Christina Van Houten, ’96, never imagined she’d one day lead product development and M&A for a cybersecurity technology company. After all, the career path that starts with public interest and nonprofit work and eventually leads to becoming the chief strategy officer of London-based Mimecast isn’t a linear one. “My career has been diverse and random, yet has made perfect sense for me and has all worked out in the end,” she said. Today, she’s one of the few senior women in a male-dominated industry.
A year ago, Van Houten launched Women@Work, a platform dedicated to the economic advancement and self-reliance of women and girls around the world. The resource center features mentoring and concrete, actionable guidance and support for women at all phases of their careers. Her primary goals with the platform are to: (1) help more working women “stay in the game” as they endeavor to balance work and family, and (2) help women maximize their earning potential throughout their career journeys.
At the 2018 Booth Women Connect Conference, Van Houten will speak as part of a panel discussion, “Happiness Matters: Lessons Learned about Finding Fulfillment and Redefining Success.”
More than three decades since she first started working as a preteen, Van Houten has learned the value of perseverance, persuasion, and partnership. She shares those insights here in a letter to her younger self.
Careers aren’t linear and can be messy.
Being smart and credentialed is only the beginning. No one wants to volunteer for the dirty work, yet many times a willingness to do the drudgery and elevate it into something bigger has put me on the radar of the higher-ups and propelled me forward.
As your career evolves, the important thing is to figure out how to keep working, to stay in the game even if it feels like you’re treading water. Don’t worry if it’s not a direct path to the top. Stepping sideways or even backward can still be a strategic way to grow your career while “having it all.” Rather than quitting, I made a lateral move or two after I had kids to cut back on travel and other demands. Initially, I thought it might be a mistake and that I’d never catch up to the guys who suddenly passed me with promotions and higher compensation. Yet over the longer haul, these moves paid off, enabling me to expand my skills and ultimately catch up and even surpass those same guys in many cases, both in title and compensation.
It’s not enough to be right.
Being successful massively depends on your powers of persuasion. And being persuasive—that is, effectively getting others to listen to you and buy into what you’re saying—is a product of a bunch of tangible and intangible factors that all add up to what many call gravitas. Focus on finding and cultivating your own unique, genuine version of that good old charisma factor.
Consider how to maximize both the form and the substance of who you are. Work as hard on the outside factors—your content, voice, and appearance—as you do on the inside stuff—your intellect, skills, and interpersonal genius. There are so many ways to do this, from polishing your written skills to developing stage presence. Also, being persuasive isn’t about being pushy or the loudest person in the room. Many of the most impactful people I’ve known have been quiet leaders.
Like it or not, appearance plays hugely into your persuasion skills. A picture is worth a thousand words and how you look is your picture, your message to the world without saying a thing. It’s not about being the most beautiful person in the room, but instead ensuring that what your external self is “saying” aligns with who you are on the inside and what you want to achieve.
Moreover, there are so many things you can’t control, but one thing you can is how you get dressed in the morning. After investing so much into getting this far, why not go the last mile and invest in your executive presence too? Don’t let it stand in the way of your success.
Finally, assume that you’re being underestimated, because you probably are. Go into every situation determined to overcome that inevitable reality quickly and compellingly, uncovering that part of you that’s capable of surprising, disarming, and winning over everyone. Once you figure out how to achieve that in your own unique way, dang is it ever fun to see it work over and over again! As one of the only women in the room, you have the choice of seeing your uniqueness as a disadvantage or a massive opportunity—I’ve chosen the latter and that realization turbocharged my career journey once I figured out how to play it.
Choose the right spouse, friends, and colleagues in life and work.
The most important career decision you will make is choosing whom to partner with in life. I had so many friends whose spouses didn’t support their careers or encouraged them to dial down to the point where the economics of working no longer made sense, so they eventually quit. Not mine! There were so many times I was on the verge of throwing in the towel, and my husband always carefully and brilliantly pushed me to continue working, even when it meant significant sacrifices or compromises in his own career. I thank him for it every day because everything he made possible for me at home and work was an amazing gift that I could never have achieved without him.
Meanwhile, the colleagues I’ve chosen to collaborate with over time have also helped me go further than I imagined possible. Starting at Booth, I learned the value of working on teams that represented a diverse portfolio of rich skill sets. Digging in with people who are smart in a myriad of ways and have talents that are so different from mine, and partnering with them to create something awesome together is so fulfilling.
Lastly, giving things away—your ideas, your advice, your knowledge—is the holy grail of leadership. Generosity fuels your power and credibility more than you can imagine. Once you figure out how to do that effectively—creating an ecosystem that helps others thrive—a whole other world of possibilities opens up. If only I’d realized it sooner!
See Van Houten speak on the panel, “Happiness Matters: Lessons Learned about Finding Fulfillment and Redefining Success” at the Booth Women Connect Conference on October 12 in downtown Chicago. Register Now »
—By Betsy Mikel
September 11, 2018