A long-time IBM executive, Nancy DeViney launched a second career as an executive coach, with a focus on women in leadership roles. She works both independently and with Shambaugh Leadership as a coach and faculty member, facilitating discussions with executives on leading change, executive presence, and strategic thinking. DeViney also serves on the board of trustees at Bryant University.
You went back to school for executive coaching after 40 years at IBM. What drew you to your new field?
I was drawn to executive coaching because of my desire to focus this next chapter of my working life on the advancement of women in leadership roles. Recent studies, from sources such as LeanIn.org and McKinsey's Women in the Workplace 2016, highlight that women continue to be underrepresented in all levels of leadership—especially in senior leadership roles—and that they're having a very different experience at work than men. Whether it's getting equal consideration for first-line or up-line management roles, receiving meaningful coaching and feedback, or having access to sponsors, women continue to be at a disadvantage.
Organizations need to take systemic action to address this talent issue, but there's also a need to support high-potential women leaders one-on-one. This is where coaching comes in. It's an opportunity to help women leaders embrace feedback, experiment with new leadership approaches or behaviors, and explore opportunities for learning and growth. As an experienced executive and a working mother, I felt that this is where my greatest contribution could be made.
Tell us about the transition from IBM to executive coaching.
At first, you go through a bit of an identity crisis. You ask yourself, "Who am I now?" since so much of our identity gets wrapped up in our companies, our titles, and the work we do. But it didn't take long for me to get clarity on the fact that I wanted to spend more time helping other leaders advance in their careers. For 30 of my 40 years at IBM, I was either a manager or an executive. Coaching and developing others was always something I enjoyed and prioritized. And, as a working mother who tackled a variety of line and staff executive roles, I can relate to the work and life challenges that many executives face as they move up in their organizations.
Lastly, as a lifelong learner, executive coaching gave me an on-ramp for new learning and professional growth. After retiring from IBM, I went back to school at Columbia University to learn more about the science of coaching and human performance, and to become certified in executive and organizational coaching.
What do women need to tell themselves about their own capabilities vis-à-vis leadership to be able to overcome some of the obstacles they face, including self-made ones?
As women, we have to slow down periodically and create some quiet time for intentional reflection on our leadership journeys and aspirations. We all are so busy with work and life that we can lose our way if we're not creating clarity about who we are and what we care most about doing. Others can end up deciding for us, which can be risky.
So the first thing women need to tell themselves is that "they are enough" and recognize key skills and capabilities they have. We need to turn down the volume on our inner critic and self-talk that plays in our heads as to whether we're experienced enough or ready enough to tackle new leadership roles. The soft skills many women possess are differentiating—not just the domain skills. Strong interpersonal skills such as listening, showing empathy, being inclusive, adaptability, building trust, and fostering collaboration are all critical in leading teams through creative problem solving and transformations that enable innovation, growth, and productivity. Knowing this, we need to be open to stretch assignments where we can leverage these skills in domain areas that may be unfamiliar, but which will give us professional challenges and visibility. Leadership is a journey, we are all a work in progress, and you will expand your capabilities when you tackle different challenges in new arenas—that's when you grow the most.
Second, we need to have the courage to speak up more in meetings and be willing to have the tough conversations. Our experience and point of view matters. Constructive debate is part of the creative leadership process. Don't be overly cautious or worry about saying the perfect thing. It's far better to get into the dialogue than to sit on the sidelines. And conversations that are often avoided can actually unlock the key to our growth. This can include seeking out feedback when a meeting didn't go well, following up with a peer after a difficult conversation to improve the working relationship, or asking to be considered for a role to increase your impact to the organization.
The third capability I'd highlight is to be curious and inquisitive. Hone your skills at asking better questions. Given the strategic challenges we're facing in organizations today, leaders don't need to have all the answers. In fact, they can't have all the answers. They need to know how to reach out, collaborate with the right team of diverse thinkers, and ask the kinds of questions that will help the team focus on the facts, get to the insights, and reframe challenges into new possibilities.
What are two or three seemingly small things that organizations can do that will make a big impact on women thriving as leaders?
Fundamentally, this is about changing workplace culture—and that's not a small thing. Good intentions need to be translated into a cohesive strategy and tangible execution plan. Otherwise, real progress is not going to be made. It's about leaders committing to actions that move the needle when it comes to the advancement of women. Are they engaged in mentoring and sponsoring? What goals have been set for the organization in advancing women in leadership roles, and how are they being measured? Who's accountable for the progress? What HR policies and practices support the advancement of women? There's a number of dials that need to be turned to create and sustain more inclusive cultures.
While there's no silver bullet, there are practical things that can be done to pick up the pace of change. First, senior leaders and middle managers can signal to their organizations their commitment to women in leadership roles by regularly asking different questions of their leaders: Where are the women on this slate of promotion candidates? What women are being given stretch assignments? What women do you personally sponsor or mentor? What kinds of things are you doing to be an effective sponsor or mentor? It all starts at the top, with leadership ownership and accountability.
The second is that leaders and managers need to actively listen to women and foster dialogue about their experience. For example, what listening forums are in place to foster this dialogue about inclusion and advancement? What roundtables have they personally conducted, and what did they learn from them? What is going on in the organization that makes women feel excluded? What suggestions do women have? These learnings then need to be prioritized for action.
The third thing is that organizations can do a much better job at providing high-impact leadership development experiences for executive women. Organizations need to create a safe environment in which women can come together, be authentic, explore their 360 feedback, assess their strengths and their developmental needs, and think through new strategies for expanding their networks. And they can complement these face-to-face leadership development experiences with executive coaching to take the individual learning to the next level. Senior leaders need to show up at these sessions to share their experience, business perspective, and commitment to actions that support a more inclusive culture.
You used the phrase "risk taking" as something necessary for women to embrace. What's your advice for women in learning that competency?
This is all about being willing to step outside of your comfort zone, because we have a tendency to stay in jobs too long. Sometimes that's for work-life reasons, maybe it's because we have a fear of failure or for other reasons. We've got to get more comfortable with putting ourselves into situations where we not only are leading something but we're learning it at the same time. This is something I've had to do many times in my career. After the first or second time you do this, you start to realize, "Hey, I can figure this out. I don't necessarily have to be the subject matter expert. If I have the ability to engage the right people with diverse skills, align them to focus on the facts, and mobilize them to address the challenge or opportunity at hand, we can have real impact."
This willingness to feel the discomfort of stepping into a space that's unfamiliar and to have a belief system that "Look, I'm going to grow, I'm going to learn, I'm going to figure it out with others" is very empowering once you do it. You're building new networks, inspiring and influencing others to move together in a new direction, and honing different aspects of your leadership skills. So, it grows you professionally in a big way; people come to see you differently.
What was your biggest career stretch?
My biggest career stretch was when I was asked to become a general manager for one of IBM's services business lines—that of its Learning Services. Although I had done various line sales and services leadership roles, this was the opportunity to run a global P&L with 5,000 people in 55 countries. In the midst of running that business, the market shifted faster than we anticipated—and we had to keep the traditional classroom training business going while launching a new business model to deliver e-learning offerings.
That dual GM role was eventually split, and I was asked to focus solely on the e-learning startup—a lesson in intrapreneurship to address an emerging market, with a very different set of operational metrics and high growth expectations. This was a big step up for me, giving me greater visibility to many of the senior leaders. People began to see my capabilities differently as I led a cross-company solutions business. This led to other senior leadership opportunities, some of which were trailblazing in that no one had done them before me.
Reflecting on your own experience as well as what you've gained through executive coaching, what would you tell the women leaders of the future?
I would first highlight that many women are natural leaders.
Second, be very thoughtful about the arenas in which you choose to place your professional energy. Seek out organizations where you will have the opportunity to do work that makes a difference, and where you will continue to grow and advance as a leader. And choose to work for leaders you respect and who will create an environment in which you can do your best work.
Third, build trust by delivering on your commitments with integrity; it's foundational for your reputation and everything you'll do throughout your career.
Fourth, be intentional in your career choices versus letting others choose your path. You know best the kind of work that gives you purpose and the whole life that you want to create for yourself. Pick a life partner who will support and encourage you along the way.
Fifth, recognize that building your professional network both inside and outside your company will yield dividends that you cannot imagine now.
And finally, help us imagine and create workplaces that are more inclusive and that engage the creativity and talents of everyone on their team or in the organization.
What do you enjoy doing for rest or relaxation?
I enjoy a variety of creative pursuits like cooking and entertaining friends and family with my husband, Mark. And I have inherited a special love of baking from my mom. I enjoy tackling interior decorating projects. I've always been focused on health and wellness—so I do a lot of walking, lap swimming, and some yoga.
I tell women all the time—and men tooâ€”that our careers are marathons, they're not a sprint. It's important that we take care of our health and well-being because nobody else is going to do that for us. You can't be the best version of you at work if you aren't taking care of yourself.