Last week I spoke to Shellye Archambeau, CEO of Silicon Valley based Governance, Risk and Compliance Cloud Apps company, MetricStream. Additionally a Board Director of Verizon, Nordstrom, Watermark, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, in 2014 Shellye featured at #2 in Business Insider’s list of the 25 most influential African Americans in Technology.
One of four children, Shellye knew from an early age that she was destined for a role in management; “I always wanted to be leading organisations and clubs in my teens; getting things done together as a group was what inspired me” she says. Sporty at school, Shellye turned to academic groups and societies after a growth spurt left her with long term damage to her knees.
Her career began at IBM in the mid 80s when the tech industry was beginning to explode, where she held numerous executive positions including an overseas posting in Tokyo, undefined“Quite an experience for both myself and my family, and the first time IBM had ever posted an African American woman overseas”, as she recalls.
Shellye subsequently joined Blockbuster as President of their nascent e-commerce division, before realising the company “lacked the vision” to overcome a growing trend towards online streaming film rentals.
Headhunted to Silicon Valley to become CMO & EVP of sales at Northpoint communications, Shellye was thrilled to become part of the Palo Alto community. She describes it as “one of the most energetic and creative environments I have ever worked amongst”, but was surprised by the lack of diversity at the management level in the Valley.
She puts this down to a pervasive “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality; “there is no conspiracy here, but you could call it pattern recognition; it’s natural for people to have bias towards what they have seen succeed in the past. In the Valley, what they have seen is male dominated with a skew towards certain educational pedigrees. Silicon Valley is surrounded by some of the very best universities and colleges, so there isn’t a pressing need to cast the net wider. The Valley has always been a prolific builder of companies, folks have always known where the next great leaders were going to come from, without having to be overly innovative about it.”
“Leaders and bosses find it easier to manage people who talk and act like they do, and if it has worked before, why change it? There’s no glass ceiling, but it’s proven that if you send a company the same CV, one with a male name and one with a female, the male one will receive more call-backs than the female one; the number drops off further if it’s an African American sounding name.”
Does Shellye think it can change? “We need to keep talking about the issue until conscious awareness changes the unconscious decision making process; change happens in small increments so we have to be patient; I see it with almost every group I take over; a lot of people still regard a man’s role in the family as the sole wage earner, for example.”
“In a sense, a lack of diversity can be identified as a vulnerability. The more diverse a team is, the more its members will push one another and help them to grow as people. It’s fine to keep dipping into the same pool of talent but eventually that pool will begin to shrink, and that is beginning to happen within the Valley; there is a shortage of appropriate talent.”
In Shellye’s case, she has never concerned herself with “calls I may have never gotten” because of her sex or race, and certainly does not believe that MetricStream, the company she has led for over 10 years, lacks diversity or direction. The company helps other firms manage their financial and operational risk, helping them to make “better risk based decisions”. MetricStream has a global client base and a strong focus on the financial, retail and pharmaceutical industries.
In 2002, when Archambeau joined Zaplet, Inc. as the company’s CEO, the company was struggling: “We didn’t have a strong product market fit, and I was hired to fix things.” Archambeau oversaw it through the merger with MetricStream in 2004, and as the CEO of the newly formed company, drove forward with the vision to create an entirely new GRC industry, and cater to a market of substantial size and scale.
So how did she do it? “People say it all the time, and it’s fundamentally true; it’s all about the team! There is only so much a CEO can physically do; you have to create a vision, communicate it and make sure that everybody buys into it. Staff must understand the strategy, and be accountable to it. Every member of the team has to be able to clearly articulate what the culture is, and they must be able to execute it in every business transaction that they do on behalf of the company.”
“I am in the business of making sure that our team is customer focused, exhibits strong teamwork, and most importantly, I try to instil a “never say die” attitude that drives innovation. The culture starts at the top and is shaped by the management team. It’s down to them to hire the right people to make sure the vision becomes a reality.”
Shellye believes that being a mother or having a maternal instinct helps: “It helps you to understand what needs to be done. Taking over at the top of a company, you treat it like your first baby; you learn more and more about it and begin to understand how it needs to change and evolve in order to survive and flourish in the world”, she explains.
“But, and I can’t tell you how important this is, you must never fall in love your product”, she cautions. “You know how hard you have worked on it and you might believe, just like you believe about your own children, that it is the best thing out there. You have to try and see it from a critical perspective, be constantly innovating and trying to make improvements. Being your own worst critic is a tactic that pays off in the fullness of time.”
There are two things that Shellye believes more than anything else have helped her achieve her business goals and to rise as far as she has. Mentoring, and not being afraid to take risks. “Take advantage of other’s experiences, because you can’t experience everything yourself”, she advises. “Find mentors that you respect and ask them how they overcame the toughest problems that they have had to face. Go to them with your own problems and find out how they would have dealt with them. Follow their advice, and, and this is important, feed back to them what you did and what the result was. They will appreciate the fact that you listened to them and will be interested to hear how it panned out.”
Secondly, “never be afraid to take risks. This goes particularly for women and minorities who tend to be more risk averse. If you don’t try, you’ll never learn! You always have more to gain than to lose in business.”
Now that she has been in Silicon Valley for some time, Shellye, who lives not far from Google’s headquarters, is starting to feel like one of the family, but laughs at the idea that raising money in Palo Alto is easy to do. It’s a myth that has grown up around the area; start-up businesses around the world look on with envy at the apparently inexhaustible supply of funding for companies which start out as little more than ideas, but can achieve multi-million dollar valuations in what seems like only a matter of months.
“It’s not that easy”, she tells me, “there is definitely money here for sure, of course there is, VCs, Private Equity, Angels, but these companies invest with the expectation that the founders they back will make and deliver returns. Everyone’s trying to go out and conquer the world but you have to have the right team, the right business model, and the right market to get funding.
Leadership is about inspiring the people around you, bringing the best out of them and encouraging them to go beyond what they thought they were capable of. In order to do that, you have to be prepared to do all of those things yourself. Shellye’s career has been full of “so many wonderful teams and locations”, and throughout she has never doubted her abilities and has never been afraid to go out on a limb, be outspoken or seek advice from somebody in a more senior position. So, if you want to make waves in the office, treat your career like an adventure. Be single minded, be determined, listen, and learn. And, as Shellye clearly does, enjoy every minute of it!
This article was written by Edmund Ingham from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.