The following conversation was conducted over email and edited for flow and clarity.
Shellye Archambeau is an experienced CEO and Board Director with a track record of accomplishments such as building brands, high-performance teams and organizations. She currently serves on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies and Okta, and is a strategic advisor to The Royal Bank of Canada, Capital Markets and Forbes Ignite.
In this interview, we discuss her new book, Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers and Create Success on Your Own Terms, her journey to CEO, and how she balances it all.
Acquania Escarne of Wealth Noir (WN): Shellye, we are honored to have you share your powerful story with our Wealth Noir readers. Let’s start from the beginning. When did you decide you wanted to be a CEO?
Shellye Archambeau: At the age of 16, I set my goal to become a CEO, not that I truly understood what that meant. In a meeting with my guidance counselor, in my junior year of high school, she asked me what I wanted to do after going to college. I didn’t know. So she asked what I liked to do. That question was easy. I loved my clubs, the French Club, American Field Service, National Honor Society, etc… I was very involved and usually rose to leadership. She told me that running a club was just like running a business. That’s all it took. I made becoming CEO a goal and never looked back.
WN: It’s amazing you accomplished your goal and declared it at such a young age. With no entrepreneurs or business leaders in your family, how did you know what you needed to do to become a CEO? What intentional steps did you take?
Shellye Archambeau: I knew that the odds weren’t in my favor to get what I wanted out of life. I learned that by setting goals and figuring out a plan to achieve the goals, I could improve my odds for success. I’d basically ask myself, “What has to be true to achieve the goal?” and then “How do I make it true?”
First step, I needed the best credentials. So, I applied to Wharton and only Wharton, the best undergraduate business school. I didn’t want to attend any other school. I’d done my homework, and as the top business school, I was determined I wouldn’t have to get my MBA. So I saved a ton of money and years of time.
WN: Doing your homework is a great life lesson I hope everyone takes from your previous response. When you started your career in sales at IBM, what were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
Shellye Archambeau: The first challenge was to be taken seriously. I started my sales career in Dallas, Texas. My customers were all white men. Some would call me sweetheart, honey, sweet pea. This was in the 80’s. I learned how to walk the fine line of standing up for myself, but not antagonizing people. When someone called me something other than my name, I would pause to get their attention and then politely, but firmly, say, “My name is Shellye.” Then I would answer the question or respond as if nothing happened. I found that if you don’t embarrass people, they get the message, but it doesn’t damage the business relationship, which is important.
WN: How did you beat the odds and the competition while still making time for establishing your family? How did you establish your priorities and maintain some sense of work-life balance?
Shellye Archambeau: I hate the term work-life balance. There isn’t a work version of me and a separate personal life version of me that I manage separately, worrying how much time is spent in each persona. There is only one me. I prioritize my business objectives and my personal objectives together and, based on that, set my overall priorities.
I believe in integrating my life and trying to accomplish multiple things at once. Meeting people for walks, inviting groups to go see a ballet instead of just the two of us. My husband and I would host gatherings at our home, which meant no need for a babysitter at night. We’d invite or enlist our friends to help us with nonprofit fundraisers. Wherever we could we tried to accomplish multiple things at once.
WN: That’s a great perspective and wonderful how you combined events or tasks to accomplish several goals. I just want to say, you are such a forward thinker. Now I want to switch gears a bit and talk about your latest venture. You have a new book called Unapologetically Ambitious. What is your book about and who is it for?
Shellye Archambeau: I’ve tried to be accessible throughout my career, but as I took on more and more responsibility, I couldn’t meet with everyone that wanted to meet with me. So, I decided when I got to phase two [of my life], I was going to write it down so I could share at scale. I wanted to share the strategies and approaches I used to improve my odds for success. I want more professionals to achieve their aspirations. Not that I have all the answers, but I’ve learned quite a bit along the way that can help others.
I learned that ambition and hard work are not enough. Each chapter lays out key takeaways and actions to improve the odds of achieving your personal and professional goals. I share relatable personal stories that ground my advice in the real world, not theory. Unapologetically Ambitious invites readers to move beyond the solely supportive roles others expect them to fill, to learn how to carefully tread the thin line between assertive and aggressive, and to give themselves permission to strive for the top.
WN: Wow! Your book’s title is phenomenal. How long did it take you to complete writing this book?
Shellye Archambeau: I started the book in 2017. It was a lot of work. In many respects, it felt like being pregnant for three years before finally giving birth. Writing it caused me to spend time reliving some highlights and some low moments. It was hard at times. Then I got to the point where I thought I was done and sent it to some pre-readers. Well, based on the feedback, it was clear I wasn’t done. I went through that process a couple of times. You can’t have thin skin, that’s for sure.
WN: Thanks for sharing your story and being so honest. What is the most common question you get asked about your career as a successful female CEO?
Shellye Archambeau: One of the common questions is how do you ask someone to become your mentor. My answer? You don’t. Just start treating them like one. Ease into it by asking simple questions initially that won’t take much effort on the target mentor’s part, such as advice for making a good speech. Then use the advice and report back on how it went and express gratitude for the advice. This last part is critical.
You have to close the loop. A mentor/mentee relationship is a relationship. Both parties have to get value from it. The target mentor gets value through the satisfaction of knowing that they have been helpful. It makes them feel good. Most people don’t close the loop. I talk more about this in my book.
WN: I really like that advice and it pushes someone to take action to start building the relationship they really want. So let’s go back to the subject of your career. What was the most pivotal moment in your career?
Shellye Archambeau: Moving to Silicon Valley was the most pivotal moment. It was 2000 and tech was flying high. It would soon crash. That crash, while hard, actually opened up an opportunity for me. It was after the crash at the end of 2002 that I was hired as CEO of Zaplet, a very challenged startup. It was through the reputation I created and the relationships that I developed in Silicon Valley that enabled me to successfully compete for the role.
I led an amazing team that turned that company around and into a market leader.
WN: Shellye, it’s been amazing talking to you. I have one last question for you. What’s next? Do you have a new goal or project you want to accomplish?
Shellye Archambeau: My short term goal is to successfully launch Unapologetically Ambitious. I’m competitive and ambitious, so my goal is for it to become a bestseller.
One of my other goals is to get the book in the hands of HBCU students and students from challenged backgrounds. So I launched Ignite Ambition in partnership with OpenGrowth.org. People and companies are making donations and OpenGrowth is delivering books to these students through their universities. If you would like to help, go to www.opengrowth.org and click on Ignite Ambition to make a donation.
WN: Shellye thank you so much for your time. This has been an amazing conversation and I am confident that it will help many of our readers. Guys, go check out Unapologetically Ambitious. It’s available now!