Inspirational Woman: Shellye Archambeau | CEO, Silicon Valley leader, Author & Board member for Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies and Okta Inc.

Shellye Archambeau

Shellye Archambeau is an experienced CEO and Board Director with a track record of accomplishments building brands, high performance teams, and organizations.

Ms. Archambeau currently serves on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies, and Okta. She is also a strategic advisor to Forbes Ignite and the President of Arizona State University, and serves on the board of two national nonprofits, Catalyst and Braven.

Ms. Archambeau has over 30 years of experience in technology. She is the former CEO of MetricStream, a Silicon Valley-based, governance, risk, and compliance software company. During her tenure MetricStream grew from a fledgling startup into a global market leader.

She is the author of ​Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers and Create Success on Your Own Terms​. A book that will inspire you and provide the tools to enable you to fight the battles, make the tradeoffs and create the life you want. She is also a Forbes contributor and the protagonist of the Harvard Business School Case Study: Becoming a CEO.

Ms. Archambeau enjoys the performing arts, traveling, cooking and writing a blog that provides career advice, insights and other musings.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I was one of four growing up—my parents had four kids in less than five years—we were close, but competitive.  And I tell you that because competing with my siblings and parents playing games is what drove my competitive nature.

We moved from a Philadelphia suburb that was well integrated, to a Los Angeles suburb shortly after the Watts riots in the 60s.  I was the only black girl in my class, if not the school, and the world let me know how much they didn’t want me there.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

One of the things I learned early on is the importance of setting a goal and focusing on it.  I set a goal, do the homework to figure out what it takes to achieve the goal, and then build and execute a plan to get there. In high school, I started leading clubs. As a leader I felt more in-control and protected from the racism around me. Based on my skills, a guidance counselor pointed me toward business.  Even though I didn’t know what it was, I decided then that my goal was to someday beome a CEO.

In 1984, I joined IBM, with my sights set on becoming CEO. I spent 14 years there and became the youngest African-American executive.  But it wasn’t clear if I could become CEO of IBM, so instead of changing the goal, I changed the plan.

I had to be very deliberate about my next step because I’d seen many people leave a big company and then stumble in their careers, and as a woman of color the sad fact is, I wasn’t going to get as many strikes at bat as others. So, I went to a smaller company, where I took a problem child and fixed it, turned it into a global leader after several near-death experiences.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I have been profiled in a Harvard Business School case study for my rise to CEO.  When I was hired as CEO of Zaplet, the dot-com bubble had just burst. The company that was only quarters away from bankruptcy. I completely reshaped the company, merged it with another to create the new MetricStream, which is now a leading governance, risk, and compliance company that is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

That led to invitations to serve on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies, and Okta.  After achieving what I set out to do, I decided that I wanted to share my strategy and the lessons learned with others who have big career aspirations, which is why I’ve written Unapologetically Ambitious.

What are some lessons learned along the way to the CEO role and diverse board roles? 

The first lesson is this: be intentional about everything you do, especially when it comes to your career. You own your career, not your company, your boss or your mentors… but you!.  Make sure people know what you want and what you’re striving for.  If the universe doesn’t know what you want, the universe can’t help you.

Second lesson: it is important to take risks.  I found that as I moved up the ranks, what leadership expected from me changed, starting out it was about doing the work, and effectively teaming with others. When I moved to middle management, it was about how I led the team and got work done through others, when I moved to senior management it was about working with other organizations.  As an executive, it is all of that plus demonstrating a true understanding of the corporate strategy and delivering on it daily.  Senior executives impact strategy and bring not just a perspective of the company, but of a broader external world—and they take risks.  Risk and reward are two sides of the same coin.

The third is the importance of mentors— I’ve had some great ones.  Early on in my career at IBM, they established a formal mentor program and told us to pick our mentors.  I picked an executive leader, who was a couple of levels above me and had helped me already.  He called me and said, “Shellye, you’ve got me already, pick someone else!”  I realized two things in that brief exchange: first, I had mentors that I didn’t even know I had and second, I could have as many as I wanted.

After that I adopted mentors everywhere. One key I learned was that people are happy to help you if you let them know the impact they’re having on you. So, tell them!

Another thing about mentors, they don’t all have to be older than you and they don’t have to be at your company.  I learned that one a little later in life.  When I was with IBM, all of my mentors were IBMers.  Someone asked me who I bounced ideas off of, and I realized I didn’t have anyone who could give me objective opinions from outside the company!  I rectified that quickly, and it changed how I operated.

Your book which pictures your life and career in details is called Unapologetically Ambitious. Why that title?

I’ve been ambitious for a long time.  Yet during my career when people called me ambitious, it wasn’t always meant as a complement.  That’s ridiculous.  Everyone and I mean everyone deserves to be ambitious and we shouldn’t have to apologize for it.  This is a message I want everyone to hear.

You spent 15 years running a company in the tech industry, which has very few CEOs who are women, especially women of color. What's your view of the tech industry these days and do you see it making needed changes?

Things have improved since I first became CEO.  Forbes recently reported that women make up 40% of new entrepreneurs.  There are more women of color building businesses than any other racial group according to American Express.  So there are more businesses.  We need to ensure that this translates into the tech world.  I definitely see companies, investors and Universities focusing on supporting women and people of color. This is one of those areas where it's hard to say that anyone's doing enough until you actually start to see the results. And I think it's important to realize that we also need to be encouraging people. One of the things that frustrated me is that several years back, a number of companies in tech started publishing their diversity numbers, which I thought was a good step: “Hold us accountable, here are our numbers. This is our baseline.” And then they got totally beat up for their numbers.

Now, they didn't publish the numbers saying, “We've been working for 10 years on this, here's our results.” What they said is, “This is now important. We're going to start working on this.” So if we keep beating people up for actually being vulnerable, and working to get better, we're encouraging people not to be transparent. We should definitely hold them accountable for progress now they've done it. But give them time. We also want to make sure that we are supporting the work that needs to be done to get to the outcomes.


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