It’s an interesting coincidence that this month’s interview with Sheila followed last month’s with Marsh. They are both from the same generation, Sheila a bit younger at 75, and both followed similar, very intentional, highly accomplished corporate career paths. And yet, as a woman, perhaps because she is a woman, Sheila’s story and her transitions were quite different from Marsh’s.
Sheila came from humble beginnings in a small town in England. Her mother aspired to be a social climber, and her idea of success for Sheila was to become a bank teller. While banking became her chosen first career, little did mom know that Sheila would become the first woman business unit president of a Fortune 500 national bank.
Sheila was the first in her family to attend university after demonstrating she was a star student, taking Calculus at age ten and studying Economics at age thirteen! (perhaps a young genius, which she wouldn’t admit when I asked). She had the intellect and drive to do it all. She played competitive field hockey and tennis, excelled in school, and later after meeting her first husband on the first day of university, marrying and balancing two careers.
Career #1 was as a teacher, first in high school and then at the college level. And when she was bored after the second year, she enrolled in the London School of Economics to earn her Master’s part-time while teaching full-time. An exciting time especially when her advisors recommended her for a position as an Economic Advisor at the Treasury. Her intention was for government to be her next pivot AND incorporate teaching by teaching civil servants. Instead, she moved to the United States. Her husband was also building his career. His company asked him to move to the US, and he accepted the opportunity with her support.
So here she was at age 30, always having been intentional about her path, with a significant unplanned pivot – new country, no green card, no job. And she got lucky; she leveraged her economics experience and met a woman who was an international economist. She made some introductions, and Sheila landed a position as an economist with the same bank, where she became the first female business unit president eighteen years later.
Early in her tenure as president, the Board Chair of one of her clients approached the bank’s CEO, asking if Sheila could serve on his board. Initially, the CEO said no. The Chairman persisted, explaining that this is the best development experience he could give her at this point in her career. The CEO finally said yes, and this experience gave her the kernel of an idea for her next pivot.
Not one to want to “meet herself on the next lap,” as she described it, after seven years as president, it was time to plan for what would be next. The current CEO was younger than her, so she knew that role wasn’t an option. At age 55, she exited the C-Suite and began her next pivot.
She quickly added three corporate boards to her portfolio, later becoming the first Non-Executive Chair of one of these companies. And soon after that, she returned to her teaching roots by co-founding a learning institute for C-Suite Executives and high potential women executives.
Today at 75, Sheila is on to her next pivot. She has begun unwinding her commitments, slowly stepping down from corporate board service, and hiring a CEO to run her founded organization (a non-profit). Instead of contributing one-to-many, she is coaching one-to-one, working with CEOs as they navigate key issues in the board room.
Following is Sheila’s advice to others planning a pivot:
- Take the boat off the dock. Until you do, you have no idea what is out there. At the same time, don’t let your confidence blind you. I did a terrible job of risk mitigation when I moved to the US. It worked out, but I was unprepared for the challenges I would face. I was overconfident.
- As demonstrated in Marsh’s story Flunking Retirement, even today, it is easier for men to navigate without mentors and sponsors. As a woman, I believe I would not have been able to pivot without sponsors and mentors. Be sure and access your network and leverage it.
- Learn ethical pragmatism. Be mindful of your standards/ethics, but don’t crucify yourself. Remember, there are times when it’s more important to be effective than it is to be right. Many times throughout my career, I tolerated people in my organization that I would not choose as friends. On the other hand, I once resigned from a board because I felt the CEO was not acting in the shareholders’ best interests. In this case, I could not be effective in changing the outcome, but I could be right. It’s a delicate dance that we each must undertake.