Part One: Early Lessons 1
1 Create Your Own Luck 3
2 Beware of Impostor Syndrome 13
3 Find Your Cheerleaders 21
4 Control What You Can 27
5 Don’t Let Them Win 31
6 Decide What’s Important to You 35
7 Set Your Goals 40
Part Two: Strategize for Success 43
8 Devise a Plan 45
9 Learn the Ropes 51
10 Prepare for Opportunity to Appear 59
11 Strategic on All Fronts 63
12 Foster Self-Determination 75
13 Take a Stand 78
14 Build Your Reputation 81
15 Be Partners in Planning 86
Part Three: Living the Plan 93
16 Execute the Plan 95
17 Understand the Field 106
18 No Second Thoughts 111
19 Delegate 114
20 Embrace Your Limits 119
21 Live Your Values 125
22 Forget about Work/Life Balance 129
23 Manage Your Own Career 134
24 Tell People What You Want 138
25 Let It Go 141
26 Every Move Is “Our” Move 145
27 Your Challenges Are Your Strengths 150
Part Four: Swerve 155
28 Move Around the Blocks You Can’t Remove 157
29 Make the Right Choice at the Right Time 161
30 Stay Flexible 168
31 Stay Connected 173
32 Never Say Die 177
33 Keep Learning 183
34 You Deserve It 190
Part Five: Improving Your Odds 193
35 Find Your Mentors 195
36 Build Your Network 205
37 Find the Current 210
38 Take Risks 213
39 Life Planning 101 223
Book Dedication 253
I first came to know Shellye Archambeau when I hired her to run marketing for my company, Loudcloud. The company was growing much faster than the current team and I could handle; I needed someone with better leadership skills than I had to help build out the organization. Shellye turned out to be just that. During her tenure, she taught me how to make hard decisions and communicate them clearly and unapologetically. In many ways, she was my mentor rather than vice versa.
Eventually, the Loudcloud business didn’t work, and Shellye and I parted ways. I remember thinking at the time that wherever she went, they would be quite lucky to have her.
A few months later, Shellye told me that she was considering becoming CEO of a company called Zaplet. This surprised me, because of Zaplet’s backstory. Led by Silicon Valley superstar Alan Baratz, Zaplet had once been the darling of the technology world. Baratz had raised gigantic amounts of money and garnered glowing press coverage. Everyone expected Zaplet to be the next great technology company. But as so often happens in technology, things did not go as planned. The company rapidly burned through its massive cash hoard and was on the verge of a total wipeout. In order to save itself from bankruptcy, Zaplet laid off huge numbers of employees and battened down the hatches for what looked like would be a long winter followed by a fire sale.
Companies like Zaplet almost never come back, because they become fatally tainted by their meteoric rise and even swifter fall. Every potential employee, customer, and investor would know the company was damaged goods, and it would be nearly impossible for a new CEO to fight through that. I did not want to see Shellye jump into such a polluted swamp.
I said, “Shellye, I don’t think you should take that job.” I could tell from her body language that she heard me but wasn’t planning to listen to me.
Her reaction was so sharp I worried she thought I was telling her that she couldn’t do it, when I was really trying to say that she shouldn’t do it. But as the discussion went on, I realized that Shellye understood the issues and, to a large extent, those issues were the very reason she wanted to be the CEO.
Shellye wasn’t optimizing for a personal financial outcome, glory, or a career boost. She was looking for the ultimate test of her leadership skills. She was like a great boxer who wanted to fight the most dangerous opponents to prove she was the best. She was attracted to, rather than repelled by, the insanely high degree of difficulty that Zaplet posed.
Shellye took the job, and Zaplet was as advertised. For every issue that I warned her about, there were another hundred that I did not anticipate. But like Muhammad Ali taking on Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Shellye scratched, clawed, and willed her way to victory. She changed everything about the company: the technology, the business they were in, and most of the employees. She merged it into MetricStream and grew the combined entity into a robust industry leader over fourteen long years.
As I watched her do it, I often wondered where that incredible determination, focus, and will to win came from. Finally, with this book, I have the answer.
Shellye’s life story, and the lessons it carries, are powerful examples of focus and ambition that can shape your life for the better. If your goal is just to be famous, maybe this is not the story for you, but if your goal is to be a truly great leader of men and women, you have found your guide.
Co-Founder and General Partner, Andreessen Horowitz
I’m in my office at MetricStream Inc., hurriedly clearing a backlog of voice mails, trying to get through them before my first meeting of the day. As usual, they’re all sales pitches—cold calls from vendors who don’t know who else to approach in the company, so they leave a message for the CEO. Anyone who really needs me calls my cell phone or sends me an email, so I’m only half attending, listening to each message just long enough to confirm that it’s a sales call before I delete it. My gaze wanders out the window of my corner office, to the view of Highway 101 in the distance, all those cars rushing who knows where. Outside my door, I hear people arriving at their desks, settling in for another busy day. What time is it? I wonder, but before I can check the clock, a distinctive voice interrupts my thoughts: “Shellye, this is Lowell McAdam,” the message says.
Lowell McAdam, I think. Where have I heard that name?
“Marc Andreessen suggested I talk to you. Can you give me a call?”
Marc Andreessen? Now, that name I know well. What’s this about?
I hang up the phone and turn to my computer. A Google search tells me Lowell McAdam is the relatively new CEO of Verizon, a Fortune 15 company.
Okay . . . He wouldn’t be calling me for MetricStream business purposes, because Verizon isn’t a client or a prospect. What could this be about? Why would Marc refer Lowell to me? Is this a job opportunity? Does he want me to do a speaking engagement?
Befuddled, I call Marc.
“It’s all good, Shellye,” Marc tells me. “Lowell’s looking for a new board member with experience that matches yours, a high-profile CEO in tech who has managed operations at scale. I recommended he speak with you.”
I hang up the phone. Verizon wants to talk to me about a board position? A smile takes over my face.
When I was a junior in high school, after a fateful conversation with a school guidance counselor, I set a major career goal: I wanted to become a CEO. During college, I refined that goal: I would become CEO of a tech company. On my way toward earning my CEO seat, I learned there was a governance structure one step above the CEO: the board of directors—the people who hire and fire CEOs and who ensure a company’s shareholders see returns on their investments. So I added another goal: I wanted to serve on a Fortune 500 board before I was fifty-five.
Now, at fifty years old, after ten years as CEO of MetricStream, I’m getting the call from Verizon. A momentary doubt enters my mind: But am I ready for a Fortune 50 board position? I recognize that voice, and I know better than to listen to it. Am I ready? Of course I am. I’ve been working my whole life for this. All the strategic planning, discipline, and hard trade-offs are paying off.
After a brief conversation with Lowell, I know I want the board seat. The minute I get off the phone, as I’ve always done in moments like this, I call my husband, Scotty, to share the exciting news
“Babe, guess what?” I say when he answers.
“What?” he asks, his voice bright with anticipation.
“I just talked to Lowell McAdam from Verizon.” I can’t shake the smile off my face when I say it: “They’re interested in me as a potential board member. So, it’ll be a process, but I’m going for it. We’ll see what happens . . .”
Then Scotty, my number one cheerleader, says, “What do you mean we’ll see? You know he’s going to want you on the board after he meets you.”
Scotty was right.
As an African American woman in my fifties, I don’t exactly fit the prototype for a tech industry business leader. I can’t tell you how many times people—especially women and people of color—have asked me this question: How did you get where you are?
You may be wondering the same thing.
Before I answer the question, let me tell you a bit about where I started. In 1962, I was born into a family of modest means and high ambitions. This was not long after lunch counter sit-ins called national attention to segregation, and not long before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.
During the first five years of my life, the Civil Rights Act passed, peaceful demonstrators met brutality on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the Voting Rights Act banned practices that limited voter rights, and racial tensions soared. In this environment, my determined parents set out to make a life for our family, following opportunity wherever it took us.
As for me, I started as a shy, gangly black girl in an all-white elementary school, and I grew into a successful high school student and a graduate of the Wharton School. I met a wonderful man to share my life with, and together we raised a family. After a fast-paced rise through the ranks at IBM, I became one of very (very) few female African American CEOs in the technology sector, all the way back in 2003, when I was forty years old. As CEO of Zaplet, I orchestrated a merger with MetricStream, guided our combined company through the choppy waters of the dot-com bust and the financial crisis of 2008, and MetricStream came out the other end an industry leader, employing over a thousand people. Along the way, I have mentored countless young professionals, and I have been involved in organizations that do a lot of good—especially for minorities and women.
How did I get here? That’s what this book is all about—the values, experiences, lessons, ideas, strategies, and actions that got me where I am today. If I had to sum it up, though, I would say ambition got me here—ambition supported by the conscious choices I made every step of the way.
Success begins with figuring out what you want, then making the choices that will get you there. You’ll notice I use that word a lot: choices.
Early on, my parents set me on the right track by teaching me the foundational life skills and lessons that would help me survive in a world hostile to young black girls like me. I’ll share those with you in Part One, “Early Lessons.” (Spoiler alert: Some of those early lessons I still put to good use today.)
In my college years, I developed a life plan that would ultimately serve me through the next three decades. You’ll read about that in Part 2, “Strategize for Success.” I mean, I planned everything out: my marriage, kids, career path, even my future lifestyle. I will tell you how I set myself up to accomplish everything on that list (give or take a detail or two), and how you can do that, too.
In Part 3, “Living the Plan,” I’ll recount the challenges I faced and the wisdom I gained while executing my life plan, stepping into my roles as career woman, wife, and mother. It’s not easy, let me tell you, managing all that, but you can do it if you make smart choices in accordance with your plan.
Of course, life never goes exactly as planned. But you don’t have to tumble out of your boat just because the river bends. In Part 4, “Swerve,” I’ll talk about how I made necessary changes while holding tight to my goals.
Finally, in Part 5, “Improving Your Odds,” I’ll share my top five, tried-and-true tips for advancing in your career and achieving your life goals.
Now, in addition to choices, you may have noticed I use another word a lot: plan.
That’s right. I’m a planner. Big-time. In fact, some might say I’m a little over the top when it comes to strategizing my life. But honestly, as a business leader and mentor, I’m surprised how many people—smart, talented, creative people—don’t have a plan in place to help them reach their goals.
I know people who have taken the opportunities they found right in front of them, instead of strategizing to create their own options. I’ve watched people make easy choices that don’t truly serve their long-term goals. I’ve met people who once had an idea—a far-fetched dream—of what they wanted, but they never formalized that dream into a goal or figured out a plan to get there. These are the folks who wake up in midlife, wondering how they ended up so far away from where they’d hoped they would be.
All too often, I meet people who don’t think about the long term at all. If you don’t have goals, how will you reach them? If you have goals but no plan, how will you know if you’re on track?
The good news is: It’s never too early to plan. And the better news is: It’s never too late. At any point in your life or career, you can set an objective, research the skills, experiences, or resources you need to go after it, and then map out a plan to achieve it.
I’m not the only person who has custom-built a happy, successful life. You can do it, too. This doesn’t mean you won’t face challenges, disappointments, and tragedies along the way. (Most of us do.) It means that you can make life—and everything that comes with it—work for you.
Wait—are you wondering if this actually applies to you? If you can find success and happiness? Why is this a question so many of us ask ourselves—not “How can I get what I want?” but “Is this even possible for someone like me?”
Let me say, unequivocally, yes. Yes, it is.
Let me explain.
If you haven’t figured this out already, I’m an ambitious woman. Unapologetically so. When people ask me where my ambition comes from, well, it’s sort of like asking me where my legs came from. It grew with me; it’s part of my genetic code. Just as you can trace certain physical traits back through the generations of my family, so can you trace ambition.
My aunt Dee, keeper of the family papers on my mother’s side, has a document that reminds me how far my family has come over the years. Yellowed parchment, faded brown ink—it’s called a deed of manumission, a handwritten letter penned by a slave owner, verifying the release of one of my ancestors from slavery. To read it, you would have no idea it referred to a human being. It could be a description of livestock—male, five feet five inches, high forehead, long scar on his neck. Just a couple generations later, my great-grandfather, a proud and accomplished man whom everyone called Papa, was bringing my mother and her sister to lunch counter sit-ins, teaching them to take a stand for what’s right, and writing weekly letters to the editor of the local paper, speaking out against injustice.
On my father’s side, we have a family Bible, a heavy tome bound in blue cloth embossed with intricate gold lettering. Inside, it’s inscribed with the names and birthdates of ancestors, beginning with Dominique D’Archambau (a different spelling of my last name), a sea captain from France, who married a Jamaican woman named Maria Chaddenne who gave birth to Thomas Nicholas, in 1806, in Jamaica. That list of names leads right to my own grandchildren. Tracing my finger down the page, I imagine what life was like for each generation. I see how each name is like a rung on a ladder climbing toward greater and greater freedoms.
Yes, I see the challenges my ancestors faced. I also see their strength—the work ethic, pride, faith, and ambition that propelled them forward. That’s in my DNA.
As for you? No matter where you are starting, no matter where you or your family have been, you too have the strength to propel yourself forward. If you’re skeptical, that’s okay. Stick with me. I’ll walk you through it.
So, are you ready? Let’s start with some questions:
What do you want from life?
What values do you live by?
What sort of lifestyle do you seek?
What fulfills you?
These are the questions I want you to ask yourself. Now, no two individuals want the same things out of life. We all know this in theory, but when it comes time to design our lives, sometimes we overlook that essential question: What do I want? Forget about achieving success as someone else defines it. What do you want?
By the end of this book, I hope you will both define what you want and feel empowered to go after it, unapologetically.