ASUG Women Connect: The Climb to Success

Cheryl Parsons in March 03, 2019

It’s 2019, and women only hold 26.5 percent of executive/senior level positions and, even worse, only 4.8 percent of CEO positions in S&P 500 companies. Speaking as the chief marketing officer for ASUG, I know we still have a lot more work to do. And I know that we need to do it together.

I think early in my career, I set a goal of being at the top of the ladder. I wanted to hold a C-level position at a Fortune 100 company, no matter the uphill climb. I worked hard at getting there. But that’s not what makes my story unique. In fact, I’m sure I share that passion and drive with many women.

What makes my story mine are the lessons I learned along the way and the ways in which I’ve allowed them to shape my climb. Those are the lessons I want to share with you.

Putting Life on Hold

How many times have we heard women talk about putting their personal lives on hold in pursuit of professional accomplishment? Perhaps too often. I’ve had to make that decision too. When asked if I’ve sacrificed anything in my life to get to this stage of my career, the answer is, “Yes, in many ways. But no, not at all.”

My sacrifices, which were choices, allowed me to work in many different industries. I’ve held positions in Fortune 5 companies and startups, as well as academic institutions and nonprofit organizations. I have even owned my own business. I made real sacrifices—family, love, friendships—to get there, but I also learned some valuable lessons.

Check Your Perspective

Sitting at the top of that ladder, I realized what truly made me happy was to take the time to experience life. To live life with the people I love and to work with people I respect. It took me many years, many turns, and many failures to look at myself in the mirror and understand what I wanted. To understand who I wanted to be, and to be true to myself.

I chose to step away from the corporate climb and pivot my career to find environments that I wanted to be in, people I wanted to work with, and companies that truly make a difference in the market.

I don’t have regrets, but what I do have is a new point of view. Throughout my career, I had the opportunity to work for some great leaders, and some not-so-great leaders. Learning from both kinds of leaders has shaped the way I choose to lead today. To be an effective leader, you need to be able to allow each person on your team to be their best self. You need to see them for who they are and how they can contribute.

Flip the Beach Ball Around

When you can see the big picture but still focus in on each part that makes it, you’re already two steps ahead.

My mother may have taught me the best lesson in life. Whenever I’d start a sentence with, “it’s not fair,” she would challenge me to think about the circumstances from someone else’s point of view. “Did you see their side of the beach ball?” she’d ask. “Maybe the color they were looking at was different from yours, and perhaps you need to help them spin the ball to see all sides.” Although I lost her too early in my life, her life lessons will be ones I will always remember and embrace every day of my life.

This lesson in particular has guided me through my career. Being able to think about someone else’s point of view, despite differences, has allowed me to learn and grow and be the leader I am today. I learn every day, celebrate successes, and consider failures to be lessons. I trust those around me, and because of that, I can be my best self too.

Finding Your Way

I’ve climbed the ladder up and then back down and back up again. I’ve had experiences that are good, bad, and downright ugly. I’ve learned to “play the game” and change the rules. I’ve met and learned from some amazing people, personally and professionally.

So, now what?

One of the best lessons I learned was that it is okay to show your vulnerabilities and to be human; it makes you effective. Now, I’ve found my way to that climb. I celebrate the ability to work with extraordinary women and men every day. They’re smart, caring, inquisitive, driven, lighthearted, and collaborative. I lead and work with teams of people that have respect for each other and the team. It is a rare opportunity to work in an environment that is open and trusting.

Pay It Forward

It is fun spinning the beach ball around, but it can be more fun passing it to someone else. I’ve had the great privilege of having mentors in my life. In fact, one of my bosses early on in my career is still someone I count on. He has long since retired, but still is a great source of calm and guidance for me. 

There is such value in finding those people in your life. It’s important to have an outside voice, whether it’s a friend or a professional coach. There is also value in being that person in someone’s life.

At this stage in my career, I can take my years of experience and the lessons I have learned and mentor others trying to find their career paths. Many of the women who I have mentored (formally and informally) call me “Yoda.” I’m not sure that I’m that wise, but if my experiences can help others navigate the paths before them, I am all-in to help guide them.

Two Cents…If You Want Them

Learn who you are. Know what your “must haves” are in a position. I suggest you write down what you will compromise on and what is not negotiable. Knowing what is right for you is the key to being successful and finding satisfaction in what you do.

Women have a habit of thinking they need to do something or be in this or that position to grow, but we need to put ourselves into positions that allow us to shine. Never compromise on who you are. Stay true to yourself, and always be learning. If you are not learning something new every day, then you are not paying attention and life will pass you by.

Also, know that you are not the “only one.” ASUG Women Connect has a year-round calendar of events you can join, including gatherings at national conferences and local networking meetups to encourage more conversations and growth opportunities. We want you to participate. We would also love for you to tell your story through the ASUG blog. Tell your story so others can learn and see all of the colors of the beach ball.

If you or someone you know has something to say about the work you’re doing, your career accomplishments, or how other women have helped you on your journey, submit your idea on the ASUG blog or reach out to ASUGNews@asug.com. We also invite you to save the date on April 2, 2019 for the first Women Connect happy hour at ASUG's headquarters in downtown Chicago for a chance to meet Megan Stielstra, author of “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life.” Find out how to get involved with ASUG Women Connect year round.