Pivoting Your Career: One Woman’s Journey of Scaling to the C-suite and Beyond

by Athena Alliance

Jeannie Diefenderfer is a fantastic example of a well-rounded woman executive: she grew her career at Verizon, making a series of lateral and vertical pivots as she consistently elevated her role, eventually retiring from Verizon as a Senior Vice President leading a 10,000-person team. She then pivoted to the boardroom, serving as an independent board director at organizations like MRV Communications, Westell Technologies, Windstream Holdings, and Colony Capital.

If that weren’t enough, she began her own advisory consultancy advising boards and CEO on operations and efficiency strategy. She serves as an advisor at Accenture and a board trustee at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. And she’s a yoga enthusiast and through-hiker, aspiring to hike the Appalachian Trail.

Liz Tinkham talks with Jeannie about her path to the boardroom and C-suite in an upcoming episode of . In the following article, we’ll explore more of Jeannie’s story, best practices on pivoting your career, and her tips for aspiring board directors hoping to break into the boardroom for the first time.

Scaling toward the C-suite

People often toss around the phrase “climbing the corporate ladder.” But often, careers don’t progress in such a linear manner. Jeannie’s own journey showed that sometimes, a lateral career move-one where you take a similar role (in terms of pay and seniority) as your current position at a different company, or move into an entirely new department-can catapult your career to greater success.

Jeannie made several lateral moves in her career, in addition to brief stints outside the Verizon company.

“I started to see a lot of the people that I work with beginning to step out of the organization,” Jeannie recalls of her early years at Verizon. “And of course it was time for me. I always say ventilation is a good thing.”

Several people were instrumental to Jeannie’s success as she scaled toward the C-suite, what Athena often refers to as your “Personal Board of Directors.” These mentors and coaches helped Jeannie see through the fog to hone in on her progression as a leader.

“The best mentors and coaches I’ve had in my life are the ones who never told me what to do, but gave me the optionality of paths,” she said. “When I asked for prescriptions, they say, ‘Oh no, that’s your call.’ I really loved that because it really forced you to think about what you want to do, whether it aligns inherently with your values.”

The struggle to balance priorities as a woman leader

Her career decisions often provided enriching opportunities for her family-traveling to far-flung locations and allowing them to indulge in finer experiences-but it also required long hours and considerable dedication on her part.

“I used to self rationalize my decision around quality of time versus quantity,” Jeannie reflected. “I was the breadwinner. My career was taking off and [my husband] was the trailing spouse. I treated my family life and my kids as a separate unit away from my professional life.”

In the middle of her career, Jeannie was often asked how she balanced being a mother with her demanding work schedule. And looking back now, she realized there were times when she failed.

“People used to ask me, ‘How do you balance that? How do you be the perfect woman doing both?’ There’s no such thing,” she said. “I would make sure that I’m present at the right places for my children. But I look back, and I really wasn’t that present all the time.”

Getting in the mindset of a board director

At a key moment, Jeannie remembers asking herself “What else am I dying to do in the company?” And when she couldn’t come up with an answer, she knew it was time for a change.

“I had 28 years in the business, the company was going through a culture shift and leadership shift. And whether or not I liked it, as I look back on it, it was just a change,” she said. “I had turned 51. I thought this could be a good pivot.”

So she shifted her attention to board work, which she considered the epitome of success where she could lend her expertise for a larger purpose. But she quickly realized that board service was not just a destination, but another launching point for learning, impact, and change.

“You tend to look at it as a point of destination and arrival, so you work really, really hard to get there,” she said. But this isn’t the time to sit back and relax. “Board work is a point of entry, meaning it is the next phase of hard work. It’s just different hard work. You have to go in with a mindset that says, ‘I’m going to learn as much as I used to learn. I’m going to execute as a board person in terms of my roles and responsibility, just as hard as I was in management. And I am going to do everything in my power to make that company better.’”

Advice for rising board directors

Serving as a Nom/Gov chair and board director for several companies, Jeannie has unique insights into the decision-making process for board recruitment. For aspiring board directors, she wants to ensure they have the right mindset and expectations for board service.

“There’s so much available information out there around the roles and responsibilities of the board and the regulatory environment for a public company board,” she said. “And there is lots of information out there on private company boards, how the committees work, the no-no’s, the risks. Do your homework.”

Understand the expectations and demands of board directors, and what you are looking for in board service. Think about the key experiences in your career you truly enjoyed, and how those would translate to the boardroom. Do you enjoy forming go-to-market strategies? Were you the go-to person for streamlining operations or a just-in-time, out-of-the-box marketing technique? Blending your corporate governance knowledge, the key skills you bring, and what you really and want to contribute create your sweet spot for board-level leadership.

“If people ask you these questions or just have a conversation with yourself, then you can have a thoughtful conversation board work that has the intelligence, the research, and thoughtfulness about how you add value,” she said. “To me, that is really important.”

Learn more about Jeannie’s journey in her Third Act episode with Liz Tinkham. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Originally published at https://athenaalliance.com on December 2, 2020.

Activating the connections, knowledge, & opportunities women executives need to lead at their highest level of impact. Learn more: athenaalliance.com

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