The Grill: Becky Blalock counsels women to get in front of decision-makers

This IT leader has advice for women looking to advance: Believe in yourself.

In her 33-year career with $18 billion Southern Co., IT veteran and first-time author Becky Blalock held positions in accounting, finance, corporate communications, external affairs and IT, where she rose to the rank of senior vice president and CIO before retiring in 2011. Regardless of the department, she continually encountered young women starved for career tips who sought mentors to share lessons learned and real-life how-to information. That experience, combined with the fact that she always wanted to write a book and "couldn't just go from being CIO to doing nothing," led her to pen Dare: Straight Talk on Confidence, Courage, and Career for Women in Charge, which was published last month.

You worked in many areas and had a lot of experience outside of IT. Obviously that was instrumental in your making it to the C-suite. What else helped? One of the things that really gave me comfort is the fact that I went to four high schools, three junior high schools and eight elementary schools. All my life I was thrown into new situations. I had to learn to adapt. While I hated all of that growing up, I look at it as something that was a gift.

Federal Reserve CIO Lyn McDermid, whom I interviewed for the book, was a military brat, too, and she says that experience of going into new situations helped her, too.

But the single greatest thing that holds women back is confidence. Women need to believe in themselves so much more than they do.

We all live in these comfort zones where we feel safe and valued and appreciated, but you have to push yourself out of those things. That's what qualifies you for the next job level.

How do women get on the radar screen, especially at companies where the "old boys' network" is alive and well? There is definitely an old boys' network. When you look at businesses at the very top, it's white males that dominate. I don't think men purposely exclude women. I think they don't think about the advantages they have [as men]. Women have to educate them.

I went to an executive conference and 20% of the men in the room came up and asked how they could be more sensitive to women. I told them to be sensitive to the fact that you need to give women equal face time. If you're taking a man out to play golf, give a woman an opportunity to have exposure to you -- perhaps have her work on a special project.

Women don't have equal access to decision-makers. Men clearly have an advantage and some of them get really angry when you bring it up. But I won't make men mad who have daughters and who care about their daughters' progress.

You write about the need to understand the difference between managing and leading. Tell me about that difference. There is a big difference. A lot of people in middle management can't understand why they don't make it to the next level. In middle management, you're executing on ideas that someone else has created.

It's not easy to execute, but the higher value to a corporation is not just doing what someone tells you, but figuring out what needs to be done. What are we doing? Do we need to make a change? Do we need to shift the customer base? That's higher thinking than when you're in mid-management. In a leadership position, you need to be thinking ahead and looking around the corner. You may only have 20% of the information you need, but you have to be smart and courageous enough to go to the next level, even with that limited information.

How should middle managers position themselves to take advantage of those career-defining moments? I think a career-defining moment is anytime you are put in charge of a high-profile project or have a chance to get in front of a group of executives and show them who you are. People in senior management are always looking for talent.

I was always on the lookout for stars. I used to spend a lot of time on that. That's part of the reason that Computerworld was always picking Southern Co. as one of the Best Places to Work in IT: We put so much focus on leadership development.

As an employee, if you have an opportunity to get in front of a decision-maker, you have to leverage that for all it's worth. Don't shy away. I know a very smart and talented woman who was frightened to do that. I think public speaking and confidence and leadership are learned skills. People aren't born knowing how to do those things. But you have to put yourself out there. You have to be able to stick your head out there and get it chopped off. It's not failing. It's what you learn from it.

Do all of these tips apply to men as well as women? The truth is you have to be very careful about putting anybody in a box. Men suffer from a deficit of confidence just as much as women, but women are much more obsessed with being liked. In general, when I talk with my female friends, we're much more sensitive about things and take things much more personally.

When I interviewed men, I asked them what one thing they'd change about women. Some of them would say women take things much too personally and that they need to lighten up in the workplace. Women pick up on clues that men never see. Overall, women score 3% higher on IQ tests, but they think different. That's why it's important to have different people on a team.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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