The most significant message I have for anyone aspiring to corporate leadership is to recognize that opportunity is everywhere, but you will have to identify and go after it yourself.
I came to this realization harshly. From my perspective as an African-American woman, life seemed all about restrictions and limitations. It took my father to set me straight. He coupled the message that I could do whatever I wanted with the advice that I should never let anyone define my world. This insight spurred me to become one of the few women, let alone African-Americans, in my business school. It also guided my career choices. I chose technology because it was a field with little diversity, and the tech companies couldn’t hire fast enough.
I chose finance because I learned that when you control budgets you have influence. I moved to sales and marketing because it put me in greater control of my destiny. I watched the breakup of AT&T in l986, saw the need for networking services in the era of deregulation and started my own business to counsel companies. When that role began to be taken over by the major consulting firms, I joined Cap Gemini Ernst & Young to help set up its critical technology practice. When I saw that the real impact was moving to the global corporations, I went to EDS and now to Cisco. Here, I’m in a position where I can fully use my ability to see the next opportunity to help the company as it migrates from a product- to a solutions-focused company.
My career is a testament to not waiting around to be noticed. I also hire people who don’t wait for opportunities. Today’s successful companies are challenging the status quo all the time as they seek to maintain market leadership. The people they hire and promote are the ones who know how to do the same for themselves. It’s a misconception to think that a career path is logical, clear or straight. It takes creativity and initiative—and it’s up to you.