How to Become the CEO of Your Career

CEO

Women who seek leadership roles in business often face the prospect, whether real or perceived, of having to choose between nurturing their careers or building a robust family and personal life. The publication in March of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, inspired a renewed debate about feminism. It suggested in a strong, if controversial, fashion that women can have it all.

The confidence and authority that are required of leaders play a role in making choices about how to integrate work and other aspects of life, participants said at a panel titled, “How to be the Champion of Your Own Career,” at the recent Wharton Women in Business conference. Moderated by Arnold J. Rosoff, an emeritus professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton, the five-person panel was one of the conference’s first ever to include both men and women.

Early in the discussion, J.J. Cutler, executive vice president of Aramark, invoked the title of the panel and sought to broaden the subject. “I would be very thoughtful about how you define ‘career,’” he said. “Instead of thinking about being a champion of a career, I’d think about just being a champion of your life. In particular, I would be very thoughtful — and it will change over time — about what role you want work and career to play in your overall life.

“Be really flexible,” Cutler added. “Your life is likely going to get messier and more complicated, and the world is going to get more complicated from here on out.… Creating a vision for yourself is great, but I would be careful about [making] too many hard and fast rules and plans.”

Creating a vision for yourself is great, but I would be careful about [making] too many hard and fast rules and plans.”— J.J. Cutler

Picking the right partner, Cutler said, is “super important.” He noted that Sandberg may have raised fewer eyebrows than a man would have in choosing to discuss the role of a romantic partner in a businesswoman’s career. “The people I’ve observed who are happy, successful [and] fulfilled, oftentimes … [have someone] outside of work who, when good stuff happens, the good stuff is a lot better, and when bad stuff happens, you’ve got someone there who can help you deal with it,” he stated. “And there will be both. Of all the stuff in Lean In, I actually think that resonates the most.”

‘A Joint Venture’

Indeed, Erica Nemser, who leads McKinsey & Company’s global efforts to recruit, retain, promote and elect women within the firm, described her marriage as “a joint venture.”

“In that, too, the roles are going back and forth,” she said. “I have three kids — one is about to graduate high school and two are in elementary school. And who has been the primary breadwinner and who has been the primary caregiver, well, that has probably changed a half-dozen times. My husband’s an entrepreneur; I’m very clearly not. So the whole dynamic evolves over time.”

Sandra Lee, chief operating officer of sales in the Americas for the Bloomberg Professional service, stressed the importance of being open to rethinking the structure of one’s relationship.

“You’re going to probably be drawn to people who are driven just like you and have high-pressure jobs, with the stress and all the other things that go with it,” Lee noted. “And like anything else in life, you have to figure out: Is this the most important thing to me? Am I really going to draw a line in the sand today and say, ‘If we don’t do it my way, …?’ Because that’s the whole management principle — every time you draw a line, somebody is going to push back. You have to think about how to be flexible, how to be open-minded and how to be solution-oriented to figure out how it will work.”

Echoing Cutler’s observations about Sandberg’s controversial ‘you can have it all’ message, Lee said that personal empowerment both inspires and results from decisions regarding the balance of work and home life.

“If having a family is important to you, then I truly believe that you will still have your career and you can navigate it,” Lee noted. “If you feel that the firm you are working for at that time isn’t supportive, then maybe that’s a true reflector for you to make a judgment call at that point to make a change. But I think you really have to believe that you can do both things.”

Making a Move

Early in her career, Kjelsey Fortun, a senior finance manager at Microsoft, never thought that moving overseas would figure into her professional life. But a year into the two-year rotation in finance she started in 2006 at Microsoft, she knew she wanted to work internationally. Fortun began planting seeds in her network to reach that end.

Upon her completion of the rotational program, a role in Germany emerged. Fortun spoke no German — “I’m still terrible at it, by the way,” she said — but was willing to risk being “completely out of my depth.” She also had to convince via telephone interview the hiring managers in Germany, who had not met her, to take a risk by relocating and hiring her.

“I had basically no reputation in Germany, but I had a really strong network of people who did have a reputation in Germany,” Fortun pointed out. “And because I had done a really good job for them, they were willing to go to bat for me, and that spoke volumes to the German team.”

“If having a family is important to you, then I truly believe that you will still have your career and you can navigate it….” –Sandra Lee

Her decision to move across the Atlantic Ocean wasn’t easy — it meant inserting thousands of miles between herself and her boyfriend. “Ultimately, it’s your life, and you’ve got one shot at it,” Fortun noted. “You need to figure out what you want to do with that — meeting your career goals, meeting the things outside of your career, whether it’s family, volunteering, mentorship — and you have to define, here’s how much time I’m going to spend at that, and be open and honest with all of the other stakeholders in your life.”

Three months after Fortun moved to Munich, her boyfriend, whom she met at work and with whom she once competed for a job, joined her.

Getting Past Perfect

Relationships, the panelists said, often face challenges when one or both partners are ambitiously pursuing careers in the field of finance. But just as often, they suggested, a strain of perfectionism can incite a struggle within.

“There seems to be this pattern of women and this concept of perfection,” Cutler said. “My advice to women is, the sooner you get rid of the idea of being perfect, the happier and better off you’ll be. It’s probably true for men, too, but it seems particularly true for women who seem like perfectionists. I see it in my daughter and my wife. I see it in women in all aspects of life. I don’t quite understand it because I’m not a perfectionist, but it seems to be a particular issue for women.”

Nemser, however, shared a slightly different personal experience. “I’m not the perfectionist; I’m married to the perfectionist,” Nemser said. “And I could not agree more. I [say], ‘OK, but you’re giving up your midnight to 4 a.m. for something that does not matter, for something that you could have delivered B-plus [level work]. OK, you’re willing to burn the next day for it? That’s a serious trade-off.’

“The career-pampering,” she added, “is when you’re in a position of moving to the next level or taking on something new. [It] requires risk-taking and moving into territory you’re not comfortable with, and having the confidence to go there. You can climb the learning curve and you can get there, but you won’t be perfect.… That’s a place where you see a big differentiating factor between men and women’s willingness to take on a stress role, or something that’s going to help them catapult themselves into the next level. How comfortable are you getting out of the zone of perfection?”

One key to reaching such a level of comfort, Cutler said, is learning to delegate. As people reach more senior positions, they must relinquish the day-to-day control to which they have become accustomed, he noted. Decisions of greater import must be made with less specific information. “I think this is an area in which women have a tougher time,” he added. “Whether it’s because of the way they’re treated or communicated with, or if it’s inherent, I’m not going anywhere near” that debate.

“Ultimately, it’s your life, and you’ve got one shot at it.” –Kjelsey Fortun

Jimmy Lynn, the second male panelist and managing partner of JLynn Associates, a global strategic advisory firm focused on sports marketing and sports digital media, encouraged the women in attendance to mentor others and to follow their areas of passion. Working in a job one likes, he said, changes everything.

Getting in on the Game

When a member of the audience asked him what he would suggest for those who haven’t yet discovered a passion, Lynn replied: “There’s a mobile revolution that is going on right now. It’s early. If I were you, I would get involved in that game.”

Companies that focus on e-commerce, he added, need to better appeal to women. “I have clients that are brands, such as UnderArmour, who don’t understand the woman consumer,” Lynn said. “You guys can apply that” to choosing a career path.

Social media platforms in other regions of the world, he stated, have larger audiences than Facebook or Instagram have in the United States. He cited China as an example, noting that American companies haven’t figured out how best to reach the largely untapped international audiences such networks provide.

Indeed, the women in attendance represented a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities. The moderator, Rosoff, said he saw in the students the ability to expand commerce by spreading ideas from one culture to another, which would render them leaders. He acknowledged that doing so would come with risk, as the acceptance of women in such roles varies from country to country. “I stand in awe of you,” Rosoff added, “and I think you have a great opportunity.”

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