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A Pioneering African American Female CEO Shares Her Top Leadership Tips

Highs and lows are inevitable, but expect some “really low lows, because if you are not making mistakes, then frankly, you are not pushing yourself hard enough.”

Shellye Archambeau was in high school when she first knew she wanted to be a CEO. 

“Every time I joined an organization –– the Girl Scouts, French Club, National Honor Society –– I’d eventually end up leading it,” she says during our podcast conversation. “I loved that!”

A guidance counselor told her that running a club was a lot like running a business.

“I didn’t think about what else could I do,” says Shellye. “I just thought that sounded perfect.”

But as an African American girl coming of age in the ‘70s, “I learned early on that the odds weren’t really in my favor,” she says. “I had to figure out how to improve my odds, personally and professionally.”

That meant, as Shellye explains, being strategic and purpose-driven in work and life. “I am very much a planner,” she says. “When I say planning, I’m talking about setting goals. Frankly, as far out as you can personally imagine. I am a bit unusual, so I set goals decades out and then try to work towards it. Most don’t, and you don’t have to. But pick a time frame and pick a goal.”

After eighteen years of “intentional moves and deliberate choices,” Shellye realized her teenage dream when she joined risk management consultancy MetricStream, serving as CEO from 2002 to 2018. 

Today, she’s focused on “Phase Two” of her career –– public speaking, advising and serving on the corporate boards of MetricStream, Verizon, Nordstrom and Roper Technologies.

Leaders (and those who aspire to lead) have a new set of challenges as technology reshapes our world, says Shellye. 

“It’s on a slope and we are actually accelerating faster. The nature of work is going to change dramatically. How quickly we can come through that change will determine just how painful it is for society at large.”

Here, she shares how she learned to be resilient, her advice for aspiring executives and the surprising reason why there’s never been a better time to be a female leader.

Survive and thrive

Shellye grew up as the oldest of four siblings who were all born within five years. “My parents were crazy,” she says wryly. “I can’t imagine how you actually make that work. But they did. It was an environment that was loving and supportive, but definitely very competitive.” 

Though she was born in Washington, D.C., Shellye’s family moved seven times –– to seven different states –– by the time she entered high school. “People ask me where I am from and I tell them I am a nomad,” she says. I had to learn how to be adaptable, how to fit in, get myself settled … All of those things helped me later in life.”

Shellye’s parents were very focused on their children’s education. “They would stretch and save to buy a house in the best school district. That also meant that we ended up in very homogeneous environments,” she says.

One of those moves –– from Philadelphia to Grenada Hills in southern California’s San Fernando Valley –– was a bit of a culture shock. “The two couldn’t have been more different,” says Shellye. “In Philadelphia, I went to a school where most people looked like me. In Grenada Hills, nobody at school did.” 

It was a turbulent time in American history, she notes. “As many people as were for civil rights, there were just as many detractors. It wasn’t easy for a little girl. I was constantly tripped on the playground –– I still have scars on my knees from all that –– and I was beaten up by kids in my class.”

Still, Shellye excelled at school. “I got good feedback and support from teachers,” she says. “But getting through that taught me that I am a survivor.”

Commit and motivate

Shellye learned a few more lessons about leadership during her formative years. 

Her parents insisted that their kids honor their commitments. “If you joined a team or a club, or whatever it happened to be, you didn’t have to do it forever –– but you had to do it for that season, year, or whatever the commitment was,” she explains. 

That philosophy ties into another key insight: a good leader can “create an environment where people want to do what you need them to do versus just telling them what to do,” Shellye says.

“When people volunteer for an organization, they’re in for as long as they enjoy it. Not everyone had a mom like mine. If they don’t enjoy it, they just quit.”

That’s why it’s important to make others feel invested –– so they truly want to contribute. “I’ve taken that with me all the way through my career,” she says.

Make the shift

“Our social structure and its underpinnings have been designed around big companies,” Shellye says. “Healthcare, benefits … it’s been that way since about the 1940s.”

But the rise of the gig economy means the balance of power has shifted, she says. 

“It’s me now that is the entity, not the company.”

However, our existing systems don’t support the solo entrepreneur. What’s the solution, if one even exists? 

“Millennials have got to get more engaged with public policy,” says Shellye. She notes that the Millennial generation wants flexibility, but will have fewer options as they age if our country doesn’t transform the way it administers healthcare and other benefits that are  employer-sponsored. 

It might seem impossible, but she’s confident that it can happen.

“We can actually start to shift the paradigm of how we support society,” Shellye says.

Shellye Archambeau

Redefine ‘women’s work’

“There’s no better time than today to be a female leader,” says Shellye, pointing out that no matter the industry, almost everyone has remote employees. Virtual work is an environment that requires excellent communication and relationship-building skills. 

“Studies have shown that those happen to be women’s strengths. Creating relationships, fostering a true connection and trust, being collaborative … they’re becoming more and more valued,” she observes.

Position yourself to succeed 

To conclude, here are eight powerful concepts Shellye shared during our conversation: 

Get a cheerleader.  

Whether that’s a friend, mother, sister or spouse, “you need somebody to make sure you get up, and quickly,” says Shellye. Highs and lows are inevitable, but expect some “really low lows, because if you are not making mistakes, then frankly, you are not pushing yourself hard enough.” Often, she adds, it’s not the mistakes that impact your career, “it’s how you deal with the mistake. Or how long it takes you to get your mojo back.”

Optimize for number one.

“Don’t think that just because you’re doing a good job, making the numbers and delivering the results, good things will just magically happen,” Shellye says. Your employer will only optimize what works for the company. Be sure you’re also working toward your personal objectives, staying conscious of the timing and trajectory you want.

Invest in yourself.

Shellye told her daughter, who now has three children of her own, that for the first four years of your kids’ lives, the money you spend on help and support are an investment in yourself. “It’s not the time to optimize your bank account,” she adds. “Don’t stress that you’re not growing your savings. You have time and you will make up for it later.” Investing in yourself can also take the form of enrolling in a course or participating in an organization, says Shellye.

Remember that everybody matters.

Shellye tells a story about a law professor who taught an ethics and morals class. “There was only one question on the final exam,” she says. “What’s the name of the janitor in our building?” Most people had no idea, and didn’t understand why it was important. The professor’s point, of course, was that everybody matters.

Make fewer decisions. 

“It’s really easy to make all the decisions, but I believe that the primary role of a leader is to build more leaders,” Shellye says. “If you’re making all the decisions, you have a whole team of people who aren’t. That means they’re not developing.” 

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. 

Shellye sees a leader’s role as “an alternating force.” Things are never as bad as they seem –– or as good, either. “When it looks like the ship’s going down, you have to be the one looking at things half full and bring it up to balance. When everyone’s thinking that nothing can stop us, you’re the one who has to say, ‘No, this could happen, or that could happen.’”

Ideally, your team to operate within a reasonable bandwidth, she says. “When you work on the extremes, high or low, people are typically not working at their best.”

Know your power.

Shellye says that “the higher you get in the company, the louder you get.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t say a word –– if you’re the leader, others pay attention to everything about you. “If you let everything show, the whole company is going to be all over the place, because they’re trying to read you. You have to be very conscious of that.”

When she does speak, it’s quite carefully. Shellye lives by what she calls the Wall Street Journal law: “If something that I said showed up in the Wall Street Journal, could I live with that?”

Just go for it. 

“Many times, women and minorities underestimate not only their own capabilities, but also the opportunities in front of them,” Shellye says.

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