Just as Steve Jobs, in his turtleneck and wire-rimmed glasses, became a prototype of the successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, IBM had its own prototypical high-potential employee in the 1980s and ’90s. They looked like this: men in dark suits, white shirts, a tie, and wing-tipped shoes. Many were golfers or athletes who projected confidence in the way they carried themselves.
I was not necessarily that type. In fact, I was the first African American female executive ever to be sent on an international assignment.
Before I left for Japan, I spoke with my current boss, an Australian who had worked for many years in Asia. He gave me some advice that had me a little worried.
“Shellye,” he explained, “in Japanese culture, there are three qualities that cause people to treat you with respect and help you succeed.”
I nodded. This was exactly what I needed to know. “Tell me.”
“The first is wisdom, a nice term for being old. But you don’t have that one going for you.”
I was thirty-six. Strike one.
“Second,” he continued, “being male. Again, you don’t have it.”
He cleared his throat. “The third quality is intelligence. You’ve got that, but it’s the only one, and you better maximize it.” He looked right at me. “I have faith in you.”
But my own faith was a little shaken. I worked hard to get this opportunity in Japan, and now I’m being told the deck is stacked against me. . . again?
So I did what I always do when the odds aren’t in my favor: I did my homework. I bought books on doing business in Japan. I talked to people who had worked there in the past. I did as much research as I could before I got on the plane, and I arrived in Japan ready to serve as the general manager for direct marketing for Asia Pacific. When I started working with my new team, I quickly discovered a detail my boss had missed—one I was uniquely qualified to see.
I worked with many wonderful people who gave their all and did their best work at IBM, but I noticed a particular blind spot among the more ambitious set, IBM’s high-potential “type.” When they took a new assignment, they assumed that everything they’d done—their accomplishments and accolades, the reputations they’d developed—came with them. In other words, they presumed they were going to be treated with respect.
Not so for me. As a young African American woman, I was accustomed to earning respect. Whenever I got a promotion or a new job, I walked into it understanding that people likely would assume I was not quite qualified or not quite ready. I presumed I needed to establish relationships and credibility, to develop a reputation, to prove myself. In other words, I may not have had age and maleness working for me, but because I had spent so much of my life outside my comfort zone, I had developed team-building skills and the ability to make alliances quickly.
These skills came into play when I gave my first presentation to my Japanese team. My objective was to communicate our strategy to grow the business. I spent a fair amount of time crafting my message and preparing. While the Japanese executives spoke English fairly well, the rank-and-file employees’ English skills were mixed. I wanted to make sure everyone could understand what I was communicating, so I had my slides translated into Japanese. Doing so just made sense. After all, I didn’t have to understand my slides; I already knew what I planned to say.
When I arrived at the IBM Japan building, I was formally greeted and escorted to the conference room where hundreds of people were finding their seats. In the front of the room stood an overhead projector reflecting a slide that read “Japan Direct Marketing.”
When I put the first slide up, I heard an audible murmur throughout the room. My first thought: Oh no! The translator must have done something terribly wrong.
I later found out the true cause of the ruckus. In all the years IBM executives had been making presentations in Japan, no American executive had provided slides written 100 percent in Japanese, at least not that the people in that room could recall. The Americans lived inside an English-only zone, and I had broken that invisible barrier.
When I was facing the challenges and trials of my youth, I never realized the strengths I was developing. Beyond my innate ambition and my education, I had learned how to get people to like me—whether they thought they wanted to or not—by being empathetic and helpful. I had discovered the power of alliances and teams—by working together, you accomplish more.
Sure, as a young African American woman, I did not have many cultural advantages going into Japan’s business environment, but in the end, I developed a good reputation and built successful teams. When my stateside colleagues asked me how I did it, I had to be honest. “I’ve always been an outsider,” I explained. “Everywhere I went, I had to learn how to get along with all types of people and earn their respect.”
I was better prepared for that job in Japan than I had realized — better prepared, in fact, than many of those prototypical IBM employees. This experience reinforced my parents’ message: Being in the minority doesn’t have to hold you back. In fact, it can be an advantage. The hard-won lessons you learn while meeting life’s challenges? If you leverage them right, they become your secret weapons.
Excerpted from the book UNAPOLOGETICALLY AMBITIOUS: TAKE RISKS, BREAK BARRIERS, AND CREATE SUCCESS ON YOUR OWN TERMS by Shellye Archambeau. Copyright © 2020 by Shellye Archambeau. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
SHELLYE ARCHAMBEAU is one of high tech’s first female African American CEOs and currently serves as a Fortune 500 board member at Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies, and Okta. Her new book, Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms [Grand Central Publishing] is now available wherever books are sold.
Connect with Shellye on Twitter and Instagram (@ShelArchambeau), LinkedIn, and her website, https://shellyearchambeau.com/