Anne Stevens – Chairman, CEO and Principal SA IT Services
Zooming to Success in a Fighter Jet
By Caroline Cox
Anne Stevens is no stranger to taking the helm at top companies worth millions – and billions – of dollars. She went from being the first female executive VP of Ford Motor Company to COO before retiring as one of the highest-ranking women in the automotive field. Next, she made a career switch to technology, as CEO of Carpenter Technology to her current role as CEO of SA IT Services, a leading national technology company.
She’s also held positions at Exxon Mobil Corporation and had been featured on Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women” list four times. But if you think this 62-year-old mother of two (and grandmother of four) is looking to slow down anytime soon, think again.
Here, she talks to Little PINK Book about the values she learned from her father, her possible foray into politics and the time she flew an F-16 fighter jet nine times the force of Earth’s gravity.
PINK: What’s your success secret?
Anne Stevens: I love business and I love what I do. When you enjoy getting up in the morning and going to work, it makes everything else easier. Enthusiasm comes along with that. I call myself a life-long learner. I enjoy learning new things. If I get too comfortable or stuck, I’ll look to make it more exciting or challenging. Those characteristics have been the foundation for my success. Plus, I’ve always believed in networking, helping, and paying it forward. Over the years, I’ve found that with this philosophy, versus what can I get out of a relationship, what comes back to you is always more than what you’ve given.
PINK: How do you push forward when things start to feel stagnant?
AS: I accomplished a lot when I was chairman and CEO at Carpenter Technology (a $2 billion NYSE specialty metals producer). However, I was ready for a new challenge. I finished out my 3-year term and resigned before having something else in hand. When I left Exxon to go to Ford, I’d had the Ford job. When I left Ford to go Carpenter, I’d had the Carpenter job. [This] time I said, “I’ve been in the big corporate world, I’m 60 and I’m looking for something I haven’t done before.”
PINK: What made you make the career switch from the automotive industry to technology?
AS: I had no idea where I was going to go – then I got this opportunity [with SA IT Services]. It’s a majority women-owned business in the IT space, where exciting technology is changing everyday. It’s the first time I’ve been in a business that I didn’t really know, and people were willing to help me. It just seems like the universe is coming back and helping me this time around.
PINK: What’s the biggest issue for career women today?
AS: Over my career, I’ve seen too many women give up and exit the mainstream. Many women leave careers or the corporate world when things start to get too political. We have to realize that, like it or not, politics are everywhere. Whether it’s big business, small business, church or family, there are politics in life. I see giving up, getting frustrated and not sticking with it or pushing through as a challenge for many women.
PINK: What advice would you give to women to encourage them to stick it out?
AS: To find good mentors and build sponsor relationships. You also have to have supportive networks outside the work environment with like-minded people who have been through similar experiences and have been successful. Physical and mental durability is a key to success. We have to be physically durable by eating, sleeping and exercising right. The network, mentors, sponsors and advocates help you with mental durability.
PINK: What’s your leadership style?
AS: Back when in I was at Ford Motor Company I was given full P&L responsibility for Canada, Mexico and South America. The beautiful thing about dealing with people who aren’t fluent in English is that the questions you get are not flowered, not political and very direct. I had a younger manager who was in Brazil. He raised his hand and said, “What is your style?” I looked at him and I said, “Push, push, hug.”
PINK: What does a “push, push, hug” leadership style entail?
AS: You have to set targets, set objectives that are a bit of a stretch and be really clear with your expectations. But at the end of the day, we’re all human. You can’t just push without a hug. At that time, my HR manager got up and said, “Notice how there are more pushes than hugs.” It’s a balance of push and acknowledgement. If you just push with no acknowledgement of accomplishments, you’re ineffective. If you just hug and don’t set standards and expectations, you’re ineffective. It’s setting objectives then, at the end of the day, recognizing the humanity in all of us.
PINK: What’s your biggest weakness as a leader?
AS: I have no patience and I criticize myself if I’ve taken something on that I view as a failure. I think failures are good, honestly. But one of my weaknesses is feeling like I’ve failed at trying to implement too much change too quick or stretching just a little outside of achievable. It’s a lesson I’ve learned and one that I’ve tried to be careful with.
PINK: How big is your team?
AS: I have about eight direct-report employees in a company of 500. The number of people goes up or down depending on the projects we have – we’ve had as many as 1500 people on our roll.
PINK: How do you hire?
AS: I base a lot of my hiring on people my team members know personally. When I’m looking for a leader or employee, I go to my network and say, “Here’s the opportunity I have. Who do you know that fits this opportunity?” I put a lot of weight on that. In an interview, I look for intellectual curiosity and people with courage. If someone I’m interviewing asks no questions, it’s probably not going to fit.
PINK: How has your background contributed to your success?
AS: My father raised me with the belief that if you don’t fail, you’re not pushing hard enough. When I was little, I wanted to go fishing. I didn’t come from a wealthy family, so we had no fishing equipment. We were in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and I was maybe 8 – just a young kid. I saved up my allowance and bought a line and hooks, got up early in the morning, dug up worms so I had bait and went fishing. Unbeknownst to me, my father used to follow me. If I fell, he was always there to pick me up, but he wouldn’t stop me from taking the risk. I was raised with the philosophy that if you don’t take risks and fail, you’re not going to accomplish and use all the gifts you were given.
PINK: Did your father teach you other values too?
AS: Even before “diversity” was a word, I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He ran a little ice cream business in a dairy. Whether someone was an hourly-paid worker or the owner, in my father’s mind, everybody was equal. He didn’t care about gender, color, position or economic status. That served me well when I handled manufacturing facilities at Ford. There were so many untapped brains working on the floor. Fortunately, my upbringing taught me that it didn’t matter to me where ideas came from.
PINK: What’s the craziest thing you’ve done for your career?
AS: I serve on the Audit Committee and chaired the Management Development and Compensation Committee at Lockheed Martin. After I finished the interview process for a position on the board [in 2002], I had dinner with the head of HR. I said, “I’d really like to learn more about the products.” He said, “You know, we’ve never had a board member go up in one of the fighter jets – would you like to do that?” I said, “Absolutely.”
PINK: What was that like?
AS: I was the first board member who took a flight in the backseat of an F-16 with the chief test pilot. I went the day before to get a physical and check out the simulator. I actually took control of the plane, did loops and rolls, and then the pilot pulled nine Gs [a force of nine times the Earth’s gravity against your body]. He said, of everyone he’d ever taken up there, I was the only woman he was able to pull nine Gs with. In his entire career, there were only three people who could withstand nine Gs and I was one of them. Is that crazy or what?
PINK: How do you manage Life/Work balance?
AS: I am a time management freak. I have to plan things out. If you think of your life as 75-plus years and your career as 30-plus years, you can accomplish a lot. You just can’t accomplish everything at one time. There might be points in your life when you’re traveling 80 percent of your time and working 60 or 80 hours a week. You have to decide what you want to do and when.
PINK: Have you ever felt pressure to “do it all?”
AS: I’ve never really had an issue with that. I was never opposed to outsourcing. I don’t like to do housework and I’m not really good at it. Early in my marriage [to husband Bill Stevens], we moved into a new house. My mother-in-law said, “You know, your windows are dirty.” I said, “Oh great, thank you. The Windex and rags are under the sink.” She went and took the rags and cleaned the windows and said, “How else can I help you?” You can’t do it all.
PINK: What’s your favorite book?
AS: I love Janet Evanovich. She has a series of books that I think is the best fiction comedy I have ever read. She writes about a bail bondswoman who has the funniest family. She writes the type of books that, if I’m driving along in the car and listening to an audiobook, I’ll just burst out laughing.
PINK: What goal do you still want to achieve?
AS: I used to say I’d never run for political office. Now I think that, at some point in my career, I may take an appointed position in the public sector. I’d even take a cabinet position!
PINK: Do you have a favorite quote?
AS: When I graduated from college, my dad gave me a card. In it, he wrote, “Sometimes an opportunity only knocks once. You’ve got to recognize when you have an opportunity and take it, because it may not knock again.” You’re always going to have a few “should haves” in your life. But you want to try to minimize the “should haves,” recognize the opportunity and just go for it.
PINK: How do you define success?
AS: Just yesterday, I opened an email from a French man who worked with me at Ford many years ago. He basically said, “I know this woman working for this company – will you give her some career advice? I think you could really help her.” That makes me feel successful – I’m happy to think that I can help.
Another big source of pride is being on the National Academy of Engineering. That’s the highest, technical acknowledgement you can get. I was elected to the U.S. Academy, but it’s a global acknowledgement of engineers. There are so few women who have ever been elected. It gives me a sense of achievement in the technical world.
PINK: What do you want your legacy to be?
AS: This world is a better place if we have more women leaders – more women in Fortune 1000 companies and more women on boards. The world needs that balance of gender power. I feel I can and have helped contribute to that, and that’s a great professional legacy.
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