Careers Don’t Just Happen: They’re the Product of Goal-Setting and Planning

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Shellye Archambeau, the former CEO of MetricStream, has had a stellar career in Silicon Valley. But as she recounts in her new book, Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms, her career was no fluke. As an ambitious young Black woman working her way up the corporate ladder after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Archambeau didn’t expect anyone to steer her career for her, as she told Threshold Partner Heidi Roizen in a recent webinar hosted by How Women Lead.

“It was very clear to me at a young age that the odds were not in my favor to actually get what I wanted out of life,” Archambeau said. “All I had to do is to look around, and I just didn’t see people that looked like me leading, running, driving, creating, all those kinds of things. So I said, ‘Gosh, how do I improve the odds?’”

The answer, she said, was straight-up planning and goal setting. “I would say, ‘I want to accomplish X.’ Now, what has to be true for me to get X? And how do I make it true? That planning, that decision, all of that, really helped me each step of the way. And as it continued to work, then I continued to do it more and more and more.” Archambeau shared some advice for matching one’s “unapologetically ambitious” outlook with intentional choices and decisions that carry you to your goals.

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“I tell people it’s just like finding any other job,” said Archambeau, who serves on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies, and Okta. You don’t wait to be asked to join a board, she says you make it happen by doing the homework. “You do your research to try to understand, what are companies looking for? What are the skill sets?”. “And then figure out, how can I make career choices that will help me develop the skill sets that boards are actually interested in?”

Then, says Archambeau, you spread the word. “I believe if you don’t tell the universe what you want or what you need, the universe can’t help you,” she said. Board seats are mostly filled through word-of-mouth networking, she explained, so you need to put yourself in those discussions: “Say ‘I’m interested.’ And ask them to give you an assessment.”

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It’s all about enabling other people to do their best work, Archambeau said. “When you’re starting in your career, you get judged, measured, and evaluated based on what you, personally, actually do,” she said. “As you rise in your career, it becomes more and more important not just what you do, but also what you’re able to get done through others.”

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Once she became CEO of MetricStream, Archambeau realized she had to talk to as many people as possible — beyond the boundaries of the business. “Prior to becoming a CEO, I could get the information I needed by talking to customers, employees, and suppliers,” she said. “But all of a sudden, I needed to dedicate real time to pulling in that perspective outside the company — talking to thought leaders and industry experts that you need to be able to determine the right course and understand where the risks are.”

How to build your brand while navigating social media

Before all else, be authentic, Archambeau advises — it’s something that’s easy to say about yourself, but harder in practice to do. “Whatever you put out there in the world has to be true to who you are, not who maybe you’d like to be,” she said. “Because as soon as people see that you’re actually different from what you’re putting out there, you’ve lost the purpose and ability to be effective.”

That includes how you present yourself on social media. Like everything else Archambeau advises, this process requires intention and planning. Typing something into Twitter off the cuff is easy — but standing behind it long-term is harder.

“The way I like to think about it is, whatever you say, whatever you comment on, imagine if it was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal,” she said. “Are you comfortable with that? I’ve tried to use that as just my own personal judge of whatever I put down there. If it showed up, could I live with it? And if I could, then fine.”

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