Women in Tech: Career Advice for Women, by Women

From left: Nancy Pearson, VP of Cloud Category Marketing at IBM; Inhi Cho Suh, VP of Big Data, Integration & Governance at IBM; Barbara Saunier, CIO at Beiersdorf; Beth Smith, GM of Information Management Software at IBM; Brigitte Anschuetz, VP of Enterprise Content Management Services and Support at IBM; Anita Simpson, CIO of TD Insurance.

After powering through four event-packed days at the IBM Insight conference in Las Vegas last week, in killer heels no less, IBM’s VP of Big Data, Integration & Governance, Inhi Cho Suh, hosted a panel discussion for women professionals. Five high-ranking female executives shared their advice with a full room of women on how to take charge of their career, and discussed controversial issues in the workplace. Some of the more noteworthy questions are listed below, followed by answers from various panelists.


Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, said recently that women are better off not asking for a raise. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, who wrote Lean In, was pretty aggressive in the book about women needing to ask for what they want. What’s the general view that you’ve adopted that has allowed you to be where you are?

Barbara Saunier: I was lucky and rarely had to ask for a salary increase — it just happened. But once I came into a situation where I negotiated quite hard because I was very was self-confident that I could do that job and positive about what kind of value I would bring to it — I got what I asked for. Be sure of what you’re worth and what value you bring to your company. Be confident, assured of what your skills and value are.

Anita Simpson: People have said to me in the past to be careful that you’re not high maintenance. So I totally agree with Barbara that you have to be confident and know what you want and absolutely go for it. But I would also say that we have to understand who our audience is, and then package what you want and how you’re going to communicate that. Adapt your message to whom you’re conveying that to.

Nancy Pearson: Women tend to be less assertive about asking for what they want, asking for the next role. They tend to think that if I keep my head down and work, it’s going to come for me. Unfortunately that’s just not the case. I set up very, very clearly that my expectation is to be challenged; I will deliver, and that my expectations are that I would advance. Which leads to money and salary that come with that. So without having to come out and say that I want $X, my discussion around career and performance delivery has always been focus on results and what my next moves are for growth for me professionally. You can’t sit back and expect everything will be taken care for you. So is it coming out saying that I need a raise, and if not I’m leaving? Probably not. Point to the successes and outline that you’re ready for the next challenge, and that you’re willing to take it on.

There’s a society of gender perception than men are better at some jobs, and women at others. Do you believe that skills are tied to gender?

Brigitte Anschuetz: I do not. In fact, I think you should use those kinds of categorizations as motivation to do better. Early in my school years in Germany, I was really good in languages, in things that had to do with literature, geography. I liked all that stuff. Math, meh, not so much. I didn’t pay much attention and I didn’t have such good grades. At one point my math teacher told me that’s not surprising because girls can’t do math anyway. It was that statement that triggered something in me that said I am going to prove him different. Within six months I went from kind of being mediocre in math to being head of the class. It taught me that when you hear something that puts you in a box, use it as a motivation to prove that you’re better than people think you are. Use that energy to show that you can do things that people think that you can’t do. And ultimately move ahead.

I’ve heard of boys’ clubs. Is there a notion of girls’ clubs? Do you think that kind of support system exists, or are we sometimes more critical of each other?

Brigitte Anschuetz: I often got the advice that I needed to connect with other women at workplace in order to build my network. You can find support both on the male side as well as on the women side. It ultimately comes down to building your network based on who resonates with you, where you get good advice from. And if we do the girls’ club thing, we fall into the same trap we accuse the guys of.

Anita Simpson: Statistically if we look at the metrics, there aren’t as many women in leadership positions in any organization. As women leaders, it’s important for us to provide advice for other women. I’m a huge advocate of mentorship and sponsorship, you get so much out of it yourself. It really is a win-win situation. I would encourage everyone to be that support system.

There is a confluence and a shift that is happening in the technology industry. How you think about recruiting and building talent? What things need to be done differently to compete than what was done previously?

Beth Smith: Teams need change and need to be mixed up. I also think we need fresh ideas from new generations. You need to surround yourself with people that aren’t just like you.

Brigitte Anschuetz: When it comes to talent, it’s not restricted to a certain age group. Talent is about finding people who are out-of-the-box thinkers, who have the drive for innovation and are open-minded, who move the ball forward and embrace new technologies.

Nancy Pearson: In the last five years we have changed our hiring practices. It’s not so much about demographics; we now hire candidates who embrace change, who are team players. Those who seek out new technologies.

Anita Simpson: It’s not just about the people and the attributes that people bring, it’s really about the dynamics of your workplace as well. Different people have different needs and it’s not just the new people coming in — you’ve got to keep it fresh for people who are already in. Right now you can work anywhere, anyhow and be very flexible. Adapt the whole working environment, not just the talent.

The industry has changed in the last couple of years to leveraging social tools to connect, recruit and engage talented people at all levels. What has been your experience for what works?

Anita Simpson: I like to have fun. As a leader, it is less about you and more about your staff. You need an engaged workforce. I take my staff offsite every quarter for a surprise event. I pick something really fun with competitive nature. I’m a true believer in the need to have face time to build the connection. Your employees are the advocates for the team. We’re blending all parts of our lives and bring that to work — we recognize that people have lives as well — so they bring their full self to work.

Nancy Pearson: Culturally, some women have hard time being assertive on the phone. You have to have a point of view, your passion should come through, you should steer the conversation. You have to have certain amount of confidence. If two very highly qualified individuals come for an interview, people end up hiring the one with the passion. If somebody has passion, they’re going to find a way to make it happen.

How do you engage with a career mentor or sponsor?

Beth Smith: Your sponsor needs to see your potential, and see that by observing what you do. If the sponsor is invested in you, then he or she will make the right things happen. There are people who have hard time telling you what you need to hear though.

Nancy Pearson: You have to learn to say no if it is not the right relationship for you. It’s not one person that’s going to help you along your career; I’ve had probably fifteen mentors or sponsors over twenty years. They’re all important, they teach you and guide you. It’s a constant effort. And knowing when something clicks and you’re really adding value to each other — it is on you to making those relationships work. I like my mentees to tell me, “These are the three things I’m trying to work on.” It’s very much a two-way street and I don’t think everybody realizes that.

Brigitte Anschuetz: “Sponsor” is not necessarily one particular person, but people who have observed you in your job over a period of time. Sponsors are critical to have as part of advancing, but they’re also the people that you start picking up as you progress on your career. Mentoring is more direct one-on-one contact with a person that you’re comfortable with, who you feel confident sharing your thoughts with and where you feel like you’re getting good advice. That advice is not, in my opinion, necessarily related directly to your job, but really about broader decisions about what should I be doing from a behavior or interaction point of view, how should I go about pursuing promotions? A piece of advice I give to people I mentor: Don’t be so maniacally focused on getting your next promotion, think about what you like to do, what you’re passionate about. If you have a lot of fun in your job, it means you’re going to do the job well and you’ll have an opportunity to stand out. And when you stand out, you get the sponsors.

Barbara Saunier: Don’t only look for mentors who are similar to you; sometimes it might be good to have a night-and-day relationship, and it’s good to have several mentors.

Anita Simpson: We’ve all been in situations where we know someone from a past organization and they reach out to you and they’re looking for a job. Right then and there, you know if this person has been absolutely amazing, you’ve probably seen if they’ve delivered and if they have integrity. So you then become a sponsor because you know their skills and they are willing to put your brand behind them to sponsor them. But if you have thought, “I never saw this person in action and I can’t stake my brand on this a 100%,” you can say, “I’ll pass your resume to HR.” I would also add that, in terms of mentors, you can fire your mentor. I think mentors are about a goal. When you have a goal that you’re working towards, you want that mentor to get you over the hurdle. Your next goal may be very different and you may need different input to reach that goal, so it’s ok to have different mentors in different stages of your career.

What is your advice for being able to participate and get your point across in a loud conversation in a meeting with several attendees?

Beth Smith: Don’t speak up just to create noise. I’ve learned over the years that it’s important to try to have a way to contribute to a conversation, but the rule of always say something in a meeting can be more damaging to you than not. If you have a strong point and you feel needs to be heard, you’ve just got to find a way. They will breathe eventually and when they do, you can be right there with “Excuse me, I have something to say.” Depending on who else is in these discussions, you can also leverage other people to help you get the opening. I find that particularly during phone calls, folks will start instant-messaging in the background about whatever their point of view is that they feel like they’re not getting an opportunity to say. Then I believe it’s on me to help them make that point.

You have all been very successful at branding yourselves because you are all at a level most of us would like to reach. Could you share your story about personal branding?

Beth Smith: It starts with being authentic.

Barbara Saunier: To be honest, I never really planned it, I just had passion. I just saw things I was interested in, I went out of my comfort zone, I took some challenges I didn’t want to take, maybe? Seize the moment. It paid out, but I didn’t go after the challenges for them to pay out, I just did it out of passion.

Nancy Simpson: I think a brand has two aspects to it. One is, know who you are. If you don’t know who you are, you don’t know what your brand is. Number two, we all have blind spots. Your brand could be very much tarnished by those blind spots. One of the most important things about being authentic and understanding your brand, is also understanding your blind spots. What’s the “but” that someone is saying about you? It could be anything, it could be “She breaks glass, but people don’t trust her.” Fill it in, find out what it is. It takes a special person to help you to see that. And if you’re lucky, your mentors and sponsors are helping you see that. They care enough about you to say you have some great results in this and that, but you know this piece over here — you’ve got to tweak it. It could be about your leadership style, tone, anything — but understand what your but is.

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