International Women’s Day - lessons learned by three female business leaders during their 'guilt-free' careers

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett March 8, 2021
Three women leaders reflect on their careers and lessons learned as part of Salesforce's Trailblazing Women event.

(Hennington (bottom left), Archambeau (top right) and Bawa (bottom right))

When Shellye Archambeau’s daughter was born, her thick, curly hair needed to be braided to be kept neat. But the former tech CEO didn’t have the time back then to always braid her daughter’s hair. Instead, her husband – a six-foot former athlete with two huge hands – had to learn. This meant that initially, their little four-year old girl was going to school with messy hair and braids coming undone. Archambeau says:

But I couldn't go re-do it, my husband had to learn. Do I know that people looked at her and thought, where’s her mother, how could they let her out of the house looking like that? I'm sure people did, but you know what? I wasn't willing to be judged on it. It was much more important that he learned how to do her hair. And guess what? He did, and she looked great over time.

Archambeau, former CEO of Silicon Valley governance and compliance specialist MetricStream and board member at Verizon, Roper Technologies and Okta as well as the author of a book about taking risks and getting uncomfortable, takes this moral from the story:

Because when you get uncomfortable, you're learning something.

It was the noticeable lack of black women leaders that helped drive Archambeau. She decided early on that she wanted to run a tech company one day, but looking round the tech sector, she realized that the odds were not in her favor in terms of black women running companies:

Therefore I became very intentional as a way of trying to improve my odds for success and becoming intentional with what is it I'm trying to achieve, and then ask myself, what do I need to do to get there, what has to be true and then put a plan in place to go make it true.

Today, she  encourages other women to focus on their own priorities and objectives, rather than what everybody else thinks about you:

The world wants to judge us on everything. Each of us needs to decide what we're willing to be judged on.

However, it’s difficult for women to shake off this constant guilty feeling while the term ‘work-life balance’ remains in currency, according to Archambeau. She instead prefers ‘work-life integration’, as balance is something fixed and static, and even on both sides at all times:

My life is not static at all. It’s about bounce and swerve. To be judged on something that’s balanced at all times, it just gives me another thing to feel guilty about and there's plenty to feel guilty about. So forget that, I'm where’s my work-life integration. I have personal priorities and professional priorities, I put them together and then I prioritize ruthlessly and I get done what needs to get done.

Moreover, if this means there are certain things that you cannot get done as they don’t come high enough up the priority list, either pass them onto somebody else to do them instead or just live with the fact they’re not going to get done. Just don’t feel guilty, she pleads.

Zooming up the ladder

This view is very much shared by Aparna Bawa, Chief Operating Officer at Zoom, who urges:

Do not let the guilt kill you. There's plenty to feel sorry about, do not add problems to your plate that you should feel guilty about. It's okay if you send a store-bought cake or set of cookies for the party. It's okay, don't kill yourself with the guilt.

For Bawa, her personal career ladder has involved taking risks at the right times and putting herself in uncomfortable positions every now and again. Going with the flow and taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, rather than trying to plan methodically for every eventuality, is the approach that saw her promoted to her current role last June:

We have superpowers that don't necessarily get defined by our silo, and we have to embrace them. When the opportunity arises and you are there and something needs to get done, just do it. Don't think about who's going to notice, are you going to get credit. It doesn't really matter. Whenever there's a place where you can add value, you do it and you work together as a team, you don't wait to be asked. That's something very important in everybody's careers.

Obviously you have to make sure that you're not stepping on someone's toes too much, but usually in fast-growth or rapidly growing companies, there is lots to do and not enough people to do them. Everybody is usually taking two or three jobs and I've always embraced the opportunity.”

Aiming at the Target

There have been three inflection points that have shaped Christina Hennington’s journey to her role as EVP & Chief Growth Officer at US retail institution Target. One was moving to the United States as an immigrant and having to work hard to catch up and the hard work ethic it created; the second was being an athlete all the way through college, which taught her to be okay with failure, that you don't win every race or game but you have to be willing to try:

The last one is being okay and comfortable being myself. When I came out at work when I was at Target when I was 29, Target and our people embraced me, and the ability to be authentically me has helped serve me. If any of those parts resonate with you, I would just say, go for it.

Hennington joined Target back in 2003 and has held a number of roles across merchandising at the retailer. During her career there, she’s a lot of ups and downs, good years and re-building years and one “Great Recession”. But the past year of pandemic impact has been her biggest challenge to date, providing some useful lessons on the way that she will continue to apply to her ongoing work.

As noted last week, Target has ‘had a good war’ when it comes to the COVID crisis, payback for a digital transformation gambit that began five years ago.  During the early days of the pandemic, Target was listening to its customers to understand their concerns and the challenges they were working through. The company then started adjusting its operations within about three weeks to meet those new needs:

It was then all about pushing empowerment down to the teams, where the decision-making should be made, and letting them do that the best they could to react to very unusual circumstances. And because of that, the guests increasingly turned to us because they did feel safe, and all those fulfilment options – drive-up or shopping online – they were the flexible options that people needed. So it's been an exercise in agility.

It was a challenging dynamic, but professionally, it was incredibly rewarding because of the way we proved that we really can rally and do amazing things under the guise of agility and in times of need. And so I plan to take some of this with me, regardless of what normal we go back to, this new version of how we're operating. There's a lot of goodness in it.”

My take

It’s interesting how the paths to success for these women were almost opposing – for Bawa, her journey to the C-suite at Zoom has come from being a team player, getting on with whatever needs to get done without looking for credit, and grabbing opportunities as they arise, whereas for Archambeau, her progression to tech CEO came from plotting every move and only focusing on top priorities.

What this highlights is you can succeed as a woman in technology by playing to your personal strengths and objectives rather than following some cookie-cutter template, but one thing should be common to all women – stop feeling guilty.

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