We recently met with Jessica Howell, an IT Director for a large big box retail store, to learn about her career journey, how she finds a work-life balance, and to get her take on negotiating in the workplace.
Firstly, tell me about your career progression into your current role?
I will say the one thing that’s been consistent about my career is that I haven’t been afraid to try new things. A lot of people focus on a particular vertical- for example they come out of school and want to do finance, this is something I didn’t do. I have taken a variety of opportunities to try lots of new things.
I stepped out of university into a terrible economy. I really wanted to work for an international firm. I took a job with a shipping company and knew nothing about ocean shipping. I learned Supply Chain from the ground. I took a particular interest in how their IT systems managed the flow of the business and quickly realized I was naturally technical.
From there, I’ve taken lots of different opportunities. For example, I took a role in internal audit- which is something I never thought I’d be interested in. It gave me an opportunity to build on my formal presentation skills as it required regular C-suite level presentation. It also gave me an opportunity to sink my teeth into a variety of interesting problems from one end of retail to another. The breadth of the exposures allowed me to connect with a lot of different leaders across the company and build credibility, which then gave me a variety of opportunities.
At the end of the day, I’ve done a little bit of everything from business to tech which has kept me on my toes as I’m constantly tackling a learning curve, but has also allowed me to contribute from a more well-rounded background.
How have you managed your family responsibilities along with your career?
I’m going to give you an unconventional answer. I married a man whose mother achieved a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees while raising three children and working. The beauty of that is, his expectation is that a woman can have it all and be successful, as long as there is a support system. I bristled even at your question because I never have had to think about it that way. The family responsibilities aren’t mine, they’re ours. We have to balance our schedules, but we evenly share the load.
Aside from having a great partner, I got some good advice years ago- most women debate “how do I work less hours so I can spend more time with my child?” The challenge with that is it creates an endless juggling act. If you focus instead on the next bigger role, you will end up with access to more help. As you make more money, you have access to arrangements that allow you to spend more of the hours you are with your family actually enjoying them versus chasing such a long list of to do’s. As an example, we have a full time nanny, which is a tremendous expense. However, the truth is that having her there, I know my son is in good hands. This means that at work I can focus on work and at home I can just focus on him. It allows me to be more present where I am.
What factors do you think contributed to you being moved into a Director role?
Two key things: Firstly, I will say, every exposure that you have to people is an interview; an opportunity to prove your capabilities. The more people that know who you are and how capable you are, the better. People will decide- Are you credible and competent?
Secondly, getting access to opportunities is part luck and part paving your own way. When luck doesn’t strike, sometimes you have to push a little bit. In my current role, I solicited an opportunity with my executives. In my case, I believe multiple exposures over time, made them more willing to take a risk on putting me in a new area. In every company there are fewer senior level opportunities; a 1 hour interview won’t get someone to the degree of comfort to be willing to offer you that role.
What types of things have you had to negotiate for in the workplace?
Everything! Opportunities is one. Not so much a negotiation, but more the courage to ask.
The tougher one is salary. It’s tricky because typically, women by nature are uncomfortable negotiating. Negotiation is a respect-building exercise. In regard to salary, if you don’t negotiate, the other person walks away concerned that they offered too much. When you negotiate, you send the message that you are aware of what the role requires and the quality of the job you will do- ultimately, that you are aware of what you are worth.
What advice do you have for successful negotiations?
The most important thing is gather facts and base the discussion on them; that way there are no unrealistic proposals in the scenario. That’s a mix of clarifying the role, then soliciting outside advice and doing appropriate market research. Secondly, you must strike a balance between humility and confidence. Sometimes people come across overconfident to cover up their nervousness, which makes them look arrogant. You will lose at that point, having a degree modesty is critical.
You have a stellar career, a family, your MBA and you are multilingual among other accomplishments…what motivates you?
I’ve always been driven. I wanted to see the world and accomplish big things. I was born that way-a little bit of a perfectionist too! I always struggled with landing something that I thought wasn’t done well.
There is never a day that I couldn’t tell you what my next goal is. It’s important to be thoughtful about what your goals are and how they line up with your values. I always tell people “if you can’t figure out what your values are, look at it in reverse.”
Think about the things you are willing to suffer through to get something you want. If you say you want three kids but you love to sleep, that’s not going to work! What are you willing to do to get where you want to be? Make sure those align with your values. I love what I do; I go to bed still brewing on problems to solve. That works well with my goals - the extra hours are worth it.
What can we as a society do to get more women in executive-level positions?
The line between men and women is so slim, and I would imagine that in 5 years it will be non-existent (hopefully!)
The confidence barrier for women is still there. Women are more uncomfortable acting in areas where they don’t have much knowledge. Whereas, men are confident acting in a space where they don’t have much knowledge. The best advice I can give is, fake it till you make it. I’ve walked out of meetings where I was quietly taking frantic notes writing down every word I didn’t know to look up later, but my colleagues in that meeting would have thought I was just paying good attention. Finding a way to not display your discomfort at what you don’t know is key! You will acquire knowledge over time. For most women, that is a conscious exercise-not showing lack of confidence visibly or verbally. If you show a lack of confidence, it takes a while to gain back credibility. Find your way to work through it.
Access to the right network is also tremendously important both for learning and confidence building. No one will bring that network to you; you have to build it. As women we have to remember to contribute back and mentor, help other men and women work through the learning curve and give them advice. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Go up to a senior woman and say I’m looking for a mentor. They were once in the same place that you are! Ask them questions, “How did you get this role, what skillsets do you think worked and what didn’t?”