Episode 94

Unapologetically Ambitious

with Shellye Archambeau

January 5, 2023

Share Episode
Share on email
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on facebook




Shellye Archambeau
Former CEO, MetricStream, Advisor and Author

The former CEO of MetricStream, author Shellye Archambeau is an experienced CEO and Board Director with a track record of accomplishments building brands, high performance teams, and organizations. Ms. Archambeau currently serves on the boards of Verizon, Roper Technologies, and Okta. She is also a strategic advisor to Forbes Ignite and the President of Arizona State University, and serves on the board of two national nonprofits, Catalyst and Braven. Her book, Unapologetically Ambitious: Take Risks, Break Barriers and Create Success on Your Own Terms, will inspire you and provide the tools to enable you to fight the battles, make the tradeoffs and create the life you want.


Very few people make decisions every day, consistent with their plan. And that's where I believe the power is.



Dr. Gary Bisbee: [00:00:00] Well, good afternoon, Shelly, and welcome,

Shellye Archambeau: Well, thanks very much, Gary. I’ve been looking forward to this.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: or well, we’re pleased to have you at this microphone. You’ve been so successful as a leader during your career at I B M at Blockbuster, c e o metrics Stream Board member at Verizon and other companies. I’m just wondering, when did you have time to write your book? Unapologetically ambitious.

Shellye Archambeau: Right. It actually does take time too. I actually waited until I passed the CEO Baton and then I wrote the book

Dr. Gary Bisbee: When did the idea of the book start occurring to you?

Shellye Archambeau: probably about 20 years ago. What happened? Yeah, what happened, Gary, was, throughout my career I’ve tried very intentionally to be a. So when people reached out to me and said, oh, can I pick your brain, meet for coffee, get your advice, et cetera, I always tried to do that because I wanted people to see that, Hey, I’m just Shelly. There’s nothing [00:01:00] special about me. So if I could do what I did, so can you. But what happened is as I took on more and more responsibility, I just didn’t have time to meet with everyone. I still responded to their text messages, emails, LinkedIns, whatever, but I just couldn’t meet. And frankly, it was hurting me. I thought, ah, I just wanna share. And so I said, you know what? When I get to the point of phase two, which is after I passed my always on job of being a ceo, then I’m gonna write it down. I’m gonna write it down so I can just share. , what are the steps and things that you can do to improve your odds to get what you want out of life? And that’s why I wrote the.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: And the title makes that point clearly. And I’ve referred the book of course to to all my daughters and sisters and wife and so on. Let’s back up a bit and learn more about you, Shelly. What was your life like growing up?

Shellye Archambeau: Oh goodness. My life was one of a lot of challenges. My father didn’t have a college degree and he had four [00:02:00] children. My parents had four kids in five years. Boom boom. Right? And so to support his family, he was always taking on new opportunities. So we moved, I lived in seven different states before I got to high school, so you’re always right. So you’re always a new kid on the block. And oh, by the way, this happened to be in the sixties and early seventies. And that was the time when a lot was going on in civil rights wise. And for as many people that felt there should be civil rights, you had just as many that didn’t. And they were, frankly, very willing and open to let a little black girl know that she wasn’t welcome and wasn’t wanted. I was bullied, I was abused. I was beat up by kids in my class. I mean, it was just not, it was not good. So that’s why I realized very early in life that the odds just started in my. So if I want anything out of life, I’m gonna have to figure out how I improve the odds to actually get it.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Well. A terrific job improving the odds and we’ll get to that a little bit [00:03:00] later, but what did the young Shelly think about leadership? At what point did you begin to think about leadership?

Shellye Archambeau: I craved respect. . I just wanted people to respect me because I wasn’t getting respect, and what I found is when I actually helped people, they then got to know me as a person and they started to respect me. So I learned early that helping was actually a good thing. So it offered to help people. Then I figured out that I was really good at organizing and pulling things together, and people actually respected that. So I was like, okay. So by the time I got to high school, I was joining all kinds of clubs and organizations. More than that, I was leading them.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: There’s a point at which, and you talk about this very nicely in the book that, that you really wanted to be a CEO o, not. Just a leader, but as c e O, when did that kind of work into your thinking, Shelly?

Shellye Archambeau: Yeah, actually that was thanks, believe it or not, to a guidance counselor. So [00:04:00] picture this, right? You’re a junior in high school, we all remember this. You have that conversation with the guidance counselor that everybody has. Are you going to college? Are you not going to college? Yes, I’m going to college. What do you wanna do after college? And I was like, I don’t know. In my family it was all about get good grades so you can go to a good college so you can get a job. I just wanna be able to earn enough money to keep my thermostat at 72 degrees, eat outta restaurants and travel, right? That was what I wanted. And she said to her credit, well, Shelly, what do you like to. And I said, oh, that’s easy. Clubs. I’m in all these organizations and I like leading them. And she said, well, Shelly clubs are like business. You pull people together and you get things done. And I said, oh, great. Then I wanna be in business. And I like leading the clubs. So when I looked up, the people that led organizations were called CEOs. So this little naive 16 year old was like, you know what, I’m gonna go be a ceo,

Dr. Gary Bisbee: I. So you talk in the book about core personal strength and [00:05:00] just this whole discussion about a young person growing up and being involved in gaining respect and so on. You have a core personal strength that seems to me to be really excellent. Did you recognize that as a differentiator from the beginning, Shelly?

Shellye Archambeau: No, I did. I personally didn’t recognize it from the beginning, but I do feel, I do feel that when people, ask you or ask me, Shelly, what are your superpowers? We talk about strengths. I believe my strengths are two things, really. Which is one courage. and two discipline. So it’s the courage to take risks and the courage to go after things when you’re not comfortable. And then it’s the discipline that’s required to actually follow through on the plan. A lot of people set goals, Gary, I find and some people actually take the time to write down a plan. Right. Here’s my goal, here’s my. But very few people make decisions [00:06:00] every day consistent with that plan. And that’s where I believe the power is. And that’s really where my power came from.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: , you’re very organized, very disciplined, as you say. How do you handle un. Opportunities that crop.

Shellye Archambeau: Ah, great question. when something I expected come comes up, first of all, I look to see whether or not it’s an opportunity or it’s a risk, right? If it’s an opportunity, then it’s just reflecting on do we have, do I have, do we as a team have what’s required to actually take advantage of it? And if I don’t, can I get it right? And if I can get it, or if I have it, then I’ll go after it. Understanding what potential downside. and vice versa. If something comes along and it’s actually a risk, it’s the same thing. Okay, what do we know about this? How are we gonna handle it? Do we have the right skills, capability, knowledge, whatever it might be, and then put the plan in place to be able to handle that risk.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Many people talk about a work-life [00:07:00] balance. You talk about work-life. Which is an interesting point. Can you tell us more about your thinking of that, Shelly?

Shellye Archambeau: I actually hate the term work-life balance, Gary. I hate it. And the reason I hate it is when you think about a balance, it’s a thick structure, right? Thick structure, a bar, another bar on top, two weights on each side that are static. If it’s in balance, they never move. Well, I don’t know about you. , but my life goes like this up and down and around and curves, and if I’m gonna be judged on a fixed static, am I holding this in balance while life is going crazy? I mean, I have enough to be felt guilty about. I don’t need this artificial picture right in my head. So no, I don’t believe in work-life balance. What I believe in is work-life integration, which means I’m one person. I’m one person. I got a lot of stuff to do personally, professionally. I take my personal priorities, my professional prior. I put those two together and then I reprioritize Ruth [00:08:00] Leslie, which is the key so that I get done what’s important across my life. And what that means is there’re gonna be some things personally and professionally that aren’t gonna get done. So you either have to find somebody else to do them, or I learn how to live without them being done.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: You make the point in the book that you have to tell people what you want to let them know. Can you give us an example of how that’s worked for you?

Shellye Archambeau: Oh, definitely. And you’re right, I believe tell the universe what you want and need so the universe can help you. When I was at B M I wanted to, I was working towards being a CEO and I’d done the research and all of the people who reported to the CEO that were line executives in Iran, p and Ls had all the international assignments. But more importantly, most had done it went in Japan. I didn’t know what was special about Japan, but I knew that’s what I needed to do. So I started telling people, Hey, by the way, I’m interested in doing an opportunity in Japan. By the way, I love da. Right? When people say, what are you [00:09:00] interested in, what you wanna do? I told everybody, and certainly two years later, I got a call from a guy, Tim Mc Grisha, he said, I remember you saying you were interested in Japan. Is that still true? Because I’ve got a job that fits your skillset and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And next thing I know, my family was moving to Japan. You have to tell people they can’t read your mind.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: In your book, you talk about managing. Career. And again, you’re a very disciplined, organized person. You’re willing to take risks. How do you think about managing your career? At what point did that start and what does that look like to you managing your career?

Shellye Archambeau: it started right from the. . Again, it goes back to I knew the yards weren’t in my favor. I mean, here I am, I land at IBM and I’m all excited, right? I’m getting my career going and I look around and IBM’s got like 110,000 employees, and I’m thinking all these people probably wanna be CEO of ibm. So I had to figure out how was I going to stand out, get the [00:10:00] skills, do whatever. It’s a competition, so you wait. How I do that? I do the research. I set a goal. I wanna be ceo. Figure out who they are, what their skillsets are, what their backgrounds, what path, and that’s why I started out in sales. Cuz trust me, coming out of Wharton, nobody starts out their career in sales. Definitely not selling computers, right. My friends thought I was crazy. You’re gonna do what? Right? But every single CEO at IBM started out in sales. So I figured it had to be the path to power. So managing your career. Is doing the work to figure out what skills are required, what experiences required, what have other people done, and trying to find what I call the current that will lead you there. Because if you swim with the current, you go a whole lot faster than if you’re swimming against the current.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: There’s a great chapter in the book called Challenges Our Strength. Can you give us an example of how that’s worked? [00:11:00] Shell.

Shellye Archambeau: Oh, definitely. So, I just mentioned that I’d gone to Japan, right? I got this opportunity to go to Japan. Well, the only challenge with going to Japan, I say the only challenge what, the only challenge going to Japan is the conversation that I had with my boss really illuminated it. So the boss I was leaving had worked in Asia for a long time, and he said, Shelly, how much you know about Confucius? And I said, all right, Peter, you’re trying to give me a message, so just gimme the message. He said, all right, there are three things that are important in Japan to be successful in. The first is wisdom. Wisdom is age. I’m all of about 34 or 35 at the time. I don’t have wisdom or age. Okay, fine. Zero for three so far. Right now the second thing is being male. I’m not male now. I’m zero for two. I’m like, okay, so what’s the third? I’m thinking, there’s only three things and I’m already zero for two. And he says The third is inte. He said, Shelly, you [00:12:00] only have one going for you, so you better figure out how to maximize it. I was just like, okay, this is myrah rah. Go off and be successful. So anyway, so here’s what happened. Here’s what happened though, Gary. I get to Japan and I do what I normally do, which is I know that people are gonna underestimate me. I know they’re gonna assume that maybe I’m in the job for reasons other than my capability. So I always approach every new job the same way, which as I. I learned I’m a servant leader approach, which is I focus on how to make my team successful and let them know that is my focus and my priority. Cuz if I make them successful then I’ll be successful. So I went in and did my normal thing. Well, we got, I mean, I took over a division that was like almost bottom of the chart and performance. So we had a lot of work to do. I get in, we’re doing a lot of stuff. About three months into it, my boss calls me into his office and he says, What are you doing? I mean, you’ve been here just three months and you’ve already been able to make some changes, get motions going, what are you doing? It usually takes people six months to figure all this stuff out, and I was like, [00:13:00] well, I’m doing what I usually do. I come in, blah blah, talk about servant leadership, blah, blah, blah. He goes yeah, but what are you doing? He was looking for like some kind of cookbook. What I learned when I learned is that the fact that I’d been a minority in business my entire life in the US when I went over to Japan, I was still a. So all the skills that I had learned about how to operate as a minority actually were strengths in Japan. Cuz most people came over and they’d never been in an environment in which their reputation didn’t come with them, in which, what’s because they said something people would do it right? That was, that didn’t exist. So absolutely the things that you learn, the challenges that you have along the way are really what gives you your strengths and your resilience later.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: well done. So in the book there’s a section about five tips that you’re sharing with us, all of which are good ones, and I’d love to cover them. Now. The first one was, is. About mentoring? [00:14:00] Do mentors find you or do you find mentors? How do you think about that?

Shellye Archambeau: I’ve always been proactive, so I’m a big believer in adopting mentors and this I talk about, as Gary, a lot in the book. I don’t believe in asking people to be my mentor. Because I find that when you ask people to be your mentor, they have the opportunity to say no. And a lot of people say no because they’re busy, right? And they don’t know if you’re worth the investment. I mean, mentoring and all that takes time and energy. And people are always like, Ooh, not sure, right? So I don’t ask them. I basically just start treating people like a mentor. I start Lite n Easy, I ask questions that they don’t even have to think. Like if I had seen you speak Gary, I might come up to you and say, oh, Gary, I saw you speak. You did a fabulous job. I was speech coming up in 30 days. Can you just give me one tip? Right. Well, you wouldn’t even have to think about it. You’d say, oh, add some humor. Look people in the eye. Right. Whatever it might be fine. Here’s the key. The key is I take the advice. I’m [00:15:00] amazed how many people don’t take take the advice, and then, right, and then once you take the advice, Let you know. I can write you a little note. Gary, thank you so much for that tip. That was the best speech I’ve ever given, and I give you a lot of credit. Now, here’s what happens when you do that. You probably don’t even remember the conversation because you didn’t have to invest, right? It was just a quick response. You may not remember, but now you got this note from this person who really got some value from you. You feel good, right? You feel good. Well, as Maya Angelou says, people won’t remember what you say. They won’t remember what you do. They’ll remember how you make them feel. Odds are when I ask the next little tip, you’ll actually respond.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: yep. That’s well said. Now, The next tip is about building a network, and I’ll say that, we hear that a lot. In your case, you seem to be an exceptionally outgoing person. You’re also very relationship oriented. Do you have an edge in building a network because of that, do you [00:16:00] think? Or what do people do if they’re not quite as outgoing or thoughtful as you are?

Shellye Archambeau: Yes. I think out being outgoing helps, but it’s not required. So the key is, again, it’s to be intentional. There are a lot of outgoing people that don’t necessarily have a big network, all right? So it’s not, they’re not necessarily connected. And being intentional means. Creating relationships. A network to me is not how many people I have in my phone database. A real network to me are the number of people that would do something for you when it’s not convenient, all right? That’s how I define a network. So that’s only gonna happen if they feel like they have a relationship with you. So you have to create a relationship and that’s just not a high, how are you? Shake hands and gone. And the way I create relationships goes back to helping. I learned early in my life, when you help people, it gives ’em a chance to get to know you the person versus the persona, right? And therefore, it gives people a chance to create a [00:17:00] relationships

Dr. Gary Bisbee: The. On your life is something that is referenced in the book pretty much throughout the book, really, one way or another. How do you think about, how do you think about that? How formal is planning your life? I mean, do you write it down or you just think about it?

Shellye Archambeau: I personally think it’s important to write it down. There’s something about writing down your goals and steps and whatever that makes it real. When it just sits in your mind and you think about it, it becomes a bit more fungible. But writing it down then allows you to put timelines on it. , which, oh, by the way, if you write, have you have a goal and you write down a plan, but you have no timelines, it’s just a dream, all right? You have to have timelines so that you have milestones to know if you’re on track or you’re not on track. Otherwise, you wake up and you’re 37 or 43 51 and you’re like, gosh, I’m just not where I thought I would be, right? Because you just slip, slide it along. Having timelines keeps [00:18:00] you honest.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Shelly, I’d like to move to the role of a director if I could. You’ve been on multiple boards, you are on multiple boards now. Fortune 500 to not-for-profit boards. What does it take to be an excellent director?

Shellye Archambeau: That’s a really good question. Being a board director, , it’s the same as having a job. It is a job. You’re, you have a set of responsibilities and you’re accountable, and your responsibilities are to represent the shareholders, to ensure that the company has the right vision, the right strategy to execute that vision and the right team to execute the strategy. That’s really the job of the director. And make sure you’re doing it in a way that’s consistent with laws, rules, regulations, gut, right? All those kinds of. So to be a good director, it comes back to just like to be a good employee or a good leader. You have to be intentional. You’ve gotta be accountable. You have to make sure that you are actually doing the homework so that you [00:19:00] understand the company, the issues, right? You’re spending time and that you’re using your voice to raise questions, right? If there are issues or concerns you’ve got, you have to use your voice and actually raise them, because if you don’t, then who? And you have to be there to support and advise the management because you want them to be successful. It’s not a matter of, you’re like holding them to a test where you’re trying to catch them in things. No, this is a teamwork effort. You’re trying to ensure that everything is aligned so that the company can be as successful as possible.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Let me build on that with this question. I’ve always thought the boards that I’ve sat on that. A term of chemistry or fit, knowing your role is important and of the companies that I’ve been a director of my role is a little bit different. Everyone. Do you find that and how do you think about that, Shelly?

Shellye Archambeau: I actually agree with you, although I’ll separate a little bit from Culture and fit because I do think it’s important that boards have a diverse [00:20:00] group. So it doesn’t always mean it’ll be the exact same fit, but I do think it’s important that you know your role. . One of the questions I always ask when I’m interviewing for a board is, and is to the ceo or to the lead director or chairman, is, what role do you want me to play? Why do you want me on the board so that I know what my lane is? I tell people, stay in your lane boards. They wanna know what you know. They don’t wanna know what you think . And what I mean by that is we all have ideas. I mean, we’re smart people, right? We’re sitting on the board ideas, but the board is, has a very finite amount of. To get accomplished what they need to get accomplished. So just because I happen to be an expert in maybe engineering and cybersecurity, whatever, but you know, I have ideas for marketing. They probably don’t wanna hear my marketing ideas because that’s just based upon gut, right? It’s not based upon experience and background, et cetera. So, stay in your lane. Make sure that you are being vocal in those areas in which you bring real expertise and real experience, [00:21:00] versus just opining on everything because you have opinion. , and that’s what I mean by they wanna know what you know versus just what you think. So I completely agree with.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: this is a little bit of an open-ended question, but how do you handle a difficult situation that’s gonna require going against the grain a bit? We’ve all been in that situation, but, and everybody handles it differently, but how do you think about that?

Shellye Archambeau: When going through a challenging time, my belief or my approach, whether it’s on the board or it’s been in leadership, is to peel the onion. And what I mean by peeling the onion is typically if you ask enough questions and get to the root, you’ll find that you actually have common commonality. . And what I mean by that is, let’s say there’s a big disagreement on maybe a strategic direction, all right? Some people leave this, some people leave that. And that’s important on a board cuz the company’s gotta execute right in one way. Well, you start asking questions [00:22:00] to say, well, where do we agree? And you will find a root point where everybody does agree. And then typically it’s just because of a set of assumptions or misinformation or a lack of knowledge that we then start to branch right in different. So I peel the onion until I find where we’re all agreeing and then build back up, right? Because I find that when people actually have the same set of information, the same data, right? Shared experience going around, you pretty much end up in the same place.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: what’s the difference between serving on a not-for-profit board and a and Verizon, let’s say?

Shellye Archambeau: So I find that when you’re on a nonprofit, you tend to be actually more actively. In the operations of what’s happened happening rather, or on the corporate board, you’re not, you’re really driving it from a governance standpoint.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: do you find sitting on boards has been helpful to your career

Shellye Archambeau: Oh, [00:23:00] yes, absolutely. I started serving on boards when I was 42 or 43, and I was the CEO of a company at that point, and it absolutely helped me in terms of CEO because it allows you to sit in a different, And therefore understand what boards want. It also gives you, frankly, a whole nother lens and visibility into another set of problems. And while that might sound counterintuitive, like don’t you have enough problems? But in watching how other organizations handle and deal with problems, there’s always things to learn that you can bring back. So yes, I have found it to be very.

Dr. Gary Bisbee: Shelly, this has been an awesome interview as expected. Thank you so much, Shelly. We very much appreciate your time.

Shellye Archambeau: Very welcome. Thanks so much for having me.

Subscribe for Updates​

For exclusive access to Think Medium content and program updates, subscribe here.