INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: CARRIE TANGUAY
Denise Willett recently became the Senior Director of EMEA. She was interviewed as part of a 12 month Achievers Women’s Network (AWN) series. The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.
Denise’s story exemplifies what happens when you take a break from checking those seemingly all-important life boxes (degree, home, marriage, etc.). She’s proof you can get everything you want in life and have fun adventures along the way. Her most recent adventure has seen her family move from Toronto to the UK where, as a Senior Director, Denise is leading the charge for Achievers – a global software company! She prides herself on building strong teams and strong connections wherever she goes.
Words like courageous, confident and candid come to mind when speaking with Denise. But she makes it clear “courage” takes time to build….sometimes three years to change a job, other times 10 years to finally scratch that itch for travel. She doesn’t shy away from her failures, the challenges she faced post-maternity leave or her lived experiences.
Being interviewed is incredibly vulnerable and after each question she takes long pauses, carefully considering her answers. Denise is uncomfortable and, at times, nervous but she continues because she recognizes the importance of telling her story.
Her Back Story
PHOTOGRAPHS BY: KENNETH BOVILLE
I grew up in a town in Newfoundland, of 8,000 people, where there was a strong sense of community. My dad had 11 siblings, and my Mum had 8. It was all about family and everyone helping each other. My dad was a shift-worker but he was always there for us kids. He was such a strong father and he was super encouraging and always said to me “what do you think you should do?” or “what would you do if you were me?” He told me I could do anything and there was never a distinction between boys and girls. If I knew what I wanted to do I could just put my hand-up and he would support me. I think it’s why I’ve never shied away from a challenge.
When I was 17, I knew I wanted to create a future for myself that was different than what happens in my town. I had a vision of something bigger. It was still a new idea for students to be guided toward a career in “computers” (that’s what everyone called it at the time) [laughs] but I had a great guidance counsellor who was forward thinking. He told me ”you like math, you like technology, you should think about working in computers” and I knew then I wanted to get into technology.
I went to Saint Mary’s University in Halifax because I wanted to take this particular major and it was the only university that offered” Computing and Information Systems”. At first, I haaaaated it. In the classroom, it was definitely “one of these things doesn’t belong here” [laughs] . Everyday I thought “what am I doing here, this is hard!”? I wanted to leave but my dad convinced me to stay. It was a big life lesson for me because I kept pushing and it became something really great. In my first year, I was in “Sciences” but the next year they offered it under a Bachelor of Commerce and it was a perfect fit!
IT and Tech jobs at the time were mainly in Toronto so I moved here and I landed a job at IBM. I was beside myself ….“I’m working at IBM!” [in a cheering voice]. It was such an amazing feeling. [laughs] I was in the call center (dot com!) and I was selling hardware which was a big piece of the business back then because everyone was buying their first computer.
I became a team lead then moved into services and eventually became an account manager. Then, into banking and insurance, then retail…[laughs] thirteen years, probably thirteen different roles.
At some point, I thought, what’s next? I got into that mindset of “ticking boxes”: get a job, buy the condo, get a boyfriend, get married, have kids, climb the corporate ladder, be at a company for 30 years and somewhere along the line that changed and that’s kinda what led me here today…I wanted to see what else was out there. Travel caused that shift.
I always wanted to travel, I thought about doing it after university but that wasn’t “ticking a box”. On my 25th birthday, I specifically remember calling home and saying “that’s it! I’m going travelling!” but instead I ticked the next box and bought a condo. When I first met my, now, husband, he said, “look, this is not going to go away. You want to travel, so just go travel and we’ll do it together.” And that’s exactly what we did…. I had to have a little bit of a kick [laughs].
I learned a lot during that year. You think every day is going to be amazing but life is still filled with challenges and decisions you have to make. It gave me perspective and I learned that, no matter what, it’s going to be okay. We couldn’t exactly afford to do it at the time but at the end of the day we realized, “hey we’ll be fine”. We had so many adventures along the way, I learned how to snowboard, experienced the history of Turkey, saw mind blowing landscapes in New Zealand, met people in Egypt who then hosted us later on”, ….Go live your life! Tackle life, don’t let it tackle you!
Her Career Path
Tell me about your current role as Senior Director, EMEA at Achievers.
After 5 years at Achievers, it was time to stop and think about what I wanted next. I wanted to get back into Sales and in a leadership capacity. I put up my hand. There was talk about Achievers expanding to the UK and Australia in 2017. I was very loud about it, that it’s absolutely what I wanted. It wasn’t a maybe. It was a “I want this, I am there”. A lesson I learned a long time ago was, the more skills you can build across the board the more doors that will open for you. This role was a combination of all of the foundations I laid in my career: The software knowledge, hardware sales and consulting experience made this opportunity great for me. I’m responsible for Sales, Services, and Marketing. We’re there to bring UK customers to the Achievers family – it’s raising brand awareness. I’ve been in the role since January of this year and in the UK for the last two months. I loved my job in Toronto, my team and my peers. I didn’t think I could have a better job but our team in the UK is so great! There are eight of us in total and we have fun!
What advice do you have for other women following your career path?
Tell people you want to do it. Don’t be muted. Give your opinion, speak-up, don’t sit back. Learn as much as you can in all the different areas of your business. Don’t just focus on going up, focus on going across and then you can start to specialize if that’s what you want. When you build a foundation of all the different pieces of the business it becomes a “no brainer” to choose you when you put your hand up.
Many times when I’ve found greater clarity on what I wanted to do next, it has come from a failure, challenge or roadblock. When I’ve run into those, it made me think maybe I’m going the wrong way. When you hit those roadblocks my advice is to stop and think about what it is you want to do, make a pros and cons list and dig deep to figure out what you really enjoy doing.
I used to always hear “you gotta know what you want to do 10 years from now”. I think that’s crazy because that path might change or you might change. Make sure you check in with yourself and think about what it is you want to do now or within the next year or two. Or think about what you haven’t done yet because whatever you do if you don’t like it you can move onto something else”
What was it like returning from Mat Leave and how did you turn it into one of your successes?
Coming back from mat leave, I thought: How am I going to go back to work? Have a family? And get home in time to have dinner? Be a role model? I was learning how to be a mom, work as a mom and get back into the working world. When I realized how many things I had going on, I thought [laughs] “that’s a lot”. Success isn’t just in the workplace, it’s how well you do at all the things you want in life. And it was weird at first, so weird. A year had gone by, it was like I was in a time warp, in some cases things had really changed and it other cases nothing had changed.
When I came back I had an opportunity to rebuild a customer and build a team around this customer who was [hesitates] yes, it was challenging. Can I say that, I can’t say that [laughs]? It was a good lesson learned – focusing on your customer’s success can bring you a lot of credibility within an organization, it will raise your profile and bring you success. It turned into such an amazing outcome and relationship – it was an opportunity to learn a lot. My team was gelling, they were feeling connected and inspired.
The career piece started becoming easier. It was less about having to move forward and more about enjoying the work, enjoying life and making sure I was happy and connecting with other people. I think being a mom softened me [laughs hard]. Other people might argue with me on that.”
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career? What lessons did you learn?
It was leaving IBM. I had been daydreaming for a long time about what else was out there! On my 10th anniversary, I woke up excited, I had a pep-in-my-step. I was hoping to be congratulated on my 10 years as an IBMer!!! When I got to the office, I was locked out because your security badge expires after 10 years. I had to go get a new picture taken, get a new badge. I finally get into the office and my boss wasn’t there. No one was there. Nobody knew and nobody noticed [pauses]. I knew that day I needed to start thinking about my next step. It wasn’t their responsibility to remember my 10 year anniversary but it became clear I needed to connect with people and it was important to me. But it still took 3 years for me to make that decision. People need to remember courage sometimes takes time.
I knew I wanted to join a start-up. I took a role at a super small software company and I was excited at the prospect of making an impact. But when I got there, it was clear it wasn’t a fit for me and I wasn’t passionate about the product. I wasn’t mad at myself though, I didn’t know to ask the right questions because I had never switched jobs before and that was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. IBM asked me to come back but I said no because I left for a reason. I just hadn’t found what I needed yet. I failed but I didn’t give up. It was a scary time and I started thinking maybe what I’m looking for doesn’t exist but then I found Achievers.
I wanted something really different and to have a life experience so I came to Achievers. I showed up and was like “who’s my person that does this?” and was told “that’s you” and I’d ask “who does this?” and was told “that’s you too!” [laughs]. And every time I’d ask it was “still you. Still you. Still you.” I started googling everything and learned a lot!!
What is sponsorship and why do you think it’s important?
It’s so important to know the difference between sponsorship and mentorship. Sponsors believe in you as a person, they’re people who’ll propel you forward and say “I’ve got a new role, come with me” or “hey this team is looking for someone, we should position you to go”. If you look around, get to know people, ask them their stories and ask them about their backgrounds, they could really help your business. You’ll find yourself sitting there saying “What!, you did 10 years of ‘x’”, I had no idea!” And you might miss opportunities to sponsor people if you’re not paying attention.
I had sponsors at IBM – I had many amazing bosses, one who took me with him within IBM or pushed me forward into other teams. Now, I am a proud sponsor and it makes me feel soooo good. It’s my favourite! Helping people see their own potential and helping them help themselves move along. It’s so fun!
Her Lived Experience
Have you ever been told to behave differently in the workplace because you’re a woman?
I did have a boss once tell me, not to wear a suit jacket because wearing them, as a woman “ was intimidating to the guys on my team”. I was working in the call center and wanted the team lead job so I dressed the part. I was so shocked! What was most shocking was that it came from another woman. I came from an upbringing where I was told, you could do whatever you want. There was never any mention that “you can’t do that because you’re a girl”. My dad and his family would literally build a house from the ground up, and I would be right in there helping. So I just kept wearing my suit jackets [pretends to put on a jacket]. And got the Team Lead job!
What’s your reaction when someone asks “how do you do it all”?
I don’t!!! I definitely don’t! You need to make some hard decisions sometimes and you can’t be so hard on yourself. If you didn’t get to all of your emails one day, they’ll still be there tomorrow. Be real, I tell people. I couldn’t make this or that because I already missed a week with my family and I need to spend time with them.
The hard part is traveling and committing to work and doing all of these things and then not being there for my daughter. I missed my daughter’s 3rd birthday, although we did celebrate it 3 more times [laughs]. It’s a hard balance, it’s a shell-game and you have to figure out what’s going to work for you this week. It’s never exactly balanced but you hope it balances over time. You try not to miss the big things that really matter. What we do is, make the time we do have together count!
I feel guilty but then I tell myself I’m setting a good example because my daughter’s going to see a mom doing what she really wants to do. Because this is what I really want to do [there’s a bittersweet tone in her voice]. I think that’s really hard because you struggle with both sides…there’s guilt but it’s a great example for her.
How can men help combat gender biases and gain a better understanding of a woman’s experience in the workplace?
I think some men would be shocked to hear some things that women go through…. shocked! Based on my experiences, we’re very lucky biases that are malicious or intentional are not acceptable in our work places any longer but there are still second generation biases. If men took the time to sit down and have a glass of wine with a woman, most women would tell you a story you have never heard before. About something that was crossing the line, or the time they were catcalled when leaving a gym or you name it. We start to think it’s just normal. Most men aren’t like that but I think making more men aware that those things happen and challenging their peers when they witness it can help create awareness.
Denise stops the interview and asks me a question at this point. “How many women do you think have had a bad experience? ” without hesitation I say “9 out of 10 and the other one probably isn’t comfortable talking about it.” Denise says “I agree 100%”. She really struggles before sharing her personal experience but the fact that we both believe every woman can relate to this convinces her it’s worth sharing.
Do you have a story to share that both men and women can learn from?
It’s important for people to know those things happen and no one talks about it. I was sitting in the backseat of a car surrounded by colleagues. I didn’t even know this guy and he put his hand on my leg and umm…I was so flabbergasted. I just couldn’t even process what was happening. That I literally just picked his hand up off of my leg. Then I sat like this for the rest of the ride with my legs crossed and hands on my lap. I got in the elevator with him and my other colleagues and I was lucky his floor was before mine. I had to call down to the front desk and make sure they didn’t give out room numbers as a way to keep myself feeling safe.
The thing that bothers me more is not what happened but what bothers me is that I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t want the hassle and it’s so sad because I’m not one that stays quiet and I know if I didn’t do anything about…then 99% of women probably don’t do anything…..that’s what haunts me.
If it happened now I would say “guys pull over the car, we gotta call HR!!” [laughs]. It’s so hard. I’ve talked to my girlfriends and we’ve all had this experience.
What is one of the biggest challenges facing women today?
Balancing the differences of being a woman with the expectations of equality. It’s okay to acknowledge we’re not the same as men in some ways. If you like pink, wear pink: you don’t not have to wear pink to be equal. If you want to be a stay at home mom, be at a stay at home mom. If you want to work crazy hours, be that person. I think women are going to continue to struggle to balance the expectations.
This career move has been so interesting for me. My husband and I have always both worked but we sat down and talked about it and we decided together that with our move to the UK he would be the person to help us settle. But I had a number of people say things like “you’re so lucky that you have a husband that’s so supportive and would do this for you” and my response is “Am I? Is that luck?” [with a tone of annoyance]. And I don’t understand that because we both decided on this. Each of us wanted this for ourselves – does that make me lucky? I don’t think that’s luck, I think that’s understanding and discussion and working it out together as a family.
If it was reversed people wouldn’t say “you’re so lucky to have such a supportive wife that stays at home to take care of the kids” [laughs]. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone say that to a man.”
Her Final Advice
Say “yes” and figure out the details later because what’s the worst that’s going to happen? You’ll have a glass of wine, cry to your friends and get over it.
Stop apologizing! As women we tend to apologize a lot – it’s okay to be passionate about work or a customer or something in your life!
Don’t be muted, put your hand up if you want something.
Look at failure as a chance to stop, and think about what you really want to do, what’s right for you and go for it!
The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.