Editor's note: The following is a guest article from Rachel Hayden, SVP and CIO at ScanSource.
The path to CIO was absolutely not a direct or straight-line for me.
My journey encompassed many different roles, across several industries and geographies, in various leadership capacities. It can best be described as a winding road up a steep mountain terrain with lots of unexpected detours, only to arrive at the peak with an unbelievable view.
Stop one on my career path started when I graduated early as a Bachelor of Science in applied mathematics, but had uncertainty about how to translate my degree into a career. My older brother, a self-professed technology geek, was actually the one who encouraged me to combine my degree in math with computer science. It was the direction I needed to begin my journey.
A shot in the dark, I moved from South Carolina up to Vermont for my first gig – as a computer education registrar for a printing and copying solution provider, while simultaneously moonlighting as a third-shift hotel clerk to pay for the suits required for my day job.
In any career there are a handful of pivotal, defining moments. My first one came a few months after I started as a registrar. During an "all hands" company meeting, I stood up and asked the executive team why we weren't tracking computer education registrants and their course data (this was well before analytics and CRM were formalized concepts). I thought I was going to be fired, but the CEO loved the idea.
I quietly celebrated avoiding a major detour in climbing the hill. The CEO pulled me from my registrar position into a new role with IT responsibilities and that was my introduction into the tech field, building target-based marketing and relational databases for the company. It was then that I had the realization of just how powerful a resource data can be. At 19 years old, I was offered a job for another company managing databases for much larger clients.
From there, my interest grew exponentially as I began to discern how quickly the tech space evolves, and furthermore, how our answers to yesterday's business challenges often do not apply in today's world, and most definitely not tomorrow's.
Years later, I knew I wanted to become a CIO when I realized that being a CIO doesn't necessarily mean having all the technical answers to everyone's questions. It is more about having creative ideas that apply the use of technology to solve business challenges and drive competitive advantage in an organization.
Even more so, it's about building and empowering high-performing teams and creating a strategic vision that will enable business transformation and growth.
Throughout my career as a woman in the tech industry, I have learned a few things along the way that have shaped how I operate as a leader in the field:
1. Representation matters
One of the biggest obstacles I faced during my career was the lack of female role models or mentors, particularly in IT management and leadership positions. I was often in unchartered waters, on an island without a bridge or rescue boat in sight.
However, this provided me the opportunity to learn through experience that grit, determination, and perseverance allows leaders to transcend most, if not all, of the obstacles encountered. Now, as I sit in a position to serve as a leader, I work hard to represent women in a positive way.
I encourage women leaders in the tech field to be active. It is important to realize that in order to foster a diverse and inclusive environment, our jobs are about showing up, not just every day at work, but being ingrained in our communities, serving as board members, and connecting to young women in tech to help them grow in the field.
2. Give back to others in the field
Regardless of title or functional area of expertise, anyone can make lasting change within the organization and beyond.
At my last company, I co-sponsored the establishment of a diversity, equity and inclusion program. I partnered with my fellow HR executive to build a framework to launch the program, but more importantly we amassed a team that assisted to build and organically sustain the initiative.
Associate engagement is a critical component of success for a DE&I program, and although this effort was a little atypical of a CIO's responsibility, I quickly realized that the program had better staying-power with my involvement rather than if HR sponsored the effort alone.
Organizational leaders have the power of influence at their fingertips, but it's about applying this influence to make lasting, positive change. Over the years, I have come to realize that leading with purpose and by example is one of the most powerful tools a leader possesses, and it is always rewarding when teams, managers and even other C-suite leaders rally around a cause together.
3. Be available to help others
One of the most important things leaders can do is give their time.
Whenever I was at a pivotal point in my career, I reached out to people that I respected, studied and admired for guidance. At one critical juncture in climbing the corporate ladder, I encountered a period of transition, a curve around the mountain with a very steep cliff.
Unsure of next steps, I reached out to a CIO I had met through a mutual connection, and invited him to have coffee. During our meeting, he graciously put his phone away, actively listened and provided some encouraging advice.
By the end of the conversation, he had convinced me that my next step was seeking a CIO role as I was already doing the job, and simply needed to officially apply for the position. This was 30-40 minutes of his life, but it changed mine forever.
In summary, I would encourage all leaders in this industry, not just women, to remember the people who influenced career paths, and stretch to support those who follow. Sometimes as leaders, we underestimate or forget how closely our actions are being observed and who we are influencing to become the leaders of tomorrow. I simply cannot think of anything more important or more fulfilling from a career perspective than to share that spectacular mountain top view with others.