Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms
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Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms

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Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms

Shellye Archambeau is an experienced CEO and Board Director with over 30 years of experience in technology, and a track record of accomplishments building brands, high performance teams, and organizations. She is the former CEO of MetricStream, a Silicon Valley-based governance, risk, and compliance software company, which grew from a fledgling startup into a global market leader during her tenure.

Below, Shellye shares 5 key insights from her new book, Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms. Download the Next Big Idea App to enjoy more audio “Book Bites,” plus Ideas of the Day, ad-free podcast episodes, and more.

1. Foster self-determination.

Self-assurance is the ability to say yes to yourself when most people around you are saying no. It’s the power of believing in your own ability to make choices about your life—and not just to make choices, but to make them responsibly.

We become self-determined people when we are fulfilled in three psychological areas: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Competence is the ability to handle yourself; autonomy is the sense that you can make your own choices and look out for your interests; and relatedness means feeling like you fit in. Research shows that if you don’t have all three, you’ll be more likely to struggle or withdraw from challenges. But if you do manage to strengthen all of them, you will be prepared to not only set wise life goals, but to reach them as well.

So take a look at your own life. What could you do to develop your competence, autonomy, and relatedness? Even small steps can make a big difference. For example, you could grow your competence by learning a new skill at work, or taking on an extra project on the side. When I was younger, I cultivated a sense of autonomy by learning how to sew, instead of waiting for my mom to make my clothes for me. And you can work on your sense of relatedness by connecting more intentionally with colleagues, neighbors, and more. Taking these steps now will strengthen your ability to stand firm in your decisions, even when others aren’t so sure.

2. Don’t balance work and family—integrate them.

Many people think that managing both a career and family is a balancing act, but the idea of balance is not only misleading—it’s unattainable. Balance implies a perfect, fixed equilibrium, one with an equal divide between work and life. But juggling all our responsibilities is a far messier, more dynamic process. So instead of attempting to meet the false ideal of balance, aim for work-life integration.

“You can have everything you want—but not necessarily all at the same time.”

For example, I found it challenging to integrate time for friends and networking into my busy schedule, but I learned a few tricks. I could exercise alongside a friend, take the kids to the park with other mothers, or invite people over for potluck dinner and a movie. At work, on occasion I’d leverage lunchtime to network, or I’d take a walking meeting to combine work and exercise.

Creating an integrated life plan means just what it sounds like: Your life plan should honor all parts of yourself. So consider: What parts of your identity are most important to you? What values do you want to put into action? I firmly believe that, if you’re willing to do the work, you can have everything you want—but not necessarily all at the same time. And that’s okay—life is a series of different phases. As a young mother, I did not travel much or go to fancy restaurants, but I had a successful career and a healthy family. Once my kids left the nest, I enjoyed traveling with my husband, having new experiences, and broadening my career. This is how an effective life plan works: It has room for everything, just not all at once.

3. Build your reputation.

From the halls of middle school to company board rooms, reputation matters, as it represents the way others look at us and think about us. And for better or worse, it can play an outsized role in future opportunities. While we can influence our reputation with our actions, we can’t fully control it—so the key is to be intentional and think through how our actions impact others’ perceptions.

Building your reputation may start with first impressions—i.e. dressing professionally—but it is quickly followed by strong performance and sharing your successes in an effective way. The key thing to remember is that simply doing great work is not enough to establish your reputation—people won’t know what you’ve done unless you tell them.

“The more you do, the less you get paid.”

Here’s an example: As CEO, I like to check in casually with my employees whenever I’m walking through their work areas. Just a casual hello, how are you. Some employees will say hi and tell me about their day, their activities, even their problems. But a handful of people stand out, because they give me a quick report on their recent accomplishments. “Doing great, Shellye. We just resolved a challenging issue with customer XYZ!” That’s memorable, it takes next to no time, and it gives me a positive feeling about that person’s dedication. You are your own best advocate, so advocate for yourself and your team.

4. You can do it all—but you shouldn’t.

There’s a school of thought that each of us should figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are, and then we should strengthen the weaknesses. To me, this makes no sense. I say you ought to strengthen your strengths, because that’s how you become most valuable to your team. Yet I know many successful professional women who still believe that they have to know how to do everything and do it well. A woman might berate herself for lacking a seemingly basic skill, like knowing how to format a document, while a man will readily hand such a task over to a junior employee. In short, women tend to believe we are cheating if we accept help, or inadequate if we can’t seamlessly transition among a wide variety of tasks.

This mentality is stifling, and it can slow the progress of your career. In order to rise within an organization, you have to accept certain responsibilities, to delegate some tasks to the right team members, and to seek guidance from others as you face new challenges. I like to say, “The more you do, the less you get paid.” In other words, it’s your ability to get work done through others that gets you promoted up the career ladder. I don’t mean that senior people don’t work hard; most do. But they take fewer tasks on personally. Instead, they inspire, direct, review, edit, and enable their teams to get work done and execute on strategy. That’s what good management looks like—and it definitely doesn’t mean doing everything yourself.

“Broadcast your intentions! You never know who is listening, or who might have a connection.”

5. Tell people what you want.

There’s some conventional wisdom in the professional world about why women don’t get promoted. It more or less boils down to “women don’t ask for what they want.” The reality, however, is much more complex. In 2016, the Women in the Workplace study found that women do ask for what they want—a big change since the early years of my own career. This is positive progress, but there’s a catch: Women who negotiate are 30 percent more likely than men to be told they are too “aggressive,” “bossy,” or “intimidating.” Moreover, women receive less informal feedback from their supervisors, which suggests a communication disconnect, not to mention a paradox: Women are told, simultaneously, to ask for what we want and to stop pushing.

I don’t have a definitive solution to this issue, but I can tell you what has worked for me: Not only have I learned to tell people what I want—I’ve learned to tell everyone what I want. When I have a goal, I put it out in the open, and it becomes a part of my identity. I say, broadcast your intentions! You never know who is listening, or who might have a connection. The more people who know what you want, the more likely you are to get an opportunity. It takes guts to tell everyone what you want; it feels risky. But you have to learn to take those risks. In these situations, I ask myself two simple questions: “What’s the worst that can happen?” and “If the worst does happen, can I live with it?”

Usually, the worst that can happen is that I get told no, and I can live with that. I have found that the benefits of broadcasting my intentions far outweigh the discomfort of hearing no. So speak up and tell people what you want.

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