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Shellye Archambeau
March 15, 2022
7 mins

Break barriers and create success

March 15, 2022
7 mins
Citi Latitude

Learn to push your boundaries and break barriers to create success on your own terms with Shellye Archambeau, author and one of Silicon Valley’s first African American CEOs.

What is the height of your ambition? Are you raring to create, build, achieve and impact the future? For Shellye Archambeau, author of the book ‘Unapologetically Ambitious’ and one of Silicon Valley’s first African American CEOs, it is all about learning to push your boundaries and break barriers to create success on your own terms. Citi Latitude invites you for a deep dive into the recipe for success in this engaging session with Shellye and observing its five key actionable takeaways.

Key takeaway 1

To me, ambition simply means something that you want to create, build, achieve or impact in the future, and you work hard towards it. That is why being intentional about ambition is so important.

We should dismiss disparaging connotations about being overly ambitious. I don't think there's anything wrong with being ambitious. You must be ambitious to succeed. I have been very ambitious my whole life. Nothing in the definition of ambition means you must step over other people or fight your way to the top or that you win at all costs so other people lose. To me, that's not ambition, that's just being rude. At its purest, ambition simply means you have something in the future that you want to do. Everyone deserves to be ambitious, and no one needs to apologize for it.

Key takeaway 2

The key ingredients of being ambitious are: (1) being intentional (2) having courage (3) taking risks (4) taking help, and (5) creating a set of cheerleaders around you; particularly people who build your confidence when things are down and when life seems really hard.

Bearing these key ingredients in mind, the way I have approached my life is by examining how do I improve the odds of success and persevering with belief. I decided very early when I was in high school that I wanted to run a company and back then I didn’t even know what the executive acronym ‘CEO’ entailed! And you just don’t believe in yourself, you need other people around you who believe in you and that’s where your family play a leading role, as mine did. In having this approach and with these very ingredients, I managed to build a career that took me to running operations for IBM globally, working my way to the Silicon Valley where I was the first female African American CEO to run a company at scale, and I now also serve on public boards like Verizon and Nordstrom.

Key takeaway 3

The ingredients of ambition become secondary if you don’t have a goal to aim for or a destination for your career and life’s journey. It is all about setting a goal, understanding what it takes to achieve it, and then building the plan for yourself to actually get it done.

Just pick something that looks like you have interest in, or want to do, or achieve, and then start working on it with all you’ve got. And once you have a goal, don’t get daunted! Ask yourself what has to be true or needs to be done to actually achieve it. You would have to do the research, something I call “homework”. When I decided I wanted to get into technology, atop my education, I looked up who the CEOs were, what were their backgrounds, education and experience as my homework. And then based upon that understanding came the next question – how to make it true for me. That is what is intentional about it all – set a goal, think through an actual plan to make it a reality.

Key takeaway 4

Model your career trajectory and ambitions on leaders in the sphere you are interested in. Then attempt to imbue the skills they demonstrate and make their approaches part of your learning curve.

That has always been one of my approaches – watching, observing and learning from people who were in C-suite roles that I aspired to. I attempted to figure out where their strengths were and therefore, what I could do to build my strengths in those areas. When I got a job at IBM that I had longed desired, I didn’t want to stop there and wanted to be the CEO. One of my first instincts was to identify the key executives, what do they do and how they do it; and literally just soak it all in terms of observing and learning. For instance, I noticed some IBM C-suites were great communicators. So, I set about practicing and developing my own communication and presentation skills. Not only did I model and learn from senior colleagues at the time, but I also actually deemed it to be an “investment in myself.”

Key takeaway 5

When it comes to fulfilling your ambitions, it’s all about “choices” not “sacrifices”. I don't like the word "sacrifice". To me, making a sacrifice means you are doing something for someone else. Your success is yours to own and share. You make choices and pin your priorities to get there, even if you do so with all your life’s stakeholders’ needs in mind.

In terms of making those choices, it's all about prioritization. I hear from people say, “everything's a priority”. If everything's a priority, that really means that nothing is. You must take the time to figure out what your priorities really are and then use that as a filter. You take your professional and personal priorities, and then you put them together, and then reprioritize ruthlessly. Finally, nobody accomplishes anything of significance all by themselves. And if they tell you they did, they are lying. Take help when needed because life is hard. We all face issues and challenges we need to help with, and it is perfectly okay to ask for help.