Act-On Software CEO Kate Johnson, a 1998 graduate from the College of Business accounting program, has spent roughly equal parts of her professional career in the Silicon Valley and the Silicon Forest. She shares that at financial industry conferences she could go an entire day and not see more than a handful of other women and frequently was the only woman in a meeting. Named CEO in January 2018, Johnson offers career advice for young women starting out.
1. You have to assert yourself.
Kate Johnson: When attending investment banking meetings with other male executives from my company, it was a common occurrence for the people we were meeting with to completely bypass me to shake hands with my male counterparts thinking I’m not there to participate as part of the executive team but rather to take notes or some other lesser task. You have to assert yourself. When something like that happens you compose yourself, quickly shake it off and make it clear why you are there. You’ll look around the room and see the male-to-female ratio is very poor, but don’t let that deter you.
2. Contribute – that’s why you are in the room.
KJ: When I am in a room, and there is a conversation about a question or a problem, I believe I have been asked to attend the meeting so that I can provide my unique perspective and opinion, even if the subject matter is outside my direct area of expertise. I would say it’s important to be a part of the conversation; contribute to every conversation. The more you contribute the more you will be asked to be part of future discussions.
3. Take chances, believe in yourself, and learn as much as you can.
KJ: Taking on tough challenges can be the most rewarding thing you can do in your career. I never expected to be a CEO of a software company and thinking back on it; I never had aspirations specifically for a big title. But I’ve always been extremely inquisitive, I enjoy challenges, and I love to learn. That desire to learn and solve tough problems has guided me my entire career. When I was asked by my board of directors if I would step up and take on the CEO role, I’m not going to lie, I had to think about it. I had ask myself if I wanted to take on this challenge knowing it was unchartered territory for me and that always come with a chance of potential failure. The answer was ‘yes, I do!’ and I’m proud and pleased about that.
4. Consider finding a mentor.
KJ: I’ve had lots of mentors over the years, and believe finding mentors throughout your career is critical to being successful. It’s really helpful to have that trusted person where you can bounce ideas off and get advice from someone who has been through exactly what you are dealing with. Learning from other people’s success and failures can be really helpful and help you avoid the same pitfalls. I do think that, in general terms, female CEOs are judged a little more harshly and put under the microscope. I also believe that the younger generations are not going to experience gender discrimination as much. I could be lucky, but I’ve never felt that I was judged unfairly in my career advancement in any of the roles or companies I’ve been in.
5. Choose the networking that suits you.
KJ: It’s your choice about how you’ll network as a female. I’m very selective with my networking, and I look for situations where I can build true relationships. I’ve definitely been invited to networking events (aka boondoggles) that are clearly geared towards male executives, such as ski weekends or fishing trips. While I appreciate the attempt at inclusion, I generally do not attend these things, because I don’t personally get a lot of value in traditional networking. Instead I focus on networking events where I can meet other executives in similar industries or jobs where we can learn from each other. In my younger years, conferences were a good way to do that. Nowadays I look for local tech community events.