Episode 45: Shellye Archambeau

Janice Ellig, CEO and founder of Ellig Group, sits down with real leaders in this series of game-changing conversations, bespoke to fellow champions of change. Heralded by Bloomberg Businessweek as one of “The World’s Most Influential Headhunters,” Janice is often consulted for her expertise and commitment to gender parity, equity, inclusion, and diversity.

We are honored to present this month’s episode of Leadership Reimagined, “An Unapologetically and Ambitious CEO” with Shellye Archambeau. Shellye is an experienced Fortune 500 board director and CEO. After 30 years of experience in technology, leading organizations and helping professionals achieve their aspirations, Shellye authored a bestseller, Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms.

As one of Silicon Valley’s first female Black CEOs, having spent 30 years in the tech sector, 15 years climbing the ranks at IBM and subsequently CEO at MetricStream (until stepping down in 2018), she openly shares the challenges faced as a young black executive, a wife, and mother, to achieve success both personally and professionally.

Shellye Archambeau

Shellye Archambeau now serves on the boards of Verizon, Roper Technologies, and Okta. She is also a strategic advisor to Forbes Ignite and to the President of Arizona State University, and serves on the boards of two national nonprofits, Catalyst and Braven.

It is our privilege to share this episode of Leadership Reimagined “An Unapologetically and Ambitious CEO” with Shellye Archambeau!

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SHOW Notes: Shellye Archambeau

Shellye Archambeau on why she prefers the term “work-life integration” to “work-life balance”

Silicon Valley is definitely not female- or family-friendly, although it’s a little better now than it was. Some companies are indeed trying. The whole reason I don’t like the word “balance” is that I think it sets us up from the start for failure. Because what is a balance? It’s a metal structure with two weights on either side that are equal at all times. Frankly, life throws a lot of things at us, and there’s no way that we can make sure that we hold our personal and professional lives absolutely even at all times. There are times when we need to put more of our focus on work, or more on family, or on personal self-care, or whatever it might be. And that’s okay. The key, though, is to integrate over time so that you get done what needs to get done. The way I try to do it is to prioritize ruthlessly: “what do I need to get done professionally and personally?” I put those things together, and then I reprioritize so that what’s important in my life gets done. 

There’s no way to do everything that everybody wants you to do. So inevitably, there will be things that you’re just not going to get to. And you have to either learn to live with that or find somebody else to do it. And that’s the way I approach things. I ask myself, “am I the best person to do whatever it is that’s on my plate?” You’d be surprised – when you ask yourself that question, you find that many times you’re actually not. You can do it, but that doesn’t mean you’re the best person to do it. So if you’re not, go find the best person! 

Shellye Archambeau on letting go of responsibility

Before my husband, Scotty, decided to be a stay-at-home dad, we had nannies, and I managed the nannies kind of like I managed my job. I was the primary person. Scotty directed, too, but I took it on as my primary responsibility. So when he started staying home, I didn’t even realize I was doing it, but I was kind of treating him like the nanny, saying every morning, “okay, Scotty, don’t forget to do such and such and so and so like this, and don’t forget, Kethlyn needs this. I didn’t realize that I was, in essence, micromanaging him. Finally, he just said “listen, either I’m doing the job the way I want to do it, or I’m not doing it,” which is perfectly fair. It taught me that when you’re not responsible, you need to let go. It was a broader life lesson, because a lot of times we take on help, meaning we get people to help us and support us, but we keep the ultimate responsibility. What we need to do is make bandwidth, both in mindshare and in terms of what we can do physically. We actually need to let go of responsibility. And I did learn that. Later on, Scotty had responsibility for laundry. I never asked him when he was going to do it. I didn’t do anything. It got done or it didn’t get done. If it didn’t get done, then I’d go out and buy a pair of underwear. But I didn’t micromanage, because as soon as you take responsibility, even if they’re doing it, it’s still on your plate, and it still takes up mindshare. 

Shellye Archambeau on growth from trauma

I believe that the experiences that you have, even the really negative ones, actually help you build skills, capabilities, and resilience to be able to deal with things later in life. So one of those awful experiences was with racism. I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s, when racial tensions were really high, and we moved into a lot of neighborhoods where I was the Only [Black person] and therefore people treated me pretty badly. So I learned that the odds weren’t in my favor, and learning that made me very intentional later in life, because I realized if I just did what everyone else did, I probably wasn’t going to get much. So I needed to figure out how to improve my odds. And that’s the way I approached life. Whatever goal I set, I asked myself “how do I improve my odds to become a CEO? How do I improve my odds to get on a board? How do I improve my odds to find my life partner? Everything I did, I did very intentionally and strategically, taking steps to figure out what I had to do to improve the odds. And as a result, I was successful more often than not. So even though it was a tough situation growing up, it helped me build some muscles that I was able to leverage throughout my life.

Shellye Archambeau remembers a life lesson from her mother

There’s a great story that really shaped how I thought about all this. I was in high school, probably 14 or 15. And in my house, everyone had chores. So one of the chores was to wash the dishes right after mom cooked; we had to take turns to clean the kitchen. And after you finished cleaning the kitchen, you brought mom and dad a cup of coffee. I think it was her way of making sure that we actually did what we were supposed to do. So I brought her her coffee, and then I said to her, “you know, Mom, I’ve decided I’m not having children.” She said, “what are you talking about?” I had just finished washing the dishes, and the last thing I washed was the pie plate. Now, my mother worked harder than anyone I knew. She had four kids, her husband, herself. We didn’t have a whole lot of resources, so mom made our clothes. So she was sewing all the time, because with growing kids, you always need new things. And then she would make homemade desserts every night. She was involved in the PTA. She was taking care of the house. And I never saw Mom sleep. She’d be awake when I went to bed, and she’d be awake when I woke up. So I was washing this pie plate and remembering how mom made an apple pie that night, and my sister cut it. And then everybody reached in to grab the biggest piece because she’s a good cook. And Mom got the last piece. She just reached and took what was left. And I said to her, “Mom, I am not willing to work as much as you work, sleep as little as you sleep, make the pie, and then get the smallest piece. I said, “I’m not willing to do it, so I’m not having kids.” And it was so funny, I’ll never forget: she sat me down and said, “Shellye, I don’t care about that pie. If I cared about the pie, I wouldn’t have taken the smallest piece. The key to life is figuring out what you care about and then going after it, and the rest of it doesn’t matter.”

Shellye Archambeau defines being “Unapologetically Ambitious”

“Ambitious,” to me, means that you have something in the future that you are trying to achieve, to impact, or to build, and you’re working toward it. That’s all ambition is. “Ambitious,” to me, doesn’t mean the person that’s always in your face, that takes no prisoners, that climbs over people. That’s just being rude. But you can be ambitious and still be fine. To me, ambition just meant that I set my sights on something, and then I worked hard toward it, and I let people know along the way what it was that I wanted. So many people have a goal or an objective, but they don’t tell anybody. I’ll mentor people, and I’ll say, “what do you want to do?” And when I finally pull it out of them, they’ll say, “oh, I want to run a business one day,” or, “I want to be a Chief Marketing Officer,” or whatever it might be. And then I say, “great. Who knows?” And their answer is, “what do you mean?” Listen, if people don’t know what you want, they can’t help you. So for me, being ambitious meant setting goals, but just as importantly, it meant letting people know what my goals were so they could help me. I didn’t go around saying, “listen, I’m going to be CEO one day, so get in line and support me.” What I’d say is, “one day I aspire to run a company.” I’d say things like that, which were non-threatening. It just puts it out there, and you’d be amazed. 

When I was at IBM, I did my homework and learned that every single person who ran a line business and had worked for the CEO had done an international assignment. But more than that, most of them had done it in Japan. I didn’t know what was special about Japan, but I figured, “all right, I need to go to Japan.” So I started telling people, “oh, by the way, I’m really interested in an international assignment one day, and I’d love to go to Japan.” I just threw it out there. Well, sure enough, a couple of years later, I got a call from a guy who had been promoted. He was over in Japan and had a job opening that he thought I would qualify for. He said, “Shellye, I remember you mentioned you were interested in doing an assignment in Japan. Are you still interested?” And I said, “absolutely.” He said, “okay, then I’ll put your name up.” He couldn’t do the hiring himself because international assignments were committee-oriented, since they were huge executive development jobs. So I competed, and I got it. But if I hadn’t let him know, he wouldn’t have known, out of 120,000 employees, to call Shellye. You have to let people know what you want so they can help you. 

Shellye Archambeau on working in Japan as a Black woman

I didn’t fit people’s expectations. I was too young, I was female, I was tall, and by the way, I was Black. So I didn’t fit into the culture much at all. But here’s what I learned. I had developed a lot of skills and approaches to my professional career because I was a minority in the U.S. And when I went to Japan, guess what? I was a minority in Japan. And those skills, those approaches, they worked really well for me there, whereas most of my peers were not minorities in the U.S., so they didn’t know what it was like to be a minority and therefore struggled initially to find their footing. So I tell women and people of color all the time, “do international assignments. You’re going to bring more skills to the job than you realize.” 

Shellye Archambeau on a pivotal moment in her career at IBM

Janice Ellig:

I want to go to your time at IBM, because there was a point at which you walked into your boss’s office to resign. You’d talked about this with your husband the night before over a glass of wine. You walked into your boss’s office and said, “they’re not putting me where I want to be, and it breaks my heart that I can’t achieve my ambitions here at IBM.” And a few days later, you got a significant promotion. And that was all about telling them what you wanted. You pushed the envelope there. That was a bold declaration. What gave you that courage and self-confidence, to take that type of risk?

It was such a scary thing to do. I was only about seven years into my career at that point. And I don’t know that it was that I had the courage so much as it was that if I didn’t do it, I wasn’t going to achieve my objectives. So I felt I really didn’t have a choice. They put me in such a bad position that I was going to have to leave. And that’s literally what I said: “I don’t want to go, but you’re forcing me to because I can’t achieve my objectives here. That’s what you’re telling me.” 

I think resigning in that way also helped. I didn’t walk in and say, “I quit, I found a better job” as much as I said, “you forced me to do this, and therefore I found another job because you’ve told me there are no promotion opportunities here.” And I really didn’t expect what happened. I was shocked. I didn’t realize that they’d come back with a counteroffer. I really thought I was leaving. That really reinforced the importance of making your needs known. But the other thing I learned is that if you are providing significant value, and your company wants you there, they will work hard to keep you. So you do have some power now. You can’t be walking into the company and resigning every year to try to go get promoted. That’s not a strategy in and of itself, for sure, but in general, if you’re good at what you do, and you’re really adding value, make sure the company knows what you want, because many times they do want to figure out how to keep you. 

Shellye Archambeau on why she chose to enter the tech industry

It was about opportunity. I had heard when I was in college that if you choose an industry for your career that is growing, growing industries have growing companies. and growing companies never have enough resources. So if you’re good at what you do, you will most likely move farther, faster. So I looked around, and it was the early 80s, and tech was just exploding. And I said, “great, I’ll pick tech.” It wasn’t that I fell in love with technology for technology’s sake, I just picked it because it was a growing industry. 

Shellye Archambeau on starting her first CEO job with a bold move

Janice Ellig:

In December 2002, you achieved your first CEO position. Can you tell our audience about the bold question you asked the Chairman? You asked whether he was hiring  you to execute his strategy or hiring you to be the CEO. And what unfolded from there? 

Let me just give a little bit of context. I was going in to meet with the Chairman. He’s Vinod Kosla, a partner in the Kleiner Perkins Venture Capital Company. I had done a lot of research on him, and he’s smart, but he’s also really aggressive. He tends to be demanding. He also tends to be very forceful. He tends to whipsaw some of his CEOs. So I walked into this meeting, and I knew he was going to make me an offer, but I couldn’t accept the offer unless I knew how he was hiring me, whether it was just to be his minion and do his bidding or to really be CEO of the company. 

And I have to tell you, it was another scary moment, because I worried he was going to throw me out of his office. So I asked the question, and then there was silence. He just looked at me with these really strong eyes. Just looked at me. I was thinking, “oh my God, I’ve totally blown this.” And then finally, a little smile crept up the edges of his lips, and he said, “Shellye, I can be forceful and I have strong opinions, but I hire CEOs to be CEOs.” And I said, “okay, then I’ll accept the job.”

One of the things that that conversation did for me was give me power, because I didn’t always do what he wanted me to do. But I knew we’d had the conversation, and he knew we’d had the conversation, so therefore, I was able to do what I felt was right. And only once did I come home and tell my husband, “all right, I’m doing something completely opposite from what Vinod wants me to do. So when I come home tomorrow, I may not have a job, because that’s his choice.” And sure enough, when I told Vinod what I had decided, and it wasn’t what he wanted, again, silence. He looked at me and said, “okay, but you better be right,” which I could live with. 

Shellye Archambeau on calculating risks and avoiding the “glass cliff”

Oh, there is definitely danger in making moves like that as a woman. You have to understand, I took over a company. It was called Zaplet at the time, and Zaplet had raised around $150,000,000 in the early 2000s during the bubble. And when I got there, they had hardly any left. They were burning a million and a half every quarter. They were on their way out of business. It was definitely a challenge to turn that around. So there was no guarantee that this was going to be successful. As a matter of fact, I think most investors had written the company off. They didn’t think it was going to be successful, but Vinod thought it still had potential. But I think that was really the last chance. So was there a chance to fall off the cliff? Absolutely. And one of the reasons that I believe that women and even people of color get opportunities in this kind of situation, it’s not because the board members say, “oh, the company is in really tough shape. It may not make it. There’s a lot of risks, so let’s go find a woman or a person of color.” But what happens is that people are going through a major crisis. They’ve tried a bunch of things, and nothing’s working. At that point they tend to open their aperture and think differently and more broadly for solutions. We do the same thing ourselves. I think it’s almost unconscious. They don’t realize they’re doing it, but that’s why they open themselves up to consider people they wouldn’t have considered before. 

I believe taking risks is really important in your career, both in terms of growth and in that studies show that people who take risks in their career actually move up and achieve higher levels of success. The key thing is to take calculated risks. I knew this company was very broken, but here’s how I hedged my risk. First, I needed to make sure at least the technology underlying the company was strong. So I had a CTO of a company that I worked for before come in and do an assessment for me: is the software okay, or is this a mess too? And he gave it a thumbs up. I’m like, okay, good. The other hedging measure was Kleiner Perkins. I wanted a top-tier venture firm. I figured even if the company wasn’t successful, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it, Kleiner Perkins would get a chance to see me in action up close. And between having that on my resume and also hopefully making a good impression with them, I hoped that would give me the opportunity to land another job right after that one. I looked at things to help mitigate the risk, and I hired the right people. So take the risks, but don’t just jump into a risk. Spend time. Make sure you’re looking at where the risks are coming from. Figure out how you can hedge those risks, and then take the job. 

Shellye Archambeau on making “choices” instead of “sacrifices”

The reason I don’t like the word “sacrifice” is that when you make a sacrifice, you typically do something completely for someone else. If I’m sacrificing for you, then the only reason I’m doing this is for you. But when I do that, two things happen. One, I give you all my power. You’re now controlling, in essence, my actions. But also, you can almost never be grateful enough. “I’ve done so much for you, and you just said ‘thank you?’” And more than that, you might even make them feel guilty: “oh my God, Shellye did all this for me.” So, for instance, when I started commuting, Kethlyn wanted to finish high school in Dallas, and I got the opportunity in Silicon Valley. She was just starting her sophomore year, and she didn’t want to move, so we didn’t. I just started commuting. When people asked me, “why are you commuting every week?” I could have said, “I’m doing this for my daughter so she can stay in school.” But how do you think she would have felt with all that pressure? It’s all her fault that her mom is sitting in a lousy hotel room Monday through Friday. It would have put so much pressure on her, which wouldn’t be fair, and ultimately, that’s not why I did it. I started commuting because I wanted to make sure that I stayed on track, going after my career aspirations. But I did take into account all the other stakeholders: her brother, my husband, and so on, in making that decision. And I owned the decision. Kethlyn is now 37, and I’ve asked her, “were there points when you were growing up where you felt guilty?” And her answer was, “no.” I’m really, really proud of that, because so many of us, especially women, feel guilty for all kinds of things. And that’s why by making choices that are ours to own and not sacrifices for other people, we actually empower both ourselves and them. 

Shellye Archambeau on coping with setbacks without letting them limit your goals

The first thing I did was find the right life partner. My late husband was the love of my life, and he was an amazing partner. And that makes such a huge difference. So when it came to making decisions, making some trade offs, moving around, figuring out how to get everything done, we were in it together, and that really, really mattered.

Second, I ask for help. I tell people all the time that asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a strength, because no one in this world does anything of significance all by themselves. Nobody. So don’t think you’re going to be the first one to do it. Get help. I’ve found that when asked the right way, most people are actually happy to be helpful. For example, when taking a new job, don’t show up first day without having talked to people who have already done the job before. Whether it’s in your industry or a different industry, go find them, talk to them, figure out what pitfalls you should avoid and what can help you be successful. When you’re going through challenging times, let people know. You’d be surprised how people will help. If my husband’s health was in really bad shape, I had friends cooking meals for me and dropping them off, taking him to doctor’s appointments, doing all kinds of things so I could stay working. You just never know what people will do for you unless you give them the opportunity. 

Shellye Archambeau on living with grief

Grief is something that I don’t believe you actually get over. You just learn how to live with it, and it evolves and it changes over time. The biggest gift that my late husband gave me towards the end of his life – he fought terminal cancer, so we already knew how the story would end – was when he said to me, “Shellye, you made me promise that we would live life first and fight cancer second during this battle. So when I’m gone, you’d better promise me that you’re going to continue to live life.” He went so far as to tell not just me, but also his family, our kids, my family, our friends. He said, “Listen, when I’m gone, I want Shellye to live life. I want her to date. If she wants to get married, she can get married. I am releasing her.” 

That has helped so much in terms of how I think about things. The first six to nine months were horrible, and then slowly things started to evolve. I threw myself into work and into promoting my book. I was just busy all the time, which didn’t give me time to think, which is how I handled it at the time. But now, as I look at everything, I do believe that everything that happens has an underlying blessing. Sometimes it just takes you a whole lot of time to find it. And I believe that the blessing that my late husband gave me with his passing was that he showed us, me and the kids, that there are no promises in this world, and we need to live life every day, and make sure that we are doing what’s important to us and not just what we think we should be doing. 

Shellye Archambeau’s parting advice

It is never too late to begin being intentional. So think about what you really want, and then go after it. It’s really straightforward. I just ask myself, “what is it I want?” And if what you want is to lead a nonprofit, or to create an organization, or to be on a board – whatever it might be, you set yourself the goal and then ask yourself, “what has to be true for me to achieve this?” Which means you usually have to go do some research. I’m a big believer in research. And then once you find out what has to be true, ask yourself, “how do I make it true for me?” And that becomes your plan. That’s what I’ve done with absolutely everything. “What do I want? What has to be true to get it? And how do I make it true for me?” I firmly believe that anyone can achieve their aspirations if they’re willing to be intentional about it, make tradeoffs and take help along the way. And I do want everyone to be able to do it. There’s so much talent and capability wasted because too many people don’t.