Women at the Top: Tech leaders share advice on career stages

Many of us strive to hit career goals, and yet the next steps to take are rarely clear. Is it better to plan ahead or should we go with the flow? Is it more important to take on extra responsibility or to use our limited time to diversify our skill sets? 

The best advice often comes from those who have been there, which was the impetus for the Financial Times Live’s recent Women at the Top USA panel, “The stages of your career.” FT Work and Careers Editor Isabel Berwick led a virtual discussion between women executives sharing their insights and strategies for career advancement. The high-powered panelists included OCC CFO Amy Shelly, SellersEaston Media co-CEO Pattie Sellers and Rakuten Americas COO Adrienne Down Coulson.

Jungle gyms

Sellers started by sharing that one consistency among the successful leaders she interviewed in her thirty years as a Fortune editor was that most had not planned their careers.  She spoke instead of “jungle gym careers,” a concept later popularized by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her bestselling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

In a jungle gym career, executives can never know whether the next rung of their personal path is safe or treacherous until they get there. Consequently, many women achieve success from taking “horizontal” career paths where they expand their experience into new areas rather than rising through a relatively regimented career path. 

“While technical skills will get you in the door, it’s the softer skills that will make a difference.”

Adrienne Down Coulson, Rakuten Americas COO

Rakuten’s Coulson agreed that she’d had a “non-linear, jungle gym style path,” partly born from watching others at work and learning from what made them successful. She called her method “purposeful planning” motivated by the goals of establishing professional independence and stability for her family. 

The journey of OCC’s Shelly was also something of a zig-zag. From the days of her undergraduate work in accounting, Shelly always knew that she wanted be the CFO of a large company. Over and over again, she was presented with opportunities that seemed to distract from this goal, as she moved from roles in large companies to small ones and back again. Ultimately, it proved beneficial to make stops at smaller companies where she could accrue a depth and breadth of experience that might not have been accessible in larger organizations.

Knowing how to step up

Each panelist realized early on that they needed to pursue a broad set of experiences and expertise to get where they wanted to go.

“We’ve all heard that men get jobs based on their potential and women get them based on their actual capabilities and ability to prove those things,” said Coulson. “Before I moved to the C-suite, I took on extra responsibilities to prove that while I was ready for that level of accountability, I needed to invest more publicly and precisely in what I wanted. It was very important for me to put it out there and be verbal and obvious about it.”

Rakuten Americas COO Adrienne Down Coulson
Rakuten Americas COO Adrienne Down Coulson

Each executive had moments where they felt they had been knocked back. Coulson and Shelly used their setbacks to take stock and prove they were ready. Shelly also shared that these underscored that she needed to go after and sharpen the skills that would help her win the job she wanted.

When prompted about the most important skills for young people with high aspirations in the world of work, panelists agreed that they must balance subject matter and technical skills with interpersonal “soft skills.” As Coulson put it, “While technical skills will get you in the door, it’s the softer skills that will make a difference.”

Curiosity is another key. Sellers recommended, “Read things you don’t agree with. Learn about things you don’t know. We have to encourage young people to continue pursuing their passions versus what’s available.”

Community is key for growth

All agreed that a community of colleagues and fellow executives is important for building confidence and gaining different perspectives. “I’ve had coaches, advocates and sponsors throughout my career,” said Shelly.

Sellers added that the need for these kinds of supportive communities is likely to be “extreme and intense” as the world emerges from the conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each panelist discussed the unique challenges of their early days as executive managers. Coulson spoke of having to convince her teenage children to relocate to a new country so that she could pursue a major career opportunity. At work, she also had to get her head around “[a] lot of new information that I wasn’t prepared for. I was struck by things that weren’t apparent about the way companies work behind the scenes — some of the difficult decisions that you don’t otherwise see.”

Shelly shared that she had to find a work-life balance — and she turned to running as a stress reliever. “You need to remember the work is always going to be there. Unless there is a critical deadline, it’s OK to put it down.”

Careers amid COVID-19

What career advice do these successful executives have for women looking to move ahead amid the new ways of working in the post-pandemic era?

Referring to knowledge workers who may struggle with new kinds of work days, Coulson commented, “I’m encouraging people at Rakuten to seek out a senior female leader that really understands [their] situation. You’ve got to tell people about it, because though it seems obvious to you how impossible your day-to-day situation is… it’s really not obvious to everybody if their reality is different than yours. And people in boardrooms making decisions don’t have the same experience as you do.”

Coulson also called on leaders to invest in technology solutions ranging from improved data security to collaborative tools for online working, learning and coaching. Pattie Sellers agreed, offering that women often think of success in terms of their ability to manage or control different parts of their lives — as opposed to achieving a position or rank. Companies that don’t recognize the difference in incentives stand to lose many valuable female employees.

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