Becky Blalock's Big Dare

By Peter High
Becky Blalock

Becky Blalock's Big Dare

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.

Becky Blalock's Big Dare

As it turned out, this was one of the best moves I could have made. I did not realize this until a young woman I worked with helped me understand this. She was on my team in accounting and came to the IT organization shortly after me. About six months into the IT position, she said to me, "You are a better leader in IT than you were in accounting." I was stunned by this comment. I had considered myself the subject matter expert in accounting and felt like I was operating by the seat of my pants in IT. I asked her to elaborate. She said, "You built a lot of our systems and processes in accounting and were known to micro manage and really get into the details. In IT you are truly leading. You stay out of the details and trust your team to get the work done. You are here to support us and cheer us on and you only get involved when we need you to help resolve an issue. You are engaged with our customers and vendors, and you provide the strategic direction we need."

This conversation was a wake-up call for me. Leading is very different from managing, and the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the less you know sometimes. The key to these jobs is who you surround yourself with and the support you give them.

You talk about taking risks to the point of being willing to fail and accepting failure, but at the same time you talk about the scrutinizing eyes and a low margin for error through your rise to CIO. How do you reconcile the two points? How did a failure impact you personally and the view of those around you, especially those who scrutinized your work?

As CIO, I had to make multimillion dollar decisions—often with limited information. We operate in a fast-moving world where decisions must be made quickly and with incomplete information. This is especially true in the IT world where change is the norm. You have to make sure you are doing the best job possible of taking in information and creating a culture where employees will openly challenge your thinking. You must do your best to keep up with the technical aspects of the job, but also build a trusting environment and ensure you are getting all the facts. As long as you've done your homework, gotten as much input as you can and involved the right people proactively in the decision, you can be more assured in acting on a decision.

All of this takes time and effort, but it results in a more informed decision. If the decision turns out to be a bad one, you've got a whole team involved to support you. I also believe that as a leader, it is totally your responsibility if something goes wrong. You should be the one out front taking responsibility and explaining the lessons learned and what will done to rectify the situation. People can handle bad news; what they cannot handle is no news.

As the first woman to hold this position and one of the few women in senior management, everything I did was closely scrutinized. The good news is that people are watching. If you do things the right way you have the opportunity to open the door for others to follow. The bad news is that women at the top have the additional burden of proving a woman can do the job and do it well. This additional stress placed on women can be hard for men to understand and they are often unaware of the double standard women are held to.

One of the biggest disasters I had to deal with during my tenure as a CIO was an incident where an intern was wiping our servers for which leases were expiring. We would wipe the data from a server before returning it to the vendor. Unfortunately, the intern did not disconnect the server from our network and initiated a total disaster. The cascading failure wiped out a significant amount of company data and had the potential to impact our ability to issue payroll to 26,000 employees.

The first thing I did upon learning about this disaster was to call our CEO and explain the situation to him. Because he heard about this from me, and not anyone else, he became an ally in helping us work through the issue. The next thing I did was contact the major stakeholders and let them know what had happened and what we were doing to get it fixed. We instituted our disaster recovery procedures and had everything back in 24 hours, but it was a scary time. I kept my team focused on the recovery and I took full responsibility for the incident and communicated relentlessly. Because so many people were kept proactively in the communication loop, there was no finger pointing; I had made it clear that I was responsible. Everyone forgot this mistake fairly quickly except for my team and I.

Becky Blalock's Big Dare

It was a real lesson on the importance of proactive and honest communication. Also, when you accept responsibility for an issue, it is amazing how people will jump on board and ask what they can do to help you.

In a recent Wall Street Journal blog post, you mentioned five ways to break through the glass ceiling from middle management to executive management. You wrote about the requirement of being able to see the big picture and to think in a broader sense. Was that something you learned from a mentor or was there a specific event that made you come to this realization?

Having stepped into several roles where I was not the subject matter expert, I learned early on that a key to success in these roles is reverse coaching—building a trusting and talented team and knowing your peers inside and outside your company. I also learned the value of trusted relationships with vendors.

There is no textbook to teach you how to lead at the top levels of a corporation. I did not talk with or see my boss but maybe once a month, and he knew very little about IT. To get that broad view I had to stay in touch with trends in my company's industry and in IT. Every company has an IT organization and many of the issues and challenges we face are universal. I learned a great deal by talking with world-class CIOs, vendors supplying other companies, subject matter experts in my own organization and reading a wide array of material on both my industry and IT. I also tried to look at what the world might be like in 20 years through futurists such as Daniel Burris and Thornton May. IT has to be thinking many years out because you must have the infrastructure and tools built and ready to deliver the support your company needs to leverage technology. IT is increasingly being called on to help the business understand what is possible and to help drive innovation. You can't be successful at doing that if you don't have some view into what is coming.

Are you confident that more female executives will follow your lead in a career in IT?

I hope to have some impact because we need more of our young people, men and women, pursuing degrees in IT. I think it is vitally important to the U.S. economy moving forward because this is one of the top growth areas. Today we are outsourcing many of these jobs because we do not have the talent at home. Women make up the majority of college graduates, but they are not choosing engineering or IT fields of study. Currently, just 13 percent of IT majors are women. However, there is a lot of focus on getting more girls interested in this area of study, and I hope to help make an impact as well.

The IT field has a poor image and has been labeled as a place for geeks. The truth is that this is one of the most exciting places to be in corporate America. IT touches every part of an organization, so it provides a great view of the entire business and prepares you for almost any role in the company. IT has the ability to revolutionize the way a company interacts with its customers, produces its product and grows its brand. There is not a more exciting place to be. Seven of the 28 women I interviewed in DARE are CIOs and each of them talked about the need to change the image of IT and their personal commitment to helping with this issue. They all discussed the fact that there are still too many times when we attend a meeting and find we are either the only woman in the room or one of only a handful.

It is hard to be something you have never seen. I hope by highlighting some of the successful women in this field and showcasing the excitement in IT, it will both dare and encourage others.

About the Author

Peter High is president of Metis Strategy, a boutique IT-strategy consultancy based in Washington, D.C. A contributor to CIO Insight, High is also the author of World Class IT: Why Businesses Succeed When IT Triumphs, and the moderator of the podcast, The Forum on World Class IT. He can be reached at peter.high@metisstrategy.com.

To read his previous CIO Insight article, "How Global Partners Manages Its Software Licenses," click here.

This article was originally published on 04-15-2014