By Sylvia George, Head of Enterprise Quality Assurance, NBCUniversal
Almost everybody in my family has a doctorate. My father is a renowned scientist, and teaches solid-state physics and nanotechnologies. My mother, whose family boasts five generations of teachers, used to be a chemistry professor. It was almost pre-ordained that I would follow them into a career in academia.
While I was pursuing my own Ph.D. in physics, however, I found myself doing a lot of computer programming—and I fell in love with everything about it. I realized that my passion was actually for the applied science of IT.
I ultimately got my post-graduate degree from UCLA in physics/atmospheric sciences. My research work (in computational fluid dynamics numerical modeling) involved a lot of high-end computer programming. This research, which was funded by organizations such as NOAA, Cal Tech’s JPL, and the Navy’s Office of Naval Research, gave me an appetite for applying my skills in the real world rather than off in an Ivory Tower.
While still working for UCLA, I learned about this interesting field called management consulting, which at the time was recruiting professionals with various science backgrounds. So I applied to Ernst & Young and began using my particular kind of scientific skills to solving business problems.
Becoming a skilled technologist came relatively easily to me. Becoming an effective businesswoman—well, that was a journey. The corporate world was a completely different universe than academia. But the challenges were accompanied by the satisfaction of seeing my work make a difference in the business.
Very early on, I discovered that I liked leading and developing people—perhaps it was the teaching gene I got from my parents. Within a few years, I was a full-blown manager, and from there the opportunities multiplied. Today, I’m the head of a 200-person organization dispersed around the globe, managing relationships with numerous partners and stakeholders.
Finding My Inner Mentor
Like any big change, becoming a management consultant was difficult at first. But I’ve never gravitated toward the easy option. If there’s a fire somewhere, I want to jump in and fight it. And career challenges are the ultimate challenges. I’m comfortable with the uncomfortable, and my intuition told me that this was the right field for me.
The biggest difference between academia and the business world are the people skills that are required. In academia, you can thrive as a lone wolf. It’s just you and your sheet of paper. Sure, you have to be extremely intelligent, but you don’t necessarily have to deal with other people’s emotions.
In the corporate environment, you have to find your place in the pack. You rely on others and others rely on you. You must be extremely responsive. Emotional intelligence is crucial. And as you move into the management ranks, people are relying on you for their salaries and their wellbeing.
The people side of things was the biggest challenge for me. Thankfully, as I said, I did inherit some of my parents’ “teach” skills. And when I dug deep, I also found a mentor in me.
The switch from academia to management consulting, from being a technologist to a technology leader, required me to reinvent myself – and I’m glad I did!
The Science of Standing Up
My applied science skills get applied today in standing up centers of excellence. I’ve learned how to build and lead these very large hubs with large multi-million dollar budgets. It’s a skill I developed in management consulting and then brought to NBCUniversal when I joined four years ago to stand up a very large software testing organization.
I loved consulting, but I wanted to settle down and build something that I could grow and manage long term. Our job here is a crucial one. We conduct quality assurance for all of the software NBCUniversal builds and/or uses. We have a big universe of stakeholders—in Film, TV, News, Sports, Theme Parks—all of whom put their applications in our hands and trust us to ensure that they are reliable products. It’s a tall order, but an exciting role.
And it’s demanded everything I’ve learned about leadership over the past 20 years. As I rose through the management ranks, I’ve been a student of leadership, reading books about or by everyone from Jack Welch to Angela Merkel. My goal has been to figure out the kind of leader I wanted to be.
One thing I’ve concluded is that you can’t even put a price on the value of listening to and motivating people. In a complicated environment like the one I’m in now, your organization is only as good as its weakest link.
I’ve also learned the importance of staying true to my own moral compass. There are times when you will be pressured to do something that doesn’t feel right. Although I am a people pleaser by nature, when it comes to something I strongly believe in, I will never break. There have been times when I’ve suffered for sticking to my guns. But though you may lose something in the short term, you gain something in the long term.
Nurturing, But Letting Go
In the early part of my career, I was like Aunt Bee in television’s Mayberry series—the nurturing mother hen. Today, I’m more like Sheriff Andy Taylor. But it took me a while to learn to let go.
Don’t get me wrong: I was never one that wanted to be just “one of the guys.” I believe that one of the best things we have to offer as female leaders is our empathy – being nurturing by nature. That quality can be the glue in an organization. It’s why I believe that female-led organizations tend to be the most efficient.
However, I did have to learn to delegate. I have always loved the hands-on part of my job. But I knew I had to let it go in order to manage people. Then I had to learn to let go of day-to-day management tasks in order to lead and manage at the executive level.
One thing I chose not to let go, though, was my determination to back my people. Sometimes there are budget pressures or internal politics or corporate reorganizations that make doing this difficult. But there’s always a way to do the right thing. Sometimes it’s damn tough. But I’m old fashioned that way. And it’s served me well in this dream job, where I’ve been able to build this organization and watch it grow.
Having grown up surrounded by science and technology, I find it mind-boggling that girls today aren’t more drawn to the subjects. I’m certain it has to do with how they are raised. I believe both boys and girls are inherently drawn to technology and science but that over the years, the interest drops off for girls.
I’ve always been surrounded by men, from my academic days to the present. It’s pretty much always been “twelve guys and Sylvia.” And though I understand that dynamic, that skewed ratio represents a loss for organizations.
I respect that organizations are trying to improve the numbers of women in technology and leadership roles, but I have felt at times that I had to, as Michelle Obama once said, work twice as hard to get half as far.
My basic advice to women in technology careers is largely the same as my advice to anyone in IT: Do the best job you can with total integrity. But I’d add something to that for women: Speak up. As young women, we often tend to be meek. Indeed, when a woman is assertive, she can be perceived not as a leader but as a pain—and that’s not something anyone wants to be.
So as a woman, when you enter a room with ten big male personalities, your natural tendency may be to shrink. Mine was. I had to learn how to make myself heard when I found myself with a roomful of guys who talked loud and non-stop.
I always knew what I was saying had value, but I had to learn a way of speaking and presenting myself in order to command the room. Then, at some point, it became natural. So let me phrase my advice somewhat differently:
Don’t shrink; be big!