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Very few people hope there comes a day when their job is obsolete. Then there’s Neville Poole.
As the North America Enterprise Agility Partner for IBM, Poole collaborates with C-suite executives of Fortune 500 companies to develop new technology strategies that modernize their ability to deliver value. Simply put, her job toggles between business and technology consulting. But when she envisions the future, she sees something entirely different.
“The future of business is not business and IT,” says Poole. “The future of business is an organization that is laser-focused on delivering business outcomes. Consulting then becomes about solving organizational problems, not selling widgets.”
We spoke with Poole to hear more about how a marketing major from a small historically black college climbed the ranks to work for one of the largest technology and consulting companies in the world.
This is a two-part question: Would you say the business and technology industries are male-dominated? If so, why?
Yes, these industries are very much dominated by men.
There are a couple of different reasons why. A lot of women never found a connection with technology as young girls. If you look at the STEM programs, there’s not a lot of girls because we do a poor job explaining the available opportunities. Technology is just presented as someone writing a bunch of code, but that might not be the right entrance for everybody — girls and boys — into the field.
Today, there’s a lot of effort to expose young girls and boys to STEM. I have a daughter in middle school and I get emails all the time for classes like Girls Who Code. Now, there are all these initiatives to expose women to the field. But before, the industry just wasn’t geared toward girls.
Also, technology roles can be super demanding and a lot of women exit the field because they can’t balance their family and a job in IT. Technology jobs are demanding and, until recently, it was frowned upon to balance your job and home life. It was like, “Oh, you can’t work 60-hour weeks? What’s wrong with you?” Over the last couple of years and especially this last year with COVID, organizations have become more aware of the imbalance.
What are some barriers that existed at the start of your career that have since evolved?
When I first started in IT, the biggest barrier was mentorship. I didn’t come from a traditional technology background. Since I was a marketing and economics major, I had created a network that was very different from the field I was going into. I didn’t have men or women who could be my voice to help me get opportunities.
That was a big barrier because my counterparts had mentors in the technology industry that they’d known for a long time. But now, because of the emphasis on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, many organizations are being very intentional about ensuring everyone has a sponsor to help them maneuver through the organization or their career at large. Organizations are being super intentional about setting people up for success and giving them the tools that they need.
Throughout your career, you have continuously climbed the ranks and accepted bigger and better opportunities. What’s the secret to your success?
It’s important for me to feel like I’m adding value and being challenged. If at any point in my journey both of those pieces aren’t true, then it’s time to be vulnerable and do something that stretches me.
When I’m asked to do something uncomfortable, I have to ask myself, “Have I created a succession plan? If I were to leave this role, who would be my successor?” I have this natural knack for coaching. I always want to be providing knowledge to enable someone else to step in and be ready for their next challenge.
It’s interesting that you always consider who will be your successor. Why is that?
I actually think about it when I start a new role — I don’t wait until the end. For example, within my first month at IBM, I identified some people on my team who, if I were to move on, would be the next leaders of this group. So I started coaching them without them even knowing it.
I’m always thinking about how I can add more value. That way, when I get tapped on the shoulder or identify an area I want to explore, I can leave the area better than when I found it. I can feel great about leaving it in the hands of people who care and want to see the company grow.
Did you have mentors who, as you do with select employees now, started coaching you without you realizing it?
Yes. I can look back and identify two people who did that. I didn’t realize it at the time but they took a liking to me and gave me some of their pet projects. Later on, I realized they were testing me, trying to see if I could handle it.
More people need to acknowledge they have a responsibility to help. There’s somebody in your network, in your neighborhood, or in your company who has the potential to do something they didn’t even think was possible. They just need a leader to give them a little nudge and give them a place to learn. If I were to retire tomorrow and I hadn’t shared any of my knowledge or experiences except to make money for my company, that’s just not cool.
It doesn’t matter what level of leadership you’re in, there’s always somebody who needs support. It’s not always convenient to set aside time to do it, but it’s a failure if you, as a leader, walk away and haven’t equipped anyone else.
Of course, self-growth never stops. What new skills are you developing today?
A big focus for me right now is leadership development. Working with the C-suite of Fortune 500 companies, especially right now in a pandemic, I have to stay several steps ahead in my research and my strategies to help them. That’s something I’m working on — anticipating what’s next for my clients.
I’m also advancing on how to communicate with CEOs who risk their entire livelihoods if their companies don’t turn around post-pandemic. I have a lot of empathy and I need to tether that. I want my clients to feel comfortable and know that I feel for them but I also have to quickly turn that empathy into something productive. I don’t always have a day or two to think about it. Many times, I have to come up with a plan while I’m on the phone with the client. That skill is ever-evolving.
Another thing is feeling comfortable with my skills and taking them to an industry I’m passionate about. When you’re coming up in your career, you don’t get to pick and choose. You take what you can get, make the best of it, learn, and move on. But I’m at the point now where I can pick what industry I want to work in, what type of work I want to do, and where — whether it’s for IBM or if I decide to do something on my own. I can now step out and make that call.
Why’s it important that you impart lasting value?
It’s a personal thing. I grew up in a very poor area and went to an HBCU. I always felt like I needed to take five steps to match another person’s single step. So I’m always trying to demonstrate that I can bring something valuable to the table.
Growing up the way I grew up, I always wanted to prove that I could accomplish something. That has carried forth with me my entire career. I’m always going into situations thinking, “How are they going to perceive me when I walk away?” I want to walk away feeling like I did good and provided the value they expected so they won’t hesitate to do business with another black woman in the future. There aren’t many black people in IT, so I want to bring my A-game all the time so that someone else has the opportunity to show up.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Just believe in what you know and be transparent about what you don’t. There are lots of leaders who tell people, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” I just can’t do that. When you’re transparent about what you don’t know, it opens up so many opportunities for you to learn, grow, and create trusted relationships.
I would also tell my younger self to be vocal. Don’t suppress it because you think you’re being bodacious. Speaking up is huge because I never did. I would wait until somebody called my name and, if they didn’t, I didn’t offer input. I tell my daughters all the time, “Don’t hesitate to say it.”
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of my two daughters if we’re talking about life in general. But professionally, I’m most proud of the way I’ve left things. If you were to go through my resume and talk to the people that I’ve moved on from — whether that’s an organization or a client — I’m very proud of the way they would describe the value I provided them.
I always want to make sure that when I leave, I have provided some level of value. I’m really intentional about that.