“The jobs at the top are really good...and worth fighting for! The reason that the guys at the top fight so hard to get them and to keep them is that they are really cool! I just wish there were more women in senior roles.”
“I want girls and young women to know that you CAN have your cake and eat it too.”
Kathryne pointed out it is possible to have both a career and a family. Like Sheryl Sandberg (same cohort at Harvard as Kathryne) in Lean In, Kathryne has found that through a desire to optimize for the family (rather than one individual’s career), hard work and perhaps a bit of serendipity (and I would add undisputed intelligence) the top corporate jobs are attainable and worth the effort.
This is not meant to imply that Kathryne’s journey to the top has been easy or risk-free. But easy and risk-free don’t seem to be features that Kathryne looks for when making decisions. One of her riskiest moves occurred early in her career. A Stanford educated civil engineer Kathryne was working as an engineer when she was confronted with the painstakingly slow trajectory of engineering management. Her boss, trying to be helpful, explained that if she did everything right that she would, in approximately fifteen years, be where he was now.
The fifteen-years time frame was far too slow to satisfy her intense desire to learn, grow and develop. Talking with her organization’s first ever female VP of Operations she expressed her dismay at the pace of growth as an engineer and sought career advice. When offered the chance to work as a business analyst on a highly visible upcoming corporate strategy project Kathryne leaped at the opportunity. She didn’t let the fact that she knew nothing about "net present value (NPV)" stop her. She figured that she could learn what she needed to, and she did!
From that initial leap into business, Kathryne continued to go all in. She earned a MBA at Harvard and upon graduation joined Booz Allen Hamilton. Booz Allen helped her hone specific analytical skills while keeping her focused on the big, strategic picture. Booz Allen also provided her with the knowledge that she could enter any situation in any industry and quickly but accurately assess the situation and develop strategic recommendations.
She worked at Nationwide Insurance, American Online, Reliant Energy, Quest Media and other organizations. As Kathryne moved from state to state (and organization to organization) she worked hard to both mentor and sponsor and to be mentored and sponsored.
“Sometimes I was savvy and sophisticated about it and sometimes I’ve blown it.”
Yet over the years the critical importance of relationships forged across gender and race lines over shared values have proven instrumental in her career development. These relationships have been very satisfying but were not easy to develop.
While the “like me” bias is real
“I’ve gotten more forgiving over time looking for commonality. I’ve had to (she dryly noted) if the world were run by black women I wouldn’t have had to, but it’s not.”
Kathryne sought that commonality and shared values among colleagues, in part, by never passing up an opportunity to know someone outside their usual role and context. She never turned down an invitation to do something outside of work, even if it was not something that she was naturally drawn to.
One of the things that Kathryne holds in the highest regards is
“the intersection of smart and nice.”
She noted that this results in her teams being incredibly diverse because she likes that intersection in “any package” that it arrives in! People who strive for excellence for the team, not solely for themselves; these are the people that Kathryne wants to work with and for. She finds herself at her most creative working with a team that is oriented towards and striving for excellence.
Kathryne attributes her love of a high performing team to her family and growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. Her parents nurtured her striving for excellence. And they sacrificed a lot to help her achieve it; sending her to Stanford by working “every extra shift” and taking out considerable debt. They focused on the “greater good” that Kathryne could achieve by attending one of the most world’s most competitive and academically rigorous schools. They believed in her, and Kathryne “took it from there.”
Rather than being overwhelmed by the caliber and backgrounds of her classmates Kathryne was energized and propelled forward. Kathryne and her husband continue this focus on the “greater good” as they navigate decisions as a dual career couple.
If you were reading this posting closely you might have noted that I said “until very recently” Kathryne was Senior VP and General Manger. A few weeks before our interview Kathryne made the decision to leave Scotts. Scotts was undergoing organizational change and while she absolutely had a role in the newly proposed structure Kathryne determined that “now was the time to move on and do different things.” She has given herself six months as a period of reflection to determine what is next. If you were to expect Kathryne, a Harvard MBA with an engineering background to have a very analytical answer to “what is next” you would be incorrect.
“There is no spreadsheet.”
Kathryne intends to be very intuitive during this time period. She is confident that the right next step will become apparent to her. And she is equally confident that her “track record shows the world that I don’t walk away from my duties.”
Over twenty years of achievement give her the luxury to “hit the pause button.”
This confidence seems well earned. I have no doubt that Kathryne will return to the workforce ready to take on the next challenge. I can’t wait to learn what she tackles next.
1. This interview has been edited and condensed.
2. Our founders have coached and trained executives from Nationwide Insurance and America Online via the Ohio State University executive education program.
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