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You need more than drive to build a successful career
By Titina Ott Adams, Senior VP, Customer Operations, HM Health Solutions, a division of Highmark Health
I grew up on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania, and when you grow up on a farm, you learn the value of hard work. From the time I was eight to eighteen, my father would pick me up from the school bus, and we’d drive to the farmers market in Wilkinsburg, a suburb here in Pittsburgh. I would help him unload the truck and sell produce, and when the crowds lessened, sit on a concrete street curb and do my homework under a streetlight.
My father always said the harder you work, the luckier you get. He was right about that – up to a point. Hard work got me into Case Western Reserve University, earned me an engineering degree and an MBA, and then a succession of great roles at Price Waterhouse and Oracle. Now I’ve come full circle, returning to Pittsburgh to drive customer excellence at HM Health Solutions.
I say “up to a point” because when I reached mid-career, I realized hard work is just table stakes. To have a successful career, particularly as a woman in technology, you need more. If you really want to succeed, you need:
A network. I wish I’d started earlier in my career to develop my network. That group of friends, coaches, mentors, and sponsors is essential for propelling you forward. Build your personal “board of directors.”
You’ll be ahead of the game if your organization encourages the development of women’s leadership, the way we did when I co-founded Oracle Women’s Leadership (OWL) or started WomenLEADIT, a similar initiative at HM Health Solutions. If your organization does not offer programs like these that help to create access to networks, mentors and development, you’ll have to be more proactive, identifying what you want and who you can add to your network in an effort to reach that goal.
For instance, people often ask me how to go about finding a mentor. It might seem daunting, but it’s not as difficult as you might think. To begin with, pick a focused issue or topic that you are trying to learn more about, then find someone you think might help you do so. Ask your prospective mentor for ten minutes of his or her time. It’s difficult for someone to turn down a request for ten minutes. Start small in building the relationship and identify what you can contribute in return.
A deeper understanding of leadership. After working about 15 years, I had led teams through difficult situations, led high-profile transformations, and optimized businesses in ways that took millions out of the bottom line and added millions to the top line. Still, sometimes I asked myself: Is this leadership?
That’s when it struck me that leadership is not about your title, the size of your team, or your reporting relationship to the C-suite. It’s about helping others to find the potential in themselves, and then removing the roadblocks that get in the way of helping them to develop that promise, because that’s really what is going to drive results and growth for a company. To borrow a phrase from my current company’s mission statement, our job as leaders is “freeing people to be their best.”
Emotional engagement. For years, I focused on driving for results—driving, driving, driving, all the time. Then one of my mentors, John Hall, a Senior Vice President at Oracle, taught me the importance of leading not only with my head but also with my heart. This was an adjustment for an analytical thinker and trained engineer like me.
Part of the lesson was simply sharing more emotion, but the more important part was learning to lead with empathy. I’ve found it’s critical to start off that way. One of the most common missteps managers make when they take on a new role is assuming that what made them a superstar somewhere else will work in the culture of their new unit or organization. You need to spend your first 90 days listening, observing, and understanding your organization’s culture, your team, and your business partners.
The courage to ask. The best piece of advice I ever received was from Alison Levine, who led the first all-female expedition up Mt. Everest, when we were working together on women’s leadership. She said, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”
This is common sense, but it’s just not our inclination as women to ask directly for what we want. Whether it’s asking for a raise, to sit in on an important meeting, or for more resources, we tend to find ways around asking. Any time I think about whether to ask for something, I hear Alison’s voice in my head. I have found that I get what I want faster for myself and my team when I am more direct. The only way to ensure the answer is “no” is to never ask in the first place.
A desire to “pay it forward.” The leaders I know who have achieved true long-term success not only know where they are and where they’re going but also where they came from. They understand that they didn’t get there alone. We all need a little help on the journey. I think it’s important to realize that if we’re going to succeed personally, we need to help one another. We need to be intentional about pulling other women up with us as we succeed in our careers.
Organizational development. Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that whether you push your organization to do more for women’s leadership or participate in something like our WomenLEADIT initiative, you’re not just helping yourself or even the women in your organization—you’re helping your company. In any company, the more diversity of thought and leadership, the more effective the organization will become. Ask the tough questions about the investments being made to develop women leaders; you might be surprised what happens when you do.
Yes, hard work and constantly driving for results are key ingredients to a successful career. But they aren’t enough. I have learned over the years that a recipe for success includes soft skills as well as hard, heart as well as head.
Start developing a network early in your career. Build your personal “board of directors.”
Lead with your head and your heart.
Women often avoid asking directly for what they want but remember: If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
Invest in developing women’s leadership skills because you want your company to succeed, not just to check the box for diversity.