Far too few CIOs and former CIOs have demonstrated the fortitude to subject themselves to the demanding exercise of writing a book to share their experiences and allow others to benefit from what they’ve learned in what may be the hottest seat in the C-suite. So when a remarkably accomplished former CIO of a Fortune 500 company writes such a book, that’s noteworthy enough. When that CIO happens to be a woman, the perspective from the top is extraordinary.
I’m referring to Becky Blalock, former senior vice president and CIO at the Atlanta-based energy giant, Southern Company. Blalock left Southern Company in 2011 after a 33-year career in which more than $1 billion in new technology initiatives were delivered under her leadership. Her book, "DARE: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage and Career for Women in Charge," was released earlier this month.
I had the opportunity to speak with Blalock last week. It was a timely discussion, coming in the wake of Twitter’s IPO and the controversy surrounding the revelation that there are no women on Twitter’s board, and that all of the senior executives, with the sole exception of the general counsel, are men. I asked Blalock for her thoughts on that, and she said it’s a “shame:”
They’re not unlike a lot of the technology sector, but what’s really unfortunate about this with Twitter is that if you look at the majority of who their users are, 71 percent of Internet users in the social media space are women, and 62 percent of Twitter’s users are women. You don’t want to put women on your board just for the sake of having them on your board—that’s an insult to women. But women have a different perspective, and women are the majority of who their customers are. They’re really missing out. Catalyst has done a lot of research that shows if you have two or more women on your board, you perform better financially. That has been proven. So they’re missing a tremendous opportunity by not having their biggest customer segment better represented among their management ranks and their board. Women see a lot of things that men don’t see. You don’t need women just for the sake of having women. You need qualified women who can add value, and there are lots of women out there.
I asked Blalock what percentage of the blame for the fact that there are so few women in the boardroom rests with women themselves. She said the lion’s share of the blame rests with men:
Women aren’t the ones making those decisions—it’s men, for the most part. So I would say most of the blame does lie with men. Historically, there weren’t a lot of women who were qualified. But now, there are more women in the work force in professional jobs than there are men. I could understand when I came in the work force 30 years ago, you didn’t have enough women who were qualified—that had a background in business, and had the experience. Today, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be changing. Fortunately, there are a lot of great organizations out there like Catalyst, and women corporate directors, that are trying to change that. But it wasn’t until recently, when a lot more transparency came around this subject, that people started talking about the numbers and the fact that more women ought to be getting there. The other thing is, I don’t want women on boards just for the sake of having women on boards. There are a lot of very talented women who deserve an opportunity, and who could bring a lot of value to companies, because they make up the majority of the customers of these companies. It’s just that boards don’t turn over very much. You’ve got a lot of people who are pretty up there in age sitting on these boards—many boards don’t have term limits, so sometimes somebody sits on the board and stays there forever. So it will take some turnover for women to get those opportunities. It is a shame when a new technology company like Twitter comes along, and they’ve not been more proactive about trying to get women. I think all the media attention they’re getting may encourage them to look a little harder for women. Because they’re there.
On the question of whether there are any specifically feminine traits or characteristics that women can tap as a means of helping them to become empowered to succeed and to lead, Blalock said women are much more nurturing, for the most part, than men are:
If you look at the number one reason that people leave jobs, it’s because of the relationship they have with their immediate supervisor. That’s not to say all women are more nurturing. I have to tell you, I get very disturbed by the “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” thing. There are a lot of women from Mars. Not all women are as supportive as they need to be of other women. And there are some men who are incredibly supportive. I would never have been given the opportunities I’ve had in my career had it not been for some incredibly visionary men who were willing to take a risk on me. There were no women. We had no female officers when I went to work for the company. I wasn’t the first female officer in my company, but I was the first female officer who was also a mother. There were men who would say, “We’re going to give her a chance to do something here.” And of course I worked very hard and didn’t let them down. The best compliment they could give me when I left was to put another woman in there. That told me that being a woman wasn’t an issue anymore. But let me tell you, there’s a lot of stress that comes with that. Because when you’re the first woman, and everybody’s scrutinizing you, you do not want to fail. Women and minorities do carry that extra burden that [white] men don’t have on them. They can’t afford to fail.
That said, Blalock noted that men are becoming more proactive in addressing the issue:
I’m actually finding when I speak that a lot of men are coming, and they come up to me afterwards and ask what they can do to make the work environment more conducive for women. I tell them that the first thing is to understand that women may need more of a pat on the back and more support than the men have, because they’re not getting it. I tell them that the second thing is equal face time. If you’re playing golf with the men on your team, or you’re hunting with them, you need to find a way to include the women. It may be that you ask them to work on a special project.
I talk to some companies where they have this really open culture, and this isn’t an issue—sometimes the company is dominated by women. But there are still an awful lot of companies out there, particularly in the Fortune 500 arena, where I think there’s still a lot of work to be done on inclusiveness, for females and minorities.
I first met Blalock several years ago at an IT industry event, and our paths crossed a couple of other times at subsequent events. I can tell you, whether it’s politically correct or not, that she is a striking woman who turns heads when she walks into a room. So I asked her to what extent that made the gender issue even more of an obstacle. She acknowledged that it had made some aspects of her career more difficult:
There have been some bad players in the past, both men and women. You have to always guard your reputation. There are people who never want to give you credit for having accomplished anything, so you should just never, ever give anybody any ammunition to say that you’re not anything other than professional. Don’t set yourself up. In a situation where people feel like they can question your reputation, I always say your integrity is number one. If you ever compromise that, you will never get it back. I tell women they should dress the part. If you want people to take you seriously, then you’ve got to dress seriously, and you’ve got to act seriously. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and you can’t cut up. But certainly don’t go around and flirt, and act like you’re available when you’re not. You’re playing with fire if you do that kind of stuff at work—you’re putting your career at risk. It’s just better not to go there.
I can tell you, a number of times people started rumors about me, saying I was having an affair with someone. There was absolutely no merit to it—I’ve been married to my college sweetheart for 33 years. But there were times when friends of mine would call me and say, “Do you know people are saying that?” What was I supposed to do about it? Eventually, they get through talking about it and it goes away. But I see that over and over again with attractive women in the workplace. It doesn’t happen to the men, but it does happen to the women.
I can’t say that in the last 20 years, anybody has done anything that I would say has approached sexual harassment of any kind. I guess that once you reach a certain level, that pretty much goes away—people are afraid. I have to tell you, I’m almost fearful for men, because a man will open the door for me, and today women get pissed off about that. And I have to be careful, too, because I am very much a hugging person. Maybe it’s a southern thing—I’ll see people and just throw my arms around them and hug them, and some people don’t like that. I think you have to get to know people a little bit better. … You have to be very careful in a work environment. I know people who have done things very innocently, and ended up being mortified because they sent the wrong signal to somebody.
Blalock also shared her insights regarding women in the CIO role, and the women-centric leadership issues she wrote about in her book. I’ll cover all of that in a forthcoming post. Let me wrap up this first part with something Blalock felt was especially important to get across:
People need to understand what it is that they want. There were too many times that senior executives, men and women, would come to me and say they wanted to be mentored, they wanted to be coached. We’d sit down to talk, and I’d ask, what is it you want to do in the next five years? And they couldn’t articulate that. I think that is so basic to your career success—knowing what you want. Or even knowing what you don’t want. If you know what you want, and you put together a plan to make it happen, it will happen. If you don’t know what you want, it’s very, very tough to make that [unknown] happen.