Shellye Archambeau has spent her career breaking tech’s gender and racial barriers for Black women. After climbing the ranks at IBM in the ’80s and ’90s and becoming president of Blockbuster, she took over an enterprise software company now known as MetricStream and ran it for 15 years. Archambeau is one of the first (and still very few) Black women to be CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company.
To Be “Unapologetically Ambitious” Is the Only Way Up
As a teenager, Shellye Archambeau had a big dream: to become a CEO. But in a pre-World Wide Web society, her role models were limited to the women in her neighborhood. She saw leadership skills in her mother, who was active in the school parent-teacher association, church groups, and the Girl Scouts. Competitiveness was a skill taught by being the oldest of four children. But the ambition that took her to business school and up the corporate ladder to a seat on the board of directors was all her own.
“Especially for women and people of color, if we’re told we’re ambitious, it’s a negative, not a positive. And then ‘unapologetic’— I think women are raised from birth to apologize. We apologize to smooth feathers, to bring attention, to show empathy. And we need to stop doing it,” Archambeau insisted. “Because the other half of the population, they don’t get it—they keep hearing us apologize, and then they figure that it’s all our fault, whatever it is. Everybody should be ambitious, and you don’t have to apologize for it!”
The Boston Consulting Group conducted an extensive study in 2017 to test what it calls the “stubborn theory that women are less aggressive than men.” The theory maintains that women: 1) lower their career goals as they grow older and become mothers; 2) fail to achieve top roles at companies because they don’t really want them, not because they can’t or because the opportunity is not there.
The study was vast, analyzing employee survey data from two global BCG data sources and more than 200,000 respondents. “Our findings show clearly that women start their careers with just as much ambition as men,” write Katie Abouzahr, Matt Krentz, Claire Tracey, and Miki Tsusaka. “Ambition levels do vary, but they vary by company, not by family status. When companies create a positive culture and attitude regarding gender diversity, all women – mothers included – are eager to advance.”
In contrast, one of the findings of a global survey of 3,000 women commissioned earlier this year by American Express and The New York Women’s Foundation is that there are women who start out being just as ambitious as men, but learn it’s not a good thing (for them) to be called ambitious. The majority of women consider themselves to be ambitious, but only three in 10 (31%) overall say they are proud to call themselves “ambitious.” Their preferred euphemisms are motivated or confident.
“There will be a resistance to your ambition, there will be people who say to you, ‘you are out of your lane’,” Kamala Harris told the Black Girls Lead 2020 conference. “They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been, instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you!”
Don’t Let the Negative Labels Drag You Down
Perceptions aren’t going to disappear overnight. And the thin line between “being ambitious” and “being aggressive” will continue to be a challenge. But there are steps you can take to not just walk the fine line, but begin to widen it for yourself and those behind you:
Tie your ambition to the organization’s ambition. Focus on the impact you can make on the organization’s objectives, both now and with broader responsibility. In your communication with others – at work and in all business encounters – clearly connect your ambitions to the collective goals.
“Ambition is more than just personal,” writes Ashira Prossack. “There are actually two paths of ambition, and success is amplified when those paths converge. One is internal, where you’re striving for personal success. The other is external, where you’re striving for collective success. External ambition can be anything from helping other people reach their goals to implementing large-scale change within your organization.”
Develop your “servant leader” skills. Most traditional business leaders are transactional managers – that is, they are put into positions to oversee employees who are paid and provided benefits for performance. “Servant leaders,” meanwhile, believe that, by focusing on making team members successful, he or she will be successful. It’s all about “we” and lifting others up.
“The servant leader moves beyond the transactional aspects of management, and instead actively seeks to develop and align an employee’s sense of purpose with the company mission,” writes Mark Tarallo on shrm.com. “Empowered staff will perform at a high, innovative level. Employees feel more engaged and purpose-driven, which in turn increases the organization’s retention and lowers turnover costs. Well-trained and trusted staffers continue to develop as future leaders, thus helping to ensure the long-term viability of the organization.”
Excise the demon. “Impostor syndrome” is believing what an unjust society says about you. It is most common among girls and women, and especially women of color. It can hit anyone who is bright and ambitious and walking into unfamiliar territory. It presents as a feeling of unease, a lingering sense that you somehow don’t “deserve” your own hard-earned accomplishments, that everyone else belongs except you. Some tips: embrace your feelings; tell yourself they are feelings, not reality; explain how you feel to someone and bring them into your situation; find mentors who can define success and failure for you; admit to yourself the things you actually don’t know and learn about them, and stop comparing yourself to others (or to idealized images).
“The feelings of imposter syndrome can be deeply ingrained,” says Shilagh A. Mirgain of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “They may have developed long ago due, in part, to growing up in an environment where self-worth was tied to accomplishments. Or perhaps praise was often in the form of ‘helpful criticism,’ which could lead to a sense that nothing was ever quite good enough. The reality is that it will take time to overcome the feelings – but it is possible.”
Courage: Failure Is A Better Teacher Than Success
Vulnerability is an unavoidable side effect of ambition. But if you avoid taking risks, you limit your opportunities. In the process of taking a chance, you can transform your risks into opportunity. “I believe that people should take more risks, show more courage, and go after what they want,” Archambeau said.
And she has practical advice on how to gain the courage necessary to step up and take career risks. “The way you get the courage is to imagine what is the worst that can happen, and can you live with it?” Imagining the worst and dealing with it gives the power to overcome the fear. “You’ve envisioned it, and you’ve dealt with it. So now go ahead and take the risk,” she said.
Failure is the flipside of risk. When things go bad, it’s important to remember that there is a big upside to failure — the lessons it teaches. “There’s a lot more to learn in failure then there is in success,” Archambeau said. “And the biggest thing you learn is resiliency and that it isn’t going to kill you.”
Now that risk and opportunity are two sides of the same coin, how do you develop the confidence to flip that coin?
Personal and professional support. It is required on two fronts: Emotional support at home and from friends, and professional help from the network of mentors and advisors you have developed up to that point. In your career, you are going to want to know that you can turn to ask for help if (and when) you need to talk. Remember: there is no point building up your network if you aren’t going to reach out and talk to them. That’s why they are there.
Develop trust in your own abilities. Risk-taking 101: When you take risks and succeed, you learn more and more about the process. Equally important, after enjoying some of the rewards, you grow increasingly confident in your skills and judgement. Warning: you will have some missteps. Everyone does. But while you might fall, but it won’t be that far. And you’ll get back up and you will have learned a great deal.
Understand fear versus fact. Fear comes with risk-taking. No matter your experience level. When you have concerns, you need to mitigate them with facts. And with all those facts (which you should obtain through research, not just guessing) lined up against your fears, you will be able to assess the real value of the opportunity. And here’s the kicker: You also can identify the “worst thing that can happen” and answer this critical question: Can I live with that outcome?
Learn from other risk takers. Fact: None of us is unique, other professionals face similar choices all the time. And their experiences provide a really useful primer from which to learn.
Resilience: “Fake It Until You Make It”
The strategy Archambeau has applied her whole career is “fake it until you make it.” While she presents as a self-assured woman, she confides that her confidence is not natural. “I was not born confident at all,” she said. “I just act like I am.”
Ambition, plus courage and intelligence, seem to be the secret to Archambeau’s rise. She started working as a sales assistant at IBM Corp. to finance her education at the highly ranked Wharton School of Business. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and decision science, she decided to stay on at IBM with the goal of becoming the company’s chief executive officer.
“CEO was really what I was shooting for,” she said. “When I joined IBM, I was, ‘Oh, well this is good company. I’ll just become CEO of this company.” She laughs at the memory, but her youth allowed her to see possibilities where others didn’t. “I wasn’t constrained by the reality of the challenge when I set my goal,” she said.
No journey comes without roadblocks and detours, and Archambeau is no exception. “Were there obstacles? Absolutely,” she said. But she never lost sight of her main objective: to take her place on the executive board.
“I’ve been very intentional about what I’m about, what I’ve done, decisions I made, choices I made to try to improve the odds as I went along,” she said, advising others to do the same. “What I tell people is set a goal; make a plan to achieve the goal. If you come across a hurdle or roadblock or something you didn’t see, if you can’t figure out how to move it out of the way, then go over it, around it, and change course if you have to. But keep the goal in mind.
Archambeau achieved her goal — plus some. She currently sits on the board of directors for four major companies: Verizon Communications Inc., Nordstrom Inc., Roper Technologies Inc., and Okta Inc. She was the first woman of color appointed to the Okta board, adding another “first” to a career that has been marked by being the first woman, woman of color, or person of color to achieve a given position.
Climbing the career ladder can mean making some tough decisions, and Archambeau’s first major career coup was also the most courageous act she has ever undertaken. She had been seeking promotion internally at IBM and was offered the lead of the company’s Asian Pacific Public Sector. The role as general manager would kick her career up a notch, but meant that she, her husband, and their two school-age children had to move to Japan. Adding to the stress was the “pep” talk she received from her then boss, who had experience working in Japan.
“There are three things that are important to be successful in business in Japan,” she remembers him saying. “The first is wisdom. And wisdom comes with age.” Archambeau was in her late 30s at the time, which was not old enough to have gained wisdom, according to her boss. The next key to success in Japanese business culture, said her then-boss, was being male. “This is my send-off speech?” Archambeau recalled thinking. “I don’t have that either!”. However, she did have the third attribute: Intelligence. “You’d better figure out how to maximize it,” her boss advised.
Once again, Archambeau was facing odds that seemed stacked against her. “It was definitely, definitely a risk,” she said. But the risk paid off. “I learned a lot; I made an impact. I helped turn around business over there,” she said. And in addition to the career boost, she and her family had “a great adventure.”
A Leader Needs Even More in This 4.0 Era
It’s been 13 years since the introduction of the first Apple iPhone, and this may have been the catalyst that kicked off the digital movement in earnest. “Once everyone got iPhones, and once we started being able to do so much as consumers, we wanted to be able to advance that as businesspeople too,” states Shellye Archambeau.
As digital transformation “is a term that’s tossed around pretty freely,” it’s important to clarify what it means to the organization, she emphasizes. Digital technology needs to accomplish two things: “One to actually change how you operate the business, how you change your processes, your activities in your business your business model. The second part is it’s also changing the value proposition of what you are able to offer to your customer or your client. If you’re going to transform, it’s got to touch both sides.”
Companies now need digital innovators and champions to step up and lead. “In the digital economy that’s now upon us, many enterprises won’t succeed by merely tweaking the management practices that led to past success,” Peter Weill and Stephanie Woerner write in MIT Sloan Management Review.
Archambeau has advice for people and companies that face the digital threat and seek to transform the ways they do business. “Work hard to actually communicate and share what you see,” she says. Identify individuals who will help promote change as well. “Look for the people who tend to be forward-leaning. You want to find people that are all in, and they are actively both supporting it coming up with ideas.”
There is a common thread in discussions about digital transformation – it’s more of a new way of thinking than it is new technology. “Digital leadership is not about understanding specific technologies, it’s about understanding people, state Emily Ackroyd and Hazel Hobbs, directors for strategy and engagement for the UK’s Government Digital Service. “It’s about setting aspirations, creating culture and building capability.”
Successful digital leaders give their teams the space to be disruptive and creative. Increasingly, leaders need to change the organization around them rather than just work within structures created for a different age. That requires permission to challenge, try new things and learn from when things don’t work.
Successful digital leaders also work in partnership with others. This is about working with business and tech entrepreneurs to define and solve the most important policy and operational problems, not inviting others in to deliver after the service has been designed. They are also “comfortable with ambiguity.”
“CEOs around the world agree that there is a talent shortage. And by the way, that’s a major risk to their businesses,” Archambeau said. “And if you look at the skill sets that they now value, they’re actually skill sets that involve collaboration, communication, team leadership, and building. And guess what? Women tend to over index on those skills.”
“There’s never been a better time for female tech entrepreneurs,” Archambeau added. “This is because women rank highly in the soft skills that are in such short supply.”