Former CIO Becky Blalock reflects on her decades-long career in IT and offers advice about self-confidence, risk taking, leadership and the lack of women in IT.
By Peter High
When Becky Blalock entered the U.S. workforce more than 30 years ago, there weren't many female leaders for her to emulate. As a result, Blalock had to create her own career path, starting at Southern Company, the third-largest utility in the world, where she rose through the ranks to become a senior vice president and CIO. Blalock spent nearly a decade running IT operations at Southern Company where she was nationally recognized for her innovative practices before leaving the company in 2011. Now a managing partner at Advisory Capitol, a strategic consulting firm, Blalock recently published a book, DARE: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage, and Career for Women in Charge, with the aim of providing career and leadership advice for women. Blalock spoke with CIO Insight contributor Peter High about DARE, mentoring, the difference between leading and managing, and what she learned from one of the biggest disasters in her tenure as a CIO.
What led you to write DARE?
Becky Blalock: The top jobs in corporate America were once reserved for men. I was fortunate to be among the first women to break this tradition when I became CIO of one of the largest utility companies in the world. Getting there was not easy, and during my career journey, I learned many important lessons. As a result, I've strived to mentor other women seeking the same career path and to help them find their own way to success.
I saw writing DARE as my chance to mentor women beyond my immediate circle. We still see a big gender gap in the IT field, and DARE gives me a platform to talk about what an exciting field this is and to encourage more females to pursue this career path. Some of the fastest growing and highest paid jobs are in IT, but this field does not have a positive image. I hope to change that with this book.
You are a big believer that confidence is a learned skill. What are the steps to growing one's confidence?
Confidence is a learned skill, just like leadership and public speaking. Willingness to stretch outside of your comfort zone everyday grows confidence. Everyone suffers from issues with confidence, but those who overcome it are the ones willing to act in spite of fear. As humans, we overestimate the consequences of failure. We have been genetically programmed to be cautious and that is how our species has survived. It was the cautious who lived to pass along their genes. What we have to do is act in spite of our fear. Women, in particular, suffer from confidence issues in the workplace because we don't have the same safety net as men. Women have not typically had the mentors or sponsors that men have had. If you have someone coaching you and ready to rescue you if things go wrong, then you are much more willing to step outside your comfort zone and risk failure!
Nothing builds confidence like being prepared. It's hard to be prepared unless you have someone who has been down that path to coach you along the way. We grow the most when we feel personally at risk. What we've got to learn is that failure is not failure; it's feedback. Be willing to get out there and try new things. Taking risks is absolutely essential in growing your confidence and getting you ready for the next career stage.
In your journey to becoming the CIO of Southern Company, was there a specific point when this emphasis on confidence and risk-taking stood out?
As I mention in the book, I was an Air Force brat and went to 15 different schools in 12 years. What that does is teach you how to adapt and be fearless going into new situations. When I was approached by our CEO and asked to take a regional CIO job, my initial thought was "I am not qualified for that job." I did not think I had the technical skills for the job and was really afraid of the role. However, I also knew that turning the job down would not be a good career move. How do you say no to the CEO? But, because I had learned early on to believe in myself and adapt, I knew I could figure out how to do this job and that it would be a great learning experience. It also helped that I had the CEO's support.