step into a realm I knew very little about but was passionate about the impact it could have on customers. The best never start by asking how to start. They start, then ask how to be better. I followed my instincts and eventually became Vice President and General Manager at Intel, overseeing US Sales Enterprise, Government, and Next Wave Cloud Providers,” Rachel remarks.
Keep Going and Keep Making an Impact
Rachel reflects that life offers itself to us in an endless number of ways but we seldom see or accept more than a tiny fraction of the possibilities. The truth is most of us are so busy doing what we think we have to do that we never get around to doing what we truly want.
“So many times, we are asked to define success and achievement, and as odd as it seems, I have achieved the greatest results in business when I eliminated the word ‘success’ from my vocabulary and replaced it with words ‘contribution’ and ‘impact’,” she declares.
Rachel observes that she stopped focusing on doing what she thought she had to do to be successful and started focusing on leaving a lasting impact, one that would remain even after she moved to another role.
“It hasn’t been easy; I have been broken, stretched, and burned out. But through it all, I’ve built endurance and resilience, and I know that when I feel unsteady it means I’m on my way to achieving something I never thought possible. My motto: ‘It’s not hard because you’re doing it wrong. It’s hard because you are doing it right.’ The harder the path, the better the story!” she recommends.
Find People Chasing Down Their Potential
Describing herself as gritty, Rachel has always lived by the philosophy that you cannot have an exceptional life or career and stay comfortable. “I wanted my children to see a mother that took risks and put herself in environments where I wasn’t the best. I wanted my children to believe that your current situation (career or otherwise) is not your final destination. I wanted them to see me living actively, instead of accepting life as is. I want them to see that I actively find people who change more than they complain. The bottom line is – this is one life. You can stay on track, strapped in seatbelt on, driving between the lines of an average existence; or you go off road. Find joy in the risk, because the more you wait to change, the more weight you feel to change.” she insists.
So, when she had the opportunity to work for the largest cloud company in the world, Rachel took the leap of faith knowing that she would be challenged and uncomfortable, and still is. However, even more importantly, what drew her to AWS was the opportunity to make a broader impact on the community at large.
“It is on us to begin each day with a determination to make better, do better, and be better for our customers, our employees, our partners, and the world. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and you never know when your story or impact will be an inspiration for someone else. Live an adventure, every day, every season. Wake up and refuse to let time pass. Every second is a word in your story. Write something good,” she recommends.
Striving to be Earth’s Best Employer
Rachel notes that Amazon has a set of Leadership Principles that serve as its universal language – they are the standards to which it holds itself every day. They define how the company operates, how it shows up for its colleagues and customers, and how it evolves.
“They’re an essential part of our culture and truly part of our daily operations,” states Rachel. “One of the leadership principles that resonate most with me personally is ‘Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer,’ which emphasizes that building a welcoming, inclusive culture is integral to people doing their best work and is essential to what we can achieve as a company.”
She notes that this is something Amazon is focused on at every level. Every single Amazonian has the agency – and responsibility – to move the needle on Inclusivity, Diversity, and Equity, and make it a core part of their everyday work.
“I am laser-focused on prioritizing this work internally, as well as externally – extending this ethos to our partners and customers, giving them the tools and resources to make meaningful change. As U2’s Bono puts it ‘We’ll build it better than we did before; We are the people we’ve been waiting for’,” she maintains.
“YOU DIDN’T COME THIS FAR TO ONLY COME THIS FAR.”
Developing Talent and Creating Customer Obsessed Outcomes
As the Director of North America Partner Sales at AWS, Rachel’s organization is charged with leveraging Partners to accelerate growth, deliver more value, and help customers innovate in a meaningful way.
“Transformation is a constant in my work. At AWS, we are customer obsessed and to continuously meet the needs of our customers, we are always actively listening, adapting, and transforming to deliver results. Partners are critical to our customers’ success – they are uniquely positioned to help customers accelerate their journey to the cloud and take full advantage of AWS,” she notes.
AWS is working with the best team, the best customers and the best partners across industries to come together and reimagine what’s possible. This collaboration is what excites Rachel about the work they’re doing as a company worldwide – solving the hardest problems and creating the future.
A big part of Rachel’s role is developing the talent at AWS and creating a culture of inclusion and belonging. She believes leaders have a responsibility to inspire those around them and make every person, place, or condition better than they left it – always. Leaders are also responsible for setting a compelling vision for their teams and creating high-performing work environments where all employees feel represented, respected, valued, and empowered.
“I recently celebrated my second anniversary with AWS and wow, I am so proud of and inspired by the work this team has done over the past two years. We successfully transformed our organization to be deeply integrated with Sales, proving the exponential impact we can have by bringing partners in early and often. And we’re not slowing down – we’re constantly raising the bar with ambitious goals for the next year and beyond. I wake up every day excited to be part of AWS and thinking about how I can help create new business outcomes and help our customers solve their biggest problems.” Rachel proclaims.
Giving Yourself & Others the Permission to Be Vulnerable, Authentic, And Imperfect
Rachel admits that there are things she does really well and things she doesn’t do well. Some days it’s being a mom of four and stepmom to two, and some days it’s leading the organization, but it’s never being good at both at the same time.
She observes that women tend to scatter their energy on a wild goose chase to find balance. But, if you’re not leading a balanced life right now, that doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. It means you’re human and being human is hard work – especially when very few executives talk about being human.
“Here is the secret – you don’t need to balance any of it out. It is okay to be grateful and still want more; it is okay to want more and go after it. It is okay to burn dinner and order pizza. It is okay to not hit the gym after work and go home to binge-watch Amazon Prime Video. You do, however, have to relentlessly prioritize your time and figure out what’s important and what you can’t drop that day,” she recommends.
Rachel believes it’s our responsibility to provide the next-up generations with a glimpse into our messy realities. She notes that many leaders intuitively hold back from sharing the challenges and stressors in their personal lives with colleagues and drawing that line can paint a false picture of what it takes.
Employees can feel like they don’t have the resources or support systems to achieve the same professional wins – and when they don’t see themselves or their circumstances reflected in leadership, their leaders are failing at representation and inclusivity.
Rachel insists that employees cannot be what they cannot see, so it is extremely important that leaders allow themselves to be vulnerable, and authentic, and show their imperfections because that’s when the magic happens. Pulling back the curtain builds deeper connections and inspires teams, and the truth is, no one has it all together all of the time and that is okay.
“We all struggle, we all second guess ourselves, and we all have days when we have to tell our kids not to wipe their mouth on the dog while we are on a conference call. We all have told our children that we are just going a quick business trip and will be home tomorrow, full well knowing that in a few short years, your children will be saying they are just going to college and will be home soon. It is messy, magical, heart breaking, heartwarming, complicated, untraditional, and not in balance, it is fiercely worthwhile.” She maintains.
“Start before you are ready. Sometimes later becomes never – just start.”
A Personal Mission to Highlight and Uplift Female Leaders
“I’ll never forget when I returned from maternity leave after having my first baby. I squeezed into my pre-baby work clothes and put on makeup to cover up how tired I was. I made it no further than the bathroom before bursting into tears,” Rachel recalls.
Her first meeting was with the CIO at the Fortune 500 company where she worked at the time. He didn’t ask about the baby, instead, he asked her to go to Florida for a meeting.
“I brought my 13-week-old son with me and strategically booked a redeye flight in hopes of avoiding traveling with colleagues, but of course, I show up at the airport and the entire executive team was on my flight. I was so stressed I made myself sick,” she shares. “I like to say, you didn’t come this far to only come this far and at one point, asked the SVP to hold my son for an hour so I could work (okay sleep). So since then, I’ve accepted that my life waffles from well-organized to complete chaos and hoping I packed shoes that match.”
Rachel points out that women don’t talk openly about the hard choices and consequences of getting to where they are. But when you tell your story, others find their narrative in you and keep going.
“It’s my personal mission to highlight and uplift female leaders. My grandmother instilled in me that it does not take the flame away from your candle to light another’s. Delivering business results and highlighting other female leaders are intertwined. Thus, in 2022, we launched an initiative called Women of the Cloud to increase visibility and recognition for the successful business outcomes driven by our network of women across AWS, our partners, and our customers. We created content spotlighting leaders who are driving innovation, delivering results, and accelerating growth, so we can all learn from their wins,” she elaborates.
When Rachel thinks back to some of her best bosses over the years, they’re the ones that set the craziest goals that she thought were unattainable – and then they inspired their teams to do it.
“I’m all about inspiring people to do things they never thought were possible. We talk about that a lot as it relates to our customers and partners (helping them leverage our technology in ways they had never thought of before), but I also encourage our team to think about their careers this way too… how can I help you achieve the impossible?” she reflects.
Building a Diverse, Inclusive Workforce is a Force Multiplier for Driving Results
Rachel notes that it’s common knowledge that diverse teams help us think bigger and better serve our customers. “It’s on all of us to seek out different perspectives, learn and be curious, and earn others’ trust,” she says. “Everyone, at all levels, should feel empowered to look around the room and invite others to join the conversation and share their POVs. Inclusive communities drive results.”
She notes that DE&I shouldn’t be a standalone initiative; too often, leaders feel like it’s something they HAVE to do – a side project that runs parallel to running their business. They haven’t figured out that building a diverse and inclusive workforce is a force multiplier for driving results.
“They’re not two separate things,” Rachel notes. “There’s a lot we can do for people to make them feel welcomed and like they belong – we want them to know that their unique selves and circumstances are seen, appreciated, and valued. At the end of the day, Amazon’s leadership principle ‘Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer’ comes down to BELONGING. Such an important word and so different from fitting in. Fitting in is one of the greatest barriers to belonging; it’s about assessing the situation and becoming who you need to be accepted. But belonging doesn’t require us to change who we are, it requires us to BE who we are. As leaders, we have to create a culture that embodies this.”