Choosing the Road Not Taken | Straighttalk

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Following a less traveled path can be a wise career move, but be careful not to get in your own way.

By Adriana ”Andi” Karaboutis, Executive Vice President, Technology and Business Solutions, Biogen Idec

I’ve held technology leadership positions in three industries: automotive, computing, and now biotechnology. Being a woman hasn’t hurt me in those roles. Yes, there have been instances when I may not have been taken as seriously as a male counterpart or may have been judged differently, but I’ve learned that the best way to deal with those situations is to address them with knowledge, honesty, and facts.

An Eclectic Career

“I took the one less traveled by,” wrote poet Robert Frost in The Road Not Taken, “and that has made all the difference.” In some ways, this has been the story of my career. In college, I started out in mechanical and industrial engineering. Within a semester or two, I fell in love with computer science as I was learning to do some FORTRAN programming (now that will date me). At the time, some 30 years ago, this was a road less traveled — and almost not traveled at all by women. But I enjoyed math and took that route.

I absolutely loved the programming, so I kept going. Later, I did graduate work in electrical engineering and computer control systems. As a woman in technology, I was always the minority, whether it was in the classroom or in the field. For me, I never gave it a second thought; it was a very welcoming and invigorating environment. As a novelty in the class or on the job, people were interested in why I was there but more importantly in what I was doing. In fact, I didn’t find it an issue to be in an almost all-male environment, and I always found the proverbial stage to demonstrate my computer science training. It was very exciting.

I was very lucky to spend 20 years in the auto industry, which afforded me many opportunities. An important one was leaving IT to work in the business operations for six years — I tell people that this was the best IT training I had. Another great opportunity was going to Europe for a couple of years. Holding a leadership role in IT as a female in Europe, I was certainly in the minority, and I took that as an opportunity to demonstrate my capabilities.

Dealing with a Dual Standard

If I make things sound very smooth-sailing, it’s because I’ve either made a conscious decision to move away from unfortunate situations or I’ve been able to fix things where I thought I was treated differently than a male executive. I’ve been in situations where, for example, assertiveness, boldness, and courageousness for male colleagues were viewed as just that: assertive, bold, and courageous.

But when I showed these same attributes, they were deemed as aggressive or too bold or emotional. I was once told I needed to be less of a Type A personality –in a room full of Type A personalities! It makes you sit back and think, “How could there be such a disparity in interpretation between similar characteristics among men and women?” Fortunately, there has been significant progress in recent years around valuing diversity and gender differences. Successful corporations, like Biogen, seek out diversity, recognizing that diverse teams are more productive – 24 percent more, according to some studies.

So what was my response to the situation above? I sat down with the leader and said, “Look, obviously you feel that I’ve been a little too assertive in how I’m approaching things. Yet in a very similar situation, you had a similarly strong reaction. What’s the difference?” When you approach people with logic, data, facts, and examples, the focus is on the work and not on gender differences. Most people don’t argue with well-thought-out logic.

Men and women are wired differently; that helps make diverse teams successful. When somebody tells us to be less assertive or Type A, we need to avoid the temptation to go home, overthink and analyze it, and then try to change our behavior. I tell women that in these situations, “You need to get out of your own way – nobody can control you but you. Focus on great ideas and great work, the opportunities to contribute, and the opportunities to learn.” This will work in your favor. And, if it doesn’t, move on. Some companies value diversity, and other companies talk about diversity –make sure you’re in the right company. Being assertive and having the courage to stand up for what you believe should be appreciated in men and women alike. It works both ways.

Career Advice for Women

What else have I learned in my 30 years as a technologist and executive?

Focus on what’s important. Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Don’t focus on what people say or do, including criticism of you. Instead, focus on the contributions you can make and the great ideas that can drive your and your company’s goals forward. Focus on building great high-performing teams that deliver success. I talked about getting out of your own way and not overthinking criticisms or bumps in the road. But also don’t let others stand in the way of your pursuit of great things.

Don’t define yourself primarily as a female executive. Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, says that when she walks into a room, her first thought isn’t how many women are there and if she’s the only one. She thinks about the purpose of the meeting, about the problem they’re trying to solve or the solution they’re trying to create. That epitomizes how I feel. Have I sometimes felt as if I were treated differently because I’m a woman? Absolutely, but I don’t go in to situations with that at the top of my mind. What’s at the top of my mind is, for example, that I’m only a few months into the biotechnology business, a completely new industry for me. How do I understand molecular biology? How do I apply technology to the drug discovery process and to helping our patients? How do we use wearables to help our patients improve their quality of life? Those are the things I’m thinking about and I expect my team to be thinking about as we look to develop a high-performing diverse team.

Learn everything you possibly can. Learn everything you can about technology. Learn everything you can about your field. I’m taking a biotechnology class that introduces me to a new domain and has helped me on the job in my first months at Biogen. Learning can be done by taking classes, by reading and listening, by doing. One of the best ways to learn is to surround yourself with smarter people and mentors. The mentors I’ve had along the way have been people I’ve worked with who have accomplished the things they wanted to accomplish. One of them was Ralph Szygenda, the CIO at General Motors, who I’ve gone back to time and time again for good guidance and advice. Ralph never looked at any of us as male or female, old or young. He was extremely demanding, asking for the best all of us could give, and he has produced 20 or 25 CIOs who went through what I call his “boot camp.” Find a mentor like Ralph and learn.

Expand your horizons beyond the workplace. Figure out what you’re passionate about and follow that passion to find opportunities to learn outside of work. For example, I became President of the Michigan Council for Women in Technology because I believed we didn’t have enough young girls in the leadership pipeline. You have to do something outside of work to keep you fresh. I love technology, and I’ve always looked for opportunities to learn and make an impact beyond the job I was doing or the specific position I was holding.

Take the road less traveled. As I said, this phrase in some ways defines my career. Don’t limit yourself to one industry simply because that’s where you’ve spent a good part of your career. Expand your horizons, leave IT, leave your industry, try something new, move back – simply be open to possibilities you never imagined before. Remove your own boundaries.

Keep an Eye on the Big Picture

For me, the most important thing to learn in whatever industry or business you’re in is how to apply technology to make a difference to end customers. When George Scangos, Biogen’s CEO, talked to me about joining the company, he didn’t talk about the big data analytics tools that we could develop or the insights we could get from wearables. He talked to me about what he wants to do in the biotech industry and the impact he wants to have on our patients’ lives. He expects me to connect technology to the achievement of those goals. That’s what propels me forward.

My 17-year-old stepdaughter, Sarah, is an extremely smart, extremely independent young lady who is keeping all her options open and recognizes she can do anything that she sets her mind to. The discussions we have aren’t centered around, “You are good at math and therefore you should go into the sciences.” The discussions we have are around what situations motivate her, what she would like to create, improve, deliver, drive. These conversations help keep the focus on goals versus the means to get there, which is a secondary step. Focusing on strong goals makes the means achievable.

Originally published in CIO Straight Talk, No. 6 (February 2015)