For the first-ever TCB Talks: Redefining Leadership event on Tuesday, we invited three trailblazers to talk about how they got to the top in professions they never expected to be working in, and how they inspire new ways of thinking from their teams. UnitedHealth Group vice president and chief security officer Mary Welsh was pre-med when an opportunity to travel abroad prompted her to switch to economics. That opened the door to a career in security, first for the federal government, and then for corporations. Nanocore CEO Tammy Lee started out in broadcast news, shifted into corporate communications and politics before landing in biotech. Stahl president Jessie Houlihan also started out with a journalism background, which she channeled into environmental issues before moving into marketing and corporate development and sustainability roles, when she was brought in to modernize Stahl construction and worked her way to the top.
In a conversation moderated by editor-in-chief Allison Kaplan, the panelists discussed their openness to unexpected opportunities, their willingness to pivot, and the endless quest for balance. Here are some key insights.
1. Failure is all in your perspective. “All these things that made me look like I had a rain cloud over my head actually led me forward to where I am today.” — Tammy Lee
2. Don’t wait for a job opening; create it. “I found companies that didn’t have this [security officer] role and explained to the CEOs why they needed it.” — Mary Welsh (That’s how Welsh says she landed her first private sector security job.)
3. Admit what you don’t know. “When my team asks for the answers and I don’t have them, I tell them that. And then we dive into finding solutions.” —Jessie Houlihan
4. Learn the business, not just your role. “If you learn the business as a whole, it’s easier to understand what you’re doing and how you’re contributing to the larger business.” — Welsh
5. Don’t just hire people that look like you. “I didn’t have female role models in security. A lot of people take comfort in hiring people who are just like them. I believe we need to promote more women in security, and we need to invest in their learning opportunities.” — Welsh
6. Lean on your team. “The only science courses I took were political science,” says Lee, who now runs a healthcare startup. What she lacks in technical knowledge, she makes up for in her understanding of the customer and business strategy. “Know how to fill in your gaps.”
7. Make use of the downtime. “I carry my laptop everywhere…I’ll log in for 10 minutes, because every 10 minutes counts.” — Welsh
8. Get Buy-in from the team. “Coalition building is really important for getting any idea through a company of any size.” — Lee
9. Find a passion project. “Mine is cooking,” Welsh says. “Taking the time to do it, even an hour a week, will make you a better person. Lee says she recharges through hands-on projects. “I repainted almost every room in my house. It lets your brain wander.” Houlihan meditates every day. “Out of that, I often get a lot of ideas.”
10. Say no. “It’s really easy to go after more and more but you have to let other things go in order to do that. Pick and choose those things that align with your values.”— Houlihan