Leadership Sound Bytes: Tech Executive Jennifer Jobin on Women & Success in the Digital Age
By James Houran, Managing Director at AETHOS Consulting Group
How many people do you know who would tell legendary tech mogul Bill Gates, "Thanks for the many opportunities at Microsoft, but now I see my career going in a different direction"? It sounds crazy, but essentially this is what Jennifer Jobin did as part of her deliberate development as a female executive. The journey challenged her to define her priorities and personal brand, find workable ways to manage and leverage the demands of both a fulfilling career and ever-evolving personal life, and mature as a leader of people versus stagnate as a manager of things.
Five Great Leadership Lessons
Jennifer took a risk right out of college, thinking that computers would be a "cool" field. Microsoft hired her, and a 22-year tenure followed. Leadership quickly took notice of her talent for handling licensing and the legal aspects of IP, so she was promoted to General Manager of an incubation practice. This sounds all perfectly fine, but this is the stage where perhaps the greatest leadership lesson hit her. Jennifer didn't have the confidence at this stage in her career to feel at ease with the other GMs. This uneasiness was further exacerbated in a company culture where employee ranking was the penultimate metric. Put simply, her biggest fear was failure and looking incompetent in front of her peers. Rather than posture, Jennifer showed humility and moved into what she described as a "right-sized Director role." There, she hit her stride again. The lesson imprinted her professional DNA from that point forward was, (1) "Risk-taking is fine, but don't move into new roles until you're truly ready" – and gut instinct will tell you if you're capable of doing the job."
But soon Jennifer was presented with significant changes in her personal life, including a new marriage, blending five teenage boys (a bigger challenge than many people realize) and having a child at age 43! It seems counterintuitive, but this is when her career really started taking off. She explained the situation as a lesson in how women with "three full time jobs" – career, household and raising children – shouldn't fall prey to think that they can't compete within a male-dominated company culture or industry. Jennifer insightfully observed that (2) mothers make particularly strong leaders, because they're used to organization, time management, the need for humility and a focus on others, confidence, and ability and eye for delegation. And work allows time away from home that can rejuvenate people and make them better parents.
Perhaps it's no surprise then that Jobin was promoted to a notable Senior Director role at Microsoft and learned much from her new supervisor. Despite her growing success, she became increasingly reflective and reconsidered her future direction. Jennifer took an earned 12-week sabbatical and upon her return she decided to part ways with Microsoft since she felt her professional passions and personal brand naturally changing. Jennifer needed to focus on her health, and the education and well-being of her teenage sons and three year-old daughter. She took a year off and then decided to re-enter the workforce after cleaning closets out of restlessness and inserting herself too much in her husband's new job, who also happens to be in high-tech.
It was at this juncture that she found professional fulfilment at Perficient, where she feels fortunate and inspired to lead a strong team and help nurture emerging women leaders in the process. Jobin humbly understates it, but Perficient recognized her leadership capabilities and she worked quickly to build a highly respected alliance management program for their partners. This means that Jennifer is the go-to professional to call when a business needs help designing and implementing a digital strategy. A significant measure of this successful build-out was Jennifer's eye for talent and team building. The other key ingredient was her in-depth understanding of client needs in the tech world, which was honed during her Microsoft years. Here she has been constantly focused on adding enterprise value. For instance, she was asked by the Chief Operating Officer, Kathy Henley, to be a part of re-design team to construct a sales organization that provides a career ladder for sales people and helps Perficient retain great talent.
Jobin's career has been partly planned and partly improvised, but she learned three other lessons that served as a strong foundation for her ongoing development and success. In particular, Jobin insists that (3) it's critical, "To build your own network of genuine relationships across an organization. This will demonstrate your competency and a capacity for collaboration and teamwork." It can't be fake or self-serving, but she believes that helping others succeed is one of the best forms of personal PR. The bottom line is no perceptions of inauthenticity, posturing or jockeying for position arise if one consistently thinks and acts with the philosophy of trying to add enterprise value to the organization. This is the very essence of "servant leadership" – a central theme voiced by leaders in the hospitality industry who were studied and profiled in the book, The Loneliness of Leadership (read more here ).
(4) Her next lesson, is to know your non-negotiables that inherently reflect your personal and professional values. Jobin cited several personal examples, such as never traveling on her anniversary or her children's birthdays. She notes unapologetically that individuals should be upfront about their needs with their supervisors and offer solutions and alternatives instead of conflicts and resistance. Setting and managing expectations is the key, and done well there typically will be no negative ramifications, Jobin says with a smile.
Finally, she emphasized the power in leveraging teams. In her experience, (5) if you delegate well to a competent and engaged team, leaders can handle more than they might think and then focus more on mentoring new leaders.
Advice to Young Women Wanting Leadership Roles
Here is where Jobin's voice becomes even more energetic; it's no mystery she is passionate about developing and supporting new women leaders. In rapid fire succession, Jennifer summarized very succinct tidbits women should keep in mind as they ponder leadership roles and work successfully as leaders:
- Take a longer-term perspective of your career. Jobin says not to think of pregnancy as a deficit to career development, and therefore don't make all-or-nothing decisions based on it. Rather, it's best to make career decisions based on specific opportunities that come from your competencies and professional interests. Take new roles, because you're at a place in career where you've satisfied your learnings and are ready for next steps. Take risks and chances and don't be afraid of making mistakes.
- Pursue leadership because it's a calling. Don't do it for status, as leadership is not about eagles. New leaders don't always realize that their roles are for those who want to be "out of the spotlight" to an extent and seek to make others successful. Jobin notes that she never considers herself better or more important than her direct reports. Indeed, in her opinion, team members are more valuable because they execute the plans and visions.
- Don't be people's psychiatrist – Women are known to be generally more relationship-focused, sensitive and nurturing then men, so this tidbit may come as a surprise. Yet, Jobin highlights the importance of not getting or becoming too personal with one's teams. Leaders must be optimally objective to be optimally effective, so maintain proper boundaries and act as a "Guardian Angel" to your teams.
- Choose realism over optimism. Jobin expanded on the principle of leadership objectivity, and emphasized that women should, "Believe in yourself but be accountable and self-critical." She is adamant that work-life balance will come most easily only once a person's non-negotiables are identified.
- Carefully consider your employers. Jobin believes that people quit their bosses, not their jobs. Therefore, she stresses for women never to take jobs purely for the economic upside. Rather, she urges everyone to align themselves with companies that hold shared values and whenever possible will connect you to supervisors who manage in ways that are compatibility with your learning style. She strongly recommends working for "situational managers," who are leaders that adapt to the needs of the team versus expect the team to accommodate the leader. Likewise, she cautions against roles that report to supervisors new to their roles – instead strive to work for seasoned leaders.
- Foster and leverage workforce diversity. Jennifer's view is that, "Mixing it up in constructive ways to get the best from everyone is the leader's main task." This means appreciating the unique value that specific employee demographics offer. For example, she notes that millennials are quick, high-energy, tech-minded, and agile, so she always assigns them to roles where those variables are critical. Of course, this is often the case in the world of technology consulting, though arguably the same can be said for the hospitality industry. On the other hand, seasoned employees can teach younger employees patience, work ethic, relationship-building, and especially how to deal with conflict in a world that seems to handle interpersonal communication and rapport building via impersonal gadgets of various sorts.
- "Own" the female perspective. The women's perspective is valuable in the workplace and complements that of men. According to Jobin, women come to their roles with less ego and can have more real conversations without posturing. Women want to get the job done, but fears of feeling they can't take care of their families or compete with men hold them back. And Jobin argues that these feelings or socializations seem to start early in school or daily life. Therefore, women should seek resources to help them cope and balance work-life demands, and in the workplace itself, women should be themselves and confidently contribute in ways that leverage their styles, viewpoints, and approach. Simply put, women's perspective his the piece that helps complete the puzzle.
The Secret to Her Success
As trusted advisors to our clients, AETHOS professionals naturally read and profile people. Jennifer Jobin was no exception, but one needn't be a trained interviewer or psychologist to pick up on the secret to her success. At one point Jobin remarked that, "Leaders now and in the future must have or develop the skill set for dealing with ambiguity and being okay with uncertainties."
Similar to many leaders in hospitality profiled in The Loneliness of Leadership, Jobin believes that it's ultimately about navigating change, Let's face it, most people would readily accept job security at a large, stable company like Microsoft versus having the courage and tenacity to bet on something unknown or untested. Indeed, Jennifer's success seems grounded in her ability or willingness to embrace uncertainty.
But still, it boils down to more than simply a tolerance for ambiguity – it's more about recognizing, embracing, and then leveraging the positive opportunities that come from change, chaos, and ambiguities. It doesn't come naturally or easily for everyone, but Jobin feels strongly that it's the lynchpin for success for women in leadership, especially in this digital age. Global markets are entirely dominated by uncertainties, some of which seem good or bad at face value, depending on one's point of view. Her trick has been to remain strong and unfazed – and even become energized – in the face of ambiguity.
Arguably, this might be the universal skill required by the future leadership who must face and succeed amidst the ambiguities and chaos that define ever-evolving global markets. Jennifer summed it well at the end of the interview, "I love change and try to get my teams to love it too!"