A Woman's Touch

By Anna Maria Virzi Print this article Print

Six senior technology executives share career advice and leadership tips that helped them succeed in a field dominated by men.

Debra Walton grew up on an Australian sheep farm in a town of 4,000. Her family's wish: find a husband from a nearby farm so they could someday merge the properties.

As a single mother of three, Judy Campbell started her career in human resources.

And Kathy Lane defied her parents when she decided to go to college. "My parents didn't think nice girls went to college," she recalled.

These three women were among six senior technology executives who shared their career paths, inspirations and leadership tips Monday at a panel discussion, "From the 'C' Suite: Women's Leadership Perspective." More than 200 attended the event at the Princeton Club in New York City, sponsored by the Society for Information Management's New York and Fairfield/Westchester County chapters.

Today, Walton is a long way from home--she's the global managing director of Thomson Financial Investment Banking and Research. In her first job at a bank, she met a talent scout who recruited her for a beauty contest. That contest, in turn, landed Walton a trip around the world, and provided her with a new outlook. Instead of returning to her family's farm or the bank, Walton took a job in computer sales as a "demo dolly," demonstrating products. That experience remains invaluable, she said. "I learned the importance and difference in the outcome [of a sales pitch] when you really understood the client," said Walton, who has since held jobs at Cantor Fitzgerald and Dow Jones Telerate.

For more than eight years, Campbell has been CIO of New York Life Insurance--a company that had previously gone through four CIOs in five years. She recalled her conversation with the company's chairman before she started the job: "If you fired four [CIOs], it ain't them. What are you going to do differently? It was an interesting conversation."

Lane, now CIO of Gillette, said her family prepared her for the working world in a male-dominated industry. "I have two sons. I have five brothers. I am not intimidated by large guys who yell," she laughed. She studied applied mathematics in college, leading her to a career in information technology. While she admits she's a closet geek, she is by no means a nerd. "Always seek out a way to provide your business value … demystify how you are going to do that," she advised the audience.

The other panelists, along with moderator June Drewry, global CIO for Chubb Corp., offered these insights:

*Vita Cassese, vice president of Pfizer Global Pharmaceuticals' global business technology, said managers want employees "who can take risks and move the business to the next level." She advised SIM members and guests to "rely on others--colleagues, subordinates, bosses," as well as "inspire trust … trust that you want to do the right thing for people and for the company."

*Shelly Leibowitz, a former CIO at Morgan Stanley, spoke about a problem she encountered as she rose through the ranks: "People assume the more successful you are, the less you need other people. In reality, it's the opposite. Information sources dry up. People say yes, when they shouldn't." To counter that, she recommended staying in touch with "networks of people from various walks of life, professionally and personally, to draw upon. Take a lunch once a month with someone in a different industry. Take a colleague you never see … it's amazing when you will learn. How nuggets, pearls of wisdom, become relevant when you least expect it."

*Judy List, vice president and managing partner, services and solutions, global outsourcing and infrastructure services for Unisys, said she started her career on the faculty at Clark University. The problem with academia, she said, is that it's very academic. "I was really interested in trying to solve real-world problems," she said, when discussing her decision to work in technology. Her approach to the workplace: "I look at people I work with as volunteers." Because of their caliber, they have the opportunity to work somewhere else for good pay, she pointed out. Thus, it becomes important to be a leader who provides workers with a "shared vision" and make sure that people find their work meaningful.

*Walton pointed out that until she reached the age of 43, she had never prepared a resume or looked for a job. "Someone I worked with always offered me another opportunity," she said. That's because, she added, "I focused on the doing the best job that I could do in the jobs that I had."

*Lane suggested that high-level managers "take the high road" when dealing with people and problems. "You often get the opportunity for revenge. Don't take it," she said.

* Campbell offered similar advice: "When you are a manager, project leader or customer, the golden rule applies: Treat people the same way that you would want to be treated."

*Drewry, the moderator, said she promotes teamwork in the workplace and suggested that leaders be up front with colleagues. "When there are information voids, people fill them with the worst assumptions. Honesty is appreciated and respected, even when it's bad news," she said.

When asked about the advantages of being a woman in business, Drewry said that a man who is introduced to a team initially might be seen as more as a threat to others than a woman.

Campbell said there's no obvious benefit to being a woman. As she sees it: "There are individuals who get opportunities that need to be taken."

Women executives: What advice would you give to women working their way to senior-level technology leadership positions? E-mail us at baseline@ziffdavis.com

This article was originally published on 2005-09-20
Executive Editor
Anna Maria was assistant managing editor Forbes.com. She held the posts of news editor and executive editor at Internet World magazine and was city editor and Washington correspondent for the Connecticut Post, a daily newspaper in Bridgeport. Anna Maria has a B.A. from the University of Rhode Island.
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