INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: CARRIE TANGUAY
Camille Williams was recently promoted to Vice President of Professional Services. 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.
What strikes me about Camille is her calming energy. Within a few minutes I feel like I’m chatting to someone I’ve known my entire life. It’s finally, a warm, sunny afternoon in Toronto so we opt to hold our interview on a nearby patio. As football fans, waiting for kick-off time, bustle around us, Camille breezes from one topic to the next, in a matter-of-fact-way, naturally transitioning from her recent promotion to her unconventional childhood to her daughters. While I am the one interviewing her, I feel like I have her undivided attention, she maintains eye contact for the duration of our interview, never losing focus. It’s clear, this is one of her many skills that makes her a perfect fit for her new role and why her team and clients must love her!
Perhaps evidence of her background in psychology, but Camille is very mindful when she speaks and her responses include words such as: “I think”, “I feel”, “examine” and “conscious”. Camille tells her story in “three chapters”. First, her unconventional childhood in Santa Rosa, California. Second, her time away at university and the early years with her husband. Third, becoming a mother. She discusses the importance of education to broaden your worldview, how a seemingly benign moment like serving ice cream changed her life’s journey and the meandering path that led to her current role.
Her Back Story
PHOTOGRAPHS BY: KENNETH BOVILLE
I feel like my life is divided into three chapters. The young period of my life where I lived at home in Santa Rosa with my mother and step-father. The second period where I made the decision I was going to do something with my life. I went to college, lived with my husband and we were together – just us – for 12 years. And the third chapter is when we had kids and I became a mother. When I think about Santa Rosa it’s like the forgotten chapter because it’s so long ago.
I don’t have the traditional background you’d expect of a professional woman in a software company. I think people assume I have this middle-class background but I come from a fairly dysfunctional family situation where it was assumed I would never go to college or have many career prospects. My mother was mentally unstable and I had no contact with my father at all, so that was a tough start. I feel that in a lot of ways I sort of miraculously escaped that part of my life. I just read “Hillbilly Elegy”. It’s a memoir about a man growing up poor in Appalachia who rises above his upbringing and attends Yale Law school. I read a lot of those kinds of stories. The theme is always, there are some key people that pushed them to be better, do more and try harder. In my life that was my step-father. He came into my life when I was 10 and at the time I thought he was terrible and I resented him. He was a Vietnam Vet and he had a temper. But he expected something of me, which was sort of new, because no one had ever expected anything of me before. Looking back, I really appreciate the influence he had on me in terms of expecting more. Even basic things like chores and keeping my room clean. He would give me money for good grades. When I look back I attribute a lot of my ability to rise above my upbringing to him.
I remember being in high school and being aware of people taking their SATs but it was something I didn’t even consider. I had no intention of going to College. I graduated high school in 1992, got a job at a pharmacy and worked the photo counter for a couple of years [laughs]. One day I had to cover the ice-cream counter and some people I went to high school with came in. I had to scoop ice cream for them and serve them. It was definitely one of those moments where I thought, “is this really all that I want for my life?!” In that moment, I realized there’s gotta be more to life than this! So I enrolled in some general education courses at Santa Rosa Junior College and figured out what I needed to do to transfer into a four-year college. I ended up getting into one of the top universities in California and I did my last two years at UC Berkeley. It’s funny to go from somebody who only made good grades because my step-dad was paying me, to finding the self-motivation to get into a good school.
I think I was interested in a psychology degree because I just wanted to make sense of my life, my family and why we had such unsatisfactory relationships. My long-term plan was to get my PhD in psychology and become a psychiatrist, but when I graduated I took a year to work to see what my options were and I ended up falling into a different career path. Once I got away from home and family I realized, “who cares? I don’t really need to explain it all, I just need to move forward.”
After university, I took a job as a compensation research associate in a small consulting firm in Oakland. I didn’t even know you could have a career specifically in compensation. I fell into that and just kinda kept going with it. I worked at that consulting firm for a few years and got promoted through the ranks there. After awhile, it became very weird for me to go visit clients and tell them what they should be doing when I had never sat on their side of the table. So I thought I’d get a job as an internal compensation person to get that experience, but it was never something I was excited about.
Then one day, I was looking at Craigslist and there was a job opening for a Project Manager at a start-up company implementing a compensation software tool. I thought, “well I don’t know the software piece but I know the compensation piece and maybe I can leverage that and learn the other stuff”. I took a chance, took that job and it was so much better from day one! I really liked the tangible start and finish of a project.
I worked there for a number of years and was promoted to a Senior Consultant, then a Principal Consultant and then a position opened up for a Practice Director. I didn’t even consider applying for it but my manager at the time encouraged me. I didn’t think I was qualified and I thought “nobody’s going to pick me to do that role”. But he talked me into applying and I ended up getting the job! I’ll always be grateful to him.
I’ve been with my husband forever! He’s been through two of three chapters with me. Scott’s always encouraged me to take risks, make job changes, pursue what was next in my life and always told me I could do it. He gave me that push that I needed from time-to-time. He’s always had more faith in me than I’ve had in myself and that’s had a huge influence on me.
I had my daughters later in life, well into my 30s, and I feel like they’ve given me a purpose. I never really felt grown up until I had kids. It gives you something to live for beyond yourself and I feel like now, everything I do, I do for them. It’s important for them to see me as a woman with a career, somebody who is educated, a professional who has options and to be a strong role model for them.
Her Career Path
What is your current role and why do you find it rewarding?
I’m Vice President (VP) of Professional Services (PS) at Achievers. I lead the teams that work with new and existing customers to design, build and launch their Recognition and Engagement programs to their employees.
I have a very high performing team. So of course, it’s really nice to meet all of our goals, quarter after quarter, but it’s about being a leader of a team that works so hard. They give it their all everyday. It’s a team of people that are very passionate about what they do and take strong, personal pride in the outcome and that’s really a breath of a fresh air. Everybody gives whatever it takes to exceed and that’s a great place to be. It gives me the inspiration to try harder and push harder.
You work remotely from California, while your team is based in Toronto, what is most challenging about being a remote leader?
I was originally hired to build out an implementation team on the West Coast so that we would be positioned to locally staff our implementation projects in the region, but shortly after I came on board, the company decided to go into a different direction. Instead I was put in charge of five implementation managers that were based in Toronto and the East Coast. As the Director, I had regular one-on-one meetings with all my team members, and weekly meetings with the full PS team where we’d all have our web cameras turned on so we could see each other. I wanted my team to feel that I was as present and as accessible as if I were sitting in the office with them. It took awhile for everyone to feel comfortable reaching out to me, and several times of them messaging me at 6:30 AM, my time, and getting a response, for it to start to feel comfortable.
Then I was promoted to VP. Now I’m managing the entire team remotely. The hardest thing is being 3000 miles away and not being part of the organic office environment. Feeling out of touch is a real challenge so I’m really conscious about it. I’m in California and 90% of the team is together in Toronto. I don’t always know how people are feeling or what the pulse of the office is, so, I rely on my relationships and managers to tell me; “Has morale dropped?”, “Is there a weird vibe in the office today? Tell me, so I can help.” We’ve established a great network so I’m aware of those situations.
If you’re in an office you can be different type of leader and have it work but when you’re remote your relationships are everything because if you don’t know what’s going on you can’t help or get ahead of anything.
What advice would give to women who want to follow your career path?
For me, education is key. It was the differentiator in terms of having a better life and more opportunity like a better career, to make more money, buy a home and do all of those things that make for a significant difference in the quality of life. Beyond that, having an education is key in terms of understanding different viewpoints, different theories and having a broader idea of the world and how it works. That would be my advice….get an education, even if you never do anything with it, just to broaden your outlook.
Professional Services is a great career path! The skillset that’s most important is communication, then organizational and time management skills. Take a course in Project Management, Communication, Negotiation, How to Influence Others because all of those things would be really helpful.
What is the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career and what was the outcome?
The biggest risk that stands out was applying for that Practice Director role at my previous company and making the jump from independent contributor to becoming a people manager. I was happy doing what I was doing, I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about what my long-term goals were and what I wanted to do. I was just thinking, “this is going well, it’s working, I’m paying the bills” [laughs]. I had to push through the fear of, “do I want to take this on? And learn new stuff? And go from a situation where I’m peers with people to where I’m managing them?” I think intellectually I knew I could do it but I had to push through that fear.
That’s something I struggled with my whole life but every time I’ve taken the risk it’s been good and paid off.
How has your confidence impacted your career over the years?
All my life I’ve undersold myself. I didn’t aim high a lot of times and it didn’t occur to me to do so. I feel like I am in such a better place than where I could have been or based on statistics, where I should be so going further than that seemed, almost unnecessary. It sounds silly but that’s always been my mindset and it’s something I’ve had to overcome.
As an example, when the Practice Director role came up at my previous company it didn’t even occur to me to apply for it but, this time, at Achievers, when the VP role opened up I thought, “oh, I should think about this. Is it something I want? Something I feel like I can do? Something I feel like I can take on at this point in my life?” It was the first time in my life, I got in front of something rather than having somebody push me along. I felt good about this because I saw the opportunity, I recognized it and thought I could do it. I feel like it was kind of a milestone in my life, rather than waiting or letting the opportunity pass by.
Her Lived Experience
As a woman in a leadership role, how do you think you’re benefitting other women?
It’s just good to see women in leadership positions. Most people have read “Lean In” but something that really impacted me about that book is that women and men attend college at the same rate, in fact, women outpace men. So we come out of university on an equal playing field and then after that first 5 years women start dropping out. And there’s a whole lot of reasons for that, but at the end of the day, there are fewer women in leadership positions and I think it can be intimidating for women. I think it’s changing but the more of us there are in leadership roles, the more normalized it seems and the more achievable it becomes.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women today?
I think a lot about this because I have two little girls. I honestly feel like we’ve made a lot of great strides but I still see the gender bias and how much culture and society start brainwashing kids at such young ages: TV programs, magazines, media…pushing Princesses, pink and sparkles on little girls. And firemen and engineering sets for little boys.
We’re seeing the trend of less girls going into science or math and getting those types of degrees and women are going to continue to be disadvantaged if, at age 4 and 7, they’re told Princesses and Barbies are more interesting than engineering kits and learning how things work.
How do you combat those early gender biases with your daughters?
It’s something I’m very conscious of but I still find myself falling into that trap. One of my daughters is very “girly” [motions air-quotes]. She loves fashion, earrings and make-up and I don’t want to discourage that because all of those things are fine but I just want her to know that there’s more to life and it’s okay to have other interests. If she doesn’t have an affinity for math, science and engineering I’m not going to push that on her but I just want her to know all the things that are open to her. We try to expose both of our girls to the full spectrum of options available to them and see what sticks.
What’s your reaction when someone asks “how do you do it all”?
You would not believe how often I get asked that question and it always stops me for a second because I think well, you know, “you just do it!” And then my second thought, I don’t want to sound flippant but, you do think, “would you ask a man that? No!” But the honest answer is, it is hard to some extent because we’re programmed to have a specific role. I have a lot of guilt that I struggle with when I’m at work. Like here I’m in Toronto, and I’m 3000 miles away from my kids. But when I’m at home or on vacation then I feel guilty that I’m not at work. I hope my daughters don’t have to face the same perceived expectations that my generation has, which is you have to be all of it. Mom. Wife. VP of PS. Omnipresent all the time for everybody.
I’ve been really fortunate that my husband has been able to stay home with our kids. If we were both working and had dual careers this would be very difficult to do. I think it’s important to point that out because it’s harder when you have two working parents and I’ve been lucky to prioritize my career and know my kids are at home with someone I trust. It just kinda happened when I was pregnant with our second daughter, he got laid off and we had a conversation that maybe he shouldn’t go straight into another job and take some time with the baby. I honestly thought, “he’s going to last six weeks!” but he really embraced it and he’s doing such a great job. Of the two of us, he’s definitely the better one of us to stay at home, he’s patient and nurturing and I’m not [laughs].
What role do you think women play in our advancement?
I honestly feel like, often times, women can be one another’s own worst enemy which is really unfortunate, because if women are going to get ahead we need to support each other. Fight for one another and extend the hand behind to pull the next person up. I actually feel like at Achievers that is true but I know that’s not a universal truth and that’s something we’re going to need to work on if we’re going to advance women in the workplace.
Also, I think women tend to sell themselves short, not every woman of course. But women will often be very hardworking, very smart, very competent but they’ll wait for things to come to them. For a boss to recognize they’re great, to offer them a promotion rather than raising their hand and making it known what they want. We need to be better advocates for ourselves and each other if we want to take the next step for equality in the workforce.
Her Final Advice
What advice would you give to men in your industry (or in general)?
It depends on the man! [while laughing]. I think many men now, don’t have a lot of the issues that men have had in the past where they wouldn’t even consider a woman but my advice would be just… give us a chance! Look at us based on our merits. Promote or hire the best person who has the best skillset for the job and if you’ve got a male and female candidate that are equally qualified and you’re leaning towards the male examine why that is. Maybe that’s the right choice but maybe there are some influences there that you’re subconsciously not aware of.
The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.