Courage, Conviction and a Seat in the C-Suite

An article I recently published in the Economist Lean Back blog talks about the need for courage and conviction to get more women in the C-Suite.

When I first graduated from college, I worked at a mortgage firm in my hometown of Kansas City with my eye on one goal: a corporate role at Levi Strauss in San Francisco. Every day on my lunch break, I’d go to the local Levi’s office and ask the receptionist if there were any open jobs. Every day, she’d recommend I check the bulletin boards in the restrooms. So every weekday for a month, I’d march into the ladies’ room.

One day, it occurred to me the hiring managers were likely to be men. Instead of going into the women’s restroom, I snuck into the men’s. There, right in the center of the board, was the job I had been seeking. I walked into the hiring manager’s office and was made an offer on the spot. As the manager said, I had “moxie.”

Twenty years later, I’m the CMO of a global software company called The TAS Group, and the world has changed a lot. It used to be that women at the C-suite level were extremely rare; now there are many women, like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, who are respected as some of the most powerful people in the industry.

So what brought about that increase of women in the top positions and in the boardroom? There are many factors, but also one consistent ingredient shared by women — and most people — at senior levels: moxie.

Even today, in a world where Sandberg’s Lean In is consistently at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, there’s still pressure on women not to demand the things they want. Of course, no one should feel totally entitled, but the overwhelming message that we as a society send to young girls is that too much confidence is bad. When a woman does exude assuredness (like Hillary Clinton), she can be criticized for being “pushy.” And if she stands up for herself to make a point, the “B-word” is sure to follow.

Most people who succeed have a high level of confidence long before they are successful. I have always been hard-working, and also incredibly lucky, but the bulk of my success I attribute to the simple fact that I’ve always believed I could achieve what I set my mind to, and many female leaders in history have held the same belief. Women like Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart and Maya Angelou all had to truly believe that they could achieve their dreams in order to do what they did.

My first mentors — Pamela Truswell, Mark Newton and Jeb Dasteel, who helped shape my career in my early days at Oracle — taught me a lot and I am forever grateful. They helped me develop the confidence I felt in my abilities. During those same years, Oracle appointed their first female CMO, Judy Sim. Judy was a great marketer and leader, and more importantly, she was the first woman I’d heard of who became a CMO. In a male-dominated role at a male-dominated company in a male-dominated industry, her success made me believe that I could do the same thing, and I did.

In 2015, it’s no longer shocking to see a woman in a position of power. People like Judy set a precedent for high-powered women at the CMO level. But that doesn’t mean that it’s anything close to the norm. In fact, the only C-level position that is held by fewer women than CMO is CIO, according to Grant Thorton.

The C-suite landscape has changed a lot for women, and it wasn’t an accident. One of the reasons we’ve made the progress we have is because a group of incredible women very deliberately made their way forward and took themselves seriously enough to influence others to do the same. It’s a message I always enforce with the young women I mentor, because I think it’s one of the most important.

In the immortal words of Maya Angelou: “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”

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