Former CEO Shellye Archambeau Shares Insights From Her Career and Her Book ‘Unapologetically Ambitious’

Shellye Archambeau.

Shellye Archambeau is a former IBM sales executive, and a former CEO of Blockbuster Video. In her new book, Unapologetically Ambitious, Shellye shares important lessons from her life and business career that any entrepreneur can benefit from.

A Childhood Dream

Ever since she was a high-school student, Shellye has wanted to be a CEO. Part of this desire stemmed from the fact that she enjoyed leading clubs. The people who lead businesses are CEOs, so that’s what she wanted to be. What would it take to achieve that goal? “Audacious and ignorant, I had no clue what that really meant. But I did know that I needed to do some research to figure it out,” she says.

She knew she needed a business degree, so after college, she went to Wharton Business School. After graduating, she decided that the tech industry was promising because of its high growth rate and good career opportunities, so she took a job at IBM. “The research showed that every CEO of IBM started out in sales,” she says. “So despite the fact that people thought I was crazy coming out of Wharton and going to sell computers, that's what I did because I figured that was a path to power.”

She quickly rose through the ranks, eventually running multibillion-dollar divisions at IBM. When it became apparent that she wasn’t in line for the top job at that company, she left to run Blockbuster.com. 

Although Blockbuster was hugely successful in the video rental space, in Shellye’s view, it lacked a promising long-term vision. She needed to be where “everything was happening,” and that was Silicon Valley. So she moved there, served as the chief marketing officer and vice president of sales at two public companies, and then became CEO of MetricStream.

Sharing Lessons Learned

Shellye says her book “Unapologetically Ambitious” aims to share lessons she learned as an executive and CEO. She wants to reach as many people as possible — especially people of color.

“I wrote the book because early on, I tried to be really accessible,” she says. “There aren't many Black women in technology doing the things that I've done, and therefore I wanted people to be able to touch me. If they touch me, they realize, ‘Hey, I'm a real person. If I can do it, you can do it.’”

Shellye doesn’t want anyone to look at her career and think what she accomplished – or some version of it – is unobtainable. Anyone can achieve success, she says, if they come up with a good plan and stick with it. “The book is really about how to get what you want out of life, professionally and personally, by improving your odds every step of the way,” she says. The book doesn’t shy away from talking about her failures as well as her successes. “I wanted to share what I never saw, which was a book that really talked about life holistically… [to] have a life that you want.”

Finding the Flow

One piece of advice Shellye has for anyone who wants to become a CEO or to move up in a company is to identify what she calls the “current” or “flow of power.” Although every company is different, power tends to flow from how the firm makes money. 

“What you want to do is to look to see how people are moving through the company,” she says, “People who become directors and vice presidents and general managers and presidents and whatever, what are their roles? What organizations are they in? You tend to find [that] 70% of the people have done it through [a certain] kind of path. I call that the current. It doesn't mean you can't get there without being in the current, but I find if you actually get onto the current of power, you can move farther more quickly.”

For founders, the equation is a bit different. Finding your company’s power flow is more about identifying and understanding your target market. “When you're a founder of a business, the flow you're trying to find is not the flow within your company,” she says. “You're trying to find the flow within the target industry or segment in which you are operating.” Founders should ask themselves who the target market is, their preferences and backgrounds, and where they get their information.

Setting Ambitious but Achievable Goals

Throughout her career, Shellye says, one truth has particularly stood out to her: achieving success — whatever that looks like — requires setting the right goals and doing what’s necessary to meet them. In her book, she stresses that this process has to start early.

“I wanted readers to walk away with the perspective that if they're intentional about what they want to do, if they set goals and really are intentional about the steps they take to get there, that they really can improve their odds,” she says. “A lot of people set goals, and some people think about plans for their goals, but very few people make decisions every day consistent with what they're actually trying to do. And that's where the power lies.”

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