My Personal Journey
Every Journey Begins with the First Steps
Understanding who I am and what I value today, begins with understanding where I come from and the experiences that guided my path. I grew up on a farm in Missouri with wonderful parents and five siblings. While my dad owned a small business, he believed in big businesses, including my most recent employer, State Farm. No one in my family had ever graduated from college. I, however, wanted to break from that norm.
When I was in high school, I decided I wanted a different future. My parents’ lives were good, but I wanted something different. I started working when I was 14 to take steps toward that goal. When I was a senior in high school and planning for college needs, my father told me to go to the bank to get a student loan. I did just that. I went to the bank full of expectation and hope, and a busy banker made me wait several hours because I did not have an appointment.
Finally, my moment arrived. I told him my college goals, what I wanted to study, and my plan. I vividly remember the next exchange of words. I said, “I want to know I have the money I need to get through all of college. If not, it is not worth the investment if I can’t graduate.” He responded, “I don’t loan money to quitters. It sounds like you are a quitter, so it sounds like we have nothing more to talk about.”
I could have taken that as a sign and quit then. I could have agreed with him, letting go of my college dream, but I was motivated. He said, in so many words, “You can’t do it.” I took that as a challenge and I firmly decided to prove him wrong.
How did I pay for college? I lived at home and I worked multiple jobs without taking out a single student loan. I focused on both my school work and working to pay for my degree. For me, college was about getting my education so I could have a brighter future. I kept my focus on what was ahead, and that drive helped me graduate and set me up for success.
My Path to IT
When I am asked, “Why did you chose IT?” I often respond, “I didn’t choose IT, IT chose me.” Let me tell you how.
I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting from the University of Missouri, and then started at State Farm in 1984 in the accounting department. Now, accounting doesn’t sound like the technology side of the business, does it? However, I worked closely with the IT department at State Farm, and eventually, the IT department acquired my department.
I left the Systems Department (State Farm’s IT shop) for a short period, and then decided to return. Why? The IT department gets to see and understand such a great breathe of the business, and it is exciting.
Early on, I didn’t realize the importance of technology to an insurance and financial services company. I mean, what do you think of when you think of State Farm? Employees in red polo’s and khakis pants, maybe, or, maybe the “like a good neighbor, State Farm is there” jingle? However, technology is a core part of the business. In the time I spent at State Farm, I saw so much change in IT!
As the IT Executive for State Farm’s Atlanta IT presence, I provided leadership and oversight for the significant growth and maturation of State Farm’s Atlanta IT organization. The location began with six employees in March 2014. I relocated to Atlanta in the summer of 2015. The State Farm Atlanta location is home to 503 State Farm IT employees, with 52% of them being recent college graduates.
Part of my charge was to provide leadership to a cross-functional leadership team focused on establishing the culture, development of people, a community presence and reputation as a site that delivers strong business outcomes. We developed a strong reputation in the Atlanta community and they will continue growing, with intent, over the next several years.
Further demonstrating the integration of technology and business, I was also responsible for the groups developing and maintaining technical capabilities for Communications, Collaboration, and Contact Centers at State Farm. These responsibilities included new technology development and support for all internal and external communication and collaboration technologies: Unified Communications, print, email, texting and push notifications, “Click to Chat” and business social to name a few. I, and my teams, stewarded all technology used to support and manage customer interactions through contact centers. This included 430 employees and contracted associates.
As the State Farm, IT executive for Atlanta, I led the growth of IT staffing from 149 employees in 2015, to over 500 local IT employees. The environment and opportunities I fostered delivered the best retention for IT talent across the organization’s metro IT locations. To accomplish this, I worked with my team to use a comprehensive strategy for growing IT skills and abilities in Atlanta. This included working with internal business partners, hiring a leadership team, identifying and migrating work, and implementing that plan. I took a group of people distributed across different areas of the organization and established one IT Atlanta Team while increasing enthusiasm and driving business outcomes.
I was able to help infuse and mature a new culture in a very large organization. This took keen understanding of the relationship between people, culture and achievement of business goals. I set the expectation for Atlanta employees to be involved and positively affect their communities. Internally, having created an environment of innovation, high standards, and agility has gone a long way to attract and retain employees, even beyond my areas of responsibility. One of my peers described my approach to executive leadership as, “a playbook we can model as we continue to shift work between sites.”
Personal Development in IT
I’ve always invested deeply in people. Recognition of their personal skills, abilities and accomplishments has been a core passion in my work. Investment in people affects your daily environment, your work and your success. Investing in people has always been key for me when it came to enjoying my job, my personal happiness and my career. I’ve mentored many people in many roles and I’ve tried to connect them across the company, encouraging them to learn and share in and out of IT.
My style has been referred to as “radically honest.” I was well known for practicing a caring, yet direct, type of feedback approach that leaders of all ages and genders need to hear. One of my peers described me as “a voice of straight talk in an environment where being nice is one of the meanest things you can do.” They went on to add, “You build confidence in people; you tend to see qualities in people that others do not see.” I believe that honest and intuitive feedback is invaluable where feedback isn’t always as straightforward as people need to be effective.
While mentoring, I always tried to identify specific items and behaviors for my mentees to work on. I listened to the details, reflected, and then offered alternative ways to handle situations. This is where direct feedback helps mentees understand the competencies and behaviors they need to improve on. I worked hard to create a comfortable environment that people feel safe in sharing their thinking. My breadth of experience allowed me to share applicable experiences to others and help them think about how best to approach each situation.
I have been an ardent supporter of WIT, inside and outside of State Farm. I’m proud to have made a big impact while I was on the board and served as Chair for the internal State Farm Women’s employee resource group (ERG), WNet. The appreciation that others had for my efforts shows just how strong of a difference I’ve been able to make. When you hear someone you mentored say, “You have led, mentored, coached and served as a role model for women like myself. Had it not been for your influence Maureen, I would not be sitting my chair.” That means the world to me.
As extensively as I’ve supported and mentored women, I also shared my knowledge and experience with people across all roles, genders and areas of the organization. I’ve been told, “One thing I like about you is that you just don’t focus on development of women…you invest in people in general.”
Amongst others, I’ve also been able to directly mentor high-potential leaders, helping them map their journey, discover their passions and how they can make the most impact to the people and groups they lead. Five of my recent mentees were recognized as ready for executive leadership positions as a part of State Farm’s succession process.
I led by example, pivoting based on the landscape and variables at hand, setting high expectations to stretch people to grow and accomplish more than they believe possible. This is my legacy.
Engaging Women in Technology
I’ve been personally involved as an executive sponsor and chair for long-standing internal Women & Technology employee resource groups. When I moved to Atlanta, I recognized there was outstanding work being done by women from State Farm to connect with Women in Technology (WIT). I saw the additional potential they had with good executive enablement and support.
WIT was one of the first and most notable STEM organizations that State Farm sponsored when they expanded their operations in Atlanta. State Farm saw the importance of this work and had been investing in it across multiple locations. I knew it had great potential to positively affect a lot of people and I was happy to take action to help. The initiative these women took to form their own group on behalf of State Farm inspired me to go the extra mile to enable their work, remove barriers and ensure they maintain a good industry connection.
I saw their work flourish, developing young leaders and inspiring young girls in STEM. Local State Farm employees with WIT membership grew from 20 to over 120 people, representing a very significant portion of the 500 plus State Farm IT employees in the area. My team held many events to support WIT at State Farm. Onsite events included “behind the scenes,” where they provide hands-on activities to girls and promoted internship opportunities for high school and college students, “job shadow week,” where we partnered with WIT to host five girls on site at their facilities, all leading to an “immersion experience” event. Their community engagement included sponsorship and engagement in forums and socials through WIT Atlanta, WIT Connect and Women of the Year.
I championed the greater mission of Women in Technology by creating more focus at State Farm on STEM for girls, mentoring newer female IT leaders and employees and helping women across the organization increase their IT acumen. I’m proud to have been a major contributor to the progress State Farm has made in these areas. I feel good about having built trust and understanding amongst women and all employees, and more effective relationships within and outside of IT. I tried to help employees and leaders to be more empowered, have more effective relationships, realize their goals, and pay it forward.
Engagement in the Community
I have a passion for helping fellow cancer survivors and I’ve been very involved in Susan G. Komen® fundraising events. I’ve had a team since the event began in Bloomington, IL, was nominated Honorary Chair in 2014, and have raised approximately $40,000 in fundraising events between Bloomington and Atlanta. As a strong believer in paying it forward, and after having joined supporting organizations, I took a leading role in helping other people in those groups. I tried to bring a positive outlook back to the people who need it the most, by coaching and supporting newly diagnosed women and their supporting network as the begin their breast cancer journey.
Throughout my journey, I’ve learned to never stop learning and not to let labels define me. There’s a mini cooper commercial that conveyed the message: “Do not let circumstances or what others say put you in a box.” Serena Williams has her own “Defying Labels” video related to that commercial. There’s a lot of truth in these that apply to all of us. I believe in investing in people and in relationships, building your personal brand and networking. To me, success does not equal a title, a certain salary, or a luxury vehicle. The definition of success is subjective and varies by person.
I am a breast cancer survivor. The doctors diagnosed me over four years ago, and it was quite an unexpected speed bump in my life. However, I decided to not let it control me, and instead, I decided to have a positive attitude. I stress that my attitude and outlook was my decision, and choosing to stay positive really affected how I overcame cancer. I worked during the treatment, which helped me with my journey, giving me focus and purpose and helped me focus on something besides my cancer battle.
You can control two things in life – your attitude and your reaction. Keep your head high and continue to reach forward. My wish for women in technology, my mentees, and young people just starting out in life, is that they realize their own definition of success and make their story count.