369: Shellye Archambeau Is Unapologetically Ambitious And Shows Us How We Can Be Too

Learn how to become the trailblazing leader you were meant to be!

Shellye Archambeau is an amazing woman. I was honored to interview her back in 2020 and was so impressed with what she had to say that I wanted to share her wisdom with you again. An experienced CEO and Board Director with a formidable track record of building brands and high performance teams, Shellye has dynamically led technology-focused organizations for over 30 years. Her secret? “You just need a lot of personal belief in your own skills and a vision of yourself as a leader.” As I always say, if you can see it, you can be it! And Shellye helps us all see it. Enjoy.

Watch and listen to our conversation here


A highly accomplished leader with an unassailable belief in herself

Shellyes bookYes, Shellye has had an illustrious career with a lot of firsts. But as she will tell you, being the first African American woman to achieve what she has was never easy. She broke through, forged ahead, and now inspires others to do the same. Her book, Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers, and Create Success on Your Own Terms, powerfully tackles how you too can break through your own hurdles, road blocks and glass ceilings that might be holding you back. Want to surge ahead but not sure how? Listen in as Shellye tells us!

Meet Shellye Archambeau

The former CEO of MetricStream, a GRC company based in Palo Alto, CA, Shellye Archambeau has held executive positions at numerous major companies, including a 15-year career at IBM where she became the first African American woman to gain an international assignment. As well as being a guest lecturer at her alma mater, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Shellye is an author and a regular contributor for Xconomy. She currently serves on the boards of Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies and Okta, and is also a strategic advisor to the Royal Bank of Canada, Capital Markets Group and Forbes Ignite. You can contact Shellye on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and her website. You can also email her at shellye@shellye.com.

To learn more about how to be a better, more accomplished leader, check out these 3 podcasts:

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Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon, your host, and it’s always such a pleasure and a privilege to have you join us for our podcast. Remember, my job is to help you get off the brink. And today, it’s a very important time for us to step back and rethink who we are, where we’re going, and really to begin to plan the next phase in our own lives, our careers. It’s a time of change.

And so I have with us today a wonderful woman that I want to share with you. Shellye Archambeau is a marvelous woman. I’ll tell you about her in a moment. But she’s got a message that I think is important for us to understand and begin to figure out how to apply to our own careers and our own lives. It’s a time to rethink what matters, and it’s a good time to hear from Shellye.

So a little bit about Shellye and why I have her here. She’s a businesswoman and former CEO of Metrics Stream. She was an executive at IBM and she had a 15 year career there. She was the first African American woman at the company to be sent on assignment internationally. She’s a guest lecturer for the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater. She’s a writer, a co-author of the book Marketing That Works, and she has been rated one of the top 25 brick and mortar executives by Internet World.

She’s received numerous awards throughout her career. In 2014, she was named one of the 46 most important African Americans in technology. The year before, she was number two on the list of the 25 most influential American African Americans in technology. This is just a long list of accolades and accomplishments, and that’s why it’s so exciting to have Shellye with us today. Shellye has a new book called Unapologetically Ambitious. And she’s going to tell you more about its title, but also about what she hopes for you to learn from her own journey. Shellye, thanks for joining me today.

Shellye Archambeau: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Andi. I’ve been so excited and looking forward to this.

Andi Simon: Can I share with everybody that it’s your birthday?

Shellye Archambeau: Sure. I’m spending it with all of you.

Andi SImon: All your best friends. You didn’t know you had so many new best friends.

Shellye Archambeau: That’s right.

Andi Simon: But it is a special day for me because I was honored to meet you and I’m so excited to share with you. Please tell the audience about your own journey, because I think it’s an important one for them to understand how we get to unapologetically ambitious. Please.

Shellye Archambeau: Well, thank you very much. I really do appreciate it. So my journey, I actually have to start pretty young to really share the foundation that represents who I ultimately became. So I grew up the oldest in a family of four. My father moved around a lot as he built his own career and job, and we found ourselves moving from Philadelphia, which was an extremely diverse place, to California, a suburb way outside of LA, where I was the only black girl in my class, but I think it was actually in the whole school. And given that it was the 60s, you know, everything was just charged. You had the civil rights movement, you had everything going on during the Vietnam War. You had feminism rising. I mean it was just a very charged-up environment.

And here I am, a little girl going into first grade. We actually moved over Christmas. So here I am going into first grade, had to walk to school every day and people treated me terribly. I don’t know any other way to describe it. I walked along a busy thoroughfare every day and people would yell awful things at me out their windows. You know, kids would physically bully me. I got beat up by classmates. Meaning it was not a good situation.

So it taught me very early in my life that the odds were just not in my favor. So it caused me, first, to actually really close in as a kid. Fortunately, I had good parents and had a couple of teachers that really made a difference. And it became incumbent for me to really become intentional about what I did, really as protecting myself. So I learned early that if I wanted to do something, I needed to actually figure out how I could make it happen because it wasn’t just going to happen for me. And that same approach I actually have taken all through my career.

So I started early. I said, All right, what do I want, what do I need to do? And I was fortunate; in high school, I had a guidance counselor who asked me, Shellye, what do you want to do? And I said, I want to go to college so I can get a good job. And she said, Okay, well, what do you want to do in your job? And I said, I’m not sure. And she said, What do you like to do? And I loved running clubs. I was president of American Field Service and National Honor Society, and I ran the French club. All these things. I love running clubs.

And she said, Well, running a business is just like running a club. Get people together, right? What did I know? I said, Okay, great. That’s what I’m going to do. So I decided, no problem. So literally, I decided. I was like a junior in high school. I decided that I’m going to go run a business.

Andi Simon: I love your story. Keep telling me.

Shellye Archambeau: So anyway. But again, back to, I know the odds are not in my favor. And so when I did the research, and back then it wasn’t easy, research. Now you just click a few keys. Back then, it was going to the library looking at magazines. Well, I didn’t see anybody who looked like me running a business anywhere. So I said, All right, fine. How do I improve my odds to get this? How do I make this happen?

So I said, All right, I need to go to the top business school. And so I picked Wharton because Wharton had an undergraduate program. And I figured if I do Wharton undergrad, then I won’t have to go to grad school. So I can save a couple of years and a couple hundred thousand dollars. This is great. So the only school I applied to, I said, please, literally at the bottom of my application, said, Please take me. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I’m not applying anywhere else.

Now I’m not completely stupid. I applied early so that if they said no, I could do a backup, but I literally didn’t apply anywhere else. That’s the only place I wanted to go. And I had good grades. But anyway, I went to Wharton and then, you know, I pay attention, I listen, I do homework. And I was told, If you join industries that are growing and companies that are growing, there are more opportunities for personal growth. Great. So I looked around at technology, which was the growing industry. Good news? It still is. Yeah. And I picked IBM. So I said, I’m going to go off and be CEO of IBM. That was it.

Andi Simon: Your humility and kindness? Your aspirations were fabulous.

Shellye Archambeau: Exactly. It was just too funny. So anyway, so I did. And I’ll be candid. I actually spent 14 years at IBM. I got to the point where there wasn’t anyone who looked like me hiring me in the company. My boss, John Joyce, reported to Lou Gerstner, the CEO,  who was running a multibillion dollar division, actually over in Asia Pacific. So I did well. But it wasn’t clear to me, due to a bunch of things that went on, that I was actually going to ultimately become CEO of IBM and that was still my goal.

So I said, You know what? Let me take what I’ve learned and let me go build something. Silicon Valley was hot. This is the late 90s. I said, All right, but I did my homework, which, by the way, doesn’t stop when you’re not in school. I did my homework because again, if you’re going to put a plan in place and you want to increase your odds, you have to figure out what you’re going up against. And a lot of people that have left big companies to go run small companies or growing companies stumble a time or two because it’s so different.

Well, as a woman of color, I don’t have that. I don’t have that luxury. I don’t know that I’ll get multiple strikes at the bat. So as a result, I said, All right, let me go get a seat at the table. Understand what’s so different and then go get my job. And in essence, that’s what I did, Andrea, and ultimately became CEO of the company that’s now Metrix Dream. I ran it for over 14 years, became a global industry leader in governance, risk and compliance. There were 1200 employees. And now I serve on corporate boards like Verizon and Nordstrom and Roper and Okta and advise companies like the Royal Bank of Canada and some small startups and poach some CEOs and try to make a difference in the world.

Andi Simon: Wow. It sounds like making a difference in the world and making a difference in your own life. They are closely connected.

Shellye Archambeau: They are. They are.

Andi Simon: My second book is called Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business. And for those of you who are listening, in it I offer 11 business women’s stories, including my own. But Shellye’s story is exactly the kind of hurdles women have to hurdle over and the way in which you can, in fact, prepare yourself for the hurdles. And this is not glass ceiling stuff. It’s not about smashing that. Forget the ceiling.This is about finding ways to really make a difference globally, locally, but in yourself at the same time.

While it’s exciting, you’ve written a couple of books, but this new one is extremely important to you, both as a way of sharing what you’ve learned with others, but also how it came together. Would you share it with our listeners, please?

Shellye Archambeau: Absolutely. So I’ve always tried to be accessible, and what that means is, I actually respond. You send me an email, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, whatever, I respond. Now it takes a lot of time, but the reason I do it is, I want people to see that I’m a real person. If you can touch me, then you can be me. And that’s why I’ve always put the time in to do it.

But what was happening was, I was moving forward in my career. I could respond, but I couldn’t meet with all the people that wanted to meet or talk one on one with all the people that wanted to talk to me. So I said, You know, one day I’m going to write this down. I’m going to share the “what made Shellye, Shellye,” the strategies, the lessons, all those things, as soon as I get into phase two.

So sure enough, when I passed the baton, I said, Now’s the time. And I wrote the book because the book is full of strategies and approaches and tools to help people achieve their aspirations, both professionally and personally. I talk about being intentional. I talk about, honestly, everything, personal and professional. There is a lot of stuff in there. What worked? What didn’t work? Because what I’ve learned is, ambition and hard work alone are not enough. And we’re not told that. What we’re told is, work hard and it’ll happen. And no. I hate to burst bubbles. It’s not how it works.

Andi Simon: Oh, well, tell us, how does it work? And I’ll tell you why in a moment, because it may not even work with what works. But, you know, let’s finish that hard work and ambition aren’t enough. What else do we need?

Shellye Archambeau: That’s right. So we need to understand the power of being intentional. So talk about really how to be intentional, how to set the goal, the objectives, whatever it is. And then first, you set it.  Some people set goals and some people put plans in place to achieve the goals. But very few people make decisions every day. Yes. Be consistent with those plans. And so every day comes along but the goal is never achieved. And they wake up and, you know, they’re in their late 30s, they’re in their 40s, and they’re like, Gosh, I’m just not where I thought I would be.

And so the book is trying to help them get back on track, or if they’re just starting out in their career, help them get on track and stay on track, versus, you know, not because so much of the everyday decisions drives what happens. So being intentional, deciding what do I want, how do I make it true? Because that’s how I’ve looked at things.You know, when I set out to be a CEO of IBM  I said, All right, I want to be CEO of IBM. So what has to be true? And then you do the work to say, Well, what did CEOs do?

So when I started out my career with IBM coming out of Wharton, I started out in sales. Now, think about this, Andrea. My peers are going off to be investment bankers and Procter & Gamble project managers and going to international finance and, because it’s Wharton and you come out and that’s what you do. And they’re looking at me like, You’re going to go be a sales person? I mean, what exactly? The reason is, every single person at IBM started out in sales. So that was the path.

You know, believe me, you go and you look for where the path is, where’s the current. Because if you can get on the current and then paddle hard while you’re on the current, you can really move forward. If you’re not on the current, you can paddle hard, but you’re not keeping up with the people who are paddling hard on the current. So look to see where the current is. And organizations have their own unique culture and currents.

Andi Simon: They absolutely do. So one size fits nowhere. You really need to know what you want to be, where and how to paddle along there. But I think that’s so important for the listener is that Shellye is onto something that we use and talk about a great deal when changing an organization, but an individual as well. In fact, I’m doing a leadership academy and we’re talking about this. You need to visualize where you want to be because when you visualize it, your brain begins to create a story, literally. It’s creating a new movie set right now.

Once you get that visualization and I don’t say this lightly, you need to almost backward plan it so that way you know that each day you’re moving towards that story as if you’re writing part of a storyboard. Don’t make it sound simple or easy. You have to live your way to that destination and I don’t even like to call it a goal. It’s a visualization of who you are and how you are going to be in life and then you can begin to live there. Does that make sense in terms of what you’re saying?

Shellye Archambeau: Absolutely. And that’s exactly what I talk about, Andrea. for instance, I had decided that ideally I painted my ideal picture of what I wanted, and my ideal picture was, Yes, I work towards becoming a CEO, but I also wanted to get married. I wanted to have kids and I wanted to have kids early. My parents were young parents and I liked that. I said, You know what, I’d like to be young when I have my kids. So, what that meant for me is, I didn’t date anybody beyond the point where I could imagine myself being married to them. I wouldn’t even go out with people that I couldn’t imagine myself being married to. So it’s crazy. I mean, when I say it was crazy. You know, I would go out once or twice and I wouldn’t again. They would say, “What’s wrong?” I’m like, “Nothing’s wrong.” “Well, I thought you had fun.” “I had a great time.” There was no way I could tell them, but I can’t marry you because they would have said “What? Did I ask you to marry me?”

But I felt if I dated people that I couldn’t imagine myself married to, that I might miss people who came along that I could imagine myself being married to. And again, other people didn’t do that with me. It was crazy. So but yes, I did get married early and I did have my kids early and I was married for almost 35 years before my husband passed. So it worked. So yes, I completely believe that.

And that’s, that’s the whole point about being intentional. Figure out the goal. What needs to be true for that goal to happen and then put plans in place to make it true. And then live consistent with that so that you open yourself up. You know, people talk about luck and I totally believe in luck. But I do believe that you can make yourself more lucky by having the right skills, the right experience, the right openness when opportunity comes along.

Andi SImon: Now, there’s something here to also emphasize, and that’s that we decide with the heart and the eyes and then the brain comes in with a logic or reasoning about it, and then we act. So I tell people in my podcast and everything else, you need to see it and feel it. And don’t underestimate the power of the gut. There are lots of nerves from the brain to the gut. How does it feel? And that’s just what you’re expressing here, because luck is a matter of seeing things fly by and feeling, How they can come together to do something that’s in the story that you’re carrying. And I don’t want to underestimate that you began to feel things that could work and disregard things that didn’t. Those guys weren’t going to work. But your husband did work really well and you felt it. And I don’t want to underestimate you. I want to emphasize: trust your feelings. They do work, don’t they?

Shellye Archambeau: They do. They do. But it’s hard. And, even for me, when I first got engaged to my husband, I don’t want to say no one was in my court. Grudgingly, people were, but very few. I had lots of lots of detractors on this. And it would have been so easy just to have caved. But I knew he was right for me. And he was about something.

Andi Simon: There’s this whole world of others helping women, helping women in particular, but men as well. Were there mentors in your career path that were important for us to know about as a way of building helpers? We, my husband and I, started something called the Simon Initiative for Entrepreneurship at Washington University in Saint Louis to help particularly women, but men and women become entrepreneurs. And they need role models and they need so much help. We wanted to do more than mentor one or two, but to begin to show them a way. I have a hunch mentors have been important in your career as well, am I right?

Shellye Archambeau: Absolutely. Absolutely. Mentors were very important to me. That’s all part of listening and learning, etcetera. And probably the biggest thing I learned was that it isn’t one mentor, it’s many mentors as far as I was concerned. The more the better because they all bring unique and different perspectives. And yes, there were absolutely mentors that played huge roles in my career.

Andi Simon: How did you find them?

Shellye Archambeau: Interesting you should ask. So what I also learned early on is that if you asked people to be your mentor, a lot of times visually, literally, you could sit and say, Shellye, would you be my mentor? And people would like, lean back, I mean literally create distance in space. Eyes would get big and wide. And so what happens? Why are they doing that? It’s not you. It’s, they’re sitting there and all they’re thinking about is time commitment. Because people that you want to be your mentor, they don’t have time. So they therefore tend to say no. They’ll do it in a polite way sometimes. Sometimes I’ll just be direct. But they say no. So I learned not to ask. I just began treating them as mentors. I call it I just adopted them. Ultimately, what I found is if I adopted people and then I did well and I was building that relationship, that ultimately they would claim me. So I tell people, don’t ask, just start treating them that way.

Andi Simon: But there’s also the sense of your value. Self-value is important here because what you’re describing is a person—yourself—who had a mirror that said, I’m of value, I just need to find my path to demonstrate it and a way of engaging others to help me along that path without imposing upon them respectfully.

Shellye Archambeau: Ah right. Because, you know, it sounds like the way you’re describing it, sounds like, Okay, here’s Shellye, nice and confident. She’s got her plan. She’s executing her plan, the whole bit. And what I have to tell you is, I had a plan. Growing up in our house, we lived in the Northeast, the temperature in our house never got above 68. Now it never got above 68, it was definitely below 68. Often it never got above 68 degrees. And whenever I talked about how cold it was in the house, you know, my parents, my mom would always say, Well, do you want to go to college? Your whole thing was trade offs, because we didn’t have a lot of excess money for anything.

And I finally said, How much money do I need to earn to keep the temperature at 72 degrees? So I was very motivated to have a career, to be successful, to be able to have a warm home, you know, the whole bit. That’s what motivated me. But frankly, I wasn’t that confident person that I sound like now.

Andi Simon: Well, that’s humbling to know.

Shellye Archambeau: I had a lot of imposter syndrome.  Remember how I grew up and the challenges. So I knew what the world was like, not in my corner here, but you can overcome those things. And I talk about that in the book because we aren’t raised like, I got this, right? I can say that now that I’m 58 years old but couldn’t say it then.

So there are things that you can do. One of my biggest pieces of advice on how to help yourself fake it til you make it, because that’s honestly what I believe. It’s like, you put on this role to have cheerleaders in your lives. You have people around you that tell you how good you are, how confident you are, that remind you when the world is telling you otherwise that you are still the person you were before. That you think it’s so important because we live in a world that is so judgmental, mean, and where nobody is perfect. Where nobody is skinny enough, healthy enough, working enough, making enough money, going on the best vacations, wearing all the right clothes, having all the right friends, being at the right parties. I mean, all these things that we see that we feel judged about. Of course, everybody feels totally inept. So you have to have people around you that say, Hey, no, no, you’re great, you’re great. And we’ll also, when you need it, give you a kick in the butt.

Andi Simon: I’m curious. My husband has been my kick in the butt, hug you tight, always the anchor and the push along. I don’t think I would have finished my PhD if he refused to allow me to be an ABD: All But Degree. And there were many nights he and I were reading that dissertation closing our eyes, but never giving up. And he doesn’t know either. And those are our moments that are important to who we are because somebody else mattered that we achieved what we were pursuing, not for their sake, but for together, our sake. I have a hunch your husband did the same.

Shellye Archambeau: He did. He was definitely my biggest cheerleader.

Andi Simon: And after that, didn’t need much more than that. Because there was always the belief that who I thought I could be, he did as well. And so we overcame a bunch of hurdles along the way. I was an executive at a bank, and I went to board meetings with 49 men and me. You didn’t say much and I learned not to say much. I was there to do, but not to say. It was interesting times.

We’re just about ready to wrap. It’s been absolutely wonderful speaking with Shellye. I think her life journey and her wisdom has been so important to our listeners, men and women, both because I think both are changing. And I do think that as I wrote my book, the women in there had partners or men in their lives. Some had none who were changing as the women were changing. It’s not a solo event. It’s a real interesting cultural transformation going on here. Shellye, a couple of things you don’t want our listeners to forget. The ending is always so important. One or two or three things that are really important for their lives.

Shellye Archambeau: Certainly. So first, be intentional. Decide what you want and then put a plan in place to go get it.

Two, have cheerleaders. We talked about it. It’s really important.

And three, I firmly believe if you don’t tell the universe what you want, the universe can’t help you. So ask for what you want and what you need and give people a chance to help. That is very important me. I’m just open about it. And, if you need a hand, ask. They can say no and then you make them help you anyhow. Those mentors didn’t even know they were being so helpful and in the end, they were ready to take it and claim it.

It’s been a pleasure. Pre-order my book on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com. You can go to your local bookstore or call them up and support them by pre-ordering it there. And let me just make a plea as a new author, pre-orders are so important. So if you felt you got a little value from our conversation, please give it a pre-order. There’s a whole lot more in the book.

Andi Simon: And then I’ll push. Once you’ve read the book, go review it. Amazon loves reviews and people don’t realize that that paragraph makes a big difference in your Amazon rankings. And everything is rankings today, so there’s something there. But I also think that Shellye said she answers all those emails. I’m not sure if she needs more emails, but I do think she needs your echos because I do think that sharing is good if it’s a two-way. The gift of giving also comes back to add more value over time. And it’s a time for her now to think of her next purpose. What comes next? And it’s a very exciting time for her. So it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for joining me.

Shellye Archambeau: Thank you very much and absolutely enjoyed it.

Andi Simon: Now, for all of you who come, I can’t thank you enough. Your emails are extremely important for me as well: info@simonassociates.net. And it’s always fun to hear from you. You bring me wonderful ideas. So Shellye came to me and I think that this is a time for us to be intentional about where we’re going and see the opportunities. I can only tell you that you decide with your heart. So if it feels right, go for it. Worst case is you’ll make a left or right turn. Think of your life as a Google map. Maybe you don’t have the destination clear, but you need some stops along the way. So small wins. We’re going and that’s what we love to do. So have a great day. Please stay safe. Stay healthy and enjoy life. Bye bye now.


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