I remember sitting on the front porch with my mom after first grade finished for the summer. She told me that my teacher wanted to hold me back because I read too slowly. While I didn’t realize it then, my mom was demonstrating a key leadership lesson in inclusion – making space at the table and allowing me to lean in to making my own decision. Even at that young age, I knew immediately that I didn’t want to be held back. I promised her that I would work hard to read more books if she would take the risk on me to continue to second grade. Between my mom’s willingness to take a risk on me, and my commitment to succeed, I ended up finishing in the top ten of my grade school graduating class.
Ten years later, a second key leadership lesson was learned on my parents’ steps. At 15 years old, my parents told me that we could not afford to send me to college. I told my parents I understood – they both were incredibly hard workers, often working more than one job while providing for our family. College wasn’t affordable for us but it was my dream – I knew it was time to pull my own chair up to the table, lean in and take a risk on myself. I immediately made a phone call to the bank and filled out the paperwork to detassel corn. I never missed a day and ended up graduating Cum Laude at Illinois State University earning the Most Outstanding Junior and Senior in Management, making me the first person in my family to graduate college – male or female.
These lessons early in life have shaped my career and leadership journey throughout the years. Like my mom did for me in first grade, I’ve had many other strong mentors and leaders who took risks on me throughout my career. They put me in tough roles with substantially increasing responsibilities – overseas opportunities, global leadership decision rights and the list goes on. I wasn’t an expert. I didn’t have all the answers. I wasn’t the smartest person in the room. But like my mom, they knew the power of inclusive leadership.
The most inspiring and motivating thing for me now is to do the same for others. This year I had a unique opportunity to help stand up the digital, IT and analytics succession planning group at Caterpillar that helps shape how we develop and advocate for our talent. Within our key talent pools, we have a higher representation of females and minorities than our general employee base and industry averages within digital, IT and analytics, which is critical to ensure diversity of thought and experiences to drive better business results. As a leader, I’m passionate about developing and advocating for people – inviting others to take a seat at the table, just as my mom and prior leaders did for me. Like my commitment to improving my reading in grade school, it’s amazing to see teams accomplish the impossible when someone takes a risk on them.
On the other hand, there have also been situations where I didn’t necessarily have an advocate to extend an invitation or take the risk on me. In those moments, I remembered my commitment to taking a risk on myself to go to college and pulling up my own chair in confidence, ready to make another bet on myself. I also encourage others to do the same in their careers – especially women.
While Caterpillar faces challenges like the rest of the manufacturing industry with recruiting and retaining top female talent – currently at about 29% - the IT industry I’m within faces even steeper challenges. In the most recent Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO survey, the percentage of women IT leaders—from CIOs to chief technology officers to vice presidents of technology—remains at 9 percent, the same as last year. The global average rate of women in IT overall is only a little larger at 10 percent. A commitment to diversity and inclusion – pulling up chairs to take a bet on ourselves and then inviting others to the table with us – is our critical step forward to #PressforProgress.