Author of the best-selling book Dare: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage, and Career for Women in Charge, Becky Blalock is a sought-after speaker and thought leader. She is currently the Managing Partner at Advisory Capital, a strategic consulting firm specializing in the energy, information technology, and medical industries.
During her 33-year career with Southern Company, Blalock held a variety of leadership positions before becoming Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer. Under her leadership, Southern Company was recognized as one of the 100 Most Innovative Companies by CIO magazine and one of the 100 Best Places to Work in IT by Computerworld.
Blalock is a member of the Board of Directors for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. She serves as Chair of the Advisory Board of Emory Healthcare and is on the advisory board of several private equity companies. She was named a Fellow of the International Women’s Forum and Leadership Foundation and has received the Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia CIO Leadership Association and the Legacy Award from Women in Technology.
The following is an edited transcript of Blalock’s recent phone conversation with CIO Straight Talk Contributing Editor Gil Press.
Why did you decide to major in business in college at a time when it was rare for women to take that career path?
I was one of only three women in the University of West Georgia’s school of business in the late 1970s, and it really happened by accident. I was working three jobs and putting myself through undergraduate school when one of the professors advertised that he would pay $5.00 per hour for help with a market research study. That was three times what I was making in other jobs, and I was lucky — no one else even applied. The professor, Walter Wood, had patented the idea for frozen orange juice concentrate. I worked with him in mining large volumes of data to find trends and patterns. It turned out I was really good at that, and he suggested I get a business degree. I said, “I don’t really know anything about business. Nobody in my family has been in business.” But I took a couple of business classes and got hooked.
I think it’s very hard to be something you’ve never seen. For example, most women don’t even think about going into IT, because they don’t know anyone who works in this field and so they don’t have a mentor or role model. Several recent studies cite this as a major reason we are not seeing young women pursue degrees or work in this field.
If you look at the number of women who have entered the workforce since 1970, we’ve added 25 percent to the gross domestic product of the United States. If you look at the jobs that are the fastest growing and the best paid, they’re all either in the medical field or IT. Women are going into the medical field, but not IT. These jobs are going to get filled. They’re just going to get filled in another country. We have to get more women excited about IT so that this vital and well-paid work does not go offshore.
You started working in IT at a senior position without having any IT experience. How did that happen?
I had been serving as the assistant to the CEO, and he asked if I would take a position as a regional CIO at one of our operating companies. I thought, “I’m not qualified for that job,” but I did not know how to say no to him.
I took the job and really felt like a fish out of water for about six months. One of the things I write about in the book is that a comfort zone is a very dangerous place to be. It’s where we all want to be because that’s where we feel safe and valued and appreciated. But if you want to reach your full potential, you’ve got to be willing to step outside that comfort zone on a pretty regular basis. If you’re not willing to put yourself out there and fail, you’re never going to learn and get the experience that qualifies you for the next job. The most important learning we get is through on-the-job experience. I was very fortunate that I got pushed out of my comfort zone.
A lot of people are afraid to put themselves out there, and particularly so when they are a minority. Women feel that they don’t have the same safety nets that men do. If they fail, it’s going to be final. But we overestimate the consequences of failure. If you want to be all that you can be, you must try new things. Those failures are not failures; they’re feedback on what doesn’t work.
They help us to be successful on the next try. Babe Ruth hit 714 career home runs, but if you go back and look at the records, he struck out twice as many times as he hit home runs. There were many years when he led the league in strikeouts. But he was willing to get up to the plate. He swung, and if he didn’t get a hit, he learned what didn’t work, so he could be successful on the next try. Careers are exactly the same way. You have to get the experiences that then qualify you to move up the corporate ladder.
When I coach young people for interviews, I tell them to prepare for one really important question: “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made, and what did you learn from it?” Everybody makes mistakes. It’s not the mistake that’s important; it’s what you learn from it and how you recover from it that count.
How important is it in today’s technological and business environment to try different things and have experience in different fields and domains?
I think my broad business experience is what most helped me succeed as a leader in IT. If you have not worked in the business you support, you should find a way to make that happen. IT should always be focused on driving business value. If you can’t articulate how the tools you provide will make the business run better or more efficiently, there will be limits to how successful you will be.
But having said that, I have found that the times I was most effective as a leader were when I knew the least. One day, when I was still fairly new in my CIO role, a young woman who had worked for me in accounting and followed me over to IT came up to me and said, “You’re a much better leader in IT than you were when we were in accounting.” I said, “How can you say that? When I was in accounting, I was a subject matter expert. I felt like I knew exactly what I was doing. Here, it’s very uncomfortable for me because I feel like I’m so dependent on other people.” She said, “When we were in accounting, you were the subject matter expert and you tended to micromanage everything we did. You tended to make all the decisions. Here, you are truly leading.
You listen to the people around you. You talk to external experts about what direction we need to go in and the new tools that are becoming available. And then you ask for our input. You take all of that into consideration before you make decisions.” That’s what leadership is about. Leadership is about how you listen to your team and surround yourself with people who have knowledge that you may not have. Nobody can know it all in today’s world. The higher up you go in a job, the less it’s about you and the more it’s about who you surround yourself with. How you listen to people, how you motivate them, and how you communicate with them.
In addition to getting out of your comfort zone, what other advice do you offer to female executives?
I see women who work very hard and are smart and talented, but they don’t understand that once you get into middle management, everybody’s competent and everybody can execute. What gets you promoted beyond that is much more political. It’s about making sure that the work that’s being done is the work that needs to be done. At the most senior level, you have to set priorities and the direction. You need a very different skill set in the C-suite than you need in middle management. Successful female business leaders -- success business leaders of either gender -- have to be able to leverage yourself through other people. That means you have to be good at building a trusting team.
You also need a sponsor, which is very different from a mentor. A sponsor is someone who has a seat at the top table and is willing to advocate for you. Without a sponsor, your name does not even get on the list for senior jobs.
I often coach women to make sure they are taking the initiative in managing their careers and not expecting their boss to do that for them. As women we are often programmed early in life to wait to be asked instead of seeking opportunities ourselves. Several recent studies of Fortune 500 companies have found that women don’t aggressively pursue jobs for which they feel less than 100 percent qualified. Men, on the other hand, are much more willing to seek a job for which they are not fully prepared. This is critical, because if you wait until you are 100 percent prepared you’ve lost valuable time. It’s that on-the-job training that helps you grow into the job and get ready for the next one up.
The other key piece of advice I have is to pay it forward. No one reaches senior jobs without the support of many other people.
What do you mean by “pay it forward”?
It’s all about what you can do to help somebody else. Every time I have reached out to help someone, it has come back to me tenfold. The universe has a perfect accounting system. The more you help others, the more help you will get along the way.
I could tell you hundreds of stories where I thought I was helping somebody, but they ended up doing so much more for me. If you go into a relationship thinking about what you’re going to get out of it and what you can take from somebody, you’ll never be successful. You should go into it thinking, “What can I do to help this person?” That’s how you build the relationship. It ends up coming back to benefit you.
What additional advice do you have for aspiring women business leaders?
Surround yourself with positive role models. If you want to be a better tennis player, what do you do? You play tennis with somebody who is better than you. If you want to be successful at work, you need to identify people who have a great attitude, who are maybe a better leader than you, and go hang out with them and ask them to coach you. Even Abraham Lincoln needed that.
When he was shot in the Ford Theater, the people who attended to him found a note in his coat pocket from somebody nobody had ever heard of. In the note this person praised Lincoln and told him what a great leader he was. The note was worn out. It was obvious Lincoln read it frequently. We all need people who will affirm us. Surround yourself with positive people who will affirm you and help make you a better leader.
Also, be relentless in asking for feedback and be open in receiving it. The best leaders are always asking what they could do better. In interviewing men for my book, I asked what one trait they would change about women at work. The most common answer was, “Quit taking everything so personal.” There is a danger when people sense they cannot give you candid feedback. Even if you disagree with it, it gives you a chance to find out how others see you. I’ve learned that it is only those who really care about our success who will tell us the things we need to hear.
What advice would you give a male executive who wants to help women on his team?
Make sure they get equal face time with you. Women are often not part of the informal networking that goes on in corporations. I don’t think men consciously exclude women; it just does not occur to them that they need to be more inclusive. I have had men tell me they are uncomfortable taking a woman on their team to lunch.
I say to them, “She may not want to go to lunch with you, either, but you can find other ways to work with her. You can work together on a special project, or if you’re giving a speech, ask her to come hear you. Or, better yet, let her give the speech. You have to find a creative way to give her equal face time. Make sure that she gets the same attention as the men on the team.” Also, make sure her voice is heard. If you have one woman (this also happens to minorities) at a meeting, sometimes it is hard for her to speak up, and many times when she does, her ideas get credited to other people.
Make sure you are using a fair process in evaluating people for the next career move. All the research indicates that men are promoted on the basis of potential while women are promoted on the basis of a track record.
Lastly, you should have zero tolerance for offensive language or behavior. Too many times I’ve seen bad behavior overlooked in someone who is delivering otherwise great results. How your team members do things is as important as what they do. I’ve known many talented women who’ve left a company because of the culture.
You dedicated your book to your daughter. I’m sure you get this question all the time from the women you talk to — how do you balance work and family?
So many women suffer from guilty-working-mother syndrome, and I did, too. I was not the first female Vice President in my company, but I was the first woman in my company to be named Vice President who was also a mother. I lived in a neighborhood where I was the only mother who worked. It was important for me to demonstrate to people that this could be done. Today, there are many women who are making this work, but I find that most women who have young children still have that guilty syndrome.
I’m fortunate that my husband did 50 percent of the parenting as my daughter was growing up. She is now 24, so I find that I can provide some insights from my journey that may be helpful to the next generation of female leaders.
As the years have rolled by, I have learned that there are three things that helped me balance work and family. I call them the POD work/life balance principles: prioritize, outsource, and delegate.
So, number one is prioritize: Having a clear vision of what you want to accomplish in your career and a defined set of values makes it easier to set priorities. It helps you to say no to things. I am always amazed at the number of people who cannot articulate these things. Another tip is to ask your child what is important to them and let them help set the priorities. Even a three-year-old can do this. I used to ask my daughter what was really important in her life and to help me prioritize where I invested my time. We talk now about the fact that I missed out on some things in her life, but she says I was always there when it really counted.
The second thing is to outsource: You don’t have to do everything yourself. I tell people, “If you want to be in the C-suite, you’re not going to be at every ball game and you’re not going to have a home-cooked meal on the table every night.” Turn loose those things that other people can do, because your time is what’s valuable.
The third thing is to delegate: I have witnessed women — and men, too — who did not delegate appropriately. If you are going to be successful as a leader, you have to be willing to delegate to other people. The trick is surrounding yourself with talent and building a trusting team. The most important role for any leader is to leverage themselves through others and to grow other leaders. You can also leverage technology. Today’s business tools make it possible to get work done anywhere. They also make it possible to keep up with what is happening in the world and to do advance research on almost any project.
We all define success differently, but for me these three things helped me better leverage my time and strike a better balance.
Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 6 (February 2015)