Have a personality and don’t ‘over-professionalize’ yourself with ideals. I mentioned this earlier. I didn’t realize that you can have a personality and be professional at the same time. I thought I was protecting myself from being taken advantage of and thought that I would be taken more seriously if I were ‘uber-professional’. I didn’t realize that I was doing more harm than good. As I mentioned before, when I became more relatable and ‘humanized’ myself I was able to connect with people on a deeper level and build more of a trusting relationship.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jackie Mitchell. Jackie Mitchell, certified professional career/life coach and mom of three, thrives anytime she can be of service to another individual. After a successful career of over 15 years in IT Project Management, Jackie launched her first business CJ Matthews Consulting in 2014, designed to guide C-Level Executives and corporations through project and program management. Understanding that the need for mentoring never ends even when you are at the top, Jackie launched her second business in 2015, Jackie Mitchell Career Consulting. Jackie teaches a unique methodology, empowering executives and young professionals alike with the confidence to effectively communicate their needs as well as meet and exceed their career ambitions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I have always been very driven and most would say a high achiever. I think I have these qualities because I was brought up by parents who were not from this country. My family is from Jamaica and I grew up in a household where getting anything below an ‘A’ was frowned upon. I think most children with parents who were not originally from the US, are brought up like this. There’s this belief that you have to work hard to prove yourself to your family. It’s rather interesting because being born in this country with parents who navigated their way through corporate America, you see things a little differently when you’re on that path as well. As I watched my parents climb that ladder to success, I always said to myself, ‘I’m going to do that. I’m going to challenge myself to do what they did.” They didn’t let anything or any setback stop them as both of my parents are high achievers. My mother was in sales and marketing and became an entrepreneur, while my dad was an Actuary and transitioned into the strategic statistical side of marketing for global firms. College wasn’t an option in my household either. My siblings and I all went to college. We never competed with each other, just with ourselves. I think this because my parents instilled in us that we’re here to support each other and not compete with your siblings.
So how did this interesting experience and family dynamic lead me to my particular career path? Once I realized what I was good at, planning and strategizing, I wanted to take it further. When I saw the limitations of being an employee for one company and then being presented with more opportunities when I left, I realized that I needed to do something that supported my view on growth. I saw the ceiling as I grew in my career. I also saw the limitations of being one of, if not the only black woman in a leadership role, in many of the IT organizations I worked with. That didn’t sit well with me, and taking my parents’ lead on creating opportunities for myself, I started contracting myself out to various companies. Not too long after, I started my own boutique consulting firm for both IT and Career Development. My career path has always been to help other people while having the autonomy to work where and when I wanted. Starting my own businesses came out of watching my parents, although successful, not fully realizing their potential. They wanted that for us kids. I think I’m fulfilling what they started so many years ago.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I had a tough decision when I had to decide on instant gratification or long term gratification that resulted in discomfort for my family. I walked away from job offers that were lucrative because I didn’t want to be held back and work within the confines of one organization without the ability to do the work I love at the same time. When I started my company, I was still working as a contractor for an IT organization. An executive I had worked for previously reached out to me for an opportunity to lead an entire department for a Fortune 500 company. I said no. I didn’t want to give up on my dream, even if it meant that I had to be uncomfortable for a while. I didn’t want to be distracted from my goals. Shiny objects will always come your way when you’re good at what you do. The key to success is to stay in your course and be true to yourself.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There are no mistakes in my book. I like to call them ‘learnings’. Learnings on what NOT to do again. One of those ‘learnings’ would be the time when I thought being over-prepared was a good thing. I spent weeks lamenting on how I would give a presentation to executives about an initiative. I had PowerPoint slides after PowerPoint slides and I felt so prepared. Even though I spent a lot of time making a great presentation, I didn’t realize that I needed time to practice my presentation while facilitating the slides. After about 5 minutes into my presentation, I lost my place and my train of thought. I sat there frozen. I couldn’t find the words to explain anything. I blamed it on the computer not cooperating with me and started moving through the deck to find my place. I finally just stood up in front of the room and said, “Listen, I thought I could do it with this presentation but I obviously can’t. I’d prefer to stand here and tell you what I know, how it will benefit the company, and I’ll take questions as we go. Is that ok with you?.” Unexpectedly, they all said ‘YES!’. I was so vulnerable at that moment and did what I felt comfortable in doing. I have since learned that my brain works differently and I rarely prepare in the way I see my counterparts do. I cannot work off of a script. I’ve tried and it just doesn’t work for me. I’ll jot down talking points and that’s about it. If I have to do a presentation, it’s ultra-light. I’m hardly following the slide that’s being presented AND I have someone who facilitates when I’m speaking.
OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I love how I get to truly put my strategic mind to a task. Since I am responsible for my own success, I am also able to try things that I wouldn’t normally have done in a lesser role working under someone else.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
An executive is not only a leader but a strategist. An effective executive practices servant leadership and strategize along the way to position the organization where it successfully serves the best purpose. In my opinion, all leaders should have this quality but what makes an executive different is that they set the tone for their company’s culture and progress. The buck stops with them and they must be ok with it. Executives are typically far removed from many of the days to day tasks that lead the business forward. However, with their strategic view, they must think years ahead and be innovative.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I am a strategic thinker. I love that. I also take pride in serving those I work with and setting the tone and direction to help my partners be successful.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
I’m not sure it’s a downside because it’s what you sign up for. You have to handle the good and the bad. Since the buck stops with you, you have to be accountable for the ultimate successes and failures of your leadership.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth out there is that executives sit in their offices all day and delegate to their direct reports. This is not true. Most of the time, they’re out networking, planning, and strategizing. It may look like fun but it is work and can be exhausting at times.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge is to maintain your feminine energy while infusing masculine energy into your work and strategies. It’s a fine balance. When you lean to either extreme, you’re either a ‘ditz’, not taken seriously, or you’re called the ‘B-word.’ There are times when women have to do this push and pull either way. Men don’t face that. Women have to remember that many workspaces, especially corporate workspaces, were reserved for men. So for the women coming into the workspace, there are still unfortunately prejudices and unfair expectations even to this day. Microaggressions being one of them, whether intentional or not.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
There’s no difference actually. I knew I would have to be a strategic leader. I am already one who believes that my success is determined by the success of others around me. I do what I can where I can to help them be successful.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
An assertive, fair, trusting, and a trustworthy person can be a successful executive. A person who should avoid aspiring to be an executive is someone who is not ready to put in the real work of learning about themselves and who has a false sense of what it means to lead people. Also, someone who is so untrusting that they believe they must instill fear, micromanage, and control everyone around them.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I would tell other female leaders to be present, human, fair, and empathetic. I say this because I’ve seen too often where women in leadership roles go from one extreme to another, trying to find their footing. Be yourself AND be authentic in it. Leading major initiatives have taught me that leadership is about the people you serve. You’re navigating through various personalities and a successful leader does that well by being authentic and fair.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There have been many people along the way who’ve helped me become who I am today. I’d have to say other than the strong female influences from my family and my high achieving intelligent father, there were two women in particular who, whether they know it or not, made me forever grateful for their help. This is going to sound odd but one of them I loved and one of them I hated. At the start of my career, I had a manager who hired me straight out of college with little to no experience in IT. I was working as an Accounts Receivables clerk while I was finishing my Bachelors. She saw so much in me that I didn’t see in myself. She had an open-door policy and I took advantage of every second I could to sit in her office and be a fly on the wall. I helped her with many projects and watched how she worked with people. I absorbed it all.
Later in my career, as I got older and I think a little jaded, at that time in my life, I was extremely on guard so I didn’t let many people ‘in’. I was way too professional to my own detriment. I was just beginning my career in formal Project Management and I had a manager who I just hated. She pushed me as well, but her method was very different from my initial manager who helped groom me. This manager was very strong-willed and direct. She said exactly what was on her mind. She gave me little to no direction and would find fault in almost everything I attempted. One day in our weekly 1:1, she said to me, “You know, you’re very stoic. You have no personality. Or at least, you’re not showing any personality. You can get more done through other people when you show more personality because they may be able to relate to you and respect you more.” I sat through what I thought was a berating and I hated her for it. That didn’t stop her from correcting me along the way in my time there. It wasn’t until a few months after she left her role with the organization when I realized that she was truly trying to help me. How did I know this? I stopped being stubborn and implemented some of the tactics that she showed and explained to me. I implemented her suggestions on being more relatable and more human. I began to show my personality. After that, I saw results fairly quickly in that role. My professional connections became stronger and I was chosen to lead increasingly more advanced initiatives. I didn’t know it at the time, because I was just young and stubborn, thinking that EVERYONE needed to coddle and be nice to me. I now know that both women have shaped who I am. I am full of personality, assertiveness, and I can navigate my way with various personalities at various levels. Nothing and no one can scare me because of their role or position.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Since I work with women, in particular, I see how inequities can hold some of us back. I also see how lacking confidence and fear have beaten some of us down to the point where we’re afraid to pursue our dreams and reach our goals. I work with women to help them see the superpowers they really do have. Most of these women, after working with me, feel more confident and empowered to enter spaces they never thought they could or dared to. They initially didn’t believe in themselves. They held a narrative that ‘those’ types of jobs were for other people and that they didn’t have all of the skills required to even have a discussion about moving up. When you help women advance, you help society advance. I truly believe that. When a woman comes to me feeling broken and unsure of her abilities, I am truly empathetic because I’ve been there and I know what that’s like. The best part of this is that I also know what it’s like on the other side of all of that. Once you know who you are the world opens up for you.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Networking is essential and it’s not just about handing out business cards and going to events. Networking is doing a great job consistently. I learned this when I began to meet different people in my IT consulting industry that said, “I’ve heard about you.” I realized then, how powerful your reputation is. I realized that your reputation is the basis of networking. I saw that I would get contracts based purely on my reputation and I didn’t go out seeking these contracts. People would come to me. That’s powerful.
- Fear doesn’t leave. At first, I thought that powerful and successful people were fearless. But the more I moved in those circles, the more I realized that they had fears of their own. The difference is that they moved with the fear and didn’t let it cripple them.
- Have a personality and don’t ‘over-professionalize’ yourself with ideals. I mentioned this earlier. I didn’t realize that you can have a personality and be professional at the same time. I thought I was protecting myself from being taken advantage of and thought that I would be taken more seriously if I were ‘uber-professional’. I didn’t realize that I was doing more harm than good. As I mentioned before, when I became more relatable and ‘humanized’ myself I was able to connect with people on a deeper level and build more of a trusting relationship.
- You are responsible for your own success. I initially thought that any company I worked for was responsible for developing me as an employee and for my career growth. I put all of the onus on them. When in fact, I had to get in the driver’s seat and ask for investments into my growth after demonstrating the benefits and creating win-win solutions for us. I was in charge of that. When I began suggesting growth strategies, I began to see results. I learned how to prepare for those conversations. I learned that no one is going to invest in you if you’re not confident enough to invest in yourself. Investment, whether it’s company paid or self-paid and directed, is essential to success.
- Have a strategy. This is so important. I used to just work by default and I took whatever came my way. I didn’t give thought to the outcome or what it may mean for me down the road, or even how it would impact my happiness or satisfaction. The strategy is paramount for successful people. They are strategic thinkers. I had to learn this, again, the hard way. It’s not about just planning for the future. It’s planning effectively and efficiently in such a way that you’ll either get to your goal or very close to it. Having a strategy helps you to identify ‘next logical steps.’ It’s about intention and not living by default.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be a movement called, ‘Take Action.’ In my work, I see people who are paralyzed by fear and indecision. They over-analyze and overthink. They talk themselves out of almost every idea, dream, or goal they have. I see this time and time again. It’s disheartening. How great would we be as a culture if people stood in their decisions and took action? How awesome would it be to live without regret and the ‘what ifs’. You will never know how things would have turned out if you went with the other choice. Even if you go with one choice, get through that for a while and realize, you want the other thing, it will never be the same as moving with that other choice from the get-go. You’ll never ever know the outcome of either. You just have to take action and go with what you believe you should do. There’s a fine line and we don’t know how to navigate it. Making decisions is something we all struggle with and it doesn’t have to be hard. I would say, my movement would be to just MOVE. Do something rather than nothing at all. Because living with doubt and uncertainty is extremely stressful. Most of all, very unsatisfying. A lot of people live unsatisfying lives and they’re pretending on a daily basis.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“When you know who you are, the world opens up for you.” I truly believe that. Why? Because knowing that you can have the confidence to move in a world, ‘in spite of’, you create opportunities for yourself. So 0when you’re confident, a ‘No’ isn’t the end of your world. It doesn’t shake you, you don’t need to take it personally and It’s not a rejection. It’s an ‘Oh… you don’t know who I am and I don’t have to prove anything to you because I’ll take my talents elsewhere.” Rejection is about their limitations and it has nothing to do with you. You move, and you pivot. You hold your head high and have faith and trust in yourself. That has been one of the most important lessons in my life. Which, by the way, I had to learn the hard way. But, I learned that. So if I can help other women learn that early on or even just pass that information on to them and show them how to get there, I’ve done what I set out to do.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
The one person who comes to my mind is John Henry who co-founded the venture capital firm, Harlem Capital. When I first heard his story, I was blown away at his accomplishments, his talents, his intellect, and his natural ability to draw people in. He’s a young man with a lot behind him and so much more in front of him. I admire his down to earth personality and his vulnerability in speaking about his story and his truths. I think it would be very interesting to have a private conversation about life and business with him.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.