On Yvette Smith’s first job as a technical sales rep for IBM, she was assigned as the branch representative to a major regional drug company. However, her client contact decided that she “wasn’t the branch rep for them,” because she was “so young.” He routinely berated her during meetings, and even requested that another branch rep be assigned to his company.
But Smith’s boss at IBM stood behind her, saying that if the client was going to buy supplies from IBM, he was going to buy them through Smith — or not at all. With her boss’ support, Smith persisted and successfully grew the account over the years.
“Eventually (the client) stopped screaming, and he bought a lot of stuff from me,” she noted with a smile. “What I developed was an incredibly thick skin…I’ve had to take that lesson many times in my career.”
This thick skin served her well later on in her career at IBM, when Smith volunteered to work on a difficult financial client that had never been successfully led by a woman, and that had never had an African-American stay on the team for more than six months.
I developed an incredibly thick skin…I’ve had to take that lesson many times in my career. -Yvette Smith
While taking on the assignment was risky, Smith reasoned that if she failed, everyone would be expecting it — whereas if she succeeded, she would be applauded. Not only did Smith stay on the team, she successfully led it until an opportunity for an international position came along (which allowed her to put her newly honed leadership skills to use working with people from many different countries).
“I still have mentors from that (client) that are on my board of directors, that I call when I need help,” she said.
Smith has made a successful career in customer service out of this resilient work ethic, which helps her tough out difficult assignments until she finds a solution. After long stints at IBM and Xerox, she is now the now General Manager of the Global Customer Services and Support team for the Cloud and Enterprise SBU at Microsoft.
Smith came to speak at Owen to kick off this year’s Distinguished Speakers Series (DSS), a student-run initiative that coordinates regular presentations from big-name business leaders. Hosted by Dean Eric Johnson, the talks are open to all students, faculty, and staff at Owen. Past speakers include Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-a; Megan Barry, mayor of Nashville; and Reese Witherspoon, founder of Draper James (not to mention a famous actress).
Upcoming speakers for the fall semester include Paul Jacobson, Chief Financial Officer of Delta Air Lines, who will give an informal lunch presentation on October 6 as part of the alumni reunion. Tom Plath, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at International Paper, will speak on October 17, and Dayne Walling, former mayor of Flint, Michigan, will speak as part of a special inaugural event on November 9.
So what can attendees expect from these distinguished speakers? As a sample, here are four major leadership lessons that Smith doled out to the crowd:
Don’t let the executive role run your whole life.
Smith exhorted the audience: “It’s important to know all of your roles…in the end, when it’s all said and done, the executive role will be the first one to go. It’s not really the one that’s going to last until the end of time. So I need to make sure that I’m feeding those other roles (such as wife and mother), and I say that because it’s so easy. The executive part will take over all the rest (if you let it).”
Be intentional about your career path.
Smith says that one of the best pieces of advice she ever got regarding her career is: “Focus on the job after the next job, and make sure that the next job is giving me the skills I want…The biggest thing I would say: be intentional. You can hear that I’m super intentional about my path, about the things I’ve done.”
Learn from mistakes — and let your team do the same.
Smith’s former managers allowed her to make mistakes and learn from them throughout her career, and now she does the same for her team. “People learn so much more when you let them make a couple mistakes than they do when you save them,” she said. “Quite honestly, the learning from the mistake is so much bigger than the impact and the downside that happens when you make it.”