“Choose to Lead – Lessons from the Cubicle to the Boardroom” : A Discussion w/Kathleen McLean (CIO of ADT)

By Kathleen McLean, SFS Graduate and CIO of ADT

I had the great pleasure to spend Wednesday evening with the GUWIL, an impressive group of smart and ambitious young women wanting to make a difference.  That’s what leadership is after all: articulating your vision and compelling others to action toward that purpose.  You don’t need leaders to keep doing the same things.  Leaders effect change.  Leaders make a difference.

Your potential is awesome.   You have already started on the path to achieving great things by choosing Georgetown and committing to do the work to develop your intellect, form life long bonds and find your purpose.  That’s what Georgetown did for me. It is a fantastic school.  Attending here was one of the best decisions of my life.  I commend you for choosing well and encourage you to take full advantage of everything the school and city have to offer.

The first topic we discussed was choosing your first job well; finding the field and organization that is a good fit.  After all, if you are serious about your career, you are going to spend a lot of time at work so it should be something that excites you.  When I graduated, I took advantage of the career center and interviewed with several large firms, including on-site interviews with a global manufacturing company and a bank.  Through the process I came to realize that I did not want to work in a large company with a long history of doing things a particular way.  And frankly, I was not excited about household appliances or commercial lending.  I answered an ad in the Washington Post and landed my dream job as a junior economist at the Federal Reserve.  I loved the content of the work and the people.  Find your passion. Don’t settle. Start with the right job for you.

After a few years, I made a shift and went to work for an information systems consulting firm that was growing fast and recruiting really smart people to do new and innovative work.  It was a dynamic and evolving environment unbound by a legacy way of doing things.  However, even in that context, there was subtle and not so subtle stereotyping of women.  It was assumed that we would drop out after a few years to get married and have kids so there was no point in giving us leadership roles.  This is when I learned to assert my place at the table by speaking clearly about my intentions and following up with my actions.  I consistently asked to lead complex and challenging projects and delivered remarkable results.  Believe in yourself. Be tenacious.  Do the hard jobs. Deliver results.

As I moved up the ranks and led increasingly bigger teams and transformational projects, the rewards but also the scope, obstacles and risks grew as well.  This is when I learned that I didn’t have to know everything, I couldn’t possibly know everything and I needed to leverage the collective wisdom and power of the people on my team.  I was fortunate to lead several advanced technology projects that gave the company strategic advantage. I led customer care teams to substantially improve our customers’ experience.  These efforts required my employees to embrace change and to believe that change would be for the better. To accomplish our goals, they needed to trust me, align their actions with my vision, and for me to trust them to do the right thing.  Mutual trust and respect across organizational boundaries enabled us to overcome many obstacles and deliver great results.   Choose to work with people you know, like and trust.  Build a network that you can rely on and that can rely on you.  Be inclusive and listen to many voices, but then make a decision and act.

We rounded out our discussion with the work-life balance question.  Of course you can have a personal life and a professional life. You must!  It is not an either/ or decision.  Men have always worked and had families.  Women can too.  It will require you to make choices and judgments that are appropriate for the time and circumstance and to draw on your support network when you need it.  I work a lot of hours but my work invigorates me and I work with people that I like, many of whom have been lifelong friends. Certainly there were times when I felt I could have done more for my family or for my team.  That led us to the final lesson of the night.  Don’t obsess about what you could or should have done. Live your best life every day.  Then let it go and get a good night’s sleep!

You are the master of your own destiny and have been given many gifts – intelligence, freedom and opportunity.  Decide whether you want to lead and whether you are suited to it.  No matter what your circumstance is today, if you want it and work for it, you will achieve it.  Dare to be great!