Each year, a main attraction at the Forté MBA Women’s Conference is our Dialogue with Leadership, featuring a candid conversation with two senior women business leaders who personify the themes of that year’s conference. In Los Angeles, Judy Olian, Dean of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management led a conversation with Pat Yarrington, CFO at Chevron, and Cynthia Bates, Vice President of Microsoft’s U.S. Small and Medium Businesses (SMB) Organization.
Despite their notable achievements, neither woman knew what their career path held in store.
Cynthia studied microbiology in college and worked on Wall Street early in her career. When the opportunity presented itself, she took a role at Microsoft, in the M&A group, “shocking my friends, who wondered why I would ever leave Manhattan.” Pat noted that, early on, following in a family tradition, she thought she might study law. But she gravitated toward business school, drawn by the global nature of the corporate sector. Although she has spent more than 30 years at Chevron, ascending to the CFO position, she didn’t have her career planned in advance; rather, she was presented with unexpected opportunities and learned to treat each as an adventure.
Both women spoke about self-confidence and risk-taking. Cynthia observed that when she left Wall Street for Seattle, she was changing industry, job function, and geography. She characterized that kind of risk-taking as key to building a career over time. Pat talked about being adventurous in relation to opportunity: “There were times in my career when I was asked to do a job that I didn’t want to do, that I didn’t think fit my skills. In each job, I found there was something new to learn, connections to make, and pieces of the business I could come to understand better,” she said.
Pat shared an anecdote about a time early in her career at Chevron when the then-CFO gave her a particularly challenging assignment. He noted that he would not have asked her to take on the assignment if he didn’t have complete confidence in her ability to handle it, and suggested that her self-confidence should match his faith in her. “That piece of advice has stayed with me almost daily,” she says. “I go in with a view that my voice can and should be heard.”
Echoing a theme that resonated throughout the conference, both women observed that the business climate today is in the midst of rapid transformation due to the advent of emerging technologies that put business intelligence within reach of everyone—and that the resulting dynamism in business development is producing new opportunities for women. “Today, we all are masters of technology. It’s so much part of our daily lives and today’s businesses.” In that context, Cynthia talked about her role at Microsoft today: “This is a really transformational time. The intersection of technology and small business has never been so powerful. I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a place where my team can help people start companies and see them thrive through the power of technology.”
The qualities of leadership are a recurring theme of the Dialogue each year. Dean Olian asked both speakers how they define and practice leadership. Both mentioned continually seeking to improve themselves and their teams, cultivating a culture of excellence within their organizations. Cynthia noted that she purposefully tries to encourage bold decision-making and the acceptance of risk in order to build strength within her teams. She also said that it’s important for a leader to have a mix of humility and confidence in order to inspire others.
In terms of practical advice, Pat advised seeking out the right managers early in your career to build your leadership potential. “I have found that it’s more important who you work for. If they inspire you and your skill development, that’s more important than the actual job itself.” She also talked about continuous improvement, a mantra she and Cynthia shared. “Have a quest to continuously improve”. She noted that focusing on excellence in your present job, and looking to improve your performance and your firm right now pays off in the long term: “The career takes care of itself”. Cynthia added that studying the leadership style of those you admire and asking for candid feedback is key to continuous improvement. “It’s really important to know the conversations that take place about you when you’re not there,” she said. “Know what your areas for development are.”
The Dialogue concluded on an optimistic note; both speakers mentioned that women are better represented in business today than in the past. Both women talked about giving back, mentoring others and developing tomorrow’s business leaders. Giving back is a major theme of the MBA Women’s Conference, as we focus on what MBA women can do to help reach out and draw more women into the pipeline, inspiring them through example. “We’re on the right trajectory,” said Pat. “We need to have a pipeline that represents the full diversity we want to see in business.”
If accepted into a Forté sponsor school, the Dialogue with Leadership is just one benefit of going to one of our sponsor schools! To learn more about the upcoming Forté Forums and how you can connect with admissions representatives from top schools, go to: www.fortefoundation.org/forum