Shellye Archambeau, on being Unapologetically Ambitious

Tech executive, Shellye Archambeau is one of Silicon Valley’s first female African American CEOs and has been featured frequently in Forbes, the New York Times, Business Insider, and more. Formerly an executive at IBM and President of Blockbuster.com, Archambeau was recruited to be the CEO of a then-struggling startup, which is now MetricStream, a recognized […]

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Tech executive, Shellye Archambeau is one of Silicon Valley’s first female African American CEOs and has been featured frequently in Forbes, the New York Times, Business Insider, and more. Formerly an executive at IBM and President of Blockbuster.com, Archambeau was recruited to be the CEO of a then-struggling startup, which is now MetricStream, a recognized global leader in governance, risk, and compliance software solutions. She currently serves as a Fortune 500 board member and holds board seats at Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies, and Okta. Her debut book, Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms will be released on October 6, 2020 with Grand Central Publishing.

Shellye joined me for a virtual forum with female leaders across industries for an inspiring talk about achieving your goals, avoiding imposter syndrome, and about being “unapologetically ambitious.” Here’s a short excerpt from our conversation:

Shellye, can you tell us more about yourself?  Can you share about your life and career?  

Shellye Archambeau:   I was one of four growing up—my parents had four kids in five years—we were close, but competitive.  And I tell you that because competing with my siblings is what drove my competitive nature. 

We moved from a Philadelphia suburb that was well integrated, to a Los Angeles suburb shortly after the Watts riots in the 60s.  I was the only black girl in my class, if not the school, and the world let me know how much they didn’t want me there.  

One of the things I learned early on is the importance of setting a goal and focusing on it.  I set a goal, do the homework to figure out what it takes to achieve the goal, and then build and execute a plan to get there. In high school, I started leading clubs. As a leader I felt more in-control and protected from the racism around me. Based on my skills, a guidance counselor pointed me toward business.  Even though I didn’t know what it was, I decided then that my goal was to someday become a CEO.  

In 1984, I joined IBM, with my sights set on becoming CEO. I spent 14 years there and became the youngest African-American executive.  But it wasn’t clear if I could become CEO of IBM, so instead of changing the goal, I changed the plan.  I took everything I’d learned there and I went on to build something. 

I had to be very deliberate about my next step because I’d seen many people leave a big company and then stumble in their careers, and as a woman of color the sad fact is, I wasn’t going to get as many strikes at bat as others. So, I went to a smaller company, where I took a problem child and fixed it, turned it into a global leader after many near death experiences.  That led to invitations to serve on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies, and Okta.  After achieving what I set out to do, I decided that I wanted to share the journey and the lessons learned with others who have similar goals which is why I’ve written Unapologetically Ambitious

That is quite an inspiring journey.  What are some lessons learned along the way to the CEO role and diverse board roles?  

The first lesson is this: be intentional about everything you do, especially when it comes to your career. You own your career, you drive.  Make sure people know what you want and what you’re striving for.  If the universe doesn’t know what you want, the universe can’t help you. 

Second lesson: it is important to take risks.  I found that as I moved up the ranks, what leadership expected from me changed, starting out it was about doing the work, and interacting with others. When I moved to middle management, it was about how I led the team, when I moved to senior management it was about working with other organizations.  As an executive, it is all of that plus demonstrating a true understanding of the corporate strategy and delivering on it daily.  Senior executives impact strategy and bring not just a perspective of the company, but of a broader external world—and they take risks.  Risk and reward are two sides of the same coin.

The third is the importance of mentors— I’ve had some great ones.  Early on in my career at IBM, they established a formal mentor program and told us to pick our mentors.  I picked an executive leader, who was a couple of levels above me and had helped me already.  He called me and said, “Shellye, you’ve got me already, pick someone else!”  I realized two things in that brief exchange: first, I had mentors that I didn’t even know I had and second, I could have as many as I wanted.  

After that I adopted mentors all over the place. One key I learned was that people are happy to help you if you let them know the impact they’re having on you. So, tell them! 

Another thing about mentors, they don’t all have to be older than you and they don’t have to be at your company.  I learned that one a little later in life.  When I was with IBM, all of my mentors were IBMers.  Someone asked me who I bounced ideas off of, and I realized I didn’t have anyone who could give me objective opinions from outside the company!  I rectified that quickly, and it changed how I operated.

Do tell us more about your upcoming book, Unapologetically Ambitious!  What motivated you to write the book?

Well, it is about how to get what you want out of life, professionally and personally.  

It is full of strategies and techniques that I used to get to where I am, including techniques for overcoming Imposter syndrome –which I still have from time to time. For example, women are very conditioned to say “I’m sorry” for everything and to downplay compliments.  Those are both really tied to imposter syndrome because some part of us thinks we don’t deserve success.  “I’m sorry” has become the ketchup of the English language, especially among women, we sprinkle it on everything. In the book I have five steps to overcome Imposter syndrome.  First and foremost, stop apologizing for everything and when people say something good about you, believe them!

That’s where I got the title; I wanted to include “ambition” in some way because women and women of color are often told they are being ambitious, as if it is a negative.  Unapologetically came from overcoming the “I’m sorry” syndrome.  

Another key theme in the book is leadership. One of the things I am most proud of is the impact I’ve had on people, and the number of people who worked for me that are now CEOs.  I always viewed myself as a servant leader, my philosophy is if I help the team to be successful, I will be successful.  I use my ambition to galvanize the team.  To me, that says that I did my job well. I’m a leader who builds more leaders. There’s nothing more satisfying.  

Shellye’s book, Unapologetically Ambitious, will be published on October 6th;  it is available for preorder now on Amazon. To learn more about Shellye, you can go to her website at www.shellyearchambeau.com.

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